It’s not every morning that I sit and enjoy my coffee and wind up thinking about mobile phones and nudity, but there was reason enough this month. First, a painting called Nu Couché by the Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani sold for more than $170 million to a Chinese businessman. The painting, one of a very famous series of nudes painted in 1917, was considered scandalous when it was first shown at the Galerie Berthe Weill in Paris, so much so that the police demanded the exhibition’s closure.
I wouldn’t have really been thinking much about mobile phones, either, except that the insightful media commentator Ben Evans, of the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has been writing a series of entries on his own blog over the last few months on the preeminence of mobile phones. One of the most recent, “Mobile, Ecosystems, and the Death of PCs,” suggested that increasingly powerful mobile phones are reinventing the routine tasks currently performed on our laptop and desktop computers.
But what I found missing from Evans’s commentary was how the applications that occupy most mobile users are often transformative versions of desktop applications. And one sphere where mobile users are the most active is in the creation and sharing of images. Pinterest, Instagram, Snapchat, mobile Facebook, as well as legacy apps such as Flickr, drive huge amounts of traffic on mobile devices. And the ease of capturing and immediately sharing images across social platforms is addictive and easy—sometimes painfully so, as concerns over teenage “sexting” demonstrate.
I don’t know if Modigliani would have loved his iPhone 6s. But I suspect that a lot of visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Modigliani exhibit wind up taking pictures and sharing them. More and more, we are creating and sharing our culture visually. We even share images of words with one another—we take pictures of our grocery lists, instructions, recipes, notes, and documents, even when they are on our own computer screens. Where I work, at the University of California, the default format of choice these days is an image. Students take pictures of their notes, whether in longhand or on screen, and message them. No one uses email anymore; if you are a student, email is for official university business. With your friends, you communicate on your phone.
There are millions upon millions of new pictures uploaded and shared every day, and the impact is remarkable. In fact, the challenge of finding the “undocumented landscape” is now prompting artists to use geo-location to find and tag the few places left on Earth still unrecorded. We are now imaging our world at eye level with the zeal of 19th-century explorers, who raced through mountain peaks yet to be climbed.
The rise of visual culture is also a potentially rich and rewarding new form of storytelling. But as of yet, we have seen little interest and only minor explorations of it in the publishing world. The first novel to use Instagram, Hey Harry Hey Matilda, was created by photographer Rachel Hulin. Her images, combined with a series of captions expressing the characters’ thoughts and reactions, take the viewer/reader through an evocative and personal story between a sister and her twin brother, both in their 30s, creating an oddly compelling and immersive journey.
But while book publishing still looks at this kind of image-driven innovation in storytelling with a distant gaze, journalists are beginning to experiment with it. Earlier this month, the New York Times distributed more than a million Google Cardboard virtual reality (VR) headsets. Combined with a mobile app (also called Cardboard), the Times launched its first VR story, “The Displaced,” in conjunction with an essay in the New York Times Magazine. Cardboard is already being used to create innovative educational material for classrooms. But mailing out 1.3 million VR headsets with the Sunday paper just might have hooked a generation of kids on a new form of visual culture.
“Experiencing VR for the first time isn’t just cool, it’s revelatory,” Marcus Wohlsen observed in a Wired story. “If you’re a kid... there’s a good chance you’ve grown up assuming that portable touchscreen portals to a significant portion of human knowledge, entertainment, and communication are a given. Yes, you think your dad’s iPhone is pretty cool. But then yesterday, you put on Google Cardboard and watched a train come hurtling toward you before you flew up into the sky and into the embrace of a giant baby. And you said, ‘Yeah, now we’re talking.’ ”
Think about that and its potential impact on the publishing industry. In the future, will we see more textbooks published by companies like Pixar than Pearson? VR and our rapidly evolving visual culture portend a revolution in how we tell our stories. Will today’s publishers be part of it?