Archive for August, 2010

When I was in high-school (1994-1997), the “in” word in that new, enigmatic medium called the Internet was “virtual”. That “computer program” (that is what most of the people I knew considered it to be; some even asked, politely: “Can I borrow your Internet?” or “How many Internets do you have?”) served not only to download images of Pamela Anderson covered by a miniscule red one-piece swimsuit, but also to engage in “virtual” worlds, in chat messages where you could “be yourself” and where, hopefully, you would get a girlfriend. Albeit, a “virtual” girlfriend who would only be represented by a series of flashing dots on a computer screen. I became obsessed with this new medium, and the beeepppp-crrrr-beeeep sound of the modem would be music to my ears. My piece of equipment, a now archaic Compaq Presario, was a gate to access what promised to be a “virtual” reality where you could escape from the tribulations of the “real” world, the carnage of high-school, the same stories from your friends. But the promise was not fulfilled. This virtual “world” was but a wasteland of binary code that lacked any real human connection. Sure, I had a couple of online “girlfriends”, but it was surely nothing like having a real one (which I got as soon as my affaire with this unfulfilled virtuality was over). In “Virtual Communities or Network Society?” Manuel Castells argues that those post-apocalyptic views of the Internet causing social isolation and producing individuals that are immersed in a virtual reality are far-fetched and ill informed, and that Internet interaction is actually based in real-life relationships. This opinion was constructed by “building its statements on the observation of a few experiences among early users of the Internet.” (Castells, 2001: 117). This opinion also lead, I think, to the implosion of the dotcom era, as many companies disregarded physical, real-life ties and thought that users would immerse in new, “virtual” words and develop strong ties with new brands or news channels. 15 years after my first encounters with the Internet, most of the sites I visit on a daily basis (LeMonde, NY Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Reforma) are the online arm of media I previously had a tie with. Moreover,  the friends I keep in touch with through Messenger or Gmail chat are people I met in the “real world”. Thus, Castells’ words resonate: “The Internet does not seem to have a direct effect on the patterning of everyday life, generally speaking, except for adding on-line interactions to existing social relationships.” (2001: 119) The sci-fi scenario envisioned by 1990s technological determinists is far from being fulfilled.

In your case, how “virtual” is your life?

This meat grinder is NOT the Internet.

Reference

Castells, Manuel (2001) “Virtual Communities or Network Society?” in The Internet galaxy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 116-136.

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).


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Movie rental giant Blockbuster is about to file for bankruptcy due to poor financial performance. The crumbling of this former giant of the entertainment industry signals not only the end of an era, but serves also as a warning to those companies that still rely on physical formats and base their business plan on their production and distribution. For years, Blockbuster was the biggest, meanest video rental store in the world. Even though it was not a monopoly, as there were smaller rental houses, it held the biggest slice of the market share. However, with the introduction of digital distribution schemes, both legal and illegal, for movies and television shows, Blockbuster suddenly found itself helpless among a pack of wolves (Netflix, Amazon, TiVo et al). Its sin was offering the rental of a product (DVDs and Blu-rays) which was becoming outdated itself. Blockbuster did not diversify and did not respond to an increasingly digitized market.

The company had what its new, fresh competitors only dreamed of: the support of the studios. Instead for pushing for development in digital distribution methods, it kept spending huge amounts of money in maintaining its numerous stores (rent, electricity, salaries): the customers, however, were wandering peer-to-peer networks and recording their favourite shows and movies with TiVo, or downloading material from iTunes.

A Hollywood institution is about to perish. Will it be a warning sign?

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

From my very limited understanding of Haitian politics (an understanding which is borderline ignorant), the country must be in a social and economical turmoil after the earthquakes that ravaged the island earlier this year. The images of shattered houses, streets and government buildings, of dying men and crying mothers, will linger in my mind for many years to come. In the midst of the aftermath, hip-hop artist Wyclef Jean announced his intention to become a candidate for the presidency, a role that, to this date, has been denied by the Haitian authorities. A resident of New York, Wyclef looks to form a political force that unites both the Haitian community abroad (mainly in the United States), and in Haiti. What stands out, other than him being a different potential candidate in a country ruled by a long standing political establishment that is defined by the survival of the fittest, is the way in which he has communicated his decisions and the whereabouts of his candidacy to the media: through his Twitter account. This practice is an exemplar of the new dynamics between politicians, the citizenry and the media, where press offices play an increasingly diminished role and social media sell the idea of immediacy and proximity to otherwise unreachable online personas.

