McLuhan: An Audiovisual Bricolage

I’ve been in touch with a really interesting bloke called Richard Altman. He’s what I’d call a Digital Activist – in that his strongly opinionated views challenge normative behaviour, and have the potential to cause others to reconsider that which we take for granted. His area of interest: the Web and it’s governance.

Marshall McLuhan
This man partied with The Beatles

I’ll be sharing some of his thoughts in an upcoming post, but for today, we’ll be exploring some of his filmmaking work. Altman and I share a passion for the work of  Marshall McLuhan, and he’s made a short series of thought-provoking films that assess many of his ideas: a perfect jumping off point for those not yet acquainted with the great man.

Be forewarned: these videos aren’t exactly lean-back viewing. Altman has developed a unique presentation style that fuses blazing imagery, dubbed-audio and staccato editing into what would be described as an audiovisual bricolage.

The effect of watching each video is quite close to McLuhan’s own ‘braindump’ writing style, in which he didn’t expound mere theories, but developed probes – aphorisms designed to to stimulate curiosity about one’s subject or environment. This allowed McLuhan, as it does for Altman, to be far less committal in the work presented, yet to encourage the reader/viewer to make up their own mind about what they’ve just experienced.

Try these out, and let me know what you think:

Part 1 – Acoustically Visual

Part 2 – Linear Tactility (nsfw)

Part 3 – Painting the Invisible

I have an interview with Richard scheduled for publication, so check back in the next few days to read an explanation of the themes and ideas herein, that is, if you’re still left scratching your head!

Bibliography

So that’s it, my series is over. All that’s left to do now is credit the academic sources that influenced and aided in the construction of my argument. Thanks to everyone below, and thanks to you, dear reader, for coming along for the ride.

References:

Baudrillard, Jean (1983). Simulations. New York: Semiotext(e).

Baudrillard, Jean (1988). Selected Writings, ed. Mark Poster. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Baumann, Jim (date unknown). ‘Military applications of virtual reality’ on the World Wide Web. Accessed 20th March 2007. Available at http://www.hitl.washington.edu/scivw/EVE/II.G.Military.html

Benjamin, Walter (1968). ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Walter Benjamin Illuminations (trans. Harry Zohn), pp. 217–51. New York: Schocken Books.

Bolter, J. D., B. Mcintyre, M. Gandy, Schweitzer, P. (2006). ‘New Media and the Permanent Crisis of Aura’ in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 12 (1): 21-39.

Botella, Cristina.M, & M.C. Juan, R.M. Banos, M. Alcaniz, V. Guillen, B. Rey (2005). ‘Mixing Realities? An Application of Augmented Reality for the Treatment of Cockroach Phobia’ in CyberPsychology & Behaviour, Vol. 8 (2): 162-171.

Clark, N. ‘The Recursive Generation of the Cyberbody’ in Featherstone, M. & Burrows, R. (1995) Cyberspace/Cyberbodies/Cyberpunk, London: Sage.

Featherstone, Mike. & Burrows, Roger eds. (1995). Cyberspace/ Cyberbodies/ Cyberpunk: Cultures of Technological Embodiment. London: Sage.

Future Image (author unknown) (2006). ‘The 6Sight® Mobile Imaging Report’ on the World Wide Web. Accessed 22nd March 2007. Available at http://www.wirelessimaging.info/

Genosko, Gary (1999). McLuhan and Baudrillard: The Masters of Implosion. London: Routledge.

Kline, Stephen, DePeuter, Grieg, & Dyer-Witheforde, Nick (2003). Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing. Kingston & Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Levinson, Paul (1999). Digital McLuhan: a guide to the information millennium. London: Routledge.

Liarokapis, Fotis (2006). ‘An Exploration from Virtual to Augmented Reality Gaming’ in Simulation Gaming, Vol. 37 (4): 507-533.

Manovich, Lev (2006). ‘The Poetics of Augmented Space’ in Visual Communication, Vol. 5 (2): 219-240.

