Author Archives: Alisa Wiersema

The Bourdieunomics of Target and Collaborative Marketing

In the past few years, discount retail stores have been expanding marketing practices beyond traditional barriers by partnering with higher-end brands in a series of capsule collections. Target is the best-known retail giant in mastering these kinds of partnerships, having collaborated with up and coming designers like Jason Wu and Prabal Gurung, as well as established brands like Isaac Mizrahi and Missoni, the latter of which was the retailer’s most successful venture. Each of these collections not only drove sales, but also made Target stand apart from similar, low-price retailers. In contrast to the clothing sold at Wal-Mart or K-Mart, which propelled a strictly budget conscious sentiment, Target managed to feed off some of the prestige associated with fashion brands outside of its industrial scope. In doing so, Target set the tone for how products that would have otherwise been regarded as low-end, could increase their value with semiotic and cultural associations of a higher quality label.

That said, not every Target partnership has been outstandingly successful. The failure of the 2012 Target/Neiman Marcus holiday collaboration inherently proposed the idea that collaborative marketing may have a cultural capital threshold that cannot always translate to the masses, especially if the terms set by branding semiotics are not carried out in the ultimate product. This begs the question of what factors into the creation of this threshold, and how can it be strategically adhered to in successful collaborations.

This essay will use Target as a case study in attempting to hone in on the cultural capital of the most and least successful marketing partnerships, while identifying whether or not one brand theoretically benefits more than the other whenever these partnerships are established. Ultimately, this essay will demonstrate how although collaborative marketing works to the benefit of the lower-end collaborator, it will consistently perpetuate the status quo of cultural capital in the marketplace, and in some cases exacerbate that difference when the partnerships fail to produce the desired economic outcome.

The Semiotics of Branding According to Barthes

In most cases, branding comes across as a natural association of a certain meaning between a physical object and some kind of idea that the consumer finds relatable enough to want to actually purchase that object. The latter of the two heavily depends on semiotics to forge this type of association for the consumer, since products rarely have obvious labels describing their symbolic intentions. When applied to retail items, this relationship between the physical object and its implied meaning becomes more complex, since the product can be manipulated to mean a variety of things depending on who wears it and in what situation they do so. However, the essence of how clothing demonstrates this type of semiotic representation carries across all designers and retailers alike.

As discussed by Barthes, what “[people] grasp is not at all one term after the other, but the correlation which unites them: there are, therefore, the signifier, and the signified and the sign, which is the associative total of the first two terms.” (Barthes, 111)  In this sense, the brand is the signifier and the clothes are the signified; combined they create a sign which can be communicated to the rest of the public, regardless of the specifics of the company from which that brand is derived. That said, in the context of this discussion, it is equally important to note that Barthes also describes that an individual’s understanding of the sign depends on there being “no latency of the concept in relation to the form.” (Barthes, 120) In application to Target’s retail products, this distinction could mean that the product must obviously signify its use and relationship to the brand. Without this obvious relationship, it can be inferred that a consumer may have difficulty relating to the product and would therefore be less willing to go through with the purchase. For example, Target can sell versions of Missoni scarves based on the fact that consumers have an expectation that the scarves will have the distinctive Missoni chevron pattern incorporated onto the physical product, thereby signifying association to the original brand and its established prestige.

Graham Allen’s take on Barthes further develops these applications of the sign, and its implications to the fashion industry especially in relation to the fashion cycle necessitating particular behavior from customers. According to Allen, fashion “passes real garments through a series of structures until it finally meets the public with a meaning, a sign.” (Allen, 40) In other words, the meaning created in fashion objects is knowingly created to communicate a particular message to their eventual purchaser. This message is most obviously communicated through the brand name of the retail objects, and with enough repetition those objects can be expected to consistently communicate a specific type of sign every time they are put out into the marketplace. Again, we can relate this notion back to Target’s well-known success with the Missoni line since.

To maintain the difference between the high-end version of Missoni products and the Target versions of the products, Target chose to maintain the Missoni chevron pattern on all of its products as a way to signify their belonging to the Missoni line. However, the products passed through “structures” to further focus those original signs to the Target shopper by way of color schemes and inclusion of products that Missoni does not produce on the higher-end retail platform. This type of uniquely forged repetition created a relevant structure that is meaningful to the Target shopper in a way that actual Missoni products may not be able to create.

Missoni Brand Scarf
as sold on ShopBop.com

This type of expectation for a “newer” version of something that already carries a type of significance, is what Allen attributes to allowing fashion “to speed up consumption, to lock people (women in the main) into an annual system which can generate consumption through a vocabulary of interchangeable, layered and repeatable functions.” After all, it isn’t as though a completely new fashion item is introduced to the marketplace every season– shirts, pants, dresses, skirts and the like remain as they are— but rather, every seasonal collection produces a varied form of an already existing, already signified object. This assertion is why large companies like Target can partner with new designers every season with the promise of providing consumers with something they (technically) do not already own, therefore driving consumption for the latest in fashion.  

Furthermore, it must be noted that the portrayal of fashion in a semiotic sense results in a varied perspective, as demonstrated in Barthes’ chains of combinations and equivalences. In this sense, fashion items can be combined with a myriad of imagery to equate a type of sentiment for the consumer, or rather allow “the various levels or codes of the fashion system, …[to] work by turning signifieds into signifiers for new signifieds.”

Missoni for Target Scarf
as shown on Being Zhenya, a fashion blog

From the retail branding perspective, when this constant updating of the chain of significance reaches a consumer, it becomes responsible for adding a new factor into the retailer’s existing product brand. In Target’s case, the seasonal partnerships with high-end brands lead consumers to expect higher-quality products from Target, and allow them to equate better quality with the retailer as opposed to its competition.

Target’s Cultural Capital Conundrum According to Bourdieu

Despite the many cases of well-executed branding semiotics Target has put in place throughout its various partnerships, the economic capital of branding begs the question of why consumers value these products in the first place. While it is true that fashion semiotics inherently drive a consumerist mentality; there is nothing that directly forces consumers to want to put more value on one type of brand over another. As a whole, the field of marketing is largely based on turning semiotic meaning into tangible capital, and branding serves as a way to transition these immaterial sentiments into actual profits for a particular company or companies. In the case of retail collaborations like those of Target, combinatorial branding bridges the differences between the two independent companies in order to create a unique form of cultural capital associated with the resulting product.

Pierre Bourdieu provides an extensive context as to how value can be derived from things that are seemingly invaluable and intangible by noting, “priceless things have their price and the extreme difficulty of converting certain practices … into money is only due to the fact that this conversion is refused in the very intention that produces them.” (Bourdieu, 2) In simpler terms, Bourdieu is saying that the embodiment of certain behaviors leads to economic value, so the semiotics of a particular product and the impression it has on the consumer will create a value system that transcends tangibility.