The New York Times, for example, sources its stories from Jean’s verified account (Twittwe has become, as such, a conveyor of validity for journalistic practices). No more midnight calls and thousands of secretaries. Wyclef’s incipient campaign (or proto-campaign, as his candidacy hasn’t been approved) has established Twitter as its main communication mechanism. Even though he has over 1.5 million followers, we should question the real political impact that his Twitter feed can have, considering that many of those followers are due to his popularity as a rapper. We must consider, moreover, that participation in social media does not necessarily translate in true political involvement. As Davis (2005: 138) expresses when summarizing his position: “Citizens may not be willing to invest time in the [democratic] process. The kind of citizen involvement envisioned by proponents of Internet democracy requires ‘the necessary leisure on the part of the citizen to devote his or her thoughts and time to public questions’.”

Wyclef Jean is one of the first politicians heir to the Obama social media phenomenon: only time will tell the extent of the influence informational systems can hold.

References

Davis, Richard. Politics Online: Blogs, Chatrooms, and Discussion Groups in American Democracy. New York, London: Routledge, 2005.

Hindman, Matthew. The Myth of Digital Democracy. Princeton, Oxford: Princeton University Press, c2009.

For ARIN6901, Network Society and ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

facebook is dead

Picture the following scenario. You wake up one morning, make some coffee, toast some bread and turn on your laptop (the all too familiar initial sound of your Macbook puts a smile on your face). After browsing your Twitter feed and the comments on your Flickr gallery (two of the hubs of your digitally extended social network), you go to the next stop: Facebook, the mother of all hubs, where your friends, family, colleagues and casual acquaintances meet in a sort of virtual Judgment Day. You know the drill: you will change your status, check on any piece of gossip in any of the clusters that make up your social network of networks, probably go to an interesting link and comment on other people’s status. You will click on “Like” probably a dozen times, perpetuating the flow between you and other nodes in this overly popular social network (or, better still, the visualization of a social network).

But this morning is different. When you type those 16 characters, http://www.facebook.com, the browsers goes blank. You type them again. And again. Nothing: just a white space that seems as infinite as a tempestuous ocean. You ask your friends in Google chat and MSG and search Twitter for #facebookisdead. Hundreds of people are experiencing the same, which truly seems stranger than fiction. It is as that Ray Bradbury story in which someone dreamed the world was near its end only to find out that everyone had dreamed the same. You visit http://www.nytimes.com: the headline, accentuated in bold, is clear: FACEBOOK IS DEAD. You grasp for air, your skin as cold as the coffee that lays untouched on the desk. You keep on reading: “Due to the financial problems brought by numerous lawsuits over copyrights and privacy issues, Facebook has declared bankruptcy and, without warning to its enraged millions of users, has pulled the plug of the biggest social network in the Internet”. The world has changed, YOUR world has changed. You suddenly realized what has been lost. There are numerous friends, perhaps dozens, who you will never contact again: leaping over those six degrees of separation with so many people would be an unfeasible task. It will take you years to rebuild the links of that complex network that took you years to construct. Your life was mapped out and memories had suddenly become real. Images of yourself that you didn’t know existed are lost again. Your photo album, a piece of emotional memorabilia as important as those photos from your childhood preserved by your parents, is gone.

You turn on the television and there are images of other people crying, enraged. It reminds you of 9/11. It is as if a Berlin Wall, or a set of Berlin Walls, have been constructed among 500 million people, suddenly rummaging the net like orphans in the battlefield. This is life after Facebook. No more “Like”s, no more comments, no more digital manifestations of the social networks you have constructed over a lifetime, and the social networks that have been constructed through this medium (the ever-present friends-of-a-friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend). Then you ask yourself how did this happen, why you feel this sudden emptiness, why you feel all alone. You have shared the illusion of controlling the network, and you have found out that the real equation is inverse: the network ended up owning you.

