Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Blabtops

Yesterday's article in the Los Angeles Times, "Germany seeks expansion of computer spying," explains how the country's authorities are planning to plant code in the hard drives of suspected terrorists that would scan photographs and documents, record keystrokes, and even potentially turn on webcams and microphones without the subjects' knowledge. Much of the ire of digital rights advocates has focused on Wolfgang Schaüble, the Minister of the Interior, who like U.S. authorities associated with the Bush administration has focused on terrorist use of the Internet in official statements and reports. According to the article, in the government's discourse, AK-47s are compared to laptops by German officials, ironically at a time when those like Siva Vaidhyanathan are already afraid to have their machines marked with stickers that say "this machine kills fascists" when passing through airport security.

In response to this tightening of civil liberties, protesters are hitting the streets of Berlin and buying up t-shirts with Schaüble's picture that say Stasi 2.0, in reference to the Communist era secret police that suppressed political resistance by curtailing free speech. Indeed, Lisa Nakamura has said that the dark side of Web 2.0 ideology is what she calls a "culture of profiling," so the t-shirt might fit here as well.

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Best Birthday Gift Ever

As a proud parent, I have to point out that my eleven-year-old programmed an online game in honor of my birthday. You play as a character in a long, red scarf, who looks suspiciously like yours truly at an academic conference in a European capital to the far north. To win the game you must dodge pumpkins flying from the air, although you are busy reading while taking evasive action. If you don't intercede with these projectiles quickly enough the splattered pumpkins get all over your papers.

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Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Swan Song



Today is actually my birthday. In lieu of the traditional singing of "Happy Birthday to You," which is still unreasonably protected by copyright claims -- despite being composed over a century ago -- I offer the little ditty from the YouTube video above.

I may be one year older, but at least I still recognize almost all of these Internet memes . . .

Via Ann Bartow of Sivacracy.

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Monday, October 29, 2007

Naught's Had, All's Spent, Where Our Desire is Got Without Content

Regular readers of this blog know that I am obsessed with the genre of the public apology on the Internet, so before the month is gone I have to say something about Edward Castronova's fascinating open admission of failure in "Arden Slows Down" at the Terra Nova blog.

The official website doesn't yet indicate this month's tumult about the virtual environment's stunted development or the fact that, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the MacArthur Foundation has refused to provide additional funds to Castronova's persistent synthetic world, which is intended to bring Shakespeare's works to life by using videogame technology and the paradigm of the massively multi-player online role-playing game.

In the absence of any explicit acknowledgment of a setback to the Indiana University project, the website of Arden does appear to have much of the apparatus of an online fan site for any game: an FAQ, community forum, etc. But whether or not this flattened out narrative, set against historically scrambled backdrops for the War of the Roses, would have really foster emergent behaviors was yet to be seen.

I'm a big fan of Shakespeare, teach it, read it at the dinner table, drag my kids to perfomances a few times a year, recite it in the car, and just this week saw Ian McLellan's private parts from ten feet away during the storm scene in King Lear, but I'm not sure that videogames are the right idiom for the Bard's masterpieces, even speaking as a booster for embodied digital experiences. Knowing these texts, I'd favor something more like "Grand Theft Shakespeare," where the objective of the game is to steal from as many different sources as possible, while still creating a remix that produces a coherent aesthetic experience for the audience. Besides, as I've said snarkily before, I think The Aeneid would make a much better MMO.

That said, putting on my rhetorician's hat and taking off the one I wear as a literary critic, I'd give top marks to Castronova for making the initial difficult public statement that hasn't invited ridicule or castigation in the blogosphere. Maybe I wouldn't have used clichés like "lessons learned" or "bumpy roads," but I do think his willingness to credit the labor of his beta testers and acknowledge uncertainty in the project's future does show the proper decorum, given the occasion of loss associated with the death of a funded grant.

Most revealing, of course, is the part where one reads further down into the comments section on the blog posting and finds Castronova admitting more candidly to institutional dramas befitting the Jacobean period.

You're all correct in guessing that there's more to the story. I made some awful mistakes as a manager, which I don't hesitate to admit because, well, I am not a manager. And the project wasn't funded at a level where hiring a manager was feasible. As manager, I did a lot of stupid things.

@Timothy: Volunteers! That was my starting philosophy. But my experience has been that each additional volunteer (n) detracts n*n from the project's quality. Because you're not paying them, you have to give the volunteers leeway. Their leeway in terms of content eats into your vision. Their leeway in terms of time slows you down. Basically, you need full-time employees (or slaves). Students have talent and enthusiasm but you can't get five of them in a room at the same time. And once you start paying tuition for them, they cost $60K FTE (10K stipend + insurance + $20K tuition for 20 hours of work). In future work I will subscribe to the Lee Sheldon Fascistic Theory of Managing Creative Projects, which, if I my improvise, is to tell your volunteers and employees to be slaves or be gone.

@David: You guessed it. Rather than be a manager, I'm going to be an author. I'm coding it myself this time, implementing a personal and idiosyncratic vision, using no more resources than my time and my desktop. I hope to have something worth playing eventually.

@Tripp: the object is and remains to do experiments. Emphasizing Shakespeare was a mistake. The burdens of a license! Everyone thought it was World of Hamlet and the point was to teach high school kids 2B|~2B. But teaching Shakespeare has always been an ancillary benefit, not the point. I thought it would be cute. But putting Shakespeare in the game, I found, took away resources from fun. Lore, by itself, did not make a fun game. Shakespeare also loaded us up with an entire community of expectations, people who dig the idea of a digital Shakespeare. To those people, I want to say YES, I dig the idea too, but please come up with the $50m it will take to build that world before asking me (AGAIN) when Arden is going to be done. I had $240K and was thrilled to have it. But that's 1/200th of the money you'd need to do what some of the folks out there had dreamed up. Their dreams became pressure on us, and made me wonder why I didn't say I was making Arden: World of Actuaries.

Also, we are working on our website. January.

@Robert (and others): Thanks for the words of support and respect. They are mutual.

But don't get the wrong idea. I am not quitting this. Not because I am pugnacious, not because I owe MacArthur results (though I sure do, and I am very mindful of that) but because I just love coding in NWN Script. LOTRO is my main game right now, but when I sit down at the computer after my kids go to sleep, I just feel more like coding. I love D&D and I love being a game author. It's the most fun I've had intellectually in years. I've made this announcement mostly to get monkeys off my back - I got sick of dealing with the multiple layers of wild expectations that I had stupidly encouraged (another dumb management move.) MacArthur supported me for a year so that I could get the damn thing going. Now, it's going. Thank you John D. and Catherine T., I will never forget you. But now it's time for me to apply my own effort to make a world that people would want to play. When I get them playing, I will do my super-secret experiments, and then write the paper I owe MacArthur. And the world I make will live on, a little society lab, and I will keep fiddling and experimenting with it.


It's easier to say nothing, of course, but as a result nothing gets added to the knowledge base about institutional authority and digital media development.

I'm fascinated with cryptohistories and the story of the game (or digital library or distance learning initiative or website) that wasn't built, so I'm sorry to see that there wasn't even more discussion after this stunning series of revelations from Castronova in the comments section. Instead, readers largely commented on the big budget/small budget questions of game development -- which are standard panel talk topics at game studies conferences -- rather than address the real role-playing games of Arden that implicated decisions made at the level of the chain-of-command and the treatment of bit players.

I think that this could prove to be a significant turning point in the educational videogame development movement. Often these games fail both as educationally rich pedagogical experiences and as genuinely fun games, so this opportunity for reflection that Castronova is inviting may be particularly timely for a lot of players.

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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Organ Droner



On the mailing list for the Institute for Distributed Creativity, there has been some interesting debate about the One Laptop per Child Initiative to provide computers to children in the developing world.

As a rhetorician, what I find fascinating to see is the split between those who focus only on technological solutions to the problem faced by the program in winning converts, typified by reader responses to this post here, and those who look at how cultural, social, political, legal, and economic factors come into play when a technology is resisted by its target audience.

