Late City / VY2K
This is my Documentary Review from a week ago -- I'm sorry, it took some time to get me signed up to post! Thanks for reading,
The two short pieces of film we watched this week for class, Late City and VY2K, both have new media and politics directly in their sights. Late City, in representing history and conveying information across great distances through television, and VY2K in creating it with VR military simulators and controllers that also span great distance. At the screening last night, Prof. Der Derian described VY2K as engaging the question of whether all the new technology should be viewed as an “enabler” or an “estranger.” It’s clear from the wide range of opinions expressed in VY2K that both of these statements are in some cases true. But while the utopian arguments for technology and new media made are important and inspiring, considering what we have today, the intermediate between then and the future utopians hope and work for, we need to be skeptical of both technology that eases the possibility of war, and arguments that simply blame that technology rather than the people and institutions using the technology. All the images we’re given now are at least somewhat incomplete – and the most we can learn from them is to be cognizant of that fact, skeptical, but not without a sense of history and of the possible future.
Late City’s segment on the Zapruder film of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 makes, on the surface, important arguments about media representation of history in our age: if it is not documented in images, it is not history -- but images do not tell the whole story in any way. And as Art Simon points out in Late City, their meaning can be created as much by context as their content. This week’s reading in Tube of Plenty makes an important point about the context that media broadcast has had since the very beginning: “The network, having ‘sold’ a period, seemed to regard it as sponsor property, to be used as he designated. Sponsors were, in effect, being encouraged to take charge of the air.” (Barnouw, Erik. Tube of Plenty. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990. p.57) Though things may seem different, the correlation between Nielsen ratings and advertising prices, between the constant threat of advertisers dropping your show, their influence shouldn’t be undervalued. This fact brings up a key intertext between Late City and “real” TV: while some of it’s advanced techniques in style have been adopted by popular TV, it’s stance against the superiority of images and the “military-industrial-media complex” hasn’t so much. An obvious exception is The Daily Show, but Jon Stewart will readily admit that his much-needed criticism of other media outlets is simply a search for laughs and advertising dollars, not “truth.” Late City seems much more pure in their intentions, and perhaps then its ultimate failure to become “ real TV” shouldn’t be so surprising: from the beginning, centrally broadcasted new media needs to be for the sponsors, because “press is free for those who own one,” not for those who will criticize those who own one.
In Prof. Der Derian’s “Cyber War” section of Late City, and in the various interviews in VY2K we see a more direct engagement of new tools used on the battlefield, and how new media redefines the commander’s relationship to that battlefield. Though Jaron Lanier professes to believe in the possibility of VR to perhaps create a pure improvisational space of human creativity, this half-statement shown in the documentary is certainly not the whole story. In a wired article Prof. Der Derian wrote for Wired about military simulators, he makes a much more pertinent point (to this class at least): “The simulated battlefield makes killing and dying less plausible, and therefore more possible.” (Der Derian, James. “Cyber-Deterrence.” http://www.watsoninstitute.org/infopeace/vy2k/deterrence.cfm) This sentiment is echoed in a general consensus in VY2K: “tele-presence,” and the ability of new technology to extract people from the physical battlefield gives the illusion of control and make the war theatre seem much more like a play than a “human” endeavor. One critic even calls military “seductive,” as technology suggests “battle management,” again calling to mind theatre and business. Lanier’s optimistic statement of the possibility of “shared dreaming” seems much more malicious now – is this shared dream one where we’ll let images convince us to go to war under false pretenses? Or one where the supposed “control” over military action will make us dream of an impossibly “symbolic war?” Michael Ignatieff’s idea of symbolic war, in the context presented seems like a step forward: war will be able to get away from actual killing, and just send messages. This is nothing to be pleased about – I for one, would rather complicated diplomatic politics through conversation (or televised conversations) rather than precision bombs (or televised bombings).
The arguments faulting technology were initially much more convincing than those praising technology’s creative and potentially democratizing power as they inspire fear of technology as an “estranger,” because they show how on a large scale they might make going to war a little bit easier, a little bit less real, and as Der Derian says in Late City, simplified to a “screenful of good guys, bad guys, and passive viewers.” But the cloak that both VY2K and Late City pull over our eyes is a particular subjectivity – one that the producers of the films will readily admit to – that they’ve privileged the importance of their type of media (be it TV or VR) over the powerful forces that existed before it, and still exist above it. At last week’s screening of Why We Fight, Jarecki warned of the same thing. Just as it is “people who make the VR” (Mark Pesce, VY2K), it is people that use it too – people guided by their actions, but also by the pre-existing institutions in which they act. Both of these documents could be partially faulted for their narrow focus, but they do make some attempt to address their incomplete nature: Late City mentions the protests at news stations during the Gulf War and curious lack of demonstration at the pentagon. VY2K engages creative minds that are thinking outside of the box of current events. While both provide adequate and necessary warning about the present skepticism about images and technology, they don’t hold people and institutions accountable: people still pull the trigger on a “smart” bomb and people could read the written word rather than watch images of falling bombs. Their decisions are based on so much more than the technology they use to make them.