Author Archives: Yiran Sun

MOOC: A University Learning Experience without the Degree

Yiran Sun


In recent years, there has been a media frenzy about massive open online courses, or better known as MOOCs. Up to the point when this is written, there has been 4,460 items about MOOC with Google news search, and 11,100,000 items in the general search. Although earlier open education resources like the MIT OpenCourseWave project have received much attention in its time, it is no comparison with this wave of MOOCs. This is partly because the online publishing system has progressed much since 2002, but also because the new MOOCs are more similar to a traditional classroom experience than the mere sharing of course materials. Many discussions were made around the MOOCs and online education in general, but at this point, no conclusion has been made or settled. While a lot can be said about MOOCs such as its role in culture transmission and how communication models work or do not work on the platforms, one thing that attracted my attention is that despite their close resemblance to university courses and that the majority of them are provided by the top institutions, few schools would accept a MOOC certificate as university credit, and none intends to transfer the MOOC platforms into degree programs. Here I want to explore the reasons behind this reluctance with credentials, first by looking at the differences between a MOOC experience and an on-campus one, and then by discussing the symbolic values that a college degree mediates and its meaning to both the university and the society. Continue reading

The Book (for lack of a proper title)

Yiran Sun

The Technology

The e-books are not particularly technology-heavy artifacts. In fact, its only central technology is the e-ink display, which works by relocating black and white pigments through clear fluid in a plastic sheet when charged negatively or positively. The other important part is the chip on the circuit board, which processes information and tells the e-ink display sheet which part is to be charged in what ways. On top of these are features like USB/WIFI/3G connections, the battery, the touch screen and the light guide, but none of these are essential to the e-books, especially the last two.

The traditional paper books, on the other hand, incorporate technologies such as papermaking and binding. While books in earlier times were hand copied, the mass-produced version of the artifact came with the implementation of the printing technology (the substrate).

Central to both the e-books and the paper books lays the ancient function of inscription, which have been implemented in technologies like the backlit display, the papyrus, the parchment, the ink, the clay tablets, and so on.

All of the above-mentioned formats of books are highly combinatorial in technologies, as is the case with almost all media. None of the formats is “one” particular technology innovation, despite how some marketing campaigns have attempted to make them appear.

The Mediation

Besides the technological combination, the e-books also combine both the book function and the screen function.

The book function is formed when the ancient inscription function has been implemented through social institutions such as religion (scriptures), law (codes) and education. Because these social institutions form the backbones of the society as we know it today, the book function has gained much power and prestige as the medium of transmitting and preserving human knowledge.

The screen function itself is not as old as the book, but it has its root in the representational surface function, which is perhaps as old as human cognition. It is also empowered by social institutions like the state and university (which gave the screen its initial legitimacy). Most of its power, however, came from the hardware and software that lies behind it. Software then, gained its power through the people who create and use them, through human generativity.

The Interface

Most major e-books on the market today strive hard for creating immediacy through the imitation of traditional paper-based books. They share a similar size, a similar layout, even a similar page-turning mechanism. Humans have been socialized into such kind of representation of symbols and knowledge/ideas through various implementations of the representational function and the book function, and have developed the mental model to navigate through the system (in this case, to know where to expect things such as index and text content across different technical means).

Affordance wise, like earlier paper books, e-books at its current stage does privilege text over images over video contents because of technological limitations (the residual image caused by pigments that float in the middle and the low refresh rates). However, with technological progress and further combination with other technologies, that would no longer be the case in the near future.

How Software Turned Us Into Cyborgs

Yiran Sun

I cannot go through a day without my Firefox or Chrome. As Andy Clark has suggested, they are tools that have become extension of my biological body: they are part of how I interact with the world. We have become cyborgs not by attaching chips or wires to our bodies, but by incorporating software into every aspect of our lives.

Web browsers like Mozilla Firefox and Google Chrome are software that serve as interfaces to the Internet and the ocean of software running out there. We have discussed much about such interfaces in CCTP506, but at that time majorly focused on the more technical aspects such as the protocols and the infrastructure. For human-computer interfaces, Paul Dourish has categorized them into five kinds: electrical, symbolic, textual, graphic, and tangible and embodied. He suggests, through this progressive view, that interfaces have come through a move of interfaces towards more immediacy to human cognition (the human symbolic faculty; syntax and language; processing of visual information and exploiting peripheral vision, etc.), towards a better utilization of natural human capacity. This is certainly evident when we compare the Erwise (the first graphic browser) to the World Wide Web browser.

However, here we should re-balance the scale by emphasizing not only how interfaces drew their inspirations from natural human capacity, but also how they have come to influence and train their users into viewing them as natural way of living. After all, interfaces are hardly ever static. They are constantly evolving and sculpting the world around it: they are processes, according to Alexander Galloway. After Erwise came the Mosaic browser, which redefined and popularized the World Wide Web. Its close derivatives (graphic interface-wise; other features of interfacing such as the interpretation of CSS codes still continue as an issue across different software) are still with us today.


We take those extremely simplified icons for granted and think of them as natural representations of real-life concepts and appearances, yet when you think about it, none of them are exactly “natural”: Our ancestors probably did not look at a triangle and think it means “forward” or “backward”, nor a round Ouroboros-like arrow as “refresh”. These associations are invented (based on existing associations, of course, yet still invented) by those who developed the graphic browsers. With the popularization of the browsers, the associations become naturalized into our shared cultural reservoir as well, and now we use them “instinctively”, rarely paying much attention to where it all came from.

An anecdote: It is also intriguing to look at how quickly human mind jump to assign meanings to things. When I was opening the Galloway article in Firefox, there was an issue with the decoding/display. Yet before I noticed the warning of the software, I had thought that this is an effect designed by the author to convey a certain message! It’s amazing how our minds is capable of associating any meaning to anything.

