Monday, April 30, 2007

Fair Play

This evening I completed another online interactive course for employees of the University of California. Unlike the similarly employer-mandated Internet sexual harassment training that I completed over a year ago, I didn't find myself forced to use time too unproductively while the clock ticked the time, and the narratives thankfully didn't assert cartoonish norms in which gays and lesbians were always distant others and the male gaze on the female body was privileged. This tutorial also incorporated slightly more dynamic content, in that there were embedded videos of UC policy makers thanking me for my attention to the subject matter.

Nonetheless, I agree with persuasive games specialist Ian Bogost that such required ethics training for large numbers of public employees would be a natural design challenge for developers of serious games and that more embodied narratives in which relative outcomes express relative mastery of the material could make the lessons more engaging.

As important as I think ethical conduct as a public servant is, I may not value my virtual ethics sheepskin as much as my paper degrees, since I have received several such diplomas in the past from even more frivolous distance learning experiences, such as this one for my knowledge of cosmetology from the FDA website for kids.

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Sunday, April 29, 2007

French Connection

The upcoming U.S. Presidential elections aren't the only large stage for political rhetoric on the web. For example, after a first round of elections in France and an impressive 85% voter turnout, the field has been narrowed to two candidates who represent the bifurcation of the country between the political Left and Right. Now that the race has narrowed to Ségolène Royale and Nicholas Sarkozy. Each has an official campaign website. The website for Sarkozy includes a Sarkothèque, where logos for the candidate can be grabbed to show loyalty, along with pdf versions of Sarkozy's position papers. The website for Royal offers the Ségosphère, where prospective voters can watch Internet videos and take online quizzes about the statements of her challenger. YouTube presents both highly satirical and earnestly soulful videos about the political contenders.

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Saturday, April 28, 2007

It's Getting Blogswarm in Here

You can read a range of responses to today's "Take Back the Blog" invitation to combat online misogyny here.

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This morning I poked around Amnesty International's House of Horror, an interactive Flash site designed to raise awareness about human rights abuses by taking the viewer through two spaces: one, a well-lit and coherent view of what appears to be a decaying torture facility, and a second viewer-driven experience of a dark room lit by a match, where one is encouraged to use the computer's arrow keys to find the source of a given sound.

It's an interesting premise for a number of reasons. At the Philosophy of Computer Games conference, which was held earlier this academic year in Italy, there was considerable talk about how papers were privileging sight and weren't giving enough consideration to games of darkness, blindness, or text-driven games. In connection with the publication of Second Person, there was also an interesting panel that discussed the differences between text-based and more "intuitive" arrow-key interfaces in the similarly claustrophobic text-based experience, "Shade."

Unfortunately, the actual site reminds me more of a right-wing Christian "Hell House" in which socio-political spectacles of horror pop up unexpectedly. It even included a stock character in such haunted houses, the drug addict. Both times, when trying to follow the sounds of moans and groans in the blacked room, I got to "Lizzie, a 28-year old prostitute lost in her addiction to drugs."

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Friday, April 27, 2007

Slam Dunk or PowerPoint Dribble?

The news is full of revelations today from former CIA chief George Tenet, who claims that his comment that the case for the presence of weapons of mass destruction was a "slam dunk" was taken out of context, and that it actually referred to the efficacy of the administration's rhetorical presentation on the subject not to the actual evidence supporting the argument. Maybe I've said too much about the political uses of PowerPoint, as has my colleague Ellen Strenski, but I can't help but assume that the Microsoft product was the tool being used for the Iraq invasion pitch, apparently with unsatisfactory results in this particular case, according to Tenet. I also wonder if it was a trial run for the famed PowerPoint presentation of Secretary of State Colin Powell to the U.N.

When General Jay Garner gave a PowerPoint presentation in 2003 about the need for more U.S. troops to police mean streets in Iraq, he was given a "rousing send-off" by the President after no questions were asked by his staff; later he was replaced by anti-Baathist ideologue Paul Bremer.

AP reports in today's New York Times the official admission that the "White House Held GOP Prospect Briefings" in which partisan PowerPoint presentations were shown to political appointees in the powerful General Services Administration, and the Office of Special Counsel is apparently investigating potential political cronyism. In an earlier editorial against "PowerPoint Politicking on the Job," the Times describes the electronic slideshow of an aide to Karl Rove via videoconference as "outrageous."

Correction: I read the key section of Tenet's book. Apparently the presentation in question simply involved conventional visual aids, which were presented by an assistant. Perhaps the form as well as the content may have spurred White House rejection.

