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 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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Blogger Lupton said...

I enjoyed seeing the candidates speak and found the fact of hand-made videos to be intriguing. I often found the videos themselves hard to view: they were kept "very small" on our Pretty Big Screen, perhaps to emulate the YouTube experience. And were the candidates' videos really shown from a distance rather than as a direct feed? It felt like it.

I understand that one debate-about- the-debate has been CNN's editing of the questions, rather than allowing citizens to vote for their favorite Q's.

The most popular question (and one NOT chosen by CNN)? "Should Bush and Cheney be impeached in order to protect their offices from being abused again?"

6:18 AM  

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