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Lightning Chess

The information age demands a way of thinking that employs the full bandwidth of our senses

by Koert van Mensvoort

Our traditional way of thinking is aimed at decision-making on the grounds of scarce and incomplete data. Now every day we are swamped with data. This asks for a different way of thinking. Our text-led culture is obsolete. We are flooded with visual information from television and the Internet. Important issues are increasingly decided upon by our response to imagery.

Indeed, this article is not about the game of chess, nor about fencing.  It is about physical bandwith and mental processes. Bit strange, but I hope you get it.

In order to understand visual thinking we need to look at man's original natural environment. This is the origin of our modern reality and it is where the way in which we experience information is rooted [1, 2]. Our senses have developed and are finetuned to our natural surroundings. In our original natural environment there was no text and media did not exist. The natural habitat had a certain directness. Every symbol was an object. We have improved on reality by draping a layer of language and technology over our original environment. We have structured our societywith linguistic institutions like government, science and industry. But if we listen to Mozart today, we do so by using our hearing that was originally developed to alert us to danger and opportunities in the natural environment.

The barbarians of media and visuals are invading the Roman empire.

Some intellectuals tell us that the loss of the text culture involves a decay of our civilization. The barbarians of media and visuals are invading the Roman empire [3, 4, 5]. Next the Middle Ages! Thus the intellectuals warn us. But what exactly is the role of the doom-mongers in this scenario? After all intellectuals are the most prominent representatives of the text culture. The same intellectuals who think we should treat texts with critical detachment, are the ones who warn us that we're dumbing down by the images we watch. Why do we use the terms 'critical detachment' for texts and 'dumbing down' for images? Of old, images were associated with the basic instincts of the sinful body, while text was associated with the sublimity of the mind[6]. Man has a certain information bandwidth which is connected to the senses and which results in a certain type of intellect. We will never succeed in going through the accounting of a multinational corporation again or index the database of a website like a computer is able to do. Basically the computer is the implementation of the rational ideal of the Enlightenment. Absolutely logical, faultless and free of basic instincts. Still we hesitate in calling computers 'smart', because the current generation of computers has no feeling for 'context' and is appallingly weak at metaphors and images. People are better at that.

The implicit information in the image plays a bigger role then we are aware of

The efforts towards making computers more intelligent have taught us that context and metaphors are an important part of human communication and cognition. Suppose a man and a woman have a love affair. They go out together, are having a nice time and after a while he uses the three words: I love you. This terse sentence touches on a truckload of assocations: Shakespeare, Casanova, Titanic, soap operas and Mills and Boon's. 'What do you mean?' strictly speaking could be her only valid answer. It's amazing that she still understands what he says. She deduces his romantic intentions from the way he touches her and the look in his eyes. The place they are in and the memories of their earlier experiences. In fact from everything except his words. For these words are so full of meaning that they've become totally meaningless. Context is content. The implicit information in the image plays a bigger role then we are aware of.

Desinformation Vs Manipulated imagery

Images have an intrinsic ambiguity. A biscuit dipped in a cup of tea can be just a biscuit. But it can also evoke a forgotten childhood memory [7]. We 'experience' much more than we 'understand' or 'think up'. Scholars find visual thinking especially difficult to understand because they are fixated with mapping the sequence of thoughts. They approach the image-led culture from the text-led culture (sequential, deductive, monocausal and loathing for ambiguity). We can't simply ignore information gained from experience. Data is now produced faster than we can absorb and understand with our limited linguistic thought processes. Our text-led culture isn't being pushed to extinction by inferior media. Rather it is losing its importance because it simply isn't useful anymore. The information age demands a way of thinking that employs the full bandwidth of our senses. We play lightning chess. In a conventional game of chess there is sufficient time for explicit consideration and strategy. In lightning chess this is different. The player is under time pressure and has to deal with ambiguity. The art of playing lightning chess is in consciously allowing a number of things to remain unclear while making the right things explicit. We are developing an agile, montage-like and concise way of thinking which enables us to comprehend complex phenomenon. We read images with critical detachment. We don't let 'the facts' confuse us, for fear they are taken out of context, fragmented or simply a lie. We read more than ever before, but mainly in a fragmented fashion. We weigh desinformation against manipulated imagery.

The world is getting personal again: No HELICOPTERVIEW

The content communicated by imagery is as unlikely to be false as the content of text is likely to be truthful. The time when rational thought was purely formal, universal and insubstantial is over. We are animals with feelings and symbols in our bloodstream. We don't have to crawl on all fours, Neanderthal-like. Intellectual discours remains possible. One of the most powerful capacities of human thought is the ability to visualize various perspectives. A judgement isn't formulated on the basis of reasoning only, but is closely connected to a point of view we identify with. We know that this is our perspective, and not a helicopter view of the topic. We realise that it is not just others but ourselves who are being seduced and manipulated. We are aware that 'the facts' are often incomplete, fragmented or taken out of context. The world is getting personal again.

Imagine that in country X a regime comes to power that employs a state aesthetics of huge images. Throughout the country huge monuments are built. Military parades are held and the leaders immortalise themselves in larger than life statues. Everything seems great, not a single false note is heard. Still a visual thinker asks himself immediately what is the human rights situation in this country. The statues lack a human dimension. Earlier regimes with a strong state esthetics, like the Egyptians, the Soviets and the Nazis, were not interested in the well-being of individuals. The critical onlooker will be looking for proof of human rights violations.

Lightning chess is a mix of text and images. It is the sequential deduction of the typographical discours, in which ambiguity and even contradictions have their role to play. Lightning chess is abstract. You need to be intelligent. Luckily, people have a natural talent for it.

Lightning Chess is published in Visual Power News,
ISBN 90-6369-056-9, Bis Publishers

1. Stephen R. Kellert, "The Biological Basis for Human Values of Nature," in The Biophilia Hypothesis, ed. Kellert and E.O. Wilson (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 1993), 45-52.

2. Albert Borgmann, Holding On to Reality: The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (1999

3. Neil Postman: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business, Penguin USA ISBN 0670804541 (1986)

3a. Postman, Neil: Wij amuseren ons kapot : de geestdodende werking van de beeldbuis, Neil Postman ; vert. door Aaldert van den Bogaard en Janneke van der Meulen. Baarn : Wereldvenster, 1986. - Oorspr. uitg.: Amusing ourselves to death, 1985 ISBN 90-293-9851-5

4. Fredric Jameson: Signature of the Visible, New York, Routledge (1990)

5. George Steiner: Verval van het woord, Uitgever S.l. : Athenaeum-Polak & Van Gennip, 1974

6. Thomas van Aquinas: In the Anima II

7. Marcel Proust: Remembrance of things past (Le temps retrouvé), s.l. : Chatto & Windus, 1922, repr. 1976

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