Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Mr. Verrone Goes to Washington

Before the month is out, I don't want to neglect the fact that Virtualpolitik pal WGA president Patric Verrone continues to fight the good fight for Network Neutrality in support of the bipartisan Internet Freedom Preservation Act, which is sponsored by Byron Dorgan and Olympia Snowe. Last week Verrone spoke in a hearing of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science & Transportation. I particularly liked the fact that his official statement ended with this line:

IN AN INDUSTRY FILLED WITH OXYMORONS FROM JUMBO SHRIMP TO HOLLYWOOD ACCOUNTING, WE MUST WIN THE “FIGHT FOR NEUTRALITY.”

From the webcast, Verrone's statement starts at 1:46. Unfortunately you have to use RealPlayer to view what should be the easily playable, sharable, and downloadable clips from this Senate hearing. Since Senator Maria Cantwell of Washington owns RealPlayer, unfortunately this obstacle to fair use is unlikely to change any time soon.

Chair Daniel K. Inouye pronounces Verrone's name as "Varoni" at the start of his testimony. But his real problem is Senator Ted Stevens, of the "Internet is a series of tubes" fame, who continues to make stupid statements such as this one, which name drops several Ivy League universities in the name of legitimating nonsense positions that no one in academia holds, such as the concept that users don't want their right to access online resources without onerous fees or invisible barriers protected.

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There's No Place Like Home



The big digital rhetoric story of the day has to be this YouTube whistleblower's video by an angry father who documented his soldier son's living conditions at Fort Bragg, which has since earned coverage in USA Today in stories such as "Army general 'mad' about condition of housing at Fort Bragg." This parent's exposé juxtaposes digital photographs of soldiers from his son's unit in the field in a remote deployment in Afghanistan with conditions back on a U.S. base with broken toilet seats, defunct drinking fountains, missing ceiling panels, peeling lead-based paint, rusty and corroded pipes, moldy walls, insecure locks, faulty plumbing, and other signs of poor maintenance of the military living quarters. Although there is some dead air in the audio of his coverage of the barracks, this father constructs a methodical argument about the unacceptability of his son's living space that does more than let "the pictures speak for themselves." Note how the commentary on the closing iconic photo of a soldier plungering filthy standing water expresses the culmination of his outrage. The video begins and ends with a concrete call to action to civilian viewers, which includes instructions about how to use Google search terms to find congressional telephone numbers.

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Not So Much a Viral Campaign as a Bacterial One



On Osocio today, they explain the rationale for a new viral campaign that uses a hoax Facebook application as the way to bring attention to their message about sexual health.

This new campaign from the American Social Health Association (ASHA) shows the perfect use of social media for a awareness campaign. The aim is to highlight the dangers of Chlamydia to young people during April, which is STD Month (sexually transmitted diseases).

The Chlamydia bacteria that affects around 1 in 10 sexually active young people usually does not carry any symptoms, but it can cause serious medical problems such as infertility. To show the dangers, Joao Medeiros and Alex Goulart from agency Duval Guillaume, working with a team of developers led by Razmig Hovaghimian and Larry Gadea, from the Stanford Graduate School of Business and Carleton University’s School of Engineering, have devised a Facebook application called MorphMonkey in which users are invited to “make a love child” by morphing pictures of their faces with those of their friends.

But then the humor is gone. If the first ‘parent’ is infected, the second is notified that they have caught the infection from their friend and is prompted to discover more about the disease on the ASHA website. The bacteria has been allowed to spread organically from person-to-person on the social networking site.

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Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Right Back At You

As Le Monde points out in "McCain plus cool qu'Obama et Clinton," McCain's YouTube channel automatically accepts response videos, including parodic pastiches that repurpose TV footage such as this one, unlike the more cautious Obama and Clinton campaign that moderate whether or not a video can be posted as a response.

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Monday, April 28, 2008

Fighting Words


The other big global story about Internet law and order these days is taking place in Indonesia, which has just passed the "Electronic Information and Transactions Law" that bars online defamation -- without necessarily defining it precisely enough to prevent political abuse -- along with banning the viewing of violent and pornographic content from the web.

Unlike US news providers that have relegated the story to scattered sentences and paragraphs buried in more eye-catching news items on hot geopolitical topics such as chastity belts, UCLA's Asia Media has been doing a relatively conscientious job covering this complicated piece of legislation. Stories like "Online porn law won't affect business, say Internet cafe owners" and "Group to file review on e-law" emphasize pragmatic responses to the new strictures.
And the article from Internet Business Law Services promises to answer the following questions in its review:

What Does the Bill Say About Consumer Protection?; What About Cyber Squatting?; What Are the Rules on Electronic Contracts?; How Does the Law Define Offences of Cyber-Crime?; What Are the Punishments for Cyber-Crimes?

Despite the fact that Indonesia is home to a quarter of a billion people, human rights issues involving the nation that spent decades under a succession of regimes of dictatorship are often ignored in the United States. The
Indonesia Legal Aid and Human Rights Association (PBHI) has pointed out that the new law could limit freedom of expression in "critiques, jokes or anything in mailing lists or blogs" and that its anti-porn statute could extend to offline platforms such as "notebooks" or "flash disks" and punish those who possess adult content but are not "by any means distributing."

However, Indonesian blogger
Sonny Zulhuda published an assessment that pointed out what could be taken as the counterintuitive liberalism of certain aspects of the legislation, particularly on the question of hacking:

First of all, it is Interesting to note that `hacking’ or a mere unauthorized access to a computer or electronic system is not made an offence, in an opposite stand to the law in other major countries such as UK, Malaysia and Singapore. This is believed to be crucial since Indonesia has been known for its rampant cases on cyber crime involving hacking, web-defacing and credit card fraud.

Hacking is an offence only when, first, it is committed with the purpose of obtaining or altering information contained in that system. Secondly, it is committed with the intention to secure information classified as confidential, or that are detrimental for national security and international relations. It is argued that this provision on international relations and nation’s critical information infrastructure would provide redress for the issues of cyber-terrorism. Hacking is also an offence when it is committed against the electronic system of financial and banking industries, with the purpose of misusing it or gaining undue advantage out of it.

At least the nation's Information and Communications Ministry is offering free filtering software on its official government website.

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You've Got to Watch Out for Top Ten Lists; They Can Get You in Real Trouble



In December of last year, The Washington Post reported on the case of thirty-two-year-old Fouad al-Farhan, who was arrested by Saudi authorities for posting seemingly subversive anti-government material on his blog, which included posts drawing attention to the plight of political prisoners in the country. In "Dissident Saudi Blogger is Arrested," the reporter explains how Farhan's "Top Ten List" (or more accurately "Bottom Ten List") was one of the factors that led to his own detention.

Unlike most of the thousands of men and women who blog in the kingdom, on topics from fashion to corruption, Farhan uses his real name. In a post in December, Farhan listed his 10 least favorite Saudi personalities, including a businessman prince, a prominent cleric, a minister, a mayor and the head of the judiciary.

This week, Farhan was finally released and presumably returned to his family and computer programming business. According to a recent article in The Christian Science Monitor, "Saudi Official: why popular blogger Farhan was jailed," Farhan intends to go back to blogging on his blog, even though he may still face charges.

During his captivity, friends of Farhan's created a blog that advocated for his freedom, Free Fouad. Although it too was eventually blocked to users inside Saudi Arabia, its appeals on behalf of the popular jailed blogger reached a broad audience and showcased pro-Fouad content from around the Arab-speaking world, including this YouTube video of Farhan's daughter, which was posted by a dissident from Tunisia.

