An Analog Form in a Digital Box: Sitcoms, Mitcoms, and New Media Pliancy

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A CNN Screencaputure

A CNN Screencapture

There’s a lot of static these days, in both industry and academic circles, about the ways in which new media are reshaping television’s visual field. Folks are talking about the flattening and fracturing of televisual space, the addition of overlays, banners, text crawls, and side bars to news and information programs, and the borrowing of many other techniques and aesthetics from the world of computer software.

At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be much talk about the powerful influence television exerts on new media aesthetics and the methods of information delivery. In the interest of prompting more discussion, we’d like to share some thoughts on machinima, a method of making animated videos using off-the-shelf computer games such as The Sims (Maxis) or Halo (Bungie Studios), and ways machinima sitcoms (or “mitcoms”) such as The Strangerhood (Rooster Teeth Productions) represent a kind of “televisualization” of computer games.

Nuke Winter

Nuke Winter

For readers unfamiliar with machinima (short for “machine cinema”), it’s basically bricolage storytelling for the information age. The repurposed objects in this case are computer game graphics and the engines that produce them. With real-time machinima, game play is recorded as “raw footage” and then edited using a digital video editing package such as Premiere Pro (Adobe) or Final Cut Pro (Apple). Script-driven machinima, on the other hand, requires machinima-makers to input action commands directly into development environments such as the ones that sit behind Unreal Tournament (Epic Games) and Quake (id software). These commands then are translated into animations by the game’s engine.

Though machinima depends on repurposing both stock and fan-created digital assets (e.g., 3D avatars and buildings, soundtracks), as well as the techniques used to generate such material, machinimations don’t always wind up resembling the games they’re derived from. Indeed, much of the appeal of machinima is the artistic freedom it allows. Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences board member Hugh Hancock documents this point well when he lists machinima’s most significant liberties: “with ‘virtual cameras’ you can develop an entirely new language…not hampered by the constraints of the real world.” Moreover, Hancock continues, there’s “the sheer flexibility of a world where you make up all the rules of physics, the option to add interactivity…. And on. And on.” Strangely enough, machinima-makers are using this seemingly infinite creative flexibility to explore the aesthetic and storytelling possibilities of the television sitcom.

We say “strangely enough” for several reasons, not the least of which is that television sitcoms may very well be going the way of the dodo. A leaner (and definitely meaner) kind of program has appeared — the reality show — and it’s chasing the sitcom from the airwaves. Whether or not television sitcoms eventually become extinct is anyone’s guess, but there is certainly a sentiment shared by both the broadcast and cable industries that the genre’s time is running out. This anachronistic quality is, in part, what makes mitcoms such as The Strangerhood — replete as it is with a living room couch, goofy neighbors, and a laugh track — such odd ducks: they’re emerging just as the sitcom form has been declared dead (or, at least, dying an expensive and unpleasant death) by its progenitor, network television.

The mitcom also is weird because of the inherent pliancy of machinimation. If machinima-makers are not “hampered by the constraints of the real world” (which they’re not), and therefore have the opportunity to “develop an entirely new language” (which they do), why are they looking to one of the most famously formulaic modes of storytelling? Ten years ago, when the first machinimations started appearing on the Internet, serialization and an adherence to well-established genres were necessary because of bandwidth restrictions. The pipes were simply too narrow to allow much content through, meaning machinima-makers (like the early game developers before them) had to rely on well-worn and thus easily and quickly recognizable tropes and iconography to tell their stories.

Today, that’s not the case: consumer-level broadband connections and distributed, self-organizing networks with multi-source file sharing such as eDonkey (MetaMachine) and Morpheus (StreamCast Networks) make short work of even the largest video downloads. There really are no restrictions to storytelling, which makes machinima-makers’ interest in the sedimented and highly-structured narrative form of the sitcom so curious.

Granted, in the case of The Strangerhood, the sitcom form is used in part because of its antique qualities (e.g., ensemble cast, laugh track, catch phrases, and recurring plotlines). What better way, then, to both parody and critique the medium (not to mention indulge in a bit of nostalgia) than through one of its most iconic forms?

That said, The Stangerhood and mitcoms like it are more than just parodic: they’re also explorations of televisuality — of the form and function of television as a medium, an art form, an industrial complex, and a cultural force. In both borrowing from and playing with the sitcom form, mitcoms bring to the surface the nature of that form and the agential and structural networks that created it.

Of course, mitcoms as explorations of televisuality are yet nascent, but they nonetheless show the resiliency and potential of televisual forms of meaning-making across media. The pre-machinima history of computer games includes numerous examples of the television/game crossover, some of which — such as the run-a-network simulation Mad TV (Rainbow Arts) and Eugene Jarvis’ infamous parody/action game Smash TV (Acclaim Entertainment) — exercised the new medium’s pliancy far more vigorously than such ham-fisted tie-ins as The Adventures of Gilligan’s Island (Bandai America), Yes, Prime Minister (Mosaic Publishing), and ALF (SEGA Entertainment).

The mitcom may very well be a kind of televisual future anteriorism, a seeing of what will have been, an artifact from the future documenting an interregnum. We can’t help but think of Harold Innis’ observation that “sudden extensions of communication are reflected in cultural
disturbances.” Perhaps in drawing on the sitcom, the mitcom is not only celebrating a predecessor’s aesthetic, but also subverting that aesthetic’s representations of social relations.

Our guess is that we won’t find out what will have been until we see how HDTV, digital cinema, and next-generation game consoles such as the PlayStation 3 converge. That’s likely to be sooner than most of us expect.

Notes:

We prefer the term “computer game” over “video game” as the universal designation for electronic entertainment software because it privileges the medium’s inevasible technological foundation rather than its admittedly dominant but nonetheless excludable sensory element, video. There are many games that have no video at all (see Games for the Blind for examples).

Hugh Hancock, “A View from the Shack,” 1 January 2000. machinima.com.

Harold Innis, The Bias of Communication. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. 31.

Image Credits:

1. A CNN Screencapture

2. Nuke Winter

Links:
The Strangerhood
Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences
Red vs. Blue (Halo Machinima)

Please feel free to comment.




How Much Do I Love myTunes? Allow Me to List the Ways…

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition”

From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

As interesting as Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix edition” was, I couldn’t help but ask why among the celebration of hip-hop culture, slash narratives, adobe photoshop, Andy Warhol, Barbara Kruger, Machinima and Robot Chicken, the lowly “mix tape”, the one form of modified media that almost every one of my friends who are 30 or older own, was left unmentioned. Lest we forget that well before the trend over file sharing spread across Universities endowed with multiple T1 lines and gained the attention of the RIAA and MPAA, there was the practice of home taping. As far as remix culture goes, while a home mixer may never receive a praiseworthy grant or honorary degree, there aren’t too many remix practices that have inspired as much consumer passion. Of the many “compilation tapes” I made and received, those that stand out are those cassettes of songs based on a theme or determined to make an “album better”. Long before college kids were “modding out” their favorite video games with television characters they wish they could get to fight in computer-driven combat (imagine Homer Simpson with a laser rifle tracking down Spongebob Squarepants in a real-time 3D “manhunt” such as the Unreal Championship video game and you get the idea), I had made a tape of all of the one album worth of “good songs” from The Clash’s excessive, three-disc set, Sandinista! Other compilations were put together under the romantic inspirations of friendship and love. As Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth puts it in the introduction of on his latest book simply titled, The Mix Tape,

“This book can only represent one zillionth of the people out there who have made the coolest tapes for themselves or others. In that respect, it simply exists as a nod to the true love and ego involved in sharing music with friends and lovers. Trying to control sharing through music is like trying to control an affair of the heart — nothing will stop it.”

To be sure, putting together the right compilation tape, the right playlist of songs, was something of a sacred affair. As Nick Hornby puts it in his novel on obsessive record collecting, High Fidelity, “The making of a great compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do and takes ages longer than it might seem.”

