On Transmedia and Transformative Politics: An Interview with MIT’s Sasha Costanza-Chock (Part One)

I have had a chance to get to know Sasha Costanza-Chock through the years — first as a PhD candidate at USC Annenberg, finishing up his degree as I was arriving here, and now, more recently, as a faculty member at the MIT Comparative Media Studies Program, where he has been active in the Center for Civic Media. I have developed enormous respect for Costanza-Chock’s skills as a scholar and commitment as an activist. He is someone whose work contributes much to our understanding of emerging forms of political activism, which he has variously characterized as  Transmedia or Transformative Mobilization.

His earliest work centered around the immigrant rights movement in Los Angles and has culminated in Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement,  published earlier this year by MIT Press. More recently, he has expanded his focus to deal with the Occupy movement and even more recently, to do work on GLBT activism.

Costanza-Chock’s work is deeply grounded in the life of the communities he is researching — we might think of his approach as being as much about collaboration, researching with, as it is investigating, researching about, and in this interview, he has much to say about the ethical principles he thinks should govern academic researchers doing work on and with oppressed peoples. I was lucky enough to have been able to read his original dissertation and we drew extensively on his work for the section on activism in Spreadable Media and it has been an important influence on our thinking as we developed By Any Media Necessary, my team’s forthcoming book on contemporary youth and the civic imagination.

I was delighted, then, when he agreed to do this interview, and even more pleased when I read his substantive, thoughtful, and challenging responses to my questions. You are in for a treat.

You describe this project as emerging from a process of participatory research. In this case, what shape did this participatory research take? How would you characterize your relationship to the movements you discuss here?

Thank you so much for inviting me to your blog! I really appreciate the opportunity. I should start by making clear that while I’m informed by Participatory Action Research (PAR) as a research stance, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets! isn’t itself a participatory research project. I say that because the research agenda and questions that the book addresses are mine, as are the instruments, the analytical process, the conclusions and recommendations. The questions I explore in the book, about the relationship between social movements and the rapidly changing media ecology, are not questions that first and foremost came from the immigrant rights movement groups I worked with and researched.

In PAR, joint inquiry centers the research agenda of the community. The community partner defines the area of investigation, and, if there is an outside researcher at all, they work together to develop the research questions, choose methods, develop instruments, collect observations, and analyze the findings together, in order to inform the next stage of action. This is the iterative cycle of reflection and action, built around situated and contingent knowledge, that Dewey talked about as joint inquiry, and that Freire described in terms of praxis.

That said, during the time I worked on the book (2006-2014), I did take part in a number of participatory research and participatory design processes with immigrant rights organizations. For example, while I was a doctoral student at USC Anneberg I had the good fortune to take Sandra Ball-Rokeach’s course on engaged scholarship (Comm 653, Research,
Practice, and Social Change), a course that she co-teaches with Barbara Osborn from the Liberty Hill Foundation. That course provided a crucial space for me to learn about the underpinnings, history, theory, and challenges of engaged research, while working closely with the Garment Worker Center to co-develop the Radio Tijera project.

Radio Tijera was an audio production workshop, pirate radio station, and CD series that mixed popular music with personal stories, history, and know your rights PSAs. It was produced by garment workers from the Garment Worker Center in LA’s Fashion District, with support from simmi gandi, Amanda Garces, and myself. Audio pieces from Radio Tijeras are still available online.

It was participatory design that felt really grounded in the needs of the community and the organization: hundreds of the CDs we produced were handed out and passed from person to person in the garment sweatshops in downtown LA, where many people listen to music all day, in part because in some shops they are told by the boss that they’re not
allowed to talk to one another. The CDs (we called them Discos Volantes, a Spanish language double pun on ‘Discs,’ ‘Flyers,’ as in an event flyer, and ‘Flying Saucers’) were used as an organizing tool to bring a number of new workers into the orbit of GWC, where they got involved in struggles for higher wages, safer working conditions, and human dignity in the garment industry. Steve Anderson from the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and the Cinema school also guided an independent study with me that gave me space to do community based multimedia work.

And while at Annenberg I had the chance to work with the Mobile Voices project, with all of the folks from the Institute of Popular Education of Southern California (IDEPSCA) and the team from USC, led by Francois Bar, which used participatory research and design to build the award-winning VozMob project . All of this work, and other participatory research, design, and media-making projects that I describe in more detail in the book, informed my understanding of the immigrant rights movement, grounded my research in real world experience as an active ally, and helped me build trust and credibility with many of the immigrant rights activists I later interviewed.

But I’m emphasizing that the book itself is not PAR, because it seems like a lot of researchers from the academy pay lip service to participatory research (and participatory design). Many are honestly excited by the idea, and that’s an important shift that should be supported. Unfortunately, there’s also sometimes a tendency to run a workshop or two with a community based partner and start calling the process participatory.

In the worst cases, this can actually end up masking an extractive process, where knowledge, ideas, design possibilities, and so on are generated by community members, whose ‘participation’ is limited to particular stages of the process (for example, brainstorming or taking part in a design charette). Participation in this mode produces ‘raw materials’ that are taken away by outside researchers and designers to be reworked and synthesized in ways that generate benefits (publications, products, attribution for concepts, and so on) that accrue primarily to the research or design professionals. The extractive process is usually not intentional (although occasionally it is, that’s another conversation), but it does do damage, not least in terms of the time and energy it takes up from people with scarce resources.

Happily, that’s the worst case :) There is also a growing community of people who are working to advance strong, grounded, meaningful approaches to participatory research in a wide range of fields. For example, the UCLA Labor Center  does an incredible job at this, as does the Public Science Project at CUNY. There are vibrant spaces outside of the academy, such as the Research Justice track at the Allied Media Conference, that are hubs for community based researchers. My partner Chris Schweidler has been working with this network for years, and is now developing and sharing concrete tools for participatory research through the worker-owned cooperative Research Action Design (RAD), of which I’m proud to be a founding member and worker/owner.

You suggest you want to move us beyond current debates about social movements and social media. What do you think partisans in those debates get wrong and what does your book offer as an alternative?

If I had to boil it down I’d say there are at least three places where most of the current debates go wrong. The ‘offline/online’ distinction, the ‘clicktivism’ conversation, and the technocentrism of most analysis of social movements and ICTs. There’s also the failure to focus on the transformative power of media making in a social movement context, where one of the most important outcomes is that people, through making media, become personally, deeply transformed in the process.

As for the first point, the ‘online/offline’ debate seems to be finally (if slowly) dying. As the net becomes fully integrated into everyday life, and as internet enabled mobile devices become more widespread, it’s become increasingly clear that people who participate in social movements do so both ‘offline’ and ‘online,’ and don’t tend to think about their own participation in these terms at all. If you care about something, and take part in a social movement, you aren’t sitting there as you share something on social media ‘Oh, now I’m an online activist!’ When you go to a ‘face to face’ rally or protest action, you’re not thinking ‘I’m taking part in offline social movement activity!’ You’re probably taking pictures at the ‘offline’ action and sharing them via social media, or sending SMS to friends about it. Since I’m a fan of grounded theory that draws from, reflects, and is useful to the ways people think about their own activity, I’ve never thought the online/offline debates were very interesting.

More recently, analyses of survey data are increasingly supportive of the idea that the distinction doesn’t hold much water. Most (but not all!) people who are politically active are active both ‘online’ and ‘off,’ (whatever ‘offline’ means for most people today). I’m not articulating this well; I’d recommend Paulo Gerbaudo’s excellent book Tweets and the Streets for a more lucid breakdown of the point.

For a counterargument, check out Oser, Hooghe, and Marien, 2013, who review the 2008 Pew data that was analyzed by Schlozman et al in 2010; they use latent class factor analysis of 5 offline and 5 online measures of political participation, and find that there are clusters of people who are politically active both online and offline, a cluster of people who are politically active just offline (they don’t have much internet access), and a (majority) cluster of people who aren’t politically active at all (online or offline). They do identify a small cluster who are more politically active according to online measures than offline measures, and they take that finding to imply that there is indeed a useful distinction between online and offline activists.

However, I read their findings to primarily indicate that most people are politically active or they’re not, both online and off, unless they don’t have much internet access. Hirzalla and Zoonen find that for young people, distinguishing between online/offline may not make much sense (Hirzalla, F and Van Zoonen, EA (2011). “Beyond the Online/Offline Divide: How Youth’s Online and Offline Civic Activities Converge”, Social Science Computer Review, online first December 4, Social Science Computer Review, 29(4), pp.481-498.)

Gibson and Cantijoch (2013) draw similar conclusions from a factor analysis of a 2010 UK survey with 18 questions about online and offline political participation (Rachel Gibson and Marta Cantijoch. “Conceptualizing and measuring participation in the age of the internet: Is online political engagement really different to offline?” Journal of Politics 75, no. 3(2013) : 707-716. eScholarID:178410 | DOI:10.1017/S0022381613000431).  Here I’m summarizing a longer discussion of this literature in soon-to-be-published work by Benjamin Bowyer and Joseph Kahn.

For the second point, I also think we can move beyond the so-called ‘clicktivism’ or ‘slacktivism’ question, most famously raised by Malcolm Gladwell, of whether the internet weakens social movements because it allows people to think they have done something meaningful with a mouse click. This mistaken debate is easily sidestepped by talking to a few real world organizers and activists, who learned quickly and early on about the ladder of engagement, where your job is to connect with people who take a small action (say, clicking ‘share’), find the subset of those people who are willing to take a slightly larger action, then identify the subset of those people who might be interested in
themselves becoming organizers, and so on. The more sophisticated version of this argument is about whether people are now abandoning social movement organizations and political parties, which had staying power, in favor of networked activism, which can move quickly but is often a ‘flash in the pan.’

That’s interesting. If it’s true that people are abandoning deeper engagement in political, civic, and social movement activity, and focusing primarily on networked forms of participation, then for the most part, institutional actors just need to learn how to weather the storm – not a good outcome for democracy. On the other hand, how do we reconcile the argument that people no longer want to participate in ‘real world’ organizations, with the continued mushrooming of those organizations? Just look at figures for the long term growth in the number and size of 501(c)3s over time, for example (there are around 250,000 in the US, according to the Urban Institute.

It’s also arguable that we’re entering a ‘golden age’ of movement activity, where people participate in networked activism, get politicized quickly, and later join the ever more diverse array of movement organizations, where they connect and stay for the long haul of institutional change.

How about the question about whether ICTs make social movements ‘more participatory?’ To me, in this frame technology adoption is conflated with forms of democratic participation. In other words, an alternate hypothesis might run as follows: there are strong or weak, top down or bottom up, institutional or participatory, forms of democracy. Any particular institution, organization, or network may be evaluated along these lines, independently of the communication technologies that are popular (widespread) at a given moment. It still seems to me to be an
understudied question: what, if any, is the relationship between the dominant forms of technology and the strength or weakness of participation in democratic institutions?

For one thing, some indicators of democratic participation (voting rates, for example) imply that widespread adoption of the internet produce a steady decline in democratic participation, although I believe that’s correlation, not causation. In fact the height of democratic participation may have been during the age when newspapers and radio (top down, broadcast, one way, for the most part, although not entirely) were dominant!

For another, we now know that networked ICTs are quite excellent tools for top down communicative processes, like political parties, corporations, or military organizations. For example, the Obama campaign’s masterful use of the net and social media incorporated participatory elements, but was ultimately a top down show that was shut down as soon as he won the election.

More broadly, I just don’t know why there is so much writing that is platform-centric. This goes as follows: pick a platform, then study whether activists are using it for something. Then, when you find that they are, write about how the affordances of the platform are so enabling for a new generation of activists. Really?

To me, it makes so much more sense to start with social movements. Start with the activists. Pick a movement, connect with it, engage with it, and then ask questions about how the activists, organizers, and everyday people in that movement are using media and ICTs. What do people do with these tools? They use them to create and circulate narratives, ideas, proposals, and demands, to invite and incite, to get people out in the streets and onto the net, to build the power of their movement.

Real world social movements aren’t platform specific. They aren’t making a ‘Twitter Revolution.’ They’re using any media necessary. They’re engaged in transmedia organizing.

Sasha Costanza-Chock is Associate Professor of Civic Media at MIT. He’s a scholar, activist, and media-maker who works on co-design and media justice. Sasha is Co-Principal Investigator at the MIT Center for Civic Media, creator of the MIT Codesign Studio, and a Faculty Associate at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School. His book Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets: Transmedia Organizing and the Immigrant Rights Movement was published by the MIT Press, 2014. Sasha is a board member of Allied Media Projects, a Detroit-based nonprofit that cultivates media strategies for a more just, creative, and collaborative world. He’s also a worker/owner at Research Action Design, a worker-owned cooperative that uses community-led research, transformative media organizing, technology development, and collaborative design to build the power of grassroots social movements.

Connected Learning through Minecraft: An Interview with the Three Co-Founders of Connected Camps (Part Two)

ccsow

I’ve definitely seen a lot of interest in Minecraft in education, but is there any evidence for its value as an educational environment?

Mimi: We are still in the early days of educators experimenting with Minecraft, so you aren’t going to see the kind of robust outcomes-centered work that are characteristic of more established subjects and methods. On top of this, the open-ended and malleable nature of Minecraft as an educational tool and environment works against standardized, content-centered programs that are easier to test and measure.

Educators have used Minecraft in such a wide variety of ways, ranging from teaching specific social science or math topics, to coding, to offering it as an open ended sandbox for play and problem solving. In fact, there is considerable debate within the educator community about the best uses of Minecraft. These debates mirror the longstanding schisms between content and skills centered approaches and more progressive, learner centered approaches in education. So the differences run much deeper than Minecraft itself.

What this means is that we can look to the existing evidence base for learning outcomes, even though the research on Minecraft specifically is still limited. As you probably gleaned, our Minecraft program sits in the social constructivist and learner-centered camp, and is grounded in the model of connected learning that has been developed over the past decade by a network of researchers, designers, and educators, many of whom have been associated with the MacArthur foundation funded Digital Media and Learning Initiative.

My earlier work as part of the Digital Youth Study and the current work of the Connected Learning Research Network, which I chair, has amassed a large body of evidence that has guided our approach. Henry, your work on participatory culture and new media literacy is also a cornerstone of this work.

In a nutshell, the research points to the profound impact of learning that is centered on collaborative creation, and is connected to young people’s genuine interests. When we give kids the opportunity to develop friendships and connect with experts while building and problem solving together, we have found time and time again that the experience is transformative. Not only do they retain specific content and skills better, but they also acquire higher-order skills like problem solving, teamwork, and literacy.

They also develop meaningful and lasting relationships that help them find their place in the world, and can be tied to concrete opportunities. For example, kids who were part of last summer’s servers have formed lasting friendships and stay in touch. And even though our summer camp hasn’t even started yet, we’ve already found job opportunities for some of our counselors.

