Saturday, December 31, 2005

Auld Lang Syne

As a holiday, New Year's Eve always has a certain apocalyptic flavor to it, so it is perhaps fitting to preview the soon-to-be-released Left Behind Games that will capitalize on the success of Tim LaHaye's popular series of evangelical thrillers by creating an associated Christian video game line. In the game's trailer, the scenes of urban destruction look very much like the CGI smoldering landscapes of European civic desolation from the webpage for the National Front. Nonetheless, Left Behind: Eternal Forces appears to be a quintessentially American game situated in a timeline of United States history (starting with 1492) and ending with the skyline of New York City wreathed in smoke.

The satisfactions of interactive virtual simulations of urban destruction designed specifically for the small screen can be rendered by remarkably primitive interfaces, such as that of the Defend New York Flash game that appeared shortly after the September 11th attacks. Unlike Christian first person shooter games that involve close combat with Satan's minions in the antiquated private spaces of a catacomb or a late-medieval fortress, the Left Behind games have a more ambitious anti-urban agenda that entails the wholesale destruction of the architectures of present day man-made public space.

(For more about this fast-evolving genre, see the religious games section of Water Cooler Games.)

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Boxing Day

Today's story in the New York Times, "What Lara Croft Would Look Like if She Carried Rice Bags," about the new "serious game" from the United Nations World Food Program, Food Force, shows how such games have managed to garner support from unlikely corporate sponsors, in this case from the beefy legions of the N.F.L.

In the game, a food crisis is brewing in exotic fictional "Sheylan," an island in the Indian Ocean much like Sri Lanka, which is suffering from the effects of global climate change, environmental degradation caused by the demands of an unsustainable regional economy, and an endemic civil war.

To minimize the crisis, the player can join a local nutritionist, a Brazilian pilot, a Nigerian food purchaser, or a ponytailed American logistics officer in Lara Croft boots and shorts. After a cursory briefing from the back of a bureaucrat's head and a depersonalized bank of video monitors, the player assumes the role of a U.N. rookie, armed only with a laptop.

With the exception of the truck driving ground logistics section, most of the tasks in Food Force required little dexterity or rapid reaction time. The Lara Croft character scolded me for my lousy roadside skills, but the other UN avatars were encouraging as I completed simple drag-and-drop manipulations of staple ingredients, shipping containers of food donations, and the components of a village master plan. Given the simplicity of the tasks, the choice to do any 3-D modeling of the virtual reality environment seemed a mismatch to the game's limited functionality. Variations of the same games in Flash exist on many government websites for children for considerably less development cost.

Food Force signals both "the game" and "the reality" of hunger in the headings on its main navigation bar. Ironically, the "reality" site often presents a more facile and less chaotic view of hunger crises around the globe than the game's gritty low-rez playscape. For example, the "reality" portion includes a photo gallery with only upbeat images of relief workers and grateful recipients.

(As a prime example of efficiency in information design, I am always partial to maps, but I thought that even the interactive map of Food Force gave relatively little information about the complex economic and political factors that contribute to widespread hunger.)

There are other ways that hunger is wearing a corporate brand. A visits to the homepage of US AID (one of the few federal government pages with no children's website) shows how carefully the branding of US AID is policed on their website, with approved typefaces, colors, and compositions specified, and heterodox variations marked out for graphic shame.

The directives on imagery from US AID are particularly doctrinaire about the acceptable visual rhetoric for appeals for aid programs, as can be seen in the instructions below. (Click image to enlarge.) So, please no images of famine or genocide that "showcase despair."

Those interested in other U.S. branding efforts might find this site well worth visiting: America Supports You. These graphic materials, which are hosted on a U.S. military website, present easy-to-print logos for ball caps, coffee cups, t-shirts, and grocery bags.

Of course, the graphic standards manual of America Supports You warns against funny business like making the word "You" larger than "America" or "Supports" or the wise-acre use of green instead of the official blue on the heaving chest ribbon with the dog tag.

In other words, official government websites do much more than simply present a distinctive approach to visual rhetoric in their graphical displays of political ideology; now they also regulate possible counterfeit or otherwise illegitimate uses of the brand.


Saturday, December 24, 2005

Gone Fishin'

Liz Losh is on vacation. However, she is still reading e-mail and hopes that readers will continue to send politically relevant links and files during the winter break.


The War We've Been Waiting For

Am I the only one in America who knows that we are planning an invasion of France? Perhaps not. The Army video Future Combat Systems: 2005, introduced by General Peter Schoomaker, is easily accessible from the World Wide Web. In the film we see "Assault on Normandy 2014" in which it appears our boys take on those pesky Frenchmen with their very best high tech gear. Of course, I'd like to believe "Normandy" is a code name . . . or just a metaphor for a daunting military front.

But looking at the actual video with its swarthy opponents, ominous buildings covered with Arabic graffiti, and streets of burning cars, I couldn't help but wonder if the U.S. armed forces weren't planning to start their occupation of the land of liberty, equality, and fraternity in the territory of the recently rioting French suburbs.

Don't get me wrong. No one is a bigger Francophile than I am, but if it means I get to eat better cheese, then I guess I'll have to go along with it.

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Friday, December 23, 2005

Wish List

All I want for Christmas is more evocative Internet based art! Last December, I was lucky enough to see Listening Post at the Skirball Cultural Center. The installation, which previewed at the Brooklyn Academy of Music shortly after the September 11th terrorist attacks, was designed by statistician Mark Hansen and sound artist Ben Rubin. Rubin was also involved in an interesting installation about the proprietary software of Diebold voting machines.

