Monday, July 31, 2006

Thought Experiments

Yesterday's Boston Globe emphasized how "Low Budget Viral Videos Attract TV Sized Audiences." Some of these viral videos come from the realm of traditional advertising, such as the Tolerate Mornings campaign from Folgers, which humorously presents surreal yellow people being impossibly cheerful to dissolute twenty-somethings trying to prepare for a workday. Without buying airtime, the ad has been seen by millions via YouTube and other means. Also interesting is the Fruit of the Loom viral mock rock video ad "I'm so happy that I'm Blue" and the country version at "You Can't Over-Love Your Underwear." Of course, the Go Daddy Superbowl ads are the classic example of this ploy.

It's ironic, given that so many progressive political groups have developed ads that are never seen on network television, and so have no other choice than viral dissemination. Some are available on the World Wide Web, such as the Bush in 30 Seconds spots from MoveOn.org and the ads against consumerism from Adbusters. Unfortunately, we can't see the ad from NARAL that the networks refused to show.

Sunday, July 30, 2006

Fun with Filmstrips

It's odd to see contemporary digital media used for a retrograde technical form like the film strip, but that's exactly what the political agitators Filmstrip International do. To see how the rhetoric in this intentionally anachronistic media works, you can see two versions of the anti-Bush filmstrip at "You're an Asshole." They also play around with the didactic notion of the "educational" film by posting the 1946 Encyclopedia Brittanica film on "Despotism." Check out Brittanica's "information" access index to see why the message about dangers to democratic institutions might still be considered up-to-date.

It's not the only angry political filmstrip out there. There's also the "Walmart is Evil" filmstrip on YouTube.

Strangely, these filmstrips lack the characteristic annoying "beep" that those of us who actually watched filmstrips in school remember. See this one on Chinese Painting to go down memory lane.

My favorite "filmstrip"/meditation on life is the one that Sivacracy's Ann Bartow plugged: "Dance, Monkeys, Dance."

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Saturday, July 29, 2006

Psyched Out

It's not technically a digital rhetoric story, but I've been following coverage about leaflet drops by the Israeli government over Lebanon, because I'm interested in the discourses surrounding political surrender, and the Web helps us see images of the paper ephemera involved in this process from distant regions, which we might not otherwise see.

I first started thinking about these documents when I was teaching about the Requerimiento (1510), which was read to indigenous people by Spanish conquistadors, sometimes in the Europeans' native language, so Native Americans were unable to undertand their "natural" rights as political subjects of Spain.

I've found the rhetoric of these leaflets generally includes at least one of three messages:

1) the war that is being fought is a just war
2) the person on the ground is informed that he (or she) has a rational choice to make and that one of the two consequences will be personally disastrous for him (or her)
3) the opposing forces are laughable, often cartoonishly so

The Israeli army leafleteers seem to be using all three strategies, although the second one is least prominent in their campaign.

In the conflicts with Iraq and Afghanistan, I've been collecting leaflets when they are posted on Centcom sites. Psywar also has a good collection of leaflets. It is interesting to note that during the initial assault on Afghanistan, the main message was that foreigners (meaning the U.S. and NATO) were friendly and wanted to help, while later the meassage became: drive out the foreigners (meaning those from Saudi Arabia and the Middle East). The 4th Psychological Operations Group at Fort Bragg provides some explanation of the U.S. rationale.

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Friday, July 28, 2006

Soapbox

I'll be in Boston for a few days where I will give a presentation at the Sandbox Symposium about the debate in the game development community about whether to work on military-funded projects that support the war in Iraq. More generally, I'm interested in how government-funded videogames and virtual reality simulations, particularly those that receive a lot of publicity in the mainstream media, such as Tactical Iraqi and Virtual Iraq, may have rhetorical as well as pedagogical or therapeutic characteristics. The issues are relatively complicated but worth talking about, so if you are in town for SIGGRAPH or just in the area, check it out. One of the program co-chairs is Doug Thomas of Games and Culture, so it should be a good line-up. Kurt Squire, who often collaborates with Henry Jenkins, will also be speaking.

And speaking of games, check out the selection of recent newsgames covered by Water Cooler Games that target Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah. Certainly, with civilians dying, it's no laughing matter, but it's interesting to see these cartoonish depictions of the Israeli offensive against strongholds in Lebanon.

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You Can Take This Blog and . . .

It's been a difficult month for bloggers career-wise.

A CIA "top secret blogger" was fired recently for writing about on-the-job issues at headquarters despite her limited audience within a secure Intranet. (Purists say she's an "iloger" not a "blogger," because it's not a web log but an intranet log in question.) Complaining about bad cafeteria food was apparently okay for this software expert to do, but commenting about administration policy and "waterboarding" wasn't. Now even the military considers blogs as credible sources of information, so unfortunately -- perhaps -- that newfound gravitas cuts both ways.

At the same time The Chronicle of Higher Education has run an interesting forum in which 7 Bloggers Discuss the Case of Juan Cole. According to insiders, Yale University passed over the Michigan professor and high profile Mid-East policy blogger, who authors Informed Comment, despite the support for his candidacy from search committees from two departments, because the political voice of his blog sounded too strident for some. Siva Vaidhyanathan's "The Lesson of Juan Cole" and Michael Bérubé's "The Attention Blogs Bring" are particularly apt analyses that answer the Chronicle's question: "Can Blogging Derail Your Career?" Cole himself also responds to the controversy.

(Diaristic rather than journalistic bloggers may be safer from this kind of scrutiny. And if they write from behind the front lines from war zones abroad, they might also be getting more well-deserved attention from The New York Times. See "Anne Frank 2006: War Diaries Online" for more.)

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Thursday, July 27, 2006

Deleting Siblings of Foster Children Act

Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott recently spoke before Congress on behalf of the Deleting Online Predators Act, which would bar schools and libraries from providing online access to social networking sites. As Abbott explained it, the benefits would far outweigh the minimal costs to frivolous teens:

While social networking sites are a lot of fun for kids – and have the potential to expose our children to a world of knowledge and bring them literally worldwide friends – many of the sites also subject children to a world of predators, pedophiles and pornographers.

Yet in Tuesday's Los Angeles Times, there was a story about desperate foster children communicating through MySpace to maintain tenuous family ties, which would seem to indicate that there is a lot more than "fun" at stake for low-income teens.

This story on "Fostering Family Ties at 20," which appeared in the print edition as "Struggling to Pull Shattered Family Together," describes how young Trayvon Walker keeps in touch with his dispersed and traumatized family members via a popular social networking site.

Inside his sparse Van Nuys apartment, Trayvon Walker clicks on a MySpace.com photo of a 17-year-old boy with chin raised, cheeks stretched and a full mouth strikingly similar to his.

