Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Human Factors

The precipitous drop of the stock market this week reminded me of what Norbert Wiener called the problem of the "extremely smooth curve" in his 1948 treatise on Cybernetics: anticipating such curves may optimize performance by virtue of their gradual movement, but as representations of actual information they lack the sensitivity of more troublesome, less predictable, but more accurate "rough curves."

My former UCI colleague, philosopher Tim Schoettle, wrote his dissertation about investor perceptions the stock market. Writing in a bull market, he argued that there wasn't a ceiling for the value of the Dow. But computer programs can do much more rapid belief-updating than people can, and with particular pre-programmed sell-off thresholds the market tumbled 200 points in one minute, one of the the fastest declines in the market's history, which was later characterized as a "computer glitch." So perhaps with new rapid-response networked technologies "rational" computers may be more likely to set off a panic than "irrational" people, as events begin to cascade around the globe.

Virtual capitalism also functions at the level of the individual, as more citizens rely on on-line bill paying or investment interfaces on the Web. In "Blogging Away Debt," The New York Times reports that some consumer spendthrifts aspire to sound financial management through the sacrament of confession and hope to gain some fiscal discipline not by moving numbers around more rationally on their desktops but rather by confessing to their bad financial decisions online.

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No News is Old News

I'm usually reluctant to look at any link that I get from one of those astroturfing blogger chain letters, because it is often contains a message totally irrelevant to the contents of my actual blog. However, I thought I'd respond to a pitch to check out NewsWar from PBS's Frontline, and I'm glad I did, because found Part Three about "What's Happening to the News" to be worth the ninety minutes of my time . . . that is, after getting beyond the point when I almost turned the TV during the opening, because it introduced itself with the same hackneyed assertions about The Daily Show as meta-media that I've heard a million times. (I think TDS does a better job of covering political primary sources -- including rhetoric on the floor of the House and Senate -- than any broadcast show currently on the tube outside of C-SPAN.)

In the big picture, NewsWar argues that the news business is suffering from many of the same problems as the entertainment industry, namely the audience's tendencies toward 1) free-riding or 2) consuming non-professional user-generated content. Based on the Frontline coverage, it appears that the news media is pursuing many of the same strategies for success by planning to deliver highly targeted, condensed, or transmedia stories to the public.

Much of the air time was spent on the fate of my hometown newspaper, The Los Angeles Times, which is being pressured by investors to close international bureaus and instead fill column space to tantalize readers with more fluff celebrity pieces, despite a Pulitzer prize-winning history and its billion gross and 200 million net, which works out to a robust 20% return (certainly, an enviable profit in comparison to my UC retirement fund). Historically speaking, wrestling over control of the editorial content of The Times is not that new: I still remember schoolyard gossip at my ritzy prep school in Pasadena after a publisher dad fired an editor dad in the eighties. But there's something new to this rapacity of investors for downsizing, an almost vengeful compulsion to denigrate Los Angeles as a major metropolis. One New York investor suggested cutting coverage of the Iraq war and instead substituting items that he thought airhead Angelenos would prefer, such as things he thought they would "care about" more: "Style, Hollywood, Entertainment."

What I find truly appalling is that even the paper that I loyally subscribe to can pull stuff off the web as a way to avoid the hustle of real reporting. Last year, Siva Vaidhyanathan noticed that he was quoted by The Times without actually being interviewed, because the reporter yanked phrases off the Internet. This week, after I wrote this posting about an LA Times article with an uncited quotation from a right-wing online source, the reporter contacted me to say that the quotation actually originally came from this other source, which ironically points to both the source of the original quotation and the inaccuracy of the words that the writer chooses to insert.

Frontline notes that other papers that are holding onto their foreign offices have adapted better to the needs of web audiences, like The New York Times or The Washington Post, which recently ran an editorial, "Blogger on Ice," about an imprisoned Egyptian blogger, that acknowledged a shared interest in a free press for both print news and Internet commentary. (By the way, in connection with this story, Reporters without Borders is calling for the UN to deny Egypt's request to host the Internet Governance Forum in 2009. Egypt was already on their list of "Internet Enemies" even before the blogger's harsh sentence.) Outside the realm of national or international coverage, there are apparently hight profitable hyper-local news sources being held up as models by investors, which include the Studio 55 "vodcast" in Naples, Florida.

One of the central questions that the show spent time on is whether bloggers are journalists. Nicholas Lemann's piece in The New Yorker, "Amateur Hour," has been a touchstone in this debate. There are bloggers with professional journalism backgrounds, like Siva, but even he describes his blogging as akin to a "Manhattan cocktail party" in comparison to his serious writing. Although I enjoyed having a very minor role in breaking the story of the Sonic Jihad fiasco that later reached the mainstream media, I wouldn't consider my blogging here at Virtualpolitik journalism either.

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Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Small Town Blues

I live in a strange small town, the City of Santa Monica, where the median income is higher than that of Beverly Hills, and the Green Party is always represented on the City Council. Our proximity to major outposts of the largest hubs of the entertainment industry and significant nodes in e-commerce, the videogame business, and the digital arts more generally is unusual, particularly given the compact geography in which I can walk to the home of any of my fellow residents in less than thirty minutes.

It seems that our younger citizens have also been grabbing headlines because of their Internet practices, first as digitally insubordinate students and now as junior Internet celebrities. This weekend, The Los Angeles Times Magazine did a cover story on "The Secret Life of Cory Kennedy" that details how a sixteen-year-old girl who lives a few blocks away achieved fame and infamy via her MySpace page, YouTube music video, and other electronic social networks. (In the video, which has been viewed over 100,000 times on different pages, Cory is shown multitasking -- eating dinner while nodding along to the tune on her iPod; think LonelyGirl15 meets NumaNuma guy.)

If it's hard to characterize, it may be because hers is a dispatch from uncharted cultural waters. Never before have media, technology and celebrity collided with adolescence at such warp speed. Never before has it been so easy for, say, a middle-class kid with a curfew and no driver's license to rise to international fame almost without her parents' knowledge.

Put it this way: By the time Cory Kennedy's mother realized that her child had become, in the words of, an "Internet It Girl," the Web was riddled with photos of Cory posing, eating, dancing, shopping, romping at the beach, looking pensive and French-kissing one of the (adult) members of the rock band the Kings of Leon. She had European fan sites. She had thousands of people signing on to her MySpace pages. She had fashion bloggers dissecting her wardrobe

In general, unlike some other mothers on MySpace, I don't snoop on my child's Internet life. But I do know that my own teenage son, as his profile photo, has a picture of himself with the cover girl's sister . . . well, half this girl's sister, because if you are a teen not actually dating someone you don't want people to get the wrong non-ironic idea. So this story comes quite literally close to home, within a few blocks, at a house where I've dropped my kid off to spend the afternoon or evening. But I wonder how teenage boys are expected to compete in this hothouse electronic environment, when teenage girls are such a valuable Internet commodity.

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Monday, February 26, 2007

Hatchet Job

Because it references both archives and the blogosphere -- two areas that I write about as exemplary subjects for what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called "Critical Information Studies" -- I feel that I should probably say something about today's story in The Los Angeles Times, "A Philosophical View of Sex," which alleges that famed deconstructionist Jacques Derrida "had tried to use his coveted archives as leverage to derail a sexual harassment case against a professor at UC Irvine."