Of course, the practice both inspired debate and industry-sponsored paranoia. Memories being what they are, allow me to remind the reader of the “Home taping is killing music” campaign. The slogan would find itself on just about every record store shopping bag and on the lips of every record fan and music lover in the US. Music journalists often asked artists their opinion of home taping and the campaign’s ubiquity became spoofed by one of the most memorable critiques of a public relation message ever launched: the “Home Fucking is Killing Prostitution” bumper sticker. And it wasn’t simply because the sticker used the “F word” that you could buy this piece of latex commentary in independent record stores. By equating the at home practices of record listeners to a rather, ahem, intense pleasure of communication, the sticker underlined the complex set of ethics that have long accompanied the “personal use” of a very “public medium.” Ever since 1940 when in the case of RCA Manufacturing Co. v. Whiteman , 114 F.2d 86, 88 (2d Cir.) the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the claim of the music conductor on “common-law property in [musical] performances ended with the sale of records,” a consumer could now take his own collection of records and, as long as they had no intention of profiting from this stockpile of recordings, share them in any number of manners. In the US at least, this decision opened the door to view recordings as both a good that was at once both potentially private and social. Making a personal copy of my records to give away to friends may be legally contested, but what mattered was that it simply felt like another mode of generosity, one step removed from providing records for a party or dance. Indeed, no matter how high profile a campaign the RIAA initiates, it’s unlikely to change the fact that sharing recordings will almost always be seen as a mode of association, a form of communication that is personal and is none of the industry’s business.

Which is a long-winded way to point out that the “personalization/modification” of media by consumers has deep and entrenched connections with recordings in general. And as outmoded as the “home tape” is, your PC’s hard drive is simply another record and playback device, albeit an extremely sensitive and complex one. Of course, the kind of personal affection that inspired the compilation tape has found its way onto a whole new set of technologies. With the proliferation of mp3 players, CD burners and cheap CD-Rs the art of the mix is practiced now more than ever. Given the fact that the high end iPod now sports a 60gb hard drive that can hold well over 10,000 songs and work in concert with PCs and Macs, as programs such as WinAmp and iTunes that encourage listing and burning, the production of CDs with personalized playlistings has reached a new level. Uniting these technologies with file sharing programs, and the proliferation of DSL capabilities and you more of less have a supercharged in-home music publishing technology in every middle-class American home and office.

So what does a music industry that has been based on the sale of discs of some sort since the late 1940s do? Well, adapt of course. For one, this sort of adaptation has meant less of an emphasis on the direct promotion of discs and more on their indirect promotion through the licensing and cross-promotion of properties. Most specifically this has meant that the role of the music supervisor for any film or television program has become an even more important gatekeeper than it was before. When a company licenses the synch rights that place a band’s song on The OC it is doing the double duty of generating revenue and distributing their commodity. For example, after the screening of the much-hyped finale of Six Feet Under prominently featured Sia’s “Breathe Me” in the final few minutes in a sort of “montage of death” music video. The day after, the “soundtrack” to the show vaulted to the number two position on Amazon sales chart.

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

But moving units is only one method. The second includes the gradual co-optation of personalization, specifically the act of “playlisting.” MTV2 has produced Playlistism, a program which claims to feature “fans and bands talking about what’s on their mp3 playlists as well as the hottest new gear for your m3 player.” But most aggressive by far has been Apple. In its continual quest to commodify taste and style, the company most responsible for the success of personal mp3 players in 2004 launched both a paper and internet version of a music magazine simply titled Playlist through Mac Publishing, LLC. As a place where readers can learn about new portable media technologies, review submitted playlists, and access the occasional free mp3, the magazine conveniently provides a place to integrate consumer desires with the abilities of both its soft and hardware. And even more interesting is the manner in which Apple’s iTunes store regularly features “celebrity lists”, playlists that are ostensibly compiled and annotated by the likes of Tommy Lee, Robert Rodriguez, Bobby Brown, Nicole Kidman, Al Franken, both Brooks and Dunn, Kathy Griffin, Gus van Zant, Howie Mandel and so on. And if for some reason you care what Mr. Mandel has chosen for his listening pleasure, or you find his explanation for listing the Foo Fighter’s “Best of You” convincing, you too can simply download the song from the iTunes for your iTunes player at a convenient 99 cents a pop. At which time, theirTunes become yourTunes and what was once a practice dreaded by the music industry becomes a licensed mode of distribution. And what was once sacred, is now simple, convenient and profane.

Image Credits:
1. From Wired Magazine’s July 2005 “Remix Edition”

2. A Soundtrack Cover for Six Feet Under

Please feel free to comment.




Hegemony on a Hard Drive

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

Apple Logo

Apple Logo

The big sucking sound I had just heard was my Canon i9900 printer swallowing a 19×13 inch piece of photo paper. It then proceeded to dedicate its eight ink cartridges to printing only half of the image down the right hand side of the sheet. Damn, damn, damn! Apple + . Apple + . Cancel, Cancel! Abort! Abort! Aoougah! Aoougah! Dive, dive, dive!

I hate it when that happens.

I had printed images this size at the office, no problem. Well, OK, slight problem. The printer wouldn’t accept a “print landscape” orientation, so you had to get Photoshop to rotate the image 90 degrees and print in portrait aspect. Other than that – piece of cake. So I glared balefully at the printer, blinking and burping away there on the side table in my home workspace. I began to run through the variables that might be dorking around with my image. One of these solved the problem: moving the image from a remote hard drive to the laptop hard drive and printing from there, or switching the printer from the USB port to the Firewire port that was now free since I didn’t need the remote hard drive, or using a standard paper size setting instead of a custom size. I don’t know which did the job because I did them all simultaneously and the image printed. Maybe I needed all three.

“It shouldn’t be this hard,” I thought. “Art and my computer should be better friends.” And it’s not just visual material; life doesn’t get any easier when we consider audio. Singing, poetry, anything better heard than read; they are all part of that “digital trunk in the attic” I wrote about. Trying to create those messages in the digital environment runs us into more tool concerns:

I have a pretty small, pretty awful, USB microphone. I play no instrument – assuming we do not count the kazoo. Garageband sits gathering nanodust on my hard drive. Yes, I have a friend who is an excellent keyboardist and vocalist who has offered to share her skills, her keyboard, and her high end USB microphone if I teach her how to use Garageband. But I don’t know how to use Garageband, yet. And my office tech guru tells me that “If spend another 80 bucks in software, and get a mumbo-jumbo yadda yadda 100 dollar interface, you will have really excellent sound. Plus processor speed isn’t an issue because the CPU will either choke or it won’t. Probably won’t. And the interface is clean – just like Garageband!” Whew, I feel a lot better now!

It shouldn’t be this hard.

But there is a bigger issue than my personal frustration. Before the expressive digital genie has even wriggled her way out of the bottle, we are lopping off appendages, willy-nilly. The intricacies of hardware and software are selectively marginalizing various communicative modalities, and particular voices. In my classes, I call it communicative hegemony. We tend to think of hegemonic inclinations as advantaging a specific worldview. I’d take that particular paranoia a step further. The communicative technologies that come to dominate any point in history advantage some modes of expression over others, and those advantaged expressive modes are uniquely inclined to favor a construction of reality that carries embedded assertions about the nature of existence and expression.

There are two primary areas of ware dominance – the communicative hegemony made possible a convergence of software and hardware – that concern me. The concern can be framed thusly: What expressive ware enables and advantages particular constructions of messages, particular groups of message makers, and hence specific perceptions of reality/truth/value?

Garage Band

Garage Band

The tradition in expressive message software – visual processing packages such as Photoshop and Illustrator and audio packages like ProTools and Cakewalk Sonar – is to create powerful, full-featured applications for “media” professionals. I have two significant objections to that tradition. First, it unduly influences the whole area of what is the “allowable” structure of an expression. And second, it nudges the creative impulse toward the slippery slope of commodification.

