Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hard News and Software

There has been a lot of press lately about how blogging software has cross-polinated with traditional discourses from the public sphere, but I would argue that two recent news stories show how other software applications also shape discourses of the media and public diplomacy.

It was interesting to read Paul Krugman's piece on "Bullet Points over Baghdad" that appeared in the New York Times (and also in the International Herald Tribune, where I read it in Paris). He also noted that the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq looked very much like a PowerPoint presentation of the type lambasted by Edward Tufte. As I pointed out in Design Your Life, the original PDF version of the Victory in Iraq document was even worse: an incoherent array of checkmarks, arrows, and bullets that was further marked up with boldface, italics, and underlining, often redundantly. Peter Norwig's satire of the Gettysburg Address assumed the conceit of presidential oratory as PowerPoint, but now the farce appears as tragedy in our contemporary life. (Even if the administration's aim is pedagogical, the Chronicle of Higher Education says that PowerPoint fails as a teaching tool.)

In other news, I have been reading the editorial section of the Los Angeles Times much more carefully, since appearing on a panel with veteran blogger Kevin Roderick of LA Observed. What struck me in yesterday's opinion page was Max Boot's article, "Navigating the 'human terrain'." Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, exuberantly praises Tactical Iraqi, a military video game for teaching Arabic to soldiers, about which I have expressed serious reservations, most recently in a paper for the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. I'm not alone: Mark Marino has also voiced concerns. Yet in the LA Times, Boot enthuses about visiting "the Expeditionary Warfare School, where captains study Arabic by playing a sophisticated computer game complete with animated characters." Boot argues that this provides critical training that simulates "the human terrain" of the theater of conflict in Iraq. What I find troubling is the fact that Tactical Iraqi may be winning so much media praise (notably in NPR and the New York Times) and earning a top DARPA award not because it is an effective way actually to teach Arabic but because it provides an easy interface to SHOW the teaching of Arabic to U.S. soldiers to the public as a form of display. It enables a kind of spectacle of cultural sensitivity aimed at outside audiences that traditional classroom learning can't provide. Thus the learner can become a virtuoso performer in Baudrillard's Simulacrum.

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4 Comments:

Blogger Dakota said...

Interesting post.

I found this thread in a search for info about the "Tactical Iraqi" game/training module.

First off, I'm not apologist for Boot.

That said your post states that Boot, "exuberantly praises Tactical Iraqi, a military video game for teaching Arabic to soldiers..."

The only part of Boots story about computer based language training is this, "The Marine Corps is building language learning centers, including one I visited at the Expeditionary Warfare School, where captains study Arabic by playing a sophisticated computer game complete with animated characters.

Boot never states specifically that the software is "Tactical Iraqi", however given that there is no other software that does what he describes and is also accepted for use by the military, its a reasonable assumption.

You have to admit to being a bit misleading with the, "exuberantly praises Tactical Iraqi" statement because I've read it twice and praise for TI is simply not there.

Does Boot get all wet in the panties over the Exp Warfare School and the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning (CAOCL)?

He sure does.

Boot argues that this provides critical training that simulates "the human terrain" of the theater of conflict in Iraq.

You also comment that, "What I find troubling is the fact that Tactical Iraqi [TI] may be winning so much media praise.....not because it is an effective way actually to teach Arabic...."

Is it (TI) the most effective way to teach Arabic to soldiers?

What are the metrics that should be measured to gauge effectiveness?

Initial cost, cost over time, time spent, amount of Arabic retained, length of time retained, etc?

Your ideas, the DOD's, mine as a Platoon Sgt and a language instructors ideas of what is and effective way actually to teach Arabic will likely vary quite a bit.

We in the military are too short handed and lack the time and resources to send all the people we would like to send to a physical school where they meet with an actual instructor.

We have neither the time nor the money to develop the "best".... what we need is "good enough" - i.e. good enough to get the job done.

Is TI good enough?

I think it's close.

"...but because it provides an easy interface to SHOW the teaching of Arabic to U.S. soldiers to the public as a form of display. It enables a kind of spectacle of cultural sensitivity aimed at outside audiences that traditional classroom learning can't provide."

So your point is basically that the whole push for Tactical Iraqi is for good PR with the American public?

I doubt it, for several reasons.
1) PR-wise, it is a pretty small bang for the bucks.
2) The American public's attention span and depth of knowledge is far to short and shallow for this to matter much. Gas prices, home prices and "do I have a job" tomorrow carry 100x the weight. Most people are not even following the war, of the average voters that are - they are more concerned with "are we killing enough of those terrorists?" - not with "are we being culturally sensitive enough?"

-Am I a big fan of TI? Not really.
-Do I think there are better ways of teaching language and culture in a way that will really stick with soldiers and will influence the way they act overseas? Yes.
-Is TI better than what we had before? Yes. (We pretty much had nothing that was available to the "masses".)

TI, the way it currently is would be like trying to learn the History of Western Civilization from someone’s crib sheet that was put on a couple of 3x5 note cards. All you are going to get is the highpoints or the very basics.

I think your concern about the "spectacle of cultural sensitivity" is a bit overblown.

Anyone that spends more than a few minutes around people in the Army or Marines in a relaxed setting, (i.e. not a dog and pony show with brass all over the place) will quickly realize that the majority of the DOD is still kinetically focused and not all touchy-feely.

There is no way that simply “pimping” TI to the press and public is going to change the image of the DOD and the Gov’t, with regards to how we’ve handled Iraq and Afghanistan.

Our image is already pretty much shot to hell.

Regards.

1:46 PM  
Blogger Dakota said...

Since comments are moderated, you must be reading them.

And feedback/comments to what I wrote?

Regards.

10:25 PM  
Blogger Liz Losh said...

I guess I don't see it as such a "sophisticated" game, although the TI designers did have some very interesting ideas about preserving face and paralinguistic communication that weren't really implemented, given the constraints of the Unreal Engine.

This was when I was beginning to work up my thesis about secondary audiences for military-funded videogames, which I've developed and defended more since then. It will be in a chapter of the Virtualpolitik book and is in a few of my articles in the ACM library, if you are curious.

11:31 AM  
Blogger Dakota said...

Liz,

Dakota here..

Personally while I like the fact that TI is far better about putting skills in hands of soldiers and Marines than what we've had in the past I too think it has limitations.

I'd love to be able to attend DLI or even a 1-2 month course in language and culture.

Sad fact is the DOD is not going to spend this kind of money on most soldiers and Marines - no matter how useful it would be to preventing both our casualties and Iraqi civilian casualties.

Add on the fact that I'm in the Guard/Reserve - they do not even send us to the same schools that the Active folks go thru, for the most part.

For instance, and active duty school for Military Police should be a couple months long... if you reclass (change MOS/jobs) they send you to a two week school.

Sadly DOD used the Guard and Reserves as a temp-work force / labor pool.

Regards,

Dakota

4:46 PM  

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