Seeing is Believing

by: Jennifer Warren / Independent Scholar

Britney Spears Toxic

Britney Spears – Toxic

Many years ago, I read several essays from the turn of the century in which the leading pundits of the day expressed their concern about photography and its potential impact on culture. The main point the authors consistently reiterated was a fear of what would occur when the surface of an object was separated from its physical beingness in the world. They envisioned a world where people had consumed the image and thought they had experienced the thing itself, confusing the virtual with the real. As I sit in the 21st Century and peer around San Francisco, I don’t think they were far off the mark.

Take Britney, for example. I bet you know who I mean instantly. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but you’ll rightly assume that there can only be one Britney I am referring to. I have never met her in person, never even heard her voice except in her highly mixed singer persona. I’ve seen her in videos and in print. But I feel like I know her, know her ups and downs with Kevin, her babies, shaving her head and rehab. But the key here is that I don’t. I only know an image, moments caught by cameras and beamed around the world.

Those video images are easy to identify: the coy, sexually budding schoolgirl in Baby, One More Time; the sexually assured temptress in I’m a Slave 4 U; the impossibly CGI’ed up vixen in Toxic. What do those images tell me about her? She’s young. She’s hot. She seems to like sex, or at the very least, understands that sex sells her records. I know she married young, and that she had babies right away, from the endless parade of photographs in People and Us magazine. If I google her, I find out other details: she is the only female vocal artist of all time to have four records debut at number one, and according to Forbes, in 2007 she was ranked 12th of The 20 Richest Women in Entertainment with a fortune estimated at $100 million. With each detail, the image grows more fleshed out, but it is still just that: an image.

When I watch TV and movies, I am surrounded by a different kind of virtual image: the location itself. If the screen says the story takes place in Africa, it is Africa I see in front of me. Even if I find out later it was actually Afghanistan or India, in my mind, in the place I surrendered to the storytellers, I saw Africa. If I try to adjust my perception to this new piece of information, I experience a kind of motion sickness, a sense of disorientation. I feel like a little kid whose been lied to about Santa Claus. I hold the two experiences—my first viewing of Africa and my second awareness of non-Africa—in an uneasy truce. What results for me is a simultaneous sense of seeing the world through other’s eyes and not trusting what I see. Shakespeare said “All the world’s a stage.” I would paraphrase that in the TV age as “All the world’s a set, of which we will show whatever is most convenient for us.”

Tayrona Park

Tayrona Park

It is not the false sense of having seen Africa or knowing Britney that is the problem. What is problematic is a lifetime of Britneys and false Africas building a slightly skewed map of reality in our nervous systems. The longer I look at it, the more I see a strange state that results, in which we are here and not here simultaneously. We see, but we don’t experience; we know, but we do not understand. I have watched many deserted tropical beaches on TV, but it wasn’t until I hiked through the jungle on my own to the ocean’s edge that I discovered a key detail: insects, and lots of them. I had bites from the moment I set foot on the beach until I left 3 weeks later. I laughed as I itched, amazed at how surface my understandings were of tropical beaches before I physically arrived at one. But what else could they be, having come only from the images?

Image Credits:
1. Britney Spears – Toxic
2. Tayrona Park image taken and provided by author.

Please feel free to comment.




Micro-Ethnographies of the Screen: Sundance 2006

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Overheard on a shuttle as I traveled from the Sundance Film Festival headquarters to the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts: “the best film so far has been that midnight movie The Descent, you know the one with the chicks with ice picks versus CHUD.” CHUD, for those readers unfamiliar with the world of trashy eighties horror films, stands for “Cannibalistic Human Underground Dwellers.” Actually, The Descent was a pretty enjoyable film with its mildly feminist revision of the buddy film set against a plot that includes subterranean Appalachian piranha people who devour their victims while alive — a tonic against a schedule of Sundance festival films loaded with light romantic comedies and heavy-handed social issue documentaries (the second of which I like to watch, but this genre goes down a bit hard if it constitutes the bulk of one’s cinematic diet on a trip that averaged four films a day over four days). Out of the fifteen screenings that I attended, I saw several good serious films — 5 Days (a documentary detailing the removal of Israeli settlers from Gaza), A Little Trip to Heaven (an Icelandic film noir with Forrest Whittaker as an insurance investigator), and Wordplay (a shaggy dog of a documentary about crossword puzzle makers and fans) were all stand outs.

But for this column I want to focus on another aspect of the Sundance Film Festival that most attendees know about but that doesn’t really rate entry into the fabled festival buzz: the coverage of Sundance by the local cable station, Park City Television (PCTV). Each day upon return to my hotel room, I unwound by watching PCTV’s fragmented, repetitious series of vignettes covering the big events of that day’s festival schedule. Modeled after the style and format of “Entertainment Tonight” or the E! cable channel — but aimed at the indie film crowd sensibility — PCTV featured segments entitled “In the Can,” “The Scene,” and “Big Mountain Adventure” (a segment that followed selected filmmakers as they ventured out to the Park City ski slopes). These PCTV segments were then packaged into a 30-minute program and aired on the Sundance Film Channel as a wrap up of the day’s events for those unfortunate enough not to have traveled to Park City, Utah in person.

Alternating with these canned-entertainment pieces were extended segments that featured video documentation of Sundance sponsored panel discussions and special events. The panel coverage that I found myself watching late Friday evening was entitled “Stay-at-Home Movies: The Home Theatre Experience and the Future of Exhibition.” While the panel was supposed to focus on changes in film exhibition and its consequences for independent film producers, the emphasis in the discussion was actually on new forms of distribution that generate new forms of exhibition. The panel, chaired by Bill Alpert senior editor at Barron’s Magazine, included key executives from Google.com, the Sundance Channel, Sony Connect.com, and the Wall Street Journal.

While digital cinematography and postproduction has by now gained acceptance from film producers and audiences, large screen cinematic exhibition continues to be considered the gold standard of the movie-going experience, in contrast to the diminished experience (at least for those in the film community) of the small screens of television, the Internet, or mobile phones. However, perhaps because multiplex screens have for the most part shrunken to a size not much larger than plasma TVs, or perhaps simply in response to the increasing financial pressures of big screen distribution, indie filmmakers are becoming more accepting of small screen alternatives to the standard studio distribution model, based as it is on the high costs of multiple prints and multiple theaters. The panelists on “Stay-at-Home Movies” spent most of their allotted time addressing the needs of these filmmakers — a core creative class presumed to be different from those who make Hollywood studio product — and looking at the forms of distribution enabled by the Internet and small, portable screens such as the video iPod.

