In reflecting on the year and my quite sporadic blogging (and that’s being generous), it occurred to me that this is in large part because of the amount of time and energy that goes into talking with journalists in the last few years. In 2014 I provided commentary for 31 media stories: 7 newspaper or online stories; 4 TV interviews; and 18 radio interviews. I also wrote a couple of Conversation pieces, and a story for Antenna. This is definitely my preferred ratio: the more radio the better, as it’s almost always live and I feel a lot more in control of the way what I say is actually reported! While is seems a bit boring and self-serving to continually report here when I’ve provided press comments (and something better suited to Twitter), I’ve nevertheless added a media section above so that my public comments are at least available in a central place beyond my CV.
My 2014 output was actually down a bit on 2013, when I was interviewed for 38 media stories (19 were print or online; 15 radio interviews; and 4 TV spots). In 2014 I was probably a little pickier about which stories I spoke on, which was influenced both by the rougher media experiences in 2013 as well as me doing a more strategic job of marking out times to focus on my academic writing only. As 2015 kicks off, I’m still going to try and be available to talk about online communication with the press, as I still firmly believe it’s important for academics to try and be public facing and engage with public debate. I’m sure I’ll tweet the better stories, but I’ll also try and keep the media section more or less up to date.
[Significant plot spoilers for the film Interstellar below.]
Director Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar opens with a poignant pan across a bookshelf, showing heavy dust falling atop a toy NASA spaceshuttle, symbolic of the near-future world of the film, where climate change has wrought havoc and people have turned their backs on science. “It’s like we’ve forgotten who we are: explorers, pioneers; not caretakers,” pilot-turned-farmer protagonist Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) laments. “We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars. Now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.”
The film is far from perfect. For such a gifted visual storyteller, Nolan frustrates as he insists on joining the dots with unnecessarily clunky dialogue. For all the visual nods to Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Nolan refuses to follow Kubrick’s lead and let the cinematography or visual effects speak for themselves. And there’s something about a misunderstood heroic white man from Middle America saving the human race that looks all too familiar.
But Interstellar’s real value is as an exploration of memory, of hope, and of the power of dreaming of a better tomorrow for our kids.
Let’s take the none-too-subtly named Dr Mann (Matt Damon), for example. Continually referred to as the best, brightest, and bravest humanity has to offer, his improbable appearance in the latter half of the film is one of the first truly hopeful moments, only for that to come dramatically crashing down. The fall of Mann provokes a rather chilling conclusion: it’s not just what’s on the inside, but fundamentally human sociality that keeps us who we are, or at least the version of ourselves compatible with contemporary ethics and values. Staring into the abyss long enough and it’s not the abyss looking back: it’s the realisation that extreme solitude and loneliness breaks even the best of us.
The question of what happens in the final moment of life refracts through the film, and it’s how this moment unfurls for Cooper that shifts the meaning of the film.
One interpretation is, of course, literal: that enabled by future-science so far removed from our understanding it’s incomprehensible, Cooper is able to communicate across the barriers of time and space to his now grown daughter and send her the key to unlocking the secrets of the universe, and save all of humanity. And in an improbable footnote, he also somehow finds his way back to her.
Alternatively, if we can give Nolan’s science the benefit of the doubt long enough to get Cooper into the black hole, then that entire final sequence may just be the adrenalin induced final spark of human imagination before it ceases to be. For a film about the power of imagination, what more satisfying reading can there be than the idea that we get to experience futures where we resolve the differences we’ve had with our children, and along the way play a central role in saving everyone?
Science fiction author Arthur C Clarke once noted that “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”; the magic in Nolan’s film is not science, it’s the imagination.
One of the most heartbreaking early scenes comes as Cooper is chastised by schoolteachers because his daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy), refuses to accept their ‘updated’ textbooks which explain that the Apollo missions were faked, to trick the USSR into a fatally bankrupting space race. As someone who dreamt of going to the moon, and beyond, as a child, Nolan’s film feels like a total immersion in that exact youthful sense of wonder. A sense of wonder a new generation might just be sharing as they watch the Philae lander touch down on a comet hurtling through space.
