Smartphones in everyday life | A reflective piece

While idly browsing through YouTube the other day, Google’s algorithms decided to recommend me a video on the new iPhone X. Before I knew it, I had watched Apple’s entire library of promotional material for the phone. With the characteristic Apple polish, the commercials were futuristic yet grounded, at once showing the phone’s cold mechanical beauty and its warm and reassuring presence in modern everyday life. The whole viewing experience was, for lack of a better word, extremely satisfying.

I was reminded of the affective experience that was researching and purchasing my first smartphone. I remember going through countless commercials and poring over numerous promotional websites, being inspired by the way the phone and its features appeared to frictionlessly meld away into lifestyles. As an excitable kid, eager to get through high school and into adult life, I was deeply impressed upon by the voiceovers and the copy as they artfully narrated vignettes of modern smartphone-enabled lifestyles.

jony-ive
Jony Ive, the man behind Apple’s disembodied, baritone voiceovers.

 

Though my smartphone is now undoubtedly an indispensable part of my everyday life, my usage has turned out quite different from what I expected. The lived experience of smartphone usage and its effects for the user’s everyday life is much more complex than what can be captured by any copywriter. Reflecting on my everyday usage, I have come to understand it as the result of a constant exchange between stories, the designed affordances of the device and related apps, and various elements of life, circumstance and sociality.

To me, this is a much more interesting and fulfilling story to tell compared to the tropes and stories which are commonly told by the media, non-users and sometimes even users themselves. Reflecting on my own smartphone usage, however, it was clear to me that these stories do interact with how we conceive of the use of this important modern implement.

 

The power of such ‘stories’ or ‘tropes’ is not merely discursive. As individuals frame and understand their use through narratives, these ideas have effects for the day-to-day usage of smartphones (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013). The smartphone is a powerful cultural symbol and my idealisation of it greatly informed my early usage.

Under the spell of well-produced commercials, my initial mental image of the smartphone user seemed to align very well with what Harmon and Mazmanian (2013) call the ‘multi-task master’. The phone user was supposed to be busy, but successfully, even aesthetically so, easily navigating the demands of modern life using a smartphone ‘on the go’.

With my new smartphone in hand, my usage patterns did initially seem to conform with what I expected. I downloaded popular apps and faithfully and routinely stuck to their specific uses. I made a concerted and deliberate effort to migrate large chunks of everyday life to my smartphone. And I remember spending long hours organising the on-phone calendar, testing dictionary and translation apps, and using the reminders function to keep track of homework and other tasks; all in the image of a smooth smartphone-enabled ‘everyday’.

But life got in the way. With time, keeping up my ‘diligent usage’ became increasingly tiring. In the language of actor-network theory, my usage, being motivated by a simplistic narrative, was an unsuccessful act of ‘heterogeneous engineering’ (Law 1992). I had let the phone and its prescriptions have its way with me rather than ‘making it my own’ and finding it a more suitable niche in the ‘phone-human assemblage’ I was attempting to form.

It is clear that after the initial ‘honeymoon period’ no one actually uses their digital device precisely as prescribed by its designers and copywriters. The phone, unlike the way it’s advertised, only rarely becomes a user’s ‘ultimate daily organiser’ or a perfect substitute for other ways of doing things. For the rest of us, there are some features that work well with our everyday lives, others whose intended functions would be better delegated elsewhere, and further others which are best appropriated and related to existing tools or procedures (Wang et al. 2016).

And as the utopian shine that surrounded my idea of the smartphone started wearing off, I indeed saw my usage begin to drift in unexpected directions. Living with my phone over long periods has seen me gradually whittle away at my usage into a form probably unrecognisable to a younger me enraptured by the promises of designers and engineers.

Today, a large number of my apps lie unused, some others are used in a sporadic manner, and a small number I use ‘fully’. I make full use of Citymapper (a navigation app) and find myself experiencing a new ‘tempo’ to life, able to move around the city at ease without much need to plan ahead. But at the same time, I no longer use the fidgety calendar app, substituting it for a blurry photo of my university timetable in the ‘Album’ app and a physical planner. Nor do I depend on the good-looking but clunky weather app when a quick Google search through the search bar does the same job faster.

