Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ben and Izzy

Today's New York Times has a story about a CGI cartoon that is presenting an allegory about American/Mideast relations designed for the Cheerios set ("A Children's Cartoon from the Middle East Has a New Mideast Peace Plan"). The story of Ben and Izzy focuses on two boys, one American and one Arab, who must work together despite their personality conflicts.

On the Times website, one can actually view a short clip in which the boys travel back in time and meet a paternalistic Mark Twain, who now seems to specialize in playground conflict resolution. In the clip the famed writer is visiting Petra on a world tour, but manages to take time out from his sightseeing to insist that the youngsters resolve their differences. (Those who want to learn more about Mark Twain could visit the Boondocks website again, since they seem to have gotten rid of their most offensive sexist banner ads.)

Visitors to the show's website can contemplate the "Four Pearls": The Pearl of Travel, The Pearl of Information, The Pearl of Disguise, and the Pearl of Immortality.

The show is partially financed by the royal family of Jordan and has received grants from the Hewlett Foundation as well. These hybrid funding sources create a particularly incoherent form of public diplomacy that is grounded in digital rhetoric. Clearly, real forms of Habermassian informal civic discourse are avoided, since -- according to the Times -- the boys steer clear of topics like the merits of the Bush presidency or theological debates about religious practices or other topics that come up when Westerners meet their Arab speaking counterparts.

Ben and Izzy also indicates something about the sophistication of distance learning initiatives. The series is being produced by the Rubicon multimedia company, based in Jordan, which also specializes in online courses.

Personally, I would rather watch the "C is for Cookie" Sesame Street / V for Vendetta parody, if I'm looking for political children's fare.


Saturday, April 29, 2006

Tony Snow

The decision to replace beleaugered White House Press Secretary Scott McLellan with Fox news veteran Tony Snow was a big story during the past week. In his announcement, President Bush praised Snow's expertise in "all three major media -- print, radio, and television." Of course, there is a major news source upon which more and more American's are relying, according to a recent Pew Internet and American Life Report on "Online News": news delivered via the World Wide Web.

In the past, Snow has had a reputation for reading viewer's e-mail on the air and for entering into electronic debates in the blogosphere, but it's not clear how much he plans to use the Internet as a tool for press presentation.

Ellen and Julia Lupton have made the argument for the importance of independent websites to create spaces for production and commentary separate from institutional identities. As a commentator, Snow was known for occasional pointed criticism of administration policies. It is interesting to note that Snow has already shut down his personal website,, which now forwards to Fox News' "Brian and the Judge."

The news from Iran is very bad this week, but to their credit, they have permitted their cantankerous Internet-savvy former vice president to continue his own indie site. Mohammad Ali Abtahi is even allowed to argue against Internet surveillance by the theocratic, authoritarian regime in Tehran. As he writes, "Let me be myself -- Mohammad Ali Abtahi -- regardless to my official and governmental status."


Friday, April 28, 2006

Nuestro Himno

News that the President responded testily to a recent Spanish version of the National Anthem was published in this afternoon's electronic New York Times ("Bush Says Anthem Should Be in English"). At today's White House press conference, President Bush apparently responded to a reporter's question about the song, as follows:

"I think the National Anthem ought to be sung in English. And I think people who want to be a citizen of this country ought to learn English, and they ought to learn to sing the National Anthem in English."

The President is certainly correct that the anthem can serve as an English language-learning tool. However, even the White House website that posted this news conference also has an official Spanish version.

In addition, like the Pledge of Allegiance, the National Anthem is largely an invention of twentieth-century nationalism. In fact, according to this exhaustive website on national anthems in the context of a global set of discursive practices, until 1931 "Hail Columbia" was the most common score to official patriotism; then came the ascent of the "Star Spangled Banner" of Francis Scott Key.

The offending song, recorded in Spanish and released as Nuestro Himno, is spreading fast across the Internet. With its hip-hop opening call to "Latinos, Latinas, hermanos, hermanas" that morphs into pop star guitar strumming and crooning, it's not immediately recognizable. But soon the traditional standard emerges from its heterogeneous opening melodies and builds to an energetic climax. The British producer of the song, Adam Kidron, described it as an attempt to make the precise patriotic message of the song comprehensible to Hispanic immigrants. Certainly, many native speakers don't seem aware that the song that they sing at baseball games and fireworks displays describes an epic battle from the War of 1812.

Given the number of Spanish-speaking parents who have lost children in the war in Iraq, this National Anthem seems a fitting tribute to their sacrifice. I suspect that there must be versions of the National Anthem sung in many languages and will be interested to see how our current "remix culture," to use Lawrence Lessig's term, will respond to this controversy and what further variants will appear in the blogosphere.

In contrast, Canadian rocker Neil Young chose the less militaristic "America the Beautiful" for his Living With War album, which can be streamed for free and is being promoted through an innovative Internet-based strategy on MySpace and by this fellow Blogspot site.

The speed with which political songs can be disseminated, without face-to-face exchanges like marches and rallies, is certainly a new aspect of the digital age. Yet, because songs like these are composed in studios with elaborate orchestration, even in the case of recent parody songs like "I'm The Decider," they may not have the staying power of "We Shall Overcome" and other alternative national anthems.

Newsflash! An eagle-eyed Virtualpolitik reader located this Spanish translation of the National Anthem on a State Department website! (This is part of why I love the polyvocal character of government websites!) Thanks to Richard Myers. And thanks to Sivacracy, I've also added in an image of a 1943 translation of the Star Spangled Banner into Yiddish.

