Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Springfield Work

Like many people, I joined the audience at the Simpsons Movie last weekend. I was pleased to hear that pal Mike Reiss wrote what is credited as being the funniest joke in the movie, so I figured I'd do my bit to support Writer's Guild Members, at least while the current system that guarantees the payment of residuals is still in place.

There were plenty of references to cyberculture in the story of the apocalyptic fate of the cartoon landscape of Springfield, which is brought to the brink of disaster by a combination of environmental pollution and a secretive federal government. Bart writes on a blackboard over and over the promise not to download the movie illegally. Children play a hand-held game called "Baby Blast," and adults in the frozen North play "Grand Theft Walrus." Cell phone cameras and surveillance cameras occupy a role in the story. There are also info-graphics on the news and teleconferencing on a giant dematerialized screen. There's even an OnStar joke in which Springfield is first digitally removed from the map of an automobile navigation system before it is to be literally obliterated.

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Monday, July 30, 2007

When the Virtual Campus Means Something Else Than Distance Learning

Although universities have traditionally been reluctant to acknowledge the peer-to-peer file-sharing practices of their students as a legitimate aspect of campus life, university administrators are increasingly likely to play a role in their students' virtual lives, sometimes through the same distributed networks in which they discourage membership.

Unfortunately, as The Chronicle of Higher Education has been reporting, pedagogical authority figures don't always respect the privacy of their students or the boundaries of an intellectual community. In "Facebook Fuzz," the Chronicle reports that Oxford has attempted to find the culprits behind ritual acts of collegiate post-examination vandalism by examining photos posted by participants on Facebook. The venerable Times of London and the bloggers at the Guardian have already weighed in.

Luckily, some university officials are making their students' privacy in the digital age an area of concern. From a recent item on how "The University of Kansas Will Not Forward RIAA Letters," it appears that fair Harvard may be joined by the University of Kansas after it set an important precedent for other institutions of higher learning by refusing to be cowed by music industry lawyers. The University of Kansas also has a notable IT policy point person, Jenny Mehmedovic, who has a record of interesting work on privacy and security issues.

Moreover, since the advent of the Internet, it may be valuable for university stake-holders to understand that competition in providing educational services may be coming from some unlikely sources. Even a flagship cable music video station may be getting into the act, according to "MTV Offers Online Answers for Students" After visiting their site, it appears that at present their offerings continue to seem a bit thin. In particular, as of this evening, their much-hyped online database of campus news stories lacks any actual samples of student journalism.

Meanwhile, a plea for some validation of social media as producing legitimate objects of study for the academy is contained in "Dr. Mash-Up," otherwise known as "Why Educators Should Learn to Stop Worrying and Love the Remix." As a manifesto, it doesn't say anything particularly new: a critique of the ideology of originality, a plug for free culture principles when it comes to copyright and source code, and a primer on Web 2.0.

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Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sober Reminders

This weekend, while driving through inner city urban neighborhoods, I noticed the appearance of several billboards that publicize a new government website, stopalcoholabuse.gov. While the topographies of the nation's digital divide morph into new configurations, it is interesting to see that government planners no longer assume that low-income citizens won't have access to computers and the web. However, as The New York Times observed in "Ads Against Drinking Speak Only Faintly," money spent on discouraging underage drinking through television advertising has plunged since 2001, so this combination of web and outdoor advertising may be a more economical substitute that mixes cheaper low-tech and high-tech approaches to raising public awareness.

Of course, one of the remarkable features of the bastion of consciousness-raising about alcoholism, Alcoholics Anonymous, is its low web profile, despite the fact that online communities have the anonymity that is essential to many addicts seeking help. For example, if one wants to find a meeting in California, the website simply directs you to a telephone number for further information.

I visited Stop Alcohol Abuse and was surprised to see that the guide for parents had pages that were unreadable because the color choices interfered with the basic information design. Also under "Community/Faith-Based" links, I was amused to see a government-recommended site, A Guide to Safe and Sober Event Planning, that encouraged digital piracy, since mix tapes were an essential component of the party planning.

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Saturday, July 28, 2007

Fraidy Cat Politics

The other big election news is the fact that second YouTube/CNN debate may be doomed if too many Republican candidates prove to be no-shows, given the user-generated content format. With front-runners like Giuliani claiming "scheduling conflicts"and other well-funded candidates like Romney complaining that debate should be at a "higher level" than YouTube can provide, libertarian Ron Paul might be the only one to appear. Check out James Kotecki's public shaming and the petition drive at SavetheDebate.com for more.

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Red Team Report

There was lots of election news today, as the California Secretary of State announced the results of a critical new study of the three electronic voting systems currently used in the state that was conducted by experts on computer security and election tampering from the University of California. Last year, Ed Felten's Princeton team hacked a Diebold voting machine and posted video of their procedures on the Internet. In this year's U.C. Top to Bottom Review, exploitable vulnerabilities were found in both the hardware and the software of all three companies that contract with the state.

Rhetorically, I thought it was interesting to see in the actual document how the principal investigator, Matt Bishop, spent time defining discipline-specific terms like "red team" right on the first page:

A red team study, also called a penetration study, examines a system from the point of view of an attacker, and analyzes the system to determine how secure it is against an attack.

Bishop also anticipated the objections from manufacturers that there were "policies, procedures,
and laws intended to compensate for any technological shortcomings" by considering all the possible social actors who could have malevolent intentions: "voters, poll workers, election officials, vendor employees, and others with varying degrees of access." Bishop explains the rationale of the red teams' methodology as follows:

In developing attack scenarios, the red teams made no assumptions about constraints on the attackers. We recommend that future Red Teams should adopt a similar attitude.
The testers did not evaluate the likelihood of any attack being feasible. Instead, they described the conditions necessary for an attacker to succeed.

In attempting to rebut the study in statements for "3 Voting Systems Faulted" in today's Los Angeles Times, proponents for the manufacturers criticize the "laboratory" conditions of Bishop's study. The point to the policing power of election officials as a deterrent to fraud in the non-hermetically sealed environment of the polling place. Unfortunately, I've been an election official and know how easy it is for belligerent voters or would-be voters to create a distraction that occupies the entire contingent of poll-workers, who must work very long hours with little training, so I think the study should be taken very seriously by policy makers.

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Friday, July 27, 2007

Office Politics

According to George Packer's long article in The New Yorker, "Betrayed," U.S. officials in Iraq have a terrible record of providing security to their Iraqi employees, partly because to do so would be to admit that the war is going badly. E-mail plays a key role in Packer's narrative, not only as a contributing factor to bureaucratic distance but also an avenue for whistle-blowing activities.

One of Packer's central theses is that e-mail and ubiquitous communication devices create distance between U.S. occupiers and Iraqi citizens rather than connection, because they lack face-to-face social relationships like those present during the Vietnam war.

American institutions in Vietnam were just as unresponsive as they are in Iraq, but, on an individual level, Americans did far more to evacuate their Vietnamese counterparts. In Saigon they had girlfriends, wives, friends, whereas Americans and Iraqis have established only work relationships, which end when the Americans rotate out after six months or a year. In the wide-open atmosphere of Saigon, many officials, including Snepp, broke rules or risked their lives to save people close to them. Americans in Baghdad don’t have such discipline problems. A former Embassy official pointed out that cell phones and e-mail connect officials in Iraq to their bosses there or in Washington around the clock. “When you can always connect, you can always pass the buck,” he said. For all their technology, the Americans in Baghdad know far less about the Iraqis than those in Saigon knew about the Vietnamese. “Intelligence is the first key to empathy,” Snepp said.

