Author Archives: JNakatomo

On Technological Optimism vs. Pessimism

Well, this is probably my last (non-project) analytical post of the semester.  I will probably publish more trivial comments and posts later this week, but it is clear that our class is rapdily moving to a close.  How can someone come up with words that will summarize so many digital questions.  While I will talk about these issues in more depth when our group’s video file is posted, I want to get into one of the greatest digital social divides in this post:  the division between technological optimism and technological pessimism.

This idea has its roots in many of the Internet debates that I have been reading about on other sites like Digital Liberation Front.  The best encapsulation of this divide can be found here (scroll down for the table).  Ultimately, as they describe, the debate consists of issues of personalization, “learning & culture,” and “experts & amateurs.”

The first problem (the problem of personalization) is less difficult to grapple with than we might initially presume.  Several people (myself included) noted that the new “Long Tail” model of entertainment production might ultimately destroy the common language — the common cultural artifacts — that united us as a nation.  Thinking back to that conversation, I can now see that my reasoning was pretty flawed.  Ultimately, forces that provide individuals with a superficial sense of cohesion — the entire nation gearing up for the final episode fo Lost — ignores the costs that media scarcity imposed on earlier people.  The pursuit of culture — the pursuit of art and intellectual fufillment — is one of the most important aspects of fufillment, and art that speaks to an individual can uplift their soul in a way that group identity never can.  The idea that we should oppose personalization and media fragmentation simply to preserve the nation’s ability to make small stop is absurd, as we would rarely prioritze moderately improved social cohesion over artistic fufillment in our own lives.  Would many of us really stop pursuing our artistic interests if we found that few of our classmates shared them?

Concerns about learning and culture are harder to dismiss.  We may say that automation, greater media access, and democratization are great, but what about the professional?  My group’s video project highlights the absurdity of keeping amateurs from greater digital access, and I stand behind the premise of that idea.  Denying individuals a role in the creative sphere so that arbitrarily defined professionals can remain powerful is absurd from both a progressive and a libertarian standpoint.  But consider what happened when automation took over our nation’s culinary pursuits and “democratized” cuisine by allowing anyone to eat a wider variety of options.  Ultimately, that change was for the better, but many commentators have mourned the loss of our food culture.  Ultimately, the idea of a “home cooked meal” preserved much of our nation’s shared ideas of “dinnertime,” and increasing choice has actually turned eating into a decentralized affair.  Media critics now fear the same eventual outcome in the digital sphere.  Eventually, the argument goes, too many users claim to be “filmmakers” on YouTube and destroy the very respect that our culture has instilled in the digital artist.

These fears are not unfounded.  Too much noise in a system — too much bad fan fiction or too much useless information — can destroy a community, even a community that is as large as our current artistic community.  To be frank, the changes that occur will not be as severe as many techno-pessimists claim, but who would defend the status quo by saying that it only somewhat debased artistic culture?  We need a new model, which brings me to Apple.

As you may have noticed, Apple has recently come under increased criticism due to their percieved role as a “closed” provider of entertainment and information.  I understand why people have this opposition: why should Apple stand between individuals and access to their content?  My own opposition to these practices is based on WHO is guarding the closed system, as few individuals would seriously argue that Apple provides enough transparency in their decisions.  Ultimately, however, I think we should adopt the Apple model of “closing” content — for creating spaces where only certain content is featured — but implement these spaces in a community-driven fashion.

“What,” you reply indignantly, “are you suggesting that we should censor content online?”  I am not suggesting anything in the slightest; I am simply arguing that we need online resources that direct users toward content that has been carefully managed.  My ideal would be the Open Directory systems that proliferated the Internet in the earlier ’90s, providing users with links to content in specific categories.  This sort of editor-driven process in which content is voted up or down is now too time intensive for the modern Internet, so I propose combining the best elements of Open Directory with a radically new tool designed to browse the Web.

