Thursday, May 31, 2007

The Bear in the Machine

The New York Times recently reported that Estonian policy makers are accusing Russian nationalists of sabotaging their electronic infrastructure. "Digital Fears Emerge After Data Siege in Estonia" describes a new form of state vs. state conflict and the potential for cyberwar between nations. The official site of the Reform Party -- with its huge daffodil image and text-oriented navigation -- has been a favorite target of hackers who appear to be affiliated with a Russian language minority in the country, but government sites that provide information about basic services have also been subject to attacks. Using a giant network of bots the infiltrators released bursts of data that overwhelmed the firewalled systems. Ironically the impetus for the conflict was apparently the removal of a much more reified form of political rhetoric, a Soviet-era memorial to the soldiers of World War II, the Bronze Soldier. (Thanks to Carla Copenhaven for suggesting this story.)

Update: Wired has published analysis that indicates that this was in all likelihood a hoax.

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Indian Givers

The PBS Online NewHour recently broadcast an interesting story about how issues about intellectual property, free culture, and digital libraries can intersect. "India Works to Shield Traditional Knowledge from Modern Copyrights" describes the project of scientists, archivists, activists, and translators to digitize ancient texts about health and medicine to prevent the pharmacological industry from claiming proprietary rights to knowledge from a shared cultural legacy. After hearing about attempts to patent turmeric for wound-healing and copyright certain yoga postures, Indian scholars began the Traditional Knowledge Digital Library to discourage royalty-seekers in the West. (Thanks to Kathleen Seyfarth for the link to the video.)

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Wednesday, May 30, 2007

More From the Department of Irony

Can I point out that the webcast of this Friday's Copyright in the Digital Age: An Update is being shown to the public only through compliance with a Byzantine set of rules and regulations?

Great, I thought. It's a webcast. So I can be at UCLA for that day, as I had planned, and still see a panel discussion being shown sixty miles away at the UC Irvine Science Library. After all, it's how I'm often able to "attend" events on multiple UC campuses on the same day.

But no. I called the library to get the URL, so I'd be ready at my desktop to catch all the exciting library and information science action. Apparently they are only licensed to show the webcast on only one computer at only one designated time. Otherwise I have to shell out $395 to have my own licensed copy! Why has the sponsor of the event, the American Library Association, agreed to this preposterous policing of ostensibly public content?

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Fine Print

Speaking of games, I want to take an opportunity to plug my friend designer-critic Ian Bogost's new collaboration with The New York Times. As Ian explains on his blog, Water Cooler Games, the Gray Lady will be "publishing newsgames we create on their op-ed page, as editorial content, not just as games." There are some precursors for this kind of data visualization, in the long history of political cartoons. Unlike static bar charts and graphs, visitors to the site can hopefully learn more about complicated problems by interacting with the constraints of the system.

Unfortunately, their first game, Food Import Folly, is only available to subscribers of Times Select. As you play the game and inspect shipments in the role of an FDA inspector, you better understand the position of overworked and understaffed health officials, and the game just gets progressively more complicated as we reach conditions under the current administration. You can see their other newsgames on the Persuasive Games website.

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Treasure Hunt

This just in from Paolo Ruffino, who also goes by the name Ester Dreier when creating installations like this one in Second Life, on a new university-based alternate reality game.

Something very strange is happening at University of Bologna...It seems that the University is organizing a "find the treasure" game of "Crediti Formativi Universitari" , "university credits". During the last two weeks Bolognese students have found, hidden in their departments, hundreds of cards worth one credit. The University call centers are getting crazy, the website crashed several times due to the huge amount of downloads. Every card has a link to the official website:

Notice anything funny about that URL? This video explains the full story of how one of the world's oldest universities ended up unintentionally hosting a treasure hunt. The footage also includes students who react with distaste or disgust to the whole proposition and the mockery that the credit system has become.

You can check out the work of Jane McGonigal if you don't know what an ARG is.

I guess it seemed probable, although I make students do a lot of work, even for one credit. For example, here's a one-credit freshman seminar I taught a few years ago.

(For more on my last visit to Bologna, where I strolled around the university, go here.)

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Tuesday, May 29, 2007

With Friends Like These

The shenanigans of Azia Kim have been commemorated in a number of pages on the popular social networking site Facebook. According to "Imposter Caught" in The Stanford Daily Online, Kim made it through most of the academic year pretending to be a freshman at the prestigious college, where she even slept in the dorms and ate in campus dining halls. Although her personal site on Xanga has been taken down, Facebook is either condemning or celebrating her charade. Acerbic file-sharers of digital images are making catty comments about Kim's acne. A page has also been started called "It's official: Koreans are having the worst week ever!" that points out how their status as a model minority has been undermined first by the Virginia Tech shootings and now by events at Stanford. More students seem to be jumping to her defense at pages like "Azia Kim is my hero" or "We're here for you Azia" or "AZIAn Pride: Let Azia Kim Stay at Stanford."

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Eyes Off the Prize

Today's Washington Post carries the story of a female pole-vaulter who was the subject of degrading sexist comments in the blogosphere and a number of fake social networking pages. In "Teen Tests Internet's Lewd Track Record," high school track star Allison Stokke and her family complain about unauthorized and voyeuristic uses of her image in cyberspace. As a minor, she might have had a better case, but as an eighteen-year-old adult and arguably a public figure, I think she doesn't have much of a case to protest her Internet defamation on legal grounds. Of course, the article also gives free advertising to sleazy sites like Free Leather, which posts clips like this one that literally present female athletes as sexual animals. At least she didn't do anything that would jeopardize her academic record, like the women mercilessly humiliated at

Update: Apparently this is such a major and newsworthy story that The Los Angeles Times is covering Stokke's plight on the front page. See "Pole vaulting getting her lots of Internet looks, not all by sports fans." I think the sleazy title says a lot about the interest in this story as well.

