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Author Archives: Renzo Adler

Tokyo Destruction Diary Pre-Pitch

The basic idea is to create an interactive map of Tokyo, charting instances of rapid destruction (1923 earthquake, WWII), social upheaval (protests of the 1960’s), and random acts of violence (1995 sarin gas attack, the 2008 Akihabara massacre), along with the city’s own growth and changes during the post-war years. Then I would juxtapose this historical data with trends in media related to the destruction of Tokyo and to see how media becomes a barometer for fears generated from past trauma or changes.

Though not all change and destruction in Tokyo is the result of horrific disasters or war. Tokyo is a city that almost perpetually has buildings being torn down and new ones being built up. According to a Frekonomics podcast, half of all homes in Japan are demolished after only 38 years (http://freakonomics.com/2014/02/27/why-are-japanese-homes-disposable-a-new-freakonomics-radio-podcast-3/). Death and rebirth become cyclical parts of daily life that shape Tokyo, literally and figuratively.
So why focus on Japan and Tokyo? From the 1980’s (arguably earlier) to today, we have seen Japanese pop culture become more and more present in the American cultural landscape. It informs how we perceive Japan’s history and culture (though sometimes these perceptions may be skewed) and once obscure portions of Japanese arts and media have now become common knowledge thanks to fan communities, bloggers, publishers, and other people bridging the gap between our culture and Japan’s. Through this exchange, we’ve seen the Japanese death/rebirth cycle take form in movies, tv shows, books, video games, and more. Mothra snaps Tokyo Tower in twain, only for it to be in one piece again the next time Godzilla emerges from the murky depths.

This project would act as a way to chart Japan’s history, it’s changes in media, and it would ultimately take the form of a website which would be viewed by people interested in media, history, and Japanese culture.

 

Lab Journal 1

Earlier in class I felt unsure about whether or not to promote my project proposal: The Tokyo Destruction Diary. To recap, my idea was to create an interactive map of Tokyo where certain points of interest were highlighted and when a user clicked on them they gave data and historical context to an actual attack or disaster that happened there (earthquakes, fire-bombings, terrorist attacks, etc). Other points would give information about popular media (comics, movies, games) that have stories tied to the destruction of Tokyo. The two categories of fictional and actual destruction would cross reference each other to give the viewer an encapsulation of Japanese media and history, and how societal fears can be expressed through popular media.

 

I felt genuine conflict about whether or not my project idea was worth pushing, whether it was a battle worth fighting. The final grade on my proposal for my project made me realize some of my shortcomings. Prof. Gold considered TDD a good general project idea, but found it lacking in a humanities focus and I was at a loss for figuring out the nitty-gritty about how to execute the project beyond just using a map based program like Neatline.

 

I have the basic idea (explore Japanese art/culture through events in history and vice versa). I have the knowledge and passion for the subject. But ultimately, I lack the technical know-how to fully realize my idea, and I would find myself relying on other people almost completely to realize certain aspects of it. Granted, part of this exercise is learning how to rely on others, but I feel like it would be irresponsible to rally the class to construct a building I didn’t have blueprints for, so to speak. Also, the information about fictional destruction would be tricky to gather in mass quantities or from databases. It would rely more on an individual knowledge of the subject matter (mostly from me). I feel like the project would need a serious re-evaluation before it could be considered good enough to pitch.

 

#Skillset Renzo

Outreach & Project Management: My current passion project is producing a YouTube series where I interview artists, publishers, and creators working in comics. So I have to stay abreast of what artists are big, who’s up and coming, and what are the new trends. Then I have to find those people that are now or soon will be movers-and-shakers and convince them to sit down and talk to me, then work with my editor to make something watchable. So keeping this going feels a bit like outreach and project management combine.

Developer: I have a modest knowledge of Photoshop from running a little blog about old Japanese magazines. Other than that my technical know-how could be better.

Design: After working in film distribution, art museum management, blogging, and film producing, I’d like to think I have a decent grasp of aesthetics and what looks/feels right on a project.

