Thoughts from my study of Horror, Media, and Narrrative

Archive for February, 2010

Life on the Screen

Life has changed since Sherry Turkle published Life on the Screen:  modern American society has not only increased its awareness of avatars (helped perhaps by James Cameron) but is also seeing the emergence of adults who have interacted with avatars for most of their lives. This shift in technology has allowed for the experimentation in, and decentralization of, culture, identity, and the self by permitting the expression of multiple selves in digital environments.

Turkle depicts various stories of experimentation with gender identity throughout the chapter, focusing on the cognitive experience of users as they don various guises. Individuals imbue these digital representations with particular attributes and meanings, which in turn allows users to assert and practice acts of identity. The relative freedom of online environments permits users to work through various behavioral and emotional scripts while maintaining a sense of security—individuals instinctually that they can simply quit if things become uncomfortable.

In addition, the ability of users to develop multiple avatars presents some interesting opportunities as individuals can compartmentalize identity into discrete units (e.g., one avatar is aggressive, another excels at martial arts, and a third simply lurks). These expressions of identity may represent salient qualities of users but might equally result from aspirational thinking.

As Americans, we are still struggling to reconcile these manifestations of ourselves into a united whole; our Facebook presence clashes with our work lives and Twitter confounds the development of intimacy. Working with high school juniors and seniors, I see some of these identity crises as students transition to college, but I also recognize representations of our fight through popular culture. Shows like Battlestar Galactica[1] and True Blood[2] reflect the complicated and nuanced layers of identity that we negotiate on a daily basis.

[1] The show asks audiences to consider how humans have to forge a new identity for themselves in the aftermath of a terrorist attack (and attempted genocide), how particular characters have to renegotiate their positions in society due to changes in their surroundings, or how the Cylons see individuality emerge out of a collectivist society.

[2] Characters negotiate their ideas of who they are in light of stereotypes (i.e., “This is who you say I am”), religion (i.e., “This is not all that I am”), and stigma (i.e., “Are you now or have you ever been?”)

The Matrix

Lawrence Lessig’s words continue to haunt me.  An avid fan of The Matrix, Lessig’s thoughts on the manipulation of code caused me to flash back to a particular moment near the end of the movie. For the majority of the film, Neo, the protagonist, has progressed in his training but is constrained by the fact that the Matrix is based on rules that can be bent, but seldom broken. However, after a resurrection—conferred by true love’s kiss!—Neo performs a physically impossible feat demonstrating a newfound mastery over his world. Fittingly, our first look at the world through Neo’s eyes after this event displays the virtual environment as code; to Neo, the world is nothing more than a string of symbols. One might argue that Neo’s rebirth has enabled him to see things as they really are (a sort of ultimate payoff of the red pill) and it is his understanding of the Matrix’s governing processes that affords him his powers. For a particular generation, The Matrix provides a highly visible example of Lessig’s position that code dictates law. Neo’s epiphany, visually laid out for audiences, allows observers to grasp Lessig’s theories—even if they might not be able to articulate what they have witnessed.

The implications of code have not change since the movie’s release. No longer the stuff of science fiction, code is affecting our real lives through seemingly mundane conduits like traffic signal regulation and the (perhaps) more surprising selling of online real estate; I still remember being fascinated by news of code from Ultima Online being auctioned in a live marketplace—here were parties that were willing to trade resources for (arguably useless) bits!

Currently, we continue to grapple with the navigation of these virtual spaces, made difficult by the notion that many do not understand the rules that govern our spaces. Augmented reality will further complicate this process as additional layers of code are overlaid upon our physical reality; wearable computing might change the ways that we deal with access, permission, and restrictions as we attempt to balance code and natural laws.

Bowling Alone

In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam discusses the impact of prevalent technologies on mass media and explains how particular advancements have allowed for radically different consumption patterns in society. Although the publication date of Bowling Alone does not readily allow for an examination of the Internet, one could argue that new technology has only served to fragment news consumption further. RSS feeds, for example, not only “pull” news (as opposed to content “pushed” by a broadcaster) but filter out unwanted stories. Although this automation is undoubtedly convenient for audiences, it might also have deleterious effects as silos of knowledge begin to spring up.

The United States has continually battled with competing interests—we are seeing a resurgence of this today with a disconnect between urban elites and populist movements—and the schism between left- and right-wing politics demonstrates the danger inherent in fragmentation. At present, the issue plaguing our country does not seem to center around strongly defined (and maintained) positions, but rather the lack of discourse between opposing views. With media figureheads like Rush Limbaugh, Rachel Maddow, Keith Olberman, and Glenn Beck, audiences tend to exist in an echo chamber; arguments by hosts and pundits only serve to further reinforce listeners’ predetermined positions.

As technology allows us to interact with a larger variety of people, we are finding that geopolitical boundaries are becoming less salient (to be sure, though, they are not yet irrelevant); individuals are self-aggregating into communities along dimensions that are of particular importance to them. Our current levels of technology have not allowed us to exclude considerations of our physical space from our lives—as we discussed in class, trucking continues to be the primary transport method of atoms—but one might speculate how teleportation would affect the way that relate to physical boundaries.