Packing Up Libraries

Yiran Sun

E-readers are peculiar objects in today’s world. On one hand, it is commonly considered an electronic device that is in the same class as the Pads, which then usually appears side by side with computers or smart phones; on the other hand, it is relatively narrowly fixed on just on task: reading e-books, which would make it more similar to digital cameras and other task-specific electronic devices. The first e-reader as we know it today was released in 2004 (the Sony Librie; Amazon’s Kindles started from late 2007), so it is also peculiar in the sense that it combines the most ancient medium, inscriptions, with an extremely new technology, the electronic paper. According to an IDC study from March 2011, 48% of all e-book readers sold worldwide were the Kindle models. I myself used to own a K3 and now a Paperwhite. But what’s inside those little devices? Since they are so single-tasked, they can’t possibly be too complicated, can they?

An object: What is inside the device

But it is complicated. The Kindle Paperwhite has an awful lot (see illustration below) packed in a 6.7’’x4.6’’x0.36’’ body: the battery, the WAN board, the circuit board, the 3G antenna, the WIFI antenna, the e-ink display, the touch screen, and the light guide with the LED lights. Physically, the core technology of Paperwhite lies in two parts: the e-ink display and the lighting system. The e-ink display sets the e-readers apart from similar devices such as the mini iPad and the Kindle Fire, while the lighting system makes the Paperwhite stand out amongst a number of models and brands. However, neither of them are revolutionary technologies: the lighting is intricate, yet people have been using clip-on LED lights from 2007 and it worked fine; the e-ink is eye-friendly, but it also limits the content possibility because of its low refreshing rate.

A platform: Software and what lies beyond

A great part of Kindles’ power resides in the “Kindle” application, a software that can be used across various operating systems, from Mac to PC, from iOS to Android. This standardization of platform enables users to make most out of the Kindle system, and it also greatly increases people’s likeliness of exposure to it. But a platform would be useless if there is no content, and this is THE factor that made Kindles the major market holder: behind it stands Amazon, the most influential bookstore of this decade. (There is another entire story behind the power of Amazon, but let’s not delve into that for now.) Almost every published book can be found on Amazon, and a great many of them have a free or purchasable Kindle version, while for those that do not, the user can always click the “Tell the publisher” link to inform an interest in a Kindle version. As time passes, more and more “nodes” (e-books) are added onto the “network” (the Kindle system), and the more nodes there are, the more powerful the network becomes.

An Interface: Pathway to the most ancient

But why do people bother to purchase these e-readers, if their contents can be accessed on any operating system? For this question, the hat should be tilted towards a most ancient function in our society: the inscription function, and two functions that derived from it: the book function and the library function. The latter two has been deeply incorporated into our society via important cultural cores like history, religion and legislation, that they have come to be “naturally” associated with knowledge and prestige. Combined with the single-task design of e-readers, a person with a Paperwhite would most likely be identified as learned or at least interested in pursuit of knowledge, while the same person reading books off the Kindle application on a smart phone would not trigger such association.

It is also fascinating how closely a Paperwhite resembles an actual physical book. (Even its name suggests this!) It is of a similar size, the screen is matte and feels like surface of paper, the e-ink display with the LED lights makes the texts against background the same contrast as texts on paper… Every aspect of the interface design is aimed at creating immediacy, making an illusion that the user is holding onto an actual book, only lighter and holds potentially unlimited information. In fact, this is exactly what I have been telling my friends and family: It’s just like a book!

A Revolution: Yes and no

And the best thing about it is that it’s not just one book: It’s a library. This is the part where many find the technology of e-readers to be revolutionary. However, as mentioned before, none of the technologies in e-readers is particularly cutting-edge or exclusively unique. The use of its content is the same as well: one can read the books, add bookmarks and highlights, making notes, but one cannot change the content of the published book, nor can he/she republish it. The e-readers allow users to do what they can do about a physical book, but nothing more… except having the content of countless books in the size of one. This feature certainly is useful for people on the move, for those who cannot afford to physically store a large quantity of books. In my case, since I have not yet made any plan to stay in any particular city, I cannot store a lot of books with me. For this I am grateful towards my dear Kindle. Yet I still purchase physical books, usually after I’ve read it either from library or from the e-library, and have them directly shipped to my home in China. Through time, books have taken on a symbolic value that is somewhat hardwired into its materiality, and people of our generation still feel “a different vibe” when we lay our hands on the leaves of paper. I do not know whether or not this superstitious view of physical books would carry on to the next generation, but I do know, that e-books would keep on with their pursuit of immediacy creation, and soon even our generation may not be able to tell apart the analogue-analogue and digital-analogue versions of texts.

The Bulletin of Videos: Two Major Functions of YouTube

Yiran Sun

YouTube at this point is by far the most dominant video hosting site on the Internet—Yet it is a young brand of only eight years old. What has brought it to the status today? Obviously this is not the power of just one single artifact. What really lies behind that black-white-red logo?

Physically, a major contributor is the collaboration of server farms. With servers all across the globe, users of YouTube have no trouble accessing the site’s vast content from all parts of the world. Above this tangible infrastructure, there is of course the Internet, running on shared protocols that enable packets of information to be sent back and forth in milliseconds. Then in that there is the technology of digitizing video content, which is then based on the juxtaposition of numerous still images through the frame of time. The list can go on and on, but of course, these are never solely physical, for in every stage there is heavy human and cultural involvement. The material side alone would never fully account for the power of YouTube. So what lies beneath the materiality of YouTube?

The website, just as any other form of medium, mediates social functions that are already constructed and in place before the artifact is present. Two of the most essential functions of YouTube are the video function and the bulletin function.

