“Driven By Hustle”: Uber Presents, Lyft Entertainment, and Rideshare Media Production
Eric Forthun / University of Texas at Austin

Da Republic of Brooklyn
Uber Presents: Da Republic of Brooklyn, a Spike Lee joint.

On July 11, 2018, Uber released five short films “driven by hustle” in a series called Da Republic of Brooklyn. Billed as a “Spike Lee Joint,” Uber Presents’ first original production highlights the backgrounds and stories of those contractors hand-selected by Lee himself from Uber’s thousands of Brooklyn drivers and delivery partners. All of them are linked not just through their difficult upbringings and connections to the titular New York borough, but also their part-time work for Uber and UberEats. These services provide flexibility (an oft-cited rideshare talking point) for these workers to “hustle” on the side and achieve their goals. This unstable form of labor is almost always positioned as an opportunity for, and not a burden to, drivers.

Through each episode of Da Republic of Brooklyn, the series increasingly downplays Uber’s role in these people’s lives, instead positioning Uber as emblematic of how, as Domingo explains in his episode, “the Brooklyn hustle can be brought anywhere.” Sunny, an aspiring model and actress, remarks that Uber allows her to have “such a flexible, open schedule”; Rodney, an artist and restorationist, explains how Uber grants him “clarity” and gives him “the focus” he needs to find inspiration in his other work; and Keith, a driver who wants to open a doggie day care center, remarks that Uber brings “no stress” because it provides the freedom to be “your own boss” who decides “how much you want to work.” For these drivers, Uber is not their primary occupation—as many ads for rideshare companies in 2017 and 2018 noted, drivers should “get their side hustle on” to switch between earning and “chilling.”


Uber's ad to drivers
Uber lets you “be your own boss.”

The gig economy’s “side hustle” has rapidly emerged as a necessity for many Americans, particularly as wages stagnate and the American economy overwhelmingly favors the interests of the wealthy. The “hustle” has been engrained in the rideshare industry’s ethos since its inception. A recent study showed that 48 percent of millennials say they earn extra income, pay down debt, or boost their savings through gig economy work, and the working issues that arise are often aimed at specific companies rather than the larger gig economy’s precarious and often predatory treatment of its workers. Even scripted series and films such as Insecure (HBO, 2017-) and Stuber (2019) double down on how Lyft and Uber drivers, respectively, frequently work part-time to supplement their other sources of income because it is difficult to make ends meet on just one job. I, too, drive for both Uber and Lyft part-time to make ends meet, and often find myself unconsciously recycling narratives about these companies allowing me to earn a lot when I want and as often as I want.

Da Republic of Brooklyn perpetuates the ubiquitous claim that “hustling” allows workers to achieve their own goals, even as that practice requires workers to opt out of financial security such as 401ks, work-provided health insurance, or substantial stock options in rideshare companies’ newly launched IPOs. Lyft and Uber are both incredibly valuable companies (valued around $24 and $74 billion, respectively) that continue to decrease driver bonuses, decrease mileage pay, and hemorrhage capital under the guise of staying competitive. Lee’s series does not examine how much the showcased drivers make per hour, and Uber only notes how long they have been working for the company on the information panels on Uber Presents’ website. This presentation distances Uber from its status as an employer and instead grants the rideshare company its own opportunity to position its labor as a side hustle for “partners” to eventually achieve seemingly worthier and more fulfilling career goals.


Uber Workers Strike NYC
Uber drivers’ successful strike in New York City.

For full-time drivers, working for these companies is “becoming financially untenable,” as average monthly earnings declined nearly 50 percent over the last five years as Uber’s work force increased from 160,000 Americans in 2014 to over 900,000 by late 2018. Uber, Lyft, and other gig economy employers’ deliberate decision to classify their employees as “partners” and, legally, as “independent contractors” allows companies to avoid proper compensation for its full-time workers in order to maximize profits. Just five months after the series debuted, New York City officials passed a minimum pay rate around $17.22 per hour for drivers on ride-hailing apps “to make sure drivers can earn a decent living.” The series’ debut in the months prior to these legislative changes is likely not coincidental, but rather part of Uber’s larger mission to market itself in a friendlier, less corporate light in the wake of sexual harassment scandals and their former CEO’s beratement of a long-time Uber driver for not taking “responsibility” for his own actions as drivers’ fares were cut.

Lyft, meanwhile, has always presented itself as the more colorful and friendlier rideshare company, and its original content advances this positioning. Lyft Entertainment is a media production company that began with lighthearted, celebrity-driven fare such as “Undercover Lyft,” with the likes of Kevin Hart, Danica Patrick, and Jason Sudeikis riding in disguise behind the wheel. These videos generated hundreds of millions of YouTube views, in stark contrast to Da Republic of Brooklyn‘s two million viewers for five videos. Lyft Entertainment has found tremendous success in the online space and recently ventured into original co-productions. The company brought back Billy on the Street (Fuse/TruTV, 2011-17; YouTube, 2018-) with Funny or Die, and premiered East of La Brea at 2019’s SXSW Festival. The latter is a co-production with Paul Feig’s Powderkeg, a company that aims “to tell the stories of talented, emerging and underrepresented voices in comedy” (Fleming 2019). Feig’s series, like Billy on the Street, has no obvious connection to Lyft’s products, but it carries the diverse and positive image that Lyft often produces.


BOTS
Billy on the Street, co-produced by Funny or Die and Lyft Entertainment.

While Uber’s series more explicitly promotes the “hustle” of part-time work, Uber and Lyft’s media production coalesces around their depictions of a diverse, ambitious labor force. These companies and other technology conglomerates have faced considerable scrutiny and criticism for their racist and sexist practices, but these series act as a forward-facing promotion of rideshare companies’ progressiveness. The entrance of rideshare companies into the original content space might seem like another form of burning through venture capital (which it is), but it also enables these companies to “inch away” from the “significant criticism” they have faced, much like Facebook and Twitter faced in the wake of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))]. The production of series by and about marginalized voices is a welcome shift by the technology industry, even if it outwardly presents as self-aggrandizing and a distraction from more pervasively harmful practices.

Increasingly, other technology, software, and social media companies are launching or acquiring media production arms as a means of retaining online users, selling more lucrative advertising space, and guiding how users find and engage with online media. For social media companies in particular, the “stronger push into original content is an attempt to more directly benefit from activity already taking place on its platforms.” [ ((Barker, Cory. 2018. “Facebook, Twitter, and the Pivot to Original Content: From Social TV to TV on Social.” In “Social TV Fandom and the Media Industries,” edited by Myles McNutt, special issue, Transformative Works and Cultures, no. 26. http://dx.doi.org/10.3983/twc.2018.1291.))] Facebook launched Facebook Watch in August of 2017, producing dozens of original programs ranging in cost from $10,000 to over $1 million an episode, with early reports that they would be willing to spend $3-4 million per episode in order to place the service on equal footing with competitors. Apple is finally launching Apple TV+ in fall of 2019, with the intention of the service competing with Netflix at original film programming on an awards level. These companies will more than likely use these services to not just keep users on their respective platforms and devices, but also to combat their potentially negative publicity along the way, like Lyft and Uber.

Whether Uber Presents or Lyft Entertainment will launch successful scripted programming in this crowded media landscape remains to be seen. However, these services will likely continue to benefit from producing polished promotional materials that perpetuate the harmful narrative that these companies are merely opportunities for “hustling” and important sites of diversity.

Image Credits:

1. Author’s screengrab from YouTube.
2. Author’s screengrab.
3. Photo from Drew Angerer, Getty Images, in New York Magazine article.
4. Author’s screengrab.




Toward a Critical Theory of Scooters
Andy Fischer Wright / University of Texas at Austin

Lime Scooter
An image of a scooter, the focus of this piece.

It is almost ludicrous at this point to not believe that new technology companies have widened societal inequalities. Whether this is through searching logics resulting in “technological redlining” [ ((Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How search engines reinforce racism.
New York, NY: New York University Press.))] or a simple lack of access via the digital divide, there is much to problematize in the world of tech. However, one corner of technology that has been slightly under-recognized (with some exceptions) is ride sharing. Within this sharing economy exists an object of culture that hit the streets relatively recently: dockless scooters. It is my aim to develop the bones of a critical theory for the scooter as it exists in culture.

To first make myself perfectly clear, I do not want to spend a thousand words and three minutes of your time raining abuse on what some could consider an irreplaceable and life-changing form of transportation. Scooters and similar dockless rideshare technology can potentially act as tools to help people get to places in cities that grow too quickly in complex gentrifying processes, or act as a temporary solution for the classed icon of car ownership, or even be a valuable tool of mobility for those who are otherwise physically unable. My intention is not to criticize the users, but to explore the different features of these devices with a critical eye.

According to the circuit of culture [ ((Du Gay, P., et al. (2013). Doing Cultural Studies: The story of the Sony Walkman. Vol. 2. London: SAGE.))], there are five interrelated aspects of a cultural object: production, consumption, regulation, identity, and representation. The production of scooters is, like all consumer electronics, highly problematic. If we look at the trends of scooter development, the three key priorities that companies reiterate in a standard press release are rider safety, hardware durability, and longer charge time. Though these are all ostensibly positive advancements, popular press tends to focus on safety without analyzing how the trend of simply releasing new scooters is highly problematic from an environmental perspective. Even without the popular social media trend of visibly destroying scooters, the model of continually replacing hardware instead of maintaining it comes with the corollary cost of an unending labor cycle for those mining rare metals, manufacturing the components, and assembling the final product. [ ((The author was unable to find any evidence specifically pointing to unethical labor practices by the companies that produce the scooters. However, he can say colloquially that the global electronics trade is known for horrific and inhumane labor practices.))]

Moving toward consumption, I turn to the question brought up in a recent paper [ ((Keyes, O. Hoy, J., and Drouhard, M. (2019). “HumanComputer insurrection: Notes on an anarchist HCI.” In CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems Proceedings (CHI 2019), May 4–9, 2019, Glasgow, Scotland, UK. ACM, New York, NY, USA, 13 pages. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300569.))] problematizing technology more generally: “One must ask how emancipatory a technology is, how much autonomy it induces when, for example, it overwhelmingly remains the preserve of those who are already most free.” This is indeed the model for scooters; ‘Ridesharing 2.0’ is a philosophy that is targeted specifically at cities whose citizens need a solution for a transportation problem that is already a matter of privilege. According to a recent press release, market leader Bird is marketed as “last-mile electric vehicle sharing company” whose intended clientele are “looking to take a short journey across town or down that ‘last mile’ from the subway or bus.” This is not a device intended for commuting, but to fill a certain sub-niche within a niche.

And even if the battery lasted long enough for people who have been pushed out of city centers by gentrification to take a scooter to their old neighborhoods, the task of actually locating a device to ride is daunting. According to data collected by the City of Austin, of the 1.6 million dockless vehicle trips that began in the center of downtown Austin, over 1.1 million concluded within that same small region; it seems that scooters are intended to be within the city, for the city. And while Bird operates on three continents, the overwhelming majority of their partner cities are large cities within North America, most of which contain large universities. Though this could be interpreted as a result of the most prominent scooter companies being based in North America and less than three years old, it can also indicate that the intended consuming audience is in fact intended to be individuals living downtown in populous North American cities. All logics of a scooter’s affordability are negated by a lack of access to any except those already within the city.


Austin Dockless Data
Anonymized dockless rideshare data from the City of Austin. Higher bars and darker colors indicate rides that originate in the small downtown area stay within the downtown area. Supplemental data not included here indicate that under 10 total rides either originate or end within surrounding suburbs, such as Pflugerville or Round Rock.

Regulation of scooters is theoretically easy but practically much more difficult. For instance, the University of Texas at Austin has a series of guidelines for scooters based on the findings of a work group in December 2018. Geofencing makes the maximum speed of any scooter on campus eight miles per hour, a heavy fine for improper parking reinforces the importance of designated scooter parking zones, and there was a University-wide email claiming faculty and staff would soon be prohibited from riding commercial scooters for “work-related purposes.” Outside of UT, a scooter was famously used as a tool of regulation in locating a young Austin bank robber who made good his escape on a scooter.

However, the physical scooter proves in need of less regulation without a branded network. Without the software and connection to a corporate entity, a scooter would not be slowed down on entering campus. If the rider shared the scooter with a known community instead of trusting another anonymous app user to pick up the scooter next, they might be less likely to abandon the scooter in the middle of the sidewalk. And without the tie to the rider’s digital double, scooters might even be used by university staff to quickly get across campus without worrying about leaving a paper trail tied to their credit card and cell phone. Most regulation seems to not address scooters themselves but the issues that arise from their role in the corporatized ridesharing system.


