In her 10/6/16 piece Not a Film and Not an Empathy Machine How necessary failures will help VR designers invent new storyforms, Janet Murray offers some compelling points for thinking critically about virtual reality as a media form. The center of her thinking is the idea that VR practitioners are artists and learners, that they are experimenting with the form.
I would hesitate to call the experiments failures, much less call them terrible as she does. Suspending such value judgments are an important risk I think we should take to get to understand how the medium works.
Teacher and novelist Stuart Kaminsky taught me that worry about judgement–about whether something was good or bad, and whether I liked it or not–was a sure way to kill thoughtful conversation. Instead of being about the experience under discussion, the focus shifts suddenly to the speaker and their judgement.
But Janet Murray’s intention is to talk in helpful terms about what VR could do to create meaning for viewers. Her identification of two central “confusions” sheds light on important questions. She says:
“Confusion One: VR is not a film to be watched but a virtual space to be visited and navigated through.”
Great thought, but I would argue that it is discussion-ending. To prevent that, think of it as a question instead:
“Question One: How is VR a film, and how is it not a film? What is the relationship between something we watch and a virtual space to be visited and navigated through?”
Watching a film is not anywhere near thoroughly understood, not in content, not in form. (Honestly, nor is photography, fiction, music or any other media form that is still changing. And they are all still changing.) I would suggest that, frequently anymore, “TV” is now “film”, and film is now spectacle (See debord).
How do we make these determinations? I think it’s less in the thing experienced and more in the way we experience them…or in the way we think when we are creating them (at least in that moment). Or how we think about eating when we are eating them.
Her second point is equally complex:
“Confusion Two: Empathy is not something that automatically happens when a user puts on a headset.”
To misquote the Singer in Merchant of Venice, or Gene Wilder/WW,
“Tell me where is empathy bred,
Or in the heart or in the headset?”
Empathy is part of storytelling or imagining, but it’s not all of it. Stories also place us in existential terror, and longing, and the stranger things of desire and repulsion (again, think Wonka). Here Murray is critical of the “You Are There” approach to VR, and its possibilities for eliciting empathy through juxtaposition. Kenneth Burke would have it that we construct ourselves with the experience, and become consubstantial. So maybe Question Two would be: What happens to our position or location when we don the headsets?
Or, “Tommy, can you hear me?”
Katerina Cizek’s 10/6/16 response to Murray, Towards a VR Manifesto An Immerse response, takes on some of the “VR is not film” argument (see Confusion One). She talks about what works and what doesn’t work, that the experiences feel like incomplete films, like prototypes. Cizek wants to see more identity and agency in VR spaces. And see more carry-over from games.
I would suggest that we also consider injecting in the VR Manifesto process a significant measure of attention to learning and digital media literacy. Before we get to the point where VR participation is measured as a precognitive physiological response (you can see the labs of wired participants approaching now, can’t you?), and the Cartesians take over, we should consider metacognitive possibilities. How do we see ourselves seeing the virtual? What happens to my thinking/sensing when I am in a solitary confinement cell in 6X9?
And in all cases, we should strive for a social justice approach to the medium. Be sure that the people who get to tell stories and make arguments in and about VR represent all of the participants. It would be nice to not have to point out that women aren’t seen or heard, that black art matters, or that we don’t think enough about Sexual Identities and the Media.
Five Key Concepts of Media Literacy
- All media messages are “constructed.”
- Each medium has different characteristics, strengths, and a unique “language” of construction.
- Different people interpret the same media message in different ways.
- Media messages are produced for particular purposes, including profit, persuasion, education, and artistic expression.
- Media have embedded values and points of view.
Six Questions to Ask about Any Media Message
- Who made – and who sponsored – this message, and for what purpose?
- Who is the target audience, and how is the message specifically tailored to them?
- What are the different techniques used to inform, persuade, entertain, and attract attention?
- What messages are communicated (and/or implied) about certain people, places, events, behaviors, lifestyles, etc.?
- How current, accurate, and credible is the information in this message?
- What is left out of this message that might be important to know?
Now is a good time to consider what we all could do in recognition of Media Literacy Week :
2nd Annual US Media Literacy Week will be held October 31 thru November 4th, 2016
Spread the word: #MediaLitWk
Here are two questions as starting points for considering how our lives and meanings are all shaped by media experiences:
- What would you suggest was the most significant change in media for you over the past year?
- How is the current state of media impacting our roles as citizens in some kind of a public democracy?
I usually suggest to students that they consider at least three possibilities before settling on a choice, so here are three that I might offer as candidates:
Media Change 1:
The push of social media into, through, and around legacy media.
Media Change 2:
How our communication world deals with the notion of “facts,” and what happens when we either cannot agree on them or find ourselves in a place where they are less important than other factors (like, say, feelings…).
Media Change 3:
People are certainly more aware of media’s influences, but are they thinking about such issues in a way that values the power we all need as individuals for self determination?
