Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Human Rights and Copywrongs

Rhetoricians who are interested in key texts that have shaped the debate over civil rights and human rights in the 20th century should be extremely concerned about recent attacks on what Lawrence Lessig has called our common "free culture" and by the perpetuation of privatizing "copywrongs," as Siva Vaidhyanathan has argued, that undermine the workings of democratic institutions and processes. Although academic webmasters and bloggers may receive encouragement to assert their fair use rights from the Electronic Freedom Foundation, universities generally urge immediate compliance with any intellectual property complaints.

For example, a DMCA notice recently went out on a century-old image of mutilated natives in the Belgian Congo. These 1903 black and white photographs were part of a wide-ranging human rights campaign that was orchestrated by missionaries, journalists, and colonial whistleblowers in order to reach the visual culture of the broadest possible public. BoondocksNet.com has asserted exclusive rights to the images under its conditions of use, even though the photographs were obviously initially intended to document and publicize abuses and not to create artifacts of intellectual property to be commodified for future generations. Boondocks isn't alone. Apparently, Anti-Slavery International controls the copyright for another frequently reproduced 1905 photograph of abuses in the Congo.

Although Boondocks' Jim Zwick contributed to the groundbreaking Crossroads Project at Georgetown and the Digital History project at George Mason University, and his materials are widely recommended on library reference pages and course syllabi, this once excellent site has clearly lost its moral and academic authority. On today's homepage for the site, primary source materials for Women's History Month are located right next to sexually exploitative advertising. (See above. I have intentionally degraded the image but preserved the regrettable juxtaposition.)

This blog has noted a second possible case of human rights copywrongs around the diary of Holocaust victim Anne Frank. Five expurgated pages from the orginal text that were critical of her parents have been involved in a series of copyright disputes in recent years. According to a 1998 New York Times article, "Paper Prints Disputed Anne Frank Pages," an Amsterdam paper that printed the pages without permission asserted, "We think the whole subject is news, and there is no copyright on news," yet copyright proprietor Cornelius Sujik disagreed. "Five Precious Pages Renewing the Wrangling over Anne Frank" from the NYT further reports that the Dutch newspaper also published the missing pages on its website, and that, although critical editions were to unite materials from the two sources under different copyrights, some historians have been caught between the warring parties. To make matters more complicated, the Anne Frank Fonds in Basel, Switzerland, which is administrated by Anne's cousin, holds the copyright on the diary itself, but the Netherlands State Institute for War Documentation with which her father Otto Frank was associated has also gotten into the fray.

Anne Frank herself aspired to be a journalist and wished to share her experiences with the public. More importantly, the diary serves as a testimony against human rights abuses under the Nazi racial state. I think of Anne Frank as being like human rights bloggers in many places now around the world. Yet as early as 1996, Frank-related copyright owners have been asserting their intellectual property rights against those who reproduce Anne Frank materials on the web without permission, as this site from the University of Washington shows.

There is a third case that could be illustrative of this trend. I have argued in the past that more historically recent civil rights rhetoric is also at stake. As Black History Month draws to a close, it is important to remember that the King Center and some of the heirs of Martin Luther King, Jr. have asserted draconian intellectual property restrictions in their Terms of Service that credit Intellectual Properties Management as the copyright holder of record. Intellectual Properties Management is run by one of King's sons, Dexter King, who in the trademark case Dexter S. King v. Trace Publishing Company, actually attempted to trademark the phrase "We Have a Dream," which wasn't even in the speech. 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.

Perhaps the most egregious example of IPM's profiteering 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. Although other civil rights leaders were near King at the real podium in front of the Lincoln Monument historically, these 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.

A website about the civil rights leader that Intellectual Properties Management licenses, MLK Online, is unbelievably crass and covered with ads. Yet the much better website American Rhetoric: The Power of Oratory in the United States has obviously come under fire from the IPM lawyers. American Rhetoric admits to not having permission or being a copyright holder, although they also point out that King himself borrows from Biblical sources and traditional spirituals. Lessig's own institution, Stanford, has been cooperating with IPM to secure scholarly publication and research center privileges.

In the silver-lining department, at least it is heartening to see this week that dozens of never-before-seen photographs of the civil rights movement have been released online.

Update: See "Requiem for a Website" for some important changes to the first story.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

To Verb or Not to Verb?

I have to say something about the latest social marketing campaign from the Centers for Disease Control, VERB, which is designed to encourage outdoor play and discourage virtual activities among the young. You can see the image above of fat, lazy, CGI baseball players to get a sense of how the campaign even subverts the visual conventions of digital play to make its pitch.

Developed by Saatchi & Saatchi New York, the VERB campaign takes special aim at video games as a social ill. Yet, as Ian Bogost of Water Cooler Games observes, the obesity epidemic may have more complex social and political causes, which can't be reduced to a billboard message or soundbite.

Strangely, the VERB campaign has created an elaborate online environment at VerbNow. The program even urges its own young cadre of bloggers to stop moving and record their experiences online. Program participants are encouraged to play the CDC's selection of video games as well.

Of course, this is the same federal government that conducts military recruitment with X-boxes and is supposedly seeking the most physically fit specimens possible by developing the game America's Army.

When will they finally create a domain for irony.gov?

(By way of a digression, much to my chagrin, I have to confess to succumbing to my university's own attempt at social marketing, Step Up UCI. Mostly I joined for the free pedometer and the chance to settle a grudge match between my own School of Humanities and our rivals in Network & Academic Computing Services. Of course, I now realize that a tug-of-war would have been much less time-consuming and much easier on my feet. Besides, I've always hated website counters, so it's strange to realize that I'm now wearing a counter-device on my actual person!)


Sunday, February 26, 2006

College Freshmen and Political Freshmen

This may be yet another case where the fake news has its facts straight better than the real news. This week, one of our local news stations in Los Angeles, Channel 7, is doing hard-hitting investigative reporting about My Space, the social networking site for young people.

As always, the prurient media emphasis is on young people and their possible exposure to sexually explicit materials (gasp!) rather than on the social, intellectual, or political effects of New Media on a new generation of social actors. Adrienne Alpert's Report on teens who use myspace.com features her talking head with the phrase "SECRET INTERNET WORLD" superimposed on an image of a laptop and crime scene tape in the background. Alpert compares online social networking to "the old telephone party line" and then launches into fear-mongering for parents about how children are lying about their ages and making themselves vulnerable to pedophiles and cyberstalkers.

It turns out that the message of the Channel 7 report is to have young people use a competing and supposedly more secure networking service, YFly, where advertisers would also have an ideal captive audience to exploit. Parry Aftab of Wired Safety has been hawking the site with drippy ex-Backstreet Boy Nick Lachey. (All right! Backstreet Boys! Teens and pre-teens today are so in to them!)

If parents want to be involved in their kids' online lives, why not use the Internet creatively to encourage teens to be designers, as Ellen Lupton has, and be producers rather than consumers in our culture industry by fostering sites like Media Savage? It's true that sites like My Space encourage identity production in a networked culture, but they also emphasize consumption rather than exchange. This may make me sound like a fuddy-duddy, but I think the interface of My Space is more like a creepy website for mail-order brides than more user-centered/task-oriented old-school listservs or bulletin board services or newer MMORPG's or large group blogs in which peer-to-peer interactions encourage less evanescant virtual friendships.