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Thursday, April 27, 2006

IPAC and the iLobby

Today's Los Angeles Times editorial, " The iLobby," lauds a novel strategy for educating lawmakers, who have not traditionally been early adopters of new technology and thus may be misinformed about issues related to file-sharing, broadband connectivity, and the status of Internet service providers as corporate entities.

IPAC, the Information Policy Action Committee, is giving members of Congress iPods, in the hope that legislators would use these handy devices for storing digital copies of music, photos, and videos and thus better understand the frustrations of average American consumers who worry about monopolies on particular technologies and the spectre of an intellectual property police state that punishes users for victimless copy crimes.

As a rhetorical strategy, it represents an interesting move, one that includes elected representatives in the larger Internet gift economy in which many now participate. Unfortunately, several lawmakers have resisted the group's overtures and returned their iPods, on the grounds that IPAC represents the interests of a political action group, one that is giving prohibitively expensive gifts to influence policy.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Potemkin Village II

I have to point out today's Los Angeles Times story, "Vernon Fights to Keep Record Private," shows that this "exclusively industrial" city may not be as happy a metropolis as this anonymous Virtualpolitik reader insisted, who was apparently angered by my analysis of the city's website:

The main problem with your point is that the voting constituents of the City of Vernon are all employees of the City. The city owns the housing in order to provide local housing for 24 hour on call employees (i.e. utility or emergency workers). These people have no interest in changing the status quo . . . The only people screaming corruption and change are outsiders - not the business (0% vacancy rate) nor the residents. I don't understand who you think is being hurt by the current structure of the city.

Sure. There are those who would choose not to live in a democracy, given their choice. But without periodic elections, one can not even be sure that this premise even applies in the Vernon case.

Furthermore, as I have argued, institutional websites are about much more than publicity and brand identity. A government home page offers citizens the opportunity to be aware of public business and even for officials to acknowledge their own failures in governance. For example, thanks to the No Fear Act, most websites for federal agencies now publicize statistics about workplace complaints, as you can see from this data on the NSA site or this PowerPoint from the Department of Transportation. This act requires that "Federal agency post quarterly on its public Web site, certain statistical data relating to Federal sector equal employment opportunity complaints filed with such agency." More recently, The Legislative Transparency and Accountability Act, which is heading for final passage, would require lawmakers to post all gifts from lobbyists, including meals and travel benefits, on the representative's official website.

To take the City of Vernon's side, one can look at the website of the Royal Court of Nepal to see a similar defense of government without democracy. As a case in point, I found gems like this one among the royal proclamations:

Democracy and progress always complement each other. But, Nepal's bitter experiences over the past few years tend to show that democracy and progress contradict one another. Multiparty democracy was discredited by focusing solely on power politics. Parliament witnessed many aberrations in the name of retaining and ousting governments. . . . So, we appealed to all those who have faith in democracy with the intention of activating, at the earliest, the system of popular representation. We also met a number of times with members of the general public, senior citizens, representatives of the civil society and leaders of political parties in our effort to gauze the popular mandate and try to convince them of the country's requirements and people's aspirations. We reminded them that the only wish of the Nepalese people and friends of Nepal was to bring to an end the ongoing violence and destructive activities and return peace and tranquility to the country without any further delay. In order to conduct the general elections in an environment of peace and security, opportunities were given to leaders of various political parties to constitute the Council of Ministers, with executive power. But the situation did not improve. National politics was plagued by not uniting in running the government but opposing it on being ousted from it. No serious efforts were made to attenuate the real threat posed against democracy by terrorism in the form of a single-party autocracy.

Actually, the King's statement sounds considerably more supportive of elections than the leadership in Vernon does.

Of course, I like the fact that what we usually call "search" on the kingdom's site is translated as "filter." You can also see an extraordinary animation of the diamonds on the crown jewels twinking.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Border Patrol Game

The patently offensive Border Patrol Game has been getting a lot of play on local news broadcasts this week, but it also got some thoughtful analysis (followed by a barrage of vitriolic comments) on Water Cooler Games. This first-person shooter features three "Mexican" caricatures: a "Mexican nationalist," a "drug smuggler," and a "breeder." You must first fire on the "breeder," who is pregnant with two children in tow, and splatter her into Flash-animated gore, in order to take aim at the "drug smuggler" or the "Mexican nationalist" who appear. I played the game September 12th-style, without firing, and discovered that the woman slows down and gets closer and closer to your screen, if you don't pull the trigger.

The websites of Neo-Nazi and White Power ideologues are showcasing several such racist videogames, which include a homophobic French-language third-person shooter. There are also inverse role-playing games that don't involve adopting the id of a white authority figure like a hunter or immigration agent. These games encourage racist players to take the stereotype-confirming position of the racial Other, be it suicide bomber or gangland drive-by shooter.

For those who want to follow this regrettable story further, an article in Wired provides details about other racist games.


Monday, April 24, 2006

Video News Releases

PR Watch has been highlighting the rising influence of Video News Releases (VNRs) on network and local news. It's worth mentioning on this blog about digital rhetoric, because many of these fake news releases are concerned with the Internet and new techologies for communication.

Releases about Internet car buying, phishing scams , child-safe search engines, plasma video displays, and online dating play to viewers' insecurities about new media and technological interfaces. News stations often run these VNRs without any acknowledgement of the corporate sponsors who produce them. As a parent, I was particularly interested to read about the "Internet Mom" Robin Raskin, who has apparently used her editorial credentials as an expert on family-friendly practices and products related to technology to parlay profits as a covert spokesperson.