I wonder how much of my own attitude about the difficulty of adopting technology has to do with my own personal experiences and those of my family members over several generations. This isn't to say that bad technology alone can't sink a product, since -- whether it might be the Edsel or the Zune -- consumers still have some choices if the market is adequately crowded and diverse. But I do think it's relatively uncontroversial to say that focusing only on making the technology better while denigrating human factors as obstacles isn't a way to get any new product adopted.

Maybe I learned this skepticism about techno-futurism the hard way from my own participation in an ambitious collaborative initiative for teaching with technology. Or maybe it was seeing my father try to interest corporate clients in the products being developed at Xerox PARC during the seventies and eighties, at a time when companies didn't think they needed the instantaneous communication of printer-plotters in the days before the widespread adoption of fax technology. Or perhaps it was hearing stories growing up about my grandfather, who built the world's largest pipe organ in Atlantic City. Because of political factors and social changes in the media landscape, this giant instrument, which would have been an amazing technological feat in its day, only left a legacy of bankruptcy, discredit, and disrepair behind. (And -- no -- even though the video above is called "The Senator's Masterpiece," my grandfather was not a United States Senator.")

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Come Out Come Out Wherever You Are

As I noted during June, YouTube has become an important venue for celebrating Gay Pride month, particularly in response to this video by William Sledd, which has since received over a million views, generated tens of thousands of comments, and inspired hundreds of response videos in return, many of which show young people frankly coming out as gays and lesbians.



This month the YouTube political calendar was marked by National Coming Out Day with a series of videos from the channel for the Human Rights Campaign. In the obviously professionally video above, you can see many YouTube conventions being observed, including the obligatory from-below camera angles and the use of seemingly quick and dirty cutting in service of the schtick. What makes this video from Mary C. Matthews particularly noteworthy is that this talking head also includes her YouTube video debate question to the Democratic presidential candidates about gay marriage in her remix.

In addition to capitalizing in interest in user-generated content by doing video blog-style shows about dating nightmares in New York and American Idol contestants, Matthews also makes Video Pancakes, which recently featured the adventures of a hapless staffer posing as a volunteer offering his services to political campaigns of either party, although get-out-the-vote efforts apparently don't pick up the telephone on the weekend.

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Family Feud


Today's New York Times reports that "Kazakh Web Sites Blocked in Leader's Family Feud" and explains how soon to be President-for-Life Nursultan A. Nazarbayev is taking on his former son-in-law, Rakhat Aliyev, who has been described as a crime lord by Kazakhstan-watchers after he was implicated in the kidnappings of several bank executives in this "oiligarchical" nation-state. Now that Aliyev is trying to recast his reputation into that of a freedom fighter, he claims that government censors blocked access to Inkar Info, which had chat rooms in which the president's rivals posted transcripts of damning phone calls involving Kazakh officials. The country's main Internet provider, KazakhTelecom apparently didn't return calls from the Times' reporter. They may not be willing to publicly comment, but the groovy trance music on their home page certainly makes a public statement.

According to the article, the country has been receiving a lot of outside public relations help, so I decided to poke around their official Internet offerings, which I hadn't done since they had formally protested how their nation was portrayed in the movie Borat. President Nazarbayev's official site (see above) isn't as obviously megalomaniacal as some I've seen in Central Asia, although its aggressive opening banner-waving banner and additional loud trance music doesn't speak well to good web design principles, and this sound file under the heading "The President and Music" did make me shake my head in wonderment. In contrast, the main government site was somewhat more subdued. The pitch to Western businesses was probably most obvious at the Kazinform National Information Agency.

Of course, as longtime Virtualpolitik readers know, when it comes to government websites, it is hard to top the former utter craziness of Turkmenistan, which had bizarre cult-of-personality sayings and manifestos to honor onetime head of state Saparmurat Atayevich Niyazov. (See here for highlights.) For webheads, it's sad to see how restrained Turkmenistan: The Golden Age has become since the death of their post-Soviet dictator, although at least this page still includes the following national oath.

TURKMENISTAN,
MY BELOVED MOTHERLAND,
MY BELOVED HOMELAND!
YOU ARE ALWAYS WITH ME
IN MY THOUGHTS AND IN MY HEART.
FOR THE SLIGHTEST EVIL AGAINST YOU
LET MY HAND BE LOST.
FOR THE SLIGHTEST SLANDER ABOUT YOU
LET MY TONGUE BE LOST.
AT THE MOMENT OF MY BETRAYAL
TO MY MOTHERLAND,
TO HER SACRED BANNER,
TO PREZIDENT OF TURKMENISTAN
LET MY BREATH STOP.

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Funny Farms

As the time approaches for approval of large-scale multi-year agricultural legislation, groups seeking reform in the farm subsidy program are using "big data" representations for rhetorical purposes. The Environmental Working Group has a Policy Analysis Database that allows people to see all the addresses of federal farm subsidy recipients by using Google Maps with dots indicating the relative size of the payments. I was surprised to see several addresses just a few blocks from me in urban Santa Monica, although they weren't of the $150,000 scale that others in the metropolitan LA area are receiving for investment properties apparently lying fallow in Kansas or Texas or rural Northern California. One of these recipients was a local supermarket magnate. The map also includes information about average home price and child poverty levels in the neighborhood, to make the point that the affluent may be benefiting as entrenched recipients of the program when federal dollars could be spent elsewhere. In my neighborhood there were "farmers" from Montana, Maryland, and Iowa, with annual subsidy incomes from about $150 to about $10,000.

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Friday, October 26, 2007

Slippery Slope

I found myself conflicted when fellow blogger Nedra Weinreich drew my attention to Suzy's Law, legislation that would make it a crime to use the Internet to disseminate information that enables or encourages people to take their own lives. Usually, I'm in concert with Nedra's attitudes about social policy and public rhetoric, and there's been a lot of friendly interchanges between our two blogs when she tags me and I tag her in return during the course of various Internet memes. But this is a case where I'm not sure that she's necessarily right.

On the one hand, I'm not happy to say that I know something about suicide first-hand and the violence that it does to the people left behind. Among academics, there are many rituals to deal with the death of a friend and colleague, but when that person takes his or her own life, those ways that scholars cope with loss don't function, and guilty silence and withdrawal becomes the norm. In one particularly horrific case that I still have nightmares about, one of the last times I spoke to a close friend who killed herself was to tell her about another person in our social circle who had also taken his own life.

But there are a lot of legislative priorities when it comes to the Internet that directly affect hundreds of millions of people: network neutrality, the need for public digital libraries, consumer advocacy for defective-by-design products and monopolistic corporations, and attention to revising the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. This equation of electronic distributed networks with criminality continues a destructive trend in Congress that takes attention away from critical issues involving public access to the Internet.

The fact that this kind of legislation often gets approved unanimously or near unanimously, as do many Internet-anxiety laws that are named after individuals not principles and pass without debate for what seems to be the easy political benefit of both sides of the aisle, should alone be cause enough for concern. Furthermore, if there are already laws against this admittedly reprehensible conduct, what purpose does "Suzy's Law" serve? What does the use of digital media have to do with death-wish ghouls who urge people to take their own lives, who may also taunt those on the brink through the telephone or face-to-face interchanges? Certainly, without any use of a computer, there are far more spouses and parents who have taken part in sick, self-serving arrangements to rid themselves of self-destructive family members.

The Internet has also connected many individuals with life-saving mental health help. Where in HR-940 is funding for more of these suicide-prevention resources?

There are a lot of seemingly unsavory Usenet groups, although alt.suicide.holiday, which Suzy Gonzales apparently consulted according to this article, may be one of the worst. But there are also a lot of legitimate "alt" groups about sexuality or even religious doubt for which already well-connected religiously fundamentalist interests in the heartland might harbor deep disapproval. Could this attention to tiny minorities who use the Internet for subversive purposes also open the door to more general "anti-alt" sentiments that might ban access to useful if countercultural information through cutting off public portals like libraries, as other legislation has similarly tried to do with social networking sites on the grounds of predator panic?