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Thursday, April 26, 2007

Love in the Time of the Internet

The Boston Globe recently reported about the rise in online break-ups in "To End a Romance Just Press Send." While U.S. residents may be breaking up online, Iraqi online love chat may be the only get-together option for lovelorn citizens of a country in a state of civil war. For more on romance and informatics, see Scott McCloud's Flash comic, "The Right Number."

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Scrambled Signal

For more remix fun, go to Colbert Nation to check out the viewer responses to the parodist's invitation to green screen him into Star Wars and videogame scenarios or to re-edit snippets from a mock-interview with Gwen Ifill on the PBS New Hour. And in more Colbert news, you can edit his wiki-style Congresspedia entry, if you want to make a more straight-faced contribution to his social media public persona.

Now even the Discovery Channel is encouraging Internet video spoofs of its content.

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No Cussin' Please

Celebrity YouTube often is about capturing the bad rhetoric of the rich and famous for posterity. This week, attention has been on Alec Baldwin's enraged phone message to his young daughter, for which the machinima re-mixes have already appeared. Of course, Director David O. Russell's earlier on-set Huckabees flip out has also generated user remixed versions of the scene. Now why doesn't anyone ever do remixes that have celebrities using the civil language that they should have employed in these high-pressure situations instead.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

CDC 2.0

Speaking of Web 2.0, it is worth noting that the Centers for Disease Control has recently revamped its website to feature a new 2.0 sensibility. This is something that many in social marketing, such as Craig Lefebvre, have been arguing for for a long time. You can take their "Virtual Tour" to get a sense of their new offerings. (Thanks to Ian Bogost for the link.)

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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Web 2.0 app GeNerAtor

By just pressing a button here, enjoy the thrill of creating new Web 2.0 applications without going to the trouble and expense of launching your own start-up.

From local evil geniuses Mark Marino and Jeremy Douglass at Writer Response Theory.

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Blackberry Blackout

Last week's stupendous Blackberry outage provided an opportunity for some rhetorical reflection about the genres of communication it engenders and the discourse practices surrounding it. Under the heading, "Tethered," The New York Times published "It Don't Mean a Thing if You Aint Got That Ping." Pseudonymous blogger Twisty Faster described sending a Blackberry message asking for advice on extricating a three-year-old from a fast food play area sandbox and then having to improvise in the absence of responses. My UCI colleague Peter Krapp opined that the Blackberry was not a "mobile computing device" despite its "gadget appeal."

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Monday, April 23, 2007

Mad Skillz

Just when I thought that standardized multiple-choice testing couldn't get any more misguided, I am -- yet again -- surprised. A year ago, I slammed the Educational Testing Service's then new information literacy test for producing a totally inane metric that rewarded continuing dependence on instrumentalist approaches and lousy corporate information design. It also punished serious reflection on the subject by students who might want to meditate upon the power of persons and institutions who own and control access to information instead. As a way to assess our students' interpretive skills, it wasn't even as accurate as the cheesy dumbed-down quizzes on relationships, sexuality, and office politics that are printed in glossy magazines.

Obviously, such a test ignores the aims of the American Library Association's information literacy standards from 2005 that strive to make users with access to archives sensitive to the "economic, legal, and social issues surrounding the use of information" or Siva Vaidhyanathan's 2006 call for "Critical Information Studies" in the academy, which includes the following description of the field of study:

CIS interrogates the structures, functions, habits, norms, and practices that guide global flows of information and cultural elements. Instead of being concerned merely with one's right to speak (or sing or publish), CIS asks questions about access, costs, and chilling effects on, within, and among audiences, citizens, emerging cultural creators, indigenous cultural groups, teachers, and students. Central to these issues is the idea of ‘semiotic democracy’, or the ability of citizens to employ the signs and symbols ubiquitous in their environments in manners that they determine.

Apparently I wasn't alone in my contempt for this moronic substitute for real assessment. They even failed at hawking it to suburban moms, when educators wouldn't bite. Now it seems that ETS is furiously attempting to re-brand its white elephant, which now has a discounted price tag and a new name.

The new name? iSkills. I kid you not.

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Sunday, April 22, 2007

Happy Earth Day Y'all

The other piece of digital rhetoric I noticed today came from the Google Search screen

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Master Class

Yesterday I saw Charles Elachi, Director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratories give what was obviously a well-practiced pitch on behalf of space exploration, which for the robotic missions run by JPL has been remarkably successful during the past few decades. JPL has managed to make effective appeals through digital rhetoric for many years now, first by using images that captured the public imagination by capitalizing on computer imaging technology and later by using computer animation to make technically ambitious missions seem possible. Before the current Mars rovers were even airborne, this animation shaped public expectations, as it did when we saw Spirit and Opportunity, as they were being prepared in the clean room at JPL years earlier.