I make good connections with contacts and get some mileage out of a small amount of information.  I do some freelance journalism so I enjoy writing. My previous work was in museum and PR for a horror movie company, so my knowledge spans from art history to how to make a convincing looking exploding head using common household items. I like connecting the dots between things. Think of it as playing Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, but with arts, world events, people etc..

 

Final Cuts Part 1: Cellphones and Jesuits

Right now I am working on re-shaping my final project and possibly taking a new approach that takes a more curatorial/archival approach to the preservation of fan publications related to events and conventions.

But for my first attempt I tried writing about more contemporary issues along with dwelling on the morality of DH, but grew frustrated with trying to figure out a direction for the paper to go in. When I showed what I had written to a friend, they said that it felt like two different papers, so that’s how I’m presenting what I’ve done so far to you. I might re-work these segments to be part of the final paper, but I’m still mulling that over. For now though, here’s part one.

Convergence Culture by Henry Jenkins, is a book released in 2006, and it feels very present while also being part of a major pre-Twitter era of social interaction through the lens of communication technology. It covers the convergence of old media, new technology, and social media at its infancy. It was written at a curious point just before the explosion of Twitter, which has gone from that thing old people hated because it limited how many characters are used in a sentence, to a lifesaving tool, PR machine, and government communication tool all in one. It opens with our intrepid author recounting his experience trying to find a mobile phone that was purely a phone. The iPhone would not make its debut until a year after the publication of this book. “[I] wasn’t interested in something that could show me movie previews, would have customizable ring tones, or would allow me to read novels.” He goes on to explain that such Spartan phones have only recently vanished from the marketplace due to lack of demand. During my Thanksgiving break from classes I had a chance to meet up with some old high school friends. One of them is currently an accountant and making a decent living, but rather than using a contemporary smartphone, he uses an old style flip phone, which some of my friends refer to as a “burger-phone.”

“The only people that use burger phones [by choice] are drug dealers, crooked cops, or cheating on their wives!” my other friends chided. This could be seen as a typical anecdote about Christmas season haves-and-have-nots or being a modern day Luddite. But it also frames a very interesting perspective on giving connectivity a moral stance. True, older flip phones did have internet functionality. You could browse some websites, play some games, check your email, and buy some ringtones (a lucrative market according to Jenkins in 2006), but all in all their connectivity was fairly limited. Meanwhile today’s phones use wireless internet, and have a never ending supply of social media apps, programs that make keeping track of tickets more efficient, electronic wallets, camera and more. If the only people that want to be off the grid are crooks or the unfaithful, than that means connectivity, and therefore owning a smart phone to foster that connectivity, is a virtue. 

Since I had gotten a Jesuit education at Fordham University for my undergrad study, I took a small shred of pride in the fact that the father (in more ways than one) of Digital Humanities was Roberto Busa. Though I do not recall many memories of Fordham being particularly technologically advanced while I was there. In fact the internet speed was rather dreadful. But on a recent excursion to my alma mater for a reunion I saw that one of the old dorm buildings had now been converted into a sort of stock exchange and commerce information center. Pristine glass walls (perfect for showing off what’s within) surrounded a room filled with row after row of computers running Windows 8 while a large monitor at the head of the room displayed a map of the world along with various charts and infographics and a stock ticker lined the ceiling like stripe of fluorescent icing on a cake. Thinking back to my mandatory class readings on spirituality, I recalled the story of John the Baptist, he who lost his head to Salome, wandering through the wilds and subsisting on honey straight from the hive. Goodness and piety was seen as something removed from society that we must seek out. But since the 17th century the Jesuits have enjoyed a reputation for their predilections towards scientific discoveries and education (along with colonialism, religious persecution, and the usual gamut of Catholic controversies. I wonder if there’s such a thing as “digital colonialism”), that it adds to Father Busa being the first person to try and take St. Thomas Aquinas’ writing and move from the Illuminated Text to the punch card, and ultimately to the ether of ones and zeroes. Meanwhile social media has led to heightened social awareness and even a lifesaving tool while pundits claim it is only a tool of vanity. New data is being discovered from old artifacts, and hobbies have become gateways to political ideologies instead of being monastic and isolated affairs. Many laud computers because they are neutral. Ones and zeroes with no credo or prejudices. But the question I posit is whether or not the Digital Humanities can be considered a virtuous form of study and is there an inherent virtue in connectivity, the internet, and digital convergence?

