Thursday, August 31, 2006

Flight Plan

The big event in virtual politics today was White House hopeful Mark Warner's appearance in the online role-playing environment Second Life. According to Game Politics coverage in "Likely Presidential Candidate Appears in Second Life Today," the event was intended to launch his PAC Forward Together.

I keep saying I want a digital rights candidate, but I'm not yet sure that Warner is the person. On the other hand, I have to say I admired Warner's virtual style and the fact that he had his avatar fly onto the stage of the New Globe Theater to address the audience, which included a representation of the Internet as it was described by Senator Ted Stevens. And judging from the transcript, it looks like he even fielded a few questions from the audience, even though it wasn't supposed to be a Town Hall style meeting.

Of course, there has been political organizing in Second Life for a while. The most ambitious laboratory for a would-be virtual nation-state is probably Democracy Island, where government entities and interest groups can have online space for rule-making exchanges. There have also been other real-time political occasions. For example, you could have heard a general counsel from Creative Commons speak or attended an activist event and art happening for digital rights sponsored by Free Culture. It is interesting that so many activists, like politician Warner, feel compelled to present avatars that approximate the general appearance of their real world public personae. There is even suburban style activism in the form of virtual anti-Bush lawn signs.

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Would You Like a DMCA Order with That Duct Tape?

From the time it first appeared, the preparedness website from the Department of Homeland Security,, was a rhetorical disaster. With its cretinous graphics and convoluted prose, the site immediately inspired parodies, such as and Nick Montfort's Recently, they've compounded their gaffes with a new children's page that features a family of mountain lions as the loveable mascots for the site. (See what a person from Southern California who enjoys hiking in the local mountains thinks of that idea here.)

Now the Federation of American Scientists has posted their own website,, which methodically goes through the information design of the DHS site and points out all its stylistic and rhetorical flaws. Unfortunately, according to BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow, the Department of Homeland Security is now trying to use alleged infringement on their trademark to silence their FAS critics.

This case represents a larger, disturbing trend. Traditionally the records produced by government agencies have been considered in the public domain and are therefore not covered by copyright. However, during the course of my regular surveys of government web design strategies, I've noticed trademark symbols beginning to creep into many federal home pages.

This could inhibit one of the last bastions of truly free Constitutionally protected digital speech: political parody. For example, even Julia Lupton's Photoshop send-up of US AID, which mocks the government's branding efforts on the packaging of life-or-death supplies for refugees, could be seen as a form of regulatable communication. The Stop Esso campaign from Greenpeace that criticizes George W. Bush has already ended up in litigation over use of the company's logo, so it isn't unreasonable to fear that government agencies will continue to follow the lead of the private sector in abusing the privileges of trademark to stifle dissent.

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Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Dearest Modder

In light of my recently devised list of 10 Principles for the Digital Family, it was interesting to see an experiment in videogame rating from the perspective of a maternal player, Getting Mom to Play. As a prime directive, I have argued that it's important to play with your child in digital environments, rather than merely serve as a spectator; it turns out that the writer of this case study suggests that it's just as important to play with your parent.

Apparently, even novice players who are in the supposedly media-resistant older female demographic may find themselves enjoying first-person shooters and scorning more ostensibly wholesome entertainment, particularly if the interfaces of nonviolent games like Uno or Table Tennis are too unresponsive or nonintuitive to gratify the first-time player.


Monday, August 28, 2006

YouTube Jihad

Now that the new social marketing campaign against suicide bombing has released its Public Service Announcement, which was filmed in downtown Los Angeles and which incorporated several Hollywood-style special effects, I wonder how successfully the Terrorism Has No Religion program will prove to be in the long run. I think this spot may glorify violence as much as it condemns it, by placing the bomber at the center of such orchestral slow-motion destruction. In contrast, a film like Paradise Now presents an implicit but sustained and complex argument against attacks on civilians that looks at how these destructive social actors are being produced by a larger dysfunctional system.

After viewing the PSA, I spent some time on YouTube and found a montage of real bombers, as well as a lounge-singing version of jihadist incitement that romanticizes women who are "martyrs." I also discovered a disturbingly misogynistic parody video with a female would-be bomber. Gender politics also seem to play a role in Michelle Malkin's screed against young Muslim males as well. I came across a lot of anti-Muslim propaganda on YouTube, including the rhetorical dark matter in Moderate Muslims?


Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Sucker Born Every Minute

Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times announced that PBS will sell banner ads on its children's websites, which attract over three million young visitors a year. Like Sarah Banet-Weiser, I am skeptical of attempts to romanticize the media purity of the young, but this new policy still seems to me to be a violation of the public trust. What would Fred Rogers, who made such an impassioned plea before Congress for the rights of children for education and enrichment, say?


Saturday, August 26, 2006


There has been a lot of talk lately about "online communities," "virtual communities," or other types of communities whose members interact via the Internet. Much of this discussion struggles with the definition of what an online "community" could be when no sharp boundaries exist in the networked organizational structures that characterize the Internet, which connect many parties via many nodes.

Last week the New York Times ran an article on a different kind of virtual community, "On the Web, Pedophiles Extend Their Reach." Of course, when we use the word "community," we often give it a positive cultural value that the term may not always deserve. The article points out that those sexually obsessed with children, despite their often lively online debates, rarely get real feedback from opposing views that defend the rights of minors against those who would exploit and objectify them. Like other forms of political organization on the web, pedophiles only link to like-minded others and thus reinforce the dominant paradigm that members accept. To the Times' credit, unlike many of their other media+children scare pieces, the article makes clear that it is live, face-to-face contact with familiar adults that presents the chief danger of sexual abuse to children.

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Google Contract Released

The contract between the University of California and Google for their joint large-scale book digitization project has been released, thanks apparently in part to a request from the Chronicle of Higher Education. Text here. The Chronicle points out the key condition:

Both the university and Google will get digital copies of the scanned works, but there are some restrictions on how the university can use its copies. The university can offer the digital copy, whole or in parts, "as part of services offered to the university library patrons." But the university must prevent users from downloading portions of the digital copies and stop automated scanning of the copies by, for example, other search engines.

For those who support making library contents available to the broader community, this is not good news. As Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive and the Open Content Alliance said, "We want a public library system in the digital age, but what we are getting is a private library system controlled by a single corporation . . . Microsoft, Yahoo, the Sloan Foundation, and dozens of libraries are funding a public and open system, but this is made more difficult by UC's agreeing to spend millions of taxpayers' dollars to benefit a single corporation's interest in building a private library," he said. "Needless to say, I am disappointed and hope it does not undermine others' interest in pursuing broad public benefit."

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Thursday, August 24, 2006


There is finally a user-friendly government site for victims of human trafficking linked to the home page of a major government site. Finally! Eight months after this and a few gazillion e-mails! Here's the HHS version, which seems also to be of recently minted condition. As you can see from this poster, they even have a social marketing campaign. About time! Of course the immigration service site is still unnavigable to the information about the actual visas for witnesses.

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Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Anti-Media Media Social Marketing

Check out how a new social marketing campaign from the Ad Council, Ripple Effects Interactive, and McCann Ericson is pushing filtering software and V-chip technology on parents at The TV Boss. For eighteen months, state-sanctioned public service announcements will feature parents kicking fictional characters out of their living rooms. Of course, these public service announcements are careful to make these fictional characters mobsters and drug-users, rather than the homosexual characters who would also be excluded by many rating systems.