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Monday, May 28, 2007

The Immaterial Has Become Immaterial

This line comes from the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which I went to see tonight. It's ironic to see a movie from the Disney company that heroizes culturally subversive pirates and tells a story about taking on a giant monopoly, the East India Company. The initial sequence, which shows a range of citizens of different races, ages, and genders being persecuted for their sympathy with piracy becomes particularly ironic, given the company's history. If you haven't already seen it, check out this mash-up of Disney films made into a tutorial on copyright and fair use by Bucknell professor Eric Faden.

I thought that the depiction of Asia as a place for disordered and lawless sociality puppeted Orientalist stereotypes and that the Yellow Peril-style caricature of sexual danger to white women from Asian men played right into racist ideologies. Personally, I'd pick Chow Yun Fat over Orlando Bloom any day. I wonder how much of this China-bashing was seen as permissible, given the region's well publicized disregard for Disney's intellectual property claims.

I know that some free culture advocates are using the release of the movie as an opportunity to educate the public. Free Culture and Defective By Design held an event at one of the theatres showing the film in Boston to highlight parallels with net activist interests. You can see photos here.

In this week's Los Angeles Times cartoonist Berkeley Breathed explains how his joke about the director of Pirates went unintentionally viral thanks to a blogger at a book signing in "Is Gore Verbinski really 'sick of pirates'?"

Update: There's also another great Disney mash-up that has been made up to argue for the stance of documentary filmmakers, who often need clips from popular movies to illustrate essential points in their visual arguments.

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Not Diploma-tic

Speaking of automation and higher education, on the plane flight home from Berkeley I finished reading David F. Noble's Digital Diploma Mills. Of course, who couldn't help but enjoy the prose of a book with passages such as this:

The monotonal mantras about our inevitable wired destiny, the prepackaged palaver of silicon snake-oil salesmen, echoed through the halls of academe, replete with sophomoric allusions to historical precedent (the invention of writing and the printing press) and sound-bites about the imminent demise of the "sage on the stage" and "bricks and mortar" institutions. But today, alas, the wind is out of their sails, their momentum broken, their confidence shaken.

But I had a lot of difficulty with Noble's arguments against making course websites into a venue for public information and his moralistic defense of copyright as a public institution. (Regarding copyright debates, I'll get to my reactions to Mark Helprin's "A Great Idea Lives Forever, Shouldn't Its Copyright" later this week, as well as the wiki that Lawrence Lessig's wiki that rebuts its arguments.) I'm certainly wary of nondisclosure agreements or secret contracts between corporate software vendors and universities, although right now the issues that Noble raises may be most salient to the Google digitization debate.

Yet Noble overlooks obvious alternatives to proprietary courseware, such as digital coursework based on a creative commons or open source models, or the existence of the international community exploring electronic educational environments in the 1990s. He also doesn't consider the value of hybrid education in which digital materials are integrated into live teaching. Moreover, he actually throws more obstacles in front of the collaborations that I would argue the digital university will need to survive, which I describe in this paper about Virtualpolitik and higher education.

Finally, I thought his epilogue about September 11th didn't make sense to me, in which he argued that academics should be even more secretive about their course materials in an environment of political surveillance and suspicion. I taught my first course about the rhetoric of the Internet in the immediate wake of the attacks on the World Trade Center, and I thought the environment of openness that I tried to foster around the course materials -- some of which were used by a composition textbook company without permission or compensation and even repurposed for other courses -- is healthier for higher education and public culture more generally. (By the way, I officially give permission here for others to use those September 11th materials here and will try to get around to slapping a creative commons license on the site.)

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Sunday, May 27, 2007

Automatic Writing

For a person who spends as much time thinking about digital communication as I do, it is odd to go on my annual pilgrimage to the Clark Kerr campus at U.C. Berkeley to serve as a table leader at the system-wide Analytical Writing Placement Examination. (Those who know me outside of this capacity may know that Clark Kerr is a not-so distant relative, as I believe my second cousin twice-removed. Here I am with a bust of my bureaucrat ancestor.)

To date, evaluating critical thinking in college-level writing is a task that can't be done efficiently by anything other than human beings, and unlike other "mechanical Turk" operations, it is considerably more complicated than simply identifying generally agreed-upon traits, expressed by statements such as "this is a pink shoe." Furthermore, I know enough about software that can create computer-generated writing and the temptations of cut and paste plagiarism to be wary of the eventual advent of automated evaluation without live minders. It would be nice, of course, if the essays weren't hand-written in paper booklets, sometimes with scrawl less legible than gang graffiti or an x-height ant-high.

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Saturday, May 26, 2007

Sex and Lovemarks

Among other official communications this week, we were notified about new forms of institutional branding that are being adopted at our university.

The University of California, Irvine offers a diverse array of outstanding programs. When this diversity is reflected in an equally wide array of logos and wordmarks, however, the public becomes confused and our campus identity is diluted.

A single, unified identity plays to the strength of our university. We are the Irvine campus of the University of California, regarded among the world's premier institutions of higher learning.

University Communications has developed the next iteration of our campus wordmark system, which better reflects and emphasizes our University of California brand. I am requesting that all campus units immediately begin using this identity system as they create new publications, Web sites, advertising, presentations, signage and any other collateral material representing our campus to internal and external audiences. For units using our current identity system, these changes will be modest.

Public institutions of knowledge that claim the signifiers of intellectual property are often reluctant to use the term "trademark" to describe their attempts to consolidate brand identity, because it is so contaminated with the language of commerce and contract. In this case, the university is using the term "wordmark" to describe the proscribed fonts, logos, and color schemes. As a rhetorician, I understand their desire for coherent messages, even if my own promulgation of the UCI brand has been limited to wearing glitter Zot the Anteater t-shirts with my colleagues to conferences.