Birds Charging
A garage full of charging Bird scooters. Image taken from an online tutorial for more efficient charging.

While the scooter has a representation in and of itself, we cannot separate it from the connected identities of those who interact with it every day. Though customers have undoubtedly grown to be more than just those riding the final mile home from the subway stop, another identity that has sprung up more recently are those connected to scooters via their power outlets. Facing high demand and a comically ridiculous logistics issue of charging tens of thousands of batteries every night, large scooter companies now use ‘juicers’ to charge scooters in down times and deliver them to key points across the city. As independent contractors, juicers are shipped chargers by scooter companies and paid according to pickup location, charge level, and a timely drop off in a convenient hub. The containment of scooters within downtown areas is further reinforced by monetary incentives for dropping scooters closer to downtown.

If this is Ridesharing 2.0, then juicers are the second iteration of drivers in an even more ruthless system. Due to the nature of their compensation, to earn a living, juicers must collect scooters in large quantities, driving rented trailers and pick up trucks to places their app tells them will yield better profits. And yet, the juicer and the rider never interact with one another. This separation of rider and juicer is highly troubling; to a scooter rider, the juicer is an even more invisible part of the process than even the most silent driver. There is a grim phantasmagoria of Uber’s autonomous fleet in Ridesharing 2.0, reminding us that inequalities continue to persist and are ignored by futurists.

And so, we come to a conclusion that dockless scooters, while potentially an affordable, ‘ecofriendly’ solution to local travel, are in execution highly problematic. Yet for all of this we cannot simply erase scooters off the face of the planet any easier than we can eradicate petrochemical dependency (though, admittedly, this would be great.) Perhaps a more practical solution is to address the structural issues Ridesharing 2.0 takes advantage of, including a lack of affordable and equitable public transportation. By providing more communal and safer options for traveling in and around cities, we can solve the issue that created scooters.

Image Credits:

1. An image of a scooter, the focus of this piece.
2. Anonymized dockless rideshare data from the City of Austin. Higher bars and darker colors indicate rides that originate in the small downtown area stay within the downtown area. Supplemental data not included here indicate that under 10 total rides either originate or end within surrounding suburbs, such as Pflugerville or Round Rock.
3. A garage full of charging Bird scooters. Image taken from a tutorial for more efficient charging.




The Devil in the Details: User Tracking Is Hurting More Than Our Privacy, It’s Doing Serious Damage to Public-Interest Media, Too.
Josh Braun / UMass Amherst

With the attention economy in full swing, behavioral targeting—tracking and assembling data about users in the service of online advertising—is giving rise to practices and infrastructures that threaten personal privacy, disrupt civic journalism, and incentivize the spread of disinformation.

As I write this, my social media feeds are consumed by the furor resulting from Jeff Bezos’s open letter accusing The National Enquirer’s parent company, AMI, of attempting to extort him over leaked photographs from his affair. While much of the commentary rightly focuses on issues of digitally-enabled blackmail, Slate tech reporter April Glaser simultaneously muses at the irony of a privacy scandal befalling a tech CEO who’s garnered notoriety for “actively building a surveillance state.”

A few weeks on from “Data Privacy Day,” the international holiday aimed at promoting better protection for consumers’ data, the Bezos story is just one of many to raise questions about the individual right to privacy in the digital era. It follows closely on the heels of Facebook’s latest scandal—Apple pulled the company’s services from its app store after the revelation Facebook was paying teenagers to install tracking software on their phones—and years after a ProPublica report that Google had quietly abandoned its ban on collecting personally identifiable tracking data on its users. [ (( Particularly when it comes to Facebook, the hits just keep on coming, fast enough that I decided it’d be unwise to try to keep updating this piece during the proofing process. Editorial: Facebook, Zuckerberg’s sins now include preying on teens. (2019, February 5). The Mercury News. Retrieved from https://www.mercurynews.com/2019/02/05/editorial-facebook-2/; Angwin, J. (2016, October 21). Google has quietly dropped ban on personally identifiable web tracking. ProPublica. Retrieved from https://www.propublica.org/article/google-has-quietly-dropped-ban-on-personally-identifiable-web-tracking.))] Other recent reporting discusses how location information collected from our phones has found its way into the hands third parties ranging from robocallers to bounty hunters, raising deep concerns about individual privacy, personal safety, and even national security. [ (( Vogt, P.J., Goldman, A., Marchetti, D., and Bennin, P. (Hosts.) (2019, January 31). Robocall: Bang bang [Podcast episode]. Reply All. Retrieved from https://www.gimletmedia.com/reply-all/135-the-robocall-conundrum#episode-player; Cox, Joseph. (2019, February 6). Hundreds of bounty hunters had access to AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint customer location data for years. Motherboard. Retrieved from https://motherboard.vice.com/en_us/article/43z3dn/hundreds-bounty-hunters-att-tmobile-sprint-customer-location-data-years; Valentino-DeVries, J., Singer, N., Keller, M.H., and Krolik, A. (2018, December 10). Your apps know where you were last night, and they’re not keeping it secret. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/12/10/business/location-data-privacy-apps.html))]

EverythingMe

A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app, EverythingMe, which was downloaded 20 million times and eventually found to have been co-opted into a multi-million dollar ad fraud scheme. Co-opted apps tracked phone users’ behavior as a template on which to base convincing automated traffic, which could then be used to defraud advertisers by faking ad views. [ ((Silverman, C. (2018, October 23). Apps installed on millions of Android phones tracked user behavior to execute a multimillion-dollar ad fraud scheme. Buzzfeed. Retrieved from https://www.buzzfeednews.com/article/craigsilverman/how-a-massive-ad-fraud-scheme-exploited-android-phones-to))] Ad fraud schemes siphon massive amounts of revenue out of the advertising market.

As data privacy (or lack thereof) has begun to take on the dimensions of a crisis, another much-discussed emergency has been unfolding in parallel: the economic collapse of ad-supported digital journalism. Following a series of layoffs at news organizations ranging from TechCrunch to HuffPo to BuzzFeed and Gannett, respected tech columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote in The New York Times, “it would be a mistake to regard these cuts as the ordinary chop of a long-roiling digital media sea. Instead, they are a devastation. The cause of each company’s troubles may be distinct, but collectively the blood bath points to the same underlying market pathology: the inability of the digital advertising business to make much meaningful room for anyone but monopolistic tech giants.” Two days later, Vice cut 250 more journalism jobs, or 10 percent of its workforce.

This rash of cuts is especially painful, given that “digital-native newsrooms” were only recently celebrated as one of the few areas in American journalism to have added jobs over the course of a decade-long 25 percent decline in employment led by steady layoffs at traditional newspapers. [ (( Grieco, E. (2018, July 30). Newsroom employment dropped nearly a quarter in less than 10 years, with greatest decline at newspapers. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/07/30/newsroom-employment-dropped-nearly-a-quarter-in-less-than-10-years-with-greatest-decline-at-newspapers))]

These two crucial problems—the erosion of digital privacy and the revenue crisis in American journalism—have tended to be discussed as distinct issues. They are not. [ (( Ryan, J. (2019). The adtech crisis and disinformation [Lecture video]. Vimeo. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/317245633.))] Rather, they spring from a common origin and, to paraphrase Thoreau, in solving them we would do better to strike at the root than to hack at the branches. [ (( Thoreau, H.D. (1910/1854). Walden. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell & Co., p.98))]

It is a commonplace that advertising pays for most of the free services we use on the the internet. The viral quotation from Jeff Hammerbacher, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” sums up much about the direction online business models have taken. And the solution that has been settled upon is programmatic advertising.

Brave

Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave (the company behind a privacy-oriented Web browser) showing some of the sensitive categories that ad tech firms attach to your persona as you browse the web. It’s a selective excerpt of the Interactive Advertising Bureau’s (IAB) “Content Taxonomy v2” list.

Programmatic advertising takes a number of forms, but generally speaking, in the fraction of a second that it takes a webpage or an app to load on your screen, an automated auction is being held for your attention based on tracking data that has been collected about you. The publisher puts up ad space for sale, brands put in competing bids to place an ad in the space, and intermediaries called ad tech firms handle all the transaction details. By the time the content you requested finishes loading, the auction winner’s ad appears on your screen alongside it.

While the most prominent news organizations, like The New York Times or The Economist, may still do a brisk business directly with branded advertisers, a vast number of other news organizations rely far more heavily on programmatic advertising exchanges to sell their inventory, competing not just with other news organizations, but with blogs, web forums, recipe sites, online games, and any other website or app that sells ad space in programmatic exchanges. This dramatically drives down the cost of ads and hence the revenue going to publishers.

Moreover, these transactions are often focused tightly around reaching particular consumers to the near exclusion of editorial context. To give one example, all of us have experienced “retargeted” advertising—view a suitcase on a retailer’s website and ads for the same piece of luggage follow you across the web for days or weeks.

As Malthouse, Maslowska, and Franks put it, programmatic advertising separates “the value of the content product from the audience product.” [ (( Malthouse, E.C., Maslowska, E., and Franks, J. (2018). The role of big data in programmatic TV advertising. In V. Cauberghe, L. Hudders, and M. Eisend (Eds.), Advances in Advertising Research IX . (pp. 29–42). Wiesbaden, Germany: Springer. p. 32.))] Couldry and Turow argue that for traditionally ad-supported news organizations, continuing to chase down advertising revenue in this new environment is thoroughly corrupting. [ (( Couldry, N. and Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm. International Journal of Communication, 8, 1710–1726.))] As advertisers begin pursuing users with particular behavioral profiles, while paying less and less attention to the actual publications they’re visiting, publishers can no longer rely as they once did on the quality of their work. Rather, they must increasingly play the role of data brokers, participating in user surveillance and producing increasingly personalized and/or shopper-friendly content that bins visitors neatly into behavioral profiles that will better draw the bids of advertisers—advertisers that now, at least in comparison to days past, pay scant attention to the name on a site’s masthead.

In the days of contextual advertising, ads for suitcases might best be placed in travel magazines. Under the user-tracking paradigm, not only do brands no longer need to rely on particular publications to reach the consumers they’ve identified as desirable, there is now a perverse incentive to place ads on the least reputable sites, since these are the locations where users’ attention can be bought most cheaply. This has led to a boom in clickbait-driven webpages, selling cheap ad space against vapid or plagiarized content focused around miracle diets and strange cosmetic trends. During the 2016 U.S. election, “fake news” did particularly well as a variant of clickbait and thus became a profit-center for scammers.

Originally from The Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article titled, “BREAKING: ‘Tens of thousands’ of fraudulent Clinton votes found in Ohio warehouse,” that, according to an expose in The Washington Post, was viewed by 6 million people and generated $22,000 in programmatic advertising revenue. Moreover, at the height of this influx of traffic, the web domain where the hoax was posted was appraised for a six-figure sum. [ (( Shane, S. (2017, January 18). From headline to photograph, a fake news masterpiece. The Washington Post. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/18/us/fake-news-hillary-clinton-cameron-harris.html.))]

I don’t use the term “scammers” loosely here—Jessica Eklund and I recently published a study in which we examined disfunction in the programmatic advertising industry. [ (( Braun, J.A. and Eklund, J.L. (2019) Fake news, real money: Ad tech platforms, profit-driven hoaxes, and the business of journalism. Digital Journalism, 7(1), 1–21.))] Industry executives explained that many hoax news sites were fronts for outright fraud, ginning up page views with bots and click workers and selling them to advertisers for a profit. Legitimate visitors to these sites were welcome, of course, but often their main value was confusing fraud-detection mechanisms by pushing down the ratio of automated to human traffic.

In short, it might be fair to expect news organizations to endure stiffer competition from new corners—not simply blogs or Craigslist, but gaming apps and recipe sites. However, in the current market, legitimate journalism is competing for ad dollars with sites engaged in aggressive fraud, sometimes with the assistance of ad tech companies themselves. Along with related enterprises like fake traffic generation, these siphon billions of dollars out of the advertising market annually [ (( Fulgoni, G. (2016). Fraud in digital advertising. Journal of Advertising Research, 56(2): 122–125.))], contributing to the larger problem of market failure [ (( Pickard, V. (2015). America’s battle for media democracy. New York: Cambridge.))] in contemporary journalism.

