by Timothy P. Brown
The primary purpose of cinema is to make a subject dramatically interesting. Filmmakers identify situations or moments in time when people are confronted with a human or societal crisis and invite the viewer to experience them through imaginative identification.
Law enforcement’s use of big data and policing technologies, a topic we plan to discuss in a future program, engenders similar conflicts, providing the substance for thoughtful analysis, and great cinematic storytelling. I have identified three films that address this topic in dramatic fashion: Enemy of the State, Minority Report, and, most recently,Anon. Each film identifies conflicts that drive the narrative, placing law enforcement and big data policing at the center of the action.
ENEMY OF THE STATE (1998)
“The only privacy that’s left is the inside of your head.”
Enemy of the State(1998), directed by Tony Scott, is a spy-thriller that begins by identifying a conflict right away: privacy or national security. The opening scene takes place at Occuquan Park, Maryland, at 0645 hours, where NSA Security Advisor, Thomas Brian Reynolds (Jon Voight) and his team of NSA agents murder Congressman Phillip Hammersley (Jason Robards) who refuses to support the passage of the Telecommunications, Security and Privacy Act. The NSA agents use their access to national intelligence systems to uncover anything that may expose their clandestine operation. The agents intercept a telephone call from Daniel Zavitz, a nature photographer, who confesses to inadvertently recording the Hammersley murder through a motion-activated camera he planted in the park. Zavitz is tracked down by the NSA and dies in a traffic accident while trying to escape, but not before he runs into an old college friend, Robert Clayton Dean (Will Smith), an attorney from Georgetown. Zavitz placed the videotape inside Dean’s shopping bag, making him the NSA’s new primary target.
The computational machinery that the NSA uses to track Dean’s whereabouts becomes the cinematic fuel that drives the subsequent action scenes. The NSA agents use tracers to track Dean’s cell phone, pager, shoes, watch, pants, and pen and satellite imagery to pinpoint his locations. Dean’s credit cards are canceled, he is fired from his job, his wife kicks him out of the house, and his friend, Rachel Banks (Lisa Bonet) is murdered. Dean’s life appears doomed until he meets his informant in an ongoing mob case, Brill (Gene Hackman). Brill (discovered later by the NSA as Edward Lyle, a formal NSA agent) reluctantly joins Dean in taking down the corrupt NSA agents. The film heads towards its dramatic conclusion when Dean manufactures a conflict between the mob boss, Pintero (Tom Sizemore) and the NSA who vie for possession the videotape.
A gun battle ensues and multiple people are killed, with the exception of several “Ops,” a few restaurant employees, and Dean who later crawls out from under a table.
The film concludes with Larry King’s newscast about the privacy act, and Dean’s wife Carla (Regina King) posing the question:
“Who is going to monitor the monitors of the monitors?”
MINORITY REPORT (1982)
“Algorithms and big data models simply take inputs,
Andrew Ferguson, How Cops Are Using Algorithms to Predict Crimes, Wired, (YouTube)
Minority Report(2002) by Stephen Spielberg is a science fiction film that is set in Washington D.C and Northern Virginia in the year 2054. The conflict that drives the plot is predictive policing. Can the system prevent crime from ever occurring or is it tainted by bias and human flaws? The movie stars Tom Cruise, as John Anderton, Chief of Precrime, who uses an amalgamation of data to pinpoint where people are located and determines what day and time crimes will occur. The algorithms used to generate and compile the data are fictionalized in the form of three psychics or Precogs, who use their collective powers to see crimes before they happen. The Precrime department assures “that every American can bank on the utter infallibility of this system.” Captain Anderson, who has complete faith in the system’s accuracy, is challenged by Danny Witwer (played by Colin Farrell) who is sent to investigate the system’s effectiveness:
“What are you looking for?”
“There hasn’t been a murder in six years. There is nothing wrong with the system, it is perfect.”
“Perfect, I agree. But if there’s a flaw, it’s human. It always is.”