Sunday, April 23, 2006

I Just Call 'Em Like I See 'Em

I plan to do a one-week experiment in which I abandon humorous headlines and clever catchphrases in order to choose descriptive search terms that more logically index the content for automated bots.

I learned about this approach from the New York Times article "This Boring Headline Written by Google," which was still a little tongue-in-cheek in its title. Successful blogs like Boing Boing figured this strategy out long ago, according to "How Google News is Changing the Way Newspaper Headlines are Written for Search Engines" in Collision Detection, which has also adopted this literal-minded tactic. Then again, Collision Detection claims that technology has always shaped the style of newspaper prose, from the time of the telegraph, which introduced the "inverted pyramid," to the present.


Saturday, April 22, 2006

Blog Against Heteronormativity Day

Today is Blog Against Heteronormity Day! Let's take, as the consummate text about heteronormity, The White House website, a pre-eminent URL for political rhetoric and gendered government to which more Americans have been turning for information. What is striking about this collection of webpages, as digital ephemera, is how gays and lesbians are simply omitted from the dominant discourse rather than morally castigated explicitly.

For example, according a series of searches that I did on the site, the president and his aides generally avoid the words "homosexual" or "gay," even in response to direct questions from reporters. The exception might be the rare use of the phrase "gay marriage" or mentions of Vice President Cheney's gay daughter. As a rule, however, specific questions about the civil and political rights of non-heterosexual citizens are generally nullified with assertions that marriage is between a man and a woman or similar biology-is-culture propositions, even if the question has nothing to do with heterosexual practices and norms. Of course, the word "gay" also appears in relation to a number of first ladies in the White House (including Mrs. Washington and Mrs. Coolidge).

The annual Easter Egg Roll is currently highlighted on the White House website, where it is illustrated with nineteen-fifties style graphics and Cold War iconography. Students of Pennsylvania Avenue history may know the event was desegregated during the Eisenhower administration, closed to the public (and limited to military families) in 2003, and was rarely rained out. According to national and international news coverage, this year The Family Pride Coalition organized gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender parents to sign up en masse for the event and arranged for successful registrants to wear colored leis to identify themselves in images that would be disseminated by the mainstream media.

Although over two hundred such non-traditional families registered for tickets, there were no mentions of the activists' plans on the Ask the Whitehouse page on the Egg Roll, and no images of lei-wearers in photos published on after the event. Then again, publicists for this image-conscious White House also generally chose pictures without umbrellas, raincoats, and other indicators that there was considerable precipitation on the day of the Egg Roll.

As one silver lining, there is this picture of a same-sex couple on the White House site, although they are identified as merely homosocial White House "volunteers" not visiting activists.

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Thursday, April 20, 2006

ET Phone Home

The SETI project, which now uses distributed computer networks to search for intelligent life in the universe, is apparently in financial trouble and is currently soliciting donations. (You can thank your lucky stars that all contributions are tax-deductable.)

While you're in their orbit, check out the SETI drinking song linked from their website. I suppose I've done enough work on the websites of other governments. What about the websites of other planets? I'm familiar with Google Earth; what about Google Alpha Centauri?

Congressional hearings about astrobiology -- and other forms of government information about life in outer space -- attempt to focus attention on the ecosystems of other planets rather than "intelligent" food-chain topping organisms like ourselves. Of couse, some of the most requested Freedom of Information and NSA documents on the web continue to be UFO abduction and Area 51 related.

Most otherworldy, in my search for extraterrestrial life on .gov domains I also discovered Learn the Real Science of Pokemon. Good to see our tax dollars hard at work on celestial topics!


Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Sometimes It's Better to Be Wrong

Not all Virtualpolitik predictions are ones I want to come true. This morning's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Sex Offender Site Back Up," about the slaying of William Elliott and Joseph Gray, two who were targeted using their web listings, manifests the dangers of a disturbing trend in public information design. At the end of last year, in my posting on "Mapquest the Bad Guys," I warned that something like this could happen. Information may want to be free, but so do criminals who have served their time, and some forms of information invite vigilantee justice.

I went to the Maine Sex Offenders Registry and was unsettled to see an even more revealing user interface than the one I had explored in California months earlier. Exact street addresses are reproduced for the offender's work, home, or school, and nonviolent offenders are included in the registry alongside rapists. For example, the very first listing I saw, using the location of the university town where the National Poetry Foundation is held, was for possessing child pornography. The second was for the transmission on indecent images of minors. Perhaps university towns are more likely to foster anti-civic practices of voyeurism and other thought crimes, but I found other nonviolent offenders in other Maine cities in the registry.

In other legal/digital rhetoric news today, the LA Times also covered "Making a (Power) Point," which describes the effect that well-designed PowerPoint presentations can have on juries. On his website, Cliff Atkinson of Sociable Media describes the importance of the storyboard format, which -- according to this blog -- has also been important in other forms of digital presentation in the public sphere, such as the creation of medical simulations. Surprisingly, Atkinson describes himself as an admirer of virulent PowerPoint critic and professor of information design Edward Tuftee. Of course, the problem with such PowerPoint civics might be difficult to fit on just one slide.

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Blogging from the Page to the Stage

It isn't only the television networks that are appropriating the digital media who have already long ago cannibalized the mainstream entertainment spectrum; "High art" is also turning its sights to focus on activity in the blogosphere.

