Posts Tagged ‘Media’

In the spring of 2008, hordes of people descended on the city of San Francisco for a gathering that some might call a trade expo.  This term is slightly misleading, because the Web 2.0 Expo is not necessarily focused on a single trade or segment of the media industry like other media industry trade expos like Cinema Expo or ComicCon.  Instead, the Web 2.0 Expo is intended to bring people from all kinds of media together to form connections and to essentially try to approach the new web 2.0 with more strategy and thought for design than occurred in the design and implementation of the original Internet.  The 2008 San Francisco expo is the second expo that has happened, and although almost every kind of media is represented in the attendees, it is billed as a place for the “builders of the next generation web: designers, developers, entrepreneurs, marketers, business strategists, and venture capitalists, people who have experiences to share and a passion for learning” (Web 2.0 Expo 2008).  The language on the expo’s website is optimistic and vague, calling for attendees to come and “immerse yourself in the Web 2.0 experience.”  Although the bulk of the expo centers around connecting people in various media industries to each other in an effort to increase the connectivity of Internet industry and infrastructure designers and therefore usher in a new era of Internet design and function, the event also boasts many different speakers from various areas of industry.  It was in this context of trade show and not academic conference that Clay Shirky took the stage to speak. Shirky is a writer for both academic forums and industry trade magazines, as well as popular periodicals.  He also serves as a consultant with many world-class organizations and companies like the BBC, Library of Congress, and Nokia, working to help them understand how to make better use of decentralized technologies (like wireless networks, peer-to-peer, etc.).  He also teaches at NYU’s graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program.

Shirky’s address, which has now been transcribed and has blazed across the digital landscape through the viral means of blog comments and mail lists, was entitled “Gin, Television, and Social Surplus.”  Shirky began the speech by referring to the early industrial revolution and the opinion of an unnamed British historian that gin was a coping mechanism for the urban British who had been put together with so many other people due to the growth of the cities because of industrial growth.  This historian believed that because of the suddenness of this transformation from rural to urban life, one way society coped was to turn to gin for a generation. Only after this period of collective confusion and angst passed, he argues, did British society manage to come up with many of the institutions the industrial revolution is known for producing.  But Shirky makes a jump here to his first key observation: “that real development was dependant on people start[ing to think] of [people living together in such densities] as a vast civic surplus, one they could design for rather than dissipate.” The process that Shirky believes he has identified is that first the fundamental change to social and cultural structures that were comfortable and familiar left people feeling as if they were living in a crisis, and they found coping mechanisms to manage their discomfort with the unfamiliar.  Once society became more comfortable with the change to their cultural structures, they began to see possibilities for these new structures and for the change itself instead of seeing only liabilities.

This picture is certainly a quick and dirty cultural analysis of how cultural revolutions work, and although almost all of the nuanced meaning is lost in the simplification (he does not reference class at all, a tremendously influential factor in the industrial revolution), Shirky is content to oversimplify things so that his main point stands out: he is primarily concerned with describing and exploring the collective power of a society and how the society navigates cultural revolutions.  He is particularly interested in how society manages to do these things in new ways using new tools, and he uses a term to describe the collective cognitive potential of a society: cognitive surplus.  This is a term that attempts to identify and define any potential for doing things that lies beyond what we need to do in order to survive.  Going to work, making or finding food, cleaning the house, and caring for and educating children are not part of this idea of a cognitive surplus; rather, they are simply the meeting of needs.  The collective time, energy, and cognitive power that exists beyond the time given to meeting needs is called cognitive surplus.  Going to a movie, dropping off children to soccer lessons, writing a blog, and planning a gourmet meal or a date are all activities that we do to fill up our free time.  If we had a much longer work week and therefore less free time, then our cognitive surplus would be a good deal less.

Shirky not only identifies all leisure time (even if it is filled with activity) as something of cultural interest, he labels it a surplus of cognition.  This surplus language implies that we have a resource that is available to us, and this language invites questions like “what is being done now with the surplus?  How is it being used?  Are there more strategic ways to use it?  Who controls it?”  The language Shirky uses begs these questions in a way that merely using the term “leisure time” does not.  It assigns value to the time and mental potential of an individual or a collective of individuals, and the very nature of this phrasing hints at a responsibility people have to use time in constructive ways.

Although some of Shirky’s assumptions are simplistic, like his view of television viewing as merely passive, his concept of cognitive surplus is compelling and can be useful in describing and understanding how knowledge communities function and employ human energy to projects.  Calling this human energy labor is neither accurate nor helpful, for cognitive surplus is an altogether different thing than labor.  Labor carries much political and cultural context with it, but does not accurately describe the work and play being done by people on their computers after they get home from work and log on to their chat group or their wiki, or contribute to any number of projects that run across traditional boundary lines of class, gender, ethnicity, or politics.