The question initially raised by Mr. Alpert was, “How do content providers get paid for their product?” As the studios routinely fudge accounting and fashion deals that favor corporate ledgers at the expense of creativity, conventional wisdom states that if independent filmmakers can control distribution, they will reap a larger portion of the rewards accrued by their productions. But if small screens are the vehicles, how will filmmakers collect the cash? Of course, the model used by Google Video — in effect a video search engine (or is it a video distribution engine?) — suggests that through advertising-supported web content (the foundation of Google’s economic success), filmmakers could make, in the words of Jennifer Feikin, director of Google’s video project, “seventy cents on the dollar as opposed to the pennies on the dollar that they receive from studio deals,” implying that, as Wall Street Journal writer Kara Swisher succinctly put it: “the studios are screwing the makers.”

In response, Chris Dorr of Sony Connect.com flatly stated, “the nature of community is promotion.” Well, so be it. If we are discussing economies of scale and of promotion, then the economic model that is brought to the filmmaker by the Internet distribution model is one that simply reproduces the older studio model of production financing. While the artist hawking his productions on Google Video does reap much more of the proportional rewards than do his or her colleagues at Paramount, in the end the total amount of money earned through studio distribution still dictates that some, chosen by the financially secure agents of movie capitalism, reap disproportionate amounts of money for their efforts.

Bill Alpert noted this inequity in the studio system of production and distribution by bringing to the attention of his fellow panelists that filmmakers with studio support are allowed to spend considerable up-front money to make their creations, where truly indie producers potentially working within the Google Video model — which essentially pays after the fact of production — are much more constrained in their vision by the lack of up-front capital. So while the costs of production have declined significantly through the introduction and refinement of digital technology, the costs of distribution still depend on a large expensive media apparatus controlled by corporations that privilege certain ideas — those that generate the most revenue — over others — those that quaintly explore more complex and abrasive ideas. While the myth of Sundance continues to hoodwink filmmakers into believing that the odds of securing a distribution deal are in their favor, the reality is that only a small percentage of Sundance Festival filmmakers find these million-dollar deals coming their way.

As prophesied by the panelists, distribution through Internet Protocol (IP) systems — blogs using video, myspace.com-style websites, sling boxes, and portable media players — does seem to be the future of the media industry, but this future, at least at this juncture, holds no more limitless horizons for independent media producers than the current structure, as the means of distribution, if not production, are still controlled by corporations and IP distribution is still a part of this corporate system. Discussing the business end of the indie scene, it is hard not to slip into a neo-Marxist analysis of the matters at hand. As Feikin from Google Video flatly stated, “70 percent of one dollar is better than nothing.” Is that really the best that indie media producers can expect? Or should we just expect to live in the “small monitor town” where we all carry screens (Dorr’s location free television) which are supplemented by large screen experiences as they transpire at home or at the digital multiplex while still relying on large scale capital to supply the majority of high visibility media content?

These are questions I had hoped the panelists would answer, but suddenly the PCTV’s coverage of the “Stay-at-Home” panel discussion was interrupted, cutting off Bill Alpert in mid-sentence, to switch to an in-progress commercial for a hip clothing store on Park City’s main street. What conclusions panelists drew regarding the future of exhibition remains a mystery. But given the rather bleak future forecast to that point by representatives of the Sundance Channel, Sony, and Google — a future where corporations rule IP distribution networks just as they have done in the world of film and television, where voices are limited to those whose ideas fit within the intellectual space of the media industry, and those who fail, or who are incapable of “fitting in,” are relegated to producing on a handful of pennies — it seems that the next stage of media distribution is on track to reproduce the inequities inherent in those that came before. It seems that indie producers are still just “chicks with ice picks” pitted against the CHUDs of corporate media culture.

Links
2006 Sundance Festival
Sundance.org
Connect.com
Google Video

Image Credits:

1. Justin Timberlake at the 2006 Sundance Festival

Please feel free to comment.




Living Life in TiVo Time

TiVo

Like most people, it usually bugs me when I am wrong. However, this time I draw some comfort from what I now think may have been an erroneous conclusion. You see, I was afraid that the world was slipping mindlessly into boorishness. Perhaps because I have now lived in the South for a quarter of a century, I set significant store by manners. You really do open doors for others male or female. You say “please” and “thank you” always. Someone may set every nerve in your body on edge, bless their heart, but you smile and ask how they are. I am not, however, foolish enough to believe that my adopted region of the country is any less intolerant than the rest of America. But here in North Carolina, when regrettable human inclinations do rear their ugly heads, they are usually expressed far more gently and with greater grace than I was accustomed to in my native Midwest, the brusque environs of the Northeast, or the rustic West. The New South gilds the rank lily of social discord.

So I was distressed to note, over the last few years, what seemed to be a decline in that tradition of gentility. I teach a large undergraduate class in Communication and Technology about two hundred students. At the beginning of each semester we talk about the fact that we don’t have much time together, and that disruptive behavior deprives their classmates of the opportunity to absorb content that is, a) of important to their education and will, b) in their eyes, more importantly, be on the test. I tell them if they cannot resist the urge to chat among themselves to just not come to class. I don’t want them there. It is a strategy that drops attendance, but increases the quality of my interaction with the students who show up ready to shut up and pay attention. This semester there seems to be a heightened disconnect between those instructions and class behavior. They come, but still chat among themselves with no semblance of restraint, let alone shame or remorse. They do not see their behavior as aberrant.

“Rude, foolish undergraduates,” I thought. And then I went to my graduate class. Seventeen students, most over thirty years old, most employed, adults, you know what I mean? Even in that group there are several that see nothing wrong with striking up “parallel conversations” during class. “Very weird,” I thought. And then I went to a faculty meeting — twenty or so PhDs, all of whom are deeply invested in the business being conducted. But they, too, feel entitled to address issues of concern with the colleague sitting next to them, regardless of whom actually “has the floor.” “What the hell is going on!?” I thought, “Is civility dead?”

Then I realized it may have nothing to do with manners, it is all about TiVo, technology, and the fracturing of interpersonal time and space. Think about it. TiVo is not about the digital recording of video. That is only part of it. TiVo commercials tell us that TiVo is all about being able to “pause live TV.” We can be watching something unfolding “in real life,” — a hurricane striking the coast of Mississippi and Louisiana, or the Hurricanes playing hockey — and then a parallel real life” intrudes. Your spouse needs help, a child cries, the dog scratches at the door, the phone rings, whatever. No problem, you hit a button and the “live event” on the TV screen freezes. You then tend to the more immediate reality. Afterwards you return to the screen, hit a button, and resume the frozen reality.

