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How Images Think

Author: Ron Burnett
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: December 2006

 REVIEW 1: Leanne Stuart Pupchek

It is rare indeed to read a book review that makes the effort to distill not only the various meanings of an admittedly complex work like How Images Think, but also to link the overall efforts of the author to his previous books. Prof. Leanne Pupchek's analysis of How Images Think points to its strengths as well as weaknesses and to its connections to a earlier book of mine, Cultures of Vision: Images, Media and the Imaginary. In fact, How Images Think is the second of a trilogy (I am presently working on the third, tentatively titled Image-worlds in the Digital Age), which examines the evolving role of images and image-worlds within the context of an increasingly digital and technology-driven global environment.

Pupchek has correctly surmised that the book is really a series of conversations. I wrote it in the style of an address, as if my interlocutors were present together in a room and able to ask me questions. I believe that every writer does this to varying degrees. No matter how distant one may feel from potential readers, they are always there in the writing -- to me writing is a continual dialogue of many different levels, among people who to varying degrees "rewrite" the book and its contents to fit with their personal philosophies or worldview.

This is also the premise of one of my main arguments in How Images Think. To varying degrees, the title is meant as a provocation and as a metaphor. Clearly, images do not think. At the same time, as more and more people play online games, for example, the distance between the avatars they use, the programming that goes into the game, and the location of intelligence changes from a linear to a distributed phenomenon. This means that "intelligence" as a human attribute needs to be rethought. After all, driving a car that senses turns and balances the suspension to make up for differing road conditions means that the technology is no longer just a tool, but has become part of the ecology of driving. In the same way, moving an avatar in Second Life is not just about a figure in motion in a screen-based 3D world. The avatar eventually grows 'intelligent' as it gains more and more attributes of the user. In transferring so much to the screen, players and/or navigators develop expectations about response and reaction. As the interactive components of games become more complex, the very nature of interaction is itself open to transformation.

This is the thesis of Will Wright's new game Spore, which allows players to build the people and the world they inhabit as if they control the actual process of evolution itself. I don't think that my argument is that new. Identification with characters and/or events allows viewers to enter into the screen of a film or TV as if they are there. Projection, which is the central thematic of Cultures of Vision, is an imaginary placement within stories whether they are written or image-based. The difference is that images can now talk back and as they do, intelligence is distributed across a set of relationships that are both fluid and less predictable than they were in the past. Pupchek understands this and is correct in saying that my argument reaches its apogee in the chapter on animation.

Pupchek also says that one of the missions of the book is to find a new set of discourses to describe these phenomena, and she is right. I don't think that the term image easily carries the weight of a complex and multi-layered communications eco-system that is now so varied it is almost impossible to catalogue. In a chapter that will soon appear in a new book of essays by a diverse group of authors, I develop a series of terms centered on imography -- in order to talk about communications and interaction as a flow. Meanings and messages are no longer located within images or on a screen, but among a whole host of locations and experiences. Subjectivity is programmed into objects so that they can talk back to you.

The central issue is that imagescapes, which are part of image-worlds can no longer be disengaged from everyday life. The layers keep on growing and like a series of endless folds the process seems to be infinite. Pupchek has captured the essence of How Images Think and no author could wish for more.

Ron Burnett

<rburnett at eciad dot ca>

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