You can watch copyright kingpin Jack Valenti praise the new program to the Senate Commerce committee with a panel of entertainment industry cronies flanking him on either side. Feel free to roll your eyes when Valenti casually but very deliberately mentions his attendance at Mass or titter with disbelief when the problem of surveillance-free homes is compared to drunk driving or starting forest fires. You can marvel at how the witnesses' testimony lauds control, monitoring, and surveillance (rather than watching, playing, or listening with your kids) and how "parental responsibility" is equated with "the use of these blocking techniques." Poor Dr. Spock must be rolling in his grave!

When I was a kid I watched a lot of "adult" TV with my parents, mostly because that was pretty much the only time that the tube was even on. I vividly remember seeing I, Claudius, Shogun, and Monty Python's Flying Circus with my folks, shows that would all be blocked by any brute force solution. As a result, I grew up loving world history, based on the cheesy versions of it from my youth. Now that I'm a parent myself, I find myself strongly disagreeing about cyber-safety with Valenti. Besides, these filtering programs don't let you block damaging sexist, racist, consumerist, or environmentally irresponsible messages from reaching impressionable tots.

For more corporate media social marketing designed to put chills down your spine, download the new scare film from Campus Downloading, which is -- of course -- just begging for a remix. See the spooky, off-kilter background behind the prosecuted college student for a section particularly ripe for parody. I might suggest that these Cabinet of Dr. Caligari effects should appear throughout. The footage begins with making "downloading" itself sound like an immoral activity, regardless of whether or not it comes from the public domain or the very pay sites they are promoting. By the way, their list of "legal sites" doesn't include Creative Commons, which is only -- um -- run by law professors, and their list of FAQs contains a seriously distorted version of court decisions about fair use. I was shocked to see the Penn State president Graham Spanier appearing in this farce, where he complained about the "cost" to universities without holding the litigiousness of the recording industry responsible. (Of course, the section of the video about how illegal downloading crashes computers doesn't mention that Windows and Norton will also perform that service for you as well -- and, needless to say, you have to use Explorer to fully use the Campus Downloading site.)

When I was teaching Bertolt Brecht a few years ago, a student brought me a mix CD he had made from "Mack the Knife" covers that illustrated my point about how Weil's music and Brecht's lyrics had been appropropriated by artists with very different political agendas. I remember regretting not having time to play any of it in the class. Instead of giving him extra credit, which I did, apparently I should have turned my model student over to the FBI and tried to get him kicked out of school!

How funny to see this anti-piracy campaign at a time when Wired is declaring the recording industry's obsolescence with Beck as their coverboy, advocating that listeners should be able to "not just remix the songs, but maybe play them like a videogame." After all, this is the summer where the number one hit "Crazy" (of which I am now really, really, really tired) was brought to us by DJ Dangermouse, who thumbed his nose at artistically restrictive laws that prohibited remixing Beatles tunes among others.

I've been doing research on the history of "Social Marketing" and the related genre of "Risk Communication," as special cases of public rhetoric that require some updating of Aristotle's models. I have to say that these latest campaigns from the broadcasting and recording industries really take the arts of persuasion to a new low.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Not MY Computer

Microsoft has attempted to condition its users to think in the first-person singular: My Computer, My Documents, My Pictures, My Music, etc., but there are other attitudes toward user experiences than MySpace might suggest. YouTube is an obvious example of how a different modifier suggests different web practices. Sometimes a first-person singular gets a second perso spin, as in the case of the advocacy group for MySpace, Save Your Space, which was formed to combat anti-social networking legislation. There are also those who claim community by using "we" and "our." See pro-Net Neutrality We Are the Web for an example and count how many Internet fads you can recognize.


Monday, August 21, 2006

Multiple-Choice Testing

Recently, I took the CIA job recruitment personality quiz and discovered that I am a "Thoughtful Observer" . . . not an "Innovative Pioneer," not a "Daring Thrill-Seeker," not a "Curious Adventurer," and not an "Impressive Mastermind." Oh well. Apparently the CIA still wants me, although a five-question test -- one of which involves my favorite superpower -- probably isn't the best diagnostic instrument.

A few months earlier, I visited, an explicit recruitment arm of the U.S. armed forces and took a much more extensive online test to identify my personality type, a common practice in corporate America, which has been lampooned by Barbara Ehrenreich. I took the online test, the Keirsey personality sorter (all 70 multiple choice questions) and discovered that my personality type was "Rational." Supposedly, I should reflect upon whether I am an "architect," "mastermind," "inventor," or "field marshall" as a defining subcategories. Unfortunately, it would cost me a non-taxpayer-subsidized $14.95 to find out exactly which one I am, so that route of self-discovery is closed to me. But at least now I know the following complimentary nugget of wisdom: "Rationals have an insatiable hunger to accomplish their goals and will work tirelessly on any project they have set their mind to. They are rigorously logical and fiercely independent in their thinking--are indeed skeptical of all ideas, even their own--and they believe they can overcome any obstacle with their will power."

And speaking of reductionism, check out this protest against impending Federal recommendations for multiple choice pedagogy in higher education from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.


Sunday, August 20, 2006

Old School

Today I attended the first graduation of my son from DJ school at Scratch Academy, where he was the youngest student in an extremely multicultural, multiracial, multinational, and even multigenerational class in which young women represented at least half -- if not more -- of the enrolled students. Of course, there are certain fraternal rites in this social group. They take on new names and only call each other by their DJ appellations. I took a sample lesson and was surprised to see how much of the instruction was actually like an elementary computer programming class: the emphasis was on not learning bad habits and explaining the basic, structural principles of musical combination, essentially the algorithmic components of the mix. The center is run by Executive Director DJ Hapa, who also DJs on the morning news.

Given that the digital music revolution allows for such efficiency in distribution and precision in presentation, it's funny that my kid still loves vinyl, as I did at his age. It's also sad that members of this incredibly rich, urban culture, which has done so much to revitalize the decrepit recording industry, are still treated as what Kembrew McLeod and Ben Franzen call "Copyright Criminals."

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Saturday, August 19, 2006

Snap Judgments

Clive Thompson posted some interesting reflections about's Mechanical Turk program, in which ordinary people -- often at their day jobs -- can earn money from piece work doing digital tasks that even sophisticated computers can't manage. In "Why Humans Have the Best Artificial Intelligence," Thompson explains how our capacity as humans to make simple snap judgments makes us better categorizers than high-tech indexing machines.

What I love about the Mechanical Turk is that it capitalizes on an interesting limitation in artificial intelligence: Computers suck at many tasks that are super-easy for humans. Any idiot can look at picture and instantly recognize that it's a picture of a pink shoe. Any idiot can listen to a .wav file and realize it's the sound of a dog baring. But computer scientists have spent billions trying to train software to do this, and they've utterly failed.

More generally, this metadata industry is booming in many parts of the country in which traditional industries have failed or natural resources have become exhausted. For example, in Chester, Vermont, I watched digital archivists patiently categorizing pictures and choosing between misspellings in ways that only a more efficient human can do. Unlike the concentrated work practices at the scrupulous Chester plant, however, Mechanical Turk encourages multitasking.

Thompson also notes the negative implications for collective bargaining created by programs like Mechanical Turk: "Mind you, while the cognitive-science aspects of the Mechanical Turk are incredibly cool, the labor dimensions freak the hell out of high-tech labor unions."

Of course, there are several online programs that celebrate our subjective tastes rather than objective observations. For example, you can vote for the cutest kittens at Kitten War (I love the "Losingest Kittens" category) or indicate the kind of sky you prefer at Cloud Shape Classifier. All this data can be aggregated so that you can see the aesthetic of the collective emerge or an ideal object of contemplation for a specific individual be generated.

