Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Not Such a Good Head on His Shoulders

Despite our political differences, my kudos to the local OC Blog who realized that the office for a local Vietnamese-American politician, Trung Nguyen, had Photoshopped his head onto another person's body in order to place him closer to the celebrity Governor of California for a photo-op. The story was subsequently picked up by The Los Angeles Times in an article about his "image problem." (I've been thinking a lot about bodies and their manipulation in new digital media, because I read Anna Munster's Materializing new media: embodiment in information aesthetics and Michele White's The body and the screen: theories of Internet spectatorship as my airplane books last week. Both books analyze the work of Internet artists like Mongrel, whose work at the Tate reconfigures the museum's collections around issues of class, race, and gender and uses composite bodies in works of digital art.)

For another humorous political Photoshop story on Virtualpolitik, you can see who went to Disneyland unbeknownst to prospective voters.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Space Invaders

This evening the Experiential Technologies Center at UCLA held a talk with Paul Dourish in their series of talks about computer augmented environments. Dourish is one of my colleagues at UCI and spoke about "rethinking information and space in ubicomp." Dourish, the author of Where the Action Is, spoke about three ways in which ubiquitous computing could be conceived: 1) mobility, 2) computer-augmented worlds, and 3) a reconfigured relationship between people, activities, and spaces. Dourish argued against the generally held Western perception that space was a natural category experienced through individual encounters; rather he claimed that space was always socially constructed and informational. He also used the theories of Michel de Certeau about the opposition between the "strategies" of planners and the "tactics" of users to illustrate projects in urban spaces from the aesthetic journeys of passengers on the London Underground to the movements of tagged sex offenders in San Diego County. As someone who has attended conferences in the bleak UK city of Sheffield, I particularly enjoyed learning about the field tests of the clever alternate reality game Can You See Me Now? there.

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Monday, January 29, 2007

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

I noticed two particular features of digital rhetoric during my plane trip home from Italy. First, it was interesting to think about global business English and the ways it is now being mediated through PowerPoint. For example, I saw non-English speakers using the Auto-Content wizard and employing standard electronic slideshow truisms like "Lessons Learned." (Check out how my colleague Ellen Strenski has covered the debate about PowerPoint.) Second, before we landed, we watched a short film about immigration procedures in which the entire Philadelphia airport -- and its heavily regulated and surveiled spaces -- was represented using entirely computer generated imagery.

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Sunday, January 28, 2007

Collective Ignorance

"Collective intelligence," perhaps best exemplified by the work of Pierre Lévy, who has been recently popularized by Henry Jenkins, has been central to much contemporary cybertheory. Nonetheless, Malcolm Gladwell has been questioning the wisdom of collective intelligence in recent years. In Blink, he shows how groups of New York City police officers and Southern California antiquities experts can reach the wrong decisions, although discrete individuals might otherwise see essential errors. In his new article on Enron in The New Yorker, "Open Secrets: Enron, intelligence, and the perils of too much information," Gladwell implicitly goes after collective intelligence again, pointing out that the Bush administration has thrown human resources at foreign policy issues and yet failed to differentiate between a "mystery" (in which information is contradictory, complex, or inconclusive) and a "puzzle" (in which information is simply insufficient). I disagree with Gladwell's proposition that the Enron executives shouldn't be judged too harshly, given their public disclosures, since there's still a good legal case to be made for fraudulent business practices. However, I do agree with his contention that in the current war on terror we probably need more analysts and fewer spies to arrive at better decision-making.

Of course, I often rely on collective intelligence when I travel. The aggregation of reviews on sites like TripAdvisor helps me find smaller hotels without flashy advertising that have excellent service and amenities that the major travel guides may miss. I've also been fortunate to have benefited from collective intelligence practices from my hosts, such as the Goodwill Guides in Japan, who match visitors to volunteer club members.

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Saturday, January 27, 2007

Virtual Rape and Torture

There was lots of controversy on the final day of the conference about the “Ethics of Computer Games.” Conference host Patrick Coppock pointed out that the virtualization of the war might be far more ethically troubling than Super Columbine Massacre RPG. Edward H. Spence revisited some of the territory of Julian Dibbell’s classic, “A Rape in Cyberspace" to argue that avatars, as representations of real, sentient beings, had a right to the dignity of personhood. Some in the audience questioned whether real world morality and its associated legal structure could really be transferred to spaces of fantasy. Next Rune Ottosen gave a journalistic perspective on how military videogames were skewing public perceptions of news events. Peter Rauch presented some of his comprehensive research on torture in videogames and proposed a serious game that would show its negative psychic and geopolitical consequences. Before my paper, the last one of the conference, Ren Reynolds offered a nuanced view of how communal norms function in MMO games. Reynolds blogs with Edward Castronova at the excellent Terra Nova and is also interesting from a Virtualpolitik standpoint because he has worked as a web designer for a number of government sites in the U.K.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Getting Mad at Bismarck

