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“ The medium, or process, of our time – electric technology – is reshaping and restructuring patterns of social interdependence and every aspect of our personal life. It is forcing us to reconsider and reëvaluate practically every thought, every action, and every institution formerly taken for granted. Everything is changing – you, your family, your neighborhood, your education, your job, your government, your relation to “the others.” And they're changing dramatically. “

From: “The Medium is the Massage” – Marshall McLuhan -1967

ESSAY

By Marleen Andela - February 2012

1 ) Media , space & information –

The world of ICT and web-related media

As an artist I am interested in digital media. This is because these technologies play such a prominent role in our lives. They affect how we are manifesting ourselves as individuals and how we organize ourselves as a whole. Therefore they - partially - determine who we are. Just like Marshall McLuhan I consider media as extensions of ourselves. Media are able to show us things that would normally remain hidden in the past or behind the horizon. They are carriers of information through space and time.

Film and television were the ultimate media of the past century. They dramatically changed the way we view the world. They are the reason for mass culture and therefore they had an immense influence on our economy and consumer society. Film and television have made us who we are. The web is the ultimate medium of the present. The web has led to a stretch of all the previously known communication barriers. Media such as books, film, television, radio and (mobile) telephony are gradually becoming subordinate to the web and they more and more interflow with it. Therefore the web is having an increasing impact on the organizational structures of our society. Physical aspects such as distance and location are becoming less and less relevant. Thereby the web also affects the physical reality: The built environment, the economy, our social contacts and all other forms of interpersonal organization. The web and the world are becoming inextricably linked together.

Some people expect that eventually everything in the world will converge with the web. In this future world, also called "web 3.0" or "the internet of things", everything will be in some way connected to the web.

2 ) Privacy –

Outer & inner, public & private + Our blind spot

Technological innovations like the PC, the Internet and mobile telephony are the reason for a radical change in our lives. It's amazing how fast this all went, it was a matter of decades. All these innovations have taken place during our own lives!

Today we can no longer imagine the world without these new forms of communication. But yet our perception (the way we perceive ourselves and our environment) is nested in the past. With our knowledge and experiences of the past, we are peeking at the present: In former times, the public and the private were things that manifested itself in the physical. Indoors was private, outdoors was public. Nowadays such a clear distinction can no longer be made. Privacy has become a much more layered concept. But the notion that privacy has to do with something physical, is still deeply rooted in ourselves. The idea of privacy is related to the sense of security: Indoors we feel safe, outdoors there could be potential threats. Thats why humans invented houses in the first place: To protect themselves from the - simultaneously invented notion - of 'the outside'! In essence the notion of safety defines the concepts of 'inside', 'outside', 'public' and 'private'. But the idea that these things have a physical nature is outdated. Our instincts are deceiving us.

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3 ) The medium as a mask –

privacy, morality & the notion of the group

The fact that media can cause us to (unawarely) behave different to each other, is something that Eva van der Velden and myself experienced in real life with our project Heartbeat Harmony. Just like Public/Private, Heartbeat Harmony is a concept for a miniature, web-like situation.

The principle was as follows:

Heartbeat Harmony selected a match by comparing the heartbeats of the attendees. When attendees placed their finger on one of the sensors, their heart rate was being measured. The software compared the heart rate to those of other attendees. When the hearts were in the same cadence, this was visualized with a line.

In advance, we wondered whether participants would be willing to show their heart beat to strangers. In practice it appeared that people did not object at all. On the contrary: By participating people became more open to each other and dared to have a chat with people they didn't know. There were three things that stood out:

1) In the first instance, attendees were mostly concerned with themselves. They were mesmerized by their own heartbeat. When attendees did not form a match with others, they generally became disappointed.

2) The medium was functioning as a mask: Attendees could have a chat without having to look at each other, because they were looking at the display on the ground. This made it easier to start a conversation.

3) The notion of the group was crucial: When installed at a festival, Heartbeat Harmony could sometimes remain unused minutes after minutes. But this could change very sudden: Often only one or two pioneers could cause a crowd of curiosity, leaving no vacant space left: Sometimes the crowd of spectators around the installation was so big that the people in the back couldn't even see what was happening, and yet they stayed anyway.

4 ) Social media & the swarm -

Our collective behavior

Also in daily life web-related media affect our behavior. Social media are an example: Because social media make it so easy to share things with others, we share more things with more people. Also the things we normally would keep to ourselves. And it is difficult to not partake in it. The use of social media is something that is imposed by the group. If you decide not to join, then you are cutting yourself off. And this does not only have implications for yourself. Thus, the demand of the group is decisive, and it is different from the individual opinions of the group. There is not necessarily a leader, but it's rather the interpersonal tendencies and processes that determine what happens. Like in a swarm. And in the perspective of the swarm, also the not doing, can be percieved as an action. This form of collectivity can be perceived in all web-related media. It seems an intrinsic property of these media that they magnify group behavior.

5 ) Show off,
don't tell –

The Internet folly

Glamour stars were the gods of the 20th century. They were distant and unreachable, but yet so easy to identify with and so close to our hearts. Maybe it was because of their unreachability, that we are so fond of them, because they appeal so much to the imagination. Nowadays we are both the reciever and the messenger in the media paradigm. Web based media allow us to send an (manipulated) image of ourselves into the world. Self-dissimulation, something that was previously reserved for stars in films, has become a new norm.

But where film is able to tell stories and to transmit feelings, the web on the other hand is more likely to cause a decay of these human qualities:

Film is a perfect extension of our emotions. Film allows us to feel what another person feels, because it offers us a peek over the shoulder of the main characters of the story. Web based media are missing this quality because they often -intrinsically- are inducing an overload of information. Thereby, causal, contextual and narrative features are becoming overshadowed. This results in a much more fragmented picture of the situation, in which the way we are profiling ourselves is becoming increasingly important.

In the folly culture that emerges by this, everything must be measurable and able to communicate clearly to the outside. The risk is that this may lead to shallowness. Because things communicate best when they are especially 'cute', 'nice', 'shocking' or 'spectacular'. Therefore subtle or complicated things get a chance less easily. The cinematic axiom "Show, don't tell" (a rule in cinema, implying that movie-dialogues may not refer to anything that is not in the picture) takes on a whole different meaning in the context of the web. It is all about visibility.

Surprisingly enough, it are often the things on the edge of the acceptable, that clearly reveal what is happening. Take Chatroulette for example: Chatroulette is a social medium wich enables you to have video-chat conversations with random strangers from around the world. It allows you to type against each other and to click each other away if you don't like the conversation. It is astonishing to see what happens when you give people this means: Chatroulette is a platform for the most basal and vulgar scenario's imaginable. Due to Chatroulette other people really remain 'others'. They are degraded to a screen somewhere far away, about which you don't have to worry, and to which you can say and do anything you want, because it does not matter.

Although Chatroulette seems very repellent to me, I find it very interesting as a phenomonem. It is a perfect metaphor for the problems that we could be facing as technology becomes more important to our lives. It could be seen as a warning sign that without the right strategies, the web may result into an immense superficiality. And in a dehumanisation of "the others", wich will eventually imply a loss of our own humanness as well.

Epilogue

I am a conservative regarding social media. I think it is important to stay critical and to ask questions about media and technology. I consider it my role as an artist to reflect on technological formats and social paradigms in society. In order to do so, I am creating new media-formats myself, to test an try to see what happens, and to deconstruct the mechanisms behind our technologies.

Marleen Andela - February 2012

Marleen Andela is an independent artistic researcher with an interest in code

e: info@marleenandela.com

t: +31 620357180

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