Saturday, February 04, 2006

Early Adopters

It's reasonable to ask why I spend so much time criticizing the White House website and to wonder if my personal political ideology has played a role in choosing this particular object of study. Am I showing a partisan political axe being ground when I deride the site's celebration of holidays (like Thanksgiving and Christmas), use of interactive features (like virtual tours or turning the pages exhibits), or even everyday diction (in its choice of words like "discuss" and "construe")?

At the very least, it's a legitimate target for analysis, because the White House website garners millions of hits a year and serves as the most authoritative primary source from which to study presidential rhetoric. Furthermore, my pattern of critical focus has been partly determined by historical accident. Despite the fact that I wrote about digital libraries and online learning during the Clinton administration, I didn't start writing about government websites until after the September 11th attacks when visits to official pages by citizens seeking authoritative information spiked, according to a Pew Center report.

So what would I have said about the Clinton administration's version of, if I could travel back in time to critique it in this blog?

Luckily, many of the multiple incarnations of the Clinton website have been preserved at the National Archive, although as artifacts of digital ephemera, these pages may not age particularly well. Their chaotic layouts, ill-chosen type, and tendency to rely on thumbnails rather than more compelling visual iconography records mistakes made before the era of professional web design really began. The Clinton collection even includes a surreal time capsule from Al Gore's Cartoon website, which certainly didn't get included in Jane Fountain's ambitious history of the development of e-government during the first WWW administration.

Defunct websites are their own genre, and there is plenty to criticize in the Clinton site, from the self-congratulating rhetoric and scanty representation of material from legislation and press conferences to the idiotic pet/mascot-centered children's page that clearly set the standard for mediocre children's websites on government URL's for years to come. (To be fair, the information design was somewhat improved by adding a "virtual library" to the second website prototype, but the children's pages remained terrible throughout both terms.)

My larger list of criticisms of the Clinton administration can often be linked to specific primary documents found on the site. In other words, since so much attention is being paid to the issue of "balance" in the academy, here's my list of Clinton Internet policy mistakes:
  • it pushed the unconstitutional Child Protection Act of 1998 in pursuit of a Family-Friendly Internet
  • it didn't see how the Digital Divide was shrinking to be replaced by more subtle forms of cyber-inequity being generated by corporate interests
  • it overreacted to Y2K
  • it allowed entertainment and software lobbyists to write the agenda on intellectual property and supported the Digital Millennium Copyright Act
  • it passed surveillance legislation with long term disastrous effects for higher education like CALEA
  • it didn't vigorously pursue updating the Freedom of Information Act for the Internet age when it had the opportunity, as it was supporting eliminating the paperwork on which FOIA was based
  • it focused on how privacy might be compromised by the federal government without also realizing that privacy could also be profoundly compromised by commercial interests that it was unwilling to regulate
  • it didn't throw the weight of the federal government behind the open-source movement at a critical time and didn't publicize how customized Linux was being used in places like the Space Shutte
Of course, Hillary Clinton is now no longer a mere First Lady preserved in this antiquated version of She has become a political figure in her own right in cyberspace. In many ways, she now functions as a double for George Bush in various political theaters of cruelty. Netizens on the right as well as the left can digitally alter any policymaker's image or force his or her avatar into humiliating and even painful positions, as this site in which the Junior Senator disrobes demonstrates.

In many ways these two political figures -- George W. Bush and Hillary Clinton -- are interchangeable as placeholders in conventional satirical web genres. For example, Hillary's nose can be distorted just like Bush's nose. And a Dancing Hillary mirrors the a multitude of dancing Bushes including this one with Britney Spears. However, depictions of Hillary Clinton as Darth Vader reflect different conventions of representation that correspond more closely to Vice President Dick Cheney.

(In the interest of full disclosure I must admit I have a certain fondness for the junior senator for New York because she is a fellow Tetris player, although her recent soapbox pitches for greater regulation on video games have made her widely reviled among my fellow academics who study video games.)

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