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Tag: digital media

Drones, not droning on

Late last year I was in Hong Kong to establish our school’s media program at the City University College, and while there I gave an interview to The Standard, which is Hong Kong’s widest circulation English daily newspaper. Here is a reprint of the piece by Kelis Wong.

At first glance, communication studies and drones seem like an unlikely pairing. If the study of how human produces, processes and exchanges information is a subject in the social sciences, then learning how to operate a flying robot will be a matter of engineering.

But think about the purpose of a drone. Apart from the sheer pleasure of controlling an aerial vehicle, a commercial drone performs the function of gathering visual information in the form of pictures and videos for other people to consume.

That’s why Teodor Mitew, senior lecturer in digital media and communication at the University of Wollongong in Australia, kickstarted last year in his classes a technology exploration project called PlayMake Sessions.

“Any technology which allows digitalization, which allows the translation of materials into digital is an object of study for us,” said Mitew.

Every week, Mitew presents to a group of media and communication majors a trolley filled with quadcopters, mini cube action cameras, virtual reality headsets, gesture control devices, computer circuit boards and 3D printers.

One goal of the sessions is to encourage undergraduate students to play with the gadgets, and come up with a novel use for them in their digital lives.

A project, which originated from these sessions, created a digital archive of the university library, translating still images into virtual reality.

In another student project, some first year students started an open page on Facebook, called UOW Admirers, which posts love notes sent in anonymously. One year on, the page is still active, and has become a well-known matchmaking site on campus.

“The process of random experimentation without a goal is very important,” said Mitew. “That’s how students discover the affordance of a medium. So it’s not about me telling them do this and that, it’s about me telling them take the drone and see what happens.”

In the new school year, the University of Wollongong has introduced Mitew’s exploration project to a group of students enrolled in a top-up degree program taught at the community college of the City University of Hong Kong.

The students who take Mitew’s class are asked to engage in classroom activities which some people might find unconventional. A part of the course requires the students to get active on Reddit, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress.

The students also have to write short essays in an exercise which Mitew calls digital artefact. Here are things that the students have to hand in every week: one blog post, three tweets and three online comments.

“You can also make podcasts and memes. I love memes,” said Mitew in his first lecture.

Under the guise of juvenile fun, Mitew explained that his students are acquiring the cognitive skill sets which prepare them for a paradigm shift toward an information economy in which everyone can produce their own digital content from anywhere.

The paradigm shift will affect aspiring media professionals as they will face great career challenges in the proliferation stage of digitization.

“If you are in the legacy media industry, be it news, book publishing, or music and film, this is a terrible challenge because digitization entirely destroys your business model. You cannot charge for your content like you used to do,” said Mitew.

“Look at the content produced today in newspapers, then look at the online content produced by so-called amateurs. A lot of that stuff online are more professionally done, aesthetically more pleasing, and of much better quality.”

“This dichotomy will only increase in size as the pressure on legacy media increases, and as more and more people join the internet to the realization of everyone being a content producer.”

But producing interesting content is a big challenge. Some students will struggle with the task as they are confined by the reality, their educational experiences and the environment, said Mitew.

So, creating materials that others will find amusing is the ultimate goal. Writing on a deadline, writing different copies, making do on the go, and self- directed learning are also the abilities that Mitew expects his students to master.

And by making, aggregating and curating content in the online public sphere, students demonstrate their competencies in these aspects.

“I don’t teach technology. It’s more important to teach students how not to be afraid of technology,” said Mitew.

“We try to prepare our students for a radically different reality, giving them the opportunity to work on a self chosen project in public.”

The power of networks: distributed journalism, meme warfare, and collective intelligence

These are the slides for what was perhaps my favorite lecture so far in BCM112. The lecture has three distinct parts, presented by myself and my PhD students Doug Simkin and Travis Wall. I opened by building on the previous lecture which focused on the dynamics of networked participation, and expanded on the shift from passive consumption to produsage. The modalities of this shift are elegantly illustrated by the event-frame-story structure I developed to formalize the process of news production [it applies to any content production]. The event stage is where the original footage appears – it often is user generated, raw, messy, and with indeterminate context. The frame stage provides the filter for interpreting the raw data. The story stage is what is produced after the frame has done its work. In the legacy media paradigm the event and frame stages are closed to everyone except the authority figures responsible for story production – governments, institutions, journalists, academics, intellectuals, corporate content producers. This generates an environment where authority is dominant, and authenticity is whatever authority decides – the audience is passive and in a state of pure consumption. In the distributed media paradigm the entire process is open and can be entered by anyone at any point – event, frame, or story. This generates an environment where multiple event versions, frames, and stories compete for produser attention on an equal footing.

These dynamics have profound effects on information as a tool for persuasion and frame shifting, or in other words – propaganda. In legacy media propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm: high cost of entry, high cost of failure, minimum experimentation, inherent quality filter, limited competition, cartelization with limited variation, and an inevitable stagnation.