Specialists in viral advertising, lifestyle branding, and other new marketing strategies for the "long tail" economy have talked about the importance of "lovemarks." One of their prime examples has actually been my undergraduate alma mater with its distinctive crimson colors and Veritas logo.

Of course, other parties on the World Wide Web have associated the Harvard "brand" with seemingly unsavory forms of sexual expression. For example, I might argue that the blog Sex and the Ivy plays upon the same fantasies as the Playboy "Girls of the Ivy League" issues. The "multimedia" and "omnisexual" spectacle that was the H-Bomb, subsequently parodied by the Harvard Lampoon, similarly played upon public's prurient interest in an august institution. And Bored at Lamont is dedicated to gay hookups and public masturbation set at the primary library for studying on campus, where the smoking room is no longer available for face-to-face decadent sociality. (Ironically, the spin-off at Bored at Berkeley uses its message board for grassroots political organizing.) It's no wonder, that these gray market Internet ventures receive such a high profile, given the fact that Facebook achieved some of its initial cachet as a Harvard brand. Then again, I wouldn't want to see my 1984 print freshman facebook picture again, complete with my groovy grown-up perm and New Wave plaid blouse, which I certainly won't post here.

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Friday, May 25, 2007

Timely Update

Communications from university policy makers to the campus community provide interesting examples of digital rhetoric from respected communicators. Since they usually model proper institutional discourse, these e-mails potentially could be useful samples for students to imitate, in order to learn the rules for electronic discourse from those at the top. In a culture of what The New York Times calls "Flame first, Think Later" that produces some spectacularly bad student e-mails, of which this is my favorite example, some pedagogical intervention certainly seems to be needed.

Unfortunately, in the post Virginia Tech semiotic environment, sometimes the implied narratives in a given message in the important genre of risk communication can be so enigmatic as to suggest only mysteries that require that the reader supply the key details.

For example, first we received this message:

A double homicide occurred near UC Irvine on the corner of University Drive and Ridgeline Drive on May 22, 2007. This case is currently under investigation by the Anaheim Police Department in relation to an arson/kidnap case that has touched a member of the UC Irvine community. Appropriate security measures are being taken.

The Anaheim Police Department requests that anyone with information about this case call (714) 765-1997.

We ask you to please be aware of your surroundings when on campus and report any suspicious activity to the UC Irvine Police Department immediately at (949) 824-5223, or 911. Personal safety information can be found at

Then we received this one, with still more passive voice and elliptical presentation:

More information is now available regarding the recent double homicide near UC Irvine, about which I sent you a zotmail yesterday evening.

As reported by the local news, the daughter of the victim is a UC Irvine student. Arrangements have been made by the University to assist her and others affected during this very difficult time.

Anaheim Police Detectives now have provided the following suspect descriptions and request that anyone with information about this case call (714) 765-1997:

Suspect #1: Male black with bushy hair, wearing a hooded sweatshirt.
Suspect #2: Unknown driver of suspect vehicle.
Suspect Vehicle: light-colored mini van.

Without key details, readers are given a kind of roman à clef to solve rather than presented with authoritative messages about campus safety. The lacuna may partly be explained by an assumed knowledge of coverage in the print and broadcast media.

Update: Facebook is already memorializing the murdered Orange Coast College student Karishma Dhanak in sites like R.I.P. Karishma Dhanak, U Will Be Missed. Photo sharing among members of the grieving Hindu student community seems to be a particularly important aspect of their remembrance. It appears that the victim's MySpace page has already been deleted.

More Updates: On the 1st of June we received more details on the case although it still lacked many of the specifics about the crime being reported in the media. The message also included the following explanation of the risk communication policy of the campus.

We have received several inquiries about the purpose of timely warnings and the campus weapons policy. To clarify, campus policy requires that a timely warning be issued whenever a violent crime occurs on or adjacent to the campus and the UC Irvine Police Department is of the opinion that the safety of the campus community may be at-risk.

Another Update: Now that a suspect has been accused, much of the coverage in the Los Angeles Times article "Ex-boyfriend charged with OC double slaying" is strangely devoted to the Facebook pages of both the suspect in the crime and to one of the surviving family members.

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Thursday, May 24, 2007

More Shameless Self-Promotion

I'm very pleased to announce that my blog Virtualpolitik won the 2007 John Lovas Memorial Academic Weblog Award. It's interesting to note that one of the criteria is that the blogger must "actively engage other academic weblogs; in other words, the blogger must be a public intellectual." The formal announcement is here. There are some good reads among the other nominees as well. Last year's winner was the excellent CultureCat, a great blog about rhetoric and feminism, which is unfortunately down for maintenance now.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

This Machine Kill Fascists?

Siva Vaidhyanathan has written about removing a sign from his laptop computer that read "This Machine Kills Fascists," after Woody Guthrie's famous slogan on his guitar, during the post 9-11 security hysteria. This week bloggers are struggling with how they can use their computers to effect change in the real world, in the face of the arrest of the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Middle East Program and the threat of charges and trial in Iran. There is a blog dedicated to the effort to free Iranian-American scholar Haleh Esfandiari, but Juan Cole has warned about the limited efficacy of online petitions and has bemoaned his own inadequacies as an organizer of face-to-face politics, despite his high profile as an influential blogger on the region:

Everybody does some things well and some things poorly. I have been pretty successful in various kinds of writing. But I'm not an organization person and don't have the slightest clue how to get up a successful protest in front of the Iranian embassy in London and Paris and Tokyo. Iran does a lot of trade with Western Europe and Japan, and the case of Haleh should be brought up every time they seek a new contract. We have to get her out of there, folks. Can anyone help? Can we set up a wiki project page and try to coordinate?

Scholarly associations like MESA have written formal letters of protest, and Amnesty International has issued a human rights alert about her unjustified detention, but the Iranian government has yet to be dissuaded from moving her trial forward. Nobel prize-winner Shirin Ebadi has taken up her case.