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

Chatterbox

I have finally updated the links for my public talks to provide easy access to slides from past presentations. During the 2006-2007 academic year, I felt like I often gave variations on the same talk on three different continents. As you can see, in 2007-2008, I stayed closer to home, generally in the same time zone, but covered many subjects other than military videogames.

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Saturday, April 26, 2008

Open Mic/Open Mouse



As this video from "nox traction" indicated, this weekend the Electronic Literature Organization hosted an Open Mic/Open Mouse evening at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy at USC. To those familiar with the offerings of many "new media" readers as teachers, there were some homages to classic writers among the readings that were inspired by classics in information theory from the postwar period from many disciplines: among the referenced authors were Jorge Luis Borges, Alan Turing, and Ted Nelson.

Mark Marino performed a piece of "Marginalia in the Library of Babel" that charted a course of Diigo bookmarks across Wikipedia and Amazon.com. Jeremy Douglass created a "stretch text" poem with nested file folders in tribute to one of the ideas described in Ted Nelson's "Dream Machines." Finally, with the creator in absentia, Peggy Weil's "Mr. Mind" was shown to the crowd under the stars, in which a chatbot predicated on the procedures of the Turing test attempts to demonstrate -- without success -- that people are indeed human.

Although I've been working on a computer game about being the Attorney General of the United States, in which the first level involves John Ashcroft shooting eagles at "bad" statues of unclothed women in Washington D.C. while avoiding firing at "good" statues of the Ten Commandments, I wasn't able to demo it because of the old PC-to-Mac problem. Instead I showed some of Media Manifesto and a poem called "answering." Ironically, mine was not the only piece of the evening that played with voice-t0-speech technologies.

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We Make Our Avatars, and Thereafter Our Avatars Make Us

The title of this blog entry was one of the best lines at the conference, and it came from an informant interviewed by Celia Pearce, director of the Experimental Game Lab at Georgia Tech, who has been doing interesting work on the game play of older women. I tend to complain about a youth-centric bias in research on digital culture, so it's always nice to see Celia as part of the lively exchanges that take place in academic conferences. I was very pleased to hear that Celia's book Communities of Play: Emergent Cultures in Online Games and Virtual Worlds will be in the Spring 2009 catalog from MIT Press along with my Virtualpolitik book based on this blog. Her work on the "Uru Diaspora" is definitely worth checking out.

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Home Has No Atmosphere

It's true that there may be a glut of World of Warcraft research being done in academia right now, despite the fact that it is the most heavily populated virtual world on the planet and one in which an actual academic conference is scheduled to take place, but UC Irvine Ph.D. candidate Silvia Lindtner's talk brought some fresh perspective to the subject, based on her field work in China that looked at "mixed realities," "hybrid reality spaces," and "assemblies" at work in the public places where people play computer games with the aid of cellular telephones, ubiquitous computing devices, and other channels for live chat and interaction. She also emphasized the importance of design issues that give users choice and attention to subtle forms of political repression that can be manifested in the regulation of games, such as the removal of skeletons from World of Warcraft in the interest of promoting the dominant ideology of "harmony."

I met Lindtner at a CalIT2 workshop for graduate students on interdisciplinarity. The title comes from a statement by one of her informants.

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Corporations, Regulations, and The American Dream in Virtual Worlds

The next panel I attended at the Culture of Virtual World's conference, which was moderated by Paul Dourish, focused on how real-world laws, corporate culture, and popular mainstream Horatio Alger-type mythologies become factors in virtual environments.

Presenters Wendy Ark and Melissa Cefkin of the Almaden Reseach Center discussed how the training of employees in geographically dispersed offices could be managed by expert facilitators using the platform of a virtual world. In the case of a global corporation like IBM, this kind of knowledge about the proper handling of collaboration and corporate identity can be particularly advantageous since 40% of their employees work from home. Ark and Cefkin specialize in "business process rehearsal" and count government agencies among their clients. As someone who studies risk communication, I was interested to see that one crisis management scenario involved California's emergency medical services under the duress of a bio-warfare attack and that the IBM duo credit "social warning theory" as one inspiration for their work. The duo broke down the basic components of the deliverables they provide for their staging activities into the following inventory: observation (apprenticeship), costumes (roles), script (story), props (context), cameras (review), and intelligent objects (facilitation and data and assets). Another case study emphasized procedures in a transnational automobile manufacturer, where supplies may come from China but the parts are assembled in Mexico. Yet the online training of this "lynchpin" company certainly had what corporations euphemistically call "lessons learned." Of the original twenty participants, only three remained by the end. As one informant said, "I thought I could multi-task when playing the game, but this required a lot of effort." (For more about how workers involved in courses of online training may "cheat" or take advantage of desktop distractions, see the overview chapter on "digital rhetoric" in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book.)

Next Greg Lastowka, Rutgers law professor and co-founder of the blog Terra Nova, gave a talk on law in virtual worlds that may have been more ambitious in scope than the time allowed. Nonetheless, Lastowka managed to cover a lot of material before he got to his main topic, "virtual jurisdiction." Lastowka emphasized the potential economic importance of virtual worlds, given the hundred of millions of dollars at stake in real-money trades and the importance of virtual assets to subscribers who pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the corporate entities that own and run the games with draconian end-license user agreements. He raised a number of tantalizing questions in his talk. Should valuable in-game items earned in World of Warcraft by reported on income taxes? Could the unauthorized seizure of a castle in Ultima Online be analogous to a real world vehicle theft? As he pointed out the "widget factory" model doesn't work to describe virtual property, although it signifies more than "an entry in a database" to those who make meaning from activities involving its circulation. Lastowka discussed how Dutch police had busted Habbo Hotel furniture thieves, and how the benign neglect of virtual wrongdoing by local Chinese authorities could have real-world consequences in the case of the theft of a virtual sword in Legend of Mir III. He also argued that there could be both first amendment and intellectual property grounds upon which to challenge the legitimacy of click-through end-license user agreements, as in the case of those creating software to automate play in parts of World of Warcraft. However, he also cautioned against being too literal minded, given that a critical part of a game like EVE Online is to defraud and cheat other people. By making an analogy to the rules about assault that apply on an athletic field in which sometimes violent physical activity can be expected to take place, Kastowka emphasized how virtual jurisdiction could be understood in the post-Westphalian order of current-day critical legal theory.

Last up on the panel, Jeffrey Snodgrass and his students from Colorado State presented on their field study of World of Warcraft in a paper on "Internet Addiction or Restorative 'Magic Flight.'" Using Nick Yee's schema of six factors that motivate players in online MMO play, Snodgrass and his students played World of Warcraft and studied how "achievement" and "socializing" often trumped motivators such as "exploration," "immersion," "escape," and "manipulation" for both good and bad ends. His team argued that the "American dream" that emphasized acquiring capital -- in the form of both wealth and reputation -- and securing personal relationships worth bragging about could produce both pro-social and anti-social results. At a time when legislators are increasingly likely to regulate game play on the assumption that it encourages pathological addiction, while those same legislators are using it in both military training and K-12 education, this reseach could prove to be particularly relevant. At other times after his session, Snodgrass, an expert on India, reminded those in the conference of the origins of the word "avatar"in Sanskrit and the social function of puppetry in countries outside the United States.

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Wherefore Virtual Community

Although once taken as a kind of standard cliché in the field, the idea of online "community" has become increasingly likely of late to be interrogated among those who study the social practices that occur within and through virtual environments.