It is an increasingly common scenario with very uncommon implications. The notion of the “here and now,” that usually seems so solid, just got a bit strange. The question of “Which ‘real life’ do you mean?” is no longer the sole property of philosophers or absurdist playwrights, it has wiggled its way into our living rooms and our classrooms, into the coffee shop and the faculty meeting.

Here is what I think is happening. Reality now flows around us in a variety of different streams. There is the physical reality of my location and the events unfolding in that location, but there are also the parallel realities outside that location that are now in accessible electronically, digitally. My computer, my cell phone, my pda, my Blackberry, my iPod, my Bluetooth prosthesis, all let me select a preferred experience from among those intertwining realities. And TiVo goes one step further, letting me choose which time to designate as “live.”

The power to select from a rack of potential realities makes the designation of “here and now” an idiosyncratic option. I choose my reality on the fly, and utilize the communication protocols appropriate to that choice. The results are not always polite. When varying individual realities share the same physical space there is inevitable friction.

Ipod Guy

Ipod Guy

Consider the person standing next to you at the metro stop who has chosen the reality of their hands-free, ear-bud cell phone. He cradles his hands in his face moaning, “Baby, how can you say that? She means nothing to me.” You sidle down the platform a bit and sit beside a suit enmeshed in Blackberry. Her fingers flicker over tiny keys while she mutters phrases that sound, at the very least, confrontational — in a language you do not understand. You move again, and find yourself the unwilling partner of an iPodded youngster, moving in what you can only hope is sympathetic rhythm to the music in his head. And, as Sonny and Cher asserted decades ago, the beat goes on.

It is, I believe, this phenomenon of the unthinking selection of incompatible social realities that results in what I initially interpreted as rude and boorish behavior — in my classes and among my peers. The problem, of course, is that rude and boorish behavior is always a matter of perception. If your behavior is perceived by those in your immediate physical environment as being rude and boorish, then it is — no matter what your intention — still rude and boorish.

Social norms and mores, of which manners are an irrefutable part, have one primary function in human society — to smooth the inevitable conflict between personal inclinations and the comfort of the group. The current 21st century technology-enabled environment gives us unparalleled personal power to pick and choose the reality of the moment. It advantages the unique reality of the individual. It inclines me to “suit myself.” That invites conflict with the more social, group-centered norms of the 20th century — norms that emphasize social cohesion and personal restraint, norms with which most folks over 30 were socialized. The resultant friction is both uncomfortable and unnecessary.

What we need is a conscious reconfiguration of communicative etiquette for the 21st century. Increasingly we focus on the mechanical efficiency of digital communication systems, but at the expense of human sensibilities. We need a set of guidelines for respectful interactive behavior in an increasingly complex — from both an existential and a technological perspective — world. We need new social conventions that will simultaneously acknowledge and employ the increasing communicative power of our interactive environment, while retaining the grace of softer times. I do not know what that should look like, but I strongly advocate one guideline: courtesy. Acceptable communication in the 21st century, mode notwithstanding, should attend to the comfort of the other, every bit as much as it champions the choices and expressions of the individual.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo

2. Ipod Guy

Please feel free to comment.




Reconsidering the Technological Limitations and Potential of Large Format

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Shuttle on IMax

Shuttle on IMax

The first large format film, Tiger Child, was screened at Expo 70 in Osaka, Japan, and was the culmination of innovations in film, camera, projector and screen technologies. Shortly after the film’s premiere, Roman Kroiter (1970, 799), one of the founders of the IMAX Corporation, was quoted as saying that “Artistically it will have to be breaking through new frontiers, not the millionth re-hash of the same old cliches. The world isn’t going to stand still, and the movies won’t either.”

Today, as then, this largest of film formats offers incredibly high-resolution images that make the viewer feel like they are part of the action. However, some would argue that large format films have not achieved the full expression of their technological potential, primarily as a function of the format’s association with educational facilities such as museums and science centers, where the emphasis is on creating an educational film, not a film that extends the potential of this medium. The need of museums to sell film tickets — as these theatres are often much-needed sources of operating revenue — means that the content of large format films must align with consumer needs and the museum’s mission statements. This historically limited market niche for large format films also means that filmmakers’ products must be acceptable for the distinct market segment represented by the museum visitor. Artistic films, that is, films that stretch the boundaries of what is normal and acceptable to the majority of viewers (either through content or technological innovation), are not considered to be films that will attract an audience of schoolchildren and educators.

Museums have thus served as gatekeepers for the large format film, providing feedback regarding the films in order to maximize profits and to meet their obligations for informal education. Fueled by the fact that “the quest for audiences in order to recoup capital investment has meant that achieving the real has tended to privilege the more real than real, the “realistic” (Wollen, 1993), themes of nature, travel, and broad themes of science and exploration have dominated and continue to dominate the large format film lexicon. Films that fall outside of these categories, which are sometimes the most popular films (in dollar terms, and generally those that have been repurposed from 35 mm) are not always selected for showing, or are shown only after closing hours as their themes are not mission-based. The choice of films shown may also be limited to those which don’t conflict with the particular audience’s foundational beliefs, as occurred when the film Volcanoes of the Deep Sea was not shown in certain museums due to its reference to evolution (Dean, 2005).

Much has also been written of the limitations of the technology due to issues with cassette length (the canister that holds the raw film), lighting needs, projected image size, and screen shape (films may be shown on either domed or flat screens, up to 80 feet high); all of which have been used as justification for creative decisions related to the structure of these films. It is believed by many filmmakers that close-ups, shot/reverse-shot and other editing conventions are impossible within the medium due to these issues. Panning is avoided in large format, and medium or long shots dominate as there is not only concern that the sight of an 80-foot human face would be disconcerting, but that the intense lighting required for such close-ups “make actors irritable” (Sherrill, 1983). Shots are paced at longer intervals in order to allow time to assimilate visual information, which in turn affects the acting, dialogue and emotion needed for dramatic scenes (Wollen, 1993). Narrative action is thus limited to point of view shots and composition within the frame, which take the place of the rapid cuts and sequential juxtaposition common to the traditional 35 mm film (Wollen, 1993).

