Veronica Paredes: What I've Been Teaching

Digital Media Studies (FTV51)

By Noela Hueso

The upper-division Digital Media Studies class that Assistant Professor Veronica Paredes just finished teaching for the first time this past Winter Quarter has a threefold purpose: to give undergraduate students the tools they need to make connections between current/emerging media technologies and the fields they intend to pursue; to help them understand how the technologies relate to legacy media forms and to “contextualize them not only in media history but in social, political and cultural contexts,” Paredes says. Previously taught by Professor and interim FTVDM Chair Steve Anderson, Paredes adds that the course is part of a thematic in FTVDM that is committed to rigorous study in the theory and practice of digital media. Here’s a look at the four units covered in the class.

In your syllabus, you begin by saying that “the greatest problems we experience as a society are only amplified” by technology, though they’re touted as making our lives “better and easier.” What do you mean by that?

History shows us that technologies can go in a lot of different directions, both positively and negatively. In the class, we thought about that in relation to information, access and surveillance. Thinking in terms of information, given the political contexts of the election and the insurrection at the Capitol, students thought through access to information and how that can make polarization even more evident. In terms of access with regards to medical technologies, it’s obvious, given this past year of COVID, that if there isn’t access, it’s harder for some populations to continue living. Finally, in terms of surveillance, we looked at facial recognition technologies and how marginalized communities are being adversely affected.

How are they being affected?

Artificial intelligence biases are detrimentally affecting BIPOC people and poor people in the workplace, in criminal cases, and in housing and financial opportunities. Some examples of this are found in the documentary Coded Bias (2020). The film features the story of a landlord in Brooklyn who was using facial recognition technology to allow tenants access into the building and then to monitor and document minor infractions, like hanging out in the building’s hallway, that could then be used to penalize tenants. In another example, a man was mistakenly arrested because facial recognition technology misidentified him, which is far more likely to happen to Black people and people with darker skin because of a bias in the algorithm’s data set.

Your first unit is called “Keywords of the Present: How does the meaning of a word change alongside media and technological change?” What are some of the terms you looked at?

We explored how television was the new medium of its time and the idea of it being in the home, connecting far-flung participants in a "global village,” a term coined by new media theorist Marshall McLuhan, before the internet. Another theorist we looked at was Jean Baudrillard, whose ideas about “simulacra” were prominent in the ’80s and ’90s. We talked about how what was considered simulacra in Baudrillard’s time might be quite different from today. We thought about some newer keywords like "in real life" or IRL, and what that would mean in the 1990s versus the 2020s; and then we also talked about a term coined by museum curator and author Legacy Russell. She prefers the term "Away From Keyboard" or AFK, rather than IRL; for her, this reinforces the notion that online life is just as genuine as offline.

What is identity tourism, which you talk about in Unit Two?

Identity tourism hails from the work of Lisa Nakamura who was one of the first scholars who was focused specifically on race in cyberspace and debunking a concept from the early days of cyberculture that “on the Internet, nobody can tell what race you are.” She wrote the monograph Cybertypes (2002) and it presents some case studies of how racial formation can find itself present in digital online cultures. What she was talking about then were mostly text-heavy bulletin boards that were utilized by mostly white men who would pose as “geishas” or exotic racialized figures in order to evoke some kind of play with sexuality by harkening back to really racist, sexist and misogynist stereotypes.

What are the current forms of identity tourism?

More recently, Nakamura put forth this concept of “virtuous VR.” She describes how the turn toward virtual reality to depict stories from the lives of marginalized and brutalized communities, like war refugees, migrants or unhoused people, allow their tech designers and audiences to “feel good about feeling bad” while excusing or overlooking Silicon Valley’s more harmful transgressions, like Facebook and Google’s monopolization of digital platforms and markets. So, it gets much more complicated in some ways!

On the other hand, there are also some more obvious ways we can read “identity tourism” on the Internet of the 21st century through practices like “Blackfishing” or “Asian fishing” where people parasitically exploit ethnic and racial markers to convince others online that they are Black or Asian when they are not. They might perform this sense of identity tourism by deceptively applying makeup, appropriating cultural stylizations, or use African American Vernacular English (AAVE) in their posts.

You had your students watch The Matrix and Avatar in this unit. How did you explore the idea of identity tourism with those films?

Science fiction is a really useful genre to explore in digital media studies. We looked at how politics and culture are found hidden in these films. The Matrix (1999) revolves around this question of what happens when individuals removes themselves from a delusion. The storyline has become surprisingly relevant for our contemporary political contexts. There has been a lot of talk about how the narrative of The Matrix got politicized and used as metaphor in current political discourse especially around “red pilling,” which is this idea that if you could choose to know the truth about our world as a simulation would you choose to do that, that has been taken up a lot by the alt-right, white nationalists, and conspiracy theory groups like QAnon. What these connections mean for a contemporary viewing of The Matrix was a fascinating question we explored in our discussion surrounding the film. We also thought about the ways that Avatar represents this plugging into an Indigenous identity by the main character, and how the alien world of Pandora becomes a metaphor for Indigenous peoples on Earth and how that is represented by cutting-edge visual effects but also by performances from Indigenous and Black actors in the movie.

What does it mean to be “post cinema,” which you reference in Unit Three?

I wanted students to think about "What is cinema?" "What is a movie?" Does something that is interactive still count as a film? Is something that is not shot on celluloid still a film? It’s thinking about the materiality of cinema. What’s the usefulness of designating something as post- or pre-? In this unit, we looked at the thriller Searching (2018), which was entirely told through the stage of the computer screen. It encouraged students to start thinking about using the screen as a space of art practice. What are the possibilities for this media form, and does it matter whether it counts as cinema or not?

Your last unit is Material Effects: How does digital media both create space and destroy land? I’m curious to know what you mean by that.

An emerging area of scholarship is surrounding environmental conversations about the Anthropocene and the role humans have had in negatively impacting the planet. So, in this section we began to talk about environmental destruction inaugurated by digital technology, but also how that technology extends particular economic, cultural and societal exploitation.

Was there a film you watched that reflected these themes?

Yes, Sleep Dealer (2008). In that film, a young man named Memo is forced to migrate to Tijuana, at the Mexico/U.S. border from his rural home in Oaxaca — where a private corporation is charging its inhabitants for access to water — to work in a futuristic virtual factory as a cybracero (a virtual laborer). He connects to this virtual reality world through contact lenses and is “transported” to San Diego where he works a drone that is constructing a building; he doesn’t have to migrate to the United States, his body is able to stay in Mexico. At the same time, Memo falls for a young cosmopolitan woman who is saddled with student debt and must sell her memories and stories to make ends meet — much like a futuristic, dystopian YouTube vlogger.

Even in this bleak portrayal of crisis, there is the dazzling promise of the future represented by a city like Tijuana. Here, futuristic technologies promise something exciting just beyond the horizon but also shape the horrible oppression that makes modern-day existence so difficult. There’s a lot of resonance here with what students are experiencing in their everyday lives, especially now during the COVID crisis when we’re all deeply rethinking “business-as-usual” and grappling with what kinds of stories we want to tell in order to make sense of it all.

Posted: March 25, 2021