Reflections on an $1,800 Dissertation
Josh Braun / UMass Amherst

Braun Yale Book

My shoestring budget dissertation project eventually evolved into a book published by a reputable press.

In 2010 I applied for an external grant to fund the field work for my dissertation. I was rejected. I elected to proceed on a shoestring budget[ (( I spent a little over $1,800 to fund my dissertation, which I got through an internal university grant. If I price out the same expenditures today, they come to around $2,500. The internal research grant offered by my graduate school, however, has not changed and still stands at $2,000. ))] and, eight years on from filing said dissertation, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the that experience from different perspectives—first as a Ph.D. candidate, then as a job applicant, a book author,[ (( For those who would judge my advice on the outcome of this project, I will say that the dissertation was subsequently published as a book by a reputable press and received positive reviews. ))] and a faculty member working with grad students.

This seems like a good place to think through what I learned—both from the process of doing dissertation on a tight budget and the contours of inclusion and exclusion that dissertation funding stakes out within the academy. If you find yourself in the same boat I was, here I offer you combination of advice and laments. What I write here will be primarily addressed to folks doing field work in Media Industry Studies, but regardless of your discipline or tradition, feel free to follow, discount, or reject my advice as you see fit. I hope it helps someone down the road.


First off, I want to normalize rejection. Advisors and institutions are quick to encourage students to go whaling after big dissertation improvement grants from the NSF or various private foundations. That’s as it should be. You can’t win a sweet award of that sort if you don’t apply. But grants like these are highly competitive and rejection is the most common outcome.

It doesn’t mean your research isn’t worthwhile. It’s entirely possible to get positive reviews across the board and still not get such an award. Quite often the issue is not one of quality, but of fit. There are lots of “penumbral” topics within Media Industry Studies that are essential, but fall at the edges of what the major funding programs are focused on.

Years later, I would find out in conference discussions and email threads among established colleagues that—even for research faculty—studies like my dissertation, which sat at the intersection of Journalism Studies on the one hand and Science and Technology Studies on the other, could be particularly hard cases for which to locate external funding (though I hope things are changing for the better).

Your advisor or committee will hopefully give you insight into such funding trends and help you to put the best face on an application that may lie at the edges of a funding program’s priorities. That said, it pays to think ahead as to what you can do if your proposal is rejected and how you might complete your project on smaller internal university grants or other limited funding sources.

Be Realistic About Your Methods

Folks in Journalism Studies and Media Industry Studies often live at the intersection of media studies and sociology and so we read and talk a lot about ethnographic methods. Folks in mainline sociology grumble about loose use of the term “ethnography,” and often with good reason. For them, an ethnography often involves spending months or years immersing themselves in a community, and it’s a fair point that researchers who spend a few days or weeks someplace probably shouldn’t be billing the resulting paper in similar terms. I won’t belabor this point—reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate time horizon with respect to calling something an ethnography. My take is simply that there’s no reason to invite potential criticism on this front when you don’t have to.

If you’re doing a field work-driven dissertation in the absence of external funding, let’s face it: Unless your field site is next to your university (I’m looking at you Columbia, USC, and Stanford), you’re probably not going to get to spend months, let alone years in the field. Weeks is more like it. And while you might have written your initial grant proposal(s) with the intention of conducting a long-term ethnography, let me say it forcefully here: Field work and ethnography are not one and the same. It’s perfectly fine to go into the field as a qualitative interviewer and not to call yourself an “ethnographer” or your study an “ethnography.”

Former Seattle PI Building

I completed field work at the former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building, which was home to an subsidiary called Newsvine.

In the end, I spent five weeks in the field for my dissertation, during which time I visited two field sites. I wouldn’t have been comfortable calling myself an ethnographer in those circumstances, but the length of time was ideal for intensive interviewing. Yes, I could’ve conducted interviews solely over the phone, but being physically at a field site and taking extensive notes was helpful for all sorts of reasons.

Showing up to the same site every day was an opportunity for the folks I wanted to interview to get comfortable with the prospect of talking with me. It allowed me to pull people aside or strike up conversations during the natural breaks in their work day, and thus to gather many conversations in a short span, as well as more easily conduct follow-ups. Had I tried to do the same interviews remotely, I think I could’ve lost an academic year before I’d played all the email and phone tag necessary to collect the dozens of exchanges I assembled in days during my site visits. And, of course, nothing stopped me from doing the occasional follow-up by phone.

Being in the field also provided tons of useful context for the interviews that drove my dissertation. For example, seeing who sat next to one another or attended which meetings gave a world of context to my sense of my subjects’ interactions that I likely never would’ve have had otherwise. Being in the field can also reveal truths that phone interviews may not. On the phone, a subject may tell you that two divisions within their company always see eye to eye. If you’ve just been privy to a heated exchange in the office, their answer to your same question is likely to be both more honest and more useful.

The point is, you can collect lots of rich data in the field in a condensed time frame without doing a traditional ethnography or setting up a potential confrontation by applying the term in a loose fashion.

Choose Your Field Sites Strategically

Obviously, if you’re dissertating on a budget you’ll have to give some consideration to how expensive different field sites are. But at the end of the day your choice of site(s) has to be methodologically defensible, not just cheap. If you have a local, self-contained field site, this may be an answer to many of your budgetary woes. But if you’re studying a large media organization or sector with offices across the country or the world, you may wish to look into or develop conceptual tools that will help to place the available sites into context.

