Tuesday, January 31, 2006

The Elephants Are Attacking the Ivory Towers

The issue of possible political bias in the academy and has been generating considerable attention in the blogosphere, perhaps most notably in Michael Bérubé's talk on "Academic Freedom."

I recently wrote that the threat of conservative policing from alumni in the UCLA case had been overblown by well-meaning but media illiterate faculty. In contrast, Bérubé's post focuses, quite rightfully, on what I also identified as the more substantive danger of legislative oversight. The country's network of public higher education is particularly vulnerable to these pressures. Bérubé warns that right-wing pro-"balance" lobbyists are poised to enforce populist agendas for learning on the academy. It's not so much the quashing of minority opinions by the majority that's at issue for Bérubé, as much as the denial of intellectually (and sometimes morally) complex ideas by the repressive functions of mass psychology.

Bérubé makes a clever point about how these right wing activists are using the very language of affirmative action to undermine one of its chief sites of social practice, by claiming that political conservatives are underrepresented minorities who should be admitted to the liberals' exclusive social club. Stanley Fish has similarly pointed in his article on "Academic Cross-dressing" in Harper's that the Right has appropriated other arguments from the Left, so that relativism and tolerance are now being used to question Natuaral Selection and prop up Intelligent Design.

I'm not sure Bérubé is completely correct that "academic freedom" should be treated as a natural right, alongside other Enlightenment principles, because it still assumes an oligarchy of the learned. Even if academic freedom is extended to students, librarians, and those teaching in the K-12 environment, many could be excluded who haven't made the knowledge industry their explicit avocation.

To me, the threats to academic freedom may be more subtle than we realize, and these threats may not arrive under the standard political banners of right or left. The forces challenging academic freedom may also be targeting life-long learners as well, particularly as greater restrictions are placed on citizens' use of computer networks by those in power from both political parties who are concerned about obscenity, terrorism, and copyright infringement. As was the case in the Loyalty Oath Controversy of 1949-1951, legislators from all parts of the political spectrum may cooperate to limit our intellectual liberties, particularly when the issue of national security takes center stage.

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Handwriting Analysis

Today's article in the Los Angeles Times, "Remember Penmanship? That's So 20th century," describes how the rise of keyboard computing and packed standards-based school schedules have eliminated penmanship as a subject in many elementary classrooms.

As a reader for standardized writing exams, I can't say that I'm sad to see the subject go. Give me a stack of hand-printed essays any day over a similar pile of cursive ones. And unlike Latin or diagramming sentences or other useful bygone coursework, it doesn't improve students' ability to use words accurately or structure compelling arguments. (I'm the wrong generation to have taken Elocution, but that may have been a useful subject too, particularly for the class mobility it provided.)

The penmanship traditionalists may be losing on all fronts. According to today's New York Times, "The Resurgence of E-cards" is in full-swing. Given that this particular form of communication evolved to mass produce an alternative to time-consuming hand-written notes, it is fitting that even the last token of handwriting, the personal signature, can be eliminated. Since I prefer the D.Y.L. aesthetic, it's a written genre I'm not crazy about, but at least now I can get E-cards for Women's History Month and International Women's Day.

Nonetheless, I think computing has rescued a whole class of otherwise handwriting-disabled people. Personally, I'm still getting over being traumatized by the Palmer Method. I remember there were only two "awards" one didn't want in sixth grade, and I won both of them: "Bookworm" and "Worst Handwriting."

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Shock and Awe

And speaking of former Undersecretary Charlotte Beers, I have to say something about her former employer Ogilvy & Mather. Although Ogilvy still maintains its bread-and-butter business marketing products and corporate images from American Express to Volvo, it has moved into the ever-expanding "risk communication" industry.

Unfortunately, much of the information about the content development and testing of Olgivy's "Virtual News Network" of the Department of Homeland Security is classified, but critics can gain a sense of the program's alliances with the "virtual state," to use Jane Fountain's term, from the company's website.

"VNN coverage included live reports from across the country and interviews with both government officials and outside experts. The VNN team took painstaking measures to create as real a media experience as possible for all participants. They solicited, booked, and interviewed 45 actual public officials, physicians, first responders, and many others the media would call upon during an actual crisis, including such dignitaries as Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Julie Gerberding."

The team produced stories and sent satellite feeds to the White House, U.S. Capitol, and emergency responders nationwide. As each virtual crisis progressed, "Ogilvy PR worked with public information officers and officials to provide them the opportunity to access VNN to communicate vital safety messages."

In the bioterrorism analysis community, the general program, TOPOFF, because it is designed with top officials in mind, actually got some good reviews for revealing vulnerabilities in our potential federal response, but the idea of creating a model pre-packaged media campaign is still disturbing to me, especially given unstated agreements between certain media outlets and U.S. policy makers. Furthermore, this program shows that the potential to reinforce oligarchical tendencies in disaster response remains a troubling possibility.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Olgivy & Mather has also worked with the Chinese government helping the country's Communist Youth League refine their pitches. Thanks to Olgivy, their group "Red Force" has even performed as storytellers at Hong Kong Disneyland. Perhaps they could also dazzle and distract American viewers watching VNN.

(The image above of the Olgivy VNN campaign comes from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration or SAMHSA in the public domain and shouldn't compromise either national security or intellectual property.)


Sunday, January 29, 2006

Disinformation Outsourcing

I never thought that I would say this, but I miss Charlotte Beers.

It's true that during her relatively brief tenure as Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy, I winced every time I heard her code-switching in and out of advertising-speak, but I didn't appreciate our national good fortune at the time. At the very least, this former executive of J. Walter Thompson and Ogilvy & Mather could be frank about her Public Diplomacy agenda. Compared to today's covert information war that is outsourced, yet funded by -- and occasionally aimed at-- taxpayers, public diplomacy in 2001-2002 ages well in its tolerance of deliberative discourse.

For those who have forgotten, here are three excerpts from her press conference of November 14, 2001, in which Beers argued for the importance of "emotional" appeals, "poster" figures, "brands," and keeping our eyes on the "sales curve":

#1 (Beers on the role of public diplomacy)

"One of the things that strikes me is that as essential as our offices are, our policy statements, our people who speak every day in behalf of the United States policies, these tend to be communications that are extremely reasoned and rational, and yet we know that much of the other side of this argument is intensely emotional and comes from a very different place than rationality and reason. I think one of the things that means is that we have to put forward something we might have all taken for granted, which is the US values. They're just as important as our policies."

#2 (Beers on the Executive Branch)

"And 'poster man' -- well, you know, in a way, our poster people are President Bush and Secretary Powell, whom I think are pretty inspiring symbols of the brand, the United States. "

#3 (Beers on Islam)

"Their conversion rate is astonishing -- a 30 percent conversion in each year is about the fastest growing religion in this country, and a good number for any sales team . . . Here's a sales curve any corporation would envy. These are the percent of mosques founded in the US over the last few years."

When Beers introduced the Shared Values program to the National Press Club on December 18, 2002, I was probably naively rooting for the protestors who interrupted her slick presentation with this chant: "You're selling war, and we're not buying! You're selling war, and we're not buying!" When Beers complained, "I think I've just lost the camera to a singing choir," at the time I might have even been pleased to see her be upstaged, particularly when she uttered gems like the following:

"The important thing about our products is that they have to be marketed. We can't assume that anyone is going to be assertive enough to pick up our website: reproduce, pull it down, and move on. And so we are learning to use the modern marketing tools of banner headlines, linking in to other sites, making sure that we have speakers who use this materials or who can use it, so it's much more than a databank."

