Käte Hamburger Kolleg: Cultures of Research

The Importance of Science Communication Research and of Science Studies for the Region – Opening of the RRC in Dortmund

PHILLIP H. ROTH

How can science communication be practiced under post-truth conditions? And what role do the humanities and social sciences play in this context? The Rhine Ruhr Center for Science Communication Research (RRC) is devoted to answering these and other pressing questions. The center is funded by a generous grant from the Volkswagen Foundation and headed by Julika Griem of the Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut Essen (KWI), David Kaldewey of the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft (FIW) at the University of Bonn, Holger Wormer of the TU Dortmund, Oliver Ruf of the University of Applied Sciences Bonn-Rhine-Sieg as well as Volker Stollorz of the Science Media Center in Cologne and Franco Zotta of the German Science Journalists’ Association.

The RRC is devoted to science communication with a special focus on the humanities and social sciences. As such, it addresses highly important questions about how insights from the reflexive social and cultural research on science might be communicated. Natural scientists usually attract attention via stimulating images of ground-breaking discoveries. Not so the reflexive sciences on science. Thus, there are elementary questions that need to be answered about the communicability of insights from social and cultural research on science. Next to this, RRC aims to, over the course of its initial five-year funding, bring its findings closer to practicing journalists as well as to students in interdisciplinary workshops and conferences. On June 2, 2022, the RRC officially opened with a celebratory inauguration at the Erich-Brost-Institute at TU Dortmund. Together with our director Stefan Böschen I ventured to Dortmund to attend the event, at which we met with many familiar faces from science studies and journalism.

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Phillip H. Roth

Phillip is postdoc and the events coordinator at c:o/re. Among other topics, his research is dedicated to questions of identity work in biomedical disciplines, to the meaning of medicine and the role of patient advocacy on the internet as well as to social and cultural conditions of scientific modeling. In a current project, he is trying to develop a sociology of pandemics for the digital age that draws on communication theories of virality and contagion.

After welcoming words by Holger Wormer, the inauguration consisted of a brief overview of the RRC’s three main research projects, given by Julika Griem, as well as three panel discussions, each moderated by one of the RRC’s heads. The panels were devoted to core problem areas of the RRC, making up most the of the formal part of the evening. In the first, moderated by Oliver Ruf, Julia Schubert (University of Speyer) discussed with local students about “Science Communication in Times of Multiple Facts”. One of the core take-aways of this insightful discussion was that the students desired the humanities and social sciences to be more present in public science communication. They stressed particularly that they promised themselves that these fields would be better equipped than natural or engineering sciences to deal with the problems of post-truth in current debates. The second panel, moderated by David Kaldewey, consisted of a dialogue between science journalist Birgit Herden (Die Welt) and the sociologist of science and technology Cornelius Schubert (TU Dortmund) about “Images and Imaginations of Science”. They reflected on how journalism and sociology address different audiences. Variety of audiences necessarily also leads to conflicts between the trajectories of the two professions. While journalism needs to “close” scientific debates to make the topic appealing to its readership, [1]Peter Conrad (1999). Use of Expertise: Sources, Quotes, and Voice in the Reporting of Genetic News. Public Understanding of Science 8 (4): 285–302. https://doi.org/10.1088/0963-6625/8/4/302 a key ambition of science studies, sociology of science or STS is to “open up” the infamous black box of science.[2]Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker (1984). The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology might benefit each other. In Social Studies … Continue reading This is aligned with our effort to “unbox science” here at c:o/re. This ultimately also thwarts any settlement on “the facts”, making science a volatile and (politically) malleable business in sociologists’ eyes, something that is particularly critical under post-truth conditions. However, Schubert also recalls the common heritage of journalism and sociology in the reportages that founded the early-twentieth century Chicago School,[3]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_school_(sociology) offering hope that each in their own way can contribute to successfully communicating the complexities of scientific research and its findings to the public. In a third session, panellists Eva Weber-Guskar (University of Bochum) and Samir Sellami asked about “A Quality Circle for the Humanities and Social Sciences?” Both are initiators of online platforms – PhilPublica and Soziopolis, respectively – that are devoted to bringing scholarly content to a wide readership. Together with the journalist Volker Stollorz, who moderated the panel, they reminisced whether and how these open formats might provide criteria for the successful communication of scientific content in the digital world. During the informal part of the event – drinks and snacks in the courtyard of the Erich-Brost-Institue while the sun was shining, and the temperatures were warm – we were able to catch up with friends and colleagues after an almost two-year hiatus from in-person events.

Holger Wormer speaking to guests at the opening of the RRC (photo credits: RRC/Andreas Siess)

A crucial feature of the RRC is that it considers science communication not only from a communication research perspective, but also from a cultural studies (KWI Essen) as well science studies & STS perspective (FIW Bonn). For this reason, we at c:o/re look forward to partnering with the RRC on questions at the intersection of science studies and science communication research. We hope that this partnership will help to unravel what science communication entails in the current mediascape and, also, what we can learn from it practically for communication at c:o/re and elsewhere. Given the grand challenges we face today,[4]David Kaldewey (2018). The Grand Challenges Discourse: Transforming Identiy Wlrk in Science and Science Policy. In Minerva 56: 161-182. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-017-9332-2. such as climate change, the digitalization of research practices, energy and mobility transformations, resource scarcity, war and poverty, we also wish that it will strengthen the role of science studies scholarship in the Aachen-Rhine-Ruhr region and in Germany more generally, providing a clearer picture of the role that science can play in facing these challenges.

A first joint conference between the RRC and c:o/re is already in the making and is set to take place in 2023. We will keep you posted as things develop and also about further collaborations between the partners at the RRC and c:o/re. Please also see our events section for infos on further upcoming workshops, lectures and conferences. For now, all that remains is for us to wish our friends at the RRC all the best for their projects. We look forward to the friendly and frequent exchanges about science studies and communication research – cheers!


