Tag: media

What Vic Berger’s Videos Say About American Electoral Politics

Anyone watching Saturday Night Live’s parodies of US electoral campaigns in recent years has likely noticed its particular humor no longer works so well. Its treatment of recent events in the presidential primary competitions, especially on the Republican side, is a lot less funny than the news coverage of the campaigns themselves. The behavior displayed by the candidates as they travel around the country courting voters and debating each other seems to have more entertainment value than the sketches mocking it. Vine and Youtube videos made over the past few months by the comedian and video editor Vic Berger IV, on the other hand, distill some of the absurdity of this election season by highlighting what is too marginal and granular to capture with scripted caricature. His videos of the candidates and their campaigns home in on moments of particularly awkward behavior. They illustrate something of Henri Bergson’s argument about comedy, that it results from finding rigidity where one would expect there to be organic elasticity, “something mechanical encrusted on the living.” The effectiveness of political sketch comedy, it appears, decreases as the gap closes between the rhetorical skills that allow people to be successful in politics, on one hand, versus televised comedy on the other. Donald Trump is such a dramatic parody of himself that any parody by others is more or less redundant. Just as political campaigning has transformed by adapting to changes in the broader media environment, the locus of the most incisively humorous treatments of the current national election cycle has moved to a different technological register thanks to tools for editing and sharing digital video. (read more...)

On the Relevance of a $5.9B Videogame Industry Deal

I spend an inordinate amount of time watching the news, blogs, and social media that swirls around what can at best be vaguely called “the videogame industry.” There are multiple industries, markets, cultures, interests and to pretend that it is a kind of unified monolithic industry doesn’t really seem to fit much an more (if it ever did). Yet, many CASTAC readers and authors are interested in structure. Why do particular socio-cultural-political-economic formations persist remains an important question that seems to cut across the interests of CASTAC readers. For context, Activision, one of the already largest videogame publishers, announced on Tuesday their acquisition of King, a developer and publisher of popular web-based and mobile-based “free to play” (F2P) games. To put this in context: The giant company’s acquisition of King is the biggest merger in gaming since the combination of Activision and Blizzard in a nearly $19 billion deal in 2007, and it cements the new publisher as one of the biggest players in every gaming platform—home consoles like the PlayStation 4, PC online games like World of Warcraft, and mobile. (read more...)

Understanding Users through Data: UX, Ratings, and Audiences

“It needs to be usable by distracted individuals in a hurry. It needs to be extremely legible and intuitive,” began the client emphatically as he leaned forward, one of several people  gathered at a conference table on the 16th floor of an office tower in Houston, Texas. He rested back in his chair and waited, drumming his hands on the table. The project lead and two of the designers nodded, as one called a vast library of application mockups up onto the demo screen. As she scrolled through these, the other explained the rationale behind its user-interface elements: “we tested this prototype with [x user base]. We have seen that they need to take [y action] immediately, and if they are hindered in this, the company itself cannot track projects or time spent by employees. [Staff] are too busy on the job to engage in lengthy bookkeeping procedures.” This project, a massive one spanning more than a year’s research and development, is one among many for which I am currently acting as a participant observer at [Intellisoft Inc.] In foregrounding research, this company is not unique, but they are among an ever-growing number of organizations appropriating anthropological methods to understand how audiences interface with technological artifacts. Occasionally, these methods employ terminology that diverges between the academic and applied social sciences; it took me a moment to realize, for example, that “contextual inquiry” is field research, that is, ethnography. (read more...)

In Search of Convergence, In Search of Consensus: Design media in a university architecture studio

