Ever since I started doing research on fashion design and copyright, I’ve been tracking the progress of 3D printing technology. The disruptive possibilities of this technology are abundantly clear in the fashion sector, and so I was thrilled to receive an invitation to attend fractal, a very unique conference in Medellin Colombia, where a diverse group of experts was asked to facilitate conversations about 3D printing, synthetic biology and other bleeding edge topics.
Hoping to shake-up the typical conference format, the instigators behind fractal – the intrepid Viviana Trujillo and Hernan Ortiz – decided to invite the audience to use “design fiction” to spin stories of the future that would reveal the key social, cultural, political and ethical quandaries that accompany the adoption of new technologies. The facilitators were a fascinating group: Reshma Shetty , an MIT-trained synthetic biologist; acclaimed artist and director Keiichi Matsuda, whose augmented reality installations have been featured at MOMA and the V&A, and Paul Graham Raven, a speculative fiction practitioner who uses narrative to solve engineering problems in the UK.
In addition to telling stories about how homes might be made out of living things and how augmented reality applications will fundamentally change the contours of our self-presentation to the world, we tackled the topic of 3D printing. Read the rest of this entry »
I was honored to give the Industry Keynote at Hot Docs, a giant documentary film festival in Toronto. I don’t know what they put in that water (which was delicious, by the way) but Torontonians love, love LOVE documentaries. They have a 700 seat theater that, year round, shows docs only, and I was completely charmed by its tagline: ESCAPE TO REALITY.
Of all conventional TV and film genres, you could easily argue that documentary is the one that is most self-conscious about its artful manipulation of reality. Since much of my research focuses on the impact of entertainment and media on individuals, communities and society at large, documentaries have proven an especially exciting object of study. (I have a TEDx talk about some of this research.)
In order to prep myself for the fest – which included a whopping 197 documentaries – I thought I’d revisit some survey research that we conducted at the Lear Center on the relationship between political beliefs and entertainment preferences. We discovered in those studies that predictable patterns emerged suggesting that even our escapes from reality – to ballets, tractor pulls, and blockbuster films – were tethered quite tightly to our deeply held beliefs about the world and how it ought to be.
For a nerd like me, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.
Our archive of data – from two large American representative sample surveys, and from a smaller version we conducted in Tunisia after the Arab Spring – includes detailed demographic, ideological and taste information about documentary film fans. Hot Docs gave me an excellent excuse to mine that data. Read the rest of this entry »
Z Holly, the former vice provost for innovation at USC and host of the first TEDx ever, sure knows me well. A newcomer to the prestigious TTI/Vanguard Board, Z thought I would be good fit for their next conference on Embracing Blur.
Um, she couldn’t have been more correct. I have long been fascinated by the interplay between representations and reality (my last TEDx talk dealt with this pretty directly). And I’d venture to say that the majority of my work at the Lear Center explores the cultural and commercial ramifications of this blur.
What Z didn’t know was that my dissertation was actually about “betweenness” – something I saw as a key formal and thematic characteristic of avant-garde modernism. Many of my friends and colleagues wondered how a high-theory English PhD ended up in a think tank studying the impact of media, but it all seems quite rational to me: isn’t the key formal and thematic characteristic of 21st century media the blur between representation and reality? What we considered avant-garde in literary Paris at the turn of the 20th century is the (often unacknowledged) cultural dominant of contemporary global pop culture.
And so the description of the TTI/Vanguard program couldn’t have been more appealing to me:
A flood of technologies is washing away traditional boundaries between work and play, companies and governments, war and peace, near and far, virtual and physical, society and the individual. In its wake, a global nervous system is emerging as we connect billions of people with each other and with billions of newly smart objects. This unbounded organism is developing an unsurpassable intelligence, resistant to human control. Where is it taking us? Can we hope to understand it, control it, contain it?
Z had to warn me though – there’s one thing about this conference that is very atypical: every attendee (and there’s over a 100 of them) has a mic and can interrupt you at any point during your presentation.