For an Internet cyborg like myself, the experience was more gratifying than prose can render. The Skirball "Listening Post" consisted of over two hundred screens that channeled words from nearly live feeds pulled from thousands of Internet chatrooms registering activity predominantly in English. The glowing patchwork of words and phrases displayed as undulating text, and periodically the visitor heard a symphony (or cacophony) of voice-synthesized readings of these screens aloud. After capturing the flotsam and jetsam of cyberspace, Hansen and Rubin used algorithmic compositions to organize the chat into "scenes" to "allow the data to speak intelligibly." The project was designed to "zoom in" and "zoom out" on specific news events and syntactical constructs of grammatical agency, like "movements" organized around the phrases "I am" or "I like." Yet these staccato sound bites could only begin to boast, mourn, announce, explain, blame, lecture, hector, and apologize before being replaced by other fragments from the Internet.

Hansen and Rubin credit composer Xenakis and his work on "political crowds" as inspiration. They also recently did an installation called Sign Language that displayed texts from online news sources, which were particularly evocative after the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Hansen is currently working on "slogging" or the way that art installations, scientific projects, community initiatives, and even political states can record information from individual sensors to create a record of collective activity. I admire Hansen's work, but I still resist the idea of such a total information awareness environment. It sounds too much like the Army's "Every Soldier is a Sensor" campaign (described in this snappy promotional video).

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Thursday, December 22, 2005

Are Those Who Can't Surf the Web Drowning?

If you are reading Dickens this Christmas or contemplating how to alleviate mass misery in your own community, it's worth considering how better information design could counteract the general Scrooginess of government websites that serve the most desperate and needy.

Recently, I encountered a story in the Los Angeles Times called "Program to Fight Human Trafficking is Underused" about how the T-Visa program is hardly getting any takers, despite the fact that it grants victims of forced confinement or involuntary servitude a three-year visa to encourage them to testify against their captors.

My first thought was that the website for the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services probably wasn't well designed for workers from Third World and former Soviet countries seeking to escape the makeshift cells, brothels, sweatshops, and restaurant kitchens where they're held against their will. And I was right. The site was almost impossible to navigate with an overly long FAQ organized by arcane alphabetized entries. (Going back, I figured out that the relevant information should have been under "V" for "victim," although the Victim Witness Brochure that might have explained everything went to a dead link.)

The search features weren't any better. "T-Visa" in the search box output this tongue-twister of a top result: "Abstract: Provisions of the Immigration Act of 1990. The Immigration Act of 1990 revised the numerical limits and the preference categories used to regulate legal immigration. It also established several transitional programs that ended in FY 94. The Act's primary provisions are summarized below."

"Servitude" and "Trafficking" and "Forced Labor" produced a similarly confusing list of complex regulations and immigration history PR. At least when I put it baldly and entered the word "Slavery," I was directed to these nifty civics flashcards! (And I knew almost all the answers too!)

In other words, if I were an English-speaking, highly literate, technophile who had just escaped from a "safe" house and wanted to tell the authorities that there were a bunch of coyotes in a nondescript tract home in a suburban community who were amusing themselves by mailing their hostages' fingers to their loved ones back in El Salvador to extort more ransom, I'd have no way to find out about the T-Visa program.

It's true that many people in dire situations have no access to a computer with an Internet connection . . . but there might be a relative, friend, priest, community worker, or legitimate employer who does. There's no excuse for bad information design.

After reading another LA Times story, "Seniors Not Told of Drug 'Bridge,'" I noticed that even a week after the story broke when abashed officials promised a mass mailing to notify low-income seniors of a program for which it was already too late to get the full 100 day benefit before expiration at year's end, information providers still weren't plugging it on the Medi-Cal site that served those very same clients. (This site also includes the worst online tutorial I have ever seen!)

At the risk of not being taken seriously, I'd suggest putting things like BEING HELD CAPTIVE? or OUT OF MONEY FOR MEDICINE? in easy-to-find navigation bars on these sites.

In the good news department:
  • See November 18 of this blog for a list of real rarities: user-friendly federal government sites.
  • On November 25th in this blog, you can read about how the Mexican government provided far more useful information about human trafficking to its citizens.
  • Yesterday's blog is also about another unusually well-designed government page, as is the blog from December 12th. It is interesting that both of these sites appeal to popular political issues for law-and-order constituencies.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Mapquest the Bad Guys

Now that children are home for the holidays and playing in parks and on the street more often, it's worth considering how certain features of the Internet allow for the surveillance of community space. Information about local sex offenders in California can now be gotten from the state's Megan's Law website or from the federal version from the Department of Justice. Both sites include close-up color photos of the perpetrators that are cropped like menacing familiar faces cut out of the family album rather than mugshots. They also include the type of crime committed, distinguishing features, and possible aliases. The opening page of both sites brings the visitor to a map. However, the state site contains much more specific information about the person's exact location, to the extent of providing a Mapquest style map with zoom and recentering capability.

As a former employee of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services, I am well aware of the long-term psychic damage that sexual abuse can do. This causal relationship was just recently re-emphasized in the New York Times profile "Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World," about how new intersections of technology and adolescent curiosity can promulgate dehumanizing sexual contracts between unequal parties. And it is true that the offenders that I saw on the state and federal sites seemed to be manifestly scary individuals and potential dangers to their communities, by virtue of the seriousness of their prior crimes.