He presented a classic PowerPoint lecture to the assembled audience, albeit one that included many of the terms that can only be described as "theories" in the online rhetoric legitimated by the Bush Administration: "The Big Bang," "Evolution," and "Global Warming."

In a tip of the had to mash-up culture, Elachi actually showed this Heinecken beer commercial before the animations of actual past and planned Mars missions, which parodies the rovers' virtuoso performance. (I discovered later that there were other parody commercials in this genre.)

I have to say, when it comes to government websites, the Mars Exploration Rover Mission home page is one of the best. It uses images and information graphics effectively, it is updated regularly, and it establishes a collaborative ethos that is appealing to the public. Cal Tech, which operates JPL on NASA's facility, has also created this Cool Cosmos page for classroom use. Unfortunately the main NASA page for kids, The Space Place, contains some pretty idiotic content. Based on its emphasis on website awards, I would bet it's an early government site, which needs updating. The "educational" activities there include irrelevant word matching and descrambling and a cretinous "Emoticonstructor" serving as a place-holder where a better demonstration of "artificial evolution" should be.

Of course the most inspiring image I saw all day was from 1953, which showed women who "were JPL's 'computers,' doing flight path calculations for rockets and compiling experimental data, as well as well as graphing performance data from JPL's wind tunnels." They also did FORTRAN programming and designed the very earliest prototypes of computer animation software. Notice how there is both a woman of color and a pregnant woman among the group. (Click on image to enlarge.) For more on the history of women as programmers at JPL see how "Women Made Early Inroads at JPL." Unfortunately, despite the critical work they did for technically challenging missions, these women received few opportunities for job advancement into the all male echelons of upper management.

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Saturday, April 21, 2007

Now I've Heard Everything

The GTA homage in the Coke commercial was weird enough, given that the game has been so reviled in Congress and by parents groups that I would have expected that such a wholesome brand of Americana usually would have steered clear of any possible cultural taint that could potentially generate popular wrath.

But do my ears deceive me, or is the music in the new Grand Theft Auto IV trailer from composer Philip Glass? Certainly Glass has been interested in having his music paired with computer generated digital imagery for a while, as Monsters of Grace demonstrates, but this seems a counterintuitive choice for a game series that prides itself on street credibility.

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Jeepers Creepers

Government agencies continue to be concerned with how teens are using e-mail, instant messaging, blogs, and social networking sites. Federal and state authorities refer their citizenry to the interactive Flash "game" ID the Creep, in which young girls can practice identifying suspicious electronic correspondents as possible pedophiles. Apparently boys aren't at any risk from cybercriminals, because the "game," which offers both English and Spanish versions, only allows you to play as "Alicia," "Kelly," or "Shanna." Despite its gamelike interface that allows you to collect points and rewards rapid correct responses, it doesn't actually have the kind of negotiable consequences that are usually associated with more nuanced game play. I found that the easiest winning strategy to rack up points was to simply identify all online identities as creeps without making any distinctions between them. Certainly it's not a way to teach the interpretive skills necessary to decode digital rhetoric.

California is also offering its own online product: Cyber Safety for California. Like everything else on our state government websites, it features a prominent Arnold Swarzenegger head. Although it is affiliated with the state's PTA, it hawks books like MySpace Unraveled, which at least promises to approach the subject without "fear and hype." To their credit, state-sanctioned BlogSafety acknowledges the value of a recent Pew Internet study about social networking that contradicts the image of the teen as gullible media innocent that is often promulgated, and this group even posts an interview with one of the Pew senior research specialists. I'm glad to see a site that actually refers parents to recent research about actual media practices rather than relying on attention-getting anecdotes. Still, my feelings were hurt about not being invited to their summit, even though some PTAs are now distributing my 10 Principles for the Digital Family. (YouTube video coming soon!)

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Second Life in a Few Seconds

What's been happening in the online virtual world Second Life this month? There has been a flood to dramatize the effects of global warming. There has been an ongoing FBI investigation of a casino in Second Life. A memorial for slain Virginia Tech students has also been build in the virtual environment. At the Odyssey Art Gallery, you can even catch philosopher of the simulacrum Jean Baudrillard floating around.

Today my hairdresser reported that one of the salon's clients complained about getting his girlfriend's avatar in Second Life pregnant and needing real money for a virtual abortion.

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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Report Card

Not surprisingly, the Federal Trade Commission is glorifying rating systems yet again rather than foster intergenerational communication about videogame play. In their announcement last week they explained the rationale for releasing a new report on "Marketing Violent Entertainment to Children." Strangely, it was remarkably difficult to find the actual report for the first few days after it was announced, despite the fact that the announcement said it would be at this site. So instead I checked out the FTC's online media complaint form and their incredibly lame Flash quiz about ratings systems, before I finally found the actual document. In the FTC's new report, the most recent of five, current self-regulation by videogame manufacturers is both praised with the rhetoric of laissez-faire capitalism and denigrated with an eye toward political opportunity for an easy play to worrywart parents.

