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The Audience as the Artist: LARP's Place in Media

August 31, 2018

Thanks to George Hickman, a 2018 Harrison Middleton University Fellow in Ideas recipient, for today's post.

For most of us, we experience the role of an audience member far more often than we experience the role of an artist. On our daily commutes, our mood is at the whim of the radio or our playlist on shuffle. We leave the movie theater buzzing with conversation about the actors, the soundtrack, and the plot. We can't go to bed until we finish that chapter, or that episode, or that level. We are constantly put in the position of an audience member, asked to respond to all kinds of media. Though, as technology continues to expand into our lives, rarely are the audience member and the artist in the same room. For both the artist and the audience, there is a dissonance in this modern experience of entertainment. A large gap between the actor and the front row. But what happens when we are asked to do almost the opposite of this? What happens when we have a room full of audience and artists, constantly exchanging roles with each other?

The form of media called Live Action Role Play (LARP) has been around since the 1980s. In its essence, LARP is a cross between improvisational theater, video games, and escape-the-room. The members of the game build a story together, and in the same way that improv actors write sketches, some of the planning takes place before the game, and some of the planning takes place in the moment. There are two roles one can have when entering a LARP: players and staff writers. Players adopt the role of a character and react to events as their character would react. Staff writers plan the plot structure for the game, and appear as multiple characters throughout the story, in order to see that plot structure through.

While these roles are different, both roles play audience for each other. If I, as a staff member, create a museum heist plot, I will probably play the museum guard and two players might put together a plan to knock me out and steal the ancient treasure. In this scene, I will have some idea of what is going to happen: I probably placed the ancient treasure in the room ahead of time, I might even be able to predict which two players will find me in the museum, and I can make a guess as to how they might make sure I don't talk. But most of the components of this plot are unknown, they will be improvised, once the players arrive on the scene. Will they use brute force or will they charm me into keeping quiet? Did they hire a helping hand or will they show up in disguises? And most importantly, will they accomplish the heist successfully?

Considering this scenario, you can see that LARP distinctly troubles the notion of audience. Here, the staff writer and the players are all audience members for each other's performance. They not only feed off of each other's responses, but they require each other's responses to carry out a scene, to LARP.

In the essay "The Great Divide", Emily Nussbaum describes the divide of the audience when the 70's sitcom All in the Family first came on TV. Half of the audience understood Norman Lear's intent and saw that Archie Bunker was meant to be a satire of racism, homophobia, sexism, and plenty of other problems in American culture. Then, to Lear's surprise, the other half of America cherished Archie, and loved the way he spoke his mind. In the essay Nussbaum asks, "Can there ever be a bad audience member?" After all, she says, who wants to hear that they have been watching something wrong? Is it even possible to watch something wrong, or is the divided audience simply an indication of unsuccessful art? In asking these questions, Nussbaum places the role of the audience in quite a weighty position. The sitcom All in the Family wouldn't have been the success that it was, if it weren't a platform for playing out these tense political discussions in a comedic environment. To raise the question of the bad audience member, is to place the viewers and the writers in equal roles of importance when it comes to determining the meaning of an artwork. By placing the audience and the artist in equal roles of importance, Nussbaum dismisses the age-old image of an actor performing on stage while the audience simply listens and applauds.

Live Action Role Play takes the role of audience and turns it even further on its head. It could be argued that LARP eliminates the role of audience, or at least allows for a more nebulous definition of the word. Unlike an improv sketch, where an audience sits in addition to the improv performers, there are no boundaries that determine who is involved in any given scene. LARPers can be called to the spotlight at any time. You might think this scene is about your best friend and her girlfriend, but when the girlfriend turns and accuses you two of having an affair together, you are thrown in the center of the scene without warning!

LARP shows us that our audiences can be trusted with influencing or even creating the content of our art. Archie Bunker shows us that too, as the aura surrounding his character was determined as much by Norman Lear as it was by the families that sat around their television sets in 1971. Perhaps this equality between audience and artist is something that we see in other genres too. In webcomics, artists will post weekly updates to an ongoing story. In this time frame, fans have the chance to critique, speculate, or possibly even influence the trajectory of the plot. In video games, the player has an incredible amount of control over the trajectory of the story. My playthrough of Skyrim where I robbed an entire village of its sweet rolls and then became a famous bard is greatly different from my sister who joined the Dark Brotherhood and married a huntress.