Phil Howard’s “network ethnography” framework (yes, the term ethnography is in there), furthered by media scholars like Gina Neff, is one example.[ (( Howard, Philip N. “Network Ethnography and the Hypermedia Organization: New Media, New Organizations, New Methods.” New Media & Society 4, no. 4 (2002): 550–74; Neff, Gina. Venture Labor. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. ))] For my own dissertation, I developed a conceptual frame I called “tracing” to explore the relationship between my field sites. Importantly, the idea here isn’t to justify or defend the choice of just any field site, but to clearly define the limitations, as well as the benefits of a particular choice of sites. The resulting cost-benefit analysis may make some sites inadvisable as choices under the best of circumstances.

Living on a Budget

NYC hostel

I stayed at the HI NYC Hostel to save money when completing field work.

This advice may seem superfluous for a stereotypical grad student. But here are a few of the things I did to stretch my budget in the field. First, Hostelling International was my best friend. With an HI membership, I was able to stay in expensive cities like Seattle and New York for a fraction of the cost of a single night in a hotel. Hostels also have kitchens stocked with cookware you can use to make your own food and they can point you to the nearest grocery store. If you’re prepared to live for several weeks largely on ham and cheese sandwiches, you can eat for fairly cheap even in high-cost locations. For me, New York was accessible by bus, so I bought food for the start of my trip at my local grocery store and lugged it along to avoid Manhattan prices.

If you’re staying for an extended time in a hostel, be sure to note whether there’s a limit on the number of consecutive nights you can bunk there. You may have to find alternative lodging for a night or two or beseech a local friend to crash on their couch (thank you, Matthew Powers) before you can check back in.

Of course, despite my deep affection for Hostelling International, I readily concede that not everyone will feel comfortable bunking in a room with a dozen strangers. And in retrospect, as a white cis guy, I recognize that my budget dissertation was made simpler by privilege. To save bus fare in Seattle, I walked two and a half miles at odd hours through upscale city neighborhoods to reach my field site without any negative interactions. When I got back to my hostel in the evening, I was able to sit in the common area for hours to organize my field notes without getting harassed by the strangers drinking a couple tables away. I also made these extended solo trips before I had small kids at home—something that would make them an impossibility now.

These things highlight inequities in graduate education that are important to grapple with at the institutional level. It would be easy to point to my experience as a fun adventure that I had on the cheap, but I think it also illustrates that inequities in doctoral research aren’t just about who’s loaded with grant money and who’s not. Inequity also shows up when we consider who is most easily able to make a meager budget work.

Image Credits:
1. Cover of This Program is Brought to you by…, published by Yale University Press in 2015
2. Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building
3. HI NYC Hostel, where I stayed to save money while completing my field work.

Please feel free to comment.

Região, Raça, e Clase Social: Recepcão de TV na Salvador, Bahia

por: Joe Straubhaar / University of Texas at Austin

(for English, click here)

TV Globo

TV Globo

Os que estudam televisão no Brasil veem a TV Globo, que tem mais que 50 porcento dos telespectadores, como poderosa e hegemônica. Um dos aspetos mais problematicos disso é o tratamente de raça por TV Globo, mostrando poucas pessoas negras ou mixtas na tela num país onde mais que metade da população é negra ou mixta (Araujo 2000). Pesquisadores e ativistas tem criticado isso, mais a discussão de raça na televisão tem sido diminuido por uma ideologia nacional de que Brasil tem uma problema de imobilidade de clase, mais não de racismo. Porem, en entrevistas em Salvador (2004-2005), encontrei pessoas dizendo, “Não vejo tanto a Globo mais porque não vejo pessoas como eu na Globo.”

Um taxista de clase operaria e afrodescendente disse que estava assistindo mais SBT, en vez da Globo. (SBT, o segundo rede nacional, tem como publico alvo a clase media baixa e operaria desde que realizou que não pode concorrer com a Globo para a audiencia geral (Fadul 1993).) Perguntei ao taxista se ele queria dizer que a Globo não tem atores negros suficientes na tela e que SBT tem mais. Ele disse que isso faz parte, mas não parecia comfortable falando explicitamente de raça, bem com alguns outros entrevisatados quando perguntei o que eles queriam dizer com comentarios similares. Foi muito mais facil para eles falarem que as pessoas na TV Globo foram sempre ricos demais, não como as pessoas na realidade. E eles foram capazes de articular um senso de como Rio, onde a maior parte das novelas da Globo são situados, é um lugar bem diferente que Salvador; de que eles são baianos em vez de cariocas.

Paraiso tropical

“Paraiso tropical”

Tres niveis de identidade sairam das entrevistas. Primeiro, muitas pessoas abertamente articularam um senso de diferença de clase social com as pessoas que veem na televisão. Segundo, muitas falaram de um sense de distancia cultural, baseado em geografia cultural, que as pessoas na tela vivem num parte do paîs bem diferente com uma cultura muito diferente (La Pastina 2003). Terceiro, alguns poucos articularam a percepcão de que mais pessoas na tela são brancos do que em Salvador, onde a maioria são afro-brasileiros.