This wouldn’t be quite so nerve-wracking if you didn’t know that the crowd would be composed of carefully vetted C-level folks from Fortune 100 companies and an engaged board that includes Alan Kay, Eric Haseltine, Gordon Bell, Nicholas Negroponte, and John Perry Barlow (never a guy to sit back and listen to anything he thinks is bullshit). Read the rest of this entry »
For several years now, I have been on the board of an experimental literary press where we have spent a great deal of time trying to figure out how to keep the printed book vibrant and alive. At Les Figues Press, we decided to publish books in unique dimensions and we coupled each author’s work with the visual work of another artist, hoping against hope that the resulting physical object would convince even the most cyber-savvy readers to purchase our special little hunks of pulverized tree.
So I contantly keep my eyes peeled for efforts to revitalize interest in the printed book. My most recent encounter with an inspiring innovation was in Medellin, Colombia, where the intrepid forces behind Proyecto Liquido – a group that explores the overlapping territory in fiction, art, science and technology – had transformed an online short story published 18 years ago into a surprisingly layered tactile experience.
With a black rubberized cover (not unlike the one on my iPad), Kij Johnson’s Chicas Miticas (Myth Girls) feels more like a machine than a book. Everything inside is dual: from the bilingual translation (Spanish and English) to the double-sided format (the book is basically composed of two pamphlets facing one another). While one side is devoted to a disturbing tale about the terrible cost of freedom, the opposite renders the story into sleek, hyper-polished illustrations by Oscar Gonzalez, one of the five collaborators who transformed Johnson’s story into this unique material object.
If the book were simply illustrated, and bound in this surprising way, it would have been arresting enough. But three pages into the lushly animated version of this stark tale, you finally see a depiction of the main character, but only from behind, and rendered on vellum, so that you can see her ghost-like presence in two inhuman vistas, extended by a trifold. A few pages further in, you reach the material heart of the work, where lush illustrations bleed into layered vellum inserts and – I kid you not – a ripped quilted jacket is sewn directly onto the page. Read the rest of this entry »
I was very honored to speak at the Paley Center’s International Council Summit, an annual event that brings together a who’s who of media heavyweights and impresarios. This year the topic was big data and so the conference opened appropriately enough with Hans Rosling, the infographic genius, who shamed us for our ignorance about the state of the world (you have to see the video.) Eric Schmidt (yes, that Eric Schmidt) closed the proceedings with more quotable stuff than I could tweet (e.g., “The Internet is a huge accomplishment – don’t screw with it!!”) Of course everyone wanted to hear what Nate Silver had to say about his new gig at ESPN, and now you, too, can see every speaker on the program here . . . except me. I gave the luncheon talk at the 21 Club (talk about ambiance!) and so there was no recording.
Here’s what I said:
The Centers for Disease Control found out that over half of Americans believe that the health storylines they see in entertainment programming are accurate and a quarter say that those TV shows are one of their main sources for health information.
Of course we understand the difference between fiction and reality, but we have to be awfully naive to believe that really compelling stories don’t have an effect on us.
For 13 years, we’ve been doing careful academic research at the Norman Lear Center in order to figure out exactly how much of an impact media has on us. We’ve found that a storyline on the TV show Numbers – you know, the one with Rob Morrow – convinced 10% of its viewers to volunteer to donate their organs. An HIV hotline got a record number of callers after a soapie, the Bold & the Beautiful, aired a scene in which a guy tells his girlfriend he’s HIV positive.
Whether it’s smoking or seatbelts, or Fonzie getting a library card, we know that attitudes and behaviors can shift in response to imagery on popular television.
When we asked Americans whether they had ever taken some kind of action based on entertainment programming they’d seen, 65% of respondents admitted that they had. And those actions ranged from seeking more information about the issue to making a donation to a charity (13% owned up to that).
Is it a matter of monkey see, monkey do? Nah. Humans are more complicated than that, and so are the stories we tell each other.
The people in this room know how much is at stake. Imagine if we actually knew what role media was playing in our lives? What would happen if we could accurately measure how media moves us? And what exactly it moves us to do?
