Friday, June 30, 2006

Life Imitating Art

Yesterday's New York Times "Bush and Koizumi Sing Diplomatic Duet" describes how the Japanese Prime Minister tinkled the ivories and sang these classic lines to the Chief Executive: "I want you. I need you. I love you." According to the First Lady, the two men also sang a duet. The article reported that the "love-fest" included the having the Bushes give "the Elvis-loving prime minister a refurbished 1954 jukebox that includes 25 songs by his favorite singer."

Those who have seen digital rights advocate and Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig speak in recent years have likely seen the Bush/Blair duet to "Endless Love" that is composed of artfully edited news clips and lip synch. Check out a more recent remix of the Anglo-American political pair singing the Electric Six Tune "At the Gay Bar."


Thursday, June 29, 2006

Quantum Effect

Yesterday's story in the Los Angeles Times, "Fear and Posing in Baghdad," says that Iraqi culture has been totally transformed by years of occupation, insurgency, and the resulting sectarian violence. Normal customs around hospitality and gossip are gone. Iraqis even assume false identities, complete with identity cards, to shed markers of their religious and tribal affiliations. For example many are adopting culturally ambiguous last names like "Bayati," "Saadi," and "Obeidi," which are common among both Shiites and Sunnis.

If the military-funded videogame Tactical Iraqi assumes that it will be familiarizing soldiers with cultural norms as they acquire language skills, will the script for game play be changed to reflect the new more guarded customs? For example, the article describes the pre-war society that the game emulates.

When they talk about the loss of intimacy, many Iraqis are mournful. Like members of most Middle Eastern societies, Iraqis have traditionally prized warmth and valued social interchange over what Westerners might regard as personal privacy. In the old Iraq, it was better to err on the side of nosiness than to appear cold or distant. It was perfectly normal to grill strangers on their marital status and the price of their possessions.

In order to build "trust" in the game, the quantifiable measure of health or wealth that allows players to monitor how they are doing in social interactions with other characters, players must reveal personal information about themselves and collect such data about the other people's identity as well. The player's avatar, Sgt. John Smith, comes equipped with no backstory; thus he functions as a cipher in play. And yet to win trust in realistic linguistic interactions in the indigenous culture, the Mission Skill Builder teaches the learner that to preface business discussions appropriately, it is necessary to disclose public aspects of personal life with interlocutors. Units on "Describing Yourself" and "Building Rapport" make the obligation for personal revelation and open discourse from a clearly defined identity position manifest. The learner is helped with descriptions of these positions of self by units on "“Learning about Your Host" and "Kinship and Occupations."”

Yet the LA Times article claims that many of these longstanding civic and neighborly exchanges are suddenly gone:

Etiquette used to require men to ask one another about their jobs; it was a way of showing concern for a friend's livelihood and to demonstrate willingness to help a man if he had fallen on hard times.

These days, though, to ask about jobs is impolite, perhaps even dangerous. Instead, men find themselves throwing out other questions: How are you? What are you doing here?

If, as I contend, the game also functions as a form of state-sponsored public diplomacy, which announces to the world our military planners' intent to improve cultural relations under the the occupation through an easily viewable spectacle of interaction, what does this transformation mean for those efforts?


Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Indian Giver

As an alum, I have to say something about today's story in the New York Times, "Oracle Chief Withdraws a Donation to Harvard," especially since it concerns both technology and institutional politics. Apparently, the Oracle executive was so upset about the treatment of the cantankerous Summers by Harvard that he canceled the planned bequest. Of course, I've written about the oratorical bumblings of President Summers here before, and even attempted to launch the abortive campaign to have him replaced by Siva Vaidhyanathan of NYU.

Basically, my gripe with Summers is that he is a bad rhetorician, which is an unforgivable flaw in a college president, particularly since the whole job depends on performing well on epideictic occasions. 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.

It's true that a university can be a tricky rhetorical environment in which it is always easy to say the wrong thing. Campuses are medieval, hierarchical institutions that value Enlightenment rabble-rousing. For example, what's the right thing to say to the esteemed professor who might have a photograph of her own vagina on the cover of her book? I certainly don't know. My collaborator and colleague Ellen Strenski described some of these problems in negotiating the clash of cultures in academia in "Disciplines and Communities, 'Armies' and 'Monasteries,' and the Teaching of Composition" (which requires a JSTOR account to view).

But comparing female scientific researchers to his own toddler twins while addressing a group of female scientists is just not showing the expected level of audience awareness. 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.

In another "intentionally provocative" speech at the Graduate School of Design he shows his contempt for rhetoric quite explicitly, by equating it with covering over bad theories, although he acknowledges that he is "generalizing" about this "new rhetoric." Summers claims that "we find ourselves once again bombarded by rhetoric that sounds like a new version of that of the modernist visionaries of 75 years ago." He should realize that rhetoric can be an ally as well as a threat, and that college presidents should know that it is an essential part of the educational process.

In other digital rhetoric news in academia, it is worth pointing out how the suicide of U.C. Santa Cruz Chancellor Denice Denton is being commemorated. Ironically, although she was later tarnished by scandal, Denton first achieved fame in the national media, while a University of Washington professor, by confronting Lawrence Summers after his regrettable speech.

The In Memorium page has its own rhetorical conventions. In academia, where the deceased may have an intellectual or institutional legacy to be defended, the modes of appropriate discourse can be more complicated. For example, it is interesting to see how the page commemorating Jacques Derrida also serves as a rebuttal to a condescending obituary in the New York Times

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Tuesday, June 27, 2006

G3N3R4T10N G4P

This week's Maureen Dowd Column, "A Lesson for Parents on 'MySpace Madness'" in the New York Times was a timely call for sanity in the midst of the current MySpace hysteria. Dowd has compared reactions to the media frenzy to the panic about "Reefer Madness" from the heyday of supposedly authoritative black-and-white educational films.

Of course, parents are deluged with enough advice already. When are they supposed to find the time to attend to unseen digital enemies out there in the ether, egged on by their local PTA or by the all-seeing eye of the Virtual Global Taskfore?

This month is Internet Saftety Month. Yippee. It's a holiday that apparently comes twice-a-year because it is also commemorated in April. Corporate giant Microsoft can direct you to, where you can buy t-shirts and stuffed companions, like the iBuddy above. Maybe you can persuade your teen to hang out at with the hipsters at X-Block, which boasts its own newspaper and TV station, to complement their creepy distance learning program about the perils of online nastiness, the Virtual Training Academy. Even Hillary Clinton has a media guide for the older generation! Lucky us.

As I've said, I think this whole panic about a widening generation gap is designed to sell Americans their favorite corporate product: fear. Sure, teens have come up with a ring tone that adults can't hear, and they may be complaining about summer camp on their own websites rather than in "Dearest Muddah" letters home from Camp Granada, but the Internet can also offer opportunities to bridge the age divide.

File sharing can encourage other kinds of cross-generational sharing. I often show my kids the digital ephemera that I find on the web, and they -- in turn -- share with me links and files that they've discovered, which sometimes appear on this blog.

The Internet also offers opportunities for creative play. Build an elaborate music-making machine from le ciel est bleu or paint a Jackson Pollock-style canvas. Avoid sites from large corporations or culturally conservative political institutions that are pushing more regulation.