"That's my brother," says Walker of the teenager he worries about so much lately.

He clicks on a different page and scrolls through photos of his 16-year-old sister, wondering if she has a boyfriend.

At 20, Walker is trying to click together the scattered lives of his brothers and sisters. Raised by the foster care system in California — in which 42% of children are separated from one or more of their siblings — Walker knows only pieces of their stories. Five of his seven siblings remain in foster care in Victorville, Hesperia, Pomona and Ontario, and only two live together. One sister is autistic. One brother is about to turn 13. The 17-year-old in the online photo is getting ready to emancipate from foster care. Of his two older brothers, one is in jail and he can't find the other.

Walker wants the court or social workers to provide flexible visitation rights and transportation, so he can give his siblings still in foster care the parental figure that he never had.

He says it is up to him to pass on vital lessons in adulthood to his younger siblings, even though he lives 50 to 100 miles away. They are lessons every young adult should know but which those who grow up in foster care often learn the hard way: Don't buy more groceries than you can carry on the bus. Call potential employers to follow up on job applications, even if they didn't call you. Count school credits to make sure you've earned enough to graduate on time.

Why do legislators keep assuming that those in the poorest segment of the population only use the Internet for play, when every indicator on the status of the "Digital Divide" shows that more and more of society's most disenfranchised citizens depend on their Internet access, particularly without reliable public transportation or a social safety net? Cutting off schools and libraries from broadly defined "social networking" sites, which even includes some outreach pages of museums and cultural centers, certainly doesn't serve the greater good.

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Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Survey Says

Last week the Pew Internet & American Life Project released its most recent report on blogging. From their survey, researchers discovered that bloggers were actually a more ethnically diverse group than Internet users as a whole, that they devoted an average of two hours a week to the activity, and that they were more likely to focus blog content on family interests or informal social networks than “politics, media, government, or technology.”

Academic bloggers might be a somewhat different species from these lay bloggers in the Pew Report, because they often see their blogging as a type of journalism, as a form of scholarly commentary on the news, or as a way to work out ideas for upcoming books or articles.

Yet bloggers inside the Ivory Tower and outside in the Real World may have more in common with each other than they do with the rest of the slightly more normally adjusted population. So here are the questions that I would have liked to have seen researchers ask of my fellow bloggers:

  • How much weight have you gained since you started blogging?
  • Do you ever dream about blogging?
  • When you are hungry, do you ever read food blogs rather than get up from the computer?
  • When you feel faint from inertia, do you ever read blogs about nature and the outdoors rather than get up from the computer?
  • What is the most embarrassing time signature that has ever appeared on one of your blog entries? (e.g. middle of the night, spouse’s birthday, Christmas morning, New Year’s Eve, etc.)
  • Do you not publish unsolicited poetry out of principle so that you can feel like a real editor?
  • Do you ever post a comment from a Viagra company out of boredom?
  • According to your regular reader(s), what vast conspiracy have you most often neglected to mention in your regular coverage of events in your life?

My UCI colleague Bonnie Nardi's 2004 Why We Blog looked at a smaller, more rarified group of Stanford bloggers but found a similar emphasis on the personal rather than the political. She also recorded the fact that the modal number of comments (or most common digit) was "0" on the blogs she studied.

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Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chain Letter

YouTube isn't always thought of as a site for epistolary discourse, but administration policy has inspired several rockers to make video appeals directly to the Chief Executive. For examples of this multimedia rhetoric directed to Pennsylvania Avenue, see Pink's "Dear Mr President" (which has inspired several remixes) and S.T.O.P.'s "Dear Mr. President."

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Monday, July 24, 2006

Who Owns History?

The LA News Service is suing YouTube over footage of the beating of truck driver Reginald Denny during the 1992 Los Angeles Riots. The stock film company is claiming copyright infringement by the video service that solicits content via a distributed network model. (If you have questions about their user agreement, this shirtless man in a cowboy hat will explain your rights as a YouTube user.)

The Denny beating is a tumultuous event that I feel connected to as a witness to history, because I was only a few city blocks away while it was happening, and rocks were even thrown at my car (luckily by kids with either lousy aim or sympathy for my bumper stickers).

The problem is that if one wanted to show the Reginald Denny beating in a university classroom legitimately -- perhaps to talk about "digital evidence" or to contrast it with footage of the beating of Rodney King by police officers, which was one of the events that set the fuse of the civil disturbance -- it would be hard to do. The LA News Service just has a provisional lorum ipsum dolor site up at the moment.

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Sunday, July 23, 2006

First, the Good News

Okay, maybe I'm not cancelling that subscription to the New York Times just yet. There is a terrific story in today's paper about serious games called "Saving the World One Videogame at a Time" by technology writer and Collision Detection blogger Clive Thompson. It covers a number of games and personalities (Henry Jenkins, Doug Thomas, Ian Bogost, Gonzalo Frasca, James Paul Gee, etc.) that are at the center of the discussion about persuasive gaming.

Now the bad news: there was also a cretinous story about copyright in the LA Times also in today's news. "Just Whose Idea is it Anyway" quotes Siva Vaidhyanathan without actually speaking to the man!

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Saturday, July 22, 2006

Away From Home Movies

MTV News claims that "System, Korn, Staind Don't Mind Their Music Being Used in Iraq Soldiers' Viral Videos" that combine copyrighted music with footage from the frontlines.

You can check out their grunt's eye perspective in the songs "Iraq (So Far Away)" and "Dead Bodies Everywhere." "So Far Away" is a nostalgic reflection about home from the front lines, while "Dead Bodies Everywhere" emphasizes explosions and third-person style shooter play.

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Friday, July 21, 2006

Scout's Honor

A recent story in the New York Times ("Dare Violate a Copyright in Hong Kong? A Boy Scout May Be Watching Online") reports that boy scouts and girl guides in Hong Kong will be encouraged to work with the government to catch copyright offenders. Press releases from the Scout Association of Hong Kong and the government's Intellectual Property Department about the Programme on Respect for Intellectual Property Scout Fun Fair and Launching Ceremony seem to confirm that it is a real partnership between scouting and law enforcement to catch intellectual property "pirates."

I'm a former girl scout who enjoyed learning archery, survival skills, and self-defense, while my male peers mastered cooking and sewing, and I well remember the mania I had for collecting merit badges. According to the article, there are no plans to develop a similar program in the United States, but I designed some nifty badges just in case the American scouting leadership has a change of heart.



Thanks to Mel Horan of Garbage Island fame for his Photoshopping skills.

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Thursday, July 20, 2006

Warm Recommendations

Last night I was in the initial test audience for the new feature from National Geographic about the dramatic life cycles of walruses and polar bears that picks up where the surprise hit among the Christian Right March of the Penguins left off.

