The French children wore English words on their bodies. On the teacher’s cue, each nine-year-old stood up and read aloud the words on their shirt. Be Yourself. Here 2 Break Hearts. NYC. Los Angeles. Miami. Est. 2002.
It was the summer of 2016 and I was living in Bretagne, a region in the northwest of France, working as an aupair and English tutor while living with a host family. My host father was a middle school math teacher and had arranged for me to visit a few of the English classes at his school. At the teachers’ request, I created a brief PowerPoint on my “Life as an American Student,” a mix of scenic campus pictures and bulleted facts about the United States. Although our current president was only a candidate at the time, I felt uneasy about representing the United States, and I was sure that the banal facts I had collected would underwhelm my boisterous audience.
Au contraire. Once I began speaking, the rowdy class fell silent, savoring every word. I was asked to re-pronounce “Obama” at least four times. “You see the way she says ‘ObAHma’ instead of ‘ObamAH’? If you want to sound like a native speaker, you need to pay attention to emphasis,” the teacher instructed in a vaguely Australian accent. One student told me, in French, that he wanted to learn English so that he could write popular music. Another student told me that she was doing an exchange in the U.K. so that she would be a competitive applicant for an English-immersion high school program. At the end of the hour, the teacher revealed that every student had worn a t-shirt with English words on it. The students beamed as they rattled off anglophone catch phrases and cities, pithy slogans and celebrites.
Long after I had returned to the United States, I wondered how to read that experience. Of course, the English shirts constituted a gesture of diplomacy; the teacher and her students wanted to show me their knowledge and appreciaton of my country, language, and culture. At the same time, I could not picture the shirt-reading happening in an American classroom hosting a French visitor. How many American children own t-shirts with French words printed on them? Certainly not 100% of an average fourth grade class.
The status of English as a global lingua franca may seem like a given to you. Of course French middle schoolers want to learn English. Diplomats around the world speak English. You may see English-language billboards and advertisements in countries where English is not the dominant language. English is often called “the official language of business.” Naturally, non-native speakers wish to become proficient in English in order to navigate an anglophone-dominant world.
There is lively debate, however, about the implications of making English a global language. Does the expansion of English entail the decline or erasure of other languages? If language and culture are inextricably linked, does the expansion of English entail the decline or erasure of other cultures? Can we theorize the expansion of English a form of neocolonialism? What is the relationship between the English language and race?
As I prepare to spend a year teaching English outside of Tokyo, Japan, I have been considering these questions carefully. Who am I to teach my language when I cannot speak theirs? (Granted, I am trying to learn Japanese—emphasis on ‘trying.’) Over the next few weeks, I will explore the theory and practice of Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), weighing in on some important ethical questions. I hope to draw upon perspectives in linguistics, sociology, and anthropology, as well as from my own experiences and observations.
I hope you will be patient with me as I chart my path as a teacher, writer, and advocate of linguistic diversity.