Oddly, the coverage of My Space by Demetri Martin on the Daily Show is not only funnier but more on-target in describing the dangers of creating an entire generation that is incompetent at F2F. (That means face-to-face communication, for those of you oldsters who aren't keeping up with the investigative reporting on your local news.) Imagine a whole generation with a combination of Asperger's Syndrome and ADHD! Martin also interviews Siva Vaidhyanathan of Sivacracy.net in a funny cameo that emphasizes how live interactions and knowledge sharing suffer in commodified social networking cultures.

I joined Facebook two years ago, because I wanted to know more about students' online experiences. I'm a lurker, as you can see above, who enjoys being told I have "no friends." Facebook is restricted to those with an .edu address and at first appealed to the elite culture of the Ivy League where it originated. I consider it a useful unofficial window on campus culture and essential reading for any Internet researcher who is part of a higher education environment, just like ratemyprofessors.com.

A recent Chronicle of Education story discusses the political implications of the Facebook. As Wonkette has noted, the son of newest Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito pulled down his sexist page before media scrutiny during the confirmation process brought it to light. And, of course, there are predators in the online environments of college students as well, and law enforcement officers are developing methods to respond to Facebook stalking.

(As an addendum, I have to mention the fact that Facebook is important to college students in death as well as life, according to a recent item in the Wired Campus from the Chronicle for Higher Education. Facebook entries allow opportunities for commemoration that privacy-conscious and damage-control-conscious universities generally avoid.)

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Saturday, February 25, 2006

How Much Memory Does That System Come With?

The Internet is a paradoxical place for memorialization, given the often ephemeral character of digital artifacts that are disseminated through distributed networks and preserved only by informal contracts of social exchange. Already many of the September 11th memorials that were established in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks only lead to dead links. Yet for those seeking a rhetorical platform in a society that is increasingly impacted by globalization and organized remotely via peer-to-peer technologies, the World Wide Web continues to serve as a site for commemoration and cultural memory. This is particularly apparent in the case of the greatest memorial task of the 20th century: marking the genocide of European Jews under Nazi rule.

Right now, there is considerable conflict about how much information should be accessible to users of historical archives, given contemporary norms about individual privacy, in light of the pervasive and prurient spying by the Nazi racial state, which often propagated falsehoods . Recently the website of the International Tracing Service, which was set up by the Red Cross after World War II to reunite families and communities and provide answers about missing loved ones, announced that it was neither "morally nor legally justifiable at present" to open the archive to historians, according to "60 Years After the War, A Fight for Victims' Files." Visitor counters at this tri-lingual site show 43,947 German-speaking visitors, 23,233 English-speaking visitors, and only 6,926 French-speaking visitors.

Ironically, some of the biggest users of records of the International Tracing Service seem to be heavy-traffic Holocaust denial groups, such as Vrij Historisch Onderzoek and the Institute for Historical Review. I also noticed during a recent Google search that someone had fought back against the pseudo-institutional authority of these sites by monkeying with the Google system so that the Focal Point website is tagged as the "website of disgraced British Holocaust denier David Irving," a designation which doesn't appear anywhere on the site or its metadata and is obvious albeit welcome editorializing.

Although human subjects and copyright rules make it tricky to provide a complete library of the filmed oral histories of survivors to the public in digital form, thus countering the deniers, there are samples of such online testimony at major American archives at both USC and Yale. In Testimony, Shoshana Felman used these films as texts to show the pyschoanalytical complexities of the position of the witness, but when the book came out these films were not yet accessible as part of a common cultural history.

Just as national libraries build websites to organize and exhalt digital archives, as they also break ground on ambitious new building projects in the real world, so too do museums create virtual spaces that display their institutional character and demonstrate public support for their knowledge-preservation activities. Major Holocaust museums with either new edifices or recent expansions include the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Vad Yashem, and their cultural ambitions as sites of memory are also reflected in their websites.

More should probably be done in website development to counter the work of Holocaust deniers on the World Wide Web. "Virtual tours" like those at the Florida Holocaust Museum are a relatively superficial way to place visitors in the position of the witness, a position that Jacques Derrida, following Paul Celan's declaration that "no one bears witness for the witness," argues is uninhabitable in the case of the Shoah. I was actually more interested in finding a virtual tour of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, where visitors to the physical site negotiate a maze of forbidding blocks in a public outdoor space that has also served as an unintentional communal park and even playground. I actually found a 360 degree interactive panorama of the Berlin Memorial on a website that also features other locations that commemorate the violence of war (Dachau, Hiroshima, etc.). The official Berlin memorial website also includes a horrific and haunting exhibit about five children.

Another approach to online memorialization is at the Digital Monument to the Jewish Community in the Netherlands. It is an interesting approach to the aesthetics and representation of such a digital project and is well worth checking out. The site's "About" page explains their rhetorical rationale, and their "Explanation" page elucidates their information design principles and decodes their color coding methods. By using the extra features, you can actually watch historical footage of the deportation of the De Jongh family and then go inside their house on a virtual tour.

These media-enriched materials are worth a detour, but when visiting the site, it may be best to simply start by interacting with the basic design. Like Peter Eisenman's Berlin memorial, it creates a level of abstraction to represent the legacy of those murdered: each colored pixel leads to a victim's story and a request for further information about the person's life from visitors, potentially to build a kind of wiki to commemorate particular victims while also recording the impact of the larger historical event. By clicking on red and blue lines in the overall pattern, one discovers that they represent where entire single-gender schools or charitable institutions were wiped out. You can also explore the virtual streets where whole neighborhoods were emptied. I could easily imagine walking from Textstraat 1 to Texstraat 57 where I passed the homes of dozens of victims.

Of course, one of these yellow rectangles in the memorial represents Anne Frank, whose diary and five long-missing pages has sadly been involved in a series of copyright wrangles in recent years. As early as 1996, the copyright owners have been asserting their intellectual property rights against those who reproduce Anne Frank materials on the web without permission, as this site from the University of Washington shows.

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Friday, February 24, 2006

Cave Painting

Almost seven years ago, I saw my first demo of a virtual reality cave at the International Working Conference on Building University Electronic Environments. At the time, caves were presented as the pedagogical environments of the future, almost as though they had to prove Plato wrong. Now classroom technology generally focuses on other forms of ubiquitous computing that emphasize "workspace" configurations for collaboration and the acquisition of tool literary. Despite setbacks for use in higher education, caves continue to be important in many aesthetic and commercial environments, in addition to their obvious popularity as ideal gaming spaces.

At last week's New Media, Technology, and the Humanities conference, I was impressed to see how far artistic ambitions for cave environments have come. Noah Wardrip-Fruin's presentation "Screen: VR, Text, Gameplay, and Memory" demonstrated an electronic text art installation at Brown University with some of the best documentation of a cave experience that I have ever seen. Screen is a reading and listening experience using texts, including one by Robert Coover. A user can interact with the writers' fictions by literally pulling their words off the walls and mixing them together in a tangle at the center of the room.

