Are music videos an art form or just another overproduced piece of popular culture? For me, the distinction is senseless, as is the categorization of films into “arthouse” and “commercial”. Anyhow, every once in a while, someone comes up with an idea for a music video that truly revolutionizes our audiovisual culture in general, not just the MTV screen. Filmmakers like David Fincher (Fight Club), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) or Spike Jonze (Adaptation) began their filmmaking careers creating music videos: their aesthetics have influenced a generation of video artists and filmmakers, and their own films have become cornerstones of modern cinema. Anyway, I recently bumped into the website http://thewildernessdowntown.com/, which hosts the interactive music video for Arcade Fire’s “We Used to Wait”, included in the band’s newest album, The Suburbs (great album, by the way). The site was constructed with help from Google, specifically Google Earth, and is defined as a “Chrome Experiment”. It offers you a simple, yet fascinating deal: revisit your childhood. In the first screen, you have to type in your childhood address and if you are lucky (I wasn’t), Google Earth will have street and aerial views of your childhood home. If not, just type any address you have lived in (I typed my address here in Sydney) and go to the next screen. What follows is the stuff sci-fi movies were made of just a a few years ago. First, you see a kid running and then you get an aerial view of the address. The camera travels through your old neighborhood. Then many screens overlap and start to COMMUNICATE among them through visuals and rhythm. If you were lucky enough to visit your actual childhood home, I am sure a sense of nostalgia will come over you. When the song is over, you can write a message for the people who live in that address now. I am sure this music video will be the first of many more to come. The screen (or shall I say screens?) is becoming increasingly interactive.

This website is an exemplar of the process of remediation, as it mixes the grammar of music videos,videogames, geo-tagging tools and a nostalgic, ancient form of communication: the postcard.

Try it, it is totally worth it.

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

Almost two years ago, when I was an editor at Cine PREMIERE magazine, I went to the Four Seasons Hotel in Mexico City to, out of curiosity, record a round table of a guy named Robert Pattinson, who had been welcomed by thousands of fans at the airport. He was the protagonist of a new vampire movie called Twilight, which apparently was based on a very popular teenage-lit series. I had no clue who Robert Pattinson was, and had only heard distant comments about the book series. But even if the movie hadn’t been released yet, thousands of teenage girls wanted to meet Pattinson. I recorded the interview, uploaded it to our website and…. what a surprise! The numbers for both the website and our YouTube channel suddenly went off the chart, and our online forums started to get new users with names such as “twilightchick”, “amoacrepúsculo”, “edwardloveme” and such. Literally thousands of new users flooded our website. I had no idea that the Twilight saga had such a following and that it would translate so successfully from the literary to the cinematographic milieus. After the trend continued for some more weeks. After everything we published about Twilight in our website got record numbers, we had to sit down and discuss how we were going to profit from this unexpected phenomenon in the printed version of the magazine. It was a loooong meeting. Some said that the magazine couldn’t fall for it and that it was too respectable to put Twilight on the cover. Others like me said that if all those fans that had invaded the website were to buy the physical version of the magazine, we would get record numbers. We did it and…. we got record numbers. We identified a trend that we didn’t know existed. I watched the movie and the crappy dialogue, bad FX and terrible acting made the phenomenon all the more intriguing. Why would a story as crappy as this get thousands of fans? Why would all these teenage girls camp on the airport just to get a glimpse of this Pattinson dude?

When discussing “Thresholds, Cascades and Predictability”, Duncan Watts (2003), offers some insight into that enigmatic question. Although he accepts that mass cultural contagions have an element of randomness (“But once in a while, for reasons that are never obvious beforehand, one such shock gets blown out of all proportion in the form of a cascade”. p.97), he is clear in establishing a model in which phenomena can be understood. In the case of Twilight and under Watt’s terms, the “early adopters” of the innovation were the avid readers of Stephenie Meyer’s fiction… and they truly became “apostles” of the teenage-vampire universe. These early adopters propagated their creed through a vast network of online discussion forums, which elevated the saga to a cult status that was, in turn, brought to the surface by the more publicized release of the theatrical film and the thousands of words and images it has gotten via tabloid coverage of the romantic whereabouts of the protagonists. But the question remains. Why is Twilight so popular? Why is the love for it as intense as the hatred  it inspires? Once again, Watts’ notions can be of help: because as a random innovation, Twilight struck on a “vulnerable cluster”. That of the emo culture (listen to the saga’s soundtrack), the teenage attraction to “bad boys” and the popular love for vampire stories that hadn’t been served on a mass level since Anne Rice reigned as the vampire queen in the 90s. The cascade triggered by Twilight has benefited other vampire movies, TV series and products. The most prominent among them is HBO’s series True Blood, which relates to a more mature audience. Watts also says that in order to understand these success stories, these sudden almighty cascades, “the trick is to focus not on the stimulus itself [Twilight] but on the structure of the network that the stimulus hits [a vast informational web brought to life by savvy, young Internet users]” (112).

