Friday, February 22, 2008

Mood Rings

Richard Grusin's recent talk on "The Affective Life of Media Or, What do Media Want?" combined cyborg theory with HCI research on affective computing to put forward a theory of the post-9/11 media landscape that explored what he characterized as fundamental differences between affect and emotion.

Grusin returned to the work of Rosalind Picard several times in his talk, who is known for discovering that computer users manifest the strongest displays of affect when software doesn't function properly. (Thus, with this posting, I am embedding the famed video of the "Angry German Kid," which has inspired a number of parodies and a whole misguided discourse about the harmful effects of videogames, if indeed the child was merely acting.) Picard is also known for her work on e-mail and the way it is both a low-affect communication medium that tells little about the affect of the sender and an affect intensifier for the recipient who may project his or her emotions upon the message.

Grusin takes issue with many generally held ideas about the affective bandwidth of different devices, since he points that people are often more intimately engaged and comfortable with their cell phones -- which can be further personalized with ringtones -- than they may with videoconference equipment, which supposedly conveys more information. To illustrate his point, Grusin told the story of visiting Slovenia in 2005 and listening to a colleague on her cell phone with her partner who had just landed safely. Even though Grusin didn't speak her language, he pointed out that she was communicating emotions to him and to the other people in the restaurant, as well as to other people in the restaurant. His interest in the "affective entropy" of ubiquitous computing devices and the way that there is "waste" or "surplus" in the exchanges is also interesting. I proposed the 2girls1cup reaction-video phenomenon as another possible case of what he called "distributed affect," but this example probably over complicates Grusin's case, since it recursively envelopes so many kinds of one-way communication rather than the two-way communication with which Grusin is most engaged.

Grusin also took issue with the thesis of Brian Massumi in "Fear (the Spectrum Said)" that the terror alert system was developed to motivate fear and to collapse affect with emotion. Like many new media critics (Manovich, Bogost, etc.), Grusin also tried his hand at analyzing Benjamin's flâneur. For Grusin, this figure in "Some Motifs in Baudelaire" draws attention to how human beings adapt to systems and technologies and how a single haptic action (lighting a match, lifting a telephone receiver, snapping a photo, etc.) can trigger processes with sequences of numerous steps.

Among digital rhetoric fans, Grusin is also known as a collaborator with Jay David Bolter.

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