As pessoas que entrevistei tiveram difficudade em pensar suas proprias identidades entre raça e clase. Algo lhes interessem porque são negros ou porque são da clase operária ou pobre? Esta problema reflete a ideologia brasileira do seculo 20 que raça não é uma problema no Brasil de raça mixta, mas que clase é a problema verdadeira (Crook & Johnson 1999). Porém, movimentos contemporáneas de ativistas negras na cultura e política buscam criar mais consciência de raça como um aspeto importante de identidade no Brasil, particularmente na Bahia, onde um numero de bem conhecidos blocos de carnaval tem sido notavalmente afrocentrico nas suas temas, imagems, e discurso desde o começo da decada 1980 (Guerreiro 2000). Encontrei este movimento refletido nas minhas observações e entrevistas em 2005. Eu assisti Fama, um concurso regional e nacional de cantadores na Globo com um grupo de pessoas da Banda Femina Didá, um bloco afrocentrico para mulheres e adolescentes. A cantadora principal do grupo estava concorrendo com sete outros para uma das tres lugares representando o nordeste do Brasil. Somente tres das sete foram afrodescendente, enquanto a maior parte das pessoas na região provavelmente são. Um concorrente negro que as pessoas de Didá chamava de negão e dois brancos ganharam. A cantadora de Didá e uma outra mulher de raça mixta com muita carisma e um voz poderosa foram ambas eliminadas no concurso regional. Quando as outras regiões do Brasil tambem votaram, o fundador da Banda Femina Didá, um musico conhecido como Neguinho da Samba, ficou revoltado com a predominância de nove contadores brancos no total de doze. Ele olhou para mim e disse, “Olhe, professor, ao preconceito que ainda existe neste país,” e saiu da sala.

Uma variedade de forças economicas estructuram posições da audiéncia em termos de clase social, capital econômico, e cultural. Industrias culturais poderosos e muitos outros estruturas sociais reforça os sensos da audiencia em termos de geografia cultural, clase social, genero, ethnia, idade, e religião. A televisão nacional ainda parece poderosa, ainda no começo no seculo XXI, quando a coerénçia das nações parece declinando. O estado nação, onde fica poderoso, ainda tem muitas armas para moldar o discurso de televisão. No Brasil, até recentemente, o estado tem trabalhado duro para diminuir a emfase na raça como um foco de discurso ou atividade political. Por exemplo, o governo militar em 1978 prohibiu á TV Globo de passar a miniseria Roots, porque eles temia que ela ia promover um discurso mais confrontácional sobre raça dos Etados Unidos para o Brasil (minhas entrevistas em Brasília, 1978). Porém, ação individuo ou grupal, como á ação das ativistas musicais afrocentricas na Bahia, tambem constrói e cambia estas forças sobre o tempo, como a leitura crítica da televisão dada pelas ativistas acima reflete.

Vidas opostas

“Vidas opostas”

Em suma, nas minhas entrevistas parece que espaço e “lugar” foram pontos chaves ou niveis de identidade para orientar o consumo dos meios e identidade cultural dos entrevistados. Segundo foi clase social. Raça e etnia é um outro nivel fundamental de identidade, mas o discurso social brasileiro tende a enfatizar a clase social em vez de raça como uma referencia contemporanea de identidade, mesmo que os brasileiros falam abertamente sobre a mixtura de raças na formação histórica das identidades brasileiras. Descobri que os brasileiros também fala sobre região ou “lugar” numa maneira implicitamente informada pelas identidades raciais. Um senso de região se torna uma maneira para falar sobre a raça; pessoas na Salvador falaria das suas diferencias de outros partes e povos do Brasil por falar de ser Baiano em vez de ser prêto, mas eu frequentemente recebeu um sentido distinto eles foram falando de ser prêto, também, usando um vocabulário menos confrontacional.

As vezes é dificil para entrevistados verbalizar que forças formam suas escolhas e ideias. Então levo muito a seria os niveis de identidade que as pessoas articulam diretamente, mas eu acho que nos também temos que inferir outros de aspetos estruturais das suas vidas, tais como a combinação complexa de região, clase e raça no Brasil que me leva a pensar que as pessoas foram as vezes falando sobre raça utilizando a vocabulária de lugar ou região e clase.

Clique para ver a Bibliografia

1. TV Globo
2. “Paraiso tropical”
3. “Vidas opostas”

Por favor comente.

by: Joe Straubhaar / University of Texas at Austin

Most people who study television in Brazil see TV Globo, which has at least a 50 percent share of viewing, as powerful, even hegemonic. One of the most problematic aspects of this has been TV Globo’s treatment of race, showing very few Black or visibly mixed race characters on screen in a country where well over half of the population is Black or mixed race (Araujo 2000). While academics and activists have criticized that, discussion of race on television in Brazil has been muted by a widely accepted national ideology that while Brazil has a problem of class immobility, but not racism. However, in interviews in Salvador, in the largely Afro-Brazilian northeast of Brazil (in 2004-2005), I found that a number of people were saying, “I don’t watch TV Globo so much anymore because I don’t see people like me on Globo.”

A working-class Afro-Brazilian taxi driver said he was increasingly watching SBT, instead of TV Globo. (SBT, the No. 2 national network, has explicitly targeted lower-middle-class and working-class viewers since its management realized it could not compete with Globo for the general audience (Fadul 1993).) I asked the taxi driver if he meant that Globo did not have enough black people on screen and that SBT had more. He said that was part of it, but he seemed uncomfortable talking explicitly about race, as were several others when I asked them what they meant by similar comments. They had a much easier time talking about how the people on TV Globo were always too rich, not like the people they knew. And they were able to articulate a sense of how Rio, where most of TV Globo’s telenovelas and other programming is set, was a very different place than Salvador; that they were Baianos (people from Bahia) as opposed to Cariocas (people from Rio).