These are just small examples of the much broader evidence base for how these kind of connected learning programs make a difference in kids’ lives. For anybody interested in learning more, the case studies of learning in youth affinity networks from our research network, or the resources at the Connected Learning Alliance provide a wealth of additional reading material!

 

All of your work in education so far has been in the research and non-profit sector. Why did you decide to cross over to the for profit sector? Have you gotten any criticism about running an educational program as a for-profit tech startup?

Katie: I was drawn to this project because of the unique model it afforded: a social venture (Connected Camps is a California-based benefit corporation) partnering with a non-profit, founded by people with deep experience in research and mission-driven startups. Any one of those sectors has inherent limitations but in combination there is a real possibility for innovation not only in content or product, but in sustainability models and the reach and impact the work can have.

Tara: My background is in building software platforms so my immediate thought is scale. When you run a locally based, mission focused nonprofit like the LA Makerspace, there are limitations. Working in the digital space, you don’t have those barriers and running as a for profit with a social mission offers Connected Camps the ability to raise the capital that we need to scale globally but keep us grounded in our mission to provide kids with the resources and support they need to learn and level up through their interests.

There are a lot of examples of organizations that start a non profit arm so they can focus on a mission that isn’t profit driven. As a benefit corp we are starting at ground zero with this approach and we have received a lot of positive feedback from startups that are also socially driven and interested in the same model. I think that we are going to see more and more benefit corporations starting up, especially by socially focused Generation Z who go out of their way to purchase products and services from businesses that they know are helping to create a better world.

Mimi: Even in the few months since we’ve launched the new company, I’ve learned so much about what an entrepreneurial and startup mindset can bring to the table. As Tara mentions, locating the work in a for-profit has enabled us to tap different kinds of funding sources and vehicles.

Unlike a grant or a contract, an investment isn’t oriented to a pre-defined product or outcome, but is a bet on the success and sustainability of a team and company. It gives us more flexibility to iterate, test, and pivot when needed.There is a not-insignificant contingent of the tech sector who embraces progressive goals and and would like to improve education, but who are skeptical that traditional non-profit organizations and vehicles can achieve these aims. I see an opportunity for socially minded edtech ventures to tap into both the culture and capital of the tech sector.

A tech startup is relentless about focus on providing value to people and offering what can spread and eventually be sustainable. I’ve found it interesting how important the research and evidence-based orientation is, and that part feels both familiar and different. Connected Camps is  evidence-driven in that it is grounded in decades of primary research and more recent design research. But what’s different from my work in the academy is that it is also evidence and market accountable. We can’t afford to develop offerings that people aren’t going to take up, and the marketplace provides immediate feedback if something isn’t understandable or valuable to the people we are seeking to serve.

The relentless focus on traction and sustainability can of course have its downside too, which is why Connected Camps is a b-corp and why Summer of Minecraft is a co-venture with a nonprofit. We are lucky to have tech investors and advisors who are committed to the social mission as well as the sustainability of the company.

I’m sure as our work gets more visibility, and hopefully more traction, we will need to navigate thorny tensions between the culture and values of the various communities we are bridging through this work. For example, we are working with public libraries and schools to provide opportunities for free for kids who don’t have the resources to play Minecraft from home, while also serving families through our paid subscriptions who have abundant tech resource and are used to paying much more for summer camps. This is about the tensions between nonprofit and for profit educational programs, as well as tensions between the commerce and the more community and volunteer-based orientations in participatory culture and gaming. For example, we have already gotten some pushback from people in the Minecraft world about charging for access to our servers.

The bottom line is that I feel every child deserves to have connected learning experiences, and online programs like ours provide a unique opportunity to spread these opportunities at a low cost to families in all walks of life. I feel we should use all of the resources, communities, and tools at our disposal to accomplish this, and that includes networked participatory culture, the traditional non-profit sector, corporations, as well as the tech startup scene. This latest venture is consistent with my prior work in being an effort to achieve the longstanding goals of progressive education with the tools of our times.

Mimi Ito, Ph.D., is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine. She also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and as Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network.

Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She co-founded Institute of Play. She also led the team that founded Quest to Learn and helped found CICS ChicagoQuest.

Tara Brown is a technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded LA Makerspace. She is the Technology Director at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. She has contributed as an Artist-in-Residence at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and a Hacker-in-Residence at Sparkfun Electronics.

 

Connected Learning through Minecraft: An Interview with the Three Co-Founders of Connected Camps (Part One)

A few weeks ago, I featured a thoughtful post on Minecraft and its relationship to “transmedia learning,” written by Barry Joseph, the Associate Director of Digital Learning at The American Museum of Natural History. Joseph’s analysis generated enormous interest from my readers, and for good reason, since there has been growing educational activity around Minecraft over the past few years and we are reaching the point where we can speak with some confidence about the payoffs in terms of fostering a learning culture. Over the next few posts, I want to drill deeper into some of that research and share more about the ways Minecraft has become a key site for thinking about connected learning.

Mimi Ito, Katie Salen Tekinbaş and Tara Brown are long time fellow travelers games and learning field and the movement for connected learning. This spring, they launched a new benefit corporation, Connected Camps, dedicated to building social and connected online learning environments for kids. Their startup’s first project, which is being produced in collaboration with Katie’s nonprofit, Institute of Play, is an online Minecraft summer camp. (For those interested, I have just finished a book length conversation with Mimi Ito and danah boyd, Participatory Culture in a Networked Era: A Conversation on Youth, Learning, Commerce, and Politics, due out from Polity later this year.)

I’ve asked them to share some of the background and thinking behind this new venture, and what prompted them to launch a tech startup.

MCkid

 

You don’t often see a tech startup being launched by three women. How did that come about?

Tara: Connected Camps is the evolution of years of collective work around supporting kids in learning through their passionate interests. I founded the community focused nonprofit, LA Makerspace, where interest-driven learning and mentoring are key to its success. A few years ago I learned about Mimi’s research on connected learning and how effective a model it is for kids to learn and it was very validating to find out that learning outside the classroom is just as important as inside the classroom. We decided to work on an online mentor matching project together based on StarCraft at UC Irvine Digital Media Learning Research Hub and that’s when I met Katie and all the amazing work that she does with kids and gaming. I think individually we each saw how interest in games based learning was growing and that there was a real opportunity to bring our expertise to an area that has a lot of passion behind it but was still a very open field for innovation and entrepreneurism.

In terms of us being women, that’s just an awesome benefit, it wasn’t forced. If you pay attention to startup news there are a lot of stories written about female founders and how they are still a minority and don’t get the support that they need from the startup community. What’s fortunate for the three of us is that we are already part of the communities that we are serving because of our individual expertise in the education and technology spaces and together we are a trifecta of tech, research and practice that you rarely see in any tech startup let alone an education focused tech startup.

Katie: The three of us have collaborated off and on over the years both through my work at Institute of Play and as a design researcher and professor focused on the space of games and learning. Mimi and I had worked on several connected learning case studies focused on LittleBigPlanet and Starcraft; I connected with Tara years ago around a project with a big fashion company that was looking to develop an online design curriculum and mentorship program. When interests are aligned and there is a shared goal around doing innovative work to support kids in developing their passions and interests around design and technology, collaboration in a natural outgrowth. Plus Mimi and Tara are two of the smartest, coolest, hardest-working people I know–who wouldn’t want to work with them! The fact that we’re all women in tech may seem unusual to some, but to us it is just normal. It is the work we love to do.

When Mimi and Tara started talking about scaling the Minecraft camp pilots they had been running, we started talking about how Institute of Play might become a core partner in the venture. There was a need for curriculum design and mentor training support for the camp, and the Institute was interested in expanding the work it had been doing with young people around Minecraft, design and coding. Once we looked into how the two organizations could collaborate, it just seemed to make a lot of sense.

Mimi: Tara and Katie have both had experience in the startup space since they’ve been part of starting new nonprofits and companies. This is my first startup, and I’m learning a ton from my two co-founders. The three of us all embrace a spirit of entrepreneurism that is characteristic of the startup and commercial sector, as well as an appreciation for the social and educational agendas that are most often associated with the public and nonprofit sector. This new startup is an effort to build something that leverages the strength of both of these orientations.

Katie and I are both non-traditional academics in that we’ve tied our work to collaborations with a wide range of commercial and nonprofit partners outside of the academy. So this project felt just right for us. I have a very clear memory of sitting down at a family dinner with Tara many years ago when she was considering leaving the tech world to get a doctorate so that she could pursue more of her interests in the research and social good side of things. I somehow managed to convince her to collaborate on some early design research that could serve education while also growing organically out of her strengths as a tech entrepreneur. And that was the start of this adventure.

Why did you choose to focus on Minecraft?

Katie: Minecraft was one of the first games the middle school students we were working with at Quest to Learn demanded be part of their curriculum. It started informally as a club—we helped the school set up a server and two Institute of Play game designers (Claudio Midolo and Brendon Trombley), who were embedded in the school as part of our work with teachers there, supported the kids who joined. Soon teachers in the school started stopping by the club, as the kids were talking non-stop about all the amazing things they were doing in the game.

Activities like building structures that required players to understand geometric concepts and physics; building interactive objects with switches and triggers that sounded a lot like computer programming. And then there were the stories of how the kids were collaborating and having to deal with interpersonal conflicts that came up as they were learning how to negotiate sharing a common space and resources on the multiplayer server. The teachers were intrigued—the student accounts sounded a lot like super engaged, good learning.

From there things grew. Some of the teachers started using Minecraft in their classrooms and soon the game was being used across a number of grades in the school. This story is not unique–many schools and educators from around the country have been using Minecraft with their students. When thinking about a core platform for Connected Camps, the fact that there was already buy-in from both kids and educators really helped. We know kids love the game. The fact that many educators do too, expanded the radius of possibility of what could be done with the camp and the impact it could have.

Tara: It’s hard to ignore the phenomenon of Minecraft. You have to be hiding under a rock to not notice almost every 10 year old in America talking about it. Even kids who don’t play Minecraft watch players on YouTube.

Last summer, my team at the Connected Learning Alliance ran an online camp pilot under Pursuitery. Our experiment was simple – we wanted to test whether kids would participate in a purely online summer camp. The camps included Scratch, a visual programming language out of MIT, Phonar Nation, a photography course developed by Jonathan Worth, Mozilla Webmaker, a platform to learn how to design webpages and remix media and Minecraft. We had different levels of engagement in each camp but the one camp that stood out the most in terms of engagement was Minecraft.

Minecraft had a lot of the tools we needed to communicate with the kids already built into the community and the game including the chat feature and Twitch.tv. It’s a game that appeals to a broad category of interests and skill levels — you can build, craft, program, socialize, learn survival skills and more. The parents of the campers were involved and assisted in resolving conflicts. Some of the kids from that pilot are still playing with each other today — they hail from Japan, Switzerland, Canada, the US and more. It’s really exciting to see how their friendship has developed and how they have created their own in-game challenges over this past year.

Mimi: The popularity of Minecraft represents an unprecedented opportunity for those of us who value interest-driven and production-centered learning. It’s the first time we have the most popular game of our time be centered on construction and design.

My dissertation work back in the late nineties at Stanford was a cultural history of “edutainment” software that emerged in the eighties. Most titles tracked along established genres and market segments, either focused on education and school subjects, or on entertainment which was mostly about exploration and fun. I was most intrigued, however by titles in what I called the “construction” category.

The Sims games were the commercially successful titles in this category, though there were other interesting titles out of Lucas Learning and the MIT Media Lab. What’s different about Minecraft today is it is the first time this kind of construction title has been a truly dominant player in the commercial marketplace. It’s also important that it has been embraced by teachers, parents, as well as kids. For the first time, I feel there is a massively scaled platform that we can build learning experiences around that truly spans the genres of entertainment and education.

TImMC

 

The popularity of Minecraft means a lot of educators and summer camps have embraced it. What makes your effort different?

Tara: Our philosophy around how we approach learning involves kids feeling empowered to take the lead, but in order for that to happen we have found that you need a framework and a starting point so that there is some structure in ultimately what can look like chaos from the outside.

Challenges are a great way to spark the ignition and get the campers working towards a goal. Ours are open ended enough that we don’t constrain where their interests take them. For example, our first challenge is to build a base camp. It may sound simple, but in Minecraft everyone likes to have a place that is uniquely theirs and represents their in-game identity so this is where creativity and spatial skills are used. It’s also a great way to start learning digital citizenship and social skills – such as asking for help when you need it and not to encroach on other’s creations without permission – aka griefing!

We spend a lot of time thinking about how to moderate appropriately. There’s a balance between making sure everyone is having a fantastic time and interacting positively and allowing that learning to occur naturally in the community. We have opted to moderate through a combination of server plugins to mitigate griefing and other negative behavior and real camp counselors to provide positive examples.

Katie: To me, the biggest value add of Summer of Minecraft is the access the campers have to the cohort of high school mods and college counselors that staff our multiplayer servers. We recruited the mods and counselors based on their passion for the game, their expertise with it, and their interest and ability to support young people in leveling up in building, designing and coding. It is a unique model.

The counselor program provides volunteer opportunities for high school students, who receive service learning credit, and gives college students a paid opportunity to share their expertise with others in an environment they are crazy about. More importantly, the program gives the campers a set of role models to look to and learn from over the summer.

We know how powerful camp can be for kids when they “find their people”, making connections with both peers and mentors who share their passion and interests. And the presence of the mods and counselors ensures that the servers are moderated and safe, and that kids will always have someone to connect with when they are in need of support or a little inspiration.

Mimi Ito, Ph.D., is Professor in Residence and MacArthur Foundation Chair in Digital Media and Learning at UC Irvine. She also serves as Research Director of the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub and as Chair of the Connected Learning Research Network.

Katie Salen Tekinbaş is a Professor in the College of Computing and Digital Media at DePaul University. She co-founded Institute of Play. She also led the team that founded Quest to Learn and helped found CICS ChicagoQuest.

Tara Brown is a technologist and entrepreneur. She co-founded LA Makerspace. She is the Technology Director at the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub. She has contributed as an Artist-in-Residence at MuseumsQuartier in Vienna and a Hacker-in-Residence at Sparkfun Electronics.

Videos from Transforming Hollywood 6: Alternative Realities, Worldbuilding, and Immersive Entertainment

Transforming Hollywood, previously called Transmedia Hollywood, is a conference which I organized each year in collaboration with UCLA’s Denise Mann. Our goal is to bring together academics, activists, artists, and industry leaders to reflect on some of the core trends impacting the entertainment industry today. This year, our focus was on Alternative Realities, World Building and Immersive Entertainment.