Let’s address the “allowable structure” notion first. I have two friends who are “real artists.” He is primarily a sculptor, she a painter. Both refuse to use Photoshop any longer. They quit early in the version 2.0 years. She originally used it to do a variety of “color treatments,” experimenting with various color schemes on a preliminary sketch without using reams of paper or pots of paint. She quit because the software became too complex; it got in the way of her painting. He used it for similar reasons, to look at various glaze ranges and do some manipulation of digital images of “pieces in progress.” But he stopped using it for a very different reason. A computer-science professor in his previous professional life, he walked away because Photoshop got “Way too cool. I was afraid I’d never go back to the studio.” Those are two sides of the same coin – the software began to assert its own agenda into the creative process. By foregrounding certain processes – sometimes literally in the tools palette, sometimes figuratively as in the abundance of filters and effects available in drop down menus – the software advocates certain expressions more than others.

The software designers would be quick to point out that they use “feedback from their customers” to decide which tools to foreground and which features to provide. Which takes us directly to the issue of commodification. Expressive software packages – graphics, music, sound – that sell for $500.00 to $10,000.00 are not designed for the personal expression budget. They are designed for professionals. Folks who do work for profit or for hire. And those are the customers the software designers ask what features to foreground or include. Hence, the software packages advantage techniques and tools designed for commercial products, and in doing so, further establish the artistic language of the commercial artist as the accepted language for any artist wishing to employ that particular medium. And, if that weren’t enough, the software advantages output in forms that are particularly salient to the marketplace. Jpegs for websites and online stores, “save as html” to provide the “copy,” .ram files for your PC Real One Player – click here to upgrade! “It’s easier to build an online business than you ever thought!” Again, product for profit, not process for expression.

Now, my friends over at IT tell me that there are plenty of freeware, shareware, cheapware, options I can use. A few even work on my Mac, a few I can get up and running in less than 12 or 15 hours, and some will actually output sound or video or images to a format I can print, play or display. Some I might be able to figure out myself. That is significant progress. I can still remember when they didn’t want to talk to me if I wasn’t using a UNIX box and couldn’t program is C++. Still –

It shouldn’t be this hard.

Apple is making an honest effort – I think. Their iLife suite tries to walk the thin line between commerce and creativity. But it is a very difficult razor on which to balance. Look at GarageBand, for example, which I have played with more since starting this essay. Version 1.0 leaves you at the mercy of your own skills with an instrument or the loops and samples provided with the software. Version 2.0 – just out – seems to move further along the road toward enabling the consumer; but the price is a significant leap in the complexity of the software. And it still exports to iTunes, which shows an uncomfortable inclination to shuffle me off to the iTunes Store.

Jef Raskin, who died about a month ago, was largely responsible for the original Macintosh user-friendly interface/mouse tandem. He wouldn’t like that. He always asserted that computers should serve people – not the other way around. He ALWAYS thought it shouldn’t be this hard.

And it is our fault. When I say “our,” I mean those of us in universities. Our love affair with technology has led to tools of awesome power, wonderful capabilities. Our research, our fascination with what might be possible, has created the electronic phantasm that is the 21st century. But in acquiescing to the “off the shelf” ware solutions provided by our graduates in the industry, we have unwittingly added a new deep trench to the digital divide. We have allowed our genie to build walls instead of bridges between the creative impulse and the digital environment. The tool now dominates both the process and the nature of the product. It is time to wrap our academic robes more firmly around us and figure out how to reverse that paradigm, because — all together now – It shouldn’t be this hard!

Image Credits:
1. Apple Logo
2. Garage Band

Link
Apple

Please feel free to comment.




The Trunk in the Attic, or, Designing a Digital Legacy

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

Communication is, and always has been, a negotiation; technology and society parrying and thrusting, demand and counter, proposition and accommodation. Folks feel a communicative urge and hunt around for a communication container capable of holding the symbols necessary to ease said urge. Speech, text, painting, sculpting, music and math all met communicative, conceptual, needs and claimed specific amenable space on paper, canvas, stone, metal, or in the melodious air. It is, in part, those past successes that articulate the next expressive opportunity; the evolving expressive capabilities of technology are themselves hints at how our communicative tools might be best employed.

The gradual, expressive, maturing of the digital environment makes me hopeful that an old communicative fantasy of mine may be edging toward reality. I have always been delighted by the creativity of others. Nothing gives me more pleasure than to be in the presence of another’s insight or expression and find myself reduced to a state of delighted confusion: How did they do that? And, how did they even think of that? The desire for real answers to those questions often drives me to Google to find an author’s or artist’s or musician’s or scientist’s email address and ask them. You would be amazed at how often they respond. The problem, of course, is that on occasion they have been so rude as to die before answering my questions – sometimes decades ago. The frustration of their ultimate inaccessibility always reignites my desire for a “virtual biography.” I want to know what Einstein ate, what the streets he walked along looked like. I want to share the music to which Georgia O’Keeffe listened; I want to hear the sounds of London that Shakespeare heard. I want to be able to participate in some way in the experiential reality that must have shaped the creative flame within those souls. And I want to feel the firelight and hear the wind that whipped around the farmhouse winter nights in South Dakota when my father was a boy. I want to see the pages of the books that entranced my mother as a young girl in rural Pennsylvania. I want interactive, real time biographies that move beyond words on a page or flickering images sprung from the imagining of filmmakers and TV producers.

Such living histories would be incredibly difficult and expensive to create. To reassemble the past from fragments of mostly discarded data, to attempt to reconstruct from them a facsimile of the creative, reflective, experiential reality of one long dead is a daunting, if not impossible, task. However, assembling such works to chronicle lives in the present, using digital technology, has become surprisingly feasible.

Think about it. All you really need is a “capture device” – something that can record the visual, auditory and textual experiences of a life, a “structuring device” – something that allows one to edit, order and organize those collected experiences, a “storage device” – someplace to store both the collected data and the constructed representations, and a “publishing-distribution device” – something that allows for the sharing of the constructed representations with others. A simple hardware configuration meeting all those requirements would be a video cell phone, a laptop computer with a broadband connection, and a large external hard drive. Apple’s iLife and Microsoft’s Office would take care of the software. You could, naturally, beef up each portion of that configuration as need and desire dictated, but those simple pieces could get “the job” done.

The next question is “What does ‘the job’ look like?” To which I respond, with great certainty, “I’m not sure.” I see two major divisions in “the job.” One is really a database. I like to think of it as a huge digital trunk in the attic. You know, that trunk that had all those funky things from when your parents were young, or better yet when your grandparents were young. You could dig through it and actually touch a bit of that time. Chronology and use of the items wasn’t always obvious, but many essential components of the past were there in that trunk. Our digital trunk, stored on the huge hard drive and backed up on the appropriate back-up medium de jour, would contain the digital components of our life: images, sounds, text, whatever is eventually available to record and store.

The second part I think of as a journal. Again consider the parallel to the trunk in the attic: In the trunk you find a journal that tells the story of a life, and in doing so refers to some of the items in the trunk – the data is structured in a way would allow an observer some insight into those two questions with which I am a bit obsessed: How did they do that? And how did they even think of that?

But what is the appropriate structure for this journal? Remember, we are the folks filling the trunk, writing the journal for those kids – biological, intellectual or philosophical – who we hope will one day climb up into our attic. What should we include in this story of our lives? Again we are meandering through somewhat unknown territory. As I mentioned in my last column here in Flow, we don’t really even understand the language yet. But I have revisited the works of several master storytellers recently, and from their efforts draw some reasonable guidelines.

First, the digital journal of our lives must aim for experiential veracity. Isaac Asimov in his 1953 work, The Second Foundation, introduced millions of readers to the idea of the Prime Radiant – a virtual reality projector that enabled social scientists to actually walk around inside an incredibly complex equation describing the past and future of all human/galactic society. They could reach out and shift elements of the equations and see the impact on the whole, in real time. They reached back in time and actually shared the creative experiences of the other Second Foundationers who had preceded them. I have never met anyone over 35, involved in new technology environments, who is either unfamiliar with, or uninfluenced by, those five or six pages.

