Sunday, September 30, 2007

Sock Puppets

Yesterday I went to see Puppet Up, a combination improv/puppetry evening that might seem as far away from the study of digital culture as one can possibly imagine. Actually, the troupe led by Brian Henson of Jim Henson Studios fame ended the evening with an impromptu mock-opera called "Texting," from a theme suggested by the audience, so it ended up reflecting the norms of electronic interaction even in the context of face-to-face, unscripted, pre-digital entertainment. Unlike the YouTube hit "Text Message Brake-Up," this ensemble piece on a similar theme wasn't filmed. However, with other shows Puppet Up has been taking advantage of online video to build an audience for its "snackable" entertainment at TBS, on YouTube, and in other Internet venues, like other purveyors of sketch comedy, who may actually end up thriving in the era of Web 2.0. Certainly, much of the evening had an element of vaudeville, which Henry Jenkins has argued is making a resurgence among YouTube hits, and besides the Internet has given us a host of puppetry metaphors with sock puppet chief among them. The group's next show is October 20.

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It's All Geek to Me

As a hometown Pasadena native, I have to express the thrill I get from hearing about the progress of one of the Mars rovers into the Victoria Crater, which I actually saw during a JPL family tour. I've also spoken before about the rhetorical prowess of JPL managers when working with electronic media, which makes other government spokespeople look pretty incompetent in comparison. I love the fact that even with prose like this, their websites have loyal readerships.

The first of two alpha particle X-ray spectrometer integrations was received on the ground today and the initial analysis shows little to no dust contamination. Argon peaks are just as large as before, but additional integrations are necessary to complete the analysis. In the meantime, the team modified the robotic arm ready position to face the alpha particle X-ray spectrometer in towards the vehicle's warm electronics box. The hope is that this will prevent any dust from collecting inside.

Some of the Rovers' popularity can be explained by NASA's smart use of digital video early in the mission, which should have become a model to be emulated by other federal agencies. Currently I'm fond of the Flight Director Updates on the site, although the guys from mission control look to be the age of many of my students.

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On Thin Ice

Okay, I'm not much of a hockey fan. Over on Sivacracy, I took it with a grain of salt when they renamed the blog Sabreocracy and redesigned their entire web template to be a garish blue and gold in honor of the Buffalo Sabres run for the Stanley Cup. During that period I even signed up Sabres Insider, so I would have some electronic fan knowledge, but I never really embraced the game. I follow only four sports teams: The Dodgers, the French World Cup soccer team, The French World Cup rugby team, and the Dodgers. (The Dodgers are enough of a split-personality team that I think it is okay to list them twice.)

But I find myself interested in hockey in light of reports in the mainstream media that tout the way that the NHL is leading the way in offering their fans more Internet access to webcasting and a variety of social media tools in order to stimulate new fan practices. As I read Henry Jenkins' book about fan culture -- Fans, Bloggers, and Gamers -- this month, it is interesting to follow connections between traditional group behaviors and those spawned by the Internet. As those following this development point out, however, the NHL's eagerness to embrace Web 2.0 fandom probably has more to do with flagging TV viewership numbers since they moved from ESPN to Versus. But I thought their web offerings were pretty good in and of themselves. For example, the NHL has a considerably less stupid kids page than most government websites.

Why should it matter? As Siva Vaidhyanathan points out in this recent Altercation piece, it shows that the consumer isn't able to impact many media choices even in the age of niche markets and the long tail, because corporate capitalism and oligarchical politics still write the rules of the game.

So here I sit, an American, with money ready to spend, living in an age of hyper-fast digital communication, and I cannot get anybody to sell me all the services I want. I want to see the Patriots and the Bills every Sunday (I know: why would anyone WANT to see the Bills this year). I want my Texas Longhorns on Saturdays. I want to see the Yankees and/or Red Sox every night. I want to see The Simpsons every Sunday and The Office every Thursday.

DirectTV will get me NFL and MLB if I pay for the premium subscription packages. But it will not let me see any local channels or network feeds. I am not making this up. They blame the FCC. I don't really understand.

DishNetwork will get me local network channels, but it does not carry either the NFL or MLB packages.

And Comcast would get me the baseball and the local, but not the football. Well, that's if they could ever find my house.

Why won't these companies take my money?

Vaidhyanathan calls upon his fellow sports fans to elect an administration in 2008 that takes "media regulation" more seriously in a nice example of electronic rhetoric.

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Man Down

As the search for aviation adventurer Steve Fossett, who has been missing for most of the month of September, goes on, his official website continues to seek the help of volunteers and paid experts sifting through data of possible crash sites. Fossett's friends and family have even solicited user-generated content by using the Mechanical Turk feature of to sort through satellite imagery from Google Earth. Now an electronic presentation by a radar specialist has indicated that the missing man may be in a particular unexplored area, according to news reports. According to VP friend and helicopter pilot Craid Dyer, searchers have actually found the remains of two other plane crashes in the process.

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Saturday, September 29, 2007

What You Can't Put Down

Yesterday's Op-Ed in The New York Times encapsulates much of the discussion that's been going on at international game studies conferences for the past few years. In "The Play's the Thing," Daniel Radosh complains that videogames are failing to evolve, even as they produce more visually dazzling graphics, because players are ultimately let down by games that rely on cinematic cut scenes and derivative media that are graphics-intensive rather than process-intensive and thus defer interesting design questions about creating original player-experiences of procedural play. This isn't news to anyone who has heard Greg Costikyan, Warren Spector, Raph Koster, Scot Osterweil, or anyone affiliated with the studio producing Will Wright's Spore at a conference, but it may be a new argument to readers of the mainstream press, where video game reviews still play a relatively minor role in comparison to film criticism.

What I thought was interesting was how Radosh tried to convey the gripping qualities of the two big critically acclaimed games of this summer: BioShock and Halo 3. As I write, BioShock is next to me at my PC, since I write about games of crisis and contamination in the context of government media production. Sadly, I have to put off installing it in my machine, given that I have two articles to deliver in the next two days. One of the ironies about Radosh's criticism of the dearth of games that are "profound" and "resonate" with players is that one of the games that's winning awards and critical attention for doing this -- Bill Viola and Tracy Fullerton's The Night Journey -- owes some of its user-friendliness to Halo 2.

The relationship of perceived addictiveness or intensity or immersion in game play to media merit is certainly one in literary studies as well, in which "page turners" rarely make it into the canon.

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Friday, September 28, 2007

Trend Spotting

It's interesting to me that some of the same people who dismiss elevated planetary temperatures associated with Global Warming as temporary cyclic phenomena are the same ones who are eager to sort data about the security situation in Iraq in ways that indicated that the United States is winning the war. As Information Aesthetics points out, this month's speech by General Petraeus about the status of the violence in Iraq used much of the same PowerPoint politics that have been criticized in this blog and by others who write about information design. For example, one of the things I immediately noticed about these four charts at World Politics Review that seemed to show a decrease in violence and an increase in social stability was that all four data representations used different time slices and increments (10/04-9/07, 5/06-8/07, 11/05-9/07, and 9/07 to the present) that may falsely suggest correlations between the information shown. In this fuller set at Townhall, I thought the fact that there was only one mash-up of data with a map of the region was interesting, given the fact that when violence in one area may be quelled, it may simultaneously be flaring up in another. And, as the Washington Monthly notices, the chart about withdrawal is entirely undefined at a certain point on its temporal axis.