We were very proud of the results — a day long discussion that included demos and reflections on cutting edge technologies and considerations of how these tools are being used by not only mainstream commercial media makers (from the design of the forthcoming Avatar theme park attraction at Disney to the promotional work being done for Game of Thrones),  but also by alternative media-makers who want to call attention to cutting edge social issues or experiment with new artistic experiences. We also featured reflections on the historical evolution of immersive media practices, from the 19th century panorama or the dawn of world-building in the arts, through post-war experimentations in the “Democratic Surround.”  We wanted to cut through the hype about virtual reality and dig deep into how these technologies might allow us to see the world more clearly, and we wanted to spend the day thinking about the core desire for escapism and the counter-forces against it, as they play themselves out here in Hollywood. We got great responses from all of the participants and attendees about the ways the themes of this year’s event jelled into something really special.

Today, thanks to the rapid work of David McKenna, we are able to share with you the videos of the conference.  Help us spread the word.

TH6 Introduction & Panel 1- Prototype the Planet: How and Why Expansive and Immersive Worlds Are Taking Over Our Imagination from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Prototype the Planet: How and Why Expansive and Immersive Worlds Are Taking Over Our Collective Imagination Moderated by Henry Jenkins, USC

From roots in aesthetic philosophy (Nelson Goodman) and science fiction/fantasy writing (J.R.R. Tolkien), the concept of world-building has become a core concept across many design fields in the 21st century an aesthetic response to the complexities of a multidisciplinary and networked society, a means of creating content that serves the demands of transmedia entertainment. Both the brainstorming process of world-building and the worlds that emerge from that process have become sources of entertainment and education in their own right. In this opening panel, we are bringing together some key thinkers who will share with us their thoughts about:
Why world-building has gained such interest at the current moment?
What are some of the ways that world-building is being deployed for entertainment and education purposes at the moment?
What processes best support the design and development of multimedia worlds?
What they see as some of the most powerful examples of media worlds today?
What’s new about today’s fascination with world-building and how it relates to older models of speculative fiction?
And what connections do they see between world-building and the emergence of immersive and expansive media environments?
Michael Saler, author of As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality, professor at UC-Davis
Brenda Romero, UC Santa Cruz MS Games & Playable Media, Program Director
Ann Pendleton-Jullian, architect, professor, Ohio State University/Georgetown University
Alex Rivera, director, Sleep Dealers

TH6 Panel 2 – Brand New Vistas: VR & AR Create New Frontiers in Art and Promotion from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Brand New Vistas: VR & AR Create New Frontiers in Art and Promotion Moderated by Denise Mann, UCLA

Imagine stepping into a rickety elevator, feeling a bracing, cold wind against your neck as you are whisked 700 feet straight up a steep incline. You walk along the edge, glancing down at the abyss below, only to realize that flaming arrows are whizzing past your face. Welcome to Game of Thrones’ “Ascend the Wall” Oculus Rift experience, created by Relevant, Framestore, and the HBO marketers. A new generation of cutting edge digital artists—Felix & Paul Studios, Kite & Lightning—and innovative marketing firms—Havas and Relevant—are eager to use VR and AR to immerse participants in vivid, arresting, and sometimes nausea-inducing experiential universes. But who is going to pay for these experiments? Notably, advertisers are stepping up in record numbers, eager to give consumers an exciting new way to engage with their often mundane consumer products or services. High-end automobile manufacturers, such as Mercedes Benz, Jaguar, and BMW, invite consumers to test-drive the latest in luxury design using VR gear from the comfort of their home or office. Not sure if you want to go to Melbourne? Why not use social media to order up a virtual tourist guide and enjoy the sights and sounds of Queen Victoria Market, the Art Centre, or a sunny beach? As one pundit writes, “The promise of virtual reality has always been enormous. Put on these goggles, go nowhere, and be transported anywhere. It’s the same escapism peddled by drugs, alcohol, sex, and art — throw off the shackles of the mundane through a metaphysical transportation to an altered state.” But what if the tech, content, and brand industries see these smart technologies, sophisticated algorithms, and immersive fun as yet another means to track consumer preferences from the cradle to the grave?

Ian Cleary, VP of Ideation and Innovation, Relevant
Ikrima Elhassan, Co-founder, Kite & Lightning
Erkki Huhtamo, Professor, UCLA; Media Archaelogist, Historian and Exhibition Curator
Jez Jowett, Global Head of Creative Technology, Havas Media Group
Kamal Sinclair, Co-Director, New Frontier (Lab Programs), Sundance Institute

TH6 Panel 3 – Hip Deep in Knowledge: Virtual Museums, Immersive Journalism, and Scientific Vistas from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

Hip Deep in Knowledge: Virtual Museums, Immersive Journalism, and Scientific Vistas Moderated by Robert Hernandez, USC

Our capacity to imagine — and create — alternative worlds, often in highly immersive detail, is now being harnessed as a means of storytelling and conveying knowledge across a range of different institutions and practices. Journalists can create experiences for their readers that they could not — or perhaps would not want to — experience directly. Museums have been testing new media tools and platforms as they seek to share curated experiences with their patrons. Scientists are using wide-screen projection, among other tech, to take students into the outer limits of space, educators are using simulations to help students think about real world systems, and activists are using augmented reality approaches to get people to see their communities from different perspectives. Panelists will share cutting edge research and experimentation in immersive journalism and virtual learning, inviting us to imagine new potential uses of these technologies to expand how we understand the world around us.
Nonny De La Pena, Immersive Journalist
Scott Fisher, Associate Dean of research, Professor &Founding Chair, Interactive Media Division, Director Mobile and Environmental Media Lab, USC Cinema School
Alison Griffiths, Professor, Baruch College, author of Shivers Down your Spine: Cinema, Museums, and the Immersive View
Kate McCullum, Vice President of Creative Projects, Vortex Immersive Media
BC “Heavy” Biermann, re+public labs

TH6 Panel 4 – There’s Art all Around Us: The Aesthetics of Immersive Experiences from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

There’s Art all Around Us: The Aesthetics of Immersive Experiences

Moderated by Jeff Burke, UCLA

Exploring immersion via the new technologies of an era has long been a part of the avant-garde in theater, film, architecture, and other art forms. The panelists will share their ideas about what contemporary innovations by artists and technologists operating at the boundaries of commercial entertainment may herald for the future of immersive storytelling.Key questions for the participants include:

What are new ways to create (fictional) overlays on everyday life (e.g., Project Tango, Hololens).
What do these changes mean for world-building based storytelling?
What will be the ongoing evolution of the film and television screen as each moves towards a mobile, context-sensitive, and personalized media surface?
What will these new screens, contexts, and surfaces mean for storytellers?
What are the implications of having the authorship of story and code increasingly paired in the creation of immersive experiences?
And, finally, what next directions for immersion are suggested by direct interfaces between technology and the human body?
Panelists

Ana Serrano, Chief Digital Officer, Canadian Film Centre.
Sara Thacher, Creative Lead, Walt Disney Imagineering Research and Development; previously experience designer for The Jejune Institute
Barry Threw, Director of Software, Obscura Digital
Fred Turner, Associate Professor of Communication, Stanford University

TH6 – A Conversation with Jon Landau from UCLA Film & TV on Vimeo.

A Conversation with Jon Landau

At the close of Transforming Hollywood 6, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television lecturer Tom Nunan, an executive producer of the Academy Award-winning film, Crash, will speak with Academy Award-winning producer Jon Landau. They will cover subjects ranging from virtual production and intellectual property expansion strategies to Landau’s groundbreaking work with filmmaker James Cameron and how it has influenced other technological advances in VR.

Immersive Hollywood from MA+P @ USC on Vimeo.

Last but certainly not least, here’s a great montage of Hollywood’s representations of immersive entertainment, curated by USC’s own Steve Anderson. If you saw, and liked, the segment on man/machine interfaces he created for our Cyberpunk conference, then you know this video is not to be missed.

 

I Am Majid: A Case Study of the Iranian Green Movement

 

I Am Majid: A Case Study of the Iranian Green Movement

Amin Ansari

 

The Greens’ Art project is a repository of user-generated content produced and circulated during the pre- and post-election crisis period in Iran (2009-2011). The materials produced within the context of protests, being simple appropriated artworks or blog posts, initiated innumerable human networks in a politically suppressed situation, in both online and offline spaces. The Calendar section of this website enables visitors to find works associated with significant events of the Green Movement. Some of these gained global attention and some of them just circulated domestically. One of the most important cases in this project is the campaign “I AM Majid” which was born and drastically expanded in online sphere.

Born in 1986, Majid Tavakoli began his political activities as a university student. What brings his name to the realm of political activism in Iran is mostly his rich contribution to the Student Movement of Iran over an eight year period. His active engagement and uncompromising commitment during this period, although endangering his life, made him the symbol and “the honor of the Student Movement” (CHRR 2012). He was first arrested in 2006 and “spent 15 months in jail … on charges of insulting religion and the country’s leadership in student publications” (BBC 2009). Then, what brought him to news headlines again was his speech (Clip.1) at Amirkabir University of Technology on the first Student Day after the controversial Presidential Election of 2009.

Clip 1. Majid Tavakoli’s speech in the Student Day (2009).

After this impressive and provocative speech he was arrested by the security forces and brutally beaten by them in front of eyewitnesses (ICFHRII 2010). It is worth mentioning that more than 200 protesters were arrested on the Student Day protests across the country. The admin of the blog ‘Homylafayette Iran News in English’ provides a great list of videos of this day’s protests recorded by citizens in different cities of Iran. Later, after an unjust trial, Tavakoli “was convicted of several offenses, including participating in an illegal gathering, propaganda against the system and insulting officials” and consequently sentenced to more than eight years in prison (AI n.d.). Also, it was reported that he was kept in solidarity confinement for about five months in 2010 (ICFHRII 2010).

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.55.11 PMFigure 1. An appropriation of one of Majid’s photos, a collage of hundreds of pieces of papers. (RFERL 2013)

Like other critical moments of the Green Movement, user-generated content (Fig.1) related to Tavakoli -produced by artists and online activists – were disseminated through the internet. Angry posts against the government conquered social media channels such as Facebook and Twitter. People wanted him and other arrested protesters freed. Paintings and posters, illustrations and video clips all were utilized by activists to make people aware of Tavakoli’s story and to show protesters’ solidarity with him to the government. In the following poster (Fig.2) for example is written: “We will never forget you … We are speaking in the heart of oppression. We shout out, strengthened by our beliefs. We stand alongside each other … Majid Tavakoli, the dignity of the student movement” (Homylafayette 2010). As can be seen the colors green and black, which refer to sorrow and sadness in Iranian culture, and barbed wire (a signifier of prison) are mixed with his picture to deliver the message behind it.

Untitled Figure 2. We will never forget you, an illustration for Majid Tavakoli.

What distinguishes Majid from other political prisoners, however, is what happened to him after his arrest. On 8th of December, one day after the Student Day protests, the pro-government news agencies, Fars News and Raja News, published some photos (Fig.3) of Majid with these headlines: “The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amirkabir University in Women’s Clothing” and “The Images of Amirkabir University’s Hero in Women’s Clothing Are Released” (FarsNews 2009; RajaNews 2009). They claimed that he was escaping after his speech trying to evade security forces by dressing like this. As was vastly said it somehow displayed the government’s “vindictiveness and contempt for women” (Tait 2009):

He had makeup … was dressed like veiled women, putting on manto, muqni’ah and chador. Although, he had a purse with him to guarantee his escape, he was unsuccessful and arrested by security forces. (FarsNews 2009)

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.55.44 PMFigure 3. These photos from Raja News show Majid in Islamic chador and headscarf.

People’s posts and comments show that most of them believed that Majid was forced to wear that clothing and found the government’s act unacceptable and disgusting. Even on Raja news’ website one can find the following comments under Majid’s photos:

– It’s clear that he is forced to sit in front of the camera. When do you want to stop fooling us?

– I did not have any doubt in his courage. Your disgusting behaviour just added more value to him… (RajaNews 2009)

What the authorities did with Tavakoli was soon answered by artists and activists. The number of posts related to him rose markedly. Inside and outside Iran people were trying to show their solidarity with him. Different pages in social media have supported him until now (such as Facebook pages ‘Majid Tavakoli’, ‘Free Majid Tavakoli’ and ‘Free Majid Tavakkoli Immediately’).

Amongst various campaigns that supported Tavakoli in this period, “I Am Majid” is the most significant one. This campaign is also known as “We Are All Majid” or “Veiled Men”. I found two figurers as the initiators of this campaign during my investigations: Arash Ashourinia, a professional photographer in Tehran and Masih Alinejad, a prominent exiled journalist. Ashourinia asked his male Facebook friends to send him their veiled picture (Fig.4). In his post (dated back to December 9, 2009) he reminds the readers the way the government treated Majid and says: “they wanted to put pressure on the Student Movement and the green Iranians. In the same time they are discriminating our women. To prove our solidarity with Majid Tavakoli, and to say ‘NO’ to compulsory hijab … to prove that we are together send your photos to the following address.” He provided his readers with this email, rousari@gmail.com, which in ‘rousari’ means headscarf. In the same day (9 Dec), Masih Alinejad posted a similar invitation on his personal website. In this post she criticizes the government’s act against Tavakoli and says: “imagine if a part of our male protesters … wear headscarf. What would the government’s news agencies do if they see a huge population is laughing at their act?”

Untitled 2Figure 4. A visual instruction for people to take their photos. (Ashourinia 2009)

The reaction of people to these calls was unexpected. Iranian men across the world published their pictures depicting themselves with scarf, chador or muqni’ah. Just a few days after the Student Day images and videos of veiled men conquered social media atmosphere. On December 12, Ashourinia published his designed posters (Fig.5) on Facebook which in hundreds of the received images were used. On the Persian version is written: “Majid Tavakoli Was Multiplied, Not Humiliated.”

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.56.09 PM Figure 5. More than 300 Majids, a poster by Arash Ashourinia.

People’s reactions to the “I Am Majid” campaign were not limited to photos. As usual, various sorts of artworks were produced and circulated by people. There is a page on the Greens’ Art website dedicated to ‘Veiled Men’ that demonstrates some of the produced works including performances (e.g. I Am Majid performed in Stockholm), video clips (e.g. We Are All Majid) and graphic designs (Fig.6).

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.56.22 PMFigure 6. Some of the artworks related to “I Am Majid” campaign.

The following video (Clip.2) was uploaded on December 9, 2009, two days after Tavakoli’s arrest. By combining photos, graphics, background music and a verbal presentation the creator(s) of this work tried to deliver the real story of Tavakoli’s arrest to its viewers while the government’s media were trying to sell their manipulated story. This clip is subtitled into English to be consumable for non-Iranians.

Clip 2. How Majid Tavakoli Arrested? by Iran’s Freedom of Expression community.

Non-Iranian supporters of the Green Movement also joined the campaign and showed their solidarity with Tavakoli (Clip.3).
 

