Saturday, September 30, 2006

Thinking Blue

I was, of course, cheering on my hometown team, the Los Angeles Dodgers today, who have officially made it into the play-offs this year with a victory over the San Francisco Giants. "How has America's traditional pasttime become a digital rhetoric story?" you might ask. Well, it's actually a tale of Virtualpolitik in four significant ways.

First, those who watched the game on television saw virtual billboards that were invisible to those in the stadium, thanks to the wonders of green screen technology.

Second, those who have been following the team live during their home games in Chavez Ravine, may have been struck by the number and variety of blinking, flashing, and glowing digital displays in the stadium. Now that even drivers and air travelers are accustomed to a crowded information environment full of numerical data and graphical maps, a spectator sport that relies on some knowledge of statistics in its fan base surrounds the live audience with digits and images.

Third, if you listened to the game on the radio, with play-by-play from longtime Dodgers sportscaster Vin Scully, who has provided a half century worth of commentary, you might have been struck by the elaborate midgame copyright notice that alerts listeners to the fact that even descriptions of individual plays are proprietary intellectual property. Thus the "traffic accident" recounted when the Giant's fielding failed them could be seen as an original and fixed tangible form of expression to be owned by a particular individual or corporate author.

Fourth, those who "watched" the game on their desktops at, which is the most common way that I "watch" baseball during my multitasking life, may have jumped to order tickets for postseason play. However, there's a copyright notice to contend with there as well:

The ticket holder acknowledges that the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball or Major League Baseball Properties, Inc., as applicable, is the owner of all copyrights and other proprietary rights in any description, account, picture, video, audio, or reproduction of all postseason games, including pre-game and post-game activities ("Game Information"). Each ticket holder is admitted upon, among others, the conditions set forth herein, and by use of the postseason tickets, agrees that the ticket holder will not transmit or aid in the transmission of any Game Information for any postseason game to which the ticket holder is admitted. Breach of the foregoing will automatically terminate the license granted by the postseason tickets to the ticket holder for the applicable postseason game.

What I find amazing is that a "description" can be copyrighted.

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Friday, September 29, 2006

How the Mighty Have Fallen

I have decidedly mixed feelings about the announcement in the New York Times from a few minutes ago that Congressman Mark Foley will be stepping down after allegations that he wrote inappropriate e-mail to a male page still enrolled in high school. His once elaborate campaign website is now totally stripped bare and displays nothing more than his three-sentence apology and resignation. The Republican Foley had been outed years ago by activists, but it took an electronic smoking gun that exposed his hypocrisy about online predators to drive him from office. The incriminating e-mails to the teenager are supposed to be posted at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. (As of this writing, the server is currently overloaded.)

On one hand, I will admit to feeling a certain amount of Schadenfreude that so many digital rights opponents, who have used "child safety" as an excuse for obtrusive regulation of the Internet and electronic media, have found themselves in trouble in the midterm elections. For example, now struggling Child-Safe Senators Lieberman and Santorum were listed as trusted advisors on the MPAA-recommended parenting with media site Pause Parent Play, which claims to encourage intergenerational dialogue and play, but really advocates the same old ratings and blocking technology formula.

There is some poetic justice in the fact that Foley made minority user behaviors of marginal populations who consume online pornography his chief campaign and legislative issue to justify a broader tendency to criminalize other kinds of digital community. He also had a poor record on network neutrality and Internet privacy. But it's such an unsavory case with so many possible victims that it's difficult to crow about his downfall.

Furthermore, I worry that such scandals involving e-mail divert attention from how electronic genres can function productively in both everyday communication and public rhetoric. I would argue that e-mail should serve as a powerful proactive agent for political change on behalf of constituents and revive the function of petition, but instead it largely works as evidence of the private foibles of policy makers. Mass e-mail campaigns from grassroots groups get remarkably little media attention. As a rhetorician, I'd like to see e-mail do more in the public sphere than act out its "gotcha" role.

Update: It turns out that it is IM rather than conventional e-mail at issue in this case. ABC News has posted an instant message session in which Representative Foley inquires about masturbation with a teen. Foley is famed for saying, ''We track library books better than we do sexual predators." Don't you love what he says should be equated?


Thursday, September 28, 2006

How Much is that Doggie in the Window Able to Do about Copyright?

Meet "Lucky" and "Flo," two Labrador Retrievers in the media spotlight. Yesterday, the Los Angeles Times in "Hollywood's Latest Weapon" reported that the MPAA has trained these dogs in the art of DVD-sniffing in the hope of sussing out possible pirated goods among imported merchandise. Apparently a DVD has a distinctive odor, just like prohibited food items or illegal drugs. The story was also picked up by the Washington Post, which reported that the pair was trained by a master who had previously prepared his charges for bomb-sniffing duties in Northern Ireland. Of course, the dogs can't distinguish between legitimately produced DVD shipments and ones that contain illegal goods. A dog-fancier website reveals that the canine duo should have their tails between their legs, since they have been working at a Federal Express shipping center in the UK, where -- to the chagrin of their handlers -- they have succeeded in having several packages unnecessarily opened but have yet to catch any actual copyright offenders.

Without the assistance of their loyal companions, the MPAA also testified before Congress during today's hearing on The Internet and the College Campus: How the Entertainment Industry and Higher Education are Working to Combat Illegal Piracy. As a classroom instructor, I must say, however, that I'm more concerned about how my students evaluate scholarly and nonscholarly sources than if they are file-sharing the music of my youth during their off hours. The fact that many students were taken in by a parody cloning site designed to promote the movie X-Men says something about where the real problems lie.

My favorite part of the MPAA website? This fun copyright quiz for tykes!