McLuhan, Marshall (1962). The Gutenberg galaxy: The Making of Typographic Man. Toronto, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

McLuhan, Marshall (1964). Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw-Hill.

McLuhan, Marshall and Powers, Bruce R. (1989). The Global Village: Transformations in World Life in the 21st Century. Oxford University Press: New York.

Milgram, Paul & Kishino, Fumio (1994). ‘A Taxonomy of Mixed Reality Visual Displays’ in IEICE Transactions on Information Systems, Vol. E77-D, No.12 December 1994.

Reitmayr, Gerhard & Schmalstieg, Dieter (2001). Mobile Collaborative Augmented Reality. Proceedings of the IEEE 2001 International Symposium on Augmented Reality, 114–123.

Roberts, G., A. Evans, A. Dodson, B. Denby, S. Cooper, R. Hollands (2002) ‘Application Challenge: Look Beneath the Surface with Augmented Reality’ in GPS World, (UK, Feb. 2002): 14-20.

Stokes, Jon (2003). ‘Understanding Moore’s Law’ on the World Wide Web. Accessed 21st March 2007. Available at http://arstechnica.com/articles/paedia/cpu/moore.ars

Straubhaar, Joseph D. & LaRose, Robert (2005). Media Now: Understanding Media, Culture, and Technology. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.

Thomas, B., Close. B., Donoghue, J., Squires, J., De Bondi, I’,. Morris, M., and Piekarski, W. ‘ARQuake: An outdoor/indoor augmented reality first-person application’ in Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium on Wearable Computers, (Atlanta, GA, Oct. 2000), 139-141.

Wagner, D., Pintaric, T., Ledermann, F., & Schmalstieg, D. (2005). ‘Towards massively multi-user augmented reality on handheld devices’. In Proc. 3rd Int’l Conference on Pervasive Computing, Munich, Germany.

Weiser, M. (1991) ‘The Computer for the Twenty-First Century’ in Scientific American 265(3), September: 94–104.

Williams, Raymond (1992). Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Hanover and London: University Press of New England and Wesleyan University Press

Further Reading:

Bolter, Jay D. & Grusin, Richard (1999). Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Cavell, Richard (2002). McLuhan in Space: a Cultural Geography. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Galloway, Alexander R. (2006). Gaming: Essays on Algorithmic Culture. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

Horrocks, Christopher (2000). Marshall McLuhan & Virtuality. Cambridge: Icon Books.

Jennings, Pamela (2001). ‘The Poetics of Engagement’ in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 7 (2): 103-111.

Lauria, Rita (2001). ‘In Love with our Technology: Virtual Reality A Brief Intellectual History of the Idea of Virtuality and the Emergence of a Media Environment’ in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 7 (4): 30-51.

Lonsway, Brian (2002). ‘Testing the Space of the Virtual’ in Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies, Vol. 8 (3): 61-77.

Moos, Michel A. (1997). Marshall McLuhan Essays: Media Research, technology, art, communication. London: Overseas Publishers Association.

Pacey, Arnold (1983). The Culture of Technology. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Salen, Katie & Zimmerman, Eric. (2004) Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals. Cambridge, MA: MIT.

Sassower, Raphael (1995). Cultural Collisions: Postmodern Technoscience. London: Routledge.

Wood, John ed. (1998). The Virtual Embodied: Presence/Practice/Technology. London: Routledge.

Conclusion

I set out to assess the implications of a wholly new medium, one which had received little academic attention written from a media theoretical perspective. I made clear use of an industry connection to gain inside knowledge of the developments occurring to bring this medium to the mainstream. Building a methodology that could sustain the level of analysis that I hoped to achieve, I observed the interactions between technology and industry, market forces and cultural influences. Having positioned my subject at the crest of a curling wave, I employed critical media theory to explore the potential implications of my subject in its wider context of social reality. This ambitious task has granted me insight into how the complex interactions of various fields give rise to social change. Along the way I have revealed seams rich in potential for further analysis.