But now we have Public Diplomacy wizards who never leave Madison Avenue or sit in government offices. Isn't it better at least to have someone to hold accountable? Isn't a figurehead who engages in open debate better than an unseen corporate contractor?

To Beers' credit she acknowledged the importance of a transnational demographic which has increasingly become the object of suspicion and scrutiny, and she tried to include them in developing materials about Muslim life in the United States. Furthermore, by looking at web traffic, she also recognized the importance of distributed global communication. She may not have read Étienne Balibar on transnational subjectivity or Manuel Castells on the network society, but she knew enough about trend-watching to get the general idea.

Besides, she brought us the "Muslim Rap" campaign, one of the best ways my tax dollars have been spent this millennium. Admire the image I have reproduced above for a trip down memory lane.

For more on this subject from the design community, see the recent Forum on "Propagandizing Propaganda." To see the current propaganda czar, who wields much less executive authority, check out Karen Hughes on Ask the White House or review her qualifications on the State Department website.

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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Knowing is Beautiful

This week the current administration has been busy re-branding "domestic spying" as "terrorist surveillance." A recent New York Times story,"Administration Starts Weeklong Blitz in Defense of Eavesdropping Program," indicates that policy makers and spokespeople are absolutely insisting on the term "terrorist surveillance" in response to media queries about "domestic spying." It even looks like this strategy may eventually work. The New York Times reports that a "New Poll Finds Mixed Support for Wiretaps," and data from poll results shows that public opinion may be swayed by the right pitch.

So here's my question: What if this administration decided to actually hire a public relations firm to assist them with their re-branding efforts? What agency would they hire? What would the campaign for "terrorist surveillance" look like? Given recent advertising-government collaborations in Public Diplomacy, Social Marketing, and Risk Communication, it isn't such an outrageous idea.

Because of the subject matter, I'm thinking they should hire trendy Miami ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, who produced the first sensuous Knowing is Beautiful campaign to glamorize HIV testing as sexy. Ads could show a gorgeous Middle Eastern woman or hunky Kabuliwalla guy and emphasize how clean security credentials can make immigrants marketable as romantic partners. After all, the profiling involved in the old "domestic spying" program is practically this overtly stereotypical. Yet, since the administration has hardly been forthcoming about facts, Crispin may not be the right choice. After all, this is the agency that brought us The Truth anti-smoking campaign, which emphasized anti-establishment thinking and anti-consumerist appeals.

Since there aren't search warrants or much of a public paper trail, maybe a stealth campaign would be appropriate, perhaps one like the viral marketing campaign for the Ford Fusion by JWT Detroit who commissioned Kirt Gunn and @radical media to create a popular web-based mockumentary about the Scandinavian noise band Hurra Torpedo, "the world's leading kitchen appliance rock group." Maybe they could do a similar "mockumentary" about a fun-loving group of Yemeni performance artists in which we get to watch their every contentious squabble and interaction with every idiotic hanger-on from each stop on their side-splitting national tour.

Or, because the "terrorist surveillance" program emphasizes gradualism and the incremental appropriation of national security powers, maybe the right choice is McCann-Erickson Worldwide, " who media watchers know from the SmallStep.gov campaign to reduce obesity. The spots could emphasize the general unattractiveness of terrorists and how just a little less terrorism worked on every day can really improve a person's social desirability.

Then again, old marketing hands might say the most logical way to go would be the tried-and-true Brand X vs. Brand Y strategy. The campaign could present something like how National Security is faster and more effective than the competing brand, Civil Liberties. After all, Euro RSCG Worldwide company website already pitches one social good against another in their Blood Saves campaign.

And then there is always the administration's odds-on favorite The Lincoln Group, since they actually specialize in public diplomacy and anti-terrorist efforts. Yet if I know the Lincoln Group, they are sure to give us an incoherent campaign centered on water bottles or toys from children's cartoons or some other piece of take-away anti-terrorist swag.

My bet is that wiser heads will ultimately prevail, and they'll choose a firm who can really pull at people's heartstrings, like Texas-based Allyn and Company, part of worldwide PR giant Omnicom. The choice would be especially appropriate, since Allyn already has experience marketing against the murder of innocent civilians, with their "Baby Moses" campaign against infanticide.

But, seriously folks, if things get worse, how will the government market "terrorism surveillance" to the American people? Like an insurance ad? Like a car ad that emphasizes displays of mechanical might and technological prowess? Like a prescription drug ad that pitches the competence of the experts and the need for prevention?

I suppose we'll wait and see.

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Friday, January 27, 2006

A Mean, Green Publicity Machine

At the risk of offending readers, I have to say something about the brilliant branding effort that probably contributed to the victory of Hamas in yesterday's Palestinian elections. Coming from me, this isn't praise, but it certainly was a political and merchandising coup. Any mindless aesthete would have to admire their flags, baseball caps, and scarves in the traditional Hamas green for looking great in the crowded scenes of demonstration and celebration. As repulsive as their less than zero-sum politics of violence might be, they obviously learned something about design and political crowds from the recent Orange Revolution in Ukraine.

Among those doing visual analysis, I'm obviously not alone. Recent picks of pictures at BAGnewsNotes, where complex political images are tackled daily like crosswords, include Hamas crowds.

A similar fashion statement previously made headlines locally. At last year's U.C. Irvine graduation ceremony, where I teach, green stoles bearing the same "There is No God but Allah" motto were to be worn by Muslim students receiving their diplomas. This particular form of runway apparel generated much controversy and coverage in the media.

I have probably put myself on some watchlist by doing so, but I couldn't help but visit the Hamas official page out of curiosity. This morning the English site was down, but I was able to catch up on the prose of their victory lap in French. I did find a cartoon showing the empty garment of the opposition, the headscarf of Arafat, in keeping with today's political fashion theme.

I wouldn't recommend the Hamas website to those seeking an alternative to predictable canned rhetoric from the geopolitical opposition. The wild and wooly and many-tongued blog of chatty Iranian Vice President Mohammad Ali Abtahi is a much better alternative. Check out his recent thoughtful criticism of filtering of political sites and his autobiographical intimate reflections ("I am happy with my marital life and have no complaint whatsoever"). Sometimes single-authored websites can have more points of view than those that purport to represent collective experience.

This is also my opportunity to put in my plug for the Golden Globe winning Palestinian film Paradise Now, which I think is the best film about terrorism since The Battle of Algiers and perhaps the best film about terrorism ever. Don't avoid it based on the loathsome rock video style trailer created by the distributor; the actual film uses no music at all and bare-bones cinematography. The scenes are intently focused on character development and economic storytelling. Paradise Now also has a lot of Virtualpolitik meta-movie moments, such as a scene about filming "martyrs" videos, but doesn't overplay the irony. And for more in the plus column, the director Hany-Abu Assad has strongly asserted, counter the position of the Motion Picture Association of America and former Hollywood copyright kingpin Jack Valenti, that he looks forward to the widespread pirating of his film in the Palestinian Authority as a way to use art to advance discussion about achieving Arab autonomy through peaceful means.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Lights! Camera! Organs!

The last speaker I heard at the Stanford SimWorkshop in Long Beach was Anders Larsson of Surgical Science in Norway. (After a morning watching body parts bleed and congeal and throb and sizzle, I wasn't in the mood for staying for the box lunch.) Larsson designs virtual reality interfaces that connect to mock surgical instruments, so would-be surgeons can engage with actual physical prostheses that mimic the function of real scalpels and clamps, while watching the action on a video screen. After all, video screens play a critical role in many surgeries now. According to Larsson, modeling tissue in Maya and painting it in Photoshop isn't as complicated as representing the nuanced physics of surgery. To make matters more difficult for Larsson, medical source footage often provides an incomplete record to guide product developers, because blood, smoke, and the darkness of body cavities can mar clear shots.

