On “Becoming Screen Literate” by Kevin Kelly

In last week’s Screens Issue of the New York Times Magazine, Kevin Kelly had a long article called “Becoming Screen Literate.” I first became aware of Kevin Kelly and his greatness when I read another of his NYT Magazine articles in May 2006, Scan This Book, about the impact of mass digitization on the future of the book, and I’ve been following his work ever since.

I loved “Scan This Book” because of its optimistic and utopian vision for the future of books in a world of networked bits. Not only did Kelly write favorably of libraries’ participation in Google’s scanning project (for which I am totally in the tank), but he imagined a highly appealing textual landscape in which everything is flexible, linkable, and infinitely copyable. Most compellingly, the article tied Kelly’s fantastic potential future to the legal and economic challenges of the present; he called the indefinite extension of copyright terms “perverse” and titled a section “When Business Models Collide.” The article was both dreamy and grounded. Seriously, you should read it.

When I saw Kelly’s latest article, I hoped that it would do for screens what the previous one had done for pages: frame the astounding potential for a technology in the limitations of the present. I did not quite get what I was looking for. The article is great, and worth reading, but it is a more purely futuristic work.

The basic premise is that new tools will soon make it possible for many people to develop a “screen literacy” that maps very closely to textual literacy, where textual literacy is the ability of a user “to cut and paste ideas, annotate them with her own thoughts, link them to related ideas, search through vast libraries of work, browse subjects quickly, resequence texts, refind material, quote experts and sample bits of beloved artists.”

Kelly argues that “Literacy… required a long list of innovations and techniques that permit ordinary readers and writers to manipulate text in ways that make it useful,” and now new innovations and techniques will permit ordinary people to do the same with moving images.

If text literacy meant being able to parse and manipulate texts, then the new screen fluency means being able to parse and manipulate moving images with the same ease… It took several hundred years for the consumer tools of text literacy to crystallize after the invention of printing, but the first visual-literacy tools are already emerging in research labs and on the margins of digital culture.

These tools will the remix and the mashup to a whole new level, to the point where we can index, reference, and annotate moving images without resorting to screen shots. Neat, right? But then Kelly loses me. He goes on:

The holy grail of visuality is to search the library of all movies the way Google can search the Web. Everyone is waiting for a tool that would allow them to type key terms, say “bicycle + dog,” which would retrieve scenes in any film featuring a dog and a bicycle.

At which point I become irretrievably distracted from the coming screen literacy, and focus on something else entirely. Why? Because there are approximately 3,500 words in this article, and none of them are “copyright,” “intellectual property,” or “lawsuit.” It’s lovely to talk about the technical challenge of building a visual search engine for a universal library of moving images, but how can you not mention that whoever builds it is likely to face exactly the same kind of legal challenges that Google’s book scanning project did? Worse, really, because book publishers are newcomers to the “sue your fans” business model, while the movie industry has been fiercely litigious since birth.

I understand that maybe Kelly didn’t want to retread old ground, and that harping on problems with copyright law gets boring after awhile, but it’s hard for me to believe in an a vision of a screen-fluent future that doesn’t take into account the battles we’ll have to fight to get there. The vast majority of our visual culture is copyrighted; unless and until we figure out how to fix copyright law, the vibrant creative world Kelly describes will always be in danger of death-by-takedown notice.