Saturday, June 30, 2007

Stiff Upper Lips

With news that the British government had decided to raise their threat level to "critical" or imminent attack status in the face of terrorist plots for urban mayhem in London and Glasgow, I thought that a visit the Britain's government websites to see how much they were using this risk communication strategy in the brand identity of their overall website design would be in order. Actually, there were no signs of any color coded icons in pages. However, even in the security anxious United States, government websites have often stopped sporting the threat level. For example, the White House, which once carried the threat assessment prominently on its home page in 2003, no longer has the color bar on its opening screen.

I saw some other notable web design features in my tour of government agencies. Of particular interest was the fact that social media strategies were showcased on the site for the Prime Minister, who has already launched a YouTube channel to document his public appearances. It would be interesting to see what YouTube political critic James Kotecki makes of the British approach. I suspect he would say that it lacks a direct address to the viewer, which is an important YouTube rhetorical convention.

There is also a virtual tour that takes visitors "behind the most famous front door in the world" for 360-degree views of rooms and perusal of seemingly magical objects that are highlighted, as they might be in room exploration games or interactive narratives. Unfortunately these objects aren't truly clickable, and their information is stored in a separate index from the one that engages visitors in the spatial environment of the virtual Number 10 Downing Street. You can also be led on an online video tour through the building by historian Simon Schama.

As you can see from the purple and orange samples that I have presented here, another remarkable feature of the British government's sites was their lack of explicitly patriotic colors from the national flag or other icons of national authority. Also noteworthy was the bilingualism with Welsh content of the main government portal page,, which is the equivalent of in the U.S.

Finally, no tour of the virtual state in Britain would be complete without a visit to one newsworthy recent addition, the page for the British Secret Intelligence Service, known to James Bond aficionados as MI6. The Security Service or MI5 is, of course, the main portal of information about the current terrorist threat.

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Geography is Destiny

Although it has been out for a while, I've finally had a few hours to devote to playing The ReDistricting Game from USC's Annenberg Center. The main creator of this political game, Chris Swain, also produced the game "Immune Attack!," which was panned in this year's Foleys. Like Operation: Pedopriest, which was reviewed here a few days ago, it is a serious game in which the player must take what seems to be an opportunistic and morally reprehensible position that is assumed to be contrary to the primary message of the game-makers.

In this game the player assumes a party loyalty and plays a series of games in which he or she moves the borders of legislative districts in order to balance populations, gerrymander districts for obvious party advantage, more subtly gerrymander districts to protect incumbents of both parties and hence the status quo, and create a district to ensure minority representation of a large ethnic population of African-Americans.

Set in the fictitious state of Jefferson, ReDistricting is unfortunately also stocked with cartoonish fictitious political stereotypes and thus the game looses something of its verisimilitude from its basic design. From an ergonomic user perspective, I also found myself with mouse button fatigue, because the borders were difficult to drag and drop with the interface. Although the game was certainly thought-provoking and full of informative links, it was fatiguing to play physically, and the navigation often led me back to large amounts of didactic text rather than allowed me to intuit these principles of Realpolitik by being more immersed in game play.

Although it was a smart game, I also thought it was a lost opportunity to illustrate the importance of "big data" in political elections. When I saw the opening sequence about the godlike perspective of a mapmaker, I was hoping that the game might have some of the pleasure in information aesthetics that something like Google Earth gives to users who can zoom in and see the data visualized in several ways. Alas, we only have a few tabs to flip through for different indexes and can't focus in on individual blocks and houses, as Republican strategists do, for example, to see if children attend public, private, or home schools or to scrutinize the products that families buy, based on either the inventories of what is stocked on the shelves in the local market or more easily from private consumer data aggregated by corporate marketers.

Furthermore, usually there weren't enough independents represented in the game to model the current climate of complex political soothsaying. Finally, as this month's race in Long Beach shows, questions about ethnic representation can be a lot more complicated, when, as a recent editorial in The Los Angeles Times says, "Black isn't enough."

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Friday, June 29, 2007

The Great Outdoors

And speaking of mash-up fun, I'm also thinking of improving my geotagged Flickr set of my minibar map of the world by doing some local maps with photos of cell phone trees. If you aren't familiar with the botany of this particular Southern California species, you can check out this website by San Diego area naturalist Wayne Armstrong about this ubiquitous artificial species that can be found near regional freeways. There is a political connection to this bucolic imagery, because some regulations -- now largely voided by court decisions -- once mandated that cell phone towers be made aesthetically pleasing in the landscape. Companies such as Larson Camouflage can also disguise the towers with boulders or cacti. Of course, there are other civic anxieties about the encroachment of these towers that have to do with worries about the environmental impact of RF radiation, which can't be as easily masked.

Update: After cursing being unable to photograph a majestic specimen on the 60 freeway, because of the absence of an emergency turn-out lane, I discovered this arboreal wonder in the parking lot of my very own Academy of Entertainment and Technology after a day of back-breaking labor on a digital video system.

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It's another red hot Internet news story in The Los Angeles Times, if your idea of "red hot" is this recent stunner about the availability of mash-ups online: "Google Maps Meets YouTube."

Sigh . . .

Okay, here's a helpful guide for the next reporter, since obviously the LA Times is a little behind the times.

Hillary Clinton chatbot

YouTube videos of David Hasselhoff smashed.
YouTube videos of John Stamos smashed.

Online greeting cards.
Equally disposable widgets for social networking sites.

Google tools
Google anonymizers

Sony PS3
Homebrew games for old machines.


File-sharing songs and photos with your friends.
File-sharing smells and textures with them.

Easy hacks for Second Life
Easy hacks for voting machines


Yahoo maps

Voice over IP
Mass text-messaging systems

But . . . yo . . . check out this kind of cool Brooklyn buzz mash-up, which shows the differences between bloggers and the mainstream media when it comes to where they focus upon in the built environment of a city or neighborhood.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Hurry Up and Wait

In the beginning of his book Convergence Culture, Henry Jenkins cautions against the "black box fallacy" and the idea that a single gadget will get rid of the need for other specialized technologies. A similar caution is implicit in this fake iPhone ad from college pal Conan O'Brien's show. New York Times technology columnist David Pogue has also gotten into the act by incorporating parody elements into his video review. For purposes of the historical record, however, I diligently had to document people camped out in line for the iPhone in my Santa Monica neighborhood the day before the device goes on sale.

Okay, I will admit to watching the Apple iPhone infomercial several times to study its rhetorical appeals, but I'm not going to be lining up for the device any time soon.

Perhaps there's a more interesting local story about the politics and sociality of cellular telephones in "States struggle to thwart inmates' cellphone use." Apparently schools aren't the only public institutions attempting to regulate ubiquitous communication.

