Friday, August 31, 2007

Malign Neglect

Yesterday I attended my first advanced Flash class with Geoff Kaman and started thinking about variables and properties again. After opening a few old projects and getting over that Flowers for Algernon lost memory feeling, I felt ready for sixteen weeks of ActionScript 2.0. Kaman also explained how he had worked on the Pulitzer-Prize winning Altered Oceans series for the Los Angeles Times to design dynamic content for the newspaper. Sadly, many of the links are now apparently broken, and they are hawking the work as a traditional DVD to be passively viewed. It may indicate how, yet again, the Los Angeles Times is reacting against the practices of digital audiences rather than adapting to changing times.

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On Detachment

In examining the cultural shift toward digital culture, it is often the impermanent character of social relations that critics find most disturbing. After all, the pitch for life in the information age is a sociality determined by romantic "hook-ups," project-based work teams, and one-time synchronized group actions in game worlds or other online spaces.

As someone who grew up in a single house, attended the same prep school with a graduating class of fifty-something for ten years, met her romantic partner and most of her close friends decades ago through a college organization, and has had her own kids growing up in the same house for the past fourteen years, I will admit to being profoundly attached to stable, social relationships. Thus, it's easy for me to act shocked by this kind of guide aimed at young users of mobile cellular technology, even though I came of age in an era of "Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover" and other songs of evanescent experience. (Click to enlarge.)

And yet, booklets like this can't help but make me think that something is being commodified and merchandised that isn't necessarily part of digital culture. My kids are maintaining friendships from grade school, despite lives spent in different time zones, thanks to social networking technology and their own sense of control of their telephonic destiny.

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Thursday, August 30, 2007

Carpe Diem

Yesterday the Los Angeles Times reported that, as of the 19th of next month, "Time of day calling it quits at AT&T." Of course, as a child, one of the first numbers I memorized was 853-1212, the local Southern California number for time. I just called the number and thought that the voice was definitely different from the voice of my childhood. As the article points out, the ubiquitous availability of self-synchronizing cellular telephones has made the time service largely obsolete.

When my children are anxiously awaiting a particular moment, I've still been known to tell them to call time, if exactitude is so important to them. The pathos of this dependence of children on the telephonic reassurance of women's voices provides one of the most memorable anecdotes that is retold in Mark Poster's book Information Please.

Of course, I'm fascinated with how gender and technology intersect during the early years of information science, whether it is Warren Weaver saying "An engineering communication theory is just like a very proper and discreet girl accepting your telegram" or Vannevar Bush talking about the Vocoder machine and how a "girl strokes its keys languidly and looks about the room and sometimes at the speaker with a disquieting gaze."

Women involved in telephone technology played an important role in the information revolution of the last century, as an IEEE exhibit Nurturing the Network: Women in the Communications Industry makes plain, but early computer scientists who were trying to build authority for a new discipline with a more masculine reputation often consigned women to intermediary secretarial or switchboard roles. Perhaps one of the worst was J.C.R. Licklider who illustrated scientific papers with pictures of cartoon women in bikinis and opined that "one can hardly take a military commander or a corporation president away from his work to teach him to type."

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Where in the World is Miss Teen South Carolina

By now, most readers have seen Miss Teen South Carolina bungling a question about geographical literacy, which has brought her far more fame than the actual winner of the beauty contest and has topped web statistic sites like Technorati for the past week.

As someone who studies rhetoric for a living, I'm sympathetic to those who misspeak on stage, and -- as both a blond woman and a feminist who doesn't believe in speaking ill of a sister -- I'm not going to be joining in the ridicule currently widespread in the blogosphere.

Besides, I like the fact that her gaffe generated this kind of interesting info-graphic and an online video geography quiz from People magazine in which I got a pretty good score.

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A Spoonful of Sugar

This morning I received the following message in my e-mail inbox.


I am miss Becky Ginger, 20 years old from ivory coast. daughter of mrs Sandra Ginger the Secretary Wife and Personal Assistant to former ivory coast president. I have 8.5 million USD which was made by my mother before she died in oct 2004 which is left in a suspence account in a bank here in my country. And i have promise God to make donation of 2 million USD to orphanage, and other money will go to investment. I seek your permision to remmit this amount into your account so that i could come to your country for investment and to further my studies. I have accepted to offer you 20% of the total sum for your desire to assist me. Please, i humbly seek for your assistance.
Best Regards. Miss Becky Ginger.

I've been interested in the narrative conventions of African spam letters for a while. It's intriguing to see how this one plays upon several credulous audiences simultaneously and mixes the standard get-rich-quick 419 scam with a tale of a helpless ingénue worthy of Cherry Blossoms and a philanthropic pitch like that of groups that include the Christian Children's Fund. Unlike another stock character in these letters, the widow of an African strongman seeking a financial partner, this character appeals to patriarchal sentimentality with a tale of orphans and orphanages straight out of Charles Dickens.

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Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Stating the Obvious

This notice was included in my child's middle school registration packet, along with the medical releases and the earthquake supply packets. (Click to enlarge.) What I find interesting is how the age-inappropriate and the factually incorrect are combined as categories for purposes of potentially litigious parents.


Drinking the Kool-Aid

Recently, a friend came back from the Google headquarters in Mountain View, California, where she went to attend Google@School, a session that encouraged educators to use Google applications as instructional aids and course management tools.

Although the electronic slideshow makes it sound like users will have their privacy scrupulously protected, in the presentation Google representatives explained how they would be targeting alumni, for whom no federal privacy restrictions exist. In addition, although staff and faculty will have an advertising-free interface, disenfranchised undergraduates have to slog through cyber-pitches. (I love to think about the dystopian future in which the more money you earn, the less ads you have to watch on the job.) Note also how the slideshow presents a graph that shows that user-satisfaction with educational technology is actually rising, just not at the rate of exuberant acceleration that Google promises.

She said that they also served "google-tinis," martinis with light-up ice cubes at the event, so that the attending educators were encouraged to literally drink the kool-aid. You can see pitches from Arizona State University and Northwestern at the videos here.

What's wrong with this approach? It's choosing to privatize publicly-funded educational resources yet again. Most obviously, it's not open source, and so it actually undercuts the work of university-based computer science departments and libraries to develop alternatives like SAKAI.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The Great Thing about the Internet Is That You Can Still Type with Your Foot in Your Mouth

Regular readers of this blog know that I am fascinated with official apologies on the websites of lawmakers, government agencies, or universities. Of course, sometimes the web page of an office-holder just disappears when a scandal breaks, but often a certain amount of rhetorically interesting digital ephemera is generated by an crisis of confidence.

In most cases the mea culpa is a terse statement. For example, Senator David Vitter recently had to apologize to his constituents on his official website for having his telephone records connected to those of a prominent D.C. Madam. In the case of Congressman Mark Foley, he pulled all his congressional web content soon after the public revelation that he had made incriminating sexual advances to minors on the Internet.

Strangely, Senator Larry Craig seems unable to keep it short in apologizing, after pleading guilty to lewd behavior in an airport men's rest room. His "protesting too much" includes an explanation that he may have touched the undercover officer's foot in the next stall because of a "wide stance" involved in his bodily excretions. Talk about TMI! The information overload encompasses the police report that features the undercover officer noting how the senator's proximity allowed him to gaze into his "blue eyes. There's also a YouTube video that shows Craig's compulsion to make overdetermined causal claims and seemingly extraneous denials in an earlier sex scandal involving federal legislators. (Listen for the copyright reference at the end.)