The video function can be seen in our society from the magic lantern to the film and television, all based on human’s perception of images and time. This is also where the second half name of the website came from: the “tube” used to refer to the television, which materially used to be based on cathode ray tubes (CRTs). This concept then sprout from its material form and sunk its root into the cultural reservoir, where now it’s still being used in a similar sense even as today one can only fine a tube television in a museum setting.

Throughout their years in people’s lives, film and television have established a consensus that videos can both be used as pure entertainment or strict indexes to reality, with culturally-shared cues and codes leading up to each. These same roles of videos are also seen in the content and use of YouTube. But YouTube does not only inherit from its milieu: It influences its environment as well. While advancements in printing have helped to establish the reign of news photography as the synonym of truthfulness, photo-editing techniques, the popularization of programs like Adobe Photoshop, and television news in video forms have brought us into the paradigm that only videos serve to prove legitimacy and trustworthiness of pieces of news. In fact, videos have become a way of how we make sense of the world. Yet with the popularization of video making and editing, with democratized channels like YouTube, and interestingly with mainstream television picking up videos from these online sources, this video-centric paradigm of news may again be moving on to a new stage not yet clearly pictured. This chain of change can be interpreted as a shift of authority, and although this shift here is heavily reliant on the materiality of technologies themselves, the institutional Function of authority has always been, and will always be there.

Then let us look at the other half of the website’s name: you. This word is among the most often used terms in the English language, usually to refer to the person being directly addressed. Here however, it serves to emphasize the “sharing” property of the website, to stress its democracy: The website’s contents belong to “you”, the ordinary users, instead of some professional producers or authorities. Now this seems like a really democratic idea, but how democratic is it? (And of course, by its definition, “democracy” would be the “rule/power” of “people”, at the time meant non-slave adult land-owning male citizens with leisure and access to the assembly, and now, Internet-literate people with leisure and access to the Internet.) Since democracy is not anarchy, people participating in it play by the rules. This is what I would call the bulletin function, in the sense of modern bulletin boards (compared to the ancient newspaper-ly meaning from the Acta Diurna of the Romans). This is a public space where people can put up their messages and where messages can be taken off by regulators when deemed inappropriate. Before YouTube, this function has been exercised in the classified ads section in newspapers, in the university hall corkboards, and in the online bulletin board systems (BBS): Someone puts up some message, the regulator checks if it’s appropriate, especially when someone else protests against it, and then takes it off if it indeed violates the rules (For YouTube: copyright laws (realized through the Content ID technology) and social conventions).

The two above-mentioned functions are just a tip of an iceberg of the institutional settings behind the website. The power of YouTube lies in the people using it, but more fundamentally, lies in the ways its users have been trained to make sense of the world. When such power is realized through this medium/artifact, it then serves to influence the institutions it has been built upon: Many people have now come to understand the world through the YouTube paradigm where news or entertainment are mediated via videos that can be accessed anywhere at any time, and preferably shorter than 15 minutes; and this is definitely not the only feat of the video sharing website.

Google Art Project: Changing Variables in Functions

Yiran Sun

On February 1, 2011, Google launched the Google Art Project, its online platform of museum-based high-resolution images of artworks. A virtual museum. Many saw this as a game-changer, one innovation that will potentially change the way people view and understand art. However, after two years since the launch, there is still no visible change in people’s perception of art, at least nothing that can be mainly contributed to the project.

Let us first look at what the platform changes about our museum visiting experience. One great feat is that while collectors and museums frees art works from their time periods so they can sit together side by side, the Google Art Project frees the art pieces from being bounded by the physical restrictions of museums across the globe: Now the “Luncheon on the Grass” of Edouard Manet from the fifth floor of the Musee d’Orsay in Paris, France can enjoy the company of “A Sunday on La Grande Jatte” of Georges Seurat from the second level of the Art Institute of Chicago in Chicago, USA.

But this is not novel: of course we’ve all seen art works from different museums arranged on other websites, in books, or even during cross-museum exchanges. What is important about the Google Art Project is its extremely high-definition renderings of the art pieces, and the relatively standard representations of color and texture. It also incorporated the Google signature “museum view”, which simulates the experience of physically wandering around a museum. And what is outstanding about the project, is the fact that with the platform, anyone can create art collections and narratives of their own, according to their own interests and themes. No longer do people need to be rich to purchase a collection, resourceful to print a book, or even technology-smart to create his/her own website: Now, one Google account and one click of the mouse is all the person needs.

However, is this “distribution of power” really a game-changer as it has been branded? Well, yes, and no. If we view the art world as a mathematical problem, and its various actors as mathematical functions (please forgive me of intentionally misuse the term “function”, for I think this would help better illustrate the concept), then the people who take on the roles are the variables. When the collections changed from physical museums to virtual collections on Google, the museum function stayed the same, while the variable of physical museums are replaced here by peer-contributed collections. Similarly, in the curator function, the variable of professional curator is replaced by grass root Internet users; and in the art school function, the variable is changed yet the rule of pattern recognition stays the same. As for the dealer and collector functions, they are more intimately incorporated in the project itself. What was the variable for the collector function (museums) now becomes the variable for the dealer function, while its original place is filled with the variable of the Google Art Project (now the collector). Certainly, like any mathematical functions, outputs vary according to changes in variables. However, the point here is that the rules of the functions would always stay the same, and thus the answer “yes” for things would change or seem different, but “no” for the underlying rules would stay indifferent to the shifting of variables.