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Don't Tell Me, Let Me Guess

The Los Angeles Times runs a lot of stupid stories on digital media, but today's item "Bradley Whitford states his case on YouTube" distinguishes itself by its profound lack of insight about the hugely popular video-sharing site. Actually the "No More Dirty Tricks" had a relatively modest 10,000 hits today, particularly when "Snake vs. Slug" has over 250,000 hits. The article is also full of moronic assertions that celebrities+politics would be a sure-fire recipe for YouTube popularity, contrary to the user-generated ethos that rules the site.

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Shooting Range

In reviewing footage from the news media about the Blackwater shoot-out, I've noticed the role that surprisingly crude computer simulations play in depicting the events in which Iraqi civilians died as a result of the trigger-happy U.S. security contractor. Although Reuters showed footage of the charred, bloodstained cars in the real-life urban landscape, NBC's clip on "Blackwater Under Fire" relied on a mix of 3D computer animation, stock footage, and info-graphical maps to depict the incident. (See this posting for more about computer re-enactment graphics in the case of school shootings.) To the credit of this Los Angeles local news channel, they also had original investigative reporting about the firm's planned expansion into Southern California.

For those interested in a more subversive take on the carnage, see how Mark Fiore's War for Profit uses animation to mock the embattled security firm.

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Three Lies

If you've ever been to Harvard Yard, you know what the three lies are, but you may not have seen this homage to Halo 3 engineered by MIT students in their latest prank. Details are here. (Thanks to quiz show god John Aboud for the link.)

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Sic Em

Today's Los Angeles Times had two stories about the remediation of the President's language. In "Bush gets an S, for slip-up," the reporter notes that although the President mispoke in an address at the Waldorf Astoria about the No Child Left Behind law by agrammatically saying "childrens do learn," the error had been cleaned up on the official transcript. However, when I checked the version of the transcript of the speech on the White House website, the original language had been restored, although it was followed with a bracketed "[sic]" to please those who value the sentence-level correctness that the No Child bill enshrines. In another story about "Tongue-twister names at the U.N.," we learn that the Chief Executive used phonetic guides to pronounce the names of world leaders and distant geographical locales such as "moo-Gah-bee" and "Hah-RAR-ray." I wonder if this technique is also used on the White House teleprompter?

When I first began to encourage the file-sharing of pedagogical materials in the large enrollment course in which I teach, I'll never forget when a French graduate student gleefully made a quiz available online to his colleagues that showed the correction symbols being used by the campus with a "Bushism" illustrating each error. It's an interesting document of the historical period, and I'm sorry to realize that I didn't archive it at the time. As I recall, I was worried about propagating an appearance of political bias, and so I didn't preserve that interesting piece of electronic ephemera.

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Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Border Crossing

After going through so many border checks last week, from France to England and from England to the U.S., I've been especially conscious of immigration trajectories and the evaluative exercises associated with border-crossing. During my trip, I often found myself making cynical procedural calculations about who might and might not be an asylum-seeker when choosing which passport-processing line to enter. After listening to the moving memoir of Haitian immigrant and niece of an asylum-seeker Edwidge Danticat on NPR today, I'm feeling a little guilty about distancing myself from their plight.

In my virtual life, I recently played Ian Bogost's persuasive game Points of Entry not as a potential immigrant, but as a federal officer judging the cases of applicants for entry. Unlike many videogames, there was considerable prefatory material that explained the rules of the game, which indicated that the game was designed for those who rarely played videogames and might not want to use trial-and-error to figure out the rules. The game's premise is that you are using the Kennedy point system to determine if a given immigrant is eligible for entry, but you have a God-like power to change the immigrants age, education, family members already in the United States, etc. in order to make their score optimized for entry. The mathematical catch is that you are competing against another inspector, and you need to shave points to generate higher index numbers by minimal margins in comparison to your opponent. And, of course, like many of Bogost's games, your work as a federal employee involves tremendous clock-ticking time pressure -- whether as a TSA screener, as a food import inspector, or as an immigration inspector. Actually I think that there is often less time/output pressure in government work than in many jobs in the private sector and that the challenges of delivering government services effectively often have more to do with a murky knowledge landscape where it's hard to know the scope of the problem rather than merely dashing through varying tasks as quickly as possible.

This fall, a 3D downloadable game called Iced from Breakthrough Games will be available to highlight the daily dilemmas of immigrant teens. The title comes from an acronym for "I Can End Deportation," and the game was recently featured in an article in The Los Angeles Times called "Immigration debate finds itself in play." As the article points out there are also ultra-racist games about the subject, such as the repugnant Border Patrol, which was reviewed here a year and a half ago.

As VP pal Dan McGrath has pointed out, the Internet may have played a significant role in ending the debate in Congress about the Kennedy-McCain Immigration Bill, S.1033, also known as the Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act. When anti-immigration bloggers decided to close-read or "dissect" the text, often by using the distributed labor made possible by collective Internet practices, they disseminated line-by-line commentaries on the voluminous piece of legislation in entries with titles like "The Immigration Bill Dissected," "Summary Of The Fine Print Read, And NZ's Easy To Use Text," and "Immigration Bill: Online and Awaiting Your Comments."

When it comes to my own relationship with the 50 United States, I much prefer online casual games like 50 States in 10 Minutes or Statetris.

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Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Movie Day

Check out this video that is being released in conjunction with professor, prankster, and Facebook friend Kembrew McLeod's Freedom of Expression® project. While you're at it, you should read McLeod's great editorial on Uri Geller's YouTube Takedown that ridicules the use of the DMCA by the famed talk-show telekinetic poser of my youth.

Here's another great copyright video that's been around for a while:

Thanks to the gang over at Sivacracy for some great links that the lit-crit crowd should appreciate as well. Of course, I enjoyed playing both videos at the same time.

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Monday, September 24, 2007

Laptop Rodeo

Yesterday, I attended the dress rehearsal of Janáček's heart-wrenching opera about infanticide, Jenůfa. It was interesting to see the role that laptop computers also played in the front of the orchestra as the players prepared for sound, lighting, and supertitles to be coordinated from mobile stations.

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Class Act

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Saturday, September 22, 2007

Aerial Hindsight

Now so many years after the September 11th attacks and the invasion of Afghanistan in retaliation it is interesting to see how Flash games about aerial bombing hold up over time, like this one: Holy War: Eliminate the Terrorists, which uses a map mash-up visual aesthetic as well.