Update: A story in The Los Angeles Times, "Proxies clog iPhone lines," reports that many of the people in line are the assistants of the beautiful people in the entertainment industry or wealth management who want to acquire a status item on the first day and who have underlings willing to do menial labor for "brownie points." Famed scholar of digital politics, Bruce Bimber, even comments in the article. As Bimber says, "It's like seeing a hit movie on the first day it comes out."

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Heaven Can Wait

I don't know what the public reaction will be to this anti-drug message from the Israel Anti-Drug Authority. The spot imitates the online video rhetoric of jihadist suicide bombers who say goodbye to their families and announce that their violent acts will send them to heaven. Some TV stations have refused to air it, as a result of concerns about possibly offending viewers with the comparison. In the images of the young partying Israeli, drug and alcohol paraphernalia take the place of bomb equipment and religious trappings, as other versions of the spoofs in posters make clear.

One of the Anti-Drug Authority's earlier videos in which caller "Shirin" imagines that she is being persecuted by unseen assailants has generated a pro-marijuana legalization response on YouTube that shows the police powers of the Israeli state being exercised.

(Thanks to Nedra Weinreich of the Spare Change blog on social marketing for the link to the suicide bomber ad.)

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No Laughing Matter?

Molleindustria, the Italian group that makes political online games and had previously produced a blistering game critique of the ecology and economy of McDonald's, has a new offering available.

Operation: Pedopriest
is a game that satirizes the cover-ups of the Catholic Church of child sexual abuse by clergy. Since Molleindustria has produced games with titles such as "Orgasm Simulator" and "Queer Power," it's clearly not their first game about sexual politics, although Pedopriest is very different from previous depictions of sexuality by the company that focus on consensual couplings between relative equals.

In the game, players can deploy red-garbed "Silencers" to intimidate and distract potential witnesses while molesting priests evade arrest. I played the game at all three levels and found the experience of gleefully thwarting justice disconcerting although engaging to attempt. I also thought it provided a useful model to show the significance of physical space in incidents of molestation and the role that public and private built environments can play in scenarios of victimization. Furthermore, in speaking to Water Cooler Games, the creators have characterized their work as a kind of documentary game, because a BBC exposé on "Sex Crimes and the Vatican" served as inspiration for their small-screen digital work.

Certainly, it's not the first political game about pedophilia. After the Mark Foley scandal involving sexually explicit IM messages to congressional pages, the Internet gave us Help Hastert Hide the Perv, which I would discount as a game because it has no definitive win-or-lose end state, and Pedophilia: The Mark Foley Game, which may have been too much like real life rapid-fire closings of pornographic pop-up browser windows to register as entertainment or political commentary.

However, I think that doing online games about sexual abuse is rhetorically risky, even ones that use a critique of the institutional politics of the Vatican for context. In this country, the equations already made between common digital practices and criminality connect quotidian file-sharing activities and the use of social networking sites with the sexual exploitation of minors. By representing this abuse so cartoonishly, digital artists may be missing an opportunity for a more persuasive critique. I understand that they probably wanted to strip the act of any seductive or erotic potential, so the game play focuses on opportunistic machinations and undercuts player involvement with the actual acts of rape, but it also attempts to trivialize a potent metaphor.

I predict that we will eventually see a serious game against sexual harassment to substitute for the cretinous online tutorials currently used for consciousness-raising mandated by many employers, as long as it is not done in a sleazy or cheesy way. In contrast, after the disastrous McMartin trials and the tarnishing of the reputation of the Children's Institute, I doubt that we'll see any further forms of play therapy -- including digital games -- for underage victims.

The other problem with this game is that, as political resistance, it is much more ephemeral than other kinds of art actions against the church involving this issue. Four years ago, as church records show, protestors stormed the Los Angeles cathedral of Our Lady of Angels with a large wooden cross covered with pictures of the victims and insisted on installing it in a chapel dedicated to the abused. As you can see, the cross is still there. As a precursor of social media practices that involve traditional photo sharing, it shows the rhetorical power of collecting and exchanging such images.

(For another religious game from Molleindustria, you can go to their Italian home page and play PAPAPAROLIBERO, where you make papal nonsense from utterances floating by on clouds.)

Update: This story has taken an amazing turn as the Italian parliament has threatened legal action against the game on the grounds that it is a form of child pornography. Given the lack of graphic detail in the game, this seems like a ludicrous assertion that potentially limits many forms of free speech, including some art made by victims and their advocates. Read about the unfolding events here in commentary by Ian Bogost on Water Cooler Games. Having played the game, I suspect that this is an attempt to regulate blasphemy rather than sexual content.

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Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Wrong Side of the Tracks in Cyberspace

Of course, the big news in social networking research this month is danah boyd's study on class divisions and how the Facebook/MySpace split is manifested in a number of social phenomena. In "Viewing American class divisions through Facebook and MySpace," boyd argues that the "predator panic" pushed by the mainstream media also brought the message about class aspirations and digital community home. These divisions even persist into adulthood and professions like the military, in which enlisted men are in MySpace, while officers are on Facebook.

In boyd's schema, the two subcultures divide as follows:

The goodie two shoes, jocks, athletes, or other "good" kids are now going to Facebook. These kids tend to come from families who emphasize education and going to college. They are part of what we'd call hegemonic society. They are primarily white, but not exclusively. They are in honors classes, looking forward to the prom, and live in a world dictated by after school activities.

MySpace is still home for Latino/Hispanic teens, immigrant teens, "burnouts," "alternative kids," "art fags," punks, emos, goths, gangstas, queer kids, and other kids who didn't play into the dominant high school popularity paradigm. These are kids whose parents didn't go to college, who are expected to get a job when they finish high school. These are the teens who plan to go into the military immediately after schools. Teens who are really into music or in a band are also on MySpace. MySpace has most of the kids who are socially ostracized at school because they are geeks, freaks, or queers.

In order to demarcate these two groups, let's call the first group of teens "hegemonic teens" and the second group "subaltern teens."

The research seems valid to me intuitively, based on what I've seen on both sites poking around with loaded terms like "Support Our Troops."

Nonetheless, I'm the college-educated parent of a popular football-playing fourteen-year-old on an honors preparatory track. And my kid is on MySpace. Still, I can't blame him for having no interest at all in what he sees as my boorish cocktail party of oldsters on Facebook.

Then again, I've also never been terribly concerned about people misrepresenting themselves in online social networking sites. I've included my own deceptive Harvard Facebook picture from the days of print at the top of this posting and my college yearbook entry chocked full of fictitious information at the bottom. "Ad Hoc Society"? "Justice League"? In addition to using kitschy retro imagery, the class identity and cultural membership that I was representing back then -- so desirable to many present-day Facebook members -- was largely a private joke with those who personally knew me.

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Big Love

This is Alice Robison. She teaches at M.I.T.

I have never met her, although we've apparently given talks at some of the same conferences.