We have to ask ourselves what the implications of this apocalyptic but in fact possible scenario are. The discourse around the network society exalt the “democratic” nature of the informational systems, but generally tend to ignore the oligopolistic nature of social media, like Facebook, that strive to control all networks, commercial, social and symbolic. Having this high level of dependence on a few stakeholders, on a few salient nodes, goes against the very nature and spirit of the development of the Internet: if this highly dense node of nodes disappears, how will communication between many other nodes be restored?

What would you do, what will you do? How will you find your friends?

Why don’t you go to the bar and see if they are all there, looking for you….?

For ARIN6901, Network Society, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

Edgar Wright’s new movie, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, is a visual feast for the hipster generation, a retro cool universe where your gf’s ex-boyfriends (and girlfriend) come back to haunt you in the form of videogame characters, where life is but a series of levels that have to be completed. The film’s plot is thin as a paper towel, but the visual flash (reminiscent of Michel Gondry) is worth looking at, as is the narrative mechanisms that allow for multiple actions to take place in the same screen (sort of what Peter Greenaway tried to do, in a much more serious tone, with films like The Pillow Book).

In concordance with the aesthetics of the comic written by Bryan Lee, the film showcases all the nuances of retro videogames: points, bonuses, pixelated imagery. Sometimes the screen is so barroque, so full of little pieces of information, that it does look like a collection of Easter eggs (in the interactive sense of the word). I wonder how the Blu-ray version is gonna look like. If it indeed includes dozens of Easter eggs as it could (imagine, for example, that all the coins are bonus scenes), it could very well take the interactive movie to a whole different level, as aesthetically it is already designed to be experienced in an immersive manner. Let’s imagine the following scenario: you walk into a movie theater, 3D lenses and remote control in hand, and experience the relaunch of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World in “Interactivision” (I love the cheesy names Hollywood gives the latest technologies). Every time an specific icon appears, a cherry, for instance, you press a button and watch an additional scene or are able to play a videogame for some minutes. This might seem like a far-fetched idea, but the aesthetics of this movie triggers the imagination and makes you think of the paths Hollywood could take to connect with the iPod generation.Comic and videogame audiovisual grammar has already been remediated by Hollywood, interactive cinema would be the next step.

But would it be cinema at all?

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).

In 2007, I bumped into the art of David Firth, a British visual artists who, from his basement in London, has created an intricate universe as eerie as any David Lynch movie. It is all done in Flash, which gives it a contemporary flare but also is reminiscent of childlike, simple traces, primitive also. My favorite character, Salad Fingers, is a human-like figure imbedded with equal doses of strangeness and familiarity: it is, no doubt, influenced by various pop and underground culture references. The plots are dreamlike, which calls for a fragmented reality in which the spectator has to fill in the blanks.

When I first saw Firth’s artwork, I knew I had encountered something different not only in terms of aesthetics, but also in the rules of its production and distribution. Reflecting upon Walter Benjamin’s dealings with with concept of “aura”, I asked myself what the “aura”, that set of characteristics, of an almost metaphysical nature, that places an artifact in an historical and spatial context, is in digital creations. In the case of Salad Fingers’ short films, it is precisely in the rudimentary nature of the drawing, in the saturated colors of a medium –Flash–that was taken out of its primary context, that is the creation of commercial web applications and advertising. Salad Fingers was created for the sake of art. Its digital mode of distribution is also part of its aura, of the mythology and cultural connotations that accompany it: the graphic artist in a basement who, contrary to other striving creators in the past, can actually distribute and reproduce his work right from his desk.

If you don’t know this site, I recommend visiting it: www.fat-pie.com

In YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/user/Doki66

For ARIN6903, Exploring Digital Cultures, The University of Sydney (Master in Digital Communication and Culture).