Week 1: Film Festival and Twittorial Reflections: Dystopia

Today has been the last day of our #mscdystopia twittorial. I found the films made for an interesting collection. The hashtag offered a hint at the theme of the collection – digital dystopia – but I found my familiarity with Stop Dave… and Internet is for porn meant I brought some pre-existing ideas about their meaning with me. I found it particularly difficult to separate Stop Dave… as an artifact in its own right set apart from the whole of 2001: A Space Odyssey).

I felt that all four films were as much about the conflict of mediums – film attempting to convey the digital/high tech world – as about the specific issues raised by the embedding of technology in day to day life. For that reason the Internet is for Porn (IifP) is the most interesting in terms of film making context as it is a piece of Machinima, a film made in real time using a gaming or virtual world environment using avatars as actors. IifP, like many pieces of Machinima, uses audio from another source (in this case the song comes from the adult puppet musical Avenue Q) and is built on gaming engines from World of Warcraft (a subscription based online gaming community built on a rich 3D world). IifP is probably also made using a screen capture software like wegame or similar. Although IifP is undoubtedly funny and creatively made it rests upon copyrighted works and systems built by a series of uncredited others. This hints towards a very different  cultures of creativity and the concept of “original” works in the online space where ideas of what to combine (with even playlists an espressive form) may be seen as equally of value as the creation of any of their components. That may not be a substantially different culture to the way in which multiple creators contribute to films, television, or even a single novel – all being collaborative efforts – but the medium is more emergent, unstable and the rules are not yet established. One of the main differences is, however, one of accreditation. The entry barrier to creating a digital cultural object is low, the creativity required to make something funny, clever or original is certainly not common across all pieces of Machinima or digital art but it is a different scale and expense of creativity than traditional media forms and maybe therefore needs to be assessed .

Digital Democracy, Web 2 and Online Debate

Authors like Dan Gillmor (in We, the media:Grassroots Journalism by the People, for the People (O’Reilly, 2004)) see the idea of anyone-as-creator/contributor to media as a potentially democratizing force but last week I was at the Oxford Social Media Convention 2009 and heard a somewhat persuasive case from Andrew Hindman (Assistant Professor of Political History, Arizona State University) that control of media is crucial so, in actual fact, the entry cost to creating works that exist primarily on the internet is, effectively, the cost of owning your servers and/or being your own ISP. The risk of the creative online world is that at any moment your work is subject to service provision by others and may be removed, subverted or copied by others. In the light of various YouTube video removals the fragility of content – original, remixed and copied – seems a pretty pertinent issue (for instance Viacom automatic take down notices (as noted by e.g. International Herald Tribune 02/02/2007), ongoing issues around rights for music videos (e.g. Guardian 03/09/2009)). An interesting case in point was the endless posting and removal of the “Gathering Storm” ad from the “Nation for Marriage” (NOM), a controversial ad shown around last year’s US elections in California because of the inclusion of Proposition 8, a confusingly worded proposition to ban gay marriage (which had just been legally recognised in the state earlier in the year). Prop 8 triggered the creation of many tv and online videos on both sides of the debate. The Gathering Storm ad was deemed so offensive by many pro-gay marriage campaigners that they were eager to raise awareness of the alarmist presentation by posting it on YouTube. All copies were swiftly taken down due to notices from the copyright holders who objected to the subversion of it’s use – to undermine the ad’s content rather than promote it – which, ironically, left only the parody versions of the ad. Although the parodies were close enough to give a pretty good idea of the original – as shown by the original, and a key parody version, below:

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Indeed anti gay marriage ads were fairly invisible on YouTube compared to the presence of pro gay marriage ads, partly because of the celebrities involved in the pro ads (e.g. Marc Shaiman’s Prop 8 the Musical) and also because the web proved to be a more receptive space for debate raising some issues of the segregated notion of politics, faith and morality on the web where the most left leaning liberal content sits alongside some of the most right wing content but few sites genuinely pull together both extremes into dialogue.  NOM, the original ad’s creators, have now posted the ad to their own YouTube channel but, such is the space they have chosen to use, most users leaving ratings or comments (actively rather than passively using the site) are leaving negative feedback. So perhaps context of who is posting the content is really immaterial compared to the space used to share that content.