Besides, if it is really us-vs-them, the Internet helps parents consolidate their resources as well. For example, the New York Times also recently ran a piece, "The Website of All Mothers," about the online networking efforts of parents in my area. I recognized several locales in Culver City as Mommy hotspots from my own days in a F2F mother's group. (Some of those interactions were later fictionalized in a short story I wrote for the Mississippi Review.)


Monday, June 26, 2006

Do You Have Prince Albert in a Can?

Political dissidents from Cuba use many novel methods for subverting the Castro regime, but Cuba Verdad has come up with a delightfully juvenile approach based on an old stand-by, the prank telephone call. Although the website has been threatened with FCC action, the files from the telephone call are still there, in which an ertsatz "Hugo Chavez" calls Castro. Miami radio hosts pulled off this hoax by sampling digital files with Chavez's actual voice. After pretending to be inquiring about a lost luggage complaint for a few minutes, the callers identified themselves as American expatriates and managed to record several expletives (including one about the callers' mothers) from Castro in response.

Here at home, fans of the upcoming B-movie Snakes on a Plane who might thumb their noses at a Transportation Safety Agency designed to prevent such high altitude mayhem, may enjoy these prank phone calls to major airlines about reptile cargo allowances. Also from another Snakes on a Plane site, video of a sleeping cable repairman who had dozed off while waiting on hold for an hour with his parent company, profiled in today's New York Times in "Your Call is Important to Us. Please Stay Awake."


Sunday, June 25, 2006

Fade to White

Now that Syriana is out on DVD, I have to point out a peculiar similarity that it shares with another recent movie about the Middle East, Paradise Now: both films end (or nearly end) with white frames that signify the explosion and subsequent destruction perpetrated by a suicide bomber.

I can't recall exactly when white frames first became a symbol for afterlife as cipher. Certainly, the use of such blank space is important in the work of the late Krzysztof Kieslowski. In contrast, Michael Moore chose to start his documentary about terrorism with black frames over the sounds of people responding to the mayhem of the attacks on New York City.

My U.C. Riverside friend Ivan Strenski analyzes the cultural logic of sacrifice from a Religious Studies perspective. Since both sequences are very much shot to convey the perspective of the suicide bomber -- riding a crowded bus full of busy Israelis or piloting a small boat toward an oil installation -- it seems likely that this logic is in play.

However, I might offer a competing interpretation and suggest that such white frames could also signify that which exceeds representation from the point of view of a Western audience member. The choice of omission is particularly significant at a time when explosions can be rendered with such hyperrealistic detail using digital media, as they are in training and rehabilitation virtual reality environments. Lev Manovich has called this a struggle to "outdo Zeuxis," after the legendary Greek painter who created fruit with such skill that the birds pecked at his paintings. Thanks to computer graphics, even obstacles to the realistic rendering of smoke, faces, hair, and skin have been rapidly surmounted. Yet the consequences of these characters' violent political actions are left to the viewer's imagination.

(Two other Virtualpolitik viewing notes about Syriana. First, notice that the CIA agent played by George Clooney is almost never shown using a computer, until the computer appears as the plot device from which he figures out that a political assasination is planned. In other words, this is a movie that counterintuitively shows that face-to-face interactions are deceptive while digital experiences are more authentic. It is interesting that this character figures out the conspiracy largely because he can not get access to the secret data, not because he has seen it with his own eyes. Second, pay attention to the prominent place of the joystick in several shots near the climax. The military flunky controlling this device seems to get what Janet Murray has called a "tight visceral match between the game controller and the screen action." As Murray says, "A palpable click on the mouse or joystick results in an explosion. It requires very little imaginative effort to enter such a world because the sense of agency is so direct" This sense of agency is worth keeping in mind today, when this morning Los Angeles Times announces that the Iraqi death toll has topped the 50,000 mark, which is the equivalent of a half million citizens killed out of the U.S. population.)

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Saturday, June 24, 2006

Fighting City Hall

When largely Republican Kanab, Utah passed an official resolution supporting the "natural family," political turmoil erupted in the town. Some residents responded with concerns that the proclamation slighted childless couples and single mothers, and others were worried about the fiscal impact of offending gays and lesbians who provided tourist dollars to local businesses. According to an article in today's Los Angeles Times, "Natural Family Resolution Divides Utah City," the city's statement of values actually wasn't written by city fathers; the real author was the conservative Sutherland Institute. See above for their take on "persuasion at work."

As someone interested in public access to information, I have to point out how difficult it was to find the controversial text on the city's website. One can find an announcement for "Support the Family" Day on June 1 that comes with no other information about the nature of the event. The city government search engine wasn't helpful either. Of course, I observed that the city's website was designed by a company called Evangelista, which is not exactly a moniker indicative of separation of church and state.

I had more luck finding information about the dispute from the City Council minutes, although the Kanab meetings weren't ordered reverse chronologically, as is the Internet norm. As the LA Times pointed out, the city records were certainly idiosyncratic in spelling and grammatical usage; they were also often too brief for rhetorical analysis.

The most contentious debate in the public record was the February 10th City Council meeting, where opponents of the resolution were only given ten minutes total to speak by the mayor. Although city fathers claim to civic balance by giving each side the same paltry number of minutes, a comparison of the total number of words in the public record in favor of each side speaks to a disparity in the public debate: opponents were limited to a measley 800 words, while supporters enjoyed an expansive 1,846 words, which included assertions like the following statement:

Many have moved to Kanab to enjoy the climate that has resulted from the values promoted in the resolution. Some come to our community with a history of traceable activism from their previous communities. They look for causes withwhich to promote their own personal agendas, and through manipulation and sophistry they seek to meet their own ends.

It seems that "activist" has become the new code word for "liberal." Furthermore, local officials are criticizing those who use "manipulation and sophistry" in Platonic fashion while simultaneously using the language from a thinktank that emphasizes precisely those means of persuasion.

Of course, one of the council's central claims is that they are offering a discourse without tropes or turns of phrase, a kind of "natural language" to go along with the "natural family." During the January 10 meeting at which the resolution was approved, Mayor Kim T. Lawson defended the importance of strictly denotative speech: "On the fifth anniversary of the Sutherland Institute it was said that 'words matter.' They have to be followed by deeds, and you have to be prepared to communicate them clearly, vividly, simply, and with repetition that is unending."

At a more recent City Council Meeting, a local animal control group was allowed to complain about the impact of the Natural Family Resolution on their organization, "Best Friends." It's ironic, given that Kanab mayor Lawson has received a warning letter from the ACLU, not about the Natural Family Resolution, but about search and seizure procedures related to their municipal animal control ordinance.


Friday, June 23, 2006

Branding Together

Recently, the Wired Campus from the Chronicle of Higher Education showcased a new netiquette guide on social networking for Cornell students: Thoughts on Facebook.

