I must admit that, upon reading about the third-person effect, I immediately began to think about game theory. Although I fully confess to being relatively naïve in the school of thought, I have long been fascinated by the ways in which we make decisions based on incomplete information (see also my undergraduate love for heuristics).
Indeed, there seems to be a wonderfully (horrible? awesome?) kind of power in the ability to reliably predict how the manipulation of information can lead to particular patterns of behavior; in some ways, it is like being able to see into the future. And, although perhaps a tad overdramatic, to bend information to your will is to make and remake the world.
Although I certainly don’t wish to confuse game theory with the third-person effect, I can’t help but think that, on some base level, they share some similarities for we are, in both cases, assessing how others will react to a given piece (or set) of information and responding accordingly. Whether it is to promote media regulation, ordering a pre-emptive strike, or playing the market, it seems like some of the same core thought processes are occurring as we pit ourselves against the world.
The notion of distancing, however, is key as it seems to protect individuals from a measure of cognitive dissonance: it would be troublesome for one to assume that others (i.e., “the masses) are affected differentially if they resemble oneself! And yet the act of distancing creates an interesting thought exercise for the third-person effect operates on the idea that an unseen “average person” would react to media in a particular way—but if we are abnormal on one measure, we are, by sheer probability, surely average on another! Although we can circumvent this tendency through careful thought, it seems difficult for individuals to consider that they might in fact be one of the Other and reconcile this line of thinking with perceptions of one’s own identity.
In some ways, I wonder if this inclination relates to the actor/field approach that we discussed earlier, wherein one is able to observe (and therefore compare) the ways in which media affects others but is blind to this process with regard to oneself. Or maybe it is precisely because we are hyper-aware of our own cognitions that we tend to formulate alternate responses for ourselves.
Is another explanation for this the Western drive toward individualism? Would this same phenomenon present if we fundamentally understood ourselves as embodying a different sort of relationship to our community? Would we be more inclined to identify with the masses if we inhabited a more collectivist society?
There is, for Western male bodies in particular, a very distinct sense of the body as discrete and whole. In contrast to permeable female body—associated with tears, lactation, childbirth, and menstruation, women demonstrate a tendency to ooze—male bodies appear much more concerned with integrity and resistance to invasion or penetration.
The male anxieties surrounding penetration are also a bit ironic given that, in some ways, the current ideals of straight Western male bodies derive from an attempt by the gay community to respond to the threat of AIDS. In short, one factor in the rise of the ideal hard body—although certainly not the only influence—was the effort made by gay individuals to project a healthy and robust body in the 1980s. As AIDS was considered a “wasting disease” at the time, exaggerated musculature served as an immediate visual signal that one did not have the disease. As this particular image propagated in society, societal norms surrounding the male body changed and straight men began to adopt the new form, although importantly not for the same reasons of gay men.
This process, then, challenges the naturalization of the ideal body—and even the idea of the body itself. The concept of the body can be seen as a constant site of negotiated meaning as our understanding of what the body is (and is not) arises out of an intersection of values; this means that we must look closely at the ways in which we privilege one form of the body over another, maintaining a static arbitrary form in the process.
Here, Jussi Parikka’s notion of body as assemblage offers an interesting lens through which to examine the concept of the body: the “body,” in a sense is not only an amalgamation of parts, sensations, memories, and events but also is forged in the interaction between the components that make up the body and those that surround it. What if we were to rethink the sacred nature of the body and instead understand it as a fusing of parts on multiple levels? Would we care as much about the ways in which organic and inorganic pieces interacted with our bodies? What if we changed our understanding of our body as inherently natural and saw it as a prosthetic? The state of the body is in constant flux as it responds to and affects the world around it—put another way, the body is engaged in a constant dialogue with its surroundings.
On a macro scale, this adaptation might take the form of Darwinian evolution but on an individual level, we might also think about things like scars or antibodies as ways in which our body (and not our mind!) evidences a form of memory as it has been impacted by the world around it. Although layers of meaning are likely imposed upon these bodily artifacts, on their most basic level they serve as reminders that, as stable as they seem, our bodies continually contain the potential to change.
And, ultimately, it is this potential for transcendence that forms a thread through most of my work. Stretching across the lineage of Final Girls who had power in them all along, to youth striving to maximize their education, to the transhumanist tendency to push the boundaries of the body, I hold most affinity for people who cry, “This is not all that I am.”
