By Anna Lynn Spitzer
02.24.06 – Nearly 150 people gathered at UC Irvine Feb. 17-18 to delve into new media, technology and their relevance to humanities at a conference sponsored by UC Irvine’s Department of Film and Media Studies and HumaniTech. Co-sponsored by Calit2 at UCI, the conference featured a variety of renowned speakers who explored how the digital age has transformed reading, writing, learning and literacy. Attendees also discovered ways in which computer technologies of the last four decades have contributed to today’s advanced media technology, and considered intellectual property regulations for the new digital mediascape, the importance of technology to scholarship, the emergence of digital humanities and the ways in which game technology may be used in cinematics, art, film and music video.
The conference attracted a widespread audience; one visitor, a UCI alumna, flew in from Boston, where she is creating a program in new media studies. Attendees included faculty from humanities, as well as other departments and schools at UCI, and guests from UCLA and UC Riverside, leading to lively and informed discussions. The conference format combined demonstrations of multimedia projects at Brown, the University of Southern California and UC Irvine with encounters among guests working on current topics in three crucial areas in new media studies.
A reception at the Beall Center for Art & Technology took advantage of the conference coinciding with a new media art exhibit. This juxtaposition ensured that the audience was able to see, hear and experience various aspects of new media technology in relation to humanities scholarship, art production and the greater contexts of media historiography.
A podcast of the conference’s presentations will be available soon, as will a videotape that can be used for future instruction.
The conference’s first morning was devoted to "Digging" in Media Archeology – an emerging field that reflects on advanced media technology by linking it to the genealogy of technology from which it emerged. This reconfiguration of historical discourse allows interpretations of cultural phenomena in the context of an original vanishing point – for instance, how computer interfaces offer radical new possibilities for art and communication. It also presents legal and ethical challenges to past and present notions of intellectual property and idea sharing.
Finnish media archeologist Erkki Huhtamo considered "new" media in relation to 19th-century wearable technology and cyborg narratives. In excavating forgotten, neglected or suppressed material histories of media objects, he emphasized discontinuities and cyclically recurring phenomena.
Russian new-media artist and theorist Lev Manovich reconstructed a complementary prehistory of new media in an overview of the computer technologies of the last four decades, and how long it takes for them to percolate through convergence, assimilation and agglomeration into digital culture – from digital storage to two- and three-dimensional simulation, to window and mouse, laptops and hypertext.
Striving to realize that potential and highlighting the importance of technology for scholarship, the first multimedia demonstration of the conference was a guided tour of a new peer-reviewed online journal, Vectors, by its editor, Tara McPherson, chair of critical studies at the USC School of Cinema and Television.
The morning concluded with an overview of the issues in intellectual property regulations for the new digital mediascape. Mark Poster, UCI professor of history, drew on his long-standing interest in dissecting the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the history and techniques of digital-rights management, and current debates about peer-to-peer networking.
"Texting," the afternoon session, was devoted to the digital humanities. Search engines promise real-time access to the stacks of research libraries. Academic publishing turns to online distribution. The Library of Congress is posting its collection on the Internet. Everywhere, computers have become part of the teaching and tending of literature, history and culture. Digital textuality has been hailed as a new form of literature, a new encyclopedia, a universal library, and as a meta-medium that would ingest or replace older media.
As founder of the Stanford Humanities Lab, Jeffrey Schnapp proposes "big humanities" to compete for resources and attention with the sciences; accordingly, his presentation pursued large-scale questions. Examples included a newly launched multimedia project and museum exhibit – that will travel from Palo Alto to Miami – that focuses on the importance of the multitude in (the study of) cultural life. The study of crowds (http://crowds.stanford.edu ) includes an expanding archipelago of virtual galleries, documentary films, reference materials, and a database of writing on crowds since the birth of the social sciences through the mid-1920s.
Eyal Amiran, UCI visiting associate professor of comparative literature, presented a reading of several pioneering digital art projects from the 1990s. He argued that the trans-spatial process of situating one's body within the image can be mapped onto structures of paranoia as a common thread that connects digital imagery by Peter Weibel, Jeffrey Shaw, David Blair and Shelley Jackson.