Shirky implicitly argues that while cognitive surplus has been a constant in all societies, in the United States it really began to expand after World War II, when a growing GDP per capita and a more universal 5 day work week began an unprecedented growth of leisure time.  He argues that we began to fill that surplus, in large part, by watching television.  His obvious disdain for watching television is made abundantly clear in his article, and although his dismissiveness of television watching and his categorization of it as inherently passive is, at best, a gross oversimplification, it does not undermine the idea of cognitive surplus.  While Shirky categorizes television watching as a mechanism that has served, in part, to help society cope with extreme and unprecedented change in social structures, he also believes that society is starting to become used to these social structures and is attempting to see the cognitive surplus society possesses “as an asset rather than a crisis.”  This is, perhaps, an unfair categorization of the situation, since the tools society is using to begin to deploy this cognitive surplus in new and strategic ways has only recently been discovered in the Internet and the myriad new media like blogs, listservs, mailing lists, and wikis.  While we may have found and begun to deploy media that are inherently more active or political for the average user than network television, we need not criticize ourselves for not possessing the tools to do what we can now.  The question that needs to be asked is the question that Shirky eventually asks after the detour through his snarky complaint about the worthlessness of television: “If we carve out a little bit of the cognitive surplus and deploy it [in any place that a user or viewer has been served up a passive or canned experience], could we make good things happen?”  Indeed we can, and we are.  Media that includes the viewer and allows them to be part of the creative process is media that gives an expressive and constructive use to cognitive surplus.  Editing wikipedia, posting to a blog, creating a video response to a video game website, or contributing to a community discussion board conversation about neighborhood crime prevention are all various activities to utilize cognitive surplus in some creative or expressive way.

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A 1945 Prophet??

I am amazed by the fact that credit cards and electronic payment systems, personal computers, and the need for associative informational retrieval and search systems were talked about in 1945 by this guy.  You can read Vannevar Bush’s article “As We May Think”  in its entirety here.


Props to Bush...he called it!

Props to Bush...he called it!



I’m also amazed by the fact that all these things were not impossible then.  There were answers to these questions and these things could have been made with 1945 technology.  They didn’t require a technological shift.  What they did require was an infrastructure that could more cheaply produce them, the will to do it, and especially the demand to do it to get the whole ball of wax rolling.  It is significant to me that the concept behind a modern search engine like Google is not a new thing—the process and the mathematical formulas—the machines’ capacity—has been advanced significantly enough that we don’t think we’re entering codes to access specific data, but we are.  We’re entering search terms, and those are codes.  I think it’s significant to remember that retrieving information has changed and changed a whole lot, but there are fundamental concepts that have been preserved.  They are innovations, but not all innovative. 

Bush is thinking about the enterprise of not just science, but of the Academy in general.  He is thinking about the systematic study of the world and ideas.  This article, besides doing a number of other things, has humbled me by letting me see that the innovations that I think are so remarkable and show our development and application of technology to the world are perhaps not so innovative, but that we are perhaps standing on the shoulders of giants.  Even if we are merely standing on the shoulders of other people just like us, it is good to remember that the whole human enterprise of attaining knowledge is an ongoing thing.  All the things and innovations that are going on now, no matter how remarkable they seem now (or how remarkable they actually are), are pieces of a large scaffolding that mankind has almost continually been in the process of constructing.  We are not the end product of our own investigation.

For some reason, as I read this I also think of two Biblical references.  The first is the writing of the Israelite Teacher/Philosopher who wrote that “There is nothing new under the sun.”  The other is the account of the antediluvian endeavor to build a tower that reached to heaven called Babel, and the judgment that was brought against those who exercised their tower-building skills with great hubris.

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This is a response that I wrote to a classmate’s post on my class discussion board, but I thought I’d post it here as well just to get the brain juice-a-flowin’!  We were discussing Descartes’ scientific writings, and were talking about a section he wrote on optics:


I appreciate your honesty about your struggle with Descartes.  I am amazed, like many others, at how closely his ideas are to modern ones.  I suppose that in some respects, we think that we’re making such great progress with ideas, but then we find that often the classic thinkers or even the ancients are already there ready to meet us, having gotten there before us long before. 


I really appreciate that you pointed out a part of the reading that I marked but did not write about in my own post.  You write, “[Descartes] continues by saying that any invention that enhances sight or increases the power of sight, is among the most useful of inventions.  The example he uses is the telescope as enhancing the ability of man to view the stars.”  This idea of Descartes’ is a good one on which to linger, because it has such significant ramifications in the way Descartes describes it.  He talks about an invention enhancing sight, and uses the telescope as an example.  Marshall McLuhan, writing in the 20th century, describes any medium as an extension of ourselves.  In his book The Medium is the Massage, he says that “The wheel is an extension of the foot…the book is an extension of the eye…clothing an extension of the skin.”  I can’t help but wonder what Descartes would say if he were to see all the things that extend our sight: telescopes, satellite cameras, camera phones, electron microscopes, surveillance cameras, books, blogs, discussion boards, and even computer programs like iPhoto, which now has face recognition tools in it. 