Can other genres similarly learn to trouble the notion of audience? Like John Cage's "4'33", can music experiment with giving the audience control over its content? Like Ragnar Kjartansson's The Visitors, can film become a choose-your-own adventure? If being an audience member feels less like being a viewer and more like being an artist, what will we learn about ourselves as creators and listeners? Perhaps this shift in the role of the audience is a bigger movement, and LARP is only one branch of a much larger tree, but it is without a doubt one of the strongest examples of this phenomena. If other artistic mediums were to trouble the notion of audience within their own fields, perhaps this new collaborative wave of art could teach us something about the roles that we as consumers expect to find ourselves in.

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Swing and A Miss

August 24, 2018

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today’s post.

How do algorithms know which options are right for you? They are purportedly a mathematical calculation based on personal tastes, previous preferences and your own interaction. I will use examples from Pandora and Netflix to express my meaning, but really, I could broaden this discussion to any number of entities. Also, I am using a very broad understanding of algorithms for this general discussion.

Recently, the song “Pachelbel Meets U2” popped onto my classical channel. Regardless of the song’s merits, however, I was immediately annoyed. I wanted this channel to be purely classical. For me, U2’s “With or Without You” came through so strongly that I could not focus on Pachelbel and it totally distracted me. I explain this only because it demonstrates taste’s incredible caprice. I like U2, I like Pachelbel, I like instrumentals of contemporary music, so, really, isn’t this just an example of me being picky? And I answer, yes! Of course, but isn’t that what taste is?! All I know is that I gave this song a thumbs down on my classical channel, for no really good reason. Sorry, Pandora, that was a swing and a miss.

My favorite category on Netflix is “Because You Watched.” This category bases suggestions off of something that you recently watched. These selections are not restricted to genre. In fact, they almost defy genre. Sometimes it links by actor, or comments by other viewers. And Netflix has nothing to lose with this process. The more content they recommend, the better for them. In fact, all of the companies that invest in complex algorithms have everything to gain. And consumers react by giving them data that they need to run the algorithms. If Pandora throws in instrumentals to my classical, and I vote thumbs-down, then Pandora responds with another selection. It also simultaneously removes this song (and perhaps some song group) from my category.

Broadly defined by Merriam-Webster, algorithms are a “procedure for solving a mathematical problem in a finite number of steps that frequently involves repetition of an operation.” Could that also be a definition of taste? There are many reasons that I might remove something from a playlist. Here are only a handful:

1] I don’t like the song

2] it doesn’t fit my current mood

3] I like it, but it is outside of the station’s intended purpose

4] I don’t like U2 and/or Pachelbel

5] I don’t like mixing genres

6] I don’t like remakes

7] I don’t like pianos or guitars

So, how does any mathematical equation break this nonsense down into bits of actionable information? How could an algorithm match infinite experience? Netflix and Pandora answer this by including other people’s recommendations. So, perhaps you gave a thumbs up to a movie that happened to be in the science fiction genre. Instead of recommending only sci-fi movies, Netflix will populate a handful of sci-fi and also some random films based on what other people liked. So, if another person liked the sci-fi movie you just watched, you will probably see a recommendation that has nothing to do with science fiction. And this seemingly random selection comes from other people’s tastes. Netflix, Pandora and others gain a lot by incorporating this feature. The more you interact, the more accurately they recommend, but also the more user-specific data they gain, which reinforces the whole system.

Does this type of system function differently than, say, radio in the 1960s, 70s and 80s, when top Billboard hits drove the radio songs that we all heard? Radio offered choice mainly by genre: country, Spanish, pop, etc. Though they did compile data, it pales in comparison to the amount of data that is available by these new devices. Radio offered music and we listened or not. I never thought twice about how many times I heard the Eagles or Michael Jackson on the radio. But now, I wonder why my Pandora Spanish station continues to play songs by Latin artists in English. Why are the ads in English, whereas my friends’ ads are in Spanish? I wonder if my behavior prompts Pandora to believe that English is my first language.