I'm no pro-euthanasia advocate, but a number of states have passed right-to-die laws through popular majorities. How does this law ignore the fact that there might be genuine debate about particular kinds of assisted suicide? As it is written, there is no exemption involving a person who is terminally ill already.

Whether it is a code for de-encrypting DVDs or information about how to pass a drug test, it's difficult to keep this kind of formulaic information from circulating on the Internet. I'm sure to get some hate mail on this posting, but I worry that we are passing legislation that directly affects fewer and fewer people while not considering seriously in principle the larger digital rights of our culture of democracy as a whole.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

Because There Can Never Be Too Many Facebook Parodies

Siva Vaidhyanathan points out that the People for the American Way have created a pretty funny Right Wing Facebook page to commemorate the Republican primary process.

I'm, of course, waiting for the inevitable parodies of the new Microsoft-Facebook deal.

It is also interesting to see how the Facebook metaphor gets applied to unrelated and very different applications merely because there is some user-generated content. For example, the Actics website has been described as the "ethical Facebook" for corporations, even though Actics doesn't have the same communicative or friend-networking functions that cause many college students to use the popular social networking site. The emotive nouns that consumers are allowed to rate, which supposedly represent the companies' stated values, range from "attentiveness" to "truthfulness." Right now many corporations appear to be using their "green" label and Actics' "environmentalism" category to get some free advertising from the site.

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Burning Curiosity

Many thanks to Facebook friend Bill Tomlinson for launching what appears to be a useful website to help California's fire victims according to a recent university press release. With about twenty students Tomlinson created CalFireHelp to connect those who need shelter because of evacuations to those who would be willing to provide it.

Those of us here know that the fires have made teaching at UC Irvine extremely unpleasant all week. My own digital rhetoric class has been disrupted when students are paged to come home to help families evacaute or when they are stuck in traffic and unable to make it to class at all because of closed roads.

Many of my students said that existing fire information websites were almost useless and that they had been depending on blogs to keep them updated about where structures were standing and where they were destroyed. I learned about this problem from the experiences of my friend and fellow blogger Jenny Cool, who wrote about trying to gauge the proximity of another fire to her family's cabin in the Northern California woods in a posting called "Stories, Pictures, Everywhere, but Information, Please?"

Over at Smart Mobs, Howard Rheingold also reports that the Red Cross is microblogging on the wild fires. As Raph Koster points out in Finally, A Use for Twitter, this is a case where constant updating makes sense.

Update: Vivian Folkenflik points out an interesting NPR story about how local radio stations knocked off the air were using their websites to disseminate information during the blaze. She also sent along this truly amazing news item about how FEMA held a press conference in which the federal disaster agency's spokesperson was actually asked questions by FEMA employees acting like friendly news reporters. The Virtualpolitik connection? In the NPR story media commentator David Folkenflik made the analogy between the FEMA simulation of a news conference and a "Q and A" page on a government website.

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Wednesday, October 24, 2007

House Call

Yesterday NPR did a story about Secretary of Health Mike Leavitt's Blog. In "Human Services Secretary Takes Blogging Seriously," Leavitt claims that reading and writing blog entries has changed his stand on some policy issues, although he was reluctant to specify which ones.

Leavitt obviously understands more about Internet communication than the creators of the truly terrible State Department blog. I like the fact that he doesn't moderate out well-reasoned and well-developed counterarguments and that he writes the posts himself and reflects on the activities of blogging. But I thought that there was certainly room for improvement in how he used this particular variant of the genre.

Given that the aim of his blogging is informational, I was surprised to see so few links to service-providers, sub-agencies, and primary sources. One particularly egregious instance of this failure to provide context through a link-back was Leavitt's posting that responded to a reader who was a critic of his anti-SCHIP legislative agenda without letting readers easily find the original source to judge for themselves.

He also doesn't use category tags in a very useful way or take advantage of the blogroll feature to show related discourses.

Obviously, mechanics aside, I found the heavy-handed emphasis on Reaganomics ideology hard to stomach for those who might not share Leavitt's values. For example, he closed his entry on a visit to the home of Microsoft giant Bill Gates, with pablum about the challenges of being wealthy for which the tens if not hundreds of millions who are uninsured or underinsured probably don't have much sympathy.

Life’s circumstance has provided the two of them with a remarkable opportunity and the heavy burden that accompanies it.

The stewardship of wealth is weighty. They carry it well.

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Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Online Ambassadors

Today's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Presidential Candidate May Click with the Lebanese," looked at the relationship between online social networking sites and electioneering in the Middle East. According to the article, "one of the main contenders for the Lebanese presidency, Nassib Lahoud, has brought his candidacy to Facebook. His online group, 'Nassib Lahoud for President,' has drawn 2,500 members."

The story argues that the "outgoing and chatty Lebanese" have been much more eager to embrace Facebook than other computer applications. Naturally, I automatically question the equation that the article makes between national character and the affordances of a particular technology, given both the idiosyncracies of the digital practices of individuals and the diversity and multiculturalism of the country at issue, Lebanon.

It made me think of a talk that I recently heard at AoIR on a similarly diverse population about which generalizations about their sociality in relationship to new technologies was also made. That isn't to say, however, that I thought that the paper of Jeremiah Spence wasn't making a valuable public policy argument, by looking at how the Brazilian government might be wrong in forbidding the use of the popular low-bandwidth social networking site Orkut at its rural satellite-enabled telecenters, even though he kept saying that "Brazilians are a very social people."

Although the Brazilian government is apparently not as influenced by predator panic as our own government, which keeps pushing variations of DOPA to forbid access to online social networks in schools and libraries, they still seem to be equally dogmatic about enforcing a moral value system on would-be virtual community members that discounts the "purely social" in favor of more obviously "productive" uses of time. Others in the audience said that they had lost contracts with the Brazilian government for refusing to demonize this computer application that those across all socioeconomic strata use in ways that according to Spence's research encourage them to be more engaged with technology more generally. Although he was reluctant to draw too strong a causal relationship with Orkut and computer knowledge more generally, he did find that the longer one's experience with Orkut, the greater one's knowledge about the Internet was likely to be.

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Monday, October 22, 2007

Second Draft Second Life

Before I had come to AoIR, I had been told by UCLA's Lisa Gerrard, a specialist in teaching writing online in a MOO, that there was a woman already teaching composition in the online virtual world Second Life. It turned out to be Sarah "Intellagirl" Robbins, a pedagogue-researcher who actually understands the conventions of the digital environments she sends her students into and even understands the, who presented at the very end of the Association of Internet Researchers conference.

This media release from Ball State explains the relationship between the university and Robbins' experimental teaching as follows:

There was one class in 2006-2007 in which students dressed up as the Kool-Aid Man and entered a dance club to simulate the trouble of living with obesity.

The class was a freshman English composition class taught by doctoral student Sarah Robbins. Robbins met with her students twice a week on a virtual island in Second Life (SL) named Middletown, paid for by the Center for Media Design (CMD).

In her AoIR talk Robbins explains that much of the writing work that students did in the class, which she described as prolific, was actually through electronic text, particularly web logs. She did show how a student doing a research project about the cost of textbooks created a monumental sculpture in SL, which depicted an iconic student being weighed down by books, Atlas-like, which could reveal the text of the research project when clicked. But the difficulty of transferring print documents to 3D virtual environments makes virtual reports still a bit clunky, although Robbins said some managed to make essayistic compositions with machinima video compositions.

Robbins thought that the advantage of her experiment was basically cultural, in that the experience allowed her students to create both a more playful and cohesive academic community, which spontaneously celebrated seasons by decorating the pedagogical environment with holiday-appropriate objects. Robbins said that she encouraged what she saw as team-building by giving her students scripted virtual objects like watermelon guns or giant dominos.

Robbins blogs at ubernoggin.com, and she and her partner Mark Bell are working on Second Life for Dummies.