Bourdieu goes on to break down this type of capital into cultural, economic, and social capital; of which social capital seems to be most appropriate to discuss in relation to Target’s retail practices. According to Bourdieu, social capital functions in accordance to people’s desire to belong to a certain group. Once admitted to the group, the group will then grant its members “the backing of collectivity- owned capital, a ‘credential’ which entitles them to credit, in the various senses of the word.” (Bourdieu, 9) Pairing this notion with the previously discussed benefits of ever-evolving fashion signifiers it is possible to apply social capital to types of brands. Some brands, like Missoni, have a well-established prestige surrounding their products, while other brands, like Target, are less highly regarded in the scope of fashion. Despite this, people who are interested in using fashion as a means of social capital will strive to gain membership into a more highly regarded group of – for lack of a better word – fashionistas.  That said, they may not necessarily be able to economically afford purchasing products from those brands, and therefore membership would be unattainable.

When applied to Target’s retail branding strategies, it could be said that Target derives success from providing these types of consumers with higher-valued credentials under created and attainable circumstances. While the average woman may not be able to spend hundreds of dollars on one Missoni scarf, she can spend less than a fraction of that on a Missoni for Target scarf. Additionally, by purchasing this scarf as opposed to a non-branded scarf or another non-label article of clothing, the consumer can claim membership into a subcategory of the group in which she (or he) strives to be included, because she would be demonstrating to the outside world that she knows the value of the significance of the established brand.

Furthermore, by outwardly communicating the knowledge of the importance of a particular brand, the consumer is demonstrating how “social capital is never completely independent of [cultural and economic capital] because the exchanges instituting mutual acknowledgement presuppose the reacknowlegement of a minimum of objective homogeneity.” (Bourdieu, 11) Given Target’s dependence on high-end brands having already established themselves according to cultural and economic standards as being better regarded than Target itself, Target is not independently creating the consumer’s desire to belong to a more valuable social group by way of their purchases. Target therefore requires the difference between its products and high-end products to continue to exist in order to be able to foster an appeal to its customers. Without the pre-existing difference between Missoni and Target, or Target and a myriad of other upscale brands, Target would not be able to sell the partnered versions of products by branding them as being better than regular low priced products.

It may seem intuitive to believe that Target is doing itself a disservice by depending on the prestige of others, rather than improving its own prestige. However, this is not the case since the creation of a group of consumers who have aspirations that are more expensive than what they can realistically afford, can actually strengthen the divides between various forms of retail social capital. This divide thereby solidifies both Target’s and the higher-end brands’ consumer bases.

As mentioned by Bourdieu, social capital lends itself to being “endlessly reproduced…through the exchange (of gifts, words…etc.), which presupposes and produces mutual knowledge and recognition.” (Bourdieu, 9) In terms of Target’s partnerships, groups of consumers recognize the value in the brands – the high-end consumers will value authenticity, while low-end consumers will value the association to authenticity, which establishes a greater social relationship between products, thereby adding to the social capital of each brand.

Various Products from the Missoni for Target line

Ultimately, the establishment of this relationship is what translates into sales and brand empowerment on both ends of the retail spectrum. Bourdieu describes social capital as being able to accrue “from a relationship is that much greater to the extent that the person who is the object of it is richly endowed with capital…the possessors of an inherited social capital, symbolized by a great name, are able to transform all circumstantial relationships into lasting connections.” (Bourdieu, 9) When applied to retail entities, this assertion highlights why the relationships between Target and its high-end partners works so well; the highly regarded brands, like Missoni, do not have to sacrifice their established reputations or the physical properties of their products, but are still able to self-promote their names through the popularity of the possessors of “inherited social capital” from the sales of Target versions of their products.

In summation, both Target and its partners benefit from propelling consumer desire for belonging to either an unattainable group, or maintaining membership of an existing group. Target customers will inherit social capital from wearing affordable versions of expensive brands, while customers of those expensive brands will maintain social capital by wearing the products that originated the Target customers’ desire to belong to unattainable social membership.

Defining the Success of Social Capital in Practice

As mentioned throughout this discussion, Target’s partnership with Missoni has been an outstanding success story in terms of demonstrating how marketing can work across established brands to benefit multiple companies at once. Customers lined up outside of stores in the early hours of the morning, products were sold out nationwide, Target’s website crashed and some of the most popular items were later sold on eBay to collectors for more than their original value.

This type of success is widely attributable to consumers’ semiotic understanding of the Missoni brand, as well as its established social capital incorporation. To fully understand the implementation and success of these intangible concepts to the larger brands, it is necessary to directly apply them to physical objects. In the case of the Target Missoni partnership, there is no better example than the Target version of the Missoni scarf, which visibly incorporates the original brand’s style into its pattern and overall properties.

In the 1950s, Milan-based fashion designers Rosita and Ottavio Missoni created a line of ready-to-wear knitwear that soon became well known for its colorful zigzags design. The thinly shaped prints would often incorporate as many as 40 colors into one cohesive garment design, and eventually came to represent the entire Missoni brand. The original Missoni patterns typically used thin chevron lines of threads in various color combinations to create an eye-catching outcome; the Target versions of these scarves tweaked the pattern to be recognizable enough without completely replicating the high-end versions.

Missoni print scarf via BlueFly.com

As seen above, the original Missoni prints would use thinner patterns to make the otherwise busy print more subtle and wearable. Additionally, while the colors used in this print were often from various color families, the subtleness of the pattern made the colors seem more cohesive. According to Yuri Lotman’s assessment of cultural longevity, this pattern would leave a lasting, culturally semiotic impression the marketplace. As discussed by Lotman, “the texts considered most valuable are those of a maximum longevity from the point of view and according to the standard of the culture in question,” (Lotman, 215) which when translated to fashion, makes MIssoni a valuable partner for Target since its design text has an established longevity.

That said, Lotman also specifies that the hierarchy of value can also “correspond to the hierarchy of materials upon which the text are affixed and to the hierarchy of places and the means of their preservation.” (Lotman, 216) In relation to fashion items, this distinction highlights how despite Target’s inheritance of the Missoni semiotic value, the hierarchy of the products is maintained in places since the materials and design used in creating the high-end version of the scarf would still be noticeably different than the low-end versions created for the Target partnership.

For example, in the Target collection, the chevron patterns are visibly exaggerated in terms of the known qualities of the original Missoni print. The stripes are much more jarring to the eye and combine opposing color combinations that bring attention to the pattern itself, rather than to the product as a whole in order to make the semiotic association to Missoni visible to the consumer. In relation to social capital, the customer who strives to achieve membership into the group of people who can wear Missoni prints regularly, but can’t afford to purchase the original version, this print lends enough noticeable social capital to be seen as pseudo-fashion forward by others who are of the same mentality, while still keeping with in the budget of that group. On the other hand, members of the group who do wear the original Missoni prints, maintain their social capital by wearing items that do not look like the Target version and can implicitly claim to be unattainable, thereby keeping Target’s consumers constantly striving to achieve that which they cannot attain. This association of lasting cultural value, semiotics and translation to social capital are the underlying sources for why these marketing partnerships work.

exaggerate Missoni print on Target sweater

As a further example, we can refer to a similar partnership between low-cost fashion retailer H&M and the esteemed fashion brand, Versace. Similar to the Target/Missoni line, H&M and Versace aimed to bring high-end fashion to consumers who were striving to possess membership into an elite group, but were financially unable to gain admittance. Like the Target line, H&M utilized exaggerations of existing Versace design concepts, which included an emphasized use of bright colors, studs, and Grecian-inspired imagery, and can be seen in a more refined manner on original Versace designs. In doing so, H&M’s products were reminiscent of the semiotics of the existing Versace brand, but were bringing attention to the inherited properties previously established by Versace, as opposed to the esteemed quality and uniqueness of the products themselves. Again, as with Missoni and Target, the success of the H&M collaboration with Versace depended on established brand longevity to create interest in the low-end consumer base. Since both the Versace name and the brand were well known, the collection had results similar to those of Target, causing consumer pandemonium.

examples from the H&M Versace line

Based on this kind of consumer demand and popularity, it is easy to see how the low-to-high-end marketing partnership trend can gain traction. However, it is still necessary to demonstrate that the transition from highly regarded products to mass-produced replicas of those products can be beneficial to both types of brands. After all, it is very possible to follow the intuition that brands coming from polar opposite ends of the price and quality spectrum would do better if they kept their identities separate from one another.