Second, understand and share, to the best of your ability, your own formative moments. Louis L’Amour points me to this particular guideline. Yeah, yeah, I can see you looking down your nose. But I would suggest reserving judgment until folks buy more than two hundred million copies of your books. The man was an incredibly gifted storyteller. And his dependable structure was part of his gift to us. A Louis L’Amour story often starts in the protagonist’s childhood. The incident that solidifies the protagonist’s core characteristics is recounted and the rest of the work is an unfolding of how those characteristics guide a usually admirable life. Remember we are trying to explain to the folks who come rummaging around in our attic why we do the things we do, why we think the things we think. Hence, we need to share with them the “what and why” of our own core characteristics.

I draw the final characteristic – multitextuality – from Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits, “Scarborough Fair/Canticle”, to be precise. In this particular work several textual, vocal and instrumental themes flow around one another, over-lapping and intermingling to create a synthesis that is not only greater than, but also different from, its various component parts. Most narratives about life and creativity are cast in one medium. They begin at point A and proceed to the Z of our lives or creative endeavors. The reality is that our lives and creations are entities and events of complexity, serendipity, planning and surprise. We have the best chance of discerning and representing that process with accuracy. So the constructions we pass along – the journals we leave in the trunk – should reflect as much as possible all the experiential, cognitive, and creative streams that combine in the expressions we seek to preserve.

What I am talking about is the conscious creation of a personal digital legacy, compiling a personal history of unparalleled richness, accuracy and complexity. If such legacies were to become a common cultural practice, how much more profound would be our insight into ourselves, and our world. Certainly I would like to know the intricacies of the lives of the giants of our times, great artists and thinkers whose works I so admire. But at least as precious would be the legacy of my family. My father is 91, my mother and older brother have already died. How wonderful it would be to know that they had left me a trunk in the attic, a digital legacy of inexhaustible memories, moments and perceptions to comfort and to guide me. Sadly, my father cannot construct such a legacy, and my mother and brother took their trunks with them. I will leave mine for my daughters.

Links
Robert Schrag’s Online Journal
Prime Radiant
Images from the Prime Radiant

Please feel free to comment.




Transform Me, Please…

by: Tara McPherson / University of Southern California

After Botox

Discovery website – After Botox

I’m feeling my age these days. My toddler’s been wrestling with a cold for weeks, setting off a seemingly endless cycle of sick boy, sick dad, sick mom, as we tag team viruses with the 20+ other wee ones in our preschool set. And the semester’s just kicked in, amping daily life up to full-frantic pace, with seminar prep, admission cycles, budget planning (a perk of life as division chair), and another turn on the committees-of-the-week ride. And then there’s the email. Always the email. Ironically, I’m teaching a grad course this spring on fashion, beauty, and media culture. Can’t say I’m feeling all that expert on such topics right now. I’m lucky to shower these days.

So, I have to confess that the chance to ‘look ten years younger’ in ten days has its appeal. That’s the promise hawked by one of the seemingly countless ‘makeover’ shows dotting the televisual landscape today, the appropriately-titled 10 Years Younger on TLC. Avoiding the nip + tuck techniques of The Swan or other surgically-enhanced shows, this kinder, gentler series promises a non-invasive path to a renewed and youthful self.

But, just as I’m getting lured in, ready to submit my own application online, something (besides standing in mid L.A. in a big glass box while passing strangers guess my age) gives me pause. I already work a lot, with my job bleeding into domestic space via email, phone line, and fax. Even my TV watching is pretty much always tied to work, particularly this past fall while I was serving as a juror for the AFI television awards. While life in the university has probably always made separating work and play difficult, the technological landscape of post-fordism makes the blur feel complete. I’m going to resist the TV’s siren call to add working on myself to the equation and instead ponder why transformation has become such a powerful media lure today.

Of course, the promise of transformation via the commodity is not strictly a 21st century phenomenon. Media culture has been tightly tied to beauty culture since the birth of advertising, and it’s hard to think the history of Hollywood without recognizing the role the silver screen played in perpetuating precise ideas of glamour and fashion. Certainly, the proliferation of screens across the late 20th century – from televisions to computers to new mobile devices – participates in and extends these legacies and logics.

Vanessa Before and After on 10 Years Younger

Vanessa before and after on 10 Years Younger

But today’s makeovers are different too, and these differences matter. As Heather Hendershot recently noted in an article for Flow, today’s promises of transformation frequently penetrate the body, sculpting flesh and figuring it as increasingly mutable, changeable, and porous. The ‘transformations’ featured on shows ranging from Extreme Makeover to Plastic Surgery Beverly Hills (and on their attendant websites) highlight malleability to a new degree. Sure, specific products – from Botox to DaVinci veneers – are featured and made familiar. But this is about more than just selling procedures and pharmaceuticals.

Bodies become one with the bitstream, as easily morphed as a Photoshop file. Beauty is no longer a surface phenomenon, with the exterior reworked to match a ‘beautiful’ interior through a careful consumption of products. The inside and outside now collapse and blur, all up for reconfiguring and all requiring hard work. Thus the focus on many of these series on process itself; while the ‘reveal’ is still important, the shows narrate the labor involved in transformation in a manner quite different from earlier makeover tales. The ‘before’ and ‘after’ are still key, but the in-between expands.

New technologies of vision help underwrite the collapse of inside and out, making visible the interior of the body in new ways, but such a collapse is not just the effect of new representations on the surface of our screens. Rather, the very forms of electronic culture (and, especially, of digital culture) help naturalize this process, shifting our understandings of what constitutes the self and working in tight feedback loops with shifting modes of economic production and emergent media ecologies.

Various theorists and economists have noted a shift in the workings of capital, beginning in the 1960s and accelerating through the past several decades, a shift marked by a turn from factory production models toward an information economy. Western economies have moved toward flexible patterns of production, economies of scope (small batch production of a wide variety of products), service and knowledge industries in which computerization figures as a major development, and a new priority on consumption that targets highly differentiated niche markets.

A key factor in this shift to post-fordism is the emergence of data processing in which workers and machines are figured as equal relays in electronic circuits of information. Computers, moreover, contribute to a temporal and spatial decentralization of work that involves the overflow of labor beyond the eight-hour day or the confines of the office. There’s a space-time compression in which the boundaries between labor and leisure, work and home, bleed together. The internet in many ways crystallizes this shift, making it manifest, as work follows us home and shopping follows us to work.

Swan Logo

The Swan logo

The recent explosion in transformation TV situates television firmly within electronic culture, narrating recombination across our very bodies and homes, underwriting a continuum that runs from the extreme surgery shows to the seemingly tamer worlds of What Not To Wear and Trading Spaces. Electronic forms are complexly situated within the workings of capital. Thus, the bleed between product and information, between work and leisure, between old and new bodies can be seen as skilling us for the new modes of living demanded by post-fordist economies, modes that require a new relationship to our very corporeal selves.

But, if electronic culture is teaching us volumes about transforming selves, perhaps it is also teaching us something about other modes of change and transformation, pushing electronic culture into spaces of hope and possibility. Can we push this logic further, envisioning new recombinatory modes of living or even new labor movements? If electronic culture insists that everything is malleable, why stop with the self? Why not transform the very structures of capital? Just thinking about it makes me feel ten years younger.

Further Reading
Alliez, Eric, and Michel Feher. “The Luster of Capital.” Zone, no. 1/2 (1987): 314-59.

Recent Flow Articles of Interest
Heather Hendershot, “The Boob Tube”

Links
10 Years Younger
Extreme Makeover
The Swan
Trading Spaces
What Not To Wear

Image credits:

1. Botox injection image: The Discovery website offers details on Botox

2. Two images of same woman: Vanessa’s before and after on 10 Years Younger

3. The Swan logo

Please feel free to comment.




My Big Flat Screen TV

by: Sharon Strover / University of Texas at Austin

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

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

Big Screen TV1 The new home theater system

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

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

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

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

Plasma TVPlasma TV

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

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

Flat Screen TVFlat Screen Plasma TV

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

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

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

Image credits:

1. The new home theater system

2. Plasma TV

3. Flat Screen Plasma TV

Please feel free to comment.