Jenkins mention, with not un-due skepticism, how in the 90s it was predicted that convergence media and culture from the newly birthed internet would be the greatest sword ever wielded against media conglomerates, and that entertainment would become a cluster of cottage industries. Jenkins skepticism in 2006 was due in part to the dot-com bust that happened only a scant few years ago. I still have my own memories of the pets.com sock puppet being everywhere on TV in the early oughts, and then his fall from grace as he became a symbol for the over-eager dotcoms collapsing in on themselves (and now he’s just an old relic on YouTube). Now in 2014 we can see some of that come to fruition while in some ways the prediction has been subverted.   Media conglomerates no longer have the same sway they used to, but it is hardly as if they have none. Now everyone wants to be part of their own cottage industry, particularly on YouTube, myself included.

My first attempt at a project was based on the social media platform tumblr. Like Livejournal before it, tumblr has emerged as the platform of choice for teens and twenty-somethings to espouse their day-to-day woes and tribulations. But added to the mix are throngs of artists, some professional, many not that gravitated towards the platform because of its lax content restrictions, as opposed to DeviantArt. My initial idea was based on the large amount of international users across tumblr. Many of them were artists working in some kind of cottage industry, selling prints, commissions, assorted tchokies with their art on them, or otherwise using tumblr as an extension and media presence for whatever industry they’re already in (journalism, comic books, translations). What I set out to do was to see if there is any kind of correlation between where tumblr users are located and where the people they in turn follow are located. I was hoping to find a great web that bound together finds of niche fandoms with content creators, and see how international borders now meant nothing. That is until I sought some input regarding my idea.

The critiques I received made me remember what a valuable currency information is. In Neal Stephenon’s novel Snow Crash (a sort of tongue-in-cheek counterpoint to William Gibson’s grim-n-gritty Neuromancer) the character YT is a fifteen year old courier that also makes her living as an information broker, collecting valuable data on just about anything she can get her hands on to sell to interested parties. The information I was seeking would indeed be an interesting way to connect the lines of fandom that have been used as a web to bring fans together for decades, but now such data would be considered a form of invasion of privacy or just another boon for advertisers.   

Mapping Fandom

Illust. by Rebecca Sugar.

Illust. by Rebecca Sugar.

I was thinking about how many artists and content creators make use of social media sites specializing in sharing such as tumblr, Deviant Art (which has frankly been waining in popularity), Soup (a newcomer to the scene), and Pixiv (a Japanese outlier), to get their material out there. Some people post on these sites as part of their hobby, for some they are hoping to break into a scene, and others make these sites their very livelihood. These creators range in profession from storyboard artists and showrunners for major television networks to professional comic authors to amateur/hobbyist illustrators. For some their content is their job, for others it is their passion, and for a lucky few it is both.

All of these sites have their own unique interfaces and qualities, but they all provide a very basic means for its users to indicate a level of approval for the content that is posted and then disseminate said content among other viewers. All of these sites also attract a wide range of content creators from many different regions. Off the top of my head, on tumblr I follow an artist in Arizona, two in Germany, a handful in Japan, one in Aruba, a bunch in New York and New Jersey, a sizable chunk in California, two or so in Mexico, one in Spain, an Englishman, and I think an Australian or two. Many of these content creators have followers ranging from tens, to hundreds, and some of them have thousands. Their styles are disparate (though their seems to be a general commonality in their age range), though their followers intersect like hundreds of tiny venn diagrams.

The data I wish to extrapolate is where are the people that are “liking” this content? Is there any correlation between the content posted and where the people are that “like” it? Is there any commonality between where a content creator is from and where her or his fans are from? On a site like tumblr content posters can add tags for those searching for a certain subject, but it’s a rather crude system and when someone reblogs a picture the tags are rarely maintained. I still need to figure out the logistics, but I want to try and map regional data with tags and content creators and see how it all connects.

