Sunday, July 19, 2015

Semiotics and the Confederate Flag Controversy

I am concerned over the heated rhetoric exchanged of late in regards to the Confederate Flag’s removal from government grounds in South Carolina. At the national level, public figures such as Bobby Jindal are claiming a violation of heritage. At a personal level, I see Facebook profile pictures being replaced with images of the Confederate Flag and long, rambling posts decrying the removal of the flag as an infringement on rights; another cowardly cessation to the Political Correctness movement. In either case, there are a lot of arguments from both sides regarding the true meaning of the Confederate Flag. Each side cites meaning in their positioning – and here we stand in gridlock.

What we’re really talking about is Semiotics, study of visual representation, of signs and their signifiers. Semiotics explores relationships between images and their encoding of ideology. It infers no separation between intention in the medium and greater symptomatic meaning. Essentially, the viewing of an image (i.e. a painting, a film, a flag) cannot be isolated to the original intention of said image but must consider all relationships forged between image and spectator across time.

For example, the 1930s saw unprecedented atrocities strike the Western Civilized world as Nazi Germany brought genocide and war in an attempt to harbor Eugenics for the creation of a Master Race. The hatred borne out of this movement cursed a number of icons associated with it. No longer can men grow the delightful Charlie Chaplin “Tramp” mustache. No longer does the once-common German name Adolph (or its permutations Adolphe in France or Adolfo in Italy) sit amongst the “most popular boy’s name” rankings as it had pre-WWII. No longer can the swastika, originally a popular international symbol for “good luck,” ever divorce itself from the Nazi party. Today it is not seen as an act of rebellion to tattoo a swastika on one’s person; it is a defiant claim of racism.

The Confederate Flag’s many signifiers must be considered in this debate. Unfortunately, any potential additional meanings the flag may have are subjugated to the taint of hatred and prejudice the flag has attained during its history. In the 1860's, the Stars and Bars (an original version of the Confederate Flag; not the popularized design of today) was created to represent the Confederacy. During the Civil War, the flag was encoded with the ideology behind the Confederacy: a refusal to acknowledge abolitionism and emancipation. This flag saw many permutations and design changes over the next 100 years, reaching well-beyond the end of the Civil War and extending into the Civil Rights movement. Regardless of the many intended meanings of the Confederate Flag, past and present, the fact is that it has been co-opted in the hearts and minds of many in possessing ghastly implications about race and inequality.

Many have previously, and are now currently, attempting to re-claim the Confederate Flag as a symbol of heritage, of rebellion, of Southern Pride - to honor those lost during the Civil War. All of those things may be true; an image can hold many meanings simultaneously. But the Confederate Flag will never be divorced from flying as an emblem of inequality and racism. That is now part of the icon’s DNA. Those who refuse to accept that meaning are ignorance personified. This great nation is a melting pot of race and ethnicity; a country forged by immigration and differences. Our shared national history has some black-eyes (to put it mildly) and it is important to remember this when considering taking a stance on an image as loaded as the Confederate Flag. To many (especially non-white minorities), the flag symbolizes little more than exclusivity, inequality, and occasionally corporeal danger. No one who is a legal citizen of this country should be made to be reminded of this on a daily basis by our government institutions. If it is heritage one is trying to celebrate, focus on the pre-amble to the Constitution. Adopt a new icon, one that is less loaded, to demonstrate Southern pride. If it is rebellion one is trying to conjure, fly the image of Arthur Fonzarelli. That’s an icon we can all get behind.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Binge-Watching is Bad for your Health!

While driving the other day, I heard an opinion piece on NPR’s Fresh Air by guest contributor and award-winning television critic David Bianculli in regards to how the shift towards binge-watching has altered the television viewing landscape (link to this story here).

By definition, binge-watching is the act of consuming large quantities of television shows in immediate succession rather than adhering to a typical weekly viewing schedule. Bianculli remarked on how binge-watching cultivates disconnected viewers who consume media at their own pace rather than on a specific schedule ordained by a network. This shift really started 20 years ago when you father would program the VCR to tape NBC’s Must See TV lineup but not at the scale we see today. More recently, the true cultural phenomenon of Binge-watching was brought about by the advent of Digital Video Recorders (DVRs) and has since been fueled immensely by the emergence of video streaming applications such as Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Prime in recent years.

The radical propulsion of binge-watching, in my opinion, is due to two distinct elements: the technology permitting streaming of video to myriad electronic devices and to the aforementioned streaming services creating their own content.

Shows developed specifically for online streaming such as House of Cards and Orange is the New Black (Netflix) or Transparent (Amazon) are not only gaining traction commercially but also critically where the latter recently won the prestigious award for Best Drama at this year’s Golden Globes. The important aspect of these shows is they never had a pre-ordained network schedule. They were simply dropped, in bulk, onto the Internet one day with no rules or stipulations as to how much to watch or when.