Given that even the Pentagon is perusing social networking sites, it's probably wise to remind college students that they are only a Google search away from unwitting gaffes in the future as jobseekers, community members, and citizens. "Thoughts" is a strong affirmation of privacy principles from a campus that isn't monitoring its own students, but it's also a lesson in Virtualpolitik for eventual graduates that this absence of prurient interest won't be true in the "real world." If online identities are malleable, this guide points out that they are also amply and permanently recorded in data caches in ways that the traces of informal social interactions in oral culture are not. I was especially struck by how the rhetoric of common sense advice about Facebook emphasized a "be your own brand" ethos.

Take a moment to think about how you want to "brand" yourself on the Internet. Almost everyone is more complex of a person than a single label can explain, but for most people it takes time and effort, if not real friendship, to get to know people's complexities. Don't give people an excuse to think of you in a single dimensional way. Instead of trying just to fit into a single group, think about yourself as an interesting person with depth of personality and character. What you put out on Facebook about yourself should be an invitation to the rest of the world to get to know you better.

Then consider what it takes to get something removed from Google. You must go through their policy process for removing information from their caching technology. Not only is that a lot of bureaucracy, but also you should know that while Google is the dominant search engine on the Internet today, it might not be tomorrow. Moreover, other search engines operate currently on the Internet and so it is not just Google whom you might have to contact in order to remove a page.

Author Tracy Mitrano has written some other interesting policy statements, and includes a link to the official Cornell response to onerous new CALEA regulations alongside her own utopian proposal for creating more intellectual shareware between universities through a program called InCommon, which reminds me of the aims of the aborted SPIDER project, with which I was associated.

I suppose I've followed Mitrano's advice by keeping my own facebook portal extremely neutral, although I can't say any longer that I have no friends. (Those without Facebook accounts may be interested to learn that the current banner on the site is for, an NGO aimed at improving the conditions of life for nine million refugee children around the world.)

Speaking of regrettable Web appearances by young people, for a while the University of Colorado police department maintained another kind of facebook that showed its denizens lighting up illegal substances in front of a surveillance camera. Police officers paid $50 to those who could ID people shown in the online pics.

While I'm at it, I have to mention how creepy I find the interest of middle aged male journalists in the facebook exploits of nubile female athletes on, a fascination that has somehow merited attention in supposedly highbrow NPR and LA Observed. Bad Jocks ostensibly was founded by a disillusioned fan as a reaction against the failure of sports venues to serve as the genuine public spheres they should, but mostly it keeps its readers updated on male cheerleaders and rugby streakers. The performance of women in many successive Olympics says more about the success of Title IX than these morally stunted readings of the impact of the law.

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Thursday, June 22, 2006

Chinese Checkers

Speaking of research projects, this week Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times reported on his own efforts to test Chinese Internet surveillance mechanisms to find proof for his optimistic theory that distributed networks can always outwit an authoritarian state.

"In China, It's ******* vs. Netizens" describes how Kristof adopted an edgy blogger persona and posted a number of entries that asked hard questions with forbidden keywords about imprisoned blogger "Zhao Yan," "President Hu Jintao," "Falun Gong," and "Tiananmen Square," seemingly without any interference from the state. Apparently some of the outlawed phrases were replaced by asterisks, and Kristof's two incendiary blogs were pulled down by censors by the time I looked for them today, but he did seem to have a point about the inefficiencies of the monitoring efforts of the People's Republic, especially given the number of nodes in cyberspace and its enormous discursive scale.

It was interesting that one factor that Kristof didn't mention was the fact that American companies are still providing technology that allows the Chinese authorities to police political dissidents. I suppose it says something about the quality of private sector government contractors from the states.

Kristof's article also dramatized the fact that the days of the English-only World Wide Web are long gone. Like Kristof, all Internet researchers should to be able to read and write more than one language in order to provide context for their findings. (At least that is what I tell myself as I do my Japanese homework this summer.)

As Red Herring points out in "Net's Future: Beyond English" even the Internet's ruling body ICANN is becoming more polyglot in its governance, so that soon "control of the network might not stay in the hands of its English-speaking creators." Numerically, the percentage of web pages in languages other than English has finally increased, after years of hovering at around 28%. Nonetheless, some critics still complain that computer architectures favor English commands and user interfaces privilege English fonts.


Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Paper Mill

I have to say something about the recent story in Los Angeles Times, "If This Were a Term Paper, You Might Have Seen It on the Web," which counterintuitively associates student writing that entails independent research with old technologies. The article begins, "School term papers may be going the way of the typewriters once used to write them." Its thesis that high school teachers and college instructors are no longer assigning too-easy-to-plagiarize projects that require the analysis of primary and secondary sources, like the final capstone assignment in the Humanities Core Course, draws the exact wrong conclusions from the data.

It is precisely when students most rely on information from websites that it is most important to model the appropriate use of digital evidence in informed arguments. Certainly the U.S. government frequently draws the wrong conclusions from digital evidence, as this Nightline story featuring Ian Bogost of Watercooler Games about the Battlefield 2 snafu before Congress demonstrates.

One of the major characters in the LA Times story is John Barrie, founder of, who is also using the controversy to hawk his plagiarism detection software on ABC News. Although I endorse the use of in large enrollment classes like Humanities Core, so that we can understand more about the process of our students' academic labor, I also think that the rhetoric of surveillance and the metaphors surrounding new technology are also worth noting. For more on the subject, this paper from the "Originality, Imitation, and Plagiarism" conference argues that Barrie's comparisons of his product to an FBI-style fingerprint laboratory merit further analysis.

It would be a real shame if the only real research that young people document is the Diet Coke and Mentos chemical reaction experiment currently sweeping the Internet.

It's amusing that the story appeared in the LAT online version with a more prosaic keyword-oriented title: "Teachers Adjust Lesson Plans as Web Fuels Plagiarism" Although I aborted my own attempt at keyword titles, articles in the English press such as "The Search Engine is King" and "The Tabloid Pun is Dead" are using royal metaphors to indicate that literalism seems to have climbed the throne of electronic text.

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Tuesday, June 20, 2006


Sunday's New York Times contained a correction of sorts to previous coverage about the Internet-based rhetoric of Musab al-Zarqawi. The earlier article presented analysis without context from "experts" from counterterrorism organizations that "monitor" jihadist sites on the World Wide Web. The core assumption seemed to be that activities like translation and selection were politically neutral. Yet there is a long theoretical history that looks at the ideology of translation, and criticism about the process of selecting particular electronic artifacts, in the context of digital media as a form of discourse, is a growing field thanks to the influence of scholars like Lev Manovich. (See "View Finder" for more commentary on the original story.)

As an update, "Mideast Analysis, Fast and Furious" attempts to be fair and balanced by including criticism of slanted translations and snippets from anti-occupation academic blogger Juan Cole. Unfortunately, the article is still numerically dominated by the perspective of the neoconservative web monitoring services who called the shots in the first piece. In addition to the SITE Institute and Global Terror Alert, which were profiled in the earlier NYT story, the writer links to Cold Warriors from The Jamestown Project, explicitly pro-Israel sites like e-Prism, and a red, white, and blue Terrorism Research Center (formatted like an online auction site) on the handy chart above.

Of course, there are monitoring services without nationalist agendas. Check out this report from the International Crisis Group for an example. Notice that it is the only monitoring organization to provide Arabic translations of their analysis of primary documents.