Clip 3. Non-Iranian supporters of Majid Tavakoli show their solidarity.

The huge contribution of people to the Veiled Men campaign and the volume of generated content by activists and ordinary people made the major media, including the non-Iranian ones to pick up the stories related to the campaign. The Guardian (Golsorkhi 2009), the Huffington Post (Novin 2010), BBC (BBC 2009) and Amnesty International (AI n.d.) are among the media and international institutions that covered Majid’s story. These reports guaranteed that what happened to Majid was not only heard about inside Iran.

Calling it ‘I Am Majid’, ‘We Are all Majid’ or ‘Veiled Men’, this campaign was totally constructed and progressed by first, the Iranian users of digital media and then their international allies. We witnessed a range of user-generated content produced in this campaign. Among them, I can mention blog posts, social media posts, artworks, and etc. People inside and outside Iran made meaningful conversations around Tavakoli’s case through the interrupted, censored and highly controlled internet in Iran. These conversations along with the circulated materials established an alternative and distributed medium for protesters and those who wanted to be in touch with the ongoing realities at the time.

References:

AI, Student Activist Jailed for Speaking Out. Amnesty International. Available at: http://www.amnestyusa.org/our-work/cases/iran-majid-tavakkoli?id=1181062 [Accessed September 9, 2014].

BBC, 2009. Iranian Men Don Hijabs in Protest at Student’s Arrest. BBC. Available at: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/8409778.stm [Accessed September 9, 2014].

CHRR, 2012. Mother of Majid Tavakoli: For 3 years I have waited in hopes of seeing my Majid. Committee of Human Rights Reporters. Available at: http://www.chrr.biz/spip.php?article19511 [Accessed September 9, 2014].

FarsNews, 2009. The Images of the Main Leader of Rioters of Amir Kabir University in Women’s Clothing. Fars News. Available at: http://www.farsnews.com/newstext.php?nn=8809171089 [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Golsorkhi, M., 2009. Iranian Men in Hijab. The Guardian. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/dec/16/men-hijab-majid-tavakoli [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Homylafayette, 2010. Student Day Scrapbook. homylafayette Iran News in English. Available at: http://homylafayette.blogspot.com.au/2010/12/student-day-scrapbook-7-december-2010.html [Accessed September 9, 2014].

ICFHRII, 2010. Majid Tavakoli: Four Months in Detention Without Access to Lawyer or Visit With Family. International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. Available at: http://www.iranhumanrights.org/2010/04/majid-tavakol-four-months-in-detention-without-access-to-lawyer-and-visitation-with-family/ [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Novin, N., 2010. A Veiled Movement for Women’s Rights Sweeps Iran. The Huffington Post. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/nasim-novin/a-veiled-movement-for-wom_b_397605.html [Accessed September 11, 2014].

RajaNews, 2009. The Images of Amir Kabir University’s Hero in Women’s Clothing Are Released. Raja News. Available at: http://www.rajanews.com/news/25568 [Accessed September 11, 2014].

RFERL, 2013. Iranian Student Activist Granted Prison Leave. Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty. Available at: http://www.rferl.org/content/iran-tavakoli-rights/25143877.html [Accessed September 9, 2014].

Tait, R., 2009. Iran Regime Depicts Male Student in Chador as Shaming Tactic. Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/dec/11/iran-regime-male-student-chador [Accessed September 11, 2014].

Amin Ansari holds a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering and a Master of Dramatic Literature. Following his interest in multidisciplinary fields of study, he is doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, with a particular focus on the engagement of art and digital media with activism and politics. He is the founder and curator of Greens’ Art website, the most comprehensive online archive and exhibition of artworks related to the Green Movement of Iran. Also, as a published author, he has been writing stories and plays for the past 13 years. He has published five books in Iran, Germany and the UK including three novels (Waltzing with Dark Waters, Hunt, and I [Is] Sad in His Absence) and two novellas (They Know Nothing of Heaven and Seven Years of Solitude) – all in Persian.

Greens’ Art: The Green Movement’s Digital Hertiage

As most of my regular readers know, I monitor closely developments in participatory culture, learning, and politics around the globe, and as a consequence, I regularly receive letters from readers asking for advice or sharing projects they are working on in this space. I try to showcase international projects which I think have real merit or substance, whenever the opportunity arises. Not long ago, I heard from Amin Ansari, currently doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, about an archive he is developing around protest art that emerged around the Green Revolution in Iran, and I instantly knew I wanted to share some of this material through this blog. So, you will get a taste of this remarkable set of resources over the next two posts. For those who are interested in what I had to say about these political developments, closer to the time, check out this material posted on the Spreadable Media website.

 

Greens’ Art: The Green Movement’s Digital Heritage

Amin Ansari

The Greens’ Art archive and online exhibition was established to provide an online representation of the protest artworks produced during the crisis after the controversial 2009 Presidential election of Iran. The collected works include both born-digital works and works that were created in non-digital formats but subsequently documented and digitally distributed. The Greens’ Art project drew upon some already extant collections (on YouTube, or personal weblogs for instance) and their associated documentation. The act of collection for this project decontextualized works from their place on the web and then re-contextualized them on the website.

On 12 June 2009, the Islamic Republic of Iran held its 10th presidential election in which four candidates competed for the position. Announcing Mahmood Ahmadinejad as the winner of the election confirmed him for another four years and provoked the dissatisfied voters who initiated protests across the country. Both popular and critical opinion held that the election was a fraud and the regime hijacked it. Out of these protests, the Green Movement of Iran was born. The post-election conflict brought considerable turmoil, militarized reactions of the government to protests along with the death and imprisonment of a large number of citizens. This movement, however, was not formed only by the voters who supported the reformist candidates at this specific election. A range of existing social and political movements (e.g. the Student Movement of Iran, Women’s Movement) came together with individuals who sought a fundamental change in the structure of the ruling class in Iran.

The Green Movement of Iran is a prominent example of New Social Movements (NSM). The communication scholar, Leah Lievrouw, suggests the following characteristics that make NSMs different from their predecessors: The participants of NSMs consist of “knowledge/information workers, professionals, well-educated [and] creative workers”. They build a collective identity by keeping their independence from “institutional structures” and focusing on constructing and sharing of common subjectivity”. They are constantly engaged with “construction and control of information, symbolic resources, representations of group interests, expertise norms [and] values” – “meaning and symbolic production”. Regarding the action, NSMs work as “anti-hierarchical social networks of interpersonal relations; [featuring] micromobilization…[and a] decentralized, autonomous organizational form.” Actions in NSMs are integrated with the everyday lives of participants. ICTs and media are used in a sophisticated way in these type of movements. For instance, we see “unconventional action repertoires” in these movements and their actions extend over time and space; they continuously realign and reorganize throughout the time (Lievrouw, 2011). While one finds all of these characteristics in the Green Movement, two of them are particularly relevant to this project: first, the fact that the Green activists, as professional, well-educated and creative workers, were extremely engaged with ICTs and digital technologies; and second, they were constantly producing meaning and symbolic products which constructed the Green Movement’s cultural heritage.

The Green Movement’s heritage consists of ephemeral works. By definition ‘ephemera’ is a material “created for a specific, limited purpose, and generally designed to be discarded after use” (SAA, n.d.). Common examples of such materials are tickets, brochures and receipts. In the Green Movement’s case some examples of ephemeral materials are posters, graffiti (Fig.1) or video (Clip.1) clips which were created to deliver an invitation for a specific event or demonstration or to express their creators’ feeling and thoughts about the goings-on.

Clip.1. “Bella ciao, Iran”, an old Italian antifascist song mixed with images of the Green Movement of Iran.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.44.04 PM

Fig.1. On the left: the poster, “The Freedom’s Dawn”, an invitation for the demonstration of the Student Day. On the right: a picture of the graffiti, “hope”.

These works were created in the moment in concert with the happenings; most of them were not meant to last. There are also other types of works such as performances (Clip.2) — which are ephemeral in their transience — and paintings or sculptures (Fig.3) that were produced in non-digital formats. Although such works have the capacity to last in the non-digital world, when “digitality is an integral feature of modern society” (UNESCO, 2012) their absence in the digital world makes them ephemeral for netizens in practical terms.

Screen Shot 2015-05-04 at 1.44.23 PM
Fig.3. On the left: the sculpture, “Neda, Freedom’s Angel,” by Paula B. Slater — created in memory of Neda Agha-Soltan the most well-known martyr of the Green Movement. On the right: the painting, “Neda Was Killed on Tehran’s street,” by an unknown artist.

Clip.2. An installation and performance in New York in support of the Green Movement.

Whilst creators might not have intended their works to endure beyond the immediate time of the protests, it is clear that others saw value in them. Ordinary people, artists, and citizen-journalists first started collecting materials, protecting them from being lost, and also re-circulating them. Small communities and news agencies also participated in archiving and republishing the materials. It is clear that people recognized the importance of keeping the traces of the Movement, despite the risks of doing so. The Greens’ Art project builds on and amplifies the efforts of collectors and amateur archivists by organizing and integrating the available materials and information in a database, to provide a comprehensive resource about the Movement.

Greens’ Art is engaged with three main domains: preservation, archiving and exhibiting. Taking preservation as “the act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction” (SAA, n.d.), this project protects the material from a range of probable risks including data loss and the absence of legislation. As a comprehensive archive, Greens’ Art catalogues the relevant materials through a combination of “whole domain” and “collaborative” models (Kastellec, 2012). Through the first model the digital/digitized objects were identified through multiple online resources and non-automated harvestings. The digitized works are important to the Green Movement’s digital heritage because in many cases there is no access to originals. Materials have also been deposited by visitors to the project’s website. Finally, Greens’ Art is an online exhibition of the archived materials.

The materials that I gathered and the materials that were contributed by others all had to be checked for accuracy; all had to be organized. I used formal and generic categories to organize the materials. These categories are: documentary video, video clip, animation, short movie, long movie, digital painting, painting, graffiti, poster and illustration, website banner, cartoon, general drawing, lyric, poem, novel, short story, political humour, slogan, music, photo, sculpture, performing art, costumes and accessories.

In addition to genre and form, chronology is another key organizing tool applied to the collection. By creating the Green Movement’s Timeline I wanted to list and demonstrate the artworks which were related to specific dates or events. After several iterations I reached the current limited list of events. In this section of the website users can choose a date from those listed, go to the allocated page, read the description provided and browse different sorts of artworks related to the chosen event. This section offers temporal contextualisation and helps future researchers and ordinary visitors to puzzle out the background stories.

The website of the Greens’ Art project (Fig.4) has five main sections: Artworks, Calendar, Anti-Movement, Artists and Resources. All the information is available in both English and Persian. In the Artworks section visitors can browse all the materials (+3000 items) produced by pro-movement activists and artists. They also can filter the information based on different attributes such as category, artist’s name or relevant event. The Calendar, as was explained before, provides the visitors with a timeline of crucial dates of the Green Movement, and related description and works relevant to each of them. The Anti-Movement section gives the project’s visitors an opportunity to reach a better understanding of the ongoing war between the two sides of the conflict by offering a categorized list of the works (+600 items) that were produced by pro-government artists. The page, Artists, provide the visitors with a list of professional artists who supported the Green Movement with creating protest artworks. Resources, suggest a list of available literature and resources to visitors and provides a context for further investigations.

Untitled 2

Fig.4. The home page of the Greens’ Art website (available at: greens-art.net/?lang=en)

The Green Movement can be taken as an open public conversation. Understood in this way, the artworks on the Greens’ Art website represent a collection of user-generated content produced and distributed by protesters from different schools of thought and various social and economic classes. In an era in which “digital technology has become the primary means of knowledge creation and expression” (Webb, 2003), protecting and representing digital heritage is critically important for current and future generations. Greens’ Art, with its dual archival and exhibition aspects is doing this for the Green Movement of Iran. The collection works as a place to both keep the circulated materials safe and their associated memories alive. As Stuckey et al write, “our memories are mediated by our media, forming a dynamic relationship that forms our personal and collective identities” (Stuckey, Swalwell, Ndalianis, & De Vries, 2013). Finally, the website also aims to provide current and future researchers of art, politics and media with a contextualized multimedia resource about this significant contemporary case study.

References:

Kastellec, M. (2012). Practical Limits to the Scope of Digital Preservation. Information Technology and Libraries, 31(2), 63–71. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/lG4xm5

Lievrouw, L. (2011). Alternative and Activist New Media. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mundy, J., & Burton, J. (2013). Online Exhibitions. Retrieved April 20, 2014, from http://goo.gl/RAu4DS

SAA. (n.d.). Ephemera: Definition. Retrieved July 02, 2014, from http://goo.gl/rMfVYu

Stuckey, H., Swalwell, M., Ndalianis, A., & De Vries, D. (2013). Remembrance of Games Past: The Popular Memory Archive. In Interactive Entertainment. Melbourne: Association for Computer Machinery. Retrieved from http://goo.gl/8UO64b

UNESCO. (2012). The Memory of the World in the Digital Age: Digitization and Preservation. Vancouver: UNESCO. Retrieved from http://www.unesco.org/new/fileadmin/MULTIMEDIA/HQ/CI/CI/pdf/Events/digital_conference_concept_paper_en.pdf

Webb, C. (2003). Guidelines for the Preservation Of Digital Heritage. Retrieved July 02, 2014, from http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0013/001300/130071e.pdf

Amin Ansari holds a bachelor’s degree in Software Engineering and a Master of Dramatic Literature. Following his interest in multidisciplinary fields of study, he is doing his PhD at the Screen and Media department at Flinders University, with a particular focus on the engagement of art and digital media with activism and politics. He is the founder and curator of Greens’ Art website, the most comprehensive online archive and exhibition of artworks related to the Green Movement of Iran. Also, as a published author, he has been writing stories and plays for the past 13 years. He has published five books in Iran, Germany and the UK including three novels (Waltzing with Dark Waters, Hunt, and I [Is] Sad in His Absence) and two novellas (They Know Nothing of Heaven and Seven Years of Solitude) – all in Persian.

 

How Do You Teach Survivor?: “Survivor Professor” Max Dawson’s Syllabus

Over the past two posts, I’ve been sharing an interview my son, Charlie Jenkins, has been conducting with Survivor contestant Max Dawson, about what it was like to be an acs-fan who becomes part of a reality television phenomenon. Dawson is one of xx contestants who are competing to get a “second chance,” to be one of ten men and ten women who will have another shot at winning the million dollars next season. The public has a chance to vote here, so if you have heard Max’s story and want to support him, please do so. There are only a few days left and you can vote once each day.

A big part of Max’s story is the idea that he has “taught” Survivor: he is a “teacher of the game,” but of course, much of the public doesn’t really understand what it is we do in media studies and so they imagine he’s helping students acquire skills that they could use to become a reality television contestant. Because of the misunderstandings surrounding the class, we asked Max if we could repost his syllabus here. If nothing else, it might give other media scholars a starting point for thinking about how they might help students understand the place of reality television in contemporary media culture.