Here's the interesting twist: it's a picture about global warming. So if you couldn't get conservative friends, neighbors, colleagues, or family members to see An Inconvenient Truth, because they didn't vote for Al Gore, here's one to recommend when it comes out around the holidays. After all, education about climate change shouldn't be a partisan issue; it's only a small elite who keeps it that way. (And perhaps yesterday's Energy and Commerce Hearing shows that even the polar ice cap in Congress is melting just a bit.)

Besides, PowerPoint isn't everyone's choice for cinematic entertainment, even if Gore uses a Mac alternative technology for his electronic slideshow. There's a lot of bad political PowerPoint out there from the current administration, including the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq, which Paul Krugman slammed in his "Bullet Points Over Baghdad" editorial, and the more recent National Security Strategy document.

Certainly, Edward Tufte has argued that PowerPoint reinscribes authoritarian rhetoric (when it isn't just plain bad rhetoric, as it would have been in this Microsoft-friendly Lincoln Gettysburg Address). Check out this PowerPoint of Edward Tufte's manifesto again PowerPoint, if you haven't seen it.

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Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Multi-tasking

Today's an exciting day here at the Virtualpolitik corporate headquarters, because the Energy and Commerce Committee actually finally had a hearing about climate change, instead of sex on the Internet. Hooray!

People who believe in "anthropogenic" climate change were even allowed to speak for once, although the naysayers were there in force. Because I'm run a writing program, I talk about good writing with scientists a lot, who emphasize the importance of clarity in data presentation, and I have to say there was a marked contrast between the camps of presenters. Pro-administration people used some of the most obfuscatory jargon I've ever heard in a Congressional hearing, while administration opponents generally submitted short, pithy, to-the-point messages that used bullet points, italics, and underlining to good effect.

My favorite witness (where "favorite" doesn't mean "good") was Mr. Stephen McIntyre who uttered some of the most convoluted sentences I've ever heard in my academic career. I'm not a university snob since I believe that "open source" participation that includes expert amateurs is healthy for institutions of higher education, but I have to point out that the man holds no graduate degrees in anything and thus can hardly be considered a legitimate scientific authority or a representative of a professional community. Apparently that doesn't stop McIntyre from putting out his Climate Audit blog on a regular basis, which inspired a rival blog from working climate scientists called Real Climate.

McIntyre was critical of something called the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, which actually has a kid's page in which youngsters are taught not to worry about all kinds of natural disasters, which is strange given their message that the public needs to be more concerned about climate change. For example, consider the following gem from the site: "England, May 1950: All the feathers were plucked off of several chickens by the fierce winds of a tornado. Don't worry! The chickens survived!"

The Energy and Commerce Committee also covered the timeline for radioactive waste disposal at Yucca Mountain in another hearing the same day. Enjoy the submerged Yucca Mountain mascot from the federal program's youth zone. "Yucca Mountain Johnny" now has his own Wikipedia entry.

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Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

The NO SCRUF website purports to represent a group of female activists, the National Organization of Social Crusaders Repulsed by Unshaven Faces, who are seeking grassroots support for their cause. In true Video News Release style, we see footage of shouting women waving signs on the steps of government edifices.

The bald truth is here at the Museum of Hoaxes. The site is a Gillette viral marketing stunt designed to promote its products. Although ostensibly aimed at controlling male grooming habits, the obvious target is women, who are assumed to be disgusting in their natural state, even if they are improbably proportioned models. In addition to policing the standards of beauty for women, it also sends messages to voyeuristic men about appropriate desires. Sivacracy's Ann Bartow has spotlighted the work of Rachel Nabors, who points out that this is a remarkably recent historical phenomenon, dating back only to the 1920's when razor companies decided to increase market share.

Yes, but it's a joke, so what does this have to do with digital politics?
  • When people are increasingly dependent on search engines it is disturbing to realize that the name that they picked for the made-up auteur of their mockumentary described in this bio, "Emily Bergstrom," is also the name of a real-life activist at the nonprofit Seattle-based Agros.
  • The strategies of the ad aren't that different from real taxpayer-funded social marketing efforts that also follow the advertising industry in emphasizing physical attractiveness to the other gender in campaigns against smoking, for AIDS testing, and to get the citizenry to lose weight.
  • It's an obvious effort to lampoon the feminist movement, which ironically is also attempting to market itself more girl-centrically at political websites with pastel colors like the Protect Choice site, where the women don't look that different from the big hair, big jewelry models on the spoof site.

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Monday, July 17, 2006

Exhibit A


This video was made by my thirteen-year-old from film in the public domain at the Internet Archive. Notice that the haunting tune coming out of the phonograph is actually made from resampling the chipper corporate "Living Stereo" theme music of the opening.

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The Times They Aren't A-Changing

This month it seems that my longtime love-hate relationship with the New York Times is definitely tilting toward hate. Why? Because they've run yet another in-depth story on how teens use the Internet that hightlights criminal behavior. A few months ago they ran a six-part video series on Justin Berry and an accompanying article, "Through a Webcam, A Boy Joins Sordid Online World" about a middle-class teen who used his webcam to operate an online pornography business. Then this month they ran a three-part video series on Shiva Brent Sharma, another teen whose Internet experiences were turned to nefarious ends, who went from seemingly innocuous file-sharing to being a hardcore identity thief, as explained in "Identity Thief Finds Easy Money Hard to Resist." In other words, there's a simple message: give a bright, curious teen a computer and some digital knowhow, and he (or she) is likely to use it A) to crank out kiddie porn or B) to steal the identities of unwary oldsters.

I have kids who use computers with an Internet connection. Here are some of the activities that they've used them for this month at our house: creating a claymation movie that was entered in the school talent show, sharing their original audio and video remixes with friends via MySpace and YouTube (from Creative Commons material) , and making their own videogames for the neighbor kids to play from Quest Creator. As a parent, I'd love to think that they were really brilliant and remarkable, except I know that their friends are doing it too.

Why doesn't a major newspaper run a six-part or even a three-part exposé about that?

(Here I'll insert a little romantic note to my local Los Angeles Times, which all you East Coasters and Heartland residents can just ignore. Even after the greatest prose stylist of all time, sportswriter Jim Murray, met his maker, I still stayed loyal. I didn't cancel my subscription when the "Faster Format LA Times" became the norm, which was lauded by that creep Archbishop Roger Mahoney. I was true to my hometown paper even after I could no longer lose myself in the "Great White Whale" in which you could be reading a story where you could get to the fourth jump before you realized that the article that you were reading was actually about a woman stealing a baby by cutting another woman open with a car key rather than just leisurely narrating the two parallel tracks of these women's separate lives and their nicknames and high school activities and such.