With the advent of radio people were able to enjoy oral content from all over the place. Broadcasters could transmit music, news, or conversations over the airwaves and as radio evolved listeners could tune in from the comfort of their own home or during a road trip in the car. As technology has evolved so has our broadcasting. The newest and most popular form of broadcast media is podcasting. Podcasting leverages many of the advancement and benefits of modern technology. Podcasts, defined by Webster’s Dictionary as “a music or talk program made available for digital download,” came into existence around the early 2000s. Alongside the development of the iPhone, the term podcast was dubbed by BBC journalist Ben Hamersley combining the two terms “broadcast” and “iPhone”. Over the past decade podcasts have become more and more prevalent, especially among young people, with 42% of people aged 18-34 being weekly podcast listeners. Apple was the first major company to integrate podcasts into their general interface, establishing iTunes as the premier destination for pods. Culture critic Nicholas Quah identifies three distinct inflection points. With iTunes’s establishment of a legitimate platform being the first, Quah then points to the introduction of the iPhone 3G. This new device allowed users to download audio files remotely bolstering podcasts stock among “on-the-go” users. This mobility that podcasts provide is a crucial aspect of the medium. In his article “The mp3 as a Cultural Artifact” Jonathon Stern presents the concept of a “container technology”. He argues the mp3 is not a vital artifact in and of itself but that the crux of its utility lies within the content that it contains. Continuing he describes the novelty of these containers as lying in their mobility and compression. Users are able to use, share, and modify the content across a myriad of platforms at great speed and efficiency. Additionally, the files are small enough to allow users to download and delete them in large quantities. Podcasts can be understood from a similar perspective and reflect many of the same benefits. Steve Jobs described podcasts as “Tivo for Radio” and this characterization highlights the essential attributes of podcasts. They can be easily accessed at any time and user can select which content they want to view. Stern continues his point writing, “They take up less space than other kinds of digital recordings and when they are listened to, they are experienced as music, not as file format.” For many podcast users, their experience is similar. Podcasts have become a source for news, politics, tutorials, and all kinds of various media. Consequently, users associate each podcast with the content it contains. One might say “I’m listening to the news” while listening to a BBC podcast on the latest events as opposed to “I’m listening to a news podcast”. Most podcasts are available for free download and podcast publishers rely primarily on advertising revenue to sustain them. Thee revenues have increased dramatically in the very recent past. According to a case study by IAB podcast revenues in 2015 totaled 69 million dollars. By 2016 these figures had risen to 119 million and are projected to reach 220 million in 2017.in the past week Apple has released its beta version of advertisement analytics on podcasts. This information will provide podcast creators and advertising company more detailed information on who is listening and to what extent. While previously creators could access only the total number of downloads these new analytics will show how many downloaded podcasts actually get listened to, exactly how long they are listened to and perhaps most importantly whether or not listeners fast forward through advertisements. This new information could spurn additional investment on the part of advertisers but could also show these ads to be ineffective.
Angle 2: Cultural Representation
The resurgence of podcasts is a relatively recent phenomenon and thus their presence in popular media is limited. But the kids television show ICarly serves as an instance of cultural representation. The first episode of iCarly premiered on September 8, 2007 and the show lasted until November 23, 2012. The show centers around Carly Shay, a teenager living with her older brother in Los Angeles, and her two friends Sam Puckett and Freddie Benson. The premise of the show starts with Freddie, unbeknownst to them, recording Carly and Sam during a school talent show. Freddie, a tech wizard, posts the video online. The recording generates a wide viewership and the web audience gravitates towards Carly and Sam’s chemistry and humorous personas. Inspired by the reception the trio begin to produce regular episodes of their new web show, iCarly. Their web show features a wide range of mostly silly content, including talent contests, cooking tutorials, and famously (at least to fans of the show) random dancing. While the webcast obviously differs from the podcast, in that it features a visual aspect, it still bears many similarities to the podcast and iCarly highlights what would become some of the most important qualities of the podcast. The internet in general has increased the access of the public to a wide array of content but has also reduced the barriers to creating content and given a platform to produce content for almost anyone who desires to do so. Without home internet or even a computer people can still access the internet and all the content housed there with just a smartphone and at least theoretically create a podcast using only those same tools. The iCarly show created by a few teenagers with a webcam highlights this fact. Another interesting aspect of the iCarly show was the element of fan interaction. Bill Bradley, in his article 11 Things You Didn’t Know about iCarly, describes the process of fan interaction on the show. The iCarly website featured a section where views could submit commentary and the show would often feature videos submitted by real fans of the show doing similar activities to the ones featured on the fictional web show. The show also contained Carly and Sam’s reaction to the fan videos as part of the webcast. This aspect allowed viewers to feel connected to the characters and made them feel part of a collective community. Users were able to submit not only videos on themselves but also general feedback, which the writers and actors would often incorporate into the show. This stands in stark contrast to most traditional TV shows where viewers watch their favorite show and then wait for the next episode. This aspect of iCarly also highlights the openness and interactivity of the show and foreshadowed the way in which podcasts would operate. Podcasts also commonly feature interactions with the audience. With over 200,00 different podcasts on iTunes, each podcast has its own audience some more specific than others. This creation of communities establishes an intimate network. Consumers leave reviews which create more visibility in the public sphere and in terms of the algorithms on iTunes and other platforms that promote popular and widely discussed pods.