A critical juncture in the film occurs when Captain Anderton confirms Witwer’s suspicions and discovers the existence of a Minority Report. The report includes inconsistencies noted in the Precogs pre-visions.
A sub-plot is introduced that makes gender an important factor in the film’s development. One of the three Precogs is a woman named Abigail, the system’s most valued asset. Captain Anderton uncovers the truth about Abigail and confronts Director Lamar Burgess (Max von Sydow):
“I just wanted to congratulate you. You did it.”
“You created a world without murder.”
“And all you had to do is kill someone to do it.”
Abigail was the progeny of Ann Lively, a former “junkie” who later cleaned herself up and demanded to have her daughter back. Burgess kills Lively and stages two murders, one recognized by the Precogs as the “real” crime, and the other as an “echo,” which he knew the system would reject.
The film ends by calling into the question the film’s essential conflict: Can predictive policing maintain its objective integrity or is it threatened by human motivation?
“What is the world coming to when our murderers don’t tell us who they are?”
Anon directed by Andrew Niccol, is a futuristic sci-fi-techno-film that identifies anonymity as the central challenge that law enforcement faces to ensure absolute transparency. Building on some of the themes introduced in Minority Report, crime prevention depends on a pervasive system of surveillance that makes anonymity a threat to the social order. As detective Charles Gattis (Colm Feore) makes clear:
“We rely on transparency. We can’t control what we can’t see. We require persistent identity.”
In this high tech futuristic society, computational data is accessed through the mind’s eye of every citizen. The average person can view, share, upload, and exchange information (photos, memories, financial transactions), but law enforcement has special access to proxies and portals that allow them to access any past event.
In the film, detective Sal Frieland (played by Clive Owens) is the main protagonist who is assigned to lead an investigation into a series of murders. The case is difficult to solve because the suspect is anonymous.
The police department suspects a female as the murderer, the personification of “Anon” (Amanda Seyfried), otherwise known as “The Girl.” Law enforcement cannot detect her identity or her whereabouts because she has developed a sophisticated algorithm that erases the memory of those she meets. She is also capable of hacking the mind’s eye of others, forcing them to see what she sees, and erasing their personal memories. Frieland goes under cover as a wealthy stockbroker and hires “The Girl” to erase his memory of a Call Girl (Alyson Bath) - an encounter he purposely arranges in order to discover The Girl’s methods. Frieland inquires into her need to remain anonymous and she responds by revealing the irony of his question:
“You invade my privacy, it’s nothing. I try to get it back, it’s a crime.”
Gender, race, class and sexual orientation are some underlying layers that are slipped into the film, alluding to questionable motivations like bias. For example, a black man is shot while pulling out a bible from his pocket (mistaken for a gun); two lesbian women are shot in the midst of an intimate moment; and a black female house servant is accused (correctly) of stealing jewelry, but is ignored by detective Frieland because he is annoyed by the woman’s presupposed position of privilege. In spite of the fact that every location is documented by sophisticated mapping technologies, human beings still have the tendency to interpret the world subjectively and/or manipulate the technologies to produce less than objective outcomes.
Male dominance in the law enforcement profession is also prevalent throughout, supported by the realization that the actual murderer is a white male, Cyrus Frear (Mark O’Brien), who manages to infiltrate the police department, while simultaneously hacking the The Girl’s algorithms and setting up an anonymous proxy.
The tension between transparency and anonymity is maintained throughout the film, dramatizing the societal conflict between privacy and surveillance that seems virtually impossible to reconcile.
All three films, Enemy of the State, Minority Report, and Anonidentify conflicts or a series of conflicts, and develop narratives that are dramatically interesting. By focusing on policing technologies, the films are entertaining and thought-provoking, leaving us with two plaguing questions that strike at the core of our societal beliefs: Are policing technologies infallible or are they tainted by bias and human flaws? Is public safety a priority or is it privacy and individual rights?
One of the most rewarding I experienced at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Art was having the opportunity to work with Yvonne Wells. Wells is an African American artist and quiltmaker out of Tuskaloosa, Alabama. The MMFA owns a number of her quilts and offers a traveling exhibition called "From Heart to Hand: African American Quilts from the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts."