Three layers of identity emerged in the interviews. First, many people openly articulated a sense of class difference with the people they saw on television. Second, they are openly aware of cultural distance, based in cultural geography, that those people on screen live in a very different part of the country with a substantially different culture (La Pastina 2003). Third, a few articulated the point that more people on screen were white than in Salvador, where most people are Afro-Brazilian.

People I interviewed had a hard time sorting out their own identities between race and class. Does something interest them because they are black or because they are working class or poor? This reflects 20th-century Brazilian ideology that race is not a problem in mixed-race Brazil, but class is a real problem (Crook & Johnson 1999). However, contemporary Black cultural and political activist movements seek more awareness of race as a layer of identity in Brazil, particularly in Salvador, Bahia, where a number of well known Carnival music groups have been notably Afrocentric in their themes, imagery, and discourse since the early 1980s (Guerreiro 2000). I found this movement reflected in my observation and interviewing in 2005. I watched a TV Globo national singing contest, FAMA (“Fame”), with a group of people at the Banda Femina Didá, an Afro-centric samba group for women. The group’s lead singer was competing with seven others for one of three spots representing northeast Brazil. Only three contestants were Afro-descendent, although most people in the region probably are. One black contestant, whom the Didá people called a negão (handsome black man), and two white people won. The Didá singer and another apparently mixed-race woman who had a lot of charisma and a great voice were both eliminated in the regional contest. As the other regions of Brazil also voted, the founder of Banda Femina Didá, a musician widely known as Neguinho da Samba, became disgusted with the predominance of nine white singers in the winners circle of twelve. He looked at me and said, disgustedly, “Look, Professor, at the bias that is still there in this country,” then walked out of the room.

A variety of economic forces structure people’s positions in terms of class, economic, and cultural capital. Powerful cultural industries and many other social structures reinforce senses of cultural geography, class, gender, ethnicity, age, and religion. National television still seems to be powerful, even at the beginning of the 21st century, when the seeming coherence of nations is breaking down in many ways. The nation-state, where it is strong, still has many tools and levers to shape television discourse. In Brazil, until very recently, the state has worked hard to de-emphasize race as a focus of discourse or political activity. For example, the military government in 1978 prohibited TV Globo from showing the mini-series Roots, because they were afraid it would bring a more confrontational discourse about race from the United States into Brazil (my interviews in Brasília, 1978). However, individual and group agency and action, such as the action of Afro-centric musical activists in Bahia, also construct and change these forces over time, as the reading of television given by the activists above reflects.

Overall, it seemed from my interviews that space and place were key anchoring points for media consumption, and cultural identity. Next was class, the second major layer for Brazilians. Race and ethnicity is clearly another fundamental layer of identity, but Brazilian social discourse tends to emphasize class over race as a contemporary marker of identity, even though Brazilians talk freely about race mixing in the historical formation of Brazilian identities. I found that Brazilians also seem to talk about place in a way that is implicitly informed by racial identities. A sense of place becomes a way to talk about race; informants in Salvador would discuss their differences from other parts and peoples of Brazil by talking about being Baiano (Bahian) rather than being black, but I often got the distinct feeling that they were talking about being black, too, using a less charged vocabulary.

It is sometimes hard for interviewees to verbalize what forces shape their choices. So I take very seriously the levels of identity that people articulate, but I think we also have to infer others from structural aspects of their lives, such as the complex combination of place, class and race in Brazil that leads me to think that people were sometimes talking about race using a vocabulary of place and class.

Araujo, J. Z. (2000). A negação do Brasil: o negro na telenovela brasileira. Sao Paulo, SP, Editora SENAC São Paulo.

Crook, L., & Johnson, R. (Eds.). (1999). Black Brazil: Culture, identity, and social mobilization. Los Angeles: University of California Press.

Fadul, A. (1993). The radio and television environment in Brazil. Unpublished manuscript, University of São Paulo (Brazil), School of Communication and Arts.

Guerreiro, G. (2000). A trama dos tambores [The web of the drums: The afro-pop music of Salvador] (R. J. Straubhaar, Trans.). São Paulo, Brazil: Editora 34.

La Pastina, A. C. (2003). Viewing Brazil: Local Audiences and the Interpretation of the Nation. media in transition 3, MIT, Cambridge, MA.

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. TV Globo logo
2. Paraiso tropical
3. Vidas opostas

Author: Joe Straubhaar is a professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Flatworld

by: Dan Leopard / St. Mary’s College of California

Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

Emerging from behind the singed black rubble of a factory wall, a ruggedly handsome infantryman outfitted with the latest in Army field gear flashes an all clear sign to our party of bemused observers. He lowers his rifle, smiles, and introduces himself as Sergeant Jon Blackwell. His movements are life-like, and he seems to glance about as he speaks to us. Our tour group is clustered before a translucent screen wedded to a large movie-style flat, a standalone, movable wall used on film sets. The screen itself approximates the height of a person. Facing us stands Blackwell, a resident of this life-size screen, rendered in an animated visual style evoking the characters one encounters during videogame play.