Our online behaviors tell us a lot about our human vulnerabilities as well, as the recent AOL scandal involving the release of highly personal search terms shows us. The New York Times story, "A Face Is Exposed for AOL Searcher No. 4417749," makes manifest how simple it can be to work backwards to the individual from search terms, even without elaborate data mining tools. To see why this might be a problem for privacy, you can see some of the more embarrassing online searches immortalized at Something Awful. (Watch out, since some of the words and phrases aren't "work-safe.")

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Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere

And speaking of the Ideant blog that responded to "Grand Theft Education," check out this nice summary of the issues surrounding digital publics at "Social Media and the Networked Public Sphere" by Cornell's Ulises Ali Mejias.

Can social media increase and improve civic participation? If so, in what ways? There's a lot being said and written about the subject these days, but it is difficult to get a clear overview of the opinions. I attempt here to collect viewpoints both for and against the premise that social media is creating a better public sphere, and analyze them in the context of what constitutes a public and its antithesis, a mass. In presenting what are sometimes extreme positions within this debate (too idealistic v. too critical), my hope is to begin to understand the reality that lies in the middle, and come closer to understanding social media's potential (and limitations) as a tool to bring about social change.

At a general level, we could say that on one side of the debate are those who believe that social media can increase civic participation and shift the balance of power away from the institutions that currently stand in the way of change. On the other side are those who warn that social media can only offer a reduced form of participation, that it diminishes the value of individual contributions, and that it leaves social systems more prone to manipulation by lowering their intelligence to the minimum common denominator (i.e., stupidity or mediocrity).

Thus, the debate can be framed in terms of whether social media can engender democratic publics that embody an intelligence and capacity for action greater than the sum of its members, or whether it will merely continue to support the production of anti-democratic masses of disenfranchised and alienated consumers. Of course, social media is a big label encompassing many different technologies, and even the same technologies can be applied differently in various contexts. But while features and applications might differ, the people contributing to this debate are obviously focused on the aggregated impact that social media is having on our societies rather than on specific examples of applications.

Mejias focuses on three areas of concern in current debates: 1) the balance between the ability to produce and consume ideas, 2) the access to affordable and effective means of producing ideas, and 3) how (or if) these ideas are translated into action. It's worth looking at the comments as well, since Howard Rheingold weighs in with a correction of his position about the NPOV ethos of wiki-communities.


Friday, August 18, 2006

The Principal's Office

A lot of people have been asking me what I think about "Grand Theft Education" in the September issue of Harper's magazine, which describes the potential for using videogames in writing classrooms. The question makes sense to ask: after all, I direct a writing program and do research on videogames. But there was so little content in the article, that I found it difficult to figure out what I should be reacting to, despite the best efforts of interviewees like Ralph Koster and Steven Johnson. Perhaps it was because I thought that Clive Thompson's recent article on games for the New York Times, "Saving the World, One Video Game at a Time," was such a superior overview for a layperson on the subject that it's difficult for me to be a fair judge.

It's true that excluding games from the classroom as objects of study or subjects for creative production will eventually seem as reactionary as excluding film. Certainly a pedagogy fostering situated learning, role playing, and communities of expertise and practice -- all obvious features of videogame play, as the article points out -- are also important for producing authoritative prose. And even Grand Theft Auto has moved into mainstream culture far enough to receive an homage in the form of a Coke commercial.

That said, my main objection to the article was that none of the game-related activities discussed by the Harper's brain trust sounded like any fun, so I couldn't see why they would be better than good classroom instruction. Zombie spelling games? Sessions with a know-it-all story-telling magician? Wikipedia group projects? Why pose ideas that dreary and stale if the aim is revitalizing education? (And I hate to sound so negative about the group's ideas, because I knew Jane Avrich in college, where she impressed me as an empathetic and well-meaning person.)

For another critical viewpoint, check out an interesting article about "Video Games, Authority, and Problem-Based Thinking," which questions one of the panelists' acknowledged premises. Author Ulises Ali Mejias points out that even advocates admit that videogames emphasize solution-based rather than problem-based learning, which is precisely the kind of non-open-ended thinking that has contributed to profoundly flawed military planning in Iraq.

Besides, there has never been a better time to teach a traditional research paper as a genuine educational experience. The digital information revolution has transformed the level of work that first-year students can produce. Of course, students start the freshman year of college at the bottom of a relatively steep learning curve, having been raised on five-paragraph essays and encyclopedic book reports for which cut-and-paste plagiarism is the norm (which "Grand Theft Education"'s echo-chamber approach wouldn't improve). But the opportunities to explore online archives, have access to tools for electronic collaboration and peer review, incorporate digital images and multimedia elements, face the challenge of appropriately acknowledging scholarly opinion and grappling with intellectual property issues, and have the experience possibly even culminate in electronic publication to a wider world audience makes for tremendously exciting learning experiences. Thanks to the work that students do with interpreting e-mail and chatroom messages, they are even able to do genuine discourse analysis for the first time, and these lateral channels of communication also empower them to contact otherwise inaccessible experts in the field.

By the way, if you don't have enough composition projects to keep you busy this summer, check out Miranda July's writing assignments.

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Thursday, August 17, 2006

Who Will Be Voted Off the Island?

Henry Jenkins' new book on media publics, Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, is generating some lively discussion in the blogosphere this week. Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech and the persuasive gaming blog Water Cooler Games wrote a long, mostly positive review of the book, although it did take Jenkins to task for promoting a libertarian ideology that assumed that markets were inevitably self-correcting mechanisms that could effectively govern the public sphere and for promulgating an uncritical acceptance of the ideology of lifestyle marketing without considering its troubling causes and effects.

This week Jenkins has been responding to Bogost in his own blog, in a comprehensive series of three-part installments (1, 2, 3) that rebut some of Bogost's central assertions.

I'm wary of stepping into the discussion, because -- as Jenkins himself said -- Bogost sets a "high bar for debate," but I also think that it's a book that more people should be talking about, so I'll butt into their conversation with a few points of my own. Certainly, like Bogost, I think it's a book that people should read. The style is accessible, and Jenkins clearly hopes to reach a lay audience. In fact, I was sorry to see that more public libraries, including the one from my own relatively enlightened city, don't yet carry it on their shelves.

In short, too many New Media titles merely apply preconceived theoretical concepts and jargon from other disciplines (such as Literary Theory or Film Theory) to phenomena specific to digital culture. Or they devote hundreds of pages to rarefied aesthetic objects like art exhibits in small galleries or hypertext fiction with Joycean vocabularies. This self-satisfied opacity may explain the blistering sentiments in the recent "immersion Unexplained: Why do we lose ourselves in games? Don't ask a humanities professor" essay, which ran in The Escapist.

Convergence Culture avoids both these pitfalls and presents a powerful explanatory theory that I've been finding useful for interpreting items in the news about current media practices practically on a daily basis to clarify everything from teen media grazing to blogger bloodlust to transmedia mash-ups. Although Jenkins has complained about how difficult it can be to "break out of the academic ghetto," given the long production schedules of academic presses, in almost every chapter I was impressed to see the recent, apt example that I wanted to add mentally to Jenkins' prose magically materialize in the print on the very next page. I would also predict that Convergence Culture will stand the test of time and continue to be on the shelf with standards like James Paul Gee, Lawrence Lessig, Lev Manovich, Bruno Latour, Manuel Castells, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and Eric S. Raymond. I was also wowed by the breadth of his cultural literacy and the book's delightful quirkiness that included some of my favorite Virtualpolitik topics (Cantina Crawls! Lovemarks!) that made for a real virtuoso performance.

