CULTURE REVIEW | Gordon: Boddy elucidates history of media

A gramophone sits on a laboratory table. It spins, becoming a turntable, boom box, cassette player. It’s smashed with a hammer, wielded by a disembodied hand. It is a CD player, hatching a first generation iPod, which slenderizes into a cellphone, blasting techno beats.

Someone flicked on the lights.

“You can see how they represent the process of media change,” said the man at the podium, peering over professorial specks. “Organic and teleological and violent … capitalism’s giddy orgy of destruction.”

The video clip is an LG advertisement from 2006, promoting their first cell phone with music. The man at the podium is William Boddy, a professor at Baruch College– The City University of New York, and one of the foremost scholars on early television in the United States. This semester he is teaching the film studies seminar “Television in the 1950s.” Today he is lecturing on the topic “Any platform, any media, anywhere. Targeting television’s dispersed markets.”

Crises and apocalyptic naysaying, claimed Boddy, color the history of media in the 20th century. New technology always provokes anxiety, whether it is domestic television in the 1940s, the ’90s dot-com boom or the collapse of broadcasting, analogue music and print media today.

This apprehension provides a “snapshot of industry relations,” said Boddy, a glimpse of the contestants and emergent actors of a media landscape in constant flux.

“Because history is written by the victors, it can become such a dull tale, a misleading tale,” Boddy said. “As if these things have some manifest destinies. As if it was printed in their DNA.”

Today, digital Out of Home signage is the fastest-growing ad-supported media behind the Internet. Our screen culture has expanded into malls, airports, streets and supermarkets. Can’t find the peanut butter in Wal-Mart? Just ask your MediaCart! The 12-inch touch screen is equipped with voice recognition technology. And if the fat content in your cart goes over your limit, it will sound a friendly, nudging alarm.

Advertise your product in a “focused distraction-free environment,” says the Elevator Network, and fill the “dead air and social void of an elevator ride.”

Only a third of Americans familiar with Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin enjoyed the sketches on live TV broadcast. This is the new media epoch. As the traditional “pillars of broadcasting” fragment with TiVo, cell phones and online TV, said Boddy, there is a “relentless pursuit of media audiences.”

The ubiquity of digital signage, he argued, means greater and more aggressive market penetration. The media often uses military language, he explained. “The word ‘targeting’ in my lecture title is no coincidence.”

Boddy painted this “Brave New World,” splicing industry speak with media response, capturing market frenzy and consumer fears with his breathless tone. Holosonic billboards, he claimed, are one of many new forms of targeted advertising appearing on our city streets.

The billboard projects an isolated beam of sound onto one area of the sidewalk. Once you enter the “audio spotlight,” a soothing voice whispers your consumer needs, as if from inside your own head. Online commentators bemoaned the new technology, and the tactile body chills it induces. Boddy quoted one complaint from the Gawker comment board: “Ten percent of New York City pedestrians are marginally medicated paranoid schizophrenics who can barely handle stimulation like blinking traffic lights.”

The hypermediated city gives marketers constant access to consumers, as well as an intimate knowledge of them. One company, Quividi, plugs webcams into OOH media, using face-recognition software to identify who you are and how long you look. Quividi then gives this information to OOH operators, so they can alter their content or make gender and age-sensitive displays.

Companies are mimicking the Google model of context-specific advertising. Now, when you e-mail about your drunken weekend, an Alcoholics Anonymous ad pops up on your screen. But Microsoft adlabs is going one step further, developing the technology to scan your photo captions and public blog entries as well as voice recognition software to check what YouTube videos you watch.

Media firms are feverishly finding and classifying the identities of their fragmented audience. But these new media forms, claimed Boddy, actively construct the identities they’re so desperate to define.

The invention of the Walkman in the ’90s allowed individuals to “carve out a privatized media sphere in the public space.” Today, ubiquitous screens, surveillance and mobile devices alter our social relations and reorganize our daily life.

Industry boundaries have blurred in the last few years, as have our notions of entertainment and advertising, public and private. Our appetites for marketing have expanded beyond any predictable limit, constantly tested by competing players in the media game.

These changes, however, are not organic or teleological or violent. They are a result of the constant negotiation and creation of corporate and consumer interests.

“It’s not about finding the next link in the chain,” insisted Boddy, “but asking: Where is the chain? Does the chain even exist?”

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