But I also found myself having several reservations about these incredibly user-friendly sites for locating sexual predators, which I noticed had much better interfaces than most government websites. First, registered sex offenders can include many classes of perpetrators. Arguably, those who have committed computer crimes that only involve downloading illegal pornography without either "live" or "virtual" contact may not deserve the designation, given the relatively victimless nature of the offense. Furthermore, some women involved in protests against the Iraq war or for women's rights issues like breastfeeding in public have been charged with indecent exposure and found themselves fighting the registration requirement. Finally, homosexuality has only recently been decriminalized in some states, since anti-gay statutes were finally ruled unconstitutional by the Rehnquist Supreme Court.

Certainly, the ease of access to exact location information could enable vigilantee justice, even if users are required to click on a button that agrees to certain conditions of use. In my own city, I know of a case where the family members -- including minor children -- were also subject to intimidation by incensed neighbors.

What if there were such user-friendly maps to the homes of abortion providers on anti-abortion websites? Many people consider abortion to be a crime against children that is similarly reprehensible to their communities. The most enraged among them have decided to use armed force against doctors and administrators found by traditional location tools.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2005

The Really Important Iraqi Election

Don't Forget to Vote! Time is running out to elect the winner in the Iraq the Model banner contest. Of course, those who are unfamiliar with Iraq the Model and who haven't read stories like "Pro-American Iraqi Blog Provokes Intrigue and Vitriol" in the New York Times might not know about the controversy surrounding the site, which critics allege to be a CIA front.

The ITM blog first appeared in November 2003 and was advertised as the product of a triumverate of Iraqi brothers. It was winning "best blog" contests by 2004 by margins that would make any international electoral observer suspicious. Such acclaim was particularly mysterious, because ITM lacked the obvious literary merit of the work of more competent Iraqi wordsmiths who were getting book deals, such as Salam Pax of Where is Raed or the author of Riverbend.

After ITM brother Ali sent his December 19, 2004 "Dear John" letter resigning from the blog at the height of the media frenzy, many thought that Iraq the Model would go dark. Once the first of the three founding brothers left, the remaining two would surely follow . . . wouldn't they? But one year later the naysayers have been proven wrong, and if anything this duo of dentist-bloggers seems to have inspired more imitators who simultaneously wave the U.S. and Iraqi national flags. In fact, the Iraq the Model site is apparently in such good health that it will soon be getting a webstyle make-over for the start of the New Year.

So, to help you visualize how each Iraq the Model banner might wave in cyberspace over their staunchly pro-occupation blog, this webpage has some sample mock-ups to help you decide.

Remember, I'm counting on you to cast your ballot before the polls close on Thursday.

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Monday, December 19, 2005

Welcome to the Desert of the Unreal

Yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Disaster Is Not a Game -- or Is It?" on how "'fun' video simulations are helping to train emergency workers in catastrophic response" features the work of epidemiologist Colleen Monahan of the University of Illinois at Chicago, a developer for Public Health Games. According to Gamasutra, "The first scenario in the project simulates a bioterrorism response focused on training thousands of people to dispense mass amounts of drugs and vaccines in the wake of an anthrax attack."

The article also discusses Virtual Iraq, a simulation based on the game Full Spectrum Warrior that is designed to treat the intense post-traumatic stress disorder being experienced by veterans returning from the Second Gulf War. The company that produces Virtual Iraq, Virtually Better, also makes "Virtual Vietnam," as well as "Virtual Airplane," "Virtual Heights," and "Virtual Audience" for phobic patients with more pedestrian disorders.

Hazmat: Hotzone, developed by graduate students at Carnegie Mellon, includes possible terrorist attacks faced by the New York Fire Department and is also listed in this LA Times inventory of serious games.

In "Welcome to the Desert of the Real," written in the days between "traumatic event" and "symbolic impact," Slavoj Žižek asserts that the September 11th bombings could finally force Americans to experience some of the violence and privation of the rest of the world, from which the U.S. has been shielded by an artificial but ideologically comforting socio-economic, political, and cultural virtual reality environment.

Ironically, terrorist attacks within our national borders have actually encouraged our government to generate ever more virtual worlds in response.

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Sunday, December 18, 2005

Holy Hoaxes!

In the spirit of the season, I was interested to hear reports of a True Christian mod for the video game Unreal Tournament in connection with a DAC presentation by Cynthia Haynes called "DisArmaggedon Army: Of Gods, Mods, and God Mode Rhetorics" about how God's eye play and religious ideology could be related. This story about Bible Based Maps and Characters that supposedly "works to give jesus god mode, but not any other players" was of particular argumentative value to me, because I have written about the military video game Tactical Iraqi, which also uses the Unreal engine, albeit for the purpose of teaching soldiers Arabic and certain regional rules for politeness. When I went to the site Haynes cites, however, I discovered that a few extensions back on the URL indicates that the report is from a parody site. But thanks to Haynes's panel, I also learned about a video installation that uses the first-person shooter interface to send e-mails to the President during game play.

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Saturday, December 17, 2005


No update on the Justice Department website on the PATRIOT Act, now that the Senate has momentarily filibustered against extension. Unfortunately for critics of rhetoric seeking more Internet ethos, Attorney General Gonzales changed his PATRIOT website from a blog format to a press release format several weeks ago, and he hasn't changed his "Quote of the Day" for a while. Nothing is sadder than an abandoned blog.