Of course, I liked the book's rhetorical focus most of all and its insightful readings of both fan and corporate discourses with attention to teasing out subtleties in purpose or in the surrounding rhetorical scene. Too many critics who write about digital media discount the importance of rhetoric (Manovich) or revile it as a dirty word associated with institutions of power (Lessig). Of course, this affinity with rhetorical interpretations is something that both Bogost and Jenkins share.

Convergence Culture is a book about the impact of grassroots fan communities on entrenched institutions in entertainment, education, and government, which asserts that spectators perform important work (and play) in the new media cultural system. It uses three catchphrases frequently: 1) "media convergence," 2) "participatory culture," and 3) "collective intelligence." It attacks techno-centric readings that focus on gadgets rather than social practices, particularly those associated with the "black box fallacy" in which all our media will allegedly be coordinated by a single device in the future. Instead it focuses on the importance of "transmedia" worlds in which large franchises, such as Star Wars or Harry Potter or The Matrix extend narratives and characters across several media platforms.

As an advocate for the importance of public institutions in my professional life, first in social services and now in higher education, I would agree with Bogost that Jenkins' latent libertarianism could exacerbate existing hostility to traditional, secular civic culture. I have to admit that Jenkins' positive plugs for homeschooled children and homeschooling more generally sounded like nails on a chalkboard to me.

On the other hand, sometimes I felt like he wasn't libertarian enough in defending the rights of the individual. For example, I liked the fact that Jenkins connected copyright restrictions to free speech issues in the chapters on Star Wars and on Harry Potter, but I still thought that he was probably underestimating the risk to the First Amendment posed by proprietary corporate interests (and the risk to individual privacy as well). Moreover, some of the material about democracy at the end felt tacked on, particularly in comparison to his earlier rigorous exploration of the norms of fan culture around shows like American Idol and Survivor. If Jenkins wants to reach a broader audience, I think this is particularly unfortunate, since he's been an important advocate for the digital rights of individuals against short-sighted and hegemonic regulatory approaches from Congress.

It also seemed naive to me to ignore the fact that media convergence can also be incredibly restrictive to creative production. Ask any television writer who has been forced to insert an irrelevant brand name into a scene in the interests of product placement. It's one area that my friend Patric Verrone, President of the Writers Guild, has put on the top of the group's labor agenda.

Media convergence can restrict consumer choices in the lifeworld as well. Would Jenkins cheer the deal that the Pepsi corporation has made with my campus for exclusive distribution rights over all beverages? How much power do I actually have as a consumer against their quest for corporate synergy? I shouldn't go for culture jamming, and I can't stop drinking water. Should I seek out a fan group of Coke to solve my problem?

Moreover, by fighting so hard against technological determinism, I also sometimes felt that Jenkins wasn't "techie" enough, given the book's subject matter. As Lev Manovich points out, when you are talking about new media, technological constraints and characteristics of algorithms matter. "Transmedia" is important but so is "transcoding." For example, technology prevents certain forms of social interaction in virtual space, such as modeling complicated kinds of crowd behaviors or paralinguistic cues that require dexterous avatars. Furthermore, as Bogost points out, certain kinds of operations are procedural rather than narrative at the core.

Perhaps I am splitting hairs of terminology, but I would have also liked to have seen "information" and "knowledge" used a little more precisely, in the interest of fitting the work into what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called Critical Information Studies more productively and the broader efforts of media scholars to join with computer scientists, anthropologists, lawyers, and librarians to make their disciplinary and interdisciplinary work more relevant and collaborative. It seems like information itself is often the main cultural object that is given, bartered, or traded by these fans, and the fact that their information economy functions so differently from the knowledge economy that produces these entertainment commodities seems a significant point on which Jenkins spends surprisingly little time.

We love Jenkins over at Sivacracy, but I'd probably be considered a "critical pessimist" in Jenkins "utopian" terms, by virtue of my anxieties about the consolidation of media mega-monopolies and the invasion of the advertising industry into government service. So I really resented being lumped in there with "Noam Chomsky" after patiently -- and otherwise happily -- reading to the conclusion of the book. In particular, I thought that the off-handed dismissal of culture jammers didn't serve an otherwise thoughtful book very well at the end.

Finally, as a lurker and occasional participant in the DIY project that Julia and Ellen Lupton are articulating, I don't think those of us who chose the home-made over the slick, corporate-designed product are missing out on anything. There are a lot of people who choose to be their own brand rather than support someone else's brand and tell life stories instead of mass media stories. These grassroots forms of association that celebrate open-source, non-profit, and bottom-up media ventures can be just as fulfilling as fan culture, if not more so.

That said, I wasn't sure that all of Bogost's criticisms were entirely fair. First, as a fault-tolerant writing instructor, I winced when he nailed Jenkins with his Lord of the Rings related "Gandalf"/"Gandolf" typo, given that I saw that same misspelling on a sign on the front door of a fan merchandise store in Marina Del Rey on Tuesday. (Jenkins' confusion of Jane McGonigal's "alternate reality" and "alternative reality," on the other hand, was a significant mistake that would have been good to have caught before press time.) Second, Bogost draws on the legendary Narratology vs. Ludology wars in the mythological recent past of Game Studies to characterize Jenkins as a one-sided soldier of "story" rather than of interactive play. Jenkins certainly must have had some investments in those debates, given the publications in which his work appears, but it's a conflict that many people are much less engaged with now (including, I might argue, Bogost himself), which is good for the field because it opens up the discussion to a lot of research that also studies analogous information ecologies for which that dichotomy isn't very meaningful. For example, I wrote about government websites and national digital libraries before I became interested in government-funded videogames. Third, Bogost points out that the participation pyramid, in which there are far more spectators than purposive actors in a given media system, disproves Jenkins democratic model of fan culture. Bogost is right that it may not be a democratic structure, but the competing models for how social networks function are a lot more complicated (and efficient in their distribution) than a pyramid, as the primer on network theory Linked demonstrates.

On the other hand, I thought that some of Jenkins' implications about Bogost's personal interests and prejudices indicated that a strange misreading had taken place or that he was responding to objections from an "academic" other than Bogost, who himself has a reputation both for demonstrating the social value of games dismissed by others as offensive or trivial and for his own participation in collector cultures around eighties videogame memorabilia. It's one of the aspects that I found perplexing both when Jenkins is addressing his imaginary critics in the book and when he does so in his blog. To assume that his ideas are being criticized because the person doesn't like Lost or doesn't take American Idol seriously seems way, way, way off base. Now I'm wondering if what I thought was an odd reading of Benjamin might have something to do with some of these assumptions about the supposed divide that theorists cherish between high and low culture.

Personally, I don't have many of the objections to valuing popular culture that Jenkins seems to anticipate. I accept some of his stretchier analogies quite willingly, such as the Odyssey / Matrix comparison, a claim which he devoted several paragraphs to qualifying. As the Writing Director of the Humanities Core Course, my colleagues and I make those kinds of comparisons all the time. (My favorite was from Julia Lupton, who compared Book V of the Odyssey to Baywatch.) As a compositionist, I certainly don't fetishize "originality" in creative production either, and in my profession this is now the standard view, because discursive models and rhetorical templates are recognized to be necessary to any apprentice writer or artist. Furthermore, I'm an academic, but like Bogost I've also attended fan events, like those for videogames, comic books, guns, tattoos, and erotica, and I certainly don't feel I've been contaminated by the experience.

Of course, speaking as a reader of both their works, considering that they BOTH wrote about the 2004 elections in their books, I'd also like to see them in dialogue about the Dean campaign.