To review, then, the massive system of commercial surveillance we see online not only impacts us in terms of privacy, safety, and security, it has dramatically increased the amount of information pollution [ (( Wardle, C., and Derakhshan, H. (2017). Information disorder. Strasbourg: Council of Europe. Retrieved from https://firstdraftnews.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/PREMS-162317-GBR-2018-Report-de%CC%81sinformation-1.pdf))] in the public sphere, gutting news budgets—and hence newsrooms—by driving down the amount paid for ads, turning trusted news organizations into data brokers that produce less civically valuable content, dramatically incentivizing the creation of clickbait and outright disinformation, and kindling remarkable volumes of fraudulent activity that simultaneously fleeces advertisers and diverts hefty amounts of money away from public-interest media.

One recent survey indicated that a sizable majority of the American public already sees the collection of their data in the service of targeted advertising as unethical. [ (( RSA. (2019). RSA data privacy & security survey [Report]. Bedford, MA: Author.))] I imagine they might feel even more strongly about the issue were it more commonly linked with dramatic declines in the health of public-interest media. As we witness the introduction of digital privacy policy conversations and frameworks, whether the GDPR in Europe or bills proposed in individual states here in the U.S., it’s time to begin examining commercial surveillance not just as a privacy issue, but as a notable threat to our media institutions and public discourse.

Image Credits:

1. With the attention economy in full swing…
2. A marketing screenshot for the Android launcher app…
3. Screenshot from a document prepared by Brave…
4. Originally from the Birmingham Mail, this image was appropriated by a hoax news article….




Mass Reach After Mass Media
Josh Braun / University of Massachusetts Amherst

Abraham Bradley Jr.'s map of the early U.S. postal network

Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network

Writing in 1829 about the newly completed U.S. postal network, William Ellery Channing marveled, “When a few leaders have agreed on an object, an impulse may be given in a month to the whole country. Whole States may be deluged with tracts and other publications, and a voice like that of many waters, be called forth from immense and widely separated multitudes. Here is a great new power brought to bear on society, and it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.” [ ((Quoted in John, 1995, p. 185. ))]

As Richard John [ (( John, Richard. (1995). Spreading the news: The American postal system from Franklin to Morse. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] notes in his history of the postal service, the United States’ first national distribution network was transformative for the manner in which it enabled—and at times compelled—the country’s inhabitants to think of themselves as belonging to a common public. This is what Kristy Hess [ (( Hess, Kristy. (1995). Tertius tactics: “Mediated social capital” as a resource of power for traditional commercial news media. Communication Theory, 23(2), 112–130.))] calls the “bonding function” of media and, while the underlying technologies may have changed since the nineteenth century, the tenet that media infrastructures and distribution networks are central to the formation and maintenance of publics is still being proven out in the work of scholars like Yong-Chan Kim and Sandra Ball-Rokeach [ (( Kim, Y.-C., & Ball-Rokeach. (2006). Civic engagement from a communication infrastructure perspective. Communication Theory, 16(2), 173–197. ))] who highlight the manner in which people who share a broadcast radius or newspaper circulation footprint appear more likely to think of themselves as members of a common public with shared concerns and civic responsibilities.

Historian and social theorist Michael Warner [ (( Warner, Michael. (2002). Publics and counterpublics. New York: Zone Books. ))] developed the notion of “reflexive circulation” to refer to this phenomenon—the way in which media distribution underpins many of the social imaginaries on which societies depend. Put simply, our mediated public discourse has historically relied on the notion that when we publish an item in a newspaper or air it in a broadcast that we are speaking to the same assembled audience over time. Stable distribution networks allow us the conceit that a town or a nation or a social movement deliberates as a single, inclusive body.

Of course, this notion has always been something of a fantasy. Throughout their history the news media, for example, have always left out particular groups. This is true not just of the perspectives they offer—though egregious omissions have been well documented by media sociologists from Gaye Tuchman [ (( Tuchman, Gaye. (1978). Making news: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.))] to Sue Robinson [ (( Robinson, Sue. (2018). Networked news, racial divides: How power and privilege shape progressive communities. New York: Cambridge University Press.))]—but of the networks of distribution on which they depend. John, for example, notes the many ways in which women were effectively barred from post offices in the 19th century, when these were the community hubs in which newspapers were read and discussed. C. Edwin Baker [ (( Baker, Edwin. (2002). Media, markets, and democracy. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] describes in detail the many ways in which commercial media systems have traditionally limited access by the poor.

 Television set from 1948

Television set from 1948, the presidential election year when both the Democratic and Republican parties held their conventions in Philadelphia so as to be within the broadcast area of the nascent TV market.

Warner’s reflexive circulation, in other words, allows participants to imagine an inclusive public discourse, even as it leaves many groups out of the conversation. And sociologists like Jen Shradie (forthcoming) [ (( Shradie, Jen. (2006). The Revolution that Wasn’t: How Digital Activism Favors Conservatives. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. ))] have begun to document how, while the contours of exclusion may be different in the age of digital media (or in some cases very similar), they are still very much with us. Likewise, though the business logics of media have long included some degree of market segmentation in forms such as interest-based magazines and cable channels, Zeynep Tufekci [ (( Tufecki, Zeynep. (2018, January 16). “It’s the (democracy-poisoning) golden age of free speech.” Wired. Retrieved from https://www.wired.com/story/free-speech-issue-tech-turmoil-new-censorship/.))] sounds the alarm that the gulf between our sense of belonging to a common mediated public and the actual logics of our media system has grown wider than ever before.

“Online speech is no longer public in any traditional sense,” Tufekci writes. “Sure, Facebook and Twitter sometimes feel like places where masses of people experience things together simultaneously. But in reality, posts are targeted and delivered privately, screen by screen by screen. Today’s phantom public sphere has been fragmented and submerged into billions of individual capillaries. Yes, mass discourse has become far easier for everyone to participate in—but it has simultaneously become a set of private conversations happening behind your back. Behind everyone’s backs.”

It’s not just our personal posts and correspondence that get delivered (or not) in this mercurial fashion. As folks like Jenkins, Ford, and Green [ (( Jenkins, H., Ford, S., & Green, J. (2013). Spreadable media: Creating value and meaning in a networked culture. New York: New York University Press. ))] have noted, legacy media industries are also learning to live in this environment. The “conversation economy” described by “Web 2.0” enthusiasts has evolved into an “attention economy” in which media industries have become adept at leveraging people’s online sharing activities to promote their products. We’ve seen the development not only of editorial and brand management strategies, but of content management systems, recommendation algorithms, playlist managers, and other technologies aimed at rapidly repackaging and repurposing editorial output for different niche audiences and social media channels, attempting to replace the broadcast tower with the capacity to tap into thousands of individual conversations and overlapping gossip networks.

As Matthew Hindman [ (( Hindman, Matthew. (2013). Journalism ethics and digital audience data. In P. J. Boczkowski and C. W. Anderson (Eds.), Remaking the news: Essays on the future of journalism scholarship in the digital age. (pp. 177–194). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. ))] notes, it’s possible to imagine a world in which this level of attentiveness to the wants of audiences serves democratic goals, allowing creators to better identify and serve the public interest. But—as Hindman also points out—that isn’t the world we live in right now. Instead, just as in previous commercial media systems, the emerging digital economy is one in which the interests and conversations of some groups are identified and prioritized as more lucrative than those of others. The result can be a jarring one, wherein the most profitable niche audiences are served up more of what they apparently enjoy and others are offered tone-deaf results in the name of customization.

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Example of targeted marketing from Netflix

Witness, for instance, the recent revelation that Netflix has been showing users of color promotional images for its content that feature black actors, despite the fact that these actors have only minor roles in the films being advertised. [ (( Iqbal, N. (2018, October 20). Film fans see red over Netflix ‘targeted’ posters for black viewers. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/oct/20/netflix-film-black-viewers-personalised-marketing-target. ))] Safiya Umoji Noble’s [ (( Umoji Noble, Safiya. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))] critiques of Google Search’s historical results for “black girls”—results uncritically responsive to the SEO efforts of the porn industry—provide another example, wherein the response to an individual’s query assumes the most profitable audience (male porn consumers, apparently) at the expense, on multiple levels, of other groups. Meanwhile, in journalism, scholars like Couldry and Turow [ (( Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication,. 8, 1710–1726. ))] argue that the online advertising industry’s push for fine-scale consumer differentiation will prod news organizations even further down the road of content personalization and destroy the potential for the news media to serve as common points of reference in democratic discourse.

Most scholars agree that these misalignments—between valuations of audience attention that serve the public interest and ones that cut against it—have to do with the commercial and ad-driven logics that dominate our media ecosystem. And so, unsurprisingly, the correctives they offer are policy-based. Noble argues that we need consumer protection policies in place to mitigate the representational harms caused by commercial search engines and other online platforms. Victor Pickard [ (( Pickard, Victor (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))] makes the case that we should alter government regulations to make it simpler for news organizations to transition to non-profit or low-profit status, and tax the corporations—ISPs, Google, Facebook, etc.—that currently profit most off the the changes that have decimated newsrooms to pay for more media in the public interest. Couldry and Turow suggest we need regulations to limit the extensive collection and use of data in the service of online advertising, so as to buffer the resulting pressures toward hyper-personalization of editorial content currently being experienced by news organizations. And Nicole S. Cohen [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication.))] argues that more unionization within digital newsrooms will give journalists the power to push back themselves on editorial policies myopically focused on producing more, and more profitable, clicks.

In many cases, these scholars say that the biggest obstacle standing in the way of such outcomes, however, is the tendency of publics to accept the media ecosystem they see as given, rather than as the artificial outcome of policy frameworks that facilitate particular market logics and valuations of audiences. How do you get people excited about tax reforms [ (( Pickard, V. (2014). America’s battle for media democracy: The triumph of corporate libertarianism and the future of media reform.. New York: Cambridge University Press. ))]? How do you get them to understand the commercial logics governing Google Search results that they have come to trust implicitly [ (( Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of oppression: How search engines reinforce racism. New York: New York University Press.))]? How about the link between data privacy law [ ((Couldry, N. & Turow, J. (2014). Advertising, big data, and the clearance of the public realm: Marketers’ new approaches to the content subsidy. International Journal of Communication, 1710–1726. ))] or unionization [ (( Cohen, N. S. (2018). At work in the digital newsroom. Digital Journalism, advance online publication. ))] and public-interest journalism?

If mobilizing citizens around policy questions like these seems tricky, more scholarship on these topics can’t possibly hurt. The Warnerian conceit that our media infrastructures and distribution networks create an inclusive public is a powerful and necessary one. But it needs to be more than just a conceit. As the media industries continue to adapt to what Newsvine founder and former Twitter VP Mike Davidson has called, “the massive decentralization of conversation” [ (( Braun, J. A. (2015). This program is brought to you by: Distributing television news online. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p.166. ))], attempting to compensate for the collapse of traditional modes of delivery by tapping into the word-of-mouth marketing and distribution afforded by millions of individuals’ social networks, scholars need to continue to ask critical questions about how media companies are going about this and how our sociality is being commodified. To echo Channing’s thoughts on an earlier system of distribution, “it is a great moral question, how it ought to be viewed, and what duties it imposes.”

Image Credits:
1. Abraham Bradley Jr.’s map of the early U.S. postal network
2. Television set from 1948
3. Example of targeted marketing from Netflix




Robots in Popular Culture: Labor Precarity and Machine Cute
Anthony P. McIntyre / University College Dublin

hitchbot

Hitchbot, the hitchhiking robot.

In August 2015, Hitchbot, a robot developed by academics at McMaster and Ryerson Universities in Canada, was vandalised beyond repair in Philadelphia just 4 days into its mission to travel across the US depending on the kindness of strangers. A video promoting the robot’s earlier successful hitchhiking adventure across Canada introduces Hitchbot’s developers by cheerfully announcing that “Usually it’s humans that are scared that robots will take over the world, well these guys flipped that idea on its head.” [ ((“https://www.facebook.com/greatbigstory/videos/1610167969285630/“))] However, later events would of course undermine the vision of benign human robot collaboration that informed the road trip experiment. While the true motive behind the vandalism that cut short Hitchbot’s journey is impossible to know for sure, the whole episode is evidence of the highly ambivalent positioning of robots in popular culture, and a suspicion of these technological marvels. This ambivalence, I argue, is compounded by the affective responses generated by cuteness, one of the main aesthetic paradigms for the representation of robots. Cuteness, in the view of some theorists, with its aestheticization of weakness or powerlessness, also generates feelings of suspicion and exploitation that can trigger violent responses. [ ((“Ngai, Sianne. Our Aesthetic Categories: Zany, Cute, Interesting. Cambridge, Mass. and London: Harvard UP, 2012. Print.”))] In addition to the demise of Hitchbot, we may also consider the “Burning Elmo” videos posted on YouTube, [ ((“https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NKTlVIKd6hw“))] where the lovable cute talking toy is burnt, while often continuing to talk as exemplary of this phenomenon.

