The Football World Cup for Smart People 6 – The round-up

October 21, 2014 § Leave a comment

In Media Res has a special round-up week (starting today!) on the Football World Cup. Short incisive insights to be expected, starting with Thomas Corrigan’s thinly veiled hopes that media broadcasters would have learnt their Napster lesson and would, this time around, go for a more inclusive approach to illegal streaming of football matches. Fat chance!

More to come this week.

The Internet of Things is Coming — yes, but…

July 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

..but who will be doing all the work?

This paper argues that automation (machines operating on their own) is being replaced by heteromation (human labor, often low wage or unpaid, being used to fuel the operations of machines: think FoldIt or Google, where we input the data…).

A far cry, the authors point out, from the dreams of “augmented intelligence”, a fusion of human mind and machine-driven computation such as Licklider’s “man-computer symbiosis“.

Unless labor-relations (with the exception of data-entry jobs) is not the right tool to view the on-going developments in interface/wearable tech/body hacking. Does entering a search in Google qualify as “labor”? Does playing a video-game qualify as “labor”? I agree it qualifies as cooperation with machine intelligence, but in this sense, heteromation would actually designate some sort of magical working with digital tools that we’ve become, indeed, quite familiar with–unless I really am my computer’s slave.But then again, aren’t we all?

The Internet of Things is Coming — yes, but…

July 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

…but what language will it speak?

Well, maybe this one.

What about a world where all objects speak “material design”, immersive, easy on the eye, clear in their functionality, elegant, coherent?

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 5 – BFI, 1975

July 9, 2014 § Leave a comment

Football on Television, London: BFI Television Monograph, 1975: a small collection of essays attempting to decode British TV coverage of the 1974 World Cup.

putting to use early findings of semiotics and the importance of codes (visual, cultural, poetic codes) in reading images (even, or especially, images that pretend to ‘realism’), these essays break down British TV coverage in terms of its constituent components: shots, shot-length, shot types, color, music, commentary, credit sequences, and so on. The point is to denaturalise the understanding of TV coverage, especially as it relates to sports.


“this monograph challenges the accuracy of the popular position (that TV offers factual reproduction). It casts doubt on the centrality of the distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘actuality’ in the mass media; it argues that ‘real’ events are–when perceived via the media–as structured as fictional programmes” (8)


There would be an interesting update to be done on the 2014 World Cup coverage, based on similar premisses: comparing shot lengths game to game, analysing the frequency (or lack of!) of replays (are there fewer replays in fast-moving games or in slow-moving games?), the use of “secondary images” (coaches, players on the bench, faces in the crowd)

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 4 – Geoffrey Nowell-Smith, 1978

July 8, 2014 § 1 Comment

This is a more scholarly addition to the debate than Eco’s essay, and is to be found in Screen 19.4, Winter 1978 (45-60).

If you’re ever in a fix and need a source for the oft-quoted pronouncement that “football is about winning”, this is the place to go. Just add (56) right after that quote, and you’re the toast of the party.

The real question of the article, though not fully explored, is whether “Argentina” did indeed win the 1978 World Cup, and which “Argentina”. It’s not fully explored because the article folds all issues back to whether the military junta in power won or not, which is a much more narrow focus than the general cultural implications of which “Argentina” won. The conclusion, that the political regime came out all right, mainly through the fact that TV coverage of the World Cup was normal (read: similar to previous World Cups) and therefore non-political, is in line with frequent criticisms of televised sport (again, see Eco: all circuses, little panem).

It’s a disappointing conclusion as the article also sets up “football” as more than a game and as a culture, or rather a cultural field, through which lots of social, cultural, emotional attachments and histories are negotiated. It makes the great point that the Saturday football match is merely one stop in the cultural flow of football (the friends one talks to, the football related news and rumours one reads, etc.), that football is as much about the match as it is about “recall”.

Once it gets to Argentina, however, it forgets this intense plurality of meanings and this temporal flow of football cultures to focus on the “blue” of Argentina, concluding that the “Argentinian nationhood [became] axed around football (…)  from which any other Argentina (…) was for the time being evacuated.” (58) Apart from the analyst’s intuition that this was the case (based, no doubt, on the desire for football at the 1978 World Cup to have done more to fight the political battle), what is this based on?

The World Cup, through TV, is here seen as articulating several overlapping sets of oppositions, Nordic vs. Latin (for European countries), Portuguese-speaking vs. Spanish-speaking (for South American nations), North vs. South (rather than East vs. West, with both USSR and USA absent from the competition) — a set of oppositions that could still be argued to inflect much analysis and football coverage today.

But does TV coverage really erase football partisanship? Is football really just about partisanship? Because TVs (on long shots) are positioned at the half-way line, is that a sign of TV attempting impartiality, trying to make us forget that is is merely a representation, not a reproduction of the event? Yes the annoying shots of people in the crowd help us being “present” in the event — but is that enough to put us, politically, to sleep?