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Friday, September 21, 2007

Boob Job

Facebook is facing a lot of justified indignation from new mothers who use the site who have been joining the online group Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene! (Official petition to Facebook)

Members accuse the social networking site of "pulling a myspace" by classifying pictures of nursing babies as objectionable.

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Thursday, September 20, 2007

Ito's Not Him

As today's Los Angeles Times reports in "TMZ learns if it's not Ito, it must say so," Celebrity news online video site TMZ mistakenly aired an imposter posing as the judge in O.J. Simpson's murder trial who states that the formerly acquitted defendent from his court must be guilty in his current Las Vegas robbery case. Although many only videos have impersonators mimicking famous public figures, some of whom have roles in the nation's branches of government, the man-on-the-street/red-carpet genre of celebrity sites may invite certain forms of brand confusion.

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Will Work for Wi-Fi

On my way back to the United States, as I hooked in from various wi-fi points via wireless hot spots or terminals that ate pound coins like slot machines, I was reminded of one of the most interesting images of the trip. This sign recruits potential Quakers with the promise of free wi-fi.

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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Patrimonial Intentions

I will admit that I have certain feelings about the French Ministry of Culture that most normal people would associate with the Internal Revenue Service. I am in awe of their authority; I feel a lot of deference toward their power over my psyche; and I dread going inside any of their buildings and confronting my own cultural anxieties and insecurities that go back to long before I studied with Jacques Derrida and Jean-François Lyotard in graduate school and corresponded with Claude Lévi-Strauss. Most people who know me will attest to the fact that I am a pretty hard-core Francophile, particularly during World Cup play in either soccer or rugby, but since I only speak the language for about three days in a given year, carrying on a formal conversation in connection with any kind of official business is very much like the disproportionate relationships involved with some Kafka hero being called before the Law.

Nonetheless, I took a deep breath and ended my European trip with an extensive interview with Christophe Dessaux and Sonia Zillhardt at the Ministry of Culture to discuss the digitization policies of their nation-state. It was a long conversation, in which they both seemed interested in the turned tables of having librarians become the object of study, but it was a bit frustrating because they often went back to their well-rehearsed talking points or the text of official reports. So in terms of the "field work" aspect of learning about social conflicts and belief systems in digitization or software development projects from talking with native informants, there wasn't as much to go on for getting a sense of the story of what wasn't built through revealing anecdotes or suggestive language choices. This is what "media archeologist" Erkki Huhtamo has called the "cryptohistories" of the study of digital culture, and it's a necessary part of scholarship that would otherwise be missed in field full of whizz bang demos, congratulatory narratives about technological progress, and endless corporate and institutional self-promotion efforts.

I left the meeting with a sense of incoherence about their national digitization strategy. They were still thinking about digitization efforts in terms of particular online exhibits, such as materials about the history of slavery, rather than true Internet-based libraries that would facilitate original interdisciplinary scholarship.

Perhaps one of the most uncomfortable moments in the interview was when I pointed out that the Web 3.0 material that they aimed me toward in the latest issue of Culture & Recherche involved Second Life, which for all the media hype, could be problematic given its proprietary software and extremely restrictive end user license agreements and its re-instantiation of the digital divide for the smaller group with more current graphics cards and nimble computers. When I visited the Second Louvre, at this publication's suggestion, I found it totally empty, as many have commented about SL environments.

Much of their conversation also involved the importance of policing copyright in ways that indicated a surprisingly narrow interpretation of fair use. As agents of cultural production, they argued, their advocacy role for producers of art was critical. They argued that stopping piracy was much more central to their organization than facilitating a "remix culture" with the materials that they had put online. For all their talk about democratization, they also seemed remarkably disinterested in user-generated content on Ministry of Culture sites and were still thinking about the feedback loop only in terms of the "contact us" e-mail or message.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Designing Horses

Here's a question for the man on the street: Who is the Librarian of Congress? Don't know? The answer is Cold Warrior James Billington! In contrast, I was amazed at the number of regular French citizens who had heard of the man who had famously led their national library, a diverse group which included engineers, waiters, mothers of autistic children, toy designers, hotel clerks, and grad students in computer science. I doubt such a diverse cross section of the American public would know the name of our librarian-in-chief.

I interviewed Jean-Noël Jeanneney, famed Google critic and former head of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in his unassuming offices at Europartenaires for the chapter on digital libraries for my upcoming Virtualpolitik book from MIT Press. Of course, I think it's an issue that more Americans should care about, given the monetary value, cultural capital, and life-or-death difference that information can make in our daily lives. If I had a film crew, I'd want to do a muckracking comparative documentary on the subject, à la Michael Moore's Sicko, rather than an academic book, to show why citizens of other countries are willing to devote more of their taxpayer dollars to digitization efforts and debate digitization choices.

For a man who once presided over the four looming ultra-modern towers of the BNF and its prison-like impersonal reading rooms, it was strange to sit down at a table with Jeanneney, after being let to his office past a kitchen, in a building full of modest flats near the city's main mosque.

The title of this posting comes from Jeanneney's definition of a "camel" as a "horse designed by committee." Known for his executive authority leading France's efforts to build a massive digital library and some might say his autocratic style, I found him to be a remarkably engaged and energetic participant, in which he comes off as much younger than his sixty-five years, in the debate about what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called "The Googlization of Everything." Jeanneney's own book on the subject, which appears in English under the title Google and the Myth of Universal Knowledge, has also been translated into Arabic, Portuguese, Chinese, German, Japanese, and Spanish and will shortly be out in paperback. Ironically, I discovered that the very first hit on Google for the book is this one.

In short, Jeanneney argues that the Mountain View, California company is benefiting from "the philosophy of American capitalism" combined with oligarchical tendencies that date back to "old Greece" when "wealthy people" were in charge of "defining culture." In contrast, Jeanneney argues that consumers must pay for their culture somehow, a message that goes back to his time heading France's public broadcasting network, when he argued that "no radio is free," and that of the "two systems of financing culture" it was better to go with the publicly financed one in which metamedia is seen as part of the public interest.

It was an extended discussion about national resources, intellectual property, social media, the public good, and other fundamental questions about ethics and epistemology. At one point he gave me a copy of his rhetorically fascinating farewell letter to the staff of the BNF, entitled Lettre aux personnels de la Bibliothèque nationale de France au moment de leur dire adieu, a seventy-eight page printed document in which he tries to have the last word in a contentious debate about archival policies.

Although he's known as a Google-critic or as he says "not a Googlist," Jeanneney also admitted to relying on the search engine, like most academics, as Berkeley researcher Diane Harley has shown. He was not aware, however, that the BNF had a prominently displayed Google search interface on its web page, even during the time of his tenure, according to the Internet Archive. (See above.) He also said that there was a certain "ambivalence" created by the heroic narrative of the "birth of Google," although he believed that the limits of their idealism could be clearly seen just in schemes to alter page ranking to suit the highest bidder. Like Ted Nelson, earlier this week at the ACM Hypertext Conference, he also pointed to Google's mortality, and the fact that it was a "fragile giant." He even expresses some perverse gratitude toward the company, because he claimed that it encouraged Europe to mobilize.