Web browsers have traditionally be designed like televisions, directing users toward whatever content they are interested in.  Already, however, web browers have started to step away from directing users to other content, with many browsers providing users with supplementary information about web materials.  In addition, a variety of tools like StumbleUpon are designed to direct users toward content that the community has found interesting, and Google can use its information about your web browsing to help predict what content you would be interested in browsing.  Eventually, for the Internet to deal with its ever-expanding library of content, all three of these tools must be combined, with “New Media” interfaces being designed to curate content by looking at an individual’s browing history, comparing it to other user data, and then directing users to specific content through supplementary information that would be presented on every web page. (The system would be open-source and would be run by a non-profit group to get over user concern about privacy).  By implementing this sort of technology, we can have the best elements of our current system (democratic access and unlimited content) while preserving an ethic that understands that not all content is of equal quality, validity, or interest. 

What do you think  about this idea?

On This Year's Projects OR Is Video Dead?

I was thinking about our projects in this class and what projects I felt were most adept at discussing digital media technology.  After much thought, I came to the conclusion that Sophie and web design were the best technologies for discussing these issues compared to video/audio.  At first, I wanted to attribute that preference to my own subjective views on media, but that explanation leaves out WHY I have the views that I do.  I then thought that I got more use out of Sophie and HTML because these technologies are closer to the “New Media” ideal and thus served to illustrate “New Media” in both form and function.  But this explanation leaves out two questions.  First, I enjoyed using HTML and Sophie even when I was explicitly writing about the ways that Old Media technologies were utilized.  Second, I did not discuss HTML or Sophie in my digital media projects but instead “New Media” technologies or personal information that was only tangentially related to the format itself. 

Ultimately, I realized that these technologies are more useful because they actually better approximate our manner of thinking.  In other words, Sophie and HTML provide ways of storing and displaying information that are more similar to the ways that we ACTUALLY consider information cognitively.  As we discussed when we read the Bush reading at the beginning of the class, there is no analogy to the fixed linear “train of thought” that characterizes literature, film, and audio in our mental processes.  We analyze issuesa nd even (in some ways) experience emotion through associative processes that are never fixed.  To give an example, while I may be able to conceptualize an argument or experience an emotion as a series of statements that can appear “linear,” this linear path is not the only way that we can conceptualize an argument or experience a vivid feeling.  In fact, most individuals have multiple ways of expressing these ideas, and this flexibility is best encountered in the interactive setting of a conversation.  Arguments can be reformulated, be expressed in a different tone, or can be reformulated in this setting because it gives individuals the flexibility needed to reveal the associative connections between these different ideas.

For much of human history, because of technological limitations and economic deprivation, we have accepted this weakness in storytelling and analytical writing.  While a conventional non-fiction book or novel may not provide me with the complexity or the interactivity that I desire, we accepted this linearity as a consequence of the technology in question.  Even if we had developed the technology needed to implement interactivity earlier, it is hard to imagine it coming into use in television or radio, for example.  The ideal of professionalism — the idea that only certain individuals could read the news or write poetry — would have made the interactivity afforded by HTML and Sophie useless.  It would have been a conversation between members of professional classes, a more technologically advanced version of Hannity & Colmes.

The present day presents us with a new vision of digital communication.  Controversies within professional classes, growing dissatisfaction with mainstream media, and the democratizing possibilites of the Internet have essentially destroyed the concept of a “professional” class.  Who can say that literature can only be written by experts in the era of Dan Brown?  Who can say that journalism should be the task of trained idealist in the era of Fox News?  Ultimately, the democratization of media and the advance of new interactive technology have prepared us for the most dramatic “New Media” transformation of all: the destruction of the “readerly” text (conventional film, music, art, journalism, scholarism) in favor of the “writerly” text.  While defenders of these media may argue that digital media technologies can make “readerly” formats (print) into “writerly” formats, this objection misses the point.  These technologies were designed to serve “readerly” purposes and thus cannot be transformed into “writerly” media without significant challenged.  To give a technological analogy, we COULD have turned VHS into a digital media format, but turning from VHS to DVD was simply an easier way of accomplishing this transition.

