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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (Talk for UIC Communications Dept, March 12, 2014)
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Seeing Ourselves Through Technology (Talk for UIC Communications Dept, March 12, 2014)


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How we use blogs, selfies and wearable devices to see and shape ourselves.

How we use blogs, selfies and wearable devices to see and shape ourselves.

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  • This semester I’m writing a book about how we use technology to see ourselves. I’m going to be exploring many of the kinds of self-representation we see online. There are three clear modes of self-representation: textual (diaries and autobiographies), visual (self-portraits, photo albums, scrapbooks) and quantitative (visualisations, data collection).
    (During the presentation of this talk to the communications department at UIC, someone asked about musical self-representation, and what about dance? There are probably other modes of self-representation I could look at, though I think these three are the most important online at the moment. Perhaps curation should be seen as a fourth mode. Steve Jones noted that Will Straw had written interesting things about self-curation in relation to record collections. Certainly Pinterest and Tumblr and various other media set curation as key.)
  • I’m also talking about personal media, not mass media, and not professional art or literature.
    The quote above is a slight simplification of what Marika Lüders actually says, but more or less her point – she wants us to focus not only on mass media, as media studies has tended to do in the twentieth century, but also on personal media, which include digital and non-digital (pre-digital) forms, such as diaries, scrapbooks, phone calls.
  • This is personal, self-representational media.
    This is a couple of pages from a school diary I used in my last year of high school, in 1990. There’s clearly a template here (dated boxes, the idea of writing down appointments, plans and homework that is due), but really most of it is embellished freely. However, there’s clearly symbiosis with mass culture. The flower power reference, the sort of adapted drawing for someone vaguely The Cure-ish, a poem copied in (by popular Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold). Note of a movie I saw with a friend.
  • Here’s another example of personal, self-representational media: a traditional photo album. Photos glued in in order with annotations. Meant to be shared with friends and family.
  • I’m writing a book about this - that’s my project for my sabbatical here at UIC. Here’s how I’m organising the book - I’ll talk a little about each of these, but won’t really follow the table of contents. I hope that this talk will give you an idea of the range of cultural material and the approaches I’m interested in. And I would love feedback!
  • There’s a long history of self-representation, and some argue that the first time anyone drew anything - with a stick in the sand, or on a cave wall - it was unavoidably an act of self-representation. Self-portraits and in particular diaries and autobiographies have been strongly connected to the development of an idea of the “self”, too, which really didn’t exist as we know it until the modern era. The ancient Greeks and even earlier cultures did have an idea of the soul, however, which was in many ways similar to our idea of the self. Know thyself and take care of yourself were twin principles to the ancient Greeks, and self-care was a necessary prerequisitite to self-knowledge. However, as Foucault has pointed out, taking care of yourself was largely forgotten in our Christian “morality of aesceticism”.
    Writing about oneself was rare until the late 1500s, although Augustine’s Confessions from the 4th century are a famous piece of self-writing, and there are some examples later too. Of course, only 20-30% of Europeans could write around the year 1600, and it wasn’t until the late 1800s that 80-90% of Europeans could write. So clearly textual self-representation was a practice only for the elite up until more or less the last century. (Chartier 2001, 125).)
  • distortion of the mirror. Technology that helps us see ourselves also changes us
    We can never see ourselves the way that others see us. Also: others can never see us the way we see ourselves.
    Self-portraits are both an attempt to see ourselves and an attempt to show others they way WE think we look.
  • The story of this photo is fascinating - Bayard discovered photography before Daguerre, but was not acknowledged for it. This was him showing himself as though he had killed himself over the lack of acknowledgement. You could never see yourself with closed eyes before photography (or, I suppose, if somebody painted or drew your portrait with closed eyes). This is also the first staged photo, deliberately NOT a direct relationship image-reality.
    See also:
    Michal Sapir. “The Impossible Photograph: Hippolyte Bayard's Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man.” Modern Fiction Studies 40.3 (1994) 619-629.
  • No surprise then, that people like to feel knowledge about and power over themselves.
    (terri senft calls it a grab. Physical, skin to skin, doing something with it and also “up for grabs”, open to interpretation. Not gaze anymore.)
    “The camera expanded the possibilities of self-portraiture. It can bar the viewer from possessing the photographer.” (Seeing Ourselves)
    “Given how often they swapped their broadcaster/audience roles with one another and with fans, I realized I needed to speak about the circulation of camgirl images less in terms of a traditional filmic gaze and more as a series of “grabs” (Senft: 2008:46). I chose this word because of its relation to skin: grab means to grasp, to seize for a moment, to capture (an object, attention), and perhaps most significant: to leave open for interpretation, as in the saying “up for grabs.””
  • From the book “Seeing Ourselves”:
    “Interwar photographer - androgynous and disturbing - relishing the power of being able to turn the camera’s eye on the world.”