Screenshot_2017-10-17-15-03-05.png
Today: everything I use on a single page.

My usage is fragmented and sporadic, but it is the long-term result of lived experience with the device and all its affordances and quirks. As it stands now, the smartphone is incorporated into other procedures of my everyday life in a much more successful act of ‘heterogeneous engineering’, one that is far removed from the ideal ‘stories’ of copywriters.

 

However, this is not the only story told about smartphones in contemporary culture. The opposing but no less prevalent narrative is that of the smartphone user as ‘distracted addict’ (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013). Its programmatic imagery is that of the antisocial youth, hunched over their smartphone in an unhealthy fixation as the ‘real-world’ passes them by. Quite evocative and convincing!

Though it may seem contradictory, I am also guilty of buying into this just a little bit, beginning at some point after my initial fervour over the smartphone. Indeed, the two narratives can co-exist within people, leading to subjectivities that remain “conflicted and unstable, bouncing between [opposite extremes] in the micro-moments of daily life” (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013, 2). To this day, these cynical ideas continue to inform my usage in interesting and perhaps trivial ways. At home, I make an effort to not bring it to the dinner table; at night, my phone is placed out of reach.

Beyond this, the figure of the ‘distracted addict’ also frames my sense of identity, with implications for my smartphone usage, perhaps as I seek to present myself as an ‘authentic human’ (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013). Reflecting on my use, I found a peculiar pattern to how I replied to messages: upon receiving a message, I would often immediately look at it but not reply, deferring the task to later in the day. This occurs regardless of where I am or what I’m doing, and it is despite the fact that I wouldn’t be wasting any more time if I did reply. But, as long as it’s not urgent, and especially if the sender is an acquaintance, this is what I do.

Though it may now just be a routine action, I remember how this began with a cognitive justification. With the figure of the ‘distracted addict’ in mind, by not replying immediately, my intention was to give the impression that my smartphone usage was instrumental, for its convenience, rather than because of some ‘addiction’. Through these small but consistent acts of ‘conspicuous non-consumption’, I seemed to be consciously strengthening my claim to a desirable identity and self-presentation (Neves et al. 2015, 119).

In this same move, however, I am also fighting against the prescriptions of my phone. The phone and its social networking apps are designed, indeed inscribed, with system designers’ normative belief that social interaction should be instantaneous: the phone’s notification light flashes incessantly and the app lets the sender know whether I have ‘seen’ the message. But I am able to successfully fight this: I flip my phone over to hide the annoying light, and I artfully read the message without letting the sender know that I’ve ‘seen’ it, circumventing the suggestions and intentions of the software (Latour 2005).

My usage, though it meets some resistance, allows me to manage relationships with acquaintances while simultaneously conducting a kind of ‘impression micro-management’. Though my experience is admittedly trivial, it does demonstrate how our everyday use of technologies can be coloured by a range of factors and narratives. Technologies, such as the smartphone, are not just tools, but are also an important site for the negotiation of identity (Neves et al. 2015).

 

The trope of the ‘digital addict’, too, is overstated. The prevalence of smartphones does not deterministically lead to detrimental effects for social interaction. Indeed, the trope may simply reflect a nostalgia for “a slower and more traditional life” and forms of sociality (Harmon & Mazmanian 2013, 6). Fears about smartphones should be tempered by the idea that “when we see individuals sitting alone, we should not assume they are isolated or lonely: with internet access and mobile phones they have community immediately at their fingertips” (Rainie & Wellman 2012, 146).

This is especially relevant when considering the anti-social effects of temporal constraints on young people. Though the popular imagination associates youth with substantial leisure time, the reality is that young adults are burdened more than ever before by precarious employment and fragmented university timetables (Woodman 2012). As Woodman (2012) shows, the difficulty of scheduling time together with friends appears to be a common experience.

Timetable
The colourful dance of timetable synchronisation: This is an Excel spreadsheet, created by a friend, that maps the university timetables of a close group of friends and I throughout the week.