As we invite these devices into our homes and lives, it is worth truly thinking about taste. (Per a previous post, taste according to Merriam-Webster is: “a] critical judgment, discernment, or appreciation b] manner or aesthetic quality indicative of such discernment or appreciation.”) Why does Pandora (or any service) recommend something to you specifically? What do they know about you and are they making the critical judgments for you? I do not ask this because I am worried about some cyber conspiracy (although I’m sure there is data to support that too). But rather, I am worried about how taste interacts with culture. How individualized is the Pandora community and does it in any way reflect community as we currently define it?

With constantly changing technology, I wonder if something is being mistakenly hidden, missed or suppressed. I go back to the idea that Pandora thinks my first language is English, though I have given no data to support this. The algorithm seems to be making critical judgments about me, not just my music.

To read more posts about about taste, try these.

Taste defined in art and music

Taste according to Gibbon and Brillat-Savarin

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Facebook Community

December 8, 2017

Thanks to Alissa Simon, HMU Tutor, for today's post.

Facebook's mission reads: “Founded in 2004, Facebook's mission is to give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together. People use Facebook to stay connected with friends and family, to discover what's going on in the world, and to share and express what matters to them.” True to mission, they do create community. People can post photos of loved ones, send messages to each other quickly and notify their community of their current activities. I absolutely see the benefit in that type of community. I also see the danger of creating an online community of people that you like, products that you like and statements that you like. I would love to see long-term data from the perspective of whether or not this type of community opens our minds or closes it. Maybe it does neither. As you know, I love to think about the changes that coincide with technology, so today's blog investigates what it means to be a part of the Facebook community.

First things first, I need to better explain a few of the types of entities on Facebook. Profiles, they claim, must be real people. Individuals. With a profile, someone can offer friendship. You can friend anyone in this group. However, I cannot find any serious investigative tool to prove that the page who claims to be me is me. Anyone can type a name and minimal information in order to set up a page, or so it seems to me. So, I guess I question even the first person definition as allowed on their site (or any online platform, for that matter). How do I know that these friends are really real friends? (A discussion as to the definition of real will have to take place another day).

Next, Facebook offers Pages. These are meant for organizations, businesses, bands, etc. And yes, HMU does have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/HarrisonMiddletonUniversity/ . Feel free to visit it and check out the content that we feel is appropriate to share with our community. We are educators and philosophers, and our students are intelligent, involved, open-minded folks with a wide array of interests. As with all business models, we try to find content which would support their studies, tease their interests, or develop an idea.

This discussion of the type of information that we want to share brings me to the heart of the issue today. Introduced in 2010 in response to users creating unofficial pages, Facebook rolled out the Community Page. Anyone can create a Community Page and name it whatever they want. You could, for example, create a page dedicated to discussing the issues of your child's elementary school. You can name the page anything you want (though the most obvious is to link it by name to the specific school in order to clearly reach the right audience). So, you are using a name other than your own in order to develop the conversation about a piece of community in which you are somehow involved or interested. The comments posted to this type of page may express information, changes, anger, frustration, excellence, or anything that the community feels important to tell others in the same community. Facebook allows this, and I too see the benefit of informing a specific community about the actions within that community. For example, parent involvement in schools is limited by work conflicts and other scheduling conflicts. It can be reassuring and helpful to have an online community with up-to-date information, news and events. Community Pages are open to anyone and visible for all (assuming the page has been appropriately tagged). They are run by numerous people and can create an unofficial presence around any sort of thing. At the time of their invention, Facebook said that Community Pages “give our users opportunities to express their enthusiasm and creativity, while allowing for Official Pages to continue representing official entities such as businesses, bands and public figures.”

I take issue with this last statement, however. First of all, I wonder how many people notice if the page is official or unofficial? This information is written in the tiniest of fonts under the logo, detached from the About section and nonsensically placed somewhere in the banner. Also, the official page does not necessarily contain any language about it being the official page. Furthermore, internet search engines do not distinguish between official or unofficial, so the results show a hodge-podge of associated pages. Just how they are associated, however, is up for the human searcher to distinguish. I wonder how many teenagers know this when searching information on their favorite celebrity? What is a legitimate source should be a foundational question for all internet searches.