Many in the media were eager to connect violent videogames to the Virginia Tech shootings, even before any evidence had appeared. For example, see how anti-game activist Jack Thompson was already capitalizing on the Virginia Tech shooting, even while the scope of the loss of life was still unfolding. Yesterday, the characterization of the killer as an experienced PC user dominated media coverage: the LA Times say that one of his few activities was that he "downloaded music," and NBC characterized him as the creator of a "multimedia manifesto," based on the video, audio, digital image, and document files he sent to the network.

As Siva Vaidhyanathan was making a "Call for Reason," MSNBC listed "Mayor Hosts Summit of Videogame Violence" and "Violent Video Games 'Exhilarating Escapism' -- Survey," as "related stories" to his nuanced piece. To his credit Vaidhyanathan also criticized his employer for airing the hurtful footage from the killer and points out the excellent exchange on Re-Imaging Violence that aired on PRI. (The show, "Open Source," is also a great example of good talk recording, as I pointed out in a recent colloquy on podcasting.)

Update: By the next day it seemed that MSNBC had gotten around to questioning the Thompson hypothesis in "Were video games to blame for massacre? Pundits rushed to judgment of industry, gamers in the wake of shooting," because no actual evidence of console ownership or witnesses who had seen the killer play had emerged.

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And So It Begins

As Siva Vaidhyanathan points out here, the YouTube re-mixes are already starting to appear with the NBC footage from the mentally ill student who went on the Virginia Tech rampage.

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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Voice of Sanity

If you missed it today, check out fellow blogger Siva Vaidhyanathan's excellent essay on the Virginia Tech massacre. It's eloquently written commentary that makes a larger point about technology and culture, and it is well worth the read.

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Tap Dancing Routine

With the Attorney General, Alberto Gonzales, facing calls for his resignation over the scandal about the politically motivated firings of federal prosecutors, you would think he would have more to say to the press and the public about recently released documents or his upcoming testimony on the Hill, even if it was understandably postponed by events at Virginia Tech. Government websites can serve important informational and rhetorical purposes when there is precisely this kind of national crisis of confidence in federal leadership.

Instead, the official website of the Department of Justice is focusing again on still more politically expedient anti-Internet hype. Gonzales is shown trumpeting Project Safe Childhood. This program has a super-creepy sexually prurient video in which Gonzales also uses buzzwords about threats to a "civilized society" created by online child pornography that mimic the exact same language of surveillance associated with our current War on Terror.

As a parent, teacher, former social services worker, and feminist activist, I certainly think it's reprehensible to exploit children in any way. But there is also something disturbing about the ideology of many of the DOJ's appeals to the public in this campaign. Words like "salacious," "voyeuristic," "appalling," and "loathsome" come to mind as I watch the footage. Right from the start, in their visual rhetoric, the parade of mugshots emphasizes the display of perpetrators with distorted physical features, in an obvious reference to antiquated ideas about the phrenology of sexual predators and other deviants.

To be fair, at least the DOJ admits that face-to-face power relations play a significant role in victimization and that cops, teachers, and clergy are among the perpetrators. They also seem to be making a visual argument about racial integration at the DOJ: two of the talking heads in the video were African Americans. The DOJ even tellingly shows a crime scene featuring a pillow with the Confederate Stars and Bars.

Nonetheless, the overall yuckiness of the video and its morbid interest in including details from the most graphic descriptions -- including a criminal sharing the sensation of penetrating a victim -- was a totally sickening example of political opportunism. While you're at it, if you can stand to watch this far, watch out for the appearance of cybercop Flint Waters, who has also developed a system that can be used for corporate copyright holders against P2P file sharing, which the department is still busily prosecuting this month. Note also how they complain about the prosecutorial "weakness" of liberal California, a state that two of the fired federal prosecutors represented.

The campaign has also produced the sniggering Public Service Announcement, "Everyone Knows Your Name."

Hey, Alberto, what about the positive uses of the Internet for teens and children?