It is a bit surprising that, for an article that looks at the game of football, it does not look at the gaming dimension of football TV reception — or how audiences may have fun with TV coverage. The main problem, of course, is that, as was then the case in film studies, spectatorship is essentialized: it is derived from an analysis of content — although, at the same time, there is insistence on the fact that TV audiences cannot be viewed as homogeneous ! It’s TV spectatorship in limbo, waiting for the David Morleys of this world to extend our understanding of what it is that audiences do with TV.

Media and Persuasion — where have the last 60 years gone?

June 30, 2014 § Leave a comment

In 1959, after some 30 years of efforts of communication studies to establish that modern mass media did have terrible deleterious effects on children, could be used for propaganda, manipulated audiences into thinking what they did not want to think, had subliminal effects on audiences, etc. — 30 years, in other words, of  trying to establish the influence of media on supposedly passive audiences, this is what one of the founders of modern communication studies had to say:

this has been called the study of “campaigns”–to sell soap, to reduce prejudice, to induce the enemy to surrender–and this, I think, is what classical mass media research has been about. Even audience research or content analysis, though ostensibly autonomous concerns, my be shown to have been motivated by the problem of short-run effects. The question that best sums up this classical approach, I think, is “What do the media do to people?”

The answer, from study after study, is that the media do less than they had been expected to be able to do.

In the next 60 years or so, we’ve seen media research in audiences veer into more complex studies of the uses of media by audiences, of how communication is a multi-step process, of ethnographic local uses of media cultures, of audience activities — in other words, how media consumption is anything but passive, and how media persuasion is an extraordinarily complex phenomenon — irony, self-reflexivity, media literacy, remediation, all coming into play as audiences, young and old, educated or not, Western or not, meet media texts, flow, and cultures. Clearly, “the media”, still today, “do less than they [are] expected to be able to do.”

And yet, the media are still expected to have tremendous, hidden, magical, witchcraft-like influence on audiences. And I mean not just in the popular press, in the form of regular media panics that shape much of public discourse about media (violence in movies ! Violence in video games! the dangers of virtual reality immersion!). I mean in official, well-funded, very much public research of the kind the Guardian of yesterday reported. As the newspaper reported:

The Californian internet giant [Facebook] has published details of a massive experiment in which it manipulated information posted on 689,000 users’ home pages and discovered that through a process known as “emotional contagion”, it had the ability to make users feel either more positively or more negatively about things without them knowing it. (my emphasis)

Cue readers’ comments about the “The Manufacture of Consent” and the evil powers of Facebook, and the vulnerability of “people” — by definition others, as said commenter has to be, miraculously, exempt from the manipulatory powers of FB :

I suppose the fact of the matter is that most people are not very self aware if not outright stupid. The problem is knowing this how some people conclude that this fact gives them license to manipulate the thought and emotions of the vulnerable or their own purposes usually commercial but often political. Again the basic problem is it works. People really are that dull and many others have no moral qualms about manipulating them.

Now, to be clear, this story is indeed a story of “manipulation” — but the only manipulation that took place is FB manipulating users’ News Feeds without their consent (not to mention the researchers’ manipulation of users’s FB News Feeds without their express consent, in itself a clear breach of research ethics). And there is clear cause for massive outrage over this, though maybe not surprise, given FB’s history of misusing users’ information.

But manipulation of emotions? “Emotional contagion”? Manipulating users’s emotions “without them knowing it”, especially as this only applies to that “vulnerable” Other who is “outright stupid”, but not me? Others who are unconsciously manipulated, but not me?

Quick check on the original research paper reveals shoddy thinking and dubious scientific basis for the original claim, which is, to quote from the research:

emotional states can be transferred to others via emotional contagion, leading people to experience the same emotions without their awareness

This the “study” achieves by manipulating the degree of positivity (or negativity) that users can read in the messages posted to their News Feed. Several questions off the bat:

  • how do you define a positive message, or a negative message? Simple: “Posts were determined to be positive or negative if they contained at least one positive or negative word”. Good luck irony, double-entendre, hoaxes, jokes and other formulations of the “I could not agree with you more” kind (is that a positive message? a negative one as it has “not” in it?). 
    • UPDATE 30.6.2014I do not have access to the data-analysis tool used by the researcher, but someone who has makes the point that this “method” is even more of a joke as the tool does not, repeat, does not detect negations! In other words, “I am not happy” is coded as a positive message ! Dear me…
  • how do you make sure that a post with a positive word will result in a positive emotion? What’s a positive emotion, by the way? Tell me forty times that I am smart and this will very likely result in several “negative” emotions: 1/ I will get bored and 2/ I will get suspicious and depressed that I am being insulted to my face.
  • how do you measures what people feel in this “experiment”? Simple: you read the posts they post and…well, you get it. Back to our first 2 objections. How sure are you that a positive message reflects or expresses a positive feeling, whatever that means?

Now, let’s ignore those “minor” complications for a second — though from the very start, confusing emotions with the expression of emotions is a huge problem as it treats media (here the media of words, but also the media of social networks) as transparent — which it never is, especially when it says it is.