Desperately Seeking Bandwidth

by: Thomas Streeter / University of Vermont

Until last winter, my home had been internet-free by choice. I had plenty of the stuff at work, it seemed to me. But then one morning my laptop, sitting on my dining room table and unconnected to anything, unexpectedly began retrieving my email all of its own accord. Mystified, I poked around a little and discovered that a neighbor had installed a wireless network in his home, and my laptop had detected that network and auto-connected. Broadband internet had chased me down into the privacy of my home.

And then it seduced me. My neighbor’s signal would fade in and out, but when it worked, it was oddly compelling. Yes, it was convenient to be able to check the movie schedule online, or send an email the moment it occurred to me. But there was something more, a craving, a constructed lack, evidenced by an outsized sense of frustration and annoyance when my neighbor’s system suddenly disappeared from the airwaves, leaving me in a state that had only a short time before seemed entirely satisfactory. Work on an online course gave me an excuse to give in to the urge and order broadband. But in the back of my head, I knew it was just an excuse. Really, I was responding to a compulsion.

My first try was with Verizon DSL. After a promising start ordering direct from their website — might friction-free ecommerce be a reality after all? — I ran in to problems. I went through countless rounds of vague robotic phone messages left on my answering machine (”Verizon has determined that we are unable to provide service to your address”) and lots of tinny Vivaldi while I sat on hold waiting for tech support. After three weeks I finally arrived home one day and found a phone message in the sonorous voice of Verizon spokesperson James Earl Jones, welcoming me to DSL and encouraging me to start my service. But then I picked up the phone. No dial tone. Every phone line in my house was dead. From hopes of high tech to no tech at all. It occurred to me that the message on my phone had the voice of Darth Vader.

No one needs broadband in the home. Plain old telephone service is cheaper, more reliable, and much more useful in life-threatening situations. Broadband belongs in the category of discretionary spending — alongside psychotherapy, mag wheels, and Barbie dolls. So why did this frustrating experience make me only more determined to get broadband?

When I was a kid growing up in the 1960s, telecommunications was just there, an unchanging part of the landscape. Phones were uniform, indestructible things solidly attached to the wall, and they all worked, pretty much all the time. As a child, once you’d learned the basics of dialing a rotary phone, there wasn’t much else to think about. We called the phone company “Ma Bell,” because it just seemed an inevitable and unchanging presence in the background of life, neither interesting nor worrisome (which perhaps also says something about how we understood motherhood back then). Those were the days of the AT&T monopoly, when one giant phone company owned just about everything, including the wires in your walls and the phones attached to them. That monopoly, established approximately a century ago and fully consolidated in the 1920s and ’30s, had by the 1950s provided the U.S. with the cheapest, most reliable phone system in the world.

But it also turned out to be against the law. In 1984 the U.S. Justice Department broke up AT&T into several regional divisions dubbed the “baby bells,” and made it legal to compete with the phone companies at multiple levels, from long-distance service to consumer devices. That event, combined with ever cheaper microchips and their derivations like microcomputers and modems, ushered in the era of answering machines, phones in bubble packs at the corner store, and dinner-time harassment from competing providers of long-distance service. The era of humdrum, reliable communications was over. The days of constant, eerily fluctuating ways to communicate had commenced.

So here I was deep in the new era. The next day, after being treated to more Vivaldi on my office phone, I asked the Verizon DSL tech support person, can DSL really wipe out someone’s phone service? He ticked off a list of what were to me incomprehensible technical phrases, and then concluded, “yes, it could happen.” He directed me to local phone repair office. “Should I tell them this might have been caused by DSL?” I asked. “Off the record,” he replied, “I’d say definitely not. If they think it’s the DSL division’s fault they might send you back to us and you could get stuck in an infinite loop between divisions. Just tell them your phone’s out, and let them figure it out.” As a Franz Kafka fan, I knew to follow his advice.

The local phone repairman who showed up to restore my dial tone, “Bill” (not his real name) was a pleasant, quiet man. He concluded he needed to put in completely new lines from the trunk. Watching him work, I was impressed by the fluid skill with which he stripped and wrapped wires, fitted boxes, and manipulated tools while high on the pole. At one point he looked at the wires in my basement and said, “That connection is older than me, and I’m almost fifty.” Bill’s expert craftsmanship was a legacy of the old era, embodying a century of institutional experience with copper wire telephone technology. And that skill was valuable; I needed it. As he left, I thought about the way the new era impacted him: phone company employees have been fighting a twenty-year, usually losing battle against downsizing and cutbacks, while their upper management simultaneously wildly inflates their own salaries and gropes for ways to replace their employees with nonunion workers and machines.

Having lost confidence in Verizon’s abilities to handle new-era technology, I then moved on to a new local start-up snappily named “Soundtivity,” which offered internet service that involved wirelessly beaming a signal to my rooftop from nearly a mile away, completely leapfrogging the old-era infrastructure. A few days later, a twenty-something young man stood at my doorstep in shorts, t-shirt, and tennis shoes, a coil of odd black cable over his shoulder: “Jeremy Ward, Soundtivity CEO,” according to his business card. Behind him stood Richard, “Director of Marketing” (which, judging by appearances, meant he was the guy who carries the ladder). “This shouldn’t take more than an hour,” said Jeremy confidently.

A month later, Jeremy and Richard had been to my house close to ten times, so often that they’d become friendly with my nine-year old son and familiar with where I kept the Cokes in the fridge; they were beginning to feel like roommates. There had been much drilling, fiddling with cables, servers, and antennas, and repeated scrambling in and out of my bedroom window to reach my chimney. It took them about a week to get a some kind of internet signal into my house, but it was slow, only a fraction of the 1.2 mbps they had promised, so they persevered. I’d been watching fairly closely, at first out of curiosity, and then out of fear for the integrity of my home’s walls, as it became clear that their installation skills were not exactly well-honed. Watching Jeremy balance at the top of the ladder, a laptop in one hand while grasping the chimney with the other, I wondered if he could afford to buy himself health insurance.

Jeremy sometimes called and asked me to test my connection speed using a special website. I began checking the site obsessively. You go to the site, click on a “test” button and, after a few minutes, a bar graph appears, with the kbps speed of your connection graphically indicated in a red bar, in between a series of green bars representing other typical speeds. The bars also have labels: the shortest green bar, 33.6 kbps, the speed of a modem on a slow phone line, is labeled “ugh.” As the bars get longer, up into 200-400 kbps range, the label shifts to “OK.” But the label “broadband” is reserved for 500 kbps and above. Curious, I eventually tried running the test on my laptop in a wireless-equipped coffee shop: over 2048 kbps, which earns the label “fast,” just below the green “very fast.” And then, on campus in mid-summer with no students to slow the network down, I jacked in my ethernet cable to a site which I knew to have extra-high-speed connections: the result, well over 5000 kbps, is labeled, “Dude!” Broadband’s perfect wave.

In the broad historical view, that 1960s “Ma Bell” sense of stability was really just a brief moment of calm in a longer history of weird turbulent change in how we communicate. From the spread of the telegraph in the 1850s to radio amateurs in the ‘teens to rural satellite dish aficionados of the 1980s, there have often been periods where manic tinkerers take the lead in exploring new possibilities for telecommunications, while the more stable, lumbering institutions struggle to adjust. Yes, it is driven by vertiginous capitalist forces, but not in a way that can be neatly reduced to need or rational economic calculation. As U.S. household penetration of broadband internet creeps towards fifty percent, it’s worth remembering that what economists call “demand” and what film theorists call “desire” are just as clearly related as they are different.

After four months, I’m getting a reliable 600 kbps speed from Soundtivity. Jeremy recently told me that he’s “deemphasizing” residential service (if every installation went like mine, I’d guess, he’d be out of business in no time). He’s noticed that, because Verizon is putting mid-sized broadband providers out of business by using its deep pockets to undersell them, DSL routing equipment is appearing at bargain prices on EBay. Nimble entrepreneur that he is, he hopes to send wireless internet signals to the tops of mountains and then use the recycled DSL equipment to run the service to farms and other isolated rural spots that the big companies do not want to bother with. But to his credit, he is not giving up on me. He’s proposed bumping my system up to a higher band, which might get the speed he originally promised. I don’t really need it. But it sure would be cool.