Furthermore, as my colleagues in computer science point out, these computer forensics experts should perhaps be looking at the proprietary Republican network from which critical e-mails reportedly vanished.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Interactive Entertainment

This reminds me of what Slavoj Žižek said about our false sense of political participation and his analogy to the "close door" elevator button that doesn't actually do anything to hasten the closing of the door. (See "Human Rights and Its Discontents" for the citation.) In 2004, The New York Times reported on the fact that most pedestrian buttons in the city had been de-activated, and yet citizens continued to think that pushing the button would give a green light to the crosswalk sooner. So much for interactive entertainment, although this YouTube video would suggest otherwise. For more on how people become obsessed with cheat codes of various kinds, check out Mia Colsalvo's forthcoming book from MIT Press, Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames.

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Bad Rap

I love both YouTube and online banking, so why do I hate this TurboTax rap so much? Perhaps because I've never really gotten over the musical badness of Vanilla Ice or perhaps because TurboTax has thwarted popular free government-sponsored online tax programs for the poor. Happy tax day, everyone. Don't forget to file.

Update: Apparently electronic filers with TurboTax had a bad surprise this year, as a software slowdown created late filing for many returns.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

Sick, Sick, Sick

This was the most popular video on YouTube today.


Campus Nightmare

Today's shooting at Virginia Tech, which left at least 33 people dead, was foremost in the minds of my co-workers today. As a university bureaucrat, who has had to -- on at least one occasion -- politely ask a student who described himself as a "loner" and a "gun nut" on his first-day writing diagnostic if there was a weapon in the rifle bag he had brought into the classroom, this story of a failed campus police system is deeply troubling.

It is interesting, however, to note the fact that coverage in The New York Times portrayed students as deeply engaged in the practices of digital culture. One student in the article found out about the tragedy when a neighbor asked, "did you check your email?" Another was unaware because she was "listening to music on her iPod." Still another student used "his cell phone video camera" to capture "grainy dark-clad figures" that were later broadcast on CNN.

After listening to the incoherent news conference with the investigating authorities, I went to the Virginia Tech website, where I listened to the university president's 4:30 podcast and his noon podcast about the crisis. I was also surprised to discover that President Steger was using virtual means of digital communication but had not yet met with any of the families of the slain students face-to-face. The text of the e-mails that the university administration sent to the campus community are here.

Update: The connection between social practices around new technology and the massacre was made even more explicit by The Los Angeles Times in "Students Trace a Tragedy Online," which argues that social networking sites like Facebook served a key informational function during the crisis. Yet The San Jose Mercury News retitled "Digital tools were potential life savers during Va. Tech massacre" to "Va. Tech Massacre another milestone of horror for parents." (Via Jerz's Literacy Weblog)
Many profile pages of Virginia Tech students on Facebook now have the logo shown above. Religious students added Christian elements to the campus logo to represent their Facebook avatars.

I also visited the MySpace page of victim Lauren McCain and was deeply saddened to see her friends and loved ones futilely attempting to communicate with her there.

The day after the shootings, this cell phone camera video was the most viewed film on YouTube.

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Sunday, April 15, 2007


I don't know quite what to make of the partnership between spoof newspaper The Onion and august media giant The Washington Post. This interview doesn't make the terms of the agreement any clearer, but it does seem that the Post will be selling Onion ads and printing the humorous physical artifact to be distributed in newsstands and sidewalk boxes. Given the importance of the Internet to the parody press's success, it is interesting to see the value placed on "local" coverage for their mockery and on the availability of the tangible page. As a recent episode of Frontline on PBS reported, many newspapers are surviving by scrapping foreign bureaus and concentrating on "hyper-local" coverage.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Illegally Yours

I liked the fact that there was also an identity theft angle in this spoof of an anti-piracy PSA. For more on identity theft humor, see the chapter on the subject in Mark Poster's Information Please

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Friday, April 13, 2007

The Rose Mary Woods Stretch

Naturally, I have something to say about the public relations debacle, now reported in the Associated Press, that the Republicans are facing about missing e-mails linked to the firing of federal prosecutors who were seen as excessively Democrat-friendly. The Los Angeles Times reports that this may also be a violation of federal law and of the principle of maintaining public records. The irony, of course, is that most private sector employees are being held highly accountable for their e-mail from work-related addresses or machines, e-mail which is generally archived and often monitored by superiors. And this is the same branch of the federal government that wanted Internet Service Providers to lengthen their data maintenance periods, supposedly so the Justice Department could catch more child molesters and terrorists.

As I've argued before, the e-mail of public policy makers tends to function more often as damning evidence than it does as inspiring first-person testimony, particularly when disasters or scandals are involved. What I find interesting is the characterization of the missing e-mails as a "dog ate my homework" excuse. Really, it's more like the "Rose Mary Woods Stretch," which describes an improbable combination of events that somehow leads to erasures of data on a newfangled yet ubiquitous device. The term comes from cynicism about a story told by Nixon's loyal secretary about suspiciously convenient silence in the middle of an incriminating section of audiotape.