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times covered not one but two stories about fictionalized blogs in their entertainment section. "Weaving a Tangled Web" reviews the online novel for Slate magazine by Walter Kirn. The evolving product, The Unbinding, uses the serial format like many of its 18th and 19th century predecessors. As electronic writing about electronic writing, Kirn's digital novel skewers the primary narcissism of the blog genre as well:

He’d confessed to her that he’d been reading my online journals (Hi, Rob! Come back to the gym for a long sauna!) as part of a “hush-hush effort” at Vectonal to perfect a new telecom product known as MeNet that would compete with AidSat in the market for “Seamless life-assistance interfaces.” I didn’t call Jesse back, of course, maintaining my wall-ish impenetrability, but it was hard to contain my curiosity after she informed me in another call that Rob had drowsed off one afternoon during an in-room couple’s hot-stones massage and muttered the name “Aguirre.” Jesse knew of the film from the printouts of my diaries, so she confronted Rob when he woke up and was warned—with a vehemence that she said alarmed her—that any more questions relating to me, my writings, AidSat, MeNet, or Rob’s Vectonal job would land her in “grievous bureaucratic peril,” beginning with registered letters from the authorities about her chronic underreporting of tips during her career at Outback Steakhouse.

"Copy. Paste. Act." declares the other Los Angeles Times story, "Live Action Blogs," in its opening line. This theater review describes the work of Mel Shapiro, who has adapted web materials and blog rhetoric for a dramatic piece about sex, politics, and historical figures from Marie Antoinette to Angela Davis. Following the headline, I initially thought that the director had used my favorite forums for rhetorical expression, fake blogs by these historical figures as inspiration. Alas, a careful reading of the article and a few Google searches proved that this was not the case. Apparently the group also experimented with improvisation with the Unreal Game Engine and used a wiki format to collaborate.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

I Screen, You Screen

Speaking of mass culture in the digital age, it's also worth marking a milestone in how traditional audiovisual broadcast media, like television, are adapting to the increasingly widespread practices of Internet reception. For example, the category of "Interactive Media" has at last been added to Emmy Awards.

Last week, the New York Times covered the nominees that had been picked. Certainly the gender politics isn't any more edgy than what the networks currently offer, and in many ways it is less so. The honorees included webtoons like It's Jerry Time, produced by a brother-brother duo. In their webisodes, powerful women are shown as threatening and emasculating, such as the love interest in Karate Date. Another example of Emmy-nominated web programming glamorizes Sophie Chase, a tank-top wearing female detective.

From the NYT story I also learned about the uncanny MTV web-based show, Stand In, which puts celebrities in the front of university classrooms to teach for the day. Like many web-based shows, the program is sponsored by the U.S. Army.

As someone who visits college classrooms on a regular basis and observes many teaching styles in higher education, I don't think any of these celebrities should be planning to quit their day jobs any time soon. Bill Gates didn't really "teach" the Introduction to Computer Programming class at the University of Wisconsin; instead, he participated in light Q and A that included chatting about his favoring video game. Was he afraid of revealing any Microsoft trade secrets? George Clinton at the Berklee School of Music wasn't much better, although he did at least participate in a jam session. Madonna was certainly a more pedagogical practitioner in a lecture hall at Hunter College, although she had far too structured a lesson plan: too much speechifying behind a lectern, but at least she knew to ask the students questions. She also seemed worried about a student who wasn't showing up for class and willing to give advice to one who needed to get his prerequisites in perspective. (Shimon Peres was also more speechmaker than instructor at NYU, although he at least gave students practice at being journalists.) Most of them seemed to have not prepared for the classroom session, which is always a grievous error of arrogance.

Maybe teaching is more like acting than I realize, since Natalie Portman wasn't bad in front of a Columbia class, but mostly because she actually tried to lead a discussion with concrete subject matter in the form of research that related to the assigned reading and the syllabus. Yet I kept wanting her to use the blackboard right behind her! At least Marilyn Manson at Temple used the board; plus he knew how to get students' attention, albeit with a cheezy prop (a bottle of absinthe). I'd probably give best marks to Snoop Dogg, who certainly raised the energy level as a coach at USC and tried to educate his charges about specific plays.

Strangely Stand In has deleted John Kerry from their roster of celebrity instructors, although John McCain is still available for high-profile distance learning.

The problem with the Emmy nominees is that none of them seem to be as good as the web-based programming I have found just randomly URL surfing on Google Video and You Tube: the cockroach-controlled robot developed by a colleague at UCI, the Curry N Rice Girl rap song about arranged marriage, prisoners' inventions, and many other web-based wonders. Even the recent New York Times article about videos of people watching videos of other people, "People Who Watch People: Lost in an Online Hall of Mirrors," seems to describe more entertaining fare than the Emmy offerings.

The network's attempts at retooling are clearly being done in response to declining TV viewing as the tube increasingly competes with the family desktop as the hearth at which entertainment and information flickers. The rising perception that television-watching is becoming an onerous form of cultural labor is perhaps most typified by the interactive "Make me watch TV" blog.

This cultural transformation isn't without its ironies, since the same people purchasing giant HD plasmavision systems can be lured away by tiny low-definition images on cell phones or iPods. My favorite example: a stadium-sized screen on a desktop sized display.

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Monday, April 17, 2006


Given their reputation for both reflecting the Zeitgeist and quickly Taylorizing all aspects of the social rituals around the consumption of meals, I have been surprised to see how slow the fast-food business has been to adapt to the virtual age. Part of this may have to do with basically being at odds with the culture of online life: affluent digital citizens would rather have food delivered like old-school hackers, or they choose to hook into the Matrix at their local chain coffee establishment where wireless and laptops are the norm.