Our tour guide chats with the Sergeant using conversational banter designed to promote Flatworld – the immersive reality project within which the Blackwell pedagogical agent system represents an incremental step toward the goal of designing a fully interactive virtual human. Flatworld is one of several projects funded by the United States Army and being carried out by the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. If the screens of daily life – the video monitors that are embedded in the designed media ecology of the everyday world – are invisible through their ubiquity, ever-present through impression and instruction, then the movable interactive screens of the Flatworld Project are invisible through their status as advanced research. They are removed from public view as they are meant for the consumption of only those with a need to know – in this case military trainers and entertainment industry professionals (and those like myself who have been allowed to observe through an expressed interest in machine-human interaction).

Flatworld Room

Flatworld Room

Everyday screens call to us. At a glance they entreat us to be particular people, to do particular things. I am confronted by a screen on a bank machine. It requests that I type in my PIN number and press enter. The trailer at the movie theater urges that I attend a screening of a film on opening day or soon thereafter. These are examples of the banal entreaties that bind the producer and the consumer during the myriad interactions that constitute a market economy. These screens subtly condition our identities. Implicit in screen-based transactions are forms of training regarding the world. They train us to behave in certain ways – summoning up a spark of thought not so distant from Althusser’s notion of the ideological state apparatus (without succumbing to the siren song of its most – let me emphasize “most” – sinister implications).

The Flatworld project stands at the intersection of two of the most powerful of societal institutions – the school and the military. The stated intention of the project is to create a human agent that can stand in for a human trainer. This interactive virtual human could be programmed to give instruction to new recruits as they prepare to enter actual combat situations. “Green” troops have the highest mortality rates on the battlefield as they move through the learning process necessitated by the life-threatening person-to-person, person-to-machine confrontations of combat. Each step involves a trial-and-error set of choices, each of which carries with it potentially extreme consequences. Whether one considers military action moral or immoral, the actuality for the soldiers in the field, regardless of their motivations for participating in battle, stands as a highly traumatic and disorienting experience. Interactive agent Jon Blackwell provides a new recruit with a human-like guide through participatory scenarios that will allow the recruit to make mistakes and walk away with knowledge, but without a bullet or shrapnel in the back.

Back at the tour, as Sergeant Blackwell jokes and interacts with our tour guide and responds to carefully phrased questions from selected tour members, it becomes obvious that Blackwell, at least in this version of the interactive virtual human scenario, is using a set of canned, scripted answers. Obviously, the intention of our audience’s interaction with this virtual human prototype is merely for the sake of publicity which side steps the hard-to-access actuality of a fully functional programmed avatar for military instruction. Blackwell shifts occasionally from side to side and gestures to us as he responds to questions ranging from the functionality of the flats that comprise the Flatworld simulation room to the voice recognition program that drives the real time interaction during training with virtual humans.

I glance about at the cavernous space of the warehouse that houses Flatworld. I notice two additional areas that are designated as models of Flatworld as it will come to be realized at some future date. One space approximates a shanty house with wall width screens representing a view looking out over the horizon of a war ravaged middle eastern city, while another space opens out onto an alleyway that at times harbors a swarthy enemy combatant and at other times a fellow soldier or civilian non-combatant. Should the new recruit shoot or offer a gesture of good will? This is the stuff of spy stories and cop shows, of course, replayed through countless television and film narratives of training for espionage and law enforcement (as well as representing the basic play structure for both first-person shooter games and even the much lauded Sims 2).

If one performs a web search for Flatworld, it seems that this project has been exhaustively written about by many newspapers and mentioned on numerous blogs, but if one is careful to read what has been written or produced about the ICT, most of the work closely follows the contours of a single ur-narrative, most likely the excellently produced publicity material generated by the ICT itself. Through whatever underlying intent, the ICT’s PR materials function to blur the militarism inherent in all of their projects, funded as they are by the US armed services, while emphasizing the gee-whiz wunder-tech aspects of each of the technologies embedded in each project. While the ICT screens have been exposed to the public-at-large through various media outlets, their projects still remain unseen by most, and what has been seen is always mediated by the filter of promotion designed to bathe each project in the glow of an aesthetics of videogames and movie special effects. (Both of which are, of course, influential in the visual and conceptual style of ICT projects and will in turn benefit from the research conducted at the ICT).

It is tempting, if one is sympathetic to the play of videogames such as Halo and Grand Theft Auto, to confirm this form of training new recruits as merely the next step in the use of simulation training by the military, a tradition that stretches back to at least the cold war world of the 1950s. Conversely, if one opposes the already overwhelming militarism of the current world picture and the ratcheting up of representational violence in media content, then this use of the videogame and special effect mentality can seem to be the latest step toward a scalding dystopia of programmed (in)humanity. Either way, one would be hard-pressed to deny that games like Halo and Grand Theft Auto present to their players a symbiotic relationship between violent character interaction, pulsing sound effects, and stylized graphic environments. And a modified form of this cultural form is exactly what the Flatworld military training simulation represents. Obviously, on the ground during combat it does matter whether the figure standing behind that door as it opens is friend or foe, but, in the world of screen technologies and their use in developing virtual interactive humans, is that binary – friend or foe, at base the most fundamental human interaction – the defining way to conceptualize relations between flesh-and-blood people and their programmed counterparts?

Image Credits:

1. Jarrell Pair of the Institute for Creative Technologies stands behind Sgt. John Blackwell

2. Flatworld Room

More on Flatworld

Please feel free to comment.