On the second day of the conference about “player experience” there may have been more papers on first-person shooters and references to Husserl and Merleau-Ponty than I might have preferred, but a number of interesting issues about power constructs in game environments were raised. Although some of the work could have been accused of what Aarseth has called “media determinism” and also of privileging the visual when sound is an important component of videogames. Jonathan Frome, as part of a larger project called, “why movies make us cry, but videogames don’t” explored three seemingly contradictory premises: 1) we do not believe in the reality of fiction, 2) we have emotional responses to fiction, and 3) we must believe in something. Petri Lankosi discussed situated emotions in games with the memorable example of feeling angry at Bismarck for capturing one of his minor provincial cities in Civilization IV, even though he is a non-playing character with limited AI. Other audience members contributed their own emotional events in game worlds. Celia Pearce talked about her remorse over accidentally setting the father in The Sims on fire, even though others might to the same act on purpose with great glee. Hanna K. Sommerseth (above) talked about a number of reality effects from smell-o-vision and rumble packs in the pre-history of videogames to photorealistic in-game graphics from nonexistent glass lenses. The day came to a memorable end with the Ludica paper about modes of dress-up in game worlds, which was read by Pearce (below).


Thursday, January 25, 2007

Don't Know Much about Ontology

The first international conference on the Philosophy of Computer Games opened with Espen Aarseth’s keynote address about how games represented a conglomeration of real, virtual, and fictional objects. Aarseth used the examples of money, labyrinth, and – somewhat less persuasively – doors in game worlds to illustrate his assertion that we already accept the reality of certain conventional constructs and that money with exchange value was a very different entity from the prop Danish monopoly money he brought with him to demonstrate the point. He argued that virtual objects could be imagined, observed, used, manipulated, and explored, and also acknowledged that certain fictional particulars (the age of the Earth in the Bible or the depiction of the city of London in a novel) could also be tested. However, some audience members objected that Aarseth may be underestimating the traditional cultural work of fiction by privileging models generated by computer simulations.

In the rest of the day’s sessions on the theme of “computer game entities,” many of the interested philosophers present seemed to share Aarseth’s premise about the reality of game objects and were willing to defend their ontological status on a number of logical grounds. They were also interested in using game environments to test philosophical ideas and would prove to be eager to collaborate with game designers for that purpose.


Memory Palaces

Advance Warning: Apologies to readers who are looking for the politics of technology in this post. I’m on vacation for a few days and so this entry perhaps only tangentially reflects information culture.

For rhetoricians, the city of Bologna, Italy is one of the major world cities for the development of the profession, a place where great Latin teachers have raised sarcophagi on public pedestals, and Saint Dominic was laid to rest. I’ve also made a pilgrimage to Bologna, because it is a place associated with the followers of Dominican-trained Giordano Bruno, the great pedagogue of the “memory palace” from the early modern period. (You can check out some period illustrations at this site.) In my research, I have noticed that memory palaces often come up in scholarship and artwork about digital culture surprisingly often.

Being in Bologna has also filled me with some sadness, because it is a place that I saw for the first time through the eyes of my friend from graduate school, Wendy America Hester, a woman of many languages, great taste, boundless atheism, and the best adopted middle name of anyone I know, who strangely doesn’t seem to be adequately memorialized on the web. It was through Wendy that I first learned about the artworks of Joseph Cornell, the writings of Walter Benjamin, the paintings of Artemisia Gentileschi, much of what I know about the Baroque period and the Russian language, the back story on the Museum of Jurassic Technology, basic principles of movie set dressing, and the archiving system for visual materials at The New York Times. (I had never thought about metadata for visual images until Wendy explained procedures at her former job for the Times.) Because of Wendy, I see small details in movies and large curatorial principles in museums that I would otherwise never notice. As one of her advisors Juliet Flower MacCannell has said, it’s a shame that Wendy’s writings about “the collector,” her academic specialty, were never published before she died.

Bologna is a city in which the collector has a special role. The university museums at the Palazzo Poggi are filled with Enlightenment era oddities and curiosities that include gory wax reproductions of human organs and clay fetuses in various stages of gestation. I went to the city’s major art museum and was struck by the mixture of the academic and the grotesque hanging on the gallery walls: Francesco Mazzola dello il Parmigianino painted a Madonna who looks like she is about to eat the Christ child, Ercole de Roberti’s head of Mary Magdelene is almost obscene with its lolling tongue, Antonio di Bartolomeo Maineri’s produced an unintentionally comic St. Sebastian stuck with arrows complete with a clown-like onlooker, and the pastel colored central figures of Francesco del Cossa’s Mary and Jesus with St. Peter and St. John are given less detail than either the geekily precise model of the holy city or the well bookmarked book. That’s not to say that there aren’t great paintings there: a luminous and sketchy Christ on the Cross by Titian, Rafael’s wonderful St. Cecilia, a Paradiso by the Master of Bologna. Although he is mercilessly lampooned by Mark Twain in Innocents Abroad, I have also come to like Guido Reni, one of Bologna’s native sons, who has wonderful portraits of women: his mother, a turbaned sibyl, and the women whose babies are sacrificed in the slaughter of the innocents. I also learned about Bologna’s native daughter Lavinia Fontana, whose work I will look for in future. (She also did this "Portrait of a Girl Covered in Hair.")

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Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Five Not So Easy Pieces

Okay, I spoke too soon. No sooner did I post this yesterday, but Nedra Weinreich tagged me. So here goes. My five things that readers probably don’t know about me:

1) I literally owe my existence to the Republican Party. My parents met through the Sunset Young Republicans, where my father was President, and my mother was Secretary. Thus, all of my early formative political experiences were at Republican events. Of course, it was still a time when Republicans were actually talking about women’s rights and national health care, so it was a very different world. One of my fondest memories as a kid was helping cantankerous old Clara Link slap pro-ERA stickers on the backs of unwitting right-wing politicians. (ERA stands for Equal Rights Amendment for the Gen-Xers who might not know that there was once a proposed Constitutional amendment on the subject.)