However, when it comes to defining kinship in a given online community, it would seem that Alice is my closest genetic match in the Facebook family tree. Right now, I share over a third of my digital social DNA with Alice, because we have 22 Facebook friends in common. That's far more online mutual friends than I share with anyone else -- far more than those on Facebook with whom I have worked, blogged, talked, taught, commuted, or sat alongside in church, college, or graduate school.

Perhaps it proves yet again Mark Granovetter's point about "The Strength of Weak Ties." On paper, Alice and I actually have a lot in common in our professional lives: similar backgrounds in running college writing programs, teaching with technology, and studying the practices and ideologies associated with videogame design. Or maybe it demonstrates what Albert-László Barabási argues in Linked, that particular individuals function as social hubs by virtue of the large number of weak social ties that they are able to maintain. She's also joined a number of Facebook groups, including my personal favorite Researchers Researching Researchers, which mocks the endlessly recursive character of the digital participant observer. In any case, it seems that if I'd need a virtual organ transplant, Alice is the one to whom I should go.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Something Wiki This Way Comes

In a summer of sequels, I guess I shouldn't be so surprised to see the controversy over Tactical Iraqi coming up again. Of course, the premise is a little tired, but so is Ocean's Thirteen, Shrek the Third, Spiderman 3, Pirates of the Caribbean At World's End, and Live Free or Die Hard. Nonetheless, I feel like I've been cast in some bad Rocky movie, in which I have been called up out of retirement long after giving variations of the same talk on three continents (call them Tactical Iraqi 1, Tactical Iraqi 2, and Tactical Iraqi 3) about computerized 3D simulations of Iraq and its citizens in a much publicized military-funded Arabic language-learning videogame for training soldiers.

Normally I'd ignore a misleading Wikipedia article. After all, by and large, Wikipedia uses collective intelligence wisely, despite the occasional imposter among its editorial personnel. Although I've written long encyclopedia entries for print volumes and consequently know the importance of objectivity, coverage, and balance, mostly I look the other way when blatant advertisements or political propaganda appear in Wikipedia. Perhaps I'll say something, if an entry is clearly coming from a totally biased source, such as the friends and family of a soldier accused of murder and human rights violations, but mostly I take a live-and-let-live attitude toward the giant online encyclopedia. Like most academics, I even consult it from time to time, particularly if I need to check the dates of an historical figure or the meaning of some piece of computer jargon.

Thus, when I saw the entry on the Tactical Language and Training System for the first time, I just chuckled. It was so obviously written by someone too close to the software development or testing team that its lack of scholarly integrity was simply comic. For example, in the first version of the entry, an editor subtly named "TLTUser" posted the following piece of copy:

User responses to the Tactical Language and Culture Training System courses have been uniformly positive. Users like the fact that it helps them acquire practical communication skills that they can input to use. Users of Tactical Iraqi who had previously been deployed to Iraq frequently report that they learned more in one day of work with the system than they had learned during their entire tour of duty in Iraq.

This last line I recognized from the TLTS brochure! I knew for sure, because it also had appeared almost verbatim in an April 2006 ABC News broadcast, when announcer Bill Blakemore read directly from the same TLTS testimonial.

As ludicrous as it sounded to me, I left the entry unedited. After all, I have a soft spot for this kind of awkward prose made up of naive generalizations. I run a large college writing program for a living, and sentences that other people would dismiss as amateurish I recognize as a normal part of the process of writing development.

So I was not the person who made one of the original passages look like this:

User responses to the Tactical Language and Culture Training System courses have been uniformly positive.[citation needed] Users like the fact that it helps them acquire practical communication skills that they can input to use.[citation needed] Users of Tactical Iraqi who had previously been deployed to Iraq frequently report that they learned more in one day of work with the system than they had learned during their entire tour of duty in Iraq.[citation needed]

This editor, "Frecklefoot," observed that "I highly suspect this whole article is a copyvio," meaning a "copyright violation" in which text is lifted from another proprietary source and inserted into Wikipedia without proper quotation marks or citation. It's a form of plagiarism, which is one of the scourges that Wikipedia attempts to police.

In comparison, I felt like I was really pulling my punches when I stepped in and added this seemingly inoffensive paragraph to provide more context:

There has been some controversy about the game in the serious games development community, as to whether working on a military-funded videogame related to the Iraq occupation, even one with ostensibly admirable objectives, is morally defensible. For example, Gonzalo Frasca has argued that it is a propaganda game.

I thought I was accurately reporting the facts while still being fair to the creator of Tactical Iraqi, a person I had interviewed in some depth in his lab two years ago. By saying that those working on the project could be seen as having "admirable objectives," I was granting that if more soldiers spoke Arabic perhaps the U.S. could reduce some civilian casualties. Whether or not this particular game was the best way to teach Arabic was not something I addressed, nor did I mention the fact that Tactical Iraqi's own developers had pointed out problems with players in this article and noted that there had been occasions when soldiers didn't want to play in the game space or cheated to win.

In addition, I cited one of the central figures in the debate about Tactical Iraqi, videogame researcher Gonzalo Frasca, and linked to his relatively long Wikipedia biography along with Frasca's heated exchanges with game developers who had worked on Tactical Iraqi and other military-funded projects. My only misstatement consisted of omitting the quotation marks around "propaganda game," since it was a direct quotation of Gonzalo's exact phrase for how he categorized Tactical Iraqi.

The irony is that I actually didn't agree with Gonzalo on this point, but I'm enough of an academic to want to represent a given counterargument accurately. My studied scholarly neutrality has even created some confusion. Recently, when I was contacted by journalist Carl Cannon about my opinion of Tactical Iraqi, he found my criticism so blunted that he couldn't figure out if I thought these games "were valuable exercises -- or a waste of time."

So imagine my surprise when Ian Bogost pointed out to me that my innocuous paragraph had been completely re-written by a Wikipedia editor named "Phoenix76" into the following set of falsehoods:

There has been little controversy about the use of the software in the serious games development community. Most everyone thinks working on a videogame supporting the admirable goals of achieving peace in Iraq is a just and moral cause. After viewing the emphasis the language teaching program places upon the culture of the community where the lessons will be applied, even skeptics are hard pressed to find fault with the system.

Okay, at this point I'm annoyed. I had written two peer-reviewed scholarly papers about the controversy surrounding the game, which were now part of the ACM library. None of the eight people who read those papers thought there was no controversy to write about, at least based on the evidence I had cited. My thesis was that this controversy was interesting because I thought it had more to do with disagreements about the social effects of recent technologies -- and videogames specifically -- than it did with the conflict over the Iraq war.

