Category Archives: Early Adoption of Technology

Revealing Generation Text: A Video Documentary on Cell Phones in High School

“Mobile phones are a way of life for Generation Text.”
–Craig Watkins, The Young and the Digital

As anyone who reads my blog knows, I am a big supporter of digital and multimedia literacies in higher education. Since my postdoctoral work at the Institute of Multimedia Literacy back in the early ’00s, I have been researching and writing about uses of new media and new technologies in the classroom. In each of my academic appointments at Saint Mary’s College and IUPUI, I also have experimented with multimedia literacies in my own pedagogy, frequently putting into practice and evaluating best practices around new technologies and their potential to improve student learning outcomes. And my own courses typically revolve around project-based learning. I prefer (whenever possible) to have my students create multimedia projects as a major learning component. Probably no surprise again, but I’m a big fan of higher order processes in learning (following Bloom’s famous taxonomy) and find project-based learning to yield marvelous moments of synthesis and evaluation.

However, my focus to date has been exclusively on new technologies and their applications in higher education. But that changed earlier this year when I got the opportunity to collaborate with my younger brother on an Oppenheimer Family Foundation grant. My brother, Bob Edwards, is a teacher at Phoenix Military Academy, a high school in the Chicago Public School district. Bob has been similarly interested in the role of new technologies in the classroom. I was thrilled to hear that he had won a Teacher Incentive Grant from the Oppenheimer Family Foundation. This grant is designed to support project-based learning in the Chicago Public Schools. My brother’s winning proposal was:

 Revealing Generation Text:
Students will research cell phone usage, investigating how texting is affecting teenagers. They will create a documentary film disclosing their findings.

My brother asked me to be a part of his project, since he knew of my areas of interest and because he was planning on making a documentary film involving teams of his students from his senior-year Creative Writing class. Together we carved out a plan to have his students work in small teams with dedicated assignments. Each team would interview students, teachers, and administrators to hear their thoughts and observations about Generation Text and student texting. Moreover, we decided each team would additionally focus on a different issue related to Generation Text and the cell phone polices of Chicago Public Schools:

  1. What is and what should be the cell phone policy in Chicago Public Schools?
  2. What are the pros and cons of cell phone confiscation by teachers and administrators?
  3. How can cell phones be used as learning tools?
  4. What would a world without cell phones look like?

Using the money from the grant, we were able to purchase four Cisco Flip cams HD. A quick aside about Flipcams: I am aware that Cisco has ceased support for this project in April 2011, but it was a great tool for us, especially for its ease of use, the quality of its picture, and in my opinion, the quality of its small internal microphone. The Flip cams worked easily and flawlessly for our documentary and it’s a shame that this product is no longer going to be on the market.

The students spent several weeks arranging for their interviews and shooting their videos. We got lots of great footage from each team, and then set about assembling the final cut.

You can see the final results for yourself here by watching the video, which we just completed, and was just screened for the Oppenheimer Family Foundation and a group of first year students at Phoenix Military Academy.

I want to say a few more words about the documentary and what I learned. Overall, we wanted to have the student voices take center stage and present a balance portrait of the everyday realities of cell phone uses and abuses in Chicago Public Schools. As someone who has worked exclusively in higher education, I can say the video was very illuminating to me. I consider myself up to date on the literature around cell phones in higher education, so I was surprised to learn about some of the very real problems created by cell phone uses in K-12 education.

While I expected to hear about the cell phone as a tool of “distraction” (and this was a major theme echoed by all participants in the video), the cell phone is also a tool for bullying in K-12. I wasn’t aware of this as I began working on the documentary. As the Pew Internet and American Life Project noted last year,

Over a quarter (26%) of teen cell phone users reported having been harassed by someone else through their cell phone. Girls are significantly more likely to experience this (30%) than boys (22%). This trend is more common for those teens whose parents are under 40 and low in educational attainment.

Responses in the focus groups were split with regard to how serious of a problem this is. Some teens clearly believe this is major problem with serious social and psychological consequences, while others feel that it is “not really a big deal.”

Bullying and student fights came up as a big issue in our documentary. One reason for the “zero tolerance” ban in Chicago Public Schools is to stop the problem of bullying by cell phone. Therefore, educators who are trying to experiment with educational uses for cell phones have to be aware of the negative uses of this technology among K-12 students.

On the positive flipside, it was great to see the eagerness with which students embrace the new capabilities of cell phones, especially smart phones. However, there is something of a “cell phone arms race” among high school students with students wanting not just a cell phone, but the “right” cell phone. Clearly there is a digital divide between high school students who have cell phones and those who have smart phones. This divide, especially in terms of social capital among one’s peers, appears to be a much greater gap than the one between students who have laptops and students who have no laptops. The role of texting and mobile communication in student’s everyday lives is primary in this regard. Students see their cell phone as an extension of their identity and life style (many students commented on how confiscation of their phone was literally “the end of their world;” hyperbolic, perhaps, but the sentiment is genuine).

In one segment, a group of students that ran “speed tests” between a laptop and a mobile phone (running Android 2.0). These students were able to demonstrate that they could get faster results from Google through their mobile phone connection than the laptop running on the school’s wireless network. What intrigues me about this is that the students are aware of these speed differences. You get a sense that the mobile generation is deeply savvy about connection speeds – a useful thing to be aware of—especially if your “life” is being conducted through a mobile device.

