Watching, formerly Reading

I Read Where I Am,
Exploring New Information Cultures
Valiz / Graphic Design Museum Breda,


I don’t read, someone I know well told me. She meant that she doesn’t read the way ‘readers’ read. People who can spend hours on end with a book in a chair or on the sofa, occasionally turning over a paper page and appearing to have completely forgotten that there exists a world outside the sentences they are reading. No, she’s not one of those readers. But, I say, you actually read the whole day through! You scan articles and books, browse through websites and online fora, open and answer emails, gloss over newspaper headlines. Yes, but that’s not reading, she says. What it is, then, I don’t know, but I do know that on an average day she processes more text than many a ‘reader.’ I am from a somewhat older generation; I know how it feels to be immersed in a book. But I have to admit that it’s been a while. My reading also seems to be less than what it originally meant to be. Yet I would be too quick in saying I don’t read - at most that I read too little, but even that is not entirely true. I read differently.

What we used to call ‘watching’ seems increasingly like what we once called ‘reading’. Then they were different things, with a clear hierarchy. Reading was ‘absorbing content’, watching was ‘receiving an impression of something.’ The first was a conceptual activity that was valued higher than the second, a more passive, sensory affair. The fact that you do both with your eyes was less important than the thought that reading conjures up a non-existent picture and watching processes existing pictures. Only for trained viewers - art historians and design critics such as myself - the two were alike. Our looking is also reading; for us, a picture is also a visual text. What I’ve noticed is that since the irresistible increase of the ‘visual media,’ non-professional viewers have also become more and more readers. Concurrently, the idea that the only thing you can read is text is losing ground.

We, the homini visuali, do not only read and write words but also images. The form in which things appear to us has thus become just as much text as text has become image. Perhaps that is why she says that she doesn’t read - because reading is no longer what it used to be. Reading has also become a form of ‘getting an impression of something’. A scanning of visual stimuli, that are linked together in our head into something of significance. These stimuli can be letters or pictures, the difference between the two - once so fundamental - is fading. That doesn’t just mean that we have become more aware of the sensory side of reading; it also means that watching has become a more conceptual, more reflective activity. And that terms that used to stand for superficiality, for absorbing transitory visual impressions at a glance, such as ‘scanning’, ‘leafing’, ‘browsing’, ‘watching’, have developed into the most significant concepts of our culture.
Here, oversight is becoming more important than insight. You can lament this and say that the depth that was so connected to the old reading - penetrating deeply into a text is fathoming the world behind reality - dissolves in a view without dimensions. But that comes down to rendering a new phenomenon in old concepts. Something like designing the recently invented automobile as a horseless carriage. You see what is missing from the device, but not what you have gained in its place. The new oversight is not, as it used to be thought of, a perspective on an expanse of plain, but penetrates deeply into the transparent and limitless space of data that the world has become. Oversight is: seeing what links or can link the data. Anyone observing the current profusion of data visualizations that help us understand a reality caught in figures - a reality that used to be called virtual but is now becoming more real than the real - knows what I mean: the image has become a text, the real significance of which is in its property of having us understand what it means at a glance. Once we start reading longer, we are in danger of losing our way in incoherent details.

Like text and image, insight and oversight are growing closer together, merging into each other. Perhaps even the old hierarchy will be reversed: reading, then, will be understood as the scanning activity that gains us oversight and enables us from there to gather significance, to choose (gathering and choosing are, after all, two ancient meanings of ‘lecture,’ the Latin root of which means both), and watching will become the word for what we realize when we pause at something for longer than a transitory moment. If you really want to fathom something, you will have to watch. Long and intensively, just like former times with a book in your lap on the sofa.


max bruinsma