At the first session of this weekend's Culture of Virtual Worlds conference, moderator Mimi Ito pointed out that "community" often functions as a "normative concept" that represents at best an aspirational position and at worst a marketing pitch that obscures how virtual worlds function as social, technical spaces. Ito said that she wanted to focus instead on how reciprocity functions and the questions of how it is learned. Rather than classify these cultural structures as "communities," Ito describes them as "different forms of networked publics” that might be sites for personal display and interaction with technology but not necessarily manifest the forms of social relations that could be called "community."

Panelist Rebecca Black emphasized the notion of "affinity space" in lieu of mentioning the c-word of "community" in her presentation on "Hybrid Literacies and Identities in Online Fan Fiction Spaces." She presented research on English language-learning youth in the anime fan communities on fanfiction.net from a three-year study that examined both the fictions and the culture of reader-response around them. The heroine of the story she told was sixteen-year-old sixteen-year-old "Tanaka Nanako," a native Mandarin Chinese speaker, a tale that is also recounted in her chapter in A New Literacies Sampler. Black described how Nanako and her online readers and fellow writers trade advice and criticism that includes specific feedback that ranges from sentence-level usage and grammar to the mechanics of plot and character. Black charts how her protagonist goes from an earnest learner of a new language who is writing about popularity, peer pressure, first love, and academics in familiar contemporary settings such as concerts, sleepovers, parties, and classrooms to composing much more ambitious works about the intersections of her Chinese, Japanese and English linguistic and cultural identities that tell more complex stories about family structures, arranged marriage, and the position of women in Asian society.

Deborah Fields' paper on and "The Hidden Life of an Avatar: Race, Gender & Trading Face Parts" centered on the narrative of Zoe/bluwave, an African-American girl who was an active member of the 2D virtual world Whyville and its vibrant economy based on clams. Although researchers were sympathetic to Zoe's struggles as she strove to find racially suitable body parts to suit her real-world identity, which were apparently even more difficult to locate than heads in non-European colors, the academic observers discovered that Zoe also had a stint as scammer, where she attempted to bilk trusting novices out of their clams at the Trading Post.

Finally, Lily Irani's work on "communication assemblages" or "tactical assemblages" looked at two activist groups in Second Life: a group of disability activists organized around weekly conference-room style meetings and a gender/queer group that congregated at a dance club. Irani argued that there is a tendency among researchers to have a bias toward a particular technology of interest rather than looking at the full gamut of social-media platforms that make be part of navigating and socializing in virtual worlds, including IRC channels, blogs, online custom DIY products, blogs, and photo-sharing sites. Some of Irani's examples from the visual cultures of these groups were particularly interesting and cited frequently during the conversations taking place between sessions, including forms of "staged memory-making" and a shot titled "The Birth" on Flickr, which shows the culmination of a nine-week virtual pregnancy.

Irani also emphasized the importance of understanding the hybrid character of real world/virtual world interactions, which was epitomized in the case of one of her informants, who found the police at her door when an online companion became concerned about her well-being and reached out from the anonymous position of the virtual to the physical space of her apartment "through government." It's worth noting that instead of talking about "community," Irani paid homage to the work of Paul Dourish and the concept of "fluidly enacted management of audiences."

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Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ouch! That's Gotta Hurt!



In the new television ads from the "Above All" campaign from the U.S. Air Force, the emphasis on cybersecurity includes anxieties about ubiquitous computing devices such as cell phones and GPS systems, along with fear-mongering about online record-keeping by financial institutions. Wince as the satellite with all your personal information gets whacked by evil-doers.

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Yes, Your Crabbiness

It looks like I'm working on perfecting the most crabby expression possible in my delivery of naysaying messages. Now that I've switched from working on one project about the struggles of the government as a digital media-maker to another one about the struggles of academia as a site of interactive electronic content-creation, too many of my talks probably have a certain doom-and-gloom cast. As a rhetorician, I should probably work on smiling more on camera. Here I am lecturing to Peter Krapp's class about the Arden project and more generally about "Failure in Games." Slides are here.

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The Elephant in the Room

As someone employed in higher education who also works on the politics of intellectual property issues, I feel that I've omitted discussing what could be called "the elephant in the room" on this blog at all during the past year Unfortunately, HR 4137, the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2007, which was introduced by Congressman George Miller, is yet another piece of law designed to mandate that educational institutions police everyday digital media practices. Unlike the equally misguided DOPA, which sought to require schools and libraries to block access to social networking sites, there are even more powerful lobbies at work from the entertainment industry pushing specifically for more electronic monitoring of college campuses.

My better half was one of Miller's interns in his youth, so it's strange to associate this lawmaker's name with such a troubling piece of legislation. Although ostensibly about improving the dire financial aid situation of many college students, including returning veterans of the Iraq War who are finding themselves with much less than the GI Bill of the previous generation and who would otherwise be subject to increasingly predatory lenders, this proposal also contains what might seem to be a minor proviso that requires that certain kinds of peer-to-peer networks be disabled for institutions to be eligible for the federal student aid that the bill makes possible. The key wording is in Section 495, a "technical amendment" that specifies that participating colleges must do the following:

(1) make publicly available to their students and employees, the policies and procedures related to the illegal downloading and distribution of copyrighted materials required to be disclosed under section 485(a)(1)(P); and

(2) develop a plan for offering alternatives to illegal downloading or peer-to-peer distribution of intellectual property as well as a plan to explore technology-based deterrents to prevent such illegal activity.

The problem with this approach, as Alan Liu has pointed out, is that universities are ill-equipped to be "hall monitors" and that this focus on "policing rather than policy" inevitably means that IT people are forced to choose the most conservative interpretation of proper procedure out of fear of possible legal consequences from noncompliance. In short, this usually means disabling bit-torrent technologies first and foremost, despite the fact that there are many reasons to use this distributed system that takes advantage of a very efficient algorithm capable of reassembling packets of data that encode sounds and images. Unlike commercial online audio and video applications that strain bandwidth when more users access a given site, bit torrent functions even more rapidly with a larger pool of users. To documentary film makers and eyewitness activists with limited budgets for web hosting, these kinds of file-sharing technologies can allow much cheaper legitimate distribution of products by nonprofit creators.

Although Penn State President Graham Spanier once appeared in a regrettable industry-sponsored video, he is one of the signatories on this letter that complains that "the Secretary of Education" would become "an agent of the entertainment industry" as this administration official creates an annual list of the Top 25 campuses associated with illegally downloading. As Ars Technica has noted, the entertainment industry's figures on downloading have been notoriously inaccurate in the past. Furthermore, Spanier and other college presidents object to how college campuses are being singled out for selective punishment for a behavior taking place in many sectors of society. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has also been following the issue with concern.

Yet, as CNET reports, Democrats were solidly in favor of the intellectual property stance of the measure. The companies that make screening software also seem very happy with this direction in Congress, as this web page with a SafeMedia press release shows.

You can follow the progress of the bill for yourself here.

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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Age Before Beauty

RateMyYouth.com is the kind of website that sends shudders down my spine, since it invites viewers to speculate about the ages of narcissistic volunteers who submit their photographs, probably in the hopes of seeming unusually youthful or mature. My guesses were generally closer to the actual age of the person in the photograph than the average guesses of others. I would guess that this would have less to do with my powers of observation than it does with the design of the website, in which the prominently displayed median number looks to be an impossibly old fifty-four. This pseudo-collective intelligence website that borrows ranking conventions related to the "hot or not" or "kitten wars" genre clearly appeals to a youth-centric bias in many websites peddled to the Internet public by displaying those who are concerned with disguising their years and accrued life experience and by making "youth" to be the thing rated rather than "age." (RateMyAge is a porn portal, I discovered.)