As to the cultural politics of France, he had some choice words after his forced retirement from the BNF. He also said that it was too early in the Sarkozy administration to judge the strength of what he characterized as a "laziness of feeling" about strategic planning for mass digitization that he thought could be a feature of both the political right and left. He pointed out the irony of the scale of the cost, when the eight million euros he was requesting would be comparable to the cost os a "big apartment in the sixteenth district." (I stayed in the 17th during my visit.)

I asked him about his praise for the Library of Congress in his book, particularly of the American Memory Collection, which I find to be incoherent in its historical vision and riddled with troubling incursions of private interest, the most obvious of which is the archive devoted to Coca Cola advertisements, which was paid for by guess who. At this he indicated that I might me "more anti-American" than he was, although he explained that much of this was a rhetorical move aimed to assuage cultural conflicts between the two countries linked to the Iraq war. He also seemed less focused on the linguistic politics of the Internet in our interview, which was largely conducted in English, than I had expected, given that so much of the book was about resisting English hegemony.

Since I had just spoken with librarians at the British Library who demonstrated the machines involved in their corporate partnership with Microsoft, I asked him if he thought that the paradigm there was really as different from the Google model, as they had claimed. He seemed skeptical about Great Britain's commitment to digitization and warned of the danger of "seduction" by the private sector, although he felt that they had moved toward a greater European cultural identity in recent years. (And, just so you can feel like you've learned another piece of cocktail party trivia from this column, I will add in the fact that the head of the British Library in Lynn Brinley.)

Despite his ambitious digital information infrastructure-building goals, Jeanneney is skeptical about Internet utopianism. Later in the week, his essay in Le Débat about the concept of "gratuité" was slated to appear in which Jeanneney questions the ideology of "free culture." He has also been critical of Wikipedia of late: in Le Point in "Wikipédia, une encyclopédie pas si Net," which translates as "Wikipedia, a not so nice encyclopedia," he argued that that "the road to hell is paved with good intentions" and that the notion of collective intelligence represented faith in a "mysterious alchemy" by which the sum of individuals would produce a superior rather than an average intellectual output.

To his credit, Jeanneney also recognized the importance of archiving "born digital" materials early on by using "les robots" to "augment," "harvest," and "collect" digital ephemera, which in the French case -- like many other countries -- first involved saving web pages relevant to the 2002 elections. He also said that he had bought materials from Brewster Kahle and the Internet Archive to improve the nation's digital collections.

At the end of the nearly two-hour-long interview he showed me a framed print of one of the wonderful globes that the BNF has put on display, next to his current window on the world. If you speak French, you can check out the podcasts of Jeanneney's popular radio show, Concordance des temps, here, in which he brings on an historian to discuss then-and-now historical parallels on subjects such as high profile poisonings (Ukranian presidential candidates and medieval political challengers) and reforming politicos (Sarkozy and Napoleon III).

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Today I had lunch with French PhD candidate and computer scientist Jean-Baptiste Labrune and his girlfriend for a wide-ranging conversation over a Left Bank lunch about the role of English as the lingua franca of the study of digital culture, creativity, cognition, design, games, environmental experiences, and intergenerational play that included everything from the origin of the green button on a copying machine to the work of those with Kolkoz and We Make Money Not Art.

I met Jean-Baptiste after he sent a message to the Institute for Distributed Creativity mailing list with many cool links about the sociality and history of e-mail.

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Sunday, September 16, 2007

Wild Thoughts

While situating myself on a non-working Sunday, I visited the new musée du quai Branly, which is devoted to the art and ritual culture of non-European populations. In conjunction with the Rugby World Cup, they had a series of special expositions, lectures, and performances on the theme of "La mêlée des cultures." As someone who wrote one of my first published pieces on Claude Lévi-Strauss (who wrote a nice note about my biographical essay on him) and who has been following the resurgence of structuralism in the scholarly communities that study games, hypertext, and computer animation, I noted that a large portion of the building was named after the famed French anthropologist. Strolling around exhibits about Africa, Oceania, Asia, and the Americas, I noticed how unusually attentive museum designers were to the soundscape that visitors would inhabit. This acknowledgement of auditory culture is still relatively rare in art curation but it is increasingly part of museum-going. The mood was also set by a son et lumière work by Trinh Minh Ha.

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Saturday, September 15, 2007

Book Club

Yesterday I had a productive trip to the British Library to interview senior librarians Aly Conteth and Neil Fitzgerald. I had come to the UK to update an article that was published years ago in Literary and Linguistic Computing for the upcoming Virtualpolitik book from MIT Press. Rather than approach the subject from the perspective of uncritical publicizing of new technology in mainstream journalism, as articles like "Behind the scenes: The British Library and digitisation" do, I tried to ask probing questions about the cryptohistory of Britain's digital library efforts that included failures and lessons learned. To their credit, my hosts were very forthright and even allowed me to observe and photograph the digitization process in action. As they point out the Internet makes a "nonsense of national copyright regimes," but in their current joint effort with Microsoft, they are aiming for an ambitious twenty-five million pages or about a hundred thousand items that will be in accord with U.K. copyright rules with the aim of fostering educational use at all levels. They were careful to distinguish themselves from Google Book Search and emphasized their commitment to open standards and more egalitarian partnership models with corporate behemoths. I was, of course, leery of the way that Microsoft is publicizing its new (and flawed) operating system Vista through the initiative, but BL librarians argued that there were many systems involved in the entire process.

We also discussed the often invisible labor policies involved in digitization efforts. As they pointed out, the conversion of "physical to digital" with the imaging machine is only a small part of a process that involves quality assurance, delivery systems, and metadata schemes to create meaningful informational resources. They speculated about best practices for creating a "more robust workflow" around the replication process that would facilitate resource discovery, the connection of electronic resources together, and the importance of benefit for targeted groups to satisfy the requirements of their funding bodies. In particular, the British Library still struggles with a mandate not to digitize using monies from "core funding" that dates back to the beginnings of digitization. The lack of national strategies or frameworks also continues to be an issue.

Conteth had a lot of interesting things to say about the huge Burney Collection of newspapers from 1603-1817. In late October, the library plans to offer U.S. and U.K. readers Internet access through the library portals of institutions of higher education. He pointed out that in archiving newspapers now, it is sometimes more practical to skip the intermediate step of ironing and photographing the print version and merely keep the digital file that represents the text, images, and layout made for production purposes. He also talked about the perils of outsourcing some of the labor of newspaper metadata to India, where even the best English-speaking operators may not recognize common English place names.

Fitzgerald sketched out some of the library's other partnerships. This timeline from the European Library is designed to clarify multiple projects and acronyms. They also discussed the International Dunhuang Project to bring together physically dispersed 100,000 manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artifacts from the Silk Road that can be reunited through the digital interface.

