Having seen the last big budget film of Beijing filmmaker, Yimou Zhang (of Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon fame), Red Cliff, I recognized the grammar-less fantastics of the Beijing Opening ceremony created with the advertised budget of 300 million USD (you have to wonder at this figure, the budget of Hollywood films are normally expanded and hyped to become part of the PR campaign itself, but in this case perhaps the figure represents real dollars spent). His films are characterized by the combination of astonishingly high production value (albeit strange value to American eyes, where you notice the fake beard in a scene with 5000 costumed extras), especially focusing on the maximal use of people with a looseness of narrative… both the motives between scenes and between the action cut loose… practically gibberish, in the sense that the scenes are clearly cut on the basis of pageantry, like a song-less musical, instead of narrative cause and effect. I watched his newest, Red Ridge, just a few weeks ago in Singapore, and the audience refreshingly laughed through the whole thing… a refreshing expression of cynicism in the repressive Singaporean culture, his films functioning as a sort of camp of money—a post-irony camp, un-moored from any retro reference, but simply maximal and consumerist and extremely Chinese.
The beginning of these thoughts came from Lev Manovich’s presentation on the last day of the International Symposium on Electronic Arts in Singapore. I find that Manovich frequently inspires thought and discussion: he offers himself up as a whipping dog, making the extreme statements that almost everyone has a problem with… 8 years ago it was “cinema is dead;” now it is “media criticism is dead.”
In short, Lev announced that he had finally broken in to the chests of the National Endowment for the Humanities and corporate sponsors to fund the study of media by returning media analysis to its sociological aspirations of the 70′s—though he didn’t put it in terms of the 70′s, instead it is a new concept that he has termed “Media Analytics” which is the new wave of criticism, he says. The brief of his argument is good: media criticism (in its more modern superficial modes… really pre-1970′s) is moored in the paradigm of broadcast media and has not updated itself, or critically dealt with the fact of the explosion of media—still treating media as a representation of culture as a sort of oligarchy, where it is assumed that a few big representations of culture are broadcast to major theaters or channels and criticism is done as example-based analysis of these few selections with at least the conceit that a survey of work has been completed. Whereas now, it is clear, that a survey of work is impossible… millions of videos, greater numbers of text publications, greater still numbers of images published— it is now impossible to claim to have viewed even a representative sample of culture’s media products. The way forward, says Lev, is to visualize the data, and basically to use algorithms and translations to look for patterns (though it seemed like many of his examples were more about creating novelty in data visualization).
My immediate critique, while listening, was obvious. First, it sounds like Media Philosopher playing at Sociology, which, in my mind, is like political demagogues playing at Sociology…. they tend to run fast and easy with the statistics and numerical sampling in favor of headlines… like Violent Video Games Cause Columbine and such. Basically I was suspicious of the newness of his new way. Second, there was a spuriousness to the conclusion about Cultural Analysis… his method seemed to assume the cultural importance of media from a broadcast model— flattening the difference between studying media and studying culture—but YouTube has not only changed the quantity of media, but its quality in relationship to culture… it is no longer so clear that studying media is the same as studying culture. Much of media no longer represents the work of an economics and an industry or group, nor does it become widely broadcast to influence a range of society.
But the most significant critique of Manovich’s talk came from an intelligent questioner at the end… a young man in the front asked, ‘Is visualization even necessary in an age when you have all the data… isn’t the perfect map a 1 to 1 representation?’ This is fundamental— a bombshell that I don’t think was recognized as a bombshell in that moment, but it pointed to the antiquity of the whole concept— the medieval quality of so much techno-utopianism in Manovich’s dream of data visualization, because isn’t his project, again, a Museo, an Encyclopedia, a representation of all data created in one unified whole for one person to interpret?
In his talk, Lev called the bulk of media criticism reactionary in its denial of the sociological methods of other social sciences and corporations… the data mining that has become the new (reverse engineering) empirical method. But what about Google Earth? A data set of everything, with no unified visualization (or any sort of translation of medium) but simply an interface of viewing any part of the dataset, anywhere, for anyone. Isn’t that the new paradigm of media? There is no more need of visualization of data, because we have all the data… instead the new need is interface to the data… the interface has replaced the visualization. I completely agree with Lev that Media Criticism has lazily abandoned its most important questions (like “does advertising work?”) in favor of using media as a stand-in for politics and theology; but the way ahead doesn’t lie with the old paradigms of the map and the Museo… because if we started building this great visualization of culture, as we modified and perfected it using every source of data available to us, we would find in its completion that we had, inch for inch, byte for byte, backed up the entire database to another harddrive.
The New York Times published an article the day after NBC’s broadcast of the Olympic opening ceremonies, “Tape Delay by NBC Is Facing End Run by Online Fans” (Aug.9’08) that quotes Gary Zenkel, the president of NBC Olympics stating: “we’re not public television, for better or worse.” What is interesting is this time it’s for the worse. Zenkel was responding to the “end run” problem of internet users trying to see the Olympics. NBC, after paying almost a billion dollars to broadcast the Olympics in the US, put it in to its standard TV broadcast model, circa 1960… commercials galore, lots of commentators, selective live broadcast of certain American events with late night re-runs, and a lot of minutes of pre-recorded “interest” stories about the athletes, banal shallow histories of China.. and did I mention advertising?
One billion dollars of advertising to recoup is a lot of advertising. All of this without any acknowledgment of the 12 hour time difference, and, moreover, a global media which people have become accustomed to accessing without corporate controls. To prime its advertising revenue (basically to conform an all day event across the world into its age-old standard programming format of “prime time” and late-night slots) NBC decided to delay the broadcast of the opening ceremony—and much of the events—12 hours. Anyone who uses the internet for their news and sometimes media knows what happened. People figured out ways to view the events live, finding foreign feeds that had not been IP blocked as they should have been, forming ad-hoc blog and Twitter communities telling eachother how to hack the IP system or where to find unlicensed videos, which the NBC team of computer experts and lawyers chased after, sending out hundreds of thousands of take-down notices. Basically, once again, corporations made ad hoc communities of hackers out of their prime audience.
NBC are idiots.
We can only imagine the different paradigm of broadcasting that would have been given to us if Google were given the Olympics’ contract. NBC’s complete failure to understand the new paradigm is staggering. The live-ness of the broadcast is their only commodity. Recycling, delaying, copying, and commentating is something that everyone with a laptop can now do and access ubiquitously. But, for me, it having been years since I watched an Olympics broadcast, and having taken all my broadcast media from the internet the past few years, I was stunned by the antiquity of NBC’s broadcast paradigm. They seemed to beg you at every moment to turn off the TV and go searching the internet. The cacophony of boring commentators, the real dearth of camera perspectives and contextual footage, and the constant manipulative delay of events to make room for advertising, as if I couldn’t, with little effort, step around their broadcaster information dams and find out what I want… it was infuriating and reminiscent of watching my grandfather operate the remote control. What people want now is access to multiple perspectives, Live-ness, instantaneity, and a network of different commentators and communities.
It is worth noting that most of the European broadcasters—because the contractors were largely public television stations less committed to the broadcast advertising economic model—instead streamed the games live and then placed limits on this streaming so that only people in their own country (or international hackers) could access the video streams. It seems that large corporation broadcasting—like many corporate dinosaurs—may go extinct as a result of this digital change, but public broadcasting, with its open-access ideology, is well suited to survive.