The basic causal analysis of the piece is, of course, overly simplistic. It claims that a single cause, "a vampire expert" allegedly seducing "a tipsy UC Irvine student," "inadvertently set off a chain of events" that led to a what had threatened to be a bitter legal battle between the University of California and Derrida's widow, although Le Monde recently reported that the conflict was now being mediated amicably. As a writing teacher, who teaches causal analysis, I want my students to view the causes of conflict in a more sophisticated way: it is rarely like watching a chain of dominoes fall. Anybody who has studied archival politics knows that the ownership of information always involves a lot of stake-holders and agendas, so to reduce the whole story to a single tidbit of academic gossip is to do readers a disservice.

Digital access advocates may say that the solution is to declare a pox on both their houses and put the entire archive online. But that may be a naive view that doesn't represent the realities of what you find if you spend any time actually sorting though boxes of paper ephemera or scrolling through microfilm from the estate of a contemporary author. For example, I did a lot of work with the materials from George Oppen in the Archive for New Poetry. At the time, I called it a "museum of hurt feelings," full of personal correspondence from living poets who were often angry at Oppen for missing scheduled speaking engagements or important publishing deadlines or for his unkind words when his mind was degenerating from Alzheimer's. These writers couldn't have known what we know now about Oppen's medical condition, and they certainly wouldn't want these highly personal exchanges a Google search away on the Internet. The end of a writer's life is often documented in certain intimacies. Even if it isn't, and the record in the archive is already public, that record can often only be interpreted through the editorial apparatus of scholarly publishing and careful indexing by librarians. Besides, manuscript originals still have economic value for their singularity, even in a post-Benjaminian age of mechanical production, which can't be easily divvied up.

Finally, it's worth noting that the writer ends the article with the claim that "Internet observers have begun satirizing the archive dispute," but he doesn't cite the source of the final quotation, which actually comes from an arch-conservative anti-academic blog from the National Review that describes itself as "THE RIGHT TAKE ON HIGHER ED" (and implicitly differentiates itself from the more neutral point of view of blogs like Inside Higher Ed). In fact, the writer himself, Roy Rivenburg, clearly is not the most objective reporter, based on the work of his own blog, Off Kilter, which links to a number of sites on his blog roll with anti-intellectual cultural agendas.

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Sunday, February 25, 2007

Beauty Contest

Today, as the Oscars get underway, the advertisers at The Los Angeles Times are publicizing another race, the "Real Ads by Real Woman" contest, sponsored by the Dove company and hosted online by AOL. Although the quality of the production values varies among these entries, one of them will appear as an amateur commercial -- supposedly made by a "real woman" -- touting Dove's products and be aired during a break in this highly rated evening of TV viewership.

As an example of how fan cultures are expected to produce not only user-generated content but even the corporate marketing that would normally interrupt or gatekeep conventional mass entertainment, this competition may represent a logical extreme of what Henry Jenkins has called "convergence culture."

This confusion of categories between participatory culture and corporate marketing may be particularly disturbing to those who look at the depiction of women in the media and point out that the parent company of Dove also makes ads for Eurocentric products in India, showcased in the skin color sexual politics of this commercial. It also authorizes sexist campaigns for men's deodorants and fragrances, which has inspired recent criticism of their corporate ideology by fellow Sivacracy blogger Ann Bartow.

At the same time, Dove has just unveiled the newest piece of its pseudo-social marketing effort, the Campaign for Real Beauty. Its "Beauty Has No Age Limit" ads for its hair care and skin product lines are aiming at older consumers, just as its "Real Women Have Real Curves" campaign and "Evolution" spots targeted average looking younger women who might feel unrepresented in Madison Avenue glamor pics. (Of course, like everything else, the "Evolution" campaign has inspired a number of parodies on the YouTube.)

There's a strong Internet component to the "Beauty Has No Age Limit" campaign that shows images of women in their fifties and sixties in their birthday suits and invites viewers to "watch what we couldn't show you on TV." By trying to create scandal or controversy around their supposedly positive spin on the natural process of aging, the implication is that this campaign would be offensive to mainstream sensibilities who are priggish about both nudity and viewing older women as sexual beings and thus taboo for television. As someone who spends some time in the visual culture of Europe, I thought that the ads were still pretty tame and perfectly in keeping with American puritanical sensibilities. And even though these older women were smiling for the camera as they hid their private parts, they were often shown crouching if not cowering in positions that suggest domination by the male gaze.

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A Terrible Irony

I am very sad to report that Mark Norris, the creator of the controversial HIV/AIDS campaign "Have You Been Hit?", has been shot to death this month in Philadelphia. I was there when "Have You Been Hit?" was eloquently critiqued by activist Kevin Trimell-Jones in this presentation for its promulgation of live-fast-die-young negative stereotypes by depicting urban black males in the crosshairs. Jones and others successfully lobbied for pulling this contentious campaign from the advertising landscape of the city. It was certainly one of the social marketing campaigns aimed at at-risk populations about which I have been publicly concerned.

However, Norris's company ZigZag made many contributions to developing the brand identities for important public services in Philadelphia, a city that I visited several times during the past academic year and which hosted the annual MLA convention, and for shaping the graphic identity of urban spaces more generally. As a gay black man, who was nonetheless respected as a designer of official messages in the public sphere, it's a loss for the whole field of applied rhetoric.

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Saturday, February 24, 2007

March on Washingtoon

This just in, word of a possible demonstration in Second Life noon-ish today against the implied threat of U.S. military intervention in Iran.

You can see information about a demonstration that turned quite chaotic recently here, and the LA Times has been covering a spate of necessity defense related anti-retail bombings, documented on YouTube, in "Virtual Loses its Virtues."

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Silicon Ceiling

According an article in the The Los Angeles Times, "Top Computer Award Breaks Gender Barrier after 40 Years," one of my professional associations, The Association for Computing Machinery, has finally encouraged the contributions of one of its female pioneers. (I'm a card-carrying member of graphics and interactivity arm of the ACM, SIGGRAPH.) Of course, I'm also part of the Modern Language Association, and they've been giving awards to women for a long time without much fanfare.

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Friday, February 23, 2007

My Dinner with Quandary

Last week we were having dinner in the Hollywood Hills at another couple's house, and after enjoying a tasty meal that featured some of our host's glorious home-made meatballs, the subject of the Internet and the future of the Industry came up. Now, for reasons I won't go into, an inordinate number of our friends make their livings as writers for film and television, so this is not such an unusual topic for after-supper conversation.

One of the problems that professional writers for both the large and small screen are currently grappling with is media consolidation, which significantly erodes their bargaining power as a group of specialized professionals, but the other looming threat to their livelihood is the consumption habits of the digital generation themselves as viewers and their general unwillingness as an audience to pay outright for content, even if their parents are still content to shell out for those video store late fees and write that monthly check to their local cable company, like other oldsters. If the digital generation consumes the standard Hollywood fare, the fear is that they will do so without paying through participating in common file-sharing practices or logging onto shadowy offshore websites.

Or, even worse, the entire market may continue to shrink as audiences reject the value of dramatic or comedic expertise entirely and opt to turn their eyeballs to the all-volunteer entertainment galaxy that is proliferating among amateur dramaturges online. Reality TV -- which has already taken over much of the broadcast spectrum -- could become the norm into the Nth dimension, and the "participatory culture" celebrated by Henry Jenkins could put the entire membership of the WGA on the unemployment rolls. (Even I will confess to liking Project Runway, on which I'll be giving a paper in April, and The Amazing Race before reality TV "professionals" like Rob and Amber cut in.)

