Digital Culture Notes: Part Two

E-Books, iPads and Digital Things


Much has been made of the iPad’s possible influence on the future of reading and writing. Many of the fears about the disappearance of physical books are justified just as the worries about the future of newspapers needs to be taken very seriously. There is no doubt that we have entered an unstable period of change as various traditional forms of media shift to accommodate the impact of the Internet and digital culture in general.

However, the idea that books will disappear or that newspapers will lose their relevance because they may have to shift to devices like the iPad is naïve at best and alarmist. After all, books are really just pages and pages of discourse sometimes fictional, often not. All the genres that make up what we call the modern novel are not dependent on the physical boundaries established by traditional book production. In fact, an argument can be made that the process through which books have been brought to the attention of the reading public (ads, publicity campaigns and so on) are more in danger of dying than the books themselves. There is only one way in which books will die, and that is if we cease to speak or if we shift so dramatically to an oral culture that the written word becomes redundant.

An argument could be made that people inundated by many different forms of media expression will relegate books to the attics in their homes and in their minds. And a further argument could be made that the decline of reading has been happening for some time, if we look at the number of books sold over the last decade. There is a real danger that books and the reading public will shrink even further.

Nevertheless, my sense is that reading has morphed onto the Web and other media and that reading is more about glances and headlines than in-depth absorption of texts. We now have a multimedia space that links all manner of images with texts and vice-versa. The nature of content is shifting as are the venues in which that content can be read. The design of graphical spaces is often more important than words. Texts on the iPad can be embedded with moving images and sounds and so on, in much the same manner as we now do with web pages. However, this phantasmagoria of elements is still governed by language, discourse and expression.

Matt Richtel has an article in the New York Times that examines the interaction of all of these divergent media on users. “At home, people consume 12 hours of media a day on average, when an hour spent with, say, the Internet and TV simultaneously counts as two hours. That compares with five hours in 1960, say researchers at the University of California, San Diego. Computer users visit an average of 40 Web sites a day, according to research by RescueTime, which offers time-management tools.” Richtel suggests that the intensity of these activities and the need to multitask are rewiring the human brain. I am not able to judge whether that is true or not, but irrespective it would be foolhardy not to recognize that all of this activity increases the speed of interaction. Clearly, reading a non-fiction book is not about speed and books in general cannot be read in the same way as we read web pages, especially if we are looking at book content on mobile phones.

The same can be said for newspapers, which over the years have been designed to entice readers into reading their pages through headlines in order to slow down the tendency to glance or scan. This tells us something about the challenges of print. We tend to assume that the existence of a newspaper means that it is read. But, there has always been a problem with attention spans. Newspapers are as much about a quick read, as are web pages. Newspapers are generally read in a short time, on buses or trains — talk about multitasking.

As it turns out this is very much the same for many genres of the novel from thrillers to the millions of potboilers that people read and that are not generally counted when reference is made to the reading public. In fact, the speed of reading has accelerated over the last hundred years in large measure because of the increased amount of information that has become available and the need to keep up.

This is where e-books and the iPad come in. E-books are an amazing extension of books in general, another and important vehicle for the spread of ideas. The iPad will make it possible (if authors so desire) to extend their use of words into new realms. Remember, when the cinema was invented in 1895 among the very first comments in the British Parliament was that moving images would destroy theatre, books and music. Instead, the cinema has extended the role of all of these forms either through adaptation or integration. Writers remain integral to all media.


Are social media, social? (Part Two)

Okay. Lots of responses to my previous entry. Like I said at the end of the article, I am not trying to be negative. I am actually responding to the profoundly important critique of the digitally induced and digested world of communications that Jaron Lanier distills in his recent book, You Are Not a Gadget.

Mashable, a great web site has an article entitled, 21 Essential Social Media Resources You May Have Missed. Most of what the article describes is very important. This is truly the utopian side of the highly mediated universe that we now inhabit. But, as Lanier suggests, mediation does come with risks not the least of which is a loss of identity. Who am I in the Twitterverse or even within the confines of this Blog. And, why would you want to know?

According to Lanier, "A new generation has come of age with a reduced expectation of what a person can be, and of who each person might become." (I can't give you a page number because my Kindle doesn't show page numbers! Location 50-65 whatever that means.) The Mashable article would seem to contradict Lanier describing as it does many instances of Social Media use that have genuinely benefitted a pretty large number of people. What Lanier is getting at goes beyond these immediate examples. He talks at length about a lock-in effect that comes from the repeated use of certain modes of thought and action within the virtual confines of a computer screen.

He is somewhat of a romantic talking about the need for mystery and asking what cannot be represented by a computer. This is an important issue. The underlying structure of the web and the social media that piggyback on that structure is pretty much the same as it was when Tim Berners-Lee transformed the old Apple Hypercard system into something far grander.

