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Visual Literacy: Critical Thinking


by Alan Melson 4 Jun 2008

Every day this week, Associate Professor Michael Gibson and Assistant Professor Keith Owens, who both teach communication design in UNT’s Department of Design, will address a different question related to thinking critically about what we absorb visually. Technology brings us Facebook and You Tube, allows us to connect in an instant with people all over […]

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Every day this week, Associate Professor Michael Gibson and Assistant Professor Keith Owens, who both teach communication design in UNT’s Department of Design, will address a different question related to thinking critically about what we absorb visually. Technology brings us Facebook and You Tube, allows us to connect in an instant with people all over the world, and makes it ever easier for anyone to create, communicate and “brand” themselves or their work visually. All of this means it’s important to go beyond simply identifying the thousands of images, symbols, gestures we see every day and learn to understand their meaning and context. – Anne Bothwell

Why do we need to think critically about images and increase our understanding of visual literacy?

Globalization—

The reality of the wired world is that people who have access to it can virtually experience a proximity to other cultures that has never before been possible. This has the potential to enlighten or to reinforce stereotypes, depending on an individual’s visual literacy. Schoolchildren in current events classes around the US can easily monitor the evolution of the war in Iraq by accessing the Al-Jazeera Web site or the BBC’s, or by viewing a variety of YouTube clips, and in so doing gain a very different perspective on America’s involvement in this conflict, if they so choose. Or they can spend this time interacting with groups of friends in MySpace or Facebook, or blogging or reading blogs, which (lest we forget) are vetted and interally criticized solely by the blogger.

The world has become a very flat place because of this virtual proximity, but our ability to speedily send and receive messages from anywhere in the world doesn’t mean we possess the social and cultural wherewithal, much less the critical ability, to interpret them effectively.

Technological Advances—

We can now capture, manipulate, store and disseminate images more easily than ever before. But just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean we should. Even though only about a quarter of the world’s population has relatively easy access to the internet, a bit more than half of its population can now gain access to the means to make visual images simply and quickly.

There are now almost 3 billion cell phone connections in the world, and the number of new connections per month stands at just under 45 million. (from Wireless Intelligence)

Worldwide camera phone shipments will be very near 850 million units by next year (InfoTrends/CAP Ventures)

Facebook has more than 60 million active users worldwide, and reports that it facilitates the upload of over 14 million images per day. (Facebook)

MySpace users upload more than 1 million images per day, and the total volume of images stored in this resource now exceeds 1.5 billion. (MySpace)

There are now more than 2 billion photos on Flickr. (Flickr)

More than 50 million digital cameras now exist in the world. (InfoTrends/CAP Ventures)

The speed of contemporary life —

Instant gratification takes just a bit too long in our world. This contributes to the belief that using images to facilitate essential communications is a good thing to do, simply because it can be done quickly and efficiently. If you’re not visually literate, you may posses the skill and the technological resources to communicate efficiently, but this by no means assures that your quick and efficient attempt (a key word in this context…) at communication will be effective in terms of how it will be interpreted and acted upon by others.

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