We may be too blinded by nostalgia to make this transition, but I think this denial of the technological trends that we have experiened can not last forever.  The future of digital media, for me at least, is clear:  the decline of these traditional formats (which were ultimately designed to serve creative purposes that are no longer priorities) for “new” digital formats like HTML, e-text, and Sophie that will better serve our creative and analytical purposes.

Quick Cuts

I have a lot to say about each section and I don’t really know where to start, so I am going to go through two sections as I think of things to say.  

America in Civilization III:  A lot of interesting stuff here, and this section brings me back to my days as an avid Civ III player.  I remembered a lot of the game play elements that Wark mentioned in her article, especially the obsessive focus on segmentation by measuring time in “discrete and concrete units” and turning the process of history, an analog procession if there ever was one, into a digital process full of individual “turns” and “units.”  His description of the world as a “network of lines” that ultimately lead individuals to games in all aspects of their lives seems an accurate yet overly pessimistic appraisal of our current life.  It is true that virtual objects constantly provide individuals with a display containing statistics about every aspect of the life, and individuals try to maximize their “score” in these metrics in every realm from calory counting to productivity management.  However, I feel that these components of human life are not the completely new innovations that Wark implies, since corporate “rat races” and other “gamic” activities have been a characteristic of American society for at least one hundred years.  The numerical and digital aspects of these gamic actions have been emphasized over time, but I think that the disappearence of the non-gamic has been occurring for a longer period of time than Wark admits.  

    The game also speaks to the ability for individuals to accept algorithms — with their quirky characteristics and their arbitrarily chosen parameters — as a way of examining governance.  We are willing to accept the transformation of all elements of our human society into numerical and quantifiable data points, and we take on the role of game designer (with some game elements hidden from our view) with aplomb while playing these political simulation games.  Most disturbingly, individuals do not seem to question the hegemonic expansion of “America” to encompass all aspects of the game world within Civilization, with all countries (regardless of their nationality or their actual history) looking to expand forcefully and seek power, not your people’s best livelihood.  

Vice City:  One of the things that I loved about this piece is that it addresses the irony that gamic systems seemingly provide us with violent means of relating to the gamic world while simultaniously sugar-coating our experience of the gamic world.  Despite the fact that Vice City primarily consists of wastelands filled with “drugs, guns, cars and personal services,” it sitll remains a “nice place” for avatars to explore.  Wark’s point that “no place is separate” fits well with Vice City’s mixture of the mundane with the morbid, combining scenes of brutality and death with prosaic scenes of driving and running.  Even Vice City, it seems, in all of its lurid glory, cannot escape from the “boredom” and repetition that characterizes so much of the gamespace that Wark describes.  His argument about dystopias was quite interesting as well, as the author contrasts the “line” of most literary fiction (and its focus on a singular theme) with nascient media forms that allowing process-based technology to replace text.  He then argues that this conflict between process-based technology and literary fiction is at the center of the anguish seen in most dystopian novels, which was quite a new perspective on the issue for me.  Finally, I think that one of the most devastating points that Wark makes against the gamespace is that it has so perverted our conception of fairness and meaning that the very act of winning the game — of even participating in the world of “agon of all against all” — is seen as an ecstatic feeling, providing individuals with the “chance and competition, intoxication and spectacle” needed to replace internal emptiness.  It terrifies me that individuals are now demanding a Hobbsian game construct as a way to get rid of the boredom that we accumulate through the repition of countless tasks.  My only hope is that this frustration doesn’t’ spill out in pblic protest, which is the reason that Wark posits that the “military entertainment” construct keeps churning out new games.  Otherwise, Wark argues, individuals would rebel against the boredom that cucrently restains them.

Google, Digital Takedowns, and Privacy

I was just reading something in the New York Times this morning concerning Google’s new website automating the process of governments taking down information or requesting information from Google, and I was surprised to see an article about this issue on one my favorite blogs here.  Before I go on, I would suggest that you look at Google’s data here.