Although, less attuned to customers, perhaps, the fast-food industry is certainly conscious of the digital habits of their employees. One burger-flipping employee who posted a photograph of the president of the company on MySpace was actually accused of identity theft. (He also discovered that his e-mail was being monitored by supervisors.)

That said, Water Cooler Games reports that Burger King has made a deal with Xbox, based on projections done by Greenfield Online, specialists in virtual market research. Customers could purchase Xbox's at their local BK and then buy special games that show the hamburger monarch racing, fighting, and exploring exciting virtual environments.

In addition to capitalizing on interactivity, the fast food business is also taking advantage of the Internet's distributed networks. A recent New York Times story, "The Long-Distance Journey of a Fast Food Order," reports that call-centers are now handling drive thru-traffic from remote locations.

In related news, according to a recent Los Angeles Times story, "Terrorists Seen Turning to Campuses for Skills," Morrocan students attending a university in Montpelier were actually honing their skills at generating mayhem. Maybe they might consider distance learning more attractive now!


Sunday, April 16, 2006

In the Zone

If all politics is indeed local, it's worth noting today's New York Times story about how neighborhood bloggers are shaping the built environments of urban landscapes. The article, "A Blogfest over a Project in Brooklyn," describes how the web's new class of professional amateurs can even impact land use policy. Several of these porchfront bloggers, who are concerned over development plans for Brooklyn's 8.7 million square foot Atlantic Yards, have boned up on their zoning law. Other critics of urban density have more conventional expertise, such as architect and fellow Blogspot blogger Jonathan Cohn, who has been using his mouthpiece Brooklyn Views to debate different space configurations. Still other blogs, such as No Land Grab, focus on relevant issues of eminent domain. My favorite response is the subversive humorous one that commemorates the season in A Very Brookly Haggadah for an Atlantic Yardseder, complete with Hebrew transliteration for the cultural tourist.


Saturday, April 15, 2006

I'm Going to Disneyland!

This Justin revealed that this New Orleans mayorial candidate was posed on her website in front of New Orleans Square in Disneyland, not the actual city of New Orleans that she hoped to govern. (Tip to would-be politicians in the Big Easy: remember to edit out tell-tale Disney garbage cans!)

This story about Photoshopped relocation was subsequently picked up in Wonkette, who linked it to a parallel Republican website prevarication that was covered in Daily Koz about a congressional candidate who tried to use a shot of a peaceful "Iraq" street as political ammunition, claiming it had been taken in U.S. occupied territory during a fact-finding mission, despite the fact that the street shown actually was in Turkey.

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Jumping Jacked Flash

This week the Los Angeles Times has been reporting about flash memory drives stolen from the U.S. military that wind up on the open market, where they potentially can reveal classified information. "Drives Outline Military Tactics" explains how these highly portable drives sold in an Afghan bazaar detailed knowledge of Al Qaeda and Taliban operations -- and even the identities of informants -- in documents marked "secret." In the follow-up story, "U.S. Computer Files Remain on Market in Afghanistan," a reporter describes finding three more such devices with military information, even after a U.S. crackdown attempted to round-up all such computer-related materials from an apparent security breach at the Bagram air base. With the rise of ubiquitous computing and cross-platform USB devices, these miniature drives have obvious advantages to highly mobile personnel. They have become almost as common around soldiers' necks as dog tags. However, this mobility has emerging disadvantages as well, particularly for tactical and strategic secrecy.

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Friday, April 14, 2006

The Virtual Global Taskforce

Yesterday, I received the following message from my younger child's school


On Tuesday, April 25 we will be examining how the Internet works as an online society including security, safety, and guidelines.

Our guest speakers will include specialists and professionals in the field of online communication including a detective from the FBI who specializes in Internet security.

We encourage you to bring friends and colleagues, especially parents

Refreshments will be provided from 6:00-6:30
Childcare is available

** Due to the sensitive nature of some of the discussions we will be having, we ask that children NOT attend the presentation **

This e-mail raised several questions in my mind about the rhetorical nature of the group's moves at exclusion. Why are "friends and colleagues" encouraged to attend this meeting while children are to be left at home? Why are the most important aspects of an "online society" "security, safety, and guidelines"? Why is the only named "specialist" a "detective from the FBI"? Wouldn't a family evening that encouraged kids to share their experiences and expertise in environments for online learning be more valuable for reinforcing social norms? Isn't information literacy more important for our children's academic success than avoiding porn? Given the number of young children with cell phones and their access to mobile networks for handheld computing, is it realistic to emphasize the family desktop as the main site for unsupervised online use?

But since I'm morbidly curious, I'm still debating with myself about whether or not to go. It would probably be an interesting evening, given the broad ethnographic sample of parents at this diverse Title I school, but I resent the fear-mongering that I'm already getting from the mainstream media. I'm also tired of parent-centered messages that imply that mothers and fathers are entitled to certain forms of social power (and implicitly the right to legislate for others).

It's not that I'm insensitive to issues about sexual exploitation. As a former employee of the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services and the California Youth Authority, I'm well aware to the psychic havoc that victimization wreaks. But I also know that face-to-face offenders are much more likely to be the culprits, particularly family members and neighbors. Even the New York Times exposé, "Through His Webcam, a Boy Joins a Sordid Online World" had an enabling father in the story as well as more anonymous online predators.