As the kids were sent downstairs to play anti-social videogames, and the cigars and champagne came out, my friend actually asked me point-blank what professional writers should be doing to survive in this new infotainment economy.

Now, on the rare occasions when I'm urged to give my opinion about emergent media, it is usually in regard to higher education or to government institutions, two subjects that I actually know something about by virtue of my service to the University of California and my research in the field of digital rhetoric. When it comes to entertainment, however, I'm just about the least likely person around to be able to predict the likes and dislikes of mainstream America. I still pull TV signals out of the air with a coat hanger on my set, and the only shows I watch have to do with politics and famous historical rhetoricians. When I go to the movies, it is most often a foreign film that I can walk to in my boho neighborhood. And, if it isn't a NASA astronaut, I have no idea who the people on the covers of People are.

But I do know the basics of how to hack my iPod to play clips that I find on the web. And I watch more YouTube than anyone in my age or education bracket that I know. (In fact, I bought my most recent cellular plan for my mobile phone expressly for this purpose.) And I do have screen names on a number of social networking sites and MMOs. So I might not be the stupidest choice for a semi-knowledgeable informant when it comes to these new electronic genres.

So here's my list of possible strategies, suitable for a memo to a Hollywood bigwig, that tries to answer my friends' basic question about what's a nice scriptwriter to do now that the world is going digital.

Approach One: Go Gentle into that Good Night

Give up. Content yourself with being cool and retro and potentially ironic, like silent films or organ music or film strips or ditto machines. After all, the hip thing to do at Burning Man is to make drive-ins, so you could just show film festivals of your old work to whacked-out half-naked mud-covered teeny boppers and feel good about yourself until it was time for your appearance in the montage of dead Oscar winners. Then again, you could be a sensible capitalist and invest in companies that produce search engines, plug and play social media platforms, non-DRM technologies, more intuitive interfaces, ubiquitous computing devices, and semantic web services. (Remember, usability matters to consumers, whether you are talking about the Sony PS3 or the Microsoft Zune.) Or flip a coin and chance putting it all in Microsoft, on the hunch that Windows Vista might really succeed in its most evil plans.

Approach Two: Put Heads on Pikes

Get tough on those lousy punks! Although you are still merely labor, join up with management in the entertainment industry in hunting down and prosecuting scofflaw file-sharers. It won't do anything to affect demand, of course, so the War on Piracy is probably as efficacious -- and expensive -- as the War on Drugs that you may well have ducked bullets from in your own youth. Nonetheless, it might be a really fun power trip to be on for a while; even better than writing an episode of 24. You can cheer for the use of new gee-whiz automated bots that troll the Internet for distinctive audio or video signatures, like the software that busted this dead pianist. (More of the damning evidence against her is here.). You can enlist your local boy scout troop. You could even make content that tricks those outlaws into revealing much more than their IP addresses when they unwittingly log on.

Of course, there are still all these people who are watching interesting, non-infringing stuff on YouTube, like some of my favorites. Furthermore, as users gravitate toward Constitutionally protected forms of expression like parody, you might find it a difficult fight to win in court, even with Congress in its current regulatory mood.

Approach Three: Make Shrinky Dinks

Appropriately, next month's Wired magazine has a cover story on "Bite-Size Entertainment: Explore the New World of One Minute Media," which is all about what is essentially the micropayments option, in which entertainment is pared down to the puny size that penny-wise consumers remain willing to pay for . . . or at least sit still for as they multitask. (My favorite fun fact in the article is that 39 percent of all respondents among college students write that they IM while writing papers.) The image on the cover explains the basic premise: a bag of chips that is labeled "Try! Snack Culture! Tasty Bits o' Fun! Now with MINIMOVIES! SONG SNIPS! MICROGAMES! & MORE!" But it also dishes some of my own favorite pop culture delicacies, such as PostSecret and or customized slogans on t-shirts as indicative of this trend. Even with a DVD rental costing less than a venti latte, who wouldn't pay ten cents for a few minutes of best bits?

Approach Four: Turn Everything Into an Ad

Why do you want to make stories about Rick and Elsa when you can write scripts about the forbidden love between the Taco Bell Chihuahua and Betty Crocker? Or -- better yet -- can you say product placement? Payments for those highly visible consumer commodities soon may be topping the box office for some films. Furthermore, choosy upscale consumers can't TiVo through a brand name product featured on the set, since it's not actually part of the commercial air time. Already ostentatiously visible products are turning up in supposedly home-made YouTube videos, and certainly the sale of Mentos isn't hurt by spontaneous fan behaviors. Unfortunately they won't need writers to put these products into the story, since digital technology can do that work in post-production.

Approach Five: Understand that the Search is the Message

What's really valuable about new forms of Internet search technology, websites that allow personal files -- even family photographs and home movies -- to be stored and organized on remote sites, and online social networking services is the intimate data about consumers that can be gleaned. Even without supposedly identifiable information, search behaviors can tell marketers a lot about individual consumers. But with those identifiers willingly supplied, there is much more that a marketer can do with the data. From talking to my own teen, I know that he is remarkably willing to give up private information in exchange for access to "free" content. As a recent article in New York Magazine explains, we may be approaching "The End of Privacy: The Kids, the Internet, and the Greatest Generation Gap Since Rock 'n' Roll. (When I looked at it, I thought of the famed recent UNC Pit Break-Up -- which was advertised on Facebook and publicized on YouTube -- was a fake, but we might not be that far from an ethos of stadium-style coverage of young people's most intimate moments, even if this particular episode was Internet theater.)

In other words, the challenge may be to create content that is primarily designed to reveal information about the audience member rather than about the character onscreen. Suppose there is a consumer, who may well have uploaded pictures that show who in the family has hair that is graying or who has put on a few extra pounds and thus is in need of a specific consumer commodity, but the mega-corporations won't be able to target their pitches appropriately without the necessary metadata about who is who in the pictures. Perhaps having your tagging done by Mechanical Turks, even in the Third World, may still be prohibitively expensive. So how do you get the consumer to give you that information online? Luckily, despite all the publicity about fakesters, most people are remarkably forthcoming and represent their Internet personae relatively accurately, even though they may shave off a few years. But perhaps you can get them to reveal even more about themselves by tracking the choices that they make in watching an Internet story, particularly when personality profiling is such a lucrative industry, although I'd still liken it to nineteenth-century pseudo-sciences with self-fulfilling prophecies like phrenology.

Approach Six: Make the Scripts in Videogames Not Suck

Of course, the money to be made writing for videogames is nothing compared to a six-figure studio paycheck, but it is a growing entertainment industry that is desperately in need of better characters, stories, and jokes. Of course, good, post-cinematic story-telling will probably have to start with independent game developers, and they are facing new technological hurtles of their own with the looming prospect of de facto lock-out from Microsoft Vista and a lack of support for new controllers like the Wii.

Approach Seven: Make Interactive Art and/or Literature of Some Value to the General Public

A lot of cool game-based or interactive technology for lyric, dramatic, or comic expression that universities are developing is only getting used by the military. What if Hollywood actually teamed up with the ivory tower instead of shot anti-intellectual surface to air missiles at it? They are doing it at the Institute of Creative Technologies and some other places around the country, but the general public is still not included.