Although his official press statement kept it short and sweet, the home page on his senatorial site contained a positively garrulous series of denials. For example, the shorter statement does not deny being gay while the longer statement is an emphatic denial and a description of prior persecution by a press obsessed with outing him. I have reproduced Craig's message in its entirety below. Just try to keep track of all the things that Craig is apologizing for, none of which is the actual incident, of course.

"First, please let me apologize to my family, friends, staff, and fellow Idahoans for the cloud placed over Idaho. I did nothing wrong at the Minneapolis airport. I regret my decision to plead guilty and the sadness that decision has brought to my wife, family, friends, staff, and fellow Idahoans. For that I apologize.

"In June, I overreacted and made a poor decision. While I was not involved in any inappropriate conduct at the Minneapolis airport or anywhere else, I chose to plead guilty to a lesser charge in the hope of making it go away. I did not seek any counsel, either from an attorney, staff, friends, or family. That was a mistake, and I deeply regret it. Because of that, I have now retained counsel and I am asking my counsel to review this matter and to advise me on how to proceed.

"For a moment, I want to put my state of mind into context on June 11. For 8 months leading up to June, my family and I had been relentlessly and viciously harassed by the Idaho Statesman. If you’ve seen today’s paper, you know why. Let me be clear: I am not gay and never have been.

"Still, without a shred of truth or evidence to the contrary, the Statesman has engaged in this witch hunt. In pleading guilty, I overreacted in Minneapolis, because of the stress of the Idaho Statesman’s investigation and the rumors it has fueled around Idaho. Again, that overreaction was a mistake, and I apologize for my misjudgment. Furthermore, I should not have kept this arrest to myself, and should have told my family and friends about it. I wasn’t eager to share this failure, but I should have done so anyway.

"I love my wife, family, friends, staff, and Idaho. I love serving Idaho in Congress. Over the years, I have accomplished a lot for Idaho, and I hope Idahoans will allow me to continue to do that. There are still goals I would like to accomplish, and I believe I can still be an effective leader for Idaho. Next month, I will announce, as planned, whether or not I will seek reelection.

"As an elected official, I fully realize that my life is open for public criticism and scrutiny, and I take full responsibility for the mistake in judgment I made in attempting to handle this matter myself.

"It is clear, though, that through my actions I have brought a cloud over Idaho. For that, I ask the people of Idaho for their forgiveness.

"As I mentioned earlier, I have now retained counsel to examine this matter and I will make no further comment."

Along with apologizing for pleading guilty and not telling anyone, including legal counsel, it seems that Craig is also apologizing for the following intangibles: sadness, cloud-bringing, and overreaction due to stress and rumors. At least he's not apologizing for his "wide stance."

Thanks to Paul Simms, for pointing out the most unsavory details associated with this story.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Southern Fried Gothic

Today, PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is in the news again for their successful mobilization in opposition to Atlanta Falcons' football player Michael Vick, who has plead guilty to involvement in a brutal dogfighting ring. Of course, I thought the big story today should have been the resignation of the U.S. Attorney General, who liberalized torture practices and secret detentions throughout the world. Nonetheless, most of the past twenty-four hours in the past twenty-four-hour news cycle has been taken up with Vick's offenses and well-publicized remorse. It's worth pointing out that Vick's official fan site has exceeded its bandwidth today, while PETA TV is running spots with other athletes condemning his behavior.

Also on the home page of the PETA website is an announcement of the launch of a new game Super Chick Sisters , which is an obvious parody of the Super Mario Brothers classic. In the game, as one of two fluffy yellow chicks, the player navigates five levels in order to rescue Pamela Anderson from the bloodthirsty Colonel Saunders. At Kentucky Fried Cruelty Anderson also speaks out against the fast food chain.

Joystiq gave the game a good review, largely for thumbing their noses at Nintendo's copyrighted characters and for providing a good interface for rapid hand-eye action in a Flash game. I actually thought their uncourageous send-up risked few legal consequences, given that it was done in the context of both political speech and obvious parody.

Perhaps it was because I played the game with my teenager, who is reading Fast Food Nation this summer, but I thought that the rhetoric of the game play was relatively unpersuasive, particularly because it merely borrowed the mechanic of a famous game without thinking about rules and constraints in a more politically engaging way. I'll admit that when my avatar plumped up after successfully garnering an extra life, I did find myself suddenly craving similarly zaftig poultry.

There are good political games about fast food out there, which deal with the complicated economic interactions and cultural dynamics of the industry, as Ian Bogost points out, such as the McDonald's game and his own send up of the franchised labor market in the Kinkos-style setting of Disaffected!

I and others in my household enjoyed the most gothic level that took place in the colonel's Faulkneresque mansion in which the decrepit interior was littered with bloody chicken buckets. Given the message, however, the relevance of the jungle level lost me, and the drive-through, factory, and toxic run-off levels weren't much better.

I'm afraid PETA ultimately didn't get any converts at our house, despite a few hours playing the game. The best sections of the game reminded our teenage audience of Orphan Feast, which they spent the rest of the evening gleefully exploring.

Spoiler Alert: If you enter the code, "gopam," you can navigate the mazes as the doll-like spokesmodel Anderson.

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Sunday, August 26, 2007

Personally, I'd Rather Have a Chocolate on My Pillow

From one of our foreign correspondents. Click to enlarge.

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Saturday, August 25, 2007

Virtual Capitalism

Antiguan officials have enlisted the help of the World Trade Organization to defend their national sovereignty and their right to host Internet gambling that is prohibited by the U.S. According to "Gambling Dispute with Tiny Country Puts U.S. in a Bind" in The New York Times, the principle of allowing a free-flow of capital and commodities across national borders could also "prickly issues as China's attempts to block online content it finds offensive."

U.S. policy-makers made an interesting argument in their bid to avoid sanctions from the WTO for outlawing online betting: "Washington responded to Antigua's complaint by claiming it was within its rights to seek to block online gambling on moral grounds, just as any Muslim country would be within its rights under international trade agreements to ban the import of alcoholic beverages." This argument did not fly with the WTO, but the huge regulatory body is now struggling with the consequences of a decision that jeopardizes its relationship with a huge economic powerhouse by scolding the U.S. for what would appear to be moral rectitude.

What is particularly interesting is the bargaining chip that Antigua wants in its David and Goliath struggle:

Antigua presents a particularly thorny challenge. To balance the scales, a country that wins a W.T.O. case typically demands trade penalties equal to its losses as compensation. But Antigua is so small that any ordinary trade sanctions would barely register in the United States.

. . .

To get around that limitation, Antigua is seeking the right under international law to violate American intellectual property laws. Only once has the trade organization done so, with Ecuador, though Ecuador never actually took advantage of that power. It was used instead as a cudgel to force Ecuador's opponents to back down.

In contrast, the operators of the online virtual world Second Life have done little to contest a recent ban on virtual casinos. The question might be, with the rise of speculation in online environments and "virtual capitalism" (although some like Lev Manovich have pointed out that capitalism is always virtual), where will the ethical lines be drawn? If goods and services aren't at the heart of an economic system, what would give gambling outsider status?

(Thanks to Steve Franklin for passing on this story.)

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Friday, August 24, 2007

Sealed in Blood

At a time when there has been so much public discourse about whether or not blogs make a positive or negative contribution to the news and information ecology, the story of the signing of a contract worth $50,000 a month by former Iraqi prime minister Ayad Allawi with powerful Washington lobbying firm Barbour Griffith & Rogers is of great interest, particularly in light of the Bush administrations expressions of disenchantment with current prime minister Nouri al-Maliki. Not only did the by-subscription blog IraqSlogger break the story, but they also posted a copy of the actual contract, so readers could peruse the details of the agreement for themselves. Apparently the Allawi-for-Iraq Internet domain has been purchased and e-mails soliciting support have been sent out from that address. (Although the site is still under construction, I can see that the publicists used the excessively pricey Network Solutions for their Internet hosting, which gives me even less faith in their control on the purse strings in this matter.)

