Tafterjournal n. 84 - SETTEMBRE OTTOBRE 2015

The experience of the image in digital media. Reflections on today’s cognitive forms.


Rubrica: Tecno-scenari

Parole chiave: , , , , , , , , ,

A red icon on a blue coloured background. Notification: Tom has shared a picture on your timeline. A ringtone and vibration, the phone’s screen lights up, a message appears: Richard has sent you a picture.

The quantity of images that people each second of every day take and spread digitally is an unmeasurable phenomenon. Due to its extraordinary contribution, it is like counting the grains of sand in a desert. Together with the certainly interesting numerical-quantitative data, reflection on the growing meaning of these social activities of taking and sharing images (for the individual as well as the community), is needed. This introduction first of all provides a snapshot of today.


A huge number of reports from the most important research institutes tell us about the growing number of uploaded as well as shared images on social networks. (Nielsen, Ericson Consumer Lab, etc.). The reports suggest, more or less intentionally, “how” the analysed data appears in the social contexts by telling us the “quantum” of a given percentage. The “how”, that is the communicative nature of the contemporary digital image, raises many doubts and provides the focus for much research today. The productive growth of images helped by the devices’ dematerialization – a topic worthy of a separate publication – doesn’t just appear as mere quantitative data. It also indicates the cultural, communicative and social growth of activities and processes more and more relevant today. Product together with action.


Therefore we will continue with a dual-track approach by proposing again, maybe in a paradoxical way, Walter Benjamin’s old adage: quality has been transmuted into quantity.
In order not to run into a specious ideology of modernity, it’s best to specify that some of the social meanings we attribute to the image as well as its technological-mechanical nature or even its copious presence in the public/private dimension have remained stable in western culture since one and a half centuries ago. As Giovanni Fiorentino reminds us: A metà dell’Ottocento sono ormai determinate le condizioni storiche e materiali per vedere l’ingresso sulla scena sociale, politica e culturale della massa, del consumatore moderno, del mondo delle merci e delle merci fatte immagine. (Fiorentino 2007: P.25)

Since the spread of photographic devices, the image rules our routine in a such an amazing way so as to push us to raise herein the main theoretical dilemma: after writing and speech, is the image the crux of the “grammar” of our knowledge today?
In order to summarily answer this question, we must look at the object of our paper – the experience of the image on social networks – supported by the thoughts of some of the most important theorists of media and culture.


Seeing as knowing


The importance of seeing in western culture, as we indicated in this paper’s opening, began before the massive spread of digital devices as well as the productive and distributive processes of images helped by them. The story began in the XIX century when metropolization processes bloomed. The success of the metropolis as an urban model has historically and radically modified the space and time dimensions through the consequent break in the existing continuity in the pre-metropolitan urban models between the social environment and the individual. The results of this procedure value individual intellectual ability, above all seeing; essential in order to recreate the meaning of the individual’s routine. For the most intellectually sensitive authors such as Georg Simmel it seemed clear that the metropolis’ inhabitant reacts first through his intellect in order to defend himself from the constant flow of solicitations and images met “across the street”. Otherwise the perception of the surrounding world in the pre-metropolitan city seemed to refer mainly to sentimentality. In order not to be overwhelmed by the profusion of incentives and images, the individual is forced to reduce his sensitivity to the phenomena he sees as well as their capability to touch the human emotion by differentiating between what is important for his own life and what flows indifferently at his horizon. (Simmel 1995).
During the period in question, the sense of sight became the most important route to comprehension, and therefore knowledge, of the world that involved the urban individual at each period. We can easily understand the deep link between sight, the resulting knowledge and the typical characteristics of the modern European metropolis. From the monuments to the toponymy to the large boulevard – in other words, from the denser aspects of symbolic meanings to the simple orientation tools – the visual aspect qualifies the metropolis’ organisation as well as its experiential form in a deep and crucial way. We could say, its aesthetic form. Through sight, the urban man selects, discerns, notes the details, draws routes. Through his point of view he recreates as well as makes sense of his life and the surrounding world. The anthropologic conditions for mechanized image development (photography) as well as kinetic images (cinema, television) existed before the cultural factory of the XX century. Today, objectivity of the image is crucial for the completion of individual subjectivity.