Angle 3: History
Podcasts have an interesting hand varied history. They are at their core broadcast media with a repurposed format. They can be traced back originally to radio broadcasts where personalities would present music or talk shows as entertainment for the home. As technology progressed radio become more portable with Walkman, car radios, and other mobile devices. But with governmental control over radio waves and only established entities having access, a significant barrier to entry presented itself and thus the people who could produce radio content were severely limited. They were limited in how they could listen, who they could listen to and when they could listen. The development of the web saw the advent of internet radio an important precursor to podcasts. The internet provided a centralized location for the aggregation of content. But the aggregated, subscription based model that also allowed downloads did not take shape until the early 2000s. The first device of this kind was i2Go. Originally priced at 500 dollars, the i2Go allowed users to automatically download episodic content from a companion website that featured programs on news and entertainment as well as music. While it was not particularly portable the advent of automatic downloads was groundbreaking and set the stage for podcasts. The project was short lived and i2Go folded during the dot-com crash.
Around 2000 two software developers, Dave Winer and Adam Curry theorized about solving the problems with delivering catered and downloadable content to users seamlessly as Todd Cochrane details in his book Podcasting: Do It Yourself Guide. They aimed to create a mechanism to download audio files from their favorite websites for later listening. They turned to RSS (Real Simple Syndication) as a springboard. Curry and Winer proposed using enclosures, or embedded content in RSS feeds to circumvent issues of bandwidth. Using basic software users could “catch” files embedded in these feeds automatically. Winer wrote a script that would then take these files and place them in a centralized location like an iTunes library. Users now had a way to efficiently download and aggregate content. This step, while seemingly innocuous was crucial for the implementation of podcasts distributed to the masses. Everyday user would likely be unable to program scripts or complete a multi-step process with multiple platforms. The automation and integration with a centralized library was critical to making the content easily accessible. Winer created a RSS feed for a colleague’s weblog that included enclosures. The weblog contained interviews with various political figures, and personalities. After accumulating enough interviews Winer released them as enclosures within the RSS feed. This was the first official podcast and the idea spurred on software engineers to improve upon the concept. As others borrowed from Winer and Curry the number of podcasts grew and radio shows began integrating internet access in their programming. While the technical workings of podcasting still seemed complex the relative costs of producing podcasts grew the number of content creators. The introduction of Apple into the podcasting market saw a huge rise in visibility of the medium. Apple, providing sleek and streamlined platform to consumers spurned a rise in everyday consumers removing podcasts from their previously specialized RSS arena. As the number of existing podcasts rose, so did the number of aggregators. Alternate platforms like PodcastAlley and The Podcast Network also housed countless programs and like Apple allowed users to search and discover new content. These added features and accessibility significantly grew the medium and set it up for the widespread success it enjoys today.
Perez, Sarah. “Apple launches its podcast analytics service into beta.” TechCrunch, TechCrunch, 14 Dec. 2017, techcrunch.com/2017/12/14/apple-launches-its-podcast-analytics-service-into-beta/.
Quah, Nicholas. “The Three Fundamental Moments of Podcasts’ Crazy Rise.” Wired, Conde Nast, 4 Oct. 2017, www.wired.com/story/podcast-three-watershed-moments/.
Stern, Jonathon . “The mp3 as Cultural Artifact.” New Media and Society, vol. 8, no. 5, 1 Oct. 2006.
Bradley, Bill. “11 Things You Didn’t Know About ‘iCarly’.” The Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com, 23 Nov. 2014, www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/11/23/icarly-trivia-facts_n_6196682.html.
Cochrane, Todd. “History of podcasting.” Blubrry Podcasting – Podcast Hosting, Statistics, WordPress Hosting, Syndication Tools and Directory, create.blubrry.com/manual/about-podcasting/history-of-podcasting-new/.
Doyle, Bob. “The First Podcast.” EContent Magazine, 7 Sept. 2005, www.econtentmag.com/Articles/ArticleReader.aspx?ArticleID=13515.