There’s a lot to note on that Google page.  The “chilling effect” — which posits that small changes in speech codes or in prosecutions — can have a much largely effect on speech in general by discouraging individuals from putting their content online.  We have talked a lot in class about he number of clips that are forcibly removed from YouTube on a daily basis, and I think its incredible to note that these clips are removed as a result of about fourteen legal claims per year.  Granted, some of those legal claims are larger than others, but it’s scary to think that a handful of people who are willing to prosecute their claims are silencing and removing content for the other few hundred million people who use YouTube on a daily basis.  Google is noticebly mum about the 3,580 data requests that it recieved from the US government over the last six months in 2009, which I think is interesting for a website expressly dedicated to introducing transparency into the process.  I understand that some of the information that they took off Google cannot be made publically avaliable, but would it hurt for governmental organizations or Google to provide more specific information about the type of data that is being taken?  It’s really depressing that we haven’t moven toward a better search system for one’s personal content, since users don’t have to be notified when their virtual mailbox or Google Docs account is searched by the federal government.  

   The other tidbit that I teased out of this Google site was the data concerning Brazil.  If you look closely at Brazil’s data, you will see that a large portion of its removal and data requests come from Google’s provision of Orkut, a social network that never really caught on in the United States but is popular in India and Brazil.  We don’t usually think of Brazil as a particularly invasive country when it comes to privacy rights, and it’s entirely possible that FaceBook is currently processing thousands of requests for information as I write.  Pretty scary stuff…

Sophie Project

Here is the link to the Sophie project.  It’s pretty self-explanatory, and I would recommend clicking around the windows to navegate if you get “stuck”.  The page that includes audio and pictures sometimes freezes up a bit, but that seems to depend on your computer.  Have fun!

Notes about Gamic Culture Reading

Wow… just wow.  These two readings really impressed me, because it provides a perspective that our generation will find it difficult to elaborate on.

Let me explain.  Currently, I am staring at a computer screen which contains a variety of different letters, shapes, and objects.  I can see a text box which is shifting as I type, the textbox being a representation of written text.  However, I am also using the command Apple-Tab to shift to another window and examine some other text that is presented in another window.  In other words, my mind (object one) is having my hands (object two) press keys on the keyboard (object three) to the make the operating system (object four) tell Safari (object five) to add text to a specific box in a web program (object six and seven).  The conventions of a web page and WordPress are so familiar to me that I do not question them; to me, the process of adding information to a blog post or moving from a chess game to iTunes is automatic.  Similarly, I literally could not have the different elements of a video game if I had tried, since the user interface from the game mechanic, the machine that I am playing the game on, the game environment itself, and various interactive and non-interactive objects are all subsumed under the term “video game” in my mind.  To some readers, this may seem like an obvious point, but it illustrates most of the points that Galloway made in today’s readings.  For instance, if we want to argue that gaming is fundamentally “action,” then the automatic association of the disparate elements of the game under one label allows gamers to understand the unitary nature of the game.  In addition, this synthesis allows the four types of actions that Galloway describes to coexist — imagine the development of video games if users were startled whenever their character died or received a power up (which would represent a sudden move from a diegetic operator act to a nondiegetic machine act)!  However, I think that this synthesis — our tendency to conflate and confuse actions and architecture from these four different categories — can also prevent us from exploring many of the game play oddities that these two authors describe.

Here we must turn the Procedural Rhetoric for a better look at the possibilities afforded by modern gaming.  We have this new technology that seems especially adept at commenting on various aspects of society, the McDonald’s game being a particularly potent example of how games could be used to illustrate processes.  The necessity of having some sort of interactive dynamic in discussing many modern social issues(ignoring the complexity surrounding the idea of interactivity for a moment) and the need to use processes as a way of critiquing other processes both pointed to gaming as a valuable tool for exposition and rhetoric.  I also understood the author’s point that the actual dynamic of the game — the source code and the formulas used to calculate social responses in SimCity, for instance — does not need to be visible for the game to be completely effective.  The game IS the active product itself, not the soruce code, and hiding the game’s internal mechanics from view can actually drive users to think about the game mechanic by encouraging freeform exploration and analysis.  