Thursday, April 12, 2007

The New Phrenology

The question is: could it have some of the same ideologies about race, class, gender, and even religion and other forms of cultural difference that have to do with practices and beliefs as the Enlightenment/Victorian systems of facial classification?

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Wednesday, April 11, 2007

In Polite Company People Never Talk about Religion, Politics, Sex, or Money

This is the cover page of a party invitation that I once sent out for a themed dinner. When the invitee opened the card, he or she was assured that it wasn't going to be polite company, if the event was held at our home. That's why I'm not very sympathetic toward last week's "A Call for Manners," which was described in The New York Times. It's true that blogspats can get pretty nasty, particularly when they involve accusations of racism or misogyny or -- even worse -- disinhibited commentators who enact verbal fantasies of rape and violence. But I'm not a fan of ratings systems or seals of approval, even though I very much admire BlogHer, which was one of the very first venues to spread the word about this blog in its early days.

Update: In response to a justifiable concern from an astute commenter that the BlogHer guidelines may have been unintentionally misrepresented, I'm linking to them so that readers can judge for themselves. Of course, it's also important to say that I have my own guidelines on posting and moderating and publishing comments, so I understand the importance of ground rules in Internet discourse. Nonetheless, as I said in my original post, I distrust such formulations when they are presented as ratings systems, which thankfully BlogHer has not done. To trace the misunderstanding, check out how the "badge" concept was first associated with BlogHer in a paragraph the O'Reilly Radar.

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Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Ready for Their Close Up

Today, CNN has reported that Google Earth is partnering with the U.S. Holocaust Museum to create new layers for the software application called Crisis in Darfur, which provides high-resolution satellite images of the unfolding human rights disaster being perpetuated by the Sudanese government. You can download the new layers from their site.

Google has also partnered with NASA, but the rhetorical purpose of the Darfur project seems much more clearly defined.

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Monday, April 09, 2007

Small Fries

Vidmeter's Copyright Report, which shows that user-generated content is much more watched on YouTube than copyrighted big studio material is apparently already being disputed by media giant Viacom, according to Reuters. Despite their accusations, one chart in the Vidmeter report shows that the intellectual property of conglomerate companies like Viacom, Disney, Sony, and Time-Warner make up only 9.23% of content and a mere 5.93% of all views.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Not Spaced Out

I have friends who won't even use the word "cyberspace" anymore and who vigorously excise it from the manuscripts of others in their editing or peer reviewing capacities. So I will admit to some skepticism about possible anachronisms in Mark Nunes' Cyberspaces of Everyday Life, particularly given the way that the trope of "everyday life" from de Certeau and Braudel has become a kind of truism in the cultural conversations taking place in the academy about things digital. (I like Jenny Cool's meditation on the "Data Structures of Everyday Life," for example.)

Yet I think it's a book about computer-mediated communication that will age well and hopefully stay in print, like my HCC colleague Michael Heim's book about word processing Electric Language. Of course, maintaining relevance is a real challenge when academics have to scramble to keep up as we move from Web 2.0 to Web 3.0. And even Nunes himself is willing to admit that the term began to disappear in The New York Times between 1999 (which had 410 articles mentioning "cyberspace") and 2004 (which had only 70 such items). Nonetheless, in 2007, survey data indicates that more citizens are going on virtual tours and visiting real estate online. And whether I'm writing about digital libraries or memory palaces, conceptions about "cyberspace" from the nineties probably still shape my thinking.

Like my UCI Facebook friend Paul Dourish, Nunes argues that space is always social and informational. In this, it seems that Nunes shares an anti-Newtonian "patron saint," Gottfried Leibniz, with Norbert Wiener (and with Anna Munster, who took Leibniz's side against Descartes in Materializing New Media) on the grounds that the Saxon philosopher was a precursor in understanding the relational, networked quality of space.

Nunes has some entertaining background history about maps, post office systems, and distance learning, but the heart of the book is its theoretical perspective, which smartly integrates network theory with work on online communities and Internet practices. Given that I first encountered Nunes' book through an recommendation, I found his meditation on the functionality of this online mega-bookstore particularly salient, since I've read other good books in the Minnesota series and actually knew Nunes from twenty-five years earlier when we were both punk-era teenagers enrolled in the same summer school.

Of course, I might have liked to have seen Nunes take on some of the origin myths about online communities more directly. His story about how the Georgia homeless could be both included and excluded by philanthropic-seeming laptop initiatives by the Atlanta-Fulton Library System told more about the civic Realpolitik at work in state-sanctioned online community programs than liberatory narratives like those told about Santa Monica's Public Electronic Network, which I know to be only partial truths based on my first-hand experiences with putting at-risk teens on P.E.N.