Interstellar’s insistence on looking upward, to the stars, to the future, beyond the confines of what we concretely know: this makes the film more than worth your time.
In the final sequence, Cooper awakens in Cooper Station, and presumes it’s named after him. It’s not. It’s named after his daughter, Murphy Cooper. Murphy and Brand (Anne Hathaway), the daughters of the supposed great men, are the real heroes of the film. They make the scientific data work, and they save humanity; it’s their dreams which ensure our future. Or, at least, that’s the hope.
Routledge released my first book, Artificial Culture, in paperback today. While a paperback might not seem that big a deal, I’m actually quite excited. When Artificial Culture first came out, while I was delighted, I was also pretty embarrassed by the $140 price tag. I never really expected anyone but libraries would ever be able to afford it, and I treated my 5 author copies as if they were gold (all given away now, except one). I never had a book launch because I didn’t want anyone to feel obliged to try and buy the book.
I was actually quite relieved to discover that quite a few libraries (and maybe a few humans, too) actually bought a copy. Enough that Routledge have been willing to actually do a paperback run; this was helped immensely by Professor Veronica Hollinger’s kind review in which she asked:
I am seriously considering reading some of Artificial Culture with the students in my senior-year seminar on ‘Science Fiction and Technoculture’, and it would also be an appropriate text to include in graduate courses. Routledge, where’s my paperback?
The cover, I should add, is the same as the hardback, but the poster above is what I fancifully imagine cover art might have looked like if a bespoke design had been possible (I know it’s a bit silly; maybe that’s why I didn’t get to do cover art!).
If you’re interested, Axel Bruns did a great liveblog summary of the paper, and for the truly dedicated there is an mp3 audio copy of the talk. The paper itself is in the process of being written up and should be in full chapter form in a month or so; if you’d like to look over a full draft once it’s written up, just let me know.
Instead of blowing my own trumpet further, though, I’d rather talk about two recent open access developments that are far more interesting. The first is a truly outstanding collaboration by a group from the Association of Internet Researchers (and the Selfies Research Network on Facebook) who’ve created an open access, Creative Commons licensed, Selfies course. Each of the six weeks covers a particular perspective or area relating to selfies, with readings, provocations, suggested assignments and, of course, selfie activities. The breadth of ideas, and structured learning activities, make this a great course in its own right, but even more impressively it’s explicitly presented as material that can be used, explored, utilised and built on by other educators across a range of disciplines and levels. This sort of collaboration and sharing epitomises the very best of open access education, and it doesn’t hurt that the people behind it are some of the smartest thinkers about online culture around today.
So, kudos and well done to the talented group who’ve created this amazing resource, namely: Theresa Senft (New York University, USA); Jill Walker Rettberg (University of Bergen, Norway); Elizabeth Losh (University of California, San Diego, USA); Kath Albury (University of New South Wales, Australia); Radhika Gajjala (Bowling Green State University, USA); Gaby David (EHESS, France); Alice Marwick (Fordham University, USA); Crystal Abidin (University of Western Australia, Australia); Magda Olszanowski (Concordia University, Canada); Fatima Aziz (EHESS, France); Katie Warfield (Kwantien University College, Canada); and Negar Mottahedeh (Duke University, USA).
The digital spaces we encounter are increasingly stabilised and structured, organised through regulatory and commercial regimes, and populated by content and users whose lives began already networked in digital forms of production, distribution and consumption. This issue of M/C Journal seeks to explore the beginnings of these familiar and well-established, as well as emerging, contexts of digital cultures. By focussing on the beginnings, of life, of platforms, of technological encounters, of existence on social media, and so on, this issue aims to bring together scholarship around the infant and initial moments of technology use, and the processes, relations and forces that shape and are shaped by these beginnings. As digital culture becomes increasingly banal and thus less visible, studying digital beginnings may help to illuminate the varied forms of meaning, mediation, and materiality at play in configuring the familiar. Exploring beginnings may also serve to highlight paths not taken, as well as potential alternatives produced at such interstices.