This brings me to a rant that I've been meaning to make for a while, whenever I see grant programs aimed at "Digital Youth," conferences targeted to "Youth Culture," or opinion pieces about the "digital generation." Even if I think that papers about how Palestinian girls use cell phones are interesting, I think more prominent and well-funded scholars should be looking seriously at computer-mediated communication in the 30-70 set, the demographic in which policy is made and power relationships in families, offices, and political structures may really be changing the most.

The one thing the tut-tut mainstream media and celebratory people associated with certain philanthropic organizations share is this single-minded focus on the young, whether as multitasking anti-social cyborgs, naive potential victims of sexual predators, totally unconscious confessional strip-tease artists, or plucky little superheroes who are taking on industrialized education and the copyright establishment. It's all about "other" rather than self.

To the credit of people like James Paul Gee, there are certainly mature individuals willing to look seriously at their own discourse practices critically, but I worry that their disciples in game studies and Internet research are sometimes too much in love with the exotic digital young.

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The Care and Feeding of a Flickr Account

The online photo-sharing service Flickr makes claims to a particular kind of public rhetoric by using the trope of the "photostream" to establish some of the norms of the user community. It's a metaphor that suggests metonymy, a chain of related items but it also draws upon the associations we tend to make with small rivers and therefore suggests the organic, the ephemeral, and the subjective.

In one help forum, when a new Flickr user asked for a definition of the term "photostream" by others, this was the response from Wooble:

Organization based on anything other than order of upload is done through sets, collections, tagging, and, for those who hate the photostream metaphor an insist on trying to swim against the current, lying to the system about when photos were uploaded to make the stream appear out of order. This is about as frustrating as trying to make the water in a real stream flow out of order. It's best to just go with the flow.

As if to illustrate his point about the futility of trying to develop classification schemes for images, among Wooble's most recent contributions to his photostream, alongside the more conventional family pictures that might be associated with the traditional sharing practices of those in social networks, was this photograph of ice in a glass. Of course, it's a kind of statement about temporality, this ice, since Flickr is as much about the moment that is frozen as it is about the moment that flows.

In any case, the idea that Flickr is about discrete moments of perception is certainly part of its appeal. For example, I've been known to use it to post photographs of cell phone trees that I chance upon or to map minibars of the world. Futhermore, Flickr encourages people to post photographs that are outside of genres such as "family album" or "travelogue," which often could be described as genre pictures or still lifes. Julian Bleecker's photostream includes a Pepsi cap embedded in concrete cracks or a freshly squeezed lemon.

I've been thinking about this because of a picture that I saw this morning posted by John Aboud called "Peacock on my sidewalk." People often use Flickr for this kind of confluence of the usual and the unusual. If only you could have a kind of Flickr for audio clips, for snatches of interesting conversation, but ambient sound is usually gone before it can be recorded.

Because Flickr makes Creative Commons' licenses easily available, its images are also frequently repurposed for other kinds of rhetorical productions, including those that could be described as database-driven or representative of a database aesthetics, the theorizing of which is often associated with the work of Lev Manovich. PROJEK IAGHT(tm) uses images from Google and Flickr with search terms like "graffiti, body art, party, hiphop, kromp, iaght, DJ, breakdance, skateboard," and there is Blaise Aguera y Arcas's famed demo of Notre Dame images.

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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Internet is How You Know Who Your Friends Are

As people await the results of tonight's Pennsylvania primary, it is interesting to look back at this hotly contested state and the role that endorsements may ultimately be shown to play. Once traditionally disseminated through press releases, newspaper ads or editorials, or speeches staged as news events, endorsements have now migrated to digital media as well. An interesting case in point is the endorsement of endorsement of Barack Obama by former Clinton cabinet member Robert Reich on his Blogspot blog. In contrast, Bill Richardson made his endorsement of Obama with more public fanfare and TV coverage alongside the candidate in a stump speech that has been circulated widely through online video. These one-to-many media events on the Internet, whether through text or moving image, don't invite response, although in the case of the reactions of Clinton loyalist James Carville, they may get it nonetheless.

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The Networks Should Be Selling Soap Not the Soapbox

Despite "a call for broad distribution of presidential debate video" to allow voters to "upload it, YouTube it, share it, splice it, and 'remix' it online," ABC News has restricted reposting to thirty-second clips. In "a call on the RNC & DNC to eliminate unnecessary regulation on political speech," Lawrence Lessig put forward an argument for placing such footage in the public domain on first amendment grounds. However, The New York Times has reported in "Snippets of Debate Abounded Despite ABC’s Ground Rules" that the network's constraints have been widely ignored. Based on watching Comedy Central skewer the triviality of many of ABC's questions to the candidates, I would agree that cable news stations seem to have "treated the restrictions as mere requests."

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Babes in Arms

In matters related to law enforcement and adjudication in recent years, criminal defendants, victims, and accusers have all turned to the World Wide Web to make their cases. CaptiveFLDSChildren.org deploys images of pathos to argue that children should be returned to their family groups at the Texas polygamous sect. Videos such as "Happy Children at the Ranch," which ends with a sunset and script that reads "We Miss You Dear Children" and "Sad Captive Children" (both of which only play in Explorer) use visual rhetoric to convince sympathetic visitors to the site -- and potential donors to their pending legal cases -- that women and children were in a worse position after the raid by authorities. Obviously members of the sect are not entirely anachronistic in their attachment to the past in that they clearly had access to the kinds of ubiquitous recording devices that are increasingly likely to capture footage from searches and arrests for parties on both sides. It's interesting to also note how prominent the copyright symbol is on the group's site and how even the music "composed by an FLDS member" playing in the background is prominently copyrighted. In contrast the related site, FLDS Truth, has a very different tone, which emphasizes oil paintings of the patriarchs rather than any feminine presence on the ranch.

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Monday, April 21, 2008

Sports Trivia

Computer-mediated communication is fundamentally changing the relationship of fans and journalists to big-league professional sports with franchises in major cities. Today's story in The New York Times, "Tension Over Sports Blogging," described how ownership disputes about sports-related intellectual property are playing out in public spats in which owners and managers sometimes seek to deepen rifts between traditional journalists and their competitors in the blogosphere. For example, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who is ironically a blogger himself, has tried both strategies of exclusion and radical inclusion as ways to retain control over online media-makers.

“We’re not trading him to the Warriors,” said Mr. Cuban. “Bloggers might make that point.”

The comment was a bit of word play, but it illustrates how Mr. Cuban, a prolific blogger himself, feels about some of the bloggers who cover his team.

Last month Mr. Cuban sought to ban bloggers from the Mavericks’ locker room, but the National Basketball Association intervened, ruling that bloggers from credentialed news organizations must be admitted.

Mr. Cuban then decided to let in any blogger — “someone on Blogspot who has been posting for a couple weeks, kids blogging for their middle school Web site or those that work for big companies.”


According to the Times, now that many teams are limiting the length of video clips posted online, despite the fact that game play takes place in public environments in which many citizens carry devises for ubiquitous computing with them, some are challenging antitrust exemptions given to organized professional sports organizations.

Meanwhile, as NPR reports, fans in Seattle are using the Internet to fight attempts by the Sonics new owner to relocate their city's NBA team to Oklahoma City. Incriminating e-mails and relationship maps suggest that the buyer of the team has not been negotiating in good faith.

