Thursday, January 31, 2008

Multimedia Manifestos

In the intimate setting of today's session about DIY Texts: The Future of Student Writing with colleagues Jacqueline Rhodes of Cal State San Bernadino and UCI Writing Coordinator Jonathan Alexander, there were some provocative questions raised about how faculty judge our students as digital media-makers in academic settings in preparation for a larger conference about the subject that will take place in the months ahead.

For their part, Rhodes and Alexander reviewed the discursive exchanges surrounding the Virginia Tech campus shooting and how not only could the murderous rampage of student Seung-Hui Cho be seen as prefigured in his writing courses, as well as in the "mulitmedia manifesto" that he delivered to NBC news, but also -- more importantly -- how these works reverberated in subsequent extracurricular reflections about college composition and student expression more generally that were disseminated in the days after the shooting. As Alexander and Rhodes write, "The proliferation of texts in the aftermath of Cho’s murders points toward a necessary consideration of the affective realm of new media, that is, the intersection of pathos, discourse, and technology that demands that we reconsider the figure of Donna Haraway’s cyborg, the myth haunting many of our discussions of technology."

By focusing on electronic "aftermath texts," Rhodes and Alexander propose that the acceleration of discursive exchanges associated with the speed of digital texts is also "put in the service of disciplining responses to the tragedy," so that what Pierre Lévy has called "collective intelligence" is actually used to propagate a particular master narrative that serves the agenda of the dominant culture. Perhaps the most compelling aspect of their argument had more to do with what Foucault calls "the technologies of the self" and the aspects of self-regulation that Web 2.0 technologies necessarily entail, as Geert Lovink similarly uses Foucault in his recent critique of blogging, Zero Comments.

For example, Alexander and Rhodes pointed out how websites that published Cho's grand guignol works of would-be literature after his murder-suicide rampage also had certain self-regularizing structures of pseudo-peer-review in which commentators on various blogs would be taken to task by other commentators and be reminded of the appropriate affect to adopt with regard to the campus shooting. Although they cited "The Borg" from Star Trek as an analogy for this process of cultural appropriation and de-individuation, they could just as easily have cited Jaron Lanier on the hive mind of Digital Maoism.

For my part of the presentation I looked at two different reference points for the composition classroom and recounted what I call the "Tale of Two Students": Georgetown senior James Kotecki and Yale senior Aleksey Vayner. Although digital composition and play is often associated with tropes of criminality in the mainstream media, as was in the Cho case, I focused on how professionalism and professionalization might be an area of pragmatic concern for graduating seniors, who may be creating media personae that persist for years in the future, with good effects in Kotecki's case and bad effects in Vayner's.

Of course, one of the uncomfortable aspects of teaching about digital rhetoric, is that you yourself have to consider the problems of digital publics, and what could be called the "Tale of Two Kinds of Professors": those who are praised in the Chronicle of Higher Education as Professors on YouTube and those like The Stoned Professor who are humiliated in the theater of distance learning.

From the vantage point of having recently taught a course in Digital Rhetoric, I also argued that it could often be difficult to assess student work, particularly when undergraduates who are proficient in the editing of digital video may turn in what are essentially well-produced rock videos rather than the academic discourse with claims, evidence, and warrants that we may privilege for credit-bearing units in the university.

As audience member Julia Lupton pointed out, however, the work of faculty member Michael Wesch itself uses many of these music video conventions. Lupton's comment returned the discussion to my opening review of myths about the "digital generation" and the ethnocentrism of Wesch's work, which Mark Marino lampooned in one of his own video responses. Wesch's comments on Marino's video revealed two interesting aspects of "A Vision of Students Today." First, we learned that the Google doc shown in the film wasn't the only source of student comments written on the students' signs since many were composed spontaneously on the day of filming. Second, we learned that Wesch himself was an active editor who shaped the message of the film, in this case by editing out a "powerful moment" that "defies any simple reading." Both pieces of information undermine the degree to which this video can be perceived as a collectively authored composition that reflects student work, which is what this online film purports to be at first viewing.

(The outline of my part of the talk is here, and more tips and reflections are here.)

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Lock Down

Yesterday, my child's school was locked down with armed men in helmets and body armor swarming around the classrooms while blocks of traffic were shut off by squad cars. (Video here.)

A call had come in to a 911 system that there was a child with a gun at the school.

Given that I write about the discourses of emergency warning systems and risk communication, it was surprising that school administrators didn't have a better system for informing parents electronically, although the actual lockdown procedure was conducted with well-practiced efficiency.

There are some advantages, however, to having a child with bright red hair who is easy to spot in crowds. Our worst fears were calmed much sooner than most other parents.

