Monday, May 15, 2006

Help Desk

Kudos to Janet Lindenmuth of the Widener University Law Library for tracking down the transcripts of the congressional hearings on the use of the Internet by terrorists, in which parodic gameplay footage from Battlefield 2 was mistakenly shown as an example of jihadist recruitment techniques to a House intelligence committee.

To follow the story as it unfolded on Watercooler Games, you can see commentary on the original Reuters coverage, the revelation that what was seen by the reporter wasn't -- in fact -- a terrorist game mod, and finally the information from the hearing that shows how the context for the game had been entirely misinterpreted by a team of administration "experts."

What is particularly strange about the actual transcripts is how the government contractors in charge of monitoring jihadist activity on the Internet keep coming back to what they called the "oral tradition" of the indigenous Iraqi culture and their assumption that post-print digital media would supposedly be best exploited by an allegedly pre-literate non-Western audience. Perhaps some might recognize elements of theories about literacy and orality, like those associated with Walter Ong, although they have been distorted almost to the point of unrecognizability in a fun-house mirror of post-colonialist Eurocentric ideology.

Another odd linguistic quirk from the surveiling witnesses is that they insist on misusing the word "open source" to describe their research projects, as if this phrase that is used by advocates for open access to source code as an alternative to reliance on proprietary software (and its associated hierarchical practices of software development) refers only to a level of national security clearance denoting "not classified," a strange malapropism for those billed as Internet authorities. One so-called expert claims that terrorists might "hack" into private spaces where soldiers display and exchange photographs, even though the evidence indicates that recruiters for the insurgency are busy with more quotidian activities, such as digital cutting and remixing of materials from the domain of mainstream media and government sources.

The somber reactions of the legislators are also interesting, in that they emphasize their own anxieties about familiar forms of political digital rhetoric on the domestic scene. From both sides of the aisle, congresspeople express concerns about blogs being used by insurgents in ways that could be misrepresented as credible news sources, just like those at home. One representative also refers to the technological difficulty of maintaining "our own" congressional websites at one point.

What was particularly surprising was that even though this was an open hearing about public diplomacy, with a presentation apparently initially designed for the rhetorical education of U.S. troops that had been repurposed for policy makers, congressional representatives kept talking about the necessity of future "closed" meetings to pursue the subject matter further. This is disappointing, since I have argued elsewhere that videogames can serve a political function for "object-oriented democracy," to use the phrase of Bruno Latour in Making Things Public. So it is depressing to see -- yet again -- that these "things public" are being made into mindless, distracting spectacles that are in turn misread by lawmakers.

Check back here as I develop a critical essay about this story.

Update: a few days later Congress voted to ban the sale of violent and sexually explicit videogames by a unanimous vote. This bill, by Representative Joe Baca, is now scheduled to move onto the Senate. It is also interesting to note how the term "open source" is abused by General Hayden, who is currently up for confirmation as Director of the CIA.

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