I just read the introduction and first chapter of of How Images Think. I’m impressed for a variety of reasons. Because of how much it got right. Because of how much it got wrong. First off, this it’s a book from 2004. The internet was still somewhat of a secret clubhouse. At the time of publication, Something Awful was a meme powerhouse. 4chan and reddit didn’t even exist yet. Pop culture and the online world were still separate The internet was still somewhat of a secret clubhouse. And despite this, the book examined some very important ideas. The foremost of which is central in every single interaction that people have with technology. It’s what Apple and Insane Clown Posse have in common. Did I just mention Insane Clown Posse in a non-ironic manner? Yes. Yes I did.
This song enjoyed meme status for a while. People watched it ironically and laughed at Insane Clown Posse’s turn from songs about murder to thinly veiled christianity. But it does convey a pretty essential truth: people want magic in their interactions with the world. They don’t want to understand their technology or world more than they need to. Most of the time, they just want to enjoy the experience of a cat picture. Or the “miracle” of a rainbow. Now, this might be something specific to American culture, but I have my doubts.
Despite the book preceding the youtube videos and the proliferation of image macros to come, the book it painted a surprisingly accurate picture of today’s world. The author foresaw that the online is no longer thought of as seperate or discrete from the “real”, which was not as prevalent in 2004. I also found that my own experiences resonated strongly with the idea that we use images to approximate “being there”. I’ve seen places on google street view before I’ve been there in real life, and had a sensation of having “been there” before despite the fact I’d never before set foot in that particular city.
However, I do have issues with the book. It tries to point out that there is a contrast between the factual photography of victorian times as expected historical document and the images of today, and a possible irrelevance of image as “truthful”. I disagree. Hoaxes get revealed fairly often even in the case of a talented photoshopper because other lies used to support the “truth” of a fabricated image don’t line up. As a result of this, I think that where digital technology emerges as a major cultural influence, so does a cultural element of reading images for signs of truth or falsehood. Especially in communities such as reddit, inspecting the image to read its veracity is an ingrained element of culture just as much as the process of “reading” an image is.