Representation: What the Internet Means Today
Internet companies, like so many other businesses, noticeably changed the way they represented themselves at the start of the pandemic. Emphasis in advertisements shifted from touting the novelty and features of products to showing how companies could help in a time of crisis, shifting to a tone of care and aiming to uplift. Delivery services such as Grubhub turned attention to what they could do for restaurants that had closed. Google thanked teachers. Facebook highlighted its platform as a place where people could find help or offer support. Uber thanked its riders for not using the app. And Apple sought to inspire. The rush of advertisers to show their usefulness “in uncertain times” was so pronounced that it became the subject of parody and self-parody. But we should take seriously this shift in tone because it also reflects ways that our relationship with the internet is changing, perhaps permanently.
How have you been using the internet during the pandemic? What websites, apps, or services are you using more now than before? What do these represent to you in a context where so many former services are on hold? How do these services represent themselves to you? What language and tone are associated with them? How do they make you feel?
Check out the main web page for the service you choose. What does it say? How does it represent itself in text, image, and sound? What tone does it strike? What emotions does it seek to elicit? Who is it for? What is its structure and format?
Circuit of Culture
To help you get started, take a look at this short text on the “Circuit of Culture,” which will be the frame for all the assignments this semester. Once you have your activity or service in mind, focus in on the dimension of representation associated with it: what does the medium, technology, activity, or service represent and for whom? What is its context and what does it mean for the people who use it? Remember that representation can occur in spoken language, text, image, and sound, and in any of the media that combine these.
Due September 11 by 5:00 p.m. EST.
Alternate Essay: Before the Internet
The effects of the internet on physical mail have been profound, as has become apparent in the news again recently, but just about every aspect of life is different now that we have an interconnected, multimedia communication platform. During a pandemic, online telehealth visits and video social hours have become common, adding onto a trend where we already saw streaming entertainment, food order and delivery, and dating migrate to websites and apps. To set the stage for understanding the cultural shifts that have taken place through the internet, this introductory assignment asks you to consider what life was like before the web. For people of my generation who grew up in a time before widespread adoption, imagining how we communicated, socialized, bought and sold goods, navigated through the world, and consulted physical books to understand the past is a matter of personal memory. For people of your generation, it is likely to be a matter of social memory, largely stored on the web. But that’s the thing: I want you to try to imagine what life was like before the internet without using the internet. Consider it an effort in creative reverse engineering, as well as creative storytelling. For an hour maybe, unplug from the internet as best you can and think about the things you no longer have access to, such as social networks, a vast repository of stored information, on-demand services at your fingertips, and the constant pingings of notifications. Consider writing on paper, by hand. Focus in on one activity or service and devise a cultural system, maybe not needing electricity or data transmission, that could fulfill the same cultural function. This is meant to be creative and exploratory, so if you find yourself writing about the past in a way similar to how science fiction authors have imagined the future, you’re on the right track. Topics might include how people shopped and compared prices before the internet, how they banked and invested, what types of entertainment they enjoyed, how they conducted research, what it looked like to travel, and how people met and dated before the internet (check out this podcast on dating in the days when bicycles were new).
Before you get started, you’ll want to read this short text on the “Circuit of Culture,” which will be the frame for all the assignments this semester. Once you have your activity or service in mind, focus in on the dimension of representation associated with it: what does the medium, technology, activity, or service represent and for whom? What is its context and what does it mean for the people who use it? Remember that representation can occur in spoken language, text, image, and sound, and in any of the media that combine these.
Consider as an example the above podcast on the bicycle and telegraph. The bicycle and the telegraph represented for people new kinds of freedom, new ways of making contact with people. Their novelty was proclaimed in newspapers and magazines, and each changed the business of news and culture. The bicycle changed transportation, and the telegraph changed communication (really, each changed transportation and communication if we consider their cascading effects). The bicycle made it possible for people to explore greater distances in the city, while the telegraph connected people anonymously over distances like never before. They represented technological novelty and a break with the ways of the past. They opened up new jobs, such bicycle couriers and telegraph operators, and cut into the market of other jobs. For instance, the bicycle reduced reliance on horses as agents of transportation, and the telegraph took over the work once accomplished by the Pony Express, and in this sense, both technologies represented some early warning signs for the cultural demise of horses and horse drivers, which would be completed with the automobile. All services and technologies change relations in this way, representing new opportunity for some and misfortune for others. Inevitably, the service you choose will have been transformed or obsolesced by the internet, but it also had an impact on technologies and systems that came before it. Thinking about its relationships with other technologies and systems can help you creatively think through what it represented for people: what meanings it carried, what language was used to describe it, and what cultural tone was associated with it. So there you have it: how did people get things done before the internet? Have fun, and good luck!
(Another example that occurs to me at the start of the semester is, how did students register for classes before the internet; how did professors maintain course caps; what systems of documentation were in place to coordinate everything? How did we do it?)
Due September 11 by 5:00 p.m. EST.