When applying these marketing trends with Randal Johnson’s discussions on the topic of the structure and functioning of the field of restricted production, the fact remains that the high-end version of the product will maintain esteem over a more widely available version of that product. Johnson asserts that the “autonomy of a field of restricted production can be measured by its power to define its own criteria for the production and evaluation of its products.” Additionally, this kind of autonomy “implies translation of all external determinations in conformity with its own principles of functioning.” (Johnson, 126)

As applied to the partnership between Target and Missoni (and any other similar marketing partnership), this reasserts the existing hierarchy between the brands since the high-end brand is not only sought after by the low-end brand for its implementation of defined brand criteria, but in doing so, also conforms to the high-end brand’s function. In other words, the success of Target’s Missoni line depended on Target agreeing to use Missoni’s existing standards for original Missoni products, as well as Target’s adherence to those visible standards. This is why the chevron pattern was exaggerated as the dominating design factor in Target’s Missoni products, rather than some lesser-known aspect of Missoni’s designs. Additionally, the function of Missoni as a fashion label lends popularity to the Target versions of the Missoni fashion items. This is why the most successful versions of these partnerships include items the higher-end brand is already known to produce.

Straying from the functions established by the scarcer brand results in failed marketing strategies, which Target experienced in its partnership with Neiman Marcus for the 2012 holiday line. In the Neiman Marcus collaboration, designers simply lent their names to the items sold at both Target and Neiman Marcus, thereby confusing the two brands and their products and straying from the functions of items they were known to typically produce. High-end fashion brands like Alice + Olivia were selling bicycles, and couture designers like Oscar de la Renta and Diane von Furstenberg were lending their brand to dog food bowls and yoga mats, rather than gowns and wrap dresses. Clearly, customers who strive to be seen as members of a group who can afford to wear these labels, would want items that function the same way, rather than items that simply say the designers name with no relation to the items that signify their higher cultural importance.

Alice + Olivia for Target Bike

The failure of this partnership clearly demonstrated that although collaborations between scarcer and mass-produced brands can be successful, the scarce, high-end brand ultimately has power over how those items will be received due to its existing social capital. 

Conclusion

It is possible to concur that although these trendy marketing strategies can enhance the consumer appeal of both brands involved, as well as each of the brands individual semiotic identity, it is equally important to note the intricacy of this relationship. The products created out of these partnerships must adhere to consumers’ existing knowledge of what each brand is capable of producing, so that the membership pertaining to the consumers of those products is not lost to both onlookers as well as other members of the group. Additionally, this marketing partnership must be weary of establishing a visible, semiotic connection to the originating brand in order to make the partnership valuable to consumers. With these specifications in mind, it is possible to understand how regardless of where fashion originates, it is an ongoing reinvention of planned visuals that consumers use to create a personal identity, even if this identity is created unconsciously.

Works Cited and Consulted:

Allen, Graham. Roland Barthes (Routledge Critical Thinkers Series), on Semiology. New York: Routledge, 2003, 33-53.

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45).

The Forms of Capital.” [Original version, 1983; English trans., P. Bourdieu, “The Forms of Capital,” in John G. Richardson, editor, Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1986), 242-258.]

Johnson, Randal. The Field of Cultural Production, ed. (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1993), 1-25, 29-40, 75-111, 112-141

Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture“. New Literary History, Vol. 9, No. 2, Soviet Semiotics and Criticism: An Anthology (Winter, 1978), pp. 211-232. The Johns Hopkins University Press

Gunnar Lind Haase Svendsen, “On the Wealth of Nations: Bourdieuconomics and Social Capital,” Theory and Society, Vol. 32, No. 5/6, (Dec., 2003), pp. 607-631.

Visuals Referenced in Order of Use:

1. Jason Wu for Target: http://le-society.blogspot.com/2012/02/fashion-alertwe-love-jason-wu-for.html

2. Missoni Scarf via ShopBop.com: http://www.shopbop.com/wave-scarf-missoni/vp/v=1/845524441954063.htm

3. Missoni for Target Scarf: http://beingzhenya.com/tag/missoni-for-target/

4. Missoni for Target Products: http://www.skimbacolifestyle.com/2011/08/missoni-for-target-home-product-pictures.html

5. Missoni scarf print: http://www.bluefly.com/Missoni-merlot-wave-knit-fringed-scarf/p/319013001/detail.fly

6. Missoni for Target sweater: http://www.ladyelizabethgrace.com/2011/09/mission-missoni.html

7. Versace for H&M: http://lolosgossip.blogspot.com/2011/11/versace-for-h-collection-today-around.html

8. Alice + Olivia for Target bicycle: http://www.poshbeauty.com/target-neiman-marcus-holiday-collection-leaks/alice-olivia-for-target-neiman-marcus-holiday-collection-bike-jpg_201426_1_jpg_400x300_crop-smart_upscale-true_q95/

9. The Devil Wears Prada, 2006. clip via YouTube.com

The Communicated Culture of Google Glass

Google Glass is one of the most hyped up products that has yet to hit the marketplace. By providing people with an accessible form of augmented reality, Google is truly pushing society forward into the techy future many have been fantasizing about for decades. Although a number of interdisciplinary theories are relevant to Google Glass, is especially important to note the object’s communication and culture component, as well as how Google Glass fits into society as a medium. Additionally, we should note how interfaces affect the functions of both of the previously mentioned components in order to create the sense of augmented reality.

Communication and Culture –

On the communication and culture front, Google Glass exemplifies how powerful Google the company is in its entirety. People are drawn to Google Glass not only because of the object, but because it is associated with Google. Carey said, “the archetypal case under a ritual view is the sacred ceremony that draws persons together in fellowship and commonality.” This sense of commonality is visible in the promotional materials Google released to hype up Glass. The object itself is not portrayed as much as the experience of using it.

Google Glass aims to not only promote the use of an object, but inherently promotes institutionalizing Google by permeating direct human interaction. Again, to quote Carey, “It sees the original or highest manifestation of communication not in the transmission of intelligent information but in the construction and maintenance of an ordered, meaningful cultural world that can serve as a control and container for human action.” Google Glass allows people to communicate with one another through the use of an object, and in doing so categorizes each human interaction by making one hyper-aware of things that could be communicated. In facilitating this kind of interaction, Google Glass allows people to notice the digital aspect of their cultural world more than they may have otherwise.