Cuteness was initially theorised by ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in 1943 developed a kindchenschema, or ‘child schema’ that posited features such as large eyes, pudgy extremities and clumsy movements as common to infant humans and animals alike. Lorenz ‘s belief was that such features triggered nurturing behaviours in adults and were part of an evolutionary step to ensure caregiving for the young of a species. Many contemporary theorisations of cuteness contest some of Lorenz’s more rigid views on the links between cuteness and an instinctive nurturing response, with psychologists Gary D. Sherman and Jonathan Haidt, for instance, suggesting that the response elicited is more often one of play rather than protection. [ ((“Sherman, Gary D., and Jonathan Haidt. “Cuteness and Disgust: The Humanizing and Dehumanizing Effects of Emotion.” Emotion Review 3.3 (2011): 245–51.”))] Machine cute exists within a constellation of both visual and behavioural traits that overlap with but also go beyond Lorenz’s kindchenschema. The main features of machine cute are (a) overt indicators of vulnerability, such as clumsiness; (b) a lack of bodily integrity; (c) limited linguistic capacities; and (d) a naivety or cognitive neoteny. Examples of machine cute can display several of these features, but not necessarily all, as I shall demonstrate.

robots

BB8, Baymax, Chappie, and Hitchbot, all recent examples of robots in popular culture.

If we consider recent examples of robots that emerge in contemporary popular culture, BB8 in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, (2015) Baymax in Disney’s Big Hero 6, and Chappie the eponymous robot from Neil Blomkamp’s 2015 violent action adventure film, we can see differences in how machine cute manifests. All three of these robots, as well as, of course, Hitchbot, demonstrate key features of machine cute to a greater or lesser extent.

With Hitchbot, for instance, we see in his ultimate demise evidence of his lack of bodily integrity. The robot had limited linguistic capacities and was a less than robust entity, commonly requiring reassembly on his travels, even before he met a violent end. In Chappie, although the robot was originally built as part of a generic squad of humanoid police robots, from the beginning of the film this particular robot is portrayed as vulnerable to attack, signified visually by a prominent replacement bright orange ear. This aspect of machine cute marks the seeming opposite of the impenetrable robot impervious to human attack common to dystopian sci-fi narratives, a type perhaps best represented by Gort from the classic 1951 sci-fi The Day the Earth Stood Still.

Chappie’s cuteness really emerges with his “birth” scene, briefly shown in the trailer below, with the robot displaying the cognitive neoteny of a human infant in its early years, although considerably accelerated. Chappie’s linguistic development improves quickly also but for most of the film his grammar is imperfect, with the robot referring to himself in the third person, using tenses clumsily, saying lines such as: “Chappie got stories” and “Chappie got fears.” This demonstrates how the depiction of robots as cute on the basis of linguistic incompetency works similarly to the aesthetic process that cute-ifies animals as demonstrated in the iconic “I can haz cheezburger” meme.

Prior to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a toy version of BB8, the cute round robot that assists the central characters just as R2D2 did in the early movies, hit the shops. BB8 both as character in the film and as a toy, demonstrates key features of machine cute. The video below of the BB8 toy designer providing a demonstration also suggests the pedagogic role such material objects perform [ ((“Gibbs, Samuel, and Richard Sprenger. “Meet BB-8, the Star Wars Droid You Can Take Home as a Toy – Video.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 03 Sept. 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] .

bb8

The BB8 toy, on sale in anticipation of the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

If we apply the criterion of limited linguistic capacities, it seems congruent with the case of BB8 with its complete lack of intelligible words and reliance on affective-digital sounds that indicate mood. In addition, we see vulnerability inherent to the little robot, both on account of its diminutive size and its tendency to dismantle easily with the head popping free of the body in instances of minor collision. Finally, we might consider the concept of labour as articulated by the robot engineer. His various statements bear analysis. While acknowledging the existing fears about robots (he’s careful to distance the robot from notions of surveillance), he makes the contradictory remarks that it’s not there to do anything and later suggests the toy constitutes “the first step to people being used to having robotic companions,” for which we should also read, perhaps, robotic labour.

In effect, this robot, and the many similar toys and devices that flooded the market in its wake are there as pedagogical instruments. So, much in the same way that Joyce Goggin, building on the material cultures work of Daniel Miller, describes the Liddle Iddle Kiddle dolls she played with as a child and collects as an adult as providing a means of teaching “how to perform gender in a very essentialized … way,” [ ((” Goggin, Joyce. “Affective Marketing and the Kuteness of Kiddles” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 216-34.”))] the BB8 robot seems to be facilitating interaction with a robot companion while simultaneously alleviating the fears that would surround such technologies.

If Hitchbot, Chappie and BB8 are a far cry from the haptic sensuality of what many associate with cuteness, such as the furry softness of puppies and kittens, there are also examples of machine cute that align with these features. Writing on plush toys in his analysis of cuteness as a commodity aesthetic, essayist Daniel Harris (2000) describes “… a world of soothing tactile immediacy in which there are no sharp corners or abrasive materials and in which everything has been conveniently soft-sculptured to yield to our importunate squeezes and hugs.” It is such a world that Baymax, the robot star of Big Hero 6 clearly belongs to. Of all the robots I consider, the medical robot from this movie is perhaps the most “classically” cute. His softened and rounded body constitutes an extreme end point in animated figurations of cuteness. His soft features also contribute to the robots clumsiness (see gif) (another key element feature on the machine cute schema). I ’m not sure how much further you could go in terms of soft lines and rounded features without losing discernibility. This over-determined cuteness, I argue, functions in one way to obfuscate the very real threat presented by robotic labour to large swathes of the working population.

Baymax

Baymax of Big Hero 6.

It has been widely predicted that as robot costs decline and technological capabilities expand, robots are expected to replace human labour in a wide range of low-wage service occupations. In an Atlantic article, “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade(and the Robots That Will Steal Them),” for instance, the author notes that the low-wage sector is the area where most US job growth has occurred over the preceding decades and in fact many people had been shifted down to such jobs as higher paid employment shrunk as a result of automation. [ ((“Thompson, Derek. “The Fastest-Growing Jobs of This Decade (and the Robots That Will Steal Them).” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 28 Jan. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] This means that many low-wage manual jobs that have been previously protected from technological developments such as automation could diminish over time, leading to large-scale expulsions from the labor force and increased numbers living in poverty. In addition, many studies predict that highly skilled jobs such as those related to healthcare face a similar threat from automation and robotic labour. [ ((“Susskind, Richard, and Daniel Susskind. “Technology Will Replace Many Doctors, Lawyers, and Other Professionals.” Harvard Business Review. N.p., 31 Oct. 2016. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] In Baymax, we have a fictional medical care robot who can perform the functions of a physician and a personal care aid — two of the professions indicated as being under threat. The suggestion that Baymax was inspired by developments in “soft robotics” [ ((“Ulanoff, Lance. “‘Big Hero 6’ Star Baymax Was Inspired by a Real Robot.” Mashable. Mashable, 07 Nov. 2014. Web. 22 Feb. 2017.”))] attests to the bi-directional influence that fictional and real life robots exert on one another, and while such robots are demonstrably a long way off, technologies providing similar services are not too far away.

As Annalee Newitz notes in her book Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture (in which she argues that robots are one such example of capitalist monsters) considerations of labour relations are rarely the main focus in popular film, yet often “lurk in the background, shaping the narrative.” [ ((“Newitz, Annalee. Pretend We’re Dead: Capitalist Monsters in American Pop Culture. Durham: Duke UP, 2006. Print.”))] In Big Hero 6, this is certainly the case, but with Neill Blomkamp’s short film Tempbot (2006) we have a not entirely successful attempt to examine the potential impact of robotic supplantment of human labor. [ ((“Swedish TV series Äkta människor (trans. “Real Humans,” 2012-14) and its UK/US remake Humans (2015–) have recently taken a more sustained look at the issue. For an analysis of cute robots that examines specifically female-gendered and sexualized robots and analyzes these series, see Julia Leyda, “Cute Twenty-First-Century Post-Fembots” in The Aesthetics and Affects of Cuteness, ed. Joshua Paul Dale, Joyce Goggin, Julia Leyda, Anthony P. McIntyre and Diane Negra. New York: Routledge, 151-74.”))]

Tempbot, as the title suggests, concerns the eponymous machine (an earlier version of the robot that would appear in Chappie) which is, brought into a cubicle office environment as a temp worker, where it is largely ignored by the rest of the mostly disaffected workforce. The short film is somewhat uneven and the cringe humor it attempts is heavily indebted to Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s comedy The Office (2001-03). The vulnerability of the robot in this film is primarily figured through his romantic infatuation with a recently hired female manager and consequent inability to navigate the complex rules of (human) inter-personal intimacy.

If we examine the screenshot below we see an example of how cuteness, as I argued in my previous Flow column, functions in proximity to subordinated groups. Tempbot suggests that there is complacency among those at a more senior positions in the workplace hierarchy, while the ethnic-minority depicted cleaners — here warily watching as Tempbot continues working long after his colleagues have departed for drinks — are those most aware of the threat posed by the new workplace paradigm the robot constitutes.

tempbot

Tempbot, at the office.

At the end of the film, the office is shown completely staffed by Tempbots and, given the evident unhappiness of most of the human workforce depicted in the film, it is unclear whether this is to be interpreted as a happy ending or not. One strange aspect of the film is the dual function of Tempbot who both functions as metaphor for alienated labour and the increased pressures of post-Fordist working conditions, what Melissa Gregg has termed “workplace affects in the age of the cubicle” as well as the threat roboticized labour presents to employees in such disaffected workplaces [ ((“Gregg, Melissa. “On Friday Night Drinks: Workplace Affects in the age of the aubicle.” In The Affect Theory Reader (2010) ed. 250-267″))] . The lack of clear interpretation is quite fitting given the ambivalence of cute robots in general, which both move us emotionally through their vulnerability but also are indicative of very real threat to many livelihoods.

Image Credits:
1. Facebook
2. Courtesy of the author.
3. Youtube
4. The Guardian
5. ibid.
6. Giphy
7. Screenshot from Tempbot (2006) courtesy of the author.

Please feel free to comment.




Make Room for Alexa
Germaine Halegoua / University of Kansas

Alexa home device

The Amazon Echo

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) held its annual tradeshow last weekend. Reports from the “smart home” front heralded 2017 as the year of where voice and gestures will control Internet-connected household appliances, robots, and artificial intelligent agents. Whirlpool, and an extensive list of other companies, showcased prototypes and devices that interact with the Amazon Echo’s voice-controlled, digital personal assistant, Alexa. Journalists declared that that Alexa was “everywhere” and that “we’ve seen the future and it’s Alexa enabled.” Although there are other smart home systems on the market including Google Home, ivee, Apple HomeKit, and Athom Homey, at present, the connected home seems to be connected to Amazon. In approximately 5.1 million living rooms, kitchens, and bedrooms across the United States people have made room for Alexa.

Motorola media room

A media home as envisioned by Motorola

Previous media studies scholarship has attended to the culture and architecture of domestic spaces where television, radio, desktop computers, mobile devices, or other electronic media or audio/visual/digital technologies are installed and engaged. Television, radio, telephony, and the Internet have all been regarded as “windows on the world,” which blur public and private space and re-organize participation in everyday life. [ (( James Bennett, “’Your Window-on-the-World’ The Emergence of Red-Button Interactive Television in the UK.” Convergence 14 no. 2 (2008): 161-182.))] The voice activated smart home console that ruled CES this year is also a “window” or portal to the world. But what kind of screen-less window is this? How do users make sense of and make room for intelligent agents like Alexa within quotidian, domestic spaces and activities? And what type of interaction and engagement with the world, and with each other, do these responsive information managers present?