Now that you are little more than a page covered with titles, I still love you LA Times. Why? 1) You still have clever punny titles that no self-respecting search engine would ever pick up like "Soccer Team Throws a Hail Mary Mass." 2) During California's recall election, you labeled the Republican challenger "Actor" rather than "Schwarzenegger" to save column space. 3) You continue to call the Bush policy "Domestic Spying" right in the title rather than "Terrorism Surveillance." That wimpy New York Times won't go any further than "Domestic Surveillance.")

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Sunday, July 16, 2006

Gang Signs

Guess what? We have a brand new group of people with which to demonize peer-to-peer Internet practices and social networking behavior, which we can add to the already existing categories of sexual predator and apocalyptic terrorist that are justifying restrictive legislation! Members of street gangs!

That's right, an Associated Press story about gang use of the Intenet was picked up in both the New York Times and The Washington Post. I like the fact that the featured Eighteenth Street Gang site currently links to PBS alongside artful black and white documentary photography by insiders and a tattoo parlor page. The website is currently under construction now, so you can't get to the page I saw with all the lonely inmates hoping for e-mail. Nonetheless, the 18th Street chatroom is up, although I would strongly recommend avoiding the "poetry" page, where I was foolish enough to go first.

This "news" about gang members is actually an old story to ethnographers of Internet culture. Many of these outlaw sites have been monitored by the LAPD for a long time, according to a 2001 article in The Los Angeles Times, "Authorities Watching Gang Web Sites." I've seen In Memorium pages for fallen gang members for years. Ironically, some blame the "No Child Left Behind Act" for this new generation of web-savvy OG's.

Flashback. Fifteen years ago I put high-risk kids on the Internet through the City of Santa Monica's PEN (Public Electronic Network) program. So it's probably true that some L.A. gang members had e-mail addresses long before corporate CEO's. What's interesting is that those beeper-wearing teens immediately understood that e-mail was the killer application. I had intended for them to use the system as it was designed, as an opportunity for citizens to address public officials. Want a basketball court at the park? Get on PEN, I told them. They totally ignored my do-goodism and promptly started sending messages to each other, sometimes to kids in the same room! Of course, now that's the way that everyone acts, including academics at conferences IM-ing each other while the speaker is talking, so I can hardly blame them for it now.

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Saturday, July 15, 2006

Forgive and Forget

I have to give some credit to onetime Google hagiographer and Wired veteran John Battelle this week. Of course, I first have to admit to having held a grudge against him for three reasons:

1) his occasional cheerleading for Google Print
2) his tendency to value free market forces over those that preserve the public sphere
3) the fact that I shared a tiny prep-school class with him, in which John hung out with the jocks and made merciless fun of the kids who spent their afternoons with the old Radio Shak TSR-80s . . . okay, maybe in retrospect I understand that one

Anyway, this week he's saying that it's "cool" that his book The Search has become a pirated street bestseller in Mumbai:

Do I care about the piracy? No. No, no no. I care that someone in Mumbai cared enough to rip it off, and that someone there might be reading my stuff. That is just cool. Commercial markets always follow the free, or, well, the pirates in this case. Always.

I'm not sure I agree with the moral he draws from the story, but I think it's a healthy attitude about authorship, which well deserved its status as a wonderful thing on BoingBoing today.

Besides, he did point out the problem of Google's interest in competitive advantage long before it was of interest to others.

(And for more on teen social dynamics see Paul Graham's interesting essay from Hackers and Painters on "Why Nerds are Unpopular." I think Graham is wrong to devote the first half of the essay to how kids are supposedly divided between the "smart" and the "popular," which as an educator I find to be a false distinction that is eugenically repulsive, but I like his point about how society values teens as consumers rather than as producers and thus makes the lives of "makers" miserable.)

Friday, July 14, 2006

Delete Button

More bad legislation is coming your way from the Committee on Energy and Commerce in Congress. As if it's not bad enough that they are supporting the Kerry-Isakson Bill or "Masha's Law," which directly equates the traffic in child pornography (a recognizably reprehensible activity about which there is broad consensus) to downloading copyrighted music (a practice engaged in by a wide range of consumers, some of whom contest the legitimacy of draconian new intellectual property laws), they've come up with another bill with terrible language in the fine print. The Bill would require schools and libraries to block "social networking" sites and chatrooms. This interview with with Henry Jenkins and Danah Boyd presents some more compelling reasons to object to this badly drafted legislation. First, the legislation is so vaguely written that it could bar a number of educational online activities. Second, it would deepen the digital divide by disenfranchising poorer children who depend on public terminals for Internet access. Third, there's a lot of valuable creative activity taking place on the site: kids are posting clever audio remixes, satiric videos, elaborate Flash animations, and artful Photoshopped images on MySpace along with the pictures of face-to-face interactions and diaristic expressions of teen angst and idealism. Finally, it's a space for experimenting and learning about online identity formation, which is part of the cultural literacy of most American citizens today.

Unfortunately, as Jenkins implied in a recent manifesto on How to Break Out of the Academic Ghetto, even his own university scholarship could be irrelevant to fast-changing contemporary debate. This week there've been hearings about the Deleting Online Predators Act of 2006, although academic researchers were certainly underrepresented on their "expert" panel. Apparently fueled by prurient tabloid-style stories in the mainstream media like those archived on My CrimeSpace, the public is demanding action. (Energy policy, of course, is a subject about which the committee can't be bothered.) You can watch the two-hour hearing webcast, if you're a glutton for virtual punishment.

Beth Yoke made a valiant attempt to defend the need for intelligent information literacy policies for the young on behalf of the American Library Association, but she was only one of two witnesses without a corporate or law enforcement agenda. Amanda Lenhart of the Pew Internet & American Life Project also mades some appeals to logic with statistics. But even a civil servant from the Fairfax County Public Schools, Ted Davis, was hawking proprietary software, specifically Symantec Web Security.

Another shameless opportunist among the witnesses was Parry Aftab, who is behind the horrible YFly site with former Backstreet crooner Nick Lachey, which brings kids all of the consumerism and none of the creativity of such sites. Ironically, much of her evidence in her testimony actually supports the cultural value of social networking sites. Of course, I can understand why Lachey would be so opposed to MySpace. Intrepid teens could actually find some decent tunes there, like the Mexican Institute of Sound or Neil Young's anti-war album, unlike the drek that the record companies are serving up.

As a rhetorician, what I found interesting, from listening to the webcast, was the number of times the metaphor of the Internet as a "double-edged sword" kept coming up. The instrumentality and violence of the image is telling and may suggest a certain rhetoric of reaction.

