Mourning and Media

Three days of national mourning were declared as a consequence of the horrendous fire and the tragic loss of 62 lives. Now, I confess my ignorance regarding the practical application of such a decree, but the truth is… yesterday mid-afternoon I heard fireworks in the distance (yep, fireworks… after all that has happened). And through the night there were echoes of a street party somewhere out there. Now, I know both are common practice at this time of year, and communities look forward to these moments for quite a while, but… how does one reconcile national mourning with these apparent manifestations of joy?
 
Could media be playing a role in this apparent paradox? Yesterday evening a TV channel alternated live broadcasts with an edit of footage that included people crying, fires raging, burnt cars, exhausted firemen, populations in a panic… all of it to the sound of a Max Richter-type orchestral piece of some kind. I dare say the whole thing felt… poetic. It genuinely felt like a Hollywood trailer. It ultimately felt like a taming of the sheer horror, a smoothing of the untranslatable.
 
The question is, do these professional edits of tragedy footage help us mourn, or do they create a semantic distancing and render it “consumable”? Do we shed tears for the actual loss, or do we shed tears because “sad music and slow motion fire” press the right buttons in our psyche? Is it OK for TV channels to show images of burnt vehicles where people died, and then go straight to advertising the new Audi during a commercial break (yes, it happened yesterday)? And how can we shift between mourning and celebration in the space of a couple of hours?
I genuinely have no answers to these questions, but find them worth asking.

Hubris and Amnesia

dore

For the second time in less than a year, the UK is thrown into political chaos by people who seem happy to perform their political duties as if society was a gambling table at their disposal. I’d argue this ongoing “mayhem” is a direct consequence of their hubris – and their apparently purposeful ignorance of the reversion of this mythological concept into our present times.

Mythology exists for a reason, and that is to provide us with templates regarding our existential conundrums; these templates repeat themselves over and over throughout History. It is dangerous to turn one’s back on them if attempting to lead.

I believe this recent turmoil is partly due to the fact that this mythological wisdom has been largely thrown out by a significant part of our leaders, and that’s where this sense of chaos is stemming from: a pervasive amnesia, an uprootedness of our social fabric and of its patterns throughout History. Well, it looks like the “pagan gods” are waking up. 

The problem is, most current leaders can’t seem to see or acknowledge these “gods” (the citizens): they expect their own role to be tactical rather than redemptive.

(Engraving by Gustave Doré, 1866)

The Protocol is Off

aplgw16

Annette Peacock’s recital at CdM yesterday was absolutely remarkable. Her spectral presence bathed in dark blue, just her and the piano and a few harmonic soundscapes. She revisited her legacy as if in a dream sequence, weaving bits and shards, patiently and wisely. Words and sentences and melody fragments came and went, harmonious at times, disjointed at others, as Annette navigated throughout the field of possibilities, at times gently, at times forcefully – but always uncompromising.

For those of us lucky to have followed her unique output throughout the decades, it was an opportunity to witness the opposite of self-karaoke: yes, artists can gain resonance, wisdom and poignancy as the years go by. In a field overtaken by the expectation of mind-blowing spectacle, Annette Peacock provided subtlety and reflection.

And then a magic trick at the very end, whereby she left her own voice singing while exiting the stage; what at first people may have thought was her singing turned out to be a recording at this last stretch. A provocation, a tease, a bit of humour? A philosophical metaphor whereby the person emancipates herself from her own legacy? Whatever the intent, it’s always good to leave the audience perplexed… and perplexed the audience was, unable to engage in applause or demand encores. Ladies and gents, the protocol is off.

In other words: Annette Peacock still rocks, and possibly more than ever.

 

(Image not from gig, I was too busy actually living it; it’s from AP @ LGW, 2016)

The panic of silence

My heart goes out to all affected by this latest attack. The pattern is emerging and it’s deeply worrying: on the eve of an election, an attack attempts to instil widespread fear and shove public opinion into knee-jerk defensive, entrenched voting. Let us hope voters understand the trap and rise above it.

Meanwhile, FB seems all to happy to add to the noise: the “mark as safe” function is designed to reassure friends and family of the loved ones’ well-being, but it actually may end up doing the opposite. If one does not mark him/herself “safe” IMMEDIATELY (i.e. if one dares leave FB even DURING an attack), friends and family may start freaking out. “Why is he not marking himself as safe?…. Fifteen minutes and he still hasn’t marked himself as safe”…

Don’t get me wrong: I do know the anguish of not hearing from a loved one in a crisis, and yes, social media can bring relief. But this expected exercise in absolute and immediate scrutiny becomes perverse quite quickly: rather than reassuring us that our loved ones are OK, it amplifies the absence of the ones who may be too distracted, too busy, unaware, elsewhere, offline, sleeping, praying, helping others. Just what we needed now, the online panic of silence.