UNIX is core to the operating systems of most computers and its command line references have not evolved that much since the 1980's. Open up the Terminal program on a Mac and take a look at it. Lanier's point is that this says something about how we use computers. Most people cannot change the underlying system that has been put in place. That is why open source programming is so exciting. But even open source is developed by very few people.

Could we for example develop our own Twitter-like client? Could we, should we become programmers with enough savvy to create a new and less commercially oriented version of Facebook? Even the SDK for the iPhone and the iPad requires a massive time investment if you want to learn how to develop an App. Yes, you can follow a set of instructions, but no you cannot recreate the SDK to make it your own.

Now, some would say that the use of this software is more important than its underlying language. However, imagine if you applied that same principle to speech and to creativity? This is not about tools. This is about the structure, the embedded nature of the mechanisms that allow things to happen. And, as Lanier suggests, most people have been experiencing digital technology without understanding how that structure may influence their usage of the technology.

Part Three

History's Folds

The brilliant French philosopher, Michel Serres proposes in recent publications that one of the best ways of understanding history is to think about human events as a series of interconnected folds, a networks of networks in which events that may have taken place thousands of years ago are still connected to the present through human memory and human artifacts.

The folds of which Serres speaks can be visualized as a series of pleated pages in which different points touch, sometimes arbitrarily and other times by design. The metaphor that Serres has developed has another purpose. In order to understand the technologies, social movements and cultural phenomena that humans have created, each point of contact among all these pleats needs to be drawn out in a detailed and narrative manner. Although Serres does not describe this method as stream of consciousness that is sometimes how it reads, to the point where the simplest of objects becomes the premise for an expansive narrative.

For example, (adapting Serres’s method) the notion of networks needs to be understood not only as a function of technology and communications systems, but also through the efforts by nearly every culture and every generation to develop a variety of bonds using any number of different means from language to art to music to political, religious and economic institutions. This suggests that the Internet, for example, is merely a modern extension of already existing forms of communication between people. And, while that may seem obvious, many of the claims about the Internet suggest that it is a revolutionary tool with implications for the ways in which people see themselves and their surroundings. More often than not, its revolutionary character is related to obvious characteristics like speed of communications, which may in fact be no more than a supplement to profoundly traditional modes of information exchange. The intersection of the revolutionary with the traditional is essential to the success of any new and innovative technology and may be at the heart of how quickly any individual innovation is actually taken up by individuals or by society as a whole.

Design and Healthcare in Britain

Today's designers are helping to transform the way the National Health Service (NHS) works with a range of 'human-centred' techniques that are unique to health-related environments.

The NHS is wising up to the value offered by the design industry: everything from improving the accuracy of surgical instruments, developing usable software that reduces clinical errors, and designing furniture that reduces MRSA, through to improving the patient experience by helping to design the ways in which non-clinical care is provided.

A new breed of designers have realised they can do more than the glossy consumer-brand work that might have otherwise filled their portfolios. They are bolstering their optimism, creativity and visualisation skills with a whole host of human-centred techniques unique to public sector design.

These advocate observation over assumption; facilitate collaboration between staff and patients; and prototype ideas so they can be seen, felt and tested in realistic contexts.



A brilliant article about architecture and the critic, Nicolai Ouroussoff of the New York Times by Alexandra Lange who teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York.

"Architecture criticism cannot simply be about what’s new because that leads precisely to the globe-trotting, star-gazing, architecture-as-sculpture approach we have now. What we need is criticism that treats renderings and buildings as different, since users are the ultimate critics. We need criticism that connects us to a building’s references, emotions and textures, not only its news value. We need criticism moored to place, and to the history of that place, so that the ways forward multiply (and don’t only involve building something curvy). Ouroussoff is not good enough because he reinforces the worst trends in architectural culture, never explains where he comes from and never explores the many different places we might go."

Read more……

The Literate Future


At the conclusion of a short piece on text, literacy and the Internet, Nicholas Carr suggests the following about the digital age: "Writing will survive, but it will survive in a debased form. It will lose its richness. We will no longer read and write words. We will merely process them, the way our computers do."

I want to take issue with this pessimistic prediction. At every stage of technological change since the invention of the printing press, similar claims have been made. Most often, these claims originate with those people more likely than others to be both literate and dependent on traditional forms of explanation and exposition. The appearance of the telephone in the 1850's led to predictions of the death of conversation. The growth in the distribution of books and magazines in the 19th century led to predictions that writing, both as process and creative activity would be debased. More recently, the growth of digital tools and their pervasive use led to predictions that creative practices like painting would disappear. (The reverse is true. There has been a renaissance in interest in painting in most Art Schools and a significant rise in attendance at museums showing both contemporary works as well as paintings from different historical periods.) The invention of the cinema in the 1890's led both politicians and critics to suggest that the theater was dead.

