Visions of the future

Technology can facilitate scholarship, particularly when it is intuitive and user-friendly, argues Tara Brabazon

January 14, 2009

Academics see the world differently. Our gaze is mediated, shaped and translated into scholarly protocols, footnotes and institutional guidelines and regulations. While most of my academic career has involved sound, music and oral history, cameras have been constant companions on research journeys.

Photographs have captured evidence, developed memory texts for later referral, created book covers or been included in online articles. I have photographed the Abbey Road wall, Virilian bunkers and sporting stadiums, either empty or at moments of victory.

While many disciplines deploy photographs to supplement written text, visual ethnography enables writers and researchers to assemble a strategy for our visual mediations. Anthropology, history, cultural studies, sociology and media studies all provide disciplinary opportunities for new ways of seeing and new ways of thinking. While cultural studies has focused – too often for my taste – on issues of representation, other topics are also worthy of discussion.

Sarah Pink has charted a path through visual research. She sharpens our scholarly eye and connects what we see with what we write. Her second edition of Doing Visual Ethnography appeared in 2007. While acknowledging how photography and video are part of our practice, Pink has also probed the hypertextual new-media environment. She shows how photography, video and the web landscape have slotted into ethnography “as cultural texts, as representations of ethnographic knowledge and as sites of cultural production, social interaction and individual experience.”

An important new subject of development for Pink and many of us inspired by her work is how the use of visual and audio recorders either enables or stifles our scholarship. The pervasiveness of images in our non-academic lives often means that visuality is taken for granted, assumed and naturalised. In creating opportunities to prise open spaces for interpretation, a range of theories can be activated. Intense questions emerge about the right to conduct research, switch on a camera and own and use the resultant footage. The goal is to find ways to gather empirical evidence and shape considered interpretations from the media platforms that are available. The creation of digital visual objects is enhanced through a range of hardware and software opportunities. One of the most startling success stories of domestic technologies is the Flip. The product gains its name from the side switch that flips up a USB connector.

Produced in three models – the Ultra, Mino and Mino HD – it is the size of a cigarette packet. The simplicity of the recording process, based around a large red button, is stunning. Editing software is resident on the platform and the camera can be directly linked to a computer via a USB slot. This connection also charges the unit. Direct uploading to YouTube, AOL or MySpace is possible. While the resolution of the Ultra and Mino footage was not high, the Mino HD has lifted image quality.

Miniature camcorders were the gadgets of 2008. What makes Flip prescient in technological terms is that it features a stripped-down platform rather than following the path of mobile phones that incorporate a stream of features that are not used. The smallest high-definition camcorder in the world, it also allows the extraction of still images. While the supplied software is basic, it permits cropping of footage and the addition of titles and captions. Background music can also be added using loops included with the package or imported from other sources.

Besides offering important new opportunities for both domestic film-making and visual scholarship, the Flip is also an intervention in creative industries research and development. Flip is produced by Pure Digital Technologies, based in San Francisco’s Union Square. A small company employing fewer than 100 employees, Pure Digital has broken the rules of domestic electronics. It followed the Apple, Nintendo and Sony trend for portability, but grasped the low-priced end of the market. Through 2008, it became the highest-selling camcorder in the United States. By October 2008, Deloitte LLP confirmed that Pure Digital is the fastest-growing Silicon Valley-based technology company.

The reasons for the company’s success are clear. It started its design process with the development of resident software that integrated a camera with both a computer and the internet. Most camera designers start with the hardware. Founder and CEO Jonathan Kaplan described this innovation as “an ecosystem that has a lot of value”.

Aiming for simplicity of recording and an ease of sharing the captured footage, the Flip demonstrates that there is a huge and often undervalued group of consumers that are not impressed by expense or novelty, but desire functionality. Kaplan described this as “democratised video” and used the iPod as a model for his business

Apple asked, ‘How do you make music fun? It wasn’t fun, affordable or easy to use until the iPod… we said we wanted to do the same thing for video. It’s a simple equation: the simpler it is, the more fun it is.

The Flip demonstrates that the best and most advanced technology is not always the most appropriate. The question is if and then how this democratised and domestic platform can be deployed in academic environments. In my masters programme we have been working with the Flip in oral historiography, ethnography and as a platform for teaching in distance education.

I have also been conducting experiments in using the platform for marketing initiatives. For visual note-taking and capturing the context of an oral interview there are profound benefits flowing from the Flip because of its speed of operation and weight. The other task that I will explore in the coming months is the creation of sequential video narratives. Like Magix’s PhotoStory, a program that enables visual storytelling through the ordering of photographs, Flip may provide opportunities for the shaping of life histories and increasing the visual elements of both our research creation and dissemination.

The iPod offered alternative platforms and opportunities to think about mobility and sound. The Flip Mino HD is a similar intervention in our visual lives. The question is how this new camera can be used in research. The methodological questions raised by this platform are productive, creative and interesting. While academics must work – in a careful and considered way – to translate domestic media into a scholarly environment, the effort may be both productive and stimulating. We may not Flip for the Mino, but it is certainly not a minor moment in visual ethnography.

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