These criticisms aren't intended to attack Jenkins, who does a huge amount of admirable work at the MIT Comparative Media Studies program. He and the younger scholars he has mentored have done a valuable service by reminding other researchers about the importance of paying attention to social dynamics, particularly in the high-stakes field of the education of children and possible pedagogical applications for distance learning and interactive technologies. At a time when so many legislators are discounting minors as sentient beings and seeking to forbid their file-sharing, social networking, and videogame play, Jenkins does work that takes the digital generation seriously and doesn't get distracted by the gleam of gee-whiz technology while he's at it.

It seems appropriate to be discussing fan culture, since this weekend is annual Star Trek convention, which was the first fan event I ever attended as a kid. Franchise fans are actually continuing the show on digital video, and big corporations like Google are participating in the event this year.

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Wednesday, August 16, 2006

I Want a Digital Rights Candidate

I'm starting on my wishlist for 2008, and here's what's at the top of my agenda: I want a digital rights candidate for president.

I'm sure this will raise the hackles of those who might -- quite reasonably -- put the environment or the social safety net or the war or human rights or civil liberties first, but I honestly think it might be the only winning strategy for taking the White House in a country in which the administration is threatening long-held Constitutional principles, and media monopolies have made so many incursions into the public sphere.

Digital rights issues have the potential to engage many independent voters and could even threaten the bastions of the right wing. Look at the position of the Christian Coalition on Net Neutrality to see why partisan politics could be seriously undermined.

Frankly, although I'm a card-carrying feminist, I've been disappointed with Hillary Clinton thus far. Her Checklist for Change doesn't address any of the fundamental political, economic, or civic issues of our information culture, and her recent positions on privacy and Net Neutrality strike me as too little too late. As I've said before, I was underwhelmed by her Media Safety Guide, which emphasizes ratings and filtering software rather than real family media literacy. And the Entertainment Ratings Safety Act, which she co-sponsored with Joe Lieberman, clearly earned him nowhere near enough political capital to fend off a challenger from his own party in the recent Connecticut primary.

At least, I'm glad that she's distanced herself from the National Institute for Media and the Family, whose work on the "adolescent brain" sounds more like nineteenth century racist sociobiology than a plausible explanation for teenage disaffection from the dominant culture. Her current ally, Common Sense Media, makes some gestures toward common sense by including reviews from kids themselves of digital media and acknowledging that commercialism can be as harmful as sex and violence.

I don't think that any of the 15 congressmen who voted against the anti-social networking Deleting Online Predators Act could win a race for the highest national office, although Dennis Kucinich has tried in the past.

On the face of it, I might pick Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, sponsor of the latest Network Neutrality bill, as a progressive who could win in the heartland. But his tendency to utter Dorganisms may doom his candidacy.

In any case, Democrats are really in trouble when the words of Sam Brownback sound more progressive than many of their policy statements. In fact, when I googled "digital rights Senate," the top results were all linked to Republican rhetoric.

And certainly nobody is talking about funding the large-scale digital library projects that will be critical for the future, particularly when most policymakers are tacitly handing this responsibility over to for-profit corporations like Google and Yahoo and Microsoft.

So who will it be? Can somebody tell me who to vote for?

In the mid-eighties one of my fellow Ivy League classmates told me that a little known governor from Arkansas would one day be Commander in Chief. (She knew this because she had interned with him, although apparently there was no funny stuff involved.) If I can't shape the outcome, I at least want to be able to have a degree of certainty about how future events will unfold, so I can seem particularly prescient, sort of like Michael Bérubé accurately predicting the outcome of the Superbowl based on the colors of the team jerseys.

And don't say someone like Jon Stewart will be the winner, because that's already coming out as a Hollywood film.

But, seriously folks, we should all be concerned by the fact that copyright law can be used to constrain certain forms of political speech, that common file-sharing and life hacking practices are being associated with terrorists and pedophiles, that these rhetorical monsters are being used to justify unheard-of forms of surveillance of the civilian population, that threats to Net Neutrality are undermining the democratic potential of the Internet, and that low-income users dependent on schools and libraries will have their content further filtered and the reach of their peer-to-peer networks even more constricted than more affluent Americans.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Collective Belligerence

I've been finishing Henry Jenkins new book, Convergence Culture, this week and consequently I've been looking for examples to apply thesis that online communities generate "collective intelligence" through communal detective work, such as the group labor done by the fans who "spoil" Survivor.

Unfortunately, as even Jenkins himself acknowledges, these online communities don't always generate collective intelligence; sometimes they generate collective stupidity, as they did in their response to an editorial by victim of gun violence Jenny Price. Price wrote about how her brother and his fiancée were murdered by an incensed family member and how she drew upon her personal experiences to write an essay in favor of banning guns. In the months that followed her emergence as a published, public figure, Price discovered that pro-gun bloggers were speculating that either the murder she described was justified or the crime had never happened at all.

Her Sunday Los Angeles Times editorial "And These People Own Guns?" describes the mysogyny and aggression of these online communities and how their skepticism turned to wild speculation and obsession with the harrassing release of personal information and misinformation about the author and her family.


Monday, August 14, 2006

Parts of Speech

As the child of a long-term Xerox Senior Systems Analyst, who always insisted that we should never use the verb "xerox" and constantly corrected us by rephrasing our sentences with "make a xerographic copy" instead, I have to say I laughed out loud about this story in the Independent: "To google or not to google: it's a legal question." Apparently the search engine giant is now worried about losing its trademark, particularly since the word "google" appears as a verb in the OED and Webster's dictionaries. Thus, they've been sending out a raft of legal letters warning media organizations about possible litigious consequences for sloppy, colloquial usage that abuses their corporate brand name. (See "Google goes from Web to Webster's" for the prehistory.)

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Study, R3pl4y, Z00m

Julia Lupton of Design Your Life summarizes her reactions to last week's series in the Los Angeles Times on the media habits of the digital generation in "Chicks and Tech":

The LA Times has run a series of articles this week on teen technology use. One surprise: girls are more wired than boys. They're more likely to multi-task, they play more video games, and they're more open than their pals to new uses for old gadgets (like movies on the i-Pod). Unfortunately, the study focused on consumption, not production. There's nothing said about kids' use of programs like Flash, Dreamweaver, or even Blogspot to create their own media or be their own brands.

The article Lupton focuses on, "Girls Just Want to Be Plugged In -- to Everything," shows young women following the pattern of adult females that Henry Jenkins has described, in which busy working mothers often consume media in multiple, shorter sessions or situations of simultaneous attention.

One of the other LAT pieces, "They Do It All While Studying," quotes my Doppelgänger David Walsh, who expresses skepticism about the benefits of multitasking. As a multitasker myself, I'm obviously a biased source, but I think that by focusing on scanning, surfing, and code-switching, the Los Angeles Times really misses one of the essential features of new media practices: how digital artifacts can actually receive more sustained attention by virtue of their iterability and their potentially high degree of granularity.

The most common question that undergraduates ask -- "What is that thing?" (in a painting or photograph) or "What was that thing?" (in a film or piece of music) -- is often hard to answer with analogue media. Zoom and replay technologies allow members of the digital generation to close read new media objects of study in a deeply attentive manner quite different from the ADHD habits that the LA Times documents.

Unfortunately, one of the problems that educators face with teaching our students appropriate disciplinary close reading practices is that copyright law often prevents us from capitalizing on new media delivery systems that our students have come to expect in their peer-to-peer everyday practices. In other words, we don't want to put video or audio clips online or post photographs of art objects on the Internet, where they would be most useful to students as objects of serious, sustained, and repeated out-of-class contemplation, if a DMCA order will be our reward for pedagogical ingenuity.

