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Media scholar Lev Manovich visited Setup today to present his new research project of cultural analytics for which he uses computer power and screen capacity to analyse large amounts of visual data. The advantage being, he argued, that no longer this work had to carried out by quantitative researchers who would only use a small selection of the rich amount of data. Examples: Capturing the first and last frame of each shot in a film, shot length, amount of movement in a shot and displaying them chronologically. Or taking screenshots of a play session of a computer game every three seconds and displaying a composition of their vertical middle lines. No data will be lost anymore.

Admittedly, the images looked very interesting from the beginning. But my mind started to wonder when Manovich presented graph after graph of the same media text. This indicated to me that the same text had to be analysed repeatedly to highlight different aspects of it. Perspectives that could not be presented at the same time on the enormous screens designed for the task. But much worse: perspectives that analysed only a part of the text. Because how can a collection of samples of the original ever be as good research material as the original itself?

Display wall visualising analysis of fifty thousand Manga pages.

Not to say that Manovich did not have a point. The new techniques provide a way to actually process all the data a text contains. However, I cannot agree that this solves the problem that qualitative and quantitative research methods face. Every way you approach it, researchers still have to take decisions of what intervals to measure, and thereby bias their research. This was illustrated best with Manovich own example of motion. Moving his hands in an inimitable sequence, he stated that different types of movement are hard to compare. Tracking the speed and reach of movement enables this, as he said, forgetting that it loses the richness of the aesthetics which incorporates many more features. Virtually uncountable ones.

It was very unlucky that I could not stay until the end to witness the questions from the audience. Reading this new media & digital culture master blog (in Dutch), tells me that a question in the line of my critique was in fact posed by one of the present professors that organised Manovich’s visit (see Skip Intro). And it looks like Manovich had no concrete answer.

A researcher who has put my fears in clear words is William Gaver, who writes:

  • “Asking unambiguous questions tends to give you what you already know, at least to the extent of reifying the ontology behind the questions. Posing open or absurd tasks, in contrast, ensures that the results will be surprising.
  • Summarizing returns tends to produce an ‘average’ picture that may not reflect any individual well, and that filters out the unusual items that can be most inspiring.
  • Analyses are often used as mediating representations for raw data: they blunt the contact that designers can have with users” (p. 7)

Gaver, William W. et al. “Cultural Probes and the Value of Uncertainty”.

More discussion on Manovich’s lecture (also in Dutch) can be read on the website of Setup.

When I found out that today offered the possibility of playing an urban game, I could not say no to the event. And what a feast it was. Playing games like in the old days with your friends but without the pain of chalk fingers and chipped nails. Time to play hopscotch!

My friend Maja taking a turn.

Everdien Breken’s graduation project is just what I look for in a game. To be played outside, drawing in elements from the surrounding (people, architecture) to create the game, and with an eye on the engagement with rules as catalyst for actions and creativity. A project that connects nicely with my research plans that I mentioned before and therefore one worthwhile to follow.

The project is part of Everdien’s graduation for the HKU Fine Art programme. She aims at disturbing people’s everyday lives, if only for a few seconds, by confronting them with playful instances. She favours simple forms in her design.

This month’s Straatnieuws features a lengthy article on her work. Check the project site Spelen op straat (play on the street) for future games if you want to play along, or be surprised by other chalk games that you run into by coincidence.

Reward button after playing (I play along!).

A data visualisation project by photographer Eric Fischer has enabled an analysis of city routes taken by tourists and locals. Combining geotag data with login information, he was able to define if the photographers were living in the specific city permanently (blue) or lived somewhere else and only uploaded pictures from that place for less than a month (red). Yellow tracks are Flickr users who could not be connected to a home city through this logic, but are probably tourists as well. This creates a beautiful visual medley of city data:

Locals and tourists maps of the biggest cities ordered according to uploads by locals.

Looking at the map for my home town, Utrecht, confirms the cliché conception I have of tourists in the city: They always seem to walk in the way when I need to cross the Oudegracht, the old canal running through the inner city with an s-bend in the middle. This is the part of the centre where the historic architecture is most visible, therefore very attractive for visitors.

Locals seem to take other paths through the city as well. Or they share these routes with tourists but also use their cameras on their way, while tourists think these surroundings are not worth to be recorded, which is another possibility.

Map of Utrecht city centre, note the red curvy line from North to South

Nevertheless, a colleague mentioned another story. In Barcelona, the same type of data visualisation but then based on phone calls with foreign numbers, is used by the municipality to adjust tourist policy strategies.

Map of Barcelona, tourist activities are marked red.

Tonight at Setup, Mash Up The Battle took place. Debaters took place in a boxing ring to fight about actual media topics. From copyright laws (auteurswet), to the internet of things, to a round on a national filter against child porn.

The two debaters in this round were Daphne van der Kroft (Bits of Freedom) against Marleen de Pater (CDA). This resulted in a fierce discussion between Bits of Freedom’s argument that a filter would not have much effect and CDA’s vision that the Dutch deserved protection from this type of disgusting content.

A sneaky way to apply censorship? Why should we be protected from that what we never accidentaly meet online? Why not better hunt the ones who do search for it or place it online? Should we be afraid for a move towards a Chinese situation? Is this really necessary? Horrifying as the problem might be, my stance would be in favour of freedom.

Flyer of the Mash Up The battle event at Setup Utrecht.

This sense of a life free of surveillance came back, in a humorous way, in an article on a new art project in Utrecht on the website of Journalistiekfabriek. Foucault’s panopticum meets Hitchcocks birds in the panopticons. If I happen to see any of the spying birds in town, I will try to capture them on camera and place my own picture here. Hope they don’t catch me first!

Camera sea-gull comfortably sitting down to spy on us.

Objective: Develop a tactile toy for children between 6-7 years to learn language. Allowing them to ‘catch’ and ‘order’ words. This is one of the results of an evening of brainstorming and paper prototyping:

Modular telescope prototype.

It is a tool that is made up of different modules, allowing the children to capture objects, showing them to their classmates and telling a story about them. Turning the closed tubes up and down facilitates guessing games based on the sound the caught treasure makes. Other parts allow the taking of photographs, or have a display to show the pictures that are taken. Combining different hollow containers (object in display-tube placed behind a window-part) creates a cumulative experience of several aspects of one object-word.

The module sizes allow the sliding of parts into each other, creating one single tube that can be easily carried with a strap on the back. Connecting the corresponding cylinders allows for the creation of a network (with branching elements) enabling a game of sending words (‘Chinese whisper’), sorting objects in different categories and racing games along the coloured path.

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