Digital is the New Normal; Visual is the New Text.

Deep Social

The most prevalent conversation at November’s Web Summit focused on the next phase of Social Media.  In all accounts and tellings,  it appears that we are moving away from the useless pursuit of more likes and followers towards smaller private networks. This, it is envisaged, will allow for a tightening of algorithms, an increase in Adblocking, and a filtering out of an enormous amount of bad advertising as we retreat to our private networks.  In doing so, we move away from Baudrillard‘s exaltation of images, to narrowing our view and exalting only those images we have pre-specified. With Adblocking  it is now possible to protect ourselves from the “tyranny of the image”, the visual equivalent of Philip K Dick’s papula, at least in the realm of online advertising.

The algorithms and filters will be so tightened that one will see less and less irrelevant advertising until we are looking at only the content we believe to be relevant to us, a move from a marketing mindset to a publisher mindest. The realisation that we are overwhelmed by too much data seems to have finally struck home and the retreat into smaller more private networks will allow for more relevant connections in the realm of what has come to be referred to as Deep Social.  By specifying content, it will be more possible for advertisers to excite and reach people with exactly the type of brands and images in which they are interested. The precision that this affords creates a new form of branding demographics – so that rather than looking broadly at the 25- 40 year old group, one may target a group that is interested in specific products, for example, those who profess an interest in hockey and literature, or perhaps cooking and skiing. Such a group would be tracked and targeted across all age ranges. As viewers, we are becoming more empowered to choose exactly on what we direct our gaze. This new level of sophistication is predicted to extend beyond the realm of advertising,  empowering viewers to shape and hone their exposure to images across all instances of visual content.

An Immense Phantom Concourse.

Visual communication was the earliest medium of expression with paintings on cave walls and hieroglyphics ranking among the first expressions. As time progressed, communication became more text driven,  Drucker identifies the “Judeo-Christian traditions that cast a pejorative judgment on all sensual aspects of experience” as one of the reasons for the dominance of text in more recent centuries.  Perhaps now is again the time for the ascendance of the visual. It certainly seems a possibility when considering the dominance of images over text on digital media.   In a community of  400 Million, 80 million photos per day are posted to Instagram, a Google search of mainstream newspapers such as  The Wall Street Journal and The Guardian indicates the extent to which photography is now leading journalism. Today it seems that instead of the journalists searching for images to accompany a story, it is the visuals themselves that drive the narrative.

Outside the realm of professional journalism, the rise of citizen journalism and the participatory nature of new media results in newsfeeds populated by users youtube videos. User generated content ranks high across many platforms, the general public’s digital photos are often posted as central components of reporting however unchecked for bias and truth they may transpire to be. Add to this the sensationalist clickbait images now prevalent in the social media feeds of many newspapers, and it becomes obvious that we are moving increasingly further away from the nuance or context provided by text.

Another trend away from the traditional, in both digital news reporting and in advertising, is the use of gifs. These animated images are appearing more and more frequently, sequencing the narrative  in visual format. Even without the use of gifs, we still witness the use of sequential photos.  Increasingly stories and adverts are appearing with more than one photo in order to develop the narrative visually. This demands that we learn a new language, understanding and interpreting a narrative through imaging sequencing. It seems very probable that the visual is indeed in the ascendant, but what are the dangers of allowing it to replace text?

The most immediate danger of “visual as the new text” centres on our natural instinct to believe that images and photographs are describing the world realistically. Without contextualising the image with text or with the addition of an accurate and descriptive caption, the viewer can be easily misled.  Add to this the growth of digital manipulation and the doctoring of images and there lies the potential for serious misuse.

Death in the Browser Tab.

9C2A173A-8C04-4834-A84F-87890E001D59.png“Falling Soldier,” from the Spanish Civil War  Credit Robert Capa/Magnum Photo, the veracity of this image is now contested.

Images alone are not enough to even approximate an accurate representation of reality, especially given the new technological tools of manipulation. As we look back over visual communication in the last century we realise that image manipulation also took place in the days before Photoshop.  One example is ‘Falling Soldier’ Robert Capra’s celebrated photo from the Spanish Civil War, which has  been dismissed as a fake.  “Art is always manipulation, from the moment you point a camera in one direction and not another,” Ángeles González-Sinde, Spanish cultural minister has commented on visiting the Robert Capra exposition last month.