McLuhan is proven to apply to yet another medium, the perspective he offers served my analysis quite well. A further exploration might make use of his Acoustic and Visual Space probe, Cavell’s basis for McLuhanistic spatial enquiry in his book McLuhan in Space (2002) would be a good starting point for such work, since it applies McLuhanism to the media of time and space, thus a good start for work on the presence of virtual objects. Media analysts occupied with screen design might wish to extend Bolter and Grusin’s (1999) work on remediation to the emergent Mobile AR technology, perhaps from an explicit digital gaming perspective. Those with interest in advertising or business as applied to Augmented Reality would do well to continue Benjaminian thought to its logical end: manipulating a virtual object to hold added-value for commercial enterprise. Those with a more creative bent might enjoy a study of the public perception of AR artworks using Benjamin also. There is scope for research into AR-based social interactions; gaming styles; immersion and identity formation, but this sort of work necessitates that first Mobile AR spends at least some time in public consciousness.

Finally, I believe that I have convincingly laid out an argument showing that AR is currently being developed and packaged as an entertainment technology, but its potential for community-driven, self-proliferating excitement of user-created content makes AR a significant and culturally-transformative technology. Convergence between media types will enable and drive the creation of innovative content which if successful will itself rely on new ways of accessing and viewing content and ultimately new forms of content and user experience entirely. We are at the crest of a wave. Will it wither and let a larger wave pass above it, or will it grow to reach tidal proportions? Despite my predictions, only time will tell.

Applying Baudrillard

For Jean Baudrillard (1983), “at any moment in the course of our modernity, a particular arrangement of signifying objects and images conditions the way we see the world” (Clark, 1995). “Each major transformation is accompanied by a feeling of disorientation and discomfort over the loss of the previous ‘reality’. This effects a recourse into the imagined certainties of the receding order to ground or stabilise that which is new. In this way, “reality loops around itself”, as “each phase of value integrates into its own apparatus the anterior apparatus as a phantom reference, a puppet or simulation reference”” (Baudrillard, 1988: 145, 121; cited in Clark, 1995). In these words, we see Baudrillard’s perspective can apply neatly to my analysis of Mobile AR. Taking up where McLuhan left us- a view of the Magic Lens constrained by its deterministic overtones- Baudrillard injects the much-needed element of an actively social construction of Mixed Reality, whilst grounding my work in his Postmodern thought on Virtuality.

I am interested in the view that iterations of reality, whilst overlapping and viewable through the Magic Lens, support and influence each other’s existence within a wider structure. I could live wholly in The Virtual, and bring to it conceptions of the reality from whence I came. We see a similar behaviour in Alternate Reality games such as Second Life (Linden Lab: 2003) or The Sims (Maxis: 2000) whereby developers program known physical world causalities, behaviours and actions despite the near-limitless formal opportunities offered by the medium. Users, when given freedom, will likely bring their own conceits and personal experiences to these alternate realities, thereby foregoing what else might be possible in favour of their own culturally-inherited drives and ambitions. The Magic Lens presents a wholly new canvas for the social construction of reality. The collaborative and democratic Mobile 2.0 ethos that Nokia hope to breathe into Mobile AR could falter if users bring too much of our present iteration of reality to it. The Magic Lens offers an opportunity to reshape The Real, not solely through tagging buildings or leaving messages floating in mid-aid, but through the lessons we might learn through engaging with each other in a new way.

Baudrillard focused his work on how we interface with information, and how we build it into our view of reality. He posited that The Media had hijacked reality, becoming a powerful force in the construction of hyper-reality, a social reality that has become more powerful than we exert control over. Through the Magic Lens, we might give form to some aspects of hyper-reality. The medium allows for virtual elements to co-exist with real objects occupying space in the user’s own hyper-reality. In this way, each user can choose which hyper-reality they want to exist in, whether it is one in which 3D AR avatars walk the streets and go about their virtual lives; or one where arrows and directions graphically point out where to go to fulfil a shopping list’s requirements. The Magic Lens makes a shift from mass-media control to personalised, user-focused context-based reality: Reality 2.0 if you will.