    Germain Krull, on the other hand, keeps the camera as a barrier between herself and the world.
  • This is my first phone that was designed for selfies. It was before smartphones, but had a little mirror right next to the lens that allowed you to see yourself as you photographed.
    I didn’t realise there WAS a mirror there until I took my first photo of myself - which I did about a minute after I’d charged the battery and started using the phone. What that tiny concave circle of polished metal does is show you your own face when you’re taking your own self-portrait.
    How clever, I thought.
    Later I though good heavens. Cameras didn’t used to come with mirrors!
  • One of the chapters in my book is titled “Filtered Reality”. Filters were popularised by Instagram and smartphone apps like Hipstamatic, but of course they have existed before, only less easily appliable by amateurs.
    I use filters in the literal sense: a filter applied to a photograph. But I also use it metaphorically to talk about the ways in which technology very visibly distorts our self-representations. Sometimes we deliberately select a filter. Sometimes we are unaware of how our data, our text, our images are being processed.
    Filters are technological. But they can also be cultural. This filter is a great example - it was one of the defaults when Apple’s Photobooth came out, but of course it is copying Andy Warhol’s famous paintings.
  • (Does that matter, though? And aren’t our images always mediated through the work of others? If not through the code written by app designers in Palo Alto, then by the mechanics of a camera designed and redesigned by a series of people? No photographer is in control of the whole process. The best one can do is choose between different apps, cameras, processes, chemicals, software, papers all made by other people. It’s interesting how the idea of the lone genius still remains.)
  • Many (most? all?) trends in visual self-representation online are direct descendents of earlier art. Perhaps they are not aware of their artist ancestors. But artists almost always came up with these ideas a decade or two before they became mass phenomena on the internet.
  • A wedding is always-already imagined as a memory, as a story.
  • Even when people make their own pregnancy journals they follow the same cultural templates. Congratulations – first gifts – first ultrasound…
  • But it’s not really commerical media we should be talking about. It’s not even Facebook. It’s Apple and Samsung and Google and NSA Prism.
  • This is where I’m moving to talk about the third form of self-representation: the quantitative.
    We love to measure things.
  • (tracking my baby’s sleep - this is from when she was four months old. She’s now in kindergarten and thankfully sleeps through the night.)
  • This is the calendar on my mac. I didn’t realise it provided a sort of view of my life until I looked at the year view of previous years.
  • This is cultural, not just technological. Neoliberalism, Alice Marwick argues in Status Update. We think that detailed measurement is more “fair” and even “true” than alternatives. In some ways, perhaps it is. Apparently this system was introduced because before, whichever dept whined the loudest to the dean was given available new positions. Now at least there is a comparable system. But can it really measure everything? Is it “the truth”?
  • From Wikimedia Commons: “This photo shows the inside of an Ybor City cigar factory, circa 1920. It's from the historical collection of the Tampa-Hillsborough County Public library, and it's been published in MANY books and magazine articles concerning Ybor City, is reproduced (in huge dimensions) on the inside wall of Ybor Square, and has been painted into a couple of murals around town showing local history. It's definitely in the public domain.”
  • Back to the social media marketing strategist from the frozen fish company in Bergen. Measurements.
  • Look at what this app can measure about sex. Duration, thrusts, decibels - yes, that does happen to be one cultural version of what sex is about, but it’s also, not at all coincidentally, what the iPhone, laid on a bed, is capable of measuring.
  • So what exactly should we be measuring to understand sex? Can everything really be measured?
  • This is the part I promised about technologies of the self. Which I won’t go into right now I’m afraid.
  • And this is the part I promised about real-time narratives. Which I also won’t really go into right now.
  • Transcript

    • 1. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearable Devices to See and Shape Ourselves Parmigianino: Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1524) Jill Walker Rettberg Professor of Digital Culture University of Bergen
    • 2. Three modes of self-representation: Textual Diary: (CC) Ellen Thompson Selfie: (CC) TempusVolut Nicholas Fultron: The Fultron Annual Report, 2007. Visual Quantitative
    • 3. Personal media are the opposite of mass media. Lüders, Marika (2008) ‘Conceptualizing Personal Media’. New Media and Society 10 (6): 683-702.