Bianculli’s argument is a fascinating one: In an age where technology is permitting exciting, well-written television shows to find niche audiences and succeed, is our shared collective viewing experience – what we’d call “water cooler” television – disappearing? It was easy to gather at work Fridays and discuss the previous night’s episode of Seinfeld. Can we discuss Orange is the New Black without any sociocultural marker as to how quickly/often a viewer should be consuming their season? Binge-watching has spurred islands of viewers where each is afraid to discuss their progress for fear of spoilers or ruining the experience. Gone are the days of lengthy heated discussions regarding the content of a show. Now, the conversation is simply, “are you caught up yet?”

So how did Netflix, et al get us to this place? How has the dominant model of viewership, in place for the past 75 years, suddenly been upended? Using Bianculli’s essay as a jumping off point, I want to explore how technology, specifically, has permitted this seismic shift in our cultural viewing habits. To do so, I will focus specifically on the technological innovations of Netflix as a case study in shifting art and media culture.
In an article entitled, “How Netflix Works,” authors Tracy Wilson and Stephanie Crawford break down the complex infrastructure driving Netflix. Netflix is an interesting company that used technological innovations to pioneer disruptive technologies, putting the nail in the coffin of Blockbuster Video stores (and its ilk) and promoting declining DVD and Blu-Ray sales (Lang). From a Corporate Strategy standpoint, Netflix is a fascinating beast to study.

Even with the death of video stores, Netflix’s model has surprisingly increased the landscape of smaller independent/art-house films. As noted in the peer-reviewed journal, Film Quarterly, “feature- length independent and art films ha[d] become almost impossible to finance in the U.S., and distributing such films for theatrical release has become a nearly outmoded business model as marketing costs can frequently outstrip box-office grosses [which now requires digital streaming distribution to survive]” (Hilderbrand, 2010, pg. 24). The selections of offer from Netflix are nearly 500,000 as compared to the infinitely smaller crop of films available at your old Blockbuster location.

There is simply too much to discuss with Netflix as a corporation. Therefore, in the interest of brevity, I will ignore the inner-working of major aspects of Netflix such as their DVD-by-Mail service and simply draw attention to three major technological initiatives – all of which solidify Netflix as a major entity-of-choice for mainstream content viewing.

The first topic for discussion is the Netflix website (www.Netflix.com). The Netflix website was the introduction for many to streaming commercial video. Netflix began utilizing their website as the main customer interface for both online and DVD-by-Mail services. Their site is an aesthetically pleasing interface for customers to search, sort, rank, and (most importantly) view movies all built on complex databases storing massive amounts of information for hungry movie fanatics looking for their next fix. The Netflix site, similar to e-retailers, offers massive amounts of information regarding the products on their site. “When you hold your mouse pointer over a selection, the site pulls a lengthier description from a database and displays it on the screen…including information about the movie’s plot, cast, MPAA rating, [and much more]” (Wilson & Crawford). The real-time access to massive quantities of information spurs cineastes and casual film browsers alike to navigate the site for hours building their library and hunting for their next favorite flick.

The second major piece of Information Technology driving the success of Netflix is their recommendation system. This system subverts what many would typically view as impossible to quantify: artistic taste. Netflix somehow creates a scarily good engine for providing movie recommendations. This recommendation service is built on a complex algorithm. Originally, this algorithm was developed by Netflix, called CineMatch, but in an effort to improve their customer experience, Netflix opened their source code to the public creating a contest to improve its recommendation accuracy. Three years later, 7 developers claimed the $1 million dollar reward and Netflix now has a killer, unrivaled taste-maker to drive their site. This mathematical equation alone is credited with shifting film subscriber’s consumption habits as the New York Times has noted, “it has given independent releases and films that did not succeed at the box office a wider distribution” (Wilson & Crawford).

The final piece of technology I wish to cover is Netflix’s spearheading of video streaming. Originally relegated to their website in 2008 when the service began, Netflix abandoned their Microsoft partnership in 2010 and embraced HTML5 to permit a wide range of mobile devices and television sets to stream its content. This has led to many people canceling cable and staying in for a “Netflix Night.” But how does Streaming Video and Audio work?

In order to facilitate the video streaming over the Internet, videos must also be significantly compressed. Raw video footage is far too large in size but the tools for video compression have advanced to the point of maintaining high quality streaming in small data packages. Finally, complementary innovations such as Smart TVs or Web-enabled devices like a Roku or Apple TV permit television sets to receive and display Netflix’s (and others’) content. All of this traveling digital content has required internet technology drastically shift to meet this increased demand. As noted, “YouTube…and Netflix…represent 50% of total Internet traffic. Such an amount of traffic “magically” bypasses the core of the Internet, [through complex innovations called CDNs] enabling the de-congestion of the network [and] leading us to a mesh model in which all ISPs want to increase their interconnections” (Palacin, Oliver, Infante, Oechsner & Bikfalvi, 2013, pg 322).