For the first, consider the ways social media plays a role in a new piece of public information, like the shooting of an unarmed black man or a cop. Mobile phones with cameras or body cams becomes ways to witness. How can we better understand their biases?
For the second, the question comes up in the election about the relationship between measured reality and experience. If crime is down why don’t some people feel safer? If jobs are up, why do some people still act on the opposite?
For the third, we ought to consider the rights and abilities people have to come to a better understanding of media in their own consumption and production. Can we work together toward a culture that negotiates wisely between public and private?
And how can we think about media in a way that values just treatment for every individual? Our mutual better nature can stand to benefit greatly from encouraging a public commitment to media literacy, which could be the greatest outcome of this annual celebration.
And thank you, Canada for starting the idea.
So what are your three changes?
American culture will eventually have to make up its mind what it wants out of the information-providing professions. I would include “entertainment” in that group, since much of our understanding of culture comes through a combination of real and fictional storytelling. Our understanding becomes accessible in the “truth” of a particularly well-performed role, through a synthesis of real and not real.
The 2013 four-part series Southcliffe (Warp Films/Channel 4) included a central character of a journalist, David Whitehead, portrayed by Rory Kinnear. He’s a great actor to watch, between his moving presentation of The Creature in Penny Dreadful (2014-) (where his power and his vulnerability are performed at the same time), and his turn as Prime Minister Callow (subtle name, eh?) in the first episode of Black Mirror (2011). Callow, as it turned out, was a moment of fictional television getting a little too close to the truth, or perhaps a little too close to what people would like to be the truth but it really isn’t (now memed “Piggate”).
Southcliffe presents a journalist who is a great point for conversation. Reporter Whitehead is put on the mass shooting story because the location of the incident is the town where he grew up, and–as we learn–a place he hated and escaped from because of a personal childhood tragedy. So he covers the story because of the connection, but eventually becomes the story for related reasons.
I won’t spoil anything, except to say that the series made me think of how our expectations of journalists have changed, but not settled down. What difference does it make when a reporter covering, say, Orlando is LGBT? Or the reporter comes from a Muslim cultural background? Or what if the reporter’s dad was an anchor?
Perhaps the demands of “professionalism” would suggest one answer, but audiences seem to want something else. Perhaps viewers need to be clearer about what they want out of their non-fiction and fiction information sources. We watch Whitehead pursue the story about the mass shooting, feeling some disgust at his opportunism. But we are watching a series, knowing some of what it is about, in a way that makes us complicit in his actions. We live in a time where it is simply too easy to despise and discredit “the media” without ever feeling a responsibility to know and communicate what we want from it. And how we are going to sustain it.
I would be interested in what other media scholars make of this character in Southcliffe.
MSNBC and MHP – fading fast a Washington Post account of the latest state of MSNBC’s “transformation”.
The organization is abandoning the diversity of its program hosts, who are a very talented group. At the same time, the are trying to “up” their “breaking news” profile by joining in to the horse race coverage of the presidential election, and focusing on Brian Williams. Why? Good question. I don’t have a clue. Does he feel self conscious about his damaged reputation? Is he required as the figurehead “mansplainer”?
My best guess is that they are after the revenue generated by thriving conservative TV operations. Perhaps their plan to extend “Morning Joe” will encourage the retired breakfast set to tune in.
But there are two desperately sad observations I would offer. Melissa Harris-Perry does some of the best discussion next to Amy Goodman at Democracy Now. She is a public intellectual, which is so rare these days (peace to Umberto Eco). She always covered things other (white, mainstream, legacy) news operations did not. And even when the territory overlapped, is was presented from points of view that were broadly representative and often unheard (and speaking of OU Unheard, here is a bit about OU Unheard on MHP).
As she mentions in her staff email,
“After four years of building an audience, developing a brand, and developing trust with our viewers, we were effectively and utterly silenced. Now, MSNBC would like me to appear for four inconsequential hours to read news that they deem relevant without returning to our team any of the editorial control and authority that makes MHP Show distinctive. The purpose of this decision seems to be to provide cover for MSNBC, not to provide voice for MHP Show. I will not be used as a tool for their purposes. I am not a token, mammy, or little brown bobble head. I am not owned by Lack, Griffin, or MSNBC.”
So now here is the lineup in the “news channel” block on the AT&T U-Verse for my information purposes:
CNN, HLN, fusion, BBC, One America Network, Fox News, Fox Business, MSNBC, CNBC, Aljazeera America, NHK, Bloomberg.
used-to-be-news, hair-like-nancygrace, 1980s-MTV-wannabe, BBC (still the standard), wants-to-be-Fox-by-being-a-little-more-conservative, IS-Fox, IS-Fox-for-pure-capitalism, MSNBC (the subject in question), NBC-for-pure-capitalism, soon-to-be-gone-in-April, what’s-up-in-Tokyo, and (finally) pure-PURE-capitalism.