RTVF330 Syllabus

Survivor Contestant, Embedded Aca-Fan Max Dawson Shares His Experiences (Part Two)

The following is the second part of an interview with Aca-Fan and Survivor contestant Max Dawson conducted by my son, Charlie Jenkins. The text below includes his introduction and conclusion.

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A Max Dawson campaign poster made by his fan @robstaboobuzzer

 

 

At the end of Part 1 of this interview, Max and I were talking about how Survivor has brought some of the contestants to a dark place this season. I cannot fairly and completely represent all of the points of view involved without going on for several pages and I don’t want to take the spotlight off of our guest Max (who had already been voted off). Read HERE, HERE HERE AND HERE for more details.

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Dan, Will and Shirin (early on)

 

But the short version is, there were two male contestants – Dan Foley, 47, a postal worker from Gorham Maine and Will Simms II, 41, a bartender/singer from Sherman Oaks, California – who were caught on camera saying vicious things to and about a female contestant – Shirin Oskooi, 31, a Yahoo! executive from San Francisco. Shirin was abused by her dad, and sobbed through sharing the story while Will continued to trash talk her. Dan has since alleged that Shirin manipulated everyone out of a need to play the victim and that she said many inciting things which weren’t aired. The gender politics involved have aroused a bloody passion in online fandom, with fans of both genders arguing both sides. While some fans have called this the most unpleasant season in Survivor history, Shirin has been among many who said she was proud that Survivor didn’t shy away from airing the footage.

There is too much to unpack here. But, I want to bring up two things: One is the problem that we as America cannot know everything that happened, much less everything that was in the individuals’ hearts and minds at the time. Yet, we’d have to be numb not to be effected by what we saw. I know what I think. I think Will got pushed to his breaking point by not eating or sleeping well for weeks and he verbally abused Shirin. I think Dan has issues with women and they reflected poorly on him. And I think they got exposed because they did it on television. Yet Max, who knows Dan, Will and Shirin, and whose opinion I respect, has a very different take on it. We saw what we saw, but can we really understand the situation better than Max does?

My other concern is that it’s potentially dangerous for thousands of fans to attack Dan, Will and Shirin on social media – in part because these things don’t always stay on social media. Past Big Brother contestants Shelley Moore and Aaryn Gries have reported that their behavior on reality shows led to death threats and their families being harassed at work and school. I asked Max about those issues.

Charlie: You said earlier that fans had to keep in mind they were watching a heavily constructed narrative which only showed fragments of what happened. Isn’t that potentially a real problem if you’re someone like Will Simms or Dan Foley who is perceived to have made serious transgressions? Is CBS potentially starting a riot?

Max: That’s something I’ve grappled with this entire season. Coming out of my elimination episode I felt pretty bummed out about the way things worked out, but when I compare it to the kind of continual character assassination that people like Dan and Will have withstood over the past few weeks…? It’s tough to watch knowing these people, knowing their families, and knowing what Survivor meant to Dan. He started applying to the show more than 10 years ago, and he drove tens of thousands of miles to open casting calls, trying to get noticed by a casting producer. He finally got on the show and he’s perhaps the greatest example of “be careful what you wish for” in the history of reality television.

Everything that [Dan] said going into [the show] – “You will not forget me” and “I will be a memorable Survivor character” – has proven true but in the worst possible way. He is a memorable character. He will be remembered as being one of the most negatively-edited characters in the history of the show. That’s my nice way of saying that he’s been made to look like a malicious buffoon time and time again. Dan and Will have been around now for 12 episodes, more than 30 days. How their games will end remains to be seen. But the episodes behind them consistently point to the conclusion that they’re mean, stupid, evil, malicious, horrible people. I know that not to be true. It’s very difficult for me to watch. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for them to watch, and for them to have to withstand the kind of criticism they’re undoubtedly facing.

That’s the kind of strange contract one enters into when one goes on a reality show. You could either come out as a Joseph Anglim – the designated golden boy of this season whose farts don’t smell and who just opens his mouth and shoots rainbows out of it – or you can be these “horrific, evil, misogynistic trolls”. I say that in scare quotes, because I don’t think it’s accurate to say that Joseph is perfect or that Will and Dan are horrible. But when you go on a reality show part of the contract you sign explicitly lays out that you relinquish any right to any say over how you’re portrayed even if that portrayal is harmful or humiliating. And we take that risk.

We take that risk for a number of reasons – some of us because we love this game, we think it’s important, and we think participating in it can be a meaningful, transformative experience; some for the prospect of winning a million dollar, or [the second place prize] $100,000, or however much they walk away with; some for the chance to achieve fame or notoriety, to launch a career off of it. But in any event, it’s a gamble that we all take, and it’s a gamble the majority of contestants lose. I’m not just saying that we lose the game. If we look at a cast like this – Charlie, you can probably do this with me – what is the ratio of people who have had positive portrayals if we look at the aggregate of their episodes versus negative portrayals? I’d say there’s probably a significant majority in the latter category

 

Charlie: Yeah. There might be 5 people out of 18 who came out on the positive side this season. [NOTE: Looking at the list now I might be willing to go up to 8 of the 18, but different audience members will see it differently.]

Max: I’m sure there are people at Survivor Sucks who do edgic (a fan system for objectively and subjectively analyzing contestant’s edited portrayals) who might be able to actually quantify this for us. But I’d be interested to know whether this proportion has changed over the course of the show’s history. Has Survivor entered into a new era where there’s kind of a mean spiritedness to the edit? I feel like there have been glimpses of this in the past where we’ve seen mean-spirited edits, but I feel like this season has represented a tonal shift from last season, and even more-so from the string of seasons before it. It’s a lot more like a basic cable reality show than it is like a network competition reality show.

Charlie: I think on most seasons there’s usually closer to a half and half ratio of good edits and bad edits (or perhaps just some neutral edits). Some seasons do have a more positive feeling to them overall than other seasons. I think some fans would assume that this production went differently than other productions went. Do you think that this game played out more negatively than other games?

Max: I don’t really have the necessary perspective on the production of past seasons in order to compare it. But I do think you could probably safely say that this season contains a far larger proportion of complex, dynamic personality types. There are few people with passive tendencies who are susceptible to authority of the type we see, for example, on many of the returning player seasons where there are mixed casts (of past champions/All Stars and newbie players.) So, there are obviously the cases of Survivor: Redemption Island and Survivor: South Pacific where two returning players are cast with a group of people who seem to be handpicked for their willingness to subjugate their own self-interest to that of a dynamic leader. We have, in this case, a group of people who almost represent too much personality. People complain, “Where’s the strategy? All we see is character, character, character.” Meanwhile, I’m loving this because that’s exactly the sort of Survivor I enjoy.

Charlie: Me too.

Max: Look at the personalities of some of the early boots. You hardly got a chance to see Lindsey but she’s one of the most engaging, big personalities I’ve ever encountered. She could go toe-to-toe with any Survivor contestant in terms of sheer charisma, magnetism and outrageousness.

Charlie: So with that in mind then, what percentage of the contestants are ultimately going to be happy that they did the show?

Max: You know, that’s a really tough question to answer. I wouldn’t want to speak for my fellow contestants. I’ve had people say to me, though, “I wish I didn’t do it. I wish I had never done this.” That might have just been after a particular episode. That might have just been how he or she felt at that particular moment. Or it might be the takeaway that that individual left the game or their experience of watching the show with.

 

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More Max fan art, this one created by @kaciebot

 

 

I know that in my own case, as evidenced by the fact that I’m gearing up to possibly go do it again, I feel incredibly positive about my experience. I feel like someone made a mistake. I feel like never in a million years should you allow a professor who has taught a college class and researched in an academic context about a subject to become a part of that subject. It’s not like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It’s like somebody left the keys in the car and let me drive off in it. I feel incredibly lucky to have had the experience. I feel incredibly lucky to have a chance to have that experience again.

My positive attitude about the overall experience of being on the show might cloud my ability to appraise whether the other 17 people who participated in it felt the same way.

I do feel like there’s a sweet spot, however. To be on the show 14 days – as long as I was – I didn’t have enough skin in the game that my elimination was devastating. When I came out I still had in my mind that image of my life outside the game that – while faint – was still real enough for me to realize that I had great things to go back to. Whereas people who last only a few days or weeks longer become so immersed in the game, so unable to remove themselves from it, so disconnected from the live they have to return to, that their elimination can be devastating because their world has become Survivor.

Charlie: I remember this story Kathy Vavrick O’Brien told in Survivor: Marquesas. She said that after she got voted off and went back to the hotel, she woke up in the middle of the night and she thought she was still in the jungle. She saw stars on the ceiling, and she was kind of hallucinating because she had become so conditioned to living in the wild.

Max: That’s an amazing way of describing the experience I’m getting at – this notion that the unreality of the magic circle actually replaces the reality of the world that exists outside its boundaries. That’s pretty interesting for game theorists and ludologists to contemplate: A game that’s so all-encompassing it replaces reality. I’ve certainly experienced coming across past Survivor contestants who, much like shell-shocked veterans, are still playing the game long after their 39 days are over – still scheming, still looking out for being backstabbed, still looking to backstab people, scrambling, forming alliances, trying to gain an advantage, a hand up, always scanning the surroundings, always in that hyper-vigilant mode. It’s scary.

I feel lucky that I didn’t come out of my experience with that sort of trauma, but I’m about to potentially go back into it and my knowledge of what the cost may be makes it daunting. It doesn’t in any way diminish from my excitement or my commitment to participating again because it is a peak experience. There really is nothing like playing Survivor. But, it is something that you play at a significant toll to your emotional, psychological and physical well-being.

Anyone who thinks they could go play Survivor, come home, bounce back and be the same person they were before is sorely mistaken. You will never be the same person again. You will never be able to relate to your friends, family and loved ones in the same way you did before. You will suddenly find yourself having stronger bonds with a 28 year old pharmaceutical sales person or a directional driller from Texas than you do in your own community because you shared this life-altering experience with them and they can sympathize. They have that same kind of background and experience to draw on even if ostensibly they have nothing in common with you.

Charlie: People who played 15 years ago are still close friends with each other today. Several pairs of them are married. And also, people who played on separate seasons are now best friends or dating. It’s almost a Skull and Bones Club. I don’t even know if ex-athletes of a sport have the same kind of community. Maybe they do.

Max: You’re right. I’ve often talked about it in terms of how many people have been a part of the space program. How many astronauts have there been? It’s a number that’s roughly in the same vicinity as the number of people who have played Survivor. Once you’ve played you become a member of the community. I had the experience of being an honorary member beforehand. Through teaching my class and being active in the Survivor fan community I had the chance to become part of the larger Survivor social scene. It is a family of sorts. When you meet someone who played, regardless of what season they were on, it’s as though you both know the secret handshake. You’re part of that secret society.

I wish it was like the Skull and Bones Club in the sense that being a Survivor castaway opened the corridors of power and led to jobs and investment opportunities. I wish positions on the boards of Fortune 500 companies were suddenly made available to you. It’s more that if you go to certain bars in West Hollywood you might be able to get a better table. But it is fun, and it’s part of the experience we started out this conversation talking about – crossing thresholds, moving from one sphere to another.

It’s pretty cool to play Survivor. It’s pretty cool to have [Season 1 winner] Richard Hatch endorse your candidacy to go back. It’s hard to translate how exciting it is to have that sort of experience. I don’t for a second think that I played a perfect game, a good game or even a passable game my first time. I think I did some things that caught the attention of the producers, and I appreciate it when people like Richard say, “Max wouldn’t be invited back if he didn’t do something great. Maybe we didn’t see that, but somebody did. Either that person was Jeff Probst, or someone told Jeff Probst. But they gave him one of the coveted spots.”

I thought the opportunity to play was a life experience that would only come one time. Now to know that I might have that experience again, and to compete with people I’ve been watching play this game for ages, it really is……. I hate people who describe experiences as surreal. To go back to the ludology conversation a moment ago, there’s no more magic circle. Survivor and life have sort of bled into one another. I’ve gone from academic to industry to contestant and now those things all blend together.

Now I go to present to one of my clients at a major television network and they say, “Hey, we’re big Survivor fans. We’ve had a Survivor pool for the last 10 seasons. I had you on my fantasy team. I’m so bummed out. But she’s got Carolyn, and he’s got Rodney.” Suddenly I’m the person who has the fan, I’m also in the fan moment because I’m sharing their appreciation for the show, I’m working with them in a professional advisory – a consulting context, and I’m drawing on intellectual paradigms that I was exposed to as an academic. So at this point the different facets of my engagement with popular culture and Survivor have been thrown into a blender, put on high speed mix, and poured out into a goop that looks not unlike one of those disgusting milkshakes Jeff Probst has made with salt water, octopus tentacles, pig eyeballs and cow intestines for a gross food challenge.

Charlie: If you get a chance to play against people you’ve loved on television but haven’t known in real life, what is that going to be like? Is your experience as a fan more relevant now because you’ve seen how the other contestants play? Do you scout them based on their past seasons?

Max: I’ve given absolutely no consideration to scouting the people who are in contention for this season. I know that if I were in fact the wannabe Survivor genius people think I am that I’d be scrutinizing game footage to figure out what people’s tells were. I am not at all focused on other people with the exception of the degree to which they pose a threat to my ability to make the final cast list. I’m approaching it with the mindset that I’m better off in a returning player season, because there can no longer be the same suspicion that I know more than other people. We all know just as much. We’ve all played once. We all know exactly the same things about the game. Granted, I might know more of the silly trivia but that’s not going to help me. In fact, as my first outing proved it could hurt me. Being around a bunch of people who are gamers, who are experienced, who know what’s up and are there to play can only benefit me more than playing with people who are there for a variety of different motivations and who may be more or less compelled to play hard.

Charlie: What is it going to be like to play with people you know in real life?

Max: I think a returning player season is where the real psychological damage can happen in Survivor. [laughs] The idea of being out there with, for example, some of the people from my current cast and having to go against them, backstab them or be backstabbed by them, is terrifying. The same goes for some of the people on the list of nominees who I consider to be friends or quasi-friends. The thought of betraying one of these people is something I don’t like to contemplate, but that I have to because that’s part of the game.

That’s part of the reason why a pregame alliance is so preposterous. With every returning player season rumors circulate that there are summit meetings taken place, and conference calls, and that entire opening moves have been scripted in advance. In most instances that backfired in the face of people who have tried to do that kind of pregame strategizing. What people find more often, I’d think, is that those relationships you had prior to the game can become liabilities as opposed to assets out there. Voting decisions become moral decisions when they might otherwise have just been game decisions. It was very easy for me to vote So Kim out. I’d only known her for three days, and she had essentially threatened me with revealing my big secret in the opening moment of the game. It would have been really hard for me to vote Shirin out. Apparently for Carolyn it wasn’t so hard to vote me or Tyler out, but she’s a different kind of player.