    • 4. Photo: Jeff Hitchcock (“Arbron”) (CC)
    • 5. Seeing Ourselves Through Technology: How We Use Selfies, Blogs and Wearables to See and Shape Ourselves. 1. Histories of self-representation 2. Selfies 3. Cultivating the Self 4. Filtered Reality 5. Real-Time Diaries 6. Quantified Selves 7. Privacy and Surveillance
    • 6. Why is it not permissible in the same way for each man to portray himself with the pen, as he portrayed himself with the pencil? Montaigne, in Essais (late 16th century)
    • 7. Technology always distorts ...filters
    • 8. ...and allows us to see ourselves as we otherwise cannot First photographic self- portrait: Hippolyte Bayard: Self-portrait as a Drowned Man (1840)
    • 9. To photograph is to appropriate the thing photographed. It means putting oneself into a certain relation to the world that feels like knowledge—and, therefore, like power. Susan Sontag: On Photography (1977) Image (c) Chris Felver
    • 10. Germaine Krull: Self-Portrait with Cigarette and Camera (1925)
    • 11. The photobooth - the first mass market selfie technology
    • 12. The mirror on my phone
    • 13. Filters can be technological. Filters can be cultural.
    • 14. From Damon Winter: Life as a Grunt Alper, Meryl. "War on Instagram: Framing conflict photojournalism with mobile photography apps." New Media & Society (2013): 1461444813504265. It’s not the photographer who has communicated the emotion into the images. It’s not the pain, the suffering or the horror that is showing through. It’s the work of an app designer in Palo Alto who decided that a nice shallow focus and dark faded border would bring out the best in the image. – news photographer Nick Stern, qtd by Meryl Alper Filtered Realities
    • 15. Miles Hochstein: A Documented Life
    • 16. Eleanor Antin: Carving, 1972.
    • 17. Noah Kalina, 2006:
    • 18.
    • 19. People love it – and make their own versions
    • 20.
    • 21. Tehching Hsieh, 1980-1981 Thanks to Mark Jeffery for telling me about this.( )
    • 22. We follow cultural templates both in living and documenting our lives. (CC) Carlos Mendoza
    • 23. Preformatted baby journals are examples of normative discursive strategies that either implicitly or explicitly structure our agencies. Van Dijck, José (2007) Mediated Memories in the Digital Age. Stanford, CA: Stanford UP.
    • 24.
    • 25. What happens when these narrative patterns aren’t hand-crafted but are automatically generated? Image: (CC) Terren in Virginia
    • 26. Manovich, Lev (2009) ‘The Practice of Everyday (Media) Life: From Mass Consumption to Mass Cultural Production.’ Critical Inquiry 35 (2): 319-31. Mass cultural production follows templates set up by the professional entertainment industry. Are we even more firmly colonized by commercial media today than in the 20th century? Image:
    • 27. Social media marketing strategist for Findus Fish at Bergen Chamber of Commerce, Nov 28, 2013 The wonderful thing about digital media is you can measure it.
    • 28. She meant Facebook results. But measuring is also increasingly a way we see ourselves - and others.
    • 29.
    • 30.
    • 31. Sunday at home with the kids. Monday at work. Tuesday - walked to work, used standing desk, more aware of not just sitting still. Fitbit as diary
    • 32. The Shine Misfit uses badges to represent your activity through the day. (the moment the Shine first detected movement - i.e. was picked up - becomes read as my wakeup time)
    • 33. Our technologies track us in many ways we don’t even consider.
    • 34. There are no digital natives but the devices themselves; no digital immigrants but the devices too. They are a diaspora, tentatively reaching out into the world to understand it and themselves, and across the network to find and touch one another. This mapping is a byproduct, part of the process by which any of us, separate and indistinct so long, find a place in the world. James Bridle Machine vision - new aesthetics
    • 35. And of course, often we can’t see the data about us. But others can.
    • 36. (this isn’t new) Benjamin Franklin’s virtues:Temperance, Silence, Order, Resolution, Frugality, Industry, Sincerity, Justice, Moderation, Cleanliness, Chastity, Tranquility, Humility
    • 37. How academic positions are decided at the Humanities Faculty at the University of Bergen (Excerpt from faculty board meeting papers Nov 2013)
    • 38. We bring up our children to expect detailed tracking
    • 39. In the early twentieth century, the technology of public schooling was designed to regulate children to work in factories: children were trained to respond to bells, walk in lines, and perform repetitive tasks. (..) Web 2.0 technologies function similarly, teaching their users to be good corporate citizens in the postindustrial, post-union world by harnessing marketing techniques to boost attention and visibility. Marwick, Status Update, page 12.
    • 40. “You need to measure everything, make adjustments, measure again.” Social media marketing strategist for Findus at Bergen Chamber of Commerce, Nov 28, 2013
    • 41. But what about the things you can’t measure?
    • 42. Measurements don’t give the whole picture? Then measure more. Put up more weather stations. Get more data to create a more complete picture. Anders Brenna (@abrenna) to Bergen Chamber of Commerce, 28 Nov 2013.
    • 43. So what should we add?
    • 44. Self-documentation for self-improvement (Chapter 3)
    • 45. @jilltxt on Twitter Blogging 2nd ed (Polity Press, 2013) I’d love feedback!!