The demo I saw was a gall bladder and liver dissection. He showed the early stages of the design process in which a yellow spongy rectangular box sits on a larger liver-colored one. Larsson explained that surgical procedures like the dissection need to be broken into specific steps (or represented in algorithms, as a computer scientist might say). To refine these discrete steps, designers make detailed "storyboards" that show each part of the operation being done, just like Hollywood directors or production designers.

The storyboard can be another form of "making things public" with import beyond screening rooms and operating rooms. My cousin, the artist Josefa Vaughan of Artseed, has worked with the storyboard format for years. This work includes recent show called Postcards to People in Power. Vaughan has found that regular citizens can use the storyboard to narrate and to editorialize. See the images below to get a sense of work from the show.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

What about Urban War Zones?

The Stanford SimsWorkshop on medical simulations also featured, Harvey Magee, formerly of WAR-MED, the Wartime Medical Planning Office, and Fort Detrick. His cabinet of virtual curiosities included a fake-blood spurting "hemorhage simulator," electronic mannequins subjected to various indignities, and something called "manimal," whose actual function managed to escape me. As I was listening to his presentation, I was reminded of two recent museum shows: Devices of Wonder at the Getty and Medicine Man at the British Museum.

In addition to displaying his menagerie of automata, Magee presented two arguments in favor of using virtual reality technology in medical training:

1) Simulations for training have drastically reduced the number of errors in aviation and combat.

2) 100,000 people need battlefield trauma skills, and there are not enough patients on which to practice.

What I find disturbing about the latter argument is that this rhetoric threatens already destabilized trauma centers in cities. Before simulations, these trauma centers could at least count on attracting talented medical students and residents destined for the armed forces, so they could gain experience treating gunshot wounds and other violent injuries from our urban battlefields. Now these hospitals face a potential brain drain as doctors focus on virtual patients rather than real ones.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Playing Doctor

When I bought Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel's lavishly illustrated tome on Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), I was initially surprised at the number of pages devoted to medical simulators as manifestations of public rhetoric. Now that I have returned from Stanford's SimWorkshop on Creating Games & Simulations for Learning in Long Beach, I can better see the civic function of the graphic displays of medical knowledge that represent the most intimate architectures of our private bodies. Furthermore, as part of the larger genre of "risk communication," many medical virtual reality environments are being funded by taxpayer initiatives to train first responders for combat casualties or terrorist attacks.

I'll start with Joseph V. Henderson's talk about "Narratives, Emotions, and Media for Simulated Learning" and the work being done at the Interactive Media Laboratory at Dartmouth.

The first demo Henderson showed was from a Clinton-era project, Regimental Surgeon: Preventative Medicine in the Combat Theatre, in which the Soviet Union has re-formed after a right-wing coup. A new doctor, the hero in this first-person game, arrives at the base and must solve the mystery of a "fever of unknown origin." Shot at Camp Pendleton and a soundstage at Norton Air Force Pace, the user's point of view shuttles between a number of separate characters (presented as either poker-faced or wise-cracking agents) who introduce themselves and then almost immediately manifest their stock attitude about physicians. The player can look at documents, which provide the opportunity to develop certain subplots, and concoct plausible reasons to leave the base for further investigation.

As a writing instructor, my favorite part of the program was when the base commander sternly informed our protagonist that he would have to "support findings with facts" and write up a report that followed a proscribed outline and emphasized to him the importance of "logic" and "facts." (I use the word "he," because the program explicitly genders the user.)

The next project that Henderson demonstrated was Primary Care of the AIDS/HIV Patient: A Virtual Clinic. What I found interesting about this simulation was that it emphasized representing the clinic in the virtual reality environment rather than representing the actual body of the patient. As Michel Foucault writes in the opening of The Birth of the Clinic, "This book is about space, about language, and about death; it is about the act of seeing, the gaze." Although Foucault rehashes the general assumption that "the human body defines, by natural right, the space of origin and the distribution of disease: a space whose lines, volumes, surfaces, and routes are laid down in accordance with a now familiar geometry," he challenges this commonsense spatializing of disease in the body as "neither the first, nor the most fundamental."

In Henderson's Virtual Clinic, which is demarcated by floor plans, cutaways, and confrontations with closed doors, the learner occupies the POV of an infectious diseases physician. As this physician, the learner follows the case of Laurie Matthews, a female HIV positive patient who is joyful about having settled down into a safe-sex relationship but has some catching up to do after missing an appointment. During this first meeting, Laurie also reports some alarming symptoms that indicate that her anti-viral regime may have begun to fail. In this introductory appointment, the user must probe into Laurie's mouth, which is covered with yeasty deposits. Appointments continue as Laurie's condition deteriorates. Her psychic pain is dramatized along with her physical decay. For example, she wants to have a child and must be gently dissuaded from this reproductive plan for the sake of public health. (Luckily, an updated release of the game will soon allow this wish to be granted, because prenatal drug therapy has minimized transmission risk.) Matthews is played by an actress, but there are also videos of real AIDS patients who tell of their harrowing experiences with disease, social ostracism, and mortal fear.

Later projects like the The Virtual Terrorism Response Academy use less video and more CGI. They also take advantage of a combination of open source tools and off-the-shelf products ( the Quake 2 game engine, ws-widgets, Python, and Tamale, according to Henderson). The Terrorism Academy story begins cinematically with swelling music in pitch blackness. Then titles announce the facts: "Capitol Region" and "September 11, 2001." Soon the player hears the recognizable sounds of transmissions from the first responders and becomes aware that he or she is being situated in the story by a historical document. The scene shifts to where the "game" itself opens, upon the closed door of the academy, which can only open after the player enters the prescribed data into a virtual computer terminal. Much like the Clinic, which is similarly public yet private space, the cutaway plan of the Academy's shared built environment is used to situate the story. With funding from the Bush administration, the form of contamination in this scenario is radiation not disease.

The path of the training narrative depends on the user's occupation. Firemen, EMT's, and law enforcement officers all have different professional trainers/magical helpers and move through different story arcs with different social roles. In the story I saw, an unfortunate landlord, Mr. Gupta places a 911 call about some suspicious characters transporting and storing what looks like bags of fertilizer, but -- rather than wait for help to arrive -- Mr. Gupta decides to use his key to investigate. The player must decide how to react after the resulting explosion. Rush in to rescue Mr. Gupta or focus on the larger public health risk. The dilemma has "no right or wrong answer," but the player has a radiation meter to assist with this decision making.

What is strange about all this noisy, violent, urban action, is that it all takes place in the clinical environment of the Academy with an instructor available for "breaking it down" at all times. In the words of Noah Falstein, it is "a simulation of a simulation" in which the narrative is constantly being interrupted.

We didn't hear about the newest "virtual clinic" from Henderson on using DNA evidence in sexual assault cases, which is apparently still early in development. Like the HIV/AIDS module, the DNA program also emphasizes the importance of a psycho-social approach and is being funded by a number of federal agencies from public health services to the Department of Justice.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Do you know that the word "gullible" isn't in the Internet?

Like many in the UC faculty, I received my alarm e-mail notifying me that arch-conservative UCLA Profs.com was offering to pay students up to $100 to tape lectures from the "radical professors" among my blue-and-gold colleagues at . As of yesterday, the pay-for-replay offer has been withdrawn, apparently in the face of threatened litigation over intellectual property infringement, but the story has continued to garner an amazing amount of media attention, including an urgent bulletin on NPR during my morning commute.