Industrial applications for caves continue to be important as well. The other night, I went to the Los Angeles ACM SIGGRAPH meeting, Snow Crash: Virtual Reality Goes Real where Jerry Isdale of HRL talked about the popularity of caves with geologists, particularly for those in the petroleum industry. I hope to discuss his pitch for low-cost VR with products designed for the consumer market in a future Virtualpolitik posting.

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Thursday, February 23, 2006

Somthing Old, Something New, Something Borrowed . . .

The opening prize fight at last week's New Media, Technology, and the Humanities conference, was the big match-up between Lev Manovich and Erkki Huhtamo who were duking it out over whether or not New Media was really that "new."

Huhtamo focused on the question of "What's Old about New Media?" He analyzed conventions from the iconography of new media that went back to traditional topoi that were catalogued by Curtius. He began with the example of women dressed up in technological hardware, starting from the Modes Parisiennes of 1865 and ending with last year's SIGGRAPH Cyberfashion show. Throughout his talk, Huhtamo expressed his enthusiasm for the "losers" of history, alternative corporate "cryptohistories," cyclically recurring phenomena, and the counterfactual histories that subvert teleological interpretations of the evolution of new technologies.

Perhaps I am naturally a nostalgic trivialist, but Huhtamo's approach appeals to my narrative sensibilities. For example, I'll confess to enjoying books like When Old Technologies Were New, The Victorian Internet, and the novel Loving Little Egypt, which are all about turn-of-the-last-century technologies.

Lev Manovich, in contrast, asserted that New Media did more than simply assimilate existing media, because computing media work differently at a fundamental level. For example, such "metamedia" were designed with features like "search" and "zoom" in mind and reflected a vision for algorithm design that was unlike any previously occurring phenomenon. Manovich asserted that this paradigm shift could be illustrated by contemporary architectural practices that use digital tools or the metamedia on display at a current exhibition at the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

My attitude about New Media is informed by my own idiosyncratic family history in which users of a new technology (computers) can trace the origins of their practices to an old technology. Specifically, I'm from a failed pipe organ dynasty and the granddaughter of the builder of the World's Largest Pipe Organ in Atlantic City. To see where I'm coming from, see the image of the wiring of a pipe organ console above from a family album and the image of an unfortunately worded fake ad below from the Atlantic City Convention Hall Organ Society. It's a connection also made by Neil Stephenson in Cryptonomicon.

Indeed, my archetypal ancestor, the inventor Seibert Losh, was recently memorialized by my cousin, the artist Josefa Vaughan. So, of course, I had to ask Huhtamo about the topoi of similar cryptohistories about defunct auditory cultures that were wiped out by the talkies and yet are relevant to the current debate about music sampling. He agreed that, although his own specialty was visual culture, this archeology of auditory culture was a growing area in New Media studies.

Mark Hansen from the University of Chicago tried to float like a butterfly rather than sting like a bee later in the day at the conference. It turns out that he's a different Mark Hansen from the one covered in this blog, albeit one who also studies digital culture. Hansen asserted that "New Media" were distinctly new because the "user/participant" was a "co-creator of the aesthetic object." However, Hansen's theoretical history focused on Claude Shannon as a progenitor, while Alan Kay was the focus of Manovich's talk.


Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Cape and Gown

At the recent New Media, Technology, and the Humanities conference, which was sponsored by UC Irvine's own Humanitech, USC's Tara McPherson gave a demo of the supercool online hypermedia journal Vectors in which several of the featured sites could be read as relevant to the institutional politics of the university.

"What if Your Academic Research Were a Superhero?" This is the liberatory proposition of Jane McGonigal's PlaceStorming, which is intended to bring together manifesto writers, geocachers, and others actively involved in intellectual role-playing games. For those who need rhetorical context for the superhero topoi, the site also includes a review of recent superhero literature from the magazine Reason.

The PlaceStorming process began with manifesto-writing for my superhero narrative, which was definitely more fun than writing a dissertation prospectus, a book proposal, or even an FAQ. Following McGonigal's directions (or at least trying to), I came up with the following elements:

Your supertool = Virtualpolitik
Your superpowers = rhetorical analysis, the location of primary sources, self-deprecation, wit
Your mission = fighting public diplomacy, social marketing, risk communication, and the corporatization of access to information.
Your call to action = "Read the fine print!"
Your home turf = cyberspace

To help with their transformation to being super-researchers, fledgling academics might also find Ellen Strenski's humorous glossary helpful, at least for graduate students to learn to work the cultural studies/critical theory jargon-decoder ring. Of course, there are many with secret identities at the university, not all of whom have their exploits reach the front page of the Daily Planet. For example, there is the Invisible Adjunct, the author of an abandoned blog preserved on the Internet Archive. Certainly, any super-instructor with delusions of grandeur might need to be brought down to earth by this funny Dear Adjunct Faculty Letter, which was printed in the Chronicle of Higher Education and widely forwarded in ivy-covered cyberspace.

Indeed, not everyone gets to be a superhero at the university. The supporting cast of office workers who maintain the vast Weberian bureaucracy of higher education certainly understand this fact. At the conference, McPherson also showcased a Vectors project that implicitly acknowledges these information workers who are often treated as an underclass: Stolen Time by Alice Gambrell, which was recently also featured on Design Your Life. In addition to its critical hypertext, Gambrell's site offers a tutorial in traditionally gendered office procedures, such as shorthand and filing. At the end, visitors to the site can take away a collage that they have assembled. As the daughter of a legal secretary who earned her B.A. only after having four children, I was genuinely moved by Gambrell's site, which emphasized the challenges of learned skills not superpowers.

Knowing this, I figure that if I'm going to take on a cartoon identity, I certainly don't want to aim too high. And recently, the academic team at Sivacracy.net has been having fun with the Simpsomaker. So I had to try it myself. (See above.)

In other academic news, since I'm an actual undergraduate alum, I suppose I should have something to say about Lawrence Summers resignation from the Presidency at Harvard. Other than "FINALLY!" that is. It's worth noting that his resignation letter is online and available for analysis as an artifact of digital rhetoric, at least for the time being. Summers' controversial speech about women in the sciences is also located on the university website, as is his mea culpa from a few days later.

The whole genre of apologies on university websites is actually quite fascinating. I personally find such apologies much more interesting than denials. Resignation letters, messages to the campus community, and official reports about institutional scandals are becoming a normal part of the .edu domain. For example, the UCI Medical Center has suffered through a series of scandals that are commemorated in electronic ephemera, most recently involving the liver transplant program. For that matter, the U.C. system itself recently suffered through a management shake-up after accusations of nepotism in high-level hiring surfaced.

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Wham! Bam! Thank You, Ma'am!

I have to say something about mysterious Swedish game designer Stefan Eriksson's spectacular Ferrari bust up on the Pacific Coast Highway yesterday that was covered in "So Speedy, So Exclusive, So Expensive, So Totaled" in this morning's Los Angeles Times. Eriksson was associated with the failed Gizmondo, an all-in-one handheld device promoted by Formula One driver Jensen Button. The flashy young company's balance sheet included $170,000 paid to one Gizmondo executive's wife that also covered "an introduction to the performer Sting." Eriksson has also worked for Electronic Arts in developing Battlefield 1942. Apparently, it was a little too difficult for Eriksson to separate virtual reality from highway safety, although -- as of midday -- he was still asserting that a mysterious German named "Dietrich" was to blame for the accident.

