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Monthly Archives: February 2013

The interesting thing about touch is that it has two properties: the first, and what I think we discussed most in class, is the property of one’s experience of touching someone else. This is a kind of personal property of touching, in which you touch in order to feel the presence of another (connectivity among strangers, the flaneur, flashmobs, increase in hugging, etc). However, there is also the property of touch which involves touching as a means of impacting, affecting, or influencing another. When you touch someone, you force him or her to have a sensory experience: the one that you impart.

I think this aspect of touching is just as important as the first when it comes to new media, and media flow. In this case our desire to touch can be boiled down to a desire to influence and have power over others. For example, we no longer make Facebook posts purely with the intention of expressing ourselves, but with the added intention of generating as many likes and comments as possible. Because we are aware of Facebook (and the Internet’s) system of control via the promotion of “culturally relevant” information, there has been an explosion of posts which embed Youtube clips and Internet generated images. Users know that these posts will be promoted, and therefore seen by more users, giving the creator of the post the opportunity to “touch” more people, than posts purely involving text. This concept of touch as influence/impact makes more sense in the context of “I touch therefore I am,” because we can now translate its meaning into something along the lines of “My actions have impacts, my actions are felt by others, therefore I am,” which, I think we can argue, is how we are aware that we exist (through the observation that we impact our surroundings). This way of thinking about touch is fairly disturbing. If we are all “out to touch each other,” it is not only because we are searching for intimacy in a world in which we feel further and further alienated from each other, but also because we are want to have power over others.

Furthermore, when we participate in a media platform like Facebook, we are faced with a serious lack of filter options, and do not have control over what appears on our newsfeed, and what does not (the platform itself is in control of the selection process). This means that we have very little control over “who touches us.” Perhaps we are being touched in ways we do not want to be touched in the form of viewing information we have no interest in, or perhaps do not even wish to view. Although Facebook tracks user’s movements to create a profile which it then uses to display “relevant” information on one’s newsfeed, the user is still primarily subject to viewing the personal information of others that the platform has decided to promote. This raises the question, how personal is our personal information? If we post information not for the express purpose of expressing ourselves but to accumulate likes and comments, then can we really say that this information is our own in the sense that we chose to express it? This comes back to the notion of an interface molding content to be compatible with its interface, as we begin to express ourselves in a form we know the platform will promote, subverting our original intention and meaning.

So all together what does this all mean? I think we can see Facebook as a constant war/power struggle in which the user attempts at once to influence others (have his/her internet presence felt) as much as possible, while simultaneously trying to avoid the unwanted touches of others. This is ironic and self-perpetuating, because the user himself, in trying to have the most influence possible, is undoubtedly created “unwanted touches” of his own.

I’d like to write a post about the music industry in relation to independent music, jumping off of Langlois’ Participatory Culture and the New Governance of Communication: The Paradox of Participatory Media. Langlois writes, “In short, the displacement of the mass media model in favor of a networked model radically changes the configuration of power relations, and therefore how we should understand the notion of democratic communication” (Langlois 4). This applies quite a bit to how the internet has affected the music industry, the simultaneous decline of big labels and record stores (the last major record store in my neighborhood, Tower Records, closed in 2005). It’s easy to see the new “democracy” of music on the internet, but how that democracy is slanted is a bit harder to discern. I will first explain the former.

 

Websites like Soundcloud, Bandcamp, Facebook, and Myspace have made it possible for musicians to share their music without the support of a record label and big budgets to distribute physical copies of their music. New DAWs (Digital Audio Workstations) are quite advanced and unbelievably cheaper than going to a recording studio. Essentially, the home studio is not a rare feat of ingenuity but a common occurrence. The costs of making and sharing music have changed, as well as the way in which people share music. If someone likes your band’s page on Facebook, others can see and check out your music. It’s an accelerated version of hear-say that requires no physical contact. So the music industry’s hold on music should be undercut and music democratic by now, right?

 

Unfortunately not. Popular success is still judged by the standards of the old music industry regime, so when a band blows up on a social media site, it can be misleading. Often it was just a minor viral burst, although the same burst in popularity would have indicated a promising career in years past. It may appear as if they are “making it,” but this concept only exists within the old record industry dynamic: if you have a deal, people will hear you. If not, almost nobody will. I’ll share a few anecdotes in support of my point. Chris Martin of Coldplay made a surprisingly insightful (for a pop star) comment about The Beatles, arguably the most successful band in history. Music journalists and fans are constantly searching for the next Beatles, the next cultural phenomenon, in the same way every basketball fan is searching for the next Jordan. Martin said something to this effect: there will never be a next Beatles, and not because there will never be musicians as talented. Rather, the conditions in which they rose to fame, in a time when they essentially could monopolize a few TV and radio stations, will never exist again. No one band will have that much attention devoted to it. Ever. While the music scene has been made more democratic, analyzing it through the old lens leaves us with an unfortunate (and false) conclusion: music is worse now than it was.

