Sunday, March 30, 2008

Rhetoric and the Visual Word

Go back a few thousand years and you’ll find the Greek origin of the word rhetoric. It means the art of effective speaking, especially to persuade.

A few hundred years ago rhetoric broadened to include effective writing as well as speech. Writing was good for rhetoric because it allowed greater complexity of ideas. To get a sense of the difference, try composing an essay entirely in your head.

A few years ago it started to become clear that the definition was due to broaden again. Low-cost and no-cost tools emerged for creating and distributing short-form animations, screencasts, and videos. The result has been an increasing number of multimedia shorts that do rhetoric in ways the written or spoken word cannot.

A couple examples:

On paper or a Web page, “data portability” is unlikely to engage Joe or Jane Average. But in 1 minute and 50 seconds, this video does an admirable job of making the topic matter.

More ambitious is Professor Michael Wesch’s Web 2.0 ... The Machine is Us/ing Us. In less than five minutes, he tackles big, abstract, and technical issues. So far, the video has nearly 5 million views on YouTube, which is in the same league as the YouTube classic Diet Coke + Mentos.

These examples illustrate that multimedia—the visual word—is good for rhetoric because it can make complex ideas engaging and understandable for nonspecialists. In our world of ever deeper, ever more specialized knowledge, this accessibility has real value.

Moreover, because the costs of creating and distributing multimedia content are high relative to text, the short form is a natural. This has the benefit of forcing concision—the opposite of the mathematician Pascal’s quip, “I have made this letter longer than usual, only because I have not had time to make it shorter.” In our time of information overload and attention scarcity, concision is king.

So from the spoken word to the written word to the visual word, we are evolving toward both greater complexity of thought and wider understanding of complex subjects. What we are seeing today is the beginning of multimedia rhetoric’s part in this evolution. And you can say you were there.

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