I first met Wells while working on an education component for the exhibition "Piecing Together History: The Civil Rights Quilts of Yvonne Wells." The education component consisted of a web-based interactive project created in html5, but stored locally on the iPad to serve as a kiosk. The project can also be viewed on the web, although the dimensions of this project were designed to be featured exclusively on the iPad (the website is not responsive, so it may be hard to appreciate on smaller mobile devices). This project consisted of various recordings featuring Yvonne Wells talking about select quilts in the exihbition, which documented her personal reflections of the civil rights movement. The recordings were made by the Museum's curatorial department, which I edited and combined with images to form animated video slideshows. Each video pans and zooms to focus on different features of the quilts as Wells describes them. The project also included four video interviews with the artist, some of which were produced by the curatorial staff, while others were taken from rare video footage with the artist (in the version that is currently online, I substituted those videos for interviews I conducted for a later project). To strengthen the education component, I added a timeline of the Civil Rights Movement, as documented by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a timeline of events that was also referenced in the Civil Rights Memorial designed by Maya Lin. The project was rewarding on so many levels. For one, I had a chance to work with a living artist, which is always a rewarding experience, and I had a chance to partner with the curatorial department in a way that felt more integral to the overall development of the exhibition.
I was fortunate enough to revisit my journey into the life of Yvonne Wells when the MMFA decided to feature an exhibition of photographs by Jerry Siegel titled "Creator/Created: Jerry Siegel Portraits and Artists from the Permanent Collection." In my effort to strengthen the educational components of the exhibition, I proposed to conduct video interviews with the artists featured in the exhibition, many of whom were still alive and living in Alabama and Georgia. This project required that I visit the home of Yvonne Wells to conduct a video interview that documented her life and development as a quilt maker. Traveling with a camcorder, light stands and remote microphones, I conducted the interview in her living room to create an organic and homegrown atmosphere. I felt that we needed more visuals, so Wells graciously agreed to set up a large quilt behind her. Since Wells worked as a teacher and educator for many years, it was not surprising to hear how astute and articulate she was at describing her development as an artist and her passion for quiltmaking, which she described as "art." The videos that I recorded during this meeting were added to the Museum's YouTube channel and were later added to this online version which I posted years later. The project for the Jerry Siegel exhibition also included video interviews with 15 other artists, including Cal Reed, Charlie Lucas, and Dale Lewis, to name a few. Eventually, the videos were incorporating into iPad interactive kiosks that were installed in the exhibition, along with the photographs by Jerry Siegel. The kiosk also included additional photographs by Siegel that were not included in the exhibition and documentary footage of Siegel working with high school students during a photography workshop.
It was such a pleasure to interview the artists in the Montgomery Museum's collection and I will always cherish the opportunity to meet Yvonne Wells.
Recently, Instagram reached 300 million active users, including a 50% growth from just nine months ago. The most distinctive feature of Instagram is the standard square format for posting photographs, art, text, or just about anything. With so many active users embracing Instagram as a visual form of communication, the square format has become a standard by which we see things. In short, Instagram has played an instrumental role in shaping our aesthetic sensibility, in regards to how we see, frame, and construct the visual world.
As a museum professional, I find this development to be intriguing and significant in light of how we have traditionally viewed works of art. For centuries, the rectangle dominated our field of vision. Whether you are looking at renaissance paintings by Raphael and Michelangelo, baroque paintings by Rembrandt and Caravaggio, Rocco paintings by Fragonard and Watteau, 19th century works of Ingres and Monet, or modern paintings by Picasso and Jackson Pollock, the vertical and horizontal formats shape our understanding and appreciation of those works. The most pervasive celebration of the rectangle occurs in cinema, with the aspect ratio forever widening our field of vision to encompass more of the periphery. Instagram, on the other hand, challenges the hegemony of the rectangle.