These technological evolutions are not limited to Netflix alone, of course, but Netflix has become the iconic face (or dare I say iconic Red Envelope?) of digital streaming because of its reach and because it was a pioneer in so many of these markets. For these technological innovations alone, Netflix is an entity worth discussing. But there’s something much bigger they’ve accomplished.Most recently, the biggest shift Netflix has made is in the arena of content creation.

In an age where streaming sites are hungrily competing for existing content, Netflix once again separated itself from the pack by creating its own brand of exciting, unique shows. Their approach to releasing shows however flies in the face of the traditional Television model. Rather than scheduling a show for a season across weeks lasting many months, Netflix releases an entire season of episodes at once allowing viewers to consume at their own pace. This choice is what has ignited the craze of binge-watching as many rabid fans will devote an entire weekend to viewing an entire season at once.

NPR has an interesting article on the psychological effects of binge-watching. The article followed researchers who wanted to test whether binge-watching had similar effects to binge-eating and binge-drinking. Their findings: in coming off of binge-watching, “you get this response that’s very similar to the response from giving up food or substances…the feeling of needing it all the time is [there]” (Rutsch). Additionally, as noted by Time Magazine, the sedentary consumption style of binge-watching creates potential health hazards such as increased risk for diabetes and other negative health effects (Park).

So what does all of this mean? It means as we continue to evaluate the success of firms in their quest for competitive advantage, we cannot ignore the necessity to innovate with IT. It means that companies should not simply settle for offering a novel product or service but should strive to change the culture. Netflix is a fascinating organization that continues to use technology as a vehicle for attaining competitive advantage. Through its disruptive technologies it has doomed other businesses, changed the cultural media landscape, and made movie-lovers out of all of us. And ultimately, there is a moral of the story: Netflix is an amazing case study of how consistently novel improvements on existing IT practices can not only impact the business world…it can shape it.



References
Bianculli, D. (2015, March 17). Forget Binge Watching: Great Television Happens When Networks Pace Shows. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/2015/03/17/393596736/forget-binge-watching-great-television-happens-when-networks-pace-shows

Crawford, S., & Wilson, T. (n.d.). How Netflix Works - HowStuffWorks. Retrieved March 27, 2015, from
http://electronics.howstuffworks.com/netflix.htm

Hildebrand, L. (2010). The art of distribution: video on demand. Film Quarterly, Vol 64, No 2, pp 24-28.

Lang, B. (2014, June 4). Digital Home Entertainment to Exceed Physical by 2016, Study Finds. Retrieved
March 27, 2015, from http://variety.com/2014/digital/news/digital-home-entertainment-to-exceed-physical-by-2016-study-finds-1201207708/

Palacin, M., Oliver, M., Infante, J., Oechsner, S. & Bikfalvi, A. (2013). The impact of content delivery
networks on the internet ecosystem. Journal of Information Policy, Vol 3, pp. 304-330.

Park, A. (2015, April 1). This is What Binge Watching TV Does to Your Health. Retrieved April 15, 2015,
from http://time.com/3767458/tv-binge-watching-health/

Rutsch, P. (2015, February 4). Does Binge-Watching Make Us Depressed? Good Question. Retrieved
March 27, 2015, from http://www.npr.org/blogs/health/2015/02/04/383527370/does-binge- watching-make-us-depressed-good-question

Wilson, T. (n.d.). How Streaming Video and Audio Work - HowStuffWorks. Retrieved March 27, 2015,
from http://computer.howstuffworks.com/internet/basics/streaming-video-and-audio.htm

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Essay in Short Film Studies


Intellect Ltd. are esteemed publishers of many peer-reviewed academic journals.  I am proud to announce that my recent essay The Perfect Human: An avant-garde rebellion against Classical Hollywood style appears in the latest issue of their journal Short Film Studies (volume 5, issue 2).  


Abstract: This article seeks to position Jørgen Leth’s The Perfect Human as an avant-garde challenge to Classical Hollywood film style as well as mine the film’s abstract appeal in its invention of new methodologies to generate meaning.

To purchase your copy of this issue, please visit: http://www.intellectbooks.co.uk/journals/view-Article,id=19273/


Sinners at BIFF 2015



Sinners has been named an official selection of the 2015 Boston International Film Festival.  The festival runs from April 16th through the 21st

For more information, please visit http://www.bostoniff.org/