A New Communication Order

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A New Communication Order

Kress (1997) points to the way in which written texts and language have been privileged in communication studies in an almost invisible way, and the implications for this in a multi-modal arena. The immediacy of imagery in electronic culture has a significance, which Kress suggest, has not yet been adequately theorised.

Kress's claim is a valid one. The purpose of this essay is to argue as such and prove the validity of Kress's claim. This paper will examine the current communication landscape, focusing on the implications, needs and potentials of verbal and visual forms of representation in electronically mediated communication.

It seems clear there is a direct link between advances in modern information technologies as communicational tools and the need to move beyond narrowly defined accounts of literacy, to ones that capture the complexity of real literacy practices in contemporary society. Literacy needs to be conceived within a broader social order, what Street and others have called a "˜new communicative order' (Street, 1998; Kress & Van Leeuwen, 1996; Lankshear, 1997).

The nature of communication has and is changing; the following quote by Kress (1997) describes the nature of this change.

""¦the landscape of communication and representation, the semiotic landscape, is indeed being remade. Where before there was the single, central mountain range of written language, now another alpine system is being thrust up by forces of a complex kind: in part, social, political, technological, and as yet less recognised, by economic forces as well"

It is the use of multimedia in this "˜new communicative order' that permits characteristics such as "˜"¦global reach, its integration of all communication media, and its potential interactivity' (Castells, 1996: 329). The potential to combine visual, verbal and written forms of representation in this multi-modal arena has meant that all kinds of messages can be communicated using the best or all mediums to communicate the specific concept or meaning. Kress (1997) argues that "˜some things are best done by using writing and others are best done by using images.'

The "˜new communicative order' takes into account the literacy practices associated with computer-mediated communication. It appreciates that traditional reading and writing practices are only part of what people in this new technological culture have to be literate in. Kress (1997) states that "˜"¦image can be combined with language, sound can be added to image, movement of image is possible'. This combination has brought about new forms of both, visual and verbal communication.

Computer technologies such as chat and email have made these new verbal forms of communication possible. The traditional form of writing is used, but due to their nature, they encourage more natural, closer to speech-like communication, which creates the feeling of geographical proximity. These new technologies, which Kress (1997) suggest encourage informality, have some valid potential. Prejudice within social relations could be considerably reduced by the anonymous freedom that is made available by technologies like email, chat and discussion groups/forums. In other words people may find protection within the electronic communication medium from being socially stigamatised because of race, religion or gender. Previously disenfranchised groups and individuals may have a chance to communicate their views and gain some power without prejudice. Kress (1997) among others states that "˜"¦changes in social, political and cultural configurations have brought new arrangements and distributions of power.'
Although McConaghy & Snyder (2000) believe that it is likely that the technology will reinforce existing patterns, where such groups become more disenfranchised, especially if they are not literate in the forms of communication they are using. Chat is one of the new forms of verbal communication, which allows for synchronous discussion allowing for immediate interactions between the communicating parties. It is similar to a face to face conversation but due to its written form it is quite functional when communicating with more than one other person at a time. With voice chat there are problems such as people talking over each other and the chance of missing what others have said in a group situation. Whereas chat in the written form allows you to receive multiple messages at once, read, reply and organise them as you wish meaning there is a potential to receive more information in a group situation. There is also the fact that computer text is easier to archive than trying to remember or write down everything valid in a voice discussion.

It seems clear that with the development of new technologies and an increasing use of computer-mediated communication, the visual is also becoming an increasingly important part of the way meanings are created. Because new technologies are better adapted to the visual than to the verbal mode, "˜in a very real sense they promise an era in which the visual may again become dominant over the verbal' (Kress, 1995: 25)

The shift from verbal to visual forms of language also has social and political causes such as changes to the global economy and the growth of multiculturalism/ multilingualism.