That’s not meant to be a comprehensive design drawing. That’s meant to say, ‘Scape is comprised of people, plants, hardscape materials,’ and that’s the language. So, we should squint at it, see the language, accept the language, the density, how it’s allocated over the site, and—boom—move on. But we get struck with confusion that says, ‘What’s that green thing? How does that fit into the scape?’ So we end up having a conversation about what it is we’ve done, or how we’ve done it, or communicated it, rather than the substance of the idea. We have to note that—we can’t build consensus on stuff we can’t communicate—because everyone’s trying to figure out what we’ve done. With these comments, the architecture professor tried to reclaim control over his students’ design review, which had been sidetracked by the jury’s questioning. The jury, composed of other faculty in the architecture and landscape architecture departments, was confused about a secondary element of a project to redesign the façade and site of an American university school of architecture building. I was there as an ethnographer of architecture pedagogy and design process for a comparative multi-institutional research project involving four Canadian and American schools of architecture. The discussion revolved around a series of digital drawings, and a student’s narration of those drawings, displayed on a large flat screen placed in front of the audience. The time spent trying to parse and probe the “meaning” of the drawings, mediated by both the visual and linguistic dimensions of the presentation, was diluting what the students and their professor had hoped would be the principal thrust of the presentation, and drawing attention to an area of the design that was less well-developed. As Luke, the professor, pointed out, the conversation was not only distracting from the “the substance of the idea” (i.e., the design); it was threatening to undermine consensus—in a sense, the approval of the audience—which would allow the project to move forward. (read more...)

Entertaining Science: A report from a colloquy at the intersection of science and entertainment

As you read this post, members of a community of like-minded scholars are unwinding after a weekend symposium at the UK’s University of Manchester. The symposium Stories About Science—Exploring Science Communication and Entertainment Media explored the intersections of science with entertainment from various disciplinary perspectives and as experienced by a diverse range of publics. Organized through the University of Manchester’s Centre for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine (CHSTM), the SAS symposium was the brainchild of the Playing God Project of CHSTM’s Science and Entertainment Laboratory research group. So what, you may ask, does any of this have to do with CASTAC? Well, as an anthropologist invested in exploring ethnographically the cultural qualities of humanity’s intersections with science, I was interested in efforts by the symposium’s presenters, not unlike CASTAC’s own, to understand significant cultural aspects of science in contemporary society. Perhaps more intriguingly, I saw it as a potential opportunity to further our goal of fostering discussions between anthropologists and other STS scholars. To that end, I contacted several SAS symposiasts to get a sense of what they presented at SAS. Colloquy topics ran from explorations of gender for fictional television scientists to the ways legitimate scientists are presented in the media to the power of comics in science communication. (read more...)

Cosmos: A Spacetime Conversation

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered on Fox on March 9, 2014 and will run until June 1, 2014. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, it is a ‘reboot’ of Carl Sagan’s series similarly titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Ann Druyan and Steven Soter serve as lead writers for both series (Sagan also co-wrote the original, though Tyson is not involved in the writing process for this series) and there are clear aesthetic connections between the two series.* Today’s Cosmos, though, is airing on Fox, not PBS, and American science in 2014 operates in a different landscape with a different set of concerns than Sagan’s series of 1980.** There has been an active social media engagement with Cosmos (#cosmos) and many historians of science, STS scholars, and journalists have been blogging and live tweeting their reactions to how the science is portrayed. I recently had a conversation with two historians of science who have been engaged with the Cosmos conversation, Ben Gross (@bhgross144, a research fellow at the Chemical Heritage Foundation) and Audra Wolfe (@ColdWarScience, an independent scholar), to discuss how Cosmos can offer insight into the current state of science and society. (read more...)

Approaching the Infrastructure of Digital Media Startups

In the 1997 essay “Protected Mode,” the late media theorist Friedrich Kittler, with nostalgia for “the good old times” when using computers meant interacting with them in a way that made it impossible to ignore the reality of their basic hardware, expressed his disapproval of the user-friendliness of commercial software. In contrast to the true underlying operations of digital machines themselves, he asserted, commercial software hides from view the reality of computers’ operations determined at the level of material technological frameworks. “The higher and more effortless the programming languages,” he wrote, “the more insurmountable the gap between those languages and a hardware that still continues to do all of the work” (157). The problem with software, for Kittler, is that it seems to put the user in control when, in fact, what it really does is reduce the user’s agency by obscuring the user interface’s basis in hardware. Put in different terms, it performs an illusory reversal of the relationship between infrastructural and superstructural elements. One can only imagine that Kittler would be dismayed by the current state of digital media technology’s development in general and by the trend among technology startup companies toward increased reliance on cloud computing in the form of “infrastructure as a service.” At the same, I think this gestures toward a certain problem in the anthropological study of digital technologies. (read more...)