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Sunday, October 21, 2007

Sense and Sensibility

The conference was starting to wind down by the time Jeffrey Bardzell gave his talk on "Developing a 'sensibility for the particular'" yesterday. Because Bardzell is very comfortable in the chats-with-stats genres that I associate with scholarship from the social study of science or human-computer interaction, I was surprised to find out from his faculty web page that his PhD was actually in comparative literature. Thus, although he did have the obligatory "methods" section, he was able to make a larger argument about how the scale of participatory culture makes truly representational sampling impossible and how researchers need to have "a capacity for critical judgment" that goes beyond number crunching. For example, Bardzell asked when 65,000 videos are uploaded to YouTube every day, what would a representative sample of YouTube videos even mean. Internet subcultures thrive on micro-jokes, secret languages, and frequent disbanding behaviors, so statistical approaches may not be all that viable, Bardzell argues.

To ground his approach Bardzell uses the research of Löwgren and Stolterman in the domain of professional designers. According to Bardzell, these authors of Thoughtful Interaction Design: A Design Perspective on Information Technology examine categories like "retrospective reflection," "reflective thinking," "a developed language," and "a sense of quality" in ways that can be used to understand individualized intentions in digital media practices, which he reads against Bourdieu's concept of the "habitus" or system of dispositions. Thus both digital designers and digital researchers must align their sensibilities to their communities through concrete engagement.

Bardzell's actual survey of four open-ended questions about researchers' research methods for understanding participatory culture is still available on the web here. But in his talk he presented some of his initial results that showed how Internet researchers find interesting examples. Respondents commented about entertainment value, novelty, and utility, with "WTF" being a common response that ultimately suggests further study. As one researcher admits, "I stumble on just about everything initially." Often the most important "community metric" is the urge to forward a link to others, and the mainstream media and commercial search engines were discounted as sources of information. Given some of the stories that have appeared in the press since I started this blog two and a half years ago, I understand Bardzell's attitude toward increasingly conglomerated news sources all too well.

In closing Bardzell looked at the question "Who is allowed to speak?" and the ways that academics make compromises to address specialized audiences, particularly peer-reviewers expecting formal analysis. Rather than serve as traditional academic historians, many Internet researchers must be active participants in Internet subcultures, because they depend on their social networks and the daily practices associated with them to provide fresh material for their scholarship.

In the session that followed, Bardzell presented the research of his wife Shaowen Bardzell. Coming into the room, I was actually lukewarm toward her scholarship, based on having heard her present her work once before, which was on sadomasochistic sexual communities in Second Life. I must say I was pleasantly surprised by both the more original and the more academically useful turn her that her research on virtual worlds has taken of late. She is now examining how the designer is embodied in Second Life in ways very different from being parked in front of a Maya work station. In the "Sandbox" areas of Second Life she observed many different types of novice and intermediate designers at work, including a user making a couch and then bringing her house into the sandbox to check its dimensions and another designer building a fighter jet with virtual graph paper below. As she pointed out, there were griefers there as well as researchers, although her research indicated that their interventions and bombardments could also be understood as part of the sandbox creative process in which digital designers move not only between Photoshop and the scripting tools of SL, but also in the virtual space of observation and interaction.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

A Gathering of Action Figures



Yesterday's keynote by Henry Jenkins was a little less exuberantly optimistic than the last talk on participatory culture that I saw him give, and it hearkened back to work he had done decades ago at the start of his research as a participant observer on fellow members of fan cultures who served as what he called "textual poachers." In his talk on "The Moral Economy of Web 2.0: Reconsidering the Relations between Producers and Consumers," he was at least willing to offer the counterargument that many now make to his participatory culture evangelism: Web 2.0 means "You make all the content; they keep all the revenue." Although he disagreed with Lawrence Lessig, because the Stanford law professor compared Star Wars fans to sharecroppers, he at least acknowledged that there were legitimate grounds for debate.

Thus I hate to sound critical, not only because Jenkins is an influential figure, who was introduced to the crowd as the Marshall McLuhan of the 21st century, but also because he is a genuine public intellectual who actively lobbies congress and supports progressive educational reforms. And the fact that he wants to serve as a moral conscience for enormous faceless corporations can certainly do no harm. But given that so many of the most interesting talks at AoIR were critiques of the Web 2.0 juggernaut, I was sorry to see him give what felt like a standard spiel to a conference crowd.

For example, although he was preaching to the converted in the context of the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, he started with the most obvious milestones in the mass media, which he called the "plethora of pronouns": the Time "You" person-of-the-year cover, the Newsweek cover about "Putting the We in the Web," and the cover of Business Week about "The Power of Us."


Furthermore, Jenkins own definition of Web 2.0, "fandom without the stigma," is one that I would take issue with, given the number of people using social media tools who don't feel any loyalty to branded products and who instead embrace D.I.Y. sensibilities that respond to politics, religion, family, or communities rather than the entertainment conglomerates and transmedia stories that are central to Jenkins' cultural narrative that centers on "thirty years of Star Trek fans." As I've said before, I'm not a cultural snob, I've been to a Star Trek convention or two in my time, and my husband and half my friends make their livings from the business of market-driven mass entertainment. Moreover, as an academic, I don't consider his idea that consumption should be taken seriously as rhetorical action is one that is particularly controversial, since it comes from Michel de Certeau and many other theorists. But many of my main objections to his otherwise very readable recent book Convergence Culture weren't resolved at all by this talk or any of the other Jenkins' talks that I have heard over the years. These reservations were underscored by Jenkin's seeming failure to appreciate the irony of showing an image like the one above to represent Web 2.0, a picture that was created by eboy as a tongue-in-cheek homage to his corporate clients rather than an illustration endowed with the oppositional edge of similar brand-based visual rhetoric, such as the logo flag from Adbusters.

Jenkins was willing to acknowledge that media conglomeration and the harsh regulation of intellectual property relations has complicated his image of his three main talking points, which as he reiterated were 1) convergence culture, 2) networked society, and 3) the emergence of new forms of participation, as the case of the ultimately hegemonic FANlib showed. It was also revealing to hear about his own frustrations with the MIT Open Courseware initiative, since his own scholarly remixes done in teaching his media courses aren't among the offerings, given the university's legal concerns that made trade offs of fair use for copyright protection. And the fact that he used a slide with his own ideas from what he presented as an anonymous maker of user-generated content demonstrated not only that he had his own fans but also that he saw himself in a circuit of a moral economy with them (although he didn't credit the author by name).

However, in closing with praise for a recent grant to MTV for civic education rather than expressing a wish to have such funds go to far more interesting and less profit-driven political interventions being written, directed, edited, and produced for the small screen, such as the YouTube videos of my Facebook friend James Kotecki, I think he's choosing to support a cable giant that will give us more humorless and dumbed-down "boxers or briefs" simulations of deliberation.

Jenkin's story about how proponents of net neutrality left action figures in the public spaces of Singapore, where they were forbidden to protest, only let us his audience see how the authorities took this plasticized and branded form of "people power" much less seriously than comparable actions by real-life demonstrators on the streets of Burma that used social media like blogs and digital video in ways that fit my definition of Web 2.0.

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Friday, October 19, 2007

Cut to the Quick



During a year in which the press has celebrated Web 2.0 and the computer-generated avatars that provide the face of this so-called participatory culture, Lisa Nakamura provides some thoughtful scholarly criticism about the role of racial ideology and labor politics in the supposedly utopian realms of distributed networks and user-generated content. Nakumura, author of the forthcoming Digitizing Race from the University of Minnesota Press, started her talk with a Southpark episode in which the show's characters inhabit a fictional massively multiplayer online role-playing game called Stonehaven. As Nakamura points out, the identity politics of the show include a refusal to take "crap from a girl" and ethnic slurs about Koreans as fellow players.

In her questions during the conference, Nakamura has expressed concerns about the ideologies of Web 2.0 as distinct from Web 1.0 and has developed her own taxonomy, which she calls "Avatars 1.0" and "Avatars 2.0." While the former provided therapeutic self-portraiture, leisure, and an opportunity for "passing" and composing new identities through practices of freely created textuality, Nakamura argues that the latter merely manifests a "culture of profiling," characterized by observing behavior and choices in the circuits of capital, labor, and profit.

