Raiford Guins, Edited Clean Version

William G. Bryan
University of Central Florida

Guins, Raiford. Edited Clean Version: Technology and the Culture of Control. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 179 pp. $22.50 (pbk also available in cloth) (978-0-8166-4815-3)

[1] Raiford Guins' Edited Clean Version represents one of two powerful narratives that tend to emerge when discussing the implications of new technology, both of which have a propensity to become pronounced when the potential cultural shifts are seismic rather than smooth. This is quite obvious in our present era of digitalization, and a slew of writing both scholarly and popular has emerged to explain how new media is both a godsend and a menace to artistic creativity, classroom learning and human freedom in general. Due to the ubiquity of the new media in Western society, we are often forced to consider these competing narratives on a daily basis.

[2] In the 2008 Michel Gondry film Be Kind, Rewind, two video store clerks make "sweded" versions of popular movies, after the original VHS tapes are accidentally erased. The movie is an homage to the analog era, and the amateurish remakes are both hilarious and heartwarming. While retaining a resemblance to the original plot, and attempting to recreate famous camera shots & scenes, the clerks play loose with the dialogue and length in the new "sweded" versions. Eventually, the community comes to prefer these versions to the originals, and the clerks run into copyright issues, forcing the store to close. While a tribute to old media and analog techniques, Be Kind, Rewind also gives a nod to the digital-era culture of online creativity, collaboration and fan fiction.

[3] In contrast, Direct TV began running a series of ads in 2006 in which actors reprised their roles in popular movie scenes, with the original actor breaking the third wall to convince viewers of the advantages of switching from cable to satellite television. Rather than a tribute or homage to cinema or fandom, these commercials manipulated, cleansed and altered content to expand market share and sell product, all with the blessing of the actors, production personnel and studio executives.

[4] While arguably similar practices are found in the above examples, the intent is what draws the distinction; representing real world manifestations of the two narratives mentioned earlier - the latter being a crass manipulation of content for commercial gain or censorial purposes. Though admittedly nothing new to the digital age, the relative ease of such practices using digital technology is what makes this era exceptional. While slick advertising is more or less an accepted practice in our capitalist society, how might digital technology be used to modify behavior for more nefarious purposes?

[5] In Edited Clean Version, Guins finds that the manipulation, blocking, filtering, cleaning, and patching of content are all crucial elements of social control strategies in our neo-liberal era. Often, this control is acted out locally, with the direct participation of the end-user, viewer or parent, under the guise of consumer choice and protection. Nearly any discussion of a control or disciplinary society will, at the very least, make mention of the work of Michel Foucault, and this book is no exception. While the panopticon of Discipline & Punish provides a useful metaphor for the inherent disciplining functions in Western institutions or even society as a whole, it is not quite as satisfying when applied to the self-regulation that occurs in the home, or to other nebulous technological filtering procedures on which Guins' work is focused. With this in mind, Guins relies primarily on the work of Gilles Deleuze and Nikolas Rose, in their observations of the shift from a society of discipline to a society using control as a "practice of and process of governing" [i]. In a control society, governance is achieved through continuous, habitual self-regulation where citizens (as Rose describes) must become "experts of themselves" [ii].

[6] Guins would likely agree that a clear example of a shift in expertise and regulation might be found in the history of the film industry. From 1930 to the late 1960s, Hollywood operated under the Motion Picture Production Code that placed strict rules on what types of behavior and language could be depicted in studio films. The code outlined three general principles for motion picture production, mandating that no film could lower the "moral standards" of those who viewed them; films must portray upright and "correct" behavior, and they could not ridicule the law - natural or man-made. Fearing federal regulation in the wake of well-publicized scandals and revelations, these standards were "voluntarily" adopted by the studios to appease the public and the federal government. This resulted in the erosion of local censorship boards, as all films were required to be certified by the Code's enforcement entity - the Production Code Administration (PCA). The ultimately unsustainable and short-lived MPPC illustrates the logic of "control" strategies over a Foucauldian "discipline" strategy.

[7] Indeed, as the Production Code became increasingly unenforceable and consumer tastes more segmented, the MPAA developed a system of ratings designed to give a general idea of the suitability of content for large audiences. These ratings were designed with the family unit (specifically children) in mind, as evident by the PG and PG-13 ratings. Thus, the behavior deemed acceptable under the previous disciplinary regime is used as a method of governance and control under the banner of choice, empowerment, and knowledge. Guins explains that technology like the v-Chip, parental controls and "clean" DVDs are produced with this in mind – he argues that a corporation like Blockbuster "sells 'family entertainment' as an armed concept: a power/knowledge relation that determines private social experience with media" [iii]. Implicit in Guins's argument is that adult preferences are dictated and shaped by protective measures aimed toward children.