And of course, the Google Art Project is still not quite competition for the “real world” experience of museums. Even if the photos are standardized across museums, the color display is still subject to the various settings of monitors on the viewers’ end. (You know what they say: There are no two monitors that look alike.) Besides the issue with consistency, the points of view of the Google cameras are also troubling. It’s on a rather high level, and can only pan or tilt instead of pedestalling up and down. For some of the more experimental paintings such as “The Ambassadors” of Hans Holbein the Younger, which has been designed to achieve illusions when viewed from a certain angle on the side, the rigid viewpoints of Google cameras can be a big issue. Also, the museum view does not have high resolution even as one zooms in onto the subjects, and finding the HD version of the artworks in museum mode has been relatively difficult.

That being said, the Google Art Project is still a great highlight in our online experience, and one significant step towards a more connected, shared global culture, for better or worse. As a fan of arts, I am excited to see future development of it as technology advances and especially as more museums join the project and more people start putting together their own collections.

God Bless America: A Comment on the American Pop Culture built on top of the American Culture Encyclopedia

Yiran Sun

God Bless America is a 2012 film by Bobcat Goldthwait. Here’s the story: Frank, a middle-aged, divorced man has always been annoyed by the superficial, profit-oriented pop culture. When he loses his job and finds out that his daughter has become a self-centered material girl just like the one on TV, he decides to kill the reality show celebrity. A teenage girl named Roxy sees him at the crime scene, seeks him out and persuades him to team with her and get rid of people who deserve to die.

The film is a comment on the contemporary American society, or at least what the director (also the writer) thinks of it. This comment is explicitly spoken out as Frank the protagonist spoke on air to the nation: “America has become a cruel and vicious place. We reward the shallowest, the dumbest, the meanest and the loudest…Lying and spreading fear is fine as long as you make money doing it.” But that is only part of it. The entire film itself is the comment, one weaved together from individual comments on various aspects of the pop culture. It comments on the singing competition show “American Idol” by parodying it with its own “American Superstarz”, which has a similar logo and also three judges who play different roles; on the typical reality TV shows that emphasize or create interpersonal dramas like “My Super Sweet 16” with its own replica (it’s indeed the video equivalent of paraphrasing); on the Kardashians; on people who don’t turn cell phones off and talk during movies… the list goes on. Most of these jokes work based on the assumption that people already know the original TV show genres or celebrities: the director did not even bother to really explain any of them. Without such knowledge, viewers can still understand the basic ideas that “these acts are bad but are enjoyed by many” through the characters’ direct comments, but would not bring the kind of self-reflection the director had apparently intended to trigger.

These comments, although none of them exactly original, do reflect a common understanding in the contemporary population: just think about how often people refer to these as “guilty pleasures”—they do look at them negatively. The film also adds to the cultural encyclopedia. When future researchers stumble upon this film, they will gather an idea that there existed all these aspects of the early 21st century popular culture, and that although they were popular and commercially successful, they had been considered superficial and inferior.

The whole film is also constructed by countless pre-existing codes. These can be seen up front from the title itself. “God Bless America” is an American patriotic song by Irving Berlin in 1918 (another version dates even to 1834), and has been remade and remixed throughout the decades. It is also a prayer heard in almost any presidential speeches. Then of course there is its genre of comedy, which is established through codes like joke lines and exaggerated, comic handling of violent scenes. It being comedy also helps viewers anticipate the film’s emotional arcs and rendered the inappropriate parts of the film acceptable. Then underlying the genre of drama is a traditional arc structure shared by almost any dramatic story: the protagonist encounters obstacles (divorce, losing job, learning that he has cancer (which turn out to be a false alarm), surrounded by SWAT), he struggles to overcome them (by killing those who do not deserve to live), and in the end reaches a resolution (delivering his speech to the nation and then gets into the final battle). Again, the viewers know what to expect along the way. (Sounds familiar? Watch Wanted and many more others, parts of them are almost identical.) Of course as the majority of films that make way into cinemas, it also abides by industry-established rules of cinematography (point-of-views and over-the-shoulders), editing (the 45 degree rule, cutting in motion and the use of slow-motions and montages) and sound production (ambience-building, perspectives according to shots and stable levels of volume).

There are also a lot of references to cultural icons. First there is the classic pairing of Bonnie and Clyde, the model for contemporary female-male outlaws. Going more into the detail is the pairing of one middle-aged man with one teenage girl, as seen in Leon, Kick-Ass and Super. This then may go all the way into an entire culture of fetish for Lolita fighters/assassins, which then leads to human’s fondness of youth and historical early marriage ages… Let’s not go into that. Then for one montage of the film there is reference to the genre of road movie, accompanied by “Let’s Get Away from It All”, a song of distinct nostalgic qualities by Rosemary Clooney (Not to mention how often have we see light or soothing music accompanying slaughter scenes). These serve to add senses of feeling lost, reminiscence and contrast to the film.

Then there are others that are more of salutations than intentional references for added meanings, such as the exploding head against windshield (compared to Pulp Fiction).

All in all, this film serves as an example of a piece of media which at the same time responds to, references to, and comments on established codes and past pieces of media works, at the same time leaves potential for future addresses and answers to the film itself. Finally, let us conclude with a video that comments on this film.

Water/Ice, South/North, Lazy/Hard: Binary Cultural Perceptions

Yiran Sun

In 1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald published a short story called The Ice Palace. Like many of his other stories and novels, this one is about disillusion as well. The story started in a fictional southern town called Tarleton, where a young woman named Sally Carrol Happer caused some dismay among her friends as she decided to marry a certain Harry Bellamy, a man from the north. However, when she travels to the north to meet Harry’s family, she starts to realize that the north is different than she’d expected, and reaches a point of mental breakdown when she finds herself lost in the winter carnival “ice palace”. In the end, she returns to her life in the south.