I've talked about the difficult position of Chinese "gold farmers" playing in MMOs before in this posting on Virtualpolitik, but Nakamura incorporates the field research experiences of Julian Dibbell and Ge Jin into a larger theorical construct in which Asians are cast as both "hyperconsumers and unwanted labor," or as "both buyers and sellers." Rather than travel to the sweatshops of China, Nakamura bases her arguments on pro- and anti-Chinese machinima videos available online. To contextualize the genre of machinima, Nakamura breaks videos into three categories: 1) "ludic" (concerned with strategies of game play and exceptional performances), 2) "cinematic" (concerned with presenting new narratives that use the game mechanic to produce original stories), and 3) "polemic" (concerned with arguments about laws, politics, and culture, particularly gaming culture).

In looking at this "struggle over the meaning of race," Nakamura showed the racist video "Ni Hao," which I have embedded in this post above the text. Nakamura agrees with Nick Yee that this is old rhetoric, which can easily be traced back to nineteenth-century protests against Gold Rush immigrants.

In another session there was a talk that similarly explored how Web 2.0 manifests certain kinds of racist ideologies. Geographer Darren Purcell, who examines borders as social constructs looked at the anti-immigrant surveillance group American Patrol and considered how the extensibility of individuals who participate in digital networks around social media makes their nationalistic arguments fundamentally contradictory, just on the basis of their own behavior. Purcell has also suffered his own troubles with the IRB, as he has looked at Facebook groups that deal with border politics and immigration. He points out that one anti-immigration group, "Illegal is Illegal," uses agrammatical, short messages and frequent homophobic language, while the pro-immigration group "Secure Fence Act of 2006 -- a new low even for Bush" uses academic prose and more sophisticated arguments that demonstrate rebuttal techniques and acknowledgment of potential counterarguments.

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Surprise Guest

The best thing about going to conferences is discovering the work of people that you have never heard of, which makes all the airplane lines, hotel room screw-ups, and e-mails from querulous neglected students all worth it.

In this case, the pleasant surprise was the presentation of Sal Humphreys, a bespectacled woman with short gray hair, who was attired in no-nonsense jeans and sweaters during the conference, and who might easily be overlooked at a four-day event full of well-dressed divas, where the outfits included Mia Consalvo's dramatic pink and black crepe numbers, Lisa Nakamura's gorgeous shimmery po-mo skirts, and Lisbeth Klastrup's fabulous Danish design peekaboo outfit. How women who spend all day in front of a computer could be so well-dressed is beyond me, since I basically own two classes of outfits: clean black clothes and dirty black ones.

I had actually had dinner the night before with the game studies interest group that included Humphreys. She was at the table that was watching Star Wars Galaxies machinima and gay porn, and I was at the table with much younger male game developers talking about marriages and careers.

Humphreys is more generally interested in questions involving regulation and online social software, and had at first planned a comparative study of the policy issues in four countries, but soon found that the "spaghetti-like" structure of competing codes in Australia would be plenty to occupy a revealing policy examination of networks with a meditation on macroeconomics and global trends that reminded me more of the work of Manuel Castells than what is generally thought of as game studies.

Humphreys argued that "convergent media challenge the boundaries of silo model" and that “how you characterize a problem characterizes how you think it can be fixed." To characterize those problems, the conventional linear models of media production will not work in which there is a one-way chain of author – text – publisher - audience. Instead Humphreys showed an amazing diagram of MMO policy issues on a slide that I wished I had photographed.

Her analysis of the discourses and domains of MMO games broke down into the following seven areas:

1) As text (governed by intellectual property, classification conventions, trade law, and free speech principles as part of a knowledge economy)
2) As game (governed by separate jurisdictions that included private law and private policing, such as sports law, in which consent to contracts, typically formulated as EULAs, determined power relations)
3) As community (governed by consumer protection and cultural policy, which could be troubled by the problem of mass private media)
4) As data (governed by privacy and consumer protection law)
5) As creative industry (governed by principles for industry development and amateur production concurrently)
6) As production network (governed by labor and consumer protection law)
7) As global media (governed by laws for cross-jurisdiction interchanges)

Following Humphreys, Dan Burk focused on legal issues in his talk on “Owning Avatars: Legal Control of Human and Non-Human Data Representations" that attempted to grapple with questions of "database rights." As a digital parent, he opened his talk with an explanation of his entire family's participation in MapleStory in which different members filled the roles of ice mage, cleric, and assassin. Although his daughter was initially reluctant to play with her uncool enders, she soon discovered that it was a case of the more the merrier if she wanted to bring down a dragon. She was even there when her parents were married in-game for their 25th anniversary.

Much of Burk's talk looked at questions of often competing rights of copyright, the right to privacy, and the right of publicity associated with celebrities who want to maintain control of their images. In looking at how celebrity avators could be used by large corporations, he showed digital animation of Gene Kelly singing in the rain while popping and locking in a plug for Golf GTI. He credited Cassandra Van Buren for her scholarship on celebrity avatars but also looked to the ideas of MIT's theorist of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, whose work on representations of human beings as "persistent data patterns" included topological features, physiological patterns, genetic coding, and many other ways to think about questions of identity in informational terms.

Like many intellectual property law professors this month, Burk was celebrating a recent court decision that Major League Baseball could not claim ownership of its players statistics for purposes of excluding fantasy sports leagues from using this commonly available data.

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Pretty Pictures

One problem with the annual AoIR conference is that there are often a lot of academic papers about studying Internet culture, yet the voices of the actual creators of new media are often not brought to the table. That's why I was very pleased to be preceded by Richard Hall, a professor of Information Science and Technology at the University of Missouri, Rolla and star of The Richard Show. For his fifteen minutes of fame, instead of reading a scholarly paper, he showed a film he had made called "Vlog History" that included interviews with other video bloggers, parts of the online film "There are So Many of Us," and snippets of some of the most popular clips from his own vlogging, which includes him jumping into icy bodies of water in the Ozarks, butt-crack and all. Hall 's basic thesis was that this form of communication changed his life and connected him to a broader online community that could even include, as one of his subjects said, "seeing what a Chinese person is like." Perhaps the most interesting part for me was when Hall reflected on his academic persona as shown in his c.v., official department websites, and academic publications. When he asks which one is the real Richard Hall, he says "I'm not sure either of them is me."

Of course, the irony of Hall's feel-good message was that much of our panel was about conflicts that emerge in online communities of bloggers or Flash animators when visual rhetoric is involved. My talk was about "blogspats" between large political blogs when Photoshopped images offend readers and writers from competing social media outlets. I was specifically looking at images about race and sexuality that involve the alteration of pictures with former president Bill Clinton. I was also thinking about the broader function of images in political blogs and how they serve to 1) commemorate an event and authenticate the blogger's authority as a witness or participant, 2) encourage particular critical ways of seeing or ideological scrutiny, or 3) provide the raw material of a digital file that can be used for editorial alteration. Also on the panel was Lori Kendall, who examined a NSFW highly gendered online conflict among user-producers in a community of Flash animators producing "Animutations."

Update: Here's another write-up at How Very Meta.

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Thursday, October 18, 2007

"There Are No Girls on the Internet"

Obviously, as the female head of the annual conference for the Association of Internet Researchers, Mia Consalvo was being ironic in saying, "There are no girls on the Internet." Yet her talk "Who Owns This FAQ?" addressed questions of gender bias as well as commodity capital that come into play when large corporations attempt to capitalize on the user-generated content of Web 2.0. Mia began her talk by pointing to a new trend in advertising, epitomized by Nike and described in the recent New York Times article "The New Advertising Outlet: Your Life," that attempts to profit from fan culture and their participation in knowledge networks.