Wednesday, September 27, 2006


In "Firm That Planted Stories Gets Deal," the Los Angeles Times reports that the once-disgraced company and frequent Virtualpolitik target The Lincoln Group has once again received a lucrative government contract, this time for media analysis of Iraqi news coverage. Nice that it's the same month that Harper's is running an article by former employee Willem Marx about his experiences working for the public diplomacy conglomerate formerly known as "Iraqex." In "Misinformation Intern," Marx describes the kleptocracy of his fellow government contractors in Iraq and how what he thought would be a stepping stone to an honorable journalism career degenerated into pistol-packing and thuggish intimidation of the corrupt locals who cooperated in his news planting schemes, most of which were cooked up by military strategists.


Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Treasure Hunt

I really enjoyed participating in the Community HIV/AIDS Mobilization Project (CHAMP) forum on social marketing campaigns this evening in New York City. Our presentations should be available online soon.

If you aren't familiar with the organization, check out CHAMP's clever, subversive Find the Condoms at Your School program and their projects to encourage teenagers to participate in community activism. And for more on teen life and Internet community, watch Danah Boyd's talk about adolescents and social networks here.


Monday, September 25, 2006

The Good, The Bad, and The Not Fabulous

This week, I'll be in New York for the following panel to which Virtualpolitik readers are -- of course -- invited:

Selling Us to Ourselves: Is Social Marketing Effective HIV Prevention?
Tuesday, September 26th 6:30 - 8:00PM
LGBT Community Center
208 West 13th Street (btwn 7th/8th aves.)
New York City
Free and open to the public

A lot of political progressives support social marketing efforts unconditionally, but I am often skeptical about using conventional advertising techniques for social change, particularly when the whole industry of commercial persuasion is so invested in certain strategies that support dominant ideologies about consumerism, gender, sexuality, and race. See here for my basic argument.

It should be a lively exchange about public rhetoric and communicative action. I will be showing many images from the HIV campaigns from other countries, such as the above images from the European blog Houtlust, as well as pictures from U.S. disease-prevention efforts, such as those archived in the Visual Culture and Public Health Posters exhibit at the National Library of Medicine. Nedra Weinreich of the social marketing blog Spare Change provides more context for the event and explains some of the controversies about HIV campaigns here. The creator of the "Stay Negative" or "Not Fabulous" campaign will also be there.

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Sunday, September 24, 2006

Does This Mean I Can Vote at a Hotel Minibar?

Check out this video and be glad that today's New York Times article, "The Big Gamble on Electronic Voting," is reporting that election officials are finally reacting to concerns aired in a voting study done by the Center for Information Technology Policy at Princeton University. Kudos to Professor Edward Felten of the EFF advisory board and the Freedom to Tinker blog, who has made a compelling case for paying attention to security vulnerabilities in the machine that could be exploited in a voting booth by easily concealed devices like hotel minibar keys and commercially available memory cards. Videos of Professor Felten's Mission Entirely Possible scenario, along with the center's correspondence with Diebold, have been widely distributed on the Internet. I like the fact that Felten's hypothetical election is between George Washington and Benedict Arnold.

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Saturday, September 23, 2006

Where is the "Research" in Reading, Riting, and Rithmatic?

With the start of classes, there's a lot happening on campuses this Fall, from teach-ins on the war to litigation on behalf of the fair use rights of students and teachers. As a university writing program administrator, who has helped designed curricula for thousands of students, I'd like to add a few choice words about the execrable "A Test of Leadership: Charting the Future of U.S. Higher Education," otherwise known as the "Spellings Commission Report," which applies the Bush administration's doctrine of standardized testing from the No Child Left Behind Act to college learning environments and praises "for profit" institutions and distance learning.

It's an obviously punitive document, intended to scold the supposed bastions of liberalism in the academy for allegedly sloppy standards in educating young people. The American Association of Colleges and Universities has already posted an eloquent rebuttal that targets the report's emphasis on quantity not quality, "disdain for faculty," and incoherent "cafeteria plan" for curricular reform. As a rhetorician, I have to say how much I hate the way that the word "leadership," which is featured in the report's title, now functions as a code word for private sector hierarchies of arbitrary authority. I also thought the opening sentence in praise of my undergraduate alma mater, as a place founded "to train Puritan ministers" might say a lot about how vocational education and conservative values are emphasized in the rest of the document as well.

Even more important, given Siva Vaidhyanathan's manifesto on Critical Information Studies, is the total absence of "information literacy" in the Spellings Report, either in word or deed, as an objective for effective college curricula. Although the word "research" appears fifty-one times, it never has anything to do with the intellectual activities of undergraduates. "Research" is only something to be done on students; it is never anything that students themselves might actually do, according to the commission. "Technology" is a big buzzword in the document, but it only appears as a tool -- like a blackboard -- never more fully represented in its wide range of materials, beliefs, and practices about which there might be policy debates, interpretive disagreements, or competing histories.

For better ideas for reform in higher education than the Spellings plan for corporate downsizing, check out the still relevant Boyer Commission Report on "Reinventing Undergraduate Education" for a call to make "research-based learning" the standard or the upcoming Modern Language Association volume on first-year courses, which will feature a bomb-throwing essay that I wrote with UC Irvine Associate Executive Vice Chancellor Professor Michael Clark about how even college freshmen can capitalize on the current information and communication revolution.

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Friday, September 22, 2006

Paris in Washington

If you follow web statistics at all -- posted in places like Technorati or Google -- you may already be aware of this fun fact: for the past three years, "" continues to be one of the most common search terms in various top-ten lists that represent the words and phrases that are typed into computer interfaces by Internet users day after day and year after year.

If you follow Virtualpolitik, you may also be aware that I have an occasional feature about where particular, possibly embarrassing, terms appear on .gov sites. For example, in the past I have recorded the results from official government web pages for "masturbation" and "videogames." So I thought that it was time to try my luck with "Paris Hilton," and I have to admit I was surprised by the number of government agencies that had materials on the drunk-driving heiress, mediocre synth-pop songstress, and reality show TV star.

For example, there was a lot of talk on Capitol Hill about the "Paris Hilton tax break" by Barack Obama, Diana DeGette, Louise Slaughter, and Harry Reid about the Internet's favorite leggy blonde. It was smart on their part to ensure that there was either labeling or metadata so "Paris Hilton" would be picked up by search engines, given the number of accidental visitors that the term could bring to their sites.