2) I’ve pretty much always been a big nerd, although I tried to hide it as a teen, when I figured out that my ability to program Space Invaders rip-offs in BASIC on a Radio Shack TRS-80 wasn’t going to get me any dates. Growing up in Pasadena, where one could just as easily dream of being a JPL engineer as a Rose princess, I was encouraged to learn about computers very early on. My father taught me a little FORTRAN, I remember going to Cal Tech and feeding punch cards into their giant machines, and – as this incriminating photo shows – I owned one a Xerox 820 with giant dual 8-inch drives back when it was really just a curiosity. (Since there was an indoor pool in my college dorm, the bikini I am wearing was considered much less of an oddity than the strange machine on my desk.)

3) The lowest grade I received in college – by far – was in Expository Writing, in which I got a “C.” Given that I now direct a nationally-recognized college writing program, this is probably the most embarrassing story about me. (Well, the fact that I was once hypnotized to want to grade papers may be almost as damaging to my reputation, but I only have to reveal five things, so I can leave that one for a future blog post.) In my defense regarding my low grade, I’d point out: 1) None of my other grades were anywhere near that range, 2) My admirable colleague Nancy Sommers was not directing the program then, 3) It was a course deceptively entitled “Writing about Literature,” but the readings included fluff like Nora Ephron, 4) I had just won a national writing contest and so slacked off and didn’t do any drafting.

4) At one time, I was a relatively active member of the local Code Pink group and dressed up in goofy attention-getting ways for marches with other feminist pacifists, as yet another incriminating photo shows. Alas, part of my skepticism about the coverage of activist events by the mainstream media was shaped by the experience. Large, peaceful demonstration: no coverage. Small, quirky demonstration where things got either weird or ugly because of counter demonstrators or uncontrollable sympathizing crackpots: lots of coverage because the local station had a few precious minutes of circus-like events on film

5) For the past few years I have been almost continuously enrolled in various language classes at my local community college, where I am methodically working through their course offerings in French, German, and Japanese. I have discovered that this involves taking real tests and doing real homework and that I am ridiculously invested in getting good grades. Being a student again, given my age and occupation is a little odd, and I will confess to almost always sitting in the front row with the other eager beavers. But I think it has improved my own teaching more than anything else, and I value the extra literacy in languages other than English. In skits, I confess that I usually chose the role of the class clown, lazy student, or other hammy part.

So I’ll tag five people that I would guess haven’t been tagged before: Jenny Cool, Mitsuharu Hadeishi, Julia Lupton, Lynn Mally, and Amy Bruckman.

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Tuesday, January 23, 2007


Perhaps while I'm in transit, readers can check out what is happening in other technology and social media blogs. Of course, the latest craze in the blogosphere is a game of tag in which bloggers reveal five things about themselves that even loyal readers wouldn't otherwise know. You might be surprised by some of the details about Internet authors' lives, given their online personalities. Houtlust, danah boyd, Nedra Weinreich, and Henry Jenkins have already had their tell-all moments.


Monday, January 22, 2007

La Dolce Vita

For the next few days, I'll be off my regular Southern California beat, as I head to Italy to present at the Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, which is hosted by the University of Modena and the city of Reggio Emilia (a municipality known for its theater, an image of which I have reproduced above). If you are in Northern Italy, I would encourage you to attend this conference, which is free and open to the public. Game studies heavy hitters include Espen Aarseth and the wonderful women from Ludica.


Sunday, January 21, 2007

But Can They Sing the Internationale?

Recent anti-fascist demonstrations in Second Life and the presence of representatives of the UN in Second Life are worth checking out if you are interested in how SL can function as a transnational political entity. Will it be governed by the principles of a state of nature model or by some other initial state or blank slate?


Saturday, January 20, 2007

Next Slide, Please

In the upcoming article in Wired magazine entitled "The Invisible Enemy," which is on acinetobacter, a drug-resistant supergerm unintentionally being cultivated in the evacuation chain of wounded from the Iraq war, the writer implicitly notes the dramatic contrast between two commonly used electronic genres in its communicative norms.

The reporter points out that one veterans' activist started a website,, to which "e-mail started pouring in." A few sentences later, he explains that the government also responded to health anxieties with a risk communication plan. A PowerPoint presentation at the U.S. Air Force School of Aerospace Medicine on the subject of acinetobacter had a slide labeled "How to handle the press" that read "Don't lie. Don't obfuscate. Don't tell them any more than you absolutely have to."


Friday, January 19, 2007

Swan Song

Just a few weeks ago Time Magazine reporters like Massimo Calabresi were implicitly criticizing bloggers in copies on newsstands for their lack of journalistic integrity. In "The Wizard of Odd," Calabresi characterized convicted bomber and admitted former drug dealer Brett Kimberlin as the chief representative of opponents of electronic voting machines and included his grandiose e-mail correspondence in his reporting. The article discusses the "blogosphere" several times in condescending terms: as a site for "mixing fact and fiction," a dumping ground for an "indiscriminate gush anti-e-voting material," a stage for "grandiosity" and "lack of credibility," and an "anonymous universe."