IMax Theater

IMax Theater

But the example of films such as Pulse: A Stomp Odyssey, would seem to indicate that the perceived need to create educational films in a particular style — and not technological limitations — has been the major force in limiting the full expression of the potential of the large format film. Without words, this award-winning film uses images to tell the story of sound and rhythm. Extensive use of close-ups loosens the boundaries of what have been considered inviolate limitations in the large format. These close-ups are not only effective in conveying the film’s message of diversity and rhythm, but demonstrate that the technological limitations of large format may be perception and not reality, especially since the filmgoing audience has expressed appreciation for the film through their continued attendance.

But can one promote innovation in large format when filmmakers are still to a great extent obliged to the needs of the museum industry for educational films? It may be that today such a shift is happening to the industry, not necessarily by the industry. The development of stand-alone large format theaters, combined with the digital remastering (DMR) of 35mm Hollywood films into large format, is shifting the concept of large format away from the museum-based educational experience towards an entertainment experience, which has greater possibility for innovation and experimentation. These shifts would appear to allow large format to fulfill the new visual frontiers as predicted by Roman Kroiter.

However, the remastering of films begs the question as to what exactly is large format, and what differentiates it from other film formats? Predicated on a particular quality and size of image, the remastering of Hollywood films into large format means that the unique characteristics of this medium are lost in — so to speak — translation. Although DMR technology restores the filmic structures that have been avoided or eliminated in the creation of a large format film, allowing for greater latitude for experimentation in filmmaking, this translation also eliminates the uniqueness of the large format camera and film and its attendant effect on the capture and display of the “all-engulfing, panoramic images” (Acland, 1998, 434) on which the format is based. These changes may open the possibility for the extension of the large format technology, but they may eliminate the uniqueness of the medium of large format; that is, once we can define exactly what is large format.

References:

Acland, C.R. “IMAX Technology and the Tourist Gaze.” Cultural Studies 12.3 (1998): 429-45.

Dean, C. “A New Screen Test for Imax: It’s the Bible vs. the Volcano.” New York Times. 19 March 2005.

Kroiter, R. “IMAX at Expo 70.” American Cinematographer 51.8 (1970): 772-99.

Sherrill, N.H. “Behold Hawaii.” American Cinematographer, 64.12 (1983): 62-67.

Wollen, Tana. “The Bigger the Better: From Cinemascope to IMAX.” P. Hayward and T. Wollen, eds. Future Visions: New Technologies of the Screen. London: BFI, 1993.

Image Credits:

1. Shuttle on IMax

2. IMax Theatre

Please feel free to comment.




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.

Links:
Urban Screens Conference
Surveillance and Society

Image Credits:

1. Bank Machine Screen

2. Emeril Live

Please feel free to comment.




Everything Will Flow

by: Will Brooker / Richmond University

Scuba Diving

Scuba Diving

In an article from 2000, seeking a word to describe the cross-platform convergence of early 21st century popular culture – the spilling from one type of screen to another, the alliance of TV or cinema texts with interactive websites where the fiction opens up into interactive simulations – I fixed on “overflow” as an update of Raymond Williams’ 1974 coinage, “flow”. Williams was describing the disruptive, dreamlike experience of watching American television, with its constant flash-forwards of promised shows to come and flashback reminders of stories gone before; its snatches of teaser-trailers for current affairs sliced into the middle of drama series, and its lack of obvious distinction between commercials and programmes. Glossaries of cultural theory suggest two other common uses of the same term, from Deleuze and Guattari (1983), describing subversive energies that are repressively channelled and structured by bourgeois society, and Manuel Castells (1997), discussing the transit of wealth, information and finance in contemporary communication networks.

There is, however, another definition of “flow”, distinct from yet in some ways relatable to Williams’ use of the term. It is the central concept in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work, and according to Csikszentmihalyi it provides nothing less than the key to human fulfilment. Flow, in this context, is the pleasurable sensation of losing oneself in an activity – work, a game, a physical or mental challenge – and becoming immersed, with everything perfectly meshing in a harmonious state where goals are set and satisfyingly met. Flow, or “optimal experience”, involves a paradoxical balance between structure and release, between control and surrender, between heightened awareness of self and a sense of connection with others, between concentrated focus on a goal and a feeling of automatic effortlessness; time contracts or stretches and the individual merges with the activity, totally absorbed.

This sense of immersion, where the everyday is transcended and the participant enters a different state of being, a form of communion with a text, a process and sometimes with other participants, seems to offer a fascinating approach to the experience of watching television: in particular the more intense viewing practiced by fans with their favoured shows. When a devotee of 24 unplugs the telephone and disconnects the doorbell ten minutes before the programme begins; when Twin Peaks cultists prepare coffee and cherry pie for a group screening; when a viewer of Dawson’s Creek wears her Capeside High t-shirt during the episode and plays one of the show’s soundtrack CDs afterwards while participating in the virtual community at Capeside.net, these viewers are engaging in a ritual experience that aims for, if not a total absorption in the diegesis, then at least partial immersion and a liminal state of existing between the real and the fiction, temporarily removed from time and place. The sensations described by Csikszentmihalyi’s research subjects, from mountaineers through chess and basketball players to dancers – “that’s all that matters” (p.58), “it becomes your total world” (p.58), “your concentration is very complete” (p.52), “the concentration is like breathing – you never think of it” (p.53), “your comrades are there, but you all feel the same way anyway, you’re all in it together” (p.40) – could surely apply equally to the TV fan at the moment of closest engagement with his or her favoured show.