In this context, mobile technologies provide new and important ways for social interaction to occur. That the ‘digital addict’ narrative doesn’t seem to recognise this, however, is perhaps due to the diverse ways in which this phone-mediated sociality manifests (Rainie & Wellman 2012). Reflecting on my usage, I realise that the form of digital sociality can take a number of different forms, and is the result of complex interactions between the affordances of smartphones, the prescriptions of particular apps and existing social norms. Regardless of the form it takes however, given the difficulties of organising time together with friends, my smartphone has become an indispensable tool for everyday social interaction.

In my case, a group of very close friends and I keep a ‘group chat’ through Facebook Messenger. It is something that acts as a space for socialisation and partially makes up for the difficulty of organising shared leisure time together. The mobility and constant connectivity of our smartphones allows the chat to be an accompaniment to our everyday lives. It is always buzzing with idle chatter, jokes and stories, through which I can experience an “ambient virtual co-presence” with friends (Lee 2013, 271). Checking in once in a while, or even just hearing the notification sound ring and my phone vibrate is an enjoyable and reassuring experience. Though these interactions may be unconventional in the traditional sense, this “ambient virtual co-presence” is indispensable to maintaining a continued sense of group membership (Lee 2013, 271). Here, my smartphone has become not so much an instrumental tool for communication—the trivial and phatic nature of our conversations preclude that idea—but an integral part of my sociality and experience of everyday life.

However, time physically co-present with friends is still highly valued by young adults, myself included (Woodman 2012). Even here though, the new forms of social interaction and patterns of usage that have sprung up around the mechanical affordances of smartphones can help to facilitate organising shared leisure time with friends.

Back to my group of close friends and I, given differential schedules, the ‘group chat’ has also become an indispensable way of organising ‘gatherings’. Slotted in between more trivial conversations, members can often be seen to tentatively propose to ‘do something’ or ask: ‘is anyone around?’, leaving invitations open to comment and response. Usually one or a few of us would be free and willing to meet, and a gathering is successfully organised.

Reflecting on this, it is clear that the instantaneousness of communication through smartphones and the asynchronous nature of the ‘group chat’ are both very important for this to be successful. The immediacy of smartphone communication allows us to organise more spontaneous meet-ups and thereby better navigate fragmented schedules and fickle motivation. At the same time, by nature of the ‘group chat’ being a communal space and interpretable as asynchronous, the invitation is also more voluntary and much less confrontational compared to a personal message or a call, giving people the room to privately weigh up uses of time and negotiate conflicting commitments.

Here, our usage of smartphones and apps are a decentralised way of negotiating schedules, motivation and other contingencies while thoughtfully maintaining group relations. It is a creative appropriation of the technical affordances of smartphones for specific social needs: something that could only come about as smartphone-mediated communications are practiced over time.

Of course, these usages of the smartphone cannot single-handedly transform one’s level of control over temporal schedules. Indeed, the frustration of ‘making plans in the group chat’ (i.e. coordinating schedules) has been enshrined as a meme, that great contemporary cultural barometer. Nevertheless, though this example is specific to my usage, and though forms of digital sociality may be hard to recognise and hence easily disparaged, the everyday use of smartphones is undoubtedly an important enabler of social lives.

1468450622-plans-in-the-group-chat
Source: http://www.seventeen.com/life/friends-family/a41720/emotional-stages-of-making-plans-in-the-group-chat/

 

The smartphone has become a fundamental part of our everyday lives. It is precisely this status that has led countless to theorise about its use. Designers, copywriters and the media have all formulated and told their own deterministic stories about the place of smartphones in our lives. However, though ‘stories’ do capture our usage to an extent, it is clear that none of these stories are as nuanced as the ones that can be told by the user with a lived experience of its use (Latour 2005). Here, I have reflected on the unique relationship between my phone and I and considered how it has interacted with and enabled my life and sociality in various ways. Though not much of it is as compelling or ‘well-produced’ as an Apple ad, it is definitely the more fulfilling and interesting story to tell.