While photographic images of death like those from the Spanish Civil War have been in the public domain in the last century, these are now easily accessed online, even mainstream news stations provide links to the police shootings of citizens and describe terrorist videos of beheadings, with barely a trigger warning.
In response to this proliferation, I particularly value the musings of  Teju Cole.   One of my favourite authors, he is also an incredibly talented photographer and essayist, he is a true Renaissance Man. Cole also writes as photography critic for the New York Times. It was here I read his newspaper piece  Death in the Browser Tab.   I returned to this piece on reading of the of the release of the dash-cam footage of Laquan McDonald’s death (I have chosen not to provide a link to the footage.)
Cole writes “A video introduces new elements into the event it records. It can turn a private grief into a public spectacle, set popular opinion at odds with expert analysis.” The power of this medium to communicate death has not been fully weighed up, in part because it is still in fledgling state.
 “The videographic afterimage of a real event is always peculiar. When the event is a homicide, it can cross over into the uncanny: the sudden, unjust and irrevocable end of the long story of what one person was, whom he loved, all she hoped, all he achieved, all she didn’t, becomes available for viewing and reviewing.”
Cole describes how the peculiarities of such videos the “combination of a passive affect and the subjective gaze, irregular lighting and poor sound, the amateur videographer’s unsteady grip and off-camera swearing.”  is a necessarily incomplete version of the story, because the video or the image mediates the event of death.  We can exit the browser; sometimes images are are too much and also not enough.

References:

Baudrillard Simulcra and Simulation

Philip K Dick

Adblocking

More Adblocking and move from marketing to publishing mindset.

Johanna Drucker

Whitman on photography: An Immense Phantom Concourse

Instagram Blog

Teju Cole

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What’s in a Name?

What’s in a Name?: A Response to Blog Themes

Deadlines! November 04 was the date for our first blog post, indeed for our first piece of submitted work in the DHC year.  As a class we had created a Facebook group, during the day classmates posted the URL of their blogs.   It is outside the periphery of this blog post to respond fully to such a vast array of interesting discussions;  instead I will need to limit myself to exploring a theme that both Nora and Annie addressed in their posts: defining the field.  At the evolution or outset of a new movement the struggle to name and establish principles and parameters is one of the overriding concerns of the birthing process.  The definition it accepts or accords itself has a huge bearing  on how it is perceived and the tasks with which it occupies itself.

Defining Digital Humanities
Defining Digital Humanities

The struggle for definition.

I recognised Nora’s struggle to explain to friends exactly what the Digital Humanities module of her PhD constituted. My reading on this particular anxiety had centred around the work of Liu, Panapaker and Svensson  – the texts assigned for our first DHC class.  The various viewpoints mentioned in the articles ranged from the view of DH as outré and a danger to the humanities to casting DH as the saviour of the humanities, a transformational discipline.
I believe a definition should include a nod to how the discipline can contribute to reducing the inequalities in society and how the splicing together  of Technology and the Humanities can enhance that contribution.  An article in Friday’s Guardian bemoans the lack of awareness around this issue by many of the proponents of the digital at the WebSummit.  Although I concede that some of the points are fair, I feel it fails to acknowledge efforts of some developers at the summit.  I sat mainly at the content stage where a number of the speakers did emphasise the relevance and importance of technologies to the underrepresented.  Of particular relevance is Blippar founder Ambarish Mitra who, quoting the figures that 1/7 of the world can’t even read and write and 2/7 have only basic literacy, contends that the next mass communication movement will be the visual and sees Blippar and Augmented Reality as going some way towards reforming the education system for those who cannot read.  If DH is to be understood as a democratising force then we must make every effort address underrepresentation.

Crowdsourcing is dead-Long live Citizen Humanities!