Yesterday's story in the New York Times, "Bush Lets U.S. Spy on Callers without Courts," about domestic surveillance that was authorized by the President and conducted by the National Security Agency without judicial approval certainly didn't help the outlook for the bill's eventual passage.

Speaking of this highly secretive agency, I discovered that the NSA webpage has a truly hilarious kids' site, as you can see from one of the mascots I have included in this post. The main NSA webpage also has a dramatic Flash opening with an audio montage that reminds one of the unbelievably surreal National Reconnaissance Office rock video. To give the NSA site credit, if you drill down you can also find primary sources like archival Venona documents from the highly successful Cold War decryption project with actual incriminating messages about Julius Rosenberg and the Freedom of Information Act indexing of materials with possible UFO-related terms.

With advances in ubiquitous computing, traditional wiretaps may eventually become relics of the past. A story in the Los Angeles Times that appeared the same day, "FBI Questions Student about High School Doodle," reporting on a teenager who was also questioned by the FBI regarding images on his cell phone, shows how the civil liberties debate must adapt to new technologies. In the Elk Grove district case, an informant told law enforcement that the student had pictures of suicide bombers on his cell phone; the student insisted that the only picture he had on the phone was a picture of a mosque.


Page Not Found

Even if you don't agree with aspects of an author's work, as I did recently with The Language of Websites by Mark Boardman (Routledge, 2005), you can appreciate how scholarly activity fosters the preservation and circulation of digital ephemera. For example, I found an image of this webpage in Boardman's book, which I appreciated both for its subversive political content and the creator's attention to highly specific web conventions. (Click on image to enlarge.) This parody error page that reads "These Weapons of Mass Destruction cannot be displayed" plays with form and content in a number of ways by turning a failed search into what seems to a starting point for research, although the links that are followed lead only to cues for consumption on

I admire the fact that Boardman's book close reads web pages for their typographical, syntactical, and metadata features. What's valuable about the book for me is his discussion of web genres, but it's also where I took issue with overly broad generalizations that immediately suggested multiple counterexamples.

In particular, Boardman suggests that "institutional websites" are less significant to critics, because personal websites are where the "real publishing revolution has come." Boardman claims that institutional sites are more like traditional print media, because the institution has the legitimating power to wield corporate authorship and thus publish only approved and internally consistent versions of text. This may be generally true, but it is an oversimplification, given the complexity and density of many institutional sites. There is plenty of subversive content on institutional websites: one can find everything from Bertolt Brecht poems to Al Jazeera transcripts on URL's from the federal government. Furthermore, based on my own research, I would argue that institutions are characterized by ideological tensions and battles between competing stakeholders: that's what makes them of interest to me as a rhetorician.

Websites are expected to do a lot more than simply provide PR for an institution: they provide reports, speeches, hearings, open letters, and even certain statistics that are mandated by law to be disclosed. Even when authorship of a policy document appears to be masked by an anonymous collective of bureaucracy, embedded code can contain information about rhetorical and compositional history. For example, Frank Rich of the New York Times recently wrote in "It Takes a Potemkin Village" that a few keystrokes worked upon the original National Strategy for Victory in Iraq PDF that was released by the White House indicated who the real author was: "Peter Feaver, a Duke political scientist," whose specialty is public opinion not nation building.

Boardman gives the example of of the homepage of Salford University (which of course has been subsequently completely redesigned) to show how stuffy institutions want to signal "permanence and tradition" with serif fonts, while still impressing the visitor as "contemporary and modern" with sans serif ones. Although it is true that institutional websites often use what Boardman calls "syntactic minimalism," there are also many fully developed specimens of rhetoric, often highly modulated through an individual ethos. For example, a controversial speech about women in the sciences by Lawrence Summers, the president of my undergraduate alma mater, is located on the university website, as is his mea culpa from a few days later. (The whole genre of apologies on institutional websites is actually quite fascinating.)

There are more problems with Boardman's book than his summary dismissal of the vibrancy of these venues for public rhetoric. With the advent of gaming and other participatory web applications, I would say that digital media do more than simply exist in relation to print media, which is where Boardman largely keeps it. And by often looking at webtexts without historical and rhetorical contexts, I think Boardman is missing a fundamental paradigm shift, one that I have characterized as a move from knowledge culture to information culture.

Lastly, books about the World Wide Web are invariably dated by the time that they are published, so I can't complain about the antiquated material on search engines or the integration of audio and video. But Boardman also uses a very outmoded "website as building" analogy in his chapter on institutional websites that has long ago been exploded even by its former proponents, such as architectural critic William J. Mitchell.

That said, there is a lot to like about this book as well. Boardman's material on domain name branding, which I can understand as a member of "uci," is useful. He also connects the accepted taxonomy of blog subgenres to particular linguistic markers in original ways. Finally, the end-of-chapter extension activities and the chapter on writing for the web show an admirable pedagogical orientation and how the work should be judged more leniently as a blended genre: part textbook and part scholarly monograph.

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Friday, December 16, 2005

Theaters of Cruelty

The gift economy of the Internet also encourages the sharing of URL's, so that those surfing the web can direct like-minded correspondents to political games or interactive webpages. Once there, netizens can manipulate images of their legislators in virtual environments, sometimes with the explicit intention of providing a venue for vengeance to those who feel that they lack political representation in the real world.