I heartily agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan of Sivacracy.net that teaching is a public act and support the extended application of this principle into programs like the Open Courseware Initiative at MIT. Fellow sivacracy blogger Ann Bartow has also rightfully pointed out that using the intellectual property argument against the efforts of conservative alumni and mercenary students is a long-range tactical mistake, since what she considers to be corrupt means (privatizing part of the scholarly body of knowledge) contaminates potentially laudable ends (political resistance and the advocacy of unpopular opinions). But, as sage as I think the sivacracy bloggers tend to be, I still think they might be overlooking a major aspect of the case.

In my mind, this is not a story about a vast political conspiracy threatening academia (or even just Lernfreiheit vs. Lehrerfreiheit) as much as a story about media literacy and one in which U.C. faculty members don't come off particularly well. This narrative contains two major elements:


New genres and mixed genres on the web sow confusion. The UCLA Profs web page is now being treated as a serious alumni site, but it actually belongs to a popular class of websites that primarily serves undergraduates, with the most successful example being ratemyprofessors.com. The design sensibility of the 1-5 "power fist" designation of UCLA Profs differs from the visual branding of other ratings sites, which use graphic icons, but the layout, the length of each entry, and the general tone of the reviews is comparable. Based on my own frequent surveys, I can assert that many similar professor-rating sites also share the same basic flaw of disinhibiting users who submit a disproportionate number of unfair criticisms of faculty who are feminist, lesbian, or people of color.

Of course, when it comes to evaluations, there has to be a better way. My undergraduate alma mater always made its official evaluations available to students, which I think considerably lessens the attractions of anecdotal online reviews. I'll even acknowledge that some studies show that official evaluations can be skewed, but I would still say that making a teaching record accessible fosters better pedagogy and more inclusive discourse in academic communities.

I, personally, am morbidly fascinated with the viciousness of the virtual crowd at ratemyprofessors.com. I will even confess to once visiting the page by students rating Stanley Fish, after reading a particularly improbable New York Times editorial, "Devoid of Content," in which Fish advocates having students make up a language in their college composition classes rather than actually develop some mastery of the language they are currently assigned.

And, speaking of improbable claims, this brings me to my second criticism of the general faculty response to the UCLA case . . .


Why is it that teachers spend so much time talking about students' lack of Internet skepticism and spend so little time examining their own? It's true that in my experience an entire college classroom once believed that a stealth marketing website promoting the movie X-men was a credible source for researching human cloning. But it's also true that my fellow instructors have fallen for self-righteous campaigns against Bonsai Kitten and diatribes against the Unreal Tournament Bible Based Maps and other parodic bandwagons for the credulous.

Despite the organization's official sounding name, the Bruin Alumni Association, I can't find evidence that anyone other than twenty-four-year-old Bruin Alumni Association President Andrew Jones is associated with this august body (at least until he received all this media attention). As of yesterday, there didn't even seem to be a Vice President to be found. I couldn't locate content generated by the grown-up members of the "advisory board," some of whom had resigned in protest according to NPR. If anyone thinks this site was engineered by political insiders or powerful robber barons, a few clicks to Andrew's earnest face or his terribly written blog would disabuse them of this notion. To see what I mean by the kind of smog check that Jones could never pass, see librarian Susan Beck's now classic "Evaluation Criteria for 'The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.'"

I'm still amazed that this epistolary volley discharged like the newest computer virus hysteria and ricocheted through hundreds of academic departments, and no one paused before pumping the forward button. Reuters and CNN fastened upon the website thanks to multiple e-mails stacked up in faculty inboxes and not to the efforts of Mr. Jones himself. I might even guess that the site would never have been found by the public at large if it weren't for one of the named professors googling him or herself one night.

Ignored, the story would have gone nowhere. Validated, it may become an issue for a larger and more critical constituency: the taxpayers who support the U.C. system. Particularly at a time when digital rhetoric and the distributed discourses of the public sphere are being co-opted by vested interests in Public Diplomacy, Social Marketing, and Risk Communication, it is important to avoid crying wolf.

(To read an opposing viewpoint, see the impassioned missive posted on Inside Higher Ed that directly addresses Andrew Jones and the Bruin "group" and takes serious issue with their claims. This open letter by fellow Core Course instructor Brian Thill, "An Idea Too Dangerous to Ignore," is full of excellent arguments and reflections, even if I might argue that it is better suited to a Governor or a Chancellor than to a recently graduated Internet crank.)

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Sunday, January 22, 2006

Cuban Holiday

I have never been to , so I decided to take a virtual trip there this weekend. I brought back plenty of Virtualpolitik with me, which I will now unpack from my cyber suitcase.

I started my Caribbean jaunt with the official website of Cuba, where I was immediately informed by a rolling banner: "US Maneuvers to Grant Parole to Terrorist." Unfortunately, the next helpful page had too many broken links to give me my opportunity to "send a letter to the Attorney General." (On a previous trip to North Africa, I found out that the website of Libyan leader Muammar Gadafi had less interactive anti-American vitriol to offer, but it did use the words "so-called" a bit more.)

Then where could be better than Guantanamo Bay, Cuba -- home to an unspecified number of foreign detainees? This Welcome Aboard letter certainly made me feel right at home. Sure, I had to be considerate on my vacation, and not abuse my barbecue privileges, and keep in mind that all important holiday pet safety. Of course, this time of year, I had to check the weather report before I went surfing, teed off at the 9-hole golf course, or took a dip in one of the three GTMO pools. So I'll have to plan a return visit at a sunnier time of year.

Back in Havana, I stopped by the US Interests section, on the site of the former U.S. embassy. In recent weeks, a new giant LED sign on the American Mission proclaims the International Declaration of Human Rights, the words of Martin Luther King, and various other sayings about individual liberty translated into Spanish. During the day the letters are apparently hard to decipher, and the billboards of Iraqi detainees and swastikas dominate the visual landscape. But at night the U.S. Human Rights News 'Zipper' glitters under the Cuban sky, and ups the high-tech ante in the current "US-Cuba Billboard War."

The LED zipper sign format has been used by artists like Jenny Holzer and by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin of Ear Studio for art installations that explore the nature of public rhetoric. But, given the institutional context, does a sign on a building signal democratic activism or the Spanish subtitles of mere political propaganda? For resistance at street level I prefer the grungy approach of the Italian telestreet movement or the use of mobile phone technology by smart mobs in China. The Havana sign is a little too Wall Street for me.

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Saturday, January 21, 2006

Word Search

The current White House policy that creates a legal significance for that were once just ceremonial documents is troubling to those concerned about the traditional balance of powers between the Executive, Legislative, and Judicial branches of the Federal government. Rather than commemorate the successful end of the legislative process, recent signing statements are legalistic amendments designed to nullify key parts of legislation with the obvious intention of exercising a covert form of line-item veto that can never be overridden.

The recent signing statement on the Congressional prohibition on torture (in which the phrase "unitary executive" appears four times) is particularly troubling case in point. However, according to Phillip Cooper, author of By Order of the President: The Use and Abuse of Executive Direct Action, the current president has used signing statements over a hundred times in his first term, raising over five hundred separate Constitutional objections.

As a rhetorician who reads my Aristotle, I find the repurposing of epideictic rhetoric to legislative or juridical ends disquieting as well. Why rebrand a political veto with a guise of ceremony? Why mask the deliberative character of contentious political discourse under pomp and circumstance?