 

References

Harmon, E. and Mazmanian, M., 2013, April. Stories of the Smartphone in everyday discourse: conflict, tension & instability. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 1051-1060). ACM.

Latour, B., 2005. Reassembling the social: An introduction to actor-network-theory. Oxford university press.

Law, J., 1992. Notes on the theory of the actor-network: Ordering, strategy, and heterogeneity. Systemic practice and action research5(4), pp.379-393.

Lee, D.H., 2013. Smartphones, mobile social space, and new sociality in Korea. Mobile Media & Communication1(3), pp.269-284.

Neves, B.B., de Matos, J.M., Rente, R. and Martins, S.L., 2015. The ‘Non-aligned’ Young People’s Narratives of Rejection of Social Networking Sites. Young23(2), pp.116-135.

Rainie, L. and Wellman, B., 2012. Networked: The new social operating system. MIT Press.

Wang, D., Xiang, Z. and Fesenmaier, D.R., 2016. Smartphone use in everyday life and travel. Journal of Travel Research55(1), pp.52-63.

Woodman, D., 2012. Life out of synch: How new patterns of further education and the rise of precarious employment are reshaping young people’s relationships. Sociology46(6), pp.1074-1090.

Advertisements

Girlish Number

I came into this without knowing what to expect. An initial look at the character designs suggested a garden variety moe anime, albeit one that will give interesting vignettes into the workings of the anime industry. Further preliminary research, however, led to me stumbling upon the various questionable faces of Chitose, our main character: a breadth of expression that couldn’t possibly be part of the standard ‘cute girls doing cute things’ show. It had to be somewhat subversive, self-aware even! I gave it a watch.

What I got was a show that was quite self-aware, but on a different level from what I was expecting. Girlish Number has a somewhat pessimistic view of the anime industry, constantly highlighting certain tenuous elements of anime production. The show approaches this from a distinctly personal level, preferring to accentuate the personal struggles that make anime production ‘tenuous’, rather than in the form of an industry overview in which the audience is sensitised to the contingencies of production through an institutional view of roles, responsibilities and intra-organisational relationships (which would be the obvious alternative). Indeed, I think that the exploration of anime production is very much secondary to the more universal theme of personal growth that Girlish Number wishes to explore. Intertwined quite subtly throughout the show is a series of plotlines in which our characters come to terms with their place in the world. It is a story of growth, but not necessarily one of ‘progress’, and is a surprisingly realistic portrayal of the prior because it is cognisant of the fickleness of motivation and the nature of ‘human action’: that is, that it only becomes possible with the alignment of many contingent factors.

Chitose, our main character, is the main focus of growth throughout the series. She begins the show, for me at least, as annoying and very much unloveable: this is corroborated by the rest of the cast’s constant references to her ‘funny’ or ‘interesting’ personality. She is self-entitled and a social chameleon in an overly cynical way. Though it is hard not to be impressed by her utter self-assuredness, for example, leading our 5 main characters out of a suffocatingly awkward moment on stage in one episode, this innate aptitude and her initial attitude only get her so far. We watch as she is left behind by her more talented and harder-working colleagues. Chitose is only made loveable and capable of receiving our empathy through occasional scenes depicting introspection and her growing awareness of her faults and inadequacies.

That the show’s portrayal of change is realistic can be seen most notably in the way that Chitose carves a niche for herself in the world at the end of the show. She does not turn into the earnest genki girl post-catharsis for a fairy-tale ending. Instead, her new place in the world is the obvious result of a negotiation between her innate, cynical personality and the world of responsibilities and institutions: those features of the world that operate and will continue to operate with or without her participation. Importantly, in the end, Chitose is able to uncynically align her motivations and interests with what is required of her by the industry. Furthermore, rather than representing the process as one that is completely dependent on the personal powers of determination and motivation, we see that growth is also dependent on a wide range of contingent factors: most notably, the presence and actions of those who care for you. This is why, perhaps ‘unfairly’ (but that is precisely beside the point), Chitose is able to avoid following the path of her brother. She has an empathetic support network that her brother lacked. What we get in the end is not a story of unproblematic progress, but an organic story of growth.