Questions of beginnings feature within research traditions and theories of technology adoption, domestication and development, and so can be understood in reference to individuals and users, but also apply to the beginnings of social groups and movements, or the birth of applications, platforms, technologies or enterprises. Studying beginnings, therefore, raises questions about digital histories, trajectories and temporalities, and is open to empirical, methodological or theoretical enquiries.
By inviting contributions interested in exploring digital beginnings in this issue of M/C, possible topics to be addressed may include, but are not limited to:
The mediation of the unborn and newly born
New parents and social media platforms
Case studies or examples of infant media use
Newbs and noobs in gaming or online communities
The cultural implications of new forms of computational interfaces (e.g. the Internet of Things)
Myths of new beginnings and technological exceptionalism (e.g. 3D printing)
Early historical perspectives on digital media industries or events
Start-up spaces or cultures
Alternate beginnings (eg failed and forgotten inventions)
Prospective contributors should email an abstract of 100-250 words and a brief biography to the issue editors. Abstracts should include the article title and should describe your research question, approach, and argument. Biographies should be about three sentences (maximum 75 words) and should include your institutional affiliation and research interests. Articles should be 3000 words (plus bibliography). All articles will be refereed and must adhere to MLA style (6th edition).
The newly-released edited collection Locative Media by Rowan Wilken and Gerard Goggin features a chapter from Clare Lloyd and me looking at issues of privacy and transparency relating to the data generated, stored and analysed when using mobile and locative-based services. Here’s the abstract:
A person’s location is, by its very nature, ephemeral, continually changing and shifting. Locative media, by contrast, is created when a device encodes a users’ geographic location, and usually the exact time as well, translating this data into information that not only persists, but can be aggregated, searched, indexed, mapped, analysed and recalled in a variety of ways for a range of purposes However, while the utility of locative media for the purposes of tracking, advertising and profiling is obvious to many large corporations, these uses are far from transparent for many users of mobile media devices such as smartphones, tablets and satellite navigation tools. Moreover, when a new mobile media device is purchased, users are often overwhelmed with the sheer number of options, tools and apps at their disposal. Often, exploring the settings or privacy preferences of a new device in a sufficiently granular manner to even notice the various location-related options simply escapes many new users. Similarly, even those who deactivate geolocation tracking initially often unintentionally reactivate it, and leave it on, in order to use the full functionality of many apps. A significant challenge has thus arisen: how can users be made aware of the potential existence and persistence of their own locative media? This chapter examines a number of tools and approaches which are designed to inform everyday users of the uses, and potential abuses, or locative media; PleaseRobMe, I Can Stalk U, iPhone Tracker and the aptly named Creepy. These awareness-raising tools make visible the operation of certain elements of locative media, such as revealing the existence of geographic coordinates in cameraphone photographs, and making explicit possible misuses of a visible locative media trail. All four are designed as pedagogical tools, aiming to make users aware of the tools they are already using. In an era where locative media devices are easy to use but their ease occludes extremely complex data generation and potential tracking, this chapter argues that these tools are part of a significant step forward in developing public awareness of locative media, and related privacy issues.
The notion that a chimpanzee could win an Academy Award for acting (or anything else) seems farcical at first glance but, of course, it’s not an actual chimpanzee being discussed in the case of the latest role by Andy Serkis.
Rather, it’s an incredibly sophisticated amalgam of the actor and the very latest computational visualisation techniques from Weta Digital.
Serkis’ performance as Caesar, the leader of the fledgling ape society in the recently-released Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014) once again has Hollywood commentators pondering the possibility of an Oscar nod for a synthespian – a synthetic thespian or virtual actor – but this is far from the first time this question has been raised.
Andy Serkis has been behind some of the most memorable cinematic faces of the last decade, but it’s not quite his face. Rather, Serkis has held pioneering roles utilising performance capture technology.
Performance capture features the real-time recording and digitisation of an actor’s movements, which are then used to drive a complex digital model.