The only obstacle to applying this fascinating model to the experience of TV fandom is Csikszentmihalyi’s attitude to television. He doesn’t merely fail to mention TV viewing in his discussion of flow activities; he deliberately excludes it, denying it any such potential and only referring to it as a negative example, a contrast to more worthwhile practices. “Dance, theatre and the arts in general” are dignified as the category of mimicry, “in which alternative realities are created” (p.72); pretending or dressing-up as someone else, connecting with another identity, is praised as “stretch[ing] the limits of…ordinary experience”, and compared with tribal masking rituals. (p.73) Reading is “the most often mentioned flow activity around the world”, and studying a work of art can transport the viewer symbolically to “a separate reality” (pp.118-119) Sex and eating can be transformed from biological urges into flow experience with the right kind of discipline and discrimination. (p.101, p.114) Even trench warfare and criminal activity such as vandalism or joyriding are, according to Csikszentmihalyi’s respondents, potential sources of flow (p.68). The audience at a live concert is in a prime situation to experience flow through joint participation; yet Csikszentmihalyi allows that listeners to recorded music at home can also reach a state of flow through active engagement. These sophisticated listeners “begin by setting aside specific hours for listening. When the time comes, they deepen concentration by dousing the lights, by sitting in a favourite chair, or by following some other ritual that will focus attention.” (p.111)

This is, of course, precisely the kind of ritual that TV fans regularly engage in to prepare themselves for the experience of participatory immersion, whether as a group or solitary activity, in a visual text. Yet Csikszentmihalyi refuses to discuss television viewing as anything but a passive, brainless, numbing act – rejecting all the well-known research into active viewing and viewers’ abilities to construct their own meaning from television shows, and clinging to surprisingly primitive, old-fashioned and shamelessly unsupported prejudices about the medium. Television is like a drug, keeping “the mind from having to face depressing thoughts” (p.169) “The plots and characters of the popular shows are so repetitive that although TV requires the processing of visual images, very little else in the way of memory, thinking, or volition is required.” (p.30) “While people watch television, they need not fear that their drifting minds will force them to face disturbing personal problems.” (p.119) “Watching TV is far from being a positive experience – people generally report feeling passive, weak, rather irritable, and sad when doing it…” (p.169)

Csikszentmihalyi’s unapologetic hostility towards television is, on one level, frustrating, because his theories of flow would otherwise seem to offer productive insights into the experience of immersive viewing. However, other researchers have, equally unapologetically, drawn selectively on his work and subjected it to a “negotiated reading”, taking what works and ignoring what doesn’t. Roger C. Aden’s 1999 study, Popular Stories and Promised Lands, for instance, refers frequently to Csikszentmihalyi’s model of flow, modified in turn through Victor Turner’s use of the theory. Turner applied Csikszentmihalyi’s concepts to the experience of pilgrims visiting the religious site of Lough Derg (p.137-8), arguing that their involvement in structured ritual and the loss of self in community chanting clearly echoed the pattern of Csikszentmihalyi’s non-religious flow activities. Aden uses the same definition of “flow”, but relates it to “symbolic pilgrimage” – including the practice of watching The X-Files.

“Scully and Mulder’s adventures are envisioned as releases into the liminoid flow of an alternative world…The X-Files offers a sacred place where ‘real’ time and space are excluded, much the same way in which pilgrims experience the liminoid of communitas ‘as a timeless condition, an eternal now…'” (pp.160-162) “The deep sense of involvement these fans report,” Aden goes on, “is also similar to the ‘flow experiences’ reported by pilgrims. These experiences are moments of ‘ordered existence’ that are ‘relatively lasting and totally absorbing'”. (p.164) These last quotations are directly from Csikszentmihalyi, Aden apparently seeing no problem in citing an author who pointedly kept TV viewing off his extensive list of potential flow experiences.

Turner, as we saw, brought his study of religious pilgrimage to bear on Csikszentmihalyi and convincingly showed that “flow” could apply to religious communitas. Aden’s work on symbolic pilgrimage echoes both Turner’s research into physical journeys and Csikszentmihalyi’s notions of flow through reading and music, arguing that individuals can experience a pilgrim’s transcendence of time and place, the same sense of travel into liminality, without even leaving the room. Csikszentmihalyi, on the basis of his 1990 work Flow, would resist this latter use of his own theory, but his contempt for television and denial of its role in flow experience seems unsupported by any survey of viewer activities, whereas Aden provides interviews from his ethnographic research to illustrate his assertion that The X-Files can enable an immersive ritual experience.

Further investigation of this kind could explore the flow experiences associated with various television texts, asking for instance how a group viewing differs in this respect from individual involvement, whether science fiction and fantasy genres offer particular opportunities for symbolic pilgrimage to altered states, how repeat viewing of a beloved, intimately familiar text differs from the first, suspenseful encounter with a brand new episode of a show, and how the experience of television flow relates to that of home movie viewing and the more obviously “active” process of playing video games.

It remains to be asked whether the use of Csikszentmihalyi’s ideas to elevate and celebrate the potential of television would be in any way unethical or inappropriate, whether the benefits of applying the “optimal experience” model to a medium Csikszentmihalyi clearly scorns outweigh our duty to the original author’s beliefs and intentions, and whether we have the right to contradict and correct his cultural prejudices in expanding the limits of flow.

Sources:

Roger C. Aden. Popular Stories and Promised Lands: Fan Cultures and Symbolic Pilgrimages, Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 1999.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Flow: The Classic Work on How To Achieve Happiness, London: Rider, 2002.

Victor Turner and Edith L.B. Turner. Image and Pilgrimage in Christian Culture, New York: Columbia UP, 1978.

Raymond Williams. Television: Technology and Cultural Form, London: Fontana, 1974.

Links:
“Flow” & Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
More on Television Theory

Image Credits:

Scuba Diver
Please feel free to comment.




Terrorists Watching TV

by: Cynthia Fuchs / George Mason University

What is the problem with the modern world?
— Ramzi bin al Shibh (Omar Berdouni), The Hamburg Cell

When I was offered the role, I didn’t accept it. I refused it. I obviously had my own issues with playing a terrorist.
— Shohreh Agdashloo, Newsday (9 January 2005)

About a half hour into Antonia Bird’s The Hamburg Cell, a group of young Muslims are watching TV. Gathered in a group house, they watch, rapt before chaotic, smoky, siren-laced images of the 1998 U.S. attacks against Sudan and Afghanistan. “Death to America,” they chant, angry at the retaliation for Al Qaeda bombings of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. At the same time, however, they’re pleased with the American president’s performance. As he asserts his nation’s clear “mission,” the viewers nod solemnly. “The war has begun.” A visitor is greeted by an enthusiastic believer: “Have you heard the news? Clinton is the best. He’s our personal PR. Every time he mentions Osama, it’s a challenge, he promotes jihad!”

This scene, in which the hijackers appear at once naïve and canny, shows their fervent devotion to an increasingly dreadful cause and awareness of the uses of tv. Sometime later, the group again sits before their television set, absorbing the lessons of their “jihad” tapes, their own faces reflected in the screen that shows various martyrs — armless in a hospital or dead and shown floating above pacific landscapes. Now they don’t cheer what they see, but only watch in silence, sober and knowing. It’s telling that the movie charts their transformation from eager students to committed martyrs in these images as media consumers, as they seek and find their self-images on tv.