I'm a Facebook member, albeit a lurker, and I have to say how impressed I am by some of my former students who have added me as a friend. They seem to have already internalized the good advice at Cornell's Thoughts on Facebook advice page for undergraduates. When I write letters of recommendation for them, I can sketch out a more detailed picture of volunteer activities and membership in campus cultural groups. I've heard about faculty snooping for dirt on their students, such as evidence of drunken parties or on-campus drug use from The Wired Campus of the Chronicle for Higher Education, but wouldn't it be better to spend our time figuring out how to derail some of this bad legislation being debated in the House and Senate?

As a former employee of the LA Department of Children's Services and California Youth Authority and as a parent myself, I'm certainly not a cheerleader for kiddie porn. But I can tell you from my own experience in the field, in which I was once certified, the vast majority of sexual abuse of children is committed by members of the victim's family in the context of face-to-face interactions. Like terrorists, pedophiles are being used as monsters for rhetorical purposes to muzzle debate about Internet policy.

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Thursday, July 13, 2006

Do You Copy That?

Yesterday Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out that the "scandal" about Ann Coulter's alleged plagiarism might have been vastly overblown. Of course, my UCI colleague Jon Wiener is probably right that right-wingers tend to be more likely to get a free pass on authorial infractions of the code of originality than left-wingers, but like Siva I'm still not gleefully legitimating the Coulter story.

Part of my reserve has to do with seeing the name John Barrie associated with outing the conservative pundit from the story's first appearance in the New York Post. Barrie is a notorious media hound who loves to see his name in the press, so he can promote his commercially licensed plagiarism-detection software, Turnitin.com. I've used his product in our university writing program for the last eight years, but I have developed deep reservations about the company that produces it.

For advocates of digital rights and access to intellectual property, the parent company of Turnitin.com, iParadigms, has both a troubling past and a troubling future. Although founder John Barrie claims that U.C. Berkeley did not purchase a campus license for Turnitin.com because the university was embarrassed after he pointed out that “cheating was rampant” and thus “the university was dragged through the mud,” he doesn't mention the fact that the campus also has a legitimate gripe with Barrie, because the school might claim that the software was developed by campus personnel using campus resources. Thus Barrie might seem to have capitalized on an investment of public resources by attempting to sell his software back to his former employer. Particularly when open source and freeware alternatives could be developed (and are being developed at the University of California at Santa Barbara in the PAIRwise project without any media fanfare), the advancing hegemony of Turnitin.com in the market is disappointing.

Furthermore, recent news from iParadigms about a collaborative project with LexisNexis to “protect intellectual property” with a product “designed to benefit the media and business community” does not give one much confidence in the lip service Barrie's company pays to academic ideals, particularly when the ethical obligations of a research university are to provide for the public good not corporate benefit. Although far from “total information awareness,” with programs like CopyGuard vying for attention and investment, the potential for surveillance by copyright holders risks hampering the dissemination of information within and between academic communities and, of course, among citizens participating in legitimate cultural practices that foster creativity and commerce.

Bottom line: this is a self-interested media stunt, and political progressives should refuse to participate in it.

For more about the rhetoric surrounding the Turnitin.com program, including some choice words about the wishful thinking of technophobes, see my paper on "Honor Coding" from the Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism Conference. (Siva was there too!) You can skip the first page, which is a little dry, and get right to the true stories on page two.

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Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Of Mice and Men

The mascots on a number of the "kids" websites for the federal government have been updated in the past year, despite the fact that most children who go to official pages are seeking information for assigned school reports not fun and game with cartoon characters. Here's a rundown on the new faces in the Beltway that are being offered in lieu of more useful information literacy pages.

1) You can check out the mountain lion family from the kids' page at Ready.gov, who can help you prepare for all your Homeland Security needs.

Rex the dad is an explorer who loves taking his family on adventures. Purrcilla is the energetic and wise mom. And Rory is the strong-willed daughter who loves helping her parents plan for the family's many adventures.

Well, I'm from Southern California, and I like to hike in the local mountains, so when I think safety and security for my tasty young children, I don't think "mountain lion."

To have a government website assure me that something that is -- in fact -- dangerous isn't is a somewhat disquieting experience, particularly when the agency has been responsible for raising the fear level in response to paper tigers in the past. For example, we're told by the website that mountain lions aren't like lions, because they "don't roar ... they purr, just like house cats!" Now I've seen a mountain lion at a wildlife refuge; it looks a lot more like a lion than a house cat or even a bobcat for that matter. Not surprisingly, it seems that the State of California Department of Fish and Game disagrees and characterizes them as wild animals.

Ready.gov designer Betsy Baytos is a Disney veteran, who also crafted the corporate image for the Coca Cola polar bears. I'll admit that I'm impressed that they managed to come up with something even worse than their now defunct madlibs page for a terrorist attack.

2) The CIA's website for children includes many howlers, including a paper doll disguises section. Harry and Aerial, the adorable spy pigeons, are lower down on the page, now that tots can enjoy a newer mascot in Ginger's CIA Adventure, which features a blue bear with a wistful expression. (I hate to give away the plot line, but the climax is Ginger's visit to the paper shredder.)


3) The National Security Administration's CryptoKids are old hands at entertaining the youngsters by now. Their crew includes a whole cast of characters from Aesop's fables: an eagle, a turtle, a cat, a rabbit . . . you name it. I like the fact that one character declares, "When a secret needs to be kept, you have to find a way to protect it!" while another says, "Carpe Diem!" I suppose that's typical of the mixed messages from the intelligence community. Notice also that a number of the characters now are ostentatiously trademarked. I don't know how that jibes with their claim that they present "public information" that can be "distributed or copied."

4) Robots seem to be a popular choice for representing government agencies, which is perhaps an unfortunate pick, since that would suggest to children that civic institutions are -- well -- robotic. The Centers for Disease Control has "KQ, the Techno-Health Wizard," the National Reconnaissance Organization Jr. Page features Corey Corona, the lovable spy satellite, and NASA has an entire turning-the-pages robot storybook.




At least the 9-11 commission web pages don't have a kids' mascot, and now that their work has been halted, and their website is frozen in time at the National Archive, we won't be seeing one any time soon.

Personally, I'd like to design a lovable character for my favorite federal office, the Government Printing Office? Any suggestions?

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Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Double Agent

I'm pleased to announce that I'll be cross-posting material over at Sivacracy, an excellent collaborative blog devoted to Critical Information Studies that aims to connect academic opinion about intellectual property and distributed networks to real world issues in popular and political culture. Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan and Ann Bartow for already welcoming me to this new second home for Virtualpolitik in cyberspace.