She earned her reputation in game studies as a close reader of gamer and fan discourse more generally, and in her new book on Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames she looks closely at web sites devoted to the topic of gaining advantage in videogames. In this talk she examined the genre of the FAQ, which is one that Julia Lupton and I have discussed as well. In particular, she looked at the site GameFAQs, an aggregator of user-generated content about cheats and game geography, that even has its own FAQs about their FAQs.

As she points out, these fan sites are often being bought by larger media companies or ludocapitalist franchises specializing in real money trades in game worlds. For her, this development is emblematic of the split between "participatory culture" and "Web 2.0," which is merely cast as a corporate opportunity by multinational corporations. In her thorough exploration of the FAQ genre, she also arrived at the FAQs aimed at potential investors in these fan knowledge sites, where these companies brag that their sites are "where the boys are" and where users are 92%, 94%, or 95% male, depending on the metric. Mia takes issue with these figures, since her own research indicates that women are often recognized as frequent and valuable contributors to fan sites. As she brought her talk to a close, she looked at possible theoretical interpretations of this emphasis on young, male, college educated consumers in this discourse and drew on feminist political economists to explicate the assumption of rationalism in these marketing statistics.

At a time when critiques of Web 2.0 can be overly simple minded, as the recent The Cult of the Amateur indicates, the way that Consalvo brings careful close reading and feminist theory to the debate merits attention. Stay tuned for Lisa Nakamura talking about race, labor, and Web 2.0 in her own big room talk.

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Civics Lesson

Tarleton Gillespie is one of the few academics worth seeing twice in the same week. In my case, this happened at separate conferences in Montreal and Vancouver. His current work on industry-sponsored pedagogical materials designed to teach children about copyright made for a vastly entertaining presentation, since many of these campaigns more closely resemble fifties social hygiene films rather than media that anyone would take seriously.

And yet the author of Wired Shut: Copyright and the Shape of Digital Culture had a serious message to make about how the rhetoric of unintentionally comic anti-file-sharing campaigns like "What's the Diff?" used code words to propagate particular ideologies about intellectual property. He pointed out the comic book logic and the centrality of the idea of "respect" in these campaigns as meaning both "to take seriously" and "to obey," as one respects one's elders. In addition, he examined the portraits with which children are expected to identify in these campaigns and the way that "computer users," which they all inevitably will be, are depicted as unthinking space cases.

Gillespie's close reading emphasized how the rhetoric of "cybersafety" functioned in these discourses as well. He interrogated the false equation of that which is free with that which is illegal. Often, he argued, these campaigns promulgated a false causality in which -- because fair use was "ambiguous" -- it must be unsafe for citizens to engage in any fair use practices at all. Certainly, his research has shown the damning disingenuousness of these campaigns' creators when it comes to admitting their close relationship with the RIAA or the MPAA in serving as the real content creators. For example, Gillespie showed how the term "songlifting" strangely appeared in two supposedly independently developed campaigns. Yet Gillespie argued that the very pedagogical framing of these materials for teachers will inevitably produce some counter-discourses in the classroom.

Update: Sara Grimes would later at the conference point out another insidious way that the discourses of children are constrained in relationship to their media consumption. In her work on the evolution of branded children's advergames into massively multiplayer online games, she showed that kids are often limited in what they can say in these virtual worlds. In Nicktropolis, young people have 634 pre-constructed sentences, 237 of which praise Nickelodeon. In GalaXseeds, they only have 17 catch phrases, all in the interest of supposed cyber-safety but convenient for cyber-brand loyalty as well.

Update: In response to this reader comment from Julia Lupton that looks closely at the way the word "user" is situated linguistically, it's worth checking out this short interview filmed by Jenny Cool.

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On the Other Side of the Magnifying Glass

Academic blogging is certainly a potentially risky act, as a panel that I'm sponsoring later this week with other U.C. Irvine faculty will likely re-emphasize. Anti-blogging articles like "Bloggers Need Not Apply" and "They Shoot Messengers, Don't They?" by Ivan Tribble argue that a blogging past can hinder hiring, promotion, and tenure of faculty in many disciplines. Based on the consequences for the authors of Informed Comment, Daniel Drezner, and Sinablog, it would seem that Tribble is right.

So if there are perils, Gina Walejko has been looking closely at the question of "why academics blog." I actually participated in this study, so hearing her results had the strange effect of being able to see onto the other side of the magnifying glass from a researcher who had done research on my own digital practices. Walejko was able to use data from the 1997 National Survey of Faculty, Professional Activities to formulate questions about the disadvantages and advantages to blogging.

Her final sample included fifty tenured and forty-six non-tenured faculty members. Although 51% described the activity as "not important for career," 91% praised the "intellectual stimulation" of blogging, 73% used the genre for "testing ideas," 73% said they enjoyed sharing their ideas with non-academics in the broader public, 70% considered it a vehicle for publicity and exposure, 64% found blogging productive to "build community," and 63% liked blogging because it facilitated sharing outside their discipline. Walejko found no correlation -- either positive or negative -- between blogging productivity and academic publication, but many of those surveyed did bemoan both the hours spent writing posts and being engaged with blogging discourses more generally.

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War Buddy

It was a week that I saw a lot of Sean Lawson, since he presented at both the 4S and AoIR conferences about the military's use of social media and persuasive games. Sean is both a policy wonk and a Ph.D. candidate in Science and Technology Studies at RPI, who has discovered the value of rhetoric to explain many phenomena in the discourses of political organizations.

At the 4S conference, he gave a presentation on the military-funded videogame, Future Force Company Commander, which he points out is strangely unconcerned with either training or recruitment, the ostensible motivations for creating other military games like America's Army. The cinematic opening scene of F2C2 in an exotic pagoda-studded land -- in which a terrorist aiming for a vehicle on a bridge is foiled by magically repellent armor -- Lawson describes as the "only entertaining part of the game," which is largely taken up with plotting assets on highly symbolic maps. As the Blue Force fighting the Red Force, which is armed with Soviet-era equipment, the player must deal with defending one country against an invader in a conflict between the fictional aggressor Sabalan and U.S. ally Dalilar. As Lawson points out, strangely there seems to be no airforce in the army of the future, and no attack helicopters, no tanks, or really no marines either. Lawson explains the message of the game as such: "the network is the weapon," and "seeing the enemy is as good as killing the enemy." He argues that the rhetoric of the game can be explained by the fact that its maker is SAIC, which has a vested interest in infowar, networked combat, and C4ISR models. Of course, there's more to be said about the rhetorical efforts of SAIC, about which I'll have an article in the forthcoming issue of media/culture.

In his AoIR presentation about military bloggers, Lawson pointed out that restrictions on solders' use of social media reflected a contradictory attitude about the new ideologies about information and networks that are central to the work of top strategists within the military. As Lawson points out and this video shows, President George W. Bush addressed the Second Annual Milblog Conference. And yet on April 19, 2007, the Army released new OPSEC Regulations against blogging, and in May, the Department of Defense announced plans to block access to social media sites like YouTube and MySpace. In his research Lawson looked at 44 military blogs and took advantage of The D-Ring ("where the military and new media collide") , Wired's defense blog Danger Room, and aggregating services like Milblogging. Lawson argues that military bloggers are both inside and outside these structures of authority, so it isn't a simple case of one side pitted against another. As the bloggers themselves point out, they see themselves as contradicting the reports of the mainstream media and engaged in the battle for the hearts and minds of civilians at home.

Lawson's work is still evolving, like most graduate students, and I'd like to see him draw on more nuanced examples of rhetorical thought rather than overemphasize a dated and relatively heavy-handed critic like Lloyd Bitzer, but he's looking at important public policy issues of the kind that I'd like to see in more new media dissertations, and I look forward to seeing him again at conferences in the months and years ahead.

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Cheerleading Camp


I have to admit that after a very demanding week and a long flight, I almost bailed on the day-long Second Life workshop at AoIR, even though I had contributed a paper to the group. The sight of the tables covered with plastiline clay, star-shaped post-its in bright colors, and florescent highlighter pens just screamed interactive kindergarten-style game developer creativity of the type that usually makes me head toward the exit. But Facebook friend and Second Life advocate Mark Bell had already seen me by that point, and apparently I look enough like my social network profile that there would be no getting out without anyone noticing.