To make matters worse, this strategy is being buried by impenetrable information design. Since this is such an important policy stance that affects so many stakeholders, it seems to me that all legislation from which the Executive branch considers itself exempted should be together on some easily navigable Federal .gov site for public view and comment. Unfortunately this isn't the case. When I went to the White House website and tried their search engine, I couldn't find these signing statements without knowing specific bill numbers. When I tried "signing statement," many of the results were from bills with which the President agreed, and "H. R." (for the legislation number) produced an even more inflated number of hits.

Undeterred, I read about a dozen signing statements to get a sense of the legalistic rhetoric they contained. Soon, I couldn't miss the repeated use of the odd phrase "construe" as in "the Executive shall construe . . ." When I tried "construe" in the search engine, I was finally pleased with the results. Now I wonder if we're all being construed over.

It also turned out that the phrase "unitary executive" was a pretty good finding aid, but "construe" was considerably better. Those seeking more reading on the subject should check out the recent New York Times article "For President, Final Say on a Bill Sometimes Comes after Signing" and a key memo from Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito, which has been released by the National Archives, that defends the legality and legitimacy of such statements.

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Friday, January 20, 2006

Blood is Thicker than Water . . . And Faster than Social Activism Too!

Just when I thought that social marketing appeals couldn't get any more debased, the PR industry somehow achieves a brand new low. Yesterday, I came across "In Cold Blood: A nasty new public service announcement from the Red Cross," Seth Stevenson's ad review in Slate. Social marketing experts are apparently no longer content with merely pitching social and civic responsibilities to the lowest common denominators of the viewer's envy, gluttony, lust, and sloth; now they are resorting to the same Brand X vs. Brand Y pitches that conventional spots from the advertising industry use. Thus do-gooding appeals are rebranded as part of a zero sum game in which social marketing campaigns actually must compete against each other.

This new breed of TV commercial can be seen on the blood drive's website bloodsaves.com, which very obviously borrows from the graphic sensibility of The Truth website. Using the technique of gendered marketing, a pair of spots emphasizes the unintended consequences of social activism: child labor abroad is assigned to the guy, and regional pollution is slotted for the gal. Apparently the laudable goals of ambitious social activism will only waste resources or cause unemployment, so it is better to follow the path of least resistance and just go to your local blood center and give generously only from your bodily humors.

Although several associated blood banks, including the Red Cross, laud the "pro bono" work done by Euro RSCG Worldwide, the agenda of the company's own executives is a little more troubling. The Euro RSCG Worldwide company website is full of advertising-speak intended to describe their youthful target audience: "Prosumer" (professional consumer), "P1" (for "the power of one"), and "CBI" (for "creative business ideas"). Conversely, traditional products are marketed by Euro RSCG using a social responsibility hook. For example, in their "Wittness" campaign for the rebranding of Guinness they boast of their mastery of "under-the-radar media" that include "police-style incident boards" that ask "Are you willing to make a statement?"

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Thursday, January 19, 2006

Advice Column

Amazingly, the Los Angeles Times has been dispensing lots of good rhetorical advice to would-be bloggers this month. Given just how little writing instruction has been devoted to electronic forms, I'm glad to see it, particularly in the mainstream media. A January 4th Los Angeles Times article, "Have we gone blog wild? As Web musings get ever more specialized, it's a good time to be crazy about food," addresses three basic principles for successful blogging: 1) focus on a niche audience, 2) keep it current, and 3) compensate for the blog format with greater interactivity and vividness. Good bloggers focus on just one food or type of culinary experience: only burritos, only pho, only pizza by the slice. And they improve this form of narrowcasting with video clips or clever interactive graphics like animated maps.

(Why is it that political blogs so rarely follow the specificity rule and yet are successful? I tend to think the reasons are anthropological; readers value being members of the tribe more than the actual transfer of novel or useful information.)

There's more good rhetorical advice in an LA Times piece on January 11th: "Blogging: When the Water Cooler Will No Longer Do." The author compares the hazards of on-the-job blogging to the dangers of e-mail forwarding to explain why company blogging can stymie a career in the volatile environment of office politics. Certainly blogs have some potential protections of anonymity. But they are much more public than many naive writers realize, particularly since so much of web discourse is within the ken of a google search. Besides, the lure of an implied audience for a lively blog promotes the use of incriminating, specific details. As the old adage goes, writers show, and then their bosses can tell.


Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Stealth Marketing

There really should be a Department of Irony in the U.S. Government. After all, one of the oddities of contemporary life is that we now have .gov sites masquerading as .com sites, because certain kinds of commercial sites would be more trusted by average people as objective sources of information. Medical marketing may be the model for this kind of persuasive site in which various diagnostic tests and advice from experts is offered to visitors to their pages. A case in point is www.todaysmilitary.com, which clearly belongs in the .gov domain, as it is an explicit recruitment arm of the U.S. armed forces.

As social marketing, this campaign differ greatly from anti-drug efforts that encourage parents to take charge of the dialogue. Instead, Today's Military praises making parenting a "two-way conversation" in which authority figures should be receptive to teens' wishes to enlist. There's even a section for educators!

From the student side, site pages contain extensive materials encouraging young people to identify their personality types, a common practice in corporate America, which Barbara Ehrenreich recently tried to debunk in Bait and Switch. I took the online test, the Keirsey personality sorter (all 70 multiple choice questions) and discovered that my personality type was "Rational." Supposedly, I should reflect upon whether I am an "architect," "mastermind," "inventor," or "field marshall." Unfortunately, it would cost me a non-taxpayer-subsidized $14.95 to find out exactly which one I am, so that route of self-discovery is closed to me. But at least now I know the following complimentary nugget of wisdom: "Rationals have an insatiable hunger to accomplish their goals and will work tirelessly on any project they have set their mind to. They are rigorously logical and fiercely independent in their thinking--are indeed skeptical of all ideas, even their own--and they believe they can overcome any obstacle with their will power." Apparently also "Rationals don't care about being politically correct," are "pragmatic," have a "problem solving temperment," and are fascinated with "systems" of all kinds.

The prose reminded me a lot of a detailed horoscope, which was funny given the test's institutional authority. The testing service also informed me that I should feel flattered, because "Rationals are very scarce, comprising as little as 5 to 10 percent of the population." Of course, I have a relatively rare blood type as well, and blood types used to serve a similar function as a categorization tool in the not so distant past.

The persuasive hook is obvious. A teen goes to the site and takes this test (for which no studying is required) and is told that he or she has this terrific personality (because all of the temperment types are good) and that he or she is endowed with all the special traits of an Artisan, Guardian, Idealist, or Rational. As a bonus, the teen's parents are even put in their place, and their status as experts is contested. This destabilizing of authority might be the one good thing about this website, I would say, as a parent myself, albeit one who hopes never to send a child to war.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The Art of Argument

David Fleming has asserted that visual images can't serve as arguments because a picture in itself "makes no claim that can be contested, doubted, or improved upon by others." The software program Photoshop, which makes the alteration of images by would-be critics easier for nonspecialists to undertake, would seem to contradict the basis of this claim. With Photoshop, the ideological messages of images can be refined and debated. Perhaps Walter Benjamin's famed essay on "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" should be updated, now that the capacity of our "culture industry" to churn out copies is being subverted by digital tinkerers.

For example, in the original version of the photograph above, the loyalty of a Palestinian crowd to an iconic political leader is celebrated by the image of a man holding Arafat's picture over his head. However, in the Photoshopped mutation of this image, which appeared in the conservative blog Little Green Footballs, the man's sentiments have been reduced to celebrity worship because the portrait of Arafat has become a portrait of Elvis.