Noah Wardrip-Fruin, an influential writer and new media artist, and Brown University traveling scholar who soon will join the communication faculty at UC San Diego, gave an extended demonstration of the manipulation of text and image in a cave: a room-sized advanced visualization technology that combines high-resolution stereoscopic projection and 3-D computer graphics to create a virtual environment.
Mark Hansen, author of several books on new media theory, and professor of English and film at the University of Chicago, articulated the info-cultural stakes for digital textuality between digital poetry and hypertext. Beyond performing sophisticated work, computers can also be used to generate innovative poetry. Hansen pursued the status of its readability with the aid of information theory and poetics.
Friday’s last speaker was Rita Raley, assistant professor of English at UC Santa Barbara. Her intervention dovetailed with Hansen's interrogation of the status of code, but pushed its exploration in the direction of linguistic and translation theory.
Finally, the Saturday morning session was devoted to "Gaming" and the study of remix culture. Dynamic, interactive, immersive games represent a response to the adaptive problem posed by computers. Games model responses that pivot not on a narrative, but on non-linear modes of access, such as human interfaces with relational databases. Also, game technology may be put to unexpected ends – in cinematics, art film, music video, etc. As demonstrated by open source software, peer-to-peer networking, and music sampling, a playfully recombinant culture emphasizes how the very nature of the digital can allow and encourage derivative works.
Stanford University Librarian Henry Lowood, who teaches the history of computer games and is a co-director of the Stanford Humanities Lab, presented a brief history of replay from the software demo to current machinima. He demonstrated how each of the milestones he presented, from the first popular game on computers (Spacewar, 1962) to amateur explorations of the graphics capacities of personal computers, to decisions about open access to game engines (John Carmack, 1993ff.), illustrates a key issue in current software culture: from the design and reception of computer graphics systems and games, to the philosophies of computer education, and on to the issues facing historians of digital culture.
His presentation was in sync with the one by John Seely Brown, former chief scientist of the Xerox Corporation and former head of Xerox PARC. Now a fellow at USC, he emphasized the crucial role of the free play of imagination for cultural production and learning. To the approximations that measure the increases in speed and affordability of chips, fiber connections and storage space, he adds what he calls the community law, which allows for astronomical growth (2 to the power of n, the # of participants). Drawing lessons from recent multi-player online role-playing games, he showed that games not only teach the manipulation of technological interfaces, but may well impart leadership skills and a set of values, and serve as a platform for apprenticeship. This kind of technology transfer is not automatic, but he argued that collateral indigenous learning was possible in multi-player games as blended spaces that allow a partial overlap between virtual and physical worlds.
This panel included a demonstration by UCI artist and ACE program co-director Robert Nideffer, a pioneer in the academic study of computer and video games. By dint of his own recent work "unexceptional.net," he reviewed recent advances in gaming on heterogeneous networks – combining a telephony system addressing cell phones, GPS receivers, online maps and a blog to offer a richly textured game experience that is open and scalable. He also touched on Beall Center shows he co-curated with Antoinette la Farge and Walt Scacchi on game art (shift-ctrl, 2000; alt-ctrl, 2004), and offered a preview of an UC HRI residency planned around the questions of collaboration infrastructure.
Finally, law professor Rosemary Coombe and her collaborator, web theorist Andrew Herman, presented new frontiers of legal and sociological work in digital culture. Studying the quickly growing multi-player online role-playing game “Second Life,” which has granted intellectual property to its players since 2003, they analyzed why in the virtual realm, contract trumps copyright almost every time; and why there is a robust secondary market for in-game assets, even though they are not fixed and may disappear at any time, like any temporary data.
The conference was organized by Barbara Cohen, director of HumaniTech®, and Peter Krapp, assistant professor of film & media studies. Other co-sponsors included UCI’s ACE graduate program, Beall Center for Art & Technology, Humanities Center, International Center for Writing and Translation, Office of Research and Graduate Studies, School of Humanities and the UC Humanities Research Institute.