The main plot of the story is a young woman’s choice between two regions. This reminds me of the story of Persephone. Daughter of Zeus and Demeter, the Greek goddess was abducted by Hades and brought to the underworld. Every spring she returns to our world, and by the end of harvest she withdraws into the other side again. In a sense, the two stories run parallel: a young lady is allured/abducted to the opposite part of a world, finds there cold and dark, then returns to “our world”. Of course, Fitzgerald himself is of northern background (he’d spent most of his life in the north up to the point of this story’s publication, with two years maximum in the south; in fact, the northern town in the story is no other than his birth city St Paul), but the story took on a southern narrative, as the story took an earthly one. A very bipolar view on cultures is exhibited in these two stories, as well as in many others. Come to think of it, we always make sense of cultures by their anticultures (or anticultures by cultures), the mirror image of the given or “correct” culture (Lotman 220). What is not “ours” is “theirs”, that is majorly how we make sense of the complicated world. People are cognitive misers: we rely on mental shortcuts such as exemplars without paying much attention to their authenticity (Zillmann & Brosius). We assume an image of the other side by imagining the opposite of our own culture, and when many do this, a certain stereotype is created. Such stereotype feeds into the culture reservoir and transforms history into nature (Barthes 128).

Now let’s get back to The Ice Palace. One natural element is present throughout the three parts (south-north-south) of the story: water. Although whether Fitzgerald had used this consciously as a signification device is debatable, there is at least a certain degree of subconscious deliberation of using it. In the southern parts of the story, two words are constantly brought up: “humid” and “swimming”, while in the northern parts, another two are prominent: “snow” and “ice”. Of course, the words themselves embody the natural characters of south and north, but in the story those only play a small part; what they stand for seem more important: the concepts. In their most primitive meanings, the two states of water relate to certain temperatures, a natural phenomenon of shifting between liquid and solid state. However, upon the very moment when they are named different things (no longer liquid/solid H2O but water/ice), their meanings are emptied and distanced, while the concepts are filled with situations (Barthes 118). Here in the story, the concepts can be warm/cold, fluid/hard, and ultimately, lazy/rigid. Then we have the myth, the signification: south/north. It is a distorted version, for “south” and “north” themselves do not hold meanings like fluid/hard or laziness/rigidity. Yet the former pair has long before naturalized itself, because they are not entirely arbitrary: water does assume these two states in the two regions. Then these notions crept into our cultural encyclopedia, onto our understanding of personalities/lifestyles of the two regions. As for the latter, it apparently hasn’t been quite naturalized upon the moment of this short story, since Fitzgerald had spent some effort trying to establish the links. It had been built upon the cultural stereotype of the aristocratic south and the industrial north, which runs its root all the way to the moment when the first groups of Europeans colonized America (and to their status way before that). Such stereotype as a signification has been reinforced then by popular cultural works like The Winter Palace and Gone with the Wind, and served to form our understanding of the south and north before the Information Age.



Barthes, R. (1984). Trans. Lavers, A. Mythologies.
Fitzgerald, F. S. (1920, May 22). The Ice Palace. The Saturday Evening Post.
Lotman, Y. M. (1978). On the Semiotic Machanism of Culture. New Literary History, 9(2): 211-232.
Zillmann, D. & Brosius, H. B. (2000). Exemplification in Communication: The Influence of Case Reports on the Perception of Issues. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.

How Many Books/Films does One have to Read/Watch before Starting to Understand Comics

Yiran Sun

According to Bal, signs only emerge in relation to other previously produced signs (7). This is perfectly evident in the case of comics, where signs recognized can always be traced to other semiotic systems such as film, photography, and history. This week I am going to analyze one scene from the comic The Ravages of Time by Chen Mou. This is the part in which Lv Bu tries to send his daughter to marry Yuan Shu’s son for alliance but loses her in the breakthrough battle. Besides background information obtained from earlier chapters, there are still two major layers in understanding this particular sequence, one is what some would call comic literacy, and the other is heavily based on prior knowledge of Chinese culture.

First of all, just by look at the thumbnail pictures, one would be able to tell that this sequence consists of two parts: the flashback (where the background outside frame panels is black) and the “now” (where the background is white). Here it is the difference that yields the information. The same practice can also be seen in films, where flashbacks are most often accompanied by noticeable special effects such as a vignette or a different color theme. Even if readers do not immediately recognize this, either because they were less familiar with the vocabulary, or simply because they read page by page so they can not detect the difference right away, there is still another clue for understanding the time change: the tempo. While the flashback consists of entirely static shots, the “now” is filled with action. Such sense of movement is conveyed both through the use of motion lines and Dutch angle shots. The use of motion lines (McCloud 110) came from photography, where an image would appear blurred when the shutter speed is not fast enough. This technique has been brought to an extreme by Japanese artists in the late 60s and is widely used across the globe. Dutch angle shots, or canted angle shots, on the other hand, is a technique from cinematography of showing the image as tilted to one side. It is normally used to create tension. Here, the author has managed to bring even more tension to it by adding slanted panel frames on top of canted images (Such as in page 9; this is relatively rare in Chen Mou’s work).

Now let’s look more closely at the images themselves. Chen Mou employs a style that bears greater resemblance to reality than most Asian comics. Such a style does not only have aesthetic meaning, but also decides how much information is contained in the images. The hotter (McLuhan)/more realistic the style, the lesser a reader will be able to participate in it. However, in this case its role as indices (Peirce) becomes more prominent. For example, let’s look at the first two panel frames on page 1. From the images alone, we can infer that this part of story happens in ancient East Asia (from the first panel), and probably involves either torture or surgery (second panel). Now imagine if the first panel was a stick figure of a house and the second one extremely abstract lines of knives and needles with no detail for the blood: there would be too many possibilities and thus no useful information. (If an artist chooses that style, it is usually for the purpose of creating intentional ambiguity.)