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Sunday, August 13, 2006

Mash-Up Media

I've been reading Henry Jenkin's book Convergence Culture this week, which describes the "transmedia" character of contemporary life in which old media and new media intersect in ways often driven by the collective intelligence of user communities.

Even the venerable Washington Post has adapted to the times. They are sponsoring a video mash-up contest this month. Advice to possible contestants: choose a public figure who moves his or her head very little while talking (such as George W. Bush or Donald Trump), visit the WaPo official mash-up center, and read the newspaper's own summary of principles at "Art and Marketing All Mashed Up." The mash-up I'd suggest for the mock interview with reporter Dana Milbank: Federal website cartoon mascots.

Another mash-up I'd like to see: Ted Stevens rambling comments about the Internet cut together to make sense as a coherent argument. (You can check out this 404 page, if you aren't yet tired of Ted Stevens jokes.)

For those who missed all the Mel Gibson mash-ups, you can catch up with the Zeitgeist by devoting some time to Signs of Anti-Semitism, a low production value South Park-style mash-up, and other offerings on YouTube. High school Latin teachers might particularly like this one.


Saturday, August 12, 2006

A Rose by Any Other Name

Common Cause has just released the latest list of anti-net neutrality front groups. Although funded by large telecommunications conglomerates, these organizations very deliberately appropriate the rhetoric of Net Neutrality proponents, down to borrowing specific presentation strategies from viral webtoons.

The full report is here. Check out who former White House Press Secretary Mike McMurry is working for now.

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Friday, August 11, 2006

Chilling Effects

There's a great new white paper out from the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard, "The Digital Learning Challenge: Obstacles to Educational Uses of Copyrighted Material in the Digital Age." It documents how the TEACH Act has been ineffective at calming the fears of litigation-wary administrators and how teachers are missing pedagogical opportunities to share rich primary sources with students, in convenient digital form, because they work in an environment of copyright cowardice. The paper also says that fears of DMCA orders are also driving many campuses toward closed course management tools with proprietary software from firms like Web CT or Blackboard, so that institutions of higher education would be even more separated from the public sphere (and permanently saddled with packages that constrain electronic educational environments). Check out the Sakai Project for an open source alternative to course management tools.

In short, this paper is a must-read for anyone interested in either teaching or intellectual property issues.


Thursday, August 10, 2006


Yesterday, the University of California system announced that the Google Book Search project has expanded to include UC's huge collection of volumes. The official announcement contains interesting rhetoric about preservation in the face of disaster and the project of knowledge-building more generally.

The Chronicle of Higher Education' s coverage addressed some of the controversy about copyright in "U. of California System's 100 Libraries Join Google's Controversial Book-Scanning Project" and the fact that UC had already partnered with Yahoo in the Open Content Alliance. Actually, it would seem that the U.C. digitization dance card is now somewhat overbooked, given that they also recently announced a deal with Microsoft.

Meanwhile Siva Vaidhyanathan reiterated his concerns about secrecy and proprietary practices, which were formulated early in the Google project with his opinion piece about "A Risky Gamble with Google" in the Chronicle.

Having watched documents being digitized at Readex last summer, I know that it is a very labor-intensive process, when done well. For a small town in Vermont, the metadata industry was thriving and local people were engaged with processing the Congressional Record rather than lumber. At least Google has been skeptical about "semantic web" technology that would reduce the role of live minders in search engine algorithms.

Nonetheless, I think that libraries should be very wary of outsourcing this process, and that the public should have the foresight to support more taxpayer-funded initiatives to make sure that volumes owned by the public remain part of the public trust. Our information heritage is as much a part of our infrastructure as roads, bridges, and dams, and Google is obviously interested in profiting from it.

(Believe it or not, there's also Google, The Musical from the Minnesota Fringe Festival. You can click on this link to save you the trouble of searching for it. Here's their MySpace site.)

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Ghosts in the Database

On Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reported that the Huntington Library has opened an enormous database with information about the lives of over 100,000 indigenous people, according to "Huntington Library Database Tells the Stories of 100,000 Mission Indians." Now the Early California Population Project has to figure out how to make its database more user-friendly for elementary school children doing reports on native tribes. But in the meantime, it is encouraging to see the lives of these first Californians documented, even if the information is generally limited to birth, marriage, and death records.

Since I'm a rhetorician, I'm fascinated with naming, as a primordial speech act. As I discovered from doing a few searches, looking for godparent information for the Pueblo of Los Angeles, the original names of the natives are sometimes also preserved in these documents. And thus names from even extinct tribes survive. I found Coguiuayet, Sayavit, Echsep, Culluxilly, and many others long since dead.


Wednesday, August 09, 2006

I've Heard of "Social Networking" but Never This

My inbox today contained an official e-mail with the following policy statement:

"Campus leaders are currently formulating a response plan to limit the spread of avian flu should it reach a pandemic state. 'Social distancing' is one of the key concepts in our plan. Social distancing involves suspending classes and other public gatherings to help break the cycle of avian flu transmission person-to-person."

"Social distancing"?

Apparently this neologism is quite popular with the intel crowd grappling with other global security issues. There is even a website at, but its prose is disfigured with some of the worst spelling around. It tells us that "Society, including governmental functions, may be distrupted." Then again, perhaps the word "distrupted" indicates a combination of "distrusted" and "disrupted."


File Snaring

Today, the Los Angeles Times ran, in their continuing serious on the media habits of Generation M, what appears to be several specious claims that file-sharing has declined in the wake of entertainment industry lawsuits. Siva Vaidhyanathan, who was interviewed for the article, "Is Copying a Crime? Well . . . ," also makes a credible allegation that he was misquoted by the reporter, with "freeloading" printed in lieu of the correct term "freeriding."

Most of all, I loved the sanctimonious photo of the mother-son duo with the following caption: "We've tried to use CD copying to teach bigger lessons about morality." Of course, I often talk about copyright law with my teenager, but I emphasize that negotiating digital rights continues to be a contentious issue about which there is considerable cultural debate about the limits of the claims of intellectual property, given the competing claims of fair use. See "Bring Digital Politics to the Dinner Table" on my list of Ten Principles for the Digital Family for more.


Parallel Universe

Yesterday, while checking the back-and-forth accusations on the New York Times Empire Zone Blog about allegations in the final day of the New York Senate Democratic primary race that Lieberman's downed website had been attacked by Lamont supporters, I googled "Lieberman Campaign website" and discovered the work of Nick Jehlen, the creator of a Lieberman parody site from 2004 that promises "A New Kind of Democrat. The Republican Kind." Jehlen also did beautifully art-directed sites for White House Props, Billionaires for Bush, and His day job appears to be working for the Progressive magazine. He also did graphics for the "Turn Your Back on Bush" Inaugural Day demonstration.


Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Talking 'Bout Their Generation

This week the Los Angeles Times has been publishing a series about the media habits of the digital generation, which shows that many oft repeated truisms about younger users are, in fact, false. "Tracking the MySpace Generation" looks at movies, music, television, and online entertainment. "Contrary to Expectations: 7 Myths Busted" uses data from a new Times/Bloomberg poll to show that voting for the American Idol isn't more important than voting for figures for public office and that The Daily Show isn't their main source of TV News, which I might argue is regrettable, given how poorly the mainstream media covers digital culture. Despite their counterintuitive interest in civic engagement, it sounds like ennui is still a widespread teenaged affliction, as the first article in the series, "Underwhelmed by It All," presents the situation of kids today. What I don't get is the focus of the series on entertainment technology rather than communication technology, which is how many teens see new digital choices being most usefully deployed.

