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While wandering/wondering around the Indiana Memorial Union I passed the student organization kiosk on the mezzanine level and was persuaded to sign up to make a movie with ‘campusmoviefest’. This was a film competition in which all of its participants had one week to shoot a film with a Panasonic video camera, a tripod, and a MacBook Pro 13″. The use of these materials was optional, and the theme/content/genre of film was left up to the discretion of the filmmaker. All of the people who assisted in the production of the film had to be students (actors or musicians did not need to be students). I spent the first two days not working on the video, but thinking about it nonetheless…
Strategy of Analysis
By recognizing the various levels of analysis at work I hope to tease apart the elements doing the work ‘on-stage’ and ‘behind-the-scenes’. I’ll start by talking about how a surface level account of the films content and formal elements are viewed through a Marxist account of visual culture. This will look at how the story itself tells of the interaction between two strangers who represent different aspects of proletariat and bourgeois class ideology. The next level of analysis should involve something of my own personal history leading up to the films creation, my imagined audience, the film festival audience, the geographical location of the films creation/screening/post-internet-embedding, while not forgetting the economic/professional incentive provided by the film festival organizers at ‘campusmoviefest.com’. Lastly, I would like to be able to talk about how the films content and formal elements interact with and inform, reinforce, or undermine the values present in the films more immediate context. That is, how the film aligns with or contradicts my own values, the values of the audience, the values of campusmoviefest.com, or the values implicit in the materiality surrounding the creation process, the viewing process, and the film itself.
The Film Itself
This is purely from the hip, seeing where it goes kind of stuff. You have been warned.
So, I’ve been a little obsessed with the camera market lately, and although I am usually against this sort of thing, I’ve started reading/watching reviews and commentary about the recent release. A shocking amount of the rhetoric involved seems to be a bit like this:
Now, I have no desire to engage in a debate about which brand is better; what I am interested in is the line of thinking that leads to this type of debate. Put simply – there is a built-in assumption that it is important to have “the best camera,” and that this is reflective of “the best photographer.” This is partially technological determinism, and more specifically a subset that, for lack of a better term, I would call technological fetishism. I’ll focus on the former mostly, because in this case it is more appropriate to a Marxist interpretations, but will try to tease out the latter as a special case afterward.
One of the most notable features of both of these cameras is that they both his around the $3,000 point. This seems to denote a level of importance that requires discourse – if someone is to put down that much money, it should be warranted by a certain amount of value. Correlated with that price is a notion of “professional” – both are listed as professional cameras. Partly, this is an aspect of the denotation of professional – one who gets paid for something. If one gets paid for something, that offsets the expense. If the ROI crunches in the black, then the investment is justified. However, the connotation of the term “professional” is someone who is proficient at something to the extent that they deserve money. Therefor, there is a tie between money and aptitude – this shouldn’t be tremendously surprising. What is more interesting, and where technological determinism comes in, is the association that having a professional camera will make someone a professional, and therefor
will somehow increase aptitude. Add to this an aspect of scarcity (due to the speed of production) and suddenly the camera not only increases proficiency, but also makes the owners part of an exclusive group whose proficiency has been increased in this way. Now, this is not to take away from any of the features that a camera has and how those may be valuable in certain circumstances, but a large amount of the rhetoric seems to be based around generalizations that are rooted in the social-technical-economical mentality described above.
Now is when I will request that the audience dawn their foil hats. Technological fetishism (again, poorly thought out wording) would be the move from it merely being a mistaken removal of agency to something that actually manifests as a self-fulfilling prophecy. This seems easiest to detail in a creative sphere, although it could be argued in other situations as well. If we are to accept the idea that art is somehow related to emotion (I concede this in some circumstances, but do not exclude non-emotional content from art) then confidence would play a role in that form of expression. If one were to take the technologically deterministic perspective that the camera does make them a professional, then by having it they would be granted the confidence of a professional. When it comes to societal reception of their work, the audience may look at it differently knowing their ownership of professional equipment. If the artifact itself is abstracted away, then the work conceptually is improved. Now, there are numerous counter-examples to this – people who buy an expensive camera and continue to take crumby pictures (I am not too ashamed to say that I fall into this trap), but there is definitely a mental and emotional state brought on by new technology, and it can have an effect on output. What’s more, while I feel like the other theories account for aspects of this, none of them covers it holistically.
I’m still not certain that this is a distinct flavor of technological determinism or even just propaganda to sell cameras, but it seems like there is something there, albeit ill-defined at this point. As an addendum, this seems to be part of the divide on perception of the pen tool (which I will admit to over-criticizing, along with Adobe). However, I would point to the kind of mentality described above being an aspect of the divide on that tool – a $500 professional design program that many who do not have it would believe could produce a better designer. The divide on the pen tool (which comes from my observations when hiring a graphic designer) stems from the same technological determinism that states that a better camera will produce better photos. Again, what’s interesting is that the tool’s capabilities are built into a professional program, and that those capabilities are then tied to be a professional – meaning that some people may learn to use them to reach a goal, but that others may learn them to increase their professional tool-set, and then define goals off of that set. This again brushes with Marxism in that the professional needs an edge over the amateur (think proletariate and bourgeois fashion) and so Adobe continues to add more features to, extending the analogy, stay one step ahead of the Joneses.