While I understand Facebook's hesitation to remove Community Pages, I also think that the Community Page should live up to its name. For an example, I use the Community Page dedicated to Harrison Middleton University. This page uses our name, logo, address and phone number, but it never discusses education (ours or any others). Instead, its contributors post products, nonsense and profane birthday cakes (among other ridiculous things). They have taken our information from Wikipedia and reposted it as a cover for their page which, according to Facebook, is dedicated to enhancing our community. When asked about the offensive content placed on HMU's purported Community Page, Facebook passed the buck. They asked us to contact Wikipedia, which, by the way, does not contain anything illegitimate or untoward. The problem, then, is that a Community Page means absolutely nothing. Instead, any fake user can generate content with a seemingly legitimate brand from anywhere in the world. Facebook claims that any entity's ability to generate negative conversations while using our logo does not negatively affect us. Rather, it increases the scope of our university. I, however, find it highly problematic that an entity dedicated to fostering community is in no way engaging in the actual community. If the fake Facebook page actually discussed education, or anything related to HMU, I would perhaps feel differently. And, therefore, I return to my original question: what kind of online community are we fostering? In creating nonsensical groups, are we destroying the idea of community itself? In what ways do online communities disengage with an actual sense of community? And, finally, does this affect our sense of community in a physical or local or offline sense?

Just for your reference, here is the illegitimate HMU page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Harrison-Middleton-University/107652162597521

And here is Facebook's response to my query about trademark infringement (both the HMU name and logo are trademarked): “A Community Page is automatically generated based on what Facebook users are interested in. It is not intended to be the official presence of a brand, public figure or organization. If you object to the content on the reported Community Page, you may access the source of this information by visiting Wikipedia. In some cases, you might be able to edit or provide feedback about this information. Under these circumstances, it’s unclear to us how the reported content, used in the manner depicted, would violate or infringe your legal rights.” Finally, they advised that I contact the Community Page administrator myself. As you can imagine, the HMU Community Page has neither changed in content or existence since we contacted them.

To find previous HMU blogs about Facebook and technology, read this or this

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A Hobbesian Philosophy of Technology

August 25, 2017

Thanks to David Seng, HMU doctoral student, for today's post.

One of things I admire most about the Great Authors is how relevant their ideas are to our particular time and place. Sometimes this relevancy shows up in surprising ways. As one who works in the intersection of philosophy and technology I was surprised to see how the ideas of Thomas Hobbes applied to the twenty first century issues of technology and our digital culture.

Hobbes was a keen student of human nature and focused on the fears, greed, and hubris that drive nearly all social arrangements. Interestingly, the same fears and motivations drive humans today as they did in the seventeenth century. In the world of internet communication technologies (ICTs) and as an important cultural phenomenon, social media has demonstrated that Hobbes’s view of human nature has important implications for our time. Further, Hobbes believes that human nature itself is the driving force behind the actions of both individuals and the states (and firms) that are made up of individuals. From a Hobbesian perspective, technology itself, being a social creation, brings with it all the aspects of human nature and provides a kind of technological realism that helps us develop an interesting conceptual scheme for understanding the social and cultural ramifications of technology and social media. Along the way, we’ll discover that Hobbes sets up the concerns that were addressed later by the Great Authors Karl Marx and Martin Heidegger regarding the effects of technology on society.

Hobbes famously described human nature as “brutish, nasty and short”. The idea is that without an all-powerful sovereign to keep society under control, mankind is essentially in a selfish and brutal war of all against all (he calls this humanity’s “natural state of nature”). According to Hobbes, human beings are simply unable to create free consensual governments based on reasonable laws. An all-powerful political force is therefore needed to keep everyone at bay. In order to overcome this fearful state of existence, individuals will create a social contract with the sovereign in exchange for a strong political power that will provide safety, security, and economic prosperity. Finally, according to Hobbes, the sovereign is clearly above the law. While political theorists debate this picture of human nature and reason presented by Hobbes, I think a very significant social element of his thought is overlooked and provides some interesting warnings to those of us living in the information age.