 

Another anecdote: last night I watched a documentary on Modest Mouse, one of the more successful independent bands of the late ’90s. After their second album, the band essentially blew up in the indie world, which then required them to drive around the country in a beat up van playing shows. Each member kept noting how there was no internet for them to share their music with, that without a major label they had to dedicate their lives (as opposed to just their free time) to making it. Now, independent music is an aesthetic more than an independent effort. A few bands with major label deals and songs on the Top 40 are described as having an “indie” sound, though they were always a commercial band. How did this happen? What does it say about the democracy of music making?

 

What we have now is trend aggregation and therefore sound aggregation. This conglomerate “indie” sound, which is absurd given the wide genre range of independent music before the internet, is a result of the way that popularity works on the internet. Things that people are paying attention to instantly get more exposure, so the artists people are listening to have less and less variety (they are one trend at this moment, one trend at the next). You can tag your music on bandcamp to direct people towards it through other bands, so vague styles like “indie” or “alternative can allow a band to receive a lot more exposure. Before, a band had to wow a record label, but now they need to impress the internet fans and the bloggers, who are not neutral distributors of music. A perfect example is the proliferation of EDM (electronic dance music), which relies on constant remixing and recirculation of tracks. Again, this appears democratic, but it is in fact subject to a snowball effect of trends that makes it so that even if it is cheaper to make music now, the playing field of popularity is not at all leveled.

The internet affords all users a voice and the ability to share content on a specific network—but can this apparent inclusivity of virtual spaces be translated into democratized physical spaces? Location-based smartphone apps like Foursquare, Grindr, and SCVNGR add a virtual layer to physical space, allowing users to interact online through experiences in physical places, or perhaps rather to interact in person with the help of technology as a sort of social lubricant. At the intersection of virtual and physical space, the idea of the internet user as a flâneur, an observer journeying through virtual space, is irrelevant because the user becomes an active participant within the tiered realities of the modern city— constantly ‘checking in’ and interacting with other users virtually and perhaps also physically. In this virtual-physical space the superficial power dynamics of the internet are sought after. In a flash mob, all participants are reduced to the same level; they are a faceless online network materialized in a physical space. Though they spawn on the internet, a supposed all-inclusive virtual space, the exclusivity of flash mobs contributes to much of their allure and the perception of community felt by participants. Flash mobs’ effects on public places expose the transformative influence that virtual spaces can have on physical places. Every summer a secret flash mob dinner called the Dîner en Blanc takes place in Paris. Thousands of Parisians ‘covertly’ take to a public space, wielding their own tables and have a glorified French picnic. In the nature of the flash mob, immediately after dessert the sea of people dissipates, leaving the square just as it had been at the beginning of the evening. Flash mobs also reveal users’ perceptions of anonymity on the internet. For example, the corrupted variant of the flash mob, the ‘flash rob’ (or ‘smash mob’) builds off the idea of flash mobs and mobilization through social media while combining traditional mob mentality with the sense of perceived anonymity often associated with the internet. In one flash rob 300 teenagers stormed a Wal-Mart, stealing thousands of dollars worth of merchandise. Dozens of the participants uploaded videos of their collaborators smiling for the camera to YouTube, unaware that the police would you the videos to prosecute. The increasingly common convergence of the physical and the virtual challenges the rigidity of the social codes associated with each variety of space and interaction.

I thought that Myst was interesting as an example of virtually constructed navigable space because I experienced it as very frustrating. Rather than “gliding” through the space as the Manovich article seemed to suggest, I found the movement jerky and uneven, and limited to the few options programed into the interface. This is opposed to the way that I think about the way that space can be navigated in more recent, more complex video games, where movement is less restricted, and more user motivated rather than interface motivated. In this way, I thought of developments in gaming technology as making virtual space more similar to the virtualized real space of UAV’s.
Gregory is clear in his distinction between “gaming” and piloting UAVs, even though they utilize similar virtual spatial constructions. The immersive experience of UAV piloting creates a continuous engagement with the field of battle which differs from the discontinuities of constructed space (the ability to pause, restart, “level up”). Similarly, the way of interacting with the drone-space interpolates the pilots into the space, collapsing the thousands of miles between Nevada and Pakistan or Afghanistan into 18 inches. Gregory links this spatial immersion to the higher recorded levels of PTSD in drone pilots. Given the similar interfaces of piloting UAV’s and video games, how do (if they do at all) drone pilots experience video games after “virtually” waging war over similar interfaces?