As self-proclaimed experts in "strategic consulting" in international affairs this story demonstrates the central role that often misguided initiatives for public diplomacy tied to conservative lobbying groups or large advertising firms have played in U.S. international policy decisions.

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Thursday, August 23, 2007

In the Wrong on Donkey Kong

Yesterday I saw the documentary about videogame championships, The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters, which was a great portrait of elite communities of videogame players obsessed with classic arcade games like Donkey Kong and Pac-Man.

Since the hero of the film is a suburban father and middle school science teacher, it obviously debunks the stereotype that videogames are for disaffected anti-social teens. It also chooses footage that suggests there may be a link between the best players and the pathology of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). However, as I indicate above, by choosing an illustration from a mid-eighties Newsweek parody, the film doesn't go far in exploring the dysfunctional gender dynamics to which it alludes. Although the movie includes an eighty-something female Q*bert challenger Doris Self, the central showdown between the two male characters takes place in the context of a multiple dramas of masculinity, including another face-off involving the electronic scoreboard organization Twin Galaxies and players affililated with its rival, the more obviously misogynistic "Mr. Awesome," Roy Shildt. (My collaborator, friend, neighbor, and fellow feminist Jenny Cool is also a former Ms Pac-Man champion in Hawaii.)

In the game studies there has been a lot of interest in classic games of late. Ian Bogost will have a new book on Atari, and at conference you often hear people like Greg Costikyan talking about the appeal of process-intensive games, where the aesthetic pleasure takes place in active and strategic game play rather than cinematically representational graphics that encourage passive reception. Among producers of content, the current vogue for virtuoso competition involving 8-bit music or 64K computer animation indicates that sometimes less can be more.

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Camp Songs

Check out this video from Camp Okutta, which also has an interesting Flash site, and then read the explanation here in answer to the question "Where is Camp Okutta?".

(Via Marc Van Gurp and Total Tactics.)

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Siege Mentality

I've been writing about the siege mentality at The Los Angeles Times in recent postings like this one, so I was relieved to see an intelligent rebuttal appear in their opinion pages. Given all the anti-Internet material in the LAT of late, I didn't even have time to respond to the idiotic Op-Ed piece by a critic who doesn't appear to actually read blogs, Michael Skube, who wrote, "Blogs: All the noise that fits." Siva Vaidhyanathan pointed out a terrific essay that responds to Skube, "The journalism that bloggers actually do," which enumerates a list of over a dozen examples of investigative reporting done in the blogosphere that represents stories initially neglected by the mainstream press. The author, NYU professor Jay Rosen, also produces the excellent blog on journalism Press Think.

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Wishful Thinking

(This video essay had YouTube, copyright, and politics in it, so I couldn't help but post another James Kotecki video here.)

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Surf's Up

There's been a lot of press of late about the return of the command line for those who are using their cellular telephones as ubiquitous computing devices while eschewing the eye candy of graphical user interfaces. My favorite example of this is how the environmental organization Heal the Bay now offers text messaging services to cellular telephone users who want to see the grade reports on over a hundred California beaches from its Beach Report Card. In a press release, the organization describes how dialing 23907 can provide information about water quality. In a similar vein, I've recently activated Facebook mobile, to access the social networking site without a web browser. Still, I miss the command lines of my old eighties machines, even if the cell phone takes up much less space on my desktop.

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Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Two-Face Book

I have to say that I found the BBC piece "CIA launches 'Facebook for spies'" pretty hilarious, given that Facebook is actually a remarkably weak tool for facilitating social networks, as Ian Bogost has recently pointed out in "A Professor's Impressions of Facebook," particularly those between people of unequal status or whose social ties to specific other parties may be ambiguous.

As Bogost points out, it's true that I indicate "Facebook friends" on this blog to signal a kind of indeterminacy in the relationship and that "pal" indicates a closer relationship that is grounded in face-to-face sociality. As a rhetorician, I find the weird mix of formality and informality that Facebook provides intriguing, but like Bogost I also find the kinship categories far too constraining.

I often wish there were an "I admire your work" category. At Hollywood parties, my husband -- Mr. Liz -- often introduces himself by saying "I admire your work" whenever we see a famous literary figure or movie star. For years I found this mortifying and would often slink off while he cheerily occupied himself in conversation, but now I see the virtues of the statement.

In my case on Facebook, "I admire your work" doesn't just mean academics whose books I read or keynotes I quote: it also includes the younger student bloggers and/or programmers at other universities that I sometimes add as friends after I read about their exploits in the mainstream press. (For example, Chris Soghoian, Virgil Griffith, and James Kotecki fit into that category.) However, Facebook isn't very well-designed for this kind of reaching out, even though it is precisely what the CIA needs in order to improve its knowledge-sharing practices.

This new venture, known as "A-Space," is being plugged by Chief Technoloy Officer of the National Security Agency Michael Wertheimer. Wertheimer has previously championed other distributed knowledge online projects, such as Intellipedia and has had a his own LinkedIn profile for a while.

Today, of course, the newspapers were full of snippets from the damning internal report about CIA incompetence in its pre-9/11 strategy toward Al Qaeda. Thus the Facebook story seemed like media fluff in comparison.

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Petting Zoo

When I read stories like"MGA launches Rescue Pets world," it's difficult not to respond cynically to the manipulation of youngsters who hunger for flesh-and-blood domestic animals in their households. Rescue Pets sponsors my, in which children who buy a plush animal also get a key code for access to a series of online games. Of course, unlike real rescue pets there is no engagement with community issues like neutering and spaying. As an augmented reality experience, Tamagotchis were probably more compelling, and it looks like Neopets has a much more engaging social network than the "safe" and "private" rescue pets environment. Exhibits like "Dogs" and "Cats" at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum do far more in encouraging children to engage in real thought experiments about symbiotic relationship with other creatures by using a simulation of pet owning delivered via computer display.

Of course, Donna Haraway, the author of "The Cyborg Manifesto" published "The Companion Species Manifesto" as a sequel to her work, but virtual pets seem still to have very little appeal to adult users. Those who don't own pets as adults often do so by choice, however, unlike their more powerless counterparts who are children. I've never been a pet owner, and once penned these curmudgeonly lines as the beginning of a sonnet in my previous life as poet and a Regents Fellow in Creative Writing:

"I think that parents buy their children pets / to teach them about death. Maybe my heart / is incapable of being warmed, a tart / intransigent organ that can not get / a throb of pleasure from a celluloid set / with man's best friend. But if you really start / to think about how people die so far apart / that not even a hospital door will let you in . . ."

Thus, my own children have always had to make do with the much less satisfactory alternative of a virtual pet, for whom a lot of family travel and a yard always full of my husband's art supplies, isn't a health danger. I'm glad, however, that they've largely outgrown virtual pets given the opportunistic products now on the market.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

On Exhibitionism

Recently, I was looking at the Facebook page for a friend's movie about eating disorders and found myself bothered by the kinds of exhibitionistic body-consciousness on display among those who identified with the protagonists in the film. If they didn't look like bland blonde beauty queens, many of the 97 members of the group posted pictures of themselves ostentatiously eating junk food or ghoulishly vamping for the camera in ways that showed off their skeletal frames. I'd consider THIN a feminist film, broadly speaking, but I suppose that Lauren Greenfield's bleak portrait of the lives of anorexics and bulimics, which features cinematography from fellow VP friend Amanda Micheli, can also be seen as unintentionally reinforcing patriarchal norms because it still objectifies the bodies of women.