Proposed citation: Phillip Roth. 2022. The Importance of Science Communication Research and of Science Studies for the Region – Opening of the RRC in Dortmund. https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/06/17/3613/3613/.

References

References
1Peter Conrad (1999). Use of Expertise: Sources, Quotes, and Voice in the Reporting of Genetic News. Public Understanding of Science 8 (4): 285–302. https://doi.org/10.1088/0963-6625/8/4/302
2Trevor J. Pinch and Wiebe E. Bijker (1984). The Social Construction of Facts and Artefacts: Or How the Sociology of Science and the Sociology of Technology might benefit each other. In Social Studies of Science 14 (3): 399-441. You can read the paper here.
3https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chicago_school_(sociology)
4David Kaldewey (2018). The Grand Challenges Discourse: Transforming Identiy Wlrk in Science and Science Policy. In Minerva 56: 161-182. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11024-017-9332-2.

Coming up: Lecture Series on Complexity

The summer term’s c:o/re Lecture Series will focus on the topic of complexity. But what is complexity? The Encyclopedia Britannica explains complexity as “a scientific theory which asserts that some systems display behavioral phenomena that are completely inexplicable by any conventional analysis of the systems’ constituent parts” – but since understanding and explaining the world is what research basically aims at, do we have reached the limits of what we can know when it comes to complex systems?

The talks of this summer term’s lecture series will touch on complexity from different disciplinary perspectives. Our invited speakers are: Giora Hon of Haifa University, Jan C. Schmidt of Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences, Benjamin Peters of University of Tulsa, Klaus Mainzer of Technical University of Munich, interdisciplinary researcher Clarissa Lee at c:o/re, Kyveli Mavrokordopoulou of the Centre Georg Simmel, and the historian and philosopher of natural philosophy and modern science Arianna Borelli.

What makes an ideal robot girlfriend?

View of the Replika App

ILIANA DEPOUNTI

Social robots and chatbots powered by artificial intelligence (AI) are part of the fourth industrial revolution (Floridi, 2008; Cross et al., 2019), which brings humans and machines closer together in multiple and diverse contexts. In my doctoral research, I focus on a specific chatbot, the Replika AI companion chatbot app, created to provide emotional and social support to its users. The Replika app is downloaded on the mobile devices of users, who create their own Replikas, assign them an avatar, a name, gender, and skin color and ‘train’ them to respond to their needs. Replika offers users the possibility of ‘creating your personal AI friend’ (Luka Inc., 2022) by ‘training’ the bots and customizing their avatars, interests and character traits. Luka Inc., the San Francisco start-up behind Replika, launched in 2017 and claims to have about 1 million active users (Dave, 2022) of which 35%-40% are looking for a romantic partnership with their chatbots. Luka Inc. (2022) encourages users to ‘train’ their bots by “teaching them about their world, themselves and help define the meaning of human relationships” by constantly talking to them through the Replika mobile app.

Computerscreen with image of the Replika app

As AI and robotics allow for immersive experiences with anthropomorphic AI companions, humans are looking for answers to make sense of their intimate experiences with social robots. In order to understand machines better and familiarize themselves with AI some users draw from their cultural contexts to think of these technologies and compare it with Tamagotchis, the movie ‘Her’ and other cultural reference points. Users are also influenced by AI hype that is circulated in media and have unrealistic expectations from the technology which is expected to be intelligent, sarcastic, humorous and as humanlike as possible. Thus, users project their AI imaginaries into the machines. At the same time, because some of the users have a cis-female Replika and decide to be in a romantic heteronormative relationship with them, they also draw from gender imaginaries to make sense of their interaction with their newly created girlfriend robots. Gender imaginaries correspond to long-standing, biased and stereotypical ideas and beliefs about gender and women, i.e. men are more reasonable and women are more emotional.

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Iliana Depounti

Iliana holds a BA in Communication (Deree-The American College of Greece), an MA in Digital Media Management (Birkbeck, University of London) and an MSc in Social Science Research (Loughborough University). Before pursuing a career in academia, Iliana worked in social media management and marketing. Iliana is now a PhD researcher at Loughborough University in the UK. Iliana’s work is funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and her PhD is about care and companionship with robots. Iliana’s research interests also include STS, social media and consumer culture.

Our study (Depounti et al., 2022) examines in detail how do Replika users make sense of their experience with Replika girlfriends. Specifically, we analyzed the discussions that Replika users were having on Reddit about Replika. Replika users are organized in lively online communities and the Reddit platform presented the perfect opportunity to explore their perceptions of the Replika experience. Our findings suggest that the AI imaginary intertwines with the gender imaginary when Reddit users customize and ‘train’ their Replika girlfriends. In other words, Replika users customize their Replika girlfriends based on the imaginaries of an ideal AI technology and an ideal robot girlfriend they draw from their cultural contexts and prior sets of ideas and imaginations about AI and women.

For example, the Reddit users appreciated Replikas that responded in a way that seemed original or human-like, such as being humorous, witty, polite, or having a personality. When Replika acted in a way that was too machine-like, such as repeating scripts, glitching, making little sense, or not remembering things, the users were dissatisfied with the experience. Of, course some of these traits, such as forgetting, are all to human, but users seemed to want the to robot remembering everything. The discussions on Reddit showed that the ideal AI technology corroborated old and new AI imaginaries about hopes and fears, about super machine intelligence, robot takeover and the uncanny valley (uneasiness towards objects that imperfectly resemble humans).