Of course, fans of Intellectual Property Law can read about Paris Hilton's trademark application, to be associated with "fragrances, namely, perfumes, eau de parfum, cologne, eau de toilet, body lotion, bath gel, hand soap, perfumed soap and cosmetics."

A NASA website on women's issues even cites a now defunct Hilton web page, ""! The National Center for Education Statistics, one of my favorite organizations since it addresses issues about writing proficiency, has a Hilton hit as well, which leads to an essay by a youngster.

Surprisingly many fields are represented in the search. The IRS commissioner expresses some implied envy over Hilton's web presence, while also taking pride in the web traffic for e-filing. A newsletter from the National Institutes of Health takes a swipe at Hilton's fad pet, a "kinkajou, whose natural habitat isn’t the nightclub." A science and engineering website uses a Yahoo article on Hilton as an example of security problems with "mobile gizmos."

There's also a lot of not-so-veiled sexism. For example, the Arizona Agriculture Department bestializes the celebrity: "If Paris Hilton were a horse, she would probably be an Arabian. If she passed the I.Q. test. Arabians are trim, delicate, beautiful and pampered as if they were celebrity jet-setters. But they're also said to be the smartest horses."

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Thursday, September 21, 2006

Same Old Same Old

Today we were treated to the sixth hearing from the House Energy and Commerce committee about child pornography and the Internet. One might think that the Internet's only function is to foster illegal activities by pornographers and terrorists, based on the agenda of Congress, and that the failed energy policy of the nation is hardly a concern to lawmakers. Congressman Mike Ferguson of New Jersey, the author of this Internet Safety Guide, also brought up illegal music and piracy in his opening remarks, as areas of related concern that he was eager for the committee to address (thus implying -- yet again -- that pro-corporate Intellectual Property regulation is analogous to policing clearly reprehensible behavior like child endangerment).

Justifiably illegal exploitative pornography continues to be a hot topic in both houses. On the 19th, the Senate held a hearing on Online Child Pornography with many of the same witnesses who have been testifying in the House. Of course, the Chair of that committee, the much lampooned Senator Ted Stevens, is still claiming that, according to polls, Americans don't want "onerous" network neutrality, so Stevens may have incentive to keep the population distracted, especially when Senator Kennedy is posting oppositional YouTube videos.

What is important about today's testimony on Deleting Commercial Child Pornography Sites on the Hill is that it also focused on financial data and credit card transactions, which could also be surveiled among the law-abiding population. Specifically, lawmakers were eager to regulate "digital currency" on the grounds of this "daily threat to our children." Otherwise the testimony was relatively predictable. The planned appearance of a shadowy "John Doe" in Federal prison for processing kiddie porn finances, which would have added more drama to the proceedings, didn't actually take place.

Although he supported the position of law enforcement, I was impressed by the still courageous stand taken by Congressman Bart Stupak of Michigan against "empty political gestures" and legislation limiting access by schools and libraries that is being "rushed" through the house. In an atmosphere of "government by acclamation" few are willing to defend digital rights or to look back at legislation -- like DOPA -- that harms the information literacy of young people while claiming to be protecting them.

Amazingly, there are two more hearings on the subject before the Energy and Commerce Committee scheduled for next week, one on the "Face of a Child Predator" and a follow-up on the Masha Allen case, which will bring the tally to a counterintuitive total of eight. The committee will also be busy with more "child-safe" media regulation, since there is a hearing on "Editing Hollywood’s Editors: Cleaning Flicks for Families" planned. Somehow, I suspect that film-maker Kirby Dick won't be invited to attend.


Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Attack Mode

Although they didn't get much publicity, it is worth pointing out that there were more "cybersecurity" hearings recently, at which the emphasis was on the Chinese and Osama Bin Laden as potential threats. Despite the ostensible subject matter, there wasn't much interest in long-range planning about creating a better taxpayer-supported infrastructure to engineer a more distributed system of the type advocated by the author of the excellent primer on networks, Linked, Albert-Lászlo Barabási. Instead the emphasis in commentary and testimony was on "private sector folks who actually own the things we are trying to protect." This is also bad news for those in the open source software development movement, who believe that transparency is the best way to create robust architectures and that corporate and government secrecy around proprietary materials only encourages data corruption and attacks by crackers.

While you are at it, you might want to check out the government's Dewie the Turtle Campaign, which is directed at the cybersecurity of average citizens. I can't help but be reminded of the similarly turtle-themed old Duck and Cover campaign against nuclear attack.


Be Afraid. Be Very Afraid.

Today all nine Democrats on the House Intelligence Committee refused to endorse the latest scare document, Al-Qaeda: The Many Faces of an Islamist Extremist Threat, which draws terrorist networks across the U.S. map and emphasizes the danger of prisons and universities as recruiting grounds.

(Yipes! I certainly hope that Congress is planning to shut down those dirty, dangerous universities before they get all of us killed!)

What was my favorite section of this generously illustrated government report? I think it was the section about how the "Islamist extremist threat" will continue to grow, thanks to the "exploitation of the Internet" by nefarious groups. Of course, the primary purpose of the Internet is described as being a "key enabler" of terrorism that has "radicalized" many. "Easy access" and "lack of regulation" apparently increase the "allure" of relying on computers for jihadists.

What is especially amazing is that the footnotes to this report cite testimony from the embarrassing Sonic Jihad hearing before this same Intelligence Committee, in which fan footage of videogame play with a parody soundtrack was shown to congressional representatives as deadpan evidence of the menacing nature of this new Islamist technological threat.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2006

You Have Just Poked Mark Warner

To those who have never used Facebook, this probably seems like a shocking statement, but the former governor of Virginia and would-be Presidential candidate has set up a personal account on the popular social networking site, where young constituents can read his blog, browse photos, and search for Facebook pages about political issues. Of course, the recently-passed Deleting Online Predators Act would prevent potential voters at schools and libraries from visiting such political sites, but apparently almost no legislators thought of that when they cast their votes.