Then, today, in The Los Angeles Times, the opinion page ran an essay about "The false modesty movement," which criticized how conservative websites and marketers were urging young women to remove themselves from the public sphere. At the same time these modesty advocates were not insisting that the same caution be exercised by young men who were encouraged to be "dangerous" and embrace "manliness."

After reading this editorial, I visited some of the websites that the author mentioned. The Catholic Church's Pure fashion, which is devoted to "guiding young women ages 14 to 18 to become confident, competent leaders who live the virtues of modesty and purity in their schools and communities," promises that graduates of its "eight month Model Training Program" will attain mastery of "public speaking" and "hair and make up artistry," which are presented as equally weighted capabilities. I'm a rhetorician, but I don't think beauty queen speeches count. Furthermore, they entirely ignore how teens must present themselves publicly through digital networks and caution against "solicitations of certain media that go too far in the exhibition of intimate things."

When I visited the "DM Community" message boards of, which was also mentioned in the modesty movement editorial, I was amused to see that their signature "Jewel Top" had generated complaints from customers about the fact that its design revealed undergarments. The system administrators ask that customers tell them "about your success stories, as well as any problems you have had," but their user-generated content comes with carefully articulated rules about decorum: "Do not be vulgar or mean, but honest and open." Consequently, with such a coercively modest audience, there appears to be very little posting on the message boards.

Of course, in the case of my own children, my main anxiety about their public exposure through the message channels of online communities is that they both are abysmal spellers. And I don't want their peers or people in authority who might view their pages to think less of them as a result. Although I have boys, I like to think that if I had daughters I would still be more worried about their production of competent prose (preferably with correct orthography) than about potential "immodesty" in their presentation of their electronic personal images to the public.

Nonetheless, I suspect that the exhibitionism of many practices in digital culture is one of the factors that makes otherwise thinking parents pause when it comes to letting their children develop online lives without hovering supervision. As I've argued before, I think "stranger danger" is a false issue and that it represents a kind of projection of parental fears to external sources. When it comes to parenting, it's often not what others might do to your child that makes parents with kids of a certain age anxious, but the conduct of the children themselves in cyberspace or anywhere else. And thus exhibitionism might be a substantive issue while predator panic is probably a dodge.

As a parent myself, I have to deal with the difficult task of teaching children meaningful Internet values without the hypocrisy of relegating them to an entirely separate child-safe sphere. This quest has produced a few other occasional short essays in the "On Values" series, such as "On Transgression" or "On Dissimulation." As in the case of the other two essays, I'm going to argue that there is a positive value for the title subject, and in this case that teen exhibitionism isn't all bad and that the Internet is a logical site of its expression.

Naturally, whenever I hear other parents moan and gossip about the things they've spied near their children's online profiles, I wonder why they assume that exhibitionism wouldn't be possible without distributed electronic networks.

"Have you ever heard of print?" I feel like asking them some time.

Certainly, as a young person, I spent a lot of time trying to get attention through various publishing ventures involving ink and paper. In high school, these efforts produced both "literary" and "humor" self-published or collectively published periodicals, which required only a xerox machine and some editorial skill to deliver. As someone terrible at sports and lacking in the social graces, showing off in print allowed me to acquire cultural capital that I would otherwise never have had the opportunity to garner using other means. I would guess that the zines of the Riot Grrrl movement served a similar purpose for some of my younger friends, although these had the built-in advantages of a recognizable genre and a trans-community audience.

In college, I wrote for both The Harvard Advocate and The Harvard Lampoon. The former seemed to discourage an exhibitionistic ethos, even though a number of confessional poets began their careers there, while the latter celebrated it and often illustrated stories with photographs of Lampy's writing staff. As the exuberant picture below shows, in which I appear between a present-day best-selling author and a late night talk show host, exhibitionism in this print publication represented a successful social strategy, in which both men and women could participate. (Click to enlarge.)

That's not to say that these displays in print were always gender neutral. When I look at pages like the one below, in which I appear in my nightie in a tasteless item that I wrote about necrophilia (and which -- in fact -- caused the magazine to lose several of its advertisers), I don't recognize many of the features of the public persona that I maintain today. Indeed, if anything, college print publications have gotten worse in this particular area. Witness the sleazy Harvard H-Bomb as an example. Ironically, given fears about the Internet and exhibitionism, part of its cachet was that its titilating pictures and stories existed only on glossy traditional pages rather than seemingly more ephemeral bits on a URL.

So what's the alternative to "modesty" if a teen is supposed to avoid excessively individualistic exhibitionism? Perhaps it's the anonymous manufacture of code, texts, or artifacts as part of a collective endeavor. But unless we expect young people to spend their time selflessly tinkering with open source or editing Wikipedia entries without recognition, the times may have passed this anti-exhibitionistic lifestyle by. In other words, from a broader historical perspective, tell-all or show-all exhibitionism has a long history, and in many ways it is a phenomenon of the Enlightenment, from which many of our current ideas about information culture come.

In Hackers & Painters, former Yahoo executive Paul Graham opines that it is the absence of an apprenticeship system in the modern era that causes the lives of teenagers to be stripped of the economic and cultural value that they would have had as craftsmen in guilds. Without a system that integrates their labor into the real world of adult sociality, Graham argues, students in middle school and high school can only exist in a virtual reality environment based on the cult of popularity in which students who actually make things are shunned as nerds.

I'm not sure Graham is right that young people should be embracing the hacker ethic rather than the YouTube fifteen minutes of fame, although there is certainly a big difference between a failure like Aleksey Vayner and an obvious success like James Kotecki. The skills of teens and twenty-somethings at digital rhetoric will be extremely important for their future job prospects and to their abilities to participate in social networks, and cognizance of certain aspects of public performance will only enhance their opportunities.

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Monday, August 20, 2007

Jamming Pearl Jam

AT&T officially apologized for editing out lyrics critical of President Bush from a Lollapalooza webcast. On its blog, Pearl Jam posted YouTube videos with "before" and "after" versions of the transmission and encouraged fans to gather collective intelligence about other examples of censored rock webcasts with political content on the Pearl Jam Message Pit. The band also warned about the dangers of media consolidation and published links to the web pages of groups advocating network neutrality. Lawrence Lessig weighs in on the case here, and Wired reveals that the telecommunications giant also cut material critical of the government's handling of Hurricane Katrina from a Flaming Lips webcast.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Fly By Night

Of course, I can't get enough search engine + copyright stories, and there was a big one this week, as Reuters reported that "American Airline Sues Google Over Ads." The specifics of American Airlines Inc v. Google Inc have received some analysis on The Technology & Marketing Law Blog. American Airlines is claiming that Google is violating trademark law by selling ads to competitors who enter "American Airlines" or otherwise search for Google has won similar cases before, facing companies like Geico, and among the major airlines, American has done well by the Internet, despite its generic name that miight not be seen by all searchers as a trademarked brand. They captured some valuable real estate with a rare two-letter URL, and I often see them appear on my travel searches.

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The Wiki Witch of the West

The name "Virgil" is climbing up the rankings for reasons unrelated to the work of the Latin poet, since Virgil Griffith created WikiScanner, a program that identifies the source of otherwise anonymous Wikipedia edits by using information about computer IP addresses. Wired points out in the title of a recent article that those monkeying with their public reputations on the giant online encyclopedia include Diebold and the CIA. And the New York Times piece about revealing "corporate fingerprints" adds beverage giants Anheuser-Bush and Pepsi to the list.