In Packer's narrative, the Iraqis are shown as unable to accept the bureaucratic rules of electronic discourse enforced by their model of what Foucault has called "governmentality," because it relegates digital communication to a mere record of legalistic notification and response. For example, one Iraqi employee working closely with U.S. authorities is fired because he expects that only actually answering his specific question can be counted as response when military officials would consider the Iraqi to be the nonresponsive one in the discursive exchange.

In April, a Shiite member of the parliament asked Ahmed to look into the status of a Mahdi Army member who had been detained by the Americans. Iraqis at the Embassy sometimes used their office to do small favors for their compatriots; such gestures reminded them that they were serving Iraq as well as America. But Ahmed sent his inquiry through the wrong channel. His supervisor was on leave in the U.S., and so he sent an e-mail to a reserve colonel in the political section. The colonel refused to provide him with any information, and a couple of weeks later, in May, Ahmed was summoned to talk to an agent from the regional security office.

. . .

The interrogation came down to one point: Hale insisted that Ahmed had misled him by saying that the reserve colonel had “never answered” Ahmed’s inquiry, when in fact the colonel had sent back an e-mail asking who had given Ahmed the detainee’s name. Ahmed hadn’t considered this an answer to his question about the detainee’s status, and therefore hadn’t mentioned it to Hale. This was his undoing.

Of course, e-mail also becomes the vehicle for seeking justice in the Packer article, which describes the efforts of Kirk Johnson to get recognition from American policy makers for the desperate situations that their Iraqi assistants were facing as possible "collaborators" in the political violence of their hostile neighborhoods. According to the article, Johnson also uses electronic spreadsheet technology.

First, it was people he knew—former colleagues in desperate circumstances like Yaghdan’s. Iraqis forwarded his article to other Iraqis, and he started to compile a list of names; by January he was getting e-mails from strangers with subject lines like “Can you help me Please?” and “I want to be on the list.” An Iraqi woman who had worked for the Coalition Provisional Authority attached a letter of recommendation written in 2003 by Bernard Kerik, then Iraq’s acting Minister of the Interior. It proclaimed, “Your courage to support the Coalition forces has sent home an irrefutable message: that terror will not rule, that liberty will triumph, and that the seeds of freedom will be planted into the hearts of the great citizens of Iraq.” The woman was now a refugee in Amman.

Packer himself depends on e-mail as a conduit of information from confidential sources, even if he is simultaneously creating an electronic trail that might potentially compromise officials.

A State Department official in Iraq sent a cable to Washington criticizing the Americans’ “lackadaisical” attitude about helping Iraqi employees relocate. In an e-mail to me, he said, “Most of them have lived secret lives for so long that they are truly a unique ‘homeless’ population in Iraq’s war zone—dependent on us for security and not convinced we will take care of them when we leave.” It’s as if the Americans never imagined that the intimidation and murder of interpreters by other Iraqis would undermine the larger American effort, by destroying the confidence of Iraqis who wanted to give it support. The problem was treated as managerial, not moral or political.

Of course, the office politics of e-mail are important much closer to home than the embassies of Baghdad, as a recent radio show about "Who's Reading Your E-mail?" dramatizes. A recent study by the company Proofpoint shows that compromising e-mail is increasingly the cause of on-the-job conflicts and even employee termination.

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Thursday, July 26, 2007

Toy Story

Today Long Beach Airport, the local hub of Jet Blue, was closed for much of the day because of an unidentified hand-held videogame device. Hundreds were evacuated, according to an AP report, because screeners encountered the game in "raw form," when the wiring was exposed. Videogames have been falsely linked to terrorism in the past, as last year's Sonic Jihad debacle shows, but in an environment of ubiquitous computing with multiple devices, this form of airport security seems worthy of new parodies to supplement this one.

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On Dissimulation

I'm not sure that honesty is always the best policy when it comes to giving advice about online behavior. Many social critics complain about teens lying about their ages, but like transgression, there can be positive social value to dissimulation. Why give your correct age to marketers, when accurate personal information has become a commodity with quantifiable value to rapacious others?

When it comes to good digital parenting, I think teaching your children to misrepresent their online identities can be important. For example, I list my birthdate as 1910 in all my online profiles. Thus, I only receive a very few targeted solicitations, and the ones that I do get are pretty amusing, given a hale and hearty lifestyle.

As I've argued elsewhere, misrepresenting your identity isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the past, I've certainly done it in print with my own college yearbook entry, and I don't consider it a moral failing on my part. (Of course, misrepresenting myself on my c.v. would be quite another matter.)

Teaching your children to have a sense of humor is a life-long survival skill, and parody and hoaxes have a legitimate function as social critiques. Fellow copyright critic and university academic Kembrew McLeod even lists his "pranks" on the navigation of his home page.

One anecdote from the pre-digital era: I consider myself a good civic-minded American, but I've never been particularly patriotic. Of course, after the whole "Freedom Fries" hysteria, I surrounded myself with French national symbols, but that's probably as close as I've come to any genuine sentiments about any flag.

But when I married designer and animator Mel Horan during the presidential administration of the senior Bush, we thought it would be funny to dress up as political conservatives and pose in front of a U.S. flag with earnest expressions. Friends who knew us got the joke, but family members were probably somewhat mystified.

We wanted it to be subtle enough that newspapers would actually run the pictures, which they did, so we were grateful when now eminent photographer Miles Coolidge agreed to do it. (Click the proof sheet to enlarge.)

I hope that one day my own children commemorate life events so memorably. Creating their own mythology with some well-placed fictions is certainly one way to do it.

(For more on the brand identity of national flags, see this website.)

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Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Facebook Face Off

The Facebook vs. ConnectU legal battle between dueling campus social networking sites has finally made it to court this week. However, the controversy over ownership of the original concept for a college-oriented site has been brewing for years, as this 2004 pro-Facebook Harvard Crimson editorial makes clear. As of today, a federal judge sounds skeptical of the intellectual property claims of the smaller rival and has given ConnectU only two weeks to resubmit their claim for a last-ditch effort at a more favorable response. Facebook's supporters point to a better business plan, more rapid launch, and more appealing user interface as the factors that would favor the larger company.

Nonetheless, I would argue that there are two other fallacies at issue in ConnectU's narrative about betrayal by a work-for-hire coder. First, they assume that technological determinism rules the day and that ownership of the better code would dictate the outcome of this corporate struggle of survival of the fittest. In reality better code often doesn't win out: factors like brand appeal, social participation by early adopters, and status for those at the hubs of multiple social networks may be more important for a thriving online community. Second, it's not as new an idea as they claim, since Harvard alumni are on both sides of the litigation and the Harvard Freshman Register has decades of history behind it in print. My own Facebook picture was cut out and pasted in common books and club rosters, where it was annotated, not always favorably.

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

The Morning After

Today was the big post-mortem on last night's first "YouTube debate" on CNN, with the blogosphere ruminating on how well the Democratic candidates fielded questions from the video-sharing site. Ratings and responses was generally positive.