Nothing prevents a relatively intelligent person from learning enough code to communicate on a software development team. Even your faithful reporter is taking a class that includes learning some action script from this Flash teacher. Of course, if numbers scare you, you can do a lot of story-telling even with relatively low-tech approaches. You can even be nominated for awards just using the protocols of an off-the-shelf commercial product. Look at the controversial one-time Slamdance finalist Danny LeDonne's work on Super Columbine Massacre RPG!

Unfortunately, a lot of this work doesn't actually need writers. For example, this week I am majorly digging the work being done at Northwestern, particularly News at Seven, which creates automated evening news shows with game characters and data from online news and the blogosphere. (More about this later.)

Approach Eight: Write Stories that Are Site-Specific

Ubiquitous computing opens up enormous entertainment possibilities, particularly now that cell phones have so many capabilities for staging group interactions in physical landscapes. You may not want to tell your story against the backdrop of a wedding or Bar Mitzvah, but there are still plenty of opportunities to tell stories in shopping malls and theme parks and build on work being done by people like Jonathan and Casey Ackley.

Approach Nine: Write Transmedia Stories

Hollywood has run on a closed shop model for a long time, and perhaps it is no accident that they call their professional associations "guilds," given the protective medieval environment of apprenticeship that still surrounds the process. Crossing into print or combining forces with other one-to-many forms of traditional media may be one chance at survival.

Approach Ten: Join a Campaign

With an election coming up, progressive parties and candidates probably need your skills most. Politics needs better stories, characters, and jokes to engage the public. And participatory democracy could be the place to start.

Then again, now that the Oscars have a Thank You Webcam, and the Emmys are giving prizes for Interactive Media, perhaps the moguls already know all this.

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Thursday, February 22, 2007

Jailhouse Blues

Today Al Jazeera reports that a twenty-two-year old Egyptian blogger has been sentenced to four years in prison, allegedly for insulting Islam and the longterm president of the country. Former law student Abdel Karim's crime was comparing U.S. ally Mubarak to a despotic ancient pharoh and descrying violence in Muslim-Christian clashes in Alexandria.

Pro-Western -- and frequently pro-conservative -- libertarian blogger Sandmonkey claims to have been present at the sentencing. Lately, the contrarian Sandmonkey seems to be getting in touch with his feminist side and has used column space in praising Amanda Marcotte and defending the rights of Iraqi rape victims.

The irony of today's sentencing is that this week the State Department's Undersecretary of Public Diplomacy, Karen Hughes, is boasting of a new program to use fluent Arabic speakers to correct "misinformation" in the work of bloggers in the Middle East. This entry of the Voice of America into the commentasphere seems pointless if basic civil liberties are not being respected in those countries.

In other public diplomacy news this week, The Wall Street Journal is reporting in "Public Diplomacy, TV Style" on a new reality show with three Arab men -- a Jordanian, an Egyptian, and a Saudi -- traveling throughout America. It sounds like their adventures in the heartland won't be of the more embarrassing Borat or Talking to Americans variety, since every comes off well and even manages to sometimes sit down for serious prejudice-airing conversations with pro-Israeli citizens.

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Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Game Over

According to the Associated Press, the NYU College Republicans are planning a "game" tomorrow called "find the illegal immigrant" in which fun-loving conservatives with college IDs can play immigration inspectors for the afternoon and earn a gift certificate once they've cornered a undocumented alien of their own. The group's Facebook page, which is archived here, suggests that their "rally" is intended to be both "serious" and "not serious" in its aims. The image for the event is a traffic sign that shows the silhouettes of a running father, mother, and child holding her mother's hand. As someone who has seen panicked immigrants of all ages darting across the freeway where these signs appear in Southern California, I don't find the image very funny.

Although it may incorporate some elements of performance and emergent behavior from the group's dynamics, I'd consider it quite unlike the favorite games of supercool alternate reality game designer Jane McGonigal.

When it comes to playing games about life and death issues like illegal immigration, I much prefer the game that writer Maxine Hong Kingston played with our students during her visit last week to U.C. Irvine. She asked them to guess which of the stories about her father coming to America in her fictionalized memoir of ancestry China Men was true: the story of the legal father or the story of the illegal one. For some reason, students wanted to believe that this august author had parents with legitimated citizenship and voted overwhelmingly for the more prosaic story of fully documented naturalization. After tallying the hands in the air Kingston laughed, "Wow! I fooled you!"

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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

No Anteater is an Island

According to my UCI colleague Peter Krapp, the university is planning uses for Anteater Island in Second Life.

I shouldn't be surprised by this development, given how both The New York Times and The Chronicle of Higher Education have been reporting on how an island in SL has become "a new status symbol for colleges" as a laboratory for distance learning experiments. Of course, these islands are "made invisible to random passers-by" and thus are -- unfortunately -- like many real campuses, disconnected from the communities that are contiguous with their Ivy-covered virtual walls.

Indeed, in this hermetically-sealed environment, which is similar to corporate islands such as Chatsubo, variations on industrial communication tools like PowerPoint may eventually dominate rhetorical expectations for presentations to and by students. (Should you desire some tips for importing PowerPoint slides into Second Life, you can check out some hacks here, even if the whole exercise seems as silly to me as preparing slides by loading them into a virtual slide projector for a MOO talk.)

I can't see the sense of having students cooped up in a virtual world. One of the main problems with teaching in the real bricks-and-mortar university is that field trips are prohibitively expensive and constrained by concerns about potential litigation. No matter how much I think my students might enjoy an art opening or a Shakespeare play, I don't want to lead a caravan of liability-encumbered cars to get there. In Second Life, I could take my students on field trips to demonstrations against the National Front or the new Swedish embassy or an office of the Centers for Disease Control without buying a single airplane ticket.

Luckily, faculty at UCI have creative ideas for using SL for purposes other than skill-and-drill distance learning, such as promoting information literacy efforts for the library or teaching computer scripting languages with the interface and tools of the virtual online world.

For more on digital learning in higher education, check out Henry Jenkins' recent essay From YouTube to YouNiversity and for the global context of access to regular face-to-face opportunities for college see this informational representation of tertiary education.

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Monday, February 19, 2007

Not That This is a Hint or Anything, George

In honor of Presidents' Day, it's worth noting that the State of Maryland has acquired Washington's resignation speech, a famous example of traditional oratory in which the man who would eventually become our first Chief Executive acknowledged the importance of a limiting his power and the value of civilian rule. The State Archives worked hard to get the draft of the document out of private hands, so I hope that they will exhibit the speech online after the official unveiling ceremony tonight.

In visiting Maryland's sites in cyberspace that represent their identity as a virtual state, I was surprised to see how little they used the multimedia, social media, and metadata features that characterize websites in more tech savvy states like California. Maryland's official website was a remarkably barebones affair, although its right navigation seemed to at least anticipate the basic needs of the electorate for information. Its official kids' page was one of the worst I had ever seen: bare folders, many of which led to dead links, would not be nearly as helpful for children doing assigned reports as a sequence of electronic documents more obviously aimed at improving their information literacy as citizens and skills of interpretation as amateur historians.


Sunday, February 18, 2007

Free (and Stolen)

I've been meaning to get around to some rhetorical analysis of the recent "Thoughts on Music" by Steve Jobs. Despite its ostensible subject, it's not actually a philosophical reflection about the aesthetics of melody and harmony, and it should more rightly be titled "Thoughts on DRM."