Instagram’s use of the square format is not a new paradigm as far as photography is concerned. In years past, photographers used square formatted film cameras like the double and single lens reflex cameras, Rolleiflex and Hasselblad, to capture beautifully composed photographs that rival any art form defined by the ubiquitous rectangle. Square formatted cameras were great for documenting everyday life and were the preferred choice of photographers who covered events for major news outlets. Yet, one can argue that Instagram brought the square formatted camera into the mainstream of our aesthetic consciousness.
Left: Rollieflex Twin Lens Camera; Right: Raymond Smith, Street Corner Preacher, Savannah, Georgia, 1974, silverprint.
Instagram debuted in October 2010 and rapidly gained in popularity. In less than two years, the company claimed over 100 million active users. Recognizing this paradigm shift in the way users shared and consumed images, Facebook purchased the company in April of 2012. Since then, Instagram greatly exceeded Facebook in year-to-year growth, with a 23% increase in 2013 compared to 3% for Facebook. Now that Instagram has reached 300 million users, it is safe to say that the “square is the new rectangle.”
The Shape of Things to Come
In 2013, Apple unveiled a radical new design for the iPhone with the release of iOS 7. Along with the new flat design, Apple introduced the square camera mode, as an alternative to the normal 4:3 and 16:9 aspect ratios - a direct response to Instagram’s popularity. Now, with mobile phones glued to the palm of our hands, the square format is now immediately available as our aesthetic weapon of choice.
The Square is Just Another Rectangle
The square and rectangle are quadrilaterals and parallelograms, so a square is just a version of a rectangle. If that’s so, shouldn’t the same rules of composition apply to both formats? Not necessarily. For centuries, the rectangle has been used as a standard framework for structuring our field of vision. The rectangle compels the viewer to look up and down when viewing a picture vertically, and side to side when viewing it horizontally. As a result, the rectangle compels the viewer to find corresponding elements within the picture to complete the narrative. The square however follows a different trajectory. Rather than go from side to side or up and down, the field of vision follows the path of a circle; it centralizes your content, irrespective of where it’s placed within the picture.
The Rule of Thirds
Most people would agree that there is an art to taking a good photograph. This art is guided by organizing principles of design to help establish a structured and more harmonious composition. The rule of thirds is an organizational framework for dividing your picture into three sections, vertically and horizontally. Objects in space, including structures that run parallel to the picture plane (horizon line or table e.g.) are aligned with these guides, in some cases, placed at junctures where the vertical and horizontal lines meet. The guides are useful when objects are placed flush left or right or when the eye level is above or below. The basic logic of this system takes into account the vertical and horizontal lines that define the window through which we see things. If objects are placed parallel or relative to those lines (the boundaries of your picture), your composition is more likely to be more pleasing and natural to the eye. The grid lines appear by default when you launch the Instagram app and the iPhone provides this option in the settings menu.
This rule makes perfect sense in the case of the rectangle, following a tradition that gave us the golden ratio and Fibonacci systems, which have existed since the renaissance. Yet, can we apply the rule of thirds to a square format? Yes and no.
The Rules of Instagram
In short, there are no rules. Instagram provides the ideal format for presenting any subject you desire the way you see fit, while the grid is available if you need it. Yet, there are some posts that seem to capture our attention in ways that do not necessarily abide by a single rule. Rather than view design principles as rules that you MUST follow, I propose that you consider the following as suggested guidelines for taking your Instagram posts to the next level.
(above) Instagram User: chinamisakamoto
Since a square has equal sides, the most reliable design principle for creating a compelling Instagram post is symmetry. Symmetry involves the use of corresponding elements that balance the composition. Guided by a central axis, vertical or horizontal, elements are placed on each side of the picture (left/right, top/bottom) to create a mirror image or representation. Both sides appear identical, allowing for subtle variations and distinctions without disturbing the overall symmetry of the design. Of course, the most common, and, arguably, most effective approach on Instagram is the use of a circular shape placed directly in the center of the picture.