Most of the other major insights we found are in the final video itself, but I was glad to hear that the students themselves are aware of how the cell phone can be a distraction. There is no doubt that many students are surreptitiously texting each other all day long, and as long as the policy is “zero tolerance,” students will continue to do their best to keep their texting out of sight. But even against the backdrop of “texting as distraction,” many students are keenly interested in exploring how cell phones can be used as educational tools. A good sampling of those possible uses can be found in the Speak Up 2010 Survey, which surveyed high school students on what they would like to use cell phones for during the school day:

  • Check grades
  • Conduct research
  • Take notes in class
  • Collaborate with friends
  • Use the calendar
  • Send an email
  • Access online textbooks
  • Check out school activities
  • Create and share videos

That list is a good starting point for conversation and reminds me of how I use my iPhone professionally. I anticipate that the most common counter-argument among K-12 teachers would be computer labs and laptops can fulfill these functions, but not without some caveats. Certain smart phones are great video tools and are much easier than checking out a video camera from the AV closet. Moreover, in many school districts, students are much more likely to have cell phones rather than laptops (due to the difference in expense, even with having to pay a monthly wireless plan), and we have to be cognizant of this “digital divide” as well. Finally, if we don’t bring cell phones in our classrooms, we run the risk of having students miss opportunities to use a mobile device as a component of a formal learning exercise rather than as a personal texting or game playing tool. As we state in the documentary (quoting Liz Kolb), educators can take a lead role in teaching students how to use cell phones more ethically, a key lesson for preparing them for 21st century learning and professional occupations.

Of course, as the video taught me, we have to tread carefully around the topic of cell phones in high schools. They have many positive uses, but also great potential downsides. My sense  is that what may happen going forward are some small modifications to the current “zero tolerance” policies in many high schools and exploring ways of using cell phones in a limited capacity as educational tools.

Personally I think it is worth the effort to experiment with cell phones due to their popularity and their ability to bring students into the classroom. Revealing Generation Text ends with a student who recalls that the cell phone is a communication tool and wouldn’t it be great if cell phones led towards more communication between students and teachers? That’s a vision I would love to see come to fruition some day.

All in all, I am very thankful my brother invited me to be a part of his grant and documentary video project. Thanks also to the Oppenheimer Family Foundation, the musician Moby who gave us permission to use his song “Flying Foxes,” and all the teachers, administrators, and students who participated in our project. I learned a lot about cell phones in K-12 education.

I would love to hear feedback on this video and the thoughts of other educators who have been or might be considering using cell phones in their classrooms or schools.

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The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup (Part 1 of 2)

I give Terry Gross and Jay-Z credit for the timing of this blog entry.

On November 16, 2010, Jay-Z appeared NPR’s “Fresh Air” with Terry Gross. Jay-Z was on a media blitz surrounding his new book that was released that day, Decoded–part autobiography, part analysis and discussion of his most provocative songs. As I was listening my ears perked up when Terry Gross asked him what he thought about The Grey Album, an unauthorized remix-mashup of his Black Album done in 2002 by DJ Danger Mouse. For fans familiar with previous comments on The Grey Album, Jay-Z’s response to Terry Gross was not surprising:

“I think it was a really strong album. I champion any form of creativity. And that was a genius idea to do, and it sparked so many others like it. It’s really good. … I was honored someone took the time to mash those records up with Beatles records. I was honored to be on quote-unquote the same song with The Beatles.”

DJ Danger Mouse’s “genius idea” is something I’ve been thinking about since I first learned about The Grey Album back on Grey Tuesday (Feb. 24, 2004). This is a paper in which I address The Grey Album as a critical moment in the cultural reception and popularity of the mashup in the digital age. As Jay-Z notes, “it sparked so many others like it.” In fact since 2004, the influence and the legacies of the Grey Album have come into sharper relief. What started out as an underground project is now fully mainstream. And as Jay-Z’s comments reminded me, The Grey Album is still a very relevant topic, one that continues to be brought up in discussions of culture, digital and otherwise. Moreover, there is a tendency in writing about digital culture–as a kind of history of the present–to focus on the latest phenomenon, the newest tech wrinkle, this day’s RSS feed. Today’s blog entry desires to fight against that tendency and I am curious to explore if time has given me any new perspectives on The Grey Album.

Today’s blog entry traces its roots back to 2006. This is a slightly revised version of a paper I presented twice in 2006, but never published. As always, I welcome feedback on these ideas. In revising this paper I realize that it bears many of the marks and quirks of digital culture circa 2006. It’s amazing how fast things have been changing lately. The earliest version of this paper was written prior to rise of Facebook, and while Youtube was still a fairly new phenomenon. But I am leaving in many of my original thoughts and potentially dated references in this time period since it is a kind of snapshot: a moment of early adoption of a nascent cultural practice.

Due to its length, I will publish it in two separate blog entries, but it is intended as one paper.

The Greying of the Internet: The Grey Album and the Rise of the Mashup


“Now can I get an encore? Do you want more?”

–Jay-Z, from the song “Encore”

1. Yesterday and Today

At the 2006 Grammys, rap artist Jay-Z and the nu-metal band Linkin Park won an award for Best Rap/Sung Collaboration for their hit single, “Numb/Encore,” which took Linkin Park’s musical riffs from their song “Numb” and combined it with Jay-Z’s lyrics for his song “Encore.” In essence, the collaboration amounted to something that DJs have been doing for a long time; namely, it was a mash-up, a musical remix genre that operates according to recombinatory logic. The mash-up takes the vocal tracks from one song and combines it with the instrumental tracks of a different song. As Jay-Z and the multiple members of Linkin Park crowded around the podium to accept their 2006 Grammy award, the first persons mentioned in the “thank you” speeches were not record companies, family members, friends, fellow musicians or even agents; rather Chester Benington of Linkin Park thanked the lawyers who made this mash-up possible. Welcome to the world of remixes and mashups, where this type of collaboration, even when pursued by the original copyright holders themselves, runs into a gamut of legal obstacles, and successfully navigating the labyrinth of the copyright industries is as important an artistic challenge as creating new music from the loops and samples of pre-existing lyrics, beats and rhythms.

However, that was all prologue to the moment when things got really strange at the 2006 Grammys. After winning the award, Jay-Z and Chester Benington gave a live performance of “Numb/Encore,” and towards the end of the song they where joined live on stage by Sir Paul McCartney who started to sing the classic Beatles song “Yesterday.” While it might have been just the usual superstar pairing of famous artists, which frequently occurs at these types of award shows, this appearance was different. There was clearly an intention behind the performance, even if that ostensible purpose was not being publicly declared in the moment.