So, what does our study measure, then, in terms of what it calls “emotional contagion”? This is worth quoting at length:

When positive posts were reduced in the News Feed, the percentage of positive words in people’s status updates decreased by B = −0.1% compared with control […], whereas the percentage of words that were negative increased by B = 0.04% […] . Conversely, when negative posts were reduced, the percent of words that were negative decreased by B = −0.07% […] and the percentage of words that were positive, conversely, increased by B = 0.06% […].

The results show emotional contagion.

I kid you not. This is research from Cornell University, supported by the National Academy of Science in the US. A variation of, at best, 0.1% is deemed proof of “emotional contagion”. 0.1%. Or about the usual amount of people who “vote” against dictators.

Now, to be fair, the authors did recognise that maybe this result was somewhat insignificant. In conclusion:

Although these data provide, to our knowledge, some of the first experimental evidence to support the controversial claims that emotions can spread throughout a network, the effect sizes from the manipulations are small (as small as d = 0.001). These effects nonetheless matter given that the manipulation of the independent variable (presence of emotion in the News Feed) was minimal whereas the dependent variable (people’s emotional expressions) is difficult to influence given the range of daily experiences that influence mood. More importantly, given the massive scale of social networks such as Facebook, even small effects can have large aggregated consequences: For example, the well-documented connection between emotions and physical well-being suggests the importance of these findings for public health

The variation observed is laughably small, but because the network is vast, the effect is potentially big? Wait, the effect is on each individual, therefore it is not, by definition, a network effect. Oh, but wait, there is more: because there is a “connection between emotions and physical well-being”, this is important research for public health? This is how you justify this garbage? Really? Another logical jump unrelated in any way to the study? What other problem responsible for 0.1% of potential public health problem should we spend public money on, tell me?

This is shoddy work, unprincipled, and a money-grabbing initiative with zero scientific basis.

Rhetorics manipulate emotions. It’s often called art, the pleasure of making believe — and, unless you’ve never used FB or any other social network, you have to be aware that a lot of social network activity is about making believe and enjoying the pleasures of the fake — fake identities, exaggerated expressions of feelings, loose sense of “friendship”, on the spur “liking”, etc. — what Martin Barker investigates, in a recent article on online porn, as “the productive possibilities of fantasy”.

But FB cannot make you vote for Dick Cheney or buy a gun “without you knowing it”. Nor can TV, films, video games, bla bla bla. This is the modern form of the age-old dream of humanity of escaping agency and responsibility as exhibited in witch-hunts in medieval days — or, more positively, the age-old desire of humanity of believing in magic, the magic of unmediated communication of self to self. This is the magic — the magic of the agency of art and media —  that should be investigated (not “persuasion”, “manipulation”, and so on), the question that led William Mitchell to write about What Do Pictures Want? (2005):

Why is it that people have such strange attitudes toward images, objects, and media? Why do they behave as if pictures were alive, as if works of art had minds of their own, as if images had a power to influence human beings, demanding things from us, persuading, seducing, and leading us astray? Even more puzzling, why is it that the very people who express these attitudes and engage in this behaviour will, when questioned, assure us that they know very well that pictures are not alive, that works of art do not have minds of their own, and that images are really quite powerless to do anything without the cooperation of their beholders? How is it, in other words, that people are able to maintain a “double consciousness” toward images, pictures, and representations, in a  variety of media, vacillating between magical beliefs and skeptical doubts, naive animism and hardheaded materialism, mystical and critical attitudes? (7)

0.1%. This is how much media “does” anything to you. Researchers have known this since, at least, 1959. Audiences have known this, and enjoyed it, for even longer.

The Football World Cup for Smart People – 3 – Bernard-Henry Lévy, 2006

June 25, 2014 § Leave a comment

  • Bernard Henry-Lévy, “Zidane”Wall Street Journal, 11 July 2006

really shouldn’t be in here: this is a straight red card for grandiose use of metaphors and for name-dropping (Abbé Pierre!  Mother Theresa! Mandela! Machiavelli! Dostoyevsky!) over the 2006 World Cup Final and Zidane’s head-butt. But Zidane as Achilles, Domenech as Agamemnon, Makelele as a Myrmidon — this is irresistible. Also, as a reading of the football hero as convoking narrative tropes of the mythical figure of the Homeric Hero (is Zidane Achilles or Ulysses now?). Mostly, though, this piece deserves to be on our list for proposing to read Zidane as the media icon that rebels against mediatisation (“I am not this idiotic, empty hologram”) — maybe a uniquely French perspective on global media (resist!)?

On the take that the headbutt is in anyway good as it shows resistance to the powers of marketing (end of the post), hmm, excuse-me? However symbolic you want it to be, a head-butt is a head-butt. Even a semiotically-charged head-butt has got to hurt…

On our list, then, with BHL at his usual best with good dribbling skills, excellent vision of the game, and some good on-goal opportunities —  but a red card in the end.

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