Besides, Gonzalo Frasca wasn't the only one raising red flags about TLTS programs among people who study new media. Months earlier recent Ph.D. Mark Marino had expressed doubts about the game on the blog Writer Response Theory, which covers interactive narratives and uses for artificial intelligence technology in stories. Since Tactical Iraqi was developed at a university, the University of Southern California, and its team members participated in academic conferences, it's not surprising that there would be discomfort with the military and commercial aspects of the game. There's also inevitably friction between game developers who want to create a fun experience of ludic participation and the Defense Department's agenda for command and control. I suppose these critics could be considered the rare and thus unmentioned exceptions to "most everyone." But why delete the link to Gonzalo's Wikipedia entry? And why not provide any links to support the opposing position?

More important, why insert an assertion that the game was being used in service of a "just and moral cause"? Unlike TLTUser who was using Wikipedia to promote advertising for a commercial product, Phoenix76 may have been somewhat more removed from the USC project and its corporate spin-off Alelo. Nevertheless, his contribution appears to be a flagrant violation of Wikipedia's NPOV or "No Point of View" policy.

Furthermore, this seems like a case of protesting too much, given the fact that I've interviewed FOUR principal investigators leading teams that have worked on military videogrames who said that they were opposed to the invasion of Iraq. In fact, I have yet to interview anyone working on these games who disagrees with most Americans in characterizing the war as an international policy mistake.

There have even been some public comments from the game's developers that prove that this Wikipedia entry is inaccurate. For example, in response to Gonzalo Frasca, Hannes Vilhjálmsson wrote, "I have enjoyed this conversation thread here and admit that I sympathize with both points of view. Being a peace activist myself, I had to overcome a great deal of stigma before accepting technical lead on the project." Note that Vilhjálmsson acknowledges "a great deal of stigma" associated with the project.

Now, I'm not going to out people with inconvenient political opinions for purposes of continued DARPA funding that were shared in confidence nor quote from their private e-mails or my notes from interviews to make this point, but the people who work on these games are conflicted about taking defense money when they are personally opposed to many aspects of the war. To say otherwise is simply a baldfaced lie.

Of course, there have been so many untruths associated with the Iraq war, I suppose this is a relatively trivial one to choose, but it gets at so many of the themes that I've been writing about for the past three years that I can't stay silent and let the record be uncorrected.

Vilhjálmsson himself has made a significant correction about the interpretation of his statements, so please check out the comments section for more on this story.

Of course, I'd still say the whole episode points to an inappropriate use of Wikipedia and a cautionary information literacy tale.

Another Update: The New York Times wrote a noteworthy story about Wikipedia, "All the News That's Fit to Print Out," which argues that Wikipedia now serves a journalistic purpose as well, since it comments on breaking news stories more rapidly than the traditional editorial process often allows.

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Revenge of the Nerds

It's a good time to talk about the political importance of having well-staffed and well-stocked archives from government and other nonprofit sectors at a time when for-profit corporations with proprietary software are being entrusted with the nation's information infrastructure. This week, as the American Library Association holds its annual conference, Siva Vaidhyanathan is cautioning against uncritically celebrating's expansion into the digital library business, as it follows Yahoo and Google into what they hope will be a lucrative sector of the information economy.

Three recent case studies illustrate the role that archives can have for government policy and the public sphere: the National Archives, the independent National Security Archive, and the archives at the National War College.

Today, the National Security Archive is announcing the release of what it calls "The CIA Family Jewels" or the most embarrassing gaffes and illegal exploits in the history of the highly secretive agency after fifteen years of document requests.

Those following the news are also learning more about the National Archives' Information Security Oversight Office, as it battles with Vice President Dick Cheney who after years of claiming Executive privilege now insists that he is not part of the Executive Branch in order to avoid complying with archiving procedures and security protocols that are the norm for other government agencies.

Finally, Conrad Crane, a military historian, was probably best known for being the head of the archives at the National War College until he co-authored the now-famous monograph Reconstructing Iraq: Insights, Challenges, and Missions for Military Forces in a Post-Conflict Scenario. Crane's book predicted many of the preventable disasters that were to happen in Iraq from looted museums to sectarian death squads. NPR has done a series of stories about Crane's work including this wonderful program on "The Center for Lessons Learned" from This American Life. (I like how the show also tells how information-savvy colonels were forced to be copyright violators by asking that pages in books in the Columbia library about the British colonial experience in Iraq at the turn of the last century be scanned and e-mailed to officers in the military theater.)

Update: According to a front-page article in The Washington Post, "CIA Releases Files on Past Misdeeds," it is the members of the CIA themselves who call the information released by the National Security Archives "The Family Jewels." According to the Post, this collection of "assassination plans, illegal wiretaps and hunts for spies at political conventions" was segregated from other documents during the Watergate era for its "flap potential" should the "delicate" information be exposed. Also included in the pages of CIA hijinks: some unauthorized testing of human subjects with drugs that had strange effects on mice.

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Monday, June 25, 2007

A Panel of Bartenders Discussing Prohibition

It's true that a panel of bartenders discussing Prohibition would probably be more entertaining than a panel of library science experts expounding upon digital copyright restrictions, but yesterday I devoted two hours to watching an exercise of the latter anyway. Readers may recall that I was miffed about all the digital access restrictions on what should be free and open public discussion, but a helpful librarian sent me the link to the webcast of Copyright in the Digital Age: An Update, so I could see what the American Library Association was endorsing and disseminating to its members and other interested parties. (This link will expire after July 1st, so readers should visit the site now.)

At first I was concerned by the introductory rhetoric, which emphasized "teaching our students" about copyright rather than being advocates for their interests in the face of possible infringement and the passive reception of "updates" rather than activism, but the main program made clear that librarians continue to be at the forefront of progressive engagement with information policy issues.

I also wasn't sure that host Cheryl Hamada was entirely correct to open the show by asserting that "methods of information delivery drive and change the face of copyright law." Technological developments are only one factor among many and social, political, and educational changes also impact copyright policies.

Kenneth Crews of Indiana University argued that "who shows up" to lobby and testify before Congress often shapes the text of specific copyright exemptions. In gloating that "Ha! I'm the Only Blogger at Sivacracy Who Can Legally Circumvent DVD Encryption," Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out the comic fact that many who teach and write about, with, and through digital media are still prohibited from digital copying that would otherwise be protected by section 107, the so-called "fair use" exemption. As one questioner pointed out, anthropology professors -- who often depend on showing films from other countries with different digital region codes or ones that may no longer be in distribution -- may also need to copy films to show in class in connection with coursework. Crews said that the film and media professors were able to secure the exemption because they showed up and anthropology professors didn't. As my pal historian Bob Blackman used to say facetiously, you can't teach history without an electrical outlet, since you can't do it without a VCR.

Crews also cautioned against tinkering with laws without careful study and reflection, since he said that "bad changes" were certainly possible and that advocacy was sometimes needed for the status quo. He also reminded viewers of their ethos as an audience: "good citizens" who were interested in "doing the right thing" and acting in "good faith."