I still don’t get a vampire with glowing skin, though.

Reference

Watts, Duncan (2003) ‘Thresholds, cascades and predictability’ in Six degrees: the science of a connected age, New York and London: W.W. Norton, pp.220-252.

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

“The elevator was a mechanical aid to mobility; the gaze at the end of this ‘lift’ was virtual”.  -Anne Friedberg

Constructed in Universal Studios, Florida and California, The Simpsons Ride is an immersive 3D experience in which the spectator embarks in a roller coaster adventure without moving. The cart stays in the same place and only jerks around on its own axis, creating the sensation of movement. The Simpsons Ride is revolutionary in the sense that is changes the equation not only of amusement park entertainment, but of the way in which it is possible to experience extreme situations like flying or bursting into flames: in Friedberg’s terme (2008) it modifies and gives new meaning to our mobilized gaze. Although my example may seem banal at first, it is interesting to draw a comparison to the viewing/experiencing devices identified by Friedberg as exemplars of a new way of seeing, a mobilised, immersive, virtual way of experiencing the world, of experiencing simulacra of the world.

To the left, we can see a “moving panorama”, a device designed to let people move without moving. It is a primitive form of the virtual reality that is taken to a whole new level with The Simpsons Ride. Contrary to other rides in Universal Studios or Disney (behold the oligopoly of simulacra!), this ride (for a POV rendition, watch the video above) calls for the sense of awe and curiosity that the spectators of the diorama and the panorama had. “[…] the lure of these entertainments was not in their verisimilitude with reality [people are not yellow, Mr. Burns does not exist], but rather in their deceptive skills, their very artificiality [Look, mom, it really looks like Bart is here!].”, writes Friedberg (1998: 259) in relation to Sternberg. Human nature does not change regardless the technological tools that define an era. Just as the spectators of the diorama and the panorama were fascinated by the combination of a physical space and a virtual experience, the thousands of tourists (dare I say millions?) who pay to experience The Simpsons Ride do so to experience something that not only replicates a concrete reality (the one configured by the tropes, complex narratives and hundreds of characters in the show), but creates the illusion of movement. People are fascinated by the technical savvy that makes it possible to combine Imax-scale digital imagery and mechanical-sensorial technology at once. We want to be deceived.

What will be our future dioramas?

Reference

Friedberg, Anne (1998) ‘The Mobilized and Virtual Gaze in Modernity: Flaneur/Flaneuse’ in Nicholas Mirzoeff (ed.), Visual Culture Reader, London: Routledge, pp. 253-278.

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


As a diehard boxing fan living in a country where only megafights are transmitted through pay-per-view, I’ve come across other ways to experiencing a fight. Sometimes it is possible to watch them in JustinTV, which offers many different channels but is unreliable as the copyright owners (HBO and Showtime, mainly), take down the user-generated feeds. Through live coverage of the fights in Twitter and sites like ESPN.com (see below), I have been able to follow some fights. This example is interesting for two reasons. First, it is a remediation of an old media practice in sports: the radio coverage. In the old, old days, people used to gather around the radio set to listen to boxing matches (view clip below taken from Ron Howard’s Cinderella Man), and the match was simulated by the narrator and in the listeners head. From a semiotic point of view, the match that the listener recreated with the aid of the narrator was not the same that was taking place thousands of miles away. Boxing was mediated, mediatised and needed an active creative involvement from the listener. The same can be said of today’s telegraphic feeds, in which boxing matches are reduced to a series of sentences: the narration asks for the reader’s direct involvement.