In most cases, the advent of new technologies disrupts old ways of doing things. Equally, the disruption builds on the historical advantages conferred upon the medium through its use and modes of distribution. Text is everywhere in the digital age, and while it may be true that attention spans have decreased (although research in this area is very weak), that says nothing about how people use language to communicate whether in written or verbal form.

The example that is most often cited as evidence that there has been a decline in literacy is text messaging. What a red herring! Text messaging is simply the transposition of the oral into text form. It is a version of speech not of writing. It neither indicates a loss of ability nor an increase in literacy. Rather, and more importantly, text messaging is another and quite creative use of new technologies to increase the range and often the depth of communications among people.

The beauty of language is its flexibility and adaptability. The various modes of conversation to which we have become accustomed over centuries have a textured and rich quality that depends on our desire to communicate. That desire crosses nearly every cultural and political boundary on this shrinking earth. Rather than worry about whether text messaging will undermine literacy, we need to examine how to use all of the new modalities of communications now available to us to enhance the relationships we have with each other. That is the real challenge, quality of exchange, what we say and why and how all of that translates into modes of expression that can be understood and analyzed.

From Quantum of Solace to Sherlock Holmes

The novels of Ian Fleming have been around for a very long time. James Bond has been given life in so many forms and with so many different actors that is might be fair to suggest that the films (and Fleming’s novels) are among a small number of foundational stories that say a great deal about our culture and values. I will not dwell on this point. Suffice to say, that my viewing of Quantum of Solace, the latest Bond was profoundly influenced by what I have just said. The key metaphor that I want to draw from the film is the balance between fallibility and infallibility that is at the heart of Bond’s attraction as a hero. In an era characterized by the never-ending presence of terrorism, war and violence against innocent civilians, there were two moments in this film that said more to me than the entire film itself. The first came after an endless chase between Bond and a villain which led both men into an open-air arena with thousands of people attending a horse race. The villain fires his gun at Bond and hits a civilian. The film pauses for a backward glance and then returns to the chase.

This raises some important questions. We witness the injured woman falling and so the film feels morally inclined to show the effects of the villain’s violence and ineptitude. But, should Bond not have stopped to help her out? Aren’t heros supposed to be capable of engineering a good outcome to everything that they do? Is the new Bond of the last few films and especially this one really a tragic hero? And, is the death of a civilian merely one part of that tragedy? The answer to these questions can be found in the ways in which justice is defined not only within the film, but within our culture as a whole. In Bond’s world (and among many contemporary movies), the roots of evil are always encapsulated within a broader context of conspiracies driven by megalomania, the desire for absolute power and greed. The overarching goal therefore has to be to destroy the source of evil even if the innocent have to suffer. The villain is more important than the injured woman and what would otherwise be a moral conundrum becomes a passing moment in an endless battle.

The second characteristic of the film that is of interest to me is the way in which Bond escapes all injury during a series of spectacular encounters between himself and the seemingly endless world of evil. Every form of transportation is used to highlight his superhuman abilities and most of his encounters mirror previous challenges in previous films. The film tries to create a sense of potential weakness in his abilities and in the confidence that his boss “M” has in his character. This is all a charade of course, because he would not be Bond if he did not triumph. The ebb and flow between his weaknesses and his strengths opens up a small window for some discussion of the ethics of his violence but this too is no more than a plot vehicle. In the end, Bond triumphs notwithstanding his own lack of a moral framework for his actions.

This is of course the central challenge of the war on terror, itself a metaphorically terrifying and deeply contingent way of solving issues of far greater complexity than the term ‘war’ suggests. So, it was not a surprise to me to recognize that the new Sherlock Holmes film was really a meditation on absolute power, fear of new technologies and on the role of magic and religion in determining people’s actions. Yet again, Sherlock played by Robert Downey seems to evade every form of violence directed his way. He transcends, as in the comic books, every challenge he faces including a series of dockside explosions that throw him all over the place. So, although the war on terror is very much about our general fragility and vulnerability, we have new and recycled heros who are able to withstand whatever is thrown at them. The irony is that the moral centre that is needed to progressively engage with violence has shifted as terrorists have targeted more and more civilians through their most powerful weapon, suicide bombing. Very few contemporary films deal with this issue nor do they explore the issues of inflicting pain on suspects or perpetrators. Torture is present in both films but without much fanfare and even less concern for its implications. The reality is that for better or worse, the moral fibre of contemporary culture is being challenged by events that seem even less rational (if that is possible) than just a few years ago. The challenge is how to bring this theme into the foreground of popular forms of storytelling.