I would say that you’re exactly right about the fact that the vision of our world has changed over time.  Our vision has been expanded, not just to see the night sky, but it has been extended in different modalities.  If I could have lunch with Descartes I would ask him, in light of the enormity of the expansion of our sense of sight on multiple levels, what the implications are of his claim that the senses are deceptive, and (perhaps) especially sight.  

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

"The book is an extension of the eye"...What else is?

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Beware the image and the text.  Beware the text, for it can “make the weaker argument appear the stronger” (Plato’s Apology) through the enthymeme and the wily rhetoritician.  Beware also the image, because through repetition and the strength of the sense of vision, it can have a curious side effect to those who are not aware: it has the property of becoming the stronger idea in the mind while choking the weaker ideas until they become latent, just as a large tree will overwhelm the surrounding growth, covering it with its shade, until at last nothing else of strength grows under the canopy of its branches that will threaten it.


The most visceral examples of this phenomenon that I witness day to day is with my students, who watch movies and TV a lot and read a little, if at all.  Consequently, they do not know that the real battle of Stirling was fought on and around a bridge and was not led by someone resembling Mel Gibson in stature.  They do not know that Beowulf was an epic poem over a millennium before it was the film they watched.  They do not stop to realize that battles are fought without soundtracks, and are seldom glorious.  The little history or literature they read in their high school history class or English class (if they read it) is overwhelmed by the images they see and constantly fill their eyes with all the time.  This is not in itself a bad thing; rather it points to both the prominence of the image in our own society, or at least in the culture of the community in which I teach, and the fact that images can be accepted as valid ones simply through repetition.  They are children of fiction, and stories have become their world, but their understanding of stories does not have the transparency that might let in the contextualizing light of the rest of reality.  Their paradigm is opaque, and therefore for them is the only thing they know.  It is difficult, in this state, to make the distinction between fiction, history, narrative, politics, and anything else.  Everything blends into one thing and that thing loses its exhilaration because it is all they know.


This is why I want to teach freshman and sophomores in college.  I want to make a difference.  This is why I want a mead-hall. (nods to Marshall and Rich!)


The Form of mead-hall

The Form of mead-hall




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A Brave New World…

Many people have written about the future.  Aldous Huxley and George Orwell are but two of the writers who chose to write about the dystopia, a trope that is remarkably effective in its ironic and satiric presentation of human folly.  I have recently been thinking about how people perceive evil in the world and how they believe that evil should be or will be dealt with in the future.

Some believe that evil is institutional–that is, it is found in any bureaucracy or institution and that the answer is to always oppose any institution by helping people see how their own power is being managed and how they, in fact, don’t have any power at all.  (Critical Art Ensemble)

Some believe that evil is a sort of abnormality to existence, but an uncommon one.  They believe that evil is not the normal path of the human heart, and they illogically point to beauty, art (an especially illogical thing to point to), and the deeds of great humans to somehow prove that all people are basically good, and evil is something that while tragic, does not define the human condition.  

I call that wishful thinking at best, and foolishness at worst.  What evil is and how it is dealt with is, I have recently seen, is one of the most significant things that can shape the set of unseen underground assumptions that lives in the catacombs of our consciousness and defines the structure that our lives, actions, and destinies will ultimately take.

More on this later, but for now, one take on what a utopia (or dystopia) might look like.  This one is particularly poignant because it is particularly perceptive of our cultural view of ourselves.    The biblical story of the tower of Babel comes to mind…




How do we perceive evil?  Most importantly, what is informing our understanding of this?  If we are Christians, do we go to scripture?  Or do we subject ourselves to the constantly-changing whims of the cultural imaginings about it?  For the love of all that is good, let us ground ourselves firmly in what is right.

 “8Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. 9Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.” (Philippians 4:8-9)

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I haven’t been posting political items in this blog very much, and while this news clip is definately about the political campaign and the manic postures that are being adopted by people, I’m posting it here to point out something larger than politics.  Sound bites and aphorisms are unfortunately some of the most significant modes of discourse in the public arena, especially when it comes to politics.  There are exceptions to this, but the simple fact is that media whose goal is to get ratings will not end up answering to the public trust, but answering their advertisers.