Here they are like other viewers, looking for affiliation. But for viewers of the movie, another point is also clear: the men in this cell watch tv differently than you do. That television has become a medium of information and identity. That it appears on tv as a sign of such process is also common. And so here it is, repeated — in The Hamburg Cell (a Channel Four film that never found U.S. distribution, but instead showed up last month on HBO2) and in the terror-focused Fox series 24.

For this second case, terrorists watching tv at first fools 24 viewers into thinking the terrorists are not. The so-called “Terror Family,” that is, Navi (Nestor Serrano), Dina (Shohreh Agdashloo), and their son Behrooz (Jonathan Ahdout) Araz, first appeared this season watching tv. Seated at the kitchen table, their expensive flat screen perched on their pretty white counter, they discuss what seem to be daily details. However, they soon notice a news report of a terrorist attack on a train: raucous, handheld shots of twisted metal, smoke, and bodies strewn about. They settle into their seats and exchange glances, and agree that the “plan” is proceeding as they had hoped it would. And so the episode engineers one of its many big reveals: these folks aren’t just nice Southern Californian suburban Muslims, they’re terrorists, living next door to someone. Using tv to reflect and frame their identities, the series ensures that viewers will be effectively startled and disturbed, but also reassured, imagining that the Arazes’ emotionless reaction to the carnage on tv marks their difference, their utter monstrosity. “What we will accomplish today will change the world,” says dad, “We are fortunate that our family has been chosen to do this. We cannot fail.” (On seeing portions of this first episode, the Council on American-Islamic Relations understandably protested that the depiction “casts a cloud of suspicion over every American-Muslim family out there.”)

The series 24 has gone on from that first conflicted moment — at once so self-conscious and so awkwardly sinister — to complicate the familial interactions and political implications of the Turkish Araz family. Typical of the show in its first three seasons, it again combines intensely domestic melodrama and hi-octane action, perhaps most hysterically figured when the Secretary of Defense (William Devane), kidnapped with his daughter Audrey (Kim Raver), found the wherewithal — with Jack Bauer’s (Kiefer Sutherland) help, of course — to shoot his way out of the compound where they were held for a couple of tense hours. Imagine it: Donald Rumsfeld blasting his way out of a terrorist hideout, rescue choppers whirring, bullets flying, and yes, bodies dropping.

This isn’t Secretary Heller’s most despicable moment, however, only his most Wesley-Snipesian. In fact, his awful parallel to the plainly odious Navi is revealed in their similar attitudes toward their disposable, wrong-doing sons (and this doesn’t even get at the entangling of Jack as stand-in son, as he’s sleeping with Audrey). When the Secretary hears that CTU (the Counter Terrorism Unit) has determined that his long-haired peacenik son, Richard (Logan Marshall-Green), might have known something about the kidnapping, he’s only vaguely upset that the agents have tortured him, then gives them permission to do it some more, in case they can get “information” out of him. This seems of a piece with Navi’s decision to order Behrooz’s death for endangering their mission.

The fact that Behrooz’s troublemaking emerged from his affection for a whiny white girl high school classmate only underlines the preposterous soapiness of all this drama (as it also alludes to the intersections of romantic intrigues and parent-child tensions that power nearly every major plot point in the series). Heller and Navi are both bad dads on single-minded missions. (And frankly, though his daughter Kim [Elisha Cuthbert] is absented this season, Jack’s notorious single-mindedness remains an emblem of his own dis-ease, though it is by now expected; when he shoots a suspect in the knee to learn a terrorist plot detail, he’s just being Jack, as he’s been known to kill people to provide useful body parts and turn heroin addict to bring down druglords.) While Navi pursues his end in secret, out of (fictional) camera range, Heller appears on tv repeatedly. And, to jumpstart this season, he quite sensationally becomes an internet broadcast star as well, when his trial for war crimes is not only made available for all the world to see, but also serves as a ruse to set up the real crisis, an attack on multiple nuclear plants.

Television is everywhere in 24 — in CTU, in characters’ homes, in Air Force One, where the new, non-Palmer president, John Keeler (Geoff Pierson) shares ominous glances with his white guy administration minions. Television links Jack, Heller, Navi, and Dina equally but also imprecisely with the day’s events, as they work to push forward diverse agendas. Television is visible as well throughout what might be termed today’s terrorist-themed tv, the BBC movie Dirty War and tv series MI-5, and the U.S. series Medical Investigation and Alias, even the forensics or procedural shows that dip occasionally into terrorism as a “topical” plot device, the CSIs and the Law & Orders. In all cases, tv signifies connection and disconnection. It indicates the terrorist’s devotion to mission as a source and symbol of identity, a cause of outrage and frustration (all the “trash” on tv) and a means to channel emotion into morality.

At the end of The Hamburg Cell, the primary character, Ziad Jarrah (Karim Saleh), has left behind a wife in Florida, Aysel (Agni Tsangaridou), and her final understanding of what he’s been up to all these years appears in her face as she watches the Twin Towers fall on tv. She has struggled to gain his attention, to make him behave like the partner she desires, throughout. And his utter inability to be hers is captured in her face: eyes wide, mouth agape, she reflects the devastation on the screen in her horrified gaze. Television makes her a survivor. It makes her like you.

Links
24
Patterns of Global Terrorism
The 9-11 Commission Report
The FBI
Production Credits for ‘The Hamburg Cell’

Please feel free to comment.




My Big Flat Screen TV

by: Sharon Strover / University of Texas at Austin

Our household finally succumbed to the lure of the big flat screen TV. Because I teach technology-related classes, many people assume I have a subscription to TiVo and the latest integrated computer-TV-sound system available, but in fact I am a latecomer to the latest round of television-related innovations even though I’ve been closely watching them develop over the past few years.

As in many families, our big screen was just one piece in the newest generation of home theatre innovations. An improved sound system came first (linked to our computer’s CPU with its digitized music tracks), which ultimately “demanded” a high definition digital picture accompaniment, which in turn logically led to an upgraded cable subscription (the digital tier) plus the personal digital video recorder capability. Now issues of the consumer-oriented magazine Sound and Vision (successor to High Fidelity) arrive at our house regularly. The prospect of adding TV-centric furniture pictured in the magazine — LaZBoys with drink and remote control pockets — prompts some lively discussions at home. But more broadly, I wonder what we’ve brought into the house that may not be as obvious as the big screen itself.