Finally, this being Easter Sunday, and a cold but clear April day in Boston, I spent the day largely offline, first in morning services in King's Chapel and then on an afternoon walking tour of the Freedom Trail (for which a far inferior virtual tour exists).

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Saturday, April 07, 2007

Sounding Board

On the final day of the Popular Culture Association conference, audiophile die-hards stayed for our panel on podcasting, about which the canon of scholarship is currently very small. My UCI colleague Annette Schlichter organized the panel and closed the session with a preliminary sketch of her "Our iPods/Ourselves" research on gender, sexuality, and the voice in independent podcasts that include queer, transgender, and scatological discourses. She also talked about the importance of recognizing the role of procedural rhetoric or what could be considered a form of technological determinism when it comes to the compression of MP3 files that dictate the spectrum of the listening experience.

We were fortunate also to have Richard Berry from the UK join us; Berry authored "Will the iPod Kill the Radio Star?" for Convergence. Berry used the concept of "the long tail" to explain the lessons of niche marketing for commercial radio. He also -- very justifiably -- complained about the title of our panel and the fact that this cultural phenomenon wasn't limited to a particular brand or even to a general type of mobile device.

Like Berry's paper, my presentation focused on how podcasting relates to traditional broadcast media. Although I spoke some about how blogging and podcasting were related, my main focus was on supplementarity with television. In my analysis of my main case study, "Tim's Podcast" for the Bravo television show Project Runway, I argued that the alternative audio channel presented a counter-discourse that probed questions about gender, sexuality, class, body image, and intellectual property that weren't directly addressed by the mainstream-oriented TV show; at the same time, I argued, the podcast by a Parsons faculty member was asserting the authority of institutions of higher education and the often policing Enlightenment values that they represented.

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Friday, April 06, 2007

My Non-Academic Space

Probably the most revealing panel of the second full day of the PCA conference was the "Web Use" panel for the Internet Culture Group. In light of corporate aquisitiveness regarding intellectual property and brand identity, Gavin Keulks discussed the challenges of being the official administrator of the Martin Amis Web, and local SoCal gal xtine Hanson talked about anti-mass marketing websites with user-generated content that are situated in local geographies like Fallen Fruit and her own The Q&A was particularly lively, because panelists talked frankly about the complexities of balancing their academic identities with their interests as webmasters, which are still poorly understood by the academy.

Another Internet Culture panel on "Communities and Change" also dramatized how the norms of academic study may conflict with online behaviors associated with institutions of knowledge. Although W. Scott Cheney has a relatively modest 25 Facebook friends, he gave an informative presentation about the social networking site for students that addressed how policy makers and other powerful stakeholders in academia might be challenged by its online practices. There was also a thought-provoking presentation from an interdisciplinary team of Ithaca college faculty members about how religious practices and spaces could be important in the online world Second Life.

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Thursday, April 05, 2007

People's Choice

At the first Popular Culture Association panel for the Electronic Communication & Culture Area, there were several presentations relevant to concerns about how digital media, participatory culture, and political institutions intersect. Christopher Ward of Carnegie Mellon University discussed how stock photos depend on a generic rhetoric that is fundamentally polysemic in character. For instance, he interrogated the image of interactivity associated with a youthful and eager interlocutor in photos used for "customer service" web pages. Ward also showed examples of how two credit card companies used the same models from stock image banks to brand their supposedly distinct corporate identities. Given that government websites are increasingly likely to use stock images in photo essays on official websites, Ward's research is relevant to those who look at political digital rhetoric as well. Lisa Falvey of Emmanuel College looked at how administrators of video file-sharing sites attempt to filter, rank and authenticate messages. She pointed the audience to "The Reagans on Drugs" as an example of subversive re-mix culture in action. Chair Mark Nunes revisited the much discussed "" strategy in Howard Dean's 2004 presidential campaign, which has also been deconstructed by Dean game designer Ian Bogost. With the current presidential race underway, Nunes considers how the ideals of participatory democracy associated with distributed networks could be debased to the level of virtual "baby kissing" on YouTube. Nunes is a savvy critic, however, and he points to the complexities among the YouTube offerings from 2008 presidential candidates. These phenomena include the remix effect in the recent "Vote Different" unofficial Obama ad that uses Hillary Clinton's own YouTube footage in it's Apple 1984 send-up and the Dennis Kucinich channel's engagement with the responses of Georgetown student James Kotecki, who evolved into a media talking head himself.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Second Person

Tonight I sat in on an evening of discussion around "writing and gameplay" to commemorate the book Second Person with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Jordan Mechner, Mark Marino, and Jeremy Douglass.