Back to the Videos…

I posted my comments to Twitter on the films and was interested to see that the absence of any overt voice over or clear narrative in Bendito Machine seemed to let many of us see what we wanted to in the film. Personally the animation style reminded me very strongly of Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 hand cut silhouette animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed, which is based upon portions of the Arabian Nights.


Here innocence is idealized, human behaviour questioned and deified technology (in the form of the magician) demonized. Bendito Machine seems to borrow liberally from the ideas and tone of the film but I did not feel it was arguing intelligently about the technology and society it condemns. With the “from the sky” notion of a creator (whether god or man) and the idea that the presence of idols, television, etc. leads to the literal trampling of people it seems that the creators/animator assumes that a world without question is a world without conflict and that, as in the garden of eden, it is only the corrupting influence of the outsider that ever forces humanity to question ourselves or our place in the world. I found that a patronizing representation of technology but I also wondered why radio was the first idea of the media included. Novels were seen as a deeply corrupting influence when they first came into mass publication, theatrical performances were banned by puritans but pre and post dated that popular religious movement – radio, television and the internet are merely the newest form of self-expression and communication that dates back as far as cave paintings, ancient marks and rituals and spoken storytelling. To assume the addition of electrical power is somehow more corrupting than the printed word is, well, odd. One does not passively receive any technology and yet there is a snobbery of how certain formats can be appreciated, understood and contribute towards society. Why is opera more authentically artistic than a musical? Why is Dickens more important than Armistead Maupin? Why is serious acting more prized than comedy? There is a snobbery of tradition that means older known entities will always carry an authority that the newest developments cannot (yet). For all the public concerns about the internet and mobile phones we, nonetheless, use them ubiquitously and yet hark back to a golden age of television just as a generation or two ago television was seen as inferior to radio. If anything the convergence culture of the internet – where all manner of digital objects including archive materials, streaming content, one-to-many broadcast media, one-to-one, and one-to-few creativity can all sit side by side – challenges us to reassess what is useful from every technological era at once and is, arguably, much the richer for it.

Stop Dave…

Viewing a clip from 2001 was an odd experience. It immediately provoked a memory of my feelings and thoughts from watching the whole film some years ago. I think my last viewing of it was in 2001 when it was rereleased so my memory is vague but elements of the film are still striking. When I first viewed the film I think I saw the computer as a definite emotional entity but I now wonder if Hal could be a more complex idea of the possibilities of AI. Watching 2001: A Space Odyssey… in the 80s or 90s must have been a different experience from watching it when it was released in 1968 – before the moon landing even. In 1968 the adult viewing audience had been raised on Saturday morning cinema space adventures, gimmicky cinema formats (from various widescreen/obscure screening sizes to 3D to SuperMarionation),  and parodic shorts such as Tex Avery’s gentle mocking of a gadget filled future in films like The House of the Future:

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This is a future built on ideas – good and bad – and around special effects made by people and low tech devices (the synthesizer being a new technology at the time) where human controlled puppets and men in unconvincing ape suits were the monsters and exotic elements in films. It seems natural in this context to expect a robot to be a bit like a human because, in any representation you will see from Gort in the Day the Earth Stood Still to Robby the Robot in Forbidden Planet machines are shown to be very human in appearance and, often, in their ability to preempt needs, sense moods or respond in human-like ways. I feel that Hal is a step on from these robots – he is a computer after all and his embodiment is supremely abstract and yet he has a voice and no matter how placid that voice sounds it still conveys emotions of the actor voicing Hal. However it is hard to know – from the film at least – if he is supposed to express human like emotion or whether, instead, this is a pragmatic compromise of film making since actors are easier to create than artificial voices and humans are, inevitably, more engaging than machines which seem to behave predictably. In the film AI the machines are far more overtly emotionally developed – though even here this is presented as somewhat ambiguous since a child-substitute robot would hardly be emotionally engaging for a parent if it lacked the ability to show the appearance of emotions. In 2001 though it is less clear if Hal is sentient or merely questioning Dave’s actions as per his programming. Both are plausible in the context of the movie. What is more interesting is the fact that as an audience we are asked to side with the machine and not the human, something that is only rarely asked of us. The machine is, however, logical and this means a degree in transparency exists around Hal’s own agenda and desire for survival making Hal, as Xscriber tweeted, like a child. Our emotions are manipulated by Hal’s impotence and, perhaps, innocence rather than asking us to behave as scientists in also logically assessing the situation – with only a few minutes of film clip in this film festival we see Hal’s side much more prominently biasing our view compared to the longer burn of the full view of the film.