Even as the spin doctors were beginning to analyze this transmedia experiment, John Edwards continued to answer questions from YouTube filmmakers long after the actual conclusion of the debate. Posed next to his silver laptop and thus providing still more product placement for Apple, you have to give Edwards credit for tackling questions in the order in which they received the most viewer votes as tabulated at the mash-up site Community Counts. Of course, as readers have pointed out, the unaired impeachment question rose to the number one slot, which Edwards credited to "LonelyGirl 15" rather than the other LonelyGirl15. (The impeachment campaign has also been using how-to videos for traditional epistolary efforts.) Not far behind was the question that I would have liked to have seen aired on CNN on possible solutions to the problem of media consolidation that included a plug for network neutrality.

James Kotecki was a busy man at the after party, where you can see he learned a few moves from fellow Internet celebrity the Obama Girl, who has recently taken on the Giuliani girls in a her new video.

Of course, if I were to pick an African-American YouTube political chanteuse I would pick this LonelyGirl parody over the more MTV-conventionally marketed Obama girl.

Unfortunately, most other commentators seemed unaware of even the shortest of the short history of YouTube politics represented by this montage or the track record kept by Tech President of statistics that compare channel views for the candidates' YouTube campaigns or even the pretensions to bridge the gap between analysis from the academy and that from the mainstream media at the PrezVid blog. My colleague Mark Nunes would have probably been a lot better than many of the talking heads I've heard today.

Particularly bad was the today's typo-filled LA Times coverage, which called those who submitted questions "uploaders" rather than "YouTubers," "directors," or "YouTube community members."

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Monday, July 23, 2007

You n00b

I guess I shouldn't have been so surprised that there were no substantive questions about technology -- with the possible exception of the feasibility of nuclear power -- in this evening's presidential debate. Apparently no one is hearing pleas for a digital rights candidate, who would address important bipartisan issues that may affect our use of distributed electronic networks for record-keeping, communication, data representation, computation, and political deliberation, perhaps a candidate who might refute the current rhetoric of criminality aimed at defaming an entire generation by equating their everyday digital practices with terrorism, child exploitation, or property theft. Of course, there were no questions about terrorism or the balance or trade either, in a debate that defined "domestic" concerns very narrowly.

But one would have expected something about the Internet or online communities, given that this was the first presidential debate in which the candidates responded to questions from a video file-sharing website. Ironically, in my local media market, the ads were all about visiting websites, touching touchscreens, videoconferencing, and other forms of quotidian virtual realities in the cyberspaces of everyday life. As you can see from the recap, however, even electronic voting was presented as a question of merely offering a consistent consumer experience with a recognizable brand, like a "triple grande non-fat no-foam vanilla latte from Starbucks," rather than a new set of digital practices with technical constraints and consequences that include potential security and privacy concerns. (See my experiences as a poll-worker for why political participation using new information technologies just doesn't work that way.)

Certainly, there was plenty of coaching to go around to prepare for tonight's event. The candidates had lots of good advice from my Facebook friend James Kotecki, but they seemed to have largely ignored it, when it came to producing the YouTube videos that were shown at commercial breaks. In fact, the candidate videos that CNN aired were truly terrible, some of the worst of their Internet campaigns: mostly either rehashes of the paranoid thinking of TV attack ads, complete with their deep-voiced suspicious announcers (Gravel, Biden) or stupid self-deprecating fluff that insulted the intelligence of their audiences by focusing on trivial non-issues like the candidates' hair (Dodd, Edwards). And then there was the bad, graphically primitive, all-text and stupidly voiceless Hillary Clinton ad. It's a shame that the candidates ignored CNN's tips for producing engaging question videos, which were dispensed in the form of how-to ideas from Anderson Cooper and bonus tips about pitfalls to avoid. I thought these primers about YouTube rhetoric were actually pretty good.

There were also many constraints placed on the participatory culture that the news network gave lip service to, since CNN chose the questions and actually avoided those from the actual top-tier of voter popularity. However, I have to agree with their decision to exclude questions with costumes, children as mouthpieces, and those scripted by campaigns themselves in keeping with the basic principles of a credible and personal political ethos that date back to the Greeks. As a parent, I myself was exhorted by the user-generated site GreatSchools.com to contribute to their YouTube Channel with questions for the candidates about education.

I think it is also fair to say the chosen videos often avoided many of the exhausted gimmicks of the YouTube genre described in the recent essay "YouTube's Dark Side" by a vlogger Nick Douglas. Still, there were overused conventions in the question line-up -- from a bad musical guitar-strummed ditty about taxes that certainly violated no claims of professional copyright ownership to the crude home-made animation of a snowman protesting global warming. Furthermore, the only YouTube celebrities allowed to pose a possible stumper were from the unfunny Red State Update who made possibly the most tedious of all the Mitt Romney's dog videos that I have watched in the past month.

Finally, in the candidates' responses, it is interesting to note how many candidates emphasized their experiences visiting real places rather than virtual ones. For example, when a question from a remote refugee camp in Darfur was posed, two of the candidates proudly testified that they had visited the same refugee camp in person.

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Sunday, July 22, 2007

Anti-Social Networking Sites

It's hard to find something new to say about the Internet rhetoric of tax resisters Ed and Elaine Brown beyond the fact of it, as it is described in articles such as The Boston Globe's "Tax resisters find allies in cyberspace." The Browns face incarceration for failing to report over 1.3 million dollars of income associated with her dental practice.

With the help of user-generated media makers like John Stoddard Klar of Christian Words Unchristian Actions and the producer of the IRS Standoff Video that has promised breaking-news coverage of the FBI's siege of the couple, the Browns identify themselves as part of a larger political movement. Klar also encourages his viewers to watch the film America from Freedom to Fascism, which has a strong anti-technology message that exploits anxiety about electronic voting machines and the implantation of microchips in interactions in everyday life.

Another supporter, former Arizona congressional candidate Mark Yannone, produces a pro-Brown blog, along with dozens of other Blogspot blogs on subjects that range from academic freedom to the grammar of Standard Written English to the use of the sugar substitute Splenda.

The Browns are also being encouraged to embrace martyrdom for the tax resistance cause by Ruby Ridge leader and survivor Randy Weaver. (You can read the much redacted FBI report about the fatal standoff with Weaver's family, which killed his wife and one of his children, in the official Ruby Ridge file on the FBI's Freedom of Information website.)

The Browns' would-be media empire includes a website, Show Us the Inherent Law, and a MySpace page called Time2MakeaStand that features online videos with cheesy computer-generated 3D models and Star Wars style graphics.

Links to campaign literature for Libertarian Ron Paul, who is running for President as a Republican in the 2008 race abound on the Browns' websites. Because the Browns have embraced a form of off-the-grid pseudo-environmentalism and say that they don't want their tax revenues to support an unjust war in Iraq, some progressives are also surprisingly sympathetic to the duo.

I strongly believe in the principles of civil disobedience, which means that protestors have to be willing to go to jail for their beliefs. Civil disobedience is not about going out in a blaze of glory; it's about making a statement by letting the law take its course. I'd rather see myspace pages, YouTube videos, and blogs from those who resist the law by accepting its consequences rather than those who fantasize about armed revolt. For example, when Thoreau refused to pay taxes out of opposition to the Mexican-American War and slavery he peacefully served his time in the lock-up, which was admittedly very short.