In the United States, our top politicians seem to have only a limited understanding of the personal voice that often informs the genre of the blog. Most blogs on official sites of senators and congressional representatives are written in third person without any humanizing commentary, clearly by PR people or legislative staffers. For example, Warner drops first person on the blog of his official "Forward Together" site.

In contrast, elected officials in many countries public electronic newsletters or blogs with a much more personal feel, as a recent Los Angeles Times story on "Koizumi's Candid, Quirky Years of E-Mail Exchange." You can read this recent account of a Visit to Finland from Japan's outgoing Prime Minister to get a sense of his electronic style or peruse back issues for more digital rhetoric.

The hardline Iranian president even maintains a blog, which was at first assumed to be a prank by many Westerners. Perhaps he was following the lead of the former Vice President of the country, a moderate who complains about government crackdowns and keeps his readers posted on conferences and meetings in the West.


Monday, September 18, 2006

Killing Me Softly

My pal Ian Bogost of Georgia Tech has been in the spotlight a lot recently answering allegations that violent videogames could be linked directly to last week's terrible college shooting in Montreal. (My SIGGRAPH co-panelist International Game Developers Association President Jason Della Rocca has also fielded questions from the media.)

Luckily, Bogost has also been getting attention for his work with super-cool Alternate Reality Game developer Jane McGonigal in the launch of Cruel 2 B Kind, a "game of benevolent assassination" played with mobile phone technology. The game is played out in public with "assassins" working in teams of two. At the start of the game, a text message arrives with information about each team's secret "weapon" and secret vulnerability. Names and photographs of players are not disseminated, so total strangers may find themselves involved in the action.

The switcheroo? Opponents battle with what seem to be charming and spontaneous acts of kindness, such as compliments, proffered posies, blown kisses, and sentimental serenades. Passers-by may be confused by the evasive maneuvers of potential recipients facing the overtures of would-be urban Samaritans, but they are also likely to be impressed by the sudden outbreak of public civility and romance. This game should be interesting for anybody who digs Habermas, Latour, or subversion of conventional approaches to violence and gaming. Check out the rules for yourself.

Citizens of New York City can try the game for themselves during the Come Out and Play Festival this coming weekend.

And while you're trying to figure out what can and can't be taken on an airplane these days -- like highly dangerous wrinkle cream or baby formula -- play the online newsgame Airport Security, also from Bogost's studio.

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Sunday, September 17, 2006

Government by Acclamation

Last week Senator Joseph Lieberman's pet legislation CAMRA or the Children and Media Research Advancement Act was approved by the Senate. Normally, I'm all for federal funding of scientific research in the name of advancing knowledge, but I'm afraid that this legislation designed to pour money into the supposedly harmful effects of video games is a just another politically motivated example of pork barrel politics, because it will benefit "parents" front groups, which are more like corporate astroturf than populist grassroots organizing, and lobbying organizations for cultural conservatives affiliated with both sides of the aisle. In particular, I'm worried that the upcoming National Summit on Video Games, Youth and Public Policy, hosted by political insiders at the National Institute for Media and the Family, which brought you the Hot Coffee scandal, is a strategy session for how to divert money that should be going to genuine media scholarship into impressive-sounding but utterly circular number crunching that seeks to prove its own conclusions.

I was particularly concerned to see that during the testimony phase academics who have done research about the benefits of participation in digital culture by the young, such James Paul Gee, Henry Jenkins, Kurt Squire, Constance Steinkuehler, and danah boyd weren't even represented.

I will grant that the fact that the APA (American Psychological Association) appeared in support of the legislation gave me pause, given that it is certainly an organization with a long history in the academy and in the public sphere of advocacy for tolerance and the social safety net. However, I would still say that aligning themselves with a ratings-oriented system is a fundamental mistake, because such systems have a history of enforcing restrictive social norms and obstructing frank cultural conversations about both heterosexuality and homosexuality, as film-maker Kirby Dick has shown -- even if the ratings board for videogames is more culturally diverse than the MPAA, as President Patricia Vance explains:

ESRB game raters are recruited from one of the most culturally diverse populations in the world – New York City. The raters are all adults and are not required to be gamers themselves; a gamer-only rating system would likely bias rating assignments as they would surely bring a different sensibility to content than the pool of raters we have always used. Typically, our raters have some experience with children, and have no ties to the entertainment software industry. They are specially trained by ESRB to rate computer and video games and work on a part-time basis, attending no more than one 2-3 hour rating session per week. The ESRB strives to recruit raters who are demographically diverse by age (must be at least 18), martial status, gender, race, education and cultural background to reflect the U.S. population overall.

Of course, I'm a feminist and a pacifist, so I don't like the cultural messages in many of these videogames, but I'd rather see legislators working on keeping guns out of the hands of children rather than keeping them away from videogame controllers.

Why should legal scholars care about this legislation? Pay attention to the especially creepy testimony of Michigan State University's Kevin Saunders, since he was arguing that videogames -- like pinball machines -- aren't covered by first amendment protections. Given that many games are used to tell complicated stories, and that some have political or aesthetic agendas outside the limited metaphor of a primitive arcade game, Saunders' claim is troubling for an electorate in which more media consumption time is taking place in the form of games. Even more important, Constitutional scholars should be very alarmed by Saunders central argument that violence could be added to the category of obscenity, so that first amendment rights could be trumped in ways that might even make coverage of the current war in Iraq subject to censorship.

Here's another important fun fact about this legislation: although there would be serious arguments against it in a country with many game-players, it passed unanimously. So I'd like to take this opportunity also to point out a disturbing trend in legislation governing digital culture in which unanimous approval takes the place of real debate. Check out this vote count on CAMRA. Otherwise worthwhile legislation that sets fines so that downloading songs is equated with downloading child pornography while also giving the DOJ unprecedented surveillance powers over citizens' online activity also passed without a single dissenting vote.