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Monday, June 19, 2006

Pen Pals

Veteran war correspondent Joe Galloway has had a blistering e-mail exchange with Rumsfeld spokesman Larry DiRita, which subsequently appeared in print. I would argue that this story demonstrates yet another instance of how the genre of e-mail becomes associated with scandal, policy mistakes, and controversy. The ruckus was even covered in Editor and Publisher.

Although the sender/receiver pair are ostensibly friends, both Galloway and DiRita resort to name-calling: "Johnny one-note," "curmudgeon," and references to pigs flying "with or without lipstick" appear. At one point Galloway explodes: "all i can say is what the hell are you doing questioning my columns when you ought to be in there at the elbow of your boss reading those columns aloud to him every wednesday afternoon and urging him to pay attention to them."

What is particularly interesting is that retired General Barry McCaffery, now a frequent cable news pundit, urged Galloway to release the emails, calling them "the most powerful stuff hands down I have ever read about this war . . . this exchange ought to be your going away gift to the capital." I, of course, wonder if McCaffery told this to Galloway in an e-mail.


Sunday, June 18, 2006


As someone who was once associated with a project called SPIDER, designed to encourage sharing of pedagogical materials in higher education, I did find it amusing to discover that the Navy runs a program that also uses the acronym SPIDER, which ostensibly has instructional aims as well. It is particularly ironic because the Armed Forces SPIDER features topics that I write about now, not as a developer but as a critic, such as military-funded videogames.

At the time that we chose the name, participants and funding agencies were critical of the choice. Spiders were associated with many negative qualities like cruelty, deviousness, and poisonousness. Even if they were associated with the "web," it didn't suggest a collaborative environment or online pedagogical community. Nonetheless, the Navy's SPIDER wasn't scared off by the name either and set out to publicize "best practices" and new "serious games" like Ambush!

Then again, based on the fact that the last posting was a year ago, maybe it is a doomed name.


Saturday, June 17, 2006

Citizen Google

At the risk of being dismissed as an anti-Google crank, unable to comprehend the Realpolitik behind their human rights position in China and biased against any private sector solutions to public record problems, I'll break my vow of silence to point out some questions that I have about the new partnership between Google and the U.S. Government.

Certainly, the search engine giant has become more beloved than baseball, apple pie, and grandma within many communities of practice in both academia and technological research. But since there are still some advocates for a digital public trust and critics of corporate proprietary conduct and secrecy like Siva Vaidhyanathan (who openly talks about "A Risky Gamble with Google") I might as well revisit the issue one more time.

For those who haven't been following recent events, Google will be digitizing parts of the Congressional Record, which I'm sure rival Readex won't be happy about. Google Video will also putting government films from the National Archives online.

I tried out the Google U.S. Government Search for myself today. Although I found that the results were delightful in their eclecticism, I wondered how well the ranking algorithm or the metadata procedures were working, based on the seemingly scattershot results.

For example I put in "videogames" as a search term, knowing that there have been several hearings on the subject in recent months and that there was still testimony and evidence that I was looking for. I got no closer to data that I could use as a scholar, and as a citizen I found the oddball results were largely out of date: the first result was about a game developed in 1958 and the secod was about a 2000 commemorative postage stamp. Now, I happen to find those things very cool as cultural artifacts but not particularly useful to my understanding of public policy decisions.

Of course, I also had to try out my favorite subversive query in the realm of government documents -- for the keyword "masturbation" -- and got almost the same results that I would have with a regular Google search restricted to .gov URLs.

As far as the basic information design, I thought that the prominence of "American Forces," "White House," and "Washington D.C." headings might discourage participation by citizens looking for information from their local legislators, given the emphasis on centralized, hierarchical, top-down forms of political organization that U.S. Government Search instantiates. I couldn't understand why there also wasn't a way to search for particular types of documents (like podcasts) in their tutorial page.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have to point out yet again that Google owns this Blogspot software and server, and that Google Book Search now even has its own Blogspot blog. Today Book Search is trumpeting its work digitizing the works of Shakespeare. Of course, MIT got there first by almost a decade.)

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Friday, June 16, 2006

Do They Have Congressional Hearings about Anything Else?

The day before yesterday, there was yet another Congressional show-and-tell about digital media on Capitol Hill. This time, it was the Federation of American Scientists holding an event about educational games, which was sponsored by Congressman Ralph Regula. The panel showcased the work of Digital Promise, an advocacy group for public investment in educational videogames, digital libraries, and other electronic means of communication, commemoration, and community to which all citizens should reasonably have access. Their current initiative, DO IT, is aimed at creating an organization equivalent in stature to the National Science Foundation or the National Institutes of Heath.

The line-up of speakers included Digital Promise spokesman Lawrence Grossman, a former President of NBC news and PBS. Grossman seems to be spending a lot of time on Capitol Hill: he was also a witness this Spring in connection with the Commercial Spectrum Enhancement Act. To his credit, Grossman has been a critic of outsourcing digitization to the private sector and has bonafides from the Center for Digital Democracy and ties to the New America Foundation.

Furthermore, despite his history in the mainstream broadcast media, Grossman has been a digital advocate for over a decade. In 1995, he waxed enthusiastic in The Electronic Republic about a future in which new communications technologies and distributed networks would enable direct democracy to supplant an eroded representative democracy that was already in decline from the effects of voter referendums, sophisticated public opinion polling, and other manifestations of populism on the rise. Many e-government enthusiasts heartily agreed with Grossman and predicted that civic life would soon return to a golden era not seen since the ancient Greek city states. If a crowded, open marketplace of ideas served as an attractive metaphor for the site of public rhetoric, the democratic possibilities of the Internet seemed limitless. Others were not so certain that democratic institutions necessarily benefited from new technology. Long before the publication of The Electronic Republic, Abramson, Arterton, and Orren’s The Electronic Commonwealth expressed concerns that the removal of barriers of time and space by modern media could subvert both the quantity and quality of public deliberation. In the post-September 11th era, Bruce Bimber has analyzed data suggesting that political participation has not been significantly impacted by Internet access. Specifically, he asserted that little voter mobilization could be directly attributed to the Internet. Bimber worried that, like television, the Internet encouraged passive consumption of political culture. As an opposing case of a noticeably transformative “information revolution” in American politics, he pointed to how nineteenth-century penny newspapers solidified party allegiances, encouraged the exercise of opinion in the context of urban communities, and led to higher percentages of voter turnout among eligible citizens.

Although Digital Promise articulates goals I respect, the games themselves were very ideologically loaded, as you can see from the PowerPoint slides of the presentation. They emphasize biological invasion, Iraqi reconstruction, and prioritizing responses to terrorism. First, despite its pretense to improving biology education, Immune Attack brings nothing new to the hoary game genre started by Space Invaders. Furthermore, the actual representation of information is very poor, since the body's organic components are often shown at the wrong scale or in the wrong color. Next, Discover Babylon seems to be yet another "virtual Iraq" that shows little more than groupthink and repetition-compulsion. Finally, Mass Casualty Incident appears less thought out than the Virtual Terrorism Academy or other post-9/11 public health games.

If you are in the mood for a classic game produced on the taxpayer's dime, you can check out what may be the first government-funded videogame -- a Pong precursor -- by following this link.