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Max’s tribe mate and potential Second Chance competitor Carolyn Rivera

 

One of the things I learned about myself is that I’m hopelessly loyal. I left the game thinking that I had made a bond with Carolyn that would last 39 days, and that I’d made a bond with Tyler that would resume when we got back on the same tribe, and would result in a long run together. All the while I didn’t know that the two of them planned to eliminate me the first opportunity they got. So, one of my big revelations in the game was that I’m actually a loyal person. [laughs] I laugh because I never would have described myself that way before the game.

Charlie: Everyone says that Survivor is so hard that it brings out your true nature.

Max: Well, yeah! Loyalty is a quality that I consider to be quite admirable and that for one reason or another I didn’t recognize about myself. So the idea of having that loyalty tested or being forced to act in a way that violates these values that are now quite significant to me is scary and simultaneously exciting. It’s part of the uncertainty that we all face going into this scenario.

Charlie: Is it going to be hard for you to vote off people from past seasons that you loved as a fan of the show?

Max: No. Not at all. One thing I can say for certain is that I’ve never been star-struck by a Survivor with one exception: Parvati.

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Parvati Shallow, alien

Charlie: I was star struck by Parvati too. She’s a dazzling personality. But I think she would be even if she’d never played. I think that’s just how she is.

Max: Exactly. Being in the presence of Parvati is being in the presence of an alien, someone from another planet, someone who possesses some sort of innate, natural quality. Without her even opening her mouth it flows through her and affects those around her.

Charlie: I believe they’re called social skills.

Max: That’s why she’s asked back, why she won, and why she’s one of – if not the – greatest players to participate in this game. The issue of being star struck could be a concern. Rob Cesternino, a two-time contestant who has made a career for himself podcasting about Survivor and other shows, talks about how when he played in the original Survivor: All Stars season he was star struck to be out there on the beach with people he had watched as a college student, who had inspired him years before. I never feel that way.

I never have felt like Survivor players were special people who belonged to a higher echelon of society than me. I always thought, “I should be one of those people. I should be on this show.” That was confirmed for me when I was introduced to that social circle. They’re the first group of people I’ve met in a long time where I didn’t feel like I had the biggest personality in the room. I’m actually in the middle of the pack. So, I’ve never felt uncomfortable or star struck around other Survivors and I definitely won’t feel that way if I’m out on the beach with them.

Charlie: What do you hope will come out of a second experience playing the game that you didn’t get the first time? Would you play differently? Would you express your fandom differently?

Max: I’d like to take the focus off of my fandom. At this point I consider myself to be, yes, a Survivor fan, but also a Survivor player. We’ve all spent enough time talking about my fandom. It’s time to play. I feel like I didn’t really get a chance to play. The 14 days I was there are the worst 14 days of Survivor. They’re the period where you’re doing these intense, physical tribal competitions, where you’re not having food rewards, where you are crowded into a shelter, then crowded into a van or a tent during down time, where there are a lot of people there vying for leadership positions many of whom don’t belong in those roles. I think the game really picks up and becomes the game I love at the merge. That’s where individual qualities manifest and come to the forefront.

The name of the game for the premerge portion of Survivor is, “Don’t screw up, but don’t be too good either.” And in the post merge portion of the game it’s, “Use whatever you have in order to last another three days. And another three days. And another three days.” That’s what excites me – the kind of edge-of-your-seat, improvisational, moment-by-moment gameplay that we’re seeing people like Mike and Carolyn engage in on TV right now. Carolyn surprised a lot of people this past week when she turned on her closest ally and sent him home, but that’s indicative to me of the Tony Vlachos style of play where every three days you look at it as a brand new game. Obviously the three day periods are all building towards the same desired outcome. But, you have new opportunities to rearrange the pieces on the chess board, to work out new moves, new combinations of interactions. And you do it by tapping into those reserves, those qualities that you have hopefully been honing over the course of your life, which you now get to test against fitting competition.

 

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A previous cast gathers on stage for a Reunion Show

 

Charlie: Last question. You’re going to be sitting on stage during the finale of Survivor: Worlds Apart and they’re going to announce who made the cast of Survivor: Second Chance and who didn’t. If you make it you’ll be escorted out of the theater to travel to Cambodia immediately. Just like that you’ll be gone from your life for the next two months. If you’re not chosen, you’ll go home. What will it be like for you if you make it, and what will it be like if you don’t?

Max: Obviously the excitement of the prospect of leaving to play Survivor in less than two weeks is all-consuming right now. The potential disappointment of finding out that I won’t be is on my mind. But the fact that if that happens the Season 30 Reunion Show will still be followed by a party with some of my closest friends, during which we’ll celebrate a life-defining experience mitigates that disappointment somewhat. The fact that I live in a beautiful place and have the job of my dreams and have a gorgeous summer of Southern California weather and beach days ahead of me, the knowledge that I won’t be in Cambodia during the rainy season being eaten by mosquitos and potentially having my soul eaten alive by Chaos Kass [McQuillen] and Shane Powers and some of the other larger-than-life personalities I expect to see out there, all makes it a little easier.

The hardest thing is having my fate decided on live television. I’ve been on the receiving end of phone calls twice before where Survivor casting has told me, “I’m sorry. It’s just not going to happen this time.” One of those came about three weeks before I was going to leave for Survivor: Caramoan in 2012. One of those came when I’d already sent in my wardrobe, my bags and my passport to potentially back someone up as an alternate on Survivor: Brains vs. Brawn vs. Beauty in 2013. If there had been a camera on me in either of those two moments I would not want to see footage of my dejection. That was after all of the work I’d put in, all of the expectations, all of the tying up of loose ends that goes into getting ready to play Survivor. Now in this instance there’s so much more on the line with the possibility of redemption, a second chance and an opportunity to make good on the mistakes of my first game. To know that that decision will be handed down and my reaction will be captured on live television before a live studio audience? I’m not thrilled by that.

That said, as a television scholar and a Survivor fan I realize that it’s going to make one amazing night of television. In order to be part of this experience and this fraternity we risk humiliation, physical injuries and psychological injuries every time we step out onto the mat. All 32 of us are putting ourselves at risk whether we play or not and that’s part of what makes it so exhilarating.

Vote for Max. I don’t want him to be sad next Wednesday. The ballot is at THIS WEBSITE. You will have to register for a CBS.com account, which I know is a pain in the neck but it’s for a guy to have his dream. Please have your spam email addresses ready. The site will also require you to vote for nine other men to play with Max. For what it’s worth, I’ve been voting for Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Terry Deitz, Stephen Fishbach, Vytas Baskauskus, Spencer Bledsoe, Joe Anglim, Max Dawson and Mike Holloway.

Next Time: Max shares the syllabus for his Survivor class

Survivor Contestant, Embedded Aca-Fan Max Dawson Shares His Experiences (Part One)

Ok, there are three things you need to know. First, Neither my wife, Cynthia, nor my son, Charlie, nor myself have ever missed a single episode of Survivor — in the 30 seasons the series has been on the air. (Keep in mind Survivor runs two seasons a year, but still that’s a lot of episodes) Second, Max Dawson is — over those 30 seasons — the first media scholar to ever appear on Survivor, the first person who we knew as a friend and colleague to make it on the show. There have been other Survivor “super-fans” (oh how I hate that phrase!) on the program, but by definition, Max was the first “Aca-Fan” to appear on Survivor. He’s one of us.

Max

And so, third, when he got voted off for freaking out the other contestants with his expansive knowledge and endless enthusiasm for the series, it hit our household hard. And when it was announced last week that Max would be one of 32 former contestants who would be vying for votes to be one of ten men and ten women who would get a second chance on Survivor, my son, Charlie, signed up to be one of his campaign advisors, and I jumped at the chance to use this blog to let the guy tell his story. The Jenkins family is taking its enthusiasm for Survivor TO THE MAX!. I’ve voted every morning since the voting started for Max and a range of other contestants whose game play has brought me much pleasure through the years.

What he has to say here will be interesting to aca-fans regardless of what you’re a fan of because it speaks to something more universal: the opportunity for audiences to go inside their favorite franchises and their struggle to gain the acceptance of their favorite producers, society and their own harshest critics – each other. Max’s insights, his journey from teaching a Northwestern University class on Survivor to being a contestant, will interest media scholars who want to understand more about the culture surrounding reality television. There’s much you would learn about the reality television world by watching how this election unfolds — a contest between people who have been waiting up to 15 years for a second chance to play, and where there are more candidates than in the GOP primary. Rob Has a Podcast, the podcast of preference for the hardcore Survivor fans, has been doing extensive interviews with each candidate as they explain why they deserve a second chance to be on the program. But as a compliment to those sports talk radio style interviews, my son wanted to interview Max as an acs-fan. So, over the next few posts here, you can read the interview Charlie did with Max Dawson and also check out the never-before-published anywhere syllabus for his Survivor class, which should demonstrate his academic street cred. :-)

We are hoping that many acs-fans will want to vote for Max, if only to show the world that we fans are not going to be kicked around this way. Follow this link to the CBS website and vote for Max. The way the election works, you also have to vote for 9 other male candidates. Here are the ones I’ve been voting for: Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Terry Dietz, Stephen Fishback, Vitas Baskauskas, Spencer Bledsoe, Jeremy Collins, and Woo Hwang.

Charlie: Let’s start at the end. You went from teaching a Northwestern University course on Survivor to actually playing the game. What was the best thing that came out of that?

Max: My life over the past few years has been a series of experiences whereby I’ve crossed thresholds that academics rarely get to cross. It’s rare that you get to study a subject and then, at some point, translate that dedicated period of immersion into active involvement. Prior to going on Survivor I transitioned from being a professor to being a consultant and researcher in Los Angeles working directly with networks and studios. In the midst of that change, my involvement with the Survivor casting department, which had sort of fizzled in 2014 after an aborted plan to put me on the show, was rekindled and I went from being a Survivor fan to a Survivor player. So, I have been straddling a number of seemingly-isolated or cordoned-off domains for a while and after the past few years I have begun to realize that the boundaries between them are completely illusory. The opportunities to go back and forth between those worlds are much, much more rich and varied than I had ever anticipated.

Charlie: One of my all-time favorite Survivor scenes was from Survivor: Philippines. Jonathan Penner, a Los Angeles screenwriter, was trying to convince his fellow competitor Lisa Whelchel to work with him in the game, so he asked her to think about what she wanted her story to be on the show. Did she want to be the hero or the follower? What did you think your story was going to be, what do you think your story ended up being, and how do you feel like your story was presented on the air?

Max: When I initially agreed to be a part of Survivor: Worlds Apart, I thought my story was going to be one about a fan living out the ultimate fantasy of being a part of the subject of your fandom – of being able to play the game that you’ve not only enjoyed but that’s become one of the centerpieces of your social community for an extended period of time. Survivor, for me, is more than just a show I watch. It’s started many of the relationships I value. It has introduced me to new people and opened doors for me.

Max with Ian Terry

My attitude going into the game was very much influenced by Ian Terry’s experience on Big Brother 14. Ian was a huge Big Brother fan and he went into the game with the objective of relishing every possible experience, good and bad. So early on he volunteered to be a Have-Not [a punishment which requires contestants to take cold showers, sleep with the lights on and subsist off of gruel], and he did so in a way that showed he was enjoying every minute of being in The House.

Now, Ian’s story took on the perfect narrative arc of the fan’s journey from couch to throne, culminating in winning the game he loves – and not only winning, but doing so in spectacular fashion over arguably the greatest reality competition contestant of all time, Dan Gheesling. I thought I could have that kind of experience. At the very least, if I didn’t win in spectacular fashion, I would go into Survivor with the mindset that whatever happened, good or bad, I would have the time of my life. I hoped that my unbridled enthusiasm for Survivor would translate into opportunities for me in the game – that other players would be won over by it, and fans would say, “There’s one of us. There’s a guy who loves the show, who thinks it’s important, and who takes it seriously, but not too seriously.”

When I stepped out onto the beach on Day 1 and [Survivor host] Jeff Probst said, “Welcome to Survivor 30: Worlds Apart, White Collar vs. Blue Collar vs. No Collar”, I realized that my hopes of having any such experience were slim. In the United States in the mid-2010s, what is white collar a synonym for? White collar is a synonym for mendacious, cruel, greedy. It’s a synonym for stuffed shirts. For people who are disembodied, disconnected, soulless. The 1%. I realized I had been assigned to The Villains Tribe, or even worse The Pretensious Assholes Tribe. Looking around at my fellow players I saw a few women in business attire. I saw Joaquin, a young man in the medical sales profession who utterly oozed with that cocky, Wall Street, stereotypical shark aura. And then there was me.

Instead of going into this as a fan with a deep passion for the game, I was going into this as a hyper-intellectual, ineffective, bumbling academic. I looked at The Blue Collars, they were literally wearing flags on their clothing and talking about being the heart and soul of America and I saw Jeff Probst with a shit-eating grin on his face. Then I saw him treat us like we were the 1% and he was in an Occupy protest. I definitely realized that my story was going to be different.

And I wasn’t necessarily dismayed by that. I just knew it was going to require an adjustment. In fact, a lot of the fun times I had playing the game, or recording confessionals (most of which didn’t make it into the show), had to do with me playing up the villainy that I think was being ascribed to the White Collars. I said things like, “We’re the White Collars, the same people who brought you Enron and the subprime mortgage crisis. We robbed your pension and now we’re going to destroy you in this challenge.” And for me, it was fun. As much as Survivor is a reality show it was also an opportunity for me to play and be silly and have fun. That was the story I anticipated when I stood on the beach on Day 1.

The story I actually experienced was a third beast altogether. [My story] ended up being that I was someone who was blinded by their excitement. People asked me if I had a form of Aspergers syndrome because of the way I was portrayed as being more interested in reciting statistics or strange bits of information about the show than in actually playing the game. That was not representative of my experience out there. It was representative of a small sample of the interviews I did, most of which were framed by producers to get me to talk about those things. They were specifically, explicitly asking me questions like, ‘Max, we’re 30 seasons into Survivor and you’ve studied this at the collegiate level. Tell us what your class on Survivor has taught us about the best way to approach a 3-3-1 split.” So everything I was asked, asked me to talk about things on a very technical, historical level that was oriented toward detail and trivia. That was the majority of the footage that made it into the show.

Charlie: Perhaps they played up your encyclopedic knowledge because that was something unique you brought to the series.

Max: Well, it was something unique that I brought, but it was also something that allowed them to construct a narrative that my passion for the game was ultimately blinding, possibly even unhealthy and led to my inability to play.