However, this level of interpretation demands a combination of recognition, connection and previous knowledge (Bal 12). A detailed image would only reveal more information when the reader has certain culture backgrounds (Chinese culture in this case, but it can also be things like otaku culture or sci-fi culture). Let’s now take a look at page 2. Since Chen Mou is not particularly concerned with historical accuracy, let’s suppose we do not know that this story is based on the history of the Three Kingdoms period, and only try to decode the information encrypted in this image alone. With the background, again, the reader can tell this is based in ancient East Asia. From the clothing on the standing man on frame-right, we can infer that the story is set in ancient China. Then we move onto the man sitting in the middle. He’s muscular, his clothes are half off, there’s blood all over his body, and there’s an arrow in his left arm or upper left back. From these, combined with what we’ve been used to seeing from war movies (but not documentaries), we can deduct that he has just came back from a battle. And from the way he sits, with his back straight and hand on his knee, we draw from our daily experiences and think he is a man with dignity and probably some social status. Combining this with the last clue of battlefield, we make a guess that he is some kind of a general. For someone familiar with Chinese culture, the image of a general with an arrow in his arm would remind us of the story of Guan Yu, who’s been praised for not showing fear when the doctor took out a poisoned arrow from his arm. However, we would also know that this man is not Guan, because he does not have the signature long beard. In fact, his hair is kept in a way completely different from the mainstream custom (see the standing man), that we can see a hint of barbarism on him.

The interpretation can go on and on, and this is not yet to count in the words accompanying these images. Yet these all happen almost instantaneously without the reader noticing it. Our minds are amazingly good at recognizing patterns, making associations and drawing on previous knowledge in a flash of second. However, without pre-established, widely shared semiotic systems, the author would never be able to convey any useful information to the reader, and the readers would have rather difficult times with interpretations, while never able to make sure if we indeed understood the meanings.


Bal, M. (1994). On Meaning-Making: Essays in Semiotics. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press.
Chen, M. (2008). The Ravages of Time, Volume 30. Taipei: Dong Li Publications. Translated by Wonderland Scanning Group. Retrieved at
McCloud, S. (1993). Understanding Comics. New York: Paradox Press.
McLuhan, M. (1964). Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man.
Peirce, C. S. (1998). Essential Pierce: Selected Philosophical Writings (1893-1913). Edited by Nathan H., Christian J. W. K., & Peirce Edition Project. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Power of Photography: Origin and Impact

Yiran Sun

Nowadays we seem to be unable to survive without photos. A diner would take a photo before he/she starts with the food, a student would take a photo of the whiteboard instead of jogging down notes, a police would rely on photos to catch speeding cars and to keep records, and of course everyone takes photos when he/she sees something worth remembering. Then there are also the subtler impacts such as its legacy in fine arts,film, the belief of capturing the present moment, and so on. But how have we come to this? What gave photography power to penetrate into every aspect of our lives?

In the 21st Century, where the majority of photography has become digital (both in production and distribution), photography’s power lies in the various electronic devices with a lens (be it zoom or prime) and a photosensitive element (be it CCD or CMOS), in the technology of how the light is interpreted by the electric circuit, and in the shared rules/protocols of how such information is to be encoded, compressed, and decoded (RAW, JPEG, etc.) Without these, it would have been impossible to take a photo anywhere anytime with almost no cost nor trouble, to transfer light bouncing off objects’ surfaces into a digital file, and to make any use of the digital file (of course we would not be thrilled if we have to read 0s and 1s all the time).

From the late 19th Century to the 20th, the power of photography came from the flourishing industry of film. This thin sheet of plastic coated with an emulsion was enjoying its peak during the 1900s, when it became indispensable for photography, for motion picture (one of the hottest media even up to now), and even for the medical world, where it served as an essential medium for X-rays. Before George Eastman introduced roll film, cameras used silver surfaced copper plates and inevitably were big, complicated, expensive, and only used by professional photographers. With the film, Eastman was able to market the Kodak cameras, which were small, foolproof, and cheap. Not only was the Kodak camera affordable, common people could also buy film rolls everywhere and easily have them developed at a reasonable cost. This system marked the advent of amateur photography. More and more people owned cameras, which resulted in changes in people’s point of views towards the world, and also in a boom in pictorial historical records, contributed by every ordinary family.

Now let’s move further back to the pre-film era of 19th Century. This is when the first permanent photoetching was introduced by Nicephore Niepce, and when the very term of “photography” was introduced by John Herschel. In this era, the power of photography came from the ancient lineage of fine art. After centuries of development, people have become accustomed to the method of translating three-dimensional objects onto a two-dimensional surface, and in very vivid, life-like ways. When it was first introduced, photography, a very hot medium with almost no room for ambiguity or disbute, was celebrated as the perfect reproduction of reality that no artist can compete with. The tradition that paintings try to be somewhat objective and reproduce real life brought photography to interest, and in turn, the quality and popularity of photography served to devalue artists’ skills in replicating reality, and drove artists to approach reality in a quite different way. Thus is born the school of Impressionism, which led to an entire new era of artistic subjectivity. With the cameras becoming more and more portable, some branches of photography started to acquire relaxed compositions, which also contributed to the relaxing of compositions in paintings, compared to its more staged tradition. This portability also extended to journalism, letting photography taking over earlier hand-drawn illustrations. Such photography-based journalism is deeply-rooted in our culture nowadays, that only by having proper photos can a report prove itself legitimate.

Then even before the 1822 first prototype, we have to remember that photography did not just appear from nowhere. In the 18th Century Thomas Wedgwood produced images on silver and Tiphaigne de la Roche published the novel Giphantie which predicted the notion of modern photography; in the 17th Century Wilhelm Homberg described the photochemical effect of certain chemicals darkening when met with light; in the 16th Century George Fabricius discovered silver chloride; in the 13th Century Albertus Magnus discovered silver nitrate, and dating all the way back to 5th/4th Century B.C., Mozi and Aristotle independently described the phenomenon of pinhole camera. Without an documenting and circulating system, these knowledge would not have survived, been passed on, learned and combined by the 19th Century generation who eventually brought photography into real life.

