Monday, August 1, 2011

Name That Audience 8

Can you name the moment of audiencing depicted below?

It's Albert Finney, playing plastic surgeon Larry Roberts, in the film Looker (1981). This Michael Crichton movie was a wild ride in 1981, featuring a mix of gratuitous nudity, cheesy acting, and ethical questions about plastic surgery, the digitization of humans, and audience manipulation. In this scene, Roberts, as a guest of the evil genius John Reston (played by James Coburn), is experiencing a fictional device that measures eye movements in relation to a television advertisement.

I thought of the film again for the first time in at least decade when a student of mine, Ian Storm Taylor, mentioned similar ways in which designers can monitor user interaction on web sites by counting and aggregating keyboard clicks.

As a humanities field that grew out of interest in reading, viewing, and listening, reception studies does not tend to deal with advertising research in a sustained way. But that doesn't mean that "reception study" is not going on elsewhere. Most fascinating to me (probably because I know very little about it) is the field of eye tracking and its off-shoot, attention tracking. Measuring attention has obvious uses for commercial companies trying to display, entice, and sell their products. While this may seem a little Big Brother-ish, some have argued that it might also have more benign uses, such as improving personal health, assisting the disabled, increasing options in physical therapy or sports training.

All this makes me think about the tracking of other senses (can they do this for hearing? for smell?) and how "tracking," in itself, is an interesting way to abstractly represent the dynamics of engaging with a performance or text. Quantitative analysis (along with mapping, graphing, and other visual aggregations of data) has been used in audience studies before, of course, but with much controversy. And the current blow-up over the Stanford Literary Lab and its notion of "distant reading" has done little to mollify the critics of such an approach. But as another way of conceiving audience research in the humanities, I still find it intriguing--both as a tool for thinking and also for the broader insight it might offer about conceptions of audiencing over time. After all, the very "objectification of the senses" emphasized by such technology is an important and rather recent intellectual development (growing out of the scientific thinking of the early- to mid-19th century), shaping how modern audiences have understood, and sought to control, their engagement with performance.

No comments:

Post a Comment