Miriam Nisbet spoke from her perspective in the Library of Congress Section 108 Study Group, which deals with issues arising in relation to U.S. legislation, regulation, and oversight as well as treaties and policy decisions on the international stage. Section 108 refers to the exemptions to copyright law available to libraries and archives. As she pointed out, legislation can come with baggage and that "baggage can be pretty burdensome." In particular, Nisbet explained how digital regulations created problems for the traditional services of research libraries such as course reserves and interlibrary loan.

Rounding out the panel was Tomas Lipinski, who I was prepared not to like because he talked about "rogue faculties" and "stepping on" the rights of copyright holders. He also mystified me with a PowerPoint slide that made the following cryptic statement that quoted Arthur R. Miller and Michael H. Davis: "If copyright law is the 'metaphysics' of law, fair use is its 'semiotics.'"

Later, Lipinski was back in my graces by taking a broad view of the exemption for "transformative" works, although he also used the value-laden term "good." This broad interpretation recognized "indexes, bibliographies, and abstracts" as transformative, and thus positioned librarians as creators of new knowledge. He even quoted from the Electronic Frontier Foundation!

Librarians are also working on expanding rules that currently restrict the total number of post purchase copies to three, including the original and counting both digital and paper. It is interesting to note how many DRM restrictions limit users to three devices, copies, or installations and the way that this conforms to the "rule of threes" that is so prevalent in Western folklore and mythology. As someone who has had two hard drives and two iPods wiped just in this past year, I think revisiting this convention is certainly in order for consumers as well.

After sitting still for a long webcast, it was nice to enjoy more copyright transgressing fun. I went to see Cut Chemist and DJ Shadow doing an amazing virtuoso performance on eight turntables with nothing but unwieldy 45s.

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Sunday, June 24, 2007



Angela Thomas put together a useful list of references on gender and blogging, based on discussions on the AoIR list. Unfortunately, she doesn't know the source of this "She-Blogger" image, which I have reproduced above, either.

Henning, Jeffrey. “The Blogging Iceberg.” *Perseus*. 4 October 2003. Perseus Development Corporation. 11 November 2005

Herring, Susan and Inna Kouper, Lois Ann Scheidt, and Elijah Wright. “Women and Children Last: The Discursive Construction of Weblogs.” *Into the Blogosphere: Rhetoric, Community, and Culture of Weblogs*. Ed. Laura J. Gurak, Smiljana Antonijevic, Laurie Johnson, Clancy Ratliff, and Jessica Reyman. June 2004. 11 November 2005

Papers from the 2006 Blogher Conference

Book chapter - Posting with Passion: Blogs and the Politics of Gender by Melissa Gregg in Uses of blogs (

Papers from AAAI 2006 Symposia on Computational Approaches to Analyzing Weblogs

- The Identity of Bloggers: Openness and gender in personal weblogs by Scott Nowson and Jon Oberlander -

- Effects of Age and Gender on Blogging by Jonathan Schler, Moshe Koppel, Shlomo Argamon, and James Pennebaker -

- Gender Classification of Weblog Authors by Xiang Yan and Ling Yan -

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Your Vote Counts

The world is voting this month, not for U.N. Secretary-General, but for candidates in a race that could bring tourist dollars to their nations. Yesterday I was at a reception for friend Flavia Monteiro, a Brazilian artist, and the conversation turned to New 7 Wonders Internet voting. In this global publicity stunt, a new list of the Seven Wonders of the World would be announced on 7/7/07.

What was extraordinary was that people at the party were taking their decision as Internet voters remarkably seriously. Brazilian loyalists, who had seen the civic importance of preparations for the Pan-American games, didn't want to miss their opportunity to vote for the statue of Christ the Redeemer that looms over Rio de Janeiro. Transnational guests, who had allegiances to more than one country, France and Turkey in one case, might favor Hagia Sofia instead, especially if these voters were secularized and wanted to see it maintain its status as a museum rather than revert to being a mosque.

The site also has a social media dimension. At MyWonder, visitors can share digital images and video files of their chosen landmark. Although the site as a whole has a strong retail identity, it also claims to have an educational dimension. At the kids page are "classroom tools" and "school projects."

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Speaking in Tongues

As the election race heats up, YouTube videos are being disseminated that make arguments about the significance of the candidates' pronunciation. Although pronunciation was never on of the five canons of classical rhetoric, delivery was, and modes of speaking that might indicate class, regional affiliation, and level of education are obviously important in creating compelling oratory.

Online conservative groups have disseminated "Kentucky-Fried Hillary" videos like this one to show the former First Lady and New York Senator as a political chameleon who adapts her accent to the audience. One especially famous segment of a speech that was excerpted by Fox News became a particularly popular viral video. In repackaging the Fox News commentary, some asked "If Hillary Spoke in Front of Gays, Would She Lisp?" Of course, rival video makers have published more of the speech in context to show that Clinton was actually quoting the words of another person when she was adopting dialect.

The pronunciation of the current president has also been an issue in online videos. In "Bush Video 10 Years Ago!," he appears as a much more articulate debater who is comfortable with polysyllabic terms and complex sentence constructions. Some say that evidence exists that he once was even able to pronounce the word "nuclear" in correct phonetic fashion, although Laura Bush denied it two years ago in her famously racy speech at the White House Correspondents Dinner.

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Saturday, June 23, 2007

Party Crashers

Despite the organizational snafus, it seemed that yesterday's MacArthur gathering modeled a variety of idealized rhetorical practices suitable to the virtual agora. Of course, Second Life is also about disrupting institutional rhetoric that appeals to civic gravitas, as this description of the attack on John Edwards' virtual campaign headquarters illustrates. Check out the YouTube video that documents the attack of Marios, Bill Cosby posters, zombies, and exploitative girl-on-girl images below.

Notice how this online raid video uses the soundtrack from the comedy movie Team America. The same music has been featured in a number of remixes that includes at least one widely distributed sappy post 9-11 video. See a sampling of these remixes here. Note also that this film provided the audio for the beginning of the Sonic Jihad video that was shown in Congress.

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The Velvet Rope

First, a confession: I was late to the MacArthur Virtual World Event on Philanthropy with foundation president Jonathan Fanton and Second Life CEO Philip Rosedale (a.k.a. Philip Linden). Usually when I'm late to a talk or panel, it is because I was either a) in traffic or b) tied up at my desk. This time, it was because I was worrying about what to wear.

Now, I'm not very fussy about my appearance in general. At conferences, I'm the one dressed all in black taking copious notes. I used to be one of those dandyish academics, but in recent years -- although my teaching evaluations remain high numerically -- the written comments from students have gone from "nice specs!" and "cool threads!" to inquiries about whether or not I own a hairbrush or an iron.