Charlie: Do you feel like your fandom did play a role in why you got voted off fifth, or was that a construction of the editing?

Max: Unlike many of the professional athletes and celebrities who played Survivor in the modern era, I was recognized instantaneously upon setting foot on the beach. Within five minutes, my tribe mate So Kim came up to me and said, “I know who you are.” She had read about a Survivor professor who might be on his way down to Nicaragua to compete on the 30th installment of the series. [NOTE: Max explained in another interview that someone he knew regrettably leaked the information online.] So, from the get-go I was identified by my fellow cast members as a superfan who had an almost supernatural command over the mechanics of the game and who, as a result, needed to be monitored and could not be trusted.

Tyler

I have had conversations with some of my fellow tribe members since the game ended – Tyler, for example – who said, “I liked playing with you, but you knew so much about the game that I felt I couldn’t trust you.” And so, the preconceptions that the other contestants had about me certainly hurt my chances in that it led them to regard me as being a potentially dangerous competitor, when that probably did not have much basis in reality. Knowing that the tribe swap should occur around Day 12 is very helpful for my game, but it’s not something that gives me an unfair advantage. It’s just something that helps me psychologically prepare for things. Knowing what kinds of things could happen in a tribe swap, or how the tribes could be broken up, is information that could benefit the whole tribe and yet I was treated like that information gave me some sort of unfair advantage.

In reality, my super fan status ended up playing against me when some of the players I got thrown together with after the tribes were mixed together on Day 11 or 12 started to regard my passion for the game as annoying. As you saw in the edit, my friendship with another superfan on my tribe was off-putting to some members of the tribe. And that was the thing that really startled me. Because many of the people who said that our behavior was annoying self-identified as fans. They told me in our first conversation, “Oh, I’ve been a fan of Survivor since I was a kid!” So, it was a great example of fans arbitrarily designating what the appropriate level of involvement for a fandom is, and not only self-policing that boundary but penalizing people who transgress it – designating them as being weirdos. In most other communities that I frequent these days, that level of passion is a prerequisite, whether it’s a record collecting message board, a Survivor Facebook group, a yoga class –

Charlie: Academia?

Max: – and academia! People tend to be passionately involved in what they do. I look at this historical moment in our popular culture as ones in which fans have been elevated to a position of relative power. Media industries are recognizing fans’ tastes to a degree they never have before. So I came from a world in which fandom is not only acceptable but cool, and for the first time in a long time, I was in a situation where the sort of fandom I engage in was considered transgressive and annoying.

Charlie: Do you feel like the show itself took the same perspective in telling your story? Did the editing portray your fandom as transgressive and annoying?

Max: Well, it’s interesting that on a season touted for having the largest number of hardcore Survivor fans in the show’s history, most of the contestants who have self-identified that way have received very unflattering edits. That’s not to say [unflattering edits] have been exclusively reserved for fans this season. I’d say that the majority of participants in this cast have been on the receiving end of horribly unflattering edits. And I am not going to be the sort of person who says, “It was the edit!” [The person you saw] is me, just like it’s Dan and Will. These are aspects of our personalities that have been highlighted. But I do feel like there has been a consistent message across this season that Survivor fans are poorly equipped to navigate the social dynamics that are so central to the game. Something that I heard so many times, from so many Internet commentators – each of whom thought they were so brilliant – was “I guess those who teach can’t play, eh prof?”

There are 24 hours in a day and if you see 45 seconds of my life in the course of an episode that covers three days you’re going to see a little snippet of what I’ve done. And the snippet you see may be from an interview in which I’ve been encouraged to discuss certain topics by a producer who’s looking to tell the story in a particular way. So, it’s been interesting to me that some of the fans themselves – the people who have the most invested in the show – have been willing to read these edits in a very literal and unforgiving fashion. They’re not all saying, “What was cut? What else went on out there? Why are we seeing this clip?” Instead they’re saying, “Yes, this is Max. This is Dan. This is Shirin. These are the people themselves.”

It’s been frustrating to be the subject of forms of textual engagement that fly in the face of everything that Henry Jenkins talks about in Textual Poachers, or everything John Fiske says about resistant readings. I’ve been shocked by the degree to which some Survivor superfans have been willing to engage in completely complicit readings, where the limited information they see becomes a sacrosanct text and any alternative interpretation is written off.

Charlie: Looking back at your years as a fan before you played, do you feel like you judged the show wrongly or do you think you always viewed the show more forgivingly?

Max: Well, I see many super fans watching with an emphasis on strategy whereas I’ve always primarily been interested in Survivor as some of the most interesting character development and multi-dimensional storytelling in contemporary popular culture. For example, one of my favorite seasons does not feature very advanced gameplay or the kinds of twists and reversals many fans favor. It features a very conventional, good vs. evil, underdog story in which four minority players appear horribly overmatched against a group of eight hulking, imposing, often-quite-unpleasant younger people. The group of four systematically picks them off in a series of improbable victories that bring them together and take them to the final stage of the game. I think of that season as being such an amazing example of so many of the classical tropes that animate stories in any genre. The way in which Survivor takes those tropes and places them in the context of an unscripted program has always been one of the most exciting things about the show for me. So in that respect, I don’t think I saw the show wrongly before. I’ve just been forced to realize how differently I watch the show than other people who have a deep passion for it.

I’ve been on record saying that I love Survivor: Worlds Apart and think it’s one of the greatest seasons of all time. I stand by that, because I think the characters – across the cast of 18 – are pound-for-pound (as Jeff Probst said) some of the biggest, most dynamic personalities the show has ever seen. There aren’t many people in this cast you can put into that category of, “Why did they get on? What do they bring?” Instead, we see first or second boots who are as dynamic and charismatic as some of the greatest contestants of all time. To be a part of a season that’s so stacked in that way made [winning] harder for me, but it also made it more satisfying. What could be worse than going out there with a group of people with static personalities who aren’t interested in playing the game? So, it’s not that I ever assumed my aesthetic criteria was the same as everyone else’s, or believed they should be the same as everyone else’s, but I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that what I view as a great Survivor season might for many other fans be a horrible season of Survivor. By the same token, what – for me – makes a great Survivor contestant might, for others, be a terrible Survivor contestant.

Charlie: So, how would you suggest that fans form opinions of contestants if not based on the information that’s on the show? Where do they get information to contextualize the broadcasts and understand more about what happened on location?

Max: That’s a difficult question because Survivor is not true transmedia storytelling. In many instances, watching the [online] Secret Scenes – going outside the core text – ends up providing contradictory evidence that complicates your understanding of the core text. In my fourth episode. I was identified by one of my fellow contestants [finance industry corporate trainer Carolyn Rivera] as a “cult leader.” She says, “He’s dangerous. He’s in your heads. He’s controlling you.” It’s completely out of context because there was nothing that had been shown before which indicated that was the case, and in the following episode I was eliminated not for being a dangerous manipulator but for being a bumbling egghead.

It’s not the Survivor fan’s responsibility to read my exit interviews [in the press], watch the Secret Scenes, and dig through the textual evidence in order to come up with one, complete, true story. It’s more-so that I’d like people to watch with a more open mind and realize that as audience members, they themselves are participants in a process of shaping raw footage into stories that fit narrative archetypes. The serialized story has to build over the course of 13 episodes into a story that supports an outcome which is known to the editors when they create the first episode. It’s essentially as if you’d written the end of a series of novels, you know how it ends, and now you have to go back and write the first installment. The storyline that you thought might have been an interesting component of the first chapter becomes irrelevant to the narrative arc that takes you from the beginning to the end, and as a result, that storyline might be minimized or eliminated. A character who might have played a central role in an early chapter fades away quickly because they don’t have any influence over the ultimate outcome. We need to watch with an open mind and realize we’re seeing the fraction of what went on which proves that the person standing at the end of the game is the one truly deserving recipient of the million dollar prize.

Charlie: What has your relationship been with the other contestants that went through the same experience? People who follow the show have all seen social media photos hashtagged The #Dirty30, which portray you and the rest of the Worlds Apart cast traveling the country together eight months after the game, visiting each other’s hometowns, appearing to be best friends. What is the Dirty 30? Did you form them?

Max:The Dirty 30 is an embarrassingly-named Facebook group that another contestant, [former CAA talent agent] Tyler Fredrickson, formed right after our return from Nicaragua in order to share pictures and stories and just stay in each other’s lives. And the Dirty 30 went from being just a Facebook group to being a hashtag that we could use as a kind of rallying cry, and as a way to pledge our allegiance to one another, and as a statement of unity. One thing that happens over the course of watching a Survivor season in which you’re a participant is that you watch as people around you eagerly anticipate the devolution of your social relationships with your fellow cast members into animosity or even aggression. There are people literally sitting there with popcorn saying, “I can’t wait to see these people start tearing each other apart on Facebook and social media posts, and eviscerate each other in interviews after their exits.”

We went into this – and not all of us, but a few of us in particular – with a mindset that it is appropriate in any season for players to put their egos aside and let the collective and the audience take precedence. We shouldn’t allow the show to be dominated by bickering between the contestants or people airing their personal grievances against others who shared this really special experience. But instead we should celebrate Survivor and do what we can to handle disputes between participates internally instead of allowing those conflicts to spill out into public venues.

So, one of the things we did from the start was set out this precedent that when people are voted off they’re bombed with love. Many of the women have received enormous bouquets of flowers the day of they’re going to be voted off on the show. We check in with people who have been through a traumatic experience and in many instances are forced to see themselves do humiliating things on screen, or hear people say things about them, or relive moments where they were shocked or caught off guard. There isn’t much of an official support network when you play Survivor. You’re pretty much left on your own.

So we, as a group, under the moniker of this preposterous name the Dirty 30, created an official support network. We started calling people a few days before they were going to be voted off [on the television broadcasts] saying, “Hey, what’s up? How do you want to handle these press interviews? What are you going to talk about? There’s going to be some very sensitive subjects. Are you going to get down into the muck and trash people or are you going to take the high road?” And in some cases it’s really been beneficial, because we’ve been able to help people deal with tough things they’ve been going through in a private and discreet way rather than dealing with it under the magnifying lens of the media.

Charlie: I think a lot of viewers have been confused when they see such viciousness on the show and such friendship outside of it. Obviously, the show was filmed eight months before it aired, and the Instagram photos were taken in real time. But it’s still a puzzling contrast from the outside. I guess what you’re telling me is that there have continued to be things you guys worked through together, but they were just handled privately.

Shirin

Max: Yeah, and I’m not going to say that everything is resolved. There have been a couple of notable instances this season involving a woman named Shirin Oskooi. She’s a Yahoo! executive, Ivy League grad, a very successful person, strong, powerful and willful. She exhibits every quality that I would look for in a friend, a colleague or a partner. But they weren’t necessarily qualities that would come out in the game such that people from diverse backgrounds would appreciate them. Her personality clashes with the other cast members resulted in some of the ugliest, most harrowing scenes we’ve seen in 30 seasons of Survivor – bordering on…. general nastiness that bordered on misogyny and even worse. And it has spilled over into social media from time to time. And sometimes it’s been like a full time second job keeping track of what’s going on and mediating, helping people to gain perspective in a moment where they’re seeing red because they just watched an episode where someone really denigrated them or attacked them viciously to their face or where they’ve just been savaged by an edit, and helping them to see that we’re getting to take part in a once in a lifetime experience and an entertainment franchise as storied as Survivor. That should, itself, be enough to help us transcend some of the challenges of exposing our lives to a reality show.

Charlie: Does the show have a responsibility to intervene where it perceives abuse to be taking place or fights to be departing from the spirit of the game? Or is the show doing everything it should?

Max: I think that the show’s only real responsibility lies in preventing physical violence from occurring amongst the contestants. The issue of emotional violence or psychological abuse is a very real one, but untrained professionals – untrained in psychology – can’t police that. It’s not the same kind of cut-and-dry, black-and-white issue [that physical violence is.] Given some of the things we’ve seen this season there have been larger discussions about what the show’s responsibility is with respect to portraying [emotional violence] on the screen. I think the show has handled it in a very responsible way. I don’t think it’s Survivor’s responsibility to run a PSA, or any sort of legal disclaimer, before or after an episode. I think the best thing the show can do in these situations is to show these episodes in as accurate and minimally edited a way as possible to confront the audience and the contestants themselves with the ugliness that comes out in very trying situations.

Survivor’s appeal for much of the audience – myself included – is the social experiment. How do people behave when all of the trappings of civilization, all of the comforts that allow us to maintain ontological security in our everyday lives have been taken away from us. Some people rise to the occasion. They’re shackled by those trappings, and they rise when they’re removed. I’m thinking of someone like [South Carolina nurse] Cirie Fields from Survivor: Panama, Survivor: Fans vs. Favorites and Survivor: Heroes vs. Villains who had this amazing arc. She had never been in the outdoors. She’d never been away from home and her family. She couldn’t fend for herself. She was essentially a dead woman walking from the moment the game began, and by the end of her first season she ended up surviving herself and her fellow contestants with how competitive and skilled she’d become. Then she went on to surprise many people in the audience in her second game by becoming one of the best to ever play the game.

So we see those moments where people rise, and then we see those moments where people go to the darkest possible place. It’s almost as though their internal monitors have been removed with these social constructs and they’re suddenly able to indulge in behaviors or attitudes that would be completely unacceptable in polite society. The fact that Survivor shows us both of those responses is one of the things that makes it an important TV show – not just as a great example of non-fiction programming or a force in the American television industry but because of the ways in which Survivor has this experimental component to it where it acts as an X-ray, allowing things to come to the surface that might not have otherwise. It forces viewers to confront what lies in many of our hearts and contemplate how we would behave in these situations. Would I rise to the occasion, or would the darkest aspects of my personality come out if I was under duress?

That completes part one of our interview. We plan to post Part 2 on Wednesday when we will talk with Max about his golden opportunity to earn a chance at redemption, how he would feel competing against the iconic characters he grew up a fan of, and how he would face competing against close friends like Shirin who he has spent the past year cultivating relationships with.

For now, please throw your collective support behind Max in the online vote. . We would all appreciate your time and effort. Once again, the site does require you to register for a free CBS.com account the first time you vote (so have your spam-list email addresses ready!) and you must vote for nine other men at the same time.

FWIW I (Charlie) have been voting for Max, Jeff Varner, Andrew Savage, Shane Powers, Stephen Fishbach, Vytas Baskauskas, Spencer Bledsoe, Jeremy Collins, Joe Anglim and Mike Holloway.

Notes on the Cyberpunk Moment

The following is an elaboration of the remarks I made to open the USC Cyberpunk: Past and Future conference. I was speaking from notes, but I have developed those notes a bit more, by popular demand.