It's obviously an issue that I'm invested in in my own coverage of the intersections of technology and politics that included an investigative jaunt behind the scenes as a poll worker. I'm sure that I've gotten as many conspiratorial e-mails about e-voting as the reporter has, but it's odd that he chooses to spend so much time on a colorful character before acknowledging the academic researchers involved in publicizing vulnerabilities in voting technology. Ironically, today the magazine announced that it would be cutting hundreds of jobs to allocate more resources to Internet publishing ventures.

The North Carolina Science Blogging Conference is also getting underway, which encourages blogging in the service of publicizing results, debunking pseudo-science, and engaging the digital generation in scientific careers.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

The Borrowed Kettle

As the Slamdance indie game festival gets underway today in Park City, Utah, the controversy about the forced withdrawal of Super Columbine Massacre RPG! continues. As a one-time finalist, the game -- which combines documentary digital ephemera from the actual school shootings with crude RPG graphics to facilitate a variety of forms of critical engagement and reflection -- received positive reviews from Clive Thompson ("I, Columbine Killer") and Ian Bogost ("Columbine, Videogame as Expression, and Ineffability"). It also received complaints after it was linked to the Dawson College Shootings, and its supporters were pilloried by the conservative Parents Television Council. The game's creator, Danny LeDonne also makes agit-prop videos that are disseminated through social media sites like YouTube and MySpace.

After the game was withdrawn, finalists and sponsors pulled out in protest. Virtualpolitik pal Nick Montfort withdrew his interactive fiction work Book and Volume, and the award-winning creator of family-friendly Clouds, Tracy Fullerton successfully pushed for the USC Interactive Media program to yank its Slamdance sponsorship. Of course, not all universities were so supportive of the disgruntled other finalists: citing their intellectual property interests as as sponsoring institution, the DigiPen institute forced a reinstatement of their entry.

What's interesting about the SlamDance rationale is the number of reasons given for deleting Super Columbine from consideration. It seems like a classic case of Freudian overdetermination, like the "borrowed kettle" that Slavoj Zizek uses to explain the excessive justifications for the Iraq war.

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Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Not So Pretty Pictures

Digital networks facilitate the dissemination of more traditional visual information such as the statistics represented in the pages of the recently released UN Iraq Human Rights Report or the long-running Brookings Institution Iraq Index. At the same time network theory is also transforming those modes of displaying quantitative information, so we see graphs like the Network Graph of News Stories or this distributed depiction of Internet Black Holes. Informational and real spaces often overlap, as they do in the Downtown Los Angeles Homeless Map. There are also some more light-hearted depictions of alternatives to chartjunk such as the Periodic Table of Visualization (see above), Feltron 2006, and my current personal favorite the Indexed Blog, which inspired this video about "Le Grand Content" below.

Strangely, the federal government still seems to be locked into weak graphic representations that don't even rise to the level of allegory, as can be seen by the much-maligned recent transformation of Woodsy Owl at

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Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Monster Under the Bed

Now that the Shawn Hornbeck and Ben Ownby case appears to have an online connection, in that the older boy maintained internet profiles on social networking sites and posted messages to a board set up by his parents on a missing child site designed to search for him, it is likely that regulatory pressures to limit access to the Internet by minors may be back in the news this congressional year. Although we all certainly hope that DOPA is dead, the possibility that electronic predatory behavior may have been involved on multiplayer gaming sites as well may cause elected representatives to revisit the issue.

Of course, as danah boyd points out the facts about online sexual abuse point to likelihood of face-to-face relationships being the key factor and the role of the social safety net in prevention, particularly in intervening when abusive family members are involved. But the old Platonic anxieties about disembodied new media and its possible corrupting influence on the young are certainly still around, as recent blog postings warning about children imitating the hanging of Saddam Hussein as it was shot on a cell phone and posted on video-sharing sites show.

With the government getting into the act of promoting fear at and even former political sex kitten Donna Rice climbing on the bandwagon, advocates for digital rights should be gearing up for more conflict.


Monday, January 15, 2007

Public Domain

Today is an important day to mark the legacy of a great activist for civil rights, human rights, and the peace movement and perhaps the planet's last great political orator as we move into the Internet age. As my colleague Vivian Folkenflik points out the holiday allows us to create and inhabit our own memorial spaces that honor the spirit of his work.

But, at the risk of committing a sacrilege that may offend some readers, it is worth also commemorating the fact that the work of this great cultural borrower and weaver is not yet part of the public domain where it justifiably belongs. In 1993 the King Estate sued USA Today for reprinting the "I Have a Dream" speech on the thirtieth anniversary of the event, and in 1998 it sued CBS for copyright infringement, even though this speech was delivered in front of 200,000 people and remains a historical high-water mark in our common public memory of social change. You can read how King's image is also licensed for inappropriate commercials in The Washington Post and The New York Times. For more on this story from Virtualpolitik, you can go here, here, and here.


The Joke's On Us

We're only two weeks in to 2007, and already there is the first nomination for this year's Foleys for bad government web design. Only last week, the Chronicle of Higher Education castigated the execrable for its terrible user interface in "Wading Through"

Of course, there's more to be said for unintentional humor, with the recent NPR story on intellectual property disputes involved in "Suing for a Punchline: Leno, NBC Target Joke Books."