 The Medium is the Message –

Going off of the notion that Google Glass itself facilitates a mediated sense of interpretation and communication, McLuhan’s assertion of the medium being the message continues to hold up in modern times. Like the many other forms of media that precede it, Google Glass has a set of inherent characteristics that would shape the user’s sense of reality and communication for better or worse. 

The most noticeable characteristic would be the fact that although the object allows you to share your view of the world with others, it also forces you to personally categorize every human action into a specific function of the glasses. So while it may be easy to send a visual snapshot of what you see to your friend, you still can’t fully share the experience of seeing what you see and must somehow transfer your communication into the square camera box of the Google Glasses. Additionally, the glasses themselves are a kind of metamedium that reinforces existing media functions and their messages. People on the other end of the line of a Google Glass interaction seem to still be dependent on some existing form of media like a television, computer or camera.

Interfaces – 

All in all, Google Glass seems to reinforce the importance of screens as an interface between humans and technology. The surface level interface of Google Glass is the entirety of the hype about the object because it puts a new shape onto something that is already familiar. That being said, as mentioned in the media being the message of the glasses, the user would be restricted to Google’s interpretation and style of interface interaction, so it will be interesting to see how users will be able to craft their own interpretations of how to use the object. Additionally, as mentioned in relating the culture of Google to Google Glass, the interface will reinforce a feeling of the Google culture because it will be easy to see who is using it and who isn’t since glasses like this do not generally exist. In general, the apps that Google Glass provides to people are not that different from things that already exist on smartphones, so it will really be the culture of the interface that makes Google Glass the phenomenon that it strives to be.

 

Is All Software Created Equal?

As mentioned by Manovich, we are living in a software society that values software culture both directly and implicitly. One of the most recent and direct examples of this is the military’s implementation of unmanned aerial vehicles or drones. Not only does this use of software extend the abilities of institutions on a world scale, but it also changes the way people think of and use interfaces in order to interact with technology, as well as one another.

Judging by the amount of controversy surrounding this this topic, it’s a bit mind-blowing to think about exactly what makes this software so disputed. Can we use software in virtually every other way, but insist that using it in war is off limits? Or do we acknowledge that drone software as another step into the future? Obviously it isn’t a simple topic that can be broken down into two options of black/white or good/bad, but there definitely is a question of how society will proceed with the use of this software.

In bringing up drones, I am not trying to make a political statement, but rather point out that much of the discomfort people feel toward this technology and software, exists in the functions of things we use every day on a personal level. As mentioned by Manovich, various types of interface components have been embedded into our culture and we expect technology to be able to produce the outputs we desire. 

In it’s most basic essence a drone is used to execute an action in a remote location, with the input of a human being in another location. Although this physical distance is discomforting to many, doesn’t it already exist in some capacity when we use Google search? Critics of drones say that their use would blur the line between the army and those with whom it interacts, but according to Manovich the software we use daily already does that – “Google’s search engine shows you the results both on your local machine and the web – thus conceptually and practically erasing the boundary between “self” and the “world.”

When de-black boxing the drone, we come across a variety of interfaces that exist in other technologies – the screen and it’s various layers, “user-friendly” icons, cameras and satellite relays – so what is it exactly that makes people uncomfortable with this technology and not other technology? Is it solely political? Does it make us super aware of the actor network theory in action? Or is it something else embedded into the human side of the interfacing? It seems as though much of the debate about drones is rooted in our difficulty of pinpointing the answer to this question, which truly demonstrates how software is permeating all levels of our culture.

Re-Mediation of the iPad and Its Effects

As someone who is studying communication, culture and technology, one of my darkest secrets is my tendency to cling onto familiar technology whenever a new gadget is introduced to the market. When I was a child, I didn’t understand what was so different about using a DVD instead of a VHS, and in middle school I distinctly remember making fun of a friend for wanting to carry around all of his music with him in his iPod. More recently, the concept of a tablet/iPad was more confusing than interesting to me when it initially gained popularity. I just did not see the value in re-shaping a computer screen in an attempt to make it seem new and interesting.

Having read Manovich’s and Bolter’s discussions about what digital media entails in modern times, I realized that it wasn’t so much the physical object of the iPad/tablet that bothered me, but rather the re-mediated qualities embedded into the technology. In an iPad, re-mediation is visible at all levels – on the interface, in its media functions and in its mediations. However, each layer of re-mediation depends on the user’s interaction and perception of the level of invisibility of various forms of mediation. 

The interface of an iPad is a physical re-mediation of a computer monitor, and before that, a notepad. However, this notion is true with one added caveat – the user can manipulate objects on the screen with their hands, rather than with a cursor. This tangible component of the iPad is also a re-mediation of how humans naturally touch and readjust surfaces. This type of interaction through remediation is mentioned by Manovich as “the mix between older cultural conventions for data representation, access and manipulation and newer conventions of data representation, access and manipulation.” Therefore, the interface of the iPad creates a sense of personalization that would have been otherwise unattainable on a computer, given the newly incorporated features of creating things by hand.

Similarly, the media functions of an iPad largely re-mediate those of a computer, but on a more basic level due to constrains placed on the technology in its tangibility. Essentially, the iPad is technically able to process media as well as a computer, but its interface limits the scope of whatever is being processed. Additionally, the apps included in the software of an iPad demonstrate how strategic implementation of software can make the mediated functions of a technology seem invisible. For example, take a look at your address book app. The images shown on the screen replicate how a “real” address book would look, complete with hand-flipped pages. The familiarity of the original, re-mediated object make the software of the app invisible. People are unlikely to question what kind of code was used to create this app, but will likely notice how “easy to use” it is since it is based on a model they already know.

The mediation level of an iPad is more difficult to discuss since an iPad can mediate any number of things – emails, mail, entertainment, and any other type of information. To limit my discussion, I will focus on the iPad’s remediation of television functions and a few effects it has had thus far. With the use of digital apps, the convenience of watching television with the freedom to choose what time and place you will tune in has been heightened. Apps catering to this convenience continue to thrive, and create a somewhat symbiotic relationship of re-mediation between themselves and the interfacing technology. For example, Netflix has been an extremely successful online service, and by providing viewers with a steady stream of entire show seasons, rather than one episode at a time like traditional television, the company has been able to re-mediate not only how people interact with their iPad technology, but also with their televisions. In doing so, Netflix learned that people tend to “binge watch” entire seasons quickly, which prompted the company to invest in creating its own show, House of Cards, that would only be shown on Netflix. 

Since not all iPad/Netflix users participate in these “binge watching” sessions, this situation would demonstrate how re-mediation of a media can make digital versions of the technology truly seem more “real” because it is more current with the type of software the iPad is capable of running, thereby highlighting the “cultural bias” aimed at digital endeavors. Any paid-for television channel with its own specific set of shows can be similarly successful if it were to show all episodes of one show in marathon succession. However, the personalization of choosing when to watch the shows is what gives the remediation of television shows some weight. Overall, the re-mediation involved in all Apple products and some other tablets creates success for the brand as a whole thanks to its strong basis in familiar analog technologies. 

Mediating Makeup on YouTube

Alisa Wiersema

Over the past three years or so, I have been following a group of YouTube bloggers (vloggers?) who post videos about beauty and fashion topics. The majority of these bloggers are girls my age and in the short time that I’ve been viewing their videos, I’ve noticed a definite shift in the way they portray themselves as in their videos. While critics (and there are many critics in the comment section of the videos) cite the changes to be attributable solely to the bloggers’ personal decisions, mediology dictates otherwise, citing YouTube to be the catalyst in their transformation.