Perhaps some of the library's greatest challenges involve copyright issues, particularly for the BL's substantial sound library. Conteth and Fitzgerald described how anything with potential commercial value, including the soundtrack to an awards show, may not be considered an archivable text or historical record. Jazz oral histories or the recordings of a sound researcher in Uganda may be uncontroversial at the moment, but record companies keep rights to many tracks with their future remix value in mind.

Finally, I asked them for their thoughts on the high-tech sci-fi future of their national library. Apparently plans for a hypothetical outpost have been discussed not very seriously. In contrast, the library is already using social media with its own gadget for iGoogle and pages on Facebook that includes one for entrepreneurial and networking efforts and an online book club on the popular social networking site. Librarians sounded more dubious about having users participate more actively in generating metadata for its digital collections, although the possibility of a non-Wikipedia-type model with an authentication scheme -- perhaps modeled on their use of smartcards at present -- might lead them to reconsider, given the potential value of user-generated content to understaffed libraries. I also learned that the British Library has licensed its sound library of the calls of extinct animals as ring tones for cellular telephones. (I actually heard one of these ring tones on the train before it went under the English channel.)

While I was there I also visited Sacred, an exposition about holy texts from interrelated Judeo-Christian-Islamic faith traditions. In addition to the books in glass cases, the installation also used several computer terminals to facilitate viewer comments, access to background materials in a hypertext catalog, and interaction with the proprietary "Turning the Pages" technology.

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British Reserves

During my stay in Britain, one of my hosts was Jolyon Welsh of Britain's Foreign Office. Readers of this blog know that much of its text has been devoted to criticisms of the digital media initiatives of government agencies that often insult the intelligence of their potential audiences. (I've even been known to give awards in the subject.) Of course, not all nations are compelled to make the public relations mistakes of the United States with digital media and the networked, file-sharing culture that consumes and produces it. This article about the "British Approach" from Public Diplomacy Watch shows that Although "nation branding" expert Simon Anholt sits on their advisory board, Welsh sketched out a much more sophisticated plan for using distributed media than I often hear about in public diplomacy efforts that may be dominated by strategies inappropriately borrowed from corporate advertising and marketing. For example, Welsh showed me BSN television, which makes video footage available both to Internet viewers and to foreign news stations who need B-roll footage to illustrate stories. While visiting the foreign office's site I was also impressed by the well-reviewed i-uk site.

Unlike hyper-patriotic content on many U.S. sites, these materials seem well-designed for integration into media markets far from home. He also had some innovative ideas about ways to bring videogame technology and real-time social media applications like Twitter to diplomatic efforts in order to foster public participation in the debate about global warming. Apparently Welsh's bosses, like many in the U.K. government, are already using YouTube as a message-delivery tool. Check out David Miliband's YouTube channel here. Although some dismiss these efforts as video propaganda, it beats the idiotic kids' pages and "Ask the Whitehouse"-type Q&As that dominate official electronic discourse from the government in the U.S.

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Friday, September 14, 2007

The Hypertext Museum

Today I prioritized visiting several museums that have made images of their collections available to educational users. When the intellectual property of museums has garnered such value for commercial products that appeal to status-conscious consumers, it is great to see how The Wellcome Trust and The Victoria and Albert Museum have been understanding of the needs of pedagogical audiences for visually engaging texts in initiatives praised by free culture advocates. (See the code in the tome above from the Human Genome Product for an example of a recent Wellcome installation.) At the V&A a gallery tour called "Uncomfortable Truths" made links between seemingly unconnected items associated with the slave trade, somewhat like hyperlinks that move from the linear organization of the museum's conventionally experienced spaces.

In keeping with my trip's interest in national libraries -- digital or physical -- I also went to the British Museum to visit the old reading room of the British Library. Imagine my disappointment to see that the reading room was filled with a blockbuster exhibition of ceramic warriors from China and thus not open to the non-ticket holding public.

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Thursday, September 13, 2007


Visiting the city of Bath, England today, the home of historical beautiful people from the Roman era to the age of Romanticism, I had an opportunity to reflect on the difference between analog and digital reconstruction. Although they did have an amusingly outdated collection of pre-Google web statistics, the Jane Austen Centre largely emphasized simulations that used dolls, film costumes, and live re-enactors to represent and make manifest the historical past.

In contrast, the Roman Baths of Bath, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, used computer models on the television monitors in almost every room to provide three-dimensional representations of the baths as they would be occupied by modestly posed and yet frequently naked computer-generated humans splashing around in the shimmeringly rendered water.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Fifty-Five Yahoos with Shareware

Mark Bernstein of Eastgate systems closed out the conference with an evening presentation called "Unlinked and Entangled" about the authorities' failures at "recording everyday information" after the invasion of Iraq. Although as a producer of Tinderbox, which uses the model of the book but also that of the calendar and the ledger, he has an obvious commercial interest in electronic notebooks being used for collective record-keeping, Bernstein was remarkably agnostic, given the failures of "groupware coming from management" that had been observed in the field and the dismissive remarks of one officer about "fifty-five yahoos with shareware" as being the best that the Coalition Provisional Authority could produce. Bernstein also pointed out the was that looting targeted the information infrastructureof the country (the Ministry of Information, computers, archives, records offices, museums, etc.) because the native population could see it as valuable while the occupiers couldn't. He argued that the "information processing community" should share in some of the blame for the Iraq catastrophe.

The other part of his talk was perhaps more predictable, with oft-rehearsed observations about the role that the overly simplistic electronic slideshow program from Microsoft, PowerPoint, played in a "Beautiful Dream" about the country's future made up of "simple talking points and simple beliefs." For example, Bernstein showed a laughable flowchart that went direct to a "legal system" and "joint administration" and an embarrassing stick-figure presentation called "How to Win in Anbar" that showed a stick figure sheik saying "I own a construction company" in a speech balloon. Such presentations, Bernstein argues, infantalizes both "subjects" and "audiences." He also pointed out the propaganda value of the PowerPoint coming from the assumed enemy in the much disseminated "7 Duties of a Sniper."

He closed his talk by pointing out that all of the images and data had been supplied by social media sources that were free of proprietary copyrights. Perhaps now that the military is cracking down on the use of Web 2.0 by soldiers, such windows on the war will no longer be possible.

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The final keynote came from hypertext pioneer and ZigZag guru Ted Nelson, whose work on "literary machines" and file structures for "the complex, the changing, and the indeterminate" I will teach in the opening of my social media class in the same week as Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think.”