Really rough, but if you read this and feel your time was wasted, watch this and all will be better:
“Marx is trying to possibility of understanding artistic production to specific historical conditions existing in specific capitalist societies. Understanding is depending upon economic or class position. “
I really like the example used in Barnard’s book “Visual Culture”. It said,
The production and consumption of printed and plain cotton textiles in eighteenth century England, for example, is understood in terms of industrial processes, economic class and social status. In the eighteenth century, printed cottons were popular with middle- and upper-class women. They were relatively expensive, owing to the production methods used, and seen as fashionable and affordable by these high-status women. With the expansion, and mechanization, of the Lancashire cotton industry, printed cotton became cheaper and more easily affordable to working-class women. As a consequence, the middle- and upper-class women started wearing plainer, more expensive cotton dresses, in order to distinguish themselves from their inferiors.
As Marx says,
it is not the consciousness of men that determines their existence, but their social existence that determines their consciousness.
Think about this in HCI field. Social position of men allows them to appreciate products based on their economic status. Designers need to think about the user’s economic affordability based on their class position. People from different classes definitely have different needs.
Hippo Water Rollers Project is about “to improve access to clean water for rural and impoverished households by means of appropriate technologies including the Hippo Water Roller, consequently improving their quality of life and economic prospects.” THE HIPPO WATER ROLLER, is a barrel-shaped container which holds 90 liters / 24 gallons of water and rolls along the ground, with a handle attached to the axis of the barrel. In this design, the hippo water roller is exact need for African people who have low access to clean water. If we think about designing a water faucet, it is a completely wrong choice.
And also another example is in Hong Kong with high-pressure in home-space. For people in lower class they have very tight budget on buying house, and usually they own tiny apartment with small space. So the following video shows how designer transforms a tiny apartment into 24 rooms. I believe this design only fit such social situation, not in large house.
In January, Roger Fidler, Program Director of the University of Missouri Journalism school wrote about tablets and how they fit into the mediascape. The tweets and buzz around his post asked “will tablets save journalism?” That was all the commentary I saw was saying something like this. Why did he get so much buzz? Because in 1994 he “predicted the tablet.” But you and I know Mark Weiser did that much earlier.
All that being said, journalism isn’t broke. Neither is news. The business models are but news is still happening every day and it is still being reported. When Twitter was adopted en mass, journalists asked the same thing “will this save our industry?” The next shiny thing will come along and they will ask…”will this save our industry?”
I made commentary on the general commentary and huge praise for tablets. I said:
@Adam Levy I’m struggling with the idea that E-readers are the only possible option. If we think from user’s perspective, how many people are running out to buy, yet another, device to carry around with them? And that’s not even considering the monetary cost of buying an e-reader device. Which brings me to my point about the digital divide.
Sure, there are the people who can afford to buy an e-reader, those people likely have smart phones. I’d be curious to know how many people who take a phone, charger, laptop, camera (maybe), wallet and their lunch to work also want to lug an e-reader around with them.
Then, what is the news solution for people who cannot afford an e-reader? Sure, news is online, it’s free. I think that’s excellent. It works for me. I think we, journalists, designers, need to have some conversation about readers without mobile devices, without internet connections at home (or at least fast ones). Yes, we are designing for the future, but people with low-incomes will exist in the future, too.
I am not arguing that we need to fire up more printing presses for those without internet connections. Because those people, likely, are not buying the newspaper too (because of cost, not interest). So, let’s remember to also design for the future of news on the other side of the digital divide. If we don’t, I predict we’ll see an educated bourgeoisie and a proletariat without access to news.
Coming back to my point: I have a smart phone, it costs a lot of money, it let’s me read the news without having to buy anything more.
Just playing devil’s advocate…
I want to revisit the argument I think I was trying to make with some help from Marx and Barnard.
“Art criticism, journalism and social commentary are not the sorts of institutions that are found in formalist, or expressionist accounts of art and design, for example, and it must be a strength of Marxist and social history approaches that new institutions and personnel are admitted to the account. The problem with most device centric options versus news print is a class problem, but class has not yet been considered in the conversations I see in blogs, at conferences and even over tweet.
Marx identifies ‘the economic foundation’, the base.
He also identifies ‘a legal and political superstructure..to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness’ This superstructure consists in various institutions, ‘legal, political, religious, artistic or philosophic and it is based upon the conditions of production.”
The conditions of productions for tablet news apps made for for news companies are produced under difficult conditions. Employees are under pressure to produce something that will bring revenue to the company, attract readers and ultimately, save their own jobs in a struggling industry and economy. An HCI critic would see the opportunity for an interaction designer and human-centered work. But it seems the designer, under such constraints, is not given the opportunity to think about their users due to the constraints of the superstructure.
In addition, news interaction designers don’t seem to be conscious of classes outside of themselves. “…in ideology that the conflict of class interest is brought to consciousness and fought out.” For designers, who sit in front of their expensive computers, with smart phones, iPads and many gizmos and gadgets, there is little sign of the consciousness even being brought out to fight about.
While print newspapers have almost always cost some kind of money, the only barrier was cost. However, an app that costs $2.99 also includes the barrier cost of the device and the service. If all news becomes digital, how can people, who live offline, be educated about civic affairs? If they do not have an opportunity to be well educated about local, national and global politics, how can they be informed voters? If they cannot be informed voters, how can they know if their leaders are exploiting them?
Then, I think Marx said it was time for a revolution.