Category Archives: Mediation

ICTs and urban life

In a couple of days, I’ll be attending the Cognitive Cities Conference in Berlin. I’m looking forward to this event since it gives an opportunity to pick up a topic again that I had to neglect for a while: urban communication. I’ve just added a question on Quora that sums up my interest in this subject – In what ways do ICTs influence our experience of urban life? Continue reading

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The wind of change blowing through my London living room

berlinwall

I was only 5 years old when the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. So I have no recollection of that day. I once had to interview my parents about it for a school assignment and they said we spent the night together watching it on TV, not believing (them) or not understanding (me) what we were witnessing. I should see if I can still find that essay somewhere in our attic back home. 20 years later, I’m living in London, following the celebrations through the eyes of the British media. Continue reading

Communication and the City

londonmap

This post was conceived over two cappuccinos in a cute little cafe in Northern London this afternoon. I found this cafe by searching the web for “best cafes in London” and got there by looking it up on Google maps. Finding the best places to go and figuring out how to get there – these are only two of the ways in which the Internet can help us navigate through urban landscapes. Are there other ways in which communication technology influences our lives in metropolitan cities? Continue reading

Election reporting – Turning bar charts into a multimedia show

Elefantenrunde

It was federal election time in Germany yesterday. Since this blog isn’t primarily about political commentary, I shall refer you here for a more detailed summary of the results, if you’re interested. In a nutshell, Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) will form a new centre-right alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats Party (FDP). Since this blog is primarily concerned with communication and all its related matters, I took a closer look at how the election night was reported by mainstream and social media. Continue reading

Behind the screens – Broadcasters going digital

videotape

These days, I’m working with a small company that basically helps TV stations to adopt the latest technology. The latest technology in broadcasting is digital and “tapeless”. Gone will be the days when films, shows, and commercials were recorded onto video tapes and ultimately stored as such on endless shelves in the basement (see picture). Tapes will be replaced by computer files and the basement shelves by a few fancy hard drives. Of course, this doesn’t happen over night and not all tapes and basement shelves will disappear, but that’s pretty much the direction the industry is going in.

Will the average TV viewer notice the difference? I doubt it. In fact, when I told friends and family about what I’m up to these days and how TV stations are only now beginning to abandon their video cassettes, most of them were surprised. They would ask, “I thought they’re all already doing it that way?” But they are not. Little does the average TV viewer know about how those films, shows, and commercials on his screen come about. A whole new world opens up for me these days, as I discover what goes on behind the screen.

Ordinary people

I will spare you any intriguing discussion of how to build “tapeless” broadcasting systems or how it may completely change TV stations as organizations. I’m just trying to come to terms with this separation between those who make television and those who watch it. It’s the same with stage performances, for example musicals. As somebody in the audience, I don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes or “how they do it”. Maybe I don’t want to know. Maybe I shouldn’t know, because if I did, the show wouldn’t be the same.

That’s the magic of television (and other media as well) – the separation between “ordinary people” and those who make it. Nick Couldry, a leading media professor, has said that without this separation the whole media world as we know it wouldn’t work. We only trust the news and feel entertained by the latest sitcom because we have no clue how they’ve done it. He’s pretty critical of this because only those who do know how it’s done have the power to do it again and to produce the films, shows, and commercials they like. The ordinary viewer is confined to being an ordinary viewer.

Everything like Youtube

At this point you may like to point out that millions of Youtube users are making their own little clips and broadcast them to the world (if anybody cares to watch it). It’s almost boring to mention citizen journalism and user generated content now (where did web 2.0 go?). And indeed, some of the technologies that TV stations are now implementing seem a bit more democratic because they use the same standards and follow similar concepts like those that an ordinary person would use. For example, the TV station and the ordinary viewer will both have a hard drive with digital video files in very similar formats – only that the TV station’s hard drive is slightly bigger and surrounded by a bunch of other supporting hardware. But the idea is the same.

What this means for television and the media as a whole remains to be seen. One obvious consequence to me is that it will be easier for content to flow from the viewer/user to professional TV stations, at least from a technological point of view. This doesn’t mean that content will actually flow once we take all legal and organizational barriers into account. But at least there’s now the option of my Youtube video being easily transmitted to the BBC.

However, more democratic technology doesn’t mean that the separation between ordinary viewers and media makers will become permeable. A TV station will remain a little world of its own, a mystery to anybody outside of it. Technology is by no means the only way by which the viewer-producer separation is maintained. Professional conduct of people working in the television industry is another important one. So is the geographical split between places of media production (e.g. the news studio) and media consumption (the living room).

Ultimately, I think many viewers don’t care to know how their program gets to them as long as it does and as long as it keeps them happy and nicely amused.

Helvetica – A great documentary. Also a great font?