But for some reason I wanted to get rid of my newbie avatar get-up. I knew that I would never be one of the beautiful people with sparkly outfits and anime hairdos, but I thought that at least I could give myself a basic make-over to transform myself into something more presentable in public. So I spent an hour dithering over what to wear before settling on a chain mail halter top, American flag skirt, and platform shoes. Critical time was lost while I fretted about the fact that my avatar didn't have glasses, and I do and consider it part of my identity. I didn't want to buy glasses to turn myself into a four-eyes, but I also didn't want a crash course in SL 3D scripting to make my virtual spectacles. Finally, I hustled over the the event, feeling naked without my frames.

It turned out that my delay was a critical error, because the server was full and no one could be admitted when I tried. During what must have been a lull in attendance I managed to sneak in, but -- without the friendly USC greeters who were outside the auditorium -- I couldn't figure out how to sit down and so found myself quickly feeling unwelcome, since I didn't want to block the view of others. It also was difficult to puzzle out how to make the streaming audio work properly. After eavesdropping on the chat of others I eventually figured it out.

It was interesting to hear about the "assumptions" made about Second Life residents by the foundation head, chiefly the generalization that people in SL were "people who care." The two men also spoke about recipients of charity in virtual worlds through Web 3.0 counseling and support groups. The most important case study for their discussion was the presence of the American Cancer Society in Second Life, which has been in the virtual world for three years. Although philanthropy is often associated with big donors, causes can also take advantage of large numbers of supporters who may be able to give little more than labor. Relay events in the massively multi-user space have been held, and volunteers have beautified their walkway.

Of course, during the question and answer period, the humanitarian crisis taking place in Iraq was also raised. As I have pointed out here in this blog, there are many virtual representations of Iraq, but as Fanton points out the situation does remain "challenging."

The Second Life Herald has good coverage of the event here, and Beth Kanter also provided live blogging. See also Joshua Fouts' essay on dialogism in virtual worlds and their rejection of enforced commodification, "Taking Second Life to the Next Level: From Monologue to Dialogue." It was hard to figure out how to dance, but I stayed around for the reception, where singer Hep Shepherd handed out prizes in Linden cash to winners of his trivia question contests.

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The Advent of the Virtual State

Before I get to reporting on the MacArthur Foundation event in Second Life yesterday, I feel that I need to say something about the burgeoning virtual presence of the State Department. This flickr set shows the offices of the State Department in Second Life. (Thanks to Andy Sternberg for the pointer to these pics.)

The State Department also has its own YouTube channel. As the film about Daniel and Marianne Pearl, A Mighty Heart, begins its theatrical run, viewers are also tuning in to a much-watched three-part series about the case that shows U.S. regional security officer Randall Bennett who was based in Karachi, Pakistan and who explains his official warnings to the journalist shortly before he disappeared. The second video addresses the rhetorical appeal of the kidnappers' bait-and-switch techniques. Although it is also informed by personal touches, the final video is a much more conventional piece of institutional rhetoric about the investigation and capture of members of the terrorist cell. Note that the official admits to detaining a suspect's family in an attempt to flush him out. Strangely, this official seems to be giving a stamp of approval on the Hollywood product that represents the events that he narrates as a witness. The celebrity consciousness of the closing notes about looking forward to the premiere are particularly disquieting, given the governmental authority of the site.

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Is It Really Harder Than Kicking Coffee?

I drink coffee. I drink a lot of coffee. As much as five cups a day, and often three cups before noon: a cup when I get up, a cup when I'm driving to work, and a cup when I'm first at my desk checking e-mail or reading blogs. When I'm working on an article or book chapter, I drink even more. Periodically I try to quit, but I chicken out as soon as I get the headaches. It's safe to say I'm addicted to coffee. But my grandmother drank a lot of coffee too, and she lived to be ninety-three.

Besides, nobody's talking about regulating coffee. Or even forbidding it to minors, which isn't an entirely unreasonable step, given its health consequences. Certainly no one is giving it great standing for purposes of the insurance industry or the medical profession.

And yet, there is a lot of talk right now about videogame addiction as a public health issue. Recently, in "Marathon video game sessions: Is this sick?," The Los Angeles Times reports about attempts to get the AMA to declare video game addiction a psychiatric disorder, which one would assume would also lead to being listed in the APA's professional bible, The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual or DSM, with a distinctive multi-digit number to designate a specific condition.

Using similar rhetoric to that associated with Alcoholics Anonymous, those lobbying for disease status have identified several warning signs, which were reprinted in the LA Times article:

• When you're not playing a game, do you find it difficult not to think about it?
• Are you uninterested in anything else besides games?
• Do you feel unable to control how much you play?
• Are you often late for appointments because of your game play?
• Are you having difficulty managing daily life?
• Do you skip meals to play?
• When you feel alone, do you use games to communicate with others?
• Do you spend more than three hours at a stretch playing?
• Is game play preventing you from getting enough sleep?
• Do you have headaches, dizziness or seizures?

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High-Tech Beatrice

At the Calit2 event, I also met super-cool computer scientist Cristina Lopes, who demonstrated her wearable search engine for the 3D online multi-user world Second Life. Most obviously, Lopes defied what are now trite outdated stereotypes about women in science. She was there with her young daughter and spoke about her teaching commitments, but she also was eager to represent herself as a programmer and showcase the code.

With her souped-up system, I must say I was very pleased with the zippy performance of the SLBrowser. Much like many Web 1.0 and 2.0 search engines, it uses the metadata associated with the objects and the built environments created by Second Life inhabitants to rank results. Although advertised largely as an online shopping tool, the SLBrowser proved remarkably effective at finding sites for abstract concepts as well as concrete products. I'll admit that I haven't tried the offerings of competing brands, such as Electric Sheep, but with SLBrowser I easily found sites for social interaction for everything from gathering places for those with HIV/AIDS to staging grounds for academic public diplomacy events.

Later, when I actually went into Second Life myself, as Malaise Etoile, my SL avatar, it was easy to get the free browser from their storefront on a commercial street on Neptune. (In the immediate digital vicinity, there was also a support group for agoraphobics, an escort service, and a high-end virtual clothing boutique.)

A word to the wise, however, there are places in Second Life that don't allow the SLBrowser to work. Cristina tells me there's a little icon on top of the SL client, towards the left, that indicates "no scripts," if this is the case. You'll also need to change the size of the frame by clicking on the yellow triangles on the top left of the browser or you may not have a legible display. Because it's free and powerful when it is working, I'd still recommend trying the SLBrowser for yourself. For finding things in Second Life, it is much better than their own proprietary search box and much more efficient than some of the guide books on the shelf.

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Friday, June 22, 2007

Through the Looking Glass

Yesterday, I attended another "Igniting Technology" event from Calit2, this time about "Web 3.0." If you don't know what Web 3.0 is, this influential graphic by Gary Hayes may help. It describes a series of next wave developments on the horizon of social media, but the term encompasses more than virtual 3D worlds, because this next generation Internet also may be characterized by smart searches in the "semantic web" and autonomous agents capable of generating emergent content. As one person in the audience pointed out, although the event was hosted by an intellectual property law firm, one of the master narratives of the panel discussion was about the triumph of open source.