Jay-Z, Sir Paul McCartney, Chester Benington (Grammys 2006)

Why did Paul McCartney perform with a rapper and a nu-metal band, and what in any case did “Numb/Encore” have to do with a classic Beatle tune? This live performance provoked strong reactions. It led more than one online fan to exclaim that it “might be a sign of the apocalypse,” and Tom Breihan of The Village Voice deemed it a “truly inexplicable cultural moment.” But even in less dramatic terms, “Yesterday”‘s appearance within the musical context of “Numb/Encore” probably left many members of the viewing audience simply scratching their heads. While it may have resembled something like a pop music Rorschach test, it really was a litmus test.

For anyone familiar with 2004’s Internet-based smash-hit The Grey Album, Paul McCartney singing alongside Jay-Z and Benington was an acknowledgement of a maturing and powerful cultural logic. But one’s reaction to the performance was contingent on one’s relation to remix culture. Record company executives had to be upset by the performance, which on some level, validated copyright violators and a post-Napster peer-to-peer music sharing mentality that many of them find anathema. It reminded many consumers who legally purchased Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s song that it came out of “free” or “folk” remix gestures, and moreover this was not the first time that Jay-Z’s lyrics were associated with the music of the Beatles. For the performers themselves, musical legacies were at stake: Paul McCartney continued to assert the importance of his Beatles’ work in the age of hip-hop, and Jay-Z publicly demonstrated his role as a risk-taking rapper and pop music mogul. However if one was completely unfamiliar with remix culture, it was likely that the performance sounded like a cacophonous confusion of rap, metal and pop–a failed supergroup moment that was much less than the sum of its parts.

And while it would be hard to quantify how many members of the audience knew about its connection to remix culture, for those who had listened to The Grey Album–especially millenials or net-gens brought up on mp3 downloads, hip-hop and iPods–the irony of the song’s title “Yesterday” would not have been completely lost on them, even though they were not even born when Beatlemania burst forth on American television screens on the Ed Sullivan Show. What ultimately brought Jay-Z, Linkin Park, and Paul McCartney together that night in March 2006 was something fiercely contemporary–an experiment just two years earlier by Brian Burton, better known as a British DJ who goes by the psuedonym of Danger Mouse.

2. DJ Danger Mouse and The Grey Album

“It was my intent to create an art project.”

–Brian Burton aka DJ Danger Mouse

Danger Mouse

DJ Danger Mouse got his name from his favorite cartoon, a 1980s British animated mouse of the same name, and Danger Mouse’s relationship to animated characters occurs throughout his creative output. In addition to a cartoon character supplying his DJ persona, Danger Mouse has worked with alt-rapper MF Doom on the 2004 release “The Mouse and The Mask,” which contains guest appearances from Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim cartoon characters like Brak from Space Ghost Coast to Coast. Also, in 2005, he worked as a producer with the Gorillaz on their album, Demon Days, and the Gorillaz are an “animated band” that does not really exist. When asked to describe his style in 2004, Danger Mouse called it “bastard pop” along the lines of his commercial successes like his early work with Jemini on the album Ghetto Pop Life. For his hit, “Crazy,” he collaborated with singer Cell-Lo Green as part of Gnarls Barkley. “Crazy” in April 2006 set a record in the UK for being the first single ever to reach the top of the British pop charts on the strength of Internet downloads alone.

Danger Mouse (Brian Burton) on set of TRL in 2008

For DJ Danger Mouse, it seems as if his contention that the “art is more important than the artist” is ringing true. His work spans multiple and ever-changing personas, including his recent involvement in Broken Bells, his collaboration with Shins lead vocalist and guitarist James Mercer.[1] While he has worked successfully for several years now in commercial music circles, a large measure of his acclaim comes from projects like “Crazy” and The Grey Album that begin their lives as Internet phenomena.

In early 2004, DJ Danger Mouse created The Grey Album, a mash-up of tracks from Jay-Z’s The Black Album with musical samples from the Beatles’ White Album. It was a high concept project. The blending of the high modernism of the Beatles’ White Album with the postmodernism of Jay-Z’s a cappela vocals from The Black Album has a wonderful dialectical ring to it, and in practice, the melding of these two musical artifacts–which might have seemed very incompatible–is a successful and groundbreaking effort. For example, in the song, “99 Problems” Jay-Z’s hard-core raps are matched by the sonic debris of the raging guitar riffs from Helter Skelter. For Jay-Z’s “Encore,” Danger Mouse sampled the vocal hook “Oh Yeah” and the guitar lead from the song “Glass Onion” with the infectious pop instrumentality of George Harrison’s “Savory Truffle.” In many ways, the samples turned the original Beatles songs inside out. Danger Mouse’s skillful mashups and the overall concept captivated fans of remix culture. Many of the tracks were considered “better” than the originally released version on The Black Album.

Originally, DJ Danger Mouse had planned on making only a few copies of his remix experiment (according to published reports, he planned on a limited run of 3,000 copies), so he did not bother at all with attempting to get rights clearances to the Beatles’ tunes he was sampling. And prior to digital music on the Internet, Danger Mouse’s remix would most likely have been released as a 12″ specialty vinyl EP, restricted to being played in a few dance clubs, sold in a few record stores in the import remix bins, and never moved beyond the bounds of its sub-cultural and/or underground origins and circulation. However, The Grey Album received widespread notoriety when EMI (one of the copyright owners of the Beatles’ musical catalog) sued DJ Danger Mouse for copyright infringement. This action had the opposite effect than EMI intended. As Mike D. of the Beastie Boys has said, “What can be cooler than being sued by the Beatles?”[2] Downhill Battle, a music activism group, took up Danger Mouse’s cause, and the resulting event was Grey Tuesday, where Downhill Battle lined up websites to host the digital files of The Grey Album to distribute the tracks as widely as possible on the Internet. On the protest’s biggest day–Tuesday, February 24, 2004–the tracks of The Grey Album had at least one million downloads, making it the number one album in the United States that day, outperforming such commercial artists like Norah Jones and Kanye West.