However, as Bogost himself points out, analysis of games in this way requires a type of “procedural literacy” that has not been fostered by today’s gaming/media climate.  Today’s games often encourage users to focus on improving their reaction times and strategies instead of “learning to read [gaming] processes as a critic.”  To analyze these games critically, I think it might be helpful if we started to divorce ourselves from our ability to play games in an almost mindless way.  Frequently, individuals are able to play games without separating the four gaming elements I mentioned earlier, being unable to distinguish the game’s processes from their own.  Power-ups, multipliers, and other elements of the game are accepted without thinking about the fact that these elements were deliberately included in the game and without considering the game’s architecture regarding these modifiers.  We look at the elements of most modern games haphazardly, not considering the actual content contained in each gaming element or the reasons behind its conclusion.  The best illustration of this can be seen in the reviews of the aforementioned McDonald’s game:  I read a number of players who bragged about the high scores that they got in the game (!) or who assumed the game was an official McDonald’s advertising game (!!), showing how few players actually use the “procedural literacy” that Bogost describes.

Fan Fiction and Fan Culture

Looking back at Friday’s conversation about fandom, I think that our group missed a lot of interesting questions relating to online fandom and modern intepretations of shared cultural products.  I started thinking more about fandom after reading this article from the journal we read in class about Supernatural’s fandom.  The quote that really jumped out at me from this article was this one:

Meanwhile, a cult fan [of Grey’s Anatomy] might log into ABC’s online forum, criticize McDreamy for his churlish behavior, lambaste creator Shonda Rhimes for utilizing generic female stereotypes that he or she finds personally offensive, and then create a piece of fan fiction to “correct” the text to represent their own marginalized interests, such as the desire to see “MerDer” break up for all time.

We often speak of literary criticism as the preserve of the academic community, with the most insightful discourse about popular culture coming from various journals and peer-reviewed publications.  However, Felschow points to a type of textual criticism being driven by the fan community, with devoted fans being the first to criticize shows for their percieved lack of quality, catalog the themes and cultural references of a work, and discuss the reasons why particular aspects of the work call their attention.  To me, the (distant) parallel of fan fiction is with the recontextualization that occurs in a variety of different disciplines in which individuals attempt to recast works to look at them through a different ideological framework.  To be certain, writing “alternative universe” fan fiction is not the same as reanalyzing Frankenstein from a feminist perspective, but both processes draw on the power of individual writers and thinkers to to examine texts apart from the writers’ intentions.  I have read article after article advancing the philosophy adopted by New Criticism and a variety of other textual traditions arguing that “authorial intent” is irrelevent when discussing the “meaning” of a work.  Internet fans of works like Supernatural take that dismissal of authorial intent a step farther, understanding that this tradition actually encourages fan production and that many works can best be reimagined and analyzed by looking at “deviations” like slash fiction that can nevertheless illuminate truths that lie behind the surface of a work.  

    I would suggest that intellectuals interested in studying popular culture look to fan culture and its products as a way of analyzing and understanding these new media franchises.  While many scholars may balk at taking their cues from computer-savvy teenagers, they should understand that many fan fiction authors and Wiki contributers spend much of their time and energy discussing and researching (yes, researching) the deeper meanings of these cultural products.  Once we start creating more dialogue between television fans and literary critics, fans might be able to start conncting their “readings” of their favorite works with the literary traditions I named above and literary critics might be able to see the textual cues that only an obsessive fan can pick up on.

E-Text or Why Does No One Use Sophie?

One of the interesting themes of this class has been the question of whether culture (or anything “creative”) can come from something that seems entirely based on “reproducing” the same images.  Clearly, creative acts have their origins in a wide variety of other works(going to our group’s point about “derivative material”) but at a certain point the creative spark seems lost in the act of automation.  For example, Garageband’s “Magic Garageband” feature turns the act of recording into a choice of choosing instruments and then allowing the software to decide most of the other components of “your” song, and I don’t think anyone would argue that the act of choosing instruments from the program’s list of instruments is “creative” in the same way as creating your own music from scratch would be.   On some programs, creative automation is taken to an absurd level.  I remember reading about a video program that would create the entire video for you without any input; you simply needed to press a button on the taskbar to create an entire full length film from clips and pictures. 