For my image analysis, I chose the 2017 smash hit Get Out. One of the striking things I observed well watching this movie is the subtle tonal shifts in the art direction of the film. The work is supposed to appear familiar and relatable, a regular guy goes home with a regular girl to meet her parents. However, beneath this normalcy the screenwriter and director use shifts in color and subtle tone to make the audience feel uneasy. These patterns of tonal shifts are visible in all three of the presented images. In the barcode, we see a darker, meaner palette of color followed by more light and a seemingly “regular” assortment of colors. Additionally, in the plot image, we see that the lighter, brighter color palette comprises a much larger number of shots than those shot with a dark array of color. This makes a lot of sense because of the director’s efforts to create unease and tension among members of the audience. Many of my friends called Get Out one of the most unnerving movie-going experiences of their lifetime. This creepy experience is definitely aided by the sparse and intentional use of color, helping blur the lines between the normal and abnormal, and what is theatrical dramatization and what is a reflection of reality. This interpretation of the use of color and tone in Get Out is also visible in the montage, as we see shifts from shots of dark interiors to bright shots of the outdoors. The montage image is particularly helpful because it lets us consider the color palette of the film and observe trends on a macro scale while allowing us to root our interpretation firmly in the actual content of the movie by detailing particular scenes. Due to the unique evident quality of this image, I believe it to be the most valuable of the three. However, by being able to explain all of them and put them in conversation with one another, I believe I was able to achieve a more comprehensive analysis than I would have been able to with solely the montage.
Ultimately, if I had more time to do movie analysis I would really like the look at the trends in color and light usage in thrillers. Horror movies usually take a sledgehammer approach to unnerving their audience. Meanwhile, thrillers have to be subtle with how they mess with their audience. Were I to do a large scale image analysis of the stills parsed from other thrillers, I believe I would see a similar trend of dark shots being sparsely deployed and frequently contrasted with long stretches of bright, light palette shots in order to subtlely evoke a feeling of unease within the viewer.
In July of 2007, J.K. Rowling published the final book of her Harry Potter series. It was amazing conclusion to a fantastic series, but it was also difficult for fans to come to terms with the fact that the series was now over. Four years later, Rowling brought new hope to her fans with the launch of Pottermore – an online database of her never-before-seen writing about characters, places and plots.
As Lev Manovich points out in The Language of New Media, databases are typically thought of as a radical departure from the narrative form, as they are searchable and arbitrarily organized. However, the original Pottermore site brought narrative form to the database by requiring users to move through a Hogwarts storyline to unlock database objects. For example, if you wanted to know more about where Rowling drew inspiration in creating Professor McGonagall, you had to attend transfiguration class and click on McGonagall rather than simply searching for her. To unlock further levels and progress through the site, you had to get sorted into a house and play flash games. This created a more stimulating user experience than simply clicking through a collection of wiki entries containing Rowling’s thoughts.
While many younger people found this organization of the site entertaining, adults often found the simple flash games a nuisance that stood between them and immersion in the real lifeblood of the Harry Potter universe, Rowling’s writing. As such, Pottermore has since been reorganized into a more traditional, wiki-style database, albeit a beautiful and extremely well designed database.
How do you listen to music? Back in the day, one could have either purchase cassettes and play the songs he/she wanted, or he/she could have given up the opportunity to choose and tuned to a radio station. The way people listen to music has changed tremendously throughout the years. However, some patterns remain even in today’s digital world. Consider a platform like Spotify. One can either purchase the premium plan and obtain access to any song from the database, or just choose to listen to songs that are of the similar genre as the desired one.
I have never closely paid attention to how the delivery of music has changed. Lev Manovich’s article, however, got me interested by pointing out the contrast between databases and narratives. Within the article Manovich pointed out the cultural transition to a world based on databases rather than narratives. The contrast between a radio station in the early 2000s and the free version of Spotify access, perfectly fits within Manovich’s claim. Instead of a radio station DJ playing songs that he/she likes and wants you to hear, you are now listening to songs that are chosen from a huge database by a computer algorithm. At first glance, both of these methods might sound the same, however there is an underlying difference. When a person chooses the song, he/she is affected by things like mood, personal experiences, and even the current weather. The computerized algorithm, however, bases its decisions on certain captured common trends and other previously collected data. Even though a listener might not notice much of a difference, the underlying world is constantly evolving.