As Ian Bogost observes in "Tactical Iraqi's Wikipedia Spin," I've personally been involved in a weird case of self-interested Wikipedia revisionism that seemed to involve boosters of a military-funded videogame. Once the WikiScanner page search is back up and running again from its current overloaded condition, I look forward to finding out who deleted the paragraph that I wrote that described why the game was controversial among developers of so-called "serious games" for education, training, and rehabilitation. I suppose I can feel vindicated now that my paragraph has been recently restored by another anonymous editor who noted "the original was sourced, the replacement unsourced and POV."

(I don't know how many more Wikipedia stories I can run here, since I'm running out of puns.)

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A War on Two Fronts

This past week The Los Angeles Times has been battling to distinguish print journalism from two perceived competitors on the Internet: bloggers and news aggregation services run by companies like Google and Yahoo. Certainly, as Virtualpolitik reader Andy Sternberg has pointed out, there has been a considerable amount of disparaging language about news from distributed networks, including a facetious comparison that presents Google as a greater threat "than Osama bin Laden" in the cosmology of mainstream newspapers. In the bluntly titled "It's not journalism" , the opinion page complains about a new venture from the search engine giant designed to solicit user-generated content to supplement the news stories it aggregates and "plans to let people and organizations comment on the stories written about them."

The feature implies that the stories aggregated by Google News are incomplete -- possibly because of limited space, but also possibly because of bias, neglect or ignorance. News organizations have their flaws, and the added comments on Google may demonstrate that. But Google's effort may have a happier side effect: It may illustrate why journalism is more than just aggregating information -- and why Google News isn't really its competition after all.

The essence of good journalism is asking the right questions. Google, however, won't ask anything of those who submit comments. According to the company's announcement, its only interest is that the submissions are authentic, not that they're relevant or even truthful. As a result, the comments section is likely to be larded with spin, hype and obfuscation. A seemingly heartfelt comment may carry the CEO's name, but the words will probably have been typed by corporate flacks.

The Times may have a point, given the spotlight on abuses of Wikipedia by corporate spin-doctors, but they aren't addressing legitimate complaints about half-told stories in the print media in the age of faster-format reporting. And, besides, given their recent predilection for "facebook journalism," I don't think the LA Times should be throwing stones this summer.

In "How to decide who gets a shield," from Tim Rutten's "Regarding Media" column, there's more abuse of Internet news. Consider this passage as an interesting example of a left-handed compliment in which the first amendment rights of bloggers are defended, despite their volunteer status, while they are simultaneously typecast as cranks.

For purposes of a federal shield law, you have to decide whether a woman promoting revival of the single tax movement from a wi-fi-enabled root cellar in the Ozarks is worthy of the same protections as the Associated Press pool reporter on Air Force One. The Free Flow of Information Act tries to address the problem by defining a journalist as somebody who derives "financial gain or livelihood" from his or her work. Obviously, the AP correspondent is covered, but presumably our brave and lonely single-taxer is protected only if enough people click on the ad for her sister-in-law's fruitcake posted alongside the daily demands for a return to the silver standard.

The examples are interesting and point to some significant biases. By implication, journalists are metropolitan sophisticates while bloggers can only participate in public discourse at the edge to the geographical periphery, in this case from a rural backwater. What about bloggers involved in the Atlantic Yards controversy in Brooklyn? The stereotypes also seem to suggest that blogging is women's work and closely linked to other domestic activities. That may be true for mega-blogs like BlogHer and other collaborative blogs that look for synergy between the personal, the professional, and the political like Julia and Ellen Lupton's Design Your Life, but it's a generalization that fundamentally distorts the nature of the product of the collective labor of millions of people that encompasses a broad range of perspectives when it comes to gender, ethnicity, nationality, class, and education.

Rutten also seems to assume that all blogging is all opinion pieces, even when the appeal of many blogs is in their links to primary sources, investigative coverage, or encyclopedic knowledge on display.

More to the point, if the 1st Amendment and its attendant protections don't cover bloggers, then they've lost their intrinsic meaning. The fact of the matter is that many Internet bloggers -- opinionated, partisan, passionate and ill-mannered -- are exercising precisely the sort of speech that the Framers intended to protect: political speech.

Bloggers have certainly broken major stories, as the case of the Foley scandal shows. I've even had a small role here in Virtualpolitik, as stories have emerged that were later picked up by the mainstream media, as the synergy between Water Cooler Games, this blog, and other blogs took advantage of collective intelligence to reveal the SonicJihad debacle that involved the House Intelligence Committee.

It may be political speech, but it's not the kind of solo idiosyncrasy that Rutten is depicting. As an academic blogger, I don't recognize myself in this caricature at all. What I may do may not be academic writing, since I don't use footnotes, and I try to write in language that my college-age niece and nephew -- Megan Horan and Bill Durgin -- would understand. And it may not even be journalism either, perhaps because it is too essayistic, even though memoir-writing has been creeping into mainstream news periodicals for a long time. But it's certainly not the activity of a lone crank cut off from the broader cultural conversation either. So I'd rather be spared Rutten's faint praise.

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Saturday, August 18, 2007

Tea Leaves

I spend a lot of time on this blog discussing the general awfulness of the information design of government websites, particularly those with confusing interfaces or needless fun 'n' games kiddie pages. So it's nice to report that the official website of the Federal Reserve actually isn't too bad, despite the Fed's longstanding reputation for tight-lipped responses or cryptic communications with the press.

In particular, I thought that their Mortgage Comparison Calculator was an admirably straightforward example of a web generator with practical uses. I only wish that more people applying for subprime loans would have had access to simple number-crunching tools like this that could have averted many foreclosures.

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Facebook Journalism

I'd like to take a moment to complain about a phenomenon that I'll call "Facebook Journalism" (or "MySpace Journalism") in which newspapers cobble together accounts, particularly involving crime stories, from data contained on the parties' profiles on social networking sites.

My own Los Angeles Times, to which I have a strong sentimental attachment as a local, has become increasingly reliant on this practice, perhaps as a response to cost-cutting measures or perhaps as a salacious tactic to seem to be sharing hidden knowledge with nonmembers from exclusive communities involved with new digital practices. Many of these articles are the journalistic equivalent of the papers I see from unmotivated students that are mostly made up of Wikipedia entries.

The murder of the family of UCI student Shayona Dhanak has been described and explained through some particularly egregious examples, which has only worsened the already poor dissemination of information about the case, as I've reported here on Virtualpolitik before. Today's story, "Third man charged in father-daughter slayings in O.C.," may represent a new low for the Times.

According to Murphy's page, he was born in Northridge and graduated from Chatsworth High School in 2003. He played basketball from ninth to 11th grade, took honors English and biology and had a 2.4 GPA, the school said.

He was studying communications at Concordia University in Irvine, a Lutheran college, his Facebook page said. It was unclear whether he was currently enrolled; school officials did not return calls seeking comment.

The lives of college students are remarkably complex, particularly in the wake of the twin impacts of globalization and technological change on America's campuses. This is a complicated story that involves the dangers of domestic violence and stalking, and one which is also tangled up in several distinct ethnic communities, gender ideologies, criminal histories, and cultural anxieties about violence in "safe" planned communities and structured university settings. Don't we owe college-age audiences for news more if we expect teens and twenty-somethings to continue to read newspapers other than The Onion?

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Brand Confusion

I won't be linking to their URL because I don't want this rival VirtualPolitik site to be going any higher in the page rankings, but I did think it was interesting to discover that there was a sound-alike website that offers Internet political consulting for Mexican candidates running for office. Of course, as a Southern Californian who lives a few hours from the international border, I'm very interested in Mexican campaigns, particularly those that use U.S. public relations firms that also handle social marketing, risk communication, or public diplomacy accounts.