The advertised intelligence of the smart home is reminiscent to that of the smart city – domestic space is enhanced with Internet connected sensors, cameras, and digital devices that recreate the home as a sentient, predictive, and responsive environment. Smart home devices remember, anticipate, or respond to residents’ requests and preferences in the service of efficiency, safety, convenience, and/or sustainability. Like the smart city, most smart homes are retrofitted to be smart. The average middle or upper middle-class home is never entirely smart like the Gates’ House, Slow House, Wired Home, or luxury homes of tomorrow. More frequently, a household will have piecemeal Internet of Things technologies, or a few networked appliances or “accessories” that render the home “smarter.” The convergence of various smart accessories like lighting systems, thermostats, refrigerators, water leak detectors, security cameras, music and media systems tend to be coordinated by central concierge services controlled by residents. The Amazon Echo and Google Home are two of these convergent, intelligent agents.

description of image

A Samsung booth at a consumer electronics show in 2013 displays smart home technologies

As Lynn Spigel and others have contended, media “homes of tomorrow” are built on negotiating or highlighting incompatible binaries which might include: public and private, mobility and sedentariness, future and nostalgia, innovation and familiarity, liberation and control. For example, Spigel notes that 1990s visions of smart homes imagine residents who “have it both ways” – “domestic comfort and stability” as well as “futuristic fantasy of liberation and escape.” [ ((Lynn Spigel, “Media Homes: Then and Now.” International Journal of Cultural Studies 4 no. 4 (2001): 385-411.))] Spigel’s research on the media home emphasized these binaries within new forms of theatricality and spectatorship in middle class domestic spaces and emerging forms of ambient and active audiences of screens (televisions, video walls, control panels, visual ubiquitous computing interfaces). Smart homes present additional binaries to be negotiated: visible and invisible, presence and absence, transgression and maintenance, interaction and distance.

New media homes maintain these concepts of theatricality, mobility, and sentience in the form of sensors and monitors rather than screens — through listening rather than seeing. Virtual assistants like Alexa represent a shift from the imagination of the smart home as a space of ambient screens to ambient interfaces for continual background listening. The living room is still a stage but the theatricality of the televisual home shifts from home theater to an interactive performance, a play of call and response between human, machine, and information. Spectators watch Alexa, a calm, disembodied, feminine voice housed in a cylindrical encasement, complete requested tasks and tricks.

While some ambient interfaces are designed to be invisible or remain unnoticed, Google Home and Amazon Echo are the opposite, they’re personified and emphasize a desire to be heard and responded to. Although these devices are “always listening” in the background, the user “wakes” the device through direct address, calling it by name. Customers in unboxing videos, reviews and comments, and discussion forums commonly anthropomorphize the Echo and refer to Alexa as “she” and “her.” People comment on the Echo or Google Home’s look, weight, measurements, and design as if they were referring to a body. The gendered devices are given voice but are expected to serve their users and speak only when spoken to.

Amazon’s advertisements for Alexa depict households where stereotypical domestic roles are upheld. Women are shown using Alexa in the kitchen while cooking or caring for children, while men are heard ordering Alexa to buy roses for their partner instead of the dinner or cake they attempted to bake. Men are shown to treat Alexa as a concierge or personal assistant and utilize app and remote functionality to control environments at a distance (turn on lighting fixtures or lower speaker volume). Comments and blog posts by women discursively construct Alexa as a companion, a member of the household, or even a best friend. Even Alexa’s transgressions and unruliness are gendered. When Alexa “goes rogue,” she tends to buy merchandise (presumably from Amazon.com) or maybe “goes wild.”

In one promotional video introducing Amazon’s Echo, a suburban family lounges around Alexa with the fireplace at their backs. Directing their attention to the console, watching it work and waiting for curated information to be brought into the home. Mobile privatization or privatized mobility works differently in new media smart homes. Travel outside the home is optimized or made more efficient by setting alarms and alerts, providing up to date information about weather, traffic, or creating automatic to do lists. Unlike the portable radio, the Echo’s cord prevents mobility outside of the home, and unlike the home theater Alexa’s responses do not necessarily transport residents somewhere else. Instead, Alexa offers the mobile privatization of the world instead of the subject or audience member. Goods and services are packaged or ordered and sent to your door, the delivery of encyclopedic amounts of information is not a click, but a question away. The Echo doesn’t promise to take us where we need to go, but bring what we need, or at least what we ask for, to us. Although smart home accessories rely on high-speed connectivity, motion-activated sensors, and the anticipation of activity and alerts, the consoles that control and manage these devices belie the smart home as far more ambient than active. Unlike past “homes of tomorrow” it’s the feminine voice of an on-call background listener, rather than the lights and sounds of a simulation screen that invites us to sit back, stay in our place, and just stay home.

Image Credits:

1. The Amazon Echo
2. A media home as envisioned by Motorola.
3. A Samsung booth at a consumer electronics show in 2013 displays smart home technologies.

Please feel free to comment.




Señal 3 La Victoria: Communication in Service of the People
Kate Cronin / University of Texas at Austin

“If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep. Communication in service of the people.”

“If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep. Communication in service of the people.”

Inside the small house behind this banner sits Chile’s first community television station, Señal 3 La Victoria. For two weeks last May, media preservation students from NYU, UCLA, the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and the University of Texas at Austin, came together as members of NYU’s 2016 Audiovisual Preservation Exchange program (APEX). Together, we traveled to Santiago, Chile and teamed up with the founders of Señal 3 to inventory 20 years worth of Umatic, VHS, and Hi8 videotape and to build a fully functioning video transfer station. [ (( For a more in-depth description of our work at Señal 3 and the National Library of Chile visit the APEX Santiago 2016 blog. As a member of the APEX team I spent most of my time working to inspect, clean, repair, and digitize several collections of small gauge films housed at the National Library. Luckily, I was able to participate in a community archiving workshop at Señal 3 on May 28, 2016, where I was able to speak with both the founders of Señal 3 and my amazing APEX colleagues about their experiences organizing and implementing the inventory and a video transfer station. ))]

From the outset, the founding members of Señal 3 made it clear that their primary objective for the exchange was to increase community access to their audiovisual archive. This fervent commitment to the democratizing potential of community television stemmed from their desire to counter what they perceived as the continued exclusion of La Victoria, and other working-class Chilean communities, from meaningful participation in the public sphere. First repressed by a dictatorship, then denied access to the necessary resources to broadcast legitimately by the democratically elected governments that followed, the founding members of Señal 3 felt twice silenced by the Chilean government. For this reason, in the wake of Chile’s overlapping transitions to both a democratic government and digital broadcasting system, Señal 3 embraced their position as media pirates, emerging as a dynamic agenda-setter within their community. In the process, they became the custodians of an immense archive of human rights documentation, a distinctly undervalued contribution to the historical memory of a country still publicly reckoning with its past.

A view of the Andes from the streets of La Victoria.

A view of the Andes from the streets of La Victoria.

La Victoria has historically been a hotbed of leftist political resistance and activism in Santiago, Chile. In 1970, the neighborhood threw their support behind the socialist, democratically elected President Salvador Allende, who was ousted by a US-backed coup in September of 1973 and replaced by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Over the course of 17 years, Pinochet’s government forced over 200,000 Chileans into exile, tortured 28,000 in secret, executed 2,279, and disappeared 1,248. [ (( These were the figures reported by The National Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. ))] During Pinochet’s presidency, residents of La Victoria vehemently protested against (and were consistently repressed by) the government.

The Wall of the Disappeared in Santiago's Mueseo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Museum)

The Wall of the Disappeared in Santiago’s Mueseo de la Memoria y los Derechos Humanos (Memory and Human Rights Museum)

Despite La Victoria’s history of political resistance, Señal Tres did not begin broadcasting until 1997, seven years after Chile’s return to democracy. The founders, most of whom grew up during Pinochet’s presidency, are self-taught journalists, cinematographers, and editors with day jobs as plumbers, electricians, and builders. They devote their weekends to Señal 3 and pay the station’s massive electric bill out-of-pocket. They started out with donated equipment and funding from international NGOs, community television partners in Europe, and even a ska band from Madrid. Señal 3 has since helped to establish several other community television stations including Canal 3-Pichilemu, a Mapuche community station. They have never sought or received state funding; instead, over the past 20 years they have developed an extensive international support network of community television practitioners. They’ve also started a local communications school where they teach community members to produce, edit, and broadcast television programs, which they then air as part of their Saturday broadcasts.

All of their production work is done in-house, using pirated software and VHS tape decks to edit their broadcasts. They air everything from protest footage, educational programming on women’s health and sexual education, segments on popular video games produced and created by local children, pirated sports broadcasts, and bootleg copies of mainstream Hollywood films. [ (( A limited sampling of some of Señal 3’s more recent programming is available on their YouTube channel. ))] They broadcast to a 9 km radius on Saturdays, reaching approximately 350,000 homes and 800,000 residents. [ (( These statistics are taken from the Señal 3 website. ))] For the better part of two decades, they have broadcast without the support or permission of the state, effectively rendering them broadcast pirates.

The walls of Señal 3, covered from floor to ceiling with posters.

The walls of Señal 3, covered from floor to ceiling with posters.

Jennifer Ashley has traced Señal 3’s pirate roots back to the years of Pinochet in which clandestine media was a key tool of resistance against the dictatorship, representing both the freedom of expression and the democratization of information. Although Pinochet was voted out of office in 1990, the neoliberal communication policies of his government remained firmly in place, resulting in the privatization and globalization of Chilean media, a high concentration of media-ownership, and a limitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, something the Señal 3 station members see as a public resource. [ (( For a more in depth consideration of the neoliberal reforms of Pinochet’s presidency in the context of the Digital Television Legislation in Chile, see, Etcheverry, Sergio Godoy. “Regulatory Implications of the Adoption of Digital Television in Chile.” Communication Research Trends 29 no 2 (2010): 2-25. ))] Ashley, who spent over a year working with the Señal 3 team and living in La Victoria for her doctoral research, describes Señal 3’s relationship with the government before the transition to digital television as a form of “open secret piracy . . . a way for the Chilean state to defer, but not refuse, demands for greater media democratization” [ ((Ashley, Jennifer. “‘Honorable Piracy’ and Chile’s Digital Transition.” Popular Communications 13, no 1 (2015): 11 ))]. For this reason, Señal 3 and other community television activists organized around the national shift to digital television (beginning in 2009) as an opportunity for the state to re-distribute the electromagnetic spectrum more democratically and to legitimate their participation in public discourse. However, 2014’s Digital Television Legislation neither stipulated a significant redistribution of the electromagnetic spectrum nor allocated support for community television stations to help with the expensive transition from analog to digital broadcasting infrastructure and equipment. For community television activists, this legislation represented the continuation of a long history of excluding alternative voices and media practices from the Chilean public sphere. [ ((Ibid.(14-15) ))]

A mural down the street from Señal 3.

A mural down the street from Señal 3.

Señal 3 adjusted to their position within the emerging digital landscape by continuing to clandestinely broadcast an analog signal for their (many) community members who could not yet afford to make the transition to digital television. They also began to stream some of their broadcasts online. For this reason, when the APEX team arrived in La Victoria in May of 2016, our preservation efforts straddled Chile’s analog past and digital future. The founders of Señal 3 made it clear from day one that their media archive belongs first and foremost to their community. They saw the digitization and digital preservation of their archive as both a practical and a democratic imperative: videotape is an unstable storage medium with a finite life cycle, and digitization presented them with the opportunity to make 20 years of audiovisual documentation of their community, by their community, available on-demand to their community. Now in possession of an inventory of their archive and a fully functioning digitization station, the team at Señal 3 is one step closer to their goal of making the archive widely accessible to the people of La Victoria. While this is undoubtedly a step in the right direction, Senal 3 still faces many obstacles: technological obsolescence, the steep cost of digital storage, and the lack of standardization among digital formats, just to name a few. With neither state support nor permission, they must work with their international network of community television operators to address these challenges.

APEX and Señal 3 team members troubleshoot over the video transfer station.

APEX and Señal 3 team members troubleshoot at the video transfer station.

Much has been written about the media’s role in Chile’s transition to democracy and public reckoning with (or denial of) the human rights violations committed during Pinochet’s dictatorship. [ (( See Kristin Sorensen’s Media, Memory, and Human Rights in Chile and Claudia Bucciferro’s For-get: identity, media, and democracy in Chile. ))] However, few have acknowledged community television stations as active – albeit unsanctioned – participants in the necessary human rights discourses that have taken place throughout Chile and abroad since the country’s return to democracy in 1990. For television scholars interested in alternative media and communications policy, historians interested in historical memory, and archivists invested in human rights documentation, cultural patrimony, and community archiving practices, the longevity and wide-reaching activism of Señal 3 serves as a powerful reminder to consider the potential local, national, and transnational impact of broadcast media practitioners who operate outside the legal framework of the electromagnetic spectrum.

APEX Santiago 2016 – Señal 3 Community Archiving Workshop from Michael Pazmino on Vimeo.

