Cultural Analysis, Volume 9, 2010
The Global Lives Project: Making New Media Matter in a Global World
The Participatory Culture of Prosuming
Computing has infiltrated the everyday life of people all over the world. It is no longer merely a tool for communication and interaction, but also something-to-think-with, a medium that can give us new dimensions in the way we experience and engage with the world.
The digital media theorist D. Fox Harrell describes how digital media, or phantasmal media, affects our way of thinking and acting. He defines three different ways of computing: social, cultural, and critical computing. Harrell defines the aims of critical computing as to:
…challenge and provoke users' idealized cognitive models through enabling active participation imbued with culture and critical awareness. (Harrell 2009, 4)
Critical computing evokes in the user new ways of thinking and interacting with a globalized world. The Global Lives Project is a compelling example of this usage of computing technology. The GLP archive, which contains visual documentation of the lives of different people from around the world on a digital platform on the Internet, enables users to actively engage with global cultures. Users can watch many different stories of everyday life, and can collect and upload their own documentation of the everyday life experiences of people in their locale1 . Thereby, GLP participants can add to the creation of a new online collective memory, made with other people through the digital interaction of sharing and distributing information. As a critical computing project, the Global Lives Project hopes to bring a critical awareness of how culture is categorized and transformed by engaging users in a collaborative new media project.
In the field of new media, the concept of participation is a notion of process-oriented production that is constantly changing, interacting, and mutating. Technology has enabled new ways of accessing, manipulating, and remixing already-accumulated media into new forms of expression. In general, new media allows a continuous stream of virtual collaboration; users can build on the works of others to share, edit, and/or sample as both a mode of production and a way of perceiving and engaging in the world. One could say that the process of editing has become a form of art, a mode of interaction, and a way of experiencing the world. In the book Postproduction the art critic Nicolas Bourriaud describes this new cultural form:
It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. (Bourriaud 2002, 22)
By searching, selecting, and swapping from one video documentary to another, as most of us do in digital archives, we can not only consume the GLP's stories of everyday life around the world, but we can also become remixers, making our own stories of life in a global world. By sampling or editing the Global Lives stories we can create new versions and new narratives from the existing stories. Thus, following Bourriaud, we might see the Global Lives Project as part of a culture of activity, enabling the reinterpreation of the digital archive through user-participation.
In this new form of culture, which one might call a culture of use or a culture of activity, the artwork functions as the temporary terminal of a network of interconnected elements, like a narrative that extends and reinterprets preceding narratives. (Bourriaud 2002, 19)
In this way, our process of selection, swapping, and viewing Global Lives stories, creates a way to build our own personal narratives by building upon the stories of others. These personal narratives are a new form of adaptations, showing our path or activity of selecting and watching these videos online. The recorded and expressed narratives can be seen as a kind of strategic consumption, a tactic to navigate the system. The philosopher Michel De Certeau explains this in the book, The Practice of Everyday Life:
A tactic insinuates itself into the other's place, fragmentarily, without taking it over in its entirety, without being able to keep it at a distance. (De Certeau 1984, 7)
This can also be thought of as a culture of prosumerism. Art scholar Lev Manovich created the term "prosumer" as a combination of the words "producer" and "consumer". Thus, Manovich defines prosuming as a process in which the roles of producer and consumer merge. The Global Lives Project, I would argue, is a social platform that enables this culture of prosumerism. The retelling and reproduction of the narratives captured by the Global Lives Project is part of a new culture of participation enabled by the structure of the digital archive, which creates a place for interaction with the globalized world. As the mission statement of the Global Lives Project explains:
Our mission is to collaboratively build a video library of human life experience that reshapes how we as both producers and viewers conceive of cultures, nations and people outside of our own communities. (The Global Lives Project. 2010b)
The stated purpose of the Global Lives Project is to provide its users with new insights into the similarities and differences among diverse cultures and ways of living in the world; thus, the Global Lives project can be seen as giving everyday people a voice and a place to communicate, based on an ideal of participatory democracy. As the above statement shows, the aim of the Global Lives Project is to change the way people experience and think about the world. It trades on the fact that we are different enough that transcultural interactions are interesting, but similar enough that we can meet in a common interactive space. As the call for papers for the Global Lives Forum argues:
By freely distributing a stream of pixels from unexpected and underexperienced human realities to screens around the planet, the hope of this global band of filmmakers is to rebuild a more holistic and humanist ethos for the upcoming generations of globally connected life. (The Global Lives Project, 2010a)
The Global Lives Project seeks to create room for free and open exchange of culture through dialogue and collaboration that can enable people to critically engage with the world.
The Culture of Technological Experience
One could argue that the Global Lives Project is not only a project that enables the prosuming culture of participation but also a technological experiment that investigates how we perceive and represent the world. The Global Lives Project addresses the tension between the way we see a person in another country and the experience of being a person in another country. Emerging technology offers us new modes of bodily perception, without any movement through physical space. In the Global Lives archive, we can not only see how people live their everyday lives, but we can toggle between these lives, moving from Kazakhstan to San Francisco in a split second.