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Monday, August 07, 2006

Crowd Psychology

Speaking of the hive mentality, the Wooster Collective has been documenting different examples of how choreographed large crowds shot from above are used in street-oriented advertising, such as pitches from a broadband company, beverage giant Coca Cola, Eastern European conglomerate Akbank, and the 1989 British Airways commercial that perhaps started it all. There is also the "Mad World" music video, inserted above, from Michael Gondry and music by Michael Andrews to add to this anthology.

Of course, these crowds are often created digitally, as was this ad from the SIGGRAPH electronic theater for Carleton Beer. Bruno Latour has included several reflections about representations of large crowds in his volume Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (the mass games of North Korea, photographs of parliaments and scientific congresses, etc.). Learning about the technical constraints on representing these forms of assemby in virtual space at SIGGRAPH, if the agents must appear to behave more autonomously, was interesting in light of the issues that Latour raises.


Sunday, August 06, 2006

Wikipedia Round-Up

There has been a lot of Wikipedia coverage of late, which I'll try to condense into one post.

For starters, New Yorker readers can appreciate the Annals of Information piece, "Know It All," which delves into the bureaucracy and social dynamics of the organization. According to a recent Los Angeles Times article, "Divine Inspiration From the Masses," this approach is influencing all realms of human knowledge from science to religion. The LAT also ran an Op-Ed piece, "Why Wiki Can Drive You Wacky." There was a story in the Associated Press, which was picked up by Wired, about founder Jimmy Wales' desire to focus right now on quality not quantity. See "Toward a Better Wikipedia" for details about the planned changes, which include a more user-friendly interface with less code for novices to grapple with.

For those who want to see some more substantive criticism, take a while to ponder "Digital Maoism: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism," which takes the celebration of the hive mentality to task. Then check out "Can History Be Open Source? Wikipedia and the Future of the Past" from the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University (the people who brought us the excellent student-friendly Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: Exploring the French Revolution).

Stephen Colbert also weighs in on Wikipedia via YouTube. You can see him spar with an angry Wikipedian as well.

(Thanks to my UCI colleague Ellen Strenski for the running tally. Check out her tongue-in-cheek "Glossary for New Graduate Students," if you've never seen her send up of pseudo-intellectual jargon.)


Saturday, August 05, 2006

Photoshop Phollies

Bloggers are learning the hard way that Photoshop hyperbole can have unintended consequences. A recent New York Times article about campaign bloggers embroiled in the Lamont/Lieberman race, "In Race, Bloggers Throw Curves and Spitballs," reports that Firedoglake blogger Jane Hamsher got into trouble for depicting Lieberman in blackface on the Huffington Post. After asking Hamsher to remove the offensive minstrel show image, the Lamont campaign has distanced itself from Hamsher, although she was once hailed for exposing Lieberman's Halliburton holdings.

Certainly, Hamsher isn't the only blogger to publish a Photoshop image in bad taste. For example, check out how Urkel was added to the security photo of the London bombers. I've even photoshopped my colleagues for humorous effect, although I've also posted more serious meditations on the subject of digital manipulation. This week, there was an interesting SIGGRAPH panel on the ethics of such image alteration in journalism, as you can see from my round-up review of their annual convention.

Of course, bloggers also expose how campaigns use Photoshop to add soldiers to a Bush rally, borrow Howard Dean's happy crowds for a backdrop to a Republican candidate, or substitute New Orleans Square in Disneyland for a mayorial candidate's actual city.


Friday, August 04, 2006

No Get Out of Jail Free Press Card

The news in the New York Times about a "Blogger Jailed After Defying Court Orders" should be giving civil libertarians some pause. After the self-proclaimed anarchist recorded a demonstration on video and sold some of the footage to news media, the blogger attracted the attention of Federal prosecutors, who claim that Wolf isn't protected by the state's shield law.

Luckily for Wolf, the San Francisco Chronicle is defending their blogging brother-in-arms with an editorial titled "Free Josh Wolf." His supporters have also set up a Wiki, and his mother is posting updates on his blog while Wolf is incarcerated for contempt.

Despite the Chronicle's gesture of fraternity, other bloggers claim that they aren't getting much respect from mainstream news sources, although established media organizations still harvest content from their stories on the Web. In "Outside the Tent: The Times Has No Respect for the Net" in the Los Angeles Times, blogger Catherine Seipp wonders "how are newspapers going to compete with online news if they can't even acknowledge that it exists?" (According to NPR journalist David Folkenflik of Media Circus, the Times has been persuing this strategy for over a year and a half. See "'L.A. Times' Invites 'Whacking' by Critics" for more.)

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Thursday, August 03, 2006

10 Principles for the Digital Family

Yesterday, I filled in for cultural conservative and public personality David Walsh of The National Institute on Media and the Family on the SIGGRAPH panel on "Video Games: Content and Responsibility," when Walsh ducked the opportunity for dialogue with makers of digital content because of a "scheduling conflict."

So I should be well-qualified to make my own official list of "cyber-safety" tips.

1) Play with Your Child

Dr. Spock revolutionized child care a half-century ago by stating that the first rule to new parents should be "enjoy your baby." With longer workdays for parents and ramped up expectations in school and society for kids, it can be easy to forget to play with them as they get older. Your personal preference may be to have your child cream you in chess rather than in a first-person shooter, but if you aren't willing to play digitally, you are likely to be widening the generation gap. There are lots of good, less-publicized choices out there. Consider something like the award-winning, fun-for-all-ages game Cloud from students at USC and their faculty advisor Tracy Fullerton, which can be downloaded free and played on a home computer. Should you already own a game controller, the Japanese game Katamari Damacy only requires you to invest a Jackson in a nonviolent but genuinely wacky family-friendly game. If you are intimidated by videogames, explore other opportunities for creative play. For starters, you could have fun with music-making machines like Pate a Son from le ciel est bleu or the Indian Shankar Drum Ganesh Machine, or a paint animation like Jackson Pollock by Miton Manetas.

2) Go Low Budget

You don't need to spend thousands of dollars on expensive controllers, games, and software for digital family fun. A megabucks game from a Hollywood franchise might not bring you any closer to your child. Instead, consider these four options.

A. Free open source software that lets your kids create games, animations, movies, and audio remixes like the 3-D modeling program Blender or the sound mixing program Audacity.
B. Free 30-day-trials of otherwise expensive corporate packages. Kids can make elaborate animated cartoons for the web and cell phones with Flash or make music with Sony Acid, although they may complain when the month is up.
C. For far less than the cost of a typical sixty dollar game, your kids can make their own games. Quest Creator, RPG Maker, and -- for the lover of virtual gore or mayhem -- FPS Creator are all within most family budgets.
D. Check out what comes with the machine. For example, a lot of Macs come with the versatile program iMovie.

3) Bring Digital Politics to the Dinner Table

Talk to your kids about new laws that limit or may limit users' digital rights. It's important that they understand the basics of copyright law and why they can't post their clever claymation video on YouTube or MySpace, if the soundtrack is a top ten hit owned by a megamedia company.

Luckily Creative Commons makes it possible for kids to find photos, sound samples, and film clips in the public domain. (Check out this video made by my thirteen-year-old to see an example.)

You might also want to point out how the arcane and obfuscatory language in user agreements can contain fine print that allows their personal information to be shared with third parties. Game playing devices can also store data from other software applications.