I looked up "joke" in Whitehouse search engine and found the following images among the top results. It turned out that actually many of the "joke" titles involve photographs of the current Vice President. The rhetoric of these search results is interesting, both in providing a form of White House "photo essay," a genre which I have written about before here, and in illuminating the relatively crude mark-up practices represented by photo captioning and the kind of data that the metadata "joke" marks.

Among the prose offerings for "joke" on the White House website there was this gem from Tom Ridge, former head of the Department of Homeland Security, which is ironic given recent legal challenges to humorous competitors on the grounds of intellectual property:

I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of humor and enjoy a good story or joke. And I also think that humor is a very effective way of communicating serious messages. So when political cartoonists, singing groups or comedians talk about duct tape, it is a humorous reminder for all Americans to take a look at our web site ( to review our emergency preparedness recommendations and kit suggestions. When they talk about the color coded warning system, they remind us that the 21st century includes a different kind of enemy, international terrorism, that has America as its primary target and that we need to understand that we must be constantly vigilant and on the alert.

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Sunday, January 14, 2007

Write No Evil

In the past, I have argued that whistle-blowers often strangely shun electronic communication, despite the need to reveal potential disasters and scandals quickly, because e-mail was not seen as an appropriate venue to effect policy change.

However, the first-person authority of YouTube may be changing the rhetorical situation, so that whistle-blowers like this Lockheed engineer who revealed safety and security flaws in work done for the Coast Guard use the Internet to publicize wrongdoing. Now a Guanatanamo defense lawyer has created the Project Hammad website and this YouTube video below to bring attention to the case for his client's innocence.


Saturday, January 13, 2007

Slow News Day

Well, it's not really that slow a news day, since there were some notably stiff sentences handed out last week that may well have a chilling effect on educators and parents who are held responsible for monitoring the use of the Internet by the young. A substitute teacher convicted of having pornography on a school computer faces up to 40 years in prison, and the daughter of Patti Santangelo, whose fight against the recording industry became a cause célèbre in the blogosphere, received a hefty $30,750 fine for piracy despite dropped charges against her mother.

However, I want to take a Virtualpolitik day to review Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge by Jean-Noël Jeanneney, president of the French national library, the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Jeanneney makes a good case for skepticism about Google's ambitions to digitize the content of the world's great libraries and brings up many of the same objections that are raised by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his essay about the potential for "A Risky Gamble with Google" about privatization, proprietary technologies and contracts, and potential corporate vulnerability to liability for copyright violation. Jeanneney is also making a cultural argument about the threat to basic European information infrastructure when English texts are privileged, and cultural artifacts that buttress American ideology are prioritized. He argues for creating a competing European search engine with Airbus as the cooperative model. He also claims that if citizens don't pay as taxpayers, they will pay as consumers, so that publicly funded initiatives for digital libraries need support, which is a case that I have certainly similarly made. Furthermore, even though some -- like Cory Doctorow -- are skeptical about claims made for metadata, Jeanneney is making an argument for a qualitative as well as a quantitative approach to digitization that values electronic mark-up of documents and the value of readable text.

Still, I find myself with issues about this book. No one is a bigger Francophile than I am. I use my iPod to download French news broadcasts from the Internet, crane my neck to follow a conversation in French between a pair of tourists, and will even confess to getting choked up over certain French national symbols when I'm in Paris. But I think that Jeanneney is clearly not speaking to an American audience or even to me.

Although he disavows a "crusade or a culture war" his implicit equation of "civilization" (a frequently used word) with European values is a bit off-putting, and he devotes relatively little attention to the needs of the developing world, despite an interesting claim that "inequalities of knowledge" will actually proliferate if knowledge is voluminously stored without proper cataloging for retrieval. He's clearly irked by American anti-French xenophobia, but it's odd that he focuses on a relatively arcane example, Simon Schama's Citizens and its unsympathetic historical portrayal of the French revolution, rather than something more indicative of the mainstream U.S. Zeitgeist like statements made on talk radio or the switch to "Freedom fries."

Certainly even relatively right-wing Gaulists that I know brag of their ancestors' signatures on revolutionary cahiers of complaint. Granted, Jeanneny is probably right that Americans misunderstand the French revolution, and the fact that it was also an information revolution that attacked the king's control of copyright deposit and other forms of censorship by the elites. My favorite authors of this period -- Madame Roland, Germaine de Staël, Olympe de Gouges, the Marquis of Condorcet, Louis-Sébastien Mercier, Restif de la Bretonne -- were keenly aware of this feature of their historical time. But it seems like a cocktail party argument about cultural difference rather than a relevant objection to Google's plans.

Furthermore, Jeanneney actually says remarkably little about the "myth of universal knowledge" promised by his title or even addresses what I consider to be a fundamental schism between two contemporaneous cultures: a culture of knowledge and a culture of information.

Finally, there are a number of notable blind spots in this book. He praises the index as an organizational invention, and yet declines to provide one for his own book. He holds up the Library of Congress as a model with their American Memory project and yet ignores their regrettable deal with Coca Cola. He lauds his own digital library Gallica without acknowledging how inefficient its document selection and metadata parameters can be.