Three years ago, when I stumbled across Elle Fowler’s YouTube channel (AllThatGlitters21), she looked just like any normal college girl who was making makeup videos on her MacBook camera for fun as visible in a screenshot below: 

Now, her videos look more like the high-quality, professionally produced, DSLR videos one would see on the websites of well-known fashion magazines:

So what happened in those three years? Did she suddenly become wealthier, more business oriented and more camera savvy? Yes and no.  While it is easy to say that Elle’s changes happened solely as a part of her own doing, the medium of YouTube needs to be de-black boxed in order to demonstrate its hand in her transformation.

YouTube pays its most successful “partners” an undisclosed, small amount per video view. Additionally, due to its involvement with Google, the ads running before some videos bring in additional revenue. Given Elle’s increasing subscriber and viewership base over the past few years, it is safe to say that YouTube’s financial incentive has provided her the opportunity to not only purchase new products to talk about, but also improve her video surroundings. Additionally, YouTube’s switch to HD video prompts partners to make their videos in a higher-quality.

When viewers watch Elle on YouTube, it is clear that  Debray‘s points about “[the mediological revolution] stirring together concrete things and myths” are demonstrated to be true. As far as the average viewer is concerned, Elle lives in the square box of her videos, where everything is perfectly lit up and edited to perfection. Since everything is shot prior to uploading, she has the liberty to go back and set up certain shots to look better than they would in real life, thereby creating the myth of perfection that is very much associated in the beauty and fashion industry. By perpetuating it further through the medium of YouTube, Elle mixes the reality of being a “regular person” with the myth of socially-codified perfection, while YouTube transmits this message to the masses.

Other YouTubers have enjoyed the benefits of partnerships by way of the YouTube Boot Camp, which brings the website’s most successful bloggers/vloggers to Google’s Manhattan headquarters to receive training in how to make their videos more likely to go viral, brand themselves and increase viewership. Clearly, this partnership is beneficial to both the vloggers as well as YouTube, and it would have most likely never happened had they chosen another medium on which they could post videos. YouTube is somewhat of a digital institution, and it actively mediates this kind of interaction with its partners for the sake of increasing the viewership and revenue of the website as a whole. In this sense, it is definitely an institution of transmission because it doesn’t just extend these services to a specific kind of vlogger, but any and all successful partners.

This complex, symbiotic relationship of the transmission institution and those producing the videos ties into the topic of what is transmitted about the medium itself, since many of the YouTubers who attend these sponsored sessions will later discuss their experiences about it in videos. This then creates a cyclical process in which the institution is prompting its partners to hype up its digital predominance and implicitly dissuading any other similar media from achieving the same amount of success since it wouldn’t be able to provide the same kind of training.

As mentioned in  Debray’s questioning of whom the “authorship” of a mediated message is designated to, it is interesting to discuss whether the authorship of YouTube videos belongs to the YouTubers or to YouTube. After all, doesn’t YouTube contribute just as much to the “coding” and format of the videos as the YouTuber him/herself?

Details and Ambiance

To fully appreciate this week’s topic, I chose to focus my perspective of the Google Art Project through the lens of the artwork included in the Art Institute of Chicago section. Of all the museums listed in the Google Art Project, I am particularly fond of this museum because I have visited it at least once a year since my early childhood, and it features a work of art that I find to be particularly fascinating.

Georges Seurat’s, A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, is an amazing work of art not only in its technique, but also in its scope as a part of the context of the museum. As a child, I remember reveling at its size and wondering how many points it took to create the images before me. Thanks to the Google Art Project, I can now zoom in as far as the interface will let me, and (if time were no object) I could even count exactly how many points the painting contained.

This type of detail is an incredible feat of technology and creativity since it eliminates the diversions a traditional museum setting imposes on its patrons like crowded viewing areas or protective measures that prevent you from seeing a work of art as close up as you would like. To view the Seurat painting in person, I would typically have to wait for crowds to clear out or fight my way to the front of the group. The Google Art Project’s ability to give viewers control over their viewership demonstrates what Emily Magnuson refers to as “releasing an object from its ritual” as the phrase was previously applied to art photography. Releasing famous art from its ritualized form seems to give the art a new dimension – it allows viewers to see texture and discover new details without ever leaving their home. In this sense, the ritual of visiting a specific location to view art is eliminated.

As captivating as these features of the Google Art Project may be, the Project should not be treated as a replacement for the ritualized museum despite Google’s inclusion of the street view option, which tries to simulate a “real” museum visit. Additionally, the art included in the exhibitions is not all-inclusive, and is therefore somewhat framing the viewer’s perspective on the museum’s art collection. For example, a particularly interesting exhibit I recall at the Art Institute of Chicago included a collection of miniature dioramas of famous rooms. This exhibit would most likely not be included in the Google Art Project because of the huge amount of detail and resources that would need to be poured into the documentation of each shot in order to make it seem as organic as a ritualized museum visit.

From a semiotic perspective, attending a museum represents the mental entrance into a world removed from reality that pushes individual understanding of art. Like Baudrillard’s Disneyland analogy, entering a space that represents a certain cohesive mentality forces you to escape the reality of the outside world. I am sure I’m not alone in feeling like I’m re-entering “reality” upon leaving the special soft lights of a museum and entering the brightness of the world outside of the museum’s walls. This feeling is difficult to replicate in an online sphere because you are technically stuck in reality since you are sitting in a room somewhere while surfing the Internet for art.

To further illustrate how Google cannot fully replicate the museum experience, the aura of a museum must be compared to that of the Google Art Project. Most museums are sparse in their decoration, thereby forcing patrons to concentrate on each work of art. The spacing of the artwork also insinuates a necessity of deep concentration and reflection. In the Google Art Project, art is listed in a way that definitely recalls a search engine—one exhibit is listed after another in a virtual list that seems to go on forever. In this sense, one institution is replaced with another—the institution of a museum is replaced with the institution of Google, which may frame a viewer’s perception of are more than a traditional museum.  As mentioned in Nancy Proctor’s post, “the interface in effect plays a similar role to the frame, the glass, the label, the map the wall and so one in the gallery.”

Based on this discussion, it seems like the Google Art Project would serve best as a gateway point to develop an interest in art, rather than a total museum replacement. Going back to the Seurat example, I can get a more technical scope of detail of the artwork via the Google Art Project, but I would need to see the painting in person to fully experience its emotional impact and understand why it is “museum-worthy”. Although convenient and innovative, the Google Art Project risks forgoing challenging the audience to “rethink what and why.”