I certainly can't bury my face in an online newspaper to avoid the publicity about these anxieties about cyber-sexuality. This week, the New York Times covered the hiring of a "Security Officer" for MySpace to protect minors and other sexually vulnerable users from victimizers.

Of course, there are now many MySpace alternatives. For example, The Institute for the Future covered Xianz, the Christian social networking site. (The site is spelled with an "X" like "X-mas.") Despite the emphasis on denomination not domination, attention-getting young people still described themselves with adjectives like "dirty" and "frustrated," but they also used antiquated descriptors like "chipper." Browsing the Xianz sites, I was struck by how many users described themselves as "homeschooled" and wondered if their approach to online environments might be affected by this sheltered upbringing. (The New York Times also recently covered MySpace alternative Orkut, which is sweeping Latin America.)

Last month, the White House encouraged website visitors to take part in a surreal online child pornography chat from which I learned about something called the Virtual Global Taskforce, a multi-country "sting" operation designed to catch pedophiles. I was struck by the organization's concern with branding their intellectual property in their section on logo guidelines and by their pride in having won what seemed to be a trivial online award.

I was also interested to see attention to what Lev Manovich has called the logic of "selection": children are encouraged to add the site to their "favorites" and to "cut and paste" offending messages into a window for the scrutiny of law enforcement officers.


Thursday, April 13, 2006

Soccer Moms Get into Other Games

Casual games might not seem to be an obvious area in New Media about which to ask political or ideological questions, since games like Tetris and Centipede are associated with mindless distraction rather than first-person engagement, but that is precisely what Water Cooler Games has been doing on a somewhat regular basis.

Even in the New York Times earlier this year, this broader demographic of players has been getting attention from articles such as "Just for Fun: Casual Games Thrive Online," which makes the following observation:

Casual games are popular: industry watchers say there are more than 100 million regular casual-game players, whose demographic is more representative of middle America than most gamer circles, having equal numbers of women and men and an average age above 35. Because of their popularity and ability to be played in short bursts, the games are increasingly used as lures to draw traffic to Web sites. Because of their simplicity, they are rapidly spreading onto portable devices as well.

Historically, this segment of Middle America has been a lure for political players as well, who looked for "soccer moms" during the 1990's and "security moms" during the Bush administration. Unlike multiplayer games or first-person shooters, casual gaming doesn't inspire calls for regulation from legislative bodies. In fact, incarnations of Pong, such as First-Person Shooter 3D Pong or Massively Multiplayer Online Pong inspire humor because of the obvious scrambling of game genres.

Yet WCG's Ian Bogost argues that the casual gamer may not merit the attention of the critical eye:

I don't have anything against casual games, but it's probably about time to remind ourselves that casual games do not necessarily entail innovation or experimentation. Some may think that sounds obvious, but I think the imprecise elision of casual games with expanding the gameplaying market (e.g., those mythical women 35-55) demands further scrutiny.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Divide and Conquer

The reaction to Siva Vaidhyanathan's alarm-ringing about Google Book Search has grown particularly acrimonious in recent weeks. In, Vaidhyanathan has reprinted some of the juicier diatribes by Google advocates in the library community, including Walt Crawford's comparison of the politically progressive media scholar and cyber-activist to right-wing environmental figurehead Gale Norton. (See above.)

Does this mean that Vaidhyanathan's plan for creating an academic discipline around what he has called "Critical Information Studies" (or "CIS") in a recent manifesto is unraveling? This intellectual enterprise will certainly require an ambitious programme of collaboration, as Vaidhyanathan envisions it.

CIS captures the variety of approaches and bodies of knowledge needed to make sense of important phenomena such as copyright policy, electronic voting, encryption, the state of libraries, the preservation of ancient cultural traditions, and markets for cultural production. It necessarily stretches to a wide array of scholarly subjects, employs multiple complementary methodologies, and influences conversations far beyond the gates of the university. Economists, sociologists, linguists, anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, communication scholars, lawyers, computer scientists, philosophers, and librarians have all contributed to this field, and thus it can serve as a model for how engaged, relevant scholarship might be carried out.

It's obvious that corporate interests shouldn't be enabled in perpetuating academic factions, but it's less obvious how cross-professional communities can be maintained. Of course, librarians are a critical part of the field that is being outlined. Some might gripe that Vaidhyanathan puts them last on his list, but his work on copywrongs and public culture places him solidly on the side of the action agenda of the ALA. And I'm assuming that "rhetoricians" belong with "communication scholars," so I don't plan on being piqued about any perceived oversight on his part.

These fractures aren't surprising. My distant cousin Clark Kerr once said the university really was a "multiversity" with many competing stakeholders. Certainly, the traditional divide between teaching and research is still policed, and further schisms are generated by the interventions of graduate students, undergraduates, administrators, alumni, community activists, elected officials, life-long learners, consultants from the private sector, and -- of course -- librarians.

James Elmborg has argued that librarians and compositionists are natural allies, because library instruction and writing instruction face similar obstacles to finding an appropriate place in the university curriculum. Both programs are often seen as either offering remediation (teaching skills that students should know but do not) or inoculation (teaching students something once, so they will learn and know it always) or both, rather than as teaching a stand-alone curriculum that also has the potential to enrich and enhance student learning outcomes.

I suppose Elmborg's thesis could be recast as a nice way of saying that compositionists and librarians are both part of the permanent academic underclass of elite institutions. In other words, there is a caste system in which "knowledge workers" are superior to "information workers," as John Seely Brown says in The Social Life of Information. Or, to use Mary Douglas's categories of analysis from Purity and Danger, these professionals are polluted by duties that bring them in contact with different forms of undergraduate illiteracy, so that their expertise makes them into untouchables.