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Friday, January 12, 2007

Wikipedia Update

Since my last Wikipedia Round-Up, there's more to report from print and the blogosphere.

Today's Wired Campus Blog from the Chronicle for Higher Education reports on two initiatives in a "Wikipedia for Scholars -- Take Two." According to its FAQ section, still yet-to-launch Citizendium plans to provide a "gradual fork" off Wikipedia for "expert-led" articles with more scholarly input.

Now there is also Scholarpedia, which adds a layer of vetting through "peer review," to its look-alike interface, so that citations could be taken as more reliable. I tend to be skeptical about online initiatives that promise this layer of "peer-review" without building a sustainable virtual community that will encourage continuing participation. You can see why I have a somewhat jaded view in this paper, which was published by Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education two years ago, if you consider the fate of the once much vaunted and now largely moribund "peer-reviewed" MERLOT.

I poked around a bit in Scholarpedia's Encyclopedia of Computational Intelligence, since I write about technology, and I'd consider myself to be relatively able to define pretty specialized terms like "Bayesian Learning" or "Belief Network" or "Markoff Algorithms" in comparison to someone off the street. I have to say I thought that the accessibility of the prose to lay readers would have to be considered to be pretty poor, given the lack of clarity in the writing and absence of background context, which print encyclopedia editors certainly emphasize. Plus, key entries like "cybernetics" are unreadable.

Of course, I was quite reluctant to side against Wikipedia during my first round-up a few months ago, given that Encyclopedia Britannica was leading the charge. As a writer for the similarly encyclopedic Dictionary of Literary Biography, I knew that the Britannica entry on Sigmund Freud contained some misstatements about Freud's life. This is particularly ironic, since at one time Sigmund Freud was a Britannica contributer, along with Albert Einstein, Marie Curie, Bertrand Russell, and George Bernard Shaw.

However, there is something to be said for the work of traditional encyclopedia article-writing being a part of the academy, and Wikipedia makes these enterprises even more likely to be devalued in university departments. From experience, I can tell you it's difficult to write one of these articles, and the fact that they aren't worth anything for purposes of tenure and promotion is discouraging. Just try to boil down a theoretical classic like Civilization and Its Discontents to one paragraph and you'll see what I mean! Unlike Wikipedia, print encyclopedias also check with living subjects for accuracy, which means that scholars sometimes find themselves rebuting the official autobiography of an eminent person. Of course, it also means that sometimes you get some cool mail from your subjects. (Thanks, Claude Levi-Strauss!)

There are two other interesting criticisms of Wikipedia that I've read this week: a short essay by anthropologist and film-maker Jenny Cool in praise of traditional databases and the argument against relying on volunteerism and in favor of building publicly funded infrastructure in Jean-Noel Jeanneney's Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge.


Thursday, January 11, 2007

Free Admission

There is encouraging news from the Victoria and Albert Museum, which has just announced that it will no longer charge academics and scholars for using its digital images.

The new policy comes into place in order to bolster the museum's commitment to providing access to its collections, but it will mean that some revenue is lost (possibly over 100,000 punds a year). It may also put pressure on other major institutions to end charging for image
downloads, a practice up to now jealously guarded by many of the big UK galleries.

From early 2007, visitors to the Collections Online database will be able to easily download hi-resolution images free of charge, providing they are for academic use. The definition of this will be quite broad, but the finer aspects of the policy's implementation have yet to be set in stone.

The V&A image library contains everything from Arts and Crafts movement wallpaper samples to Sixties fashion shots and cutting edge designs.

Also, the V&A has podcasts. How cool is that!


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Parental Warning

Warning: Do not install Vista as your kid's operating system.

Despite what you may have heard this week from places like The New York Times in articles like "For Parents, New Way to Control the Action," it's a truly terrible idea to install software that enforces centralized corporate controls and intentionally disables programs that come from independent software developers. They may say, "It is not overreaching to say that if you have young children who play computer games or use the Internet you are basically remiss if you do not upgrade to Vista as soon as possible," but listen to the chief technologist of the Electronic Freedom Foundation, Seth Schoen, if you don't believe me and read what he has to say here. Or read from a leading game developer about how Vista hobbles independent game makers who can't afford to buy a rating from the expensive ESRB system. I'm a parent, and I say this new operating system violates almost every one of my 10 Principles for the Digital Family. (This week I'm playing the delightfully mindless GrowCube games with my kids.)

Just say no.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

It May Take More than the Carrot and the Stick

Iranian bloggers are being asked to register their sites with a central agency, but they aren't going quietly. You can see the home page of the Iranian government's site above. As one Iranian blogger has pointed out, however, the site has been subject to hackers and has had its web design originality questioned, given the existence of a look-alike Israeli site; best of all, the IP address of this solemn organ of state authority is actually located in Asbury Park, NJ.

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Monday, January 08, 2007

Multiple Choice

There are a number of interactive quizzes on the web these days with political overtones, from the fixed questionnaire Is Bush a Psychopath? to this political quiz designed to place the reader numerically on a Liberal/Conservative index. The blogosphere has recently discovered that serious researchers are also trolling the web to encourage visitors to their site to explore their social, political, and cultural attitudes. This series of projects at Project Implicit has particularly interesting projects about homophobia and xenophobia.

