Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Do Not Open Until X-mas

It's Christmas at the White House website, where I go to get my holiday cheer, because there is always plenty of digital rhetoric to analyze.

This year, as an alleged "War on Christmas" is raging around the country, the theme is All Things Bright and Beautiful. The holiday homepage includes remarkably little coverage of "the Pageant of Peace" that served as overture to the traditional lighting of the White House tree, but this baroque site is nonetheless full of winter whiz-bang content. Would-be homemakers can participate in a light-hearted Q&A with White House Executive Chef Thaddeus Dubois, in which he will actually answer almost none of their questions. (Apparently there are some important national security issues about the exact components of even his simple crème brûlée.) Or viewers can also marvel at the Barney Cam . . . not an actual cam with a live feed but a lavishly produced pet-centric video that encourages us to laugh at injustice as one little dog receives fewer presents and demonstrably more meager food than the other in this Scroogy canine fable.

Finally, one can turn the storybook pages in the Flash presentation of their Holiday Program. The technology is a little dodgy: it's hard to get the pages to turn without having them turned for you by clicking on "Next," and designers obviously goofed on a layout which includes awkward digital scrolldown bars. (Click on the image above to enlarge.)

When so much meaningful digitizing and indexing mark-up needs to be done, it's worth criticizing this "turning the pages" technology, which I believe to be one of the more idiotic ways to spend digital dollars (National Library of Medicine) or digital pounds (The British Library) with archival collections. More on cretinous fake interactivity in government websites in tomorrow's post.

Compare this moronic storybook Lincoln to the Lincoln of The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Using the keyword "Christmas," I discovered a telegram from General Sherman offering the city of Savannah as a present to the President, a note reminding him of the holiday dinner for homesick troops hosted by Mrs. Milton C. Egbert, a missive from an expert lecturer responding to Lincoln's suggestion that he should use his podium to correct public opinion in Europe, and third-party negotiations for freeing a deserter who claimed to have been mistakenly imprisoned. And writing pedagogues can delight in the revision modeled by Lincoln with his inaugural address in another Library of Congress exhibition.

Digital search technology can be highly interactive, because the results displayed on the screen are shaped by the queries of the user, and users can refine their searches as they respond to the data displayed. For example, using the White House website search features, I was able to find every speech by President Bush that contained a reference to Abraham Lincoln. In comparison, the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum was remarkably un-interactive, despite its fancy Flash opening, with no search features at all and to date no digitized documents or photographs of artifacts available to the public.

It is appropriate that a recent conference addressed the "ethics and politics" of "indexicality" as well as "virtuality," particularly when access to discrete items of information can be much more important than supposedly immersive presentations of slick surface simulations.

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Blogger Julia Lupton said...

It is ironic that a President with such a bad track record on the environment has chosen natural beauty as the White House theme!

2:07 PM  

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