We sometimes think of photography as a technology, a medium that has completely changed our ways of living. Well, although it has had great influence on our world, it has never “completely” changed things on its own. Photography was born on the top of old wisdom that was preserved and circulated within an established literature system; it was popularized with the invention of film and the supply chain that came together; and it has now been applied everywhere in our lives because we are able to digitize things, translating images to 0s and 1s and vice versa. Photography was never born in the vacuum, and would never have had much impact had it stayed in its primitive form. It has gained its power through institutions, and has influenced the world through institutions.


Gernsheim, H., & Gernsheim, A. 1955. The History of Photography from the Earliest Use of the Camera Obscura in the Eleventh Century Up to 1914. Oxford University Press.
Gernsheim, H. 1986. A Concise History of Photography. Courier Dover Publications: Mineola, N.Y.
McLuhan, M. 1964. Understanding Media, the Extensions of Man.
Potonniee, G. 1973. The History of the Discovery of Photography. Arno Press.

Chinese Literati Paintings: Behind Symbols

The literati painting is a genre in Chinese painting that has its root in Han Dynasty, thrived in Song and has been one of the most important component of Chinese culture throughout history to this day. These paintings are artworks from members of the literati class, the well-educated intellectuals whose works are more contemplative than anything practical. Here I will use them as examples of interpreting some of the notions in the studies of the human symbol system.

First lets look at these paintings at their representational surface. An overwhelming majority of literati paintings use a limited number of imageries, such as plum trees/blossoms, bamboos and mountains. All of these are objects that exist in nature, in Chinese everyday life (at least for those who can afford it). Most people have seen them at least sometime in their lives. This is what Deacon would define as an “iconic” relationship (74). For example, when one knows what he/she sees in the painting of bamboo is the kind of plant he/she has seen in the garden, he/she does not make a distinction between the art and the plant.

Yet for someone who has seen bamboos, the represented art form looks far different from what one sees in real life. It’s two-dimensional, it’s colorless, and it’s highly abstract. This is where an “indexical” relationship (Deacon 77) comes into play, in which case the abstract art serves as an index item that point to the viewer’s idea of real bamboo.

But for the relationship to be considered “symbolic”, the most essential of which is combinatorial possibility (Deacon 83). None of the paintings above reveal an exact copy or exact abstraction of the real bamboo. In the procedure of making the art, items (such as butterflies) are added or subtracted, spatial relationships are altered, and compositions are manipulated. And these are not done randomly, however “free-thinking” the literati class have branded themselves to be. In fact, especially in the Ming dynasty, painting manuals that specifically teach about related rules were sold in large circulations that reached all tiers of society (Park).

Now lets look beyond the paintings themselves. All of the imageries have explicit meanings. For example, plum means endurance and pride, bamboo implies modesty and integrity, and mountain often refers to aloofness and detachment. These are metaphors shared by the entire Asian culture nowadays, but when they were initially used, they were symbols understood and used among the elite literati class. Such is what Hutchins would classify into “distributed cognition” (175), extending the cognitive process beyond boundaries of one’s mind to encompass interactions between people and with resources and materials in the environment. For the symbol system to work and be passed down through generations, it has to be externalized and weaved into the culture, be it group or social. It would be interesting to look into when they first come into being, but it is clear that once a core group or even one prominent figure has started using it, others have followed suit and reinforced the associations via the annotations and poems on the paintings, via the literature works which also circulate in the class group, and via the painting manuals that extend the influence of the symbol system to the entire society. This way of thinking about an art genre can be applied to all arts or all media, each with their different combinatorial rules and different cultural preconditions, which is where the real fun is.

Deacon, T. W. 1998. The Symbolic Species: The Co-evolution of Language and the Brain. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company.
James, H., Hutchins, E., & Kirsh, D. 2000. Distributed Cognition: Toward a New Foundation for Human-Computer Interaction Research. ACM Transactions, Computer-Human Interaction, 7(2): 174-196.
Park, J. P. 2012. Art by the Book: Painting Manuals and the Leisure Life in Late Ming China. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.