The Digital Promise report to Congress is also chocked full of examples of digital libraries, but its pork barrel selection of materials from different regions and different disciplines (of extremely uneven quality) doesn't support a coherent argument for a digital public record. I'd also disagree with the premise, as would many librarians, that the American Memory project at the Library of Congress is an unqualified success.

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Thursday, June 15, 2006

Having Your Cake and Eating It Too

Today is the one-year anniversary of the Virtualpolitik blog. The first entry was about a change in the visual rhetoric of several government websites. Over two hundred and thirty postings later, there is still plenty of digital rhetoric to write about.

In honor of the occasion, I already gave myself my birthday present, a 60GB Apple video iPod. Unfortunately, only a few hours later, I learned about the Chinese sweatshops where it was made from BoingBoing.

It's a good time to be blowing out candles on the cake, because the Yearly Kos Convention has brought fresh political attention to the blog genre this week from the news media. As a force for the dissemination of political opinion, an article in The New York Times said that blogs were for the left what talk radio was for the right (an analogy that I don't quite agree with). Furthermore, as bloggers refine their style in ways unlike conventional literary journalism, it's worth looking at the Habits of Highly Effective Bloggers.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I'll post the rules that I set for myself in the beginning, which I believe I've never done here before:

1) The post must analyze the rhetoric of a specific digital genre (website, videogame, database, e-mail, blog, PowerPoint presentation, etc.).
2) The central issue must be "political," at least in the sense that it deals with ideologies about power and technology or the conflict between the interests of institutions of knowledge -- such as government agencies or universities -- and discourses of information, represented by communication via hypertext, distributed networks, computer generated simulations, databases, or "code" divorced from natural language.
3) It must respond to the Zeitgeist or spirit of the moment in some way (although areas of suspicious inactivity can also be signficant for "newsiness").
4) There must be interesting links for readers to follow.
5) There must be something new for every day, even if entries are delayed in posting (because I am in the middle of the ocean, for example).
6) To impact public policy, it must aim to express and inspire genuine sentiment, ideally in the form of peals of laughter, groans of rage, sighs of pleasure, etc. (For example, this reader who said an entry made her want "to vomit" had the general idea of what I aspire to.)

Of course, I've broken these rules from time to time. And I don't always go with conventional wisdom about effective promotion. For example I ditched both descriptive titles and generic metadata tags after short-lived experiments with paralyzing boredom.

Before I make my wish, I'd like to thank those who were so generous by linking to this blog. The list includes Sivacracy, Water Cooler Games, Design Your Life, John Brown's Public Diplomacy Review, Spare Change (a social marketing blog), and BlogHer: Research and Academia. They were excellent presents, very considerate and always the perfect size.

Like every birthday girl, I enjoy getting cards as well. So I'm grateful for the dialogue generated by comments. After criticism that might have merited hate mail from the less rhetorically savvy, I got constructive feedback from many readers who had found that their public personae or ideas had been skewered here. Walt Crawford, Mark Boardman, Craig Lefebvre, and B. J. Fogg showed that they could be good sports. And even those behind Iraq the Model were extraordinarily civil.

As if there weren't enough icing on this birthday cake, blogging has totally changed my approach to academic writing. In previous years, my publications -- even about public policy issues that directly impacted access to digital resources by average citizens -- were aimed at niche audiences in higher education. It would have never even occured to me to write something that personal friends who were astrophysicists or screenwriters would enjoy. But after giving a paper on a military-funded videogame at a conference, and seeing its reception in the blogosphere, in collaborative web spaces like WRT: Writer Response Theory and Grand Text Auto, I began to see the public role of academic conversations in a new way.

I've even scrapped the original opening to the Virtualpolitik book manuscript to go with a bloggier introduction, which is still very much in process. (Please do not cite this text, however, as it is still essentially a long, unedited sketch with no scholarly notes.)


And now, back to our regularly scheduled rhetorical analysis.

(If you just wandered onto this page, because you were thinking of buying a 60GB iPod and were looking for user reviews, I apologize for your inconvenience. But please, before you leave, take a piece of cake. Guests should feel welcome. If you are still hungry, you can see what's in the refrigerator by clicking on the "Classic Virtualpolitik" entries on the right.)

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Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Attention Getting

On Monday I went to see DJ Danger Mouse at the Hammer Museum. Danger Mouse is the stage name of Brian Burton, who came to the attention of copyright scholars like Lawrence Lessig and Siva Vaidhyanathan after he created "The Grey Album," which combined the Beatle's classic with a cappela music by Jay-Z. Those who argue for digital rights see the cease-and-desist orders that Burton received as a sign of repression from oligarchical interests unwilling to allow the distribution of intellectual property in a free culture.

Burton talked a lot about the relationship between mixing digital samples and creating film and the role of the auteur in the studio. Burton might not be conceptualizing the relationship between new media and traditional cinema with the same language as Lev Manovich, but there were definitely intersections in how they imagined communities of practice.

Burton got the biggest applause not for defending fair use of copyrighted material, but when he described his "love-hate" relationship with the Internet. He criticized members of the digital generation for lacking the habits of attention needed to sustain meaningful listening experiences, particularly when it came to appreciating an entire record album as a coherent work of art.

The reaction to Burton's comments about "attention" from his audience made me wonder whether or not I should revisit Richard Lanham's new work, The Economics of Attention: Style and Substance in the Age of Information (University of Chicago Press, 2006). When it arrived in my mailbox, I initially found it quite disappointing: full of cultural stereotypes that have been contested by many who study the engrossing characteristics of highly-situated digital experiences, such as James Paul Gee.

Except for a chapter on "What's Next for Text" that showed that Lanham was capable of "thinking with type" (as Ellen Lupton says) in interesting ways, I found the overall argument unpersuasive. Yet Lanham is the author of one of my top-ten favorite digital rhetoric books of all time, The Electronic Word: Democracy, Technology, and the Arts (University of Chicago Press, 1996), so perhaps I'll give his latest offering another try.


Tuesday, June 13, 2006

But How Would I Look in a White Lab Coat?

Rhetoricians aren't the only people thinking about persuasion and credibility on the World Wide Web; my colleagues in the social sciences study it too. According to the website of the Persuasive Technology Lab at Stanford, their mission is to create "insight into how computing products -- from websites to mobile phone software --— can be designed to change what people believe and what they do." Their study of captology or the function of "computers as persuasive technology," aimed at changing attitudes and behaviors, is certainly relevant to the use of digital media and distributed networks in service of the four major trends in political rhetoric that have been covered in Virtualpolitik: 1) social marketing, 2) public diplomacy, 3) risk communication, and 4) institutional branding.

However, given that the coiner of the term, BJ Fogg, is a specialist in evaluating how websites establish their authority, I was surpriseded to see that his most recent post on his blog featured a four-letter word associated with anger, urination, and in certain cultural contexts extreme drunkenness.

The Stanford group conducts Web Credibility Research through a related set of projects and professional associations. Apparently "bonafide academics" are eligible to receive free resources with which to teach the subject to their undergraduates. I am both curious about their offerings and committed to their laudable goals. Nonetheless, their list of carefully researched "design factors" doesn't look that different from the ad hoc evaluation criteria of more idiosyncratic librarians, such as early-adopter Susan Beck.