Movie Adaptations Aren’t Clueless (alisa)

It has become a very prominent trend to make films out of existing texts. Thanks to this trend we have a multitude of Shakespearian-styled films like 10 Things I Hate About You (based on The Taming of the Shrew), O (based on Othello), She’s The Man (based on The Twelfth Night) and even the dreaded Twilight (which loosely interprets Romeo and Juliet). Additionally, classic literary pieces like The Scarlet Letter and Pride and Prejudice are respectively interpreted in recent films like Easy A and Bridget Jones’s Diary. The fact that so many of the stories we believe to be “new” have in fact derived from already existing stories truly demonstrates Barthes’ assertion that “the Text is experienced only in an activity of production. It follows that the Text cannot stop [on a library shelf]; its constitutive movement is that of cutting across [several works].” (157)

One of my favorite examples of how the text is able to continue its movement through society and culture is the movie Clueless, which is a loose take on Jane Austen’s book, Emma. Although I was never a huge fan of the book, when I learned that Clueless was based on Emma, I was fascinated with finding examples of as many direct homages to the original text version of in the movie adaptation as I could. This fascination demonstrates Bakhtin’s comments on how “there is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to dialogic context…even past meanings can never be stable – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue.” (Speech Genres, 170)

Going further with Bakhtin’s theories, the viewers of this movie who had previous knowledge of the book’s adaptation, as well as viewers who were unaware of this association could probably view the film with a similar feeling of predictability. In this sense, viewers would expect a certain outcome due to previous exposure to words and communication exchanges. As Bakhtin mentions, “a ‘word’ is …always already embedded in a history of expressions by others in a chain of ongoing cultural and political moments.”

There have been two other film versions of Emma that preceeded Clueless, both of these versions were said to be more direct versions of the book since the plot was set in the same time frame and had the same characters and scenes. Some people would say these versions were more “accurate” interpretations of Emma than Clueless, bringing up the issue of the ‘degrees of intertextuality’ as mentioned by Daniel Chandler. Chandler concludes that intertextuality is not a contract between the author and those who move the text beyond the scope of the original text, but instead the degrees of intertextual relevance should be more based on reflexive properties that allow viewers to relate the new work to the old. When put this way, Clueless could be just as much of an accurate intertextual example as the films that directly interpreted Emma, showing just how far intertextuality can stretch in our culture.

 

Roland Barthes, “From Work to Text” (1971; trans. 1977; excerpt from Image, Music, Text).

Mikhail Bakhtin: Key Theory from his major writings (On Dialogism, Heteroglossia, Polyphony).

Daniel Chandler, “Intertextuality.”

Man Repelling Semiotics

Barthe’s take on fashion and semiotics is truly fascinating when applied to the concept of fashion bloggers. Essentially, his take on fashion and fashion writing is rooted in the fashion industry’s ability to present combinations of fashion objects repeatedly, and while the combinations vary slightly year by year, they are essentially the same pieces but are accepted by the public automatically without any or much resistance as trends.

Although fashion bloggers may seem to have taken some of this authority away from fashion institutions, like Vogue or Women’s Wear Daily, by posting their own combinations of outfits, with the application of Barthe’s observations it is possible to see that this is not the case. Even these “independent” trendsetters inherently use pieces to which a previous entity has assigned meaning.

One of the top “serious” fashion bloggers in recent times, Leandra Medine, goes by the alias The Man Repeller on her fashion blog. The name is meant to signify how “serious” artistic fashion is not attractive to men, but create a fashion statement by those who dress in such a way. Medine even provides a definition of what a man repeller is:

“man·re·pell·er1  [mahn-ree-peller]

–noun

outfitting oneself in a sartorially offensive mode that may result in repelling members of the opposite sex. Such garments include but are not limited to harem pants, boyfriend jeans, overalls (see: human repelling), shoulder pads, full length jumpsuits, jewelry that resembles violent weaponry and clogs.” 

This establishment of self translates into a kind of self-advertising of independent fashion expertise because Medine coins a phrase and proceeds to call herself as such. However, her writing follows Barthe’s breakdown of how fashion is verbally presented to readers: “(indicated thus‘*’) and equivalences (indicated thus‘≡’).”

In this case, the fashion blogger is stating that she is a man repeller and the equivalence of a man repeller is someone who wears clothes they think are captivating but members of the opposite sex do not. Therefore, this is the equivalence of being exuding an independent take on fashion without influences of trends. However as noted in her various blog entries, Medine steers toward high end, established brand names of clothing to make these statements and depends on them to create this man-repelling image, demonstrating how the sign and the significance of a brand are still completely relevant in demonstrating a certain style or characteristic in clothing, regardless of whether they are man-repelling or not. Despite creating a seemingly unique fashion persona, she is still feeding into the Barthes idea of fashion being presented in an authoritative manner by a small industry, since there is no other reason for why names like Prada and Louis Vuitton carry as much “weight” as they do with fashion lovers.

Additionally, by presenting her fashion authority in such a way, Medine is demonstrates the notion of “elements of culture being able to serve both as text and as rules” since she is committing a fashion taboo by using fashion to dress conventionally unattractively. As described by Yuri Lotman, “taboos which are a component of the general system of a given culture can, on one hand, be examined as elements (signs) of the text reflecting moral experience of the community and on the other hand, be regarded as an aggregate of magical rules prescribing specific behavior.”

By wearing something like the photo above, The Man Repeller is actually commenting on how a cultural system exists for “normal” ways for women to dress that prescribe a set of rules against the outfit she is wearing, but being the rule breaker that she is, styling these clothes in such a way actually makes her behavior a comment on those rules.

Works Cited:

Roland Barthes, Mythologies, “Myth Today” (excerpt from Mythologies, trans. Annette Lavers, 1984, pp. 107-45

Graham Allen, excerpt from Roland Barthes (Routledge Critical Thinkers Series), on Semiology. New York: Routledge, 2003, 33-53.

Yuri Lotman, “On the Semiotic Mechanism of Culture

http://www.manrepeller.com/

 

A Beautiful, Semiotic Mind

by Alisa Wiersema

The movie A Beautiful Mind captures many aspects of semiotics in its depiction of John Nash’s code-cracking genius abilities. Not only does the movie show the way semiotics literally affects Nash’s comprehension, it also does a great job of including movie-specific semiotics that allow viewers to comprehend the mental processes the main character experiences first hand. In the scene above, John Nash is called in by the U.S. Military to detect and crack a code that is being intercepted from Moscow. Nash proceeds to work through the code, and after many hours he is able to relate the code’s message to the longitude and latitude of an area on a map.

When taken literally, the content of this scene demonstrates a number of semiotic interactions that people encounter regularly. For example, Nash can recognize numbers and understand that they represent meanings for other things as they pertain to what is conventionally referred to as a “code” in the movie. He is then able to continue this chain of understanding even further as he relates the interpretation of the code as it is expressed through patterns of numbers, and apply it to the symbolic function of a map. This sequence of events demonstrates what C.S. Peirce calls “unlimited semiosis” since “chains and networks of expression and interpretation with unlimited productivity” are used by the character in the movie. Based on the actions of John Nash in this scene, it is clear to see how “the interpretation of a set of signs will always take the form of additional sets of signs.”

As a whole, the filmmakers included a number of cinematic components that depend on the semiotics of movie interpretation from a viewer’s perspective. One of the prime examples of linguistics blending into semiotics is the point in the movie when Nash is shown to be staring at the numbers before him, and viewers hear whispers of what is interpreted to be his thoughts as he connects the patterns of the code. Like we discussed a few weeks ago, people can distinguish language whether they are able to hear the individual words or not. In this case, it is difficult to follow Nash’s thoughts as they are verbalized in the whispers, so the viewer is dependent on the semiotics of language to interpret the purpose of that section of the movie. As described by Emile Benveniste, the viewer experiences a sense of subjectivity, which “is the capacity of the speaker to posit himself as the subject.” When the movie only shows the numbers from Nash’s point of view and pairs this visual with the audio of whispering thoughts, the viewer can infer the link between his or her own quick thought process and apply it to the movie scenario.