Big Screen TV1 The new home theater system

The first sessions of home theater experiences included movies with booming you-are-there soundtracks, Blue Crush‘s thundering ocean waves, Amelie‘s mood-setting music and surprising sound effects, and other fare that had won awards for best sound. We are now into the months of bone-crunching professional football, the injuries and insults reverberating in Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound. It is less appealing to go out when theater-quality audio and crisp digital pictures are right here, but what exactly are we giving up?

Whether we call this “cocooning,” Faith Popcorn’s 1980s term for hunkering down in living rooms during one of the domestic crises, or whether this is another logical stage of what Raymond Williams describes as “mobile privatization,” an industrial command and control system to better channel social communication, big screen TVs and DVRs create a kind of hybrid personal space. We listen to music, watch TV and movies, play games in tailored, private environments, often choosing the living room over engaging a diverse and unpredictable public in the open spaces — the cinema, the theater, the concert hall or club, even the game arcade. Big screen TVs usher in a large investment in home entertainment systems with all the ancillary technologies that properly outfit the 21st century living room, but maybe the package is a deal with the devil.

I know of at least one person who uses Dance Dance Revolution, that most public and group-oriented of video games, as a workout tool in the privacy of his own home. Sales of small, portable DVD playback devices (including Playstations, of course) have soared as people take their personal viewing spaces with them. Cars embed screens to quell the attention demands of children in the backseat, and WiFi sites multiply in cafes, bars, and other gathering places, inducing a curious key-tapping ambience into venues once marked by conversation’s conviviality. Third generation (3G) mobile phones can download television news, sports games, and other live entertainment.

While the status of the movie theaters and the clubs as public spheres can be questioned, there’s no doubt that the technologies that enable people to design their information and entertainment environments drive them into their homes and introduce a very private element into formerly public spaces.

Plasma TVPlasma TV

Systems that join television and movies to the Internet, both in physical networks — the infrastructure — and in content cross-promotion and reinforcement, are now the norm. The big screen TV and its circulatory system of computer, cable, remote controls and sound system signal some new possibilities for viewers/users as well as for industries. Television programs and movies are wedded to Internet sites, and all are bound to advertisers. So too as people watch, play, engage the television and computer screens, they are locked into the cycle. Whether it is encouraging people using cell phones to text message their votes for favorite American Idol performers, cultivating TV show fan bases through Internet sites, sending radio listeners to websites for extended versions of news stories, or establishing “star” personality blogs, media industries are creating new, integrated ways of cultivating our attention and interest. Raymond Williams’ notion of flow has a very different meaning in this space that moves across platforms and across people and products so seamlessly. The way academic and critics talk and think about “TV” or “film” or “the Internet” just is not up to the fluid way we experience technologies or media. In addition, that connected fabric of media interactions is penetrated with mechanisms that allow industries to obtain data about us that is far superior to what was available under the conventional television or cable model, giving us a glimpse of the less desirable qualities of the connected environment.

Nielsen people meter and diary data cannot compete with the sorts of profiles that are compiled through new communication technologies; the capacity to track viewer/user attention, communication and consumption behavior are now built into hardware and software. DVRs yield extensive pictures of viewing habits, sortable by zip code and, under some circumstances, address. When TiVo reported earlier this year that its users had watched the Janet Jackson Super Bowl episode three times more often than any other moment in the broadcast, TiVo users expressed shock that their viewing behaviors were scrutinized so closely. Data mining is plugged into all communication systems, and as two-way devices proliferate in the living room, collection and manipulation of that data will become an art form. As we’re increasingly tethered to systems that gather information about us — what we’re watching or doing, for how long, and who we are, where we live, what we purchase, how we entertain ourselves, who we talk with, our personal profiles — businesses are able to target their marketing efforts with precision.

Flat Screen TVFlat Screen Plasma TV

Interactivity used to be the word used to describe the future of television, but the interactivity accompanying the large HD televisions isn’t exactly what the hawkers originally had in mind. This year Nielsen is crunching viewer data from TiVo to figure out how detailed viewing data can mesh with marketing purposes, and even though TiVo insists their data have been anonymized, somehow I am not entirely reassured given the frequent reports from all corners on database hacks and security breaches. Even the interactivity built into DVRs that allows viewers to fast-forward over commercials is controversial within the industry. One media analyst recommended in all seriousness that DVRs be regulated to eliminate any commercial-skipping or fast rewind capability, likening this in importance to federal legislation on tuning VHF channels, or closed captioning requirements. Interactivity is fine only if it does not conflict with market goals.

Maybe my big TV doesn’t directly present privacy threats, reduced social contact, and questionable levels of insularity by itself. And insofar as a lot of those big screen TVs (really most TVs) are sold around the time of the Super Bowl with all the event’s attendant parties, it’s clear that big screen TVs can be vehicles for sociability. Media and technology enthusiasts repeat that all these new technologies are about collaboration, social interaction and access to knowledge, and they may well be all about that. But equally they are just one piece of a larger enterprise that embeds us in intensified networks of video, audio and data flows. The push-pull of control over the networks will continue at least for a while as we figure out the significance of four to six major companies controlling all the backbone networks in the country and media conglomerates that continue to merge, consolidate and joint venture. Meanwhile the big flat screen TVs will keep slipping into our living rooms.

Links
CNET News “TiVo watchers uneasy after post-Super Bowl reports”
PC World “TiVo Compiles, Sells Users’ Viewing Data”
Nielsen Media Research

Image credits:

1. The new home theater system

2. Plasma TV

3. Flat Screen Plasma TV

Please feel free to comment.




The Invasion of the Screen People

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

It was late summer in the Heartland. A simpler time, with only vague fears of Y2K troubling my anticipation of brisk breezes and the deepening color of autumn. Thunderstorms decorated Iowa’s western horizon. I had pulled into a mega-gas station at the intersection of I-80 and I-29. Scores of semis towered above the SUVs and sedans, all swilling diesel, ethanol and high test before easing out to follow the blacktop’s broken white line through the gathering dusk and into the night. I faced the sleek screen embedded in a wall-sized pump; touched the credit payment icon, swiped my card, tapped “no receipt,” lifted the hose and jammed the nozzle into the side of my pickup. Gasoline fumes opened my nostrils and hit the roof of my mouth, mingling with the sweet perfume of distant rain. My eyes slide across the ranks of pumps to the unbroken cornfields that surrounded the incongruous concrete intrusion. And Peter Jennings spoke to me: “Tensions heightened in the Middle East today . . . .