Huffington on New(s) Journalism

A superb piece by Arianna Huffington on journalism on the Web with many references to the rather superficial claims of traditional newspapers that their content is being stolen through sites that aggregate the news. The paradox is that aggregation is exactly what newspapers and journalists have always been practicing, out of necessity. No one and certainly no organization can be everywhere at once. Associated Press is an aggregator and radio journalists have always borrowed from their cousins in other media. Information in the 21st century is not information as it was in the 20th century. Multiple sources may not be great journalism, may not even be accurate journalism, but inevitably through the cloud, through aggregation, truth and insight become integral to the process. Traditional news sources want to charge for their content. They have to survive. But, the very foundations for how to make money on the Web have not been built. New models will appear over time and during this interim period, the model developed by Huffington, aggregating revenue through targeted advertising will have to suffice. Read her post

Sixth Sense

When I attended the last TED conference in Long Beach in February 2009, Patricia Maes and Pranav Mistry unveiled a touch sensitive device that allows users to project information onto practically any surface, including the human hand. In their own words: "The SixthSense prototype is comprised of a pocket projector, a mirror and a camera. The hardware components are coupled in a pendant like mobile wearable device. Both the projector and the camera are connected to the mobile computing device in the user’s pocket. The projector projects visual information enabling surfaces, walls and physical objects around us to be used as interfaces; while the camera recognizes and tracks user's hand gestures and physical objects using computer-vision based techniques."

The technology is very impressive. Here is a TED video of Patti Maes explaining this important new invention.

The role of research in the Creative Arts (1)

Ceramics is an extraordinary craft-based discipline. It is also an art and a science. The materials that ceramicists use have changed over the last century, but many of the core creative methods remain the same. None of what I have just said would be possible without some research into the history and practices of ceramic artists and the technologies they use. So, for example when I mention to people that ceramic engineering is a crucial part of the digital age, they don’t know what I am talking about. Optical fibers make use of ceramic materials. The tiles which cover the bottom of the Space Shuttle are made of ceramic materials shaped and formed using a variety of heating and manufacturing methods.

Ceramics is increasingly being used in the creation of products (other than the traditional ones) and is linking itself to product and industrial design. There are medical applications and so on.

I mention this to point out that research is fundamental to any creative exploration and that research may take any form — and make use of any number of different materials. A reductive approach will not recognize the rather extensive way in which the practice of creation is deeply involved with everything from theory through to reflection and self-criticism. For too long, universities in particular have maintained distinctions between their professional and non-professional disciplines as a way of differentiating between applied and pure research. The latter is supposed to reflect a disinterested approach to knowledge in the hope that over time the research will produce some results. The former is supposed to direct itself towards results from the outset and to be more directly connected to industry and the community. Engineering schools for example, are cloistered in separate buildings on university campuses and generally develop an applied approach to learning. In neither case, applied or pure can the distinctions I have just mentioned work since by its very nature research is **always** both applied and pure.

Creative practices are generally seen as applied because the focus is on materials even if they are virtual. The standardized and by now clichéd image of creative people driven by intuitions and/or inspiration actually covers up the years of apprenticeship that every artist has to engage in to become good at what they do.

Every creative discipline involves many different levels of research, some of which is directly derived from practices in the social sciences, as well as the sciences. In the next installment of this article, I will examine how creative practices are at the forefront of redefining not only the nature of research but the knowledge base for many disciplines.

Seattle Public Library

This brilliant article by [Amy Murphy]( who is a Professor at USC is well worth reading. Below, you will find an extract. [The complete article is available here. ](

Media today is more mediatory than ever, insinuating itself between us and everything else. In particular, digitization has created a situation where media is now not only a means by which we understand the world (as with traditional media like newspapers), but increasingly the means by which we experience it. Even when we visit real urban spaces such as Times Square, the plurality of experience suggested by the two words “public city,” has been slurred into one word — “publicity.” Through this slurring, the larger experiential potentials of architecture, as well as media, more often than not become diminished.

Yet, in several completed projects in the United States, it is possible to see a renewed desire to reclaim architecture’s potential as the actual media interface itself. Michael Maltzan’s MOMA Queens, Zaha Hadid’s Rosen- thal Center for Contemporary Art in Cincinnati, Herzog and DeMeuron’s de Young Museum in San Francisco, and Rem Koolhaas’s Central Library in Seattle each try to provide visually engaging urban experiences in real time and space without demoting architecture to mere backdrop for other more immersive digital media. In much of the rhetoric used to explain these works, their architects also reveal a common intention to confront the dilemmas of producing architecture in an age of digital media by using spatially and temporally exciting visual strategies rather than simply decorating a building’s surface.

[Continue reading...](

Can Images Think?

It is perfectly legitimate to ask the following question: How can an image think?

And the answer, which should come as no surprise to the reader, is that images cannot think.

However, the power of images is such that we need to think very carefully about the many different ways in which we relate to them. For example, when we say, “that is not a picture of me,” are we claiming that the picture is not a likeness or that the image cannot contain or express the subjective sense that we have of ourselves? Do we expect the image to contain, hold or embrace who we are?


The most famous portrait of Winston Churchill.

Let's explore the following example. A photographer snaps an image of Jane and when Jane sees it, the photographer says, “I took that photo of you!” It appears as if the image can not only stand in for Jane, but will be used by the photographer to illustrate Jane’s appearance to a variety of different spectators, including her family.