Looking beyond the movie scene and thinking about the semiotics of a movie as a whole, we can see that Mieke Bal’s assertions about the meaning making process as it applies to art holds true. Although it is clear that the director of the film is attempting to call attention to some parts of the story more than others, viewers may not be familiar with everything they encounter while viewing the movie. If the viewer sees something they are unfamiliar with, then they “will bring in [their] own ideas and suppose some basis for meaning to be active.” This last bit of semiotic clarity shines light onto why two people can view the same movie and have completely different interpretations of what they saw, making everyone a movie critic in their own right.

Emile Benveniste, excerpts from “The Nature of the Linguistic Sign” and “Subjectivity in Language.”

Mieke Bal, “Semiotics for Beginners,” from Mieke Bal, On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.

Peirce, Charles Sanders. Collected Papers of Charles Sanders Peirce, 8 Volumes. Edited by Charles Hartshorne, Paul Weiss, and A. W. Burks. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1931-.

Advertising With Oreo – Fresh or Stale? — Alisa Wiersema

From personal experience, the term “new media” is frequently bounced around in advertising brainstorm sessions. When this word is brought up, the unstated understanding is that “new media” refers to strategies that target a particular demographic online, specifically through the use of social media websites. Lately, Twitter has been the avenue of choice because of its instant connectivity to large amounts of people and ability to provide witty, time sensitive responses at a much lower cost than traditional television or print ads.

However, as mentioned by Friedrich Kittler, “New media do not make old media obsolete; they assign them other places in the system.” This assertion is particularly true in the recent case of “new media” advertising by Nabisco and its Oreo Cookie division. The people behind the Oreo Twitter account devised a way to combine traditional print media with the low cost, high volume accessibility of online social media. This quickly devised campaign started during the Super Bowl blackout when @Oreo posted this image: 

credit: practicalecommerce.com

The image was a hit, and many advertising professionals hailed this incident as another “new” advertising trend. But how “new” is it really? Going along with Kittler’s statement of old media not being obsolete, we can see that although the visual Oreo strategically released is distributed through a different channel, it is still a square, two-dimensional image that recalls billboards, posters and paintings of the past, all of which similarly set out to express a meaning or instruction to large quantities of people at once.

The manner in which this image spread virally is also derived from early print culture as described by Elizabeth L. Einstein when she referenced an “explosion of knowledge” that occurred in the sixteenth century. She cites that this era signaled a time of “intense cross-referencing between one book and another,” which is an idea that is very familiar to the way in which advertising via Twitter (and viral material in general) operates today. By reTweeting, or reposting the original image released by Oreo, people are inherently cross-referencing one another since the source of the viewed image could be from the brand itself or from one of their friends, and the cycle continues as long as there are more people who think this material is worthwhile.

Oreo’s success at the Super Bowl prompted more versions of this online poster to be released for other occasions like the Grammy Awards and Fat Tuesday. This continued practice of something that seemed novel at first further highlights Einstein’s description of how, “increased output… created conditions that favored new combinations of old ideas at first and then the creation of entirely new systems of thought.” In other words, more of the same type of media was released and due to positive responses to these seemingly new types of ideas, we now have a new manner of thinking of online advertising.

credit: mediabistro.com

Following McLuhan’s proposal of the media being the message and applying it to this scenario, it is undeniable that the message of Twitter resonates within Oreo’s advertising attempts. Twitter allows for people to share opinions and updates on an online platform, but it limits the amount of characters a person can use. In this way,  it forces visual messages and other short blurbs to be shared more frequently because they are easier to view, thereby making visuals  like the Oreo ad an incredibly appealing manner of communication. The medium limits verbal communication, so the message ends up being something that can easily be inferred without the use of words and that largely depends on some kind of shared experience between users viewing the communicated message. This combination of media and message seems to be working well for Oreo, so we can look forward to more funny, time-relevant ads popping up in the future.

References:

Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, “Some Features of Book Culture,” from Elizabeth L. Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Rev. ed. 2005.

Friedrich Kittler, “The History of Communication Media,” C-Theory, 1996.

Marshall McLuhan, “The Medium is the Message,” (Excerpts from Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man, Part I, 2nd Edition; originally published, 1964).

Combinatorial Meaning in Pottermore

A scene of Platform 9 3/4 from the Pottermore scavenger hunt. Credit: wired.com

One of the defining literary and cinematic events of my childhood and early adolescence were the Harry Potter books and movies. Like most other kids at the time, I was completely absorbed into the fantasy realm created by J.K. Rowling, and followed both forms of media until their completion. It seemed like there would always be a Harry Potter related mode of entertainment to enjoy, so when the last movie truly ended the series, fans like myself were looking for something to fill the void. Created by J.K. Rowling and Sony Entertainment, the website Pottermore.com was introduced in 2011 as a supplement to the Harry Potter books. This website meant to give fans access to unreleased written material and facts from the author by way of an interactive game.

The website is set up as a community, but allows users to create their own profiles and independently go through the Harry Potter books chapter by chapter, collecting new facts along the way. Each chapter presents a few interactive settings in which users engage in a scavenger hunt or game to gain new information and the ability to move to the next chapter. The farther a user gets into the book, the more “connected” he or she becomes to the Harry Potter world. For example, once users reach the chapter in which Harry gets sorted into a house, the user gets sorted as well and can begin interacting with other members of their house.

The large amount of information combined into one platform makes Pottermore a great example of a combinatorial meaning system. Not only does the website require users to have previous knowledge of an imaginary world that is then symbolized online, but it also assumes that an entire real-life community can be created and symbolized digitally from this knowledge. The most noticeable means of combinatorial meaning are the visuals used on the site. These visuals provide a sense of “reality” to the feeling of actually being “in” Harry Potter’s world by way of animations, photos, icons and videos. The sounds associated with the movements of many of these animations and visuals also allow users to feel a multidimensional sense of cognitive reality, regardless of the fact that they are engaging in actions that are digitally expressed (not to mention, based on imaginary plotlines.) Written instructions tie the whole experience together, and depend on the symbolization of language to tell the user what to do next, as well as describe the new facts they may encounter along the way.

Going through the Pottermore website, three ideas from this week’s readings became apparent to me. First, Gibson’s idea of “affordance” as described by Zhang and Patel, is very relevant to interactive multimedia websites like Pottermore due to their holistic approach in expressing information. Since “what we perceive when we look at objects are their affordances, not their dimensions or properties” people experience Pottermore in its entirety, rather than just seeing or hearing one part of it at a time, or just seeing the interactive experience as a simple function performed by their computer. (337) One of the main ways this website allows for the holistic aspect of affordance to be apparent, is the manner in which the point of view of each scene is set to be from the perspective of the user as though he or she is seeing the visuals and performing tasks head on.