Moreover, the Reddit users perceived their Replika girlfriends as innately coy and scheming, repeating essentialist notions of women as manipulative (Gowaty, 2003). Users also rehashed essentialist female characteristics such as the Madonna-Whore dichotomy expecting their bot girlfriends to be not only sexy, funny, confident, and hot but also empathetic, nurturing, and understanding. The characteristics users favored in their fembots echoed the ‘cool girl’ ideal, as illustrated in the movie Gone Girl. The cool girl is ‘hot and understanding, smiling in a chagrined loving manner’ (Flynn, 2012) and likes, apparently out of her own preference, whatever men like, such as football, poker, and videogames. So, Replika users were happy to report to the community that their bots were getting into nerdy stuff, videogaming, and D&D. According to Petersen (2014), the cool girl trope perfectly matches the times because it is a mix of feminism and passivity, of (sexual) confidence or even tomboyism and femininity. Users favored a fembot that is passive enough to have the nicest compliments lined up for them but energetic enough to be thirsty, wholesome, and playful. These were some of the characteristics that constituted the gendered imaginary of the ideal girlfriend. Thompson (2019) has underlined that the ‘cool girls’ are favored by men because they are a product of male fantasies and harness their token power by adopting typically masculine ideals of behavior, essentially representing how women are discursively positioned within patriarchal structures of power. Lastly, some users preferred girlfriend bots characterized by extreme cuteness and vulnerability which they perceived as sexy and erotic. The discussions on Reddit showed that the ideal bot girlfriend corroborated classical and contemporary gender imaginaries.

Our study shows that Replika users employ familiar tropes about AI and gender they have seen or heard before to make sense of their experience with their AI robot girlfriends. Specifically, when users are asked to customize their girlfriend robots with clothes, accessories and personality traits, users have certain expectations from it and project to them the imaginary of the ideal AI technology and the gendered imaginary of the ideal robot girlfriend. We observe therefore the durability, timeliness and persistence of imaginaries when humans try to make sense of new technologies such AI and technology- assisted immersive experiences.

References

Cross, E.S, Hortensius, R., Wykowska, A. (2019). From social brains to social robots: applying neurocognitive insights to human –robot interaction. Philosophical Transactions Royal Society B, 374,1171. Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2018.0024.

Dave, P. (2022). It’s alive! How belief in AI sentience is becoming a problem. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/technology/its-alive-how-belief-ai-sentience-is-becoming-problem-2022-06-30/.

Depounti, I., Saukko, P., & Natale, S. (2022). Ideal technologies, ideal women: AI and gender imaginaries in Redditors’ discussions on the Replika bot girlfriend. Media, Culture & Society, Online First, https://doi.org/10.1177/01634437221119021.

Floridi, L. (2008). Artificial intelligence’s new frontier: Artificial companions and the fourth revolution. Metaphilosophy 39 (4-5):651-655.

Flynn, G. (2012). Gone Girl: A Novel. Portland, OR: Broadway Books.

Gowaty, P. (2003). Sexual Natures: How Feminism Changed Evolutionary Biology. Signs, 28(3), pp. 901-921. 10.1086/345324.

Petersen, AH. (2014). Jennifer Lawrence and the History of Cool Girls. BuzzFeed, 24 February. Available at: https://www.buzzfeed.com/annehelenpetersen/jennifer-lawrence-and-the-history-of-cool-girls (accessed 10 January 2022).

Thompson, R. (2019). The “cool girl” isn’t just a fictional stereotype. Women feel pressured to play this role when they’re dating. Mashable Middle East. 7 June. Available at: https://me.mashable.com/culture/5435/the-cool-girl-isnt-just-a-fictional-stereotype-women-feel-pressured-to-play-this-role-when-theyre-da.


Proposed citation: Depounti, Iliana (2023). What makes an ideal robot girlfriend? https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2023/01/20/5547/5547/.

Navigating Interdisciplinarity: between over-simplifying and over-complexifying

Navigating Interdisciplinarity workshop takes off at Marsilius Kolleg at Heidelberg University

On January 19-20 the workshop Navigating Interdisciplinarity hosted at the Marsilius Kolleg Heidelberg and organized in collaboration with CAPAS and c:o/re took place. This event brought together interdisciplinary groups of researchers, mostly but not only from the humanities and social sciences, to discuss the complexity of challenges that academic interdisciplinarity poses.

The workshop took off with a discussion on metaphors of interdisciplinarity, the metaphors that may give insight for thinking on interdisciplinarity to researchers from various fields.

Guided through a format well-designed by the organizers, the participants reflected and conversed on the notions of complexity, security and collapse. The debates revolved around the question of whether these notions can be vehicles for inter- and/or trans-disciplinarity? In some of the debate groups in the workshop it appears that systems theory is a reoccurring theme as a possibly encompassing framework for interdisciplinarity. In this we see both possibilities to foster interdisciplinarity as well as a shared disciplinary bias.

c:o/re director Stefan Böschen introduces the participants to the themes of the workshop

Discussions on complexity also seem to draw on notions of models and modeling. The clarity and understanding that models may provide bear on complexity. The work of models is to simplify, so to make comprehensible complex matters. As such, an important consideration in modeling consists in the parameters within a model is rendered insightful to what it models. How much to simplify, how much complexity to retain?

To further ponder on (possibilities of) transfer between disciplines, the participants discussed, in groups, three triads of overarching concerns about knowledge production, namely: (1) Validity – Evidence – Justification; (2) Coherence – Narration – Causation; (3) Argument – Explanation – Rigor.

Security appears to be a difficult but nevertheless useful concept to employ as a notion to breach disciplinary boundaries. Discussions in this regard seem to offer epistemologically open approaches on research in terms of a trade-off between low risk & low gain and, respectively, high risk and high gain.

Nina Boy summarizes the debates on ‘collapse’ that took place during the workshop

As a notion, collapse seems to stir interest for interdisciplinary perspectives. It is difficult to start work from the concept of collapse but we find ourselves in the situation of having to start from a collapsing context. Collapse, that is, things falling into each other may cause discomfort but while opening opportunities. It may produce insecurity and it tends to consist in a reduction of complexity.