This is an image found on the Internet. What does it mean to say that?

In a sense, the image separates itself from Jane and becomes an autonomous expression, a container with a label and a particular purpose. For better, or for worse, the photo speaks of Jane and often, for her.

The photograph of Jane is scanned into a computer and then placed onto a web site. It is also e-mailed to friends and family. Some of Jane’s relatives print off the image and others place it in a folder of similar photos, a virtual photographic album.

In all of these instances, Jane travels from one location to another and is viewed and reviewed in a number of different contexts. At no point does anyone say, “this is not a picture of Jane.” So, one can assume that a variety of viewers are accepting the likeness and find that the photo reinforces their subjective experience of Jane as a person, friend and relative.

The photograph of Jane becomes part of the memory that people have of her and when they look at the photo a variety of feelings are stirred up that have more to do with the viewer than Jane. Nevertheless, Jane appears to be present through the photo and for those who live far away from her, the photograph soon becomes the only way that she can be seen and remembered.

Picture this scene. The photograph is on a mantel and when Jane’s mother walks by, she stares at it and kisses it. Often, when Jane’s mother is lonely, she speaks to the image and in a variety of ways thinks that the image speaks back to her. Jane’s mother knows that the photograph cannot speak and yet, there is something about Jane’s expression that encourages the mother to transform the image from a static representation to something far more complex.

It is as if the language of description that usually accompanies a photograph cannot fully account for its mystery. It is as if the photograph exceeds the boundaries of its frame and brings forth a dialogue that encourages a break in the silence that usually surrounds it.

Where does this power come from? It cannot simply be a product of our investment in the image. To draw that conclusion would be to somehow mute the very personal manner in which the image is internalized and the many ways in which we make it relevant to ourselves.

Could it be that we see from the position of the image? Do we not have to place ourselves inside the photograph in order to transform it into something that we can believe in? Aren’t we simultaneously witnesses and participants? Don’t we gain pleasure from knowing that Jane is absent and yet so powerfully present? Isn’t this the root of a deeply nostalgic feeling that overwhelms the image and brings forth a set of emotions that cannot be located simply in memory?

What would happen if I or someone else were to tear up the photograph? The thought is a difficult one. It somehow violates a sacred trust. It also violates Jane. Yet, if the photo were simply a piece of paper with some chemicals fixed upon its surface, the violence would appear to be nothing. How does the image exceed its material base?

This question cannot be answered without reflecting upon the history of images and the growth and use of images in every facet of human life. Long before we understood why, images formed the basis upon which human beings defined their relationship to experience and to space and time. Long before there was any effort to translate information into written language, humans used images to communicate with each other and with a variety of imaginary creatures, worlds and gods. The need to externalize an internal world, to project the self and one’s thoughts into images was and is as fundamental as the act of breathing. Life would not and could not have continued without some way of creating images to bear witness to the complexities of the human experience. This wondrous ability, the magic of which surrounds us from the moment that we are born, is a universal characteristic of every culture and every social and economic formation. We know that this is the case with language. We need to fully understand and accept the degree to which it is the same with images.

Images are one of the crucial ways in which the world becomes real and it should come as no surprise to discover that words on a page are also images, although of a sort that is different from photos.

It is therefore the case that images are one of the most fundamental grounds upon which we build our notions of [embodiment]( It is for that reason that images are never simply enframed by their content. The excess is a direct result of what we do with images as we incorporate them into our identities and our emotions. Images speak to us because to see is at one and same time to be within and outside of the body. We use images as a prop to construct and maintain the legitimacy of sight. It is as if sight could not exist without the images that we surround ourselves with and as if the activities of seeing are co-dependent with the translations and representations that we produce of the world around us.

We need perhaps to consider changing the ways in which we relate to objects in general. Bruno Latour the great French writer has commented on this issue at length and will be the subject of my next blog entry.

A Review of Screen Media Arts: An Introduction to Concepts and Practices

Screen Media Arts by Hart Cohen, Juan Salazar and Iqbal Barkat is a superb book designed to be used in introductory and advanced university classes that study both traditional and digital media. The book comes with a DVD which adds not only resources to the book, but moves the book beyond the conventional boundaries of text and paper. The Australian Publishers Association has short listed the book for a major award.

The book examines areas like the relationships among photographs, images and the transformation of images into data and information. The range is broad, from Roland Barthes to Marshall McLuhan to animation, documentary cinema, narrative cinema with an excellent chapter on experimental film; in each instance there is depth and intellectual rigour. For example, Chapter Two, which deals with Narrative Forms and Screen Media Arts, introduces the typology of Valdimir Propp alongside a discussion of the linguist Roman Jakobson and the anthropologist, Claude Levi-Strauss.