Although Mechner was there discussing the challenging of turning a videogame -- Sands of Time of the Prince of Persia series -- into a feature film devoted to more than killing monsters, he's done work that celebrates the regional and the political in his documentary Chavez Ravine. Mechner, like many of the other presenters that evening, was interested in the procedurality of a "bad choice," which in the case of completing a puzzle that activates the castle's defense system, may be your only one. The way that choice-making still remains dramatically important, even when the media is no longer an interactive one, could be seen as one way to approach the old Narratology vs. Ludology debate.

I had seen Marino's 12 Easy Lessons to Better Time Travel before, but I think his choice to combine it with course management software was a witty improvement. Obviously, as someone who sat through nine hours of Tom Stoppard's The Coast of Utopia, I have a lot of patience with nonlinear plots, but Marino's sense of humor serves the project well. As someone fascinated with chatbots going back to the "Horses of Elberfeld," I also liked the fake interactivity of his chatbot in the story "Ticky." (Marino also created monologues for the notorious Grand Theft Auto game that include an army recruiter, a driver's ed instructor, and a controlling Italian mother.)

In keeping with the "bad choices" theme, Douglass discussed the text-based interactive work of fiction "Shade," which takes place in the existential trap of an apartment. Audience member and innovative game designer Tracy Fullerton, however, talked about the problems with the game interface and its irritating protocols that make the equivalent of tying a shoe into an elaborate algorithm of discrete instructions. Douglass didn't disagree that this lack of intuitiveness could be frustrating, but he did advocate for the pleasures of this particular form of literacy. With other audience members, there was also some discussion of the much lauded "Facade," in connection with the question of whether it was a true story simulation or merely a chatbot.

Wardrip-Fruin is also hosting what looks to be a great panel with Jesper Juul and Judith Faifman at UCSD on the 18th. Info is here.

(Picture above courtesy of Jenny Cool of The Participant Observer.)

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Pod People

In preparation for my podcasting panel at the Popular Culture Association annual convention in Boston this week, I've been looking at how official digital rhetoric on government websites may be attempting to appropriate this youth-oriented electronic genre for what is implicitly a new channel of political discourse. (To get a sense of the market, which includes the White House Office of Drug Policy, the Census Bureau, and the Rewards for Justice anti-terrorism program, you can see a range of government podcasts here.)

The top-rated government-sponsored podcast appears to be the NASA Feature Stories Podcast, despite its stripped-down production style and relatively lackluster single viewpoint narration by NASA's Dr. Tony Phillips. Not only does this podcast not use music, but it also doesn't even feature sound clips of the actual scientists who are quoted in the news items. Of course, I like the fact that the NASA podcast uses bad puns rather than strictly descriptive titles: among their gems in its headers are phrases like "Grand Theft Pluto" and "Look Ma! No (Human) Hands!"

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Hot Times in the City

A local story, "Blaze Fans Flames of Internet Fame," describes how distributed media represents coverage of a fire in the Hollywood Hills. What is interesting is to see how my hometown newspaper, the recently purchased Los Angeles Times, is jumping on the bandwagon by trying to generate social networking DIY media activities around the phenomena on its photo-sharing site My Scene at its "Hollywood Hills Fire" page. As someone from a fire area in the hills of Pasadena, I well remember getting together with neighbors and watching whatever community conflagration merited being out of bed and shivering in the cold to watch the fire fighters at work. To do so virtually instantiates a new set of social practices.

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Monday, April 02, 2007

Music to Our Ears

Speaking of Apple, I've been meaning to do some rhetorical analysis of the big news today that EMI will be offering DRM-free music to its listeners, which would not be crippled by code that limits it to certain music players and a set number of copies. However, the official Apple announcement emphasized that the main pay-off to consumers would be higher sound quality and thus set the premium on reification of the artifact not the social practices surrounding it. In contrast, the EMI announcement addressed concerns about prior interinoperability directly. In many ways, the visual rhetoric of the photograph is more interesting, and the way that the digital media norms of oratory (seated, podium-less, hands-at-crotch, casual Fridays fashion, etc.) telegraphs the message about ownership and authorship.

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Sunday, April 01, 2007

Future Shock

In honor of April Fool's Day, it seems worth taking the time to talk about the Hillary/Apple mash-up on YouTube or the outing of its creator or the counter videos that have since gone online. In many ways,"Vote Different" is not a true mash-up, in that it stays very close to the 1984-style original. It literally associates candidate Barack Obama with color, which gives new meaning to his status as the only person of color associated with the race. Strangely, it doesn't make the "Vote Different" slogan directly relevant to Obama's distinctive anti-invasion stance, which the pseudo-military imagery could have done.

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