These divisions are further exacerbated when new technologies and media are introduced. According to a CCC study, deans and department chairs from humanities departments find work with digital media to be of questionable value for tenure and promotion in the academy. Those who participate in this real labor in virtual environments are confused with "tech people" or disposable "support staff."

This academic politics of exclusion and consolidation is not just a problem in departments centered around literature. Computer scientists also don't want to be affiliated with impure humanistic fields. Perhaps the classic piece of rhetoric in this area is E. W. Dijkstra's "On the cruelty of really teaching computer science," in which he recognizes the radical paradigm shift created by the discipline of computer science, but uses this disjunction as an excuse for retreating into pure mathematics and eschewing all forms of HCI.

For lack of a better word, I've called this principle of inevitable backlash against interactive, networked technology Virtualpolitik or the Realpolitik of virtual institutions. Quite understandably, CIS triggers these rivalries. Such scholarship involves addressing questions of ideology and interrogating lived discursive practice and thus "interferes" with established cultural norms of professional association. As Vaidhyanathan writes,

CIS interrogates the structures, functions, habits, norms, and practices that guide global flows of information and cultural elements. Instead of being concerned merely with one's right to speak (or sing or publish), CIS asks questions about access, costs, and chilling effects on, within, and among audiences, citizens, emerging cultural creators, indigenous cultural groups, teachers, and students. Central to these issues is the idea of "semiotic democracy’," or the ability of citizens to employ the signs and symbols ubiquitous in their environments in manners that they determine.

I should also probably add a disclaimer about possible bias. Readers of this blog know my opinions about Google Book Search and the fact that I agree with Vaidhyanathan, but others may not. My point of view on this subject has a history that goes back to my work on digital libraries that appeared in the form of a 2004 article on "Reading Room(s): Building a National Archive in Virtual Spaces and Physical Places" in Literary and Linguistic Computing from Oxford University Press. I would hope that having such opinions wouldn't distance me from my friends and colleagues who are librarians. For example, I've given papers with U.C. Irvine's Catherine Palmer to receptive audiences at conferences in both disciplines.

I don't see why defending the public character of digital archival projects should interfere with these productive collaborations. And I certainly don't think Vaidhyanathan is crying wolf, particularly about the importance of open document formats and open metadata standards.

Finally, thanks to Mel Horan, creator of anti-consumerist webtoon Garbage Island for the Vaidhyanathan/Norton image. For more on this kind of image and the rhetoric of aesthetic juxtaposition, see "The Art of Argument" on this blog.

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Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Windows in the Ivory Tower

A recent U.S. News and World Report celebrates the enthusiasm of graduate and professional students for academic blogging, "Blogging their Way through Academe." In contrast, Ivan Tribble's article for the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Bloggers Need Not Apply," suggests that Google searching by search committees have costs for job candidates in higher education who project their political and personal personae into cyberspace. Inside Higher Education's Jeff Rice complains about the lack of linguistic and rhetorical play among academic "Serious Bloggers."

View source or view address technology can reveal the identities of even "anonymous" peer reviewers, the Wired Campus reveals in "Peer Reviewers' Identities Exposed," so established scholars who steer clear of the blogosphere may also find that their privacy has been compromised.


Monday, April 10, 2006

Kitchy Counters

Internet counters, the web eyesores that are generally known for recording the number of visitors to a given site, have also been repurposed for political content. For example, the Iraq Body Count offers web counters for sites who wish to record civilian deaths in the Second Gulf War. The Right has responded with its own counter, which they claim represents "lives saved" in Iraq by the U.S. invasion.

One can also add the "Drug War Clock" based here in Irvine, California or peruse the HIV Counter that shows up to 83,438,760 people infected. Adding an abortions performed counter or rainforest acres consumed counter used to also be possible.

The classic Doomsday Clock from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists is no longer available as a web ticker, but you can have a version for digital rights doomsday on your site. Unfortunately, one can't add one's personal Internet death clock to one's website.

Many political countdown clocks for the upcoming election are available for websites and blogs, such as Backward Bush. Then again, given my problems keeping track of time, perhaps I should just settle for a regular clock like the one above.

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Sunday, April 09, 2006

War Cries

As a rhetorician, I'd like to plug Lawrence Lessig's talk last year at the New York Public Library, which is now available on Google video, "Who Owns Culture?". It has a noteworthy section about how the rhetoric of war in corporate battles against digital "piracy" debases civic discourse and stifles the creation of new cultural artifacts. As Lessig points out, Jack Valenti, of the MPAA, has gone so far as to call this a "terrorist war."

Of course, as this fill-in-the-blank exercise points out, wartime rhetoric has a long presidential history before the "war on terror" (or now the "global struggle against violent extremism") began on September 11th. We had a "War on Drugs" during the Reagan Administration and a "War on Poverty" during the Johnson Administration.

What makes this particular war on piracy noteworthy is its capacity to silence not only oppositional rhetoric but rhetoric more generally, as forms of expression that use technology are outlawed.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Mommie Nearest

Today's Column One story, "Testing the Bounds of MySpace" in the Los Angeles Times about the popular online social networking site MySpace also describes the strained relationship of Catherine Saillant and her thirteen-year-old daughter. Thankfully the article avoids the current prurient obsession with online sexual predators and underage children so prevalent in the media and recognizes the importance of developing digital literacy for fostering the critical design and programming skills that are central to the DYL ethos.