Open source is, in fact, one of the areas of expertise of the first speaker Walt Scacchi, who describes himself as an advocate for "sampling, misuse, hacking, appropriation, reverse engineering, and custom creation in the interest of open-source innovation and critical intervention." Scacchi has made a reputation for himself by partnering with both corporate sponsors and the local community to create an online game, DinoQuest, to complement the offerings of the Orange County regional Discovery Science Center. (Of course, I was disappointed to discover that the top results for cheat codes for the game were no longer online.)

In continuing this open source theme, the next speaker, mega-millionaire developer David Perry, described open source as critical to the user-generated future of the game industry, even if it was "kryptonite to lawyers." He described the rationale of his open letter to amateur and off-duty game developers, Project Top Secret, which rests on a kind of pyramid scheme to attract more prosumers to the project. He also sketched out his own Web 2.0 to Web 3.0 transitional map. For example, his examples of microtransactions went from first generation "painted cars and vanity items" for in-game worlds to exchanges with more social, psychological, and ritual depth, such as "risk-based objects" or "collections." He also talked about the evolution of in-game advertising. In stage one, he described static logos. Stage two was characterized by targeting advertising. Stage three melded user-generated content with corporate marketing. Thus, in stage one a poster for a product might appear in a game. In stage two that poster might be able to look at you back and see your IP address and even change the next time you walk by to what would be appropriate to your niche audience. In stage three, your guild might be able to put up an advertisement to mark their pride in community identity alongside the poster of a major advertiser. Perry discussed about how in-game advertising could now extend to a sports sponsorship model as well, where you received the jersey of Adidas as soon as you earned the highest score, which would be visible to other players and make you more vulnerable to challenge.

As the audience from Korea looked on via a teleconference link, Perry also talked about the lessons to be learned from Asia and their "Free to Play, Lifetime to Master" model. He predicted that the Asian market would eventually develop the ultimate killer ap, a free game with the necessary emotional drivers -- which can include feelings like "pride" that he argued were unattainable in the spectatorship model of cinema -- to knock out competition from proprietary corporations. He thought that this free game would profoundly disrupt the industry.

Next up was Facebook friend Bill Tomlinson, who opened with the issue of cross-cultural contact. Tomlinson compared his own knowledge of China growing up, which was limited to a location on a map, with that of his students who actually knew Chinese people from playing World of Warcraft. (Strangely, he seemed to gloss over how his present-day students still indulged in generalizations and cultural stereotypes about the Chinese in the context of game play.) Most of his talk, however, was about autonomous agents and emergence. Although he described AI as a "hard set of problems," he said that flocking algorithms provide a model for how complexity can emerge from a few simple rules. In creating social dynamics with all the possible combinations of the human-machine-machine-human circuit, he argued that a few social rules could also be considered fundamental to modeling complex systems. For example, a rule about being able to uniquely identify a social actor or characterize an emotional state.

Last to speak was Mats Johnsson, who spoke from a business perspective about the coming generation of protoypes, demos, and models, which would make business meetings and tradeshows look more like the scenes in Star Wars movies in which people congregate around a hologram. He also showed some examples from a well-known demo about morphological models of faces that I covered earlier this year. The Calit2 facility also showcased its display systems, as these photographs show, at the even.

Questions from the audience were a bit by-the-numbers and focused on cultural clichés like violence and videogames on the one hand and interactive entertainment and cutting-edge education on the other. Perry was probably the most interesting respondent. He talked about his background growing up in an environment of cultural violence and terrorism in Northern Ireland, which made American anxieties about game violence laughable to him. He spoke about a video that he liked to show in talks as well, which I sadly failed to find on YouTube, that shows a six-year-old girl speaking knowledgeably and with definite opinions about trebuchets, knowing the complicated physics and strategic dimensions of these historical military weapons only from game play. (I did, however, find this helpful trebuchet how-to website for girl scouts, which is worth checking out.) One fun fact did emerge from the Q&A, however, about the energy demands of virtual life and the ultimate carbon footprint created. According to Tomlinson, a citizen in Second Life uses as much energy in a year as a typical real-life dweller in Brazil.

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Not Free Hugs

Today, the BBC is reporting on the information warfare raging between rival Palestinian factions on YouTube. "Gaza Militants launch 'web-war'." In light of the rhetorical impact of the infamous "Free Hugs" video, which has garnered over fifteen million views, it is interesting that hugging is considered a politically suspect act in the videos produced by both Hamas and Fatah.

In one Fatah video, the dismissed Prime Minister Ismail Haniya is shown embracing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran - picking up on Hamas's close links with Shia Muslim Iran to discredit the Islamist movement.

There is also an image showing him embracing a rabbi.

. . .

Hamas touches on the same theme with a video showing the late Fatah-founder Yasser Arafat embracing "the enemies of the Palestinian people" Ayatollah Khomeini, as well as the Pope.

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Thursday, June 21, 2007

There's Nothing Like Radio for Showing Off a Videogame

Today Virtualpolitik comrade Ian Bogost appeared on NPR's "Talk of the Nation. You can listen to the conversation at the link for "New Video Games Entertain and Educate." As far as disembodied voices go, I think he did an admirable job fielding questions, although there was certainly a representational challenge involved in describing a genre through auditory means that is largely visual and kinesthetic in nature.

Most obviously, Bogost argued that serious games were expanding potential cultural membership and enriching the possibilities of play. Callers also shared their experiences of having children try out careers as humanitarians or understanding their own medical treatment better in an emergency room. Predictably, he was asked by the show's host -- yet again -- about Super Columbine Massacre RPG, which I think has been somewhat overexposed in panels and conferences this year.

Of course, Bogost has also written about his Howard Dean game in several contexts, but I was happy to hear him say something new about the distinction between politicking and politics that he has come to understand after the development process. I also liked the way that he framed the political in participatory terms and disputed the relevance of conventional tropes of partisan identity positioning or currencies of ideological value. Bogost argues that politics is actually about "boring" details and the way that complex systems operate in relationship to U.S. citizens in venues such as health care, airport security, and food safety.

As someone with family members whose lived experiences with disability, class discrimination, sexuality, and labor politics don't match the Republican platforms in which they profess belief, I think he may be on to something about the political disconnect between practices and ideologies in contemporary policy and politics. It's a contradiction that is also described by Thomas Frank in What's the Matter with Kansas?. The question is: will these red staters play games that let them question the rules operating on complex problems? Or will such games only be played by liberal elites like those who read The New York Times, where Bogost's work is being featured in the editorial section.