Global communication according to Kress (1997: 57) is "˜intensive to deep cultural diversity"¦' Language seems to involve some problematic issues as a means of communication in a culturally diverse arena, which can be seen in debates over English as a global language. This has meant there is a need for a communication medium that surpasses the limitations of language. The visual apparently offering a neutral means "˜Global communication which relies on the visual may seem to offer a means of avoiding these problems'. This is not to say that images do not rely on specific cultural identity in creating meanings, rather that in many situations visual communication forms may be more effective than language in a global culture such as the World Wide Web.
This is supported by Kress (1995: 48) who stated "˜the globalisation of mass media makes the visual a seemingly more accessible medium, certainly more accessible than any particular language'

Kress (1997: 54) argues that "˜the visual is a vastly more efficient mode for carrying and "˜processing' great amounts of certain kinds of information'. It has a significance in these information-based economies of the post-industrial era (in which information is at the same time raw material, tool, and product). Kress (1997: 54) believes these information-based economies will need visual forms of representation and communication more effective means of processing. The growth in available bandwidth will foster this development, though those who provide this commodity of "˜bandwidth' will need to find a way to use it productively.

During pre-history the visual was used as a communication means before written forms where even developed. Kress (1997) states that, "Over the last few centuries writing has assumed cultural and political dominance". It is writing that has regulated access to social power in Western Societies and current semiotic theories are based on written text and language. Kress (1997) argues that writing has been considered as a full medium of representation and communication, i.e. everything that needs to be said can be said through writing. It may be the narrow-minded view that language in its written form goes hand in hand with the conception of knowledge that has meant that newer forms of representation have been suppressed and have not been adequately theorised.

The recent re-emergence of the visual is possibly due to its significance in the contemporary electronic culture of computer-mediated communication. To know if new theories are needed we must look at the differences between how language (which follows theories of linguistics) and image (which may not have been adequately theorised) create meanings. In looking at language we must be aware that language as speech and as writing differ greatly. Writing is not only distinct through its characteristic syntax but also in its multiple forms of visual display, on multiple forms of surface. Whereas speech is necessarily a temporally, sequential organised mode, using the medium of air and the mode of sound. The following quote from Kress (1997) explains how speech creates meaning and is oriented to events and actions. Speech can be changed into the textual form of a narrative.

"˜Its temporality and sequentially lead to an underlying logic, namely that of sequence in time: the logic of one thing after another. This logic lends itself readily to the representation of sequentially conceived events- sequences of actions, sequence of events, and then their arrangement.'
Therefore the determining questions posed by the organisation of speech are: What are the prominent events? In what sequence do they occur?

The visual by contrast, is spatially and simultaneously organised mode, using the medium of light and materiality of certain surfaces, in the mode of a graphic substance.

The following quote from Kress (1997) explains how arrangement and display are essential features in the way the visual creates meanings.

"˜It too relies on physiological, bodily characteristics. Its spatiality and simultaneity also lead to an underlying logic, namely that of the co-presence of elements and their relation: the logic of the simultaneous expression of a number of related elements. This logic can, of course, be turned into a sequence of one image following another, but its inherent characteristics are those of display: showing the salient elements in the world and the spatial relations between them.'
The essential questions posed by visual representation are slightly different from those of language: What are the prominent elements? In what spatial relation to each other do they stand?

As shown, it is the arrangement of the salient elements, in both image and language as forms of communication that portrays an ideological construct. However the way the elements are arranged differ between the forms of representation and both have different potentials.

Kress (1997), states that "˜The logic of writing participates in the logic of the visual (writing is a visual mode) and in the logic of speech (writing, even in highly literate societies, still has a complex, dynamic and close relationship with speech).'

Hierarchy, which denotes a value to something by arranging it in a spatial relationship and also by other forms of subordination, is a feature of many forms of writing in the public domain. Its concern with spatial relationships is one of the defining features of the visual and is also significant with the graphic material on the surface that displays the writing. Kress (1997) suggests that this permits a visual reassembly of written text and affords other possibilities of the visual through the multiplicity of means of layout.