L’esperienza della metropoli appare troppo densa, variegata e caleindoscopica perché la si possa vivere solamente come attore, ed è per questo che l’esistenza soggettiva si dilata e si dissemina fino a duplicarsi nella condizione del blasé, dell’essere spettatore (Borrelli 2010: p.35).



Therefore, being a spectator is a typical condition, maybe the typical condition, of the urban experience. Hence it is one of the foundations of the XX century cultural factory evolution so strongly based on the image, as well as the collective desire to live through the metropolis elsewhere. (Abruzzese 1995, Fiorentino 2007).
Seeing as an activity, that is the image experience, during the XX century cultural factory, is a connotative cause of a given human connotation. At the same time the citizen is a viewer, as though the customer is the audience. In the next section we will see how the effect of the media on XX century culture was a crucial cause of this change.


Media and change



Media, by altering the environment, evoke in us unique ratios of sense perceptions. The extension of any one sense alters the way we think and act – the way we perceive the world. When these ratios change, men change. (McLuhan, Fiore 1967: P. 41)

The development of the modern metropolis highlights the close link between the environment, the media and the individual. With deeper investigation it is possible to affirm that the modern media are at the same time crucial causes for the social, cultural and economic changes in the west over the last two centuries. The quote with which this section opened derives from an essay by Marshall McLuhan. It clarifies that it is crucial to set the study of social and cultural change in the context of the development of media devices.
Contrary to most of his peers, McLuhan highlights that social and cultural change is created by a deeper change that comes from the individual’s perceptive and cognitive abilities through the media. Therefore:

Effective study of the media deals not only with the content of the media but with the media themselves and the total cultural environment within which the media function. (McLuhan 1969)

The Canadian critic produced a bottom-up study. The research starts with the moment of reading a book or watching a movie and reaches the general dimension where the experience, that is the awareness and knowledge systems, affects the individual’s stimulated senses. In the McLuhan essay, medium and cultural environment – the two elements we are analysing – look so much alike that the reader feels that the communication device is the space where life really plays out (Abruzzese 1996). Therefore, the history of media should be compared to the “history of nations” and imposed as the basis and crucial cause of a specific method for the historical disciplines.
In his well-known Playboy interview, McLuhan makes clear that a proper media study must take into consideration the link between technology, cultural environment and the individual. In that case, the interpretation of the media could also be the interpretation of historical time. If it is true that a given medium could be perceived as the environment where people act, it is also plausible that our knowledge systems adapt to the space’s qualities and, as a consequence, define the measure of our historical understanding. History dresses the part of a given medium (and its characteristics) and could be conceived through that medium.



The now of what we could know. Images, experience, knowledge


Thus far we have tried to recall the permanent features that have ferried the analogic image and its social meanings to the present. The development of the metropolis and its experiential forms, the success and the spread of photographic devices together with their social and economic practices, the arrival of advertisements, cinema and television, have all quickly given prominence to the image. Similarly, we have seen with McLuhan that the medium’s qualities cause, once they touch the human senses, processes of social, cultural and economic change as well as transformation of the individual’s perceptive and knowledge structures. On the image surface it is therefore possible to track the processes observed until now. For our reflection it is urgent to introduce another element linked to the image and its growing importance. We can do it through the words of Walter Benjamin:


For the historical index of the inlages not only says that they belong to a particular time; it says, above all, that they attain to legibility only at a particular tinle. And, indeed, this acceding ” to legibility” constitutes a specific critical point in the movement at their interior. Every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each “now” is the now of a particular recognizability. (Benjamin 1999: P. 463)



As is typical of him, the ideas in Benjamin’s few lines represent a crucial landmark for this paper. The image, as we see, is a fundamental element for understanding history’s effect thanks to its unique and irregular nature. As Benjamin wrote this amazing passage, maybe he had photographic devices in mind. Thanks to photography, the synchrony between the present and the image settles for the first time as a specific and concrete form: an object. Therefore, the photographic image must be read during the period of the modern West, that is the society with the economic and cultural conditions that we have described above. Thanks to photographic technology, the urban epoch (and the experience) is readable through the image surface.
Following the Benjamin school of thought, we can understand that the achievement of knowledge is the result of a process based on our “experience of media”, such as in this case, the photographic image. However, as we have seen, this process is not linear, not even despite strict cause and effect relationships. Past experiences build the basis for the birth and the development of a given technological medium. At the same time, the interaction with products of the media, in this case the photographic image, builds the characteristics of knowledge experiences. In other words:

L’esperienza moderna è la presenza immediata di una percezione nella coscienza del soggetto, che si realizza in un una forma unica e irripetibile, e tuttavia dipendente dall’immersione del soggetto stesso in un mondo di significati storici[…] è la “cosa” percepita e insieme il “significato” che essa assume nel rapporto con colui che la percepisce. (Jedloswki 1996: P. 64)


Through interaction with photography, experience and knowledge change. “Object” and “meaning” meld with “the one who perceives”, thereby defining a temporary form of experience. Photography marks an inevitable discontinuity in the history of the experience of images. Our knowledge will surely change. Everything has been fully demonstrated by numerous studies on the social meaning of analogic photography. (Benjamin 2000, Barthes 1994, Fiorentino 2007, Rafele 2010, Sontag 1978). Now it is necessary to put the theories explained above to the test through the use of the digital image as a case study.
Toward a new knowledge grammar. The image and the experience of everyday life.



The introduction of this paper has highlighted that image production and distribution by people became a crucial phenomenon in terms of quantity and quality. Daily, millions of people take pictures using digital devices and then instantly share the photos on facebook or twitter timelines. It is most common to “immortalize” an event or situation through digital photography. The selfie phenomenon is indicative.


The quantity of the images online is hence an interesting topic for research today. However, it is wrong to approach the subject as an “innovation censor”, or worse, as a “guard of traditions”. A piece of research without preconceptions – if it exists – should understand the digital image factors of change and, at the same time, the ones in continuity with the past. For example, with social network images we don’t see a drastic transformation in the social meanings of the photograph. On the photo’s surface, this amazing medium still produces the present of what we could know. In other words, the content of the photograph wasn’t radically changed precisely because the content is the surrounding world. Conversely, the digital form is a radical change of the medium that, thanks to new technological possibilities, doesn’t change the contents’ subjectivity but their objectivity. Having the picture of a loved one as your smartphone’s screensaver is not so different from keeping his/her photo in your wallet.


If the subjectivity of the content doesn’t change between analogic or digital images – in both cases we are talking about a loved one’s photo – what changes is the objectivity. The digital image frees itself from paper and film so we can “shoot” more as well as spread pictures as content of our social relationships. Why? What does that have to do with knowledge processes? Thanks to this quantitative increase we can find the meaning of the image – and its production – within the special dimension of an event (parties, sport events, travels, etc.) as well as the ordinary daily dimension (selfie, profile picture, etc.). Within this last dimension we can study the digital image. Daily life is the union of environments, practices and relationships that we use in order to recreate our sense of life. The image becomes content of routine daily experience and puts flesh on its different moments. That is possible thanks to the technological characteristics of digital media such as connectivity, devices and dematerialization of contents.


Connectivity, interaction and production of “dematerialized” contents are not simple technological qualities. Instead, they are peculiarities of the kind of experience we have everyday with the media as well as cultural, social and communicative processes that the media create. There is therefore a process of combined development between medium and experience that values the image’s function differently from the past. So I take and send a picture to a friend because I have chosen a medium that easily allows me to share the contents and the meanings that I want. That practice, as in the past with other media, presents some benefits within the relationships built during the digital era. The image, rather than the written word, seems to be well adapted to the present. Therefore, as McLuhan observes:

The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts, but alter sense ratios or patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance. […] For the man in a literate and homogenized society ceases to be sensitive to the diverse and discontinuous life of forms. He acquires the illusion of the third dimension and the “private point of view” as part of his Narcissus fixation (McLuhan 1964: P. 19-20)



There is, therefore, a crucial link between the digital image, today’s experiential forms and perceptions. This quantitative increase in photographic practices, as Jedlowsi highlights, shows a kind of historicized perception – that is knowledge. Maybe the ways to perceive and know are adapting to the image’s peculiarities instead of adapting to the written word. For this reason, the image becomes the crucial factor of a new knowledge “grammar”.






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