In a talk peppered with neologisms, Nelson demonstrated the current version of his Xanadu system in which he could "sworf" (swoop and morph) in the space of interlinked documents that were characterized by "flinks" or floating links. In Nelson's history of hypertext, there are a few significant dates: 1945 (the year in which hierarchical directories and lump files with no overlap became the standard), 1960 (the year in which these structures were formalized by early operating systems), 1968 (the year of "The Great Dumbdown" in which one-way links were instantiated), and 1974 (the year of the Xerox PARC user interface). Nelson focused much of his invective on this last innovation, which featured "disconnected windows" and the elements of the early "desktop" with a waste basket and a clipboard that Nelson dismisses as a propagandistic device. Although Lev Manovich has argued that cut-and-paste operations are an essential component of the language of new media, Nelson mourns the "hundreds of thousands of valuable things lost every day" because only one object can be handled at a time that leads him to "feel emotional."

Perhaps one of the most interesting parts of his talk was when Nelson compared Xerox in the seventies to Google now and discussed the relative hubris of their corporate models. As the daughter of a Xerox employee during its heyday, I well remember the expired patents that Nelson gloated over. Unfortunately Nelson couldn't help but make a regrettable dig at the company that claimed that Xerox didn't do real user testing in which he said they tested their wares on "secretaries" and "clueless people" who had "no intense involvement with document production. This kind of anti-feminism grates on my nerves, like J.C.R. Licklider's classic assertion that "one can hardly take a military commander or a corporation president away from his work to teach him to type."

In Nelson's alternative history, "XML is evil," and the World Wide Web represents a scenario like The Butterfly Effect in which each of his interventions produces the worst of all possible worlds. However, the audience seemed skeptical of the system that he demoed, although not as critical as the writer of the caustic "The Curse of Xanadu." Even Facebook friend Jim Whitehead at UC Santa Cruz seemed dubious that Nelson's system could actually be adopted by the general public.

Nelson also showed his student film, The Epiphany of Slocum Furlow, from his days at Swarthmore to argue that film editing had helped him conceptualize a hypertext document. Although he attacked the idea of lump files and hierarchical directories, he may have already lost the battle, in that widely used film-editing programs like Final Cut Pro read like those hated HTML files.

As someone interested in design issues, I also thought Nelson's autobiographical story of his grandfather's disastrous encounter with a pressure cooker that nearly disfigured him after it covered him with boiling mashed potatoes was a moment in which his mistrust of "techie traditions" seemed grounded in a deep emotional memory.

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Sob Stories

One of the most cohesive panels at Hypertext 2007 was the panel about “Hypertext Tragedy.” Nick Lowe (who also happened to have a cool keyboard) introduced the subject with a good overview of the genre in the classical world and the argument that Aristotle’s Poetics was “XML for literary theory.” He also provided an interesting meditation on print culture, in that it was Aristotle’s works that weren’t intended for publication that happened to survive. Much of his talk was devoted to less relevant – if anecdotally engaging – examples of creative misreadings of Aristotle with “the unities,” the “tragic hero,’ the “fatal flaw,” and anything written by screenwriting mentor Robert McKee. Following Lowe, Kieron O'Hara, the author of Plato and the Internet presented an analysis of twentieth century tragic models. Then one of our Manchester hosts, Dave Millard, attempted to answer the question “Why is Narrative Important to Engineers?” He argued that it was both potentially profitable as a research area to be retasked for the game industry and that it had cultural value since humans were “storytelling animals” who gather around the water cooler for critical exchanges. He showed some of the classic rhetorical circuit diagrams in his PowerPoint presentation and then turned the podium over to hypertext author Emily Short. She looked at examples of computerized text adventures that could fit into the paradigm of the tragic genre, including Shade (a dark favorite of my Facebook friend Jeremey Douglass about death by thirst), Rendition (about a torture scenario), and other examples.

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Whither Hypertext

The Hypertext 2007 conference had moved very far from its initial model of authorial one-to-one or one-to-many interactivity to embrace electronic interconnected texts that may have many-to-many Web 2.0 characteristics and the semantic web’s use of self-organizing technologies.

From the very beginning of the panels on “Hypertext and the Person,” it was clear that social media paradigms would be important for assessing the role of hypertext and digital culture. As someone who studies institutional websites, I was interested in the paper about how “websites evolve over time” from Christian Doerr and Daniel von Dincklage about research done on the trials followed by users to the University of Colorado site. The team did manage to create a workable program that could generate “quicklinks” that predicted frequently accessed sites at a given point in the academic calendar, but they had to use a notBlog(A) function to filter results that would contain expired content, maintain a “blacklist” of rhetorically inappropriate front-page choices, and do a certain among of editing of the automatically generated results. The University of Colorado was also apparently open to “Web 2.0” approaches that would allow visitors to personal institutional pages. In contrast, Markel Vigo from the University of the Basque Country focused on web accessibility issues, which could also be user-generated, but may not solve the problems of elderly, disabled, or at-risk users, who are often unable to find information about life-or-death programs.

My paper started of the track on “Hypertext, Culture, and Communication” in which I discussed how web generators could be used for political and social satire. After opening with a discussion of the subversive appeal of the Church Sign Generator, I showed some examples of more pointed institutional critique: The Northwest Boarding Pass Generator, the Postmodern Essay Generator, and SCIgen, an interface for creating computer-science papers, three of which were actually accepted for a deceptively nonselective conference. I closed with a discussion of how the “interactivity” and creative potential of commercialized versions of Web 2.0 could be parodied at sites like Mark Marino’s Web 2.0 App Generator.

Next Monica Schraefel (mc schraefel) held forth about the continuing relevance of Vannevar Bush’s classic essay about information, “As We May Think” in on “What is the Analogue for the Semantic Web and Why is Having One Important?” She defined the semantic web as being Bush’s Memex + a Notebook function. She argued that analogies like “The Web is like a page,” even in the case of mash-ups based on maps encouraged false assumptions about information architecture. Bush, she pointed out, wanted computers to be tasked with repetitive tasks, rather than leaving the computationally trivial non-AI problems to people.

Schraefel’s analysis included an extended meditation about electronic notebooks and the desire to have “automatic capture so we can forget,” since we are no longer in an oral culture of continuous rehearsals. In getting out of mere keyword matching, she talked about sending kids into the woods with PDAs equipped for data capture to encourage the social activity of sharing results. Among the other programs she mentioned were myGrid, Haystack, and Since I’ve been having a long-running discussion with my colleagues about the difficulty of getting students to create research notebooks without having them be dismissed as busywork, my interest really was stimulated by Schraefel’s talk, which received the best paper prize at the conference. In my own academic planning, I’ve been looking at the relative merits of Zotero, Netvibes (which can get students organizing RSS feeds based on keywords), and some of the options from corporate behemoth Google.

She closed with a larger point about valorizing the pidgin generated by semantic web practices that mixed wild and tame (and see more on pidgins and creoles here).

Next up was new Facebook friend Nick Diakopoulos from Georgia Tech who gave a paper about “The Evolution of Authorship in a Remix Society.” Diakopoulos’s group has been studying the attitudes of video re-mix makers on the online editing site JumpCut. In analyzing both the discourse of the website and extended interviews with six users, the research team looked at the four sides of Lawrence Lessig’s Norms/Laws/Market/Architecture schema to analyze participants and administrators differing attitudes about intellectual property.