How do we start playing Myst? Well, it is quite simple. Click on the Myst icon on the desktop and you are immediately brought into this different “world.” With such a simple procedure, one can explore and live in a completely different world without the need of physically traveling to that space. According to the designer of Myst, it is an “environment to just wander around inside of.” Myst indeed was an exploration of a virtual space, as I, or perhaps more accurately speaking, the main hero of the game, navigated through various locations on the Myst Island. Through repetitive processes, I eventually learned the geography of that virtual space as if I learned the locations of different academic buildings on campus. I no longer needed the map; I could climb to the top of the tower and literally “see” the island from different perspectives. These sorts of achieving the sense of direction in a virtual space not only surprised me, but it also made me think about how an individual can possibly get trapped in such navigable spaces. We are all familiar with stories of serious game addicts who would spend hours in front of the computer with just a keyboard and a mouse, constantly exploring and fulfilling the goals within that space, while sometimes forgetting about the real world that his physical body is placed within. It can get to a point where the line between a virtual space and the physical space becomes blurry. In a game like Sims, people can create representative characters of themselves or of other people and create a virtual world in which the space is once again navigable for those characters. I see this space as a utopia, a placeless place that only exists virtually and has only a few connections to the physical world. Entering into this space is as simple as a click on the mouse, but getting out of that space may not be so simple. Of course, I am speaking only in terms of navigable spaces in games, and there are other instances where the navigable space has increasingly become a “new tool of labor” in various fields like architectural designs, stock markets, and virtually in all visualizations of any given information. In terms of games, however, I do think that the ease of entering in and out of navigable spaces can sometimes lead to problems related to addiction to the game and confusion with the real world.

One comment I was struggling with during Professor Chun’s lecture  when she remarked that GRINDR profiles displaying the distance of other users was representative of the increasing grid-like nature of our experience of space. I agree that it certainly plays with our ideas of space and brings to mind Baudrillard’s map preceding the territory. However, unlike Google Maps and other new media representations of space as a flat grid, I find that the distance feature on GRINDR’s most striking effect is that it displays no direction or context, an effect that de-grids space in a sense. Knowing that Suitor A is 578 Feet Away, Suitor B is 2.3 miles away, Creeper A is 1.4 miles away and Ex Boyfriend A is 8.5 miles away without knowing in what direction, whether that’s actually where they live or if they are out and about (or indeed the assumption in itself that GRINDR location correlates to their actual location), creates a grid that, unlike most new media grids, is made up of potential people, completely removed from physical context, or direction. To determine the potential locations of another GRINDR user, one must pinpoint their own location and draw a circle around themselves the distance of the other user. The primary function of the distance feature, or at least the common sense one for GRINDR’s primary userbase, is to determine how long it will take to meet up with someone. Yet as anyone who has driven a significant amount knows, travelling 10 miles in one direction does not always take the same time as it does to travel 10 miles in a different direction due to road conditions, traffic and differing speed limits. Perhaps this ‘As the crow flies’ distance feature creates a haptic hook up environment, where people are not actually existing in space. The distance feature implies that the actual direction of the travel, or perhaps more interestingly what neighborhood one lives in, have no effect on their “gameplay”. No strings attached applies to physical space as well it seems.

I thought our lab this week was a lot of fun. I’ve never heard of the game Myst before and thus have never played it. Even though I got absolutely nowhere in the game and just spent most of my time cluelessly exploring, I thought it was a lot of fun and it left me wanting to play more. It got a little frustrating that I had no idea what I was doing, there were so many different switches everywhere, secret passage ways, hidden notes and weird static recordings of this bearded guy in books– I had no idea what to make of all of it and how to put it together. The nature of the game forced me to think and make logical connections if I were to make any progress. I went around just randomly flipping switches and pressing buttons, hoping that I would get lucky and that something would just come forth and reveal itself. It was only towards the end of lab where I realized I had to try to pick up on clues and put them together to get somewhere.

Although its graphics and aesthetic aspects were outdated, the ideas and concepts presented in the game are very interesting and appealing. After doing a little research on the game afterwards, I was particularly amazed at the fact that depending on how the player plays the game, the endings turn out differently.

I was pretty deprived on video games as a child, but with the video/computer games that I could get my hands on, everything was pretty straightforward and had a predetermined sequence of events that the player went through. The fact that with this game, the fate of the player in the video game is not predetermined is really cool– The video game is experienced differently by the different people who play it. In a way, this makes Myst even more realistic, making it seem like it actually is some alternate world that has yet to be lived in. With no obvious goals or plan of action laid out in the beginning, this game presents so much freedom and different possibilities. (At the same time there is a lack of freedom due to the fact that the player can only travel on a certain virtual path. For example, as the player, I couldn’t jump into the water or go explore between the trees.)Unlike other games I know of, there is no violence (that I saw so far), no time limit, no dying. The game seems to unfold at the own pace and knowledge of the player, which in my case, was a very slow pace. After playing this game in lab, I feel somewhat deprived as a kid– I wish I knew about this game when I was younger.