Subsequently, spurred on by DJ Danger Mouse’s “success,” other mainstream artists were remixed with Jay-Z’s a cappela tracks, resulting in similar projects with the music of Weezer, Pavement, Prince, and Metallica. One video project also emerged from this moment, Ramon and Pedro’s The Grey Video, which was a video mash-up of film clips from the Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night with concert footage of Jay-Z, and some original green screen effects and additional motion graphics. However, the project probably had its most interesting outcome when Jay-Z himself decided to release remixes of tracks from the Black Album. Lining up the nu metal band Linkin Park, Jay-Z embarked upon a project under the auspices of  “MTV’s Ultimate Mash-Ups.” Released in November 2004, the mash-up track “Numb/Encore” garnered a Grammy nomination, and the rest, as they say, is history.

The many lives of the Grey Album and its influence on remix culture in an age of social media is the focus of this paper. I believe that the “grey” in the title of Danger Mouse’s project is a useful metaphor for understanding changes now underway on computer-mediated networks. There has been a “greying” of the Internet in two senses.

First, embodied by the logic of a mashup, a “grey” Internet is emerging as people, laws, codes, corporations, governments and technology remix the very foundations of the Internet, and blur the boundaries between utopian and dystopian possibilities for the medium. Emergent online realities are neither the “white” cyberspace frontier fantasy of the pre-Dotcom era nor the “black” Big Brother corporate enclosure model. The Internet is more “grey” than ever, especially in its privileging of individual agency in the network architecture (participatory culture), in the tensions between social networking and privacy concerns, and in encouraging remix aesthetics in a legal and corporate system diametrically opposed to it.

Secondly, the Internet is “greying” as it ages. In this sense, it is a “living web,” a network of sites that learned from the youthful indiscretions, a network that grew up in the aftermath of the Dotcom era. This “greying” Internet is being bombarded by problems generated  by growth and necessity: questions of net neutrality, battles among Internet giants such as Google and Amazon, the rise of the mobile web, and the enclosures created by social networks such as Facebook. It is not surprising to me that Tim Berners-Lee has just come out to defend the youthful vision of his Web in a Scientific American article. 1989 seems so long ago in digital time. Intriguing, in the sense of “greying” that I am advancing here, Berners-Lee states in his article:

“Yet people seem to think the Web is some sort of piece of nature, and if it starts to wither, well, that’s just one of those unfortunate things we can’t help. Not so. We create the Web, by designing computer protocols and software; this process is completely under our control. We choose what properties we want it to have and not have. It is by no means finished (and it’s certainly not dead).” (Scientific American, Nov. 22, 2010)

The Grey Album is an intriguing cultural experiment to follow: it moved from relative obscurity to mainstream visibility, from a DJ-based subculture to mainstream commercial television, from a singular remix to a plurality of remixes, from an audio-only project into a host of creative enterprises. The Grey Album is not a monolithic story of alternative media production. Following traces of the project through the cores and peripheries of folk and commercial cultures, The Grey Album resembles not so much an object as a “net of nets,” a blurred and blurring cultural meme, moving rhizomatically through the “meshworks” of an increasingly distributed Internet platform.

3. DJs, Remix Culture and Social Media

“We need to think of music as information, not simply as rhythms, but as codes for aesthetic transformation between blurred categories that have slowly become more and more obsolete. For me, the DJ metaphor is about thinking around the concept of collage and its place in the everyday world of information, computational modeling, and conceptual art.”

–DJ Spooky

This paper is predicated on two premises. First, remix culture has become a dominant mode of cultural production, a nexus of activities through which we can better understand what is happening in today’s global, computer-mediated networks. Second, the Internet, as a site of cultural production, is in a period of change, most commonly referred to today as Web 2.0, but also known as social computing. Social computing finds its greatest examples in new forms of online collaboration and media sharing such as blogging, podcasting, wikis, photo-sharing services like Flickr, video sharing services as Youtube, online communities like Facebook and Second Life, and online merchants such as Amazon.com, Netflix and iTunes.

As a mode of production, remix activities continue to grow in popularity. I like Bernard Schutze’s observation that “in remixing, one acts upon existing cultural materials pilfered from the vast landfills of the already mixed and mediated landscape.”[3] Remix artists foreground social interaction and cultural communication, and remixes blur boundaries and privilege polysemy. But this is far from a new phenomenon. It has a long history. Contemporary remix culture connects to many aesthetic movements in the 20th century, especially certain privileged moments of modernist art. It comes out of an artistic continuum that contains a wide array of visual and audio precursors: Sergei Eisenstein’s montage, Marcel Duchamp’s readymades, Andre Breton’s surrealist games, William Burrough’s cut-ups, Joseph Cornell’s assemblages, Roy Lichtenstein’s and Andy Warhol’s pop art, Joseph Beuys’ performance art, James Tenney’s avant-garde music, Grand Master Flash’s scratching, and John Oswald’s plunderphonics, to just begin to scratch the surface. But it has been in the realm of digital media, that remix culture has truly flourished and moved from a mostly high art aesthetic into a practice of everyday life.