Actually, I turned out to be glad that I stayed, since it ended up being much less of a cheerleading event than I had feared. John Lester (a.k.a. Pathfinder Linden) explained his transition from directing neurology services at Massachusetts General Hospital to his current role heading up research and learning efforts in Second Life. He also described how he still worked with patients with Asperger's Syndrome, Cerebral Palsy, and Stroke Survivors in Second Life, and how a number of museum and higher education projects were taking shape in the virtual world. (And -- besides -- he was in the audience for my paper, and I believe in being polite to anyone who shows up for a Virtualpolitik live show.) After his remarks, he faced tough questions about the company's corporate interests and special relationships with those who were big-money, high-profile, or infrastructure essential clients, which Lester summarized as the question: "Do we do special things for special friends?" (Names like "Pontiac" and "The University of Surrey" came up in this context.) He also had to grapple with those who pointed out how Google could easily steal the market from them, given their expertise with mapping and their new forays into avatar-based experiences.

We then went into a long session about drafting possible guidelines for researchers doing human-subjects scholarship in Second Life. When groups reported back, it was clear that many saw their ethical obligations differently. To discourage covert research, some suggested that there should be an in-world directory of researchers and that those engaged in this work should have the word "researcher" above their heads. Others argued that avatars were works of art, creative expressions not indexes to identity, or -- as they put it -- "representations don't need IRB approvals." A delightfully subversive group was even brainstorming about the most unethical research experiment that you could conduct in Second Life, in the game developers' spirit of trying to break the system.

At the end of the day we were supposed to generate actual research projects to be done in Second Life that might have some experimental integrity. My favorite group entered an area for samurai sword-fighting in Second Life, where they tolerated looking strange -- as women in black tailored suits and high heels rather than traditional Japanese garb -- and planned surveys about the users' attitudes about violence, when they weren't engaged in hand-to-hand combat of course.

In my paper I argued that the use of Second Life in higher education actually re-introduces elements of medieval college life back into the academy. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but I certainly was expecting not to be invited based on my paper.

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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

AM Radio

I've been getting a lot of e-mails from people who heard me talking about videogames on KNX radio, but since they don't have a podcast of the broadcast or have mispelled my name, I have almost no sense of the edit of my comments that actually aired. I'm used to dealing with print journalists, so it was disquieting to be immediately saying things that could potentially be on air, and the reporters seemed to think that the panel that Barbara Cohen and I had arranged was somehow about trite topics like videogames and violence. I know that they aired me talking about counternarratives in game play and Jim Munroe's "My Trip to Liberty City." I also felt compelled to point out that the argument about the use of media to represent possibly corrupting anti-social acts actually went back to Plato and Aristotle (and their arguments about mimesis and catachresis respectively).

We had a full standing-room-only crowd for "Serious Play: The Practices of Everyday Life in Videogames and Virtual Worlds" with Ian Bogost, Tom Boellstorff, and Jonathan Alexander, so I hope that it was accurately represented in the media. The funny thing about the phone call with the radio station was that the panel had absolutely nothing to do with out-of-the-ordinary violations of social norms. We explicitly devoted our attention to how computational media represented the mundane, the everyday, the routine, etc.



Ian Bogost showed a clip from the game trailer above to emphasize how unit operations are deeply procedural and as rule-based as seemingly "boring" games about routines of counting sand or waiting in line would be. His analysis looks at "the logics of ordinary people" and how they express the deployment of "tactics," to use Michel de Certeau's terms, in response to what de Certeau calls "strategies" from those who shape policies and the environments in which we live.

Tom Boellstorff spent a lot of his talk on definitional work. For example, he wanted to sharply distinguish "virtual worlds" from either games or digital expressions of self for which there wasn't a clear "afk" or "away-from-keyboard" state.



Jonathan Alexander expanded on our theme about the mundane by playing "College Saga" to the delight of the undergrads in the room, a video that recasts everyday life from dorm rooms, lecture halls, and cafeterias in terms of the idioms of game play in Final Fantasy.

It was a lively discussion afterwards in which Boellstorff took issue with Alexander's ideas about technological synthesis from Donna Haraway's vision of the cyborg to explain how a chapter of his book contested the cyborg scenario in favor of his own argument about the centrality of gaps in embodiment. Alexander responded by saying that we adopt the character of the cyborg not by meshing perfectly with virtual worlds, but instead by being transformed by what we take out of them. And I pointed out to Boellstorff that as Facebook was taking on more real-time and embodied applications, it may not remain a non-virtual world for long.

You can check out a podcast here.

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Strange Brew


During our visit to Montreal, our host was Alexandre Enkerli, an anthropologist who teaches folklore and ethnomusicology at Concordia University and participates actively in a number of virtual and face-to-face DIY communities around music, coffee, and beer. To get a sense of his work, you can read his paper "Brewing Cultures: Craft Beer and Cultural Identity in North America." Although the material on identity-formation is certainly interesting, particularly the stuff about gender non-inclusiveness, I would have liked to have seen more about the political side of the movement, which he alludes to at the end. Because Quebec has strict regulations about commerce involving alcoholic beverages, so that its citizens are often forced into state-owned liquor stores, political resistance is certainly part of this group's subversive ethos. Alexandre also described how they were governed by "open source" principles, in which recipes were shared even by those who aspired to be brewmasters in conventional pubs.

We also learned a lot about coffee and about CoffeeGeek.com, since Enkerli is an avid home roaster. (A popcorn popper is apparently the key piece of equipment for the most tasty transformation of the bean.) A required stop was Veritas, where we spoke in depth to the proprietor Sam, who had left a career as a Rolls Royce engineer to embrace life as a cafe owner. His third place award-winning barrista was unfortunately not present, but we managed to drain some tasty espressos and cappuccinos nonetheless.

As a good Habermassian, I had to pick a fight with Enkerli about this home-brew culture that he was putting on display. Doesn't consigning brewing of coffee and beer in private homes eliminate third spaces for social interactions with a cross-section of people and opportunities for discussions and debates? Isn't it like putting yourself in a cul-de-sac with a garage door facing the street in that you aren't participating with neighborhood businesses? Enkerli strongly disagreed, since beer-making involves large quantities, parties, and collective beer making sessions. He thought that it was a powerfully social activity and one that was often situated in specific neighborhoods.

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Sunday, October 14, 2007

Getting the Milk for Free

In his 4S talk yesterday, Fred Turner, the author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, is now extending his analysis of counterpublics by looking at how Google is channeling user-generated content from Burning Man and benefiting from those who are content to be "paid in cool" in a reputation economy. In "Burning Man at Google: How Art Worlds Help Sustain New Media Industries," Turner argues that even activities aimed to build a "socio-technical commons" during the annual ritual out in an inhospitable desert actually legitimates "collaborative manufacturing processes." I've been a vicarious attendee of Burning Man for many years -- lending camping equipment in advance and admiring dusty polaroid photographs after the event -- but I've never actually gone. I've even attended a "Burning Man Fundraiser" for a drive-in theater. I brought my kids to "Family Night," where they were the only children in attendance. The Amazing Mr Limpet soon turned into footage in which our host was wandering around naked along with the other denizens of the event.

On the same panel, Chris Kelty, an anthropologist who has studied the cultural practices of the open source movement, gave a talk that focused on the discourses surrounding electronic voting machines. "Imagining Neutrality: Recursive publics, free software and electronic voting machines" looks at what he calls the "politics of politics" and advances "an anthropology of deliberation." Kelty also made an interesting distinction between "voting" and "deliberation." Because Kelty describes himself as a scholar "used to questioning the neutrality of science," he not only expresses common concerns about "privacy and participation," but also examines why the "proliferation of tools in everyday life" is not fostering a serious re-examination of the procedural logic of the voting process itself.