4) Be an Adbuster

The largely hidden issue about digital media is the insidious role that advertising can play with in-game advertising, viral marketing campaigns, and other stealth strategies to push consumerism on the young. To get conversation going, you can show kids funny and/or dumb examples of corporate websites, such as Subservient Chicken from Burger King, Hurra Torpedo from Ford, and I am Asian from McDonald's.

5) Distrust Ratings

Ratings systems, even the most well-meaning ones, may not give you as much useful information as a Google search. They may be better than nothing, but often they are not much better. For example, even though it is saddled with an "R" rating, the film Billy Elliot can be wonderful family viewing for older kids who might be inspired by the story of a working class British boy who endures ridicule because he pursues his talent for ballet. At the same time, many wildly inappropriate movies for children are labeled PG-13. Unfortunately, parents' groups that do more credible non-industry ratings sometimes are so focused on negative reviews that they overlook the positive ones. For example, the popular fitness-oriented game Dance Dance Revolution doesn't have a KidScore review.

6) Raise the Issue of Inappropriate Behavior Appropriately

Of course, we should talk to our kids about creepy adults, but we need to remember that most pedophiles still exploit face-to-face interactions far more commonly than chatrooms, online multiplayer game spaces, or social networking websites. That's not to say that there aren't potentially yucky encounters to be had on even innocuous sites like Runescape, but too much talk about "stranger danger" may not encourage your children to protect themselves against those who are nearer and dearer and more likely to abuse their power as adults. It's also important to include threatening and harassingng behavior that is non-sexual in the dialogue. Kids may be more willing to talk if you elicit their responses to your own experiences as a child with inappropriate behavior from adults.

7) Consider a Computer in the Kitchen

Julia Lupton, of Design-Your-Life, discusses the value of having a computer in the public space of the house, so that family members can collaborate on digital projects easily. Of course, teens need to have some opportunities for privacy to build trust. Reading e-mail and spying on their web surfing may be as counterproductive as perusing diary entries or listening in on telephone conversations. (I do read the online grade reports from my kids' schools quite carefully, but that seems to me a legitimate extension of my role as a knowledgeable caretaker and one that improves communication rather than impedes it.)

8) Know the Limits of Educational Games

Even the best educational videogame or software program is inferior to the best live teaching. Although a lot of interesting work on games and literacy has been done by James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins, Kurt Squire, and Constance Steinkuehler, it's important to be aware that kids may already be getting too much distance in their learning from schools that are increasingly oriented around scripted teaching and multiple choice tests. In other words, before you park your kid in front of the latest wonder from the Scholastic corporation, plan a trip to a museum, science center, historical site, concert hall, or library.

9) Set Boundaries

As the parent, you are entitled to make the house rules. This means you can specify the equipment to which your children have access or the hours they spend in front of a computer screen.

10) Wear Your Heart on Your Sleeve

No matter how you became a parent, you chose to have children because you love them. Older teens may be embarrassed by such signs of affection, but showing your kids that you love them benefits them for a lifetime. Digital media allow for opportunities to remind your kids that you think about them every day. The occasional e-mail with a Photoshopped image or funny link (like this clip art loop), goofy instant message, out-of-the-blue care package from an online vendor, or custom designed t-shirt or knick-knack can create moments of celebration to supplement more traditional expressions of interest like hugs and chats with the denizens of the backseat. It shouldn't take the place of kicking around the soccer ball or making homemade chocolate chip cookies, but contemporary life can create certain kinds of distance that technology can bridge.

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Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Talking Heads

I don’t have any moralistic objections to videogames, so it was interesting to be the designated skeptic on the “Video Games: Content and Responsibility” panel at SIGGRAPH today. I pointed out the debate about whether or not certain media benefit society or corrupt it goes back to Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Poetics, and that the hearings that rail against videogames now could be superimposed against the ones against comic books from the 1950’s quite easily. I also said – my favorite line – that using a few hate games to justify restrictions on videogames was like talking about banning books because Hitler wrote Mein Kampf.

So, here were the issues I raised:

1) Videogames are being promoted by advocates as a way to improve learning in schools, but in an environment with so much scripted teaching and emphasis on standardized tests, sacrificing live interactions for virtual ones could be a mistake. Although there is a lot of interesting work being done on literacy and videogames, even the best videogame is inferior to good teaching in many ways. In addition to having overly simple master narratives, these games also can be pretty time inefficient. And if you compare the work done even in a "good" game with historical primary sources with what happens in a history class, there's no comparison as far as the reading and interpretation skills taught.

2) There are also a lot of government-funded videogames that are used for training and education. Unlike flight simulators, which have demonstrated effectiveness, these games can be uneven in their usefulness as well. Some of these games also function as political spectacles, which are designed to SHOW the media that intransigent problems for soldiers are being addressed -- poor Arabic skills, poor IED spotting, poor recovery from PTSD -- rather than actually prove their efficacy at solving the problem.

3) As far as commercial games go, lots of them aren't very good, and the higher budgets get, the more big companies are dependent on licensed franchises ripped off from Hollywood and sports/driving games. Furthermore, kids (or anyone else) don't get much opportunity to use their creativity in these games. Take something like making graffiti, which a lot of games have the player do. Some might object to these games on moralistic grounds, because they encourage vandalism. That's not my beef. My objection is that a kid could make much better graffiti art in PhotoShop than in Getting Up.

In general, games constrain choices much more than real life does and the payback is much lower. They may gratify power fantasies, but Guitar Hero doesn't make you a better guitar player compared to actually learning to play with the chord book open.

And compare top-selling children's games to top-selling children's books. The books are a lot better, more varied, more imaginative, more diverse in the identity positions possible.

Maybe it's true that we need a "Corporation for Public Gaming" to foster better games, but with this administration pushing really lousy educational games (all based on invasion or attack), I'm not optimistic that it would produce better games.

4) In general, games don't function as a very good "third space" between home and work, although some game theorists argue that that's what they've become in our society. Sociality and participation are constrained in a number of ways, and the world doesn't get any better with more game players. If so many kids play sports games because real-life school PE is humiliating and frustrating, wouldn't it be better to improve the PE?

Even MMORPG's emphasize temporary, ephemeral social interactions oriented around events like raids or dance performances. Look at the whole genre of the "goodbye film" in which scenes of game play are cut together to commemorate a group that is breaking up. In real life you know who you are interacting with, since they use their real social identities, so you can't just cut yourself off from people who are annoying or who don't help you achieve your goals or who might be dependent in other ways. In a second life, you can be free of them easily.

5) I also have trouble with how game advocates use the mimetic argument. Games are mimetic when they do something good (like teach world history), but they aren't when they do something bad (like encourage teen violence). You can't have it both ways. Either games cause users to replicate in-game behavior or they don't.

6) Finally, with digital rights under assault from so many sides, that's not a cause I'd choose to prioritize right now.

My fellow panelists had a lot of interesting things to say as well. Jason Della Rocca of the Game Developers Association and his own Reality Panic blog had some useful counterintuitive statistics about game players and social dynamics. Furthermore, Tamsen Mitchell, of Shaba Games, pointed out that game designers have many constraints placed upon them by commercial interests and that the fear of government regulation may make it even more difficult to generate excellent games. Moderator Gil Irizarry, who was grappling with genre questions back in the days of Myst, raised lots of interesting questions.

We also had a great audience. I enjoyed meeting Brenda Braithwaite of the very interesting Sex & Games blog, patent attorney Gregory P. Silberman, and visual effects wizard David "grue" DeBry, who pointed out that the "interactivity" argument can't work both ways either: if interactive media are qualitatively different, they can't also be the same.