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Sunday, January 07, 2007

Bad News

In the past few years, web watchers who follow political events directly from primary sources may have noticed that the Federal News Service and their claims of copyright have become more prominent in what you would normally think of as government records in the public domain, which are posted on the web or otherwise available electronically.

However, according to their copyright notices, you'd be wrong. Whether it is transcripts of Intelligence Committee Hearings or military briefings from Pentagon officials about Iraq, this service threatens those who disseminate public information about the workings of our democracy with dire consequences. Unfortunately they have a lock on certain government documents, many of which can't be gotten through other means, even from other commercial services like LexisNexis.

To give you the flavor of their legalism, here is the language posted at the bottom of a briefing to the press:


The news service, which was founded in 1984 during the Reagan era of privatization, is now run by president Cheryl A. Reagan (no relation to the Former commander in Chief), who is also the owner of the Grace News Network, along with Thorne G. Auchter, who has a Sourcewatch page of his own. Ms. Reagan has been described as a "fundamentalist Christian millionaire" who is proud to claim that the latter organization "will be reporting the current secular news, along with aggressive proclamations that will ‘change the news’ to reflect the Kingdom of God and its purposes.” Grace News Network was also strangely given a contract by the U.S. government for broadcasting Arabic language news in Muslim Iraq after the occupation. Reagan has also had well-documented bankruptcy woes, as this chronology reveals.

FNS has a terrible anti-trust history under its previous head Cortes W. Randell, a shady character who went on to run eModel, which garnered bad publicity for its fraudulent claims and financial troubles. In connection with an earlier venture, the National Student Marketing Corporation, Randell was featured in a New York Times "Rogue's Gallery." Almost unbelievably, I must point out that Randell took charge of the FNS and enjoyed the benefits of a government contract AFTER the Times described him as a "convicted stock swindler." Randell had been involved with FNS as late as 2002, although now he is apparently involved in a Washington-based Christian ministry that warns of "Nazi Islamic Fascism." As the Times admits, the scary thing is that the media has been depending on FNS coverage for decades despite all the stranger-than-fiction church-state, anti-trust, and financial mismanagement issues.

The incursions of this organization into the free culture of the public sphere urgently deserve attention from the copyfight community.

By the way, in that spirit, belated wishes to all for Happy Public Domain Day.

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Saturday, January 06, 2007

All the King's Horses and All the King's Men

This week's shake up at CentCom, the military's central command division that is responsible for overseeing forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, made me want to visit their website again. They have a multi-year history of posting voluminous leaflet galleries, so that U.S. citizens can see the printed ephemera of the battlefront. (Some of the more interesting ones I've grabbed from the web over the years are posted here.) When I was publishing an electronic hypertext essay in Kairos about how the rhetoric of government websites communicated sometimes ideologically contradictory messages about the September 11th attacks and the subsequent war in Afghanistan, CentCom had the only official webmaster who would answered my e-mails, and he responded with friendly, public domain assurances and genuine interest in what he could do to improve his information services. Despite following their stated procedures for access, it was impossible to get the White House, the FBI, the State Department, or the Department of Justice to respond to my requests for information and formal publication permission. So Centcom has long had a warm spot in my heart.

Unfortunately, the once model transparency of Centcom has clearly gone downhill, and they've become little more than advertising in justification of the doomed Iraq policy by perpetuating a simplistic binary world view of good and evil. The site includes Heroes in Action and What Extremists are Saying. A related periodical The Nature of the Enemy addresses remarkably little about the opponent's probable motivations and is largely devoted to demonization. Another series of PDF periodicals Iraq Reconstruction Reports seems particularly disingenuous, given the absence of power or public safety that blogging Iraqis are reporting.

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Ding, Dong, DOPA is Dead

Despite passing overwhelmingly in the House, the Deleting Online Predators Act never made it out of the legislative branch to the President's desk. This legislation, which would have barred access to social networking sites in schools and libraries, would have hampered public agencies and nonprofit groups who are reaching out to teens and tweens online and would have had placed economic burdens on the urban poor who use these sites instead of more costly long-distance telephone calls. According to the Learning Now blog on PBS, four of the bill's sponsors lost their re-election bids, and so they lacked the political capital to push it through the Senate before the slate of the year's business was wiped clean, and Democrats who might have second thoughts about the bill took over.

Read more objections from Henry Jenkins and Danah Boyd here. Virtualpolitik has talked about DOPA here, here, here, here, and here.


Friday, January 05, 2007

Thanks for Noticing

Today's New York Times front page story, "Giuliani's Strategy is All on His Website," can be taken a sign of the fact that print media are finally paying attention to the fact that political websites make rhetorical appeals and that some digital appeals are more successful with audiences than others. Otherwise, it's actually a pretty superficial analysis of the site, which focuses on what's not there (prior scandals, ex-wives, etc.) rather than what is. I find the Giuliani website interesting because, like many political draft sites, it doesn't feature an actual platform for the future but rather looks backwards to the past by focusing on twin appeals to biography ("About Rudy") and prior experience ("Rudy's Record"). Also worth noticing is the absence of the urban context so important for the former Mayor of New York's legacy. To see him symbolized by American flags rather than a specific locale that might alienate Red State voters seems to me an interesting web design decision.