Long before Martin Heidegger became concerned about the impact and effects of technology on our understanding and view of the world, Thomas Hobbes presents and defends the position that human beings are essentially mechanical, material, and computational. Being overcome with the “new method” of his day, Hobbes essentially converts the scientific method into a new metaphysical system and uses the first six chapters of the Leviathan to explain that individuals are elemental parts of the great machine of the commonwealth. In this sense, Hobbes presents an instrumentalist view of human beings. People exist for the purposes of the state. In short, Hobbes gives us a view of human nature that is essentially greedy, brutal, and mechanistic but if harnessed through an all-powerful sovereign, individuals will collectively serve the state.

Perhaps, a response could be made that things have changed so much in the nearly four hundred years since Hobbes wrote the Leviathan that he has no bearing on cultural reality today. After all, we have the internet that has connected people and families across the world, and communication of all kinds is now nearly instantaneous. In the age of information, we have created new and more knowledge and disseminated it in mind-numbing speeds. Through technological advances, humans have discovered treatments and cures for diseases which before were thought to be impossible to address. We even have global capitalism, driven largely by technology firms, which has created more wealth for most of the people on the planet. Has technology, and the corporations that create our devices shaped humanity into a more rational, thoughtful, and compassionate existence?

In the age of ICTs that transcend geo-political realities and cross borders and boundaries in an immediate manner, social media firms have become Hobbesian states. The Hobbesian state is not simply about the structure of governance in monarchies or consensually governed nation states. It now has properties that apply across national boundaries with global, cultural, and social implications. Sadly, consumer capitalism driven by technology firms that make more money than the GDPs of many emerging countries, are not altogether altruistic. Individuals exist for the purposes of social media firms—a Leviathan that collects data from compliant individuals to be bought and sold. Developing markets understand this phenomenon and is the reason why India recently rejected Facebook’s attempt to be the sole internet provider in the region. India (the world’s largest democracy) neither wanted Facebook’s limited and controlled service, nor—worse—the data collection the social media company would conduct upon its citizens. India did not want its citizens to become instruments in digital colonization.

Interestingly and ironically, those of us in the West, happily give up our property (pictures, documents, music, and other digital files), conversations, and privacy rights to the all-powerful Leviathan of social media firms or various internet service providers. As Hobbes explains it:

"I authorise and give up my right of governing myself to this man, or to this assembly of men, on this condition; that thou give up thy right to him, and authorize all his actions in like manner. This done, the multitude so united in one person is called a Commonwealth; in Latin, Civitas. This is the generation of that great Leviathan, or rather, to speak more reverently, of that mortal god to which we owe, under the immortal God, our peace and defence" (italics in original).

When it comes to social media firms, we seem to give up our rights to our own vital information, privacy, and property in exchange for very little. We may think that the tradeoff is of no consequence, that giving up our most valued information to the mortal god of a social media firm is harmless. However, when users accept the terms of service for a social media account they are immediately mined for their consumer data by eCommerce firms and surveilled by the government. What are users getting in return? Google, Facebook, and Twitter (just to name a few) are famous for changing and discontinuing services at will, leaving the user with no legal recourse. Like Hobbes’s sovereign, social media firms can create the rules and stand above them. From a Hobbesian perspective, social media firms and those that make them up will always act in their own interests

So what can we learn from this Hobbesian state of social media? It is important to remember that Hobbes emphasized one side of human nature to the exclusion of the rationality, creativity, and compassion of the human spirit. Human beings always carry over into their technology and social institutions the most vexing traits of the human condition itself. The fact is, our social and technological efforts are always a mixture of good and evil. That is why, sadly, whatever humans create for good can also be used in the most malicious ways. We should always carefully and rationally think through the claims of digital utopians who state that certain technologies are “good”. We must consider what the “good” is at hand and whether or not that which is new is better. In addition, the instrumentalist view of humans first seen in Hobbes and developed ever since in the West is the source of alienation pointed out by Karl Marx. In his Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, Marx describes the alienation of the instrumentalist view of human nature as it applies to work and the effects of technology on society. Marx and Heidegger continue this discussion set up by Hobbes and these Great Authors set the tone and issues we struggle with today. Finally, we must seek a balance between the positive and negative sides of technology. While technology can bring about many good and useful things, we must keep a vigilant eye on the Hobbesian and dehumanizing aspects of society that create our technology.

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