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Hyper-reality and Digital Renaissance MM30 Dec 09

Hyper-reality and Digital Renaissance MM30 Dec 09

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Published by Julie Thrasher
Hyper-reality and Digital Renaissance MM30 Dec 09
Hyper-reality and Digital Renaissance MM30 Dec 09

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Published by: Julie Thrasher on Mar 01, 2012
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english and media centre| December 2009 |
MediaMagazine
 59 MM
In this article
Stephen Hill
exploresthe way in which the use of mediatechnologies confront audiencesexperience of reality. He argues thatfar from undermining our humanitythey often serve to reinforce it.
Introduction
From the telephone to Facebook, the wayin which
audiences
 
appropriate new mediatechnology has, historically, been characterisedby the collapse of the distinction between thereal and the simulated: the substitution of faceto face interaction with a
 
hyper-real 
experiencemediated by technology. When AlexanderGraham Bell launched the telephone in 1876 iswas not simply a revolution in
communication systems
 
but it also sewed the seeds of a morewide-ranging transformation about the way inwhich society thought about itself and culture.In substituting the human voice for synthesizedcopy transmitted through sound waves andelectrical signals, Bell in effect invented post-modernism: the routinised use of technologyand the proliferation of the
 
virtual realities
.Indeed, the history of 
media technology
 
in the twentieth century was built on thispremise: cinema, television, music video andcomputer games all invite the audience tosuspend disbelief and inhabit a parallel
 
fantasyworld
 
made possible only by successiveadvancements in technology. From a theoreticalstandpoint, this concept has been recoupedby various thinkers who have characterisedthe
proliferation of media technology
 
and thecollapse of the distinction between the realand simulated as ‘simulacrum’, ‘hyper-reality’,‘parody’ and ‘pastiche’. And, indeed, this is a lineof fault that many media texts self-consciouslyexplore; the last thirty years has seen aprofusion of films, television and pop musicthat play with audience expectations in theiruse of 
 
intertextual references
 
and self-reflexiveallusions. However, perhaps what marks outthe genuinely postmodern from ironic critiqueis the way in which audience appropriation of new media technologies is both naturalised andcreative.
Cinema and television
Throughout the history of 
 
television
 
and
cinema
, audiences have traditionally beenvery accepting of the ways in which mediatexts invite the viewer to confront their own
perception of reality
. As the silent movieera moved into that of the talking picture,for example, audiences did not recoil withincredulity that the image projected on to thescreen was actually speaking, but acceptedthe concept as natural and unaffected.Likewise, when the first television sets becamecommercially available in the 30s and 40s,audiences embraced the new medium, invitingit into their homes to occupy pride of place inthe sitting room: displacing the fire place as thefocal point of domestic living.
 
By the same token audiences have beenextremely imaginative in the way in which newmedia technologies have been incorporatedinto their day-to-day existence. Who wouldhave thought that cinema pioneer
EadweardMuybridge’s
 
experiments with stereoscopicimages in the 1870s would develop into astaple venue for romantic courtship in thetwentieth century: even today going to seea movie is one of the most popular activitiesfor couples on a date. Likewise, television hasbecome embedded in the social fabric of everyday life: both
 
shaping and reflecting
 
society’sideas about contemporary social issues. Whilethe kind of current affairs programmingcharacterising a channel like BBC
 
News 24
,was probably close to what
 John Logie Baird
 
had in mind when he began experimentingwith duotone images in the first part of the twentieth century. Formats producedprincipally for entertainment, like soap operaand sitcom, have arguably done more toinfluence popular opinion about
 
contemporarysocial issues
 
including abortion, single-mothers, homosexuality and immigration thananything else.
The internet
Of course the proliferation of the
 internet
from the late 1990s onwards has acceleratedand heightened people’s routine use of technology in their day-to-day engagementwith society and culture. And, indeed, it isbefitting that the proliferation of 
laptops
,
wireless
 
and
broadband technology
in the
Hyper-realityand the DigitalRenaissance
 
60
 
MediaMagazine
| December 2009 |english and media centre
MM
Noughties has liberated people from viewingcomputer technology as fixed to work stationspreviously associated with word processingand gaming. As an antidote to pre-Millenniumfin-de-siecle (end of a century) narrativesof cultural decline and moral decay, theproliferation of digital technology and theinternet has infused contemporary civilisationwith a new vitality that can be felt acrossvarious media forms including television, film,pop music and the press.Contemporary use of ICT embraces not onlythe
 
interactivity
 
of hardware that allows usto listen to music, watch television, surf theinternet and talk to our friends all on the samemachine, but has reframed the way in whichmedia institutions conceptualise their ownbusiness infrastructure: in the post-digital agethe most successful brands are those that existacross multiple platforms: BAUER’s
Kerrang! 
,for example, is a website, TV and radio station.Likewise, the increased interactivity betweenaudience and institution has refined theirrelationship, with
 niche market programming
 
proliferating at the expense of broadcasting,and small-scale media industries oftenproducing a healthier profit margin thancumbersome and unwieldy corporations.However, it is perhaps the proliferation of social networking that exemplifies best the wayin which audience engagement with mediatechnology has become naturalised and framedby
consumer creativity.
Social networking
On the face of things, social networking siteslike Bebo, Facebook and MySpace embody
postmodern culture:
they are
virtual reality 
spaces in which the distinction between thereal and the simulated is neither here northere and audiences are free to constructtheir identity from a
bricolage
 
of pop culturereferences: applications invite us to list ourfavourite albums, films and adverts and detailsabout age, sex and national identity are totallyunverifiable. In theory these sites encourage usto adopt new idealised personas, free from theconstraints of our corporeal everyday lives inwhich we can embrace the
 
aspirational codesof consumer culture
 
and reinvent ourselves inthe terms of our own definition.What social networking sites offer is theopportunity to enter a
hyper-real utopia
 
in which all participants are equal becausethe signifiers of social belonging and theinvocations of prejudice no longer matter. Thetechnology that underpins social networkingis based on the premise that whether you areslim or fat, black or white, gay or straight doesnot matter in the
media-induced reality
 
of cyber-space. And yet it does. As every instanceof cyber-bullying and internet harassmenttestifies, the way in which audiences usesocial networking has been
routinised andnaturalised
; and endemic to this is that itdraws out of its participants some of their lesspleasant characteristics: vanity, insularity andpetty prejudice often seem to characterise theway consumers engage with sites like Facebook and Bebo.Just as networks and friendship groups areincreasingly confined to parochial factionsof college and work mates, so too has theproliferation of digital images on socialnetworking sites emphasised issues of bodyimage for it participants.
Andy Warhol
 
oncepredicted that everybody would be famous forfifteen minutes, but for contemporary users of Facebook and MySpace that duration can beextended as they face the same pressures of living in the public eye that just five years agowas the preserve of 
r
eality TV stars 
and minorcelebrities.
Skype
In the wonderful cycle of 
perpetualreturn
that characterises patterns of mediaconsumption, one of the most innovativeforms of media technology today is
 
Skype
.
 Principally a software application that allowsusers to make voice calls over the internet, theservice duplicates the features of a regular land-line with the addition of 
video conferencing
 

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