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In the Palm (Oil) of Your Hand



This Greenpeace-produced parody of the "Onslaught" viral video for Dove's "Campaign for Real Beauty" uses the rhetorical structure of a YouTube "response" video to critique the beauty industry's impact on the environment in an almost shot-by-shot satire. Instead of the Caucasian ginger-haired child depicted in the official version, the Greenpeace send-up features an Indonesian girl watching the jungle be destroyed to harvest palm oil. For a long time, feminist bloggers have taken issue with the company's message, given their production of anti-aging and skin-whitening products that propagate bias based on age and race. Now Talk to Dove is recruiting environmentalists to look at Dove's marketing pitches with a more critical eye.

In fairness to the commercial ad agency who produced "Onslaught," the Ogilvy office in Toronto, I have to say that Tim Piper, who posted the Dove ads on YouTube, and his colleagues were remarkably cooperative when I attempted to include images of their work in the Virtualpolitik book. The image at issue, a still from the "Evolution" video from the same campaign, was ultimately not incorporated in the book because of unresolved contract negotiations with the model.

(Via Marc van Gurp at Osocio.)

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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Animal Copyright?



According to this video, photographer Gregory Colbert is promulgating a weird hybrid of copyright protection and environmentalism through his Animal Copyright Foundation, which at one time was registered in the UK Intellectual Property Office. Now I'm no lawyer, but it seems that what Colbert is talking about is the right of publicity rather than copyright in his analogy to advertising spokespersons.

In a similarly themed TED talk, "poachers" are equated with those who infringe on the intellectual property of others, and "webcrawlers" and "bloggers" are also expected to be "stewards of this idea."

To those who study digital media, Colbert is also known for taking great pride in creating serene and surreal images of animal-human interaction without relying on any images that are "computer generated or digitally collaged." I must confess, however, that while I was impressed with the analog craftsmanship of many of Colbert's lush sepia-toned photographs in the Ashes and Snow exhibit, when the show came to Santa Monica, I was turned off by what seemed to me an all too similar iconography to the visual culture of the sexist colonial fantasies of the previous century that displayed undressed, mute women of color with European men and identified native peoples with nature rather than culture.

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The Gray Lady Gets a Dye Job

As The Los Angeles Times struggles with trying to find an identity that will protect its market share in an age of clickable, constantly gyrating content, it is interesting to look at the strategies of the "interactive" New York Times just in today's coverage. First, "How the Pentagon Spread Its Message" has a document archive that includes incriminating e-mails that reveal how Donald Rumsfeld was shielded by the Executive Branch from critics even within the military. Second, "Fold-Ins: Past and Present" is designed to recreate the haptic pleasures associated with the Mad magazine back page creations of Al Jaffee, which were much beloved as amusements in my youth. (When editing an issue of The Harvard Lampoon in college, I insisted on including a fold-in as an homage.) Third, in their globe-trotting video offerings, there is footage and slideshows to illustrate a story on "Chinese Nationalism on the Internet." These are three relatively obvious approaches to improve reader experiences by offering online digital video, archives of primary sources, and Flash interactive content for editorial offerings. Although they are no longer running videogames developed by VP pal Ian Bogost in lieu of more static political cartoons, "the Gray Lady" at least understands that a digital newspaper needs to do more than merely pursue supermarket-style tabloid or fashion journalism. Meanwhile, the LA Times is merely ramping up traditional celebrity and lifestyle stories for the supposedly vacuous denizens of the city, with only online video from AP to make checking out the digital content online.

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Saturday, April 19, 2008

What It Gives with One Hand It Takes with Another

A news story today about how "China tries to limit Internet vitriol toward the West" describes an interesting switcheroo for the nation known for using screening and surveillance technologies to persecute anti-nationalist dissident groups who question the authoritarian state structure, promote outlawed religious groups that challenge the government, or protest the ethnic hegemony of the Han Chinese over minority groups in the country. Although Beijing has been known to foment resentment against the West through nationalist bloggers and websites in the past, now they are apparently trying to tamp down xenophobia that may spoil visitors' impressions who travel to China for the upcoming Olympic games.

At the same time thousands of Chinese-Americans here at home lined Sunset Boulevard to call for dismissal of a CNN commentator who described Chinese citizens as "goons and thugs" who promoted an economy that only made "junk." In this case, however, it seems that the protests are making a statement against nativism and nationalism and an argument for mutually tolerant cosmopolitanism and globalism.

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Crossing Lines While Reading between Them

There is a bizarre story involving Wikipedia in today's Los Angeles Times, "Hacienda Heights high school student arrested in online threats." Instead of using e-mail, online video, or an online social networking site to post his menacing predictions of a school shooting, the teen chose to use the giant online encyclopedia by attempting to hold the entry describing his school hostage to his violent fantasies.

The first threat read: "On Friday, April 18, 2008, there will be a shooting at this school." It listed as targets the names of specific students, as well as "a good majority of the badminton team and almost every single fob." Other Wilson students said "fob" is a term they use for Asian students, although authorities said Friday that they believed the term could have several meanings.

The message also warned: "Take this text down and it will guarantee their death . . ."

Even as school police contacted the students named, district Supt. Barbara Nakaoka said a second threat appeared on Wikipedia.

The second threat read: "You removed my last edit. I gave you a fair warning. Now the people listed in my previous edit will be victims in the Glen A. Wilson Shooting to occur this Friday. Your lack of attention to the seriousness of my warning will now be the reason as to why you will receive all fault of this event. Be prepared to have 33 families mourn the loss of their children and place a lawsuit upon your shoulders."

What is interesting is that Wikipedia took the relatively rare step of purging the history of the electronic document, which given the FERPA regulations protecting the privacy of minors in educational programs would only be appropriate.

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Flame Proof

I've been thinking some about the dynamics of the electronic mailing list as it applies to extended families. In the era of digital communication, often announcements of family news are made via e-mail sent to multiple addressees who may -- in turn -- share their reactions and responses to these revelations among kin who are sharing the same channel. In the book that will be coming out next year, I write a lot about government e-mail and the ways that it travels -- or fails to travel -- between institutional stakeholders and how both bosses and underlings may engage in angry, seemingly inappropriate "flaming."

In the case of family e-mails that are posted in a collective forum, the rules about decorum that govern electronic interactions in professional environments are even less likely to hold. What Dubrovsky calls the "equalization phenomenon" of e-mail certainly further undermines conventional hierarchical structures in family dynamics, where otherwise silenced members can have the time to compose carefully orchestrated statements about rights and responsibilities. On the other hand, the e-mail list can also make manifest many kinds of inclusion and exclusion that elaborate the normal forms of "talking behind someones back" into well-developed mythologies. E-mail also rewards those who write good memos and are good at concise lawyerly rebuttals, which privileges interpersonal interactions that aren't always nurturing or inclined to include others in the narrative.

I've been a lurker during a series of heated exchanges involving cousins for the past week, reading messages that seem to have every possible kind of conflict imaginable (gender, generational, religious, class, etc.) and all kinds of rule-making and rule-breaking activities (wedding invitations, building dedications, customs of hospitality, religious conventions, travel planning, budgeting/home economics, and even institutional commitment and criminal sentencing as part of the back story). It's contentious and yet remarkably rich discourse that shows complicated people engaged in what Bill Readings has called "dissensus." The messages range from the agonistic to the dialectically critically reflective, but they are full of struggles being worked out in sentences and paragraphs.

At the same time I have a close colleague with whom I drive to work. She has started using an online social networking site to keep in touch with her adult children who are dispersed on other coasts and even continents. They hope to get closer by trading photographs and video clips to shorten the geographical distance between them. She describes the experience as "nice" and associates it with practices of sharing.