Although I'm certainly not the one providing them, apparently the "servicios" of this Virtualpolitik wannabe include the following consulting areas:

Diseño de sites
Calendarios de actividades
Encuestas de opinión
Foros de discusión
Fundraisers en linea
Coordinación de eventos
Sistemas de membresía de ciudadanos comprometidos
Uso de sistemas de comunidades virtuales como YouTube

Do not be confused by imitators! The common sense advice available here on Virtualpolitik is always free and designed to foster citizen participation.

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Kangaroo Court

Yesterday, during my visit to universities that have set up headquarters in Second Life, I visited the virtual Austin Hall on Harvard's Berkman Island, where law school professor Charles Nesson holds classes for his cyber-law class for extension students. Nesson has been involved in some online dust-ups with the IvyGate blog, which has posted his video about the Second Life experiment under the unflattering title "Harvard Prof. Charles Nesson is Insane." Indeed, often the connection to cyber-law isn't entirely clear in Nesson's course materials, as in the case of Nesson grilling Village Voice print reporter Nick Sylvester in another video regarding his fabrications for a story about the use of an ink-and-paper book as a pick-up guide in New York bars. (Ironically, some of the people involved in this story are online friends, so for me there is a digital connection.) More relevantly, perhaps, Nesson's students were also made aware of the trial of blogger and videographer Josh Wolf the virtual Austin Hall in Second Life, which is also dramatized in a YouTube video. As her avatar identity Rebecca Berkman, Nesson's daughter computer scientist Rebecca Nesson also plays a major role in directing class discussion and activities.

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Thursday, August 16, 2007

Mixed Media

As a persuasive appeal, I thought this new video by James Kotecki was an interesting example of mixing old (black and white image) with new (YouTube video) to get Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney's attention.

Spoiler Alert!

There aren't any pencil puppets in this one, but he's come up with a new low-tech gimmick. Watch the footage first so I don't give away the punchline, but I thought it was interesting also to contemplate the ephemeral character of both sand writing and digital documents on distributed networks.

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A Sticky Wiki, a user-generated site for the faithful of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints employs a distributed knowledge model on its Wikipedia look-alike site. Despite the church's reputation for hierarchy and secrecy, which would seem counterintuitive to the free culture ethos that wikis generally represent, the site's organizers boast that they have now past 1,000 discrete articles on subjects designed to correct "myths and falsehoods" about Mormonism. I was actually surprised to see how even-handed the editors could be with controversial entries like the Mountain Meadows Massacre. Clearly the wikis administrators recognize the rhetorical efficacy of seeming to adopt the NPOV (no point of view) policy of the main Wikipedia site. On the other hand, MormonWiki also contains sloppier and more colloquial exclamation-park riddled entries like Antimormon as well. And although the "Curse of Cain" doctrine is mentioned in the Priesthood, it doesn't have its own explanatory history or more explanation of the church's controversial positions about African-Americans, which were standard ideology until only a few decades ago.

Linked to the site is the blog for the More Good Foundation, where one can read about how Mormon periodicals are taking advantage of blogs, how online videos present opportunities to gather testimony from the faithful around the world, and how the wily system administrators have foiled hackers of the wiki both intentionally and unintentionally, because of the ampersand in a key acronym.

A YouTube video about famous Mormons is here".

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Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Campus Tour

Today I visited Anteater Island, the experimental distance learning initiative for virtual reality contexts that U.C. Irvine is piloting in the online multi-user environment Second Life. I will likely hold at least some of my class time for my upcoming social media course on the island, although I am also looking forward to face-to-face meetings in the experimental classroom of the Teaching, Learning & Technology Center. After teleporting in front of a storybook scaled virtual version of a newbie's guide to SL, one of the first landmarks I encountered was the library's poster presentation that consisted disappointingly of screen shots of the homepage and help pages from their official website.

Although I was able to visit a number of facilities on the island -- including a conference center with space age furnishings and a variety of indoor and outdoor classrooms -- and could stop by a virtual kiosk for the SL Browser developed by UCI faculty member Crista Lopes, I did find myself shut out from a large parcel, which I assume has been alloted to the freshman game development class. The territory that was off-limits appeared to be part glassed-in research park and part boy scout camp with flags and pup tents.

As someone who has represented the School of Humanities on the university's work group on classroom facilities and instructional technology, I was especially interested to see the "Holodeck" that could be reconfigured with the push of a virtual button on the wall. The space was capable of shape shifting into a seminar room, library, and traditional classroom, along with something called menacingly "Room 101." It also had more exotic spatial representations that included "moonscape" and "shogun."

Perhaps the strangest classroom configurations were the ones that seemed most wildly inappropriate for a university concerned about decorum, appropriate conduct particularly between teachers and students, and the risks of sexual harassment. Most hilarious were the really incongruous holodeck choices for an academic setting: "dinner for two" (which featured a sky of shooting stars, a candlit intimate table, and hearts everywhere imaginable), "bedroom" (which seemed straight out of the Playboy mansion), and "club 360" (which I have reproduced above)

Of course, as someone fascinated with twenty-first-century classrooms, I couldn't help but wonder why they showed classes with uncomfortable chairs in learner-unfriendly rows, particularly ones in which -- from a practical point -- there would be nowhere for me to sit as a facilitator. At least elsewhere there were some cushions under palm trees and a semi-circle of hovering seating platforms, but I left feeling mystified as to why they would orient so many of their virtual learning spaces in ways that only reinforced existing hierarchies of power and emphasized passive reception of material coming from a screen.

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Tuesday, August 14, 2007

The Moneychangers

Today, my local Bank of America was featuring its new automated teller machines, which will now supposedly be able to recognize currency and even read check amounts to correct deposit information. It was interesting to note that there were two live minders, one of each gender, out on the street to explain the machine's new features and the fact that the bank was now dispensing with epistolary conventions entirely. What was once the envelope dispenser now holds informational brochures.

There has been a lot of discussion about the role of "virtual capitalism" in recent years, but this seems to be an analog/digital hybrid when it comes to economic practices. Tangible currency with engraving and watermarking and checks with memos and signatures are converted into digital code, although -- if they are checks -- a miniaturized copy of your signifiers of value is incorporated into your receipt. Much of the rationale for introducing the technology has also to do with labor-saving that automates the work of bank employees and takes the step of opening envelopes out of the circuit of economic exchange represented by the transaction. Watching businessmen being forced to feed each individual check into the machine rather than deposit a single, thick envelope, I am reminded of Siva Vaidhyanathan's warning that many digital technologies are merely being used to outsource labor to the consumer.

Of course, I've only been an street-corner observer, since I haven't yet tried the new technology myself. My confidence in distributed computing is certainly not inspired by front page stories like this one in our local newspaper about the computer glitch that stranded 17,000 passengers at LAX who were unable to go through customs or even deplane while lackadaisical Sprint employees attempted to solve the system's networking problems. If human agents are left out of the verification process in this case, will bank customers be at increased risk of fraud by check forgers and identity thieves.

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Monday, August 13, 2007

The Gift That Keeps on Giving

Now, here's a really embarrassing admission: when I was a small child, I was incredibly susceptible to eye infections. So, as if my terrible myopia weren't enough, as a blonde, tousle-headed tyke, I suffered from a series of hideous-looking styes. Each stye was not only painful, but also it marred my appearance, made me extremely self-conscious, required endless explanations, and constrained my activities as I had to lay around the house with hot compresses on the afflicted eye, since no other treatment was efficacious.