New media technology, however, is something we experience through, so it is easy to forget that we are witnessing representations. We must pause to consider how these representations take place, because technology not only mediates the corporal world, it creates and changes our thinking. (Ihde 2003)
In Technoscience and Postphenomenology, Don Ihde describes how we are bodily engaged with technology. We embody the technology used in our interactions with the world. Through this embodiment, technology gets under our skin. In other words, over time the use of technology can be transformed into a being of technology. Either one as a subject interactively engages with the world by the use of technology, i.e. by using glasses in order to interact with the surrounding environment, or one can engage with technology as a subject that perceives the world through hermeneutical relations. The hermeneutical relation is the way we interpret or read the world through technology and can best be compared to the relation between a trompe l'oeil painting and its viewer. First the trompe l'oeil technique deceives the eye of the viewer to believe that the painting is real, and then it reveals its identity as a painting to the viewer. This makes the viewer aware of the difference between the corporeal reality and the representation of the painting. The revelation of the deceptive quality of the painting —its difference—is done in order to make the viewer reflect on the painting as something in itself and not just mere representation. Further, it prompts us to reflect on the world in which the painting and the viewer are both present. In the case of the Global Lives Project, it is the computing technology that makes the transformation and creates the difference. Ihde explains the technological transformation:
Technologies transform our experience of the world and our perceptions and interpretations of our world, and we in turn become transformed in this process. Transformations are non-neutral. (Ihde 2009, 44)
The corporeal experience of culture is based on smell, taste, sound, sight, touch, and bodily perceptions. These sensations cannot be communicated entirely through technology. The bodily experience of culture is different from the experience of cultures mediated through technology.
That is the whole point. The space presented by the Global Lives Project is impossible to experience in the corporeal world alone. It is exactly because of the technological nature of the work that it enables us to perceive the impossible as possible: to create a participatory culture of prosuming. The space created in the new media work does not represent an actual physical space; rather, it refers to it in its presentation of itself. In other words, the experience of a new media work is brought about by the difference between the corporeal reality of the space and the technologically-developed metamorphosis of the space. The Global Lives Project could not exist without the technology. This is why the experience of the technology and the possibilities of selecting, sampling, and remixing personal narratives are an essential part of the project. One could say that it is a matter of enabling the technology to amplify the inaudible by exhibiting the technological attributes within the new media work.
Making New Media Matter in a Global World
When critical computing projects use the new media technology as a medium that is something-to-think-with, it can open up questions that could not otherwise have been asked. The Global Lives Project opens our eyes to questions about what culture is and how it can inform human experience in a global world. This is partly due to the rise of the participatory culture of prosuming, whose prominent features are the development of technology as a mediator of experience and the recognition of the crucial difference between the corporeal world and the virtual world. However, all of these would not have made the Global Lives Project so successful without its ideal and realization of free culture. The project would simply not have existed without the motivation and belief in free sharing, collaboration, contribution, and communication. Yet, while the Global Lives can be said to realize this ideal of free culture, with their successful and constantly expanding digital archive of documentation on global lives, it is the technology of new media that makes the ideal of free culture possible to pursue. Because the technology enables us to do things that are impossible to do in the corporeal world, the digital archive of the Global Lives Project becomes both a tool for people to use and interact with, but also a way of being. There is a long way to go before the corporeal world can become as open and engaging as the GLP archive; however, the Global Lives Project is creating a digital path that shows us other possible worlds and cultures and enables us to use technology as something-to-think-with.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. 2002. Postproduction—Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World. New York: Has & Sternberg.
De Certeau, Michel. 1984. The Practice of Everyday Life. http://www.ubu.com/papers/de_certeau.html Accessed on January 4, 2011.
Free Culture Forum Charter. 2009, http://fcforum.net. Accessed on May 5, 2010.
The Global Lives Project. 2010a. Call for Papers: Representing/Experiencing Everyday Life in the Global Media: Commentary on the Global Lives Project. http://socrates.berkeley.edu/~caforum/glpconference.html Accessed on January 4, 2011.
The Global Lives Project. 2010b. Mission Statement and 2010 Artist's Statement: http://globallives.org/about. Accessed on May 5, 2010.
Harrell, D. Fox. 2009. Toward a Theory of Phantasmal Media: An Imaginative Cognition and Computation-based Approach to Digital Media. http://www.ctheory.net/articles.aspx?id=610 Accessed on December 20, 2010
Ihde, Don. 2009. Postphenomenology and Technoscience: The Peking University Lectures. Albany: State University of New York Press, 25-44.
Manovich, Lev. 2002. The Language of New Media. http://andreknoerig.de/portfolio/03/bin/.../manovich-langofnewmedia.pdf. Accessed on April 5, 2010.