The reason I bring up this question is that I wonder what direction Sophie should go in.  The software is very unintuitive, and I’ve often had to search online to see exactly how to integrate certain media elements correctly.  Other software has used automation and other intuitive tools as a way of improving the user interface, and programs that have integrated this automation have usually become more popular than programs that require users to do everything by hand.  The problem here is that this automation can take away from the creative process; if Sophie implements too much automation, it becomes yet another clone of Microsoft Publisher.  In some ways, you can say that creative programs that are too automated can discourage the artistic struggle that produce groundbreaking multimedia objects.  iMovie’s deceptive simplicity can actually discourage users from considering the artistic choices that are impossible to miss in a program like Final Cut Pro. 

What do you think?  Should Sophie move toward more automation or is the program all right as it is?   Where is the line between technology aiding the creative process and technology replacing the creative process?

Fan Culture and Fragmentation

One of the weirdest elements of the first reading was the author’s insistence that our current fan culture derives, at least in part, from the increasing domination of the media landscape by a smaller handful of companies.  This “convergence”, in Jenkins’ mind, is one of the two drivers of fan culture, the other driver being participatory technology.  He notes that conglomerates have gone toward the “blockbuster” frame of mind, with the combination of “books, hooks, and looks” being a particularly potent force in making a creative work attractive to fan culture.  In addition, Jenkin notes that convergence is also occuring in products themselves, with Star Wars being marketed as a “franchise” complete with films, audio tracks, novels, newsletters, figurines, and other supplementary materials.  The range of products being marketed and the scale of these enterprises now essentially requires “strong audience engagement and investment” — i.e. fandom — because consumers are now encouraged to buy the entire Star Wars franchise and all of its disparate elements instead of simply seeing the Star Wars films.

    This analysis has its merits, but it misses something crucial.  While we might want to consider Star Wars as a product of media centralization, with companies like 20th Century Fox and Lucasfilm encouraging fandom in order to sell a huge stock of “ancillary products,”  we can also consider Star Wars fandom a mark of media fragmentation since the 1990s.  At first, the huge box office numbers for Phantom Menace‘s release might deter us from this conclusion, but we must remember that this figures include the effects of ticket price inflation and increased foreign revenues.  In fact, adjusting box office receipts for inflation and excuding box office revenues outside the United States, we find that the three prequal movies all had smaller ticket sales in the United States than all of the three original films.  This conclusion is even more startling when considered in light of Star War’s increased name recognition in the 2000’s and the higher population seen in the US in the 2000’s in comparison to the 1970’s and 1980’s.  We have far more choices today, with multiplexes showing twenty films, cable packages containing over 40 channels (more in many cases), and an incredible quantity of fiction being published.  This fragmentation has pushed individuals into fan communities, since these websites often take the place of the “watercoolers” where popular culture was discussed in years past. 

To give a personal example, I used to enjoy Lost but found that few of my friends watched the show.  This is not surprising; at the time I was tuning into Lost, only eleven million people were watching the show.  When even a blockbuster hit like Lost is only getting that many viewers, it becomes more and more difficult to have a common ground for discussing our shared culture.  As Jenkins’ rightly notes, this discussion process has been a component of our cultural heritage for as long as human beings have had cultured, and individuals instinctually desire this conversation and analysis of these shared cultural objects.  To do so in this age of fragmentation, one must go online, and this introduces individuals to more devoted fans of movie franchises and television shows. 

Thus, when talking about the creation of online fan communities and the movement toward a participatory fan culture, I think that Jenkins shortchanges the role that media fragmentation, combined with the desire to analyze popular culture, has played in this transition.

Our Video On Copyright — Reem & Kyle

EDIT: Blitz just brought a problem with our video’s audio to our attention.  We have included the corrected version first here; if you would like to see the EARLIER version that we posted, just scroll down to the second video.