In distributed media propaganda is memes. Here too propaganda is a function of the dynamics of the paradigm, but those are characterized by collective intelligence as the default form of participation in distributed networks. In this configuration users act as a self-coordinating swarm towards an emergent aggregate goal. The swarm has an orders of magnitude faster production time than the legacy media. This results in orders of magnitude faster feedback loops and information dissemination.

The next part of the lecture, delivered by Doug Simkin, focused on a case study of the /SG/ threads on 4chan’s /pol/ board as an illustration of an emergent distributed swarm in action. This is an excellent case study as it focuses on real-world change produced with astonishing speed in a fully distributed manner.

The final part of the lecture, delivered by Travis Wall, focused on a case study of the #draftourdaughters memetic warfare campaign, which occurred on 4chan’s /pol/ board in the days preceding the 2016 US presidential election. This case study is a potent illustration of the ability of networked swarms to leverage fast feedback loops, rapid prototyping, error discovery, and distributed coordination in highly scalable content production.

Trajectories of convergence I: user empowerment, information access, and networked participation

These are slides from a lecture I delivered in the fifth week of BCM112, building on open-process arguments conceptualized in a lecture on the logic and aesthetics of digital production. My particular focus in this lecture was on examining the main dynamics of the audience trajectory in the process of convergence. I develop the conceptual frame around Richard Sennet’s notion of dialogic media as ontologically distinct from monologic media, where the latter render a passive audience as listeners and consumers, while the former render conversational participants. I then build on this with Axel Bruns’ ideas on produsage [a better term than prosumer], and specifically his identification of thew new modalities of media in this configuration: a distributed generation of content, fluid movement of produsers between roles, digital artefacts remaining open and in a state of indeterminacy, and permissive ownership regimes enabling continuous collaboration. The key conceptual element here is that the entire chain of the process of production, aggregation, and curation of content is open to modification, and can be entered at any point.

The Medium is the Message I: trajectories of convergence

These are the prezi slides for my opening lecture in BCM112 Convergent Media Practices [live twitter #bcm112 hashtag]. The lecture is an introduction to the state of play in digital media, and specifically the open-ended process of media convergence as mapped by Henry Jenkins. I use McLuhan’s work as a basic frame of reference through which to analyze the process, while focusing on the three distinct trajectories of audiences, industries, and platforms. It is a dual-layered analysis, where the interplay between the three trajectories drives the dynamics of the process, and changes in media platforms act as phase transitions shifting the process on another plane. I am illustrating this dynamic with a number of examples, ranging from papyrus to codex and hypertext, to the shift from newspaper to radio, and of course – the internet.

A conversation about the Internet of Things

This is a conversation on the Internet of Things I recorded with my colleague Chris Moore as part of his podcasted lecture series on cyberculture. As interviews go this is quite organic, without a set script of questions and answers, hence the rambling style and side-stories. Among others, I discuss: the Amazon Echo [Alexa], enchanted objects, Mark Weiser and ubiquitous computing, smart clothes, surveillance, AI, technology-induced shifts in perception, speculative futurism, and paradigm shifts.

Object Hierophanies and the Mode of Anticipation

As I posted earlier, I am participating in a panel on data natures at the International Symposium on Electronic Art [ISEA] in Hong Kong. My paper is titled Object Hierophanies and the Mode of Anticipation, and discusses the transition of bid data-driven IoT objects such as the Amazon Echo to a mode of operation where they appear as a hierophany – after Mircea Eliade – of a higher modality of being, and render the loci in which they exist into a mode of anticipation.

I start with a brief section on the logistics of the IoT, focusing on the fact that it involves physical objects monitoring their immediate environments through a variety of sensors, transmitting the acquired data to remote networks, and initiating actions based on embedded algorithms and feedback loops. The context data produced in the process is by definition transmitted to and indexed in a remote database, from the perspective of which the contextual data is the object.

The Amazon Echo continuously listens to all sounds in its surroundings, and reacts to the wake word Alexa. It interacts with its interlocutors through a female sounding interface called the Alexa Voice Service [AVS], which Amazon made available to third-party hardware makers. What is more, the core algorithms of AVS, known as the Alexa Skills Kit [ASK] are opened to developers too, making it easy for anyone to teach Alexa a new ‘skill’. The key dynamic in my talk is the fact that human and non-human agencies, translated by the Amazon Echo as data, are transported to the transcendental realm of the Amazon Web Services [AWS] where it is modulated, stored for future reference, and returned as an answering Echo. In effect, the nature of an IoT enabled object appears as the receptacle of an exterior force that differentiates it from its milieu and gives it meaning and value in unpredictable ways.

Objects such as the Echo acquire their value, and in so doing become real for their interlocutors, only insofar as they participate in one way or another in remote data realities transcending the locale of the object. Insofar as the data gleaned by such devices has predictive potential when viewed in aggregate, the enactment of this potential in a local setting is always already a singular act of manifestation of a transcendental data nature with an overriding level of agency.

