Archive for category Arts and Media

So I Moved to London to Study Digital Anthropology

Six years ago in late August I arrived in Yunnan – China’s most ethnically and geographically diverse province – to find a massive techno-cultural transition going on. Five years prior, in 2001, John Bryan Starr had published on page 249 of his book Understanding China that “with the important exception of The Sound of Music – which seems to have been seen at least once by every living person in mainland China – most available foreign films are cheap B-grade movies.” By 2005, the B-movies were still there (see above), but the availability had changed massively. As I wrote then of Yunnan’s capital, Kunming, in rather lengthy bit of research I never found a venue in which to publish:

Scattered amongst the hair salons and mini-marts and clothing stores and the Internet cafes are the disc shops. Their outside walls are cluttered with posters advertising the latest films and albums. Inside and outside are tables, stands, and shelves filled with D5s (single-layer DVDs, holding about 4.5 gigabytes of information) in thin cardboard sleeves. The sleeves are in their own plastic sheathes, which can be unsealed at the bottom… At any given store, a selection of more than 1,000 titles would be considered small. At the shop across the street from Yunnan Normal, I estimate there are over 2,500 different titles for sale. Copies of the same title are rubber banded together, and to see what movies are for sale it’s usually necessary to thumb through the baskets or shelves. Though Chinese and foreign movies are kept distinct and there is some organization by genre, for the most part the shelves seem to be sold with the sheer joy of variety overload.

This is a long way from a few years ago in Beijing, where [my instructor] said that vendors were hiding their movies beneath manhole covers.

I counted 20 such shops within a ten-minute’s walking radius, the opening of which had begun to accelerate in earnest around 2003. While I haven’t back to Kunming since 2005 (and China since 2008), I have noted that Kunming (truly a place I love, lest you view all this by its negative connotations) has been in the news for stores that copy the entire retail experiences of Ikea and the Apple Store. What I didn’t realize quite as much then was all this was only one aspect of globalization of media, something I had been living in small-town Iowa, and that was going to grow beyond physical media into clouds and streams, and beyond the largely one-way art of conventional distribution channels to a social-artistic experience.

All this brings me to why I find myself to the flat of an acquaintance (who I got to know through Facebook) in Camden right now, listening to numerous accents of the sidewalk traffic and the echo of train stop announcements, preparing to spend the year studying Digital Anthropology at University College London (UCL). It is the third year the programme is being offered, and (arguably) the programme is the first of its kind in the world.

While the title ‘Digital Anthropology’ may seem a little unconventional, research into “the social and cultural dimensions of information technologies and digital media” (as described on the programme’s web page) is important, something I first realized you could study back during my undergrad semester in Yunnan. Look at the Internet and think how much time you spend on it – and how its changed the way you make new friends, stay in touch with old ones, find information, conduct business, and (special to Facebook) build imaginary farms. Or the role of cell phone and social networks in the organization, suppression and prosecution of the recent riots in the city I’ll be calling home; as I write this, police are sifting through tens of thousands of hours of footage matching the clothing on masked rioters with footage of them unmasked. Look over this post and think about how comprehensible it might have been a decade or two ago.

Communication has changed dramatically – how its changing is important to try to understand and has implications of art, humanitarianism, business, and policy, and trying to understand some aspects of this is going to implicitly affect all our lives and perhaps explicitly be the focus of a good deal of my primary career.

While there are many academic programs worldwide studying these things under different names (“media studies,” etc), I chose Digital Anthropology in part because I liked the idea of rooting a methodological approach in social and cultural aspects, as well as UCL’s egalitarian ethos. The anthropology program here is known for its emphasis on research in material and visual culture – i.e., stuff, and stuff we can see – and their connection to social relationships. Objects. Keepsakes. Knick-knacks. “Of bleeding skulls and the postcolonial uncanny: bones and the presence of Nonosabasut and Demasduit”; “‘The hallmark of a doctor’: the stethoscope and the making of medical identity”; and “Your Trash Is Someone’s Treasure: The Politics of Value at a Michigan Landfill” to name three relatively recent article titles in the affiliated Journal of Material Culture. The program is co-led by Daniel Miller, whose book The Comfort of Things – concerning how residents of a London neighborhood relate to the objects in their homes, and build/maintain relationships with people with them – I found immensely enjoyable and insightful when I read it last year. As long as humans still think digital watches are a pretty neat idea, there will be stuff, and with it stuff to talk about.