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Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Starticipatory Democracracy

Is this what the participatory democracy that Henry Jenkins celebrates has come to? The Town Hall Meeting meets American Idol? In the pseudo-contest to vote for Hillary Clinton's campaign song, there are clips from the bands U2, Smashmouth, the Dixie Chicks. The choices are heavy on new covers of old rock 'n' roll standards like "Right Here, Right Now" and "I'm a Believer."

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Monday, May 21, 2007

Quality Time

When it comes to my Digital Decalogue "10 Principles for the Digital Family," the piece of advice that always gets the most reaction from other concerned parents is the first guideline about playing with your child, even with teenagers and often in alien electronic environments.

I suppose we could have gone to church yesterday morning, but we spent the early hours of the Sabbath playing Bible Fight instead. It probably would have seemed sacrilegious to some, but I've been traveling a lot to conferences and speaking engagements during the last few months, so it was nice to spend some leisurely time with the kids. My husband didn't get far as Eve in his cosmic battles against other spiritual protagonists , but my fourteen-year-old eventually beat the game as Moses.

Thanks to fellow grown-up Ed Swaine for the link.

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Sunday, May 20, 2007

Almost As Good As (Not) Being There

BAGNewsNotes argues that videos like the one below -- of U.S. soldiers gleefully capturing American forces blowing up a mosque -- illustrate why military planners are introducing new regulations against posting to YouTube and other video file-sharing sites by uniformed personnel.

At Domestic Tension, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal has set up an installation where visitors to his website can shoot at him with a paintball gun after taking aim via a webcam. The project is set to last thirty days, while sadistic and depersonalized users shoot at a real live Iraqi in a setting that includes Bilal's bed, desk, and other household furnishings. In an interview Bilal explains some of the project's features, but more complete documentation is available at Bilal's YouTube channel. Like others in what I call the "Documenting the Experiment" genre on YouTube, the artist chronicles his experiences day by day.

For others who want to view more humanized Iraqi subjects in the camera lens in a serial presentation, Hometown Baghdad presents snippets from the lives of college-age Iraqis who must cope with occupation, sectarian violence, and a persistent brain drain in the demoralized country. This YouTube soap opera has also attracted considerable media attention from print news sources.

Update: An odd twist in the military's new policy on the use of social networking sites by the troops involves the son of conservative talk-show host Laura Schlessinger. According to the Salt Lake Tribune, her son Deryk's MySpace page was full of graphic violence and misogynistic imagery that one officer called "repulsive." Deryk's defenders were quick to point to a politically and culturally alien Other, something which has certainly happened before, with sometimes embarrassing consequences.

The Tribune prints the following paranoid explanation from a military spokesman:
"Our enemies are adaptive, technologically sophisticated, and truly understand the importance of the information battlespace," Tallman continued. "Sadly, they will use that space to promulgate and disseminate untrue propaganda."

However, the newspaper followed it's own clues that indicate that
Schlessinger is the likely author: "The Deryk Schlessinger page included nearly a dozen 'friends,' including a number of soldiers in Afghanistan, several of whom were linked back to Schlessinger's page and some of whom had additional photos of, and comments from, Schlessinger on their sites."

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

The Pictures are in English

This is what the flight attendants said to American passengers as they handed out Dutch newspapers aboard my flight home.

On the way back to LAX, I was also able to consider some other pictures as I read the new book-length study of the virtual reality artist Char Davies. Laurie McRobert's Char Davies' Immersive Virtual Art and the Essence of Spatiality makes a number of interesting claims. One of the singular aspects of the book is that it poses a kind of thought experiment about what Heidegger would think about the different design philosophies of different New Media artists. It also attacks what she calls technological romanticism at the core and argues for the importance of natural bodies and environments. Unlike Mark Nunes, who has tried to recuperate the term "cyberspace," McRoberts associates these forms of virtual spatial representation and the language to describe them with more quotidian exchanges that leave users moored in the world of commerce. She also challenges Cartesian norms about geometrical representations, much like Anna Munster does in a recent book. I didn't necessarily agree with her assertions about gender and technology -- in that she makes an essentializing claim that women need different kinds of computers to be self-actualized -- and her arguments about the harmfulness of videogames to the young, particularly since digital media artist Bill Viola is now using the genre for new purposes with Tracy Fullerton. Finally, I felt like the book lost some of its momentum in the ending where the writer devotes too many pages to neurology and psychopharmacology for a book about ontology and aesthetics. Nonetheless, I found this book to be a very stimulating read, and I am grateful to my colleague philosopher Michael Heim for recommending it. In particular, I enjoyed learning about Davies' corporate history as an executive with Softimage.

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Friday, May 18, 2007

Site Seeing

Digital technology has improved our ability to experience "virtual tours" of both museum collections and the built environments of common vacation destinations abroad. Now in "real" face-to-face terms, the Rijksmuseum Schiphol represents a live experience that conflates the international spaces of busy airport with contemplative museum. How ironic to watch harried passengers take time to look at artworks made four centuries ago and probably spend more time studying details than they do when they are supposedly at leisure and rushing through large gallery spaces.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Danger is Their Business

Today, I had some time to reflect about the interdisciplinary character of the ISCRAM conference -- the theme of the week -- and to think about what I've learned about the digital rhetoric of crisis management from being here. It's a strange gig for a professional rhetorician, a conference for disaster responders, but readers know that I'm a policy wonk and a longtime technology nerd, so this is actually not much of a departure in coverage here on Virtualpolitik.

I thought that one of the big stories of the conference was the lively debate between John Carroll and Zeno Franco, which I learned about from Brian Sokol of Abt Associates, who was there to talk about information management and Hurricane Katrina. In the interest of fairness, it's worth admitting that I respect Carroll as a real heavy hitter in the field of HCI, and I liked that fact that he already knew several of my interdisciplinary colleagues and Facebook friends at UC Irvine. But Franco certainly scored some points as well about the need for providing real data that shows the usability of technologies for crisis management and the role of human -- specifically political -- factors in effective disaster response.