The point is that the language in its written form is becoming specialised and the visual does have a significance, which cannot be adequately illustrated and comprehended with current linguistic theories. Kress (1997) argues that multi-modal texts/messages need a theory that deals adequately with the integration/composition of the various modes in these texts both in production/making, and in consumption/reading.
This is a valid claim, because a semiotic theory that is tied to closely to one mode of representation can only at best explain part of a multi-modal communicational landscape.

New theories need also, to be able to deal with a changing communicational landscape. Although the communicational landscape is constantly changing, it is the current state of intense change brought about by the use of computer-mediated communication that has meant new theories are needed. Present semiotic theories hold the understanding that convention hinders change and reinforces stability. Kress (1997) argues "˜"¦the semiotic landscape is changing in fundamental ways, and that this change relates to other changes in social, cultural, economic and technological domains'. These theories must also account for interaction of different modes and of different possibilities of expression in multi-modal text. Multimedia production poses questions of the level of cognitive processing, which should also be assessed in new theories.

For multimedia designers or anyone who wishes to communicate through multimedia technologies, Shedroff (1996) offers the following advice.

"˜Successful communication relies on literacy with all forms of communication, including, text, images, sounds and music, voice, diagrams, numbers, and video for both producers and consumers. Being able to communicate clearly means being able to choose which medium is most appropriate to the message.'
In conclusion it should be obvious that the nature of communication is changing due to advances in modern technology. These changes have meant that there is a new significance on visual forms of representation. This essay has examined the potentials of new forms of visual and verbal communication and looked at why new theories for communication are needed. It should be quite clear that current linguistic theories are not adequate in describing and understanding new forms of visual and verbal representation in an electronic culture.


Castells, M. (1996). The Rise of the Network Society, Volume 1, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture. London: Blackwell Publishers.

Kress, G. (1995). Writing the future: English and the making of a culture of innovation. Sheffield: National Association for the Teaching of English

Kress, G. (1997). Visual and verbal modes of representation in electronically mediated communication: the potentials of new forms of text. In I. Snyder (ed.), Page to Screen: Taking Literacy into the Electronic Era (pp. 53-79). St Leonards, Sydney: Allen & Unwin

Kress, G. and van Leeuwen, T. (1996). Reading Images: The Grammar of Visual Design. London: Routledge.

Lankshear, C. and Snyder, I. with Green, B. (2000). Teachers and Technoliteracy: Managing Literacy, Technology and Learning in Schools. St Leonards, Sydney: Allen & Unwin.

McConaghy, C. and Snyder, I. (2000). Working the Web in postcolonial Australia. In G.E. Hawisher and C.L. Selfe (eds.), Global literacies and the World Wide Web (pp. 74-92). London & New York: Routledge.

Street, B. (1998). New literacies in theory and practice: what are the implications for language in education? Linguistics and Education 10, 1, 1-24.

Further Reading

Kribs, H. & Mark, L (1997) Interactive Multimedia Instruction Trade-offs Tool (IMITT): Trade-off Techniques For Training Using Multimedia, [Online] Naval Air Warfare Center Training Systems Division Technical Report
[Accessed 25/8/01] http://www.isdnet.org/p_imittphase1.html

Richards, C (2000) Hypermedia, Internet Communication, and the Challenge of Redefining Literacy in the Electronic Age, [Online] Language Learning & Technology
[Accessed 26/8/01] http://llt.msu.edu/vol4num2/richards/default.html

Shedroff, N. (1996) Thoughts: Unified Theory of Design [Online]
[Accessed 27/8/01] http://www.nathan.com/thoughts/

Thesen, W. Access to academic literacy through multimodal texts: Rifts in the semiotic landscape?, [Online] International Association of Applied Linguistics
[Accessed 27/8/01] http://education.leeds.ac.uk/AILA/Symposiumthesen

Author Unknown, Visual Representation (n.d.) [Online] [Accessed 27/8/01]

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