The Image Society studies the significance of images in society. We live in a visual culture, yet when we think of images, we usually think of photographs and paintings – that is, art. Yet art is only a small part of what we mean by contemporary visual culture. Visual culture, while not a separate academic discipline, does have a dynamic of its own. Images thrive in these tumultuous times of wealth and poverty, crisis and revolution. They can be of decisive importance in key matters; they affect real events and even the economy. A human being today sees more images in one day than her medieval counterpart would have in a lifetime. Yet the most characteristic quality of this new social development may not be the number of images that confronts us but rather our deep need to visualise everything we deem important. We do this en masse, even though most of us aren’t trained to do so.

Back before the first cave painting, when prehistoric humans discovered their cognitive abilities, fiction and imagination served as the starting points for civilisation and the development of knowledge. Human beings began organising their thoughts and exchanging ideas. Today, 30,000 years later, we gorge ourselves on images, photograph ourselves silly, and click through the digital jungle every day as if our lives depended on it. And they do. In 2016, anyone who thinks they can participate in society without engaging with the flow of information is mistaken. In everything we do, from shopping and banking to romance and socialising, and as part of the daily demands of work, we hook ourselves up to the media drip. We fill each other’s Dropboxes and inboxes with pictures, links and GIFs and upload and download apps, TV shows and information till we drop. Accessible communication tools have created a deluge of new aesthetic products that has left us awash in beauty and skill but also loathing, violence and cruel jokes, and this visual wilderness has been encroaching on the carefully constructed and organised old world order for a while now. After three decades of the Internet and digital culture, many people believe the changes wrought by computerisation are complete, fully interwoven with our physical lives. Now that we’ve all got smartphones and Internet service, we can get back to normal life. But that’s not how things are going to go. Because human beings’ evolution on earth is far from complete.

We all know the basic history of information, from the printing press to the iPhone. Since the outbreak of the digital revolution and the rise of the Internet in the early 1990s, the digital media have come to occupy a central role in society, altering the function of text and images. Today, information is in the very air around us, and new tools for reading, looking and writing appear and get combined in new ways. Text, moving images, sound and graphics overlap. Looking has become reading, and reading looking. We are the new generation of readers: we read the street, collect information, surf on our phones, scan newspapers and page through magazines. Fleeting visual impressions like scanning and browsing, which once epitomised superficiality, now have the potential to grow into the most significant concepts in our culture.

It’s no longer possible to imagine life without the digital realm, and its repertoire of images is now migrating into the physical world. Sculptures exist that are made up of pixels. A new vocabulary has emerged to go with the new aesthetic. The digital world has wrested itself free of the screen and established itself in our material surroundings. Digital communication has become part of our everyday lives with screens, smartphones and tablets. We live in a new world of image banks, glitch experiments, self-customising tools, pixel op art, overlay apps, and glorification of the Internet aesthetic by the blogosphere and instant publishing tools.

Communicating through images is consequently becoming increasingly complex. If we don’t keep learning to read images, before long we’ll be incapable of understanding the world around us. New visual languages are coming into being, and we must study them closely. For instance, we must figure out exactly how media images influence political decisionmaking. We know that for Donald Trump the show must go on, but what precisely is his strategy? Will artists still be painting in 500 years, or will painters become programmers of virtual-reality environments? What will advertising look like in the future? Countless new and “smart” technologies are now lodging themselves invisibly in and around our everyday lives – what’s the relationship between algorithms and images? Do the games kids play all day help their creative development? We have yet to find answers to these questions.

We’re still at the dawn of the digital revolution, and we face the challenge of using our creativity to come up with imaginative new ways to assign art and design central roles in society. If we drive and direct visual culture with an eye to the future, fiction and imagination can once again serve as the basis for a creative society, just as they did in prehistoric times. Humanity stands on the cusp of a future of drones and nanotechnology, in which privacy cannot be taken for granted and robots steal our jobs. We will investigate humans’ autonomous value and our ability to creatively work together within the network of systems, algorithms and interfaces. We will make invisible technologies visible and tangible in an attractive physical environment rich with art and design. And in the future, the image’s significance in society will be greater than ever!