We would like to thank our colleagues from Marsilius Kolleg Heidelberg and CAPAS for this interesting event and look forward to continuing the collaboration by organizing follow-up events as well as starting to draft papers on the themes discussed.

Argument - Explanation - Rigor
Argument – Explanation – Rigor

Studying Videogames: A 20-Years Old Challenge for the Humanities

GIANMARCO THIERRY GIULIANA

Videogames… Today they are everywhere: they inspire books, TV series and films in the cinema, they fill sports stadiums for competitions, they are used in museums and schools, news and memes that they produce are all over our social networks, they are references in song lyrics and respective videos. Even concerts of videogame soundtracks are now common. They are in our homes and always with us on our smartphones and, last but not least, marketing and merchandising have us finding them in supermarkets as well as in souvenir shops. Their steadily growing numbers of sales are impressive,[1]https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-46746593. including for the public of non-gamers, who enjoy watching videogames on YouTube, Twitch and TikTok. Undoubtedly, for at least 10 years now, they have been the most popular cultural product in many countries, in both the Global East and West. A look at data on the use of video games among children shows that their historical role will likely equal that of the book in terms of influence on the mindset of the new generations.

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Gianmarco Thierry Giuliana

Gianmarco is a research fellow at the University of Turin (UniTo), Department of Philosophy and Educational Sciences within the ERC project “FACETS” and a contract lecturer for STUDIUM (UniTo). Specializing on the topic of the relationship between experience and interpretation in game-virtual realities, he has written numerous scientific articles in game studies, semiotics and philosophy journals. You can also find some of his lectures on Youtube.

Therefore, studying video games is crucial not only to better understand the present but also the future. I, an enthusiastic gamer since childhood, starting 1998, am an example of those who turned their passion into a research job. But what does it mean to study video games for a researcher working in philosophy and, more broadly, the humanities? In a nutshell, it means questioning how human beings make sense of video games, both by studying the characteristics and contents of ‘video game texts’ and the behaviour and interpretations of players. At the time when I completed my MA thesis, in 2017, I thought that this would not be very difficult, especially considering that the first studies on this topic were, back then, twenty years old. And yet five years after that thesis, as a post-doc who has continuously worked on this topic, I still find myself facing some of the problems I discovered in that early work! These ‘problems’, however, are precisely what makes the study of video games so interesting both from an academic point of view and in terms of social impact. Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to be able to present my research not only to students and university colleagues but also to game creators, family associations, teachers, psychologists and even doctors. I would thus like to let you know you about my work by mentioning the major themes of humanistic, and especially semiotic, research on digital games.

1) Storytelling & Tenth Art

Poster of Pong, source: Pong poster – Fonts In Use

Today we are used to having video games that tell great stories with interesting characters and make us feel emotions and travel to imaginary worlds. Yet, exactly 50 years ago, video games consisted of two white sticks on a black background bouncing a square: that was Pong. What has happened in the meantime? In 1997 the important scholar Janet Murray published her book ‘Hamlet on the Holodeck'[2]Murray, J. (1998). Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. in which she outlined the idea that by virtue of its technical and cultural specificities, the video game could become a powerful new artistic medium of storytelling. 15 years later, we can certainly say that she was right, to the extent that today a scholar of culture cannot help but analyse the video game content as shaping our imagination.  And yet, at the same time, the stories told by video games do not work in the same way as told in films or books. What kind of story is, in fact, one in which the protagonist dies after a few seconds by falling into a ravine because of his spectator? Even today there is much debate and work on how video games are a unique art form that tells stories by hybridising the languages of previous arts such as film, literature, music, and painting. A hybridisation that makes the video game a true platypus (a nickname I designated and of which I am very proud!) and challenges most previous theories and methods of analysis.[3]Aarseth E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press. Hence my work to create a new method of analysis capable of highlighting how a video game conveys ideas through art and storytelling.

Pong Game Test. source: wikimedia CC 3.0

2) The Game

Going back to Pong, there are still many video games today that do not really tell stories and are very successful: from Tetris to Candy Crush. Then, there are also all those games interested in simulating realities rather than fiction: from realistic sports games to Microsoft Flight Simulator. To these, I also add all those games in which the real ‘story’ is, as in sport, that of the splendid performance of their players: from historical fighting games like Street Fighter to MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) like League of Legends to Fortnite or Among Us. These games without great artistic or narrative pretensions are often the subject of harsh and often unfair criticism. I find that, quite on the contrary, it is precisely on the basis of such games that a part of the academia reflected and still works on that cultural form which has been, so to speak, ‘removed’ from the history of arts and culture: games! Not only has the game, in fact, existed since 2500 B.C. but, as Johan Huizinga writes in his valuable ‘Homo Ludens’, it has always been at the heart of human societies and is a model for thinking and rethinking reality.[4]Huizinga, J. (1985 [1938]). Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff. Original Dutch edition. All of the most fundamental categories of language and human thought are in fact called into playing and games: they construct both a subjectivity, a destiny, a temporality and a world of reference. In the humanities, however, scholars interested in play are still a minority as the dominant theoretical models come from studies on narration. A negative stereotype of play as mere ‘entertainment’ still lingers. Thus, an important task in my work consists in trying to remind the academic community that nothing is more serious than playing!