NoiseWise

UD17: NOISEWISE
Design Research in face of current challenges to Knowledge

As our conference call goes out, here is my statement:

The recent and growing ransomware virus trend has been raising the levels of concern for the safety, integrity and accessibility of our information; in one second, the wrong click may wipe out our personal digital heritage once and for all. Yet even more concerning may be the ways in which it has managed to wreak havoc on certain public infrastructures and private core companies: on the May 2017 cyberattack, the UK National Health Service was forced to revert to manual prescription among the infochaos, just as Portuguese emergency services reverted to radio communication as a preventative measure.

This sequence of events may be regarded as a manifestation of a broader set of challenges we face nowadays; on one hand, it exposes an ironic frailty at the core of the hyper-complex state of technology we have developed and subscribed to as an unquestionable paradigm. On the other hand, and equally as ironically, it sets a reversion into analogue, even manual procedures, that reveal themselves ultimately more reliable in times of crisis. So much for deterministic progress, then: Brave New World ends up in a black box, and the black box is bursting at the seams, and the black box is encrypted. Now, shall we wait until AI has woven itself effectively into our bodies and we have fully delegated our cognitive and vital functions? In this ever-more-likely scenario, a hacking might just turn out to be the last one.

The ransomware trend may also be regarded as a metaphor: for the ways scientific knowledge is often far from openly accessible for the purpose of scientific advancement – and equally a metaphor for the ways in which science seems to be increasingly becoming hostage to agendas, be it financial, political or other. Recent echoes from the US Government voicing its willingness to veto impartial research pertaining to climate change (and elsewhere to withdraw the funding of bodies and projects whose findings do not align themselves with political agendas) are deeply concerning signs when it comes to the continued maintenance and nurturing of the sacred principle of scientific impartiality.

Agenda-driven Science is, one may argue, in line with the broader phenomenon of fake news: ultimately unreliable, but more dangerously, ultimately capable of rendering impartial knowledge and information unreliable by association, as one and the other become increasingly harder to tell apart. And this happens in part through an ever-increasing access to ever more powerful design tools. Again, the irony: design sophistication has flattened the authoritative formation (and formality) of content. In a sense, all is noise already; the question is, is this syndrome reversible?

On a broader perspective, we may posit that purposeful knowledge is in the process of being neutralised by the sheer magnitude of paradoxical information, the allure of speed betraying our ontological need for depth. Our struggle with this kind of Noise is particularly challenging because it provides a very effective semblance of content – but hardly or rarely a narrative, a context or a canon.

Noise is therefore either the endpoint of encryption, or an induced omnipresence (and therefore a uselessness) of meaning.

Which brings us to Design Research. A fairly recent endeavour in its scientific ambition, it has been consolidating itself as a discipline both by applying and customising scientific paradigms and methodologies as required by its own field – as well as by making itself available to other disciplines that may benefit from the input of design.

The premise of UD17 – noiseWise is that design research may point towards a wide range of contributions, both in the sciences and in civic environments – and we believe these contributions may be able to converge in a shared mission: to ensure, confer and preserve the presence of meaning and purpose among the current state of cognitive volatility.

Furthermore, the Humanities and Social Sciences face the challenge of incorporating a critical and interpretative voice that could attempt to regulate and harmonise what at times seems to be an exponential technological development devoid of the sense of its own social or cultural impact: case at hand, the utopia of online connectivity has at some point given way to a neurosis of ubiquitous surveillance and compulsive over-exposure. Yet the party goes on unabated and unchallenged. Make no mistake: this is not a manifesto against technological development, but rather a call for its wise and mindful mediation and incorporation.

Could design research lead this process of decipherment and re-centering of current scientific progress? We believe the answer may be in the affirmative: from research that casts light into contemporary communication phenomena, to projects that reveal the dynamics and conflicts between tradition and progress. From pedagogical assets in our relation with technology, to the actual aesthetic and functional betterment of that same technology. From the tangible facilitation of emerging communities to ensuring existing communities avoid the traps of exoticisation and loss of self-determination.

More importantly, we believe design research needs to build and maintain bridges with other disciplines if it is to flourish in its own terms, and effectively contribute to that truthful cliché we have all wanted all along as researchers: “A Better World”. And a Better World needs to be built just as it needs to be interpreted, communicated, provided with forms, translated into tools and the means to flourish. A Better World is based on a wealth of meaningful and purposeful knowledge; in other words, it is based on wisdom. As design researchers, we will be delighted to provide a continued contribution; and as doctoral students, we will do our darn best to ensure the future turns out to be wiser than the present.

 

Heitor Alvelos, May 2017

trumpspeak creeps in

The “do not disturb” card at my hotel room in Lisbon… early signs of trumpspeak creeping into the universe of hipsterism. Semiotics in the neo-liberal landscape are a hall of mirrors of pure amazement.

The World right now feels like a choice between extremist ideologies and extreme consumerism… The question is, are they opposing or converging?