Helvetica

Would you believe that it’s possible to produce a fascinating feature-length documentary about a typeface? After watching “Helvetica” by Gary Hustwit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts last night, I know it can be done. This intriguing film features interviews with renowned typographers and designers, discussing the history of the type face, its cultural significance, and aesthetic appeal. By the end of it, I was truly blown away by the implications that something as inconspicuous as a font can have.

The idea to see the movie came about when my Facebook news feed told me that IKEA had just changed their type face from Futura to Verdana, which created a fairly strong reaction in the design community and possibly beyond – to the point that IKEA had to issue a statement that basically reads “accept it and get a life”. By then, the story was all over the mainstream media.

As both the IKEA incident and “Helvetica” demonstrate, typefaces play an important role in our visual culture and daily lives; yet, we hardly ever notice them unless they suddenly change or someone produces a documentary about them. Walking home last night, I found myself scanning the urban landscape for signs and posters designed in Helvetica. They are everywhere.

Modernity and beyond

Two related themes run through most of the documentary. Firstly, Helvetica as a type face strongly reflects the transitions in arts and culture that took place in the last 50 years or so. It came about just after the second world war when modernity really took off. There was a need for a clean and simple font that could be used for any purpose; that was “neutral”, as one of the interviewed designers called it.

Helvetica then spread rapidly across the world, lending itself to numerous corporate identities, magazines, advertisements, and so on. Over time, this triggered two responses. One was that Helvetica became synonymous with globalization, with capitalism spreading recklessly, with standardization, conformity, uniformity – you get the idea. Apart from this political critique, Helvetica simply became a bit boring, given it was everywhere.

Then came what some people call post-modernity. Others, including some of the designers in the film, call it by all sorts of bad names and wish it would have never happened. Typography went from clean and neutral Helvetica-style fonts to almost complete anarchy, to “anything goes”. Suffice the example that one of the interviewed designers carved the words of an album cover into his own skin. In the end, that phase ebbed away a bit as well. And what are we left with today? Who knows…

Medium and message

The other interesting theme in “Helvetica” turns the relationships between a typeface and its surrounding culture on its head. Not only does culture influence the typeface we prefer, but the typeface also shapes this culture. It’s the visual channel through which we express ideas. It’s like a stage for expression. As such, it enables and constrains what we can say. A more straightforward way of saying this would be that there are some things you can say in Helvetica and others you cannot say in Helvetica.

In the documentary, designers disagree over this point. Some say that typefaces are merely functional. They are there to transport the meaning of the words, but other than that they should stay in the background. Helvetica is almost perfect in this regard. The reader doesn’t notice the font and goes straight to the content of what’s written.

Other designers emphasize that a typeface itself communicates something to the reader, which indeed it should. Saying something in Times New Roman is very different than saying the same thing in Comic Sans, for instance. If this was the case, which I believe it is, than we may argue that Helvetica was not only an outcome of modernity, but also an active element in facilitating its spread.

Big Brother and the “people like you and me” genre

bigbrother

When I came to the UK last year, the TV show “Big Brother” was already ailing, it seemed. After ten seasons or so, the country had lost interest in the idea of locking up a bunch of ever more quirky human beings to broadcast their attempts to kill time. As a last outburst – as a Big Brother supernova, if you like – the media had just squeezed every last drop of news value from the death of Jade Goody, the most famous Big Brother candidate in the UK. Last Wednesday, Channel 4 announced that it will discontinue the show in 2010.

It seemed to me that Big Brother passed away rather quietly – no uproar, no vociferous calls for five more seasons, just a few flashbacks to the most unforgettable moments. But Big Brother certainly deserves some credit. If it didn’t invent it, the program definitely popularized the “people like you and me”-genre. It was the epitome of Andy Warhol’s prediction that we shall all enjoy our 15 minutes of fame, in some cases converting these into 15 minutes of shame.

Now, if we say that people got tired of Big Brother, did they also get tired of the “people like you and me” genre? I would love to say that the answer is “yes”. After ten seasons or so, we came to realize that it’s boring to watch other people going about their day-to-day life. In fact, it would be nice to say that we rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be and that we no longer need the distraction of watching locked-up Big Brother candidates.

Unfortunately, there’s only little evidence that we got tired of the “people like you and me” genre. In fact, it appears to me that we got bored with Big Brother because it wasn’t Big Brother enough… if you know what I mean. How cumbersome to put people in a house for three months until they finally perform something worth broadcasting. How constraining that all those moral conventions of regulated mainstream media still apply. Big Brother was only the beginning, not the end, of the 15-minutes-of-fame culture.

The irony of it all is that we have indeed rediscovered how exciting our own lives can be – and how fun it is to share them with everybody out there. Instead of one Big Brother, we now have millions of little brothers all filming and broadcasting themselves. It is easy and tempting to apply a strict moral judgment on this trend; one that condemns the shameless self-promotion and exhibitionism. But it is equally possible to herald Youtube videos as a form of cultural expression and identity-shaping self-representation. I postpone this debate until the next pub visit later.