After lunch Hugh C. Davis presented a great paper, “Towards Better Understanding of Folksonomic Patterns,” about user tagging patterns on I was surprised to learn about the number of computer tags that mimicked conventions in computer programming and that 34% of them could be categorized as for personal reference (“toHugh,” “myBlog,” “toRead,” etc.). Davis argued that with user-generated tagging, only about 5% of tags were useful, although many of the others with terms like “Kool” and “Kickass” were also worth studying as evaluative data. Co-author Hend S. Al-Khalifa had done the hard work of categorizing over 10,000 tags. My favorite tag of all time has to be the self-evident “SaveThis.”

Toward the end of the day, Harris Wu showed an interesting makeover of that tried to create more useful navigation than the simple A-Z index that it had before. He also discussed a site with images of American Political History. Also up was Claudia Hess examining authorship patterns in featured articles in the German Wikipedia that were designated as “Exzellent” or “Lesenwert” (worth reading). Finally, the first half of the “Hypertext and Society” programme ended with Martin Halvey discussing his research findings on YouTube, where the average age of a tagging user was 24 and most pages get their views in the first week.

The dinnertime keynote with Wendy Hall, “Back to the Future with Hypertext: A Tale of Two or Three Conferences” was a surprisingly self-critical look back at the organization’s history and some of the missed opportunities in their conference past. Although she didn’t get into some of Nick Montfort’s critiques about the battle between “hypertext” and “cybertext” in the academy in which "Cybertext Killed the Hypertext Star," she did discuss the organization’s blindness to the potential of the World Wide Web. She started her history in 1987 with her own reading of “As You May Think” and the introduction of the Hypercard for Mac. She also cited Douglas Englebart’s work on augmenting human intellect in her “intertwingled,” to use the phrase of Ted Nelson, who was in the audience, compressed analysis of influence studies in the field of hypertext. Most amazingly, she tells the story about how Web pioneer Tim Berners-Lee presented about the World Wide Web at the conference in 1990 (although he did not have a formal peer-reviewed paper) and that his paper in 1991 was rejected, even though his work would turn out to be visionary. By 1993, she said half of the papers had web demos at the height of the conference in Seattle. Sadly, she says that the groups failure to “embrace the web” led to a schism with the ACM’s designated web special interest group, which led to a disaster in 1997 in which the two conferences were in competition on the academic schedule. She charged that by then the web conference, which was held in a theme park and charged a pricey registration, excluded “poets, authors, and human aspects” that the original hypertext conference had embraced. Although she talked about the importance of considering hypertext as both an art and science, she did, however, confess to having some interactions with creative writers at past conferences that made her think of the scene with the Vogons in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. In closing with an attitude of self-forgiveness, she discussed the difficulty of predicting what people will do with technology with the example of the “mostly okay” Wikipedia as a case in point.

Update: Apparently conference organizers were also asking these questions.

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Manchester England, England

Although it seems should be associating this northern English city with the gloomy electronic music of my youth and bands like Joy Division and the Buzzcocks, instead I find myself with the cheerful repetitive refrain from the song from Hair running through my skull as I walked through the city streets under the urban canopy of CCTV cameras.

Of course, my first stop was Manchester Cathedral, where sadistic and gory murders were virtually staged for the videogame Resistance: Fall of Man without the church's permission. As a site of political conscience, where the term "Welfare State" was coined and a sermon against the slave trade launched a petition drive that garnered signatures from a fifth of the city, and which was rebuilt after bomb attacks from Nazi planes and the IRA, church elders are now very protective of the images of the church, which they treat as intellectual/sacred property. Signs read "No photo-imaging devices or recording equipment may be used in the Cathedral without the express and written permission of the Sub-Dean." Actually, the cathedral is remarkably modest in size compared to its larger ecclesiastical cousins on the Continent. It is dwarfed by a nearby sight-seeing ferris wheel and nestled among historical English taverns.

At the end of the evening we had a tour of the Manchester Museum, where our guide pointed out how Victorian scientists arranged displays of stuffed animals to suit patriarchal and Eurocentric agendas. It was also interesting to hear about how interactive touch-screen displays that had ceased to function were replaced with tried-and-true techniques for interactivity like large paper and cups of crayons.

(Thanks to Simon Harper for organizing the Hypertext 2007 conference that brought me to the city.)

Update: Regarding the Manchester Cathedral controversy, Gamasutra has a great piece by pal Ian Bogost, "Persuasive Games: The Reverence of Resistance," which actually looks at the rhetoric of sacred spatiality that the game presents.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Dance Card

I'll be in Europe for the next ten days, so blogging may be more sporadic in the coming week, although the daily feed should eventually be updated when I'm in range of wireless.

I expect to have some interesting events on which to report from the other side of the Atlantic. I will be attending Hypertext 2007, where I will be giving a paper on "Assembly Lines: Web Generators as Hypertexts" that looks at PHP coding communities and some of my favorite issues about national security, copyright, political subversion, satire, and critical theory. I've also scheduled interviews about the politics of digitization with senior librarians at the British Library and the former head of La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

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Saturday, September 08, 2007


In this week's Time magazine, an article called "The War over Going Gray" suggests that hair color is the newest site for feminist debate. As Jenny Cool points out, it is also an interesting example of the rhetorical use of the digital production program Photoshop, in that powerful women associated with the authority of the state like Condoleeza Rice and Nancy Pelosi are shown with their locks as they would be in their natural graying state. Apparently gray is not politic. As author Anne Kreamer observes, of the 16 female senators now serving their constituencies, not a single one has a silvery mane. Given that Time has featured some remarkably artful Photoshop, such as its "Reagan's tear" cover artwork, I was surprised by the relatively crude digital painting featured by the glossy magazine.

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Friday, September 07, 2007

Mining the Machiavellian

The international digital library initiative, The Medici Archive Project, is making the correspondence of the powerful Renaissance political dynasty accessible to the broader public. The Medici family letters are full of details from the practices of everyday life and include accounts of morning sickness, children dissatisfied with presents, and letters of recommendation for their household cooks (who were hopefully not included in the family's periodic poisoning of its rivals). With over three million letters and a complicated cross-referenced system that includes a "PeopleBase" and a "DocBase," it's an interesting window on political machinations in the pre-digital world. It also includes information about Jewish history from the period from the period and documents about the Florentine Ghetto.

(Thanks to my colleague and fellow carpooler David Kay for the link.)

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Thursday, September 06, 2007

Flag Waving

Those who follow events in Africa may be aware of how Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe has consolidated power and curtailed many of the political and civil rights of the country's citizens who protest his autocratic rule. Freedom of the press is currently under a terrible stranglehold and journalists who use electronic media and other means to communicate with the outside world risk arrest, detention, and beatings.