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Bytes, Bits, and Body Bags

Unfortunately, sometimes the only way that the troops have been coming home to their loved ones is via the Internet. A few weeks ago, when I searched for the world "webcam" on the Los Angeles Times website, I was stunned to see that all of the results had to do with military personnel who were stationed abroad. Sometimes there is a certain pathos to these stories, such as "Soldier Who Set Up Webcam Dies." The New York Times has recently reported on this trend in "An Internet Lifeline for Troops in Iraq and Loved Ones." So remember to put a webcam in that care package, along with the chocolate and the cigarettes.

The debate on high speed computing is scheduled for next week, and Senator Ted Stevens assures us that only greedy, selfish users who slow down the Internet (which is composed of a series of tubes) would want live, streaming video. These soldiers are fighting and often dying on behalf of a government that has allowed telecommunication lobbyists to redefine the meaning of "broadband" to a snail's page while also taking tens if not hundreds of billions of dollars in tax subsidies to build a promised infrastructure that has never been delivered. See this screed from New Networks for the details.

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Monday, July 10, 2006

The Bonk Seen Round the World

Soccer has been a forum for global politics for a long time, and the World Cup provides a stage in which digital evidence enters the game. The much-forwarded clip of Zinédine Zidane head-butting an Italian opponent on YouTube has already generated remixes critical of the French star player or mocking the exchange. According to Zidane's teammates, the catalyst for the incident may have been a racial slur. Many thought that the multicultural team's excellent performance had put ugly ethnic politics behind them. At least anti-immigrant National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen was widely criticized for commenting that the team wasn't "French" enough. Le Pen should have known better, in a country where you could get humorous pre-recorded phone messages about the progress of the French team for your answering machine.

Of course, the bizarre, vindictive move by the usually classy son of Algerian immigrants wouldn't have been seen at all if it weren't for the refs bending the official rules about using instant replay footage. Zidane's own slickly produced webpage carries the final score of the game but no public apology or explanation of the red card incident as yet. If you are a Francophile, you can watch a long highlights real of Materazzi fouling people on YouTube.

Many of us who were frustrated by obstacles to seeing live streaming video of the game via the Internet -- a seeming n0-brainer as a desirable commodity -- had to give in and find venues for large-screen television coverage. I watched at both my local Goethe-Institut and an empanada joint in the Valley. FIFA's website, with the exception of the bizarre "Fan of the Match" page didn't merit many repeat visits. It was dominated by corporate sponsors and the "interactive" content wasn't very engaging. As the New York Times declared today, "Old Media, Not New, is World Cup Winner."

Update: Water Cooler Games has some great material about Zidane news games including this one from an Italian newspaper. This site also made me laugh, even though I, of course, was rooting for the French.

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Sunday, July 09, 2006

Vanitas

With his death, the Kenneth Lay page has now changed genres. It is no longer the web page of an allegedly wronged person, like the long-running page for Mumia Abu-Jamal. It is now an in memorium page, with a photograph of the deceased at the center and a eulogy for his life as a captain of industry.

His vanity site showcases the best possible side of the former Enron executive and refers to him by his honorific as "Dr. Kenneth Lay." We are told that Lay's life exemplified Galatians, specifically the section in the Epistles about "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control" that shows the true energy trading management style. My favorite part: when his family encourages donations to the "church or synagogue" of the individual person's choice. My second favorite part: when the bereaved survivors point out that Lay is going before the "one true Judge" (capital J) . . . unlike the insignificant judge who found him guilty of a stock swindle.

For those who still want to see litigious arguments on behalf of a criminal defendent, you can check out the Help Baby Riley page for the mother who set off an Amber Alert by sneaking her ailing baby out in a diaper bag rather than subject the child to transplant surgery.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Self-Publishing


This week BoingBoing lampooned the vanity site of the Sheikh of Dubai in connection with their coverage of his decision to release a music producer on drug possession charges. The mega-blog also noted his government's use of filtering software that bans BoingBoing from the country's cyberspace. Having visited the websites of heads of states around the world, the Sheikh's web presence doesn't look as megalomaniacal as some I have seen. Besides, the "Virtual Tour" of Dubai and the Flash movie ". . . in the race for excellence" represent some pretty spiffy web design.

Some may be tempted to make fun of the sheikh's generous selection of his poetry, many with sappy titles like "Jilted," but in the great scheme of things why should playing the bard exclude someone from positions of political responsibility? Can't poets be legislators too? Despite the fact that every cinematic representation since Apocalypse Now! has made it seem like evidence of mental instability for a leader of men to crank out lines of poetry, it is still an important part of human culture in many parts of the world. Even Donald Rumsfeld writes poetry, albeit unintentionally, and he still is part of the U.S. Cabinet. And we do have a Poet Laureate, who has an official site at the Library of Congress (which is really more about his correct Library of Congress Subject Headings than his work).

After all, the President of India has put a substantial amount of his own verse online on his official website. And it's not like the Dubai poetry is a required part of the national curriculum, as President Niyazov's political epic, the Ruhnahma is in Turkmenistan. In other political poetry news, check out this BBC report on Pakistan's decision to delete a pro-Bush poem called "The Leader" from its textbooks that actual spells out the U.S. Chief Executive's name in the first letter of each line.

When it comes to other fare from the Middle East, I like the instructions for using the website of King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, mostly because I just like the soothing voice of the narrator, which sounds like it should be hawking tea or fundraising for public television.

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Friday, July 07, 2006

The Horses of Elberfeld

Yesterday, I was making a relatively obscure point about "The Horses of Elberfeld," when a student pointed out the existence of the Subservient President website, which was modeled on Burger King's engrossingly interactive and much forwarded Subservient Chicken page.

Unfortunately Subservient President turned out to be a relatively unsatisfying experience, especially when compared to the endless hijinks of the corporate fast-food fowl who can be made to do just about anything, except for the things that make the man in the chicken suit wag his finger at the screen indicating that the user should be ashamed of himself or herself for even suggesting such a command. Subservient Chicken was developed by the ad firm Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which is known also for their hip, youth-oriented social marketing campaigns in favor of AIDS testing and against teen smoking.

In contrast to our reactive feathered friend, Subservient President often looks confused when asked to do something that the chicken would have easily mastered, such as doing push-ups or jumping jacks on the small screen. Luckily, knowing some of the keywords (particularly those related to Weapons of Mass Destruction or drunk-driving) made it a slightly less frustrating user experience, but the disconnect between keyboard and screen was still relatively marked. A little online research revealed that this Chief Executive in a rubber mask who promises to deliver "politics just the way corporate America wants it" was created by Steve Anderson of USC, who is also Associate Editor of the innovative online journal Vectors.