So here's my thesis: As geographically dispersed extended families choose to maintain kinship ties electronically through new social networking sites, where they just post pictures and status updates, rather than through older genres of computer-mediated communication such as e-mail lists where there are real possibilities for deliberation, something is lost in these sanitized corporate environments. Although there may be less conflict and angst at the level of individual discursive exchanges between family members, as Ian Bogost has argued in the case of campus relationships defined by Facebook, the pre-sets of the software constrain the kinds of sociality that can be expressed.

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Thursday, April 17, 2008

Paw Prints

Internet screening software in the schools has always struck me as faintly ludicrous because 1) schools should not adopt the policies of authoritarian regimes like China or Iran and 2) there's a lot of hardcore pornographic material that frequently has inoffensive titles that could get past any name-sensitive filter, such as "two girls one cup." (And I would advise you not to look it up, if for some reason you are unfamiliar with that meme.)

At my eleven-year-old's school, they apparently use St. Bernard Software, which my son pointed out with amusement seemed to mainly be designed to forbid students from Googling "games" while allowing them to easily search for "explosives."

From going to the company's website, I learned that their laudatory case studies prominently featured elementary schools and that the audience being policed appeared to go far beyond the pupils. For example, in the Greenwood district, we discover that the software was installed for "increasing student, teacher and staff productivity" and that they wanted to discourage "online purchasing for teachers" while still allowing administrators to take part in this kind of financial transaction. At the Harding Academy, their staff no longer has to "police" or play "detective," given the company's hard-working algorithm, although blocking access to "video streaming sites" would obviously block some of the best educational content on the Internet, particularly for history classes. In the case of the Kannapolis district criticism of a competitor's product could actually be read as damning of the whole proprietary cyber-safety software industry and the proprietary technologies and misguided legislation that feeds it.

Brenda McCombs, Instructional Technology Director for Kannapolis City Schools was less than happy with the results, even though it met the requirements of The Children’s Internet Protection Act. That software package frustrated Brenda and her staff and didn’t effectively filter many unacceptable web sites. While the students were happy they could beat the system to access porn and gaming sites, the staff was frustrated because they could not access web sites that they needed for their lesson plans. When Brenda attempted to unblock the sites, she was unsuccessful the majority of the time even though she was following explicit directions from the manufacturer. The teachers often had to quickly modify their lesson plans to present their concepts in a more traditional manner, which discouraged their use of technology integration the next time they planned a lesson.

Often there is a very explicit Taylorist subtext to their "success" stories that is expressed in language about "productivity" and "efficiency." Ironically, as I know from talking to my child, that the kids find workarounds and games away from top-ten sites or obviously titled web pages. After all, a game by any other name would be as fun, and the urge to play on the computer may be as irresistably strong as it is on the playground.

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Him and His Big Mouth

Even though The Los Angeles Times featured VP pal Barbara Bestor on the cover of its Home section today, there's clearly a lot going wrong in the other divisions of one of the nation's largest newspapers and one of the last to still have a bureau in Baghdad. Thanks to the ubiquitous presence of digital audio recording devices, journalists from other news organizations have revealed embarrassing confrontations involving the controversial owner of the Times Sam Zell.

NPR media-reporter David Folkenflik explains how a "Recording Shows Tribune Owner's Fiery Side" in one story, while Gawker uses video footage that shows how "Sam Zell Says 'Fuck You' To His Journalist."

Of course, no one's listening to my suggestions for how to save the LA Times.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Green Machine



This billboard on the streets of Los Angeles features the OLPC "$100 laptop" designed for low-cost distribution to the children of the developing world. I think there are some not insignificant design issues involved in the laptop. How it is used to market "The Green" on the Sundance Channel is not entirely clear.

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Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Fire Sale

That's right. You are looking at a slide by someone who does not know how to use PowerPoint, someone who has accidentally stretched out the map of the United States in ways never imagined by either pro or con Mercator projection geographers, merely because the creator of this presentation did not know how to turn off or work around Microsoft's terrible defaults for document design.

To give you still more confidence in the current administration's understanding of the importance of the word "communication," I have to point out that this slide came from the FCC presentation to Congress, when the controversial chair Kevin Martin appeared before the Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet to explain how -- in the recent 700 MHZ auction -- an important national resource had been divvied up among corporate speculators.

Although Martin painted a rosy picture of this virtual territory-grab, one of the commissioners, Michael Copps, disagreed.

But in important respects, as I warned when we launched our rules, we end up with the same old, same old. The nation’s two largest wireless carriers—who are also the nation’s two leading wireline voice and DSL providers—won roughly 85% of the licenses, as measured by value.

One of the more obvious "losers" in the bidding that day was Google, which didn't pick up any spectrum licenses. On the Google Public Policy Blog, corporate reps described the "cone of silence" procedures involved in the recent sale of parts of the telcom spectrum, but they also declared success by driving up bidding to reach the $4.6 billion reserve price that would trigger the "open applications" and "open handsets" license conditions.

Recently, I speculated about whether or not "open is the new organic," when thinking about how proprietary software giants like Microsoft have become converts to suddenly trendy openness advocacy. Check out "Our commitment to open broadband platforms" from Google for more.

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Monday, April 14, 2008

The Eye of Man Hath Not Heard; the Ear of Man Hath Not Seen

Virtualpolitik pal Ian Bogost was on NPR today in "Video Game Makers Favor Diversion over Depth."

I still find the idea of discussing such a visual, hands-on medium on the radio amusing, but Bogost 's dulcet tones included some good sound bites, and the broadcast didn't romanticize dreary educational games either. Julian Bleecker had some more of his reactions as a pedagogue here.

Update: Bogost is also in the news this week making comments about campus hysteria involving mixed-reality games that are played on college campuses with toy guns.

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Sunday, April 13, 2008

Dogging the Internet Catfight

In the twenty-four hour news cycle, this exploitative story about "3 Girls Arrested in Videotaped Beating" soon morphed into a news item with eight mugshots to illustrate how teenaged girls beat another girl into unconsciousness and then kept attacking her on camera while two boys stood guard outside.

Always reflective Fox News opined that the "Videotape of Teen Beating Raised Questions." Even though cable news stations showed the video over and over, they were quick to blame computer online service providers for the objectionable content that they counted upon to garner ratings.

CNN spokeswoman Barbara Levin said the cable news network has tried to place the video in the proper context.

"In reporting the story, we have gone to great lengths to explain that these young women face severe consequences for their actions, and in fact may be facing harsher sentencing because the videotape provides evidence of the nature of the attacks," she said in a statement.

YouTube, owned by Google Inc., declined to comment on the video, but said its general policies call for the removal of clips that show someone getting "hurt, attacked or humiliated."

From a legal standpoint, YouTube and other online service providers are largely exempt from liability because of a 1996 anti-pornography law. One provision says Internet service providers are not considered publishers simply because they retransmit information provided by their users or other sources.

Federal courts have applied that broadly to cover not just Internet access providers, but also video-sharing sites, message boards and other online services.

As many reporters noted, there was also a social networking connection, since the alleged cause for the beating was the young victim's supposedly objectionable communicative conduct on MySpace and in text messages. Although Salon magazine talks about the ridiculousness of this pseudo-moralism in "Don't blame YouTube, MySpace for teen beating video," Dr. Phil has apparently arranged to parade some of the girls before a television audience, so the spectacle can go on.

It's true that there is an online culture in the U.K. around "happy slapping" that takes pride in posting cell phone images of brutalized strangers, but that behavior lacks the salacious softcore porn that the "news" sells so well. Too bad that they don't show footage of citizens being brutalized in Burma or Egypt or other sites of documentary interest to human rights activists. Those online videos might actually change behavior.

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Reflecting the Outdoors or the Indoors?