Assuming AR does present a new layer to reality, there are certain Baudrillardian imperatives that we will bring to this landscape. One such imperative links the physical properties of real-world space- gravity, mass, optics- to our new environment. To make sense of virtual elements in their context we will employ what we already know about the environment we are in. This means that the most prized virtual objects will exhibit expected behaviour, intuitive interactivity and will be visually suited to its surroundings. Similarly, an object’s location in space alters its perceived importance. I would argue that should a common Mixed Reality exist, governing bodies would write entire protocol for the positioning and size of virtual objects so that one contributor could not take up more than his worth. Important to consider is that even writing hypothetically I am bringing Baudrillardian imperatives to task, applying democracy to a non-existent world! Baudrillard’s “reality loops around itself” has a troublesome effect on my analysis. Let me instead take a fresh perspective, in my next section written from the perspective of Walter Benjamin…

Applying McLuhan

I begin with McLuhan, whose Laws of Media or Tetrad offers greater insights for Mobile AR, sustaining and developing upon the arguments developed in my assessment of the interlinking technologies that meet in Mobile AR, whilst also providing the basis to address some of this man’s deeper thoughts.

The tetrad can be considered an observation lens to turn upon one’s subject technology. It assumes four processes take place during each iteration of a given medium. These processes are revealed as answers to these following questions, taken from Levinson (1999):

“What aspect of society or human life does it enhance or amplify? What aspect, in favour or high prominence before the arrival of the medium in question, does it eclipse or obsolesce? What does the medium retrieve or pull back into centre stage from the shadows of obsolescence? And what does the medium reverse or flip into when it has run its course or been developed to its fullest potential?”

(Digital Mcluhan 1999: 189).

To ask each of these it is useful to transfigure our concept of Mobile AR into a more workable and fluid term: the Magic Lens, a common expression in mixed reality research. Making this change allows the exploration of the more theoretical aspects of the technology free of its machinic nature, whilst integrating a necessary element of metaphor that will serve to illustrate my points.

To begin, what does the Magic Lens amplify? AR requires the recognition of a pre-programmed real-world image in order to augment the environment correctly. It is the user who locates this target, it is important to mention. It could be said that the Magic Lens more magnifies than amplifies an aspect of the user’s environment, because like other optical tools the user must point the device towards it and look through, the difference with this Magic Lens is that one aspect of its target, one potential meaning, is privileged over all others. An arbitrary black and white marker holds the potential to mean many things to many people, but viewed through an amplifying Magic Lens it means only what the program recognises and consequently superimposes.

This superimposition necessarily obscures what lies beneath. McLuhan might recognise this as an example of obsolescence. The Magic Lens privileges virtual over real imagery, and the act of augmentation leaves physical space somewhat redundant: augmenting one’s space makes it more virtual than real. The AR target undergoes amplification, becoming the necessary foundation of the augmented reality. What is obsolesced by the Magic Lens, then, is not the target which it obscures, but everything except the target.

I am reminded of McLuhan’s Extensions of Man (1962: 13), which offers the view that in extending ourselves through our tools, we auto-amputate the aspect we seek to extend. There is a striking parallel to be drawn with amplification and obsolescence, which becomes clear when we consider that in amplifying an aspect of physical reality through a tool, we are extending sight, sound and voice through the Magic Lens to communicate in wholly new ways using The Virtual as a conduit. This act obsolesces physical reality, the nullification effectively auto-amputating the user from their footing in The Real. So where have they ‘travelled’? The Magic Lens is a window into another reality, a mixed reality where real and virtual share space. In this age of Mixed Realities, the tetrad can reveal more than previously intended: new dimensions of human interaction.