(On a lighter note, CAMRA is also the acronym of the UK-based Campaign for Real Ale.)


Saturday, September 16, 2006

Dog and Pony and Elephant Show

I visited graffiti artist Banksy's controversial "Barely Legal" warehouse show today, an art event that -- after a sizeable amount of Internet promotion -- actually made it to the cover of the Los Angeles Times with the euphonious title "Painted Pachyderm Draws Outcry." Why the ruckus about the prankster known for substituting parodic remixes of Paris Hilton for the real article, inserting a dummy of a Guantanomo prisoner in a ride at Disneyland (which park officials described as a "security threat"), and hanging his own altered thrift store paintings at museums? This time the scandal was generated by the inclusion of a live animal rather than any alleged acts of vandalism against public property.

Cards at the exhibition read:

There's an elephant in the room.
There's a problem that we never talk about.

The fact that life isn't getting any fairer.

Unfortunately the statistics about world poverty that followed weren't quite accurate, given that anyone should know that "20 billion people" on the planet is an Internet statistic not a real number. But it's an interesting rhetorical strategy to literalize a metaphor to make a point, one that often appears in innovative social marketing campaigns as well.

Responding to the outcry from animal rights' activists, the head of the city's animal services department attempted to pull Banksy's permit at the last minute, although the show's organizers had completed all the paperwork according to regulations. I also discovered that Animal Services General Manager Ed Boks maintains a blog, but no commentary about the show has yet appeared. The LAPD officer I spoke with maintained that the animal in question often appeared at show business events and had not been mistreated in any way.

Of course, locals are sensitive about allegations of elephant cruelty, because of the death in captivity of LA Zoo elephant Gita, whose necropsy was officially released on the web last month.


Human Interest Story

Yesterday, the always excellent NPR reporter David Folkenflik reported on how the FCC had quashed its own report on media consolidation, because the study it commissioned -- contrary to the administration's pro-business claims -- showed that local news coverage was negatively impacted by corporate ownership of multiple media channels in the same regional market. According to the Los Angeles Times article "FCC Lawyer Says TV Study Was Hushed," no one at the FCC seems eager to take responsibility for burying the results that demonstrated a statistically significant effect from media consolidation, measured in the loss of about five minutes of local news coverage in a typical broadcast once the corporate giants take over.

The original 2004 report is now posted on the FCC website. The charts and graphs at the back leave something to be desired, but the basic information design of the report makes the point pretty clearly. The Chairman's apology for the cover-up, addressed to Senator Barbara Boxer, which is also on the FCC site, is a remarkably tepid document and seems about as sincere as the apologies issued by local telecommunication companies and Internet Service Providers after they've forced their customers to endure endless waiting for shoddy service.

(Take that Verizon, Earthlink, Time Warner, and all of the carriers who have made blogging this month a nightmare. I'm not going to post audio clips or video clips, like other dissatisfied customers, but I'm pretty tempted to use this forum for the purpose of complaining about the farce that passes for broadband service in the United States. See the muckraking of the New Networks Institute to learn how we are all actually paying for the privilege of monopolistic abuse with our taxpayer dollars. Lucky us!)


Friday, September 15, 2006

Urban Haven

When I lived in Boston and was involved with the excellent nondiscriminatory and non-faith-based Big Sisters organization, I often took my charge and her friends to the quiet, fern-filled Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, where we would stroll around, eat cake in their tea room, and listen to concerts of classical music. It was my little sister's favorite place to go in the city, as an escape from the violent and chaotic neighborhood around her housing project. Now I am delighted to see that the museum is making its live concerts available to the public for sharing under a Creative Commons license. Note: museum organizers ask that the content be distributed freely but not be remixed.


Thursday, September 14, 2006

Political Muscle

Here in California, candidates are preparing for a contentious gubernatorial race that has dramatized the ethical dimensions of netizenship for opposing sides. The big story this week concerns who owns and rightfully has access to mp3 files from private conversations that were posted on the governor's public site. Amazingly, a clip in which the Governator talks about legislator Bonnie Garcia as "hot" and attributes what he characterizes as a fiery temperament to a mix of "black blood" and "Latino blood" was actually posted, probably to a .gov site, based on the fact that the California Highway Patrol is investigating this breach of "safeguarding state property."

The Los Angeles Times, which broke the story, has reported that the files were leaked by Democratic operatives working for challenger Phil Angelides, who worked backwards from a link e-mailed to the press to a root directory with an encyclopedic collection. Today the Governor's claim that the clips were password protected and must have been "hacked" was disputed by a prominent L.A. area DJ, who has accessed the clips himself many times in the past, according to "Radio Station Disputes Gov.'s Claim Speech Website Was Hacked." This isn't the only case where a conservative incumbant has accused a liberal opponent of digital dirty tricks, and the accusation has been subsequently denied: the recent Lieberman-Lamont race, in which allegations of denial of service attacks were bandied about, presents another example of the phenomenon.

You can listen to one of the incriminating conversations here . (The clip runs better in Explorer.) Be prepared to be stunned.

Despite his stumble in cyberspace, so far it seems that the telegenic former moviestar and incumbant Republican front runner has been successfully using the incident to widen his lead among an electorate more suspicious of hackers and identity thieves than public officials using racial stereotypes on the job.

What I find ironic is that Schwarzenegger has such a proprietary attitude about the use of his voice, given that sound bites from Schwarzenegger dialogue have become widely available in an informal creative commons, because digital files of the actor's audio, such as this and this are push-button ready for old school prank phone calls.

While you're thinking about left coast digital politics, check out this online news game from the nurses' union that helped to thwart the Governor's attempts to change pension rules for state employees. You might also want to look at the Schwarzenegger campaign's official site, which unlike most electioneering sites, doesn't use traditional red, white, and blue. Unfortunately the governor's official ring tones aren't yet available.


Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Pitch Meeting

Anthony Pratkanis appeared at the USC Center for Public Diplomacy today and shared in the frustration of experts facing the current endgame being played out in the information war in Iraq. Although it may not be as disastrous as the actual war being fought with bombs and bullets, the campaign for Iraqi hearts and minds has also been doomed by administration planners from the start. By drawing on the lessons of World War II, Pratkanis argues that more recent models from "advertising," "public relations," and "soft power" will inevitably fail to effect long term social influence, because these approaches don't indicate any engagement with analyzing the enemy's purpose and the related history of successful and unsuccessful messages in a given rhetorical context. Apparently, administration officials may finally be listening to advice from social scientists like Pratkanis rather than depending on off-the-shelf products from Beltway political consulting firms (The Lincoln Group, The Rendon Group, etc.) or advertising and public relations agencies who have transitioned to social marketing (with the Brand America campaign of former Undersecretary Charlotte Beers as the classic campaign).

Of course, I liked the fact that Pratkanis cited the lessons of Aristotle and the Sophists. Unfortunately, I was less than crazy about the prepackaged graphic elements of his PowerPoint presentation, which undercut his argument about the importance of thinking outside the corporate box.

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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Apocalypse Now?

Netizens have been told by the House of Yahweh in Abilene, Texas that the outbreak of nuclear war is scheduled for today. This YouTube remix provides some light-hearted background on the group.

Of course, not many are persuaded by these doomsday September 12 predictions. For example, this clip points out Biblical verses that contradict leader Yisrayl Hawkins' claim; it also features some very cute Photoshop images of squirrels.

Not all of the HoY rhetoric lacks credibility, however. Although the Wikipedia entry on the organization is so reverant that it must be written by a follower, it indicates an understanding of the conventions of contribution. The group also appears to have a faith-based initiative for distance learning all ready for taxpayer funding. I love the fact that front-man Hawkins has a personal page that copies the web design of the White House almost exactly.

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Monday, September 11, 2006

Our Better Angels

Perhaps the best way to remember the attacks of September 11th today is to embrace the spirit of charity that best expresses our national will. See the website of One Day's Pay for ideas for volunteerism to commemorate the anniversary of the attacks on New York City and Washington D.C.

Another way to spend the day productively is to support historians who are reassembling the factual events, documents, digital ephemera, and the topography of the general cultural conversation about emergency preparedness and terrorism. Explore The September 11th Archive and The September 11th Digital Archive and consider contributing your own material for posterity. Like many people, it's still difficult for me to listen to the recently released 911 calls from that day, especially the call from Melissa Doi (pictured above).

I wouldn't recommend ABC's Path to 9/11, although I watched the first night of the broadcast, in the interests of media scholarship, because it is neither good drama nor good documentary re-enactment. The depictions of gender (with hysterical, narcissistic, or manipulative female policy makers) and race (with pidgin English speaking Arabs) were pointlessly offensive, and the visual rhetoric of jerky, fake hand-held verité of close cropped plotting faces on both sides made for a scrambled presentation from an avowedly politically biased filmmaker.

As though you didn't already see enough condensed xenophobia on the Planet of the Arabs montage, the website of The Path to 9/11 has a sickening clip called "How to Create a Riot" on its video menu. At least from it you can learn about the village in Morocco, Ouarzazate, that Hollywood relies upon to produce its cultural clichés and the three generations of extras who inhabit the place. Its history on celluloid apparently goes back to Lawrence of Arabia! This documentary by Ali Essafi tells you more.

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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Bare Outline

I visited the official homepage of the website of the Iraqi fledgling government yesterday (The English version of the site is here.) One thing that struck me about this first stab at an Iraqi web design strategy, other than the distorted photos that indicated an amateur job, was the use of the outline of the country as a national symbol. Specifically, I wondered whether the outline of the Iraq was also a national symbol during the Hussein regime, particularly since Hussein might have had an idea about national boundaries that included the country of Kuwait at one time and might have also had skepticism about territorial demarcation based on the decisions made by British colonial rulers.

I've noticed that military graphic designers have previously chosen the outline of an occupied country as a symbol of nationalism, as you can see from this leaflet or this leaflet dropped in Afghanistan. Is it appealing because it is a blank slate?

You can also check out the text of the Iraqi Constitution and notice how specific freedoms are guaranteed in this document that are now even being compromised at home, here in the U.S. Note that the link to "Saddam's Trial," which is spelled "Saddam's Trail," doesn't work.


Saturday, September 09, 2006

Paper Trail

There are some important primary sources on government websites this week. The Senate Committee released its report on the nonexistence of Iraq/Al Qaeda links prior to the American invasion. You can also read the new Army Field Manual on interrogation techniques, which re-valorizes the Geneva Convention.

Of course, when it comes to information design, political institutions often seem to give better directions about skateboarding (now taken down) than more pressing areas of federal concern, such as assessing threats to airline security. See Bomb or Not for a TSA send-up.

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Friday, September 08, 2006

Girl Trouble

Today's article in the Los Angeles Times, "Mystery Fuels Huge Popularity of Web's Lonelygirl15" describes what appears to be a viral marketing campaign on YouTube and MySpace centering on the angst of a supposedly homeschooled teen vlogger named Bree.

Many people are citing the work of Henry Jenkins to interpret how the site has generated both buzz from sympathetic online visitors (from subcultures of teens, former and present home-schoolers, scientific professional amateurs, etc.) who are drawn into the narrative and communities of skeptics who pull the plot-line apart. Jenkins has pointed out in Convergence Culture, particularly in his opening chapter on the TV show Survivor, that fan communities can include "spoilers" who engage in detective work that magnifies attention on discrete clues, such as suspiciously scripted settings or situations. A "Message from the Creators" confirmed fan suspicions of an elaborate hoax.

Internet ethnographer of teen culture Danah Boyd has weighed in on the LonelyGirl phenomenon, by analyzing the visual and verbal rhetoric of their webwork as indicative of film-making technique. Theories about the maker of LonelyGirl abound, but Alternate Reality Game creator Jane McGonigal has already denied involvement.