As an aside, I also saw a curious news item on a Spanish retro-gaming blog (http://www.repisanintendo.cl/post/101105828474/japon-podria-comenzar-a-enfrentar-un-irreversible). The basic gist is that with the rise in interest in retro gaming from various podcasts, collectors, YouTube personalities and and the like, it seems that Japan’s vintage game stores, particularly in Tokyo have been seeing their stock become rapidly depleted by tourist collectors. I can’t put my finger exactly on what data to extract from this or how, but I feel like there’s something fascinating to be found.

 

And So It Goes Online: Slaughterhouse Five & Hypercities

“I am a Tralfamadorian, seeing all time as you might see a stretch of the Rocky Mountains. All time is all time. It does not change. It does not lend itself to warnings or explanations. It simply is. Take it moment by moment, and you will find that we are all, as I’ve said before, bugs in amber.” –Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five.

 These words were written in 1969, while Vietnam was getting doused in napalm, the UNIX system was developed and the CDC 7600, arguably the first supercomputer, was constructed. All of these events have had repercussions echoing through time, while also becoming the proverbial bug in amber. These ideas of time and space being malleable echo some of the concepts of a Hypercity. I can’t help but wonder if Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five is perhaps an indication that a Hypercity is a sort of eventual societal goal, even if before anyone knew what it was.

 The Fukushima and Tranquil_Dragon portion of Hypercities, with its blow-by-blow recollection of fear and destruction, made me think about how the past on the internet is something we can catalog and return to at any time. In Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five, the protagonist, Billy Pilgrim, is presented by aliens with the concept that even if an event has passed or a person has died, that moment or person is still always preserved in the past and we can return there any time. The Tweets about acts of human kindness paired with fear, dread, death, in Fukushima recall Billy/Vonnegut’s recollections of Dresden, it’s citizens, it’s beauty, and it’s ultimate destruction at the hand of Allied bombers. Today we have the unfortunate business of figuring out what to do with someone’s Facebook or Twitter account when they have passed on.

 The alien Tralfamadorians also explain time in a way that feels very physical. Their perception of time is a mountain range, while the way we perceive time is akin to being strapped to a train with blinders placed on the side of your head. I find that both views sort of collide when you see people critiquing the use of communication technology today. People are going on Twitter and having conversations that would ordinarily never happen or attending webinars or catching up on the news, but the image that is popularly evoked is one of people just looking down at their phones and blind to the world.

 The internet has given us a way to realize this concept of time as a permanent thing we can look back at in a practical way, but not exactly a way that we can emotionally process. Just as triumphs and past accomplishments are posted on Facebook for friends and loved ones to look over, Twitter feuds become preserved ammunition in massive smear campaigns or at the very least it might make future conversations very awkward. But other pundits, scholars, and thinkers have extrapolated on this subject of preserving everything we do online, and it’s not like we can put the proverbial toys back in the toybox anyways. Barring some kind of cataclysm that destroys all online data as we know it, we just have to get used to having so much of our lives preserved outside the confines of our personal recollections.

“Billy is spastic in time, has no control over where he is going next, and the trips aren’t necessarily fun. He is in a constant state of stage fright, he says, because he never knows what part of his life he is going to have to act in next.”

Of course there is always the juggling of persona that comes with having a life taking an online personality or personalities. Facebook for friends and family, Linkedin for employers, Tumblr for your artistic endeavors, Flickr for your portfolio, Twitter for making catty comments. Billy’s problem was trying to fit in place in time when no one around him can possibly understand what it’s like to constantly jump from one place to the next while also having time be constant, instead of something in the past. Nowadays folks are expected to similarly bounce around places, times, and audiences, but for each audience we have to make sure we are fully committed to our roll even though everyone else is going through the same game of digital musical chairs. Identity is not so much fleeting as it is affixed to a certain point and place. If time is a mountain range, the internet are the trading posts scattered throughout it. We are brought to a point whether we have to wonder if the Hypercity is constructed by us, or if we are the product of the Hypercity. Or is the Hypercity the ultimate crux that we are heading towards and time, place, and information become structured yet fluid? And so it goes…

 

DH in Japan

Day 41 on the Around DH in 80 Days projects brings us to the Digital Humanities Center for Japanese Art and Culture, or DH-JAC for short. The ambition of this project is “to adopt a global perspective and to promote the development of Japanese scholars whose skills match those of their foreign counterparts” and to become a “global hub” of Japanese artistic and cultural studies. I wonder if it’s possible for there to be a Japanese approach to DH that is unique from a western one, or if the overall goal is instead to create a universal language within DH for the preservation of Japanese art and artifacts.