In the spirit of these exchanges, I am grateful to Ian Bogost, a fellow presenter at DAC 2005, for his excellent material on political games, which is part of a larger site that Bogost co-authors with Gonzalo Frasca called Water Cooler Games. It was there that I learned about Ragdoll Bush, an application in which the user can toss a hapless, limp, flailing Bush doll into a free-fall void where the miniature president periodically collides with bubble-shaped masses. Thanks to my children, I already knew about the "political skins" that you could put on characters in Interactive Buddy, and thus subject a tiny George Bush or a John Kerry to grenades, mines, bombs, firehoses, medieval flails, and other instruments of concussive destruction. From a neighbor, I found out that the face of President Bush could be distorted and deformed in Stop Esso (although the presidential body is spared abuse).

As satisfying as it may be to torment political adversaries on the small screen, particularly when those politicians are promulgators of torture themselves through the practice of Extraordinary Rendition, there is something to be said for thinking critically about how these games enable us to participate in our own theaters of cruelty. On many websites, such as one in which the visitor can punch Osama Bin Laden, the "conservation of violence" (to use Girard's term) may appear relatively benign.

Yet on websites for terrorist organizations, such as those monitored by the SITE Institute, viewers can see unsimulated acts of violence on the bodies of real victims. Film montages and iconic images of Arab resistance frame the pleadings or beheadings that take place center screen, thus establishing a visual rhetoric of "just war."

To date, one can't interact with those acts of violence. A mouse or a cursor key can't affect the fate of victims of political conflict. But interactive exercises of virtual violence are already close at hand in our own culture. Are there games in that other geopolitical parallel universe in which one can do political violence to American hostages in the "safe" and cathartic world of a virtual reality environment? If there aren't already, are these all too serious games really that far off?

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Thursday, December 15, 2005

Zooming In

What Ellen Strenski has called the epistolary gift exchange aspect of e-mail fosters the trade of digital items of all kinds, particularly pictures with explicit political content. Many of these circulating images were initially Photoshopped by individual artisans and then widely disseminated via informal channels, such as e-mail or bulletin boards. For example, after the September 11th terrorist attacks, a collection of Photoshopped portraits and landscapes called "If the Taliban Wins" appeared in the mailboxes of friends and co-workers around the country. President Bush is probably the most currently Photoshopped subject, as "The Photoshopping of the President" in has reported.

Now these gift exchanges frequently involve a new image technology: photo mosaics. Last year, Art of Resistance posted an image of President Bush composed of anuses and one of Rush Limbaugh comprised of prescription medications. Above, I have reproduced "War President," a recent likeness of President Bush made up of photographs of soldiers killed in Iraq. Some choose to focus on members of the Cabinet this way, as a Cheney of oil rigs and SUV's, a Rumsfeld made of Abu Gharab pictures, and a John Ashcroft made of pornographic pictures demonstrates.

These images have a prehistory in digital images of the Mona Lisa and of Lincoln and other ephemera from early digital culture. From my childhood, I remember novelty booths in which one could have one's picture taken and receive a portrait that was a computer print-out made up of ASCII characters as pixels.


Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Flame Wars

Careful readers of yesterday's story, "Public Image Spotlighted in Aides' E-mails," in the Los Angeles Times about embarrassing e-mails from Governor Kathleen Blanco that involve her media savvy fashion sensibility during the Hurricane Katrina fiasco may remember similar relevations from a similar release of documents a few weeks ago that appeared in several stories in the New York Times, such as "Panel Still Waiting for Hurricane Katrina Papers," about former FEMA chief Michael Brown in which he describes himself as a "fashion god" thanks to his "Nordstroms" shopping habits. It is interesting that Blanco's office was careful to point out that many of these damaging e-mails were actually unsolicited.

I have been working on an essay about the rhetorical function of e-mail before and during disasters and scandals. I contend that even though e-mail is a perfect medium for the preventative whistleblower, by virtue of its speed and provision of a channel that enables access to policymakers, it is rarely used for that purpose. Instead a backlog of incriminating e-mails is "leaked" to unintended addressees after the fact.

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The Back Side of Water

While we are on the subject of pointless "interactivity," I have to bring up my other pet peeve, the "virtual tour" that graces many institutional websites. A case in point is the National Transportation Safety Board, a site that I otherwise will admit a certain affection for, because it offers pages en français, as well as en espagñol . . . a rarity despite a shared continent with Canada. The NTSB presents a 360 degree virtual tour of the student lounge, conference room, and lecture hall.

It's not that I have anything against the idea of visually situated websites intrinsically; no one loves Google Earth or live cams more than I do. But this isn't the Grand Canyon or the view from the top of St. Peter's we're talking about: this is a conference room with generic chairs in dusty rose. Besides, the technology often doesn't do justice to even genuinely scenic places like Yellowstone National Park or these sites in California. And since the stated purpose of the agency is transportation safety, wouldn't it be more useful to have an airfield or a railroad switching yard to peruse?

People like Jonathan Steuer are probably right about the importance of interactivity and vividness in new media. But I believe that it is just as essential to think rhetorically when deploying web-based technologies that emulate the experience of presence.

The 360 degree Capitol virtual tour is perhaps more worthwhile, because post 9-11 it is remarkably difficult to access our legislative spaces as a spectator, unlike countries such as Germany where tourists can take in a stunning aerial view of the parliament. For similar reasons of access, the Space Shuttle virtual tour may also have some merit. A dizzying array of 360 degree views of particular rooms in the White House is also available. But when it comes to access to public yet private spaces, nothing is more disappointing than the virtual tour of the CIA.

