Sunday, 15 February 2015

Hollywood, Software and the User Gaze

Welcome back to the University of Glasgow’s American Studies blog. For the ninth instalment in our 2014-2015 seminar series, the Andrew Hook Centre for American Studies invited Dr. Zara Dinnen for an engaging lecture, ‘Hollywood, Software and the User Gaze’. Dr. Zinnen is a lecturer in Modern and Contemporary Literature at the University of Birmingham and presented this talk as part of the book she’s currently working on, American Culture & the Digital Every Day (working title).

Dr. Dinnen is exploring the way the digital, especially computer code, is represented on screen in film and television, and how we, as viewers, watch and are being made to watch this. She initiated her subject matter by showing two clips – a scene from Die Hard 4 and the trailer of upcoming film Blackhat, in which we hear and read lines such as “security infrastructure under compromise”, “hacking defence network”, and “our systems interconnected”.

The U.S.’s preoccupation with vulnerable security and dissident actions in the digital sphere has become quite apparent in film and television in recent years, and mainstream media too has developed a fascination with these topics, apparent from the coverage of Anonymous’ hacktivism or the Aaron Swartz case. There is however much about the digital sphere and its concepts that the mainstream media consumer is unaware of, and Dr. Dinnen’s talk focused on how this can be problematic when computer code and other digital technologies are represented and translated on screen. She considers the image of code as shown in fiction film or television, and how through its impenetrability for the unknowledgeable viewer, it is resistant to narrative. Within this context, Dr. Dinnen introduced the idea of user vs. expert – the users being the passive audience who let complex images of code and computation be translated by whichever mediating human character on screen (often the hacker or computer geek), and the experts being the small group who do not need this mediation.

Because of the passivity forced upon the user group, Dr. Dinnen emphasises the need to question how we are looking at these images and how we are being made to look at them. Relating to Die Hard 4, she aligns the viewing audience with action hero John McLane, who equally feels alienated and unknowing about the code appearing on screen when he is with his hacker sidekicks. Both McLane and the audience need and automatically expect whatever the code signifies to be translated to them.  In the trailer for Blackhat, with a release date 8 years later than Die Hard 4, it appears that the on-screen roles have slightly changed. The hero and hacker are now the same character – Chris ‘Thor’ Hemsworth – and so the protagonist becomes both the character we aim to relate to but also the one who has to be our mediator, thereby also increasing the presence and importance of the ‘expert’.

Dr. Zinnen also focused on the animated ways digital technologies are represented on screen, for example the now-familiar manner in which the ‘camera’ guides the user on a rollercoaster through imagined connections and wires, or animated 3D visualisations of technology, as often unrealistically portrayed in series such as CSI. Again, as audience we become passive, being made to accept the representations of the digital because we are unknowledgeable. This was illustrated once more with the trailer of Blackhat, which uses live action and animation to create an image of the digital technologies in the film, and with the 2011 art video by Faith Holland, RIP Geo Cities, which is a montage of several of these ‘rollercoaster’ animations taken from the last decades of Hollywood cinema. After showing RIP Geo Cities, Dr. Zinnen argued that the reason these images are alienating is because of the absence of bodies and monitors that we as viewers tend to expect and need to translate information for us. By cutting the mediator out of her video, Holland has taken away the human aspect, the person who is on screen staring at a screen and relaying digital information.

Quoting Dr. Stephanie Ricker Schulte, who stated that “we need to understand how culture has influenced our ideas about the digital world”, Dr. Zinnen then argued that her focus on this topic comes from her consideration that it is important for us to understand the technologies we use on a day-to-day basis.

Ricker Schulte further questioned why we tend to consider and contextualise digital culture a part of American culture, while digital culture plays a global role, and through its very nature this raises legal and ethical conflicts. This was illustrated with a recent case in which Microsoft argued that it could withhold data from American courts because its server was located in Ireland. However, Dr. Zinnen did emphasise that for her own research, she is approaching this topic in the context of American Studies, via a focus on Hollywood.

In her development of the concept of the ‘user gaze’, Dr. Zinnen referenced the influential ideas Laura Mulvey explored about the male gaze in cinema. ‘The user’ is defined as being someone who uses a personal computer as a means rather than an end, someone who is passive and asks ‘silly questions’, who doesn’t solve or explore issues in-depth. The user is unknowledgeable. The user might not be able to see the difference between authentic and inauthentic code when shown in a film, while an expert will be able to tell. Mulvey stated that it is built into the spectacle itself how we look at the spectacle. Regarding the user gaze and the digital on screen, Dr. Zinnen argued that the user (is being made to) glaze(s) over representations of computation, since to the mainstream viewer they are incomprehensible, thus leaving them with no other ways to look at them.   

Dr. Zinnen illustrated her ideas further by showing a clip out of Netflix series House of Cards. Season 2 of the series contains a hacker subplot in which the government uses a previously detained hacker’s services against his will. U.K. experts advised on the creation of this storyline. The series’ way of representing this topic is pedagogical; it is helping educate the U.S. public about the hypocrisy in criminalising hackers. Meanwhile, it also creates a ‘usergate’ through the inauthenticity of the hacker plot.

In a talk which provoked thoughts about viewers’ acceptance of representations of the digital on screen and the assumption that we will get accurate information relayed to us, ‘Source Code in TV and Films’, a blog which claims ‘expert spectatorship’, was an interesting addition to the lecture. The blog points out flaws in the accuracies of representations of the digital in film and television. Its contributors are clearly profiling themselves as not the normal ‘user’, they are not passive in receiving this information on screen, they have the privilege of being an expert. Through this position, experts are acting ‘for’ the users, to make us aware that we do not just have to accept being made to watch a certain way.

Dr. Zinnen’s talk was engaging and provoking in the sense that it makes us consider what we accept as authentic on screen and how our gaze is controlled. These are not new concepts in film theory, but they are fresh and fascinating applied to this relatively new topic of the digital and representations of the digital in film and television. The lecture also made us question whether it is problematic that users (the majority of the audience) do not have more awareness about the technologies they use every day, and are in essence unknowledgeable about. This issue is emphasised through the user gaze and its passivity.

In an interesting Q&A session, Dr. Zinnen commented on questions about (amongst others) representations of the digital in fiction literature and the idea of a ‘satirical user gaze’. Considering the continuous developments in both screen media and digital technologies, it will be interesting to see how her research will develop and expand, and what its relevancy will be in the future.

Sanne Jehoul 

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