Franco opened his paper with a real rhetorical flourish: by providing a statistical analysis that categorized all the papers numerically from last year's ISCRAM conference. In addition to his introductory zinger, he also argued that access to advanced technology hadn't improved disaster response time any in the last hundred years. In the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, which had only the telegraph, federal troops arrived within 153 minutes, while a century later it took four more days for a full federal response to Hurricane Katrina.

Back in my hotel room, I read both of their papers carefully. (I had booked a room in a gypsy caravan, which may not seem so funny to those who are in less comfortable mobile accommodations as a result of displacement from their homes in times of crisis.) I thought that Franco let the Bush administration off much too easily, by placing most of the blame on a Democratic governor and mayor. As someone who has watched the footage of Bush being briefed by crisis managers with excellent data visualization displays, I thought that failures occurred much closer to the political top.

More troubling was what I thought was Franco's disciplinary power play at work in a highly interdisciplinary forum for exchanging ideas about critical and global issues. In short, Franco made it clear that he wanted to see social science formatted papers with methods sections. Then, he even went so far as to dismiss computer science as a "science." I agree with Siva Vaidhyanathan and his Critical Information Studies Manifesto that problem-solving requires interdisciplinary attention and that information access can have its own politics worth studying.

Above, you can see another example of information design from the conference, in which the program sessions were condensed onto color-coded maps and papers and presentations were available on a USB drive. Although this portability is certainly important in crisis management, I thought that overall it was a design failure because I found the laminated pages fell off, the ID badges of others were hard to read without midriff staring, and that at least once I went to the wrong room for a session, since the multiple stories of the building weren't accurately represented.

I spent the rest of the day in the Hague geeking out on early virtual reality (the Mesdag Panorama), augmented reality (the audio guide commentary on the displays at the Mauritshuis Museum), information aesthetics (the M.C. Escher museum), and spatial data representation (the miniature village Madurodam, which was created as a monument to a young political prisoner who died in Dachau).

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Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Siren's Song

One of my other dinner companions, Markku Häkkinen, presented some interesting connections between auditory culture, copyright, and risk communication at the conference. Häkkinen's formal presentation was about how accessible design could be used to improve auditory warnings for tsunami areas and in aviation contexts. He pointed out several kinds of cases where broadcast messages could be ignored, a point which was dramatically demonstrated later that day when I was strolling by the Nieuwe Kerk in the main square in Delft. The message instructing "ladies and gentlemen" to evacuate the wind-endangered tower in four languages was so incomprehensible that I actually drew near the site I was being ordered away from to figure out what the public announcement was saying.

Häkkinen began his career developing IT applications for the blind and had some interesting insights into the copyright politics around audiobooks, of which I was unaware. For example, he pointed out that local library systems were agreeing to contracts with proprietary systems for audio books like Overdrive when open source and open standard alternatives existed. At the same time, book publishers are also often at odds with disability rights advocates, because they are reluctant to disseminate any text information from their books, even if it helps users locate sections in the audio file.

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A Map Bigger than the Territory

I was going to call this entry "Darfur for Dummies," but I thought better of it after actually having dinner with Dennis J. King of the U.S. State Department. King faced tough questions from the largely European audience at ISCRAM about the granularity of his data visualizations from the U.S. government's Humanitarian Information Unit that represent situations on the ground in Darfur, the Horn of Africa, and potentially other sites of large-scale crisis around the world. At the conference, King demonstrated how his program converts Microsoft Excel spreadsheets into visual images in order to make complicated humanitarian problems more comprehensible to policy makers and grassroots activists, while also preserving the user's ability to disseminate large data sets with the actual numbers still preserved in spreadsheet form.

As readers of this blog may know, there have been a number of attempts to make the crisis in Darfur more visible to mainstream America by using digital media, from the online game Darfur is Dying to the new Darfur initiative at Google Earth. As someone who studies digital discourse, I wondered if it was advisable to base a government-sanctioned interface on a proprietary, closed-source software package and how much King would be able to capitalize on existing social media practices when the thing being shared was a spreadsheet, a file rarely disseminated outside business settings that doesn't have much of a reputation for generating Internet sociality (unlike songs, videos, photos, or blog entries). And I tend to agree with King's European critics, that the current administration relies on overly simple representations of information, as I've argued here before.

That said, it turns out that the self-effacing King has played a part in a number of interesting examples of digital rhetoric playing out on the world stage. For example, King had a role in helping the United Nations create its official website in 1997, which is still preserved here in the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine.

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Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Semantic Glue

This sign came from one of the slides from the second day keynote by U.S. Commander Eric Rasmussen, who talked about "resilient communication" and the importance of what he called "emergent strategic collaboration" in which military personnel engaged in humanitarian operations must cooperate with often prickly partners from suspicious non-governmental organizations. The title for this posting comes from another one of his talking points, about "semantic glue" of "language, icons, and geospatial graphics" that gets its cohesive properties not from its fixity but from being "lightweight, adaptive, and interactive." Like the previous day's keynote speaker, he emphasized the fact that "violence is predictable."

Advocates for digital culture, network neutrality, and progressive copyright policy might have also been encouraged by certain aspects of Rasmussen's talk.

First, Rasmussen encourages open networks and open pipes, even in situations where maintaining political power would seem to depend on asymmetrical access to communications. In fact, his mantra seemed to be "protect your data not the network." In other words, he considers making communication infrastructure available to local populations to be a gesture of goodwill that pays off in the long term, and he even advises leaving communication technology behind when armed forces withdraw from a theater of conflict.

Second, as he said, "open standards, open source, and free are preferred." For example, he praised Sahana, a free and open source disaster management system with a victim registry feature, along with several other open source projects.

