Fox Harrell’s new book presents a ‘manifesto’ detailing how computing can create powerful new forms of expression and culture.
The video game “Grand Theft Auto V,” which recently grossed $1 billion in its first three days on sale, is set in the fictional city of Los Santos. But if you’ve played the game, you probably don’t need anyone to tell you that Los Santos is a simulation of Los Angeles. The setting, the characters, and the objects in the game all draw upon — and reinforce — a reservoir of existing cultural images about theft, violence, urban life, and other aspects of U.S. society.
Harrell’s book, “Phantasmal Media,” published this week by MIT Press, outlines an approach to analyzing many forms of digital media that prompt these images in users, and then building computing systems — seen in video games, social media, e-commerce sites, or computer-based artwork — with enough adaptability to let designers and users express a wide range of cultural preferences, rather than being locked into pre-existing options.
“A lot of people take interfaces we use everyday in media, such as online stores or video games, for granted,” says Harrell, who is a faculty member in both MIT’s Program in Comparative Media Studies/Writing and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. “They think that’s just the way the world is structured. But when we see images or characters in a video-game world, or when we see a virtual world, developers are building values into all these systems.”