Certainly, going to jail or not for tax evasion can be a matter of income, social capital, and even class. When I worked at a delinquency prevention center for the California Youth Authority decades ago, we would sometimes have these sweet, powdered society ladies who had tried illegal tax shelters and were caught and thus had to do hundreds of hours of community service as punishment, along with paying their hefty fines. Jail is probably a better alternative for the Browns, who would probably be ill suited for any community service at this point, since they've apparently stopped paying property taxes to their local government as well.

Granted, as a public employee, I'm certainly not a neutral party on the question of support for government infrastructure and its fiscal requirements, and I resent people who say that professionals shouldn't be paid for educating our citizens' children. But the Browns should at least acknowledge that at one time or another, taxes to government programs have supported most of the communication technologies that are spreading their message and the portable and energy-efficient means for being off the grid that they are still able to exploit after being cut off by the authorities.

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Saturday, July 21, 2007

Just Say Know

When it comes to drug use, the mainstream media finds itself in a difficult position: officially it is expected to adopt a moralistic stance to avoid alienating advertisers, yet it also wants to appeal to a youth audience and one that might respond to subversive messages. Of course, the broadcast media increasingly also has come to depend upon the revenue stream from the pharmaceutical industry, thus opening up opportunities in distributed media for parodists and artists. Although conventionally the realm of entertainment programs like Saturday Night Live or The Colbert Report, the parody ad as a form of satire has also served the interest of activism through Internet petition groups.

For example, the group Prescription for Change from the Consumer's Union has produced the would-be viral video The Drugs I Need, which received an award from The Public Affairs Council. And the Drug policy Alliance has distributed this info-graphical animation for Incarcerex widely through YouTube. Artists like Justine Cooper have also gotten into the act with her website for the fictional drug Havidol, which was supposedly believed to be real by incredibly naive consumers. Finally, there's the anti-White House Parents The Anti Drug Parody. Of course, not all parody drug ads have a specific agenda. The painfully unfunny and badly sung Licensed to Pill appears on JibJab for no discernible reason. And the Dare Generation Blog uses the format of the online game rather than the viral video to point out the inconsistency of a recent Supreme Court Decision in their bong hits 4 Jesus game.

(And now, the fast-paced legal disclaimer that comes at the end: thanks to Eszter Hargittai for posting the Incarcerex link. And for more on the bong hits 4 Jesus game, check out this review by Ian Bogost.)

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Friday, July 20, 2007

The Children They Murdered

As the Archdiocese of Los Angeles reached a settlement with victims of sexual abuse by priests, montages of images in digital videos proved to be a rhetorically powerful part of establishing monetary damages, according to "Why abuse settlements vary among the victims."

Attorney Katherine K. Freberg said videographers gathered childhood photographs, letters written by priests to her clients as children, confirmation certificates and photographs of gifts the priests had given their victims. She also sent cameras to film the locations where the abuse occurred. These images were interspersed with video of the victims as adults, describing the abuse and what it had done to their lives.

Once, mothers of the disappeared in Latin American countries asserted their rights to carry photographs of their children as a form of public protest. And in the U.S. free speech protections have allowed parents of murdered children even to wear buttons with images of their loved ones during trials of the accused, after a Supreme Court decision. Those challenging the church come bearing such images, but these victims bring images of themselves not others as children, in the pose of carefree childhoods that they never had. Now these digital videos remix and recombine the iconography of sexual violence and repression in newer and more rhetorically powerful ways.

What is interesting is that the abused themselves are not creating the videos, but instead they are leaving the digital design work in the hands of others. Even the website of SNAP - The Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests expresses little of the visual culture around their activism. In contrast, see their installation in the Los Angeles Cathedral, which has appeared in Virtualpolitik before.

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Thursday, July 19, 2007

Cultural Software

Software has been a powerful metaphor to describe the platforms and positions of France's Socialist party for several years now. As early as 2002, in articles like "Refonte du logiciel socialiste? Libre ou propriétaire?", commentators were noting the prevalence of the term "software" in the political discourse of the left. To "update software" was also important in 2005, when both loyalists and critics were looking ahead to the present, and the recently concluded national elections and this month's party congress. The phrase continues to be part of the cultural conversation this week, as the party's losses and needs to regroup are assessed.

Of course, as advocates for open source technologies, France's socialists have also been interested in software on a literal level, but it sounds like someone in the City of Light must have read J.M. Balkin's classic study of ideology, Cultural Software, which is now available under a Creative Commons license.

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Shadow Warriors

After the September 11th attacks, Salman Rushdie wrote, "Yes, we must send our shadow-warriors against theirs, and hope that ours prevail." Now it appears that one of the leading shadow warriors for the jihadist cause in Iraq may be a fiction created for the Internet, a shadow puppet as fabricated as LonelyGirl15. In a briefing dated today, "Cyber Islamic State of Iraq foreign-led ruse," Brigadier General Kevin J. Bergner claims that jihadist radicals are involved in a complicated Internet Hoax. According to a transcript of the briefing, "Along with al-Masri, Mashadani co-founded a virtual organization in cyberspace called the Islamic State of Iraq in 2006 as a new Iraqi pseudonym for AQI." Although Internet statements seem to come from a telegenic mastermind named Abu Omar Baghdadi, the military's Bergner claims that the duo merely hird an actor named Abu Abdullah al-Naima to play the part of a jihadist firebrand with a local accent. Just two months ago, the army was still hunting the appropriately named figurehead Baghdadi, according to the Pentagon, and he was labeled a threat by the Internet watchdog group on his profile on Global Security.

Some of the insightful comments in the blogosphere about Baghdadi predate the Pentagon announcement by months. In addition to offering entertaining reading, Taliban Gate has been skewering the group's rhetoric for a while. If you haven't read it, Talisman Gate is the creation of New York Sun columnist and Hudson Institute scholar Nibras Kazimi. As Kazimi declares, "Welcome to my blog. This is the place where I explore issues like whether Nostradamus had predicted the whole Zarqawi phenomena, and is Walid Junbulatt the real Hariri killer? In other words, this space is devoted to all the stuff that would peg me a crank should I try to put it out in print. But what the hell, journalistic credibility is way too over-regarded." Although Kazimi didn't write the story, The Sun has interesting coverage of these revelations today.

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Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Heidegger Goes the the Movies

I think I can feel pretty confident in saying that I was the only one in the movie theater last weekend watching the new Transformers feature thinking "What would Heidegger make of this?" And since my U.C.I. colleague Paul Dourish is on sabbatical, I would guess this is an even safer bet. But there was a lot in the movie from which I couldn't help but think of the author of "The Question Concerning Technology" and the twentieth-century German theorist famed for his philosophy of fundamental ontology. Unlike Jaspers, Heidegger argued that tools were never neutral. He also cautioned against accepting what he characterized as an incomplete "propositional logic" based on the subject-object relation, which he believed was the intellectual legacy of the superficial Romans rather than the authentic philosophy of the Greeks.

What does this have to do with a summer studio film about plucky teens and secretive government organizations and big alien robots that unfold from human conveyances like cars, trucks, and airplanes into still bigger alien robots? A lot, actually, since "revealing" and "enframing" are key terms in Heidegger's essay. When our hero first sees his car transform in a junkyard into his true anthropomorphic shape, it is presented as a quasi-religious experience. For Heidegger, of course, this is largely the realm of poetry rather than technology, because industrial tools in the nuclear age "challenge" nature and treat it as "standing reserve." The Heideggerian warning that technology can "enframe" human beings is made manifest in Transformers when cell phones, Xboxes, and soft drink machines envelope their owners and keep them captive.

