''Homo Videns'' by Giovanni Sartori


Hello Hivers and Book Clubbers,

With my last actual book review dating back to the 17th of January, it is high time to get back into it. I've read several books in the meantime, most of them were good, but I didn't feel like I could add much to them in a review. Perhaps I'll change my mind on a re-read of any of them down the road. The one I'm reviewing today, however, carries some interesting implications for modern human life, and was very prescient at the time of writing.

The book is fully titled 'Homo Videns; an essay about the watching man, and the downfall of thought'. Originally written by Italian philosopher Giovanni Sartori in the year 2000, it was translated and re-released, with some additions, in 2021 in the Dutch language. The reason why this work was picked up, is clearly because the questions posed are actually becoming more and more relevant as time goes on.

Homo Videns, the man who watches

I'd like to start with an anecdote which signifies a symptom of the malady that the book describes, when I went on vacation to Portugal about 10 years ago (I was about 16 then). The smartphone, at that time, had fully made its entrance, and tablets were also very much in vogue. My younger brother and I were swimming in the local pool when we spotted a toddler, about 2 years old by the looks of it, messing around with a tablet. He clearly knew how to operate it; swiping left and right quite quickly.

The fact that I still remember it clearly shows that it made an impact on me at least; This was the generation that would grow up completely engrossed by modern technology. Of course I had a lot of that too growing up; television, the first clunky Windows 95 and 98 PCs, etc. But the 'internet generation', with the corresponding smartphones and tablets and laptops, takes it one step further (I remember the landline we had when I was a child quite vividly).

Lets get back to the thesis of the book, which tries to think over what I saw in practice ten years ago: humanity is becoming more and more attached to (moving) images: on the TV since the 50s, which the book focuses on more, and even more directly with the internet and all its video services. Sartori posits that this change, from the mostly reading man before to the viewing man, is a negative change.

No longer wise

Sartori uses the term Homo Videns in opposition to Homo Sapiens, which implies that the watching/viewing man is no longer wise in the way it used to be. Images are easier to absorb than text, this much is certain. To fully understand a certain text, one needs to think about its implications; it is not given nearly as readily as video. Before the advent of image-technology, man had to think about the read or heard word, always. To make clear that Sartori does not bundle all technologies in the same category, he makes the case that Radio is more in line with the written word than with the image-technologies.

Because images are so easily absorbed, man thinks less and less, and definitely reads less and less. Sartori clearly disagrees with the statement 'an image says more than a thousand words', and makes clear that video and images are dumbing down most people, compared to when people were reading more. He gives the example of the news on tv. TV-news is cut down to its bare bones: very little information is given in it, it's all about the 'sound-bites' and video-clips of a short length. The format does not allow for any in-depth analysis. Sartori views newspapers in a more positive light, allowing for more room for in-depth vies. I kind of disagree with him on this; I often find news-papers to be guilty of the same one-sided, sensationalist style of writing that is expressed by the news on television.

What about us?

As mentioned, the original text is written in the late 90s and released in 2000 as a book, so the focus is on television as the main source for dispensing images. The internet was not yet the world-wide phenomenon that it is now. One could argue that the internet solves a lot of the issues that are plaguing television: one can look at what one wants to look at, and there surely is a lot to read on the internet. Has technology solved its own issue with the invention and main-stream usage of the internet?

The answer would be an unsatisfactory 'yes and no'. It completely depends on the user. The internet grants a freedom of decision and movement that is lacking in television, this is certain. But do most people really use it differently? For many, it is still about the sound-bites, the short-length images and video services (Tiktok and Instagram spring to mind), etc.

Even our Hive-ecosystem is not immune to this. I'm quite amazed at the amount of 'articles' on the Hive platform that are nothing but a string of videos and links to videos, with almost no text. This not a putdown of people who do this, but it is an example of that the internet does not solve the issue of our new Homo Videns, with the corresponding short attention span, and that the Internet is not necessarily the remedy to the question.

I hope you've enjoyed reading this review. Do let me know how you view this issue; is the advent of image-technology a boon for humanity, or is this a regression of sorts? I tend to agree with Sartori in his essays, and found it an enlightening read. I hope to see you soon in another review. Until the next one,

-Pieter Nijmeijer

(Top image: self-made photo of book cover)


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