Unfortunately, this self-aggrandizing article also emphasizes a counterproductive focus on the generational divide (rather than the author's own participation in similar social practices) and ignores how new technologies have traditionally targeted teenagers. Most important, it misses an opportunity to champion information literacy for kids, which may be a much more serious cultural deficit than lack of online etiquette among adolescents.

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Friday, April 07, 2006

Whack Job

A recent story in the Washington Post, "Whacky Politics," describes online game experiments being analyzed at Stanford University that are based on the news organ's survey using the popular "whack-a-mole" arcade-style game in which online visitors can bash political figureheads of the leading parties and also historical dictators who are long dead. Users can also take out their aggressions on celebrities like Michael Jackson. Apparently, netizens are more likely to pummel celebrities or dictators than their elected officials, although the difference doesn't look that statistically significant. Not surprisingly, the overall results indicate that people with particular political affiliations are disproportionately likely to whack politicians of the opposing party. The whacking behavior of Independents seems to mediate between the two ideological poles, since they whack politicians from both parties. Some participants reported that the game produced a cathartic effect that lowered the level of their political hostility, although it seems that this particular form of disinhibition could also foster civic discontent.

It is interesting that the survey's designers omitted George W. Bush, the most Photoshopped Chief Executive in history and still the most common virtual victim of Internet button pushers (although The Washington Post included his online counterpart Hillary Clinton).

If you are feeling particularly patriotic, you can also visit Whack a Mole at the national Spy Museum in Washington D.C. and "whack some commie moles."

The issues raised by these political theatres of cruelty, which are designed for audiences across the political spectrum, are worth examining beyond a simple knee-jerk critique of violence. What need for political interactivity do they represent?


Thursday, April 06, 2006

Theatres of Propaganda

How nice to see freed journalist Jill Carroll back from Iraq in videos on the update blog for the Christian Science Monitor. How different the present image of Carroll is from the terrified hostage on jihadi websites and how good it is to see her liberated from those particular Internet theatres of cruelty. Ironically, the Carroll hostage videos were also being publicized on right-wing anti-Muslim sites like The Jawa Report.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

No Comment

What can I say about today's story, "Security Aide Charged in Online Seduction," about how Homeland Security deputy spokesman Brian J. Doyle was busted for attempting a sexual rendez-vous via the Internet with a Florida officer posing as a fourteen-year-old girl?

Apparently Doyle posed in pictures wearing his sexy Homeland Security pin and super-hot Transportation Safety Administration lanyard. His electronic transmissions to his intended victim include this image, which comes from the very user-friendly Polk County Sheriff's Office Cyberstation.

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Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Healing the Flesh in Cyberspace

This morning's article in the Los Angeles Times about websites targeting the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases, "Health Officials Cast Web at STD's," shows how the anonymity of the World Wide Web can also work to the benefit of public health agencies. Some, like inSPOT LA, allow users to send anonymous postcards that notify sexual partners if they have discovered that they are HIV positive. Those who receive these unwelcome e-cards can go to the site for information about testing services. Other sites use specific social marketing techniques, including those used on children, such as My Sexy City, which deploys animated characters and emphasizes making "safe" choices. AIDS educators are also visiting chatrooms in popular gay sites to emphasize public health practices in online discourse.

Sexual partners can also be objectionable for more quotidian reasons than life-threatening diseases. For another form of community around the sharing of knowledge, see the websites discussed in "(Name Here) is a Liar and a Cheat" in which women reveal information about men who are untrustworthy boyfriends. Supposedly, men can request to have their names removed if they are listed unfairly as romantic offenders.


Monday, April 03, 2006

April Fool for Love

I was intrigued after reading in about Google's planned "Google Romance" site, which would combine the site's search engine and social networking capabilities. The press release promises users "psychographic matchmaking" with "contextual dating."

However, since I'm compelled to fill out every online survey and take every interactive quiz, I of course quickly discovered that it as all an April Fool's joke, once I looked to see what questions would be asked of candidates for their electronic matchmaking service.

Although I have been critical of Google's policies toward digital library initiatives and cooperation with information restrictions in China, I'm still not ready to "break up with Google," perhaps because I appreciate this kind of irreverent corporate valentine. Or it could be that because Google is the corporate parent of Blogspot, the host of this blog, I don't have much of a choice.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Tax Cheaters

April is the cruelest month, because most Americans associate it with tax time. What is interesting is to see how even the IRS uses its website for consumer advocacy. See Suspicious e-Mails and Identity Theft as an example of this trend.

As the tax deadline approaches, I'd also recommend a look at the rhetoric of tax exempt status. The politically-oriented Family Research Council is included in the Combined Federal Campaign under "Women, Children, and Family Service Charities." During the same tax year, the IRS has threatened the exempt status of churches taking positions against the war.

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Saturday, April 01, 2006

God Spam

Parodied in the Landover Baptist Church site, the problem of "God Spam" has also been taken up by traditional Baptist congregations, according to this news item from Waterloo, Iowa. Large-scale unsolicited religious e-mail was appearing as early as 1994, allegedly from one "Clarence Thomas," according to historian of spam Brad Templeton. These messages to believers often start with an inflamatory and distorted "news" story, such as this warning that the reading of the Bible may soon be forbidden on the airwaves by the FCC. In the chapel of the enormous cruise ship in which I now travel, I discovered one such mass e-mail message among the holy cards. The message was about how a person who is "too busy" for God may find that God is "too busy" to write that person's name down in the Book of Life for salvation.

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