Manovich offers an artistic definition of a database and a few specific applications of the data structure, but I want to discuss the fundamentals of the technology alongside very popular sources of databases and the ethical, and slightly nerdy, importance of databases — the qualities of which carry physical affects and digital applications that require computational care while sometimes perpetuating moral questions.
What is a database?
In its simplest form a database is a sequence of rows and columns whose rows correspond to elements or packets of information, be it a person, tweet, google search result, etc. and whose column corresponds to a piece of the information: name, author, date posted, etc.
One of the most popular forms of databases is an SQL database. (SQL = “Structured Query Language”) Wherein the data exists as a table with columns the user can sort, alter and make queries or selections/filters to to get information out.
Where do we encounter databases? In addition to video games, museums, and the generalized “Web” mentioned in Manovich’s work, there are a few increasingly popular examples of databases which have large impacts on the modern digital world.
Google: When we use the word ‘google’ we are simply referring to the interface used to access the database that the company Google has collected. “Spiders” or, as Google sometimes puts it, ‘web crawlers’ visit the entirety of the generally accessible ‘Internet’ and gather information which Google stores in their database. Users then query the data stored for information like articles, images, documents, webpages, etc. Google’s Search Algorithm holds similar structure to SQL databases is in its filtering and sorting of data by its diverse variables.
Facebook uses databases in its collection of human information. Which, of course, raises the digital-age old moral question: is it ethically sound to be collecting ‘personal’ data? That is, data from a vast group of people. The question stems less from the concept of the structure, as data is meant to be stored, and more from the extent and subject of the data that is being collected. See this previous blog post I made about the ethical dilemma of Facebook’s sometimes unsolicited collection of “private” data.*
Why are they important?
Beyond the artistic, cultural value that Manovich mentions, databases occupy physical space and computing power — something we’ve discussed in the past with cloud computing. Databases can easily be neglected as a computational ‘thing’ that collects data and exists purely in our digital ‘cloud’. Take google’s data center for example. There is no magical cloud that information floats across. It, instead, lies in the ones and zeroes of physical hard drives and memory devices that exist in factories sprinkled all across the world leading to real world impacts.
In the modern world this constant spread and collection of information has come to be a big part of our progress being made in the digital world today. The constant moral questions being asked, from Facebook’s collection of personal information to Trump’s proposed “database for muslims“, are all raising an equally important question of how, why, and for what should we use databases?
*Also, see this post for additional thoughts on data collection as a whole.
Wow this article was confusing. I may not have the prior knowledge to fully follow all of Manovich’s points, but one point that did stick was the one on video games. Highly academic of me I know. I Manovick has the beginnings of a decent argument when it comes to narrative masking the algorithm of games. He is correct that because of the story we often overlook how the game itself functions. This a true point and a bizarre point. It seems obvious that the narrative is suppose to take our primary attention. I don’t think that it takes away from the actual experience of the game itself at all.
I don’t really see his point in this section though as he more just states facts. Yes, there are different kinds of games, that is why we have created different genres for them. Manovich goes on about the differences between algorithms, narrative games and logic games, but doesn’t really say why. The differences seem fairly straightforward. To add onto that I think he actually simplifies games down too much to fit his groups. Plenty of games have little mini games built into them. One example is hacking in fallout 4. The hacking system is a very straightforward word creating game that would fit into Manovich’s algorithm category. But fallout as a whole is a very different style of game.
Manovich could’ve made the argument that we often overlook the important aspect of games themselves. He could’ve said that video games are not as free and expressive as we like to think they are. That in reality we are following these codes and simply tricking ourselves into thinking we have some sort of freedom through the context of the narrative. That is a perfectly valid point that he starts to make, but never fully says. Instead he jumps to the next topic. I understand he wasn’t focused on this per say but I felt like he did this in many other sections where he’d simply start a point and move onto the next without creating any closure.