For those fond of Scandinavian game design, how much more peaceful it is to enjoy these Lego recreations of classic video games, which are featured in the current Games Digest. (See above.) It takes the artifacts of the Homebrew culture that Brett Camper of MIT has been analyzing to a whole new and surreal level of children's manipulatives. Now that's my idea of a handheld!

Of course, maybe Lego adaptations aren't always so tame, as this Lego parody of Grand Theft Auto demonstrates.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Reading Room

Hooray! I may not be the only non-librarian in America interested in digital libraries after all!

(Anyone who reads this blog for "funny state-of-the-minute commentary" can just skip this entry. You have been warned in advance: this posting is just about digital libraries.)

Yesterday, Siva Vaidhyanathan of Sivacracy.net listed more reasons be skeptical about corporate outsourcing of digitization in "The Great Unanswered Questions: Can Google Do It Right?" In particular, he raised more critical red flags about the search algorithm in the current Google Book Search demo and the lack of public accountability in the procedures for metadata encoding. Indeed, it's hard to get straight answers from reading Google materials, but reviews in the venerable Search Engine Watch seem to indicate that Google might not even support library standards like Dublin Core or the Library of Congress Subject Headings.

As a rhetorician, I found the diction of Google's User Stories very strange, almost like heavily edited messages from the occupants of some authoritarian country or the members of some megalomaniacal cult. These cryptic yet canned testimonials earnestly emphasize either 1) how the typical Google Book Search user would be happily spending more money buying more books as a direct result of using this service or 2) how the user who wasn't a rapid-response book consumer would be mysteriously lacking in curiosity about the present, one narrowly interested in materials safely out of copyright and in the dusty territory of public domain, generally a harmless armchair historian/amateur genealogist.

Google's posting of these testimonials seems disingenuous, given how the digital generation wants online access to recent and complete files at minimal cost. It's like claiming that a visitor to Apple's iTunes would either merrily shell out $99 a song or would nostalgically content themselves with turn-of-the-last-century sheet music. Publishing such plainly unrealistic pap ignores the existence of conflicts between traditional cultures of knowledge and newer cultures of information that large-scale digitization efforts inevitably only exacerbate.

On a side note, earlier this week, I somehow found myself in an online verbal tussle with someone ironically named "Not Liz," in which my opponent couldn't seem to see the fundamental policy issues at stake or why temporary, band-aid solutions shouldn't be trumpeted as the culmination of a visionary or philanthropic mission.

Even while members of Congress begin to debate about whether or not "information is a human right" in other countries, the idea that information is a civil right that should be supported by publicly funded initiatives in this country still comes off as too radical an idea to be acknowledged.

Besides, on principle, academics need to challenge corporate sponsorship of information access at every turn. This isn't paranoia; it is practicality. This blog has talked about the hazards of public diplomacy, risk communication, and social marketing to the deliberative activities of the public sphere. Why is the digitizing of public archives using private encoding standards not similarly a matter of concern?

Or, to put it in baldly, once a corporate brand like Google dominates the market, what fraction of the public will bother with whatever librarians at individual universities create to supplement or complement it?

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Killer App

A killer app or "killer application" describes an extremely useful computer program, such as e-mail, that shapes the market and even the larger culture. Who Got Shot by Dick Cheney isn't such a program, although it deals with potentially mortal consequences. However, this widely forwarded URL shows how the cultural conversation of the Web is driven by both political timeliness and a remix culture that encourages appropriating and recombining elements from pre-existing digital artifacts (like the CNN website) to create new electronic ephemera.


Sunday, February 19, 2006

Back to the Future

An e-mail is again circulating on the Internet about the sentencing of shoe-bomber Richard Reid. It is directed at conservative netizens and is intended to stoke outrage over the liberal media's alleged lack of coverage of the event. What is odd about the e-mail is that the media did cover the sentencing and even quoted extensively from Judge Young's remarks, as websites for CNN, The New York Times, and many other news outlets demonstrate. Effective reception for this message depends on a form of news amnesia that real political junkies following terrorism prosecutions generally wouldn't share.

In 2003 this e-mail was identified as an eRumor. By 2004 it was characterized as a chain letter. It was reclassified as an urban legend in 2005, by which time the focus was back on the existence of the judge's "stinging rebuke" not on the interpretation of media strategy that also framed it. The same e-mail, almost verbatim, is still frequently forwarded in 2006.

The email begins:

Remember the guy who got on a plane with a bomb built into his shoe and tried to light it?

Did you know his trial is over?
Did you know he was sentenced?
Did you see/hear any of the judge's comments on TV/Radio?
Didn't think so. Our liberal press don't care about these things.

Everyone should hear what the judge had to say.

It then prints the comments of the sentencing judge in which Reid is excoriated. It concludes thus:

So, how much of this Judge's comments did we hear on our TV sets? We need more judges like Judge Young, but that's another subject. Pass this around. Everyone should and needs to hear what this fine judge had to say.

Powerful words that strike home....

On the rare occasions when I turn on a television set, I don't really hear anyone in the media praising terrorist operatives like Reid, so it seems particularly strange to assert that such opinions would be suppressed. Furthermore, the judge's comments about how Reid isn't an "enemy combatant" may also be read against the grain as a possible judicial critique of Executive Branch policies.

This month, liberal blogs, such as This Modern World, are expressing surprise over the non-coverage of the 2003 "Bag Incident" at Sulaymaniyah in which Turkish Special Forces operatives were accidentally detained as possible Iraqi insurgents and were subjected to humiliating treatment by U.S. soldiers. The Bag Incident is now the subject of an incendiary popular film that is reaching wide audiences and is potentially destabilizing to our Muslim NATO ally. Although it occured during the same year as the Reid sentencing, according to my searches on news outlets with the keywords "Bag Incident," "Sulaymaniyah," or "Turkish Special Forces," the diplomatically scandalous event was not in fact covered by the "liberal" New York Times or CNN at the time. Chain e-mail, anyone?

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Saturday, February 18, 2006

From the Information Superhighway to the Street

Street art -- particularly political street art -- has gotten an organizational and promotional boost from the Internet in its subversive branding efforts. As examples of official anti-official rhetoric, several webpages in the "how-to" genre are particularly worthy of note.

Specific instructions for protest participants about how to conduct themselves while committing acts of civil disobedience have a long, rhetorical history. In some ways these user-oriented instructions were as significant as the stirring speeches and iconic images of nonviolent political movements, particularly in the case of the civil rights sit-ins and marches, where freedom riders and local demonstrators had to be prepared with specific techniques to respond to multiple strategies of humiliation and abuse coming from law enforcement . . . as well as from even more dangerous local vigilantes.

Many of those protesting the current war in Iraq are combining street action with online multimedia. Even a low-tech operation like the Freeway Blogger has a How-To area for sign-posters about location, typeface, legibility, and streetwise (or freeway-wise) information design. Robbie Conal includes his handy, helpful educational film about putting up political posters without getting busted, "Guerrilla Etiquette." Robbie advises would-be posterers to go as a couple, start making out if you are noticed, be polite to police officers who investigate further, and avoid "surface lust." Similarly, Code Pink produces a pamphlet with instructions about how to do an effective banner drop.