In Jobs' statement on DRM or "digital rights management," he argues that music publishers should give up on the invariably failing project of crippling digital content with proprietary tags designed to disable supposedly illegal play. Unfortunately for consumers, DRM creates all kinds of problems with interoperability and ties customers to a particular brand in ways totally unprecedented in the analog world. Open source critics have answered Jobs pointedly by saying that Apple should make the code of its own player software more transparent, if the company is really serious about principles of freer culture.

As a close reader, I noticed his clever use of parenthetical phrases in which he attempts to position himself on both sides of the fence in the IP culture wars. Check out this sentence:

No DRM system was ever developed for the CD, so all the music distributed on CDs can be easily uploaded to the Internet, then (illegally) downloaded and played on any computer or player.

Or this one:

The problem, of course, is that there are many smart people in the world, some with a lot of time on their hands, who love to discover such secrets and publish a way for everyone to get free (and stolen) music.

By placing words like "stolen" or "illegal" in parentheses, he is both inserting and ironizing the discourse of the recording industry.

In my second example, Jobs also implicitly praises the traditional figure of the hacker-as-hero in cyber culture by identifying them as "smart people," while also suggesting that their labor is both needlessly time-intensive and an option only for a particular kind of leisure class in that they have "a lot of time on their hands."

Although this statement has been read as an open critique of the recording industry, I thought the agents of media consolidation got off pretty easy. Jobs' technique seems to be to treat them with quotation marks, using scare quotes to make his sometimes not so subtle point, as he does here:

Since Apple does not own or control any music itself, it must license the rights to distribute music from others, primarily the “big four” music companies: Universal, Sony BMG, Warner and EMI.

He also uses punctuational sarcasm earlier:

To begin, it is useful to remember that all iPods play music that is free of any DRM and encoded in “open” licensable formats such as MP3 and AAC.

In fact, the word "open" is set off as a mediated adjective in Jobs' essay from the very first sentence:

With the stunning global success of Apple’s iPod music player and iTunes online music store, some have called for Apple to “open” the digital rights management (DRM) system

Of course, the whole concept of "openness" and "secrecy" gets an ironic spin in his piece, as another scare quote around the word "hide" demonstrates.

In other words, even if one uses the most sophisticated cryptographic locks to protect the actual music, one must still “hide” the keys which unlock the music on the user’s computer or portable music player.

Jobs' meta-commentary also extends to the position of his competitors, for whom "open" and "closed" have become equally meaningless signifiers.

Perhaps this same conclusion contributed to Microsoft’s recent decision to switch their emphasis from an “open” model of licensing their DRM to others to a “closed” model of offering a proprietary music store, proprietary jukebox software and proprietary players.

For advocates of a digital public sphere, this excessive cuteness about meaning might be counterproductive. Some of us believe that there are real ways that politics, participation, and dialogue can be more open and certain forms of obstruction that are genuinely injurious.

Furthermore, as a writing program administrator, I'm not sure what to make of Jobs' compositional strategy, particularly when sticklers for style in the classroom justifiably try to get their students away from such gimmicky punctuation. While Jobs is a culture hero to many undergraduates, I don't want them imitating this prose, particularly when Jobs is indulging in a certain amount of (post)modern European style parenthesizing while also deploying traditional "American" scare tactics with quotation marks.

It's interesting to compare Jobs' comments on DRM with the previous remarks of Microsoft's Bill Gates, who proposed merely buying and "ripping" CDs as the easiest solution to the DRM dilemma. I don't think he made any quotation marks in the air while talking to technology reporters and bloggers about the subject.


I think my UCI colleague Peter Krapp also picked up on some of the deconstructionist irony of Jobs' work, since he described it as an "(anti-) DRM memo" on his blog distraction economy.

At least Jobs didn't use the traditional blogging cross-out ironically in his open letter, as popular mega-blogs like BoingBoing often do. This recent snippet shows the technique: "Voting machine scammers vendors say that their machines are totally secure, but also say that they can't tell anyone how they work."

There's also some good rhetorical analysis of Jobs' statement at Freedom to Tinker.

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Saturday, February 17, 2007

MySpace Nation

Today's Washington Post examines how digital campaigning through social networking sites is building buzz, particularly for Presidential hopeful Barack Obama. "Young Voters Find a Voice on Facebook" reports that there are over 500 Obama-related sites on MySpace and that campaign organizers have been using the sites to improve turnouts at rallies, especially those geared toward college campuses. It's a slightly different strategy from Howard Dean's use of in the last presidential campaign that fosters more polymorphous expressions of political identity. The article also notes that Hillary Clinton has as many sites on Facebook as Obama, but that these sites list far fewer members; furthermore many of these sites are actually sponsored by opponents of the former First Lady in her bid for Commander in Chief.

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Friday, February 16, 2007

Local Headlines

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa has been in the national technology news all this week, first for promoting an ambitious wi-fi plan for the city and then for announcing a major crackdown on piracy.

In justifying a new task force headed by council member Wendy Greuel, the mayor cites a recent report, "A False Bargain: The Los Angeles County Economic Consequences of Counterfeit Products," which claims that the proliferation of these wares disproportionately hurts Los Angeles. The Hollywood Reporter has highlighted one statistic in particular, that over 100,000 local jobs are at stake. Apparently, it's not just bootlegged hard goods at issue in the report, although fake DVDs and counterfeit branded items were prominently displayed at the mayor's press conference. According to the document, the top two losing industries are the motion picture and sound recording industries, and the equation between digital and analog commodities was made quite explicit in the executive summary: "Counterfeiting is not taken seriously as a criminal activities, perhaps because sharing copied music or buying an imitation handbag doesn't feel like stealing to most people."

I'm a SoCal local with a spouse in the entertainment industry, but I'm not sure that "sharing" can be equated with "counterfeiting" as it is in this document, given the social practices around free culture that would suffer from too literal-minded an approach to enforcement. LA Schools have enough problems with high cost textbooks and disengaged students. Will further limiting fair use of digital content really improve our students' educational experiences? Furthermore, I don't buy the argument that it is a "gateway" crime, which another council member has put forward.

Unfortunately, the plan for wireless is still in its most incipient phase, although Philadelphia is being touted as the model for how this dream for both pro-business technocrats and those who want to build public infrastructure to bridge the digital divide could be achieved. Cost estimates say that blanketing the city in wi-fi would work out to a per capita investment of about $15, which is certainly far less than the typical Angeleno pays for Internet connectivity now. For more on the subject, check out the work of Wireless Community Networks, which is a project of the Center for Neighborhood Technology. The full press release is here.

Of course, as a frequent flyer who often pays for Wi-Fi in airport terminals, I hope that coverage will start at the airport. Irritated fellow travelers have apparently developed a Wi-Fi liberator to broadcast pay-for-access signals for free.

Update: In "Bad reception for free wi-fi," The Los Angeles Times reports on how San Franciscans have resisted their city's deals with Earthlink and Google to provide services, citing privacy concerns and quality control issues. Then again, the crankiness of the San Francisco electorate seems to be a running theme in the LA Times, which has also recently written about the city's rabidly pro-canine lobby and suggested that the northern metropolis is really going to the dogs.