Image Credits:

1. “If they won’t let us dream, we won’t let them sleep,” Author’s personal collection.
2. A view of the Andes, Author’s personal collection.
3. The Wall of the Disappeared, Author’s personal collection.
4. The walls of Señal 3, Author’s personal collection.
5. A mural, Author’s personal collection.
6. APEX and Señal 3 team, Author’s personal collection.

Please feel free to comment.




Know Your Audience: The Quest for Digitally Addressable Systems in India
Shanti Kumar/University of Texas at Austin


Satellites

DTH Players

In the shift from analog to digital television in India, much of the discussion in the media industries and policy circles has focused on whether the new digital addressable system (DAS) will be a revolutionary transformation in the delivery of programming services, as its proponents claim, or a mirage that critics argue the Indian cable industry will be chasing in futility for years to come. This is a debate I have covered more extensively in an earlier Flow essay.

To briefly summarize, the Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Amendment Act of 2011 made it mandatory for analog Cable TV systems in India to switch over to a new Digital Addressable System (DAS) by December 2014. The advocates of DAS view digital addressability as an ideal new technology to overcome the problems posed by the current analog systems in the cable television industry, and to offer television content providers and audiences the ability to directly interact and communicate with each other. It doesn’t matter whether you get your TV through broadcasting, cable, direct-to-home satellite systems or the internet, direct addressability seems to be the fix-it-all solution to problems of analog television like limitations of bandwidth, delivery of digital HD, 3D, interactive services, targeted advertising, standardization of TV rates, reliable billing practices and so on. (( Consultation Paper on “Issues related to Implementation of Digital Addressable Cable TV Systems” ))

For the critics of DAS, the elevation of digital addressable system as a technical fix to all the problems in Indian television is rather problematic. Their criticism of the DAS policy has at least four dimensions to it: The first is an argument about the inherent difficulties in uniformly implementing DAS as a new technology in a politically, economically, culturally and linguistically diverse country like India. The second strand of criticism comes from those who question the assumption that giving cable companies greater access to television households through DAS will automatically improve the quality of services for the viewers. The third strand of criticism comes from those who argue that the kind of “choice” proposed by the advocates of DAS is a menu-driven format of click-and-choose options that does not fully exploit the interactive potential of digital addressability. The final strand of criticism is that the menu-driven format of choice does not promote the interests of the television viewer at home, but instead serves the commercial interests of the powerful media industries and their elite allies in the government.

Although advocates and critics in the media industries differ in their assessments of the ways in which the new DAS regime is being implemented in India, there seems to be little disagreement in these circles about the potential of new digital technologies to overcome the many problems posed by the old analog mode of delivering broadcasting and cable television services. Therefore, not surprisingly, much of the debate on the shift to DAS television system in India has been framed in technical terms about the relative advantages and disadvantages of digital set-top boxes over the current analog cable technologies. Underlying this consensus about the ills of the analog world is a common view that the attempt to realize the full potential of the broadcasting revolution of the 1970-80s, and the satellite television revolution of the 1990s is being hindered by the inability of television content providers to directly address the audiences at home.

In this essay, I want to move debate on DAS away from the focus on the pros and cons of digital technologies for the delivery of television services where the digital is seen as a technical fix-it-all solution for the problems of the outdated analog system. Instead, I want to pay closer attention to the distinction between addressable and non-addressable systems of communication, and critically analyze the cultural implications of the wholesale shift toward digitally addressable systems in Indian television. I argue that the shift from the current regime of non-addressable analog systems and hybrid analog-digital systems to a uniformly digital addressable system is taking place in the television industry in conjunction with similar transformations in other allied and equally crucial sectors of the Indian economy and culture. This generalized shift toward uniformly digital addressable systems is visible most prominently in the unique identification number system called “Aadhaar” launched by the government of India, and in the “Know Your Customer” (KYC) system promulgated by the Reserve Bank of India for use in the banking industry to prevent financial fraud and other criminal activities.

Aadhaar (meaning support in Hindi) is a 12-digit unique identification number (UID) issued to all residents in India on a voluntary basis by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) The UIDAI agency was established by the government of India in 2009, and began assigning UID numbers in September 2010. The aadhaar numbers are stored in a centralized database and linked to demographic and biometric information such as photographs, ten fingerprints and iris scans of every individual with a UID number. The stated goal of the Aadhaar project is to serve as the single source of verifiable identity for the delivery of various public services by using the UID numbers and the associated database information to uniquely address each individual resident in India. (( uidnumber.org ))


AADHAAR

Aadhaar

The Know Your Customer (KYC) system is used in the banking industry to individually identify each customer and verify his/her identity by using uniquely identifiable data such as a photograph, residential address, marital status and so on. Introduced in 2002 by the Reserve Bank of India, the KYC system is now used by all banks to ensure that they are fully compliant with the government of India’s regulations aimed at preventing money laundering, terrorism financing and identity theft schemes. (( Know Your Customer (KYC) Guidelines ))

Know Your Customer

Know Your Customer

Similarly, the Digital Addressable System (DAS) is being promoted in the television industry as a way to uniquely identify each subscriber on the cable delivery system. DAS comprises of a set of digital hardware and software tools used in satellite and cable TV industries for the transmission of television channels in encrypted form to their subscribers. All subscribers get set top boxes with authorization to view free, paid or on-demand encrypted channels on the satellite or cable network. Authorization is given and controlled by the Multi System Operator (MSO) who owns the DAS but may work with Local Cable Operators (LCO) in different markets.

While the current interactions and intersections among the television industry’s DAS platform with the aadhaar system and the KYC system are limited, the future potential for integration of these digital addressable systems in India is immense. According to a study released by the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) in April 2012, Telecommunications companies can save over Rs. 1,000 crore (( 1 crore = 10 million. 1 US dollar = 55 Indian rupees )) every year if they use Aadhaar to verify the identity and address of new subscribers. The report claims that the Telecom industry can save this money by going paperless in back end processes, and by avoiding the fines that the Telecom Enforcement Resource and Monitoring (TERM) cell imposes on companies for failing to verify subscriber identity in a proper and timely manner. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/using-aadhaar-as-kyc-norm-can-save-telecos-rs-1000-cr-says-study/471088/ )) Recognizing the potential benefits of such digital integration, DISHTV – the leading provider of DTH services in India – embraced the aadhaar UID and the KYC IDs for uniquely identifying its customers, and rapidly expanding its subscriber base across the country. “Dish TV is proud to align with UIDAI to recognise and support the country’s largest movement to provide unique ID numbers to its residents. Aadhaar will also serve an additional payment option as the UID has a direct connect to the banks and financial institutions,” said Dish TV COO Salil Kapoor in statement released to announce the implementation of the new policy in February 2011. (( http://www.business-standard.com/india/news/dish-tv-alignsaadhaar-to-accept-uid-number-as-id-proof/124598/on ))

The development of new digital technologies to communicate with citizens, consumers and audiences in nationalized systems such as Aadhaar, KYC and DAS respectively, requires a new understanding of the emerging modes of digital address in India today. However, the debate over digital addressable systems cannot be simply reduced to the positive versus negative effects of new technologies at home, or more generally in media culture and industries. Television viewers are ambivalent about the potential threats of DAS to their privacy and may also be vaguely aware of the possibilities of greater surveillance by the media industries in the digital world. But at the same time, television viewers recognize that many everyday conveniences of better programming services, efficiency of delivery mechanisms, and greater security in the television household depend greatly on digital addressable systems. As is evident from the recent attempts of major players in the media industry like DISH TV to integrate the DAS platform with KYC and Aadhaar systems, the rise of digital addressable systems and their ability to uniquely address viewers as consumers and citizens raises new questions about the changing relationships between public and private spaces, privacy and surveillance, and the state and its subjects. These are questions that Indian media scholars need to address by extending our analyses of television more broadly to the changing mode of digital address in systems like DAS, KYC and Aadhaar, as well as to the increasing intersections and the growing interdependence among various digital platforms.

Image Credits:

1) DTH Players
2) Aadhaar
3) Know Your Customer

Please feel free to comment.




“Cibercultura” y cibercultur@

por: Jorge A. González / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

(for English, click here)

Gráfico del sitio web Imaginify

Gráfico del sitio web Imaginify

La concepción de la cibercultur@ que presento aquí no necesariamente está ligada con el mundo de las computadoras o a las redes de Internet, como ya se le entiende en todas partes, sino que resalta las tres direcciones de sentido de los elementos que la componen: el prefijo griego “Kyber” (ciber), la palabra latina “cultur” y el signo tipográfico “@” (González, 2003).

• Tomo literalmente el sentido de director y timonel del vocablo “Kyber”, pues desarrollar cibercultur@ implica generar, incrementar, perfeccionar, mejorar y compartir las habilidades para conducir, dirigir y “pilotear” relaciones sociales, en un ejercicio de autogestión colectiva, horizontal y participativa.

• Tomo el sentido original de “cultivo, cuidado, atención y desarrollo” de la palabra “cultura”. La habilidad para pilotearse y dirigirse con otros hacia soluciones más inteligentes frente a los enormes retos del siglo XXI, se puede aprender, se puede compartir y se puede cultivar con otros y para otros.

• El signo de la arroba “@”, que hoy se ha vuelto familiar entre quienes utilizan la red, y precisamente por su semejanza gráfica a una espiral, utilizo “@” por su semejanza para representar un bucle de retroalimentación positivo, un proceso abierto y adaptable que genera una respuesta emergente que surge de la densidad de las relaciones del sistema y no se reduce a la suma de sus componentes.

Propongo el neologismo cibercultur@ (con la arroba “@” incluida) para designar una serie de procesos específicos que implican una doble cualidad complementaria y simultánea: cibercultur@ entendida como un objeto de estudio y cibercultur@ entendida como un valor de desarrollo y empoderamiento social.

Cibercultur@ como objeto de estudio

Como objeto de conocimiento, el estudio de los fenómenos de cibercultur@, se dirige a describir, analizar y explicar los diversos procesos de relación entre las ecologías simbólicas de sociedades determinadas en el tiempo y en el espacio con el vector tecnológico.

Con la noción de ecologías simbólicas designo el conjunto total de relaciones de sentido que en una sociedad se construyen en la historia con un entorno físico, biológico, psicológico, social y cultural a través de la actividad cognitiva y sus dimensiones más complejas, como la mente, el discurso, y la actividad modeladora y adaptativa de las identidades y alteridades de los diferentes y variados colectivos sociales. Esta dimensión cognitiva y simbólica sólo se puede lograr dentro de un ecosistema de soportes materiales de la actividad de representación de la sociedad. Sin ellos, la eficacia de la cultura en la construcción de identidades, en la reproducción de la sociedad, en el establecimiento de las tradiciones, en las vanguardias es, impensable.

Cybersociology

Cybersociology.com

La especie humana es la única que para poder sobrevivir necesita construirse diestramente una “segunda naturaleza”, a todo título sígnica y plena de actividad interpretativa, es por eso que la historia de los ecosistemas materiales de la cultura debe ponerse en correspondencia con la historia de la generación de sus públicos, es decir, la historia de la distribución social de las disposiciones cognitivas para operar en esos ecosistemas.

El concepto de ecologías simbólicas intenta dar cuenta, tanto de las formas sistémicas (estructuradas y ordenadas), como de las formas enactivas (en proceso de estructuración) de la signicidad, tal y como la ha definido Cirese desde la antropología cultural italiana.

Por la interrelación intensa entre los significados, las normas y el poder, me interesa estudiar esta relación desde la perspectiva de las sociedades que han sido desplazadas y excluidas en el espacio social, y ello significa que han sido (o están siendo) explotadas en lo económico, dominadas en lo político y dirigidas en lo cultural. Excluidos desde la noche de los tiempos de los beneficios de la globalización, a enormes sectores sociales dispersos por todo el mundo sólo se les ha globalizado la miseria y la degradación, y se han convertido en lo que Castells llama “los agujeros negros del capitalismo informacional”. En la perspectiva que propongo, describir, analizar y explicar los procesos sociales e históricos de la génesis y desarrollo de las modulaciones simbólicas de la relación de estas dos dimensiones, es crucial para potenciar cualquier desarrollo científico que, además de interpretar y teorizar el mundo, busque la transformación del mismo mediante el empoderamiento de los sectores sociales más numerosos y deprimidos.

Con el nombre de vector tecnológico denomino todos los procesos y efectos socio-históricos de fuerza con dirección que se han verificado y verifican cotidianamente en procesos de adopción, adaptación, imposición o rechazo de dispositivos y complejos tecnológicos entre sociedades con recursos y posiciones disimétricas y desniveladas en la estructura desigual del espacio social mundial.