Right now, Los Angeles is plastered with Orwellian posters with slogans like "War is Peace." These faux-Conal posters, largely on switch boxes, also advertise the http://www.1984live.com/ URL. It turns out that the guerrilla postering campaign is being sponsored by The Actor's Gang playhouse, which is staging 1984. So spectators are pointed from the street to the Internet to the theatre. Perhaps they are also pointed toward political action or at least to Orwell's book.

Street culture and street art is also featured in many video games, where it is considerably more apolitical. In some of the Tony Hawk video games, such as American Wasteland, players can spend game time tagging when they aren't skateboarding. Tagging also defines the geographical space of the controversial Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas.

Now more complex forms of virtual street art are getting more publicity, because taggers will finally have their own own game. Mark Ecko's Getting Up: Contents under Pressure has recently been released. Certainly, some of the art is even political, although it is often simplistically oriented around proclamations of unassailable slogans like "freedom." Yet players can have "mentors" who are real-life graffiti artists and stencil creators, so there is an apprenticeship feature to the game that encourages social engagement in communities situated around street art, albeit one that takes for granted the norms of a "celebrity culture."

Unfortunately, players can't actually design their own tags in Getting Up, so creative play is constrained, and much of the play is a fighting game devoted to fascist cops and rival street gangs. The political and aesthetic dimensions of urban street art may be better covered on exhibit sites like the one for the documentary "Style Wars" or on practicum web pages like Stencil Revolution.

Certainly online fun like The Urbaniacs provides an alternative to more etherial forms of game play that take place in outerspace or dreamscape environments. I recently played this lightweight 2D Flash game, which was featured in the Los Angeles Times story, "The Urbaniacs Site: Thinking Outside the Burbs," and you can see my frivolous, ass-kicking avatar above.


Friday, February 17, 2006

Trigger Happy

This may be an all-time record for having not one but two online games about a breaking news event. The Vice President's hunting mishap has now been memorialized in Dick Cheney Quail Hunt and Texas Takedown. Happy hunting!


Darfur is Dying

Yesterday in my office, postcards appeared for Million Voices for Darfur, which urge the President to follow up on his "not on my watch" promise written in the margins of a report about the Clinton administration's failings on Rwanda. (Unlike the much forwarded Reuters image of the President writing a note asking for a bathroom break, I was unable to locate a digital image of the President's note.)

To draw attention to the crisis in Darfur, where taking photos without a permit is forbidden, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times has given "Disposable Cameras for Disposable People." Low tech solutions may be the best response to raising consciousness about the mass killings, even of tribal refugees in aid camps, but some are trying to use technology by confronting the non-newspaper reading young public with "serious games" about the mechanics of genocide.

For example, MTV has sponsored a video game design contest at "Darfur is Dying." The games vary from abstract manipulation of geometric shapes representing political stakeholders to more complex representations of villages or the landscapes over which social actors must run for water or run for cover. (A more sophisticated MMORPG called "Africa" is also apparently in the works.)

Strictly speaking, some of the Darfur is Dying "games" are unwinnable, as they are for the desperate inhabitants of the region. Unlike the feel-good Food Force game from the U.N., which has been previously reviewed in this blog, additional interventions from the player are needed in the political sphere.

I tend to be wary of "serious games" that flatten out the rhetorical complexities of deliberative discourse. On the other hand, even relatively simple Flash shooter games like September 12th are already sending political messages. September 12th is a simple shooter game, in which trying to shoot terrorists -- and in the process demolishing buildings and killing civilians -- only creates more terrorists. The option not to shoot creates possibilities for reconstruction and healing and can even be the initial strategy of game "play."

Without interactivity, you can also send a message with a "game," as this Iraq Game that was widely disseminated by online Arabic news outlets does. However, this scenario of the Iraq war seems dated, albeit prescient in predicting pan-Arab (and pan-Islamic) conflicts in response to U.S. aggression.


Thursday, February 16, 2006

Hail to the Veep

Yesterday, many people checked out the Fox news interview in which our Vice President admitted to the weekend events that caused him to join the company of Aaron Burr, as the only other sitting VP to have shot a man while in office. Part of this was intended to diffuse the widespread ridicule that he was facing from late-night comics and from jokers on the Web, like this caption contest for an Elmer Fudd cartoon or this version of the Folsom Prison Blues.

While on the White House website, it's worth visiting the official site of the Vice President. It includes several "photo essays" in which the Vice President rides motorcycles and pals around with the troops. I've blogged about the new political function and visual ideology of photo essays on government sites. They are often virtual albums of publicity pictures or collections of stock photos, and this new electronic genre differs significantly from the traditional photo essay that depends on the point of view of an individual photographer or coherent collective of photographers.


Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Bearing Witness

There was more dramatic testimony from pro-democracy activists concerned with China who were testifying before the House Subcommittee on Africa, Global Human Rights, and International Operations who described the plight of imprisoned cyber-dissidents, the culture of prohibition around Internet use that extends to cafeteria signs, and how Cisco has assisted Chinese law enforcement in ways contrary to post-Tiananmen export constraints passed by Congress.

Apparently the search engine in China not only limits results from certain keyword searches, such as "human rights" or "democracy," but also generate deceptive or misdirecting results. For example, those entering "Uygur" into the search box (a Muslim Turkic ethnic group in China that once maintained control over its own autonomous region) are misdirected to web pages about converting from Islam.

What is impressed me most about the dissidents' presentations was how they were using other visual and auditory technologies to get their message out. For example, one of the men on the panel showed a Powerpoint slide show that cannibalized material from Cisco PowerPoints, and the female speaker who followed talked about how her group's use of Podcasts created a "virtual town square" for civic discursive exchange.

Toward the end of the day, representative Christopher Smith (R-New Jersey) introduced the Global Online Freedom Act of 2006.

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Hot Seat

It was a tough Valentine's Day for . The No Love for Google website was urging users to "Break up with Google" in a widely disseminated video on the Internet. Meanwhile, another group of activists for Chinese democracy were marketing Goolag apparel to protest the company's tacit approval of authoritarian information policies.

Right now I am watching live streaming video of Congressional testimony about Internet restrictions in China with which American companies like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and Cisco are cooperating. The philosophical issues are interesting and include the question of whether a "right to knowledge" is a human right. Practical concerns about how to regulate a globally distributed Internet that can't be easily commodified for purposes of trade policy certainly merit being on C-SPAN as well. To read more see today's New York Times story, "House Members Criticize Internet Policies in China."

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Is "Official Carnival" an Oxymoron?

I recently saw the show on Carnival at the Fowler Museum, which got me thinking about how this annual celebration in Catholic countries during the period leading up to Lent might relate to the "official culture" that I usually study.

After some web-surfing, I discovered how "official carnival" exists on the web with civic sites hosted by local governments for Fasnacht in Basel and Carnaval in Recife and Olinda, where performances often have subversive political themes. I'll admit to being wary of Venice Carnival, which was revived in 1979 largely for the tourist trade. Since Hurricane Katrina, the City of New Orleans has actually put Mardi Gras up for Sale to the highest corporate bidder.

