“The rise of the image, the fall of the word”

I’ve been trying to read as many books as I can these Christmas holidays since I have plenty of free time and the weather outside is particularly cold,1 so another book that I’ve read is Mitchell Stephens classic: “The rise of the image, the fall of the word.” It’s obligatory reading for anyone studying journalism and new media these days, as it tries to argue for cultural significance of television, or specifically something that Stephens calls the new video.

Ian Bogost writes about a famous Star Trek TNG episode:

On stardate 45047.2, Jean-Luc Picard leads the crew of the Enterprise in pursuit of a transmission beacon from the El-Adrel system, where a Tamarian vessel has been broadcasting a mathematical signal for weeks. The aliens, also known as the Children of Tama, are an apparently peaceable and technologically advanced race with which the Federation nevertheless has failed to forge diplomatic relations. The obstacle, as Commander Data puts it: “communication was not possible.”

The funniest thing about this particular episode is how polarized opinions about it are. “Darmok” is by far the most controversial of all TNG episodes. While (as Bogost points out) the episode touches upon the very essence of Star Trek and Gene Rodenberry’s vision of utopian human future, most controversy that surrounds it concerns how… unserious it is. I think this might be the only TNG episode that I felt slightly uncomfortable watching, because of how silly it felt.

But Bogost’s piece reminded me of a book I read some time ago, which touches upon the issue of understanding vs. comprehension, the nature of intelligence (yes, there’s even a discussion about Searle’s Chinese Room in there) and difficulties of “first contact” in a much more intellectually demanding yet satisfying way. This book is Peter Watts' “Blindsight”. While I don’t agree with many of the points the author makes throughout the novel, I can’t think of a better “hard sci-fi” that I’ve read in a long, long time. “Blindsight” most definitely isn’t an easy read, but if you like good old science-fiction that really tries to do science justice and packs loads of facts, you won’t be disappointed. Oh and best of all, the novel is available online for free (CC license).

Despite what you might hear me saying, I like TV shows. I don’t own a TV set (in fact I haven’t lived in an apartment with one for many years), and I avoid mentioning my interest in some shows, but that’s mostly due to my somewhat snobbish nature – I would like to be seen as a person who doesn’t fall for easy entertainment, and isn’t interested in anything less than a Booker prize winning novel, an inaccessible contemporary jazz album, or modern art exhibition. But in the privacy of my own blog I am willing to admit that there are certain things on television that I really enjoy, and one1 of these things – AMC’s Breaking Bad – just came to an end.

Breaking Bad is a simple show. It’s not very sophisticated, like Mad Men. It isn’t as spectacular as Game of Thrones, and not as intellectual as Girls. The story is in fact very similar to Weeds (at least in the beginning), but in contrast to the light-toned Showtime series, Breaking Bad is seldom funny.2 It is fantastically written, it has great characters, awesome cinematography, and, above all, amazing actors. But all this doesn’t explain the Breaking Bad phenomenon to me, i.e. I can’t understand how is it possible that a relatively simple TV series like that gets so much media coverage.

It’s not just the sheer amount3 of words that have been written about the show that amazes me, but also where the pieces were published. That BoingBoing regularly publishes posts about Breaking Bad isn’t that surprising (although these are relatively long-form essays, featured columns if you may, unlike most short notes that appear on BoingBoing), but if The New Yorker writes about shows other than Girls and Mad Men, it’s a serious matter. And it’s not only the Culture Desk, oh no. There are longer pieces in the magazine itself, as well as a recently published profile of Bryan Cranston. That The New York TimesThe Guardian and even FAZ have published articles about the show doesn’t surprise me so much, but once I stumbled upon Breaking Bad in The Economist, I realized there’s no where to run, no where to hide.

  1. Other shows I admire are Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Girls, and House of Cards. (shit, that’s more than I thought.)
  2. Despite significant differences between Weeds and BB, Vince Gilligan mentioned that he wouldn’t have made Breaking Bad if he knew about Weeds. Luckily for us, he didn't.
  3. Apparently you should wear a spoiler helmet if you haven’t seen the show yet (thanks, Karolina).