The Computer Virus

I have to say I loved and hated this film in equal parts. I like musicals very much and have a high tolerance for experiments with the form so was not put off with the quality or presentation of the singing. I did however think that some of the animation added little and the running length took away from the coherence of the story. What I loved however was the core theme that communications technologies are in many forms but are always about humans connecting to humans. There is not some black box that changes everything, there is merely hardware and software that encodes different forms of storytelling and communication for us, it mediates but it neither controls nor understands. Now sophisticated programming does mean we are moving to a more aware version of mediation – text can be automatically generated from video and audio recordings (imperfectly) and textual messages can be sophisticated mined but that is not the same as understanding. One of my favorite greetings card companies makes cards which textually describe what would be on the card – they are very funny but mainly for what they do not say about the image and picture they conjure than for the actual description. That is, to me, the difference between artificial intelligence and human intelligence as it stands at the moment. We use machines to assist us, not replace us but in any system the unpredictable bit is just about always human. This is the reason two films came to mind watching this The Computer Virus, the first was Kim X Liz an art film which has recently been shown in an installation at the Hayward Gallery in London by Martin Sastre who uses one fact about Kim Jong Il to imagine a strange love affair that reflects that the most human quality of all is not love but unpredictibility.

Kim X Liz

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The second film that came to mind was one that does both a brilliant and terrible job of portraying the actual business of communicating online: Hackers was made in 1995 in the earliest days of mainstream access to the internet. In trying to portray the hacking of a tv station in this clip what they show beautifully is the fact that it is the human urge to create chaos that makes someone maliciously attack another system (and not merely some rogue computer designed code) and, crucially the filmmakers also show that it takes a basic human error to get the crucial information needed to compromise a system. Even in 2009 this rings true. For instance when Twitter were hacked earlier this year it was a complex human thought process that revealed a basic human error – a user not renewing their back up (hotmail) email account – as recorded in TechCrunch’s Anatomy of a The Twitter Hack. Anyway, here is the Hacker clip:

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So the flipside to Hackers is the fact that it also reveals the major underlying weaknesses of any visual form trying to represent the art of the malicious attack: you don’t want to show a realistic and repeatable (and criminal) technique; you can’t accurately show real time activity as the time scales of an attack are more than a few minutes and may take weeks or months; and most crucially there is no sexy graphic in a serious of command line instructions or in the very basic low fi web based techniques used to compromise systems. To compensate Hollywood will usually throw a barrage of animation at the screen (even in You’ve Got Mail – practically sponsored by AOL and using their very visual proprietary email system – they animated the screens to make them look more high tech and more simplified for the audience). In so doing they may make the film or tv show more engaging but they also contribute to the popular myth that anything technical is mysterious and complex and cannot be understood. This is very much in line with mass media’s treatment of science in film and television but it contrasts poorly with other subjects’ representation in the media.

The arts and historical subjects are often treated quite well by television and film and whilst they, like literature, also suffer from dumbing down on occasion the basic knowledge expected of an audience is far higher than in scientific arenas. Perhaps this is because likely career trajectory of broadcasters, film directors, creators, etc. is not computer science or engineering degree followed by the arts but instead is likely to involve a switch away from technical subjects as a focus very early on. Perhaps the portrayal genuinely reflects the knowledge of the audience. Whatever the reason there is a codified technical mythology in popular media which genuinely impacts upon the public understanding of science and technology. Being a geek and knowing stuff about science or technology has never quite become cool even in an age of geek entrepreneurs and influential international celebrities who have made their money in computing, engineering and social media. Top Gear is the nearest populist portrayal of anything technical but it is excessively masculine, often homophobic, surprisingly Luddite at times and only represents a tiny niche of technology and does even this in highly codifed jargon, something which immediately excludes many people. Decades of simplified marketing and mainstream entertainment around computing and new technologies has resulted in many people feeling genuinely unable to use extremely user-centred simplified applications online. Advertising of computer products (especially anti-virus software) often revolves around scaremongering – anti-virus packages are often bundled with new machines as ways to keep you safe from your computer and thus presenting that machine as scary, risky and potentially corrupting. They do not bundle plumbers contact numbers with washing machines, splinter kits with self-assembly furniture, safety goggles with chainsaws etc. We know what risk we assess with solid established products. Computers and the internet are still new(ish) to many and the understanding and assessment of risk is poorly understood by many leading to a real digital divide that is not Digital Immigrant vs Digital Native (Prensky 2001) but instead comes down to something more amorphous, a blend of technical knowledge, experience and the ability to analyze risk proportionally. A young enthusiastic web 2 creator may not be this, a pessimistic 50 year old professional who has been using the internet for 10 years may have a broader experience and awareness of the risks and consequences of her actions in the digital space. Or it can be the other way around. Generation, experience, fear factor, these are all contributory but not decisive factors in knowing when you are being phished, taken advantage of, handing over copyright etc.