And what does this have to do with the Horses of Elberfeld? I had been invited to team-teach for the day with my friend, colleague, and fellow intellectual property activist Jenny Cool in her Social Analysis of Computing class. I was explaining a footnote in the introduction to Claude Shannon's Information Theory classic A Mathematical Theory of Communication, which was written by one of Shannon's collaborator's Warren Weaver. Weaver quotes K.S. Lashley as follows:

When Pfungst (1911) demonstrated that the horses of Elberfeld, who were showing marvelous linguistic and mathematical ability, were merely reacting to movements of the trainer's head, Mr. Krall (1911), their owner, met the criticism in the most direct manner. He asked the horses whether they could see such small movements and in answer they spelled an emphatic 'No.' Unfortunately we cannot all be so sure that our questions are understood or obtain such clear answers.


I managed to find what appears to be a photograph of one of the Horses of Elberfeld. It's interesting that so many of the early Information Theory pioneers, many of whom were also doing work on Artificial Intelligence, were so worried about situations of fake interactivity in which communication only appears to take place. Several decades later when the computer program Eliza was brought to life, a precursor of Subservient Chicken that mimicked interactions with a Rogerian therapist, her creator Joseph Weizenbaum wanted to ask hard questions about the social significance of accepting this kind of interaction as a norm.

I would argue that this substitution of "interactivity" for communication or participation can also have political consequences. Users expressed frustration with the level of interactivity that Subservient President provided, but how interactive is the White House website really, even if there is an "interactive" heading on its navigation bar? There may be 360-degree virtual tours or exhibits in which you can turn the pages, but how well does this serve the interests of the electorate? I would argue that this even extends to the formulaic use of the Internet conventions of "chat" at Ask the White House, in which my question is never picked -- although not for lack of trying.

This week a computerized voice, programmed by my insurance company, asked me a lot of prying, personal yes-no questions and nagged me interactively about getting a mammogram. Fair enough, there were perhaps anomalies that would cause me to be picked out of a database, but why delegate the responsibility to a machine? I now regularly get pre-recorded calls from candidates for office. Based on my political anomalies, like the fact that I walk precincts, how long before I'm picked out of a database for an "interactive" call?

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Thursday, July 06, 2006

Founding Mothers and Fathers

This July 4th Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales broke with the online encyclopedia's longstanding N.P.O.V. (no point of view) policy to announce in an "open letter to the blogosphere" the founding of campaigns wikia as an open-source alternative to election information provided by the mainstream media. Wikipedia is also in the news this week, because Voice of the Shuttle guru Alan Liu has posted a statement on "developing a wikipedia research policy" to aid students in properly acknowledging, citing, and contextualizing online sources.

There was more foundational rhetoric coming from across the Atlantic in France as the Pirate Party raised its skull-and-crossbones over the land of Liberté, Egalité, et Fraternité. It joins Pirate political organizations in Belgium, Sweden, England, and the U.S. Unlike the Green Party, founded on principles of self-sacrificing environmentalism, the Pirate Party may appeal to more unaffiliated voters in the electorate with its pro-creativity, anti-copyright message.

Speaking of piracy, there is a good parody of the piracy trailer on DVD's. (I, of course, love the fact that the MPAA chose the same cheesy typeface that we did for our custom-published "Laws and Orders" Humanities Core Course reader and writing handbook.) You can check out the prankster's site for more information about contests they are holding to encourage more subversive digital submissions. According to the Seattle Times, a study from the online research group Big Champagne indicates that file-sharing is bigger than ever, so aye matey it won't be long before we're all talking like pirates.

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Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Asleep at the Switch


Perhaps I spoke too soon when I claimed that legislators were keenly aware of how distributed networks operate (and thus likely to react defensively) in my analysis of recent House Intelligence Committee hearings about the use of the Internet by terrorists. Or at least it seems that lawmakers with six-year terms may be more in need of a cognitive upgrade than those with two-year terms.

In particular, Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, who has come out against Net Neutrality initiatives, made some astonishing comments last week about how the Internet functioned as "a series of tubes."

They want to deliver vast amounts of information over the internet. And again, the internet is not something you just dump something on. It's not a truck.

It's a series of tubes.

And if you don't understand those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and its going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material.

Significantly, Stevens credits development of the infrastructure of the Internet to private corporations not to government planners, so he clearly doesn't see it as a public good. You can read the senator's astonishingly naïve and yet convoluted comments or listen to a jaw-dropping sound file (on which you can periodically hear a startled woman breaking decorum and saying "Oh my god" in the background). Stevens even talks about how his staff "sent an internet" instead of "an e-mail." He also characterizes those who might want to watch streaming video on the Internet as not like "you and me," since they are "providers" not "consumers." Of course these remarks have been widely ridiculed in the blogosphere. For example, see the above recent t-shirt design.


The Senator's personal website doesn't contain such obvious gaffes, although it is a relatively conventional and static rhetorical statement. Nonetheless, you can see the Senator's wife, who is credited as the source of his capacious knowledge of the Internet in his comments, appearing as a blonde bombshell at his side.

Unfortunately, the web page of the Senate Commerce Committee, which Stevens chairs, indicates that the group is scheduled to handle several important policy issues, including hearings on high-speed computing.

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Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Your Tax Dollars at Work

This Independence Day, just when I thought that I couldn't get any more annoyed at the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, I discover that they've gone one better, by holding a series of hearings on MySpace.

At the first hearing on June 27, Dave Baker, Vice President for Law and Public Policy for my own home Internet Service Provider, pointed out in his testimony that filtering software could now constrain children's productive as well as receptive capacities automatically. Yipes! Do we really want to imitate the practices of authoritarian regimes in our own homes? Baker also pointed out the importance of the Interent for homework, supplementary educational experiences, and general intellectual challenge that responds to and develops curiosity.

I thought that the guy from AOL should be answering questions about the recording that captured an actual AOL customer attempting to cancel his service with a call center perso rather than heroically narrating AOL's role in fighting the "scourge" or "plague" for which the hearings had been convened. It may be digital ephemera, but that's what the American people care about. The exasperated caller recorded the labyrinthine phone call and posted it on his blog, "Insignificant Thoughts." Then the audio file, much like a recent video clip of a Comcast cable repairman sleeping when he had been put on hold by the parent company, became an Internet sensation. The story of the AOL caller's twenty-one minute Odyssey of irritation was picked up by NBC News and the New York Times. Now that large companies that market creative digital tools to users must react to having these same tools turned against them when customer service is poor. So far companies like AOL and Comcast have been apologetic.

The second day of the hearings on June 28 was devoted to content providers rather than ISP's. It featured testimony from representatives of a number of social networking sites. Even Michael Angus, the spokesman from the reprehensible information conglomerate Fox, which has acquired MySpace, made legitimate points for the value of Internet freedom of speech.

MySpace has nearly 18,000 groups dedicated to Government and Politics, more than 11,000 groups devoted to Non-Profit and Philanthropic activities, and 67,000 groups focused on Religion and Beliefs.