These themes are wrapped up nicely by what I feel is a nicely executed apology scene in the last episode. Chitose isn’t so much ‘forgiven’ for her transgressions, but ‘rewarded’ for her newly developed sense of self-awareness and her more introspective outlook. Knowing that Chitose’s previous cynical attitude can only get her so far, the other voice actresses welcome her back into their ranks, having waited, caringly, for her return to form. An inspiring scene, even the hilarious husk of a human being that is the light novelist is motivated to instantly go write one more story, and do the best he can.

Paralleling Chitose’s story of growth is that of our incompetent producer, Kuzu-P. Here, the show turns its focus more to anime production. The role of the producer, as we know, is to draw together talents and motivations, skills and visions, to create a piece of work that goes beyond the ability of each individual: the ‘whole is greater than the sum of its parts’ kind of thing. The producer can be seen as the conductor of a band. Though the job description is simple—keep everyone in time with each other by waving a baton in 4/4 time—there is a certain effect the presence of a passionate conductor can have on the players. In the same way, Girlish Number foregrounds the importance of bringing passion and motivation to one’s job, something Kuzu sorely lacks. Similar to Chitose, Kuzu is (as we sometimes like to self-deprecatingly call ourselves) trash, he lives day in and day out relying on an innate and embodied ability to draw on others as ‘resource’ and spin webs of obligation around others to his ends. So, though Kuzu is able to temporarily lean on the crutches of favours and use as a resource the motivations and energies of those people he pulls together, the sort of unmotivated work that Kuzu puts in only gets him, and the project, so far. The Kuzu’s convenient pandering façade only lasts so long, as his social capital is worn down to a minimum. His way of working is embodied, a habitus, devoid of the reflexivity that a more resourceful producer would have and the conductorial presence that a more inspired leader might have. In his complacency and lack of motivation, he has become incompetent, something shown clearly by his inability to handle the situation with Kazuha’s father.

So, Girlish Number tells us that Kuzu’s approach to work and life is untenable in the long run. People will eventually fail to be as pliable or malleable as one may wish them to be, they are thinking and have incredibly complex internal worlds: convenience and a sense of professionalism are the only reasons this doesn’t show. The emotional labour of working half-heartedly will always take its toll, on yourself, and the others you require to work. At some point, most of our main characters express and show their disdain towards the industry and the emotional labour required of them. Kuzu’s redemption comes only as he readopts an active attitude towards his work, and takes empathetic account of the motivations and concerns of those he works with.

But none of this addresses the slightly cynical attitude that the show itself has. Girlish Number even ends with a weird reaffirmation of the status quo. In the last minutes of the show, the light novelist is back with another shitty story that Kuzu is excited to adapt and Chitose and him laugh boisterously about having ‘won’ again. Rather than dismissing this simply as comedic relief, I like to think this is a conscious decision of the show, highlighting its realistic attitude towards the fickleness of human motivation and behaviour. Though our characters have undergone admirable growth, we cannot expect an immediate change in their product that defies organisational inertia. Indeed, the show seems to be calling for a general attitude of moderate complacency in life rather than either the extreme of constant dissatisfaction or fatalistic complacency: realistic.

All these themes are presented, artistically, in a reasonably thoughtful way. Interactions between characters are largely realistic, though sometimes staged and framed in predictable ways. We are often shown things rather than told: the show contains many scenes in which damning introspections are quietly muttered, alongside knowing, wistful smiles and prolonged sighs. All these are hallmarks of an inherently thoughtful show, but unfortunately, aren’t taken much further. Furthermore, the character designs, while appealing, are nothing too unique or worthy of note. The highlight of the show is very much its writing.

I enjoyed watching Girlish Number precisely for its story and the subtle presentation of its messages. Much of the show avoids having narrative points traceable with a set of distinct causes and effects. In doing so, it is able to present a quite sophisticated view of peoples’ personal worlds and the nature of human behaviour. Though the show has some rough edges here and there, it is generally enjoyable and deals well with the theme of personal growth, with a depth and subtlety that is not betrayed by its art style. Though I am definitely biased—‘coming of age’ stories are something I really enjoy and are very close to my heart!—and I may be overstating how good its writing is (it has been a while since I saw it!), I believe that most people will get something out of it.