Bloggers responded with amusement, as well as paranoid suspicions of photoshopped manipulation, when a picture of Vice President Dick Cheney was circulated on the Internet, which seemed to show the body of a naked woman reflected in his sunny day specs. The photo was undoubtedly authentic, however, because it came from an official album called "The Outdoors" on the White House website. The New York Daily News ultimately adjudicated the matter. It seems that this optical illusion was explained as Cheney's own arm grasping a fishing pole.

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Saturday, April 12, 2008

The Belly of the Beast

Redmond, Washington is probably best known in digital studies circles as the corporate home of proprietary software giant Microsoft, although companies like Boeing and Nintendo are also important in the region. Unlike Seattle, where this photograph was shot, the urban landscape of Redmond seems made up of mini-malls, industrial parks, and planned communities. We did stroll around one noteworthy Microsoft complex, which was meticulously landscaped around an artificial river and seemed more architecturally purposeful than the rest with its orientation around a two-story chalet style eatery.

My host, Professor Michael Aristidou (pictured above) teaches courses on fuzzy logic and quaternions at DigiPen, which had invited me to I give a talk about "games with publics." Quarternions are apparently non-commutative sets of numbers that are particularly useful for calculations involving three-dimensional rotations, which can be very important in computer animation and produce superior results in comparison to better known methods, such as matrices and vectors. Particularly now that procedural animation has become so important for lifelike effects and other kinds of interactive content, such as Crayon Physics, with which my household is currently obsessed, it's strange to see that even lay people with better than average numeracy have so little knowledge of these kinds of mathematical operations.

I went through a talk about game design and player subversion that emphasized five kinds of game audiences.

1) collaboration audiences (games, which can be single player as well as multiplayer -- that reward cooperation as well as competition in a reputation economy that is internal to the game)

2) elaboration audiences (games that inspire machinima, mods, and the production of new digital media in a reputation economy that may be external to the game)

3) opportunistic audiences (games that encourage users to share information about the game world, walk-throughs, cheat codes, etc.)

4) regulatory audiences (games that shock or awe legislators or members of the mainstream media who often condemn or laud games they have never played)

5) mixed reality audiences (games that lead to situated action in real-life cities or other public places and encourage exploration of the player's identity rather than that of a fictional character)

The slides for my talk are here, and the links to clips and websites I showed are here.

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Friday, April 11, 2008

Be Realistic Demand the Impossible

In his visit to the UC Irvine campus today, McKenzie Wark discussed the legacy of the Situationists, as Alexander Galloway had done the week before. But in commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Situationist International with an ongoing project that collects research and writing at totality.tv, Wark is also noting what has been left out of other retrospectives, such as the 1997 issue of October. In thinking about the issue of "recuperation," Wark argues that the Situationists have "never been recuperated enough."

Specifically, Wark proposes to examine what has been "left out," which he describes as chiefly "The Women" (with a group that included Jacqueline de Jong, Alice Becker Ho, and Michele Bernstein) and "The North Africans," who played a major role in the story of the Situationists as members from the colonies and former colonies.

Rather than express an anxiety of influence, Wark seemed pleased to discover once unconscious parallels between major themes among Situationist writing and media-making and his own work in books like A Hacker Manifesto and The Virtual Republic. As Wark pointed out, for the Situationists a "central category is play" and they also grappled with a number of "struggles around copyright" and advocated for the view of culture as common property, even if their "discursive relationship to the gift" wasn't always -- as Derrida has said -- unproblematic. For those like Wark who came of age in graduate school during a time of a Critical Theory that he described as "attuned to the past" and very specific objects of study, in recent years the Situationists have seemed to offer a way to "turn it back out to new publics and practices." Since the Situationists refused to copyright their work, in an act of resistance against capitalism, they were also at one point ripped off by an Italian publisher who attempted to take advantage of their seeming failure to secure protective claims to their work. According to Wark, in the absence of a Creative Commons license, this group of theorists had to resort to threats of physical violence in order to persuade the would-be opportunist not to reprint their work contrary to their wishes.

Given the criticisms of Geert Lovink in Zero Comments, I was interested in Wark's argument that blog software was not naturally well-designed for "theory," because the genre of the blog is best suited to "confession" and "argument." He described the irony of the embrace of the blog "Stuff White People Like" by the mainstream media establishment, because he described it as "about class not race."

At the same time, theoretical works appearing in print seemed to be suffering from what Charles Bernstein described as "frame lock" and "tone jam," when Wark argued what was needed was the equivalent of a bit torrent approach.

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Eggs on Slow Heat

McKenzie Wark came to the Irvine campus yesterday morning to discuss his book project GAM3R 7H30RY, which was actually developed as a text online with the input of readers and then updated still further after being printed by Harvard University Press. In his quest for the meaning of a "shared text" of the kind that Wark argued music or television programs can no longer offer, Wark claimed that videogames presented an opportunity to "take a familiar object and make it strange." Moreover, he described his rationale for focusing on single-player games in terms of his intention to reflect on "human interaction with a machine." Before the room of student game designers, he also confessed to his own relatively weakness as a videogame player and his particular struggles with attaining competence in Civilization III, where he depended on the play skills of others to level up.

Wark was careful to differentiate himself from the celebratory culture around fandom promoted by Henry Jenkins several times during the course of the day and at one point described the value of treating a game as an "object of indifference." Furthermore, he described his own lack of enthusiasm for MMO games, because scholarly interest in the economic, social, and political activities going on -- with the work of Edward Castronova as Wark's prime example -- was "not just about the game and game play."

He did find some kinds of ethnography in World of Warcraft worth pursuing for their pedagogical value, but Wark also said that he "hated" Second Life and observed that when he took his classes in to explore the virtual environment, he said that he frequently only met others there touring with classes. As a "class of object that fits the college environment too neatly," he compared Second Life to the MOOs of the previous century.

In Gamer Theory, Wark compares the shadow plays in Plato's famous "Allegory of the Cave" in the Republic to videogames, in that -- as my Cooper translation says -- "honors, praises, and prizes" are awarded to those who are "sharpest at identifying the shadows as they passed by" or "best remembered which usually came earlier, which later, and which simultaneously," much like classic arcade games that rely on pattern recognition activities. Unfortunately, the Perseus Project is currently down or I would have checked the original Greek for its game-like synonyms.

By using this famed parable about the reflective life, Wark points out how the rest of everyday life in our contemporary culture has become game-like, from the casino betting involved in retirement plans to the opportunistic strategizing required for dating. Thus the rules for real life seem comparatively arbitrary and opaque, while the rules of games can be intuited through careful observation in the course of play. Wark claims that games make us more likely to "hold everyday life accountable." In meditating about this procedurality in my own daily interactions, I've cited Ian Bogost's work, but I could see how Wark's inverted latent Platonism could also apply.

Yet Plato also argued that situated media would encourage the young to give in to their violent passions in the spirit of imitation. However, contrary to the messages in the mainstream media, Wark argues that videogames are fundamentally divorced from violent experiences or the desire to do others physical harm as the aversion of gamers to the 2001 electrical shock experiments in Tekken Torture seems to show. As the parent of two young gamers who are also rugby players, I definitely here more talk about real-world aggression and hurt in the latter venue than the former.

Wark insisted that "forms have their time," and just as the novel did "specific cultural work" in the era of the rise of the bourgeoisie and the industrial economy, the videogame may be performing operations that may have relevance outside of the CPU, the screen, and the win conditions of an individual user's play experience, especially now that poetry has become what he called a "minor form."