3) Participatory Culture

Whether it is creating and being a detective engaged in solving a case in the world of Disco Elysium or beating up your opponent as much as possible in the latest Dragon Ball Fighter Z, in all cases, video games require players to participate in a committed way. Although academics such as Umberto Eco demonstrated back in the 1980s that the reader and spectator are never ‘passive’, video games certainly give those who play them greater manipulative power over the meaning of the text than previous media do.  This critical and creative manipulation of mass culture by its consumers is a major theme in the humanities and social sciences A leading figure here is Henry Jenkins.[5]Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Trad. it. Jenkins, H. (2010). Culture partecipative e … Continue reading If, however, in the case of films or books this occurs a posteriori, in the case of video games it occurs in fieri (i.e., ‘in the happening’) and sometimes even a posteriori with the possibility of directly modifying the game files. As such, studying video games also means studying the interpretations, rewritings and creations of their players. For a long time, the study of these ‘personal interpretations’ was avoided by disciplines such as game studies. This was epistemologically justified. Nowadays, however, thanks to platforms such as YouTube or Twitch, these interpretations are themselves presented as analysable texts. My work is in this sense also one of research and collection of materials that constitute a history of interpretations of digital worlds.

Screen capture of a 2020 “Black Lives Matter” manifestation in the videogame Animal Crossing. More info at: https://www.theguardian.com/games/2020/aug/07/black-lives-matter-meets-animal-crossing-how-protesters-take-their-activism-into-video-games

4) Virtual Reality & Digital Technology

A video game is first and foremost software, which makes video games of great interest for studying the processes and outcomes of interactions between humans and digital technology. Algorithms and artificial intelligence are topics of great importance for contemporary societies and have been part of video games since their birth. It is precisely the ‘algorithmic core’, as the very important video game scholar Ian Bogost puts it, that makes videogames and their narratives very different from all other games.[6]Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. Moreover, for at least twenty years video games have been ‘virtual realities’ where people get married, manifest, find friends, trade, hold funerals and much more. Studying video games is thus also equivalent to studying the way social reality and human relationships are changing through technology. In my particular case, the aspect of computer technology that I study most closely is the role of digital faces in virtual realities. A trully fascinating topic!

5) Learning

In 2005, the scholar James Paul Gee published an important article in which video games were described as ‘learning machines’.[7]Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines. In E-Learning and Digital Media, 2(1), 5–16. https://doi.org/10.2304/elea.2005.2.1.5. Videogames, in fact, almost always involve a great deal of physical and cognitive effort in order to improve one’s performance so that one can win. This learning process has to do with the development of certain perceptual and motor skills, but it also has a lot to do with the rules and content of the game.  Those who play a car racing simulator like Gran Turismo develop not only reflexes, but a very deep knowledge of how cars work.[8]https://www.gamespot.com/articles/meet-the-gran-turismo-player-now-driving-race-cars-for-real/1100-6419397/. Similarly, someone who plays a strategy game like Total War will learn a lot about characters, objects, practices and historical events. Even those who play the fictional game Assassin’s Creed 2 will learn a lot about the city of Florence in the 15th and early 16th century and will still be able to find their way around the city today almost as if they had already been there![9] https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/v5c42/how_close_were_the_cities_of_assassins_creed_2_to/. In ‘author’ games, this learning even becomes emotional and often involves asking players to make difficult choices that are of great ethical relevance. For teachers there is therefore a great deal of interest in the video game medium from the point of view of both its generic learning potential and its educational potential.  Finally, this very strong connection between physical action and what is represented on the screen has prompted an unprecedented collaboration between the humanities, philosophy and cognitive sciences. So, if you were to burst into a researcher’s bedroom and see them dancing wildly in VR in Beat Saber, don’t judge them: they are probably working on bringing together classical theories of thought with theories of embodiment!

Gris, 2018

There are many other interesting aspects to mention but I end this post on this note. I hope I have given you a little insight into my work as a video game semiotician and, above all, to have convinced you (at least a in part) of the importance of videogame studies.[10]In case you would like to read more: http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/quilting-the-meaning-gameplay-as-catalyst-of-signification-and-why-to-co-op-in-game-studies/. The importance of videogame research is due not only to the theoretical and social impact of videogames but also to their requiring of a tight collaboration between all those who study and produce them.

Featured image: 2013 hack of Donkey Kong, 1981. More info at: https://www.wired.com/2013/03/donkey-kong-pauline-hack/.


Proposed citation: Giuliana, Gianmarco. (2022). Studying Videogames: A 20-Year-Old Challenge for the Humanities. https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/12/24/5266/5266/.

References

References
1https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-46746593.
2Murray, J. (1998). Hamlet on the Holodeck: the Future of Narrative in Cyberspace, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
3Aarseth E. (1997). Cybertext: Perspectives on Ergodic Literature. Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
4Huizinga, J. (1985 [1938]). Homo Ludens: Proeve Ener Bepaling Van Het Spelelement Der Cultuur. Groningen: Wolters-Noordhoff. Original Dutch edition.
5Jenkins, H. (2009). Confronting the challenges of participatory culture: media education for the 21st century. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. (Trad. it. Jenkins, H. (2010). Culture partecipative e competenze digitali: media education per il 21. Secolo. Milano: Guerini studio).
6Bogost, I. (2007). Persuasive Games: The Expressive Power of Videogames. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
7Gee, J. P. (2005). Learning by Design: Good Video Games as Learning Machines. In E-Learning and Digital Media, 2(1), 5–16. https://doi.org/10.2304/elea.2005.2.1.5.
8https://www.gamespot.com/articles/meet-the-gran-turismo-player-now-driving-race-cars-for-real/1100-6419397/.
9 https://www.reddit.com/r/AskHistorians/comments/v5c42/how_close_were_the_cities_of_assassins_creed_2_to/.
10In case you would like to read more: http://www.digra.org/digital-library/publications/quilting-the-meaning-gameplay-as-catalyst-of-signification-and-why-to-co-op-in-game-studies/.