I noticed that the link to the woodblock print collection, to my disappointment, just leads to a white screen so I decided to look at the map collection of Hugh Cortazzi instead. Tokyo is a city that has been consistently remade, whether it is because of war, nature, commerce, or a combination of all three, but no matter what era, it’s construct has always been confusing and labyrinthine, even to locals. It may be just romantic posturing, but I cannot help but see the sprawl of old Edo mirror that of a circuit board. Fritz Lang’s sci-fi fable Metropolis reinterpreted the 20th century city as a machine constructed in the image of a human with hands, a brain, and a heart, and these maps show an extremely complex urban nervous system.

Looking at this makes me wish there was some sort of film preservation database, especially considering that over 90% of Japanese films made prior to 1945 have been lost or destroyed. But that also gave me pause to think about if there could be a use beyond preservation for DH. Can it be creation and preservation combined? 3D printed recreations of decrepit artifacts, perhaps. But if I’m looking for information about how DH is shaping Japan right now, I’m usually checking my Twitter feed rather than an academic website, often time from American or British writers or journalists.

Imperfect Binary

Until fairly recently I was not aware of the subject of Digital Humanities, and now it seems the only concrete aspect of it I can grasp is that it is a subject in constant flux, controversy, and debate. But just as I know the best books or films were controversial and considered filth or drech, I can tell that this controversy is what gives DH some life. The fact that people are saying terrible things about digital humanities (according to Matthew Kirschenbaum) is a sign that it is a subject worth pursuing (or at least paying attention to).  You can pick your cliche du jour for DH’s situation (“the only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about” or “there’s no such thing as bad publicity,” perhaps?), but the controversy and mystique of the subject might be part of what allows it to thrive.

When I told people I was taking digital humanities, they usually followed up my response with “what is digital humanities?” I can see in blog posts that some of my classmates were in a similar predicament. Having enrolled in the class but not yet taken it, I was slightly flummoxed as to what to tell them, but I ultimately settled on “the ethics of algorithms.” Little did I realize that this quandary of uncertainty is part of what makes DH the subject that it is.If we look at the news nowadays we can see algorithms being used for less than ethical ends.

The Theories and Virtues of Digital Humanities by Natalia Cecire spoke of “getting your hands dirty” as one of the (possible) central tenants of DH. This version of getting your hands dirty has to do with coding, learning practical applications of programming and it’s possibilities. But we see many people getting their hands dirty in coding for less than humanistic ends. Privacy destroyed, Twitter being used as a battleground rather than a forum for discussion, decapitations on Youtube. It’s a reminder of how the unfortunately all too human sides of humanity can worm their way into our idealized digital utopia. But is this the realm of Digital Humanities to judge or fix? Or is it to study and dissect how humanity has changed in this new era? Or is DH meant to divorce technology from this uglier side of programing and using technology?

Is it the business of DH to truly get its hands dirty? Does DH distinguish between the voice of “the people” and that of “the mob?” Just as Twitter was being used to show what was happening on the streets of #ferguson (Sure, Ferguson is a real place, but far more people have come in contact with the hashtag than set foot in the place), it was also being abused by #gamergate under the banner of journalist transparency (while harassing women working in or critiquing the video game industry).DH is meant to have loftier goals than navigating the minutia of sarcasm in 140 characters. After all, DH supposedly started as an attempt to translate the divine into punch cards. Today there are schools in Japan cataloguing the works of Edo-period woodblock artists, and attempts to study and preserve the works of pre-Islamic Persian scholars. Tara McPherson’s essay Why Are Digital Humanities So White? intrigues me because it leans towards the belief that while we must get our hands dirty with programming and writing digital languages, which much also be mindful of humanity’s own ugliness. If the digital is divine, than it is human to error.

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