Unfortunately, this form of visual debate may be smothered in its infancy by expanding federal intellectual property regulations, particularly the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. Ostensibly, parodies like the image above remain protected speech. Yet Creative Commons advocate Siva Vaidhyanathan of Sivacracy.net has pointed out that the legal sanction for parody is its own kind of trap. Vaidhyanathan warns that the 1994 Supreme Court ruling in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music that the tune from "Pretty Woman" could parodically appear in a rap album by 2 Live Crew was in fact no cause for celebration. Since then, other rappers have lost court cases that involved remixing, despite the fact that they had created more artistically ambitious and politically nuanced projects than 2 Live Crew. Because they couldn't easily fit in the "parody" pigeonhole, the music was ruled illegal.

In other words, suppose I wanted to post a photograph of Martin Luther King Jr., and I couldn't get permission from Intellectual Properties Management, because there was no income stream from, say, an advertisement on this blog. I couldn't do it, no matter how useful my critical commentary on the visual rhetoric of King's appearance in black and white photos or how important some historical revelation about this document of a public figure might be. Even if I am using the photo to show the presence of a previously unknown assassin or an FBI agent illegally surveiling King in life! Thanks to the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, my university might be protected from most legal claims, but if I post the photo without permission I could still be personally held liable and lose my house, car, and savings account.

Now, suppose I digitally altered the image for parodic purposes, it seems I would more likely be in the clear. I could put Dr. King in an Elvis suit like Little Green Footballs. If I wanted to edge my purpose toward social commentary, I could even make a Causasian version of Dr. King, as designer Tibor Kalman did in Colors with other famous African Americans like Spike Lee,

Still, what if I wanted to use the use the image for purposes other than simple caracature or an easy political point? Would I be willing to take the risk to engage in the visual argument? Or would I decide the risk wasn't worth it?

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Monday, January 16, 2006

The Tragedy of the Commons

A story in the New York Times, "Disarray at Center for Dr. King Casts Pall on Family and Legacy" was a sober reminder about the hazards of nepotism to our common rhetorical inheritance and the dangers of allowing the appropriation for profit of the intellectual property of the civil rights movement. (It's been a bleak week for post-sixties social activism, actually. During the same period, The Los Angeles Times wrote about infighting generated by the family of Cesar Chavez in the four part series "UFW: A Broken Contract.")

To see for myself, I visited the website of the King Center and immediately reacted negatively. Maybe it was the sound blaring out as soon as the page opened . . . always a web design turn-off. Maybe I was irked by the fact that they chose a speech segment with an anti-education theme, which attacked the importance of college degrees, subject-verb agreement, and Plato and Aristotle. Maybe it was the digital image of the Coretta Scott King book with SAMPLE stamped on it to protect their intellectual property and make image-grabbing impossible for kids doing reports.

From an information literacy standpoint, the site was a disaster. No interesting digitized documents or online exhibitions. Worse, when you opened the first page marked Martin Luther King, Jr. both of the links were dead (on the Saturday of the holiday weekend!), so the site is obviously not being properly maintained. Most depressing were the draconian intellectual property restrictions in their Terms of Service that credited Intellectual Properties Management as the copyright holder of record.

Intellectual Properties Management is run by one of King's sons, who from what I've read sounds like a real foe of the Creative Commons. According to the Times, "Dexter King's entrepreneurial spirit has generated controversy since the moment he first took control of the King Center board in 1994 as his mother's designated successor. He battled the Park Service over land where he wanted to build an interactive, for-profit museum, disbanded the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday commission because it was a fund-raising competitor and licensed his father's image to cellular phone companies for commercials." In the trademark case Dexter S. King v. Trace Publishing Company, King's heirs actually attempt to trademark the phrase "I Have a Dream" (and even "We Have a Dream," which wasn't in the speech). For those disinclined to think ill of the King family, "Martin Luther King Jr., Minting a Fortune" in Forbes magazine describes some of IPM's worst abuses.

To those who study rhetoric, the IPM situation is particularly ironic because King was a famous borrower of oratory and even may have once gone too far when he took texts from others without acknowledgement in some passages in his doctoral dissertation. (I don't hold this conduct against King. Famous writers are often accused of plagiarism; my favorite examples are Diderot and Voltaire.)

Perhaps the most well-known example of IPM's cupidity is the sale of footage from the "I Have a Dream" speech to Alcatel to create a computer generated 360 degree view of King speaking that also celebrates the communication company's products. Alcatel's MLK themed ad campaign was created by Arnold Worldwide with the digital help of Industrial Light and Magic. (The Arnold agency also takes credit for work done on "The Truth" anti-smoking campaign, which has been covered twice on this blog.) Although they were near King historically, at the real podium in front of the Lincoln Monument, other participants in this key civil rights event have been digitally removed from the stage by the PR experts, as this page on the Media Literacy Clearinghouse at the University of South Carolina shows.

I watched the television ad at the Scholarship in the Digital Age conference, and I have to admit it was visually engrossing and emotionally vivid. Just like The Wizard of Oz, the black and white sequence transforms into color, and, as the camera pans around the opening shots of an empty Washington Mall, King's audience quickly fills the space and becomes a teeming, enthusiastic throng as the words of King's wonderful "I Have a Dream" speech resonate from the three dimensional virtual space.

Another website about the civil rights leader that Intellectual Properties Management licenses, MLK Online, is unbelievably crass and covered with ads. A pitch for a phone company dominates the banner.

A trip to American Rhetoric: The Power of Oratory in the United States might be a much better way to celebrate the holiday that commemorates both a great wordsmith and a great political thinker. It includes an online speech bank, sound clips from alliteration to synecdoche in "Rhetorical Figures in Sound," great movie speeches, Christian rhetoric, the rhetoric of 9-11, an online quiz that I genuinely enjoyed (despite my "C" grade at the end), and a fun exercise about rhetorical liberties and Dennis Rodman's antics on the basketball court.

At the very least the virtual visitor to Atlanta, Georgia can travel a few blocks from the King Center to the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site run by the National Park Service and take a virtual tour of the King Birth Home.


Sunday, January 15, 2006

Can We Discuss This?

Can I discuss the use of the word "discuss" on the White House website? Did the Unitary Executive make a New Year's resolution to seem less omnipotent?

For example, on the morning of January13th, website headlines included "President Visits Mississippi, Discusses Gulf Coast Reconstruction," "President Participates in Discussion on the Global War on Terror," and "Iraqi Police Force Discussed." By afternoon the headlines included "President Discusses Central American Relief and Reconstruction Efforts." In "Ask the White House," the text was topped with "Discuss the National Archives." (Of course, I felt compelled to submit a question.)

Compared to the words that newspapers use to describe the rhetorical work of policy makers -- "defends," "contradicts," "debates," "declares," etc. -- "discusses" is a milksop word. It's about the appearance of rhetorical exchange rather than the actual activity of it.

Perhaps it is analogous to bringing in all the living past and present Secretaries of State and Defense into the White House on January 5th to pose listening to their "concerns" before the real work of the actual photo opportunity could start.

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Saturday, January 14, 2006


The potential for online purchase of private phone records by individuals with commercial, prurient, or surveiling interests has finally raised the ire of web political behemoth MoveOn.org. In an investigative journalism coup, ideologically similar AMERICABlog managed to buy former Presidential candidate General Wesley Clark's cell phone records. So MoveOn alerted their 3.3 million members that this privacy loophole exists. According to Reuters, "Agencies Probing Sale of Cell Phone Records," all that one needs is the number of the person to find out all the numbers that person in turn has called on their most recent bill. Ironically, when I searched for this story online on the New York Times website, ads for two of these unscrupulous services materialized above the top results, thanks to the sponsorship arrangements of the NYT search engine!