The interconnections here are important and often not recognized by modern day scholars in film. The efforts in the 1970's to develop a semiotics of the cinema, led in large measure by the research and writings of Christian Metz, were profoundly influenced by linguistics. [Jakobson](, whose work was in phonetics, was very interested in typologies because systems of classification make it possible to describe complex systems in a fundamentally simple way. Levi-Strauss was deeply influenced by this, and his early work builds on Jakobson's insights. Metz tries to redefine the relationships between language and film and searches for a systemic way of explaining how meaning comes to be organized in specific patterns, particularly in narrative film. However, he doesn’t adequately define the nature of the filmic system and ends up suggesting the presence of grammar-like processes that determine film’s signifying properties. Chapter Two grapples with these issues and includes a number of questions that should push students to investigate this important history in much greater detail.

One of the key claims in the book is that 'digitisation' expands the potential for story-telling in the cinema. Although I agree that interactive tools and virtual worlds have had a transformative effect on the nature of images, I am not altogether sure that audience participation also transforms the rules of narrative. The best place to examine this claim would be through a systematic examination of YouTube which is referenced in the book more as a resource than as an object of study. Chapter 16, which deals with Social Media, engages with the plethora of media but creates an inventory rather than connecting social media more fully and richly to questions of narrative. At the same time, Chapter Four, which is one of the best chapters in the book, engages in a profound manner with the shifting space of audience concerns and interests.

Part Two, which is made up of five chapters, deals with a variety of technical issues around production, legal constraints in filmmaking, directing and editing. These chapters will be useful for practitioners. Editing is seen through the theories of Sergei Eisenstein. The notion that the combination of a number of shots (sometimes just two) will produce an “idea” is based on Eisenstein’s overall premise that a universal visual competence governs the ways in which pictorial languages are understood and also the ways in which the specific properties of communication of a given shot are created, recognized and perceived. This fits in with Eisenstein’s emphasis which is drawn in a mechanical way from behavioural ([Pavlovian]( psychology. The Chapter on editing needed to examine this debate in greater detail and relate its presumptions back to the earlier chapters on narrative.

The last chapter of the book explores the present and future in screen media and has some excellent examples of media that are pushing the accepted boundaries both at the level of production and with respect to narrative structures and orientation.

Screen Media Arts stands out among the vast number of introductory texts available on the market!

Towards a Sustainable World

I have been rereading portions of my recently published book, How Images Think, not out of some sad state of hubris, but because I have been trying to understand why I chose the title. I should add that the title of the book has led to far more comment than much of the content, which says a great deal about the ways in which books are read and critiqued these days.

The comments that follow were provoked in large part by a brilliant lecture given by Bruno Latour to the British Sociological Association in April of 2007. Readers of this Blog and my web site will know that I am a profound admirer of Latour’s work.

I will provide the context for his essay in a moment. At a crucial point in his lecture he says, “objects have become things that is, issues, gatherings, assemblies of some sort.” (A Plea for Earthly Sciences, Keynote Lecture, British Sociological Association, p. 5) And, this is I now realize with hindsight, what was behind my selection of How Images Think as a title. “Things” in the broadest sense of that word operate within a world of discourse and language. Things have lost (and perhaps never had) a direct simplicity of meaning and instead have evolved into clusters with complex foundations and even more complex uses.

Religions have always built multi-faceted rituals around icons and symbols. Churches are objects as are the stained glass windows in them. The things that surround us carry varying degrees of weight depending on what we attribute to them. Attribution is the key.
Children who have teddy bears use attribution to give a silent, soft piece of fabric a highly charged set of meanings. A blanket can become a friend. Over time the nostalgia for that simple set of relationships becomes a characteristic of how people define their childhoods.

The history of things is further amplified when they are saved or placed into museums. Meaning is both attributed to and drawn from things in a continuous process of negotiation, the outcome of which cannot often be determined in advance. So much depends on context and language.

Attribution, amplification — words that describe the intense and interactive ways in which people sustain not only the social space they inhabit, but also the natural world. Latour’s presentation asks us to recognize the degree to which we have objectified things and in so doing collapsed and devalued the shared space we inhabit — nature as well as what we have built.

Nature treated as an object of exploitation and use leads to unsustainable practices. The environmental crisis in this context is not just another challenge that humans must face. Rather, it is a sign of the disrespect that we have for the collective space that we share with both humans and non-humans. And, as the environment deteriorates further and further, the abuse eventually leads to destruction. When you begin to think of objects differently, then all of our relationships slip into the foreground and one can sensitively apply values and ethical standards to all aspects of life, not just those that seem to be the most needed or expedient or socially based.
So, How Images Think is a title that suggests a change in the ways in which humans relate to images not simply as objects but as sites of communion and sharing. This is a collective engagement that draws upon images as objects of interaction, as provocateurs, as reflections, as windows and as sources of insight. We think, dream and communicate through images. In that sense, images are hybrids — the collective representations of human thought — things that live because of what we do to and with them.