[8] While Blockbuster provides what is probably now a dated example of corporate social engineering (or at the very least taste-making), the bulk of Guins's book is devoted to practices inside the home, and that's where digital media changes the game, so to speak. His book is organized into six chapters, each with a corresponding theme – control, blocking, filtering, sanitizing, cleaning, and patching – each ostensibly devoted to a particular form of technology, like internet filtering software and ClearPlay DVD players.

[9] This approach allows for an in-depth focus on a particular form of technology, and Guins's examples are well thought-out and developed. Indeed, much of his research appears to have been "hands-on," as he describes his viewing of "cleaned" DVDs and a technical boondoggle with his PS3. His almost comical viewing of a sanitized version of David Cronenberg's film A History of Violence particularly evokes the absurd side of control technology. Even without a familiarity with the film, one can grasp the occasional futility of crude censorship and editing, while understanding that such practices can inadvertently (or purposely) change works of art. So, unlike the "sweded" versions of movies mentioned earlier where the intent is homage or reverence, sanitizing technology reshapes meaning and seeks to modify or reinforce behavior.

[10] The downside to Guins's organizational approach and detail is that some of his arguments are undermined by redundancy while some particularly salient points get lost in the shuffle or remain underdeveloped. For instance, Guins observes that US courts have long held that obscenity is to be determined by local community standards and that digital media and software are shattering or reshaping what a "community" is, or what is meant by "local." Can a corporation in Kansas City determine what "local" standards are in Orlando? Does a Facebook network count as a "local community?"

[11] Unfortunately, many of these thought-provoking insights are buried in the text. While not completely harmful to Guins's central argument or structure, there are more concrete issues and questions like the ones above that could have provided an alternative organization, or at least a more engaging approach to tie his chapters together (indeed, it's not always immediately clear what distinguishes synonymous activities like "cleaning" and "sanitizing"). A more unambiguous premise, if creatively implemented, might also tacitly suggest an alternative to "control" in which every individual is a "local community" of their own and can administer their own version of the Potter Stewart test of obscene material – i.e. "I know it when I see it." "Seeing it" of course implies the freedom of not letting filters or blocking devices making the determination for us. While Guins can be commended for a dispassionate analysis, I'd like to get an idea of what the alternative to "control" looks like, especially given his praise of online collaborative culture (which he often singles out as distinct from control practices).

[12] While Guins's work fits relatively neatly into Deleuzian scholarship on the society of control, it should be interesting to see how he might respond to emerging cultural criticism from the likes of Jaron Lanier, David Shields and other non-scholarly writers. Both Lanier and Shields published manifestos in 2010 critical of contemporary web-based "cut & paste" culture. In contrast to Guins's rather complex argument on control, I find Lanier's similar concept of "lock-in" more useful (and easier to understand) for insight into the harmful and limiting practices inherent in some software and technology. Lanier writes that "as a program grows in size and complexity, the software can become a cruel maze" and as complexity increases, digital designs get "frozen in place" [iv].

[13] Lanier, drawing on his experience in the industry, explains that it is much easier and more cost-effective to build on existing programs piecemeal rather than starting over from scratch. In light of this, what Guins calls control may only be an unintended outcome (rather than a design strategy), especially when taking into account market concerns (like cost) and straightforward human laziness. Rather than minimal, elegant programming, with "lock-in" we often get clunky and restricting code, which reigns in our freedom to approach a problem from a fresh perspective. In Lanier's manifesto, this idea is applied at large to online culture's often stifling effect on creativity and its fostering of juvenility. When talking about control, however sinister, we shouldn't overlook laziness or the rush to bring product to the market, whether it's crude jokes, sloppy programming, bad software or the statistical findings that many parents who have a v-chip don't bother to figure out how to use it. Are we self-controlling by design, by accident or both – and does it matter?


[i] Raiford Guins. Edited Clean Version: Technology and the Culture of Control. (Minneapolis: University of Minnestoa Press, 2009), 1.

[ii] Qtd. In Guins, 8.

[iii] Ibid., 104.

[iv] Jaron Lanier. You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto. New York: Knopf, 2010), 6-7.