The third question in the tetrad asks what the Magic Lens retrieves that was once lost. So much new ground is gained by this technology that it would be difficult to make a claim. However, I would not hold belief in Mobile AR’s success if I didn’t recognise the exhumed, as well as the novel benefits that it offers. The Magic Lens retrieves the everyday tactility and physicality of information engagement, that which was obsolesced by other screen media such as television, the Desktop PC and the games console. The Magic Lens encourages users to interact in physicality, not virtuality. The act of actually walking somewhere to find something out, or going to see someone to play with them is retrieved. Moreover, we retrieve the sense of control over our media input that was lost by these same technologies. Information is freed into the physical world, transfiguring its meaning and offering a greater degree of manipulative power. Mixed Reality can be seen only through the one-way-glass of the Magic Lens, The Virtual cannot spill through unless we allow it to. We have seen that certain mainstream media can wholly fold themselves into reality and become an annoyance- think Internet pop-ups and mobile ringtones- through the Magic Lens we retrieve personal agency to navigate our own experience. I earlier noted that “the closer we can bring artefacts from The Virtual to The Real, the more applicable these can be in our everyday lives”; a position that resonates with my growing argument that engaging with digital information through the Magic Lens is an appropriate way to integrate and indeed exploit The Virtual as a platform for the provision of communication, leisure and information applications.

It is hard to approximate what the Magic Lens might flip into, since at this point AR is a wave that has not yet crested. I might suggest that since the medium is constrained to success in its mobile device form, its trajectory is likely entwined with that medium. So, the Magic Lens flips into whatever the mobile multimedia computer flips into. Another possibility is that the Magic Lens inspires such commercial success and industrial investment that a surge in demand for Wearable Computers shifts AR into a new form. This time, the user cannot dip in and out of Mixed Reality as they see fit, they are immersed in it whenever they wear their visor. This has connotations all of its own, but I will not expound my own views given that much cultural change must first occur to implement such a drastic shift in consumer fashions and demands. A third way for the Magic Lens to ‘flip’ might be its wider application in other media. Developments in digital ink technologies; printable folding screens; ‘cloud’ computing; interactive projector displays; multi-input touch screen devices; automotive glassware and electronic product packaging could all take advantage of the AR treatment. We could end up living far more closely with The Virtual than previously possible.

In their work The Global Village, McLuhan and Powers (1989) state that:

“The tetrad performs the function of myth in that it compresses past, present, and future into one through the power of simultaneity. The tetrad illuminates the borderline between acoustic and visual space as an arena of the spiralling repetition and replay, both of input and feedback, interlace and interface in the area of imploded circle of rebirth and metamorphosis”

(The Global Village 1989: 9)

I would be interested to hear their view on the unique “simultaneity” offered by the Magic Lens, or indeed the “metamorphosis” it would inspire, but I would argue that when applied from a Mixed Reality inter-media perspective, their outlook seems constrained to the stringent and self-involved rules of their own epistemology. Though he would be loath to admit it, Baudrillard took on McLuhan’s work as the basis of his own (Genosko, 1999; Kellner, date unknown), and made it relevant to the postmodern era. His work is cited by many academics seeking to forge a relationship to Virtual Reality in their research…

Deconstructing AR

The next four entries in my series on AR will assess it’s potential socio-cultural impact, which has now started to begin.

We have now reached a depth of analysis that has taken in the historical, economic and technologic paths leading to Mobile AR, but there are greater depths to plunge. From this vantage point, the question arises: how will the user experience this new medium? This section assesses the implications of Mobile AR from a critical and media theoretical perspective, and offers the other half of my close analysis.

There are very few published articles on the subject of AR, let alone Mobile AR, and fewer still that offer a media theory perspective on user-interactions in augmented environments. There are a clutch of articles that refer to such an area, but like my own analysis, these academics have resorted to applying old frameworks to a new medium, with McLuhan, Baudrillard and Benjamin seeming the most applicable theorists. My own thoughts on Mobile AR resonate with these thinkers yet no such analysis has involved all three epistemologies, so I must tread carefully…

Constructing A Methodology

Mobile AR is still highly prototypical, and has not received much previous academic attention thus far. A deep analysis of this technology and its implications requires a specially developed methodology, a methodology which acknowledges the pre-release status of the technology, and recognises that Mobile AR represents a fusion of a number of different media technologies. Given that there is no fixed point of entry for analysis, I look to academics writing on the subject of other radical and emergent technologies that (at the time of publishing) were yet to reach the mainstream.