Links
Soundtivity
Wikipedia: “Bandwidth”
How DSL Works

Please feel free to comment.




MGM, DVD, and “TV”

by: Thomas Schatz / University of Texas-Austin

MGM Logo

MGM logo

Among the latest deals in the endless churn of media mergers & acquisitions was Sony Corp.’s purchase of MGM a few weeks ago for $5 billion. In the overall scheme of things, this scarcely qualifies as a “big deal” – not when TV networks and movie studios are being bought and sold for tens, even hundreds (in the case of AOL-Time Warner) of billions of dollars. But the Sony-MGM deal speaks volumes about the vastly rising stakes and the radically changing structure of “the media” in recent years, and the enormous changes in media culture and media experience as well.

And paradoxically enough, the purchase of the once-glorious, now-struggling MGM movie studio by the global media giant Sony – the only media conglom without its own television network(s) – speaks volumes about the changing state of “television” as well.

One measure of how much the stakes have changed is that Sony paid nearly as much for MGM last month as it paid for Columbia-TriStar some 15 years ago. In buying Columbia-TriStar, Sony acquired a huge, active, successful motion picture and television production-distribution company. In buying MGM, conversely, Sony acquired an anemic production company – one that’s expected to produce only three or four movies a year, most of them sequels from its handful of brand-name movie franchises (most notably the Bond series) – along with a movie library that is most distinguished for hits produced over a half-century ago.

Back in 1989, Sony was accused of overpaying for Columbia-TriStar, and it may have paid too much for MGM as well, due mainly to a bidding war with Time Warner, which until the eleventh hour was expected to acquire MGM for $4.5 billion. So what gives? Why were these two media giants willing to pay so much for MGM, when its key assets are 4,100 movie titles, most of them decades old?

The answer, of course, is the booming DVD market and the rapidly evolving digital home-video arena. The MGM purchase gives Sony the world’s largest movie library, totaling over 7,000 titles, and some estimates put the DVD-related value of MGM’s titles at over $1 billion per year. This is a truly staggering figure, and one that would have been inconceivable even five years ago, when the home-video value of MGM’s library was widely considered to be tapped out.

DVD changed all that, and it did so very quickly. The studios had learned their lesson with the VCR in the1980s, initially battling but eventually embracing home-video technology. By the time DVD technology emerged in the mid 1990s, the Hollywood powers had long since learned to think in terms of hardware-software synergies. The VCR by then was a ubiquitous home appliance and the studios’ home-video revenues more than doubled their theatrical income. Thus the studios and their parent companies displayed uncharacteristic good sense, fueled of course by enlightened self-interest, and worked together to fully exploit the radical new system of digital home-video delivery. The results of that cooperation, along with the inherent benefits of the technology itself, surpassed even the most optimistic projections for this new home-video system.

Consider for a moment the phenomenal growth of DVD- as a technology, as a media format, and above all as a delivery system for movies to the home. It’s now become commonplace to note that DVD technology has enjoyed the most rapid “diffusion of innovation” in history, and it’s too seldom noted that the DVD boom took off at the very same time that the high-tech, dot-com market collapsed. It’s worth noting, too, that the DVD’s diffusion has been driven primarily by movies. At the end of 1998, the year that DVD became commercially viable, fewer than 2% of US households had DVD players. Five years later nearly half (46.7%, according to the Motion Picture Association) of American homes had at least one DVD player. In 1998-1999, DVD rentals and sales went from virtually nil to nearly 100 million units. In 2003, over one billion DVD’s were sold, most of them directly to consumers as “sell-through” movie titles. Sell-through DVD’s return far more to the studio-distributors than rentals, which accounts for the studios’ current financial viability – not to mention their increasing reliance on effects-driven, franchise-scale blockbusters.

What’s equally remarkable about the DVD boom is the number of movie titles that have become available in just a few years – a total that surpassed 30,000 earlier this year. Hollywood currently releases only a few hundred movies per annum, so the number of DVD titles available obviously means that the studios are digging deep into their libraries for product. This represents a major break from the VHS home-video era, when the market was geared to contemporary films – although it syncs up quite nicely with cable television, which since the early 1990s has relied more and more heavily on classical Hollywood for programming.

Consumer interest in “old” Hollywood movies clearly has been a pleasant surprise for the Hollywood powers. Indeed, along with the DVD explosion in general, it proves yet again how little the entertainment industry understands its audience. This extends well beyond media content to DVD “players” to the mode of display – i.e., to “TV sets,” if that term still applies at all.

When Sony acquired MGM, the trade paper Broadcasting & Cable made this rather curious and illuminating comment about the purchase: “For Sony and its financial group, TV is a small part of the deal. The group is far more interested in the $1.1 billion a year that MGM has been generating by selling its movies on DVD.” Where and how, one might ask, are consumers watching all these DVD’s? “On TV,” of course, but here too consumer behavior and the marketplace at large are rapidly changing. Just as the studios had no clue how interested consumers might be in old(er) movies, they also were clueless about audience interest in screen format, aspect ratio, and the quality of image and sound. In one of the oddest and most unexpected developments in screen history, letter-boxing has become so prevalent that it’s even being used in TV commercials – not that anyone’s watching them, given the TiVo and DVR technology that’s accompanied DVD’s and a new generation of digital television sets.

One wild card in the Sony-MGM deal is Comcast, a true Hollywood outsider that promises to further complicate the evolving movie-television symbiosis. The nation’s largest cable operator, Comcast recently made a serious run at Hollywood via a failed $54 billion bid for Disney. The investment here is far more modest – a mere $300 million to acquire an eventual 20 percent stake in MGM – but the implications are considerable. Comcast is busily acquiring “content” for its burgeoning VOD (video on demand) service, while another division is rolling out a VoIP (voice over Internet protocol) telephone service. Clearly Comcast is leading the cable industry’s three-pronged strategy to provide video, broadband and telephone service – envisioning an America, perhaps, where media-hungry gadget hounds are making phonecalls on their computers and watching movies on their cell phones.

While the Sony-MGM deal gives Comcast access to a vast movie library, it puts Sony on line with 21 million cable subscribers, which is a significant figure in today’s fragmented television universe. This fall, for the first time ever during the first week of the new TV season, basic cable with its hodge-podge of networks and programming services drew more viewers than the six “broadcast” networks (43% versus 41% of TV households, with the balance watching pay-cable or PBS).

But it’s the millions watching their DVD’s that matter most to Sony, particularly with yet another generation of HD (high-definition) DVD technology poised to launch in early 2005. After the recent rush to DVD players and “home theater” audio-video systems, we may be ready at long last, after decades of hype and disappointment, to make the leap to HD – a leap that traditional television simply could not induce. Whether this occurs, and whether it alters the nature of “watching TV,” remains to be seen. But it would be a delicious irony indeed. A half-century ago, the postwar emergence of commercial television left the Hollywood studio system in ruins and decimated its audience; now a resurgent movie industry and a revolutionary home-video technology threaten to exact their revenge.

Links of interest:

1. Sony USA

2. MGM

3. Time Warner

4. MPAA

5. Broadcasting & Cable

6. DVD Verdict

Please feel free to comment.

Image Credits:

MGM Logo




“Print the Money”: Mediating the 2004 Elections

by: Anna Everett / University of California at Santa Barbara

Fox vs. CNN, 2004 Presidential Election

2004 Presidential Election, Fox vs. CNN

The title of this essay derives from a telling remark made by ubiquitous network news super star journalist Tim Russert following the third Presidential Debate on October 13, 2004. Russert’s comment came during his talking head-segment on the Fox News Network with Fox News anchor Britt Hume. Russert was speaking about the financial windfall that will accrue to the broadcast and cable networks, print and radio media, particularly in the swing states (where political ads will bombard the electorate, and where the candidates will campaign feverishly in the last days leading up to November 2 — election day).