(Cut to scene of bolt cutters approaching coaxial cable…)
My hope is that Al Jazeera English will return, since, as Jarvis pointed out about al Jazeera America:
They wanted to make respectable cable news.Though that sounds like a decent goal and motive—CNN for smart people, CNN that actually covers the news—the project fell off the cliff when it assigned old-style American TV news people to make old-style American TV news. They were well-intentioned but given the wrong mission: fixing old TV rather than inventing new TV and making American TV rather than making international TV.
Someone (CNN) ought to consider (CNN) making MHP (CNN) an offer (CNN) since quality content would be a good move. CNN. CNN?
In his piece on Scientific and Religious Literacies, Mike Sandler raises an important perspective that might address the question of polarization, but only if we can recognize the mutual coexistence of different literacies…and by extension, the way we both are and are not like other people in how our literacies are organized.
The key…with apologies to the more rigid…is empathy, the “I and Thou” of moving through the world. Consider it this way: I admit that I am a bit of a critical/rhetorical media literacy absolutist. But only a bit. If I take it too far, I lose the ability to see that:
- There are many different ways that people see and experience this issue
- My version can be equally flawed, myopic, bigoted, and capable of perpetuating systemic awfulness
One of the fundamental steps in adopting a critical literacy perspective is an analysis of the terms of power in any media moment. The harder part is not seeing power from that critical perspective, but seeing it from the perspective of the empowered. That is , seeing the genre, for lack of a more precise term, in which a thought or a position is held. A religious (i.e., faith-based) position and a scientific position are different genres. In terms of the use if communication/language, they are incommensurable (see Thomas Kuhn or Paul Feyerabend).
I hope that recognizing that difference can prevent stalemated coexistence. And then we can talk about flying spaghetti monsters and rabbit eating habits (the glory of cecotropes!).
Here is how anthropologist Elizabeth Provinelli expresses a similar notion:
“If we take liberal theorists of liberal worlds seriously, the anthropological study of radical emergences and incommensurate social imaginaries is faced with a numbing recognition. If the message addressing the liberal public might be “begin with the doable,” the message addressing radical worlds is “be other so that we will not ossify, but be in such a way that we are not undone, that is make yourself doable for us.” And the message conveys the stakes of refusing to be doable, and, thereby, the stakes of forcing liberal subjects to experience the intractable impasse of reason as the borders of the repugnant— actual legal, economic, and social repression.”
Recently found my way through Limetown and Making a Murderer. Season 2 of Serial is next. But the challenge is managing the time, to find the time to explore the new media experiments going on. What is impressive is how much work is being done “on spec.”
Engaging with the literacy of all of these forms requires paying attention to the motivations, just as much as media literacy advocates think that knowing the motivations of, say, the Chicago Tribune or The 700 Club is key to making sense of their messages.
In the guardian, filmmaker Laura Riccardi said “We’re not prosecutors, we’re not defense attorneys, we do not set out to convict or exonerate anyone,” she continued. “We set out to examine the criminal justice system and how it’s functioning today. It would have been impossible for us to include every piece of evidence submitted to the court. So we took our cues from the prosecution, what they thought was the most compelling evidence. That’s what we included.”
The difference in a “serial” world is that the story can go on. It’s somewhat automatically reflexive, aware of its own past, and responsible to it in the best possible circumstances. And if not, some creative soul, acting out of interest, will add to the world of the story in a different forum.
There is an important interaction between Douglas Rushkoff’s idea of Place in Program Or Be Programmed, Joshua Meyerowitz argument in No Sense of Place, and Martin Buber’s notion of “I-It” relationships vs. “I-Thou” relationships. The distancing and displacing of the the digital world can cause a dehumanizing effect. The local is set aside in deferring to the non-local. The person sitting across from you lost in their phone. And then there is the challenge of humanizing the non-local. How can we learn to care at digital distances? This would seem to fall under a notion of digital citizenship: learning the ability to reach through the machines and not let a notion of care get filtered out; to not turn the people on the other end…even the people we disagree with…to be rendered an “It.”
attract and hold the attention of site visitors
concentrate the attention of all interested parties on a specific site or through a specific channel
unify consumer experience as consumers enter into branded spaces (collecting them into fewer locations)
prestructure interactivity to shape visitor experiences (radically limit the number of ways that participants can react)
typically tracks the migrations of individual consumers within a site
sales force markets to consumers
logical outgrowth of the shift from broadcasting’s push model to the web’s pull model
producers, marketers, and consumers are separate and distinct roles
depends on a finite number of channels for communicating with consumers
facilitate the efforts of fans and enthusiasts to “spread” the word
expand consumer awareness by dispersing the content across many potential points of contact
create a diversified experience as brands enter into the spaces where people already live and interact
open-ended participation as diversely motivated but deeply engaged consumers retrofit content to different niche communities
maps the flow of ideas through social networks
grassroots intermediaries become advocates for brands
restores some aspects of the push model through relying on consumers to circulate the content within their own communities
depends on increased collaboration across and even a blurring of the distinction between these roles
takes for granted an almost infinite number of often localized and many times temporary networks through which media content circulates