Generally interested in historiography, it makes the most immediate sense for me to situate an industry within a legacy of that which has come before. Whether it is tracing the progression of mass media from print through digital communications or understanding that the “time shift” phenomenon was preceded by a “space shift” as the telegraph separated a message from its source, history provides a valuable framework through which to understand industries. Unfortunately there are no clear demarcations between periods/ages/epochs and it is, at times, difficult to separate out the complex milestones in an industry’s progress. And although Holt and Perren invoke De Certeau in order to remind readers that historiography always works toward an end (put another way, the end cannot help but be known) I must also remind to avoid adopting a deterministic view—just because things ended up in a particular way does not mean that they had to.
And yet, even on a smaller scale, we might choose to examine verticality in another fashion with respect to the chain of production. Nodded to by Holt and Perren, production can be expanded to include the more discrete content areas of design, production, distribution, sales, and consumer. Although these labels may begin to overlap as individual companies or organizations undergo vertical integration, I believe that they represent a solid position from which to start analyzing the downstream flow of products in an industry. In some ways, each of these five areas potentially represent a rich site of study (e.g., see Holt and Perren’s section entitled “The site of production”), but we can also consider how a much more complex picture occurs when we begin to look at the ways these sections interact with each other and how multiple pipelines are arranged in parallel.
As an example:
Using this (very simplified) diagram, we can more readily see how individual companies’ holdings within the pipeline may affect the ways in which those organizations interact with one another. In order to gain greater control over their products, Companies A and B may form some sort of partnership (or one may be taken over by another) while we see similar potential for Companies C, D, and E. Alternatively Company B may try to buy out Company E in order to become the sole point of sale in this industry. We can also see that certain positions are more advantageous than others, for although Companies A, B, and C each control two content areas, Company C must deal with at least two other companies in order to function whereas Companies A and B need only interact with each other. Understanding the nature of the pipeline for a particular industry, then, can offer great insight into the practices of the companies within that sector.
Adding another layer of complexity, we can examine the ways in which these companies interact with, and utilize, consumers. Although they exist at the bottom of this chain, consumers ultimately have a measure of power through their consumption choices and may occasionally rebel against companies who evidence unseemly practices. But, more interestingly, recent years have seen the growth of fan involvement largely through the ability of the Internet to increase access. In an ideal world, this new form of fan involvement might operate in synergy with industry allowing audiences to have a say in the direction of their favorite entertainment properties and making fans more loyal viewers in the process. Opportunistic companies, however, also seem to be keen in taking advantage of this free labor, “employing” fans in aspects of design (e.g., fan fiction), production (e.g., fan videos), and sales (e.g., buzz marketing).
We have, then, obtained a sense of how to begin unraveling the interrelated set of connections that exist to support an industry. Our task is made difficult by the ever-present need to retain multiple perspectives simultaneously, understanding how actions undertaken on one level have implications on others. And yet, despite the inherent challenges, clearly visualizing the past/present is invaluable if we even hope to see into the future.
The obvious answer is that if early Science Fiction was about exploring outer space, the writings of the late 20th century were largely about exploring inner space. More than just adventure tales filled with sensation or exploration (or cyberpunk thrill) the offerings that I encountered also spoke to, in a way, the colonizing of emotion. Thinking about Science Fiction in the late 20th century and early 21st century, I wondered how some works spoke to our desire for a new form of exploration. We seek to reclaim a sense of that which is lost, for we are explorers, yes—a new form of adventurer who seeks out the raw feeling that has been largely absent from our lives. Jaded, we long to be moved; jaded, we have set the bar so high for emotion that the spectacular has become nothing more than a nighttime attraction at Disneyworld.
At our most cynical, it would be easy to blame Disney for forcing us to experience wonder in scripted terms with false emotion constructed through tricks of architectural scale and smells only achievable through chemical slight of hand. But “force” seems like the wrong word, for doesn’t a part of us—perhaps a part that we didn’t even know that we had—want all of this? We crave a Main Street that most of us have never (and will never) know because it, in some fashion, speaks to the deeply ingrained notion of what it means to be an American who has lived in the 20th and 21st centuries.
For me, there are glaring overlaps with this practice and emotional branding, but what keeps me up at night is looking at how this process may have infiltrated education through gamification.
Over the past few years, after reading thousands of applications for the USC Office of Undergraduate Admission, I began to wonder how the college application structures students’ activities and identities. On one hand, I heard admission colleagues complaining about how they just wanted applicants to exhibit a sense of passion and authenticity; on the other, I saw students stressing out over their applications and their resumes. The things that I was seeing were impressive and students seemed to devote large amounts of time to things, but I often wondered, “Are they having any fun?”