This example is also helpful because through a simulation, the brutality of the sport is sanitized. Boxing is becoming increasingly statistical: just like war, the pain inflicted between two human beings is reduced to numbers and statistics (see Compubox graphic below). Not only through live feeds, but also with the graphic content in the actual television transmissions, the sport is given the aura of a videogame.

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

Developed by Mozilla (the folks who brought you Firefox), Popcorn is a web video application that integrates diverse Web 2.0 tools and applications and makes visible the semantic network of the subjects and objects that appear in a video. It is YouTube revamped, remediated. Through Google’s geolocation tools, it tells you where the video was filmed. Wikipedia offers an entry on the authors and/or subjects depicted on the video. There is also the Twitter feed of the author and of the people that appear onscreen, as well as their Flickr galleries and a Google newsfeed related to the subject matter. A nice add-on is the copyright information of the images, which could indicate if it can be used by a remix artist, for example. Subtitles are also offered in diverse languages.

This application is a visualization of the semantic networks that already exist on the Internet (and, to a larger extent, in our increasingly mediated reality). Furthermore, it fulfills the potential of the Web 2.0 as identified by Harrison & Barthel: “Users build and maintain social networks, they tag and rank information in ‘folksonomies’ and become deeply involved in immersive virtual web experiences. They do all these things in collaboration, pooling knowledge and constructing content that they share with each other, which is subsequently remixed, redistributed and reconsumed.” (2009: 157) However, by providing all this information at once, the application could, at the same time, limit and inhibit the participation of the users, as the information is already ranked and tagged by the program. How much of this “collaboration” will be lost if applications like Popcorn take over the role now held by involved cybernauts?

As well as the aforementioned visualization of some of the semantic relationships a cultural object like a video has in the Internet, Popcorn (still in development) makes evident the increasingly centralized nature of information in the Internet. Google, Twitter, Flickr and Wikipedia (Facebook has not been thrown in the mix) hold, so to speak, the control of knowledge in the digital environment. And not only that: they tend to gain more and more validation. Web 2.0 environments might look like a democratic agora, like the pinnacle of shared knowledge, but they are still governed by oligopolies that rank and distribute information, and whose role in the shaping of this virtual social graph is more important as software develops and consumer practices lean towards multi-platform activities. He who owns the platform will hold the power.

Also, will this be the start of a truly socialized online television practice?

Visit the demo page:

http://webmademovies.etherworks.ca/popcorndemo/

REFERENCES
Harrison, T and Barthel, B (2009) “Wielding new media in Web 2.0: exploring the history of engagement with the collaborative construction of media products”, New Media Society,11; 155

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

Upon reflecting about the concept of globalization as one of the driving forces that Darin Barney (2004) identifies as one of the main social, political and financial drives that led to the network society, I realized that recent historical revisions of this network society rarely touch on an institution that, in my opinion, is one of the first and foremost forms of networked organizations: the Catholic Church.

Even a short and critical recount of this instutution’s history, like the one rendered by Hans Kung in The Catholic Church, reveals the vast network of political influence and information sharing that this truly globalised institution created, commanded and managed. For instance, the only constant link between the Americas and Europe, even at the times of the independentist movements in the 19th century, was the sharing of ideological, material and jurisdictional assets among the Vatican, regional representations and local churches. Whereas in the political and philosophical arenas the new and the old regimes severed most ties, communication flows between Church authorities remained constant and efficient. The in vogue adage, “Think global, act local” has been applied, for better or for worse, for centuries by the Catholic Church. Even today, when people marvel at the global scale of some corporation’s worldwide coordination efforts, the Catholic Church (from the Middle Ages onward) can be seen as an exemplar of a mechanism that permits a flow of money, ideology and human resources (not without acts of physically and psychologically violent cohersion, of course).

It is not my intention to exalt this institution, but only to set it as an example of a centuries-old intitution that functions as a network and to stress the fact that networks have existed for many, many years and globalization and thr network society are not concepts that belong only in sci-fi, technology-driven settings. As to why most network society theorists seem to ignore the complexity, both material and ideological, of this global web composed of millions of material (churches, cathedrals), human (believers and priests) and ideological nodes and goods, it is beyond my understanding.

References

Barney, Darin (2004) The Network Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Kung, Hans (2001) The Catholic Church: a Short History. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

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

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).