Reflections on Katrina in Brazil

I think I know where I am. To my university, I am in the Amazon, land of myth and enchanted Edens, in the words of Candace Slater. To Brazilians, I am in Manaus, home to the eighth largest city nationally and the largest free trade zone in the Americas. To residents, called Manuaras, I spend my time in the peripheries of the city, Jorge Teixeira, Sao Jose Operario, and Compensa. Here, I am interviewing workers, mostly women, who work for television set factories. Outsiders to these neighborhoods cannot imagine where I am aside from the usual stereotypes of jungles and Indians or slums and criminals. When Hurricane Katrina flooded my city of New Orleans and occupied the news media here for more than a week, however, insiders no longer understood where I was from.

old world map

Old World Map

I see the satellite image at the cyber-cafe cross the street from the hotel I have called home for the previous month. The swirls of red and green are moving towards a dislocated peninsula somewhere in the United States. The map seems as foreign to me at that moment as the culture of the city I was calling my temporary home.

There’s a hurricane coming, I tell a group of women casually at a sewing collective for unemployed factory workers. It is the Friday pre-Katrina.

Quizzical responses. You get those a lot, no? That’s just a lot of rain, right? They shrug, reminding me of the way longtime New Orleanians have done the same every rainy season.

I try to punctuate the words. No but it’s so big it could destroy the entire city. More shrugs and perhaps an attempt to sympathize. We get a lot of rain too. You should be here from December to June.

“What did she say?” another asks the room.

Some kind of earthquake in her city, responds the first.


Monday I am at the offices for a local newspaper looking at archive photos for my project. In my selections, workers smile through empty TV cabinets on the assembly line. They will reproduce well, I think to myself. Images seem to cajole us into thinking that we can understand a context anonymously. A journalist asks if he can do a short article on me and Katrina.

“What is a levee?” the novice writer asks.

“It’s like a dam, but it looks like a big hill that protects the city from water.” I don’t know how to translate this word.

Sounds very advanced.

“I’m afraid it won’t work and people will die.”

Are you sure that people will die or just afraid people will die? He is trying to clarify my meaning, but he can’t understand. He faces the computer screen as he types and retypes my words. “But you have no family there.”

“But I have my friends, my work, my house,” I justify.

I went back to the cyber-cafe. Two more levees broke and the city has been filling with water all day.

Tuesday morning the newspaper story takes about one-fifth of a page inside. There is a profile shot of me, tan and smiling, like the women behind the TV cabinets. The article read, “She had no family here.” His notes meant that I was not really from there.


The beginning of the week and New Orleans news now dominates Brazilian media over reports of widespread government corruption. Our hurricanes are different, repeat several observers to me. Despite the lack of all communications in the city, Brazilians become completely fluent in the details of Furacao Katreeennaa. The cyber-cafe owner explains the topography of New Orleans to me and the problems with budgetary funding for the levee system. The sewing group recites to me the differences between a Category 4 and a Category 5 storm. Meanwhile it has not rained in the Amazon for months, causing the most dire drought there in 60 years.

In contrast, I continue to be hopelessly ignorant. Four nights and counting, I’m watching CNN (I can’t watch this in Portuguese). I gasp at what I think I recognize. I know that intersection, that building, that neighborhood. But what about my street? My apartment? I have to struggle not to fill the void in my head with the reports of looting, mayhem, and death. This happens every hour as the same images are re-broadcast. I want to save the outdated satellite images of my building from Google Earth as a momento.


Still Brazilians “know” that the U.S. is rich.

“How are you doing?” asks a concerned university professor here at the federal campus.

“I think we may have lost everything,” I sigh.

“Oh but the insurance will pay.”

“I don’t have insurance.”

“Then the government will just give it all back to you.”

The prime-time telenovela passing on the television now is America. Set in against a colorful yet gleaming Miami skyline, the Americans that Brazilians imagine continue to be blessed with easy fame and fortune. Even when the furacao came into the storyline, it brought gentle rain and a light breeze.


Thursday I go to a city-sponsored fair where the sewing group sells their crafts. They have not sold anything today and middle-class people sniff at the prices. The woman that everyone refers to as the happy one, talks to me for the first time since I met her three weeks ago.

“I lost my house last April. We were sleeping when the rains eroded the wall holding it. I’ll never forget the noise. Pieces of the house started falling down the hill. I left with the kids but my husband was trapped in a part where the roof collapsed. The room was filling with water. When my cousin came, he broke through the metal and gashed his foot. When we got to my husband, the water was up to his neck. We survived.”

“And your house?” I ask.

“We lost everything. We live with my mother.”

I take inventory of the luxuries I have in my hotel room: hot water, cable television, and an air conditioning unit. I am not from Miami, nor from Manaus.


New Orleans Under Water

New Orleans Under Water

For me, news bytes become ironic ways of seeing similarities and differences between two cultures that misunderstand each other. On Friday both Manaus and New Orleans are 36-degrees Celsius with over 80 percent humidity. In the former, 80 percent of the city was without water after a power generator that fed the water company had to be shut off. In the latter, 80 percent of the city was under water according to the Mayor. This means that in both cities, bodies are dirty and thirsty. I roll the blue anti-malarial pills around in my hand after a CNN reporter cites the possibility of malaria in Louisiana. Here, the papers cite the highest incidences of malarial deaths in eight years. And I have not even been bitten.