In the Chairman’s and Congressman Burgess’ home state of Texas, a doctor created Operation Helmet which is sending equipment upgrade kits to troops in Iraq and Afghanistan to provide additional protection to our troops on the front lines. Operation Helmet is spreading the word and raising money through their more than one thousand friends on MySpace, and has even received praise from Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

In Congressman Pickering’s home state of Mississippi, MySpace members were instrumental in lining up temporary guest housing for evacuees after Hurricane Katrina, and we are currently donating promotional support to a 501(c)3 that is rebuilding a Boys’ and Girls’ Club in Gulfport.

In Congressman Waxman’s home state of California, the Surfrider Foundation is using MySpace to build a network of friends committed to keeping our oceans and beaches clean and safe.

Even candidates for Congress are using MySpace to educate voters about the issues, register constituents to vote, and ensure they have a way to get to the polls on Election Day.

You would think that this congressional committee on energy and commerce would concern itself with global warming or high gas prices or some obviously critical issue. But a "child-safe" Internet seems to be their number one priority. Happy July 4th.

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Monday, July 03, 2006

Ghosts in the Machine


While we're on the subject of peace, it is worth mentioning how digital evidence circulates to demonstrate both its surveiling and its whistle-blowing properties. Recently the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace provided video of the Uzbek Andijan Uprising to the New York Times, which described the images as a "haunting, complex view." This footage, which had been seized by the police from at least two different cameramen, was also used by the authorities to identify participants in the popular uprising. State law enforcement added subtitles and pointed out that some of the speakers, who had been released from custody by the crowds, were actually drug dealers rather than political prisoners.

The official website of the Republic of Uzbekistan, which you can click the above image to read, may have one of worst-translated English pages in all of Eurasia for the "Portal of the State of Authority." Yet the site boasts of its alliance with America on the counter-terrorism front:

Only after tragic events in USA on 11 of September 2001, more exactly – on 28 of September 2001 by the resolution #1373 (2001) UN Security Council created Committee on the fight against terrorism (CFT), vested with the wide power in the scope of prosecutions of financing international terrorism. Concept of the ICFT is reflected by this committee’s activities.

The President's "I"-statements are pretty amazing, which include an explanation of his election by "alternative" means. If you dig their web work, you can "add to favorite" or make it your home page by clicking choices on the upper right hand corner. And while you are bookmarking, check out the websites of other repressive and corrupt former Soviet republics for more web-surfing from a Virtualpolitik perspective.

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Sunday, July 02, 2006

What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding


Okay, I have to say something about yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times about state agencies monitoring anti-war protestors ("State Tracked Protesters in the Name of Security"), even though it's an F2F not a digital rhetoric story. But since Code Pink may well be on their list of subversive peace groups, I figured I'd post my own incriminating photo that was taken on the way to one of their marches. As far as assembly in a public place goes, at least law enforcement didn't post photos of the demonstrators on the World Wide Web with cash bonuses for those who ID'ed participants, unlike the University of Colorado Police Department did with pro-marijuana activists.

Luckily there is still plenty of digital entertainment marketed to peaceniks to be found, so they may not be such a niche group. For example, one can tune in to a flash cartoon about The End of the World for a cautionary tale about fun with nuclear weapons.

And there's more heart-warming fun to be found at the Eagle Cam, which shows webcasts from Maine of a nest of adorable, tiny, bald eagles. According to the LA Times, tens of thousands are tuning in.

Rockstar games, the maker of Grand Theft Auto, have even come out with what looks like an awesome table tennis game to keep the people who prefer two fingers to one happy.

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

He Says, She Says

Yesterday's Wired Campus of the Chronicle of Higher Education contained a story about a study about gender differences regarding web use. What is interesting about the study is that it, like many studies about gender difference, shows that the difference is primarily in self-description or narration rather than actual digital practice.

"Not a single woman among all our female study subjects called herself an 'expert' user, while not a single male ranked himself as a complete novice or 'not at all skilled,'" noted Hargittai, a sociologist by training whose research at Northwestern focuses on the social and policy implications of information technology and the ways in which technology can contribute to or alleviate social inequalities.

As someone who knows plenty of "girl geeks," I was doubtful about the validity of these results, but then the article explained the second component of the study.

In 2001 and 2002, Hargittai observed in person and screen-captured in audio and visual files 100 randomly chosen subjects from New Jersey’s Mercer County as they engaged in a variety of assigned online tasks. The tasks included finding career or job information, accessing examples of children's art, locating tax forms, finding a car for purchase and listening to music online.

Of the 100 subjects aged 18 to 81 and with differing Internet experience and representing diverse occupations (real estate agents, service workers, medical professionals, office workers, students, retired individuals, teachers, unemployed people, policy analysts and blue collar workers), 49 subjects were male and 51 were female. Some reported using the Internet only a few minutes a week; others said they spent several hours online every day.

Overall, the success rate for completing the tasks was 84 percent. Most (94.3 percent) were able to find a museum site. Fewer than 3 out of 5, however, mastered what was found to be the most difficult of the tasks -- locating a Web site comparing the abortion positions of different candidates in the 2000 presidential election. Although users were given as much time as they needed to successfully complete each assigned task, no single task was successfully completed by all of the 100 study subjects.

In this part of the study, women displayed "essentially equivalent skillls."

Controlling for age, education and family income, and using in-person observation as well as traditional survey measures of skill, the researchers found that gender was NOT a significant predictor of efficient and effective online ability. Level of education, age and Internet experience, on the other hand, were meaningful predictors.

So why the difference in self-reporting? Apparently, the classic "he says, she says" problem is to blame. For example, my colleague Jenny Cool notes that men and women tend to tell their life stories very differently when asked about their career choices. Women tend to emphasize the role of chance and circumstance in choosing their careers and make finding their present job sound circuitous, while men tend to organize their stories around claims that they always wanted their chosen careers and that their lives were remarkably direct and efficient at reaching that goal. The irony? When you compare the actual narratives, men's lives were just as dictated by accident and outside forces as women's.

Furthermore, keep in mind that many of the first "computers" were women, when it was a job title rather than a piece of equipment. (See Nurturing the Network: Women and the Communications Industry for more historical fun facts.)

You can trace the Internet gender difference team's work back to a paper on "From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use: A Literature Review and Agenda for Research on Digital Inequality" (from an interesting Princeton working papers series on cultural policy).

One of the researchers, Eszter Hargittai, maintains a number of interesting indie websites outside of her academic page from the university: her personal home page, her blog (which has some good DIY stuff and links to freeware), and even a list of "how-to's" for novice academics. For example, it is interesting to read about how she reflects upon the media's twist and spin on her study. She is a genuine girl geek, by the way, because she knows her Erdös Number, which I don't.

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