Upon hearing it, I realized immediately that this fecund phrase captured the most egregious feature of our present-day political discourse as mediated through our increasingly powerful corporate-sponsored media industries. The first entry on Google’s 69,000 hit list for the key word “Tim Russert” is a professional biography statement from the MSNBC News website. The site reveals that Russert is the moderator of CBS’ Sunday news magazine show Meet the Press, an anchor at MSNBC’s Tim Russert Show, and Senior Vice President and Washington Bureau Chief at NBC News. Clearly, Mr. Russert enjoys a lot of television face-time. Thus, his highly politicized comments are not insignificant. And despite mainstream media polls that suggest the political influence of Russert and other high profile mainstream media pundits and their news organizations have declined precipitously in the wake of “negative” reporting, the fact remains that bad news and negative political campaign ads sway public opinion.

In fact, when Russert said “Print the money” in the context of the current election cycle, it reminded me of the memorable commercial ad slogan a few years back from the investment firm E.F. Hutton that stated, “When E.F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” Russert’s slogan gave me a way to frame and contextualize my concern about the unfortunate diminution of serious political discourse now that the public sphere has been purchased, privatized and ostensibly rendered prostrate by the profit motive and conservative ideological party lines of our powerful media oligopolies. Nothing highlights this dangerous state of public affairs discourse more than the fact that Ted Turner’s conservative CNN (before he was ousted recently as CEO) has been dethroned by Rupert Murdoch’s arch-conservative Fox News Network as the nation’s highest rated cable television news network. Where journalists once spoke of “the CNN effect” to describe that network’s once preeminent status as the “go-to” source for effective, 24/7, breaking, “live” and “crisis” driven news coverage in the wake of the 1986 Challenger spaceship disaster and its unparalleled coverage of the 1991 Gulf-War/Desert Storm campaign, they now speak of “the Fox News effect.” Apparently, Fox News (and its star journalist Bill O’Reilley — now embroiled in a sexual harassment lawsuit) cemented its ratings lead over CNN during the second Gulf War/ Operation Iraqi Freedom campaign (see Google, key words “fox news effect”). As I stated, these recent developments in the televisual landscape coupled with the mainstream media coverage of the upcoming election year politics got me to thinking seriously about the promises versus the reality of the much-touted benefits of our new participatory electronic democracy replete with new instant TV, phone, and internet polls, chat and blogging interactivity. Considering it all at this epochal moment, I fear that we are being bamboozled. And based upon my news-junkie consumption of broadcast TV and cable networks, print and radio texts dealing with the upcoming elections, I will tell you why.

Reading, Watching and Taping the Media Coverage of Election 2004
There are five television sets and three VCRs in operation in my home, and all were put to use documenting both the cable and broadcast TV networks’ political coverage of the conventions and the Presidential and Vice Presidential Debates on C-SPAN, PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the truncated news coverage on NBC, CBS and ABC. One of my television sets is a brand new 50-inch, flat screen plasma TV. Although I had not planned for it, the plasma TV (enhanced with TIVO and high-definition digital cable service) provided me with an unanticipated vantage point on this year’s political coverage not available to most viewers.

Under the category of “too much information,” I saw in high-definition (hi-def) unflattering close-up shots of Senator John Kerry’s face during his big nomination acceptance speech. The hi-def close-up shots revealed Kerry’s heavy perspiration and cotton mouth quite vividly on my big screen. For me, this amazing visual clarity conjured up images of the Kennedy-Nixon television debate in early 1960, when Nixon arguably lost the television debate to Kennedy because on camera Nixon looked tired, in need of a shave, and wore a grey suit that blended into the televisual background. Kennedy, on the other hand, reportedly looked tall, tan, handsome and presidential in his dark suit. While I was concerned that TV audiences and some press pundits might focus on Kerry’s appearance to diminish his speech somewhat, I later realized how unlikely it was that they watched the speech in hi-def. I now believe the stories that television executives and personalities have stalled on implementing hi-def television broadcasts because the lower resolution analog signals hide a multitude of sins — including wrinkles on aging on-screen personalities and cheaply made studio sets. Then again, President Bush had visible cotton-mouth during the third and final Presidential debate, and we all saw it without hi-def TV!

In addition to discussing the major TV networks’ failure to honor their public interest mandate, I will conclude this essay by mentioning a few highly potent and ideologically charged themes and ” talking points” that struck me during the media’s coverage of the 2004 election campaign news.

In terms of the broadcast networks’ refusal to cover adequately the Democratic and Republican National Conventions with little public sanction, we should recognize that a major part of the blame rests with the Clinton Administration’s passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act. This controversial, pro-big business act eroded much of the public interest protections enacted by the FCC’s ” Public Interest Standard” mandates provided by the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of 1934 that required broadcasters to operate in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” (See, for example, The Public Interest Standard in Television Broadcasting). Instead, it has devolved even more into a generous government license (or hand-out) to big media conglomerates to print money by leasing the public airwaves to sell their highly profitable wares with little regard for even the smallest measure of public service/interest responsibility. Thus, the big broadcast TV networks had the audacity to announce that they would carry only one hour of live coverage per night of the important national conventions during one of the most crucial political moments of our modern democracy.

The specious alibi that the political conventions are now little more than infomercials or staged shows devoid of real surprise or drama rings hollow indeed. Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government polls comparing voter interest in the 2000 and 2004 elections showed a dramatic increase among respondents in this year’s presidential campaign. Whether or not viewer interest is up is beside the point. Informed and concerned citizens should demand that broadcast networks honor their public interest responsibility for a measly 8 days every four years, as a minimum condition for retaining their money printing license. Unfortunately it seems, as Frederick Douglass observed more than a century ago, “power concedes nothing without a demand.” I certainly began to notice the networks’ demand for more profits in meeting their responsibility to help advance our democratic process as election year politics heated up in mid 2003. I was struck by the frequency with which political advertisements became news stories in and of themselves. Under the guise of “news,” the cable and broadcast news outlets began featuring “news” stories about political campaign ads.

It does not take a rocket scientist, to use a familiar trope, to recognize the disincentive of the media industries to offer fair and balanced, or equal time to political campaigns when they can extract exorbitant advertising fees while controlling the ideological messages available to their audiences. Lest I be charged with conspiracy mongering, let me share with you (besides Tim Russert’s revelation mentioned above) a couple of recent newspaper headlines and story passages that also make the point convincingly. On Sunday, October 10, 2004 The Los Angeles Times carried an article in its Calendar, Part 1 section entitled, “The attack of the attack ads: Presidential campaign messages are besieging swing states; In this war zone, no one is safe (p. E-1). In the Saturday, October 16, 2004 The New York Times, featured an article on campaign finance entitled “‘527’ Groups Still at Work Raising Millions for Ads” (p. A10). At last I found my proof, my validation, my “aha” moments!

For not only had my suspicions been borne out about the real reason the TV networks were retrenching from their public interest responsibilities, but the Times story also implicated the print media industries in this greed grab as well. After reporting that 527 group supporters of both the Democratic and Republican parties were busily raising tens of millions of dollars to spend on campaign ads to influence the 2004 vote, the article’s focus on the Swift Vets (formerly called the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth) quotes this group as saying, ” The group said it would alternate two commercials on national cable television and in markets in Colorado, Ohio, and New Mexico with $2 million alone spent in Ohio. The group has also sent mail to more than a million households and plans to buy newspaper advertisements in the coming weeks . . .” Now, after hearing time and time again that schools cannot be improved, or the lives of average citizens cannot be improved by throwing money at a problem, what am I to make of such large sums of money being thrown at the problem of ensuring that one political candidate gains the upper hand over another in this so-called democratic process? I think you get the point here. And is there any wonder why the cynical political messages TV’s late night comedians, the probing interventions of knowledgeable non-fiction book authors, internet bloggers, and independent filmmakers resonate so powerfully with the American public these days?

