Rob Walker | Essays

Lulz and Pedagogy

Frame from "Surveillance Camera Man" video, via Laughing Squid

I burned about 20 minutes of class time the other day with videos from Surveillance Camera Man, and discussion.

Survillance Camera Man is some guy in Seattle who barges up to people and points a video camera at them; hilarity ensues, as they say. What does this have to do with a class supposedly on the subject of writing about design? I really have no idea if the artifacts of ROFLculture pop up in other classrooms, or if this would be seen as a scandolous distraction from the educational process.

But I find such videos to be quite useful in advancing my design-subjects-are-everywhere agenda. In this case, when the lulz die down, the underlying issue emerges: Surveillance Camera Man seems to suggest that his real-world trolling is simply a visceral manifestation of a fact of contemporary public space: He repeatedly informs his subjects that they’re actually being recorded by cameras all the time, so there’s no reason they should be upset with him. So we discuss: Is he right? Is surveillance a routine element of public space and retail space? Is that a problem? What’s the difference between that, and this guy? It’s an interesting starting point for a conversation about technology, public space, and the surveilled life.

I don’t spend whole class sessions on YouTube, obviously, but here are a few other clips I tried over the course of the quarter:

Frame from "Movie Poster Floating Heads," via Funny or Die

I showed Movie Poster Floating Heads, from Funny or Die, on the first day of class. I think it’s a great example of identifying a familiar but under-scrutinized manifestation of design, and making a point about it. And that is part of what I want the students to do.

This Core77 post includes an F-bomb-heavy video of Joe Rogan that I thought would be useful for a discussion of modes of negative critique (the takedown, satire, rant, etc.). I had never heard of Rogan, who I guess is some kind of mixed-martial-arts guy who is also somehow a comedic performer, but I found his nutty riff on the built environment as “a cancer” both entertaining and pointed, and maybe a good way to start a conversation. This one didn’t work as well, as the students mostly seemed amused that the video’s title suggested Rogan was on or coming down from a DMT trip. (If I had a do-over, I’d make them read the Core77 post first — and use a version of the video with a different title.) 

Finally, this Jimmy Kimmel bit emerged when the class was already going, but I immediately worked it in: At the height of the hype about the latest iPhone version that had just been announced, the show asked people on the street to evaluate the hot new gadget. But since the new iPhone wasn’t actually available yet, Kimmel’s crew simply handed over the current iPhone …  and of course people proceeded to rave about how much lighter, faster, brighter, cooler and better it was.

In addition to letting me include real-time cultural discourse in our classes (which I tried to do every week, to make the point that design is not only pervasive but constantly relevant), this helped me push a broader idea: Basically, don’t be one of these people — learn to pay attention and really see what is right in front of you. That, not surprisingly, was an over-arching goal of the class (and, you know, life).

Sometimes, maybe a little ROFL helps get that across.

Posted in: Education

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