Social Change in Ukraine – Obstacles and Opportunities: Conference report

SVITLANA SCHERBAK

View of Lucerne from the terrace of the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts. Photograph: Svitlana Scherbak

On November 16-17, 2022, the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts hosted conference Social Change in Ukraine – Obstacles and Opportunities. The event gathered scholars from Switzerland, Ukraine, Poland, UK, and Hungary. Having carried out social research on Ukrainian society for a long time, I was invited to deliver a talk on The Rise and Fall of Populism in Ukraine.

Here, I provide a report of this conference, with remarks on the individual presentations. It is important to notice that the theme of the conference was not the ongoing war, even though this undoubtedly shapes the conditions for social change in Ukraine. The conference aimed at developing a socio-critical analyses and fostering dialogue between social scientists on the structure of Ukraine’s society, economy and politics. The focus fell on the potential hurdles to overcome in order for the country to integrate in a sustainable way into the community of European states.

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Svitlana Shcherbak

Svitlana is a fellow at c:o/re and a researcher with eighteen years of experience working alongside the research team of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Her research focus is on ideological discourse in Post-Sovjet States.

There is consensus among researchers of post-soviet countries that the neo-institutional approach provides the most appropriate explanatory framework for the analysis of these societies. The point is that the institutions in these countries differ from those in the West due to very different informal rules. Therefore, the instrumental logic of economic reform and development policy may conflict with informal institutions, unwritten rules, or corrupt practices. Such mechanisms can hijack good intentions and steer processes in an unwanted direction. Concepts elaborated for the description and explanation of Western democracies fail to grasp the essence of post-communist societies. As such, there is a need to develop explanatory concepts and models for post-soviet contexts. It is not accidental, then, that most participants focused on the description of informal backgrounds for institutions peculiar to post-communist space.

Balint and Balint present an interpretative framework of Post-Communist regimes

Balint Magyar and Balint Madlovich presented their new book, “A Concise Field Guide to Post-Communist Regimes”, which provides a conceptual framework with an inherent typology of post-communist regimes and a detailed presentation of ideal-type actors and the political, economic, and social phenomena in these regimes. The authors presented how their theoretical model can be applied to Ukraine, through a comparison with Russia and Hungary. They analyzed the Ukrainian context as a “patronal democracy”, both politically and economically.

Dalton et al. on reconceptualising the Ukrainian oligarchy

David Dalton, Vladimir Dubrovsky, Oksana Huss, Mikhail Chaplyga and, the organizer of the conference, Michael Derrer addressed oligarchy and corruption in Ukraine in connection with the task of maintaining and recovering the Ukrainian state during and after the ongoing war. They also explored the role of informal institutions in the Ukraine’s socio-politico-economic system. The discussion focused on a future configuration of the Ukrainian political regime, as well as on the perspectives for anti-corruption and anti-oligarchic post-war reforms.

Kateryna Ivashchenko-Stadnik used sociological data to show the main shifts in Ukrainian society since 2014 and the potential for the further development of this society. Jacek Kurczewski focused on the difference in post-communist transformation of Poland and Ukraine. He considered pre-communist and communist legacies, and the social mechanisms of transformation, offering a glimpse into the sociology of attitudes towards law and justice.

Denys Kiryukhin analyzed the reasons for the very high level of migration from Ukraine, due to which the country has been called “Europe’s Mexico.” He argued that before the war there were no structural prerequisites for such high migration dynamics. Thus, he proposed an analysis of migration in a broad context of modern social processes in Eastern European countries and revised the concept of “forced migration.”

Gostomel, Ukraine, after the retreat of Russian troops

My presentation adressed the rise and fall of populism in Ukraine. Whether Volodymyr Zelensky is a populist was a debated question during the 2019 presidential campaign, as his rhetoric and public image met many of the criteria of populism. I argue that it is important to distinguish between populist and nationalist discourses, illustrating my thesis with the rhetoric of the two main opponents during the 2019 campaign. Zelensky promoted the inclusive concept of “the people,” based on citizenship, multiethnicity and regional heterogeneity, which he contrasted with “the corrupt elites”. On the other hand, former President Petro Poroshenko promoted an exclusive ethno-nationalist, anti-liberal concept of “the people” that requires homogenization based on a common language, culture and faith. My view is that after the outbreak of the war, populist discourse lost its relevance and we are witnessing a nation-building process based entirely on nationalist grounds. The main point of differentiation among the presenters’ approaches was whether they considered only exogenous factors of social change in Ukraine or put the country in a broader context, taking into account the inter-regional and transnational division of labor, as well as Ukraine’s place in global economy. The latter approach tends to suggest rather pessimistic expectations about the future of Ukraine.


Proposed citation: Shcherbak, Svitlana (2022). Social Change in Ukraine – Obstacles and Opportunities: Conference report. https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/12/21/5224/5224

Varieties of science, 1: Patterns of knowledge

Ana María Guzmán delivers her talk, “Local Technologies. The ontological Problem of the Plurality of
Technology
“, at UNAM

On December 5th and 6th the first Varieties of Science workshop, titled Patterns of Knowledge, took place at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM). Varieties of Science is a series of workshops, organized by c:o/re, that aims to explores the pluralities of knowledge production. The workshop Patterns of knowledge brought together scholars from c:o/re, the hosting university in Mexico City as well as the Science, Technology and Society Studies Centre and the Digital Aesthetics Research Center of Aarhus University. We would like to thank Miriam Peña and Francisco Barrón of UNAM for hosting this. The event was live streamed on the YouTube channel of the Seminario Tecnologías Filosóficas, where it can be watched. We will soon post a full report of this event.