In reality, many "virtual tours" prove to be just cross-sections or exploded cutaway views of the public space, such as the White house virtual tour, Some "virtual tours," like that of the Library of Congress, are just photo galleries of architectural details.

I personally would like to see a 360 virtual tour of the Great Hall of the Department of Justice, where the scantily clad Art Deco statues of the Spirit of Justice and the Majesty of Law have been recently uncovered after months of shrouding under former Attorney General Ashcroft.


Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Branding for Melancholy

Since I brought Lincoln up in my previous post, a brief hiatus from my usual digital rhetoric soapbox seems in order for one of my non-virtual heroes from traditional American oratory. Having recently seen the state-sponspored blockbuster show on melancholy in France, I couldn't help but notice that the Great Emancipator is often painted or photographed in the conventional downcast pose of melancholy, unlike many famous and powerful men. This makes the holiday gussying up of Lincoln at the White House even more incongruous.

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Do Not Open Until X-mas

It's Christmas at the White House website, where I go to get my holiday cheer, because there is always plenty of digital rhetoric to analyze.

This year, as an alleged "War on Christmas" is raging around the country, the theme is All Things Bright and Beautiful. The holiday homepage includes remarkably little coverage of "the Pageant of Peace" that served as overture to the traditional lighting of the White House tree, but this baroque site is nonetheless full of winter whiz-bang content. Would-be homemakers can participate in a light-hearted Q&A with White House Executive Chef Thaddeus Dubois, in which he will actually answer almost none of their questions. (Apparently there are some important national security issues about the exact components of even his simple crème brûlée.) Or viewers can also marvel at the Barney Cam . . . not an actual cam with a live feed but a lavishly produced pet-centric video that encourages us to laugh at injustice as one little dog receives fewer presents and demonstrably more meager food than the other in this Scroogy canine fable.

Finally, one can turn the storybook pages in the Flash presentation of their Holiday Program. The technology is a little dodgy: it's hard to get the pages to turn without having them turned for you by clicking on "Next," and designers obviously goofed on a layout which includes awkward digital scrolldown bars. (Click on the image above to enlarge.)

When so much meaningful digitizing and indexing mark-up needs to be done, it's worth criticizing this "turning the pages" technology, which I believe to be one of the more idiotic ways to spend digital dollars (National Library of Medicine) or digital pounds (The British Library) with archival collections. More on cretinous fake interactivity in government websites in tomorrow's post.

Compare this moronic storybook Lincoln to the Lincoln of The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Using the keyword "Christmas," I discovered a telegram from General Sherman offering the city of Savannah as a present to the President, a note reminding him of the holiday dinner for homesick troops hosted by Mrs. Milton C. Egbert, a missive from an expert lecturer responding to Lincoln's suggestion that he should use his podium to correct public opinion in Europe, and third-party negotiations for freeing a deserter who claimed to have been mistakenly imprisoned. And writing pedagogues can delight in the revision modeled by Lincoln with his inaugural address in another Library of Congress exhibition.

Digital search technology can be highly interactive, because the results displayed on the screen are shaped by the queries of the user, and users can refine their searches as they respond to the data displayed. For example, using the White House website search features, I was able to find every speech by President Bush that contained a reference to Abraham Lincoln. In comparison, the website of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum was remarkably un-interactive, despite its fancy Flash opening, with no search features at all and to date no digitized documents or photographs of artifacts available to the public.

It is appropriate that a recent conference addressed the "ethics and politics" of "indexicality" as well as "virtuality," particularly when access to discrete items of information can be much more important than supposedly immersive presentations of slick surface simulations.

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Monday, December 12, 2005

Last Words

According to his official website, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has just denied clemency for convicted murdered Stanley "Tookie" Williams. Tonight's scheduled execution has been generating a lot of activity in recent weeks on death penalty websites that address either advocacy or opposition audiences. It has been an item on many media and lifestyle sites as well.

Digital forms of official discourse about capital punishment are increasingly important, particularly since they have taken on certain generic features, as "model" public websites emerge. For Williams, a media advisory page covers everything from parking to press credentials. Ever mindful of decorum, the generic fact sheet on Williams even includes this parental advisory message: "The following crime summary contains a graphic description of one or more murders and may not be suitable for all ages." The recently revamped California Department of Corrections Capital Punishment site includes color photos and some information about the last meals and last words of the executed.

I would guess that official corrections websites around the country with capital punishment procedures are emulating the longstanding site from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice Death Row Information, which includes last statements from the condemned, although the site no longer lists last meals. In my college teaching, I have conducted extremely successful classroom activites that use the Texas list of scheduled executions to connect students' philosophical positions with the concrete particularities of individual defendents and crimes.

(Because Williams was co-founder of the Crips street gang, I also found myself looking at a form of unofficial web commemoration that is often overlooked by scholars of the web: "remembrance gardens" like this Remembrance Garden at


Sunday, December 11, 2005

Hidden Costs

As provisions of the PATRIOT Act reach the end of their shelf life this month, debate intensifies on both sides of the aisle. However there are also largely undebated and potentially disastrous new wiretap laws that will be very costly to campuses. Certainly, it is easier to rally support when the issue is one of privacy or civil liberties rather than one of unfunded federal mandates. But unfunded mandates can be just as damaging, particularly when so much has been done by Internet advocates to reduce the severity of a persistent digital divide in this country and as the cost of new technology for ubiquitous computing has dropped. Initiatives like the Stanford Interactive Workspaces Project, championed by Terry Winograd, could be scuttled in public higher education if hardwired requirements from the previous decade continue to be the norm.