To explain how the game functioned "as form not representation," he emphasized the constitution of a game as an algorithm, which in turn he felt compelled to define. An algorithm, Wark asserted had a beginning and end directed by a procedure designed to generate a result. Like others asked to define an algorithm, he also came back to the familiar analogy of a recipe. In his case, it was a very specific recipe with only one ingredient: scrambled eggs. Scrambled eggs, Wark counterintuitively declared, required no butter or oil, since there was sufficient fat in the egg itself to promote thorough and even cooking and prevent adhesion, if the heat was appropriately low. In the question-and-answer session, Wark argued that this kind of algorithmic thinking was very different from the mathematics of the ancient Greeks and the world of Plato and Aristotle. (Yet I couldn't help but make a mental note that as early as Homer, the test of civilization was to be among "men who eat bread" and thus sufficiently evolved to have mastered an understanding of the notion of a recipe.)

Here's what I once wrote about defining an algorithm:

An algorithm is any set of computable steps designed to achieve a desired result. It is named after a ninth-century Persian mathematician, Al-Khawarizmi, who wrote a famous book about the rules of arithmetic. Technically, an algorithm must reach a result after a finite number of steps, thereby ruling out “brute force” approaches to a given problem, which can run indefinitely until the desired result is reached.

To understand what an algorithm is, watch any action and try to break it up into a series of distinct steps: a baby crawling up a staircase, a pigeon flying away with a crust of bread, a gardener watering a bed of flowers. Each movement can be divided into smaller isolated movements to make a “program.” The algorithm can be more or less efficient. Change the steps or tinker with the sequence, and the action can be done more quickly or with less effort. The baby advances more confidently. The pigeon gets away more gracefully. The gardener waters more flowers per hour.


I was less sure about Wark's definition of the literary term "allegory" for the undergraduate audience, which sounded like more narrow "typology" to me, but the argument that followed about how "all games are digital without exception" was definitely soundly illustrated, despite the fact that Wark admitted to being more comfortable making analogies to cricket than to basketball, given the fact he is a native to Australia. As an inveterate Dodgers fan, I liked his thought experiment about "what if calls in baseball were like comments about wine."

Although obviously at issue, this argument went beyond simply observing win and lose states. For example, he objected to those who insisted that The Sims was not a game, since one could "level up" and "top out." He also pointed out how much The Sims looked like Orange County, where the U.C. Irvine campus is located. In closing, Wark surveyed how different audiences might accept this binary ordering and yet still invent new goals, which could include the following four choices: Play, Not Play, Cheat, and Trifle.

Wark's own early videogame initiation with Space Invaders had to do with pub culture, gendered spaces, and the social dynamics of buying rounds as well. As table-top interaction, it definitely sounded better than Microsoft Surface. But it may not compare to the bar game with which many men in Providence, Rhode Island were once obsessed. My pal, Clinton-insider and pundit Ted Widmer, who now directs the John Carter Brown Library back in his home town, once took me to see this hole-in-the-wall drinking establishment, where patrons played an automated bowling game. It was said that anyone who bowled over 300 died shortly afterward, so there was a lot of suspicion and folklore about the game.

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Thursday, April 10, 2008

The PowerPoint at the End of the Universe

Last night I went to see a public lecture by Stephen Hawking at the California Institute of Technology and thought about how his use of the presentation software PowerPoint could also be thought about in terms of disability politics. (Check out the design of Hawking's webpage and its sensitivity to those with visual or auditory handicaps.) Often derided by information designers, such as Edward Tufte and Mark Bernstein, PowerPoint could be seen as having certain virtues, if the speaker can not literally speak. Using a muscle in his cheek, the now very seriously disabled Hawking managed to hold the attention of the overflow crowd, despite the bullet points and cartoony graphics. He also chose five questions from Cal Tech students -- including queries about possible space colonies and popular fears that the CERN supercollider in Switzerland could tear apart the universe -- to answer with pre-programmed responses during the Q&A.

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How Could This Not Have a Million Views?



Admittedly, I come from an organ-building family, but -- still -- who wouldn't be transfixed by a man who has built a pipe organ in his basement.

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Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Eye of the Beholder



Of course the big digital media story today was the launch of video on Flickr, the popular photo-sharing site owned by Yahoo! Rhetorically, I was interested in how they might want to propagate the ethos of the evanescent "photostream" in the format of online video when their competitor -- YouTube -- emphasizes certain attention-grabbing kinds of footage intended for viral distribution. After all, this is a company, where users can also look at the photostream of "The Team" running the site.

As the FAQ explains, however, film clips are restricted to ninety seconds, which means even the lyrical showpiece example above from "Tanzania School Choir," which was at the top of their samples on their blog, gets cut off before the students can even finish their song. I'm also interested in how "simple" functions as a key buzzword and the way that Flickr capitalizes on the marketing strategies of the so-called "Simplicity Movement" with their emphasis on "the idea of 'long photos,' of capturing slices of life to share," as opposed to what the editors clearly consider to be tacky full-length wedding videos.

I love Flickr, even though I'm a bit behind on geotagging my collection of photos of minibars of the world or transferring my album of cell phone trees to the site, but this new service is also an obvious attempt to further monetize their corporate enterprise by encouraging more content-creators to pay for service with a "pro" account.

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Something Other Than 8-10 Double-Spaced Pages

On this blog, I've looked at some of the pedagogical experiments with social media in classes taught by Alan Liu, Alexandra Juhasz, Michael Wesch, Trebor Scholz, and my SCIWRITER colleague Mark Marino.

These two videos from Siva Vaidhyanathan's "Introduction to Digital Media" provide still more interesting examples of student-produced work in an undergraduate academic setting, which also borrow from the genres of music video as well.





Via Sivacracy.

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Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Words in the Clouds

As in the case of his testimony before the House in September of 2007, the Senate testimony of General David Petraeus featured a number of PowerPoint slides that provided visual displays of quantitative information to his legislative audience. Petraeus used many of the rhetorical conventions of this common corporate genre, including the use of cloud graphics as icons around seemingly less tangible factors in the conflict like "Politics." It is worth noting that the controversial "Detainee Ops" on this chart was relegated to the end and a mere rapid-fire mention.

Despite his team's obvious use of software in the process of composition, in performance, Petraeus chose to de-emphasize the aspects of computer-mediated communication that would be more apparent if he had chosen screen projection technology. Watching the testimony live this morning, where the PowerPoints appeared in old-school hard-copy as paper charts that were flipped by an unseen person who also pointed out key details with a pointer, I noticed how quickly Petraeus moved through what were quite complicated data sets. For example, in the image above, the picture for civilian deaths isn't one of marked progress, given the total set of values and the in-points and out-points of the chronology. Furthermore, it tacitly acknowledges that "coalition data" may have been underreporting the numbers.

Unfortunately, since this is an election season, with three Presidential candidates on the two relevant committees, those speaking at the session often didn't engage with either the content or the digital rhetoric of Petraeus's presentation in any significant way.

The only committee member that I heard engage with Petraeus's information representation was Senator Mark Pryor of Arkansas. For example, Pryor pointed out that the fact that more weapons caches had been found may also indicate that more arms were flowing into the country across borders by sympathizers with the insurgents. He also noted concerns based on a figure labeled "Iraqi Combat Battalion Generation" with how the critical green and yellow parts of the bar indicating combat readiness had failed to grow.

In Petraeus's responses during the Q&A period with senators, I was also interested in how he discussed how soldiers perceive his televised appearances during the Congressional oversight process and the fact that Petraeus reported receiving numerous "e-mails" from "all ranks" of the armed forces in the "feedback" process.

Although U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker did not use information graphics, he did employ its lexicon by saying that the tendency toward progress could be seen, although the "slope of that line was not steep."

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