It's an tantalizing story that involves issues around privacy and intellectual property in two communications technologies, which I will try to cover as it develops. Given their influence, both political sites probably merit more rhetorical attention. AMERICABlog markets progressive products that use many branding and visual appropriation strategies, and the virtual fundraising power of MoveOn.org has expanded across several platforms for digital communication: e-mail, listserv, website, digital images, sound and video files, and even television advertising. (Although many MoveOn ads can only be seen on your desktop, because networks refused to allow them to buy airtime during the last election for certain spots.) Those who received those first forwarded e-mails from MoveOn during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the Clinton administration will well remember the group's bi-partisan beginnings.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Nest Egg

Risk has been treated as a commodity for centuries by those in the actuarial profession, but the rise of peer-to-peer distributed networks and the advent of the "War on Terror" has transformed how social actors can interact with that market of risk. Although the Pentagon's "terror futures index" was nixed by government officials, as Wired News reported, the webpage of the Policy Analysis Market was archived by U.C. Irvine alumnus Robin Hanson, who now teaches at George Mason University. Thanks to Hanson, critics can still examine the program's disquieting rhetorical appeals from the Information Awareness Office (infowar.net) with the Foucauldian motto Scientia Est Potentia. Described as a "market in the future of the Middle East," the program promises predictions based on "objective data and observable events."

To become a Policy Analysis Market trader, which can only be done via the website, three basic requirements must be filled: 1) acceptance of the terms of use, 2) selection of a username and password, and 3) deposit of funds into the registrant's PAM trading account. The site is obviously targeted at experts in think tanks and universities. If only I could make money betting on the likelihood of the government committing more online rhetorical gaffes . . .

In 2005, gamers were given an opportunity to dive into an amateur version of this betting pool in Where Next?. This macabre website promises to reward the online Nostradamus who best predicts where, when, and how the next terrorist attack will occur -- using the Google Earth interface and some handy terror icons -- with a customized t-shirt that commemorates the feat of successful prediction. The site has through-a-glass-darkly predictions by cranks, crackpots, gambling addicts, policy wonks, and cyber-activists. My favorite was the prediction of a terror attack in Greenland caused by the method of global warming. (Click image to enlarge.) I'll play almost any political online game, but it seemed like bad karma to place my wager here.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

This is a Test of the Emergency Webcasting System

Last week, I heard the Emergency Broadcast System begin honking its dissonant alarm on my television set. (This was also strange, because the television is almost never on.) It wasn't a test. I shouted for the kids. For a few moments I imagined the dirty bomb or chemical attack we would have to flee. But it turned out that the occasion for the activation of the system was only our recent heavy rains in the Southland.

So I thought it worth investigating how e-government is adapting to the possibility of providing public service announcements to victims of natural disasters or terrorism. After all, the Internet was designed for the scenario of a cataclysmic nuclear event that would knock out traditional communications. And I am someone more likely to be online than in front of the tube, just like an increasing number of Americans.

The website for the Emergency Alert System is a minimal, functional affair. However, in the process of my investigations, I discovered a field of public rhetoric about which I had been previously ignorant: "risk communication." Within academia, risk communication is making many of the same opening moves to establish its legitimacy as a discipline, as are similarly novel fields in political discourse like "public diplomacy" and "social marketing." The central challenge of risk communication is to convey information while avoiding both lurid forecasts that would set off a panic and polyanna-ish pablum that would make people distrust the veracity of officials (and then set off a panic).

I also discovered this amazing logo from the Center for Risk Communication in New York. Of course, I personally tend to want competent and straightforward emergency aid in a disaster, not a spokesperson who feels my pain. A pie-chart that is half-pathos and half-ethos with no logos just doesn't do it for me. I think it is comforting, especially in an disaster, to hear: "You should do X rather than Y BECAUSE . . . "

After the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration set up a SAMSHA Risk Communication site featuring Flash graphics with dynamic lettering that reads:

"Since the events of September 11, public sensitivity to terror and fear of further crises have posed unprecedented challenges. One of the challenges is how information is communicated to the public in timely, accurate ways that do not heighten concern and fear."

During this section of the introduction, the text of the words "September 11" and "unprecedented" looms to fill much of the screen. Then the visitor is treated to some panic-inducing atmospheric sights of grainy black and white photos and sounds from ambulances and falling debris. Finally the screen asks us:

  • "What are the messages prior to, during, and after serious crises such as unusual disease or bioterrism?"
  • "What are the opportunities for effective communication & how can they be maximized?"
  • "What questions can we anticipate from the public in risk situations?"
  • "What are the news media's responsibilities and how can you help reporters meet them?"

Since the threat of avian influenza has been much in the news of late, risk communication is getting new media attention as well. The avian influenza page on the World Health Organization paints a grim image of global mass casualties, while the page with the same theme on the Center for Disease Control is considerably less fatalistic, although it does point out that we are currently at a color-coded "Stage Three" in their pandemic six phase system.

Of course, in the risk communication field, no government graphic of late has produced more parodic responses than the terrorism alert system from the Office of Homeland Security. These send-ups include the Code Pink color spoof, the Liberal Terror Alert System, the Democracy Threat Advisory System, the Terror Alert system, Betty Bowers Terror Alert, the amateur Color Coded Terror Response Comedy Piece, Terror Level Alerts: Collect Them All, and this wonderful terror alert system, which flouts intellectual property law, that you can put on your very own home page.

If you are in your bomb shelter or behind your duct taped windows as you read this, maybe you could play these FEMA games to pass the time.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2006

What's So Bad about Social Marketing?

"What's so bad about social marketing?"

This is a compelling question, one that was posed by fellow blogger and U.C. Irvine colleague Julia Lupton, who has been exploring related issues about the role of design in the public sphere on the innovative, collaborative Design Your Life blog. Social marketing refers to the practice of having advertising agencies orchestrate government-funded public relations campaigns aimed at alleviating problems that threaten community health and safey.

In other words, she asked, if a campaign to get children not to play with matches causes fewer children to play with matches, what's wrong with that? After all, who doesn't love Smokey the Bear (the longest running public service campaign in U.S. history)?

It's a position that's hard to argue with. Yet, as her blog points out, it's problematic to put the same advertising agencies who created many of America's health ills (obesity, cigarette smoking, overmedication, etc.) in charge of curing them. Furthermore, as I've begun to trace the genealogy of many of these campaigns back to their politically well-connected sources, I've found that often the same advertising conglomerates involved in social marketing also engage in public diplomacy and other forms of information warfare that require more troubling partnerships with the "virtual state." Besides, PR can be expensive and difficult to justify when social service providers must compete for funds. An ounce of prevention may be worth a pound of cure, but policy makers always must decide how budgets should be apportioned. And marketing money can be difficult to account for compared to concrete goods distributed or services rendered.

Most important, social marketing promulgates top-down forms of political organization. It allows an increasingly centralized government (at both the federal and the state level here in California) to influence public opinion by targeting government spending to persuasive marketing efforts that appeal to implicit, undebated, and even unconscious claims. Sometimes the practice of social marketing can even create cognitive dissonance, particularly when there is an emerging consensus at the grass roots level.

For example, Californians approved a ballot proposition for use of medical marijuana and another one that favored treatment over incarceration for substance abuse offenders, yet young people in the state may perceive mixed messages when targeted by a range of anti-drug campaigns with black-and-white themes: D.A.R.E., Just Say No!, Parents: The Anti-Drug, and now Target America.