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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Animal Rites

Obviously Photoshopped images traveling through the unregulated gift economy of e-mail are nonetheless stirring outrage among would-be animal rights advocates. Like the earlier bonsai kitten hoax, Why Paint Cats -- the sequel to Why Cats Paint -- is stimulating well-meaning if misguided activism on the assumption that painting cats in the colorful and elaborate manner illustrated would entail cruel practices of exposure to potentially toxic substances and long periods of restraint while being forced to serve as a motionless feline canvas. Although the images were recently debunked as fakes, the order page at indicates that many aren't in on the joke, even though they can search inside the book digitally and see the mock art historical pomposity contained within that includes sources cited like the Journal of Applied Animal Aesthetics. (Thanks to Janice Gregory of Humanities Core Course for pointing out the controversy about a perceived act of visual violence. Janice also represents our Search and Rescue Program, although no anteaters were harmed in the making of the photos on their site, as you can see by scrolling down the page.)

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Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Much Better Than Those September 11th Conspiracy Videos on YouTube

As a rhetorician, I wanted to know more about the group at the University of Applied Sciences in Ulm, Germany who produced this very persuasive anti-Google video and their faculty supervisor Silko-Matthias Kruse. Until I got to the part about Google's eventual control of our DNA blueprint, where it lost me, I thought it was an engaging visual essay that used the look of information graphics particularly well. (Via the always interesting Information Aesthetics blog. Their Valentine's Day Infographics also merit a look for a chuckle.)

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After the Love is Gone, What Used to Be Right is Wrong

Now that feminist bloggers on the official blog of Presidential hopeful John Edwards have been purged, the gender politics expressed by women posting on the site has become unintentionally comic, because the level of banality in pursuit of the most inoffensive discourse rises to the worshipful passivity of this Internet slideshow, "Elizabeth Edwards -- a Touch of Class," offered as a valentine today to Edwards' wife.

TIME Magazine provided some coverage of the Edwards blogging controversy of the past week about the potential liabilities of having women with a loquacious past on the payroll like Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon or the webmistress of Shakespeare's Sister, Melissa McEwan. Ironically, TIME's cautionary tale about digital media, "Bloggers on the Bus," also contains a number of errors that were later electronically corrected; so much for the greater authority of print journalism. CNN has also weighed in with a broadcast notable for its showcasing of "interactive" touchscreen technology in which the newscaster pushes on digital thumbnails to bring up screen shots of the offending sites. Looking at the basic format of the Edwards blog, it strikes me that campaign organizers misunderstood the political blog profoundly as a genre, given how they categorize entries as "diaries" not "postings of agitprop with metadata."

In "Edwards Campaign Fires Bloggers," Salon explains the involvement of right wing bloggers in the flap, who accused Marcotte of anti-Catholic bias in her more incendiary comments on reproductive rights. More Salon coverage explains the back-and-forth battle over the bloggers' temporary reinstatement in the context of Bill Donahue's war on popular culture on behalf of the arch conservative Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who produced this militantly anti-secular Christmas display in front of historic Independence Hall in Philadelphia. In response to Donahue's abuse, Marcotte has published an IRS form with her complaints against the non-profit Catholic League in a clever use of bureaucratic paper ephemera for rhetorical ends. Now right-wing blogger Michele Malkin -- who has instigated a fair number of blogspats herself -- has cast Marcotte as another form of Internet celebrity, the "Angry German Kid" on YouTube. Perhaps more fatally, Marcotte had also raised the ire of Edwards' base in North Carolina when her sarcastic comments about coverage of the Duke lacrosse assault scandal were reposted by her opponents. Given her neutral self-presentation in introducing herself on Edwards' blog, not all of the criticism of her as a firebrand seems fair.

I've been actually working on an article about a very different Marcotte controversy, "Burqagate," which generated its own firestorm of comments within the progressive blogosphere about Eurocentrism, religion, and gender and showed how the alteration of digital images could be taken as a form of argument.

Today, there's more hard feelings among feminist bloggers as Bitch Ph.D. announces her new gig at the Suicide Girls website, while in "Porn Again" fellow pseudonymous blogger Twisty Faster takes Bitch to task for cooperating with the patriarchal establishment. I read both their blogs and appreciate how cleverly they have developed their digital personae and even integrated other online genres -- such as academic gossip and food writing -- into their blogging and acknowledged their membership in other virtual communities -- such as groups for alternative mothering or for cancer patients. Bitch Ph.D. has been a visitor here, of course, and is very obviously a member of my tribe, but I'd certainly show the same hospitality to Twisty, should she ever darken my electronic door.

Happy Valentine's Day All.

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Look Ma, I'm on TV

The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, which is now planning its 2008 conference in Potsdam, has televised coverage of this year's event in Reggio Emilia here. (I'm the closing speaker at the conference, so I come off as much more world-weary, stern, and serious than hopefully I do in real life.) As someone interested in distance learning options, I have to say that the conference webcast is quite well-done, although some participants remarked that the English-only framework made visual information particularly important in successful presentations. Thanks again to Espen Aarseth for moderating!

Update: Organizer Patrick Coppock has just alerted conference attendees that "has been hacked"! A redirect will send visitors to a page requesting private information.

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Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Who's Your Daddy?

Apparently I spoke too soon when I was exulting over the death of DOPA, the dopey once majority-approved federal legislation designed to block access to "social networking" sites from computers housed in schools and libraries -- which looked to be destined for passage over the objections of librarians, literacy specialists, and gay and lesbian advocates who know that the Internet can be a lifeline for teens seeking information and community, authorship and activism, although the bill abruptly died in the Senate after the Fall election. As a response to threats of regulatory oversight, I particularly liked these positive suggestions from librarians for how such online social networking practices can be used to improve both the print and the electronic media literacy of the young.

Unfortunately, now we have the even worse Protecting Children in the 21st Century Act, brought to us by none other than that "expert" on the electronic culture, Ted Stevens, who memorably once described the Internet, which the rest of us think of as a global distributed network for the exchange of digital information, as "a series of tubes." To add insult to injury, he even labels these widespread Web 2.0 social media tools as "trendy" in the "findings" section of the actual text. (See Senator Stevens' concern for Alaskan wildlife that is represented by the image above.)

As Marianne Richmond points out on BlogHer, this proposed law reconstitutes all the bad parts of DOPA, while also throwing in elements of various decency acts that emphasize redundant approaches to child pornography like fines and federal notification. Although it does include some seemingly laudable sections prohibiting the sale of private information about children, it actually rewards a number of particularly rapacious commercial sectors of the Internet by emphasizing overpriced proprietary screening software at the expense of any real collective discussion of communal norms.

Of course, it's not surprising that lawmakers are so eager to jump on the traditional media bandwagon when even The New York Times publishes more anti-teens+technology stories, such as today's "Teenagers Misbehaving Online, For All to Watch." Spotlight-chasing Congressional witness Perry Aftab is quoted in the story making prurient comments like “you have girls at slumber parties taking pictures of each other in their bras and panties, and somehow the shots wind up on a porn site.” As I've pointed out before, the Times rarely runs positive stories about teens and technology and actually favors building entire multi-part series about youngsters involved in kiddie porn or identity theft via the Internet.

I'm certainly no libertarian, but I do resent the government's incursion into educational settings in the guise of serving as a surrogate parent for me and the way that these forms of gated digitality enforce oppressive hierarchies of knowledge control and exclusion from civic participation of both minors and low-income residents who depend on public resources. Legislation against file-sharing and videogame play also seems contrary to my basic principles to encourage full family participation in an emerging virtual culture.