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Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Babel Babble

On Tuesday in Paris, YouTube announced that it would be creating web portals in seven additional languages. That's good news to those who enjoy their virtual media tourism. As The New York Times reports in "YouTube to Be Available in 7 Additional Languages," the tongues offered will include "French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Japanese, Polish and Dutch."

Je parle français. Ich spreche Deutsch. watashi wa nihongo o hanashimas (which I could write in Kanji and Hiragana if I only had the fonts).

Certainly English shouldn't have the hegemonic power that it still does on the Web, but I worry about the ultimate effects of this trend toward linguistic segmentation on YouTube. I love seeing exciting German soccer plays or weird Japanese game shows among the "most watched" listings, and I worry that it necessarily impoverishes the American media landscape.

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An Offer You Can't Refuse

Okay. I wasn't going to say anything about this YouTube parody of The Sopranos final episode that was produced by Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. Mostly because I despise the music of Celine Dion, and she won the campaign song contest, which was covered here earlier on VP.

But I could only hold out for so long. After all, this campaign video has got everything: transmedia narratives, parody mixed with homage, and an uncomfortable counternarrative about political dynasties and possible intersections between the logic of criminal conspiracy and government power. In light of its subversive content, it's no wonder that its not posted prominently on her campaign site.

Besides, I have liked the Clintons in their various send-ups over the years. My favorite continues to be the one where they play the doubting "Harry and Louise" couple for a spoof at the Gridiron dinner. For those who have forgotten, "Harry and Louise" were on the dime of the health care lobby in spots in the nineties against universal coverage. The original fictional couple still reappears in election ads from time to time. And Goddard Claussen, which produced the original spot is also still going strong. I enjoyed the morbid sense of humor in the Clinton version, so rare in sunny political rhetoric, in which their Harry and Louise stubbornly refuse to accept their own mortality.

And if you haven't seen Chris Rock's take on why white women hate to vote for white women, because you don't stay up for SNL, it's worth checking out. This Fox medical ad spoof gets at some of the same issues, although it becomes unfunny about halfway through. I still want a digital rights candidate, first and foremost, although both of the top contenders in the Democratic Party give me reservations on that score.

Update: BAGnewNotes has some great analysis of the gendered power dynamics of the Sopranos ad here.

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Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jury

Despite potential information graphics gaffes like those illustrated in the video above or chartjunk fiascos publicly dissected by Edward Tufte, the ubiquitous electronic slideware has been featured in yet another high profile trial.

In cases of white-color corporate malfeasance, some would argue that such corporate software would be particularly appropriate, given the way that the MS Office suite is already used to simplify (and perhaps oversimplify) complicated financial transactions. For example, Dave Paradi, who wrote a PowerPoint Bible for Prentice Hall, has claimed that the Microsoft product solves the fundamental problem of "How to explain complex financial dealings to a jury of regular folks who don't deal with those type of corporate terms or ideas?"

Recently, the Chicago prosecutor handling the case of newspaper mogul Conrad Black made her closing arguments with PowerPoint. Witnesses' photographs and snippets from their statements were incorporated into her digital presentation. Black is accused of illegally skimming money and failing to share with shareholders, but the defendent argues that his crimes were really what Malcolm Gladwell has called "Open Secrets" and that the failures of others to analyze and communicate information weren't his doing.

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Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Just the Facts, M'am

In the current old media vs. new media knock-down drag-out battle for attention from subscribers and advertisers, outlets for print journalism have begun to follow what might appear to be a counterintuitive strategy for survival.

The conventional wisdom says that web news counts on traditional reporting to provide facts derived from their investigative coverage. In this way, the virtual news can count on eventually controlling the profitable sector of aggregation and commentary without the expense of shoe-leather on-the-ground journalism. This parasitic relationship was described by Frontline earlier this year in a PBS television special on "What's Happening in the News."

However, National Public Radio's David Folkenflik describes another kind of media ecosystem in "As Media Multiply, So Do 'Conceptual Scoops,'" in which newspapers leave the facts to others and instead pursue what's now being called the "conceptual scoop." Malcolm Gladwell has also written about the importance of these "Open Secrets," when analyzing and data can be more important than acquiring it. For example, Folkenflik points to coverage of signing statements, as an example of a policy story that requires critical thinking, close reading, and an ability to work with what Lev Manovich calls "big data." Folkenflik also describes how The Wall Street Journal earned a Pulitzer Prize by spending its energies designing a software program rather than interviewing informants to reveal fraud in corporate stock options.

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The Glass Menagerie

Many environmentalists were disappointed in the rhetoric at this month's Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). At the same time scientists and activists are trying to save species virtually by using distributed networks and electronic archives. This video describes the ambitions of the Encyclopedia of Life.

Apparently, the EOL has become the pet project of Harvard professor E. O. Wilson, whose model of "consilience" has been of great interest to those who study information culture. You can hear Wilson talk about the project at the TED Conference here.

Now that the EOL video has been posted to YouTube, it is interesting to note how it uses the conventions of this famous YouTube video essay by Michael Wesch. I also like the fact that there is already a YouTube remix from a site that specializes in Rambo and Rocky footage.

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Photoshopping Phoucault

Why is the French poststructuralist philosopher Michel Foucault such an appealing figure to Photoshop? Why are there so many digitally altered images of him on the World Wide Web? You don't see the same phenomenon with Habermas when you do a Google image search. Is it his bald head? Is it his dour reflections on authority, subjectivity, governmentality, and the way that knowledge and authorship function as part of an intellectual police state? Even one of my UCI colleagues, Peter Krapp, can't resist posting some images of Foucault in the lolcats genre! (Here is the Wikipedia defininition of what an lolcats image is, if you have a life and so consequently don't know what an "lolcat" is.)

Given Foucault's writings on the subject of the archive, it's interesting to see this week's e-mail notice about the founding of a digital library devoted to his work, although the URL now only leads to a work in progress.

Le Centre Michel Foucault, en collaboration avec l’Institut Mémoires de l’édition contemporaine (IMEC), s’apprête à ouvrir un site Internet multilingue (français, anglais, espagnol, arabe et chinois) consacré au penseur français. Appelé Michel Foucault Archives (, il mettra à disposition des internautes une chronologie détaillée, des dossiers d’archives inédites, une iconothèque, un index complet de l’œuvre de Michel Foucault, une bibliographie de ses publications en français et les inventaires des archives disponibles à l’IMEC ou ailleurs. En outre, le site voudrait informer en temps et en heure de tous les événements suscités par la pensée foucaldienne aussi bien en France qu’à l’étranger : colloques, journées de travail, expositions, publications, etc.

Let's wish them well and hope that they don't encounter the problems that the Derrida archive has generated among the warring factions.

Update: Because the world really needs more lolcats, I feel compelled to point out the fact that L.A.'s own Machine Project is threatening to actually teach classes on LOLcode. Machine Project is also doing some cool collaborations with local mad scientists at the Institute for Figuring, so find parking downtown and check it out.

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