Of course, Zimbabwe's official government websites give few clues to what is happening in the country. In Zimbabwe Government Online, an old-style Microsoft Front Page site, links to subsidiary ministries are full of stock photos and transcripts of speeches rather than information or forms for constituents.

There's also an interesting parody site that repurposes even the flag-waving animated logo from the official site.

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Wednesday, September 05, 2007

People in Glass Classrooms Shouldn't Throw Stones

In my e-mail in-box today was an invitation to take Justice Online, a distance-learning course for Harvard grads that features Harvard professor Michael Sandel. I actually took Justice as an undergrad, so the pitch seemed a weird form of déjà vu. (As a student, I liked Sandel's lectures, but found that most of the actual discussion took place in sections where the teaching by graduate students was uneven.) Thanks to the wonders of online video, you can watch part of a sample lecture on the trolley car moral dilemma, sometimes known as the train track dilemma for purposes of another Harvard professor's online Morality Sense Test.

Of course, at U.C. Irvine, we are also experimenting with making our interactions with students more public. You can check out my bad hair day at the UCI Teaching and Learning with Technology YouTube channel.

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Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Cult Following, Part Two

Obviously, there is similarity in the titles of both Andrew Keen's Cult of the Amateur (2007) and Theodor Roszak's The Cult of Information (1986). Both of them also claim the ethos of the cognoscenti and categorically deny that they are technophobes. Keen describes himself as "an apostate, an insider now on the outside who has poured out his cup of Kool-Aid and resigned his membership in the cult," and Roszak compares himself to the boy in the fairy tale saying that the emperor has no clothes, although he also points out that the "manuscript for this book was typed on a word processor," and that "at numerous points, the research for the text made extensive use of electronic data bases." Like Keen's book it's also full of stories from the author's professional and personal life as he explains the roots of his skepticism.

However, Roszak's reading of religious fervor around technology is considerably more subtle, in that it focuses on the "folklore" of technology and looks closely at the history of information theory and the contributions to the field of computer science and signal processing by sometimes problematic pioneers like Claude Shannon and Norbert Wiener. It's also a more theoretically sophisticated book: it uses the theories of Habermas rather than merely name-drops or tells anecdotes about the contemporary German philosopher. In pointing out the Weberian character of electronic bureaucracy, Roszak facilitates dialogue with scholars like Jane Fountain, who work on Weberian theory and the "virtual state." Furthermore,in its critique of educational technology, it presents a much more nuanced argument about "vested interests" instead of a tirade like that of the book version of Digital Diploma Mills by David Noble. Even twenty years later, Roszak's book is still relevant, while Keen's may not be.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Cult Following, Part One

Okay, users and musers, it's time for another Virtualpolitik book review. And this time it's a double-header, with the more recent The Cult of the Amateur going up against a tried-and-true classic, The Cult of Information.

As you can see above, Keen made a bad showing on the Colbert Report, in which he compares Web 2.0 to the Third Reich and claims "even the Nazis didn't put artists out of work." Keen goes on to assert that if no one "pays" for art then it must not have any aesthetic value. Colbert points out to Keen that the Presidency has been a much greater source of influential misinformation than distributed networks.

Ironically, Keen also sent his book tour spam to the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity, which prompted outrage about Keen's use of their online community for his anti-Web 2.0 self-promotion in a thread called "Spammer de la Silicon Valley." At the same time the iDC's own Trebor Scholz has put together a much more thoughtful critique in his course syllabus on The Social Web, which asks "Is it feasible to live ethical, meaningful lives in the context of the Social Web today?"

It is precisely these kinds of serious questions about digital sociality that Keen avoids in his light read on file-sharing culture. Much of it just repurposes the rhetoric of criminality already in the mainstream media in which the Internet is merely a conduit of the Seven Deadly Sins. (Unlike our government, at least Keen doesn't equate it with terrorism as well.)

I'm certainly leery of many aspects of Web 2.0, but Keen's book is supremely illogical at a number of critical junctures. He's right that the word "democratization" is often misapplied to networked social media that are sometimes callow get-rich-quick schemes, and that search engine technology presents an insidious threat to privacy. And the final chapter on "solutions," with the exception of the call for greater regulation, is not an entirely stupid call for hybrid print-Internet initiatives.

At one point he moralizes about how "Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, and James Boswell didn't hide between aliases while debating one another." Of course, lots of great literature was written under a pseudonym, particularly -- as Bitch PhD's Tedra Osell has pointed out -- literature written by women. What about Sor Juana, George Sand, George Eliot, or the Brontë sisters who wrote under the pseudonyms of Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell? It's noticeable, actually, how little of the "great art" that Keen declares to be in danger is written by women.

His claims about the threats to the academy are also problematic. He bemoans the status of Encyclopedia Britannica, but doesn't acknowledge that the decline of encyclopedic writing by academics has as much to do with tenure and reward systems that no longer recognize work done for reference works as it does with the existence of rival upstart Wikipedia. Then he totally loses me when he talks about the terrible effects that custom publishing has wrought in higher education. As the Writing Director for a large-enrollment first-year course, I'm grateful not to be stuck with irrelevant readers or writing textbooks that don't address the ambitious inquiry-based humanities instruction that we provide.

He also may be over-investing print in stability and authority, given that historians like Adrian Johns point out that ink-and-paper media were also fractious and contentious spaces.

As the owner of a small apartment building, who also has to periodically rent apartments through Craigslist, I'm not nostalgic for the old days of newsprint classified ads in the way that Keen is. He should be old enough to remember that these ads were enormously time-consuming and didn't allow for easy exchanges of different kinds of information between contractual parties.

Finally, it seems strange to me that Keen won't acknowledge the role that media conglomeration has played in the struggles of national newspapers and other media ventures that focus on return for shareholders rather than serving a particular segment of the geographical population.

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Sunday, September 02, 2007

Hot Potato

The Google "Gmail: A Behind the Scenes Video" that promotes their Gmail application by making a pitch to the audience's emotions and exploiting the international and inter-generational dynamics of the web for commercial purposes has a troubling side to its feel-good visual rhetoric.

Because these amateur filmmakers are highlighting the logo of a corporate product, how is this different from having the video volunteers hand off a McDonald's "M" in each cut? What if these volunteers were shown passing a pair of handcuffs to publicize Amnesty International or a set of dogtags to ask that the soldiers in Iraq be brought home? Would their collective labor be better spent?

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Saturday, September 01, 2007

Call of the Wild

Thanks to Dennis Jerz for posting this awesome compilation of cinematic examples of the "Wilhelm Scream."

Now, who owns the copyright on the scream or how did it come to be considered in the public domain?

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The Eleventh Hour

Seen by over 100,000 people, this YouTube video by Dutch rapper Jav'lin has been used to mobilize Europeans to take part in petition drives to commute the death sentence of Kenneth Foster for serving as a getaway driver in the botched robbery that resulted in murder. (This text and photo-montage version of the song contains the contact information for the Texas governor's office, who spared Foster from the death chamber this week.)

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