We don't always agree, but I was interested to read my fellow SIGGRAPH panelist's meditations on the subject of parenting at Gaming Literacy, Parenting, etc. I think IGDA President Jason Della Rocca is right to want raise the profile of options for digital play that might develop among the preschool set and their care-givers. As Della Rocca says, "the motivation is NOT to produce ever younger consumers for the mainstream game industry, but more digitally literate youth that can learn/do more via serious games." After all, how many of us as parents want the digital literacy of our kids limited just to wielding relatively non-interactive digital products like A Children's Camera that Lets Piglet Say Cheese?

Update: There is a good review of these issues by Henry Jenkins in an essay on his blog called "The Only Thing We Have to Fear."

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Monday, February 12, 2007

Playing Tag

A recent Pew Report claims that 28% of users tag content and that 7% do so on a daily basis. There has been a lot of debate about how well this collective intelligence works on a global basis. As an experiment in the process, I've started my own world map of hotel minibars, and I would encourage readers to contribute snaps and geodata to this worthwhile example of information aesthetics.

Why hotel minibars? They are so analog it would seem! Of course, I'm interested in everyday design issues and user interfaces in the context of globalization. But there is also a certain nostalgia involved in documenting this rapidly disappearing species, which has already vanished from the Marriott hotel chain and many Hyatts in the United States.

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Yesterday The Los Angeles Times carried two stories about how video file-sharing services were archiving images of real rather than fictional violence that depicted seemingly unresolvable political conflicts. "Mexican Drug War's Brutality Celebrated on YouTube" argues that videos "intended to cheer on or denigrate the opposing sides in Mexico's drug wars" are proliferating on popular online sites. Last week, murderous assaults on officers in police stations in Acapulco were allegedly filmed by gunmen, although the videos have yet to surface on the Internet. The LA Times makes an analogy to a genre from the medium of music, the narcocorridos or ballads dedicated to drug lords. Most of these gory videos are apparently produced by those with no ties to the actual criminals, and sometimes they are captured and disseminated by the police themselves.

A less violent altercation was discussed in "Soft or hard bop? Either way, whack is a hit with viewers" that chronicles the controversy surrounding the digital recording of a particularly chaotic City Council meeting in the dysfunctional City of Carson. Although the city itself regularly archives video of its public proceedings, a clip of a Carson official shrieking and falling after being struck with a sheaf of papers by a woman seeking the recall of the current mayor has found more fame by being broadcast on YouTube. Constituents and spectators outside of Carson are now debating how much of an assault actually took place, since the incident appears to have devolved into political theater in its most slapstick form.

Now that local municipalities and even federal agencies are relying on video webcasts for access to the public record of the official business of governance -- rather than traditional print documents -- there are also issues about cataloging material into identifiable chunks and adding meaningful metadata. With text-based records, it is much easier to search for key words and automate systems to generate the most relevant information to a given member of the electorate. Video and other images require that the selection processes of groups of users be activated, often on a voluntary basis, to locate exactly where a site of potential misunderstanding might be.

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In My Language

This is one of the most amazing pieces of digital rhetoric that I've ever seen on YouTube, which now has a number of videos advocating for the rights of the disabled. As she explains, the first three minutes are in her "native language," but they are as eloquent as the English that follows.

"Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is going around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as being in a world of my own. Whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings, people claim that I am opening up to true interaction with the world."

Her blog, which contains a number of links to blogs and videos about autism, is here. She also responds to critics in this Metafilter thread.

(Via Houtlust.)


Sunday, February 11, 2007

Regularly Scheduled Maintenance

Readers may notice that I have actually updated the blog roll on the right, in celebration of passing the five hundred posting mark. Unfortunately, I still have yet to update my main page when it comes to recent talks and current projects on the official Virtualpolitik site. Apologies to those looking for texts from presentations. February is a crunch month for conference submissions, and I have also been concentrating on deadlines for print publications.


More From the News Rack

This month Vanity Fair is running a long exposé piece on SAIC, which they call "the largest government contractor you've never heard of." "Washington's $8 Billion Dollar Shadow" describes how this "nondescript" company has avoided the spotlight that glares at Halliburton and Bechtel in relation to mismanagement and inside deals, despite its similar involvement with fiascoes like the Virtual Case File for the FBI, which "three years and a million lines of garbled code later" is dismissed as a $124 million white elephant. SAIC also apparently botched another costly database project for the NSA called Trailblazer. Reporters Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele recount shenanigans involving the company's Iraqi Media Network and flat-panel cockpit display in which the box that was shown to military bases turned out to be a fake.

Of course, anybody who follows game politics has been aware of the general idiocy of SAIC consultants (and equally embarrassing media illiteracy of elected officials on the Intelligence Committee) for almost a year, after SAIC "experts" paid seven million dollars identified this harmless videogame fan film with a soundtrack from the movie Team America as their prime example of "terrorist use of the Internet." Amazing that we recognize Letters from Iwo Jima as a cinematic artistic achievement but can't imagine a US company making a videogame that allows play from the perspective of the opposing side.

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Saturday, February 10, 2007

From the News Rack

Cut and paste culture has even reached print periodicals this month. In The New Yorker, Jeffrey Toobin writes in "Google's Moon Shot" about the search engine's quest to digitize millions of volumes and yet only offer snippets of copyrighted works to users and thus avoid infringement. Toobin makes the interesting claim, however, that it is precisely Google's involvement in litigation and the implication that all parties will eventually reach a fiscal settlement that will make Google able ultimately to dominate the field of electronic access to book content. I also was pleased to see Toobin acknowledge a phenomenon that I have observed in doing research on national digital libraries: that access to digital versions of paper texts often increases traffic in the physical space of the archive as well. The synergistic character of this interchange is important, since a logic of substitution is often emphasized by both proponents and opponents of digitization plans. Of course, I part ways with Toobin on a number of issues: I think he gives short shrift to tricky metadata issues, he doesn't deal with the sometimes onerous restrictions in the legal agreements for participating libraries, he overlooks the proprietary software involved, and he doesn't take the idea of the European model of public support for information infrastructure very seriously. These are all objections, of course, raised by Siva Vaidhyanathan in his article on "A Risky Gamble with Google."

Speaking of my fellow blogger Vaidhyanathan, he is mentioned in another article that you might find in your local doctor's office, "The Ecstasy of Influence" in this month's Harper's. This piece by Jonathan Lethem is a clever interweaving of borrowed texts about borrowing from a list of Free Culture advocates that includes Vaidhyanathan, Lawrence Lessig, Henry Jenkins, and others not even mentioned on the Virtualpolitik blogroll. It's an homage to Walter Benjamin's Arcades project that creates a landscape of quotations for the reader, while also inviting decoding activities for the puzzle solvers faced with the page.


Friday, February 09, 2007

The Kids Are All Right

Jonathan Alexander spoke at U.C. Irvine today about "Digital Youth," the subject his recent book. As someone who has talked about online social marketing and HIV/AIDS prevention efforts, I was particularly interested to hear about his Youth & AIDS Web Project.

Primarily, Alexander was describing how important literacy activities were in MMORPG videogame culture. Like Constance Steinkuehler, he uses World of Warcraft as his main case study. Alexander described his own fieldwork with the "Two Mikes" and his difficulties gaining mastery over game controls. Two particularly interesting observations from his talk: 1) there was some enforcement of group language norms when it came to anti-homosexual slurs and 2) attention of his fellow players was often text-based and focused on chat boxes rather than vivid graphics that were described as just "for pretty" by players.