PCs and Macs now come equipped, right out of the box, with basic creativity programs that allow even the least artistic computer users to engage in some forms of remix. There are many available online tools that encourage remix practices. Plugging into remix culture has never been easier. End-users on millions of computers can be nonchalant about the “aura” of the artist, and decenter the “author function” to the very margins of the mode of production. Users of Adobe Photoshop can create image-collages that required sophisticated knowledge of photographic emulsion just a generation before. Apple Computer’s and its suite of iLife programs, including Garageband, iPhoto and iMovie, encourage remix aesthetics in their very programming and pre-set templates such as iMovie’s new trailer remix tool. Garageband comes pre-loaded with thousands of musical samples, and users are encouraged to make their own “original” compositions out of these pre-recorded musical bits. Articles in Wired Magazine actively promote this as an “age of remix,” where this is a dominant mode of cultural production. Never before have amateur media producers had such professional tools at their disposal as they do in the current moment. We are witnessing the rise of the “pro-amateur class” in media production.

The pro-amateur is not only a key authorial presence in remix culture, but in digital media culture and on digital networks generally. In many ways, the pro-amateur is also important in educational circles, where digital creativity is increasingly finding its way into the curriculum and is considered an important skill for productive labor in the 21st century. According to scientist John Seely Brown,

“Most of what we learn we learn with and from each other [involves] doing things, things that matter to us. For example, the capability of today’s more participatory web starts to enable us to form communities of interest and to build and share things together. The remix movements are an obvious example…what I see unfolding is an organic culture of learning for us all…. from sports fanatics to geeks to authors, artists and amateur astronomers. Let’s just call it the rise of the pro-amateur class–serious explorations and creations we do for the love of doing it. Remember the term amateur comes from the Latin ‘amatour’ meaning for love. This more learner-centric, socially based learning, will enable us to keep up with the pace of change and enable us to feel comfortable with having multiple careers as both we and the world unfold at a challenging pace.” [4]

In this sense, many DJs are pro-amateurs, as we will see in the case of DJ Danger Mouse. But bloggers, podcasters, and alternative news services like Indymedia.org, the Daily Kos, or Moveon.org are other great examples of the pro-amateur. It is not amateur as in the words most negative senses–“inferior,” “unprofessional” or “naïve”–but amateur as operating outside of the imperatives of industrial culture. Avant–garde filmmaker Maya Deren, among others, has persuasively shown that the amateur might in fact have certain advantages over paid professionals in the culture industries. In most cases, there are no or limited commercial imperatives behind blogging or podcasting or alternative news services. We are witnessing an explosion of amateur producers who are creating what Yochai Benkler would deem a “wealth of networks” that is revolutionizing the way we locate information, obtain our news, and participate in shared cultural activity. This has spawned a large diversity of creative productions that challenges existing notions of mass media and traditional communication apparatuses.

But these changes are not happening in a cultural or technological vacuum. We are in the era of social media. In 2006, this new term has had its “coming out” party in major periodicals like Newsweek, which calls social computing the “new wisdom of the web” or “the living web.”[5] Tim O’Reilly, of O’Reilly Media, is one of the major thinkers behind a new conception of “design patterns and business models” for software development involving online networks.[6] It is useful to remind ourselves of the initial expectations surrounding social media. Before the term had widespread currency, O’Reilly said that:

“Web 2.0 is the network as platform, spanning all connected devices; Web 2.0 applications are those that make the most of the intrinsic advantages of that platform: delivering software as a continually-updated service that gets better the more people use it, consuming and remixing data from multiple sources, including individual users, while providing their own data and services in a form that allows remixing by others, creating network effects through an “architecture of participation,” and going beyond the page metaphor of Web 1.0 to deliver rich user experiences.” [7] (emphasis added)

As this quote ably demonstrates, remixing was always already seen as a central activity in Web 2.0 culture. Lev Manovich, building on the work of Richard MacManus and Joshua Porter, argues that remixing will be abetted by another change: the web is going to be dominated by microcontent. MacManus and Porter see it this way: “Enter Web 2.0, a vision of the Web in which information is broken up into “microcontent” units that can be distributed over dozens of domains. The Web of documents has morphed into a Web of data. Now we’re looking to a new set of tools to aggregrate and remix microcontent in new and useful ways.[8] Importantly, as Manovich suggests, “…it is much 
easier to ‘aggregate and remix microcontent’ if it is not locked by a 
design. Strait ASCII file, a JPEG, a map, a sound or video file can move
around the Web and enter into user-defined remixes such as a set of RSS 
feeds; cultural objects where the parts are locked together (such as Flash 
interface) can’t. In short, in the era of Web 2.0 and social media, ‘information wants to be
 ASCII.”[9] In this sense, when Jay-Z released an a capella version of The Black Album, he turned his vocals into microcontent. His rap lyrics have been remixed frequently because his vocal tracks are not trapped within the sonic packaging of The Black Album. By transforming his vocals into microcontent he gave voice to hundreds of remix artists, and in doing so, also amplified the reach of his voice–a lesson that is difficult for some contemporary record companies to understand. Microcontent brings up the issue of niche, narrow, splinter or sub-cultural communities, and one could argue that by definition, microcontent supports the potential for a greater diversity of content than witnessed in Web 1.0 culture.

But the idea of ever-greater amounts of diverse microcontent might portend more problems than solutions in arenas of cultural production. If the audience continues to splinter into very small units, what will happen over the long term to the “mass audience?” In this sense, I am not arguing that microcontent alone will usher in a new period of “free culture” on the Internet. Given the history of co-optation of folk cultures by mass media industries, corporate media conglomerates benefit from a splintered folk culture and can take advantage of a network of pro-sumers that diffuses their collective bargaining power across a global network. Trends, like Apple’s Garageband and iMovie, shows that certain segments in the culture industries welcome microcontent which they repackage as “free” content, while users still have to pay for software, access, storage space and network bandwidth.

Here the notion of the “long tail” is useful. Chris Anderson first used the term in a 2004 Wired Magazine article, and in a subsequent book.[10] In an analysis of blogging, Anderson argues that only a handful of blogs have large readerships, while most blogs have very few readers. Even so, the total readership of the blogosphere is distributed across all of the blogs and that the aggregrate audience for the less-read blogs is larger than the audience size for popular blogs. Frequently, this insight is understood in terms of business models: it is used to explain the success of Amazon.com or Netflix, where their very structure of revenue-generation benefits from the distributed nature of this effect. When competing with “brick and mortar” stores, such as Borders or Barnes and Noble, Amazon can afford to stock books that have almost no large readership because there is no “limit” to how many books Amazon can afford to stock in its online “store.” Alternatively, Netflix claims that “unpopular” films create more revenue than all of the popular new releases.