Before the hurricane, I made a class presentation to a university extension class in the periphery. In the question period, a returning student asked what it was like to come from a developed country to an underdeveloped country.

“I don’t like those terms,” I parried in my best professorial voice. Some have called Brazil “Belinda,” part-Belgium, part-India. I think that in some ways Manaus is very developed. To demonstrate, I asked them how many of them owned cell phones. All hands in the classroom of working class people rose affirmatively.

A week later, though, I get the response that the student was expecting. The continuous blog for the New Orleans newspaper reports that my city has lost all modern communications, electricity, and potable water. New Orleans has become a Third World city.

Image Credits:

1. Old World Map

2. New Orleans Under Water

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Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: The Supermarket

As I enter my neighborhood supermarket, I pass beneath a television monitor mounted about five feet above my head. I glance up at the screen and see myself enter the store, the sliding glass door to my back and a rather bored looking young security guard, arms crossed leaning against the lotto machine, to my side. A small camera attached to the base of the monitor provides a continuous stream of images throughout the day. I suppose this screen must serve to warn any potential thieves that they are being watched. As a subject of the camera and its screen, I am now either a dissuaded thief or, perhaps most likely, an oblivious innocent as I notice that most shoppers entering through this door fail to look up at the surveillance screen. Whatever intention the store managers had in displaying this screen at this location, it goes for the most part unseen. I only notice this surveillance screen because I have come to this store with the express intent of seeing the screens that I normally ignore or overlook.

I grab a shopping cart and begin my trip through the aisles. At the rear of the store, past the bottles of organic juice, baggies of instant salad, and cartons of lactose free milk, stands a bank machine idling next to a full service teller window for a large bank chain. Whereas the shopper in relation to the screen display at the store entrance is given over to the identity of proto-thief or would-be bandit, the screen of the bank machine performs a routine function — dispensing cash, accepting deposits, informing on account balances, and the like. While the bank screen differs from the surveillance screen in that there is no starring role for the subject on the screen itself, the user does become the focus of the screen during the transaction. Thescreen directly addresses the user by delivering an instruction or by asking a series of questions. Insert card. Instant cash? Do you want to print a statement of your last ten transactions? Graphics appear on the screen, short animations that serve to entertain — if you can call it that — and to provide the user with a logo-like branding of the bank’s identity. Figure 1 provides a sample screen shot of the image as it flits past the viewer/user. To this screen, I am one of the bank’s valued customers.

Bank Machine Screen

Figure 1: Bank Machine Screen

Concluding my business at the bank machine, I load my shopping cart with food and arrive at the checkout line. The final screen that presents itself is a flat screen monitor mounted on a pole above the cash register about eye level with me as I transfer my food selections to a conveyor belt leading to the cashier. This screen rather loudly advertises items for sale in the store, local businesses, and upcoming programs on the Food Network while providing recipes for shoppers who have remembered to bring their notepads to the line. This “check-out” screen signals the eventual demise of the ubiquitous, decades old magazine rack located at the end of most cashier aisles (Figure 2). While in the past one has been offered the opportunity to glance through, and hopefully purchase, Time, Newsweek, or the Weekly World News, now one may gawk at a video screen conveniently placed for consumption. I recently became excited by the teaser for the season premier of Emeril Live and learned how to cook a nutmeg flavored, orange glazed ham (although I failed to bring my pocket notepad, so I have forgotten several of the steps in the process).

Emirel Live

Emirel Live

While each of these supermarket screens participates in the ritual of grocery shopping, each serves a different function and ascribes a different subjectivity to the shopper. The screen mounted overhead at the entrance door serves to warn away shoplifters. Its image is silent, blurry, and continuous. The bank machine screen interacts with the shopper signaling activity through a series of beeps and music. Its image is both fragmented and functional. Finally, the checkout screen serves to distract shoppers as they wait in line to pay for their chosen food stuff. It is bright, sharp, loud, and rapidly edited. If the other two screens dissolve into the designed environment of the supermarket — each item for sale and each surface for display beckons to me while feigning a ubiquitous naturalness — then this final screen proclaims its need to seduce and distract me. In so doing, like an insecure performer on stage, it displays its newness to the supermarket scene. The design of product packaging and display advertising draws on a lineage leading back to the beginnings of consumer capitalism, while this checkout screen stands uneasily as a bastard hybrid of the magazine rack, the candy display, and the television commercial.

As media theorist Vincent Mosco suggests: “the real power of new technologies does not appear during their mythic period, when they are hailed for their ability to bring world peace, renew communications, or end scarcity, history, geography, or politics; rather, their social impact is greatest when technologies become banal.” Public screens, even as they address us, attempt to blend in, to deflect our attention. During my previous trips to this supermarket, I had ignored the surveillance screen, cursed the bank screen for non-responsive buttons, and shielded my eyes from the checkout screen. Yet, nevertheless, each of these screens had called to me and I had on previous trips responded with the subjectivity that they — or to be less anthropomorphic, their designers — intended for me to display. What this micro-ethnographic glance — a frame of mind rather than a research method — reveals to the subject of these screens (in this case myself) is that these screens make us do things — refrain from shoplifting, withdraw cash, bake a ham.

Work Cited
Vincent Mosco. The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2004. 19.

Urban Screens Conference
Surveillance and Society

Image Credits:

1. Bank Machine Screen

2. Emeril Live

Please feel free to comment.