Yet because Heidegger characterizes technology as a profoundly human, I think he would have trouble with the movie's back story in which Herbert Hoover's administration reverse engineers a century of computerized progress by working backwards from an extraterrestrial automaton and its power source.

Of course, in many ways this is a movie about the relationship between science, technology, war, and security. The military's use of remote dehumanized technology like the predator aircraft and of disguised devices like the stealth bomber were depicted in the movie uncritically. It's interesting to note the similarities between the emotional dynamics of the teens with their androids and a recent article in The Washington Post, "Bots on the Ground," about the affection that develops between soldiers and their robots in the field. (Clive Thompson also has some thoughtful commentary about the WaPo article.) I also thought that the theft of top secret computer files from a government facility using a flash drive also suggested real-world correspondences that were not flattering to the government.

Given the terrible reviews for Transformers, I was surprised to find myself enjoying several sections of the movie that depicted common digital practices, particularly when the robots explain that they learned English from the World Wide Web or when one of the sidekicks confesses to his government interrogator that he downloaded songs off the Internet. However, I did find myself irritated by two aspects of the way that cultural difference was portrayed. First, I was bothered by the implicit double Eurocentrism of a scene in which a heroic band of U.S. soldiers in a welcoming village in Qatar is put on hold by a call center in India when they are under attack by the hostile aliens, even if there were other allusions to globalization from Finland to Japan that made me chuckle. Second, I'm getting tired of the stereotype about intelligent African-Americans who can only lead lives of significance through virtual means, so that they only can acquire social power or technological authority through videogames. (A group of urban teens playing Dance Dance Revolution suggests that such young people do everything virtually.) This has become such a cultural cliché that it even appeared in the parody movie Snakes on a Plane when a young, black man lands the jet based only on his knowledge of Playstation2.

It's also worth noting that I've seen my local landscape under alien attack many times, since Los Angeles is often a prime target for displays of urban mayhem, so it is hard to be impressed, even though it's my home turf. As I watched the movie, I wondered how many stunts were shot live on location and how many were done with digital effects and composited image information. Certainly, I thought about the potential intellectual property issues of the future, particularly now that Manchester Cathedral is claiming copyright authority over the architecture of its sacred spaces. Will the City of Los Angeles complain if some filmmaker of tomorrow destroys it without even paying a single permit fee?

On final observation about the movie's website: it's a classic example of what Henry Jenkins calls a "transmedia narrative" that expands cinema into the realm of online games because it encourages visitors to enter the site through one of two game-like portals "Protect" and "Destroy," even though -- unlike a videogame -- the movie never really encourages its audience to play from the opposite side.

Update: I also feel compelled to point out that Transformers also had its own area in Second Life. There isn't much to see now, other than a few figures on a bridge, but a review of the full build is here.

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Damsel in Distress

Recently, there have been public panels on the big question in town: Can the LA Times Be Saved? The venerable newspaper has a long history of Pulitzer-prize winning reporting on local stories and one of the last foreign desks in Baghdad, but it has struggled in recent years to capture the Internet audience that is being courted more successfully by other mainstream newspapers and has been slow even to add a "technology" section in its masthead. Although quite profitable on paper, at least compared to the return on my humble mutual fund for my U.C. retirement account, the Times has struggled to find a buyer who isn't interested in predatory conglomeration.

I'll admit that although I'm a subscriber, I haven't always been a fan. First, there was the new "faster format" that limited the scope of in-depth stories. Then, as a feminist, I was appalled by the boys-will-be-boys pro-defense profile of the Andrew Luster case in a glossy cover story for the magazine. (Not only was Luster ultimately convicted, but when he realized that his case wasn't going as well as his PR machine had represented it, he jumped bail and became a fugitive from justice. Of course, his mother is still slinging mud at the witnesses against him on this website.)

Lately, things have become much worse, as the Times has faced criticism from bloggers. For example, critical information studies heavy hitter Siva Vaidhyanathan has complained about how the paper produces "boring" and "lazy" stories about intellectual property issues. Based on my own experiences with sloppy reporting on a U.C. Irvine scandal that quotes from websites rather than the actual subjects and does so without any context about who produces a given site (see here and here), I would tend to agree with Siva. And then there's the dogged coverage of the newspaper's woes by a former Times staff writer at LA Observed. Blogger Kevin Roderick knows exactly where the bodies are buried and thus can be much more successful in his highly readable stories than outsiders who produce blogs like the Times/WaPo Watch. Now YouTube video-maker Blunty 3000 has ridiculed the hypocrisy and inaccuracy of the Times.

But somehow I feel like I should do something to save the Times, mostly for three simple reasons.

1) I have nostalgic feelings about the paper, as the daily news I grew up with and cut out current events stories from as a kid.
2) I have trouble waking up in the morning, and -- along with my morning cup of coffee -- I depend on its pages to get my brain working after I get up.
3) My Facebook friend Joseph Menn works there, and if he loses his job, then he can easily beat me in the iLike music challenge.

So, my main suggestion would be to create more linkable, forwardable, or truly interactive content. They don't necessarily need to go the route of The New York Times, which has hired VP pal Ian Bogost's company to make online games that serve as a contemporary form of political cartooning.

Here's my plan of action. First, they need to get beyond the chartjunk that they currently offer as information graphics. Second, they need to create editorials that people would choose to e-mail to friends and co-workers. Again, that "most e-mailed" feature at the NYT is a telling indicator of the Zeitgeist, and it seems to be something that the LA Times just doesn't get. Firing many of their opinion writers in their own version of the Night of Long Knives was a particularly self-destructive move. Finally, they need to do more than just report on social media, they need to be a part of it. It's possible to do good journalism even in the more visual format of the viral video or the interesting flash page. Writers at the Times had to adapt to the faster format. I'm sure this will horrify traditionalists, but could they make content that others would choose to embed in their blogs or pages on social networking sites? Perhaps in defense of their Iraq bureau, they could bring us more information from Iraqi visual culture and give us a more global picture of the world.

It wouldn't be a substitute for in-depth socially-conscious journalism, but it could be a good supplement to it. Perhaps the much forwarded and visually savvy work of Nicholas Kristof at The New York Times is an applicable model.

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Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Our Best Guesstimate

To give it credit, I have to acknowledge that the National Intelligence Estimate, which was released today, does try to explain basic principles of probability and rational decision-making to a lay audience of readers, but it does so very poorly, even if the moronic color-coded Homeland Security bars have been replaced in their analysis by a continuum that is mostly made up of more telling shades of gray. Unfortunately, it doesn't really bother to explain its methodology either, other than present an assertion of qualitative rather than quantitative aims: "Assigning precise numerical ratings to such judgments would imply more rigor than we intend."

I know that theories of information can be pretty intimidating with their differential equations and seemingly nonsensical terms like "reliable failure predictor." But just last week I heard an astrophysicist explain Bayes' Theorem at a cocktail party, and everyone present understood basically how at least one approach to the study of probability worked.

The report also neglects to make some important distinctions between necessary and sufficient causes. For example, like many government reports, it still implicitly presents Internet communication as a significant indicator of and contributing factor to terrorist activity, even though websites facilitate many more non-violent forms of communication as well.