But what does this have to do with DJs, remix culture, digital entertainment and social media? It matters because the long tail model suggests that cultural productions do not have to appeal to the largest potential audiences. This is in distinction to the traditional world of mass broadcasting, i.e. the way that a film has to recoup its hundreds of millions of dollars of investments in its opening weekend, or the way that TV shows have to have large audiences to generate sizable advertising revenues. In the aggregate of the “long tail,” niche tastes can be catered to, and folk, avant-garde or non-commercial productions can succeed with rather small audience sizes. In this regard, remix culture can be successful even when it is narrowcast or splintercast on the Internet.

As narrowcasting takes hold, what will be the dominant model of cultural production? Can alternative or non-commercial productions in this sense really compete with corporate media culture? As the work of Henry Jenkins suggests, we are more involved than ever before in remix activities, but is this really posing a threat to the interests of media corporation? It is far too easy to envision the corporate re-appropriation of much of the collaborative work behind remix culture. While the medium might be the message, we are still willing to pay for messages in certain media, such as the fees attached to text messaging on cell phones. Furthermore, while many musical remix projects do not require much capital, other media forms, such as Hollywood films and major label music releases, are dependent upon expensive and time-consuming production processes including access to large teams of personnel, high-end equipment, professional guilds and talented performers.

Remix culture is symbiotic with popular culture. The best known mash-ups require recognizable and popular entertainment sources to succeed. Part of the genius behind the Grey Album is that the Beatles music is culturally ubiquitous. It would have been a very different project, if DJ Danger Mouse mashed up Jay-Z to the music of John Cage. That would have also drawn a lawsuit–John Cage’s estate is notoriously litigious–but such a project would not have become a cause celebre. The popularity of the referent in a mash-up matters. And if there is vanguardism in remix culture, it does not strike me as avant-garde in the traditional sense. It is not so much about “shocking the bourgeoisie” as media-savvy work aimed directly at youth culture, a culture that has always explored the worlds of bricolage, fantasy, and sub-culture.

UP NEXT:
The Greying of the Internet, Part 2: Grey Tuesday, Copyright Activism, and The Grey Video


Footnotes:

[1] See for example the Wikipedia entry on The Grey Album for Brian Burton’s take on the artistic freedom of remix culture

[2] Quote from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul’s_Boutique

[3] Schutze, Bernard. “Samples from the Heap: Notes on Recycling the Detritus of a Remixed Culture.” inHorizon Zero: Issue 8. Remix: Generate, Regenerate, Transform.  http://www.horizonzero.ca/textsite/remix.php?is=8&file=5&tlang=0



An Inexhaustible World: Looking at Paul Strand’s “House and Billboard”

House and Billboard, Paul Strand, 1916

“What exists outside the artist is much more important than his imagination. The world outside is inexhaustible.”

–Paul Strand

On November 10, 2010, I gave a noonday talk at the IU Art Museum about a single Paul Strand photograph as part of their ongoing Invited Speakers series. The IU Art Museum has extensive holdings on photography. As I was going through their binders listing the photographs in their collection, I was excited to see that they had photographs from the early period of Paul Strand’s career, and several photographs from around 1916. Paul Strand (1890-1976) was a figure I first came to study and admire during the writing of my documentary-influenced dissertation, New Media Activism from Video to the Internet. His pioneering documentary work exerted a great influence on numerous politically engaged media producers in the 20th century. Moreover, much of my current scholarship engages and explores media experiments born in moments of early technological adoption. This particular photograph provided me an opportunity to probe into the development of art photography as it entered its modernist phase in the 20th century, and help me further understand a formative moment in the long and stellar career of Paul Strand.

For the purposes of my talk, I ended up selecting “House and Billboard” (Strand, 1916) for both scholarly and personal reasons. What follows is a summary of what I covered in that 30 minute talk. As the photograph itself seems to invite, I had to approach from several different directions, each time appreciating another aspect of the photo. As a new media scholar, my investigations into a single 1916 photograph actually brought me right back to the present where similar photographic techniques have become ubiquitous in the 21st Century. We can still see Strand’s impact on representations of our digital worlds.

1. Introduction: Coming of Age

Wall Street, Paul Strand, 1916

I find it hard to pick just one photograph from this period in Paul Strand’s career. He was quite prolific around 1916, and this work is among the most important in his entire oeuvre. And while “Wall Street” is justifiably famous for its brilliant use of form and social commentary, or “White Fence” has an unforgettable formal dynamic, or “Blind” captures some ineffable singular essence of our humanity, I have always had a personal fondness for “House and Billboard.” This photograph captures Strand’s love of New York City and possesses a bedeviling, bedazzling formalism—and it doesn’t give up its stories easily. I like the layers of meaning in “House and Billboard.”

For me, this photograph captures intersecting moments that are “coming of age” at about the same time: Strand as a photographer; New York as the 20th century city; modernism as a major cultural logic; photography as an important art form.

2. The Billboard: Punctum and Prophecy

At the outset, I would be remiss if I didn’t address a very personal reason for selecting this photograph: three generations of my family have been in the billposting business. I was drawn to the image of the billboard in this photo. As Roland Barthes would say, that advertising sign was my “punctum,” the personal detail that created my special relationship with this image. I became interested in images at a very early age, and I know a big part of my fascination was watching my father put together images high on a billboard platform off the busy highways of Chicago. I think billboards tend to get very short shrift in visual studies because they are seen as rather banal roadside monstrosities. But they never felt that way to me since I could literally see how they were carefully stitched together to render messages to drivers who might literally glance at them for a brief moment on their way to somewhere else. I also think that their ubiquity is the essence of their invisibility in visual culture studies. I rather enjoy that one of Paul Strand’s modernist masterpieces includes, quite deliberately and quite radically, a billboard.