Third, Rassmussen plugged a variety of Web 2.0 applications to facilitate social networks, including Citizendium and a wiki for his own projects on "The Hub" to foster "situation awareness sharing" among "volunteers, first responders, government and non-government individuals who may otherwise be unable to collaborate." When running the Strong Angel III simulation that involved a pandemic, "bad guys" who were trying to exploit the situation, and no power, Sri Lankan blogger Sanjana Hattotuwa covered all the action as teams struggled to cope. Strong Angel III even has its own island in Second Life.

I was a bit wary of the fact that Rasmussen's talk was so gadget-oriented, particularly when his own website cautioned about potential security risks with TOOzL, one of the products he championed. I also felt that the slides that showed how "for profit" companies were participating in Rasmussen's disaster management scenarios went by too fast for me to critically evaluate. Last but not least, I thought that he was using the term "open source" in two very different senses -- open computer code and as unclassified intelligence -- without always signaling the semantic shift.

Rasmussen even entered into the cultural conversation about Negroponte's $100 laptop initiative. He argued that laptops didn't make sense in the developing world, when cellular telephones had many of the same capabilities in a more durable, portable, and affordable instrument. From his own experience in the field, he has also found wireless communication to often be unreliable in crises.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Fighting from a Hole

The first day keynote address at the ISCRAM conference in Delft was from Erik Hollnagel of the École des Mines de Paris. In his talk, Hollnagel incorporated information theory, behavioral psychology, and systems analysis to make an interdisciplinary argument against linear models for crisis management. As a close reader of governmental and organizational communications, I was interested to hear Hollnagel's criticism of negative reporting models and the tendency for government employees and others with responsibility for public safety not to give information when there isn’t an obvious change in state to announce. He compared the crisis management mindset that produces this autopilot behavior to choosing to fight from a hole rather than fight from a hill, in that all decisions when things go wrong are purely reactive. At a time when policy makers have pontificated about "known knowns," "known unknowns," and "unknown unknowns," while ignoring what Slavoj Žižek calls "unknown knowns," Hollnagel's attention to how human beings can be irrational decision-makers, particularly when information overload or information overload is at issue, is worth keeping in mind. Although his extended analysis of fatal yet avoidable incidents looked abroad, to the Fukuchiyama Line accident and the July 7th attacks on London transport, faulty American disaster prediction during September 11th and Hurricane Katrina also appeared in his ruminations. Notably, Hollnagel pointed out America's role in the space program and how a mission control paradigm produces both successful moon landings and Apollo 13 disasters.

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Still More World Without Oil

Mystified? Check out World Without Oil and consider joining in on Jane McGonigal's alternate reality game.

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Sunday, May 13, 2007

Road Trip

I may be off-line for a while as I head to Delft for the ISCRAM (Intelligent Human Computer Systems for Crisis Response and Management), where I will be talking about government-funded videogames designed for training first responders that simulate terrorism-related urban crises.

En route from the Amsterdam airport I chanced to take the train with Craig T. Fifer, who is the e-government manager for the City of Alexandria, Virginia, whose interest in digital governance goes back to the early PEN experiments in the late eighties and early nineties. I spend a lot of time criticizing bad government websites, so it's nice to see a site that takes participatory democracy seriously, albeit on the local level. And since I've certainly slammed some bad podcasts, it's nice to hear some good audio content on the city's site, even if I can't imagine listening to city council meetings on my iPod while jogging.

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Saturday, May 12, 2007

Six Principles for Interdisciplinary Research

Above, you can see my ACM card, which represents one of my professional affiliations. I also have one for the Modern Language Association. In fact, I'm a member of so many professional associations as a result of doing research on digital culture that I don't even list them on my c.v. any more, for fear of confusing committee members. I think it's emblematic of how interdisciplinarity happens at the level of the practices of everyday life.

So I showed it as a visual aid yesterday, when I was on a faculty panel for the annual workshop for the CalIT2 Group for Interdisciplinary Graduate Research with colleagues Mark Warschauer, Don Saari, and Luis Avilés. Among other fun facts, I learned that Warschauer had studied with one of my favorite writers on epistemology and cybernetics, Gregory Bateson, and that Avilés is doing very interesting work about spectatorship that includes visual representations of Spanish rule under Charles V. (He showed an impressive tapestry that would have made Lev Manovich's info-aesthetics people envious.)

I handed out copies of Siva Vaidhyanathan's Critical Information Studies: A Bibliographic Manifesto and made a plug for the new interdisciplinary UCI Design Alliance. I also thought about my own experiences as a graduate student and person potentially on the job market and shared six principles for interdisciplinary research.

1. Write well: When you step outside your discipline, what you will be judged by is your writing, and you have to revise rigorously in order to make it through blind peer reviews. This is also the key to having your work reach a wider audience so that people in those disciplines will be interested in your work.

2. Try and try again: Academia is all about persistence in the fact of rejection, particularly rejection of new ideas. You will certainly be rejected by people in your own discipline, so why take it too hard when it happens in another one?

3. Listen to the cultural conversation: On the other hand, there are places that will never accept your work until you become more attentive to their genres and the norms about research that they promulgate. Look at papers from people within that discipline and go to conferences to hear what's being talked about. In choosing conferences, think about trade-offs. A major international conference may be pricey, but it may give you the big picture very efficiently. A local conference may give you the opportunity to follow-up with face-to-face collaborations.

4. Know your limits: For example, I find submitting to social science journals too far out of my ken. It's important to know the ways of thinking in which it is hard to translate your ideas.

5. Be willing to retrain: You may want to build skills, such as those in new media production for example. Sometimes it is necessary to do this outside of your university, so consider it an opportunity to try out things in a safe zone away from your colleagues.

6. Keep a moral center: As Mark Warschauer said, interdisciplinarity is about understanding the world. It is not about virtuoso performances or strategies for academic display. There should be a reason that you are pursuing this research that has to do with a public policy issue, area of basic knowledge, or mode of artistic expression that allows you not only to understand the world but change it.

