Friday, June 16, 2006

Do They Have Congressional Hearings about Anything Else?

The day before yesterday, there was yet another Congressional show-and-tell about digital media on Capitol Hill. This time, it was the Federation of American Scientists holding an event about educational games, which was sponsored by Congressman Ralph Regula. The panel showcased the work of Digital Promise, an advocacy group for public investment in educational videogames, digital libraries, and other electronic means of communication, commemoration, and community to which all citizens should reasonably have access. Their current initiative, DO IT, is aimed at creating an organization equivalent in stature to the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Heath.

The line-up of speakers included Digital Promise spokesman Lawrence Grossman, a former President of NBC news and PBS. Grossman seems to be spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill: he was also a witness this Spring in connection with the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act. To his credit, Grossman has been a critic of outsourcing digitization to the private sector and has bonafides from the Center for Digital Democracy and ties to the New America Foundation.

Furthermore, despite his history in the mainstream broadcast media, Grossman has been a digital advocate for over a decade. In 1995, he waxed enthusiastic in The Electronic Republic about a future in which new communications technologies and distributed networks would enable direct democracy to supplant an eroded representative democracy that was already in decline from the effects of voter referendums, sophisticated public opinion polling, and other manifestations of populism on the rise. Many e-government enthusiasts heartily agreed with Grossman and predicted that civic life would soon return to a golden era not seen since the ancient Greek city states. If a crowded, open marketplace of ideas served as an attractive metaphor for the site of public rhetoric, the democratic possibilities of the Internet seemed limitless. Others were not so certain that democratic institutions necessarily benefited from new technology. Long before the publication of The Electronic Republic, Abramson, Arterton, and Orren’s The Electronic Commonwealth expressed concerns that the removal of barriers of time and space by modern media could subvert both the quantity and quality of public deliberation. In the post-September 11th era, Bruce Bimber has analyzed data suggesting that political participation has not been significantly impacted by Internet access. Specifically, he asserted that little voter mobilization could be directly attributed to the Internet. Bimber worried that, like television, the Internet encouraged passive consumption of political culture. As an opposing case of a noticeably transformative “information revolution” in American politics, he pointed to how nineteenth-century penny newspapers solidified party allegiances, encouraged the exercise of opinion in the context of urban communities, and led to higher percentages of voter turnout among eligible citizens.

Although Digital Promise articulates goals I respect, the games themselves were very ideologically loaded, as you can see from the PowerPoint slides of the presentation. They emphasize biological invasion, Iraqi reconstruction, and prioritizing responses to terrorism. First, despite its pretense to improving biology education, Immune Attack brings nothing new to the hoary game genre started by Space Invaders. Furthermore, the actual representation of information is very poor, since the body's organic components are often shown at the wrong scale or in the wrong color. Next, Discover Babylon seems to be yet another "virtual Iraq" that shows little more than groupthink and repetition-compulsion. Finally, Mass Casualty Incident appears less thought out than the Virtual Terrorism Academy or other post-9/11 public health games.

If you are in the mood for a classic game produced on the taxpayer's dime, you can check out what may be the first government-funded videogame -- a Pong precursor -- by following this link.

The Digital Promise report to Congress is also chocked full of examples of digital libraries, but its pork barrel selection of materials from different regions and different disciplines (of extremely uneven quality) doesn't support a coherent argument for a digital public record. I'd also disagree with the premise, as would many librarians, that the American Memory project at the Library of Congress is an unqualified success.

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