As someone fascinated with Condorcet voting and other rich-data voting systems, I was glad to see Kelty give them a plug. (Check out this online results comparison generator or this site for would-be election officials.) Condorcet's argument that simple one-man/one-vote systems tend to generate results in which everyone is dissatisfied is one of my favorites from eighteenth-century information theory.

During the time of "Diary of a Mad Poll-Worker," I did my own behind-the-scenes examination of the processes of electronic voting during the last election, which included the bizarre experience of being an election official at the actual polling place. As the nearby Riverside County registrar's office struggles with what to do now that their Sequoia voting machines have been disallowed (a topic upon which their website is strangely silent), I think these issues need to go beyond the interest limited to Internet paranoia sites and, as Kelty suggests, be turned to participatory decision-making in actual communities.

Kelty's forthcoming book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and the Internet, from Duke University Press will also be online under a Creative Commons license. More on this later.

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Saturday, October 13, 2007

The View From Home Plate

I've said before that I think that JPL now has decades of brilliant digital rhetoric to its credit and that it has taken advantage of computer-generated imagery, digital video, and the web in ways that put all the other federal agencies and contractors to shame. Self-proclaimed "geekologist" Janet Vertesi has used the Mars Rover website as a "goldmine" for studying scientific practices of deliberation that now depend on the relationship of drawing to photography. She explains how those who must decide where the rover goes next, are presented with data in which green represents drivable regions and red represents the unnavigable. As they negotiate the visual field of the "lilypad," each much register approval for the consensus that emerges from their discussions of their collective markup of the planet's surface by declaring "I'm happy" one-by-one at the end of each meeting about the operation. I enjoyed learning about how the "home plate" metaphor functioned in their discourse, because a geological structure resembled that critical nexus of play. Digitally noted landmarks were named after those in the All-American Women's Baseball Team and -- during Black History Month -- the Negro Players League. Vertesi also discussed the relationship between "true color" and "false color" in many interplanetary missions.

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Alphabet Soup

"STS" is not a term that has had much meaning for me, except perhaps as a mispronunciation of the sixties radical political group on college campuses. However, Science and Technology Studies is a field that is increasingly recognized in the academy, and the panel on "Knowing in Action" tried to grapple with the necessary challenges of combining the roles of activist and observer. Yale Information Society visiting fellow Laura DiNardis discussed the importance of Open Standards to the group, which also does work on DRM and Internet Voting. A lawyer, who is also an engineer by training, DiNardis told chilling stories about how interoperability could be a critical factor in crisis situations. She described how victims of the pan-Continental tsunami were left waiting for aid while different agencies struggled to exchange documents in different formats and how survivors of Hurricane Katrina were unable to register for aid without Internet Explorer. She pointed out that there will be an important meeting of the Internet Governance Forum in Brazil next month. Her group is also planning symposia on reputation economies as well.

The big theme of this panel was "deliberation," so I often found in hard to listen without squirming in my seat from what passes for my conscience. Although I consider myself relatively engaged with my community, I generally avoid all occasions for deliberation. Like many other professionals, I jealously guard my scarce personal time. And yet, what am I missing from ditching the time-consuming sessions with the PTA, church committees, and the governance of the school band and local Boy Scout troop? According to this group: a lot. I don't mind general volunteering as such, but there is something about the inefficiencies of back and forth consensus-building, which is often abandoned at a given meeting in the interest of getting everyone home by the next day, that irks me.

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Friday, October 12, 2007

If A Tree Falls in the Forest

Christine Borgman is a name that I associate with sophisticated analysis of the ideologies and practices of the archive and the academy, so I was surprised to hear about her work getting her feet wet by gathering data from out in the natural environment by using sensors in the field, ubiquitous computing technologies, and new knowledge communities associated with what Lev Manovich has called "big data." The woman that I think of in connection with digital libraries is now extending her work with "memory institutions" by minding "mosscams" and "wetlabs." Now at the Center for Embedded Network Sensing, she is considering how "data are becoming objects" and "oral culture is breaking down" out where faculty and their students are collecting data about biological, physical, and chemical changes in the environment. Because good science and rich environmental data sets like this have been so incapable of effecting policy change where it matters most, at the federal level, it was hard to hear Borgman's presentation without wondering if her skills were being misdirected.

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Thursday, October 11, 2007

Walking the River and Flying Through Space

People often describe what I do as "ethnographic" work on game developers or digital librarians, because I own a voice recorder and actually interview people and carry a tiny notebook with me everywhere I go in which I write down copious notes. As someone very conventionally trained as a creative writer and a rhetorician in the academy, I find this assumption odd, since I think of these things as merely the most basic tools for competent writing, as good journalists know, rather than those associated with studying particular ethnographic subjects in their native habitats. So it was odd to be on a panel with people at the 4S who were actually part of the discipline of anthropology and able to articulate what "participant observation" or "ethnography" might mean in a truly scholarly context in connection with digital media.

In reflecting about computer-mediated experiences, the panel I was on presented two radically different points of view. Tom Boellstorff of my own campus at U.C. Irvine discussed how the research that he was doing in Second Life for a forthcoming book from Princeton University Press didn't require contact with people in their "real world" incarnations, a term that he problematized during his talk. This podcast from The Chronicle of Higher Education, "An Anthropologist Goes Native," explains his research methods to a less specialized audience than the one at 4S, which was very engaged with the questions that he raised about the relationship of techné to epistêmê in virtual worlds and the role that embodiment gaps may play in online sociality.

In contrast, USC's Jennifer Cool, told the story about VP pal Lisa Micheli, author of my alltime favorite title in an article in the JSTOR archive "Is wetter better?" and supercool geomorphologist. In Jenny's paper on "Walking the River," she argued that excessively formalist computerized data representation models based on high-tech mobile electronic gear were often not as valuable as the actual practice of "walking the river" by field scientists, which generates more constructive empirical knowledge in a highly situated personal record of the physical space in photographs, drawings, and hand-made maps. Just as 4S president Susan Leigh Star argues that computer architecture privileges a worldview dominated by formalism, Cool argues that computer 3D modeling programs that represent the natural world are similarly defined by rigid, hierarchical, syllogistic reasoning.

Update: After this posting appeared, Jenny Cool objected that "the summary isn't at all representative of my argument." Cool writes, "I did not focus on how formal models were less valuable, but rather on the blindnesses associated with them and the way they push aside and devalue non-formalized knowledge."

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Play by Play

There were more panels about game studies that I would have expected at the Society for the Social Studies of Science conference, since issues about play, recreation, and leisure would seem to be -- at least on the surface -- profoundly separate from those governing scientific inquiry or even the social context in which scientific scholarship is situated. So I was surprised to see so many familiar faces at "Ways of Knowing Within and Through Games and Play," which was moderated by supercool game studies critic T.L. Taylor.

Doug Thomas who "plays a university professor on the USC server" explored questions of place, space, and geography and interrogated some of the claims made by the educational games movement in a talk on "Blurring the Boundaries Between Worlds: Conceptual Blending in Virtual Worlds." In particular, Thomas looked at the issue of transferability and the problems with making simple assertions when affordances often go to the group not the individual and when much of scientific literacy -- as Constance Steinkuehler has argued in her research on young gamers' discourse -- is constituted by demonstrating rhetorical mastery such as marshaling evidence or delivering timely rebuttals. Although Thomas said that "making potions" doesn't transfer to knowledge in the real world, he does look at the circuit of information, technology, and place functions in game environments so that communities of interest, networks of practice, and co-presence function together in ways analogous to scientific sociality.

Also in the line-up was Shira Chess, who like many in game studies, has turned her own mother into an experimental subject. Unlike the author of "Warrior Woman," Chess's mom requested "a nice shopping game" as a game that women might like, thus bringing up many issues about feminism, leisure, and play. Chess pointed out that much of the discourse about women and games from the industry -- even from "gender inclusive" sources -- pointed to plainly contradictory assertions: 1) women like mindless casual games, 2) women like social games, and 3) women like narrative-heavy story games.

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