Part of the silence has to do with the fact that this legislation (CALEA or Communications Assistance for Law Enforcement Act) actually passed in 1994, and it is only now that higher education much comply with its infrastructure requirements. See why the American Library Association is concerned about the extension of CALEA to broadband networks. Here is an FAQ about CALEA, for those who want to learn more.


Saturday, December 10, 2005

Does the Left Brand Know What the Right Brand is Doing?

Today's story in the New York Times on how "The Military's Information War is Vast and Often Secretive" inspired me to seek out the website of the Lincoln Group in my quest for primary sources. I found out that that this company that specializes in public diplomacy has printed voter materials for post-conflict elections while simultaneously doing branding for petrochemical companies.

I would advise any visitor to their slickly designed homepage to hit the refresh button several times to puzzle over the question of how a giant game of chess, a sky filled with flags, twins reading a newspaper, a mullah on a radio tower, carved mythical creatures guarding a globe showing Asia and the Middle East, a mosque reflected in the facets of an office building, and a crowd of Japanese villagers bearing a shrine are all related in the company's visual rhetoric.

"Recent examples of our work" apparently run the gamut from water bottles with psy-ops labels to children's cartoons with anti-terrorist messages. They also did a promotional video for the security forces of an unnamed nation in which "our client faced tremendous identity and public confidence issues as they built up their internal capacity to defend and protect their citizens." My guess would be they are referring to the United States.

I also visited the website of another firm mentioned in the article, The Rendon Group, which actually provides an ideologically mixed (although slanted) bibliography of websites. In addition to representing a constellation of tourist havens in the Caribbean, this company has been involved in some hilariously famous disinformation schemes that targeted U.S. citizens: Rendon designed the education campaign about the Y2K computer bug and information about the occupation of Kuwait before the first Gulf War.

Although Rendon did hire a Saddam Hussein impersonator to create fake broadcasts, they weren't the source of the famous "babies dumped out of incubators" story. That was Hill and Knowlton, whose website now boasts first and foremost of improving attendance at a dolphin amusement park.

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Say Cheese

A few words on the genre of the photo essay on various federal government websites . . .

I don't know much about the history of the photo essay, but I generally associate the genre with the personal, individual, and admittedly subjective viewpoint of a particular photographer or group of photographers. Until now, I hadn't thought of the photo essay as a collection of essentially anonymous images in a "gallery" that are presented in the lenses of an institutional panoptican, but that is what the photo essay has become on many government websites. Many of these pictures come from stock image companies, such as Corbis, in the business of providing material to supplement corporate visual identities.

Most notably, I think of Photos of Freedom from What is strange is that most of these photos from Iraq aren't really photos of "freedom" but rather photos of dependency on foreign aid.

When you compare them to the iconic images of the Liberation of Paris and the celebration of sexuality that is also represented there, these pictures from Iraq seem comparatively lifeless. (Having recently seen reenactments of the Liberation of Paris during a research trip there last year, I would doubt that the Iraqis will be doing the same thing sixty years later. The Paris spectacle included banners coming down the Hotel de Ville, opera singers, vintage cars, actual veterans on tanks, stock footage, and theatrical gunfire out of the windows of a simulated battle in City Hall.)

On current government websites, there is also the "faces of" genre intended to personalize public policy positions. For example, the INS produced Faces of America. The State Department's U.S. gives us Faces of Islam. And there is also Faces of the Fallen at the Department of Defense. Not all the "faces" essays actually focus that much on the subject's countenance, although some of these works definitely call up the ethnographic gaze of a National Geographic photo.

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Friday, December 09, 2005

The Sublime and the Beautiful

I couldn't resist pointing out the lead image on the Department of Defense website today that depicts an F/A-18E Super Hornet in the arc of a rainbow. More on the role of photographic images on government websites in my post tomorrow.

The same day's material contains the headline "Terrorists Use Media to Spread Misinformation," perhaps to counter a New York Times story about U.S. propaganda efforts abroad. (See December 7th in this blog.) The focus, however, is not on audiences in Iraq, but rather on the public here at home. The article begins with a questionable thesis from the Secretary of Defense: "Enemies of a free Iraq recognize they can't win against the United States and the coalition on the battlefield, and the only way they can hope to win is in Washington, D.C., and through American public opinion, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Dec. 8."


Fellow Travelers

I'd like to acknowledge two interesting examples of political digital rhetoric that I learned about from participating in the Digital Arts and Culture Conference in Copenhagen (otherwise known as ).

Scott Rettberg pointed out the existence of this this CGI homemade film about the French riots, "The French Democracy," that showed the rapid-response capability of creative computing tools that could animate articulate characters to express positions in political dialogue. I thought it was particularly interesting to see in light of the CGI film on the webpage of the National Front, in which young immigrants are the invisible and voiceless agents of urban blight and the only corporeal entities shown are the celebrating white Europeans at the triumphal end of the film.

Nick Montfort showed me the cached version of, his parody of the site from the Office of Homeland Security, which is unfortunately no longer hosted online. Thus I learned about an entire genre of parody sites, ranging from the witty to the scatological, about which I was ignorant, although I have since discovered coverage from Wired News in 2003. Some sites, such as, are still up, and others were preserved because they were disseminated through e-mail. From maintaining my own site on political theater, I was aware that there were many sites in the mainstream of political satire that skewered, such as or But two distinctive features of the parodies caught my attention: the speed with which they went up (two days after the official site's launch) and the use of the existing visual iconography of the site, much as one might parody the seatback emergency instructions for an airplane.


