Kress on the Return of the Image

Semiotician Gunther Kress explores the future of literacy in an age where screens are replacing books as the dominant medium and images are replacing the written word.

It is no longer possible to think about literacy in isolation from a vast array of social, technological and economic factors. Two distinct yet related factors deserve to be particularly highlighted. These are, on the one hand, the broad move from the now centuries-long dominance of writing to the new dominance of the medium of the image and, on the other hand, the move from the dominance of the medium of the book to the dominance of the medium of the screen.

One might say the following with some confidence. Language-as-speech will remain the major mode of communication; language-as-writing will increasingly be displaced by image in many domains of public communication, though writing will remain the preferred mode of the political and cultural elites. The combined effects on writing of the dominance of the mode of image and of the medium of screen will produce deep changes in the forms and functions of writing. This in turn will have profound effects on human, cognitive/affective, cultural and bodily engagement with the world, and on the forms and shapes of knowledge. The world told is a different world to the world shown. The effects of the move to the screen as the major medium of communication will produce far-reaching shifts in relations of power, and not just in the sphere of communication. Where significant changes to distribution of power threaten, there will be fierce resistance by those who presently hold power, so that predictions about the democratic potentials and effects of the new information and communication technologies have to be seen in the light of inevitable struggles over power yet to come. It is already clear that the effects of the two changes taken together will have the widest imaginable political, economic, social, cultural, conceptual/cognitive and epistemological consequences. …

The world of communication is not standing still. The communicational world of children now in school is both utterly unremarkable to them and yet it looks entirely different to that which the school still imagines and for which it still, hesitantly and ever more insecurely, attempts to prepare them. All of us already inhabit that new world. Some of us still use the older forms of communication and at the same time have become comfortable enough with many of the possibilities of the newer forms of communicating on paper or on the screen—not fully realising and yet at the same time uncomfortably aware of the profound changes that are taking place around us. We no longer regard it as unusual that we can change fonts in mid-text, that we can embolden the typeface or italicise it, and all with next to no effort.

Of course such changes make only a small difference to the meaning of our ‘written’ texts. Layout, on the other hand, also very readily manipulated now, does change the deeper meanings of the text. It matters whether I put my ideas smoothly flowing along the lines of the page, or whether I present them to you as bullet-points:

  • The `force’ and
  • the `feel’ of the text have changed. It has become more insistent,
  • more urgent,
  • more official. It is now about
  • presenting information.

Layout is beginning to change textual structures; that much is clear. With such changes—which may seem superficial—come others, which change not only the deeper meanings of textual forms but also the structures of ideas, of conceptual arrangements, and of the structures of our knowledge. Such seemingly superficial changes are altering the very channels in which we think. Bullet points are, as their name suggests, bullets of information. They are `fired’ at us. …

[W]e can no longer treat literacy (or `language’) as the sole, the main, let alone the major means for representation and communication. Other modes are there as well, and in many environments where writing occurs these other modes may be more prominent and more significant. …[L]anguage and literacy now have to be seen as partial bearers of meaning only.

There is a consequence for notions of meaning: if the meaning of a message is realised, `spread across’, several modes, we need to know on what basis this spreading happens, what principles are at work. Equally, in reading, we need now to gather meaning from all the modes which are co-present in a text, and new principles of reading will be at work. Making meaning in writing and making meaning in reading both have to be newly thought about.


Kress, Gunther. Literacy in the New Media Age. London: Routledge, 2003, pp. 1, 16, 35. || Amazon || WorldCat


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