It had been years that I've been similarly inconvenienced, stigmatized, and disabled, but somehow Microsoft Vista has managed to do it. I have to say that just a few days owning a brand new machine that is saddled with the operating system from hell has sent me straight back to the most miserable moments of powerlessness in my childhood. Although I swore to keep an open mind, in my experience Vista has been painfully slow, a memory hog, and just as likely to crash as to function for a few moments.

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Sunday, August 12, 2007

Window of the World

"Window of the World" is a theme park located in Shenzhen, China, a city that is now becoming famous for another kind of specularity. As The New York Times reports in "In China, a High-Tech Plan to Track People" and "A Chinese Tycoon, Inspired to Create Police Technology," business opportunities that take advantage of surveillance imaging and augmented reality technology have been put in the service of authoritarian state interests, thereby generating profits for private firms. China Public Security is a company that advertises its services to the public on a website strangely featuring laughing blonde women.
Ironically, some of the same technology now being considered for monitoring the Chinese public for residency violations, criminality, subversive activities, and dissident behavior has also been proposed for theme park installations. Designers know that RFID devices and facial recognition technology can allow for new ways to manage a vistor's experience of a given themed environment, so that licensed characters address you personally and story elements are revealed as part of a more satisfying drama of the day's activities.

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Prints of Peace

A story in this week's Los Angeles Times, "Lots of black ink now," describes how a group of monks found financial stability by marketing ink cartridges at cut-rate prices. It's an interesting example of capitalizing on one of the hidden costs of the home computing revolution in which printer costs have dropped radically in relation to the price of ink to operate them. As the child of a Xerox employee who well remembers ad campaigns for the copier company that feature a distinctive image of a monk associated with the trademark, the commerical strategy of the Cistercian Abbey of Our Lady of Spring Bank may also be taking advantage of a time-tested pitch. In some ways, it's a story about how fiction becomes truth. In addition to making online videos, the monks also have a page devoted to Luxor & Ludwig, their dogs or, as they call them, "cloisered canines." One can also send prayer requests through their commercial Laser Monks site.

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Saturday, August 11, 2007

Virtual Mud Slinging

As states jockey to be the first to offer a primary in the 2008 election, New Hampshire continues to be an important site for political participation at the national level.

A recent radio story on This American Life, My Reputation, tells the harrowing tale of the experiences of the state's Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley for whom computer use was equated with criminality with disastrous results.

First, a Republican political rival and former friend accused him of storing child pornography on a party owned computer. Then, after Buckley was cleared in the case, his opponent engineered further humiliation on YouTube, where to this day an angry user posts anti-Buckley videos with embarrassing footage from the political strategist's youth. Finally, Buckley has been smeared by accusations that his MySpace page is only "a few clicks away" from pages for gay teenagers.

Of course, my MySpace page (for research purposes only) is also a few clicks away for pages of gay teenagers, because I am affiliated with the CHAMP network, where I have been an invited speaker, and the group sponsors teen political actions to improve sexuality education and school access to condoms.

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Persuasive Games Goes Transmedia

Check out Virtualpolitik pal Ian Bogost on Comedy Central's Colbert Report talking about the rhetorical function of videogames.

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Friday, August 10, 2007

We Are the Champions

Recently, The Los Angeles Times ran a piece about mass market sports, public relations, and the Internet in "Athlete link to their own 'Truth' on the Internet." Among these spin control mechanisms, from MySpace pages to fan sites maintained by the major league francises, perhaps the most interesting is the genre of an athlete's personal web log.

C. J. Nitkowski, a former big league baseball player who now pitches professionally in Japan, was a pioneer among athlete bloggers. He started his website,, a decade ago.

"The advantages are clearing up misquotes, controlling a story that may be important, and the chance to interact with fans directly," he said. "[But] also having complete unedited access to the world needs to be treated carefully. Speaking your mind is a nice freedom, but sometimes it's not always a good thing."

The piece quotes University of Kansas professor Nancy Baym about possible pitfalls in cultivating an Internet persona.

Philadelphia Phillies pitcher J.D. Durbin apologized for crudely announcing his fondness for female body parts on his MySpace page. Texas Rangers pitcher C.J. Wilson did the same after posting a racially offensive photo on teammate Brandon McCarthy's page. And Washington Wizards guard Gilbert Arenas drew the ire of NBA officials after blogging about $10 bets he made with fans during a game.

NBA officials fined Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban for criticizing referees on his blog. And NFL quarterback Donovan McNabb was left defending his mother, Wilma, after she wrote that it was "bittersweet" to watch backup Jeff Garcia succeed in leading the Philadelphia Eagles while her son recuperated from an injury.

"There's a fine line between being candid and getting yourself in trouble, and it depends a lot on what your image is," said Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas. "There is a reason professionals usually handle that stuff."

Certainly, slick professionals seem to be handling what I find to be one of the most fascinating examples of Internet spin control in sports, the blog of record-breaking slugger and suspected user of banned substances Barry Bonds. Right now, Barry's Journal reads like a well rehearsed Academy Awards speech in which Bonds thanks Hank Aaron, his family, and his corporate sponsors (in that order), as he eulogizes those associated with his record-breaking home run. In the past, his blog has been used to counter the media's coverage of his hot-headed response to criticism from sportscaster Bob Costas. Instead of commenting on his own temper tantrum, it's a dispassionate critique of the professionalism of Costas.

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Thursday, August 09, 2007

The Saints Can't Come Marching In

At the SIGGRAPH electronic theater, perhaps the most profound emotional reaction was generated by this U2 and Green Day video that showed computer-generated images of U.S. troops from Iraq rescuing victims of Hurricane Katrina. It is an example of how this technology can be used to construct alternative histories. Sadly, as Senator Joseph Biden keeps pointing out, it will be impossible to remove soldiers and equipment physically from the Iraqi theater until a ten-month exodus with troops, weapons, and costly infrastructure is completed.

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Double Date

Once finished with the conference part of the conference, I spent some quality time with both my real and virtual significant other, digital designer and themed environment creator Mel Horan. Above you can see Mel preparing to receive absolution from the Automatic Confession Machine. Given the controversy over pedophile priests in the church, perhaps automating the task would be one way to solve the Vatican's labor problem. The device's divine creator, Gregory P. Garvey of Quinnipiac University gave an interesting talk about "third spaces" in virtual environments at the collocated Sandbox Symposium, where I also spoke over the weekend.

Below, you can see me play pilot and/or race car driver where I'm in a virtual transparent cockpit like the one in Wonder Woman's plane that allows me to see through the exterior of a more mundane urban vehicle like a car or helicopter. This technology, based on head mounted displays, comes from Japan at the Tachi Laboratory.

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Tabling the Motion

It felt a lot like watching a game of three-card monte, as I stood in the small crowd around the demo of Microsoft's new Surface at SIGGRAPH. The huckster dealing the virtual cards (photographs, song information, and menu items) and physical cards like rewards cards and objects embedded with RFID coding performed many of the same moves that many have already seen in online promotional videos like this one.

Of course, at SIGGRAPH there was a lot of outrage about allowing Microsoft to present Surface in the "emerging technologies" gallery for two reasons: 1) many of the display and scanning technologies had been shown at SIGGRAPH for years and 2) Microsoft only owned the technologies because it had swallowed up the companies that had first developed the patents. Many in the audience told me with great glee that the system had crashed entirely during one audience. There was also audible chuckling when the poorly-reviewed Zune was shown and DRM-free and magically compatible music sharing was imagined with an iPod.