Art and Association

This’ll be more free writing than anything else.

So, music is occasionally a large part of my life. You could say that it is the thing that allows me to experience a range of emotions that might not naturally come in everyday life. Now, as grim-dark as that may seem, that is largely the course that my musical journey has taken.

Charting my taste in music, I think I have to begin with myself in grade 3/4, perhaps the beginning of a conscious awareness of ‘music’ as a separate medium of entertainment. I would ritualistically listen to the local pop music radio station every night before bed, both for fun and to keep up with the topic of conversation amongst friends in primary school. This was an interesting phase, one that led to me finding old mixtapes of Britney Spears and default Windows music years down the track.

Next is perhaps the rap and hip hop phase in early high school. My favourite rapper was Eminem, and it was perhaps something like morbid curiosity that got me into him during his Relapse phase. Music as an outlet of emotion and as some powerful force in people’s lives began to take the fore in my discovery of music. The world of stardom, gangs and deaths, so far away yet so resonant somehow. Plus, Eminem would rap in that pained voice and tell a somewhat continuous story rather than setting and resetting a destitute scene as some other artists do. And that was one important point of difference.

Then came the epoch of eclecticism that continues to this day. But there does still seem to be a continuing theme. For me, music must come with emotion or be somewhat atmospheric for it to be appealing. If not explicitly emotional then it must be ‘evocative’, my preferences are by nature, then, quite wide. My listening interests span: later bebop era jazz, some earlier big band and swing, Japanese anime music and derivatives, post rock, all kinds of classical music (but mostly, Spanish classical guitar, French for the lighter more ‘floaty’ stuff, and big east European pieces with what people might call the Big Tunes [think Jupiter and Dvorak 9]), weirdly un-genre-able movie and game soundtracks, cyberpunk electronic and the occasional pop song I find catchy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
I see potential for cyberpunk in this photo. Contrast.

As an eclectic listener, it is interesting to think about the paradigms of popular music. Keeping in mind those preliminary requirements I stated earlier, I admit to being a bit of a sucker for singable and hum-able tunes, just like much popular music today. But, as far as I know, there was once a popular music that was more, for lack of a better phrase, ‘musically complex’, than what we listen to now. Big band music for example, whilst often moving in and out of — and is often bookended by — passages of unitary Tunes, there is also an element of improvisation and of musical verticality.

There are perhaps two ways to tell the history of popular music. One is the often spouted narrative of simplification. Two is the arguably more interesting idea of perfection. Without going into too much detail for this post, what does the second history of popular music entail? It involves a reading of the simplification of music not as a conscious corporate move to pandering to and indeed creating ‘single-minded’ sub-cultures, but of it as a more general, unidirectional push to perfection. Perfection being found, arguably, in the form of the singular melody (as we see it today). The singular melody is perhaps more universal, more pan-cultural than any previous paradigm of music.

But this focus on underlying musical principles seems to be forgetting something, that allows music to move beyond the realm of ‘good-sounding’. Indeed, why is it that one piece of music, elicits more than one response from each person? Simply, association.

Oh yes, the question of interpretation and personal meaning. I have some personal anecdotes to share about this in regards to music (as I’m sure we all do), but I won’t bore you more than I already am.

So for now, let me just talk about two (overlapping) things that have occupied my thinking regarding art in general: the semantic network theory and my (self-proclaimed) sheer weight of history.

The best way to think about the semantic network theory is probably visually. Here is a description that I wrote down when I was considering this concept: “Imagine a cyberpunk projection consisting of many nodes and links which form hexagons between them. It is an ordered and flat web. As recognition/association/cognition occurs a single ‘drop’ of recognition falls into this semantic ocean and prompts the rise of one of the nodes, almost instantaneously followed by others near it to different heights, depending on strength of association.” The nodes, the connections between them and their relative positions are created and reaffirmed usually by events and coincidence.

