Communication and Technology in the Wild
For my “Communication and Technology in the Wild” assignment, I went to a public screening and discussion session centered around MTV’s award winning documentary White People. This film was first aired on MTV during the summer of 2015 as a part of their “Look Different” campaign, which supports the fight against racial, gender, and anti-LGBT bias (www.lookdifferent.org/about). The primary purpose of this documentary is to highlight what it is like to be a white person in America: how white people understand racism in America, as well as how they feel about “white privilege” and other stigmas associated with racism. The discussion session and program as a whole, however, served to provide an open atmosphere that was conducive to the discussion of race in America, since it is often considered too delicate of a subject to be addressed.
Before the program began, students and other visitors were given handouts of particular questions that would potentially be asked during the duration of the program. Prior to the playing of the film, one of the program’s leaders, a representative of the Office of Institutional Equity and Diversity (OIED), quickly briefed the audience with a summary of the film, as well as background information about the production and the overall purpose of the piece. The film was then started by one of the volunteers via laptop, which was located in the hub next to the center’s stage.
Apart from the discussion period that comprised half of the program, the actual screening was conducted just as any other movie theater experience. This program was located in the Witherspoon Student Center Cinema: the room is fairly large, sitting around 500+ individuals, and was essentially pitch black during the screening of the film, except for the light radiating from the screen at the very front of the room and the projector on the next floor above us. The space was also very open with high ceilings allowing for the sounds coming from the speakers to resonate off the walls and be heard clearly from every angle. However, not only does the open space allow the film’s sounds to be heard clearly, but also voices in the audience, so it is inferred that the audience should not speak during the screening, for they will also interrupt the movie experience. The rows of seating for the audience were spaced quite close to one another, suggesting that the audience members should not feel the need to get up often and move about. This would interrupt the movie experience. Also, because it was so dark, it was suggested that the audience’s focus should remain solely on the only the screen.
Based on this context, the film is meant to be consumed simply by means of watching and listening, requiring very little of the other physical senses for the audience. Rather, the audience is expected to listen and watch the video in order to contribute to the discussion afterwards. The same is true for leisure trips to the movie theater: The purpose is to give the audience members something to take with them (i.e. an epiphany, a feeling, etc.), so that they can contribute to conversations about the film outside of the theater.
After the film, the leaders of the event requested for the audience to remain in their seats for the discussion portion of the program. The lights were raised to their original brightness, encouraging the interpersonal communication between the members of the audience that was before discouraged. During this time, the film was replaced with slides that had questions on them related to the film and the topics that were discussed in the film. The student volunteers that were associated with OIED were also spaced about the room with index cards and microphones in their hands as they reiterated each question as it appeared on the screen. The audience was then asked to consider each question carefully before they submitted their answers, the answers were submitted via a phone survey that was displayed in averages and anonymously on the screen along with the question in real time. Once each individual who wished to participate had submitted their answer, the leaders of the program analyzed the data, then opened the floor to the audience members who wished to elaborate on their respective answer. The volunteers then offered their microphones to each member who wished to contribute.
The use of cell phones to submit answers to the internet poll that was used draws an interesting point that correlates with Marshall McLuhan’s theory that “all media, from the phonetic alphabet to the computer, are extensions of man” (McLuhan, 1969). Cell phones are so ingrained into our society now that professors and program leaders are integrating their use into their lectures and presentations. According to McLuhan, this is essentially a natural phenomenon, that man feels broken without his technology. The computer poll also highlights the idea of data surveillance and one’s identity as demonstrated through technology and the Internet. In their text Culture and Technology, Jennifer Daryl Slack and J. MacGregor Wise explain that “technology and identity are intimately related…technologies of verification, data storage, and analysis, finance, risk management, and others” (p198). While the audience members were not necessarily being tracked by companies or the government when they answered questions, there answers and opinions were gathered and analyzed by the leaders of the program. Their answers in a sense formed a portion of their digital identity as they sat in the room.
It also is important to note the differences between the two portions of the program, and how these differences in themselves create different environments where certain actions are accepted and others are not. Slack and Wise highlight the importance of assemblages and articulations when analyzing technology and culture together. Articulations are defined as “the contingent [connections] of different elements that, when connect in a particular way, form a specific unity” (p.152). When the film was playing, all the lights were down and the primary focus was the film on the screen. In this assemblage (e.g. a collection of articulations), it was only acceptable to watch and analyze the film. However, during the discussion period, the lights were up and the screen was no longer the primary focus; the members of the audience were then the focus. In this assemblage, it was encouraged that the members of the audience interact with one another in order to share their opinions on the respective question.
Disobeying the written rules of the movie theater could potentially grant you time in court. With this medium, no one is allowed under any circumstances to video tape a film using their own personal device; this crime can warrant up to 3 to 5 years in jail. The unwritten rules of interacting with a film in a theater are generally understood to include very little interaction at all, and also warrant far weaker consequences. It is considered rude for one to speak in a movie theatre while the film is playing, because, as earlier stated, the open space causes voices to carry, which would ultimately interrupt the movie experience. Standing up, leaving one’s seat multiple times, and exiting the room are all actions that are heavily discouraged, for you could potentially block someone’s view of the film or ruin the atmosphere by allowing extra light to filter through the opened exit doors. This is because the doors that open towards the back of the theatre when someone exits emits light, which throws off the atmosphere of the theatre, and because it interrupts peoples focus when someone must walk in front of the or in their general space. However, it was accepted in the movie-watching space to laugh and “aww” during certain parts of the film; no one was questioned, nor thrown out due to these actions. Through analyzing these comments, one can see that this medium is still highly prevalent within the society and culture. The unwritten laws that govern the movie watching experience are still generally followed until this day. It is only when these rules become neglected and ignored that the status of the medium will begin its descent down ranks.
Personally, I believe that the history of this medium is represented primarily through the use of the projector screen. Film in itself originated through the creation of the photograph, and the earliest “films” were essentially “flip-book shows”, or a collection of photos or images that are organized to form a cohesive “video”. Realistic images in themselves were once paintings before they were photographed; one intention used for this purpose was the camera obscura, which was basically a device consisting of a large dark box with a pin-hole inn one wall. Light would then enter through the hole and then “[project] an image of reality on the surface opposite the hole” (Taylor, Nicholas, “Photograhy”, Feb. 9, 2016). The modern day projector and the camera obscura similar in the fact they both project images through space and light onto a flat surface, rather than media like Netflix and television, which have their images immediately displayed digitally. During the late 1800s, Thomas Edison made it one of his many goals to improve film making technology in order to capitalize through commercial entertaining (Czitrom, Daniel, p161); while the creators of White People focused their attention more towards the education of their audience, the documentary did not fail to deliver amusing scenes.
Through this experiment, I was able to closely analyze a medium that I thought I already understood completely. It is interesting the examine how the history of film, the social and cultural constraints that are associated with film, and the technolocultural concepts that correlate around film consumption come together to create the experience, or assemblage, of film screening.