We assess that the spread of radical—especially Salafi—Internet sites, increasingly aggressive anti-US rhetoric and actions, and the growing number of radical, self-generating cells in Western countries indicate that the radical and violent segment of the West’s Muslim population is expanding, including in the United States. The arrest and prosecution by US law enforcement of a small number of violent Islamic extremists inside the United States— who are becoming more connected ideologically, virtually, and/or in a physical sense to the global extremist movement—points to the possibility that others may become sufficiently radicalized that they will view the use of violence here as legitimate.

Although the report seems to acknowledge that electronic communication only produces a sign of increased jihadist activity rather than stimulates the activity in and of itself, "virtual" contact often seems more important to these analysts than extremists' "physical" ties. Note also those favorite negative buzzwords in the George W. Bush administration: "rhetoric" and "ideology." Of course, my U.C. Irvine colleague rhetorician Steve Mailloux would certainly contest assertions that we can ever be ideologically neutral or rhetoric-free.

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Coffee,Tea, or Rui?

The way that what could be seen as pro-nationalist blogging of young Chinese news anchor Rui Chenggang is forcing the Starbucks in the Forbidden City to face eviction is making the news this week in the BBC, The Guardian, and The Los Angeles Times, but a quick survey of past coverage of the Chinese blogosphere on sites like the Internet-oriented Lost Laowai reveals that this defense of traditionalism actually isn't such a new story. Despite nine million visitors to the Starbucks and the fact that Rui himself admits to enjoying java from the U.S.-based company often in other locales, an online petition garnered over 500,000 signatures and stirred up anti-U.S. sentiments. This story and other items on Lost Laowai about anti-American feelings expressed on the World Wide Web may demonstrate one of Manuel Castells' theses that distributed networks can be used to manifest reactions against globalization and may not always foster the transnational cosmopolitanism that its boosters promise. Of course, many point out that it is precisely Rui's public cosmopolitanism that gives him credibility in this battle for the brand identity of public space. For more on Starbucks in China, see this clip from UCI history professor Jeffrey Wasserstrom.

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More Than Home Movies

Yesterday's story in The LA Times about how amateur filmmakers are angling for development deals through Sony's high-end YouTube rival Crackle missed the point in its case study of the wonderfully subversive mr. deity. Amazingly, "Sony offers a big break for Internet video stars" somehow neglects to mention the fact that this net sitcom is so blasphemous in its hilarious depiction of God as a narcissistic Hollywood producer that it could never possibly get airtime on even the narrowest slice of the cable spectrum, given the powerful interest groups involved, and that its sophisticated theological patter about original sin, theodicy, and the incarnation could only appeal to a niche Internet audience, because it is far too literate for younger viewers accustomed to Saturday Night Live-style shock parody.

Of course, the other unmentioned part of the story has to do with the price point of video technology, which has rapidly become within the range of affordability -- at least by rental -- for many novices. A much improved product can now be made outside the industry and its guilds than was possible only a decade ago thanks to new digital cameras like the Red camera, which is capable of high-resolution filmic results for a fraction of the price, and the DV Rack displays of software like On Location from Adobe that emulate the professional equipment covered with dials and sliders that once filled entire trucks or vans. However, as I've been learning this summer by actually doing digital video production at the local Academy of Entertainment and Technology, there can still be many hidden costs for the specialized items designed for on-set problem solving, from diffusion papers to customized sticky tape to sixty dollar pieces of plastic for calibrating color.

(Thankfully, my mentor, who is shown here in a brown baseball cap coordinating one of our class shoots, is not the same Michael Eggert who makes anti-piracy software designed to feed parental paranoia.)

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Monday, July 16, 2007

Maybe the Department of Irony Needs an Endowed Chair?

In a conference paper that I wrote about the plagiarism-detection program Turnitin.com, "Honor Coding: Academic Honesty and Brute Force Solutions," I complained about reactionary on-campus thinktanks that are devoted to returning universities to pre-digital honor codes and to ignoring the work of Internet researchers about hybridized online patchwriting practices. Although it's not one of the major offenders, I've been irritated by the subtle conservatism of the pablum dispensed by supposedly peer-reviewed Journal of College and Character, which is currently soliciting submissions from students about the prospect of having college administrators regularly monitor their Facebook and MySpace pages in search of signs of illegal behavior.

Imagine my astonishment to find that disgraced former President of Eastern Michigan University John Fallon was lionized several times by The Journal of College and Character and even included in their section on public diaries, in which highly principled university presidents open up about their day-to-day experiences of moral reflection and leadership in the spirit of transparency and as a form of academic blogging from the group.

Fallon, who orchestrated a massive cover-up of the rape and murder of an undergraduate student on his campus, is not surprisingly omitted from the Journal's current index of the university presidents' diaries. Astonishingly, Fallon and other university officials didn't even tell the young woman's parents the true cause of their daughter's death.

Fallon's "Day Twelve" in the Journal is particularly terrible, his would-be submission to the NPR series "This I Believe," which is full of pompous "I" statements of the kind away from which we usually steer undergraduates. I have nothing against the rhetorical legitimacy of personal credos, when done well, as a fan of the NPR show and the parent of a credo-writing kid of my own, but -- speaking as a writing program administrator -- I have to say that this prose is just plain excruciating to read. Here is a representative sample:

My thinking and behavior are grounded, fully and consistently, in 10 general perspectives and values. These can be discerned in my style and substance, in how I act and how I can be expected to act. When people ask, "What makes John Fallon tick?" I tell them that:

1. I abhor arrogance, pretense and all other vestiges of human superiority.
2. I believe that the educational case for diversity mitigates against tolerance and toward unconditional acceptance.
3. I believe passionately in the power of education and the personal and moral obligations that derive from it.
4. I believe that interpersonal trust is simultaneously the most important and most elusive element of human relations.
5. I believe strongly in the concept and institution of family and can be expected to work toward a family-friendly community and institution.
6. I believe strongly in the preeminence of ethics, honesty, and integrity. And have achieved a record that bespeaks this belief.
7. I believe that active listening is the most important element in interpersonal communication.
8. I believe that organic influence, as a source of social power, trumps formal authority in both theory and practice every day.
9. I believe that people are gifts from above and their precious basic nature both requires and deserves unrelenting respect.
10. I believe strongly in optimism and confidence. In my view, there is no such thing as failure, only successes yet to be achieved.

As if this decalogue weren't enough, then there is another one, which is even worse than the first.

Then again, none of the other university presidents at the Journal's website seem to understand the genre of academic blogging any more than Fallon did. Their entries lack links, paraphrases that explain central conflicts, and a sense of timeliness to engage the reader. Their generic academic problems and players are too generic to appeal to the niche audiences of the Internet, and there is too much navel-gazing being described given their public policy roles. This surprises me, because I think the e-mails and other electronic writing of university presidents as a group tends to be very good, and I believe that senior administrators who rise to these posts are generally strong writers. Still, blogging appears not to be a forte for this group. They may not be as weak as stylists as Fallon, who begins entries with one-word sentences like "Faces." and "Football." But it looks like many of the other university presidents were typical bloggers, at least in that they abandoned their blogs early in the writing process, even before the designated fourteen-day period had elapsed.

Alas, for fame-seeking Fallon, the university is already working to erase his legacy. Even Fallon's public explanations and apologies for the whitewash have been expunged by the university's webmasters, so that Fallon's very mea culpa statements were deleted. The President's Page at Eastern Michigan shows that he has already been supplanted by a senior administrative official. Unfortunately, the university has yet to make the kind of comprehensive FAQ that parents and the public would be seeking at this time or to address the issues about disclosure for which the Clery Act was written into law by the federal government, even with a staff of five in their university communications office. Instead, we learn that they are busy "brand testing."