So what of that billboard? In the bottom corner of the image, it anchors the entire composition, but it is only partially seen. From our current vantage point, we can’t even really make out what the billboard is actually advertising. Luckily, Strand himself, in one of his later interviews, remembered this particular billboard and the full names we only partially see: Charles Frohman and Julia Sanderman. With that bit of data, we can deduce that we are looking at an advertisement for a play that just opened in New York that year (1916). It was the play, Sybil, and it ran for 169 performances on Broadway [As a brief side note, Sybil is also the name of my wife, and it was a bit startling to learn that her name appeared on the billboard that so caught my attention—talk about your structuring absences as punctums] Anyhow, to return to the billboard: Sybil the play was adapted from Victor Jacobi’s operetta Szibill. It was produced by Charles Frohman and starred Julia Sanderman. The show itself was set in Russia and tells the story of a prima donna who assumes the identity of a Grand Duchess, and the Grand Duchess assumes her identity. It is a play of masquerades and role reversals. Even if Strand didn’t know the full content of the play, he would surely have been familiar with the classical concept of the sibyl—in other words, a sibyl is a prophetess. I think it is very clever of Strand in one of his most prophetic images—an image that literally inaugurates a modernist vision in photography—that he carefully elides a direct mention to prophesy, but leaves enough clues for the reader to discern that this photograph has a powerful connection to prophesy.

The billboard also serves as a false façade in the photograph, something Strand wants us to look above and beyond, but also it is an early indication that the urban landscape would soon be filled with advertising. I think this begins to show how modernity and advertising co-existed from the beginning, and the rapid changes of modern communication would be built upon a backbone of advertising.

3. The 125th Street Viaduct: Setting the “Waiting Trap”

125th St. Viaduct, New York City (Current Picture)

Where is Strand standing when he is taking this picture? It’s a good question, because it would appear that there isn’t a building tall enough in that neighborhood to give the 26 year photographer this vantage point. And indeed, this photograph was a literal impossibility a dozen years earlier because the structure upon which Strand is standing did not exist. This is New York as the “City of Ambition” because Strand is not standing on a rooftop, he is actually standing on the 125th St. Viaduct–the train platform built in 1904, still in use today for the 1 Train in New York City. Strand takes another famous photograph from this viaduct that emphasizes the modernist structure of the train platform.

125 St. Viaduct, Paul Strand, 1916

Of particular importance to the “House and Billboard” photograph, the viaduct afforded Strand something he was also seeking: invisibility. He was setting one of what Maria Hombourg calls his “waiting traps.” Strand was at a period in his photographic development where he wanted to photograph people unaware of his presence. The viaduct provided ample urban camouflage, so he could set up his camera and wait undetected for the unsuspecting subjects of his gaze to stage themselves naturally in front of his lens.

4. F/22: Depth of Focus

Another of the initial puzzling aspects of the photo is what time of day is it when Strand snaps his picture? Is it early morning? Is it late afternoon? Is it slowly creeping towards night time? In fact, it is likely that the photograph was taken near noontime on a very, very bright day. So what accounts for the relative “darkness” of the photograph? As Maria Hombourg notes in her book Paul Strand circa 1916, photography around the Photo-secessionists (a movement started by Alfred Steiglitz) emphasized the active intervention and manipulation of a photograph and soft focus lens to give photography a misty, dreamy quality in the early 20th century, a kind of impressionistic photographic palette. By 1916, Strand was experimenting with much sharper images and bold geometric shapes (esp. in his photographic still life work). And contra the Seccesionists, he didn’t want to manipulate the image, he wanted to capture reality in a much more objective fashion.

What I really like about Strand’s choice here is that he is using a technique more common in landscape photography at the time rather than urban photography. He is shooting at F/22.

Aperture Scale (note how closed down the aperture is in F22)

Every stop down cuts the light received by the camera in half, and F/22 is stopped way down. This aperture requires an amazing amount of light in order to capture the image (hence the idea that the photo has to be taken closer towards noon rather than later). F/22 creates a fairly detailed image that keeps both foreground and background in relative clarity. For example, you can read both the billboard and the garage sign in the far background. And while the photo still has vestiges of soft edges and shadows, the overall composition has a stark quality of definition to it. It has a wonderful depth of field—one that seems appropriate to capturing “an inexhaustible world.”

F/22 does another interesting thing: all of the even-toned areas of the photo turn to black when this setting is used. Thus, even though the photo is black and white, even-toned parts (such as the clothing on the people) are rendered more starkly as black.

But F/22 is a great choice for this photograph. It brings the urban landscape into an observable whole. Your eye can wander across the picture and see details that you might not even notice if you were standing on the 125th St. Viaduct. And importantly, it adds a degree of mystery to the people standing on the left side of the frame.

5. Freezing Time: Muybridge and the Photographic Gaze

Eadweard Muybridge, Race Horse Photograph

The scene in “House and Billboard” might seem to have little connection to the photographic experiments of Eadweard Muybridge. But as in Muybridge’s famous experiment to capture a horse will all four hooves off the ground, this photograph is literally “freezing time.” What is the point of “freezing time?” For Strand at this moment, I would argue it is about revealing what is hidden from casual views. Strand is pushing objective realism to its limits (both aesthetically and technically). The depth of field of F/22 and the “waiting trap” on the viaduct merge into an exquisite cross between the macro and the micro: the complex interrelationships of the urban environment and the stunning play of light and shadow that he explored so memorably in the close-up style of his still life photographs.