For the past twenty plus years, I have been lucky enough to be able to teach courses on science fiction, first at MIT (where science fiction is the literature of choice for faculty and students alike) and now at USC (where geeks are hunted for sport.) I called the most recent version of this course, “Science Fiction AS Media Theory,” which suggests something of the way that I approach the genre.

Too often, the mainstream media treat science fiction as a kind of prophecy, reminding us of those limited number of examples where ideas described in science fiction novels — from the credit card in Looking Backward to the communication satellite in Arthur C. Clarke “came true.” But, I’ve always felt this was the wrong way to think about the kinds of cultural work that science fiction does. Science fiction is less prophecy than intervention: I think of it as kind of popular theory — a way of authors inciting thought in their readers about changes they are observing in their technological and cultural environment, a means of encouraging reflection and if possible, inspiring us to make a different kind of future as we think things through together.

From the start, science fiction’s visions of the future have been bound up with ideas about changes in the media and communication landscape, going back to Hugo Gernsback, often cited as the father of the American science fiction genre, who was a major advocate for amateur radio. In that sense, I want to focus on the ways that the Cyberpunk Moment (basically, the 1980s and early 1990s) can be seen as contributing to some of the core conversations people of that era were having in regard to media and cultural changes brought about by the introduction of new media technologies. Speaking about the Cyberpunk moment ignores the reality that ideas from these writers were not simply of their moment but their influence has now stretched decades beyond their introduction and still matter in terms of how we make sense of the world around us.

The time spans of science fiction shortened across the 20th century, so that the present moment has finally caught up with science fiction. We might go from early science fiction novels which spanned thousands, millions (or to mimic Carl Sagan, “billions and billions”) of years in the future to Max Headroom‘s “20 Minutes in the Future” or William Gibson’s famous claim that “the future is already here — it’s just not evenly distributed.” Given how much Cyberpunks’ near future imagination has shaped our understanding to the present, I titled my blog post announcing this event, “the future started ten minutes ago and you are already late to the party.” Indeed, for anyone who has not engaged with key cyberpunk works, such as the Mirrorshades anthology, Neuromancer, The Shaper/Mechanist books, the Ware series,  Max Headroom, and so much more, you are now some 30 years late and counting.

One of the many reasons why the introduction of Cyberpunk sparked such shock waves through science fiction fandom was a shifted relationship to technology — from the monumental engineering accomplishments which inspired the “sense of wonder” in early generations of writers to the focus on the everyday forms of technology that might have seemed futuristic to past generations but were already starting to be taken for granted by people living in the last decades of the 20th century. Bruce Sterling explains in the Preface to Mirrorshades, in what has been described as the key manifesto of the cyberpunk movement:

“[For early generations of science fiction writers and readers} Science was safely enshrined — and confined — in an ivory tower. The careless technophilia of those days belongs to a vanished, sluggish era, when authority still had a comfortable margin of control. For the cyberpunks, by stark contrast, technology is visceral. It is not the bottled genie of remote Big Science boffins: it is pervasive, utterly intimate. Not outside us, but next to us. Under our skin; often, inside our minds. Technology itself has changed. Not for us the giant steam-snorting wonders of the past: the Hoover Dam, the Empire State Building, the nuclear Power plant. Eighties tech sticks to the skin, responds to the touch: the personal computer, the Sony Walkman, the portable telephone, the soft contact lens.”

 

Sterling identifies some of the central themes of the early cyberpunk moment — “body invasion, prosthetic limbs, implanted circuitry, cosmetic surgery, genetic alternation. The even more powerful theme of mind invasion: brain-computer interfaces, artificial intelligence, neurochemistry — techniques radically redefining the nature of humanity, the nature of the self.” Add to this notions of gender swapping or designer drugs, also part of how cyberpunk writers imagined a world where we hacked biology, hacked chemistry, hacked psychology, and fundamentally changed who we are or what we thought we thought we were as human beings.

Frederic Jameson read cyberpunk through the lens of postmodernism, arguing that science fiction writers had lost the capacity to imagine a future radically different from the present.  He saw Bladerunner, often cited as a key influence on Cyberpunk, as the exemplar of a new kind of science fiction which was a pastiche of the past, and the cyberpunks often messed around with the past: Rudy Rucker’s contribution to Mirrorshades offered further adventures of Harry Houdini and Sterling and Shiner gave us “Mozart in Mirrorshades,” No wonder that Sterling and Gibson helped to inform Steampunk through their novel, The Difference Engine, or Neil Stephenson gave us neo-victorianism in The Diamond Age.

But I’ve always thought that Jameson was wrong, that cyberpunk’s focus on the near future had nothing to do with an inability to imagine radical difference in the future, but we did not have to go very far into the future to experience radical difference.  The technological changes which were hitting American society were so transformative that we needed our best writers and thinkers to help us make sense of what was happening right then and now. We were in the midst of one of the few great revolutions in human communication capacity. We might point to the shift from orality to literacy, the rise of the printing press, the explosion of modern mass media, and the digital revolution as each in their own way representing major moments of transformation and transition in the media landscape.

And Cyberpunk provided us with the best set of metaphors through which to make sense of the  digital revolution. It is no accident that Gibson’s term, “Cyberspace,” or for that matter, Neil Stephenson’s “Metaverse,” were among the terms to emerge during the 1980s that stuck, that helped us to understand what we were entering into as more and more of us gained access to personal networked computing as a mundane, yes, “intimate” aspect of our everyday lives.

We might see Cyberpunk as involved in a second core transition in the nature of science fiction — from a focus on science and engineering at its technocratic origins to a focus on social sciences and political philosophy in the 1960s and beyond to a focus on popular culture, subcultures, and digital media, in the 1980s. In his Mirrorshades manifesto, Sterling talks about carrying the tools of extrapolation into the realm of everyday life, but everyday life  — the nature of human interactions — was only rarely part of the focus of earlier forms of Science fiction, which was far better at anticipating and debating technological shifts than their impact on our  lives.

At the same time, we might trace science fiction’s movement from a kind of realist (or at least rationalist) speculation in its origins to modernist experimentation in the Dangerous Vision era to this new focus on sensual immersion in the 1980s Cyberpunk movement. Sterling and others compared the descriptive qualities of Cyberpunk to the wall of sound in rock music — something that engulfs and overwhelms us.

Throughout the 1970s and early 1980s, The Birmingham School of cultural studies had described the process of subcultural appropriation and identity formation as driving many forms of contemporary culture and the Cyberpunks took this idea further speculating on future subcultures with various forms of body modifications — Stephenson’s “Gargoyles,” Cadigan’s “Synners,” Shirley’s “glo-worms”, Tom Maddox’s “Snake-Eyes,”  among many others, each seeking to set themselves off from others through the ways they constructed and performed their identities.

The cyberpunks told us to pay attention to the interzones, the liminal spaces where different cultures crossed paths, struggled with each other, and sometimes formed uneasy alliances. Mary Louise Pratt, writing at the same moment, in anthropology, spoke about the arts of the “contact zone,” and describes the arts of the Contact Zone as “autoethnography, transculturation, critique, collaboration, bilingualism, mediation, parody, denuciation, imaginary dialogue, vernacular expression.”  The hybrid texts of cyberpunk illustrated many of these genres in practice.

William Gibson warned us of the semiotic ghosts we might encounter at the place’s where yesterday’s tomorrows meet today’s tomorrows, where pop culture traces across our landscape leave us janus-faced, looking backwards and forwards at the same time, and thus tripping over our shoes. And Gibson reminded us that “The street has its own uses for things”, focusing attention  on bottom-up process of appropriation, remixing, hacking, making, and making do. The old SF hero was the inventor, the scientist, the astronaut, each of which had become by the 1950s, establishment figures bound up with Ike’s Military Industrial complex and Don Draper’s “Mad Men,” both the focus of science fiction parodies in the 1950s by Henry Kutner or Pohl and Kornbluth. The Cyberpunk protagonist was the hacker, the rocker, the cowboy, figures of resistance, rebellion, and independence, each acting on behalf of and from a location of the streets. The Cyberpunk imagination was unambiguously urban and this is one reason why its iconography has been taken up around the world by a range of different minority groups who wanted to speak about their own experiences living within and struggling to survive on the mean streets of the global urban landscape.

What made cyberpunk “punk” was the process of stripping encrusted genre conventions away, going back to the roots, tapping into the raw energy of the genre in its purest forms, and then trying in the process to create new kinds of emotional experiences — the kind of body horror, say, we associate with cyberpunk’s darkest currents. Sterling compared this emerging style of science fiction with punk rock, which makes sense, given the aesthetic and affective shock it was creating at that same cultural moment. Punk and New Wave were what gave the 1980s their particular “structure of feeling.”  And we can think about how groups like Devo, the Police, the Talking Heads or the B-52s might be read as contributing to the cyberpunk movement.

But, today, we might also see cyberpunk as working in parallel with the musical experimentation at the street level which would give rise to hip hop culture. Hip Hop is the other cultural movement of the 1980s which has had the most lasting impact on contemporary culture.And Sterling makes a passing reference to “scratch” music (and the technological manipulation of turntables) in the Mirrorshades manifesto.

Fred Turner’s From Counterculture to Cyberculture has described the ways that the “whole earth movement” and other counter-culture movements of the 1960s informed the early development of digital culture, and we can see these influences via Cyberpunk’s reliance on Rock’N’roll metaphors of the open acknowledgement by writers such as Rudy Rucker on the ways they were informed and influenced by the underground comics and Gonzo journalism of the 1960s. We can see these influences come full circle in something like the Transmetropolitan comic book series, where Spider Jerusalem represents a Hunter S. Thompson figure trying to survive in a cyberpunk realm.

This exploration of popular culture carries over to the language with which the cyberpunks wrote, which often included  extensive use of slang — both real and invented, arcane argots and terms borrowed from Russian or Japanese.  Such writing posed challenges to readers. Cyberpunk dropped the kind of framing devices — the man from our times who awakens in the future, the astronaut who finds himself on an alien world — which helped to bridge between our reality and the imagined alternative. Instead, we are plunged into the heart of a dense fictional world and expected to find our own way. We spend the first few pages lost, overwhelmed by details, unable to sort through the pieces, and then, we start to swim in a more fully realized future than science fiction writers had ever offered us before.

Cyberpunk also relied heavily on a conception of society which was multicultural and at least transnational, if not global. We started to see signs that the American Century was ending, that other cultural forces were starting to reassert themselves and would be more of a presence in the near-term future. We see different cultures bumping up against each other. We see Asian cultures, especially the Japanese, asserting a controlling influence on the world — thus the persistence of the Yakuza and the Triad in cyberpunk. Gibson talks about the Rastafarians; Sterling paid more and more attention to Eastern Europe in the wake of the collapse of communism.  And Pat Cadigan pushed us even deeper into Japanese culture.  There are surprisingly few aliens in Cyberpunk given the history of science fiction as a genre — with difference created through ethnic and subcultural difference, people living beside each other yet coming from different worlds, rather than close encounters of the first, second or third kind.

Alongside the Yakuza, the other destructive force at play in these stories was the multinational conglomerate — the company so large that it can no longer be contained within national borders, which exerts a power  beyond the capacities of governments, that shapes our desires through media manipulations so profoundly that we lose the capacity for democratic self-governance. In Wild Palms, for example, we see the merger of alternative religious movements, such as the Church of Scientology; alternative media practices, such as virtual reality; alternative economic structures, such as horizontally integrated conglomerates; and alternative political structures, including both a world where corporate funding dictates political power and one where libertarian activists challenge centralization.

We might see these conflicts as struggles between the Networks (that is, mass media networks) and the network (that is, the digital networks, where the hacker has the upper hand, where the rebel can plug in, tap information, spread alternative messages, connect with alternative communities, and otherwise, disrupt the flow, block the signal, jam the culture.)  Here, cyberpunk existed alongside real world cultural politics movements, anticipating culture jammers and adjusters, inspiring the anti-globalization movement, and now more recently, the Occupy and Arab Spring movements around the world. Again, the cyberpunks did not simply predict these developments — they helped to create them through their inventions in cultural politics, by providing us with the conceptual tools by which we might theorize the changes taking place around us.

Sterling described Cyberpunk as embodying “the overlapping of worlds that were formally separate: the realm of high tech, and the modern pop underground.”  and Cyberpunk as a cultural influence has been able to surf the waves which surface where-ever those worlds meet.

Despite the best efforts of its core writers to keep creative experimentation alive, the cyberpunk moment became codified into a narrative formula, which has shaped a much broader range of cultural works. Cyberpunk became a set of themes, which have been explored through a range of different means, but which still shape in many ways important strands of contemporary science fiction across all media. And it has been a stylistic influence, a kind of sensibility, which spread rapidly to film, television, comics, music, fashion, and computer games.

To take a simple and familiar example, the Borg on Star Trek: The Next Generation, represented the insertion of a cyberpunk body-machine hybrid into the middle of our culture’s longest running technological utopian fiction, just to see how they would react to each other. In many ways, it is like a reversal of the confrontation Gibson described in “The Gernsback Continuum” where people from the present watch the fading of the inhabitants of the World of Tomorrow we recognize from Amazing Stories, Things to Come, and the 1939 World’s Fair.

And these ideas and images have traveled through inter zones and along contact zones, so cyberpunk’s influence on, say, Japanese manga and anime has been profound and the same could be said on the ways cyberpunk is informing the imaginations of people in Brazil or Eastern Europe,  South Africa or India, who are undergoing rapid technological, cultural, and political changes that resembles in many ways the contrasts and inequalities that Cyberpunk writers foregrounded in their work. And beyond its influence on other artists, writers and readers, cyberpunk, like other science fiction before it,  shaped the imagination of the next generation of designers, entrepreneurs, researchers, artists, and programmers. I can’t tell you how many people at MIT told me they were trying to design and program something that first captured their imagination via a cyberpunk narrative. But, what gets lost in the process is the sense of ambivalence and critique which gave Cyberpunk its edge. It is as if a generation of biologists were inspired by Mary Shelley to go out and reanimate corpses, not because it was a good idea, but because they think it would be cool to enact something from their favorite book.

Our focus today is in understanding the legacies of Cyberpunk not simply as a literary movement but as a movement across media. Our schedule progresses from a panel with some founding figures, already working in a range of different contexts, who helped to define the cyberpunk moment; then we will hear from the next generation — contemporary artists from a range of different media and entertainment fields, who are engaging with, pushing against, working within cyberpunk influences. Then you have a choice between immersing yourself in a series of screenings designed to explore media representations of cyberpunk themes, especially those having to do with the minding between machine and body, or participating in brainstorming sessions, where you can work alongside other creators and storytellers  in thinking about how the cyberpunk genre conventions might be updated to reflect today’s digital media and popular culture. At the end of the day, we will come back together to share what we created and to hear a final rant from Bruce Sterling, who is perhaps the grand master of this distinctive form of spoken word performance.