This sort of grounding seems the ideal springboard from which go into new and social media, which at times can seem quite intangible and in other ways is very concrete – as in the record kept by an online message board, or the physical object of a pirate DVD. From several of my classmates who I’ve communicated with via Facebook (again, Facebook!), it seems as if at least a few come with some video/film in their backgrounds, something I fit right in with. For professional considerations, the program also enables me to build on my copywriting experience in BVU’s Marketing & Communications Department, as well as the understanding of the business environment and how websites are run, maintained, and monitored.

I’m not finished writing about Storm Lake yet – before I left earlier this month, I outlined a few entries I hope to write on the city, its people, places, and my time there. I’m not finished with piracy yet, either – building on what I looked at in Kunming in some sense may form part of my masters’ thesis. And, of course, I’ll be chronicling my life and studies in London through some of the same technology I’ll be studying. We’re all doing it – the studying and chronicling, I mean. I just found a place that gave it a name I liked.

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Get Your Entertainment [News] Elsewhere (and how[to])!

A while ago, I started a blog. Well, a different blog. It’s out there, floating on the Internet, available through Google searches for all to see but for all intents and purposes abandoned. This may or may not be a shame – there’s like one really good post on there, and a few whose memory makes me hesitant to journey back to whatever I thought I was thinking circa 2008. It was a different world then – America, perched at the precipice and forefront of a global economic disaster, was buoyed by ‘hope’ in a promising pending presidential election, and I was reading nearly decade-old issues of Transmetropolitan and thinking about the connections between them all.

Pop culture and current events – who among us can resist the urge to comment on them? Myself, I’m writing two new columns that will add to those great debates of our time that include: is the new Pirates of the Carribean movie worth seeing? Does Pokemon have anything to do with conflict diamonds? And what do college grads with bachelors’ in the humanities do with their evenings?

Note: I don’t have a picture of me reading anything I’ve written, so I used one I took one of someone else reading what they have. It’s Inez – who teaches at BVU, where we both work – reading from her short story contribution to “Cthulhu Unbound: Volume 2,” the second part in an eldritch series that mixes Lovecraftian horror with other genres – in her story’s case, film noir.

First, I’m joining the young rambly literate types over a Super Fine Magazine, who are fast at work cranking out such intriguing pieces of political-cultural commentary as “Pac Man, Flow, and Erving Goffman” and “Cosmo-Consumption: Liking “Everything” and Meaning It” To this fine titles this week I add “It’s a Miracle Things Don’t Fall Apart When Remembering Greatest Game Ever Played”, an exploration of the pretentiousness of sports movie titles like Miracle, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and especially the soon-to-be-released Things Fall Apart. An excerpt:

 In a line of dialogue in the Things Fall Apart trailer, Coach Ray Liotta demands “You want to do it on your own terms – that is the question.” He thus grammatically mangles the first line of perhaps the single most famous soliloquy in all of literature, fraught with self-doubt and ambiguity, into an imperative to follow the “take arms against a sea of troubles” side of the speaker’s great debate. While Denzel Washington’s coach fires his team up by describing how the mythological Titans challenged the gods, he forgets to mention that they failed and were imprisoned as a result (see also, the Titanic [the ship] [not the movie]).

Expect contributions once every few weeks.

Second: For the next few months, I’ll be contributing movie reviews to Double Take, a joint column with my friend Josh Moniz over at the New Ulm Journal, the prime printed news source for the smallish Minnesota city perhaps best known to outsiders as the home of the August Schell Brewery. If you’re in New Ulm, pick up a copy! If you’re elsewhere, you can view a PDF of the current entertainment section here. Double Take‘s been running for two weeks already, during which Josh and I have reviewed Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Roderick Rules and Scream 4.  This week, we’ll offer our take on The Lincoln Lawyer. It’s a decidedly speed-of-print affair, but promises to be promising.

Look also in the coming weeks for a new tab on this site that will better catalog these articles locales’ in the Great Elsewhere of the Internet – and the occasional post letting you know when something extra cool has been loosed upon the nets. Enjoy!

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