On Some Limitation of Papers

Models of communication have developed much from the minimalist abstraction of Claude Shannon in 1948 to the elaborate ones that we see today such as the ecological model advocated by Davis Foulger. But human communication is such a complex mechanism that there still seems to be something missing from the picture. Let’s first look at what we have on the table: messages, people (producer of the message, receiver of the message, or other roles), languages, codes, the “alphabet”, media, channel, time, space, noises, etc. (These are the most basic ones, but we should never neglect the sub-branches in each of them such as dominant/preferred/professional meanings/codes and the importance of symbols.) There are links between each and every one of these components that it would seem almost impossible to fit all of these comprehensively onto one piece of paper.
Now we see the problem. Here we face a limitation of the medium. Most people who have struggled with drawing diagrams have perhaps experienced this frustration of not being able to fit their thoughts into a two-dimensional simplistic model. There are aspects that are too complicated or confusing to show with a bunch of lines, bubbles and notes, and there are also ideas that simply cannot be sufficiently illustrated on a single surface (for example, time). Such is the limit of paper.
However, academic work has, traditionally and dominantly, been considered a form of work constrained to the medium of paper. In fact, a majority of them are even explicitly called “papers” with an emphasis on this character. For a piece of academic work to be influential, it has to be published in a prestigious journal, which usually has its primary existence in printed-paper form. Even in this era of digital culture, most journals still insist on this paper-based way of operation, paying at the most very limited attention to a digital copy of the paper version. One possible explanation for this phenomenon of stubbornness is an attempt of the ivory tower to establish its authority by demarcating themselves against the quickly digitized business of mass media and the grass-root bloggers whose contents can theoretically be just as rigorous, and another is the mindset/mental models humans possess that places an importance on the cultural value of paper/book forms. There has been much debate on this, yet the tradition lingers on. However, this insistence on paper has substantial consequences. In this case, such a choice of media has served to limit and hinder the development of the theories of communication.
Now, suppose we use an interactive, three-dimensional demonstration for our communication model. We will be able to move around the structure, paying specific attention to each element/link from different angles; we might even be able to illustrate the role of time/delay, which had always been a tricky part to explain in a diagram. Although it seems that the paper culture is here to stay, at least for another few decades, there might be ways to work around that. It would be helpful to look into other fields that are more model-structure-dependent and see how they got around the issue. For example, chemical science should have had much more experience in dealing with this problem of presentation of complicated models in journals. Or we can also put a two-dimensional code in the middle of the printed article that one can scan with their digital devices to link to the multimedia model. (Although this may still be hard to accomplish with a stubborn editor who has made up his/her mind to cling onto the “tradition”.)
Of course, a change in the medium would never serve as a panacea. There are still aspects of the complexity of human communication that cannot yet be modeled. However, by liberating ourselves from the limitation of the two-dimensional space, we will be instantly offered more choices and perspectives to illustrate and contemplate the puzzle.

Foulger, D. (2004). Models of the Communication Process. Retrieved at
Hall, S. (2001). “Encoding/Decoding.” In M.G. Durham & D.M. Kellner (Eds.), Media and Cultural Studies Keyworks (166-176). Blackwell Publishers.
Shannon, C. (1948). The Mathematical Theory of Communication. The Bell System Technical Journal; 27, 379-423, 623-656.

Visual “Language”? Some Thoughts on the naturalness of the Visual System in Films

The phrase “visual language” has been thrown around quite a lot, yet most of the time it has been used as a catch-all term for a vast variety of ideas. In fact, is it even really a “language”? Most would agree that the visual component of our cognitive system has countless similar features as the language system, but few would go as far as claiming that it should be regarded as a language in the strict sense. However, visual cognition itself is too complicated and vague a field to investigate on its entirety, so here I will only attempt to tackle the tip of the iceberg of visual aspect of films, which is itself a small part of the visual system.
First of all, the definition of language itself is much debatable. But one major perspective in modern linguistics considers it a “cognitive system which is part of any normal human being’s mental or psychological structure”, with some social aspect to it as compensation to Chomsky’s strict syntactical perspective. The language would have a grammar, and there exists a universal grammar that has been biologically endowed in human beings. Beneath the surface structures of the language there would be deep structures, ones that are generative from the innate universal grammar. So how similar is “visual language” in films compared to this generative linguists’ idea of language? Let’s take a scene from the Tin Drum (Die Blechtrommel, 1979) as an example. (Suggestion: perhaps have the sound turned off when watching it.)

Here we see a very standard use of basic film language. The scene first starts with a wide/establishing shot (1), showing the entire classroom, facing the teacher. Then it cuts to a reverse shot (2a-2b), facing the students. This is also a dolly shot, moving in until we see a medium shot for the protagonist. Next it cuts to a low-angled medium-wide shot (3) of the teacher. Then back to the protagonist (4). Back to teacher, this time in a medium shot (5). Cuts back to the protagonist again (6), followed by a moving shot (7a-7b) from the medium of the teacher to a medium-wide two-shot containing both characters. Then a medium-wide (8) on the teacher. After this there is a quick-cutting back-and-forth sequence (9-12) of extreme close-ups of the teacher and the protagonist. This is followed with the camera backing out, to a high-angled medium-close-up of the protagonist (13) and a moving low-angled medium-wide following the teacher (14). Finally, this scene is ended with a close-up of the protagonist (15).

Structure-wise, this is a very classic example (although one might argue that this is more like a “paragraph” than a “sentence”). It starts from an establishment of the environment, then closes onto the main characters, and finally ends on the protagonist. This can be seen as a typical presentation of natural human experience, when people would usually take in the surroundings at first, then focusing in onto the details. However, this is just the surface structure. What is the deep structure underlying it? Also, how about the “naturalness” of such structure? Without proper experimental studies, we cannot know if there is an innate language faculty in it, or if it’s just the result of cultural stimuli.
Certain rules can also be seen from this example. One is that although the editor is allowed to use items of the same composition/nature, he/she cannot juxtapose two similar items next to each other (In this case, the editor never put two shots of the same character together). Another is the 180-degree rule, according to which the camera have to always stay on one side of the characters’ eye line. Of course there are many more if we look more carefully, but for the moment let’s stay focused on these two. Also, there are many socio-economic reasons for the forming of such system/rules, but here let’s stay on hypotheses in the realm of nature. One plausible reason for the first rule is that human eyes are like prime lenses: they cannot zoom in/out or have sudden changes of angles. One may be curious about the reverse shots, then. An explanation is that in this case viewers would be taking up the point of views of different characters, but that may not seem satisfactory to everyone. After all, the reverse shots are rarely actual point-of-view shots, but over-the-shoulder or other third-person-view ones. Compared to this, the 180-degree rule is mostly considered settled, with its reason in human recognition of two-dimensional space. (Essentially this rule is aimed at a result of the character always looking at one direction on the screen.)
These are just some disjointed, unsystematic thoughts on mapping the visual system in films onto the theories of modern linguistics. There are much more to be investigated and many more fields that one can draw from to form a more comprehensive view on the subject.

Andrew Radford, et al. Linguistics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2009.