Were students just getting sucked into a culture that put a premium on achievement and not really stopping to think about what they were doing or why? We can talk about the positive aspects of gamification, levling and badges, but as the years wore on, I really began to see titles on activity summaries as things that were fetishized, obsessed over, and coveted. Students had learned the wrong lesson—not to suggest in the slightest that they are primarily or solely responsible for this movement—going from a race to accumulate experience to merely aggregating the appearance of having done so. How could I convince them that, as an admission officer, it was never really about the experience in the first place but instead how a particular activity provided an opportunity for growth. It was—and is—about the process and not the product.
But, that being said, I try not to fault students for the very actions that frustrated me as a reader are reinforced daily in all aspects of education (and life in general). Processes are messy, vague, and fluid while products are not. How would one even go about conceiving a badge for emotional maturity? Would one even want to try?
Perhaps I am clinging to notions of experience that will become outdated in the future. Science Fiction challenges us to consider worlds where experiences and memory can be saved, uploaded, and imprinted and, really, what are recreational drugs other than our clumsy attempt to achieve altered experiences through physiological change? I don’t know what the future will bring, but I do know that my former colleagues in admission are likely not thinking about the coming changes and will struggle to recalibrate their metrics as we move forward.
Although the term “public opinion” has primarily been paired with politics over these past weeks, I tend to enter the conversation through the machinations of celebrity; if fame represents the phenomenon in question (i.e., the “what”), then Walter Lippman provides a “how” while Walter Benjamin chimes in with a “why.” The explanations of Lippman and Benjamin, are, of course, not the only ways in which one might endeavor to explain complex phenomenon of things like celebrity or political attitudes, but, for me, they represent a way.
In “How the News Shapes Our Civic Agenda” Maxwell McCombs and Amy Renyolds mention how Lippman’s seminal work Public Opinion outlines some of the ideas of what would later be called agenda-setting theory (generally, the idea that the relative attention given to articles by the mass media is correlated with the relative importance of those articles’ content by audiences) but this model, although likely valid, seems incomplete as it forwards a passive and reactionary position on behalf of audiences—although agenda-setting may certainly represent an influence on salience, it seems unlikely to represent the only factor at work.
Indirectly, agenda-setting speaks to some of the ways in which audiences can work to inscribe particular things (be they news items or celebrities) but here, the work of Benjamin sheds some light on why researchers may have observed the patterns that they did with regard to agenda-setting theory. Although admittedly more complex than is outlined here, one of the arguments made in Benjamin The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction is society’s rationalization that, in a world with limited resources, replicated images are worth reproducing. Applying this concept to news media, which also suffers its own set of constraints (e.g., space in print media or time in broadcast media), we understand that particular items are not only newsworthy because of the focus placed upon them, but also because they are covered at the expense of other things which were not mentioned.
But here I would suggest that the mere amount of exposure cannot fully account for the totality of the effects observed. Recalling earlier class discussions on the nature of advertising, it seems fair to argue that the messages put forth by outside agencies like news media outlets must be rendered meaningful by individuals and be available for recall. In order to support this notion (and introducing a bit of Social Psychology), we might refer to Vincent Price, David Tewksbury, and Elizabeth Powers’ concept of the “knowledge store,” which is itself reminiscent of the availability heuristic (i.e, the mental shortcut that describes the process whereby we assign additional importance to information that we can most readily recall, creating a correlation between memorable qualities and importance). What Price, Tewksbury, and Powers suggest is that it is not enough merely to have representation, but that these representations must be vivid and able to be recalled by individuals in order to have an effect. While one might be tempted to relegate this finding to sensationalist media, I believe that the work of Price, Tewksbury, and Powers also helps us to explain the processes described in agenda-setting theory.
As students in my section undoubtedly were aware, the Critical Analysis of Social Issues (CASI) model is one that I struggle with—mostly because, I think, of the word “context.” The trouble is that the word is much too broad to mean much of anything for me: I can talk about unequal power structures or socio-historical background…but aren’t these all forms of context? I understand events like the Irvine 11 as situated in a number of overlapping contexts: political, economic, social, historical, geographic, and temporal. Moreover, the way in which I choose to examine any particular issue also brings with it a certain set of affordances and limitations—I must remember that I too am a sort of context for the event is being interpreted though a series of lenses and filters that have developed out of my personal combination of experiences.
But I do not mean to imply that this effort is unworthy just because it is limited or because it is difficult. I think of critical thinking as a series of skills or tools that one can employ in order to contemplate an issue from multiple angles. The biggest challenge for our group seemed where to begin: with so many questions floating in the air, how does one even begin unpacking it all? Every answer is necessarily connected to another and it seems like a ball of string that folds back in on itself, offering no place upon which to perch. The answer, for me, is to begin analyzing something along one line of inquiry knowing that your work will be incomplete but moving along anyway—you can, after all, always go back and add to what you have uncovered. Only through practice does the plodding turn into instinct.