In that sense, we need to ask questions about the application of thought to the human and object world we inhabit. This is urgent. Our environment cannot sustain humanity's prideful ideology that the crisis that the planet is in is simply one of many challenges that must be overcome. This is for the time being our only and most important challenge.

Wires to the Sky

In 1938, Orson Welles altered radio forever. Welles produced and acted in one of the most famous broadcasts in the history of the medium War of the Worlds. Radio was a relatively new technology although by 1936 over ninety-eight percent of the British population and over sixty percent of Americans had radios in their homes. Welles played a trick on his audience. He used the authority of a newscaster to fabricate a first-person account of the landing of invaders from Mars on earth.

In 1965, the filmmaker, Peter Watkins did the same thing with his film The War Game. Although it was supposed to be shown on BBC television, the film never made it to air. There were fears that it would overwhelm viewers and frighten them. Watkins used many of the same techniques that Welles had developed for radio except the topic this time was a nuclear holocaust and its aftermath shot in cinema-vérité style. In both instances, the outcry was enormous. The primary effect of these productions was to foreground the impact of media on our culture, identity and sense of history. In Welles’s case, the police actually came to the studio to try to stop the broadcast.

The bridge between truth and fiction was crossed many times by Welles and Watkins who deliberately highlighted and took advantage of the weaknesses and the strengths of mass media. Most importantly, both artists used images and sounds to flout the conventions of communication that had quickly become standardized within the broadcast and film industries. Watkins spent his career exploring a style of self-reflexive documentary that in recent times has been taken up by music videos, television, and Hollywood films. Perhaps the most blatant example of this is The Blair Witch Project, which owes a great deal to Watkins’s film Culloden made in 1964. In both these cases, hand-held cameras were as important as Welles’s voice in overriding the fictional elements of the narrative with the sensation that the story was true.

As both Welles and Watkins understood, there is a wonderful, albeit contradictory fragility in our relations with images and sounds. Our culture is also in the midst of a profound transition as we negotiate our way through the maze of human, social and economic relations that digital technologies are generating. I see this process of transition as an opportunity to reinvigorate our relationship with the tools provided by communications technologies.

Transitional periods like the one we are living through at the moment, allow us to develop new models that will facilitate our understanding of why the invention and development of new technologies continues to be one of the most important activities of Western culture. This, despite the fact that new technologies don't necessarily lead to positive change. The design and use of any new technology is never inevitably bound to the outcomes that were anticipated by its creators, something that the recently deceased author Arthur C. Clarke understood really well.

Why are our identities so bound up with the media technologies that surround us? Ironically, the cultural and social tendency in the discussion of new technologies is to talk about what has been lost. My own approach is to cautiously explore what has been gained.

Instead of seeing the future through dystopic eyes, a future more defined by machines and media than by humans, I want to suggest that the technologies of communication we have created are not just tools or supports for human endeavors. Rather, in tandem with our growth as a civilization, communications-based technologies have always been a part of the ecology of human existence. This is not meant to downplay the legitimate fears that many people have about computers for example, and their possible dominance in the affairs of humans. I do not want to dilute worries about living within simulated spaces and losing contact with reality.

On the other hand, all new technologies have to varying degrees been the means through which Western culture has defined everything from religion to politics to culture. We are very good at building ecological spaces based on images and sounds. The advent of digital media is just one additional phase in a long history of development that has its roots in music, performance and a variety of cultural forms that are dependent on spectators, participation, and presentational technologies.



The beauty of this image is its simplicity. Shot in the 1930's in the midst of the worst depression in American history, this photo is part of a collection available through the US government. I would draw your attention to the signs which surround the men, to the discussion that they are having and to the many possible ways in which we could speculate about the image to imagine their words. What are they looking at? Are they waiting to be picked up or simply hanging out because they are unemployed?

In a photograph published some years ago by the New York Times we see a Bosnian soldier facing the camera and begging for his life. He is a young man. He has curly hair and a smooth face. His arms are outstretched. Behind him stands a Serbian soldier, rifle cocked and ready. As the caption suggests this man’s pleas were answered with his own death. He is staring at the camera as if it will provide him with refuge, as if the photographer will somehow intervene. The photograph cannot anticipate history but the caption can. The prisoner pushes against the camera — he is pleading for help. Yet, without the caption, his “story” and the interpretations which we could make of it, would be entirely circumstantial. In this case, the written word acts as an arbiter for the event and tries to intervene in our interpretation. But even as I say this, the photograph slips away. This anonymous man’s torment is as silent as the paper it was printed on. It would take an imaginative projection on my part to overcome the gaps created by his death as text and as image.