This holistic aspect of affordance leads in to the example of the way a pilot behaves in a cockpit while interacting with his technological interface, as described by Hallen, et al. The way in which the pilot manipulates the interface automatically without physically altering some form of his machinery or environment is applicable to the icon manipulations a Pottermore user completes. For example, if a user is prompted to combine ingredients to brew a potion (not until he or she is an official student, of course) he or she will not actually transfer the ingredients into a cauldron in real life, but would rather understand that the actions are only demonstrated as manipulations on the website. By doing this, players are “[manipulating] the properties of a representation to encode information that does not pertain to and is not about the thing that the representation represents.” (186)

(For a link to a screenshot of a Pottermore potions class, click here.)

Finally, the interpretations of each chapter’s activities are highly cognitively symbolic within themselves, particularly in relation to how the “difference between different modes of reference can be understood in terms of levels of interpretation.” (73). Each player will see exactly the same setting in each chapter the format of the site presents, but each player will also most likely have different interpretations as to where they should start clicking to begin their scavenger hunts, or what they want to read first. This would create different levels of interpretations of the same information even though initially all players saw the same visuals.

Having a better understanding of the massive amounts of symbolic thinking that is involved in multimedia projects like Pottermore.com, really demonstrates how much goes into the creation of a modern digital artefact. Additionally, thinking about each component of internal and external communication truly brings to light how much we take the complexity of online communication for granted.

References:

Terrence W. Deacon, The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 1998.

Hollan, James, Edwin Hutchins, and David Kirsh. “Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-computer Interaction Research.” ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction 7, no. 2 (June 2000): 174-196.

Zhang, Jiajie, and Vimla L. Patel. “Distributed Cognition, Representation, and Affordance.” Pragmatics & Cognition 14, no. 2 (July 2006): 333-341.

 

Pragmatics of culture

Discussing language as a system may initially strike us as a strange endeavor, given the huge importance language plays in all cultures and means of communication. Inherently, the way we study subjects in school separates languages from mathematics, so combining the two seems a bit odd – after all, we have spent our entire lives studying the two realms separately. However, given the ever evolving digital culture and the importance computing plays in our lives, linguistics bridges the gap between the two subjects and allows us to think more broadly about the faculty of language.

Noam Chomsky’s influence in linguistics seems to be more applicable to the initial stages of computer coding. His studies and sentence structure mapping allow sentences to be considered grammatically correct, regardless of whether or not the sentence itself makes sense. The mapping aspect of Chomsky’s take on linguistics makes sense universally because people do not arbitrarily speak for the sake of speaking, and do have patterns in what they say, regardless of culture or language. This concept is demonstrated in the universality of computer coding, since virtually all computers tend to follow the same coding language and command breakdown.

However, given the vast amount of multimedia communication existing online, the pragmatic aspect of linguistics seems to be more relevant in the digital sphere. It would be difficult to interpret what a meme is saying without knowing the relevant context. Additionally, it would be equally difficult to understand what a #hashtag refers to without knowing the cultural source of its reference. As Searle wrote, “Chomsky’s picture … seems to be something like this: except for having such general purposes as the expression of human thoughts, language doesn’t have any essential purpose, or if it does there is no interesting connection between its purpose and its structure.”

It is possible to question whether the purpose of language is even necessary, as long as the patterns described by Chomsky are expressed and received, but in the digital sphere (especially in social media), purpose seems to be the essence of communication. There is so much information, that we are constantly interpreting its purpose of existence, this purpose is what allows some social networking sites to flourish while others are looked at less favorably and lose users. The context and the pragmatics of a site entirely are what make Facebook the huge success it is, and what made Myspace re-work its user focus.

On another note, as an immigrant who had to learn a different language largely through immersion, the concept that struck me as most interesting in this week’s readings was the “head first” and “head last” language distinctions. The sentence mapping patterns (albeit less formally taught) were the main way my family and I learned how to communicate in English. However, personal experience still leads me to feel that the pragmatic element of linguistics plays a huge role in the structure of sentences. For example, in Russian and in many other languages, we use a formal “you” to address strangers, professors, people in high-ranking positions and generally people who are older than we may be. This structure does not exist in English, and although both versions of “you” serve the same purpose, the sentence’s intentions and the intentions of the communication are completely changed if the versions of “you” are interchanged.

Therefore, structurally, Chomsky’s version of language is successful in demonstrating the fact that patterns are what allow languages to be formed, but culturally, language seems to be the essence of all human intention.

Conversations with Siri: Is all communication created equal?

Alisa Wiersema
CCT 748 – Irvine
January 23, 2013

This week’s readings concentrated on a variety of discussions that in some way or another addressed communication through the form of a model or representation. The examples presented in these readings made me think about my own patterns of communication, as well as any conscious problems I may have had communicating with others. However, as pathetic as it sounds, I came to the realization that my major issues with communication largely occur between my iPhone and myself when Siri does not understand what I am asking her to do. This realization seemed to fit well with the introductory readings.

Anyone with an iPhone will probably admit to being frustrated by Siri at some point because we initially feel like another person did not comprehend our requests, rather than instantly acknowledge the fact that we are speaking to an inanimate object. Stuart Hall’s discussion about televisual signs could be applicable to highlight this issue between people and their smartphones. As he states in ‘Encoding, Decoding’,  “reality exists outside language, but it is constantly mediated by and through language.” Given that Siri can mediate language and respond to people verbally, we tend to treat the technology as a real person and go as far as referring to it/her by name. Our perception of reality gets a bit twisted when we engage in conversations with Siri because we use its/her ability to “speak” our language as a means for engagement. Despite this, we are also aware of our own reality whenever Siri misunderstands the conversation or cannot respond the way a human would be able to respond. Additionally, we are also aware of our human reality whenever we attempt to trick Siri into saying something inappropriate or coax a humorous statement out of her collection of responses.

However, as Hall goes on to explain: “There is no intelligible discourse without the operation of a code.” This assertion is what quickly reminds people they are speaking to a machine whenever Siri cannot answer properly – the communication codes between the two parties are completely different since Siri’s code is literally that of a computer. From anecdotal experience, it is safe to say that we often expect our technology to relate to the world in a human way, as though our phones are an extension of our minds. There are so many personal elements available to us — from GPS locators, to maps and favorite settings — that we grow accustomed to having our technology tailored to our specific preferences, that we find it strange when our phones do not automatically continue tailoring these preferences into the more technical operations. In this sense, our codes are not in sync, and our discourse cannot be intelligible.

Floridi also discusses this kind of interaction in the “Life in the Infosphere” section of Chapter 1. Siri seems to be the perfect example of the blurring between what he describes as the “here” and “there” thresholds; people using this technology are interpreting information first hand and offline, while simultaneously receiving digital, intangible information from the little voice living in their phones. His example of GPS tracking also highlights this idea.

Even so, as easy as it may be to “communicate” with technology, we cannot admit to treating all kinds of communication the same way. No matter how human-like Siri’s answers may be, feeling misunderstood by your phone feels a lot different than feeling misunderstood by your peer. After all, as James Carey wrote, “Men live in a community in virtue of the things which they come to possess things in common…such things cannot be passed physically from one to another like bricks.” Therefore, as brought up in our first class discussion, despite having similar overarching models of communication and comprehending the basic issues of miscommunication or disruption, ultimately, the medium does tend to be the message.