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Summer Job

Even though some branches of the federal government have been very critical of file-sharing and social networking sites, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission EEOC has used a range of strategies aimed at peer-to-peer exchanges to disseminate information including a website, Youth@Work, which has its own YouTube Channel. One of the informational videos uses common techniques of YouTube rhetoric and at the end shows young people at the San Francisco office involved in media production techniques. The agency is also seeking user-generated content via a YouTube contest, as this video from an intern shows. According to news reports, the EEOC group also plans to use MySpace to publicize the rights of young workers, particularly to combat sexual harassment of naive teen workers, which can also involve the violation of multiple civil and criminal laws.

In my teens and early twenties, I had a range of harassing bosses in my earliest work experiences. Looking back, it is clear that they exploited my relative inexperience and lack of trust in and knowledge of the law, which I carried with me for years despite my Ivy League pedigree. They included a boss who fired one of my co-workers for being pregnant, even though it had no bearing on her job performance, a boss who insisted on showing me photos of nude women posed on his office couch, and one who wouldn't give me a recommendation letter unless I agreed to go out with him on a date. Sadly, in the last case, I felt pressured into going, even though he was over twice my age in addition to being my employer. Fortunately, I was able to close the door on him as he attempted a truly icky good night kiss.

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News Crawl

If English is still the language of the Internet, Islamic extremists are trying to use digital media production tools to provide their own English subtitles and even record English-only broadcasts that emulate Western news formats.

Recently, in "Iran's Press TV to give alternative view," The Los Angeles Times describes how the current religiously conservative Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejadhas made the state-run Press TV a top priority for his government's public diplomacy efforts in order to respond to what he describes as his country's position as "the target of global media war." Of course, given the fact that the Iranian government has detained a local Irvine resident Ali Shakeri, who is involved with U.C. Irvine's "Center for Citizen Peacebuilding," along with other Iranian-Americans affiliated with academic think tanks and centers, I think that the U.S. media should be providing a lot more negative coverage of the civil rights abuses of the Iranian pro-mullah regime to get these detainees freed.

What the LA Times story misses is the role of the Internet in these English-oriented initiatives. The Times focuses only on competing satellite channels such as "the BBC World, CNN International, Fox News Channel, MSNBC, Al Jazeera International and France 24" without considering how Iranian authorities may also be concerned with how their state TV is disseminated outside the country by anti-jihadist watchdog groups through electronic distributed networks.

At a barbershop in north Tehran, Pooya Ardaroudi said he would use the channel to sharpen his English.

"I am preparing to emigrate to Australia and work as barber there," the 25-year-old said. "I can watch the news and improve my English while I am cutting people's hair."

Weirdly, as this excerpt shows, the Times focuses almost exclusively on how this English channel would be broadcast within the country, when clearly the Iranian coverage is aimed at English-speaking audiences abroad. Obviously, the government isn't creating these shows to provide more English language alternatives to improve the cultural literacy of its domestic population, but rather to counter the way that state messages are being presented in the West.

Anyone who has ever been sent a link to a YouTube video by an Israeli colleague knows that anti-Semitic content on Middle Eastern television is a primary concern for advocates for military and diplomatic support for the Jewish state. Although Link TV from MOSAIC offers a range of news programming from the state-run Al-Alam News Network in Iran, many other groups that present sections of Iranian programming focus on the network's conspiracy theories and racist rants. For example, MEMRI TV monitors Iranian broadcasts with an eye upon a range of damaging public diplomacy subjects that include Holocaust denials and September 11th conspiracy theories. In contrast, Press TV is running softball stories, such as items about peaceful coexistence in multi-ethnic and multi-faith regions of the Middle East.

According to a New Yorker article, some third-party observers claim that translations provided by the SITE Institute are also slanted toward more broadly anti-Muslim interpretations. Many anti-Western groups are now providing their own translations with the footage they release. For example, Al Qaeda's Al-Sahab media group that produces pro-jihadist videos for distribution on the Internet is providing more English-language content with their "news"-style broadcasts of jihadist experts in front of scholarly book shelves, which includes adding their own in-house English subtitles. Recently, Al Qaeda second in command Ayman al-Zawahiri appeared in this video in which he appeals directly to African-Americans, particularly those in the U.S. Armed Forces, by using English audio and video footage from black nationalist Malcolm X.

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Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Photography of Everyday Life

Yesterday I installed my teenager at the California State Summer School for the Arts, where he will be studying as a young visual artist for the next month at CalArts, the institution of higher education built by Walt Disney in Southern California to train the labor force for the animation industry.

The occasion was marked by several rites of passage, since admissions were competitive, and he will be living in a college dormitory for the first time, and at the end of the summer he will be designated a California Arts Scholar.

Strangely, I was the only one taking pictures, with the exception of a few students shooting arty stills of the landscape and built environment.

In contrast, just a few weeks ago, we were at the Hollywood Bowl, and everyone in the audience was taking pictures. What was the difference between the two scenarios? In one case photography was to function as an historical document that recorded a particular moment in family history. The gestures involved in leave-taking made taking pictures particularly difficult. In the other, people were taking pictures with a more proximate audience, those who used photo file-sharing or social networking sites, and it was low-stakes photography, which could be called "the photography of everyday life" in the digital era.

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Saturday, July 14, 2007

Nobody Home

Recently, according to e-mail etiquette expert David Shipley, Governor Jon Corzine has announced that he doesn't intend to use e-mail. In "Opting Out: New Jersey Governor Rejects Email," Shipley describes how elected officials are avoiding this important channel of electronic communication and articulates his own outrage at the proposition:

But abandoning email altogether doesn't sit well with me. Not for an elected official. It's vaguely undemocratic because email is so democratic — with a small d. It breaks down barriers. You can reach just about anyone. It's transparent. There's a digital record to hold you to your words. Plus, a lot of people don't have the luxury of forsaking email. Should our politicians?

Shipley's call for accountability is especially ironic, given how Corzine promised his supporters that they could "get email from Jon Corzine" as a candidate and how the "Contact the Governor" online form still asks for the "Email Topic" from constituents to direct their "electronic correspondence" with the state's highest elected official. I couldn't help but also notice the fact that Corzine is proclaiming the launch of a new website on state contracts to make the business of the governance "more open and transparent."

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Friday, July 13, 2007

Iron Curtain Chef

Viktor Bout may be one of the most evil men that you've never heard of, as an arms-dealing kingpin who has been used by both the U.S. in Iraq and the U.N. in Africa, despite long-standing accusations that he has provided weapons to instigators of civil war, genocide, human rights abuses, and terrorism.

There is some dark comedy to be had, however, in the fact that his alleged lieutenant in his corporate activities, Bout's supposed accounting mastermind, maintains his innocence at the Richard Chichakli website. You can also see his Chichakli's hobbies page with luscious photos of his fruit plates and promises of recipes to come.