(Above) Instagram User: ladyandpups
Asymmetry can be used to vary both sides of a composition (e.g. you may have two small objects on one side of your picture and one large object on the other, or one object on one side and nothing on the other). In short, asymmetry avoids the use of a mirror image. However, asymmetry does not mean that a composition is devoid of balance. The size of an object can be compensated by a change in weight or density, offering a lighter or darker tonality. The “absence” of an object (e.g. a solid background) can also imply the “presence” of one, creating a balance that is more suggestive. Occasionally, you will find an Instagram post where a single image is placed in the corner of the picture, leaving the rest of the space empty.
Some of the most beautiful Instagram images I’ve encountered make use of a white or black background. Unlike pictures taken in situ (original place), some Instagrammers choose to manipulate the background by using apps to erase it or use objects with transparent backgrounds and adding them to solid layers. By eliminating extraneous elements, your subject takes center stage and commands your viewer’s attention. Apps that make use of layers include Adobe Photoshop Touch and Leonardo, among others.
Light and Shadow
Instagram appeals to our sense of immediacy, so it’s easy to overlook the power of light and shadow. Lighting can add drama to your photos, reinforce a focal point, while subduing other areas. A stark contrast between lights and darks can also flatten your picture and blur the boundaries between objects, creating surprisingly effective patterns of light that envelope the entire image. Light and shadow thereby become the unifying elements of a picture, especially when your composition lacks balance or visual appeal.
(Above) Instagram User: bonnietsang
Depth of Field
Another common technique for creating dynamic Instagram shots is the use of depth of field to create distance. There are many approaches to DOF when using a mobile phone. For example, Instagram includes the Tilt-Shift tool, with radial and linear options for blurring sections of your photos. The former can be used to place greater focus on a person in the foreground, while the latter can be used to enhance the distance in a landscape or street scene. Another variant of DOF is perspective.
(Above) Instagram User: wolvestable
The linear and geometric boundaries of the camera compel us to take photos of images that are parallel to the edges of the frame. Yet a change in perspective can add dynamism to your photos and capture the interest of the Instagram community. The most popular example found on Instagram is the camera tilted downwards at your feet. This simple technique disrupts your normal field of vision, creating the illusion of linear distance within a square format that is primarily cyclical. In some examples, the photographer will choose to stand on a cliff, adding depth of field to heighten the perspective. The more classic approach to perspective involves the use of one point perspective, in which everything appears to converge at one point in the distance.
(Above) Instagram User: mrpaddingtonbear
Most of us desire to create an attractive and pleasing image. In doing so, we want our subject to be seen in all its splendor. Yet, as far back as the 19th century, the cropped image was seen in direct correlation to the fleeting realities of modern life. This reality has been amplified a thousand-fold today, so cropping will undoubtedly have a much stronger appeal. The most common use of this technique on Instagram includes the dual use of perspective that captures the bottom half of someone’s legs and feet, often placed diagonally from the corner of the picture. This technique is also ubiquitous among chef’s and culinary professionals who present three quarters of a plate, forming an arc across the picture frame. This approach also makes use of asymmetry, which ironically appears perfectly balanced.
(Above) Instagram User: royalebrat
Lend a Hand
Consistent with the use of extended legs, fragments of the human body add a human element to your arrangements. In many Instagram posts, hands extend into the picture (usually holding an object), forming the central axis and focal point around which various objects are situated. Since the hand is divorced from a recognizable body, the hand functions as an invitation for you to join in.
(Above) Instagram User: grungeee
Views from above are quite common on Instagram, mainly because they provide a way to view your composition as a flat two dimensional design. Formal elements like shape, line, pattern, and color are used to structure the composition. If you are looking to highlight a special recipe or priceless possession, or capture a special moment in time, designing your picture from above can add elegance to your Instagram posts.
(Above) Instagram User: reinaldo
The camera lens can also be used to capture patterns that are inherent in nature or expressed through man-made structures. There are a number of Instagrammers who focus on patterns as a primary feature of their work. While many of the images are derived from specific places, the photographs reveal patterns of light and color that emphasize their formal quality, which transforms normal depictions into works of art.