If you’re anything like me, the experience of grocery shopping at Harris Teeter is akin to navigating a database. Harris Teeter’s aisles serve as categories (Produce, Dairy, International, etc.) that contain lists of items (parsley, eggs, salsa). Of course, I choose the order in which I engage with these categories (I usually go to Produce first, then make my way across the store—maybe this is my own algorithm of sorts), but my experience could hardly be construed as narrative. Manovich points out that an arbitrary linear sequence does not on its own constitute a narrative. So perhaps grocery stores appeal to database logic?
Manovich contends that the database is the key form of cultural expression of the computer age, eclipsing the narrative as articulated through literature and cinema. Because this is a blog post and the stakes are relatively low, I’d like to make an ambitious theoretical maneuver: perhaps the database is the favored form of cultural expression because it better coheres with neoliberal ideas of market and consumer.
Indeed, the “storage mania” that Manovich cites seems predicated on the idea of data as property; the accumulation of data is desirable, then, because it corresponds with the accumulation of capital. In this paradigm, narrative becomes undesirable insofar as it is a smaller container than a database. I admit that this assumption is tenuous: Are fewer data stored in a novel than in an encyclopedia? I don’t know.
Similarly, consumerism relies on paradigmatic ways of thinking and rejects syntagmatic ones. The paradigmatic generates consumer desire by underlying the accessibility of choice and infinite possibility. I can, for example, browse a dozen different online retailers (databases) to find the perfect pair of shoes. Because the syntagmatic emphasizes what is present, rather than alternate possibilities, it is less compatible with consumer ideals.
These are obviously some big ideas with a lot of assumptions that should be unpacked, but I think the connection between databases and market capitalism is worth exploring.
Databases and narratives are interesting to compare to each other because of how they differ, but also how similar they are. Let’s think about the ways in which they are similar to each other. Databases are made as an encyclopedia of different sources, whether it be pictures, words, letters, or anything that can be categorized. Meanwhile, narratives take the elements that are used in a database and makes sense out of them.
It’s comprehensible to seethe benefits of each of these categories of forms of literature (databases and narratives) Starting with the database, a list of items make up a database for no real reason at all except to inform the user base of an encyclopedia for example. In an English encyclopedia, one can find the meanings, etymologies, function, and pronunciation of a word. This is good for learning how to speak, read, and write in English. However one might want to see these words in context, and therefore can go to a narrative, which has those words used in sentences, and are used to drive a certain plot, which I and most other people think is more entertaining and intellectually stimulating than an encyclopedia.
However when thinking about these two categories of literature, we have to acknowledge that databases have ultimately come before narratives. In other words, before people could make rhetoric out of the words they were using, the words would have to have been made, which would have been written down in encyclopedias. Below I have a video posted comparing databases and narratives that could possibly further our conversation of this topic of the language of media.
I found the Manovich article very confusing, and I am not entirely sure that I correctly understood the point of the article. If I am correct, the main point is that interactions with media that used to be “narrative” or “story” based have now lost their narrative element due to the nature of databases and mass media.
Manovich uses the “antinarrative logic of the web” as one example, stating “If new elements are being added over time, the result is a collection, not a story. Indeed, how can one keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory through the material if it keeps changing?” (Manovich 2010). As a counter example to Manovich’s argument, simply look at the ancient Greek oral storytelling tradition. The Trojan War occurred around 1200 BCE, yet the Homerian epics were not written until the 700s BCE.
Prior to Homer, the story of the Trojan War was recounted solely through spoken word, with little additions and subtractions to the story occurring frequently. One can argue that the factuality of the story suffered from this, but to say that the Homerian epics did not “keep a coherent narrative or any other development trajectory” before Homer wrote them down would be a foolish claim. Narratives can maintain consistent storylines even with constant additions, meaning that websites can maintain a narrative feature in spite of their malleable nature.
I am not claiming that all websites are always consistent, indeed, the inclusion of The Undefeated on ESPN’s website marked a change in the direction of their narrative. But some websites remain unchanging, ever faithful to their story and their narrative.
Manovich, Lev. The Language of New Media. MIT Press, 2010.
My source of knowledge about the Trojan War is my Classics 280 course.