Finally, let me briefly comment on a few notable themes that emerged from the media coverage of election year 2004. Oops, I ran over my 1,500-word limit by 500+ words. Forgive me. Oh well, all you need do is just turn on your TV news (and its accompanying website), read your favorite newspaper (and its accompanying website), tune in to your favorite talk radio show (and its accompanying website) and you will get them repeated over, and over again. And if we are lucky, the major political money stops printing on November 2nd.

Links of Interest:

1. U.S. Department of State

2. Fox vs. CNN

Image Credits:

Fox vs. CNN

Please feel free to comment.




The Invasion of the Screen People

by: Robert Schrag / North Carolina State University

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links of Interest:

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

2. United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force

3. MIT’s web magazine on information technologies

Please feel free to comment.




Media Lag: The TV Revolution in Asia

by: Michael Curtin / University of Wisconsin-Madison

I’ve traveled to Asia many times over the past decade, and if everything works flawlessly, the trip takes roughly 24 hours door-to-door from my home in Madison to a hotel room on the other side of the world. Then it usually takes another 72 hours before my body begins to adjust to the rhythms of Asia. In the semi-hallucinogenic haze of jet lag, one becomes acutely aware that America and Iraq figure little in the daily calculations of citizens in this part of the world. President Bush’s crusade against terrorism pales by comparison to more pressing concerns regarding democracy in East Asia, as citizens in both Hong Kong and Taiwan struggle for political autonomy and rights of free expression. Compared to Bush’s war on terrorism, these battles are just as epic in proportion and may in the long run be equally significant in their implications for the rest of the world.

Little of this registers in American media, despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers poured into the streets of this city on four occasions over the past sixteen months demanding democratic reforms that had been promised them during the 1997 handover. Indeed, the largest demonstration drew more than half a million people, most of them educated middle class citizens who are usually touted as the very backbone of this city’s economic success. Recent elections likewise drew a record turnout, despite electoral ground rules that were heavily skewed to benefit Beijing loyalists. Resisting intense pressure from the mainland leadership, almost two-thirds of all votes were cast for democracy candidates, including a Yippiesque pundit known as “Long Hair” who, clad in a Che Guevara tee-shirt, refused to shake hands with the territory’s Chief Executive, choosing instead to recite a protest poem at their first official meeting.

Political passions in Taiwan likewise roil along at a fever pitch as the island emerges from a tumultuous presidential campaign last spring and heads into crucial legislative elections before the end of the year. Political sparring most centrally revolves around the island’s continuing assertion of independence in the face of more than a decade of pressure from Beijing to “reintegrate” with the motherland. As citizens of the Chinese world’s first and only democratic society, most Taiwanese seem willing to risk full-scale attack from the PRC rather than surrender hard-won rights of free expression. In fact, opinion polls show that support for independence has grown significantly over the past five years despite the volatile state of cross-straits relations.

Meanwhile, in Beijing, PRC politics are undergoing significant transformation due to recent maneuvering within the Communist Party prompting the unexpected departure of Jiang Zeming. This has consolidated the influence of a reform faction that is pushing for more institutional transparency and social welfare spending in a society predominantly characterized by crony capitalism and government corruption. Depending on whom one listens to, China is either teetering on the brink of economic greatness or economic ruin. It is at once the most powerful economy in Asia and perhaps the most fragile, with some experts estimating that more than a hundred million of its citizens have taken to the road in search of work, while hundreds of thousands of others have stayed at home to organize demonstrations for economic equity and social justice. Sit-ins, marches, and militant clashes with authorities are now regular (though underreported) occurrences, as government officials scramble to respond to the rising tide of protests.

Such a world is a long way from the “end of history” that Francis Fukuyama and others anticipated only a decade ago. At the time, it was suggested that the most momentous decisions in the post-Cold War world would revolve around a set of rather mundane choices: Coke or Pepsi? Sony or Panasonic? MTV or ESPN? Media metaphors flowed easily then. Satellite TV and the dawning of the Worldwide Web seemed to augur a collapsing of boundaries and the ultimate triumph of consumer capitalism, leading to an era of global peace and prosperity. Implicit in such speculation were presumptions of the development paradigm that had been so thoroughly discredited by scholarly criticism and practical application only four decades ago. Yet in spite of substantial evidence to the contrary, US leaders during the 1980s and1990s contended that that trade liberalization, new technologies, and Western expertise would unleash the productive power of lesser-developed nations. They likewise resurrected the “end of ideology” as the “end of history,” which played as a companion theme to the “weightless economy” and the “global communication grid.”

Of course the worm turns and now, in the new millennium, cultural and economic difference again seem as intractable as jet lag, as global communication technologies seem to be engendering a disjunctive set of social relations that one might refer to as media lag. That is, rather than fostering spontaneous development, television exposure seems to be exacerbating tensions between global imagery and local experience. So for example, in the wake of the World Trade Center attack, it is commonly suggested by scholars, journalists, and government officials that the recent diffusion of television throughout the Middle East has fueled a wave of resentments regarding disparities within the region, as well as between lifestyles East and West. Yet it’s important to note that this phenomenon can also be found in societies to the north, south, and east of Baghdad.

Indeed, television spread throughout Asia at a remarkable pace during the 1990s, adding an estimated two billion new viewers to the global audience. In China alone TV access has risen from virtually zero to some 90% of the population over the past twenty years. A medium that was originally intended to foster economic development, unify the country, and strengthen the bridge between the party and the people, has become a source of significant anxiety among leaders in Beijing, engendering debates over “rising expectations” and subsequent social conflict. A similar trajectory of rapid adoption has taken place in India and the Middle East where policy makers also fret that the rapid diffusion of television exerts intense pressure to deliver the fruits of economic and social development. Just as jet lag challenges one’s physical and mental capacities, so too does rapid diffusion seem to challenge the institutional capacities of Asian societies. In this state of disjuncture, disparities of wealth seem to take on a vivid significance in the lives of viewers. Rather than fostering aspirations for modernization and “development” (a desire to “catch up”), television makes uneven development fantastically apparent to TV’s newest audiences. Put another way, if one looks carefully at a map of the world’s proven oil reserves, it is glaringly obvious that resources in the Middle East dwarf the combined reserves of the rest of the world. Likewise, if one examines the geographic distribution of the world’s manufacturing workforce as a function of labor cost, one quickly is alerted to the significance of places like Guangdong province in China or Andra Pradesh in India. Now compare these global maps of resource distribution to maps of resource consumption, energy use, and per capita income. The disparities are stunning but nevertheless commonly pass without critical comment in the mainstream media. Yet even though television rarely acknowledges these disparities at an explicit level, it prismatically refracts them through the disjunctive delivery of fantasy images of consumption to the shantytowns and cramped quarters of the world’s working poor. Moreover, television’s fixation on female consumerism offers up relentless images of feminine agency that are commonly embraced by young women who leave behind the drudgery of familial servitude for a chance to migrate to the workshops of transnational capital. Social tensions therefore multiply beyond class issues to controversies over gender relations and “family values,” as well. Media lag like jet lag is therefore commonly experienced as intensified sensitivity to difference and change, and regardless of how one responds, all are exposed to social disparities and tensions that seem enduring despite television’s promises to the contrary.

It’s noteworthy then that the “end of ideology” coincided with the rise of development communications during the 1950s and that the “end of history” augured a mistaken revival of faith in the development paradigm since the 1990s. Yet we have neither transcended ideology nor history. The former remains important for its ability to reveal that which is concealed by the everyday operations of power, while the dialectics of history remind us that dramatic disparities of wealth inevitably invite revolutionary responses. It is therefore worth paying attention to the operations of both ideology and history as we reflect upon the recent growth of television viewing around the world. For in one sense, media lag invites ideological awareness despite (or perhaps because of) television’s fixation on abundance and consumerism. In another sense, media lag is an historical phenomenon, for the transformations that accompany new media often take time to register in social relations. Consequently, our preoccupation with broadband Internet and other digital technologies may be obscuring the fact that for much of the world the television revolution is only beginning.

Links of Interest
BBC on Asia-Pacific News
Francis Fukuyama’s “End of History”
Global Television

Please feel free to comment.