I also learned about the Credibility Commons on Fogg's blog. Unfortunately, their dormant website seems to indicate that a promising idea for wiki-style deliberation about ethos had failed to generate the necessary virtual community to contribute to it. Of course, I have some theories about why certain web-based collaborative databases fail and others succeed that might be applicable to this case.

Critics who are invested in the Ong-ian position that the Internet may give new primacy to traditional forms of oral culture may be interested in Fogg's social networking start-up as well: YackPack. YackPack is aimed at users who may already trend toward oral/aural venues like Voice Over IP or Podcasting. Perhaps this is yet another indicator of a larger sea change in electronic communication.


Monday, June 12, 2006

Laptop Oratory

I just returned from seeing the movie An Inconvenient Truth and haven't yet decided if former Vice President Al Gore was the star of the film or his silver MacIntosh laptop. Compared to the clunky bullet points and repetitive sentence fragments of the administration's PowerPoint rhetoric, it was a remarkably fluent presentation that incorporated digital presentation technology. The audience also got to see Gore modeling idealized online behavior in the mode of detective work, as he incorporated new research and revelations about political influence, such as the editing of documents about climate science by former energy lobbyist Philip Cooney. During the course of the documentary Gore read the online New York Times, surfed Google Earth, and even moved the building blocks of his digital slideshow around. Like activist subversives, The Yes Men, Gore integrated 3-D animation in with his graphs and charts, although he deployed the device both for humor (a cooking frog) and for pathos (a drowning polar bear). As the credits rolled with its animated graphics, the audience was pointed toward the project's website for more:


Sunday, June 11, 2006

Digging to China

Regulating how the rules of conventional society translate to a virtual environment becomes even more complicated in the context of an authoritarian state.

This boundary confusion becomes particularly vexing when hundreds of thousands of players are engaged, who create their own community standards, as is the case of the playing of World of Warcraft in China. When theft of a virtual sword from a game in a similar genre, Legend of Mir 3, wasn't recognized by local authorities, one enraged gamer turned to murder, as the BBC reported.

Following the case, associate law professor at Beijing's Renmin University of China said that such weapons should be deemed as private property because players "have to spend time and money for them".

But a lawyer for one Shanghai-based internet game company told a Chinese newspaper that the weapons were in fact just data created by games providers and therefore not the property of gamers

Warcraft itself has been held responsible by the media as a possible cause of a teen suicide, although a suit by his grieving parents was rejected by the courts. In response to an official gaming crackdown on hours of play, protestors staged a mass suicide within the game to express their political defiance.

Even adultery blamed on Warcraft-related interactions can be subject to crime and punishment by Chinese crowds in both virtual and face-to-face environments, as online lothario and college student "Bronze Mustache" discovered when he decided to pursue a married woman, "Quiet Moon."

But if you want to figure out the difference between right and wrong, be careful before turning to the Chinese wikipedia, which was created to offer a state-sponsored alternative to a supposedly subversive, transnational encyclopedia, even if large chunks are plagiarized from the original and even taken from parodic imitators like the Uncyclopedia. My favorite Uncyclopedia entry is on dirt, although there is also an entry on the People's Republic of China.

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Saturday, June 10, 2006

Do You Want the Good News First or the Bad News?

Is the glass half-empty or half-full? There were mixed results in Congress this week for political progressives. I'll start with the good news: the senate rebuffed a discriminatory Constitutional amendment to prohibit same-sex marriage. Of course, this victory is largely a moot point, since most states outlaw legal recognition of such partnerships anyway and even in the political and legal discourse that regulates their conduct, gays and lesbians become the unmentionable rhetorical Other.

Those who might be prevented from marrying in the face-to-face world governed by statutory law might seek out alternative digital public spheres in which to wed. Yet there is also controversy about allowing gay matrimony in virtual environments. While some videogames include the celebration of gay marriage among their social rituals, and activists are encouraged by game-makers' sympathetic responses to the problem of online homophobic discrimination more generally, as the story of the Lambda letter to the makers of World of Warcraft demonstrates, nonetheless, game companies still reflect the sexual conservatism of the larger society, which they simulate and on which they depend for revenue. For example, the Sims 2 disabled the opportunity to choose a sexual preference other than a default setting. Furthermore, Yes Men Andy Bichlbaum was famously fired for inserting a gay "easter egg" in the code of SimCopter.

Since June is Entertainment and Ratings Month, it's worth remembering that watchdog organizations often enforce heteronormativity more stringently than community standards about obscenity.

The bad news from the legislative branch, of course, is that a Network Neutrality rider, introduced by Edward Markey, the blogging Congressman, was also defeated by the House this week. Similar and yet competing web-based rhetorical appeals may have confused those following the issue. As a specialist in digital rhetoric, my concern is that this will have a chilling effect on both communication technology and communication more generally, because multi-megabyte video webcasts made by average citizens might not be viewable if connectivity becomes an issue. Although it has been accused of being a form of vanity publication, the relatively low production costs of YouTube presentation allow D.I.Y. expert amateurs to share their results with the public when they actually test out their personal thought experiments.

As a case study, consider Adam Scott, Canadian softball-playing self-described "angry young man," who decided to forego many of the hassles of bachelor living -- such as shopping, food preparation, cooking, and kitchen cleaning -- by trying to live on nothing but inexpensive bulk monkey chow for a week. What is interesting is that Scott's sophomoric stunt ultimately ended up producing a serious meditation that included thoughts about addiction, dependency, community, public health, and world hunger. It might not have as much socially redeeming value as Barbara Ehrenreich's exposé on minimum wage work in Nickel and Dimed, but it does have a similar investigative spirit. Without the guarantee of Network Neutrality, Scott's surprisingly thought-provoking YouTube video might become eventually inaccessible.

Perhaps it is because I am supervising the research projects of 1,300+ lower division writing students this month that I am concerned not only about how easily future young people will be able to access the resources of the Internet but also how readily they will be able to display and share their findings.

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Friday, June 09, 2006

View Finder

Today's story in the New York Times about slain terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi contains a slant that might not be apparent to most readers. As a feminist and pacifist, I certainly would not defend the digital rhetoric of a rapist and murderer, but the sources used in "Zarqawi Built Global Jihadist Network on the Internet" are very problematic. My reason for concern is that the article relies exclusively on web-surfing agencies from the political right: The SITE Institute and Global Terror Alert. I've blogged about issues about translation for the SITE group before, but it is worth pointing out how Global Terror Alert also feeds the twenty-four hour news cycle and a conspiratorial logic that oversimplifies complicated international affairs.

It's all connected to the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, we are reminded, through visual rhetoric that opens with black and white images of the wreckage at Ground Zero and transitions to an earlier shot of the towers billowing smoke. In its moody Flash presentation, complete with pensive, cinematic music, Global Terror Alert's sponsoring organization, NEFA explains that it seeks "uncompromised answers to complex questions," which sounds like an oxymoron to my rhetorician's ear. The fact that NEFA stands for "9/11 Finding Answers" is also an odd inversion of the usual tendency in electronic communication to substitute numbers for letters in acronyms.