I want to preface this post by admitting that I am not a video game person, I never really enjoyed or played video games as a kid. So the first I had heard of Myst was in this class and I did not get very far in the game.

Regardless I am not convinced of the uniqueness of navigable space to new media. It may be that “space becomes a media type,” but it is not evident to the user. The experience of Myst was more akin to a story told through pictures. As the player you had to organize the pictures, but it does not strike me as substantially different from completing a more traditional puzzle. The use of the computer game as a medium does enable the puzzle to be put together in multiple ways, a possibility not allowed by cardboard pieces, but does not change the heart of the media.

I do not deny that cyberspace has been illustrated and conceptualized as a navigable space, but I think that extending the metaphor to encompass how a video game character moves through a video game world is taking it too far. It is not too different from a choose your own adventure novel or Patchwork Girl except that the story is told through illustrations rather than through words. It is simply another method of storytelling. The creators of Myst acknowledged that they created a world rather than a game, but then does a fantasy author not also create a world?

Especially with its classification as a form of new media it struck me how closely linked Myst was to traditional media. It was expanded upon in books and TV, which I am assuming were driven by a more linear, narrative driven, less participatory story line. This indicates to me that Myst was not so fundamentally a new media creation that it could not be translated into the classic media model. Similarly taking the definition of navigable space as unique to new media would imply that Myst was not dependent on navigable space if it could be extended to media that are not compatible with navigable space.

Perhaps trivially, I found it interesting that Myst relied so much upon the library and the books on its shelf. It has not moved too far from traditional media if it is still conveying information through words on a page, albeit in this case it was words on the image of a page on a computer screen. All types of media seem to be inextricably linked and dependent on the other to exist.

In an age of instantaneity and globalization, groups of people separated by thousands of miles can now bridge the geospatial gap and connect through virtual/cyberspatial interfacing. This is what Gregory terms time-space compression – the phenomenon whereby physical and temporal distances are reconciled through digital means. In the case of military drones, “the death of distance enables death from a distance” (Gregory, 192). Yet when taken out of the military context and applied to social aspects of networking and cyberspatial platforms, do these imperialist projections of power without vulnerability open opportunities for further abuses of power and surveillance?

Now more than ever, contemporary society relies on mobile devices to communicate. Instantaneous transactions of digitized sound bytes and word documents make possible a new and unparalleled degree of global intimacy. Indeed, these interactions simply Gregory’s time-space compression applied in a social context.

There is something to be said about distance. For Gregory, distance leads to re-enchantment. For the military personnel unaccustomed to virtual drone warfare, distance leads to an uncanny intimacy with the target. From hypervisibility to hyperspacial relations, modern social interactions can be now viewed as non-reliant upon geographical restrictions. Has this changed the fundamental intricacies of human-human interaction? The effortlessness of time-space compression has led to a new realm of communication possibilities, yet how far will we allow these techno-cultural progressions to develop until hypervisibility becomes omnipotent?

Manovich talks about video games such as Doom and Myst as pieces of media which combine navigable space and narrative elements.

The Metroid series combines these two elements in an interesting way. Particularly with earlier games in the series, the narrative is extremely non-linear, and based almost entirely off of the player’s choice of which space to explore. Like Myst, most spaces within the game are equally accessible and explorable. Metroid places a large emphasis on hidden areas: depths to old spaces, only accessible when the character has found the correct weapon or ability. In this way, the player revisits old spaces, but sees them in a new light: a change has occurred. This change is deeper than a new weapon or ability: it is a wizening of the player, a mental change – at the very least, the player has grown in his ability to control the game.

More recently, the 2013 video game Proteus deals with these conventions in another way. Upon starting a new game, the player finds himself floating in a body of water, with a light fog surrounding him. If the player moves forward, he starts to see a silhouette of land, which comes more and more into focus: a deserted island. The player can walk around the deserted island, and look at the landscape and some small animals and some unexplained buildings, but there are no objectives, “secret areas,” NPCs, or even timeline (save the passage of day->night->day). There is no narrative, save that of the *real* experience of the player – for a narrative has to develop, given time and immersion. If the world of Proteus’ island is taken as a valid world in which introspective growth can be accomplished (the thought comes to mind of the romantic hero ascending into the mountains to find himself), then narrative emerges in a way unlike that of other video games. Without the navigable space, this particular narrative will not exist, but it is not created by (or even housed by) the space. It is a “true” (at least, personal) narrative, drawn by a virtual experience.

“We are creating environments to just wander around inside of. People have been calling it a game for lack of anything better, and we’ve called it a game at times. But that’s not what it really is, it’s a world.”