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Flowers for Seymour

Particularly since Santa Claus brought my ten-year-old a Lego Mindstorms robot, I've been thinking about Seymour Papert, the pioneer in artificial intelligence and advocate for the One Laptop per Child Project, who first argued for creating opportunities for children to program computers rather than merely having computers program children, as has been much more commonly done by otherwise well-meaning technologists.

Papert suffered a head injury from a motorbike accident in Vietnam, which happened while he was crossing a busy street as a pedestrian, and he is apparently still seriously ill. Well-wishers can send him virtual flowers via the photo-sharing program Flickr or sign an e-card to share a collective hope that he will get well soon.

You can read an excerpt from Papert's seminal essay, Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas in the excellent New Media Reader compiled by Virtualpolitik conference buddies Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort or check out the book's foreward on his site.

Jeff Han has argued that supposedly more intuitive sensory input technology will be more important for the developing world than Negroponte's $100 laptop (or $150 laptop now that it is going into production), and some large countries like India have declined to support the one laptop program, but I like the design aesthetic that Papert is supporting with his advocacy efforts, and I thought that the good digital design of his well-wishers also merits a detour to their sites.

Furthermore, Papert's work in AI may one day have political implications for digital culture. According to the BBC, the British Government's Horizon Scanning Centre has formulated a provisional "bill of rights" for sentient robots and other computerized beings.

Update: After posting this item, I noticed yet another example of how user-generated content sharing programs like Flickr can function as social media. By coincidence, right after I uploaded this bouquet of virtual flowers for Papert, electronic learning community expert Amy Bruckman, who I knew in college, uploaded this one.

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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

James Brown, Gerald Ford, and Saddam Hussein Walk Into a Bar . . .

I do have to say something about last week's media-induced psychosis, for those of us who were watching the memorialization of three very different public figures -- James Brown, Gerald Ford, and Saddam Hussein -- who died last week. Just watching the close captioning on news feeds from CNN drifting over the screen above various convention center hallways, airport terminals, and bars fostered a weird synaesthesia. (Perhaps my favorite close-captioning moment was when the "Coalition of the Willing" was mistranslated as the "Coalition of the Ruling.") This Ford/Brown mash-up by a church organist deploying that classic multimedia machine for a remix of "Hail to the Chief" and "I Feel Good" may say it all.

Of course, I've seen both Gerald Ford and James Brown performing live. The first presidential speech that I ever listened to in its entirety was when I was a kid in the audience listening to Ford talk at Pepperdine University. There is an official website for the state funeral that covers Ford lying in state at the Capitol and for being interred at his presidential library and museum. I hate to sound disrespectful, but Ford probably has the worst website for any presidential center with no interesting virtual exhibits on display. To think, the Federal Design Program was still in existence during the Ford administration. You would think he would know that good web design is important. Of course, I think the digital files of Ford taking issue with the decision to invade Iraq are particularly important examples of the electronic ephemera associated with the 38th president.

When I saw Brown at the Wiltern Theater after one of his drug-related arrests, I certainly felt like I got my money's worth for three hours of the time of the hardest working man in rock 'n' roll. In addition to singing about "Living in America," James Brown had other impacts on civic life beyond the Apollo Theater, especially now the Augusta Civic Center has been renamed as the James Brown Arena in his honor.

It's difficult the find official websites dealing with the death of Saddam Hussein, now that the website for the Iraqi Special Tribunal goes to dead links. Of course, the macabre footage shot from a cell phone and posted on the Internet has now led to the arrest of one of his guards, according to today's New York Times, which provides yet more evidence of how citizen video can undermine state rhetoric. As the Times points out, two of the fourteen Iraqi officials and court observers were also openly filming the execution with cell phone cameras. Post-execution coverage of events in the Middle East from MOSAIC news feeds from Qatar, Lebanon, Iran, the Emirates, Algeria, and other regional states shows how the Internet potentially gives Americans access to global news very different from CNN or Fox. (You can also see a more selectively dark side of such coverage at the more ideologically right wing MEMRI.)

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Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Telling It Like It Is

To start the year off right, check out my pal and Writers Guild president Patric Verrone talking about media consolidation on YouTube. You can learn more about Verrone's old school union rabble-rousing efforts here. (The WGA, like many labor organizations, now has its own channel on YouTube.)


Monday, January 01, 2007

New Year's Resolutions

I think that making resolutions is like making wishes: it's best not to report them to others until they've actually come true. This picture actually shows my New Year's resolution from last year, which was to learn how to take advantage of the mobility of new input and display devices that allow highly portable recording and play functions so that I could generate more of my own content and wouldn't be tethered to my laptop when viewing and editing digital files. Considering that I've owned a personal computer since 1981 and have had e-mail since 1989, I've been a remarkable Luddite when it comes to other electronic communication apparatuses and media players.

I acquired all of these relatively common consumer items during this past calendar year and learned to use them competently, so I could make and show multimedia like this year-end film on the go. They are clockwise from the top right corner: 1) a mobile phone, 2) a digital camera, 3) a digital voice recorder, 4) a portable USB drive, 5) a video iPod, and 6) a video camcorder.

As Henry Jenkins has observed, however, many of these devices have redundant features. Several shoot video (#1, #2, #6), take still images (#1, #2), record sound data (#1, #2, #3, #6), display images and video (#1, #5), play music (#1, #5), and store 2-40 GB of digital files (all of the above).

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