But there are also "virtual carnivals" with dances and parades and performances that take place in online communities. Recently my colleague Jenny Cool showed me the work of the dancers and performers at Gypsy Groove. Check out their amazing Cantina Crawl series! Marvel at the size of the performing cast in the Gypsy Groove credits that would rival the numbers of any Samba club.

Compared to the other seasonal site for ritual celebration and political spectacle, the 2006 Torino Winter Games, which is further canned on its dreary website, the Cantina Crawls may look considerably less staged.

Other groups appropriate official culture for subversive ends. Stay tuned for upcoming posts about captioning and street art.

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Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Happy Valentine

Yes, some states are Red, and some states are Blue,
and not all the stuff on the Web is all true.

But days like today stick the right social glue,
and those on dot .gov can find fun things to do.

Send valentines off to those soldiers so true,
and check out alerts from the CDC too!
The USDA sparks that romance that's new,
while the Census Bureau gives the lovelorn a clue!

Of course, you can still be one of my crew
any day of the year; why it's all up to you!

Just wear pink meaning peace or red meaning choice
And type with your fingers to raise up your voice.


Monday, February 13, 2006

Hanging Up the Phone

Incendiary online rhetoric from the New Networks Institute is aiming to get netizens calling for heads on pikes. A New York Times story on the Institute's allegations, "A Rant, All 406 Pages of It," describes outrage over promised national "fiber optics networks," which were funded with tax incentives but never materialized. The group also claims that the legal definition of "broadband" itself became 225 times slower as a result of years of industry lobbying. Thus households are forced to settle for shoddier DSL at pricey rates that add insult to injury.

The initial network promises were part of the 1996 Telecommunications Reform Act, which can probably be added to the Virtualpolitik running tally of Clinton-era Internet policy mistakes. However, the lack of mutual assurances in the legislation was most egregiously exploited under the Bush FCC. (As a sidenote, I have to point out that the FCC website is generally pretty loathsome as an example of information design, but I do like their spiffy online Freedom of Information request form.)

With broadband policies like these the U.S. will continue to slip in the international rankings, below where we currently are at either 12th or 16th place, depending on whom you ask. We shouldn't be calling for blood, but maybe its time to ramp up the rhetoric and be calling for votes.

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Sunday, February 12, 2006

Death of a Rhetorician

It would be easy to overlook the obituary for Norton J. Kiritz, which appeared in today's Los Angeles Times. Kiritz was an innovative writing teacher, but he worked outside academia, training nonprofit organizations in how to write successful grants. He was a veteran of President Johnson's war on poverty, who saw that many worthy causes were often unable to articulate the specfic reasons they merited particular types of funding and thus were often passed over in favor of splashier, better-connected projects. His no-nonsense bible for the nonprofit field, Program Planning and Proposal Writing, sold over a million copies and was even translated into Chinese. This book and most of his publications had cover prices under four dollars.

For three decades, Kiritz's approach was decidedly low-tech. Think three-ring binders, a rolodex, and index cards. It's not surprising that the no-frills website for his Grantsmanship Center is currently down. Nonethelss, Kiritz understood the importance of writing with a purpose, unlike many other writing gurus, and he spread that message widely as an agent of social change. His obituary explains the success of his bestselling book.

The heart of the document addresses the need to clearly state the reason for the grant proposal, what Kiritz called "the problem statement." It also outlines other requirements, including defining the goals of the proposed program and methods for attaining them, a plan for evaluating results, and projecting a budget.

Along the way it offers much practical advice, such as avoiding extravagant bindings or covers for the proposal, which Kiritz said could suggest a tendency to waste money.

He often used humor to make a point. On the question of how long a proposal should be, for instance, he wrote: "Just long enough for you to clearly communicate your message, but not long enough to produce a stupor." He implored grant writers to write in plain English and not "demonstrate your mastery of bureaucratese."

He also urged them to maintain a positive tone. "Writing for grant support is not like writing home from college for money," he wrote. "You don't have to apologize. You're an applicant, not a supplicant! Don't beg!"

These principles formed the bedrock of grantsmanship, which Kiritz simply defined as "never having to say you're broke."

How different this grassroots approach is from current trends toward Social Marketing!


Public Service Announcement

(Thanks to Sizemore, aka Mike Atherton, for participating in the Creative Commons and making stock photos available for fake ads like mine. For more on the selling of the to the American people, check out this blog entry on the rebranding of "domestic spying.")

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Saturday, February 11, 2006

Whispering in the Library

Google isn't the only corporation contracting with university libraries to digitize their content. The California Digital Library, which serves the U.C. system, has teamed up with Yahoo! (If you like the Yahoo! typeface, you can adapt it to your own purposes at Logo 54.)

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports that this pact between another group of universities and another corporate partner is not intended as a response to the Google initiative, and indeed the Open Content Alliance does divert significantly from the Google model. As Siva Vaidhyanathan has pointed out, there are strategic benefits to treating the online service provider as a contractor rather than as a potential content provider. Universities are generally on firmer legal ground from which to claim fair use, although in comparison to other corporate bodies the academy tends to be much less willing to risk litigation. Yet what has earned the Open Content Alliance praise from publishers is its cowardly avoidance of making any fair use claims on any material still in copyright.

Furthermore, many of the same structural problems with outsourcing digitizing still remain in the Open Content paradigm. For all the rhetoric of "openness," in this case supported by loss-leader pricing per page, the means of reproduction will still be controlled by an outside corporate entity. And the critical issue of funding necessary cataloguing and indexing continues to be deferred, despite the fact that this work needs actual, trained people, since it can't be entirely automated. More live indexers than ever are needed, now that so many visual images from printed materials are being scanned. Even if it didn't include pictures, a digital library with all keywords and no subject headings would be a chaotic library indeed.

To be fair, Union Catalog behemoth RLG has joined the initial group of partners to address some of the bibliographical issues I am raising. Yet conflicts inevitably become part of the process, because the human agents doing the cataloging are information stakeholders, and their allegiances may be divided when corporate partners come on-site. As Christine Borgman of UCLA points out, the construction of information architectures can be difficult without a single common culture much less a uniform set of standards.

These cultural faultlines can cross more than one axis, if "nonprofit populist" is added to the mix of "corporate" and "academic" cultures. Much of the decision-making that represents the "non-corporate" point of view at Open Content appears to be currently being done by The Internet Archive. Personally, I adore the Internet Archive, and I've used its materials in my classes, including in my September 11th seminar. Nonetheless, its jazzy, hyperactive organization that is oriented around sound bites and film clips lacks much reference to the scholarly apparatus of traditional print. In contrast, university library systems try to provide their patrons with a map through this new territory by foregrounding subject guides, information literacy tutorials, and other materials that are aimed at the evaluation and not just the finding of sources.

Librarians aren't alone in their struggle to adapt to copyright rules. The news continues to be bad for scholars who are using materials for which the copyright holders are difficult to find. The U.S. Government Copyright Office's position on orphan copyright continues to ignore the rights of consumers of intellectual property who repurpose it for educational and critical use. You can read some of the gory details in the Chronicle of Higher Education, which recently covered the story. Orphan copyright is particularly tough on filmmakers who would like to use ethnographic and historical footage in low-profit documentary projects.