I sincerely hope that Joe the plumber is not representative of America.  The fact that he would agree to such a vitriolic and unsubstantiated statement and then that he would refuse to come clean and say why he said it–what his reasons are, etc. is appalling and all too common today.  I would have had more respect for him if he had said that he was wrong to agree with an idea about which he knew nothing of the issues, but he did not.  He stubbornly clung to his pride, unable to see or care how such divisive, unsubstantiated, and factually incorrect comments can wound people, erode international relationships, and further propogate the impression among the world that the US cares not a whit for justice or mercy, but only for our own interests.  “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves.  Each of you should look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.  Your attitudes should be the same as Christ Jesus, who being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant”  (Phil 2:3-7).

I have recently been reminded that words DO have strong effects on life.  They can would deeply, but they can also help to heal.  Let us be careful, then, how we speak–about God, about each other, about politics, about people who are different than ourselves.

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If you have not seen anything of Halo, you should look at some of my other posts for some machinima videos before you watch this one.  This is a short film made to publicize Halo 3.  The flashy parts are interesting, like actually seeing a real Warthog or seeing a Halo sniper rifle or Brutes in action, but the most interesting part of this film is that it is a new crossroads in gaming.  The film was made not as a live action feature, but as an advertisement, and this is a prime example of those instances when commodity and sign are the same, just like the Apple store is an example of commodity and space becoming the same thing.

This film was made with the cooperation of Microsoft, Bungie, Wingnut Films (Peter Jackson’s production company) and the Weta Workshop (the New Zealand design studio created by Jackson during the pre-production of the Lord of the Rings).  Enjoy.

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The world is undergoing a revolution.  In fact, it isn’t irrational to claim that ever since the invention of the telegraph, the world has been undergoing one massive media revolution composed of many smaller revolutions.  With each extension of our bodies (as McLuhan defines a medium), we reconfigure ourselves—we reconstruct the ways our minds view reality, and this is supremely important.  

This week I’ve been thinking in particular about video games.

Video games are often left off of the list, and they have also often gotten a bad rap.  In the academy, I have often gotten the feeling that video games are seen as one of the lowest forms of entertainment—one that rots the brain, and it would be much better for one to simply read some good theory or a new novel—anything that is high culture, for goodness’ sake! Video games often get this bad rap for two reasons: the fact that they are unapologetically pop culture, and some specifically objectionable games that usually make the news (Grand Theft Auto, etc.).  

In the days of Pong, gaming was a simpler affair, and now games have much greater sophistication and greater graphics.  The goal of many of them is to feel more realistic, and those who see the video game glass as half empty usually see games as a form of the feelies or the centrifugal bumblepuppy.  There are distinct movements within gaming that point to a larger movement, and game designers and game consumers have both begun to be louder in their desire to be taken seriously as cultural contributors and as artists. 

Halo, for example, is an extremely sophisticated cultural artifact and as such speaks to issues as varied as environmentalism, humanism, globalism and globalization, the use of science, military criticism, political activism, religious extremism and violence, and technophilia.  Halo is a fascinating study for those interested in how new media work, because to understand Halo is to understand global business and economics, the cutting edge of digital art, wikis and user-based production philosophy, visual artistic expression, and most importantly, the concept of connection and communication in the 21st century. 

The nuance and sophistication of the artists who created Halo, the merciless demand of quality and subtlety required of so many of those consuming Halo, the knowing reconstitution information and product into countless re-presentations—all of these things speak to the organic quality of this piece of cultural production.  Halo, like many projects on the far forward curve of gaming production, has transcended the status of a mere toy.  It utilizes multiple media, multiple forums of expression to tell stories and create pieces of art.  The producers employ subtlety of narrative style, formal shifts and non-linear rabbit holes that keep the project expanding.  They are inventing new forms of communication.  These bricoleurs are largely the D&D nerds, the computer geeks, the people who in high school were the ones the jocks wouldn’t touch with a jousting pole.  These minds—the ones who have learned to see digital code in novels, colors in the street, philosophical material in virtual form, are the ones creating these new forms, and once again, they are largely ignored.  To be sure, they are part of the corporate gaming engine, but their enterprise is on the verge of becoming more than anyone could ever imagine even four years ago.  The way Halo—just one game, albeit the most successful console game in history—has reshaped the world speaks to the growing complexity of the culture and the desire for expression and community within the growing population of the world of those under 40. 

The world is growing, and growing restless.  Some see video games as a form of soma, but the games themselves play with the very idea artistically and reshape the conversation as it is happening.  


This week’s assignment: Google Halo 3.  See if what you find is representative of your conception of what video games are.  See if you can easily assimilate the meaning or complexity of the content and the form of all the hits.  Expand your view of communication, and embrace the vast panoramas that make Halo so unique.  These panoramas of structure, meaning, art, representation, and expression.






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