In my own reflections about Surface, I found myself worrying about the human costs to the people in the service industries in hotels and restaurants who would clearly be no longer needed when the user communicated directly with the kitchen or the resort chain's mainframe. The kinds of sociality that Surface models don't look like much fun to me. This parody ad also comments upon the dark side of Surface.

(Thanks to Ann Bartow for pointing out both videos.)

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Second Chances for Second Life

Yesterday's panel on user-generated programmable worlds at SIGGRAPH attempted to respond to the current controversy about the viability of Second Life as a 3D virtual environment with sufficiently vibrant online communities. Although my Facebook friend Mark Bell of Indiana University has argued against these recent critics in "Second Life is Not Empty," panelist Paul Hemp of The Harvard Business Review pointed to the emptiness he experienced in his visits to a Sears store in Second Life and one that showcases Dell Products.

The session began with an overview of the topic by Amy Bruckman of Georgia Tech, who pointed out how far virtual pets have come since her first experiences with her virtual puppy Pumpernickel in a MOO in 1995 to her present-day swanky, animated 3D dragon. She also argued that "cyberspace is not Disneyland" and that rather it more resembles a giant "fingerpainting party" in which participants will be deeply engaged although many of the artifacts will prove to be ephemeral. (And here I'll insert the obligatory disclaimer that I knew Amy before her digital life began in earnest, since we were in the same residential house as undergraduates in college.) Like me, Bruckman isn't convinced that 3D worlds are always the most appropriate choice for every communication purpose, and that synchronous, spatially oriented discourse may not be as effective at building online communities as user-friendly tools like blogs and social networking sites. She argued that there were really two definitions of cyberspace: 1) 3D graphical environments with avatars and 2) face-to-face interactions augmented by mobile devices that offer ubiquitous computing.

Next up was Asi Lang, who -- according to Business Week -- apparently launched his campus start-up from the same university that Amy and I graduated from. Lang is now affiliated with Linden Labs, which runs Second Life, where he goes by the name Pastrami Linden. Lang offered a breezy tour that emphasized commerce in online stores like the Dell virtual factory and the Scion in-world car lot and distance learning initiatives at Drexel and Vassar that included a virtual Sistine Chapel. He promised that eventually in SL would be possible to import 3D meshes from professional graphics programs like Maya. Finally, he showed the atmospheric effects that would be possible in-world now that technology from his former company, Windward Mark Interactive, a onetime dormroom enterprise that had been acquired by Linden labs.

A considerably less rosy picture was presented by business journalist Paul Hemp, who opened his talk with a slide of the closed American Apparel storefront in Second Life. By arguing in Advertising Age that companies should market to people's avatars, Hemp has generated a lot of online debate. Hemp argues that ad people have always pitched their products to a consumer's alter-ego, who was younger and thinner anyway. He also claims that virtual worlds will still be important for e-commerce in two ways: 1) as an entertainment medium, and 2) as a communications medium. He even went as far as to claim that these worlds could "restore the social and recreational experience of shopping" that had been lost in the online retail boom.

Influential science fiction author and pedagogue Vernor Vinge was also on the panel. In comparison to Neal Stephenson and William Gibson, who gave relative neologisms like "avatar," "metaverse," and "cyberspace" a permanent place in the language, Vinge is sometimes overlooked, despite the contributions to our imagined future in books like True Names and Rainbow's End. Vinge argued that noncompatibility engineered by competing corporate conglomerates was a central problem for these digital environments and that future historians might well look back to our present era as a time of "dark ages." Furthermore he argued that if surveillance of digital activities was encouraged in the name of the interests of the state, its cost and futility would make "the drug wars look like a picnic." He hypothesized that the only way that this control strategy could be effectively enforced would be to "keep general purpose computational knowledge" entirely out of the hands of the general public. Ving also agreed with Bruckman that mobility was more important than mimetic verisimilitude and suggested that eyeglasses might be the best model when constructing the cyborg of the future.

(Yet another disclaimer: the holographic image above is from the SIGGRAPH floor and shows a zoetrope effect that doesn't represent the Second Life user experience.)

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Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Boys' Clubhouse

SIGGRAPH is a professional association that includes academic papers and symposia designed to appeal to a civic-minded public interested in visual culture, but a certain amount of the boys-will-be-boys attitude associated with big technology conventions like E3 or the electronics shows in Las Vegas remains. I took some photographs that show how gender ideologies still shape a visitor's experiences of the public places and disciplinary spaces associated with the exhibition.

The role of scientific knowledge-sharing was often dwarfed by the spectacle of giant corporate booths in which companies, like Massive software (used for crowd scenes in big-budget movies) promulgate images of bikini-clad women.

At one of the largest panels, one of the co-directors of Shrek, Raman Hui, discussed how the female protagonist in the film was "prettier" with more makeup in the later films. He also chortled about the lack of female animators on staff and consequently their lack of female models for the bust-shots that they wanted to recreate in-house. He also expressed his delight in the catfight sequences in the most recent sequel.

The other lowpoint in the conference was also the showing of the misogynistic Gentlemen's Duel by Blur Studios in the prestigious Electronic Theater.

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Tuesday, August 07, 2007

The Angriest Dog in the World

Scout McCloud gave the keynote address at SIGGRAPH, which I decided to check out, since I'll be teaching one of his texts in my social media class in Fall. McCloud started his talk by recounting his recent cross country journey with his kids in which he observed their absorption in virtual worlds even as he was attempting to bring them into more direct contact with the people and places of all fifty real states. McCloud, however, was philosophical about his kids' behavior. As he said, "No one gave us a choice about which world we were born into." Such new worlds are changing and malleable and these new narrative media could create possibilities when not as firmly constrained by market forces in the direction of mass culture.

McCloud rehearsed some of his older theses about the comic book form in which comics present "as a series of choices" that include "choice of moment," "choice of frame," "choice of image," "choice of word," and "choice of flow." He also looked at the history of comics with a broad temporal sweep of the artform of sequential art that included Trajan’s column, the Bayeux tapestry, Aztec codices, broadsheets of tortures, and "true narratives" like the Horrid Hellish Popish Plot, which has captions, word balloons, and comic-book-style "senseless violence." Even before the advent of print, McCloud argued that the fundamental organizational strategy was the same: "As you move through space you move through time."

McCloud also characterized his own contributions concentrating on line between digital comics and print comics, which he compared to that between chimpanzee and humans, who seem to share so much genetic material and yet be so different. With the advent of browsers like MOSAIC to facilitate distribution and technology that introduced autonomous sound and motion, audiences could experience "bite-sized pieces" and "choose your own path adventures" that work "like our our mind works." McCloud also claimed that "technology has ideas about what shape it should take," when the fundamental unit of the art experience was "not the page but the window." McCloud posited that the future of digital comics would depend on mobile devices and multitouch displays, and that scrolling was only the most temporary of temporary developments.

McCloud got personal when he explained how the comics enterprise has embraced the long tail in which consumption largely happens through the participation of niche audiences. These niche audiences could include groups who would otherwise be unserved by those aiming for mass markets, such as "mathematicians" or "PhD candidates." McCloud told his own five-minute life story, in which other kids with an interest in graphic stories happened to live in his geographic neighborhood (and grow up to illustrate recent classics like Crispin, The Pig Who Had It All or the new edition of Casey at the Bat). This collective of young kids worked together to produce "quantocomics" but ultimately represented four fundamentally different aesthetics, according to McCloud: classicists, animists, formalists, iconoclasts that in turn recreated art academy dichotomies about form vs. content and beauty vs. truth

(For many years my own favorite comic was David Lynch's Angriest Dog in the World, which appeared in the now defunct LA Reader. For years the frames were almost identical and the pleasure was in studying the smallest of details in the illustration.)

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