6. 291: Photography as Art and the European Avant-Garde

291 in 1906 (Kasebier and White Exhibition)

This photograph was first displayed publicly at Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 art gallery. That is significant since 291 also displayed the photographic works of Edward Steichen, Gertrude Kasebier, and Stieglitz himself. Stieglitz also published the photograph in his influential journal, Camera Work. There is no doubt that Stieglitz understood the significance of this photograph (and other photos from around 1916 by Strand). This photograph is part of the body of work that started to gain recognition for photography as a major art form. And the 291 gallery was an important site where a young Strand saw avant-garde painting from Europe, and important works by Matisse, Rodin, Cezanne, Picasso and Duchamps. In fact, while some scholars might want to read cubist elements into “House and Billboard,” from my perspective, the lesson that Strand took from Cubism was compositional complexity and the visually dynamic relationships that can be built from geometric patterns in different visual planes, compositional strategies that are on full view in this photograph.

Moreover, through his contacts at 291, Strand would begin to see the connections between modern art and progressivism. They both involved new ways of seeing the world, of proposing new possibilities for culture. Strand is well known for his political activism, and the early seeds of his progressive vision and his urban sensibilities are on display in “House and Billboard.” It seems an early working out of ideas that he would express more fully in his 1920 film Manhatta.

7. Transience: Catching the Human Element

“Things become interesting as soon as the human element enters in.”

–Paul Strand

Part of what I find so captivating about this photograph are the people in the frame. This is a pro-filmic event. Strand is not staging this action, he is waiting patiently for it to happen. He is waiting for that perfect moment to take his picture. I think this would be a much different picture without the human element. The people help animate, give life to this mise-en-scene. It is not just a beautiful architectural still life, it is a portion of the metropolis teeming with life. I think what makes it so memorable is that it is capturing a moment of transience. What those people are discussing or meeting about is not important.

It is one of millions of meetings that occurred that day in New York City. But for Strand, they are choosing to stand there at that moment, they are not posing. They are carrying on the business of living in the city. The moment is fleeting, ephemeral. And yet, almost a hundred years later, we stare at it and try to comprehend its meaning. I think it lends the photograph an almost lyrical element. Things do become interesting once the human element comes in, and you can imagine Strand, high up on the viaduct in his “waiting trap” just preparing for this very moment, life caught unawares in all its transcience.

8. Pattern Recognition: The Formalism of Paul Strand

I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the strong sense of composition and design in this photograph. It is very carefully arranged. Look at the edges of the frame. He clearly has a light pole framed on the left, the skylights in the top right hand corner, the letters in the billboard. It is hard to imagine how this picture would work a foot to the left or the right, a shift in the foreground objects, etc.

Top portion of "House and Billboard:" Notice its very careful geometric constuction and edge framing

But it also has a strong alternation of rectangles and right angles that play with a burgeoning sense of the solidity of the 20th century city. It has a great play of light and shadow to bring an element of impermanence into the tableau. It’s a formalism that finds itself in earlier experiments with still life photography.

Porch Shadows, Paul Strand, 1915

It’s an expression of the lived reality of the modern city. And rather than capturing the hurly burly flux of Wall St. Bankers against an imposing façade, here Strand the artist shows a much more human scale, which elicits a very different emotional response to me. This seems to be more about the day-to-day realities of the working class in the modern metropolis.

White Fence, Paul Strand, 1916

As in his wonderful photograph, “White Fence,” the lines in this photograph play with issues of recti-linearity. In fact, the main line that bifurcates the frame is not entirely straight, it is a slightly askew line. The line’s wiggly nature energizes the frame, like a bolt of energy running down the middle of the frame.

The left edge of the frame is a road. This is a picture that actively encourages the viewer to wander, to travel into the frame. But it is an inexhaustible world: one gets the idea that there are many more places to go. This is a nexus, a junction in the city.

There is also a very witty visual pun that plays with the issues of light and shadow in the photograph. The house in the middle ground has three windows and it appears that two of the three windows have “the lights on.” It creates a wonderful moment of asymmetry, reminiscient of “White Fence.” But it turns out that those are not lights, but rather white curtains/shades, and that only two of the three rooms have that window dressing.

9. Activating Rooftops: Revisiting Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid

Strand dedicates significant space in this photograph to rooftops. Rooftops are not necessarily the most interesting architectural piece of a building, and they are invisible to most viewers, especially at street level. They have little of the visual grandeur of a façade. But it seems that Strand is on to something with showing rooftops. I think a film like Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid, which came out four years after this photograph, shows the potential of rooftops for the urban psychogeography. They are spaces that can be activated both in reality and in the imagination. It is a space in the asphalt jungle that seems to connect to nature (especially the sky). It is a space of adventure, a place of danger, a mode of escape, a method of transit. I think that the way the photograph is framed (road on the one side, a set of rooftops on the other) suggests two modes of traveling. And when I think of Charlie Chaplin escaping from the police by running across the city’s rooftops, something akin to a similar impulse is present in Strand’s photograph. This photograph activates rooftops as a space of imaginative play.

10. Google’s Street Views: Urban Photography in the Digital Age

I wonder if someone just stumbles across “House and Billboard” today if the photo would excite the spectator the way this photo excited Strand’s mentor Alfred Steiglitz in 1916. I would say probably no. But for good reason. The type of visuality that Strand is creating here has become commonplace. His type of urban surveillance (his “waiting trap”) is literally how we are mapping urban space in the digital age. Strand’s surreptitious camera work finds its digital parallel in Google’s Street View technique that is quietly going around the world and photographing urban street views (like “House and Billboard”).

And like Strand’s photography, Street View becomes really interesting when “the human element enters in.” There are websites dedicated to showing people who have appeared in Street View. These are people caught unawares by Google’s camera people in their high-tech vans.

The Google Street View Van

I would argue that the kind of objective photography desired by Google as part of its digital mapping project finds its basic template in the photographic innovations of Paul Strand

References:

Hombourg, Maria Morris. Paul Strand circa 1916. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Distributed by Harry N. Abrams. [Exhibition Catalog], 1998.