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Posted by on Mar 4, 2013

The Emotional Content of Digital Media: Jetlag and the larger narrative of travel


Emotional Content: Individual>Artifact

“Do you imagine the universe is agitated? Go into the desert at night and look at the stars. This practice should answer the question.” Lao Tzu

Ideas of presence, connection, community pervade our thinking on digital spaces. How meaning is made, how community is generated to support that meaning-making, and how that meaning is interpreted. I have always enjoyed reading how others pursue these research issues as there are thousands of permutations and structures to support inquiry into what is really a limitless space. I find that when we discuss emotion in these digital spaces, however, we often zero in on the community and the interaction that takes place there. This is a valid approach as that is the observable phenomena, the connective tissue of online interaction. I wanted to pause and reflect briefly on how emotional content is filtered through mediated artifacts, the “thing” we produce and the “thing” we observe and ponder. In this case, I am just talking about digital media.

I have written a lot about multimodality and assembly and all that, even spoken about it in public (a public sighting of Michael Gallagher is a rare event) so I won’t retread that here. What I wanted to zero in on is how we can provide emotional content to support the intellectual inquiry and how this is a holistic process. Generally, we steer clear of emotional discussions in academia and that is fine. I won’t labor over that distancing. I just prefer to allow my intellectual purpose (my meaning-making) to be influenced by or supported by the emotional context I provide.

Case Study: Jetlag as emotional frame around larger narrative of travel

Case in point. I fly from London to New York City to visit my wife and her family (brother and father in-law). I have a bit of jetlag and sit in the kitchen of an otherwise quiet house delicately pounding out this post so as not to wake anyone. I keep the lights low, drink the leftover cold coffee, and slowly watch the sun peak out over the grey, wintery Long Island sky. I reflect on my travel and the journey to get here. I peruse the pictures I took and audio I recorded along the way, but all of it is now framed through the emotional lens I am wearing now. The subtle and convincing and productive melancholy of jetlag. I find it productive and welcoming  as it anticipates reflection and understanding. Yet, it colors the scenario.

So I download the media and assemble it to reflect a composite of the journey. I then (using Diptic) start toying around with the hue, the contracts, the arrangement and realize I am projecting emotional content into the assembly in an attempt to foreground specific elements of the composition. I want to highlight the the red of the red brick industrial structure in Long Island, the gray of the gray sky at Heathrow, the loneliness of my luggage on the platform at 6:00 in the morning at Tower Hill, even the alluring beacon of the Tube icons. So I use that emotion to flood the assembly with a larger emotional structure, a scaffolding to understanding the meaning behind the selection of these particular images at this time, in this way.

Travel Montage v2

Version 2, heavier on the hues, different emotional vantage point. Some elements are more menacing (the sky behind the factory); some are much more inviting (the blue of the Tube station signs). Every perception or shift in emotional structure can be reflected through the manipulation of digital media.

Academic Spaces and Emotional Affect

The difficulty, at least academically, in consciously inserting emotional content into digital work is the subjectivity of the whole thing. How does the emotion advance the observation and analysis? How does it get at the research questions? Does it effectively frame the discussion surrounding the assembly? What theoretical stance is it taking or trying to explain? That is where the reflective process comes in, declaring the emotional ‘stuff’ being inserted to frame the discussion. I know that in the above assembly I was inserting emotional content related to this assembly but not “of that time”. It was inserted from a related, yet distinct, narrative. That of travel and the long tail of perpetual motion.

I think there is good work being done in this field, how digital spaces are perpetually being recreated as emotional, human spaces. Or how these digital spaces produce emotional affect. I was particularly influenced by my former supervisor at the University of Edinburgh, Sian Bayne on this and generally recommend you give some of her work a read if you want to learn more. What these taught me more than anything else is that digital spaces (however defined) are environments of great emotional structure and design influences the navigation and manipulation of this structure.

  • Bayne, S. (2008). Uncanny spaces for higher education: teaching and learning in virtual worlds. ALT-J16(3), 197-205.
  • Bayne, S. (2010). Academetron, automaton, phantom: uncanny digital pedagogies. London Review of Education8(1), 5-13.
  • Bayne, S. (2004). The embodiment of the online learner. In Beyond the comfort zone: Proceedings of the 21st ASCILITE Conference (pp. 105-115).
  • Al-Mahmood, R. Affective Encounters and Spatial Engagements: Pedagogies of Desire in e-Learning.

What does this mean for mobile learning?

I suspect the further we push on with mobile learning and a sort of instantaneous academic investigation in situ, a perpetual loop of observation, analysis, and reflection. We can make and present meaning as it happens or at later stages in a process (as I did with this assembly this morning). I am still bound by the larger process of travel, still bound by jetlag and acclimation to new environments, and I am still bound by the emotional precepts of that process. So this reflection, this post and montage, reflects that. For mobile learning, I think we should come to expect that as an integrated element of multimodal mobile compositions.

We will need other ‘devices’ to construct and present meaning in environments mediated by mobile technology. Emotional content is one such device, providing an emotional boundary to the framing of the media. If coupled with theory, observation, and analysis, I suspect it will prove a heady alternative to research without (or with an intentionally repressed) emotional aspect. The issue becomes interpretation of that emotional content (and replication to some degree). What it means to you will not be what it means to me. Nor should it. But it represents a useful tool for the mobile learner, a timeline of activity with discernible streams of emotional and intellectual content and their occasional intersections to produce meaning. The prolific production of digital media presents a real opportunity to mine this at later stages to frame further academic reflection. To understand how emotion influences perception which influences intellect.

And on the other end of the spectrum, how emotion can be embedded within composition to produce a framing for the larger narrative or observation. We need more tools to produce greater comprehension of greater and greater complexity. Emotion is a very powerful of that pursuit, one that mobile technology seems particularly well suited to employ.

Mosaic of learning spaces

My learning spaces montage. Emotionally framed from a much different place (and purpose) than the travel montage.

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