For many, the question of where the acting ends and the computer-generated imagery begins, undermines the authenticity of a performance captured role as a performance, but no performance exists in a vacuum. Every actor’s appearance is constructed through costume, make-up and lighting, their dialogue taken from a script, the eventual role on screen painstakingly led by a director, and carefully filtered and refined during the editing process.
Performance capture is similar in many ways, but with the additional digital processing to translate the motion and facial expressions of an actor onto an often non-human character.
In a brief promotional featurette, Serkis explains how the performance capture technology has developed, with scenes now able to be shot outdoors where once they had to be on a soundstage against a green screen.
Most significantly though, for Serkis, is the fidelity with which the performance capture cameras and software can directly map an actors’ face and performance onto the digital character they are playing.
And given that technology has always been part of acting, the authenticity of performance captured roles speaks to the symbiotic relationship between fleshy, embodied actors and the informatic machines that enhance and facilitate those performances.
The reality of performance capture, though, shows the opposite to be true: its takes a huge team to bring a single performance capture character to screen, with the actor remaining integral, filmed in excruciating detail, but also then combining software engineers, digital artists, and a range of other digital effects personnel to keep the best of the performance and use it to drive a state-of-the-art digital model.
Yet every director and crew who have worked with Serkis since his days as Gollum, as well as Serkis himself, have spent over a decade arguing for the legitimacy of performance capture as “real” acting.
In terms of literally performing animals, Serkis and the team playing the various apes in the film do a remarkable job in evoking empathy without sacrificing the specificities of chimpanzees and other apes.
Such questions are at the heart of Dawn, wherein the similarities between apes and humans drive the plot rather than intrinsic differences.
Andy Serkis’ role as Caesar is central to Dawn, and as numerous online features emphasise, this is his acting, and his performance. Whether this is the year that such a digital performance is captured by the Oscars or not remains to be seen.
Tama Leaver receives funding from the Australian Research Council (ARC).
While many studies explore the way that individuals represent themselves online, a less studied but equally important question is the way that individuals who cannot represent themselves are portrayed. This paper outlines an investigation into some of those individuals, exploring the ends of identity – birth and death – and the way the very young and deceased are portrayed via the popular mobile photo sharing app and platform Instagram. In order to explore visual representations of birth and death on Instagram, photos with four specific tags were tracked: #birth, #ultrasound, #funeral and #RIP. The data gathered included quantitative and qualitative material. On the quantitative front, metadata was aggregated about each photo posted for three months using the four target tags. This includes metadata such as the date taken, place taken, number of likes, number of comments, what tags were used, and what descriptions were given to the photographs. The quantitative data gives also gives an overall picture of the frequency and volume of the tags used. To give a more detailed understanding of the photos themselves, on one day of each month tracked, all of the photographs on Instagram using the four tags were downloaded and coded, giving a much clearer representative sampling of exactly how each tag is used, the sort of photos shared, and allowed a level of filtering. For example, the #ultrasound hashtag includes a range of images, not just prenatal ultrasounds, including both current images (taken and shared at that moment), historical images, collages, and even ultrasound humour (for example, prenatal ultrasound images with including a photoshopped inclusion of a cash, or a cigarette, joking about the what the future might hold). This paper will outline the methods developed for tracking Instagram photos via tags, it will then present a quantitative overview of the uses and frequency of the four hashtags tracked, give a qualitative overview of the #ultrasound and #RIP tags, and conclude with some general extrapolations about the way that birth and death are visually represented online in the era of mobile media.
I’m pleased to announced that the special themed issue of Digital Culture and Education on Facebook in Education, edited by Mike Kent and I, has been released. The issue features an introductory article by Mike and I, ‘Facebook in Education: Lessons Learnt’ in which we may have some opinions about whether the hype around MOOCs and disruptive online education ignores the very long history of learning online (hint: it does). As something of a corrective to that hype, this issue explores different aspects of the complicated relationship between Facebook as a platform and learning and teaching in higher education.