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Copycat Fight

Earlier this week The Los Angeles Times reported about the anxieties of influence faced by singer Avril Lavigne in "Is 'Girlfriend' really 'Boyfriend'?" The copyright battle itself is relatively standard fare for the industry, although the role of dualing musicologists as expert witnesses points out the rising importance of what was once considered a relatively obscure discipline in academia that had become more obscure after the abuses of the Nazi era in which scholars testified about the relative "Jewish" pedigrees of insufficiently Aryan music. What caught my attention about the LA Times reporting was the rhetorical importance of the singer's MySpace page as a site where she defends herself against both the accusation of infringement and answers another allegation that she doesn't write her own material. Critics of the singer have used YouTube to offer side-by-side comparisons of the content of "Girlfriend" and the Rubinoos' "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." This evidentiary video -- "AVRIL LAVIGNE GETS SUED! SONG COMPARISON!" has been pulled because of "a copyright claim by the Recording Industry Association of America," but this more subtle video that makes the case is still online.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Like Taking Gandhi from a Baby

Congrats to long-time Virtualpolitik pals Alec Boehm and Stephanie Argy of Mental Slapstick who will be having their short film "Gandhi at the Bat" screened at this week's Bollywood and Beyond festival in Stuttgart as part of a line-up of films that represent the great advocate for Indian independence through nonviolent political action. Argy and Boehm cleverly use digital effects to insert an actor playing Gandhi into classic baseball footage from the golden era of the New York Yankees (my favorite team after my beloved Dodgers). It's an interesting example of remix culture, adapted from a story in The New Yorker, and thankfully they haven't faced the copyright restrictions that currently dog those who want to use video from the major leagues for mash-up creations.

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Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Smoking Phone

In the era of big data, policy makers that represent conservative ideologies of marriage and the family have to be careful that the evidence of their private conduct in telecommunications data doesn't contradict their reputations with the public. With the publication of the telephone records of the famed "D.C. Madam" on the Citizens for a Legitimate Government website, the family values hype of the website of Republican Senator David Vitter of Louisiana and his advocacy for the "Marriage Protection Amendment" may sound somewhat hypocritical. Strangely, no public apology has yet been posted to his home page, although he has admitted a "very serious sin" to the traditional press. Although Vitter will probably wait to take any action, since the Democratic governor of the state could choose his successor, his website shows a blank public schedule for the next two months. Then again this directory listing for the escort service that has tarnished Vitter's reputation doesn't indicate the fact that their business has been closed down.

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Tuesday, July 10, 2007


I often think of Peter Lyman's research when I hear the phrase "TMI" or "too much information" in response to someone's overly graphic description of embodied experience, as in the girlfriend who says "I really have to pee" or the colleague who describes noiselessly passing gas in some social situation or the fellow traveller who feels compelled to explain a dietary restriction more fully. The acronym describes a strange concatenation of the grossly physical with the analytically virtual. I was surprised recently to have to explain what the letters meant to my teenager and intrigued to see that he immediately found many uses for the term.

This week's obituary for Lyman in The Los Angeles Times only dealt with a small fraction of Lyman's research, which could be encapsulated in the sound bite "information overload." As one of his collaborators Mimi Ito pointed out in her own touching obituary, Lyman's seminal work on "How Much Information?" actually addressed a number of competing interests to be negotiated in the era of big data that entailed really coming to terms with the orders of magnitude involved in our contemporary digital culture of distributed networks and exponentially expanding storage. Ito also pointed out a necessary labor required by new practices of mourning among scholars of digital culture: updating the Wikipedia entry of the deceased for posterity.

I never had the opportunity to meet Lyman formally, although our paths may have crossed in the same Berkeley think tank on higher education. However, his work has been incredibly important for my own research on the rhetoric of the virtual state, particularly his essay "Information Superhighways, Virtual Communities, and Digital Libraries: Information Society Metaphors as Political Rhetoric," which I would strongly recommend as a solid overview of the recent history of public rhetoric about the Internet. It's a governmental rhetoric of public works that I argue has been sadly supplanted by our current legislative rhetoric about criminality associated with everyday digital activities, such as file-sharing, the use of social networking sites, and videogame play.

Update: This eulogy from danah boyd is also worthwhile reading.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

Walshed Up

Call me David Walsh.

After all, last year, when the head of the politically well-connected National Institute on Media and the Family refused to appear at SIGGRAPH despite attempts by the nonprofit group to meet his pay-for-play terms, I was his last-minute substitute when they needed a voice to counter the general videogame boosterism of the panel. Now this relentless self-promoter is attempting to climb on the bandwagon at the AMA of those attempting to label the compulsion to play videogames as a clinically recognized "addiction." In an opinion piece this week in The Washington Post, Walsh claims that the videogame syndrome can be compared to the compulsion that also produces gambling dependency.

Of course, Walsh isn't the worst in the anti-media mediahound bunch. But parents looking for reviews would be better off going to Common Sense Media, which includes categories for harmful "commercialism" and allows kids to participate in the ratings process. Better still, if you are a parent, as I am, consider these basic principles and distrust ratings that encourage elders to opt out of real discussions and instead take the time to sit down and experience the content with your children. Some of the most valuable discussions come out of letting them see your reactions to inappropriate material.

Despite his progressive political posturing alongside Hillary Clinton in the past, I think Walsh's "When the Game is the Controller" is an insidiously irresponsible work of pseudo-science that trivializes real research about addiction and ultimately serves a reactionary agenda that confuses moralism with science. Given the work of people like Nora Volkow at the National Institute on Drug Abuse to get addiction to chemical substances treated as a pharmacological issue, an overly broad definition of "addiction" may cease to make the term a meaningful clinical category, which can also have political consequences for the disadvantaged. For example, pro-smoking interests might be glad to see a more hazy interpretation of addiction, since monetary judgments against tobacco companies have depended upon public outrage over corporate exploitation of the biological mechanisms of craving and withdrawal. No matter what political party Walsh picks for his photo-ops, watch out for those who label biological imperatives "lifestyle choices" and those who conversely make cultural practices a fact of nature.

As NIDA's Volkow recently pointed out, insurance companies are already resistant to providing coverage for appropriate treatment for addiction to drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. Should dollars be spent on regulating media consumption that could be spent on the current methamphetimine epidemic? When poor women with children are on interminable waiting lists for beds in the tiny number of family-friendly in-patient facilities for addicts, so that mothers have to choose between getting treatment and keeping custody of their offspring, do we really want to talk about setting up videogame addiction public clinics like those in China or South Korea? In other words, are our moral priorities really the relatively minor social dysfunctions of the comparatively affluent?

At his institute, Walsh has also popularized findings from neuroscience about teenagers but distorted them with his infantilizing slogans about the "adolescent brain" that emphasize sociobiological determinism rather than dialogue and listening in responsible parenting. Certainly, Walsh is no scientist, since he neglects to mention that social scientists are also studying the possible educational benefits of digital media at places like the MacArthur Foundation.

Finally, I'm not sure the analogy with gambling works, which Volkow and others characterize as a compulsion rather than an addiction. Like an obsessive need to shop, gambling has real-world financial consequences for sufferers. In virtual words, by contrast, much of the risk-taking is -- of course -- virtual. It is this ability to acquire experiences by interacting with a simulation that is part of why literacy specialists like James Paul Gee and other MacArthur researchers are interested in videogames.

Recently, I overheard these two kids talking about being "addicted to books" in the back seat of my car. When we arrived at our destination, I turned the camera on them, so you can see the harmful effects of their media dependency and the fantasy world that keeps them from healthful exercise outside and social interaction with others.

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