Organizations that "monitor" the World Wide Web for jihadist websites do have ideologies. To present them as neutral archivists is to sell readers short. It is particularly unfortunate since the Times writer makes a legitimate observation about how Zarqawi mastered the jihadist digital sound bite, which could be transmitted via cellular telephone and other low-memory mobile devices. His style was in sharp contrast to the longer video "news" releases of Osama Bin Laden, whose professorial demeanor is more reminiscent of a lecture from a distance learning course.

Since his first communiqué appeared on a jihadist Web forum in April 2004, Mr. Zarqawi's media operation has posted hundreds of others, often with video clips. Lasting only a minute or two, the clips gave jihadist oratory far more immediacy: masked snipers shoot at American soldiers; a suicide bomber's car speeds toward an armored personnel carrier before disappearing in a fireball; a bomb detonates in a truck convoy, with drivers fleeing the flames.

Yet, as the BBC points out, it has been eight months since the last beheading video, so web analysts who are critical of U.S. policy may be correct in asserting that the visual rhetoric of the insurgency was already moderating itself through the self-regulatory mechanisms of audience response.

Of course, the actual Global Terror Alert home page -- which the Times is citing -- has many digital markers that make me question its authority, despite the slick work showcased at NEFA, its parent organization. Banner ads, black backgrounds, and distorted photographs make me wonder if those at GTA are really equipped to analyze the digital rhetoric of others.


Thursday, June 08, 2006

Unspoken Agreeement

Earlier this week, President Bush came out in favor of the now renamed "Marriage Protection Amendment" to limit matrimonial unions to those between "a man and a woman." Apparently marriage now needs "protection" not "defense."

Of course, what exactly marriage needs to be protected against, other than "activist judges," isn't clear. What is amazing about his speech -- and the one from 2004 -- is that fact that the words "gay" or "homosexual" appear nowhere in the president's rhetoric. A visitor from another planet or historian from the future could have no idea that his words are aimed at gays and lesbians who want state recognition for their partnerships. This odd silence has been the norm for the White House, as this blog has noted before.

The White House website also has a new design philosophy, albeit one in which the word "discuss" still plays a prominent role. Now the president's actual folksy words dominate the home page. The new formula follows a "President Bush on __________ said . . . " pattern.

President Bush on Wednesday said, "Dirk Kempthorne is uniquely qualified for this important position. He is the first Secretary of the Interior to serve as a governor, a senator, and a mayor. And each of these positions prepared Dirk well for his new responsibilities."

President Bush on Wednesday said, "I'm here to talk about a comprehensive immigration reform package, one part of which is to help people assimilate. The reason I want a comprehensive reform package is because I want whatever we do to work. And in my judgment, the definition of work is we want a border that's safe and secure; we want rule of law to prevail; and we want the American Dream to flourish."

President Bush on Tuesday said, "A comprehensive plan is necessary to help these good folks do their job. And I'm going to keep calling on Congress to think about a comprehensive plan. ... A lot of the elements of this plan have got common agreement. Now it's time for folks to set aside politics and get the job done on behalf of the American people."

President Bush on Tuesday said, "The United States is a nation of laws, and we're going to enforce our laws. We're also a nation of immigrants and we're going to uphold that tradition. And these are not contradictory goals. America can be a lawful society, and America will be a welcoming society at the same time."

President Bush on Monday said, "The union of a man and woman in marriage is the most enduring and important human institution. For ages, in every culture, human beings have understood that marriage is critical to the well-being of families. And because families pass along values and shape character, marriage is also critical to the health of society. Our policies should aim to strengthen families, not undermine them."

Although some digital rhetoric has been associated with speech genres, institutional websites, by virtue of their emphasis on "layout," are generally associated with print. This choice to emphasize the President's oral presentation may represent a fundamental discourse shift for an embattled White House.

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Wednesday, June 07, 2006


When McDonald's Interactive appeared at a serious games industry conference, The International Serious Games Event, with a major announcement, people took note. In the presenters' PowerPoint presentation, however, they surprised the crowd with a declaration of independence from their parent firm, on the grounds of corporate irresponsibility for environmental damage caused by emissions by the commercial necessities of the fast food industry. Many audience members reported being completely taken in.

As Watercooler Games points out, these discourse conventions seem reminiscent of the very difficult to play "serious" McVideogame, which emphasizes the toxic chemicals, land degradation, commodification of labor, and unethical marketing of the Golden Arches. Although it uses some elements of an advergame, McVideogame is primarily a political game, like those created about the crisis in Darfur, that emphasizes what Ian Bogost has called a "rhetoric of failure" to persuade users that the company's business plan is untenable for environmental sustainability.

Although they are far behind Taco Bell and Burger King in actual game creation, McDonald's does have some real interactive website content. For example, I heard Lisa Nakamura discuss the McWebsite aimed at generic "Asian-Americans": I am Asian.

Given that the work of the Yes Men has a similar activist signature, they were early suspects in the prank, especially since they may have been spotted in photos on the hoax website. Others are attributing the prank to one of their franchise operations RTMark. RTMark apparently specializes in F2F, so it may not be surprising that their hoax website is relatively minimalist. As someone interested in how street art is appropriated by powerful corporate and political interests, I was interested to see this RTMark "anti-graffiti" prank. For those of you who need more carnavelesque mischief, you can now also find many of Alan Abel's classic pranks on YouTube.

Unfortunately, nothing this exciting will probably happen at the Sex in Video Games conference, which is also happening this week, as you can see from their agenda.

Update: Check out the tale that emerged after some detective work. It appears that -- rather like the Agatha Christie detective story Murder on The Orient Express -- all of the possible suspects identified were involved!

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Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Neighborhood Watch

The controversy over Senator Rick Santorum's alleged out-0f-state residency dramatizes how digital communication can impact communities at the level of the local polling places and school districts. Fellow Blogspot bloggers are all over this story: Tom Ferrick, a Metro columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer has weighed in recently with a long post about a strange form of neighborhood watch in which Pennsylvania locals are confronting Santorum about his right to vote. Now that the Office of Homeland Security has announced reduced funds to the most likely targets that risk prediction experts, like those at RAND, would choose, apparently the Santorum residence merits particularly vigilant protection from cranky nearby residents. One irate constituent's "Santorum Cybergate" blog gives a sense of the level of community outrage

Santorum first raised local wrath by enrolling his homeschooled children in "cyberschool" then facilitating tuition reimbursements from local government entitities that add up to $100,000 of taxpayer funds. USA today has covered the broader conflict between the cyberschools and the local districts who are responsible for supporting their tuition under agreements governing charter schools. The Pennsylvania Cyber Charter School , in which Santorum's children were enrolled, has an amazing website, which declares that their purpose is "helping families build their own school . . . out of choices, not bricks."

I hate to give credit to Santorum, but it's worth pointing out that he has one of the few helpful kids' pages, which actually addresses what children need from a government website: information to help them write school reports.

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Monday, June 05, 2006

Keep Out

I suppose I sort of understand the exclusionary logic behind the phenomenon described by the New York Times in "Interns? No Bloggers Need Apply." If an employee is producing revelatory diaristic discourse about the work environment, it could inhibit effective collaboration with one's colleagues. But, in terms of Internet culture, the blocking of .edu addresses by military security officials, which was described in a recent "Wired Campus" feature of the Chronicle for Higher Education seems totally illogical, especially given how Manuel Castells and others have described the traditional synergy between the academy and the military.