The first, pseudo-psychological, approach is a general look at how associations are formed. My second approach is a more interesting one, linking true history in the form of ‘cultural capital’, legacy, tradition, genre, and artistic (or otherwise) community. This is a more specific look at the ‘effectiveness’ of art (music included of course) in evoking emotion.

I’ll give a short introduction. Essentially, the ‘sheer weight of history’ is that ineffable feeling of weight that history and tradition grants an artistic piece when it is associated (‘by the audience themselves’ or ‘consciously by the art itself’) with a distinct period in time, an atmosphere (usually of the past) of nostalgia or another specific mood, a body of previous or even emerging works, or a lifestyle. In this concept, art depends on a backing and grounding in historical cultural capital (in an especially broad sense) for it to be effective. This process of association may be set into motion consciously by the artist or begin with the audience.

And here is where ‘perfection’ in music is apparent. Popular music (in the broadest sense possible) may be so self-perpetuating, so self-reaffirming and so efficacious at creating its own history and cultural capital that it is continually resonant with its audience. Now, popular music fails to fail because it creates its own history and culture. Hence, so-called ‘perfection’.

If I get around to it, I’ll do a full post on the ‘sheer weight of history’.

Hope everyone enjoyed that really disjointed and convoluted writing!!! I am seriously out of my depth.

How much does the photo (art) resonate with you? Can you pin-point the associations that make you feel that way?

Lens Artifacts

So, as promised, and exceedingly late, here is my little piece on lens artifacts.

Now, I’ve said that the extra layer of polish that separates much of digital art from traditional art is known as lens artifacts (to myself at least). Perhaps this isn’t the best way to put it, as it is the fundamental difference between the human eye and any digital or analogue image-capturing device that creates the wonderful visual effects that can be seen in movies. Digital artists often borrow from these effects either intentionally or unintentionally, resulting in that ‘polish’ that I’ve been raving about. It looks great in moderation but is also often overused. We’ve all accused J.J. Abrams and Steven Spielberg of using too many lens flares, but these effects can be used artfully to create scenes, sights, spectacles and beautiful filmscapes that are really just impossible to see with the human eye.

Although, I must say that, being a (beginner) photographer myself, there is nothing that compares to truly being on location and experiencing a place first-hand. The photographs I take of the exact scene and displayed on a beautiful 55″ TV would still look and feel dull in comparison, and I believe this would be the case for even experienced photographers. It is perhaps less a fault of the artist (at risk of seeming to push the blame for my shitty work away from myself), than a limitation of what they can do, manipulating and perusing only one or two senses of the five that can be fully saturated on location. A film, painting or photograph can never allow you to feel the wind course through your hair, or hear the rustling of leaves, or smell the damp earth after a storm has passed. This is why, perhaps, artists choose to compensate and capture all these other senses in a visual way. Or in an audible way (but that’s for another time, hint hint). Subtleties are brought to the fore and suitably exaggerated through either digital manipulation or analogue manipulation. And wonderful things can be achieved with a lens.

It’s perhaps ironic that most of these effects that are enabled by the manipulation of lenses or intentionally added to digital art are actually so-called lens artifacts, byproducts of inefficient lenses. They were considered undesirable and lenses were actively improved upon by lens makers to get rid of these ‘unwanted’ effects.

So, after all that, here is a list of ‘lens artifacts’ that I have noticed artists using to creative effect. Maybe you, my two beloved readers, will have noticed these as well!

-Depth of field: One of the more prominent ones and very noticeable. This in particular is why photographers prefer DSLRs and why good lenses cost a lot (goddamnit). This effect creates great separation and allows focus to be placed seamlessly on a subject without foreground or background clutter.

-Chromatic Aberration: Perhaps less noticeable, but when in use, the intended idea is rarely lost on the viewer. The effect itself is most visible around the edges of a frame, where hard edges lose their sharp quality and are repeated multiple times or blurred in other colours. Sometimes, it is used to suggest the view through tight spaces, such as a keyhole or a telescope. Other times, the effect is used to present an ethereal quality, used in concert with lens flares and other aberrations. Furthermore, when used from a POV camera perspective, and combined with shaky camerawork, this helps create the feeling of nausea.