On my list, it seemed like there was the most anxiety about the effective writing principle, particularly for international graduate students who are doing advanced study in the United States. Many of them asked about campus resources for help in this area. Afterwards, I peeked at the blogs of attendees Silvia Lindtner and Eric Baumer and -- based on what I saw -- I would say that there is also a very positive interest in public writing in the group I met. I particularly liked Eric's meditation on what a specialist in Informatics should call him or herself: informaticist or informatician?

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Friday, May 11, 2007

n00b Tube

Maybe it was all that talk in the ARG about the looming gas crisis and the fact that I'm off to Holland tomorrow, but I decided not to drive to UC San Diego yesterday. I had intended to see the latest round of CalIT2 talks with the rather unfortunate title of Californovation, which may sound a little too much like a Red Hot Chili Peppers album to my taste. Thankfully, I didn't miss it, since the event was webcast live and should soon also be posted to their YouTube channel. I had tuned in primarily to hear Lev Manovich's talk, who argued that Humanists should rethink the tools that they use for teaching and research to capitalize on new data visualization techniques and powerful analytics that can represent primary sources that document the human experience on a much larger scale than was ever before possible. Manovich argued that we should grapple with more "big data" and "real-time simulations." He claims that using a common language and sharing methods of analysis could improve the conversations going on within the academy and the research being done on behalf of a larger citizenry. As someone who is slated to teach in the experimental teaching classroom in Fall, in our Teaching, Learning & Technology Center, I feel like the rich multiscreen multimedia learning experience that Manovich modeled still is not coming soon enough. I also was surprised that no one suggested that his commitment to making very large databases of the world's photography, music, and film easily available for comparison and close reading in the space of the classroom might be thwarted by anxious copyright holders. From a Virtualpolitik standpoint, I thought that his attention to the use of digital media by Transparency International to fight corruption globally was a particularly interesting case study. He also announced the formation of an interesting new critical code studies program with VP pal Noah Wardrip-Fruin.

Not everyone was as sure about Manovich's program of action, and the topic of "epistemological humility" came up several times in the discussion. Cathy Davidson of Duke, who recently hosted the HASTAC conference, pointed out that this exchange should work both ways, so that humanistic tools and methods are also valued. She also argued that certain economies of specialization may be at work and that she couldn't contribute much very efficiently to coding projects with her ancient programming skills in FORTRAN. A few minutes afterwards, ironically, I signed up for a summer course in 3-D design using Maya. After a semester learning ActionScript for Flash, I'm not nearly as intimidated by the prospect, and it may actually help me better understand some of my objects of study. Maya is also a software package that Manovich has pointed to as a further example of his transcoding thesis, since soon we will all be driving Maya-looking cars and work in Maya-looking buildings.

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Thursday, May 10, 2007

More World Without Oil

Confused? See Jane McGonigal's Alternate Reality Game "World Without Oil" for answers. The four faculty members of my carpool from LA to UC Irvine are playing along.

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Electronic Columbaria

Apologies for using a title that draws on an etymology of pigeonholes for such a serious topic as how we mourn the dead of war. But I'd like to spend a few electronic kilobytes comparing Faces of the Dead from The New York Times and Faces of the Fallen from The Washington Post. Both could be seen as examples of what Lev Manovich calls "information aesthetics," in which the legacy of modernism plays a role.

As traditional newspapers try to compete with online news sources, they use so-called "interactive" features as one of the ways to appeal to the digital readership. Of course, some of these images are being repurposed in artworks. There was considerable discussion about whether the images for "War President" came from The Washington Post, and the grid image of the soldier's face made up of boxes representing other soldier's faces in The New York Times suggests this photomosaic aesthetic.

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Tuesday, May 08, 2007

World Without Oil

Are you in the game yet? Ultra-cool game designer and Sivacracy reader Jane McGonigal has created a new alternate reality game, World Without Oil, where players describe what would be their real life experiences if gas prices skyrocketed, and supplies ultimately dried up.

I think I come off pretty smug about being a carpooler in our team's opening clip, but I think I'll be cruisin' for a bruisin' -- along with my two colleagues in the computer science department -- before too long.

(Apologies for the extremely long load time. YouTube version coming soon.)

Update: Okay, I give up. After a day and a half with three different video editing programs, I have come to admit that the sound is refusing to be embedded when I compress the video file for the web. Hopefully, the next installment won't be such a technological disaster. At least it's a problem that I've never had before.

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Monday, May 07, 2007

Home Turf

There are several local stories to report on in the new media scape. The New York Times reports from my home town, Pasadena, about next generation 3-D "printers" in "Beam in Down from the Web, Scotty." Having seen various prototyping machines all through my youth in innumerable family day tours in places where my father was an engineer, this technology doesn't seem particularly space age to me.

The nearby town of La Cañada Flintridge, home of NASA's JPL, is also claiming column space for "Animators Expanding Their Lines of Work." For more on how scientific presentations are being given "Hollywood pizazz," see my reactions to a recent tour of the facility here.

Of course, the big local story has to do with police reactions to pro-immigration protesters in MacArthur Park on May Day. Many captured the brutal confrontations with law enforcement on cell phones or made videologs that described them afterwards, which a search with "MacArthur Park" and "LAPD" on YouTube will bring up. Even cartoonish Ask-a-Chola claimed to have authentic footage.

Speaking of local media and YouTube celebrities, The Los Angeles Times also broke the complicated GreenTeaGirlie YouTube hoax-within-a-hoax, which actually involved the unmasker of LonelyGirl15. You can read all about it in "GreenTeaGirlie: innocent vidblogger or sinister marketing hoax?"

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Sunday, May 06, 2007


Mastercard offers rewards program for World of Warcraft currency.

(Stunned silence.)