What the LAT story doesn't mention, is that "Bree" has inspired a number of mash-ups and parodies, including my favorite "I am the Very Model of a Popular YouTube Auteur," which gives a send up of the whole YouTube confession genre. Furthermore, I'm surprised that copyrighted material, such as popular songs, was used so liberally in a trademarked product.

Watching the episodes, I was struck by the rhetoric of the actress who plays "Bree" as she established her ethos in her opening video by citing other YouTube personalities. In other words, she explicitly says that she understands the genre. It is precisely those conventions about self-revelation and self-masking that may have drawn in so many spectators, such as the now betrayed MonkeyFemme, who sent supportive e-mails and a "helping hand" to "Bree."

Personally, if I am going to engage with the drama of a YouTube narcissist, I want it to be a little more high-concept with better editing, like Noah takes a picture of himself everyday for 6 years or Me: Girl Taks Pic of Herself Every Day for Three Years. In general, I like YouTube performances that don't present the ubiquitous talking head and instead engage with the responsibility of virtuoso performing for an outside audience, like FunTwo's canon on guitar or this Rollerblader playing music on bottles.


Thursday, September 07, 2006

Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!

For those of you unfamiliar with either Grand Opera or Bugs Bunny's send up of it, the New York Metropolitan Opera may be coming to a movie theater near you. According to a recent press release, the company plans to use digital technology t0 provide high quality transmission of live performances to cinema spectators via the Internet. Interestingly, much of the rhetoric of the announcement focuses on how objections from musicians' and technical unions were overcome. Tickets will be about $18 in the new distributed format.


Wednesday, September 06, 2006

I Love What You've Done with the Place

Check out the website of the National Counterterrorism Center in McLean, Virginia, where you can get a spiffy counterterrorism desk calendar to remember all your favorite jihadists' birthdays or where you can acquire yet another National Strategy report. (This one has nifty red highlighting, in addition to its bullet points!)

The NCTC also has the absolute worst kids page on a government website that I have ever seen, which is saying a lot. Why are the Statue of Liberty and the American Eagle winking? Is the wink supposed to signify to the American people that our clever government has already outsmarted the terrorists? Or is the wink supposed to indicate a disregard for the rule of law?

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Bad Report Card

The White House has issued yet another red, white, and blue official report in their series of documents in the "National Strategy" genre, which follows the National Strategy for Victory in Iraq and the National Security Strategy in its ham-fisted information design. Tellingly, at least one of these Bush reports was type-set in "Minion, semi-bold," according to font maven Ellen Lupton.

There are two things to notice about the "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" from a digital rhetoric standpoint:

1) It uses much of the same PowerPoint corporate-speak that got a similar administration document slammed by Paul Krugman in his editorial on "Bullet Points Over Baghdad." Of course, this booklet is a little more subtle: it only uses bullet points, boldface, and italics . . . not bullet points, check marks, arrows, boldface, italics, and underlining like the visually chaotic Iraq document that Krugman takes apart. But it is exactly the kind of stunted prose that has caused Edward Tufte to declare that "PowerPoint is Evil."

2) It harps on how terrorists use the World Wide Web for propaganda in ways that anyone who remembers the Sonic Jihad fiasco should be skeptical about. (If you don't know what the Sonic Jihad debacle in Congress was, you can watch this Nightline episode or read my longer analysis of what went wrong when a Battlefield 2 fan film with a joke Team America soundtrack was mistakenly shown as evidence of jihadist recruiting techniques.) The "Internet" is mentioned eight times as an avenue for nefarious plotting. As you can see from this sample passage, these web-savvy jihadists are used as justification for both more surveillance and more taxpayer-funded digital propaganda.

Cyber safehavens. The Internet provides an inexpensive, anonymous, geographically unbounded, and largely unregulated virtual haven for terrorists. Our enemies use the Internet to develop and disseminate propaganda, recruit new members, raise and transfer funds, train members on weapons use and tactics, and plan operations. Terrorist organizations can use virtual safehavens based anywhere in the world, regardless of where their members or operatives are located. Use of the Internet, however, creates opportunities for us to exploit. To counter terrorist use of the Internet as a virtual sanctuary, we will discredit terrorist propaganda by promoting truthful and peaceful messages. We will seek ultimately to deny the Internet to the terrorists as an effective safehaven for their propaganda, proselytizing, recruitment, fundraising, training, and operational planning.

Right now the government is apparently accepting bids for public relations efforts in Iraq on behalf of the U.S. Government. Perhaps there could be another successor to the astonishingly inept Lincoln Group after the secretive Rendon Group also choked on this public diplomacy job!

You can see how far we've come from the 2003 National Strategy for Combating Terrorism, which at least paid lip service to the role of "underlying conditions" in the promulgation of terrorist ideology.

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An interesting article about the phenomenon of "Chinavenging" in today's Los Angeles Times contends that the shortcomings of the media and the justice system in that authoritarian state contributes to the cyber-vigilante's wrath and enthusiasm for public shaming of Internet scammers, makers of deviant crush videos, and online adulterers. Certainly, "Chinese Log on for Retribution" depicts a different Internet from the libertarian realm envisioned by many, one in which no one is anonymous and social norms are enthusiastically policed by virtual communities.


Monday, September 04, 2006

A Stitch in Time

While we're commemorating Labor Day, I thought I'd take time out to recognize the blood, sweat, and tears of America's favorite sweatshop, Project Runway. It's not, strictly speaking, a digital rhetoric story, but there are some interesting intellectual property issues that have appeared in the show. For example, aspiring designer Angela Keslar wanted to incorporate her client's signature shawl into the outfit she was preparing, but show producers reminded her that the woman's shawl would then become property of the show and subject to being auctioned off to the highest bidder in fine Ebay style. Intellectual property was also certainly at issue when contestant Keith Michael was booted from the show for violating the rules by being in possession of a contraband pattern book. Show fans also pointed out drawings copied from runway originals in the disgraced designer's portfolio. According to host Tim Gunn's podcast, they had also planned to "Photoshop" over a stand-in when the humiliated plagiarist abruptly fled the set. As if that weren't enough free culture grist for the mill, viewers are invited to cut and sew Project Runway clips together in their video mash-up site.