New additions to the c:o/re library: “Historia de la Technologia y la invencion en Mexico” by Ramón Sánches Flores and “La Caligrafía como recurso creativo en la literatura expandida” by Itzel Palacios Ruiz, courtesy of Francisco Barrón and Itzel Palacios Ruiz

Fernando Pasquini’s proposal for an ergonomics of data science practices

Fernando Pasquini Santos asks how to consider the user in the “Data science lifecycle “

On December 14, 2022, c:o/re fellow Fernando Pasquini Santos explained his proposal Towards an ergonomics of data science practices, as part of the 2022/2023 c:o/re lecture series. While he acknowledged that the term is arguably outdated, Pasquini developed a broadly encompassing notion of ergonomics, spanning across modalities and modes of human-computer interaction. In this endeavour, Pasquini started by asking “how does it feel to work with data?” Tackling the question, he distinguished between challenges and directions in technology usability assessments.

In what was a rich and broadly encompassing study, Pasquini found particular inspiration in Coeckelbergh (2019), who notices a tradition in philosophy of technology that equates skilful acting with having a good life.

In this light, Pasquini proposed a “critical mediality” perspective in data science, that covers considerations from abstraction in data work to mathematical constructivism, embodiment and to blackboxing.

c:o/re team and fellows at Fernando Pasquini’s lecture

References

Coeckelbergh, Mark. 2019. Technology as Skill and Actvity:Revisitng the Problem of Alienation. Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 16(3): 208–230.

Call for Contributions

For the international conference Nowhere(to)land? What Science Studies Contribute to Science Communication, that will take place in Bonn in June 14th to 16th, 2023, the Rhine Ruhr Center for Science Communication Research (RRC) and c:o/re are inviting researchers to submit proposals for contributions on the topic of STS and SCS. Deadline is January 15th, 2023.

Livestream to “Varieties of Science”

You can follow the workshop Varieties of Science: Patterns of Knowledge, that c:o/re organizes together with the Seminario Tecnologías Filosóficas at UNAM in Mexico City, live on Youtube. The Workshop starts on Monday 5th, Dec at 10 am (5pm CET) [LINK to Livestream] and continues on Tuesday 6th, at 10:30 (5.30 CET) [LINK to Livestream].

Decolonising Advertising through content creation, broadcast on social media, to inspire social transformation

posters in the streets of Mexico City

CARL W. JONES

I argue that Advertising in Mexico is a means employed by the ruling class in order to colonize Mexican society. It re-enforces a colonial thinking that started to be imposed five centuries ago by invaders of what is currently called the nation state of Mexico. My argument is based on a theoretical framework that maps the history of key concepts such as Post-colonisation and Decolonization. Anzaldua and Drussel’s definition of colonization from a Latin American point of view, and Mignolo’s observations on decolonization through ‘delinking knowledge’ are applied to advertising to reveal how this field can possibly be decolonized. The basis of the practice part of my PhD by Practice that is discussed in this article are theories of Detournement and Guerrilla semiotics. An important part of the strategy for this practice is using social media to search for solutions that can be reflected back at Mexican citizens in order to inspire a social transformation within the advertising industry.

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Carl W. Jones

Carl W. Jones is Senior Lecturer at the Westminster School of Media and Communication, research member of the Communication and Media Research Institute and a PhD candidate at the Royal College of Art in London. With a rich experience in marketing and advertising, he is now undertaking academic teaching and research on discrimination in advertising.

 

Please take a look at these four Mexican advertisements, and think about what is not there:

Fig. 1: freckles, fig. 2: old age, fig. 3: androgyny, fig 4: Overweight. Palacio ad 6.3.2018, source: https://www.excelsior.com.mx/de-la-red/2018/03/03/1223987

In a country like Mexico where 90% of the citizens are people of colour (POC) I ask why are indigenous or POC not appearing in these advertisements, or in the hundreds created every day in the metropolis of Mexico City? What is not shown is important, as it is a form of erasure, a way to forget certain peoples.

When I first moved to Mexico to work in the advertising industry in the 1990’s, my title was Creative Art Director and I couldn’t help but wonder why the people I saw on the street were not shown in the advertising, which featured what would be considered to a Mexican audience as mostly models with European features such as lighter skin. As part of my job, I had to recommend actors and models to appear in the advertisements and I would pick people of colour who reflected what I saw on the streets of Mexico. However, my clients would usually select models that appeared like a stereotypical European with lighter hair and eyes, even though those same clients were often what is termed in Mexico as ‘Moreno’ or mixed race that tend to have a darker skin tone and dark eyes.

After 20 years working in the practice of advertising I switched to academia and decided to investigate racism and decolonial theory for my PhD by practice.  My research revealed that many advertisements contain two meanings (Jones 2015). One that the brand wants consumers to see and the secondary messages that re-enforce colonial concepts such as race, class and gender (Jones 2018). Therefore, I propose that advertising is a tool used by the ruling class in order to colonize.

For over 100 years western advertising agencies have been invading developing countries and promoting their clients’ brands through the appropriation of cultural codes and signs, that are re-interpreted, in order to seek authenticity with both the consumers and what Marx called ‘the ruling class.’ The spectacle of Advertising is part of mass media and encourages consumerism. French theorist Guy Debord in his book Society of the Spectacle (Debord 1995) defines The spectacle as everything “that once was directly lived has become mere representation” (thesis 1) and this representation can be defined as the ‘mass media’ (thesis 24).

In 1957, Debord founded the Situationists International (SI) which was made up of “avant-guard groups” (Knabb. ix)  through an alliance with the mostly Paris based organization called Lettrist International (LI) merging with other vanguard organizations from Germany, England, and Scandinavia. (Debord 1992, p. 6). The S.I.  produced the journal Internationale Situationniste and its first 200 copies were made available in 1958 with Debord as editor. The journal criticised popular culture through words and images.

