11 Jan

"The Image Culture"

Category: Sound Thinking
By: Ken Myers
Published: 01/11/06

In the Fall 2005 issue of The New Atlantis, Christine Rosen continues her insightful series of articles on technology and culture, especially those technologies that we might call "consumer technologies" rather than "producer technologies." She's not interested in large data-processing, communications, travel, or manufacturing systems, but in things like iPods, cell phones, video games, and online dating services. These are technologies that re-configure the way we sustain relationships and order our experience in time and space. They also affect the way we regard and use language, our habits of thinking and imagining, even our sense of self.

In her latest essay, "The Image Culture," Rosen joins a venerable tradition of reflection on the comparative cultural and expressive possibilities of images and words, and considers how the ubiquity of images erodes their power. Along the way she brings a number of commentators into the discussion, including Susan Sontag, Marshall McLuhan, and Mitchell Stephens, as she discusses how programs like Photoshop and PowerPoint have transformed our relationship to images and to verbal language.

Perhaps Rosen's most helpful contribution to this continuing conversation about image-based technologies (which includes such diverse voices as Jacques Ellul's 1981 The Humiliation of the Word and my own All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes) is her more general observation about how we assess the cultural effect of new technologies. In a discussion of some of the judgments of NYU media professor Mitchell Stephens, Rosen comments: "Like any good techno-enthusiast, Stephens takes the choices that we have made en masse as a culture (such as watching television rather than reading), accepts them without challenge, and then declares them inevitable. This is a form of reasoning that techno-enthusiasts often employ when they attempt to engage the concerns of skeptics. Although rhetorically useful in the short-term, this strategy avoids the real questions: Did things have to happen this way rather than that way? Does every cultural trend make a culture genuinely better? By neglecting to ask these questions, the enthusiast becomes nearly Panglossian in his hymns to his new world."

Rosen's questions for techno-enthusiasts are broad enough to be appropriate for use in assessing almost all instances of cultural change. If these and related questions are not asked, we will never know when we ought to resist certain changes, when we are obliged (by the ramifications of our love of God and of neighbor) to be counter-cultural. The kinds of questions Christine Rosen has been raising in her articles (available online at are exactly right for parents, pastors, and teachers who care about healthy cultural lives for themselves, for those under their care, and for society at large. [Posted January 2006, KAM]