Thursday, December 08, 2005

Hard News and Software

There has been a lot of press lately about how blogging software has cross-polinated with traditional discourses from the public sphere, but I would argue that two recent news stories show how other software applications also shape discourses of the media and public diplomacy.

It was interesting to read Paul Krugman's piece on "Bullet Points over Baghdad" that appeared in the New York Times (and also in the International Herald Tribune, where I read it in Paris). He also noted that the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq looked very much like a PowerPoint presentation of the type lambasted by Edward Tufte. As I pointed out in Design Your Life, the original PDF version of the Victory in Iraq document was even worse: an incoherent array of checkmarks, arrows, and bullets that was further marked up with boldface, italics, and underlining, often redundantly. Peter Norwig's satire of the Gettysburg Address assumed the conceit of presidential oratory as PowerPoint, but now the farce appears as tragedy in our contemporary life. (Even if the administration's aim is pedagogical, the Chronicle of Higher Education says that PowerPoint fails as a teaching tool.)

In other news, I have been reading the editorial section of the Los Angeles Times much more carefully, since appearing on a panel with veteran blogger Kevin Roderick of LA Observed. What struck me in yesterday's opinion page was Max Boot's article, "Navigating the 'human terrain'." Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, exuberantly praises Tactical Iraqi, a military video game for teaching Arabic to soldiers, about which I have expressed serious reservations, most recently in a paper for the Digital Arts and Culture Conference. I'm not alone: Mark Marino has also voiced concerns. Yet in the LA Times, Boot enthuses about visiting "the Expeditionary Warfare School, where captains study Arabic by playing a sophisticated computer game complete with animated characters." Boot argues that this provides critical training that simulates "the human terrain" of the theater of conflict in Iraq. What I find troubling is the fact that Tactical Iraqi may be winning so much media praise (notably in NPR and the New York Times) and earning a top DARPA award not because it is an effective way actually to teach Arabic but because it provides an easy interface to SHOW the teaching of Arabic to U.S. soldiers to the public as a form of display. It enables a kind of spectacle of cultural sensitivity aimed at outside audiences that traditional classroom learning can't provide. Thus the learner can become a virtuoso performer in Baudrillard's Simulacrum.


Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Stranger in a Strange Land

The recent story in the New York Times, "Military Admits Planting News in Iraq," about how the U.S. government paid for positive items in Iraqi newspapers certainly gives "public diplomacy" a bad name, even though there now seem to be several centers legitimating its academic position at places like Tufts and USC.

After the Charlotte Beers debacle, our current Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy has been maintaining a very low profile website, which is a real loss from an e-government perspective. Many of the web materials created by Beers in the wake of September 11 seem to have been pulled down, although some like Muslim Life in the America survive (while Islam in the United States is no more).

One of the interesting things about being abroad is seeing media coverage about the United States or the war in Iraq that isn't intended for a U.S. audience. The Internet can create a similar alienation effect, as I have discovered by looking at "psy-ops" military leaflets dropped in Iraq and Afghanistan that were posted on the CentCom website and obviously not intended to appeal to the moral positions of stakeholders in the States.

Ironically, the coverage of the war in Iraq in Voice of America presents more of the contentiousness of the current debate about withdrawal than many mainstream media organs. And publications from the International Information Programs of the U.S. Department of State contain authors who are less conservative than those honored by the NEA, as Writers on America demonstrates.

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Thursday, December 01, 2005

Postcard from Copenhagen

It seems strange to be writing about local California webpages from the vantage point of the computer lab of the IT University of Copenhagen, where I can see out of the computer lab through a two-story glass wall into a six story atrium in which the giant glowing green words "Welcome to DAC 2005" scroll across artfully asymmetrical white rectangular balconies in faux digital typeface. The sound of students dutifully playing ping pong and table soccer echoes out through the otherwise silent volume of the Department of Visual Aesthetics, where I have come to give a paper about Tactical Iraqi.

But I've been thinking a lot lately about the FAQ as a specific kind of web genre, and the way that "Frequently Asked Questions" usually posit an ideal reader who might represent either a level of stupidity or of sophistication alien to any real reader who might find his or her way to an FAQ.

My initial reaction to what I at first considered to be my winner for the World's Stupidest FAQ from a government agency was amusement. Questions like "I don't know what to do" and "I spelled my name wrong on my application" signalled a stereotypical level of cluelessness among applicants for online state licenses in marginalized professions like cosmetologist and security guard in populations unfamiliar with the computerized procedures of the virtual state. But these FAQ's were also directed at "educated" professionals like psychologists and dentists. My guess is that rather than construct an ideal reader, the author of this FAQ looked at the actual frequently asked questions sent via e-mail, and methodically attempted to answer them, sometimes curtly ("No") and sometimes with greater rhetorical sensitivity ("Unfortunately, no.").

I think I wrote my own FAQ about the Virtualpolitik project more as a way to rethink the genre of the book abstract that I was finding inadequate for answering questions about my theoretical underpinnings, because I wanted to imagine a kind of philosophical dialogue about information and knowledge. But now that I am thinking about the term "Virtualpolitik" as a real term with real uses in the real world, I think it will also require some real definition for a less than ideal reader. So look for a modification of my own FAQ as soon as I am back in the states.