Active agents in the digital realm

In the questionably dystopian novel Massa (2012) by the Flemish writer Joost Vandecasteele the protagonist Margot is dragged along in the boys story of ‘Blurred Inc.’, specialized in the ‘left-overs of multinationals’ and trading of (sensitive) information. She is not exactly sure about what she is doing, but she is good at it and soon gets a high position in the company. When having stolen one of the most important pieces of information, she is even put in a protection program. In the world Vandecasteele created, the person who can sell fiction as truth is the master of the world. Creating information forms the social cohesion between people – and makes sure this consciously constructed world does not collapse. The clue: information is worth a lot more than any tangible object. Data have become the main importance on which we build our everyday lives, social world and construct the overarching systems (capitalism).

Cover of ‘Massa’ (2012)

We are not at this stage – at least as yet – but the possibilities and acts of ‘prosumers’, particular creators of information, are emerging undeniably. In this short reflection on the role of human resources in the creative industries, we would like to refer to several projects and link them to the mandatory literature. We will talk about the Dutch initiative ‘yournalism’, photographic contests for pictures taken by mobile phones and a critique recently released by the Arnhem based theater group Oostpool: The Immortals (2014).

Mark Deuze writes in his text ‘Creative Industries, Convergence Culture and Media Work’ (2007) that consumers have become more literate in ‘reading’ cultural commodities. Our days of leaning back as ‘couch potatoes’ are over; it is time to participate in the emergence of culture and to read – semiotically – along and participate in the creation of meaning. The commodification of culture has also led to a shift in the organization of companies.
In this context, we would like to talk about the ‘yournalism’ initiative. Instead of a topdown approach of journalism, a group of young writers tries to support good research journalism based on questions its audience wants to know. The editors turn the questions into a research proposal and measured by crowd funding, the project will start as soon as enough money has been made. Money will literally mean a ‘vote’ for the proposal of the journalist. With enough (financial) support, there will be a month’s time to investigate and write the article. Instead of writing about what we already know, they claim, we should together find out about questions that have not been answered yet.

In a sense, as audience being part at least of initiating these projects, there influences upon existing journalism change. What they actually claim is that money and time should not be the biggest problems to keep doing ‘good’ research journalism.

In this participatory way of dealing with culture, Deuze remarks further on in his paper, might however be a thread for professionals well. Democratizing skills also means that some skills have less value than they used to have. In his article Deuze for instance refers to journalism photographers who are put behind be accidental standers-by with a mobile phone. If you cannot even see the difference between the pictures taken by a standersby (who probably has a better shot, since he is there at the moment of the action), and the professional photographer, what is the point in taking the picture of the professional?
Deuze however remarks in the end that we should not see it too depressed. We could also see these labor circumstances as an enormous amount of freedom, which would be very fit for the fluid times we live in. An example of tapping into this new phenomenen is a photography competition called the Mobile Photo Awards. In this competition, only pictures taken with a mobile phone are allowed to compete for the price. The audience does not even necessarily have to have a good camera; it is enough to take a good shot at the right moment and simply ‘press the button’.

Vicki Mayer emphasizes production in the field of media industries in her text ‘Making media production visible’ (2013) and especially wants to show the people working there. Modern capitalism is a human construction, which consists out of human quality and social processes. We should not forget, she claims, that these social structures on their turn exist out of individual agents. The structures have been extending beyond national boundaries.
Within the cultural field, social hierarchy is however still very present. The flexibility with workers have to (not: have the opportunity to) deal, could according to Mayer be interpreted as both a negative and a positive influence on the creative industries.

One of the latter parts of her book will deal with the relation between individual agents and self-expression in the digital age, between the routine and the normative. We have reached an age in which we are able to share everything, even the things that were used to be considered the most private in your life (a birth, a depression). The way of self-expression has radically changed; ‘vloggers’ on YouTube, pictures on Facebook and your personal blogs.

The common feauture in these two arguments, are a commodification of the self. Therefore, we would like to end our blog with a short analysis of the Dutch theatre play The Immortals (2014). ‘Toneelgroep Oostpool’ brought this play on stage, being inspired by the philosophical work of De Vermoeide Samenleving (trans. 2014) by Korean thinker Byung-Chul Han. In the play, they commented upon our sharing, the way of having social relations. Four actors spend more than half of the show in four cabins; as audience you can only see them via their cameras, and sometimes their feet. We can see men showing of their exercising, a woman wrapping a dubious powder form and a man wrestling himself into a leather costume. The audience starts feeling more and more uncomfortable as the shown images get more intimate. We see faces hardly ever.

In the last part of the show, the four actors start staring into the camera, finally a close-up of painted and covered faces: so close, but with a mask. This is also the moment the large box in the middle of the audience starts opening itself up and we can see the real people who have been talking to us all the time.
While watching this, as an audience gets uneasy about what the subjects of the play want to share with you. At some points you want to look away, you laugh (either because it is funny, because of malicious delight, or shame) or just feel pitty for the obvious solitude speaking out of these little movies. The show is dynamic, somewhere in-between theatre and visual art and makes you think about today’s society in a broader perspective. What are we sharing and with whom?

To conclude, we would like to point out the common grounds of the case studies we used. While digital technology keeps improving, we have to find out the ways in which we as humans can use them and this might need some time. Should the audience participate in the choice of a new topic for research journalism? Should there still be a studies that educates to be a photographer? How are we dividing our attention and who should know what we our selves are up to? In short: how should we make use of all these novelties and how does this fit in our carefully build society, social relations and relation between individual agents? If information, facts and fiction really become intertwined and at some time maybe even interchangeable, what is our information worth and do we really want everybody to know what we were up to? The Immortals and Massa show dystopian images of a possible near-future. They are critical, realist and keep us wondering: what is the relation between people and technology?
Unfortunately, in our dynamic world it is only the time that will tell. The slow movement, as described in our previous blog is one of many alternatives that brings back our feeling of community and goes toward a feeling of glocalization. By initiatives such as yournalism, there is more attention for the want of the reader than the money of the big news companies and the Mobile Photos Awards prove that you do not have to have the most expensive technologies to be able to compete in competitions. This could be a democratization of information and skills. On the other we have to distinct ourselves in other ways: effort, invest time and attention, and networking, especially in the media (creative) industries.

Sascha, Anouk, Sjoerd & Laurie



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