Design = Behaviour?

This weeks use of YouTube raise an issue of how the design of participative websites (including web 2.0 type sites but also discussion boards, etc. which predate the emergence of a more mature concept of social media) shapes the way that users engage and participate in content. YouTube is, for many, a tv channel type space on the web. Commenting is widely used (and is arguably more interesting and culturally insightful than most of the video clips) but there are also options to create specific video responses that can form a thread of clips for viewers to look through. However the design of the site places View over Create functionality and thus encourages a view/browse mode more than a react/participate relationship with content. Blogs are structured similarly. Facebook and most social networking spaces however actively prompt users to login and participate in any content they see. This changes the relationship to content posted in these spaces. If you post a clip to YouTube you might get a comment or two. If you post a picture to Facebook it is unusual for that image to remain untagged or uncommented as the site prompts you for metadata, feeds information out to your peers and encourages participation by presenting an empty text box inviting you to share no matter where you are on the site, encouraging a shared participative cultural object (no matter how ephemeral) to appear (and sit solely on their server, behind the Facebook authentication wall):

Facebook invites me and my friends to comment on my status update.

Facebook invites me and my friends to comment on my status update.

I think that relationship of site design to participation inevitably impacts on a sense of community and/or loyalty in certain online spaces. It also impacts on how you create your digital footprint. Blogs are old technology in web terms but they are still popular because they can be archived, changed, etc. with comparative ease. How the rich interactions in proprietary social networking sites can be stored or shared (beyond that space) is more debatable but the quantity of interactions in these spaces far outweighs the activity on most blogs, or even most Twitter streams.

This Week On My Lifestream…

This brings me to the links and posts I have made to my lifestream this week. On the whole I have been looking at matters of trust and authenticity as I think digital identity is an extremely important element in the mainstreaming of digital cultures. Offline we have our full names, our location, our shared peers, our jobs, our activities and, ultimately, our official state documents (National Insurance numbers, passports etc.) to prove and maintain our identity. Online we are just starting to use our real names as social networking spaces push us to find and network with peers and colleagues who would not otherwise know our online nom de plumes. But even in the UK I know there are at least 4 people with my first and last name – as witnessed in the fascinating Personas installation – and whilst I know which elements are me, others looking for me online may not. This raises all sorts of interesting ideas about trust especially when you are looking for published authors, notable people, scholarly literature etc. So I have been having a poke about various sites which tie into this idea of making the web seem tangibly authenticated and whether technical knowledge (and the ability to trace sites and accounts further back than an entry level web surfer) is required to do this or if there are ways to make people question, note or otherwise engage with finding/identifying relavant information in an online information source.

I spend all day (and much of my evening) online and so I bookmark a lot of resources that look interesting and, for my own convenience, always do so from the same account. This means restaurant websites sit alongside scholarly papers, weird websites, news stories, techie postings, podcast sites etc. It’s a really mixed bundle and I grab it when I find it (much like the magpie analogy that Tracey made this week).