10,000 Years of Media Flow

by: Faye Ginsburg / New York University

It’s one of those unseasonably warm Saturdays in November,a beautiful autumn day in New York City that competes with the films being shown in darkened rooms during the annual Margaret Mead Film Festival. Staunching my impulse to turn into Central Park,I enter the American Museum of Natural History, the site of the festival. At the 77th St. entrance, I am greeted by the famous replica of a Kwakwaka’wakw war canoe,then walk past the towering totem poles and dioramas that punctuate the cavernous space of the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians. This is the Museum’s oldest exhibition, based on its first major field expedition, made just over a century ago and led by Franz Boas, known as the “father of American anthropology”. This seems the right pathway to take to the screening I am attending, part of the festival’s focus on Native Voices, featuring new media work from Native communities from the American Southwest and the Northwest Coast, complementing the Museum’s most recent exhibition,Totems to Turquoise: Native Jewelry from the Northwest Coast and the Southwest.

A far cry from the mute, traditionally clothed figures in the life groups created by Boas, the indigenous producers in this session have a lot to say to each other and the rest of us; to do that, they have turned to contemporary media forms and a range of distribution strategies. The work they showed ranged from Native Pride (2004), small format rap style video youth media shown on Seattle’s KCTS, to Rez-Robics for Couch Potato Skins (2003) a comedy with native actors who also delivers deadly serious health information on videos that circulate free of charge in “Indian Country”; to the New York premiere of Raven Tales: How Raven Stole the Sun (2004), the first of a series of experiments in digital animation by Simon James (Kwakwaka’wakw)and Chris Klentz (Cherokee), that create new versions of centuries-old stories to be shown across Canada on that country’s Aboriginal People’s Television Network.

Mead Festival curators, Elaine Charnov and Kathy Brew, wanted the program to reflect the range of work coming out of indigenous communities, from local community-based work, to health initiatives, to more high-end productions that are making it onto the international film circuit. Native Pride, a rap-influenced short digital video piece, was made by a group of 25 Swinomish youth who came into Seattle from their reservation to work on Native Lens, a new program made with the 911 Media Arts Center, and shown on Seattle’s KCTS. For the kids who made it, perhaps its most important venue has been its screening on reservation cable TV, where their poetic declarations about their dreams and identities have the greatest resonance.

Rez Robics features two prominent Native actors, Elaine Miles (Utamilla), known for her work in Northern Exposure and Smoke Signals, and Drew LaCapa, the Apache comedian, who calls himself “300 pounds of love”. Together they draw successfully on the understated and self-deprecating Indian humor associated with “the rez” to help address the deadly epidemic of diabetes facing their communities. In this case, with their public health goal of spreading the word, video’s low cost and easy replicability is a plus. As they point out, there is no FBI warning preceding the programs; rather, piracy is invited in the opening title: “Please make copies and give them to your friends and relatives.”

The premiere of the 22 minute, Raven Tales, was the hit of the afternoon, and testimony to the curators’ commitment to showcasing innovative animation works. This work in particular was selected for the way it has brought to life the famous Northwest coast myths from Kwakwaka’wakw, the Squamish, and Haida peoples — bringing the comical raven trickster figure to life, along with eagle, frog, and the first humans. It includes voices ranging from well-known native actors such as Evan Adams of Smoke Signals fame to the voice of Hereditary Chief Robert Joseph. Cutting across both centuries and generations, it uses the playful spirit of animation to visualize and extend the lives of these myths. These stories and the distinctive look of Northwest Coast design have been proven, as producer Simon James joked during the Q & A, by “10,000 years of local market research”.

Spicing up these stark and complex traditional stories with some contemporary humor and the wonders of digital animation is always a risk. But, clearly it was a risk worth taking, judging by the collective gasp of the audience when the murky darkness of the Myth Time is suddenly (and digitally) transformed from barren smoky greys to brilliant greens, the result of the Raven’s theft of the gift of light, and its release into the world. Raven Tales premiered last month in Los Angeles at the National Geographic’s All Roads Film Festival, which gave the project completion funds, the only digital animation in that project. It is slated to air on Canada’s APTN aboriginal TV network in February 2005.

At the end of the Q & A session, the animator Simon James’ father, a Kwakwaka’wakw artist, who had been one of the elders who helped in the ceremonial opening of the Totems to Turquoise show a few weeks earlier, came on stage with his drum, which was embellished with the distinctive raven design. Inviting today’s storytellers onto the stage, he sang, Wiping the Tears, to remember those who have come before and are gone, and to praise the work of this new generation. When Pam Belgarde, the Chippewa woman who produced the Rez Robics tape came up, he dressed her in the traditional black and red regalia, a stunning full-length button cape with appliqués of wild roses, and a regal fur hat.

As he draped the cape across her shoulders, he explained: “When we meet someone we are honored to meet, we dress them to show that we are willing to go cold in order to keep our guests warm.” Simon began to beat the drum, and asked us to look at the empty seats in the theater and think of those who came before; the media producers on stage lowered their eyes. At the conclusion of his song, he addressed the audience and said, “All our ceremonies need witnesses. And as witnesses, we ask you to be part of that tradition, and go and share with others what you have seen today.” The path from the canoe to the century-old totem poles to this room — and between very old and very new media — suddenly became very clear.

Aboriginal Peoples Television Network
Margaret Mead Film Festival
Reviews of The Rez

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