Me interesan en particular dos de las dimensiones más agudas y que verifican un crecimiento exponencial de dicho vector, a saber, las llamadas tecnologías digitales y los procesos de comunicación mediada por computadoras debido a la difusión y penetración de capilaridad creciente que se experimenta en todas las esferas de la vida pública y cotidiana de las sociedades contemporáneas.

Las ventajas y potencialidades que aporta la forma digital de procesar, empaquetar, enviar, recibir y acumular la información, se ven incrementadas por la comunicación instantánea a través de redes de computadoras que — con el acceso al conocimiento y práctica que requieren necesariamente para su operación funcional — permiten coordinar, dirigir y orientar con toda destreza la dirección y sentido de los flujos mencionados. Estos dispositivos o complejos socio-técnicos, conforman parte crucial de los resortes tecnológicos que generan la aparición y la dispersión global del “cuarto mundo”, de los excluidos y los prescindibles que han sido diseñados desde arriba del sistema como terminales tontas:

“…en este proceso de reestructuración social, hay más que desigualdad y pobreza. También hay exclusión de pueblos y territorios que, desde la perspectiva de los intereses dominantes del capitalismo informacional global, pasan a una posición de irrelevancia estructural” (Castells, 1999a).

No hay tal periferia pura, ni centro inmaculado de este proceso — verdaderamente global — de exclusión social potenciado por la tecnología, que lejos de ser meros aparatos, implican toda una fuerza constituida con dirección y con efectos constituyentes multidimensionales más allá de la técnica, muy poco estudiados en tanto que innovaciones radicales. El vector tecnológico es producto del movimiento de la sociedad mundial y al mismo tiempo configura y ayuda a producir los mundos sociales que progresivamente toca y transforma y desde luego genera resistencias múltiples en sentidos diversos y “aberrantes” e inesperados. Por ello mismo, no se debe tomar esto como una denuncia de un plan organizado y conciente de dominación y sometimiento del mundo a los “malos” del “centro”: una vez que despegó históricamente, el desarrollo tecnológico ha adquirido sus propias “leyes”, su propia autonomía e impulso, con costos y beneficios, que desde luego nunca — y menos ahora — se han gozado aquellos, ni pagado éstos, de manera equitativa en el mundo moderno.

Lab Complex

Lab Complex

Esta primera delimitación de la cibercultur@ como objeto de estudio, comporta varios supuestos y antecedentes.

• Por un lado, partimos de un complejo cognoscitivo caracterizado por la desigualdad de la estructura de relaciones del sistema mundial, en el que observamos vastas y múltiples zonas pluri-distribuidas del planeta, históricamente colonizadas y depauperadas por relaciones sociales de explotación, dominación y exclusión, que proveen y nutren de energía social (capital) a diferentes ciudades/nodos atractores de enormes e intensos flujos de personas principalmente, pero no solo a través de la migración y los consiguientes flujos de capitales financieros. Estas “ciudades/nodo” (ciudades Alpha) del sistema-mundo además de ser concentradoras de volúmenes inmensos de capitales, también concentran crecientemente a millones de miserables (y otros no tan miserables)[i] que se desplazan para vivir mejor hacia tales ciudades/nodo. Estos centros globales que capturan crecientemente los flujos de personas y capitales, operan también como generadores y difusores masivos de flujos permanentes y “globales” de información e imágenes mediados tecnológicamente y que sirven como materia prima básica para metabolizar y representarse de diversas formas el mundo, quién es cada uno y cada cuál de los actores sociales y de qué forma se hacen visibles o invisibles en el escenario de la vida pública.

• • Estos procesos de elaboración discursiva y simbólica son indispensables para poder narrar los hilos y editar el valor y el significado de los hitos de la memoria social, las definiciones de la situación presente, así como la factibilidad y densidad de otros mundos también posibles.

• Con y desde estos procesos simbólicos se establecen en la historia diversas relaciones sociales de hegemonía, subalternidad, alteridad, resistencia y en algunos casos y períodos determinados, se establecen también relaciones de contra-hegemonía que requieren y generan formas emergentes para la organización de diversas estrategias simbólicas que buscan atraer y modular el discurso social para la dirección intelectual y moral de toda la sociedad, como bien lo señaló Gramsci en el siglo pasado.

Nota
El aluvión inicial de mano de obra barata, no calificada y con escaso “cosmopolitismo” que se ha movido históricamente en los flujos migratorios, por efecto de la globalización forzada ha ido “enriqueciéndose” con el alarmante desangramiento en sus países de origen de profesionistas calificados, pero desempleados o con un gris futuro laboral, como lo documenta la migración educada de Ecuador y otros países del sur de América hacia los servicios domésticos en España y en general a la Comunidad Europea (Pellegrino, 2004: 12 y ss.).

Castells, Manuel (1999). La era de la información. Economía, sociedad y cultura: La sociedad red, Madrid, Alianza Editorial.

Cirese, Alberto (1984). Segnicitá, fabrilitá, procreazione. Appunti etnoantropologici, Roma, CISU.

Gramsci, Antonio (1976). Quaderni del carcere, Roma, Einaudi.

Pellegrino, Adela (2004). Migration from Latin America to Europe. Trends and policy challenges, International Organization for Migration, Migration Series, No. 16

González, Jorge (2004). “Cibercultur@ como estrategia de comunicación compleja desde la periferia“. Cibersociedad.net.

González, Jorge (2003). Cultura(s) y Cibercultur@(s). Incursiones no lineales entre complejidad y comunicación, México Universidad Iberoamericana.

Web
Lab Complex (Sección productos realizados)

Imágenes
1. Gráfico del sitio web Imaginify
2. Cybersociology.com
3. Lab Complex

Jorge A. González es profesor en la Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Favor de comentar.




by: Jorge A. González / Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

Against the current conceptions of cybercultur@ I propose here a sort of meaning that is not necessarily related to the universe of computers or to the Internet. Instead, I shall emphasize three directions of meaning from the elements that compose the neologism: the Greek prefix “Κψβερ” (cyber), the Latin word “cultur”, and I will take analogically the spiral form of the sign “@”.

• I take from the word “Kyber” the meaning of steersman, because developing cybercultur@ implies to generate, to increase, to perfect, to improve and to share the abilities to steer, to direct and “to pilot” social relations in an exercise of collective, horizontal and participative self steering.

• I will also take the original earthly meaning from culture, understood as the action of cultivation, taking care, paying attention and motivating transformations from the soil. The first junction between Kyber and Cultur, points to the ability to pilot ourselves and to go with others towards more intelligent solutions facing the huge challenges of the 21st century; it is possible to learn, to share, and to cultivate along with others and for others.

• The sign “@”that today has become familiar between those who use e-mail, and precisely by its graphical similarity to a spiral, I use “@” by its similarity to represent a positive feedback loop, an open and adaptable process that generates a range of emergent answers that arise from the density of the relations of the system and it is not reduced to the sum of its components.

Given that, I propose the neologism cybercultur@ (with the sign “@” included) to designate a series of specific processes that imply one twofold complementary and simultaneous qualities: cybercultur@ understood as an object of study, and cybercultur@ understood as a value for development and social empowerment.

Cybercultur@ as an object of study

• As an object of knowledge, cybercultur@ implies the study of complex phenomena in social, historical, symbolic and contextual levels than can be described, analyzed and explained facing multi level processes of relations between the symbolic ecologies of specific societies with the technological vector.

• With the notion of symbolic ecologies I designate the total set of relations of meaning that in a specific society are constructed along history with physical, biological, psychological, social and cultural environments. Through the cognitive activity and its more complex dimensions, like the mind, the speech, and the modelling and adapting activity of social identities. This cognitive and symbolic dimension can only be generated within a kind of ecosystem of material supports that make possible the activity of symbolic representation of any society. Without them, the efficacy of culture in the construction of identities, in the reproduction of the society, in the establishment of traditions and avant-garde movements is just unthinkable.

The human species is unique in that, besides the satisfaction of the material needs (feeding, covering, drinking, housing…) in order to survive it must generate a totally meaningful “second nature,” composite by simple and complex signs, texts and discourses that shape the human interpretative activity.

That is why the history of the material ecosystems of culture must be related with the history of the generation of its audiences, that is to say, the history of the social distribution of the cognitive dispositions operating in those ecosystems.

The concept of symbolic ecologies gives account, both of the systemic forms (structured and ordered) and of the enactive forms (in structuring processes) of the “signicity” (segnicitá), as has been defined by Cirese from Italian cultural anthropology.

In the intense interrelation between meaning, norms and power, I am interested in studying that relation from the perspective of the societies that have been moved and excluded in the social space, and it means that they have been (or they are actually being) economically exploited, politically dominated and culturally directed.

Excluded from the beginning from the benefits of the globalization, enormous and dispersed social sectors have been “globalized” by the misery and the degradation, and they have become which Castells calls “the black holes of informational capitalism.”

In the proposed perspective describing, analyzing and explaining the social and historical processes of the genesis and development of the symbolic modulations of the relation of these two explained dimensions. It is crucial to harness any scientific development that, besides to interpret and to theorize about the world, looks for the transformation of the world itself seeking the empowerment of the more numerous and depressed social sectors.

With the concept of technological vector I describe the socio-historical processes and effects of forces with direction that have been verified in processes of adoption, adaptation, imposition or rejection of technological complexes and devices between societies with resources and dissymmetric and uneven positions in the unequal structure of world-wide social space.

I am particularly interested in two of the more acute dimensions that have prompted an exponential growth of this vector: the so called digital technologies and the processes of computer mediated communication. Both have a large diffusion and penetration in public sphere and into everyday life of contemporary societies.

The advantages and potentialities provided by the digital form of processing, packing, sending, receiving and collecting data are increased by the instantaneous communication through networks of computers that — with the access to knowledge and practice that they necessarily require for its functional operation — allow coordinating, directing and orienting skilfully the direction and meaning of the flows. These socio-technical complexes shape a crucial part of the technological springs that generate the appearance and the global dispersion of the “fourth world”, of the excluded and disposable social settings that have been designed top-down of the system as dumb terminals:

“… in this process of social reconstruction, there is more inequality and poverty. Also there are exclusions of villages and territories that, from the perspective of the dominant interests of global informational capitalism, occupy a position of structural irrelevance” as Castells has pointed out.

There is nothing as pure periphery, and no immaculate center of this process — truly global — of social exclusion prompted by the technology, that far from being mere mechanical utilities, implies a constituted force with direction and multidimensional constituent effects beyond the technique. These aspects have been little studied as radical social innovations. The technological vector is an outcome of the movement of the world-wide society and at the same time, it forms and helps to produce the aberrant and unexpected social worlds that touch and progressively transform, and generates multiple resistances. This is precisely why this should not be taken as a conspiracy plan organized and conscientious for domination and submission of the world to the “bad ones” of the “center”: once it took off historically, technological development has generated its own “laws,” its own autonomy and impulse, with costs and benefits, that never have been enjoyed in to an equitable way within the modern world.

This first boundary of cybercultur@ as object of study implies several assumptions and antecedents:

• On the one hand, we depart from a cognitive complex, characterized by inequality of the structure of relations of the world-system, in which we can observe vast and multiple multi-distributed zones of the planet, historically colonized and impoverished by social relations of exploitation, domination and exclusion, that provide and nourish of social energy (capital) to different cities/enormous attracting nodes of intense flows of people, but not only through the migration and the consequent flows of financial capitals. These “cities/node” (Alpha cities) of the world-system in addition to concentrating immense volumes of capital, also concentrate increasingly millions of poor (and others not so poor)[i] moving towards such cities/node in order to get a better life. These global centers that increasingly capture the flows of people and capital, also operate like generators and massive diffusers of permanent and “global” flows of information and images technologically mediated that serve as basic raw material for metabolizing and for representing the world, who is who and everyone of the social actors and how they become visible or invisible in the scene of the public life.

• • These processes of discursive and symbolic elaboration are indispensable to be able to narrate the threads and publish the value and the meaning of the landmarks of social memory, the definitions of the present situation, as well as the feasibility and density of other also possible worlds.

• With and from these symbolic processes, relations are established and transformed in history, social relations of hegemony, subalternity, alterity and resistance, and in some cases, counter-hegemonic relations that require and generate new and emergent forms of organization of the diverse symbolic strategies trying to attract and to modulate the social discourse for enabling the intellectual and moral direction of all the society, as Gramsci illustrated so well in the previous century.