One of the more interesting sites I added to my bookmarks was LabMeeting, this is a site specifically aimed at encouraging scientists to publicly share their lab procedures, ideas, data, articles, etc. It is one of several initiatives (including the Open Access Journals movement) to try to bypass some of the strictures of pre-digital publishing and communication channels. Where once the ability to layout and distribute materials was highly valued these are now simple desktop commodities and it is only the editorial contribution and peer review process that differentiates a journal from any other form of publishing. Since both of these roles are fulfilled by academics (often unpaid) but the final published journal (increasingly subscribed to primarily in a digital version) comes with a hefty price tag there is a substantial arguement for creating a new model. However tradition, brand value and perceived prestige is still an important factor and this challenges the open access model. Some scientists are doing interesting experiments at working more openly online though and for me Cameron Neylon’s debates of issues via a lively scientific community on Friendfeed are really interesting nascient moves away from the duplication of on/offline academic content and towards a new model of communication that acknowledges the role of computers and the internet in the modern research environment.

On an unrelated note I have added my tweets, flickr updates, last.fm feed etc. to my lifestream this week. This is not only to capture course content but tangental items that add into my understandings of digital culture. My Last.fm feed automatically grabs the music and podcasts I hear and the latter are a key part of how I consume my news and views of the world (often in parallel with other work/study activities) so I hope this will be an interesting and useful strand to pull into my lifestream. In general though I am realising just how much digital data I create every week – hundreds of bookmarks, tens of images and songs viewed/uploaded, etc. – and this means I will have to work out a regular way to edit these into a coherant stream for the assessment of my lifestream. Interestingly this will be broad picture of my online adventures but will be a fraction of the size of all my online participation which makes me wonder whether I should be constructing my own story of my life from these many streams. There is so much data – most manually added but with several useful automated tracking streams – that you could build up a fairly detailed portrait of my day/week and work through my bookmarks, listening, viewing etc. I am not concerned about a surveillance society particularly but the trail I leave makes me wonder about some responses I saw in the Oxford Internet Survey on Friday which seemed to indicate a significant number of the people who opt out of internet usage do so over privacy concerns. How these concerns effect the portrayal, impact and excluding qualities of the digital world for some sections of society raises some interesting questions about the media, the new media and the democratic risks of moving towards a sort of Digital Default culture.


  1. Posted September 28, 2009 at 3:49 am | Permalink

    BTW my comments on the readings are on their way. I’m still gathering my thoughts on what I want to pull out of them and discuss and am going for a Hand reread I think…

  2. Posted September 28, 2009 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    That’s a hell of a blog entry!

    You said: ‘What I loved however was the core theme that communications technologies are in many forms but are always about humans connecting to humans.’

    Yep, this sprang to mind too – in reference to Bell’s observation about the original ARPANET’s unforseen affordance of human to human communication (e-mail) from a ‘machine’ that was meant to connect computers.

  3. jen
    Posted September 30, 2009 at 4:28 pm | Permalink

    I really appreciated the work you put in to responding to the week’s films, Nicola. I was also quite taken with your discussion of site design and participation, especially as you link it to questions around archiving. But isn’t Facebook’s social structure (everyone who views your content is a ‘friend’) just as responsible for its participatory ethos as its design? I’d be interested to hear more of your thoughts on this.

  4. Posted October 5, 2009 at 4:01 am | Permalink

    Jen, I think that how Facebook’s Social Structure and Site Design relate and battle with each other is a really interesting interaction actually.

    Offline we have various informal mechanisms for delineating between our friends close friends, acquaintances, colleagues, etc. In Facebook the placement of key guidance information and administrative tasks in the site design actively encourages a simplistic grouping of “friends” as a homogeneous single level/type/proximity. This can be tricky as the mixture of work/study/personal friends can be inhibiting – as can scare stories in the press about firings based on ill advised images and status updates.

    You do have an option to use the more sophisticated settings on Facebook and these allow you to create a whole personal ontology and classify your friends (Meanwhile MySpace encourages you to rank your friends). This seems depressingly limiting as restricting feeds may mean you miss a possible new connection to a friend of a friend, etc. It also requires a lot of personal organization to keep your personal groups up to date making default sharing always the easiest option. Existing social structures definitely push the peer pressure aspect of updating your profile but I think Facebook’s design remains a core actor in forming the social structuring it encourages.

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  1. [...] enjoyed Nicola’s recent blog post (http://digitalculture-ed.net/nicolao/2009/09/28/film-festival-and-twittorial-reflections-dystopia/), particularly the discussion of The Gathering Storm ad in the context of debates about the risks [...]

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