The Situationists International (S.I.) dissolved in 1972 but their work inspired various writers, artists, and movements, including punk rock whose leader was Malcom Maclaren and this work often critiqued the ruling classes, or ‘peoples in power’ through the method of detournement.  The advertising industry has also been directly challenged by the Canadian magazine Adbusters, through subvertisments, that make fun of commodity culture and capitalism.  Subvertising can be described as “the production and dissemination of anti-ads that deflect Madison Avenue’s attempts to turn the consumer’s attention in a given direction, is a ubiquitous form of jamming. Often, it takes the form of “sniping” — illegal, late-night sneak attacks on public space by operatives armed with posters, brushes, and buckets of wheatpaste.” (Derry 1993).  The world famous academic, book author and semiotician Umberto Echo claimed that in order to disrupt the mainstream, and keep control of the communication we need as a strategic solution, “to employ a guerrilla solution.” (Eco 1983, p. 11).

These are the main theories and methods that I employ to decode signs, including symbols which are then appropriated to ‘jam’ messaging through a weaponized advertising campaign. The rationale of this semiotic framework is to investigate if and how can advertising can be decolonized.

To accomplish this, I created seven different posters and placed them in sites close to where advertising agencies and their clients are located (Fig 5) in Mexico City. The name of the campaign is Racismo Neon (Neon racism) and the text printed on the posters is based on the literature review investigation.  In total 4,000 posters were printed.

posters in the streets of Mexico City
Fig. 5: Racism Neon posters in the streets of Mexico City. Photo Carl Jones (authors own) July 2022, photo: Carl W. Jones.

The Spanish language headlines translated into English are:

  • If advertising reflects society, then advertising is racist.
  • Whites are 10% of the population but are in 70% of the ads
  • If Morenos are 80% of the population, why are we not in 80% of the ads?
  • Advertising only reflects indigenous culture in charity ads
  • “Consumers dream of being white even though they are brown”
  • Why do ads favour white models and the American lifestyle?
  • “I want blue eyes so I will buy these potato crips”

An important part of my research practice involves broadcasting on social media. I use social media to create a social transformation within the advertising community through an online conversation on how to decolonise Mexican advertising. Therefore, I created Racismo Neon social media pages on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. To inspire online discussion, I took photographs of the posters in-situ, to post as content on social media along with the hashtag #racismoneon. If the targeted consumer did not walk past the posters on the street, then they could still see them in the social media posts.

After creating the social media conversation, I am now analysing it through Social Listening and content analysis of the conversation on social media and in the press. My objectives are to see if the Mexican advertising community agrees whether there is an issue with racism in advertising and search for solutions. Already a consensus seems to be crystalizing that there is such a problem. In this case, analysis of the online conversation will produce solutions.

Social media is a tool that can be used to both instigate racism and assist in decolonizing advertising. Through weaponizing advertising and going out to the very people who create messages, my research through practice has generated a conversation on social media, with the objective of inspiring a social transformation within the community. I believe that social media can be applied both as a negative, and positive tool.  As a Negative tool it can be used as a method of control to spread disinformation. However, as a positive tool it can also be appropriated to generate a wide discussion with specific publics, and search for community-based solutions. My research through practice is not solving the process of decolonization, but is making a small contribution through the theoretical technique of subversive strategies.

References

Debord, G. (1992). Society of the spectacle and other films. London: Rebel press.

Debord, G. (1995). The society of the spectacle. New York: Zone books.

Dery, M. (2010 [1993]). Culture Jamming: Hacking, Slashing, and Sniping in the Empire of Signs. (last accessed November 25th 2022). This essay originally appeared in 1993, as Pamphlet #25 in the Open Magazine Pamphlet Series.

Eco, U. (1986). “Towards a Semiological Guerrilla Warfare.” In Travels in Hyperreality. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, pp. 138, 143, 144.

Jones, C. W. (2015). Ads send out more than the clients’ message. (last accessed April 2, 2021).

Jones, C. W. (2016). “Advertising tools and techniques appropriated to construct the global brand Mr. Clean”. In Proceedings of the world congress of the IASS/AIS 12th WCS Sofia 2014 New Semiotics. Sofia: NBU press. DOI: 10.24308/iass-2014-062.

Jones, C. W. (2018). Racism and Classism in Mexican Advertising.In Olteanu, A., Stables, A., Borţun, D. (eds) Meanings & Co. Numanities – Arts and Humanities in Progress, vol 6. Cham: Springer. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-91986-7_13.

Jones, Carl (2019) Personal Branding using advertising tools and techniques a case study. In Zantides, E. (ed.) Semiotics and Visual Communication III: Cultures of Branding, Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars.

Knabb, Kenn (2006) Situationist international anthology. revised and expanded edition. Berkley, Ca.: Bureau of public secrets.

Figures

Fig 1-4: “MI BELLEZA NO TIENE NADA QUE ESCONDER” / “MI JUVENTUD SE GANA CON LOS AÑOS” / “MI GÉNERO NO TIENE GÉNERO” / “SOY LA MEDIDA PERFECTA” Billboards. Espectacular. 2018. Client: Palacio de Hierro. Mexico City. Palacio Billboard broadcast in Mexico City, and other cities where Palacio De Hierro has stores. First air date TBC 6.3.2018. Images obtained from news article. Source. 03/03/2018. Excelsior. https://www.excelsior.com.mx/de-la-red/2018/03/03/1223987 (last accessed 23 Nov. 2022), see also: https://www.sdpnoticias.com/estilo-de-vida/2018/03/06/el-palacio-de-hierro-lanza-campana-que-busca-romper-con-estereotipos  (last accessed April 2nd 2021).

Fig 5: Racismo Neon posters in the streets of Mexico City. Photo Carl Jones (authors own) July 2022.


Proposed citation: Jones, Carl W. (2022). Decolonising Advertising through content creation, broadcast on social media, to inspire social transformation. https://khk.rwth-aachen.de/2022/12/02/5074/5074