Just think back to a song, a TV show, a comic book character, a movie or a book that really shifted your perspective, that set you on a new path, that made you think about yourself and the world in different way.
We’ve certainly seen stories literally save lives. A radio soap opera in Tanzania was so effective at lowering HIV rates in provinces that received the broadcast compared to those that did not, that they had to discontinue the experiment and broadcast the show to the entire country for ethical reasons.
Usually we don’t have the luxury of creating such a large and diverse control group in order to scientifically measure the impact of media. You see similar issues in the field of education, where it’s taken entirely too long, in my mind, for educational initiatives to be adequately vetted through the use of control groups.
What if we applied the scientific rigor of the pharmaceutical industry to TV programming? What if we treated media as if it were a drug: which delivery systems would prove most potent and for whom? What types of content would prove life-changing?
At the Norman Lear Center, we recently developed a pragmatic new survey methodology for measuring the impact of media. The key is addressing the self-selection bias problem. Only certain people seek out certain kinds of media based on their personal taste and access. Our new tool accounts for that bias by calculating each and every survey respondent’s propensity to have seen that piece of media. After that likelihood has been determined, we compare very similar people who were exposed to that media and those who were not. Then we determine whether exposure to that piece of media is correlated with shifts in knowledge, attitudes or behavior.
When we used this methodology on the documentary film Food, Inc., we found significant differences between our control group and those who had watched the film, who were eating healthier food, were more knowledgeable about food safety issues, and who were shopping at farmers markets more frequently than very similar people who had not seen the film. (Here’s my TEDx talk about this research.)
These days we’re more awash than ever in data about how we humans are using and consuming media. For the Food, Inc. study, it was cheap and easy for us to gather 20,000 respondents through digital platforms.
But, as you also know, virtually no one agrees on how to measure media usage, engagement, and most importantly, impact. And the stakes seem higher than ever as we witness the development of ever more intimate and immersive technologies which make that bleed line between screen time (mediated reality) and real time thinner and thinner.
Why hasn’t measuring the impact of media been a priority for us? Well one powerful reason is liability. Who wants to be on the hook for having had some kind of negative impact on people? We’ve seen these accusations play out before with kids and violent video games or heavy metal music. Unless the news is good news, the media industry doesn’t necessarily want to know.
Another problem is that there are far too many incentives built into the media business to use measurement to game the system. The media industries are, by and large, for-profit industries. If you can come up with a custom audience measurement metric that makes your company more money, then you will receive strong encouragement to continue to use that metric – even if it doesn’t do a good job of actually monitoring who encountered your media and what kind of impact it had on them. The truth has been beside the point.
There are powerful incentives to keep your methods opaque – to come up with a black box algorithm that makes it impossible for others to check your work by attempting to repeat your results. This is why many media companies subscribe to multiple social media monitoring services, all of whom use different methods and generate different results that can be cherry picked by their clients.
So we remain adrift in a sea of unverifiable data points, making it virtually impossible for scholars and researchers to find out the truth about who engages in what media and to what end. As you can imagine, foundations that fund media initiatives have been very frustrated with their inability to get accurate, empirically solid, repeatable measurements of the impact of the media they have produced. Many have concluded that it’s simply too difficult and too expensive to do; that we’ll never have numbers we can compare, and, after all, isn’t it impossible to measure shifts in hearts in minds?
This year, we entered into a partnership with the Gates and the Knight Foundations to create a global hub for media impact research at the Lear Center. Our goal is to assist all media makers to do a better job accounting for how people engage with their media and assessing the consequences of that engagement.
We’re expanding the amount and types of research that we do at USC, and we are committed to collecting and sharing best practices from all around the world, from all sectors, academic, governmental, industry. From luminaries like you.
This new initiative is called the Media Impact Project and it brings together scholars across the disciplinary spectrum to develop and share freely the best possible tools and practices. Echoing Nate Silver’s comment this morning, I hope you’ll join us in making media analytics a non-fiction business.