Let me suggest that photographic images neither illustrate thought, nor are thoughts illustrated by the pictorial. Photographic images are silent, blind, unseeing. They don’t listen to us nor do they change when viewed. They are not the source of a magical emanation from which the seeing eye draws inspiration. They rarely display the hand of the photographer who has created them and for the most part leave no traces of the chemistry which has produced them. This is not simply a matter of arbitrariness, of meanings lost and then gained, of part-whole relations which flounder in confusion. Photographs cannot rob the subjects they portray, since photographs never have subjects, men, women and children “imprinted” upon them. What is in play here is the very language which is used to describe and explain the “sight” of an image, the categories, words and labels which have been applied to the miniature worlds we peer into, anthropomorphize and recreate.


A Torn Page…Ghosts on the Computer Screen…Words…Images…Labyrinths

Exploring the Frontiers of Cyberspace (extracts from a longer piece)

“Poetry is liquid language" (Marcos Novak)

“As a writer of fantasy, Balzac tried to capture the world soul in a single symbol among the infinite number imaginable; but to do this he was forced to load the written word with such intensity that it would have ended by no longer referring to a world outside of its own self…. When he reached this threshold, Balzac stopped and changed his whole program: no longer intensive but extensive writing. Balzac the realist would try through writing to embrace the infinite stretch of space and time, swarming with multitudes, lives, and stories." (Six Memos for the Next Millennium, Italo Calvino)

Is it possible to imagine a labyrinth without a defined pattern, without a center or exit point? What if we enter that labyrinth and wander through its hallways, endlessly opening doors which lead to other doors, with windows which look out over other windows? What if there is no real core to the labyrinth and it is of unknown size? This may be an apt metaphor for virtual reality, for the vast network of ideas which now float across and between the many layers of cyberspace.

“A year ago, I was halfway convinced that cyberspaces where you can experience the sensation of hefting a brick or squeezing a lemon probably won’t be feasible for another twenty or thirty years. A month ago, I saw and felt something that shook my certainty. When I tried the first prototype of a pneumatic tactile glove in inventor Jim Hennequin’s garage in Cranfield, an hour’s drive southwest of London, I began to suspect that high-resolution tactile feedback might not be so far in the future. The age of the Feelies, as Aldous Huxley predicted, might be upon us before we know what hit us." (Howard Rheingold, Virtual Reality, New York: Touchstone, 1992, p. 322)

Sometimes the hallways of this labyrinth narrow and we hear the distant chatter of many people and are able to ‘browse’ or ‘gopher’ into their conversations. Other times, we actually encounter fellow wanderers and exchange details about geography, the time, information gained or lost during our travels. The excitement of being in the labyrinth is tempered by the fact that as we learn more and more about its structure and about surviving within its confines, we know that we have little hope of leaving. Yet, it is a nourishing experience at one level because there are so many different elements to it, all with a life of their own, all somehow connected and for the most part available to us. In fact, even though we know that the labyrinth has borders, it seems as if an infinite number of things could go on within its hallways and rooms. It is almost as if there is too much choice, too much information at every twist and turn. Yet, this disoriented, almost chaotic world has a structure. We don’t know the designers. They may have been machines, but we continue to survive in part because we have some confidence in the idea that design means purpose, and purpose must mean that our wanderings will eventually lead to a destination. (This may be no more than a metaphysical claim, but it keeps the engines of Cyberspace running at high speed.)

In order to enter a virtual labyrinth you must be ready to travel by association. In effect, your body remains at your computer. You travel by looking, by reading, by imaging and imagining. The eyes are, so to speak, the royal road into virtuality.

“Cyberspace — The electronic frontier. A completely virtual environment: the sum total of all [BBSes], computer networks, and other [virtual communities]. Unique in that it is constantly being changed, exists only virtually, can be practically infinite in “size" communication occurs instantaneously world-wide — physical location is completely irrelevant most of the time. Some include video and telephone transmissions as part of cyberspace." (A. Hawks, Future Culture — December 31, 1992)

In the labyrinth of Cyberspace, design is the logic of the system. Cyberspace reproduces itself at so many different levels at once and in so many different ways, that the effects are like an evolutionary explosion, where all of the trace elements of weakness and strength coexist. The architecture of this space is unlike any that has preceded it and we are consequently grappling with discursive strategies to try and describe the experiences of being inside it. The implication is that there is no vantage point from which you can watch either your progress or the progress of others. There isn’t a platform upon which you can stand to view your experience or the experience of your neighbours. In other words, the entire system doesn’t come into view — how could you create a picture of the Internet? Yet, you could imagine the vast web-like structure, imagine, that is, through any number of different images, a world of microelectronic switches buzzing at high speed with the thoughts and reflections of thousands of people. The more important question is what does this imagining do to our bodies, since to some degree Cyberspace is a fiction where we are narrator and character at one and the same time? What are the implications of never knowing the shape and architecture of this technological sphere which you both use and come to depend on? What changes in the communicative process when you type a feeling onto a computer screen, as opposed to speaking about it? What does that feeling look like in print? Does the computer screen offer a space where the evocative strength of a personal letter can be communicated from one person to another?