The political muscle of large campaigns like Partnership for a Drug-Free America can even shape the content of dramatic entertainment, as a 2000 Salon.com article reports. As someone who has always taken Aristotle's side of the argument rather than Plato's, I don't like the idea of having my family's exposure to theatrical dilemmas and ambiguities limited by a drug czar or philosopher king, especially while Zenith and Olgivy and Mather are buying the ad time during the station breaks.

Here's my rhetorician's thesis: social change best emerges from open discussion, debate, and compromise. Many people stopped smoking not because social marketers appealed to their vanity, lethargy, envy, greed, and lust; but because smoke-free environments became the norm in workplaces and other public spaces, brought on by a form of ballot proposition democracy that emerged only after decades of hotly contested discursive exchanges.

I would argue that the other factor in this historical transformation to a smoke-free USA was good information design. My mother, like many in the nineteen-sixties, quit smoking as a direct result of the Surgeon General's Report. When government prioritizes information legibility and creates a culture around information literacy, citizens will be empowered as decision-makers and will in turn influence both peers and legislators.

At the end of our discussion we agreed that what was needed was a third way to approach social marketing: neither bureaucratic nor corporate, neither Washington D.C. nor Madison Avenue, a paradigm to fit our evolving participatory cyberculture . . . good public design where the model was open source, networked, peer-to-peer, and perhaps truly nonprofit.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Life is a Gift - Wrap it in Safety

Given the recent disaster in West Virginia, it seemed appropriate to visit the website of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, where I was generally impressed by the audience awareness of their online discourse. Even their kids' materials -- about not playing in abandoned mines -- seemed relevant and age-appropriate. Since I am interested in traditional information design as well, I watched the film clip for their Mine mapping campaign with appreciation for their foresight. As Edward Tufte has argued, clear information design and the availability of efficient message channels often saves lives.

In the negative column, the MNSHA monthly safety slogan contest lost them some public rhetoric points. See the title of this blog entry for the winner of last month's prize. And the fact that MSHA's idea of Interactive Training is a series of PowerPoint slides shows little understanding of how virtual simulations and other "serious games" can be used to model life-and-death situations.

When I first looked at the MSHA site, I was prepared for my usual rant about how it is often unreasonably difficult for workers and consumers to get information about health and safety information from government websites. Then I looked the next day, and presto!, there was an easy-to-use violations information page right on the webpage specifically about the Sago mine accident.

(And speaking of more mundane health and safety violations, the Los Angeles County Environmental Health Restaurant Rating system is now online in a much more easily searchable form, so local greasy spoons beware!)

In related oversight news, it will be interesting to see if corporations will also be held accountable, now that shareholders can get inside information from bloggers about company culture that might be otherwise invisible to outsiders. Would they avoid investing in the next Enron or Anker West Virginia Mining Company? A corporate blog wiki was described in a recent New York Times article on "A Blog that Blogs Corporate Blogs"

At least the website of the Anker company's parent corporation, the International Coal Group, was unostentatiously low-tech and soberly designed. It looks like ICG realizes that ambitious and polished public relations efforts would do little for their share price at the moment.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

There's No There There

A recent story in the New York Times, "Advertising's Twilight Zone: That Signpost Up Ahead May Be a Virtual Product," shows how the line is being blurred between the props of the dominant cultural narratives of film and television and the products of corporate marketers thanks to a brave new world of digital effects. Now that developers of entertainment properties have discovered the added income stream of product placement, post-production CGI is being used to edit in consumer goods that actors, directors, and writers never saw on set. One of the leaders in the field is Marathon Ventures, a company that also does product placement in video games. For example, the Marathon slideshow shows "before" and "after" pictures of their onscreen wizardry in which boxes of crackers, packages of tuna, and bags of artificial sweeteners magically appear in prime time episodes.

Some of this digital ingenuity may serve as a way to get around resistant writers who could be uncompensated by product placement agreements or resent having their creative labors made more onerous by demanding sponsors. A recent white paper, from the Writers Guild of America proposes a Code of Conduct, and the WGA is hoping to enlist the Federal Communications Commission for help in their fight.

The Zeitgeist toward product placement isn't that suprising, given that viral marketing and guerrilla marketing and other forms of stealth marketing are inserting branded commodities into informal settings of social exchange. At least those who watch television understand that what they are seeing is necessarily manufactured to sell products and that claims for those products may be an implicit as well as explicit part of the show experience.

After all, for years sports stadiums have been digitally altered to show ads for different regional markets, so athletes have been playing in virtual reality environments for a while. Stadium advertising is an interesting case of "narrowcasting" to target product appeals to particular audiences, which is slowly spreading to other public spaces.

With ubiquitous computing, so comes ubiquitous marketing, as the movie Minority Report dramatically shows. Of course, Minority Report received about $25 million in product placement fees to offset its blockbuster budget, a mark exceeded by at least a half-dozen films in 2005.

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Sunday, January 08, 2006

Shared Dreams and Nightmares

While we are on the subject of human rights blogging, I have to commend the New York Times for their experiment that includes Iraqi bloggers in their Op-Ed columns this month. When so many blogs by Iraqis are being coopted for political purposes by huge mega-blogs from either the right or the left, it is again refreshing to read first-person accounts by citizen-journalists, such as those by early innovators Salam Pax and Riverbend, whose work is now published in print.

For example, yesterday's NYT column, "Nightmares in Baghdad," describes how average Iraqis are suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome.

"I have been experiencing these nightmares since 2003. I have gone through all the available scenarios and have been killed dozens of times — by air strikes, car bombs, roadside bombs, random bullets, mortars, celebratory shootings and drive-by shootings. I’ve been tortured by both Americans and Iraqis at Abu Ghraib and in the Ministry of Interior’s cellars. I’ve been carjacked, kidnapped for ransom and beheaded by Arab Jihadis. I’ve witnessed several members of my family killed in front of my eyes. And I’ve lost count of the times I was mistakenly shot by American soldiers or foreign contractors. During my childhood, I remember dreaming of haunted houses, ghosts, vampires, zombies or goblins; I wish I could dream of these things now."

These blogs give the reader a sense of immediacy within the global Internet. It reminds me of reading posts from international members of the Poetics Listserv in the 90's and encountering first-person acounts from people coping with war in the former Yugoslavia. These e-mails about burning furniture and books, rapes of friends and neighbors, and sitting in bomb shelters for hours made conflict in the Balkans part of my daily digital experience.

Also of note, many Iraqi blogs use the Blogspot server and software, as this site does.

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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Typing with the Enemy

Are you a collaborator with those who are silencing this man, a blogger and freelance journalist for the New York Times and the Washington Post? If you are reading this paragraph on Internet Explorer or viewing these words on a Windows machine (as I am), then you are. Because the Microsoft corporation, which makes those products, just pulled down his blog when asked to by irritated Chinese authorities. Microsoft even deleted his files before the writer had the opportunity to back up his work!

In Nicholas Kristof's earlier New York Times story about another controversial Internet blogger, Li Xinde, perhaps he was too optimistic to predict that Chinese authoritarianism would inevitably meet "Death by a Thousand Blogs."

Yesterday's story in the New York Times, "Microsoft Shuts Blog's Site after Complaints by Beijing," details how American technology companies, afraid of losing access to the world's largest potential market, are still customizing their search algorithms to censor ideas from human rights advocates and political dissidents. To make matters worse they are now denying web space to those who are challenging government crackdowns and even kicking them out of the cyber-agora.

From coverage on Zhao Jing or "Michael Anti" on the China Digital Times (pictured above), I also learned about the admirable Berkeley China Internet Project and its related journalistic activities. If only these guys made an operating system . . .

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