Originally appeared in the Boston Book Review.
James Gleick is the author of "Chaos: Making a New Science," and "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman." His new book is "Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything".
We have learned a visual language made up of images and movements instead of words and syllables. It has its own grammar, abbreviations, cliches, lies, puns, and famous quotations. Masters of this language are the artists and technicians, Muybridge descendants, who create trailers for movies and thirty-second commercials and promotional montages of film clippings. And we in their audiences are masters, too, understanding the most convoluted syntax at a speed that would formerly have been blinding.
"Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything"
HB: What do you think someone from an earlier generation, even an earlier television generation, would see if they saw, say, an MTV video or a rapid fire ad?
JG: I think they would see a sort of blur. They would see something that's just not quite comprehensible to them. As the great film director Barry Levinson points out, in the past, television commercials were like sagas, like epics, compared to the commercials of today. There would be one shot and someone talking into a camera for 60 seconds. Now, it's a thirty second spot with twenty or thirty images, or forty images less than a second long. It's right at the edge of comprehension. In a way, the makers of those commercials are involved in the science of perception. Their stuff has to work or they're dead. They know when we understand and they know when we get bored.