Annie tackled the issue of Crowdsourcing, another area that struggles with its definition. Annie offered a critique of the definitions posited by Merriam-Webster and by Stuart Dunn.  To this I’d like to add Simon Tanner, who in his blog takes issue with the roots of the definition, he advocates a move away from the task centred definitions offered by Howe and others and posits a desire to kill the ‘NeoLibralistic’  roots of the definition of crowdsourcing. He proclaims “Crowdsourcing is dead -Long live Citizen Humanities”
There certainly is a concerted effort to change the name by which the movement is commonly known. Jeff Howe’s Wired article of 2006 is often creditied with coining the neologism, however even he tries to disown it! On crowdsourcing.org Howe claims to have hated the word from the start, claiming it was just a working title and “It was so pandering, so typical of Silicon Valley.” In any case the general consensus amongst the community is that the definition is no longer relevant.
In true collaborative form the speakers and organisers of the Citizen Humanities Comes of Age Conference posted a collective message:  “The models of participation discussed at the symposium could not be further removed from the notion or the application of the term famously coined by Jeff Howe in 2006…. ..‘citizen humanities’, like ‘citizen science’ has connotations of investment, participation and belonging – or rather choosing to belong.”
The very process of citizen humanities or crowdsourcing can be hugely beneficial,  especially when it comes to the cultural heritage sector.  Surely one of the benefits of cultural heritage crowdsourcing is in getting people to access the archives, the stacks or the artefacts; essentially to engage with the collection while tagging, digitising or enhancing it.  This point is elucidated by Trevor Owens “Transcripts and other data are great, but when done right, crowdsourcing projects are the best way of accomplishing the entire point of putting collections online.” Rather than just consuming, there is a process of enhancement and engagement.
 So why do the negative associations persist with the changing of the name? Despite the insistence by proponents  that they are a world away from outsourced labour and exploitation it cannot be denied that digital innovation does create new forms of inequality, as Astra Taylor puts it “we are witnessing not levelling of the cultural playing field, but a rearrangement with new winners and losers”.
IMG_2390
The Internet reflects real-world inequalities as much as it reduces them. Cultural products are primarily valued as opportunities for data collection, while creators receive little or no compensation for their efforts.

The Ghosts in the Digital Machine

As an example,  let’s look at Amazon’s  Mechanical Turk (MTurk). This crowdsourcing tool, sometimes offering payment,  was amongst the tools discussed in our crowdsourcing lecture – we picked the words from an image map in the lecturer’s slides.  A definition from Wikipedia is perhaps appropriate, given the topic at hand: “(MTurk) is a crowdsourcing Internet marketplace that enables individuals and businesses…. to coordinate the use of human intelligence to perform tasks that computers are currently unable to do” MTurk as a crowdsourcing tool warrants a closer look;  lets examine  a recent media article  from the LA Times :

It transpires that companies hiring workers through MTurk can “reject any work without explanation. And if they reject any part of a project, they’re allowed to keep all the remaining, completed work …” A response to the blind spots around the exploitation of crowds comes from Lilly Irani, an assistant professor in communication at UC San Diego in the form of  Dynamo:

” regarding labor rights for digital workers ..she collaborated with colleagues at Stanford on a project called Dynamo, an anonymous forum launched in late 2014 where workers can propose, discuss and vote on specific collective labor actions.“Dynamo is more like a virtual union hall, a worker-only safe space where workers can post ideas about activist actions anonymously,”
returnonfocus.com
Is crowdsourcing exploitative?

Digital Sharecropping?

Astra Taylor warns against allowing the economic value of culture to be concentrated in the hands of those positioned to unequally benefit from the efforts of the collective.  Striving for a definition that adequately conveys the principles of a discipline or movement is an onerous task and  no matter how robustly one tries to express the guiding philosophy and principles by naming and setting parameters around an area, there is no guarantee that the boundary will hold.  Crowdsourcing, Cloud-labour, call you what you will, there are those who believe that it has its roots in the Sweatshops and is an area open to exploitation.  Owens offered the warning “Be wary of anyone who tries to suggest we should trick people or entice them into this work. We can offer users an opportunity to deeply explore, connect with and contribute to public memory and we can’t let anything get in the way of that”  We need to generate a strong definition of what the collective effort offers and then strengthen our Cultural Commons and our labour laws for the virtual world, a system left to the free market will not deliver the transformations promised by this new digital culture.

References:

Taylor, Astra. The People’s Platform Taking Back Power and Culture in a Digital Age Taylor. London: 4thEstate, 2014. Print.
http://dh-at-tcd.tumblr.com – Annie’s blog