I spun around to locate the celebrity anchor, stunned that he would join me out here on the road. He was nestled – as serene and composed as ever – on the touch screen perched above three grades of Texaco. I stared in disbelief as he inserted the news of the world between the bass rumble of Kenworths and the soprano squeal of travel-tired children. It was a macabre moment, like encountering a chimpanzee in top hat and tails, dining in a posh Manhattan tearoom. But my disorientation was swiftly banished by an unbidden thought: “I wonder if you can change the channel?”

That was when I realized that The Screen People had successfully infiltrated Earth. The last six years have only affirmed that realization. Screens have become the primary communication interface in the industrialized world. As I write these words, several screens assist me. The iBook’s screen reflects the words of the essay, and allows me to toggle to internet maps that refresh the memory of my Iowa trip. The TV screen gleams off to my left, enabling me to keep an eye on both the Olympics and a line of thunderstorms moving through the area. My cell phone screen identifies callers, making it possible to accept vital calls while relegating others to voice mail. Last night I watched a film projected on a large screen overlooking the lawn of the North Carolina Museum of Art. Earlier today I shot photographs, composing the images on the LCD screen of my digital camera. “They” are everywhere.

This ascendancy of the screens raises a number of questions for those of us who study the intersection of technology and communication. Consider, for example, the notion that people maintain four essential communicative guises in relationship to mediated messages: creator, consumer, assessor, and facilitator.

Creator is the active guise; participating in the making of a message. The process can be an individual crafting a personal expression for another individual, a group, or an audience of millions. It can be a group effort. It can range from purely presentational to dialogic; a transactional negotiated process between creator and audience.

Consumer is predominantly an individual, passive guise; one person chooses to consume a message or experience created by another – reading, listening, or observing. Consumption can be interactive. Interactive consumption ranges from performing works authored by another, to participating in virtual space constructed by, and dependant upon, another.

Assessor embodies the observational, analytical, reflective guise. Assessment is the individual’s reasoned, supported evaluation of the impacts, effects, implications and relative merit of messages structured by others. Assessments are often delineated by objective, medium, area of social or political influence, academic heritage, inclination or method.

Facilitators provide the interventionist guise: an individual or team utilizing specialized knowledge, skills and/or tools to aid other individuals in the realization of perceived communication objectives. Intervention ranges from interpersonal through organizational to international. It encompasses both technical training and conceptual exploration.

The predominance of screens in contemporary culture will significantly redefine each of those relationships. While their influence is still unfolding; clearly two paths diverge in this technological wood. We can either accept a traditional passive evolution, or bestir ourselves to – perhaps for the first time in history – plan the course of our own social evolution. Let me explain.

The evolution of communication technology has been more serendipitous syncopation than measured march. From speech to mime to music to writing to printing to painting to film to telegraph to telephone to radio to television to computer to Internet, the relationship between society and the tools we use to communicate has been a bartered negotiation. We, the members of continuously evolving cultures, are faced with similarly evolving communicative, expressive needs. Technology morphs to meet those needs. We fill the technologies with content, and in the process discover new needs, which in turn beget new technologies, and so on and so on. It is a negotiation because neither side of the equation determines the final path of evolution. It is a bartered negotiation because each side demands value from the process; society demands better communicative, expressive tools, while the industries that provide the technologies demand profit.

Negotiation implies compromise, and compromise rarely yields the exquisite. More often the result has been merely the mutually acceptable. And so it has been in the bartered negotiation of media evolution. Papyrus wasn’t perfect, but it was better than clay tablets. The printing press had flaws but also advantages over the scribe, the telegraph bartered speed over linguistic complexity, cells phones offered mobility at the cost of fidelity – and all yielded profit to industry and power to government.

Bartered negotiation in the world of the screen people has been the same – only different. When we examine the tools that drive the converged environment of the screen people – whether the special effects in Lord of the Rings or three-way calling on our cell phone – we find ourselves confronting computers, networks and software. And in that world we find a strange confrontation between complexity and elegance. The post-modern world often seems immersed in a love affair with complexity, a celebration of fragmentation. And nowhere is that worldview more manifest than in the design of software intended to facilitate expression. New versions of Photoshop, Dreamweaver, and Office, proliferate features that regularly relegate former experts to the status of “newbie.” The irony is apparently unintentional, lost in the marketing realization that “more features sell new releases.”

Any experience with an audience – singular or mass – reveals that rampant complexity confuses, while precise elegance empowers the depiction of the most intricate message. As we face the 21st century, the inclination is to allow the marketplace to drive the development of the communicative palette. “It has always ‘worked’ before.” But “before” was never in the hands of so few. Bertelsmann, Newscorp, Disney, Time-Warner, Viacom, Sony, Vivendi and Reed-Elsevier control most of the content distributed in the world today – from print to the internet. Microsoft, Adobe, and Macromedia decide the nature of the tools we use to express ourselves. The clout of huge profits in a concentrated marketplace makes quality secondary to popularity for all those companies.

Before was never like now, and the stakes have never been so high. We are not talking about cornering the market on widgets. The issue concerns a few colossal companies that control the communicative content of our world, and who also shape the very languages we use to express the truth and beauty of that world. To date the palette they have provided is flawed in three dimensions: Intricacy – the excessive inclusion of features in software that excludes all but the specialist from fluency. Discreteness – the inclination to provide tools and messages devoted to, and hence restricted to, a single medium, and, Commercialism – the hegemonic power of the marketplace that decrees that whatever the other characteristics of medium or message, significant profit must be among them.

In the film Dead Poets Society, John Keating exhorts his students, “Carpe diem. Seize the day.” He challenges them to “do something extraordinary.” It is time for the academy to do something extraordinary. We must reclaim the expressive imperative; we must define the palette. Certainly, the expressive tools provided by the media cartels are fatally flawed. But so are some cherished models from the “teach and publish” world of the academy. We linger in the solid predictability of prose upon the printed page. We are comfortable with formulae unfolding neatly across the board. We treasure heads bent over bluebooks as sunbeams dance with dust motes, reminiscent of chalk dust from bygone years. That world is gone. Yet many of our forays into “courseware” seek to recreate it.

Screens encompass a new world. It is our responsibility to create, to use, and to teach new, powerful, transparent languages and tools for elegant expression in the converged digital environment of that reality. Carpe Diem.

Links of Interest:

1. Roger Chartier on the role of on-screen texts

2. United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force

3. MIT’s web magazine on information technologies

Please feel free to comment.