Note
The initial excess of cheap and unskilled handwork with scarce “cosmopolitism” that has been historically moved into the migrant flows by means of forced “globalization,” has been “enriched” by the flight of “qualified professionals” (but still unemployed or with rather grim higher wealth expectations) from their original countries, as documented by the “educated” migration from Ecuador and other Latin American countries to Spain and in general to the European Community (Pellegrino, 2004: 12+).

Click here to see the author’s Bibliography

Image Credits: (located in primary Spanish text)
1. Graphic from the website Imaginify
2. Cybersociology.com
3. Lab Complex

Author: Jorge A. González is a professor at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (the National Autonomous University of Mexico).




TiVoing Childhood

TiVo Set

TiVo Set

This winter, my family celebrated the fifth anniversary of two life-altering additions to our household – the birth of our first child and the purchase of TiVo. The celebration for my daughter turning five was certainly more notable than my casual reflection that we’d been a TiVo family for five years. But I often think about these two transformations as somehow linked, a simultaneous immersion into the chaos of parenthood tempered by the order of time-shifting.

Libraries have been filled on the life-changing impacts of having children, and the transformative potential of TiVo has occupied many column inches as well. But I haven’t read much on the connections between DVR technology and young children, a topic worth some consideration.1 So forgive me as I play into the stereotype of both parents and TiVo-owners – that we can’t talk about anything else! – and reflect on the significance of raising children in a time-shifted household.

For new parents, the power of TiVo is quite apparent. A baby’s schedule is far less regimented and predicable than the networks’, so most new parents are forced to sacrifice their dedication to their favorite shows for the immediate demands of a newborn. There is still plenty of time to watch television, as late-night nursing sessions and hours of baby-rocking welcome the company of a glowing screen, but being able to consistently choose these times becomes a rare luxury. So having a time-shifted menu of your favorite shows awaiting your attention is a parental pacifier.

When the baby grows into a little kid, TiVo’s advantages stretch across the family. We use the TiVo as a self-replenishing library of children’s programming, keeping a steady stream of new episodes of Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street, and Higglytown Heroes on demand. So while it may be easier to force a pre-schooler to follow the whims of the television schedule than a newborn, it is still far from ideal. Television’s best uses, both as a child development tool and parenting aid, shine through when you can control both what they watch and when they watch it, not having to choose between a program or a schedule. Personally, my buzzwords for children watching television are “moderation” and “age-appropriate” – goals well-served by the control offered by a DVR. Add the ability to fast-forward through commercials, and it’s hard for me to imagine raising kids without a DVR (assuming you don’t fall prey to the “TV-Free” propaganda).

All of this might just be another in a long line of rhapsodizing paeans to TiVo from a proselytizing early adopter (of technology, not children). But I’ve recently noticed more significant and interesting impacts of TiVo on my children. All of my daughter’s experiences with television have been via a DVR, and thus her entire frame of reference on the medium is shaped by a technology that is still on the fringes of American media – DVRs are only in approximately 7% of television households.

When my daughter asks “what shows are on?”, she is not referring to the TV schedule – rather she means what’s on the TiVo’s menu. For her, the transmission of television via a simultaneous schedule is an entirely foreign concept, even though this has been one of the defining elements of television as a medium for decades. She understands that sometimes certain shows aren’t available, but it’s not tied to a concept of how these programs get transmitted and recorded onto the TiVo.

When faced with the “normal” way to watch TV, she expresses understandable confusion. If I want to watch a football or baseball game in conflict with the normal “time for shows!” in our house – between 5:00-6:00 pm, giving tired parents a chance to cook dinner and chat in relative peace – she doesn’t understand why the timeliness of the game grants it precedence over her menu of programs. For her, all television is part of an ever changing menu of programming to be accessed at our convenience, not a steady stream of broadcasting to be tapped into at someone else’s convenience. (Of course, she also thinks of television as something that grownups study, teach, and write books about, so she might not be representative of most children.)

She also has little concept of channels – if programming is part of a personal menu, what does it matter if it came from Nickelodeon or Disney? She does, however, care a great deal about episode titles, an aspect of programming I don’t think I encountered until well into my twenties – since TiVo offers a title and description of each show it records, she regularly previews what a show will be about before watching it, and judges whether it’s new or an old favorite. Or sometimes she’ll reflect on the vintage of the episode, whether it’s a Steve or Joe Blue’s Clues, a Dora the Explorer with or without Diego. Clearly this is a different mode of consumption then my memories of flipping on the TV to see what cartoons were on.

Recently we had a family meeting to discuss revamping TiVo’s Season Passes for their daily diet of TV. Media literacy proponents talk about making media consumption a conscious and active process–what could be more active than a 5 and 2-year-old discussing whether they’d rather be watching Bob the Builder or Between the Lions? (For the record, Bob won, much to Daddy’s Muppet-philic chagrin.) Even if they’re not the offspring of a media scholar, children in a TiVo household are encouraged to think about what they’re watching and make active choices about their televisual taste and experiences in a way previous generations did not.

Diddy says, \

Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

The absence of scheduling as a significant structuring element will leave some experiential gaps in my children’s televisual growth. As a kid, Saturday morning was an oasis of children-only pleasures, with wall-to-wall cartoons and sugared cereal ads that licensed laziness both for kids and their snoozing parents. Some networks have abandoned this strategy in recent years, but it’s hard to imagine children in a TiVo household embracing such a ritual when cartoons lose their scarcity and may be accessed on demand. Likewise, for me a snow day or being sick meant mornings lying on the couch watching a parade of game shows, since nothing else worth watching was on; if the TiVo is full of age-appropriate favorites, the game shows would quickly lose their appeal.

These gaps are clearly no great loss – I’d rather my kids watch things more appropriate to their ages and interests than just what happens to be on. But it’s easy when thinking about new technologies to focus on either their industrial impacts and strategies, or utopian potentials as part of a digitally converged future. These are certainly important, but we should also consider technology’s impact on the everyday lives of its users, and on the way technologies shape the way we think about those mundane, commonplace practices.

I teach my students that media technologies are shaped by the intersection of technological, institutional, and cultural forces, emerging with unpredictable uses and social impacts. It’s hard to imagine a better way of witnessing how new technologies are culturally consumed and shape our perception than watching a child learn how to use them. My oldest is just learning the ins and outs of the remote control – turning the set off and muting commercials while watching sports live – but it will be interesting to see how she takes control of the TiVo once she can fully operate the menu. I expect she will be navigating the technology quite differently than her parents, who clearly see it as an empowering interface to a more normal way of watching the flow of television. If DVRs become as ubiquitous as many believe they will, how will the TiVo generation view the media? If my household is any indication, television will be transformed, but not necessarily in predictable ways.

Both parenting and TiVo transform a household. Personally, we’ve found satisfaction in both, upgrading our family to three children. Our one TiVo remains an only child, occasionally begging for a sibling to allow it to grow, learn to talk to other devices, and walk about the house a bit. But for now, it awaits further discovery from a generation who will think it so odd that we ever needed to watch television according to someone else’s schedule and flow.

1 See this link for a TiVo user discussion on the topic, and here for a brief consideration from USA Today.

Image Credits:

1. TiVo Set

2. Diddy says, “TiVo or Die!”

Please feel free to comment below.




Truth and Beauty

Medical Visuals

Medical Visuals

Over the past decade I have become a most reluctant television star. The camera, as they say, is drawn to me. I only wish I could say that I’ve enjoyed the attention. If you’ve seen my work, you may be surprised to know that I’m actually extremely shy, and still uncomfortable in front of a camera. In fact, judging by the latest round of auditions for American Idol, I’ve come to think that I may be the last surviving American who can imagine living a full life without once appearing on television. And yet it seems to be my destiny to be hounded by people who will go to any lengths — sparing no expense — to see me appear on their TV screens.

Perhaps you’ve seen my work. I don’t like to boast, but I’ve appeared on TV screens from coast to coast, and I’ve been responsible for some truly memorable on-screen moments. It all began with the MRI scan of my lower abdomen in the mid-’90s — an immature work, I’ll admit, but it was early in my career. In fact, I hadn’t really pursued a career at all; like Lana Turner, I was plucked from obscurity by an eagle-eyed talent scout who spotted me slumped on a plastic chair in a San Francisco emergency room. How was I to guess that one day I would be recognized as the most accomplished medical imaging performer of my generation?

I gained confidence slowly — a CT scan of my skull, a couple chest X-rays, a few more casual MRIs. Sure, I was flattered when doctors and technicians praised these early efforts — who wouldn’t be? But I was something of a dilettante, a dabbler in the world of medical imaging. I didn’t really begin to sense my gift until my first encounter with nuclear medical imaging, when I was asked to swallow a “contrast media.” I enjoyed the vaguely Videodrome-esque possibilities in being allowed to eat the media, but quickly learned that barium and radioactive isotopes are not my medium. Still, it wasn’t long until the cameras were inside my body, instead of hovering around me, and I had discovered my calling. In the past ten years my internal organs have logged more screen time than Dr. Phil.

I don’t know what the object of television studies is these days, but my experience with the profession of medical imaging has brought me into contact with an entire world of digital video technology and imagery that is barely mentioned in the literature of television and media studies. Of course, this apparently invisible screen culture hides in plain sight, where it is taken for granted by millions upon millions of people who encounter it every day. Perhaps it’s time to focus a bit more of our attention on the technology, industry, and visualization strategies of medical imaging.

The NBC television network is the most visible face of General Electric, and, like all television networks, its principal task is to create wealth for the company by making and circulating images to a public with an apparently insatiable appetite for images. But NBC is not the only business in the GE corporate empire that trades in images, nor is it even the most valuable. The GE Healthcare division generates twice the annual revenue of NBC, largely by facilitating the production of images that circulate only within the halls and computer networks of the health care industry, where GE is the industry leader in diagnostic medical imaging.

Inside the body, on your TV

Inside the body, on your TV

Medical imaging doesn’t hold the glamour of network TV, but its images are vastly more profitable. Since many of these technologies employ proprietary high-tech hardware and software under exclusive patent to GE, the images carry a hefty price tag even though they have no value in an economy of images recognized by the general public. Instead, images made by scanning and fluoroscopic technologies have a singular, functional value for medical practitioners. When interpreted by a trained specialist, they serve as evidence in an investigation; their value increases along with their proven accuracy. The expense of creating and interpreting these images, while contributing to the skyrocketing cost of health care, makes this a lucrative business for GE, which hopes to maintain its dominance in an industry that appears to be poised for limitless growth, particularly considering the future health care needs of aging, relatively affluent populations.

A recent television commercial in GE’s “imagination at work” campaign portrays GE medical imaging technology not only as one of the company’s many innovative products, but also as an essential contribution to the history of western civilization. The commercial takes just thirty seconds to present a sweeping history of human techniques for making images. The rapidly-edited sequence mixes images of instantly recognizable icons with the technologies used to record them: paintings from a prehistoric cave and an ancient Egyptian tomb, a Renaissance portrait, an image produced by a camera obscura, galloping horses frozen in stride by Edweard Muybridge, an early motion picture camera and the Edison company’s famous filmed “Kiss,” an x-ray of a human hand, a shot of the Earth as seen from the Moon’s surface, ultra-slow-motion footage of a hummingbird in flight, time-lapse footage of a flower in bloom, and a distant galaxy revealed by the Hubble space telescope.

As the images cascade, a narrator makes the case for GE: “To the list of the most extraordinary images ever captured, GE humbly submits … the beating human heart.” The screen fills with a startling, lovely image: a living human heart isolated against a black background, rendered in real-time as a three-dimensional image. Unlike an x-ray or a conventional MRI, this scanned image doesn’t require a leap of imagination or a consultation with a specialist to be legible to the untrained eye; it has the precision and clarity of a motion picture, but also an undeniable beauty – a hint of poetic hyperrealism in the emotionally and symbolically resonant image of a beating heart.

Science fiction has promised a chance to peer inside the human body without the need to penetrate flesh, and in this advertisement GE fulfils the promise. In the commercial for GE imaging technology, the physical characteristics of the body — the flesh and bone that are seen as obstacles to diagnosis and treatment — disappear before the penetrating gaze of GE technology. By transforming the body into an image, technology facilitates treatment. What’s striking about the GE commercial, however, is not the instrumental argument in favor of imaging technologies, but that fact that GE makes an essentially aesthetic claim for its new technology: GE has transformed a real human heart into a beautiful image. The question is: why? Why promote diagnostic medical technology by insisting that beauty is truth?

Image Credits:

1. Medical Visuals

2. Inside the body, on your TV

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.