Research Group for Digital Culture
ERC Consolidator Grant

€2 million to study the cultural effects of machine vision

Jill Walker Rettberg has received ERC funding for aesthetic and cultural research on everyday machine vision. The project will launch in August 2018, and runs for five years.

A series of selfies with selfie filters applied.
Selfie filters in Snapchat are one example of how algorithmic manipulation of images has become an everyday experience.
Jill Walker Rettberg

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It was while she was working on her book on self-representation online that Jill Walker Rettberg began to develop the idea for her new ERC-project, Machine Vision in Everyday Life: Playful Interactions with Visual Technologies in Digital Art, Games, Narratives and Social Media. Studying selfies, she realised that the ways we use visual technologies is changing, and that these changes are impacting us in very significant ways. Selfies are much more than just self-portraits. They are algorithmically encoded, manipulated by filters, and run through facial recognition algorithms. Holding a camera up to our face can now be a way of proving our identity so we can unlock our phone, or to get money from a bank account - or we might be photographed as a way of assessing our emotional state - for security reasons, to sell us something or simply to personalise a service. Our phones run each image we take through image recognition algorithms to sort and tag our photos.

All these are examples of everyday machine vision. Rettberg argues that the ubiquity of machine vision is a shift in representational technologies as vast as the introduction of the printing press, or of linear perspective, and will lead to as significant changes in our society. 

The project MACHINE VISION will explore machine vision from three perspectives. As a foundation, Rettberg and her team will study theories and histories of visual technologies and current machine vision. Then, three PhD students will analyse digital art, computer games and narratives (e.g. science fiction novels, movies or electronic literature) that use machine vision as theme or interface. Third, an ethnographer will examine the experiences of users and developers of consumer-grade machine vision apps through fieldwork and interviews.  Three main research questions are woven through all the approaches, addressing 1) new kinds of agency and subjectivity; 2) visual data as malleable; 3) values and biases.

The three PhD positions will be advertised in mid-2018 to start in January 2020. An MA degree with a research thesis in a relevant area (e.g. digital culture, media studies, comparative literature, art or game studies) and a thesis proposal that is appropriate for the project will be required. A three year position for an researcher with a PhD and experience conducting digital ethnography will be advertised in mid-2019 to begin in January 2021. In addition there will be a 50% administrative position throughout and technical support. A five-page summary of the project is available

The project will be hosted by the Digital Culture Research Group, and will also work closely with the Electronic Literature Research Group