At this early stage of the product cycle there is an interesting interplay between fields. This interplay is assessed in Digital Play: The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing by Kline et al. (2003), and it raises some arguments useful to the further analysis of Mobile AR as a cultural artefact. One of its lessons is that assessing new technologies is fraught with a long-standing academic and cultural issue: the problem of technological determinism. The theory is that new technologies drive social, political and cultural changes, and that the perceived linearity of technical progression is somehow representative of humanity’s own progression, parallel trajectories dependent on the other’s existence. The weaknesses arise when one assigns these same values to their own assessments, which isolate the subject technology from its wider context. Indeed, it is often forgotten that in order to achieve these innovations, social, economic, political and cultural forces have all worked in collusion. Digital Play (Kline et al., 2003), quotes Leiss (1990) in an especially provoking summarisation:

“Strictly speaking, there are no imperatives in technology. The chief mistake … is to isolate one aspect (technology) of a dense network of social interactions, to consider it in abstraction from all the rest, and then relate it back to that network as an allegedly independent actor.”

Leiss (1990: 2) in Kline et al. (2003:8)

Leiss’ point is that academic enquiry should seek to observe its subjects in the light of their true context. He highlights the importance of the “network” as the source of each technology, denying the idea that modern culture is ‘Under Technology’s Thumb’ (Leiss, 1990). A personal observation is that within the “network” also lie the forerunning technologies that gave rise to the newest developments, and the means to develop them further. This idea recalls McLuhan, who to the detriment of Leiss’ argument, was sometimes known as “the most famous media technological determinist” (Straubhaar & LaRose, 2005: 51) who, in reference to man’s “perpetually … modifying his technology” McLuhan (1964: 46) states that “man becomes, as it were, the sex organs of the machine world, as the bee of the plant world, enabling it to fecundate and to evolve ever new forms”. He hereby suggests a hidden complexity to human-technologic interactions, a complexity I return to later in this work. For now though, these thinkers’ opposing perspectives make a further analysis rather difficult. I recognise McLuhan’s view that there are forces at work within the “network” that need to be addressed, but accept Leiss’ view that I should view the web of interactions as a whole, in order that technological determinism cannot skew my findings. I must reconcile these perspectives in my own approach. Seeking to refrain from any dangerously deterministic hyperbole, I continue the assessment of Mobile AR as an emergent and potentially “network” enhancing new medium, but from which determinist-proof methodology?

Digital Play, though referring mainly to the digital games industry, looks into the complex dynamics between developer, distributor, market and economy. Its critical evaluation of this medium adopts a methodology that suits my own AR enquiries:

“The story of the emergence of interactive play and of its uncertain crisis-filled transformation into one of the premier industries of digital globalized capital is both exciting and revelatory. Historical perspective is vital to critical understanding. We strongly agree with Williams that it is impossible to diagnose the cultural impact of a new medium until the specific institutional circumstances of its development are understood. Moreover, critical media analysis requires historical perspective in order to argue against the deterministic view that technology “is a self-acting force which creates new ways of life [Williams, 1992: 8]”.

Kline et al. (2003:79)

Now, since Mobile AR is such a new and radical technology, it is best considered in terms of other, previously radical technologies and their own timely impact. This approach recognises the emergent nature of Mobile AR technology and the lack of current research in the field, but also allows the opportunity to reflect on the implications of this technology in a relatively safe way: that is, through the lessons learned from full-fledged media. I propose that a useful lens through which to view Mobile AR is offered by an historical analysis of Mobile AR’s better established component media, with a view to producing an understanding of the implications AR holds for society. This approach allows AR to be considered as a product of a convergence of paths: technologic, academic, social and economic, providing the basis for deeper analysis as a consequence.