Most of the techniques mentioned above are used during the photographic process. Yet, there are some Instagrammers who are chefs, fashion designers, illustrators, digital, and graffiti artists. As a result, some people may spend more time composing their images before they are imported into Instagram; or artists may prepare their art to be viewed in a multi-faceted way, designing content for clients in one instance, while reformatting or re-presenting their work for Instagram.
(Above) Instagram User: allthingssuzette
Instagram’s popularity is largely due to its accessibility and ease of use. Regardless of region, age, gender, profession, experience, and technical ability, Instagram has value for everyone. One may even argue that the square format contains a quality of universality. Whether one is apt to post a flattering selfie, or compose an elegant picture, the square is the new rectangle.
Author: Timothy Paul Brown
Podcasts offer a convenient way to deliver digital content for free via a subscription to a web feed, and Soundcloud provides a cloud-based delivery system for streaming audio content straight from a browser. Actually, Soundcloud provides a way to do both. Before I begin, let me provide you with a little background about podcasting.
Not surprisingly, Apple played a key role popularizing podcasts, and podcasters like Adam Curry, otherwise known as the "podfather," was one of the first to use the technology. iTunes was introduced at Macworld on January 9, 2001, after Apple purchased SoundJam MP, from the developers (and former Apple employees) Jeff Robbin, Bill Kincaid, and Dave Heller. On June 28, 2005, Apple introduced iTunes version 4.9 which offered built-in support for podcasts.
What exactly is a podcast?
A podcast is a form of digital media (audio, video, digital radio, pdf) that is presented in a series and streamed online to a computer or mobile device. The podcast producer maintains a list of digital files or assets on a server as a web feed that can be accessed by third-party software like iTunes, which functions as a directory for accessing the podcasts - otherwise known as an “aggregator” or “podcatcher.” Web feeds are set up using RSS (Really Simple Syndication), an XML file format that ensures compatibility with many different computers, devices, and programs. RSS feeds enable users to subscribe to audio and video recordings and receive them in a series, automatically, removing the need to manually check the website for new content.
For example, when you open iTunes on your computer, you will find podcasts as a menu option, alongside music and movies. When you access podcasts from the iTunes Store, you will find a directory of podcasts that you can browse by categories, including highlighted sections like “new and noteworthy” or “featured collections.” Soundcloud was established in Berlin in August 2007 by a Swedish sound designer Alexander Ljung and Swedish artist Eric Wahlforss. Soundcloud provides an online resource for accessing music and audio recordings directly from a browser. Content producers are provided with individual channels that users can follow, like, repost, and add to customized playlists. Soundcloud can be accessed through a mobile application, which makes it easy to stream recordings from a smartphone. Content that is distributed through Soundcloud can also be shared and distributed through other websites using a code embed option, enabling content producers and consumers to feature songs and playlists across the web.
I guess you can say that Soundcloud is like Flickr for audio streaming. Soundcloud provides a convenient way for combining its cloud-based service for hosting and delivering audio content with podcast technology, which automatically delivers content to you. For example, music and audio recordings that are set up on a channel or in a playlist can be selectively added to a RSS feed that is generated by Soundcloud. Soundcloud generates a unique url or RSS feed that can be submitted to “podcatchers” or directories like iTunes. The podcasts or audio recordings are accessed through various applications, including Podcasts by Apple, Overcast, Downcast, Stitcher Radio, and Podcast Addict, to mention a few).
The marriage or integration of Soundcloud with podcast technology helps to provide broad access to audio recordings, most of which are free to consumers. Content producers that are interested in using Soundcloud as a delivery system have the option to sign up for a Pro account at $6 a month or a Pro Unlimited account at $15 dollars a month, if they prefer to have advanced access to analytics and web statistics.
If you are unfamiliar with podcasting, I recommend that you visit iTunes and explore the directory of podcasts, or check out Apple’s Podcasts application, which comes pre-installed on iPhones. Likewise, if you are unfamiliar with Soundcloud, visit soundcloud.com, search Soundcloud’s directory, download the Soundcloud application, and/or start your own Soundcloud account. You will discover a whole new world of content right at your finger tips.