I have my own orphan copyright horror story to tell. When Core Course students were studying the Third Reich, one of our Special Collections librarians recommended that students look at "cigarette albums" from the period, which were pre-packaged photo albums made for pro-German smokers and collectors. These books were aimed at American audiences, and maintenance of the album also involved an actual subscription for pictures from Nazi Germany that arrived in the mail and would eventually fill up each blank in the book. These black-and-white photos generally depicted Aryan life in the nineteen-thirties rather than specific German political leaders. In the Core Course, we were doing a lot of material about gender, sexuality, and ideologies of the body in the German racial state, and the cross-generational multi-activity sample of images would have been perfect for our students to see. Unfortunately, we found ourselves hesitant to digitize the materials, so they could be seen outside a rare books room, because even though the Nazi party was defunct, defeated by World War II, and illegal in contemporary Germany, we feared that the works were too recent to be safely considered orphaned!

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Friday, February 10, 2006

From Western Union STOP to Your Door STOP

With little fanfare, among the items buried in the recent news, was the announcement that the very last telegram from Western Union had already been sent, and that this once innovative technology was being discontinued in an age of universally accessible e-mail and text messaging. The telegram was an important communication medium for over a century and a half. The first telegram, which read "WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?" was sent by inventor Samuel Morse in 1844.

The drama of the telegram and the way it drew attention to the communicative act just can't compete with the loudest "You've Got Mail" announcement or Eudora trill. And unlike Jacques Derrida's postcard, it came in an envelope, and so combined public delivery with a private message.

President Truman drafted a sketchy response to this telegram from Senator McCarthy, which is also preserved in the National Archives and Records Administration, but probably Truman decided that not to answer McCarthy was a much more damning reply.

Now former FEMA chief Michael "Brown Asserts He Alerted White House Quickly on Katrina" and is finally displaying the incriminating e-mails. Perhaps this is a reminder that electronic communications can be unilaterally ignored as well. Of course, Brown's sudden enthusiasm for evidentiary e-mail is particularly noteworthy, given his own embarrassing history of experiences with the medium.

For more on other "old" technologies, check out When Old Technologies Were New. Author Carolyn Marvin also writes about the history of free speech and civil religion.

Luckily, if you are feeling particularly nostalgic about this medium, you can still send friends a free "retrogram" via your computer, a fact which I discovered while researching the history of the telegram. STOP.


Thursday, February 09, 2006

Man Bites Dog

How sad to read last week in the New York Times that "For Sony's Robotic Aibo, It's the Last Year of the Dog." Just a few months earlier, when I was in Japan, I had bonded with an Aibo in the Sony showroom. Who could resist? The Aibo is also the perfect pet for the would-be Critical Theorist because it combines early ("Cyborg Manifesto") Donna Haraway with late ("Companion Species Manifesto") Haraway. Plus, it's great for bookish types, because unlike a real creature that leaps on you unannounced or snatches away food in an eyeblink, the Aibo is incapable of spontaneous animality and moves through its artificial life at a consistent, pensive, hesitant pace.

Sony's announcement will also close a chapter in the history of the Open Source Wars, for those who wanted to teach their old dogs new tricks by AIBO hacking. (Check out this disco sample!) Sony initially responded by stifling new code and resisting the activities of emerging "homebrew" coding communities, as it also did with the PSP. At DAC 2005 I was on the same panel as MIT's Brett Camper, who presented a paper about homebrew communities devoted to Nintendo's Game Boy. Apparently Nintendo adopted a much more tolerant attitude toward do-it-yourselfers like those at NDS Homebrew or PRRoms.

Several web rings are devoted to now mourning Aibo hobbyists, who just recently had received more concessions from Sony on code sharing. Robotics scientists also have been working with this electronic canine for research purposes, as this AIBO case study shows. Luckily, the Aibo may have a second life as a police dog, since its Evolution software can be used for future crime scene investigations.

Ironically, the adorable, cuddly Aibo is the creation of Japanese pin-up artist and designer of erotic robots Hajime Sorayama, who has most recently worked on a new Mickey Mouse prototype.


Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Cub Reporter

My Photo

Kudos to recent college grad and fellow Blogspot blogger Nick Anthis of The Scientific Activist for using his website to out NASA Bush appointee George C. Deutsch for lying about having a B.A. degree in Journalism. This rare good-news story appeared in today's New York Times ("A Young Bush Appointee Resigns his post at NASA").

Poseur Deutsch has gained fame for attempting to silence the top climate scientist at NASA, George Hansen, according to the same reporter at the New York Times. But Hansen is certainly one to fight back. In addition to his stellar career in academic publishing, Professor Hansen uses visual presentations and articles in popular scientific magazines to make the case for Global Warming to the public. This educational outreach campaign is especially important now, since maverick pro-industry climate scientist Richard S. Lindzen apparently has already given his own "tutorial" on climate change to President Bush.

Bad scientific editing seems to be a common practice in the current administration. According to "Decoder: See No Evil" in Sierra Magazine, another political appointee, Philip A. Cooney, showed the pen could indeed by mightier than the sword (or at least cut more text) before the over-zealous expurgator went on to Mobil. It's bad enough that Cooney crossed out whole sections from the report about climate change and even marked one with "straying from research strategy into speculative findings/musings here," but he also did a lot of linguistic tweaking that was plainly just bad prose form. Changing "point to the conclusion" to "indicate" seems relatively benign, because it's a shorter phrase, but transforming "is" to "may be" is inexcusable. Plus he larded the language with phrases like "highly controversial," which I always tell my students to avoid. I value a direct style, so intentionally introducing more obfuscation into a government report offends my sensibilities as a compositionist.

Speaking of clarity, here's my opportunity to plug the wonderful AIGA publication Clear, which is a design journal exclusively dedicated to information design. To get a sense of what they write about, check out articles like "Information design" and "Information Design on the Web."

Maybe someone should send young political appointees in the current administration a subscription to Clear. At the very least, maybe they should join The Society for Risk Analysis so they might at least know what they are talking about, even if they only have fake degrees.

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Don't Be Evil . . . Unless the Month Has an "E" in It

Like this Google screen? You can make your own with the Logogle site.

Maybe it's just me, but I still find it mysterious to puzzle out how a corporation that dominates a niche industry, like Google does search engines, can become the darling of privacy advocates and champions of fair use. Anyone who has been reading the New York Times knows better, particularly lately if they have followed how Google has, like Microsoft and Yahoo, agreeably "customized" products to please the authoritarian regime in China. It's obviously no accident, because this "customizing" has taken two distinct forms: 1) making the Internet an exclusively passive, receptive medium by cutting off its productive and potentially politically resistant capacities ("Version of Google in China Won't Offer E-mail or Blogs") and 2) limiting that receptivity further by restricting the reach of search engines to return results only from state-sanctioned search terms ("Internet Lions Turn Paper Tiger in China").

My old prep school classmate and Google hagiographer John Battelle might disagree, since he has called a recent defense of the company "eloquent." (C'mon John! Google fight!)

There is no question in my mind that Google is on the right side of recent litigation as a defendant in two pending cases (about digitizing works still in copyright and protecting information from private online searches). But I think Larry Flynt has been at the courtroom table of the just in many cases too, and I still won't be recommending reading Hustler to my students.