Brave New World in a Black Box

(essay in progress, feedback welcome)

The recent and growing ransomware virus trend has been raising the levels of concern for the safety, integrity and accessibility of our information; in one second, the wrong click may wipe out our personal digital heritage once and for all. Yet even more concerning may be the ways in which it has managed to wreak havoc on certain public infrastructures and private core companies: on the May 2017 cyberattack, the UK National Health Service was forced to revert to manual prescription among the infochaos, just as Portuguese emergency services reverted to radio communication as a preventative measure.

This sequence of events may be regarded as a manifestation of a broader set of challenges we face nowadays; on one hand, it exposes an ironic frailty at the core of the hyper-complex state of technology we have developed and subscribed to as an unquestionable paradigm. On the other hand, and equally as ironically, it sets a reversion into analogue, even manual procedures, that reveal themselves ultimately more reliable in times of crisis. So much for deterministic progress, then: Brave New World ends up in a black box, and the black box is bursting at the seams, and the black box is encrypted. Now, shall we wait until AI has woven itself effectively into our bodies and we have fully delegated our cognitive and vital functions? In this ever-more-likely scenario, a hacking might just turn out to be the last one.

 

 

Why do I suddenly care about Eurovision for the first time in over 40 years?

When I was a kid Eurovision was an even bigger deal than it is now. Media channels were few and content was scarce, so whatever pop music came our way was pretty much all we had. Eurovision in particular felt like a universal treasure of pop, to be appreciated way beyond the competition: those were literally all the songs a lot of us had access to.

Then it gradually became highly competitive… and post-modern. The camp factor took over, and it all became an endlessly more extravagant exercise in acrobatics – vocal, anatomical and sensorial. By then I was no longer paying attention, I had entered adolescence and rummaged whatever prog, kraut and post-punk I could find in record shops and mail order service. But it wasn’t just about age: from the corner of my eye I looked at the induced euphoria coming from Eurovision year after year, and it all seemed too cynical. Whenever I glimpsed, it kept getting worse.

Which brings us to this year and the “Salvador” phenomenon. His is a very pleasant song, not exactly avant-garde but certainly well-crafted and arranged within the parameters of its genre. Salvador has a very particular kind of charisma that is impossible to replicate (as if any kind of charisma could…): a humble carelessness only ever so slightly revealing a glimpse of a huge inner strength.

But the reason why Eurovision caught my attention this year is another: it has to do with the remarkable resonance Salvador and his song seem to be having in the public. And why?…

I believe this is happening because Eurovision has simply run out of bombastic cynicism – or rather, the audience has had enough. I watched some of it yesterday and the amount of pyrotechnics and screams, the sheer aggression of it all was overwhelming…

Maybe Salvador’s biggest strength is quietude, his own and his song’s: in the middle of the hallucination, his three minutes come as an oasis of reflection. And this is why I feel an interest in Eurovision this year: maybe it’s a small sign that, as people, we have had enough of so much overabundance, noise, sensorial bombardment.

I’m not as interested in Salvador as an entertainer, as I am in understanding “why has the spotlight suddenly been turned onto the quiet one on the corner?”… and I’m intuitively (and cautiously) optimistic about the reason why. Maybe such a broad interest in his song is telling us something of the times we’re living in. Melancholia rather than euphoria; a thirst for reflection rather than a hunt for abandonment.

Salvador’s subtle and quirky hand gestures and facial expressions could be a metaphor for a renewed awareness and investment in subtlety and gentleness, in culture but also in society; maybe one among other small signs of an era of sobriety, who knows?…

In other words, may this collective interest in a quiet Eurovision song signal a broader end of an era of harsh sensorial overload. Of course a renewed, gentler approach to pop is still measured theatrics, but at least it sways rather than shove. The World is quite brutal right now as it is, thank you very much.

Scarcity of means, wealth of evocation

My paternal grandfather was an avid archivist – not a hoarder, as there were definite criteria at work, but he did collect all kinds of interesting memorabilia. Today I came across a part of his postcard collection and peeked into a time just before mine: a time when the two-hour drive to Vigo we may enjoy nowadays was, back then, a long journey to be undertaken once in a lifetime.

So here is a sample of what tourist shots looked like in the 1950s and 1960s: cameras were a luxury, so good old postcards were the chance to reminisce upon return. Particularly striking is the cramming of four, even five images into the card surface; even more striking is the fact that some images were crudely reproduced in back and white, or slightly hand-tinted. All this distanced the images from the actual locations and narratives to which they referred… and yet this rudimentary quality somehow invited our imagination to mentally reconstruct the journey.

In other words: in their simplicity, in their tangible relation with their own construction and the scarcity of their production, these coarse images manage to be endlessly more evocative than all the hyper-real tourist selfies currently producing themselves on autopilot. The mind needs to bring its own contribution to the process of remembering: paradoxically, a precarious representation of reality ends up being more effective in facilitating remembrance.

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