How Images Think

Front Cover
MIT Press, 2005 - Art - 253 pages

The transformation of images in the age of new media and the digital revolution.

Digital images are an integral part of all media, including television, film, photography, animation, video games, data visualization, and the Internet. In the digital world, spectators become navigators wending their way through a variety of interactive experiences, and images become spaces of visualization with more and more intelligence programmed into the very fabric of communication processes. In How Images Think, Ron Burnett explores this new ecology, which has transformed the relationships humans have with the image-based technologies they have created. So much intelligence has been programmed into these image-dependent technologies that it often seems as if images are "thinking"; ascribing thought to machines redefines our relationship with them and enlarges our ideas about body and mind. Burnett argues that the development of this new, closely interdependent relationship marks a turning point in our understanding of the connections between humans and machines.

After presenting an overview of visual perception, Burnett examines the interactive modes of new technologies--including computer games, virtual reality, digital photography, and film--and locates digital images in a historical context. He argues that virtual images occupy a "middle space," combining the virtual and the real into an environment of visualization that blurs the distinctions between subject and object--part of a continuum of experiences generated by creative choices by viewers, the results of which cannot be attributed either to images or to participants.


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The interaction of images with human imagination, human communication, and human culture influences behavior so profoundly that the metaphor of ‘thinking images’ might not be too far off. Burnett employs Latour and a host of others to argue that images have agency within the hybrid space of digital environments (a third space which is neither total reality nor total fantasy). Burnett argues that brain scans, the Internet, Virtual Reality, robotics, and computer games all use digital images which interact with individuals and cultures in ways that can potentially change the actors. As Burnett claims: "It is not so much the case that images per se are thinking as it is the case that intelligence is no longer solely the domain of sentient beings." Burnett raises the question that viewers play a part in the creation of the images through the choices they are offered -- yet who has the agency here? It’s not entirely the user, but it’s not entirely the technology either.
There are tensions among gamers and creators, and an increasing desire among users to control more fully every aspect of the games they play. An entire subculture has arisen devoted to transforming the look and feel of computer games through “hacking” and “patching” in order to overcome the organization of the game as well as the coding (Burnett 186). Burnett questions the aesthetic choices made about the interfaces that both separate and invite users into digital worlds. “When players talk about the look of a program, in this case a game, what are they talking about? It would be useful to develop some taxonomies of the “look” of digital games as well as digital environments (Burnett 189). I believe this book will be quite useful in discussing the data set from the Globaloria Civics Games Competition I'm researching. Who has done good research on video games and aesthetics?

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What came first, image or the viewer? Read full review


List of Illustrations
Vantage Point and ImageWorlds
Imagescapes Mind and Body
Foundations of Virtual Images
Imagescapes as Ecology
Humans Machines
PeertoPeer CommunicationsVisualizing Community
Computer Games and the Aesthetics of Human and Nonhuman Interaction
Reanimating the World Waves of Interaction

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About the author (2005)

Ron Burnett is President of Emily Carr Institute of Art + Design in Vancouver, and Artist/Designer at the New Media Innovation Center. He is the author of Cultures of Vision: Images, Media, and the Imaginary and the editor of Explorations in Film Theory.

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