-Lower Dynamic Range: Our eyes are essentially superior to nearly every type of imaging technology out there. Adjusting quickly and accurately to light and dark by contracting or dilating your pupils, your eye allows you to extract the detail out of even the darkest foreground against the brightest background. Cameras generally have a lower dynamic range, not being able to capture detail in dark or bright spaces where high contrast is present.

Other things that I’ve given up on writing about (since this comes 6 months late) are:

Lens flare

Bloom

Ghosting

Anamorphic lens

Lens artifacts

Dust on lens

Effect of in-world events on camera (eg. camera on ground, person runs past, camera shakes with footsteps accordingly)

Whilst these effects are achieved ‘organically’ through a physical lens in live-action films and photographs, digital artists, animators and video game artists have been actively trying to emulate the lens artifacts. It is used artfully, and often in moderation and with consideration. But this begs the question (at least to me): does this mean that we find our world somewhat mundane?

Why Lens Artifacts?

Why Lens Artifacts you ask.

The truth is, there is no real story behind the decision. There is however a short, meaningless and trivial little tale behind the choice.

My preferred choice of a name for the blog was something to do with ‘clouds’. Clouds are great, in fact, they are a little obsession of mine (but I’ll leave that to the undoubtedly many posts on clouds to come). Unfortunately, every name I could think of to do with clouds was taken, likely by those domain name hoarders. ‘Cumulus’ was taken, and so was ‘Cloudscape’, ‘AzureClouds’ and the like. All the typically sentimental names that are customarily thought of by the new blogger.

Luckily, I was (and still am) in a little phase, one characterised by a strong interest in digital art.

I’ll say it right now, in terms of art on a 2D canvas, I believe digital art is the better medium. Simply because it brings with it functionality that is extremely hard to achieve with traditional media. Undo, redo, filter, blur, layers, infinite brush choices, the list goes on. Moreover, it is fast. No other way of putting it. You can do more with it.

Sure, there’s always the same arguments for traditional media: appeal to tradition, the idea that its mastery somehow commands more effort etc… And I don’t dislike traditional media at all, in all honesty, nothing trumps the charm of a piece, that, through its texture and imperfections, make it an original, and in a sense, authentic. It is the extra layer of polish that is often applied to digital art that is so appealing to me.

But I am so off topic this isn’t even funny, so I’ll cut to the chase. This ‘polish’ has a name: Lens artifacts.

Yeah, see like I said, this name really has nothing to do with anything. I liked it, it sounded catchy, so I stuck with it.

This impromptu post was likely quite boring, but for the readers who have actually made it this far I thank you by digressing again.

This post itself, tells me something about my writing, a problem needing to be addressed. I seem to be always stuck on one of two extremes when it comes to writing. That is, either I oversimplify things, or overcomplicate it, at risk of boring everyone to death in the case of the latter. I should probably strike a balance.

Anyway, look forward to another (probably boring) post on lens artifacts, it’ll be all philosophical and shit.

Good night, yo.

One of many reasons I like clouds.
One of the many reasons I like clouds.

The Beginning

I’ll write stuff, post it, see what people think, rinse and repeat. I don’t really have a goal for this blog, but I hope to find one along the way. Mostly, though, I just want to explore the beauties of language, in prose and possibly poetry, and in the most unpretentious way possible.

I’ll also write little non-fiction passages on observations I make during day to day life and post it here, for fun, for the record and for practice. It is, after all, one of my weaknesses, that I find it hard to put abstract thoughts and feelings down on paper.

That, and using too many commas, but I find that helps me write.

Also, my train of thought is always a bit of a jumble, I’ll try to collate everything coherently and in logical sequence here, but who knows? It could be a desirable little quirk to have.

Finally, alongside these random writings, I will likely also post some drawings, some photography and some music, which are all other hobbies of mine.

That’s it for the first post, let’s see how this goes.