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Also in today's local news, there is more reaction to audio files that were unintentionally posted on official websites, which recorded compromising informal conversations that took place in the California Governor's office. "Latinos Lob a Few Words at the Governor" describes negative reactions to Schwarzenegger's impolitic clips about immigration. For more on this story see Virtualpolitik coverage here and here.

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Friendly Fire

The Los Angeles Times is reporting on the first initial clinical results coming back from the Virtual Iraq Post Traumatic Stress Disorder treatment program, which places patients into a virtual reality environment with a sophisticated head-mounted display apparatus that can also include a motion platform and scent delivery system. "Virtual war, real healing" describes how veterans suffering from real-world war-related psychological disorders are encouraged to confront a simulation of their past experiences in order to verbalize, narrate, contextualize, remember, confront, and psychically integrate the trauma. Of course, as an academic researcher, I've done ethnographic work on this project at USC, including demoing the system and interviewing members of the software development team. In conference proceedings, I've written about how such programs serve as contemporary versions of traditional memory palaces and how collaboratively creating the space of these "Virtual Iraqs" functions in the political discourse of the public sphere. One of the interesting things about these systems is that they are designed to be very vivid but not very interactive, so that users are often placed in a position of passive spectatorship. This is a fundamentally different model from rapid response training systems designed for military personnel, which may have relatively crude graphics but primarily emphasize activities of decision-making when confronted with a barrage of information.

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Thursday, February 08, 2007

Virtual Gold Mountain

Tonight I attended a panel discussion about Serious Play: MMO gaming, real money, and social worlds. The first presenter, writer Julian Dibbell, explored the theme of "play money" in virtual online environments to draw attention to the dematerialization of hard currency, goods, and labor in current conditions of what he calls "ludocapitalism." (I won't attempt to summarize his critique of game studies, however, which focused on what he considered to be the self-defeating disciplinary assertions of mutual exclusivity that are represented by Jesper Juul's Game Liberation game.) Dibbell described his experiences trying to earn his living for a year trading virtual objects in Ultimate Online toward the end of participating in real money trading (RMT) through Internet auction sites like eBay. Dibbell also discussed the experiences of Chinese "gold farmers" who earn game capital in the currencies of massively multiplayer online role-playing games and by "leveling up" the avatars of others.

We watched fascinating footage of these gold farmers from Ge Jin a.k.a. "Jingle," who showed how the workers in what would appear to be online sweatshops actually choose to pursue gaming during off hours as well. I found the Chinese players wistful discussions of "communication" problems with foreign players and the fact that vigilante squads of American players try to locate and exterminate these low-wage professional players particularly affecting. Given that our course, the Humanities Core Course at U.C. Irvine, will be welcoming noted Chinese-American author Maxine Hong Kington next week, who describes the hardships of immigrants to "Gold Mountain" in her book China Men, these conflicts and exclusions in virtual landscapes seemed like a particularly relevant subject.

Respondent game-designer Ralph Koster seemed aghast that these un-gamelike emergent behaviors were being rewarded by the market. In contrast, a voluble spectre in the audience, who appeared perhaps to be Lev Manovich, seemed to accept the proposition that capitalism was always already virtual pretty readily. Furthermore, Koster seemed particularly irritated by the taxonomy of game players in Final Fantasy XI that William Huber had outlined. I enjoyed learning about the political dimension of the game from Huber in which demonstrations of nationalistic fervor had led to denial of service attacks. Kudos to UCSD organizer Noah Wardrip-Fruin for an event well worth the drive.

Update: Check out Terra Nova for a wrap-up from Edward Castronova on reactions to statistics on virtual trading recently released by Sony in a white paper.

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Glory, Glory Hallelujah, Teacher Hit Me with a Rulah

Since my kids are students in the privileged Santa Monica-Malibu school district, I feel that I have to say something about today's article in The Los Angeles Times, "Extracurricular Videos Roil Campus," because the story focuses on cell phone videos posted on YouTube that originated in our local high schools. Apparently, the response of our district is to ban access to YouTube in the schools, even though it can be a legitimate teaching tool, since it provides video essays, historical film clips, and even congressional testimony in a reliably playable form. Furthermore, officials are also considering bans on other portable media devices, in order to prevent harassment of teachers, even though ubiquitous devices for data collection are becoming an integral part of the practices of the broader culture.

As a teacher myself, who once taught high schoolers in the years before graduate school, I have some sympathy for the instructors who are targeted. Speaking as an administrator, I know that even college students can make incredibly inappropriate comments on formal evaluations about physical attractiveness, sexual identity, and even personal grooming, my favorite being in my own case "Does she own an iron?" And certainly when I commemorate my own elementary, middle, or high school teachers online, I do it with what I consider appropriate respect.

Of course, some YouTube teachers get what they deserve, if they consent to be filmed, particularly if they provide inferior distance education which can potentially be substituted for live teaching. Unfortunately the classic "stoned professor" video from the University of Florida has been pulled for copyright reasons.

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Wednesday, February 07, 2007


Today I gave my first conference presentation for Computers and Writing Online 2007 in an Internet-based "MOO," a multi-user object-oriented domain, with a java interface in which the first challenge was how to load the virtual slide projector and the second challenge was locating the "room" in which the presentation was supposed to take place only through entering text commands. (I'm embarrassed to admit that both activities took the better part of an hour each.)

I came to the conference room early in order to catch the very interesting presentation of Christyne Berzsenyi of Penn State about the highly purpose-driven discourses surrounding on-line dating. During my own presentation, I was very grateful to Keith Dorwick of the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and agitprop author Kevin Moberly of St. Cloud University for their help during this disembodied experience, in which I talked about games for first-responders designed for training for possible terrorist attacks. I'm a relativey fast typist, but I found it hard to keep up with the questions and comments of the audience, who also included Michael Day and grad student Lei Lani Michel.


Houston, We Have a Problem

It is always interesting to see how official government websites handle scandals and the necessary media announcements and public disclosures that are created by an embarrassing event. NASA has released a curt statement on their website about the legal ramifications of the crazed nine hundred mile odyssey of astronaut Lisa Nowak, a.k.a. "RoboChick," to kidnap and possibly harm a romantic rival for the attentions of another astronaut. The search engine on the NASA website, however, leads the visitor to a variety of information about Nowak, from her pre-flight interview to the menu for her meals on-board the space shuttle. Furthermore, the City of Orlando's Police Department has a much more detailed account of Nowak's attack on Colleen Shipman, which includes an affidavit from the victim and a mug shot of the accused. (To save this piece of digital ephemera for posterity, I have added a Photoshopped viral image that my sister Janie sent me via e-mail. It's interesting to contemplate how a one-time figure of female intellectual and physical power gets infantilized in this image.)

The City of San Francisco, in contrast, seems to be staying mum and has not even posted the mea culpa of Mayor Gavin Newsom, which was released to the news media, in which he confessed to a problem with alcoholism for which he was pursuing treatment. (A previous statement -- also housed offshore of official web territory and the electronic public record -- disclosed an affair with the wife of a close aide.) Ironically, the mayor's official website focuses on juicy issues like "Old-Style, Inefficient Fluorescent Light Tubes In San Francisco Commercial Buildings."

Update: And, of course, now there is a Flash webtoon commemorating the current event at Jealous Astronaut.

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