Sunday, September 03, 2006

Business as Unusual

In honor of the Labor Day weekend, it's worth pointing out again that the use of new communication technology is not only changing the way we work but the politics of work. For example, I've been doing research for the past two years on how e-mail is used (or not used) by government employees in circumstances of disaster or scandal and how the rhetoric of whistleblowers often focuses on anxieties about the appropriateness of the genre of e-mail itself to alert authorities and the public to wrongdoing. Now YouTube is getting into the act. You can check out this video by a whistleblower and the Washington Post story that provides context. It's a compelling document, in which a senior engineer for government contractor Lockhead Martin, who has exhausted other venues for remedy, raises issues about Homeland Security and the appropriateness of equipment on U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats. He also uses other forms of visual aids, which he holds up to the camera, such as diagrams of the blind spots of security cameras.

Last week, the Los Angeles Times reported in "Read This E-Mail and Then Scram" about company employees who are given their pink slips via mass form e-mails. The Internet etiquette stickler in me thinks that this is extremely bad form. Unfortunately, this behavior has even spread to university campuses, as this story about E-Mail Rejection Letters indicates. (Whenever I think of rejection letters, which are -- of course -- interesting to any rhetorician, I think of Philip Dacey's poem.)


Saturday, September 02, 2006

See No Evil

If you live in a large, metropolitan area, try to catch This Film is Not Yet Rated while it is still in theaters. Much of the film's subject matter may not be a surprise: the way that the ratings system operates in secrecy with a board of supposedly typical parents, the fact that in practice this system discriminates against gay and lesbian film-makers and censors portrayals of homosexual life and female pleasure, and the generally poor historical record of the MPAA on civil liberties, collective bargaining, economic competition, free culture, and the prevention of violence, particularly against women.

What's original about the film is the literal detective work done to reveal the identities of the MPAA's shadowy group of "mainstream" moralists, which is led by a registered Republican and Jack Valenti appointee. I thought the resourceful PI hired by the documentary-maker is really the heroine of the film. Hilarity also ensues when director Kirby Dick submits his film to the MPAA to be rated, and the board discovers that their names and images have been leaked to the public. Although the section on "piracy," isn't well integrated into the film, there's also some good Lawrence Lessig footage as well. Unfortunately, the MPAA's own unauthorized copying of this critical documentary didn't make it into the cut I saw.

If you're still in a hating mood about censorship, you can also check out the much cruder FCC FU video that was plugged this week on IP Democracy.

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Friday, September 01, 2006

Bully Pulpit

Last month there was a largely positive New York Times review of the videogame Bully from Rockstar games, a company made infamous by their Grand Theft Auto franchise, which raised some interesting points about gender politics and representational realism that are more subtle than those made in many mainstream game reviews.

The broader point is that rather than simply transferring the wanton violence and mayhem of the Grand Theft Auto series to a juvenile setting, Rockstar seems to have pulled out that game's most compelling elements -- an open world for the player to explore, tightly defined and memorable characters, a strong story line, high-end voice acting -- and rewrapped them in a game that the company clearly hopes will be rated T for Teen rather than M for Mature.

The game sanitizes many aspects of the modern prep school experience. There is no mission to sneak into a girl's dorm at night and have sex. There is no plan to hide drug use from the authorities. There is no quest to find a liquor store in town that will sell to you.

In short it's not really a boarding-school simulation, and that may be a good thing. Compared with real life, Rockstar has totally played down sex, drugs and alcohol. But as befits a game called Bully, it has certainly blown out of proportion the amount of real bullying that goes on these days.

In terms of the prevalence of actual physical intimidation, what Rockstar has done (perhaps unawares) is to take the reality of an all-boys school and shoehorn it into a coed environment. An all-boys school can really be like ''Lord of the Flies'' or a prison, combat brigade or any other all-male environment: brutal and physically hierarchical. But one of the miracles of coeducation is that as soon as girls are around, the boys often start treating one another in a more civilized fashion, even among themselves. As soon as there are girls on the campus, it's not cool to be a bully anymore.

Bully the game does not capture that. The fictional school is coed, but among themselves the boys act as if they haven't seen a girl in months.

In the end, though, that is what the public expects of its boarding-school vision. In the end it is irrelevant whether Bully is truly realistic, just as it is irrelevant whether ''The West Wing'' is a truly realistic depiction of the White House or if James Bond is a realistic secret agent. What matters is whether the material up for sale fits into the public's idealized image of the subject in question. Bully certainly does that.

This year, Rockstar has also produced another NYT well-reviewed game about Table Tennis, and has even seen Grand Theft Auto's graphic sensibility incorporated into a recent Coca Cola ad, despite having been denounced by Congress at one time. However, there are still foes of Rockstar's products.

Debate has been renewed about whether or not Bully should receive the adults-only M rating, despite having content comparable to many teen movies about physical and emotional intimidation in educational environments. The Bully website now shows two trailers; the latter makes it clear that this is a game that glorifies heroes not antiheroes.

One of the spokespersons leading the charge is Jane Hitchcock of WHOA (Working to Halt Online Abuse). WHOA has a very mixed digital rights agenda: it champions the use of encryption software like PGP by private citizens to protect their privacy, which is strongly opposed by many government agencies and corporate entities, but there obviously isn't enough advocacy for the importance of free speech. Furthermore, their position on Bully seems to be downright censorship, given that their criticism concerns acceptable subject matter not the representational choices that might convey certain anti-social messages. Hitchcock even admitted in an interview that her actual knowledge of the game itself was limited to the trailers.

Particularly odd, is the organization's marketing of their figurehead's PowerPoint presentations, which are available for sale and can be customized for your own local anti-cyber-harrassment event with the addition of different wording. PowerPoint mash-up anyone?