Update: Okay, I read the digital fine print. The rewards seem just to be for game time, not actual in-game lewt.

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The World is Watching

I don't want to post the cell phone camera video of an Iraqi girl stoned to death in a horrible "honor" killing without commentary or context. If you want to watch the footage, here is a link that shames anyone who might feel prurient visual pleasure in this spectacle of sexual violence and reminds viewers about our common humanity and horror at such things. It is also worth noting that this gendered murderousness was committed by our Kurdish allies, while pro-U.S. forces stood by, as part of the spiraling sectarian violence in Iraq.

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On the Case?

Today's New York Times was full of lascivious stories of girl teens at risk from social networking sites that glorify the voyeurism and instrumentality about sexuality that is a feature of the dominant culture. Unfortunately, the anecdotal evidence in "States Ponder Laws to Keep Web Predators from Children" doesn't address two issues that lead to far more cases of abuse: 1) parents who hide their exploitation of their own children by pulling them from local schools and other public institutions and 2) social service workers who have caseloads too large to monitor families who are already in trouble and the multi-generational dynamics that are at work. The solution, I say, is more social networks not less.

Stranger danger still accounts for a relatively small percentage of crimes. Some facts: teens are actually safer from sexual abuse than very young children without verbal abilities; male victims are just as common as female victims; children are most likely to be murdered by their parents. Looking at public awareness campaigns like this one, which you can complain about here if you want to protest its voyeuristic sexism, you would never know the statistical picture.

The two rising stars in the story in the Times, were Roy Cooper, State Attorney General for North Carolina, and Richard Blumenthal, State Attorney General for Connecticut. Both are Democrats, and both are pushing for age verification.

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Saturday, May 05, 2007

Hereafter Effects

It may not actually have been After Effects, but the movie 300, which I finally got around to seeing tonight on what was probably its last weekend in theaters, certainly manifests many of the features of what I call the After Effects Aesthetic. Unfortunately, I probably won't be able to make it to this Tuesday's meeting of the LA chapter of SIGGRAPH, where I could actually find out precisely how its movie magic was made. The virtuoso visual effects exploited digital layering technology in every frame, so that even the spurting blood looked like it was pressed between plates of glass.

It was a stunningly bad cinematic experience, so I was happy to have something to focus on other than the abominable script and acting. Having taught Homer for many years, it's striking to see how the great author of the ancients presented such a humanized vision, even of the enemy and even of monsters. In contrast, 300 is all about fighting the racial and polymorphously sexual Other with a little eugenics and misogyny thrown in for good measure.

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Friday, May 04, 2007

Mirror, Mirror

Academics of today -- of all ranks -- who are engaged in normal public speaking activities are sometimes confronted with the uncomfortable replication of their shrunk-down moving images on the web. It's strange to sit on the other side of a computer screen and sometimes see myself in situations such as this or this, which with webcasting are becoming more frequent. After all, I tend to think of my intellectual avatars as being more like this person than like this grouchy-looking one sitting in the middle. This need to regulate the circulation of one's own image, of course, is one of the obvious appeals of active participation on social networking sites, where you can tag flattering photographs of yourself and try to bury the homely ones.

I just wish these videos that make me so self-conscious could age as well as these clips of super-cool philosophers on YouTube. (Thanks to fellow Sivacracy blogger Ann Bartow for the link!)

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Thursday, May 03, 2007

Taking Sides

Today, former President and Nobel prize-winner Jimmy Carter appeared at U.C. Irvine to deliver "Remarks on the Middle East Conflict, Israel and Palestine," as part of a series of campus tours to supplement his provocative recent book Israel Peace Not Apartheid. Although Carter is a master of traditional oratory, the event also involved digital communications. Students could submit questions to Carter by using an online form, and those in our office who couldn't get tickets watched his speech live on streaming video. I liked his appeal to our students, which included encouraging them to travel to Palestine and participate in what has been contentious on-campus debate, and I appreciated the fact that he provided background on his presidency and on the nineteen-seventies in general to students who hadn't been born then and who might not know about recent history after coming from California classrooms focused on preparing for multiple-choice tests. I was, however, surprised to hear such an adept rhetorician urge them to undertake a "crusade" for negotiations in the region, given the negative valences associated with this word in the Islamic world. I also thought that the website for his Carter Center could be better designed for rhetorical effect.

Today, I also learned about how this video of an interview with pro-Israeli spokesperson Wafa Sultan on Al Jazeera television has had a complicated second life on the Internet. According to the news media, it has been watched over a million times on video file-sharing sites, since it initially aired on TV. Videos of her talks, including one for the Secular Islam Summit, have fostered a number of YouTube responses from angry audience members who debate her basic thesis about the Islamic world.

Thanks to my colleague Artificial Intelligence expert Rina Dechter for pointing out these virtual networks of political discussion that also apparently often involve one-to-one exchanges via e-mail.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Assault on Web 2.0

As today's The Washington Post covers how "Blogs Chronicle War from Soldiers' Perspectives," there is bad news out about how Defense Department regulations are curtailing the online speech of military bloggers. The same day Wired reports that the "Army Squeezes Soldier Blogs, Maybe to Death" and publishes the Pentagon's new rules, which include prohibitions on uncleared e-mail.

This blog has been reporting about how the military has attempted to control the informational practices of its soldiers and determine how they constitute online communities. Some of this is obviously part of a policy of message control, when regrettable user-generated content like these Iraqi boys running for a water bottle reaches the public. I would argue that it is part of a larger cultural clash in which the culture of knowledge (represented by institutions like the military) is threatened by an emerging culture of distributed information. National Public Radio reported on the military's YouTube channel this afternoon in "U.S. Military Uses YouTube to Get Its Story Out." Apparently the current multimedia offerings feature a kidnapped man being returned to his family and soldiers blowing up soccer balls for youngsters. See the Virtualpolitik take on the site's launch here.

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