In his work on non-modern notions of sacred space philosopher of religion Mircea Eliade conceptualized this act of manifestation of another modality of being into a local setting as a hierophany. Hierophanies are not continuous, but wholly singular acts of presence by a different modality. By manifesting that modality, which Eliade termed as the sacred, an object becomes the receptacle for a transcendental presence, yet simultaneously continues to remain inextricably entangled in its surrounding milieu. I argue that there is a strange similarity between non-modern imaginaries of hierophany as a gateway to the sacred, and IoT enabled objects transducing loci into liminal and opaque data taxonomies looping back as a black-boxed echo. The Echo, through the voice of Alexa, is in effect the hierophanic articulator of a wholly non-human modality of being.

Recently, Sally Applin and Michael Fischer have argued that when aggregated within a particular material setting sociable objects form what is in effect an anticipatory materiality acting as a host to human interlocutors. The material setting becomes anticipatory because of the implied sociability of its component objects, allowing them to not only exchange data about their human interlocutor, but also draw on remote data resources, and then actuate based on the parameters of that aggregate social memory.

In effect, humans and non-humans alike are rendered within a flat ontology of anticipation, waiting for the Echo.

Here is the video of my presentation:

And here are the prezi slides:

On craft, digital making, glitch, and hyper kawaii

This is a lecture I thoroughly enjoyed preparing, and had great fun delivering to my first year digital media class of 200 students. The prezi slides are below. My intention was to provoke students into thinking in interesting and weird ways about remediation across media platforms, about object animation through digital means, and about the new aesthetics of the glitch and hyper kawaii. I ended up being more successful than I expected, in that the lecture provoked extreme reactions oscillating from strong rejection of the very premises to enthusiastic exploration of the implications and pathways opened by them. I start with a quick overview of the changing meaning of craft in a time of digital mediation, then move on to the aesthetics of remediation between analog and digital forms, and object animation and its effect on experiences of the material.

Julie Watai -
Julie Watai

I constructed the main argument around the transition from industrial culture in which production is determined by the logic of the assembly line, to a post-industrial culture in which production is determined by the logic of mass customization. Arguably, the latter is characterized by rapid prototyping, experimentation, iterative error discovery, and modifications leading to unexpected outcomes. I illustrate this with a beautiful quote by David Pye, from his The Nature and Art of Workmanship, where he argues that while industrial manufacturing is characterized by the production of certainty, craftsmanship is always the production of risk because the quality of the result is an unknown during the process of making.

xMinks at work
xMinks at work

My favorite part of the lecture is where I managed to integrate into a single narrative phenomena such as glitch aesthetics and hyper kawaii, exemplified by Julie Watai and xMinks, with a cameo by Microsoft’s ill-fated Tay AI bot.

The image I used as canvas for the prezi is a remediation of the Amen Break 6-second loop into a 3-d printed sound wave, crafted by a student of mine last year.

On mapping: from actual facts to factual acts

Some time ago I was invited to give a lecture on mapping to a crowd of mostly first year digital media students working on locative media projects. Below are the prezi slides. Considering the audience, I made a light theory introduction focusing on the notions or representation and the factual, and then moved to discussing various examples of maps as interfaces to movement and agency. My talk was mostly a simplified version of my paper on mapping theory, with a focus on the dynamics of translation and transportation of immutable mobiles – a fundamental concept in actor network theory. In essence, the lecture is built around a dichotomy between two concepts of mapping: 1] mapping as a representation of a static frame of reference – an actual fact, and 2] mapping as a translation of and an interface to agency and movement – a factual act. The tension between actual facts and factual acts is a nerdy reference to Latour’s from matters of fact to matters of concern, and is intended to illustrate the affordances of digital media in opening and mapping black-boxed settings. Apparently, the lecture was a success, with the Sand Andreas Streaming Deer Cam being a crowd favorite.

Technology Enhanced Learning

This is my prezi from two back-to-back seminars I gave yesterday on the tech-enhanced learning philosophy behind the digital media and communications [DIGC] stream which I convene at UOW. The key message I tried to transmit is that you can only achieve the multiplier effect from social media if they are integrated within the subject and across the program – that is vertically and horizontally. I managed to achieve that in the DIGC stream, and we are on our way in fully achieving it in the Bachelor of Communication and Media degree. Interestingly enough, a common response to these ideas has been that – ‘you guys are very far ahead’ – which is definitely not the case. If anything we are trying to keep up with the rapid changes overtaking the education sector. I am afraid however that too many academics are firmly stuck in thinking of digital technology as a set of tools for fixing failures in assessment design and pedagogic philosophy [that is if there is any]. A typical thinking paradigm here is – students are not attending lectures, so what internet tool can I use to make them do it… I am afraid this pedagogic philosophy will be becoming more and more a luxury.