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Sunday, June 04, 2006

Who Are You Going to Believe? Me or Your Lying Eyes?

Digital Evidence was the title of the proceedings from the 2000 International Digital Resources in the Humanities conference. At the time the title "digital evidence" sounded exotic and indicated the beginning of the shift to scholarship supported by digital materials that were enriched with metadata rather than traditional print in the codex form. Now the term also has a forensic meaning, one that can have political significance as well.

One form of digital evidence has been featured on the BBC website this week: news broadcasts available on the Internet that integrate amateur video shot by inexpensive devices by citizens in the developing world. The controversial Ishaqi footage seems to document war atrocities committed by U.S. soldiers on Iraqi civilians. Military spokesmen said the men, women, and children died as a result of a roof collapsing during an air raid, while their neighbors said that they were summarily executed at close range.

Elsewhere on the political spectrum, immigration opponents are interested in utilizing digital evidence, from sources such as streaming video shot near the border, that seems to depict suspicious, unsavory, or illegal activity. There is even a contest to foster applications of video technology and distributed networks to the problem of effective border control. To see people crossing legally, check out these webcams of U.S. Borders that were featured in a 2002 PBS documentary.


Saturday, June 03, 2006

Arm Twisting

Now that the Attorney General is sitting down with major Internet service providers and search engine companies to pressure them to save logs of user activity with the identifying data of individual computers for up to two years, it is worth pointing out how file-sharing is getting little attention in the rhetoric from the Department of Justice, despite the fact that its policies are aimed directly at common peer-to-peer practices.

Just by reading articles like "U.S. Wants Companies to Keep Web Usage Records" in the New York Times and "Online Privacy Again at Issue" in the Los Angeles Times, it isn't immediately apparent what could be at stake. Privacy advocates may be on the alert, but the free culture crowd may not yet be adequately alarmed by the threat to the creative commons posed by this oversight.

My U.C. Irvine colleague and computer law expert David Kay immediately saw the problem with mandating record-keeping, ostensibly to catch child molesters and terrorists. Any record kept can be subpoenaed in any legal proceeding, including civil cases. Thus those who are concerned about intellectual property violations can also use these records to catch "pirates." Of course, this provision could implicitly encourage recognized copyright holders to commit litigious copywrongs that abuse those wishing reasonably fair use of those works.

It is also worth examining the actual surveiling technologies that are being funded by their programs and praised in their epideictic rhetoric. For example, among those being commended by the Attorney General recently was Wyoming agent Flint Waters who developed software designed to catch sexual predators, software that could also be used to monitor other prohibited peer-to-peer transactions. Dubbed Operation Peerless and later Peer Precision, the system targets file sharing specifically, although such technical specifics are glossed over in Gonzales' speech:

For his extraordinary contribution to cybercrime investigations we are honoring Special Agent Flint Waters, the head of the Wyoming ICAC, with the Attorney General’s Special Commendation Award. He has taught law enforcement officers nationally and internationally in the use of software he developed. Ernie Allen of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children will honor him with its Law Enforcement award as well.

Yet again, I will plug Siva Vaidhyanathan's excellent book about file sharing (and much else): The Anarchist In The Library: How the Clash Between Freedom and Control Is Hacking the Real World and Crashing the System. He argues that dangerous conflicts between competing stakeholders for oligarchic interests and anarchistic ideologies are putting the public sphere at risk, and that file sharing only represents one recent manifestation of peer-to-peer activities that are perceived by prevailing institutions as subversive.

For those older than the iPod generation, who might not care about peer-to-peer networks, it is important to realize that the Justice Department's requests go far beyond file sharing. Very broadly adopted practices like e-mail and web surfing are on the DOJ's wish list as well. In other words, if I copy and paste an article that I have access to because of my New York Times "Select" subscription and e-mail it to another digital rhetoric scholar, could the New York Times legitimately subpoena my e-mail? If I post an image on a class website that I thought was out of copyright but wasn't, can someone monitor who visits my webpage and downloads the image? Academics are already getting DMCA cease and desist orders -- including people in my own program -- and these proposed measures are even more expansive.

So, once more, this time with feeling, I present my two theses about these perceived dangers to our security from terrorists and child molesters with which we are being frightened by the Department of Justice:

1) Political discourse about terrorists on the Internet actually says more about domestic anxieties created by an emerging American information culture that challenges the familiar institutions of the traditional culture of knowledge. Read more about House Intelligence hearings on the subject.

2) Our children are most at risk from inappropriate appeals on the Internet that come from commercial entities, particularly without adequate information literacy training in the schools and from the public library system. As a former employees of two social services agencies, I can assure my fellow citizens that the vast majority of children who are sexually molested are exploited by members of their own families, which a de-funded social safety net only exacerbates. Read more about the "Virtual Global Taskforce" that is praised by the White House.

Lately, I have been writing about how government-funded videogames serve as objects of public rhetoric and how they make visible certain ideological conflicts and uncomfortable political truths about war, pedagogy, and rehabilitation. I am using Bruno LaTour's tome on Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy as a model for critical dialogue about old and new forms of the traditional res publica.

The problem with making child pornography the focus of political debate is that it is by definition not a public object, not visible. As witness Alice S. Fisher said in her May third testimony before another House Committee:

I have seen some of these images, and, just like the Attorney General said, they make your stomach turn. I don't think many people realize how difficult it is for the law enforcement professionals who have dedicated their careers to this difficult work. It is revolting to view even one of these images. Imagine having to view hundreds and thousands of them - repeatedly, on a daily basis - in order to build the cases against offenders. That is what these dedicated professionals do, and it is challenging and traumatizing on a deeply emotional level. I join the Attorney General in personally thanking all of those in law enforcement and elsewhere who are enduring those challenges and working hard to protect our children.

We criticize the mobs rioting over Mohammed cartoons that represent the unrepresentable, but -- as repulsive as these images may be -- are we turning over our democratic institutions to a similar retreat from open debate in the public sphere around a shared visual culture? Will we give up our privacy on the grounds that there are images that are, as Foucault said, objects of knowledge only to be viewed by sanctioned professionals and experts?

You can watch the webcast of the hearings to see how illegal downloading of songs is directly linked to transactions involving child pornography in the rhetoric of legislators in formulating Masha's Law.

Furthermore, although programs from the Department of Justice, such as Project Safe Childhood, sound laudable, investigators express interest in casting an even wider net that includes conduct limited to consenting adults, according to Attorney General Gonzales.

I realize that child pornography and sexual enticement are not the only criminal activities that threaten our society. Obscenity debases men and women, fostering a culture in which these heinous crimes against our children become acceptable. That’s why I formed the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force in the Criminal Division, which has worked together with their partners to investigate obscenity cases.

Check out "Gonzales Breaks Up PBS Porn Ring," while we can still laugh about such things.

(I am beginning to work out this larger argument in a longer form here. Please do not cite this PDF yet, as it is only a protean draft intended for very limited circulation.)

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