Instead, I fear Siva Vaidhyanathan's essay, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, may prove to be ultimately prophetic. Universities and libraries may indeed be taking "A Risky Gamble with Google" by placing too much trust in corporate solutions for access and archiving problems in the digital age.

Certainly, from my own research, I can understand why Google's advances are so tempting to librarians. I have written about the failure of ambitious national efforts at digitization in the name of the common good, because neither the funding nor the political will is there. In addition, my U.C. colleague Diane Harley, principal investigator of the Digital Resource Study, has shown how search results from Google already trump more authoritative offerings from digital collections being developed by traditional institutions of knowledge. Harley's project builds on the work of another U.C. person, Christine Borgman, who has studied online searching for over two decades. (Those who haven't been following the Google print controversy can see some of the relevant materials in this partial bibliography.)

A lot has been written about these issues in the blogosphere, but it still seems worth getting into the fray, now that the President of the University of Michigan is defending Google against the Google Book Search lawsuit, while -- at the same time -- the Attorney General's office has issued Google a subpoena in connection with the company's refusal to hand over search data to better understand the practices of online porn seekers, which was recently described in the New York Times ("Google resists U.S. Subpoena of Seach Data"). Usually I happily take the side of academia in public policy debates and reject the claims of the current administration, but I think that there's some rhetorical complexity in these cases worth examining.

So, here's my sketchy rhetorician's three-paragraph comparison-and-contrast essay in which I compare "Gonzales v. Google" by the Feds to "Google, The Khmer Rouge and the Public Good" by Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman.

Although Gonzales and Coleman paint radically different pictures of Google's corporate behavior, both speakers are making appeals to the interests of the public good. Specifically, both emphasize the concept of duty, which Coleman calls one's "responsibilities and obligations."

Coleman characterizes the partnership between the university and Google as a "legal, ethical, and noble endeavor that will transform our society." Of course, it's ironic that Coleman opens with an anecdote about the Library of Congress, given that the Library's Coca Cola fiasco shows the dangers of allowing corporations to dictate the digitization agenda. Coleman also uses the example of the Khmer Rouge's destruction of documents and cultural artifacts. At my own university, the Southeast Asian Archive collects such artifacts, and it has been struggling to find funding for its digitization projects. Apparently corporate giants see no potential revenue stream from such work, and the archive is dependent upon benefactors from the local refugee community for support.

Gonzales focuses on defending the constitutionality of the Clinton era Online Child Protection Act on factual merits on behalf of the greater good. In contrast, he claims shifty self-interested Google "has asserted objections of relevance, of privilege, and of burden." He devotes a considerable amount of his critique to ridiculing Google's proprietary claim of "trade secrets." It's ironic to have a Bush appointee speaking about corporate responsibility with such conviction, but Google's legal challenge seems to have less to do with First or Fourth Amendment issues than has been reported in the press, based on the point-by-point rebuttal from the DOJ.


I have to add that the administration's rhetoric about "protecting children" still really hacks me off as a parent and educator.

Of course, there are other solutions to porn-fed children besides censorship or filtering software. Many families now have a family computer in the kitchen or in other public household space. We use a portable USB connector to our house's wireless system -- so that if we go out without our thirteen-year-old, we can take the Internet with us. There's certainly a failure of imagination to be blamed.

In my opinion, the whole online porn thing is a huge distraction from the much more serious issue of how we should be training our children in information literacy. Kids use their computers primarily for required school reports, and the government -- along with our entire society -- is doing nothing to teach them how to read new media critically.

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Monday, February 06, 2006

Reformation? What Reformation?

Since the advent of the Internet, panicked copyright lawyers have been busy trying to undo the Enlightenment. These clashes have drawn blood from all of my favorite 18th century institutions: chief among them libraries, encyclopedias, newspapers, and scientific associations.

Now it seems that copyright lawyers for the Holy See are going after the Reformation as well and attempting to control the channels through which authorized spiritual messages travel. This seems particularly ironic to me, given the Papal mission. If formulaic spiritual messages and specific religious instructions potentially save the vulnerable from sin and damnation, one would expect that the Catholic church would want them disseminated as widely as possible. Assuming these moral dangers are really eternal-life-threatening, wouldn't it be like putting a copyright on the precise directives that could prevent injury or disease? (Remember, I am fascinated by the rhetoric of information design and written warnings.)

A recent announcement now claims intellectual property ownership "over all the deeds and documents through which the Supreme Pontiff exercises his own Magisterium," including the popular encyclicals. According to a Times of London article, "Vatican 'cashes in' by putting price on Pope's copyright," the edict is retroactive and covers "not only the writings of the present pontiff -- as Pope and as cardinal -- but also those of his predecessors over the past 50 years. It therefore includes anything written by John Paul II, John Paul I, Paul VI and John XXIII."

Right now, the Vatican claims its main targets are Italian publishing houses who are making money off cheaply made reprints, but those without a profit motive aren't exempted from the new rules. This could potentially impact nonprofit websites used by scholars, as well as the faithful, such as Papal Encyclicals Online, which was commended by the American Library Association in 2005.

In my mind, the financial gains from copyright fees inevitably invite abuse. Didn't the church learn anything from the indulgence scandals that launched the Reformation? What if there is a poor but honest author who wants to use long excerpts? Will a wealthy entity with materialistic motives receive more privilege from the Church?

Last week, when I read about this new arrangement from Siva Vaidhyanathan on Sivacracy.net, I decided to examine the documents in question for myself. On the Vatican site, I learned about the idea of "moral copyright" from the decree regarding Copyright and the Vatican publishing house and the decree giving the Vatican publishing house rights to represent the Holy See. "Moral copyright"?

As I read more documents, I found myself asking more questions. Is it the Latin version that is subject to copyright or its translation into vernacular languagesor both? Can words from an infallable speaker transmitting the messages of God be subject to human jurisdiction? Does the current Pope function as the intellectual property heir of previous popes? Could this use of copyright morph into a means to control heretical interpretations, just as the bibliotheque nationale de France used copyright deposit before the Enlightenment to control the circulation of subversive ideas and limit those critical of royal authority? Could this copyright rule be expanded to priests and others who do "work for hire"?

As the ultimate form of public rhetoric, I've been interested in Vatican-related websites for a while. During the last millennium, for example, I discovered Christus Rex which publishes web traffic for the Vatican collections. (At the time, icons were most popular.)

Of course, because the Vatican has become famously protective of the intellectual property value of its art collections, the copyright policy on the Pope's writings may simply be for them a next logical step in litigious line-drawing.

I also have visited the Libreria Editrice Vaticana, where the Version Flash showed a white dove transforming into a book upon the page. Unfortunately, there seems to be a persistent problem with their Apache server, so the site has obvious technical flaws. It's worth noting that the Vatican publishing house was established in 1587 by Pope Sixtus V, ironically as part of the Church's adaptation to biblio-centric Reformation pressures.

While you are visiting the interactive wonders of the main Vatican website, you can also take a virtual tour of the Sistine Chapel. You might also want to visit the tantalizingly-named Vatican Secret Archives, where you may be disappointed by what you find. (I was expecting something more like the FBI's site for the Freedom of Information Act.)

It is interesting to think about this story in relation to this Winter's other story about religion and replication below.

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