I know that there will be more talk about the digital rhetoric surrounding campus shooters in the presentation of my colleague Jacqueline Rhodes at this week's DIY Texts: Students and the Future of Writing.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Computers for Smarties

Speaking of "books that make you dumb," I've recently looked at two books about digital rhetoric that make reference to the "For Dummies" trade paperbacks. One is literally a "For Dummies" book, Second Life for Dummies, written by Virtualpolitik pals Sarah Robbins and Mark Bell. Robbins is known for her work teaching communication skills in virtual worlds, and as a result the book has a strong rhetorical orientation with chapter titles like "Jumping into the Conversation: Express Yourself" and "Creating Your Second Life Persona." It also contains material about teaching and learning in Second Life, although they downplay their professional work as researchers in the text. I see Robbins and Bell on the conference circuit, and the last time we caught up on their globe-trotting promotional efforts, Bell was giving a presentation to the Kinsey Institute about sexual practices in SL. (He was debating how much to say about the experience of being cruised by a giant animated taco.) Robbins has been emphasizing the tricky boundary shifting that can challenge any pedagogy with a slogan from her talks, "Don't come to class naked."

Although it has been out since 2001, Laura Gurak's Cyberliteracy: Navigating the Internet with Awareness also acknowledges the "For Dummies" genre. As Gurak writes, "Unlike many of the 'how-to' books and 'dummies' guides' on the market, this book is not a technical listing of what to do and not to do." Unfortunately, a lot of the book seems dated now, which I know is a hazard faced by any new media title. It's messages about gender, "techno-rage," and hoaxes could also be said to play into many of the implicit assumptions key to the current reactionary political mood that focuses on cybersafety rather than building public information infrastructures. There's also a kind of normative moralism that runs through the book, even though I've made arguments in favor of dissimulation, exhibitionism, and transgression in Internet environments. The issue really is "cyberliteracies" not "cyberliteracy," I would argue. Finally, even though Gurak is an expert on the clipper chip debate and the role of technical constraints in online communication, the book is relatively light on the forms of procedural rhetoric being written about right now by Ian Bogost and others.

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Monday, January 28, 2008

Picture Books

I literally just read Franco Moretti's Graphs, Maps, and Trees the night before, a study in "big data" approaches to the humanities that takes information about the genres, narrative devices, and settings of novels -- from dozens of scenes in a single book to thousands of different books in separate national traditions -- to create visual representations that show how novels can be understood as evolving and changing during the course of their plots and also over the larger span of literary history.

So there was some irony to getting the link this morning to Books That Make You Dumb from Virtualpolitik pal Virgil Griffith, which also provides several schematic representations of literary history through the filter of Facebook favorite books with a database mash-up of campus SAT scores. Griffith has apparently taken some heat from "Literature majors" who "lack any sense of humor" and so changed Lolita and Pride and Prejudice from "Erotica" and "Chick Lit" respectively to the less controversial "Classics. "

Actually, I suspect that the fact that when you sort by category, books labeled "African American" are disproportionately likely to be correlated with low SAT scores will be a source of much more contention about possible implicit racism in this mash-up in the long run.

Overall, Griffith admits that correlation is not causation, but says the complete set of results is interesting "whether A causes B or B causes A, or even an unknown C causes A and B." Griffith's master chart with relative sizes of genres is below.

(In college, I would have probably said that my favorite book was Bouvard et Pécuchet.)

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Sunday, January 27, 2008


That brings our big Geert Lovink weekend to a close. Now back to our regularly scheduled Virtualpolitik programming.

Networks without Organs

Geert Lovink concludes Zero Comments by critiquing "the idea that decentralized networks somehow dissolve power over time" and pointing out how networks actually can be used for "coordinating new forms of power." It's a different take from Siva Vaidhyanathan's anarchy vs. oligarchy argument in The Anarchist in the Library, although it similarly has a lot of explanatory power. Lovink points out some of the challenges to collaborative efforts in these chapters, which I have argued can become even more challenging in digital environments. As an American born-and-bred who also happens to be fascinated by "group dynamics of failed collaborations," I was amused by Lovink's characterizations of this kind of "negative thinking" as something "deeply Old European."

The final two chapters in the book on "distributed aesthetics" and "organized networks" describe a kind of manifesto that he introduces in the chapter before by asserting, "We cannot merely praise collaboration as if it were a product -- or deconstruct it as just another ideology (which it is)." Although Lovink is clearly interested in work being done in information aesthetics, he is also critical of those who equate maps and networks or who produce "allegorical readings of networks." He's also wary of the corporate capitalism of valuing "growth" rather than "persistence" and the way that our "Prozac society" embraces facile social networks based on "anxiety, gadget addiction, and attention deficit disorder."

He closes the book with an introduction to "organized networks" and lists some of the actual topics that I have taught in the Humanities Core Course over the years as examples: "the Jesuits, the Italian mafia, druf-smuggling rings, or global terrorist networks." He also suggests that "organized network" is a much better term than the phrase "virtual community," which has caused so much dissent in anthropology circles and among other social scientists.

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Show Offs and Showdowns

Lovink's chapter on "Updating Tactical Media" in Zero Comments raises a number of interesting issues in thinking about balancing activism with engagement with policy-making and the role of the public intellectual assumed by many of my colleagues both inside and outside academia. Lovink quotes Paul Garrin's warning that "Tactical Media is not only something that Media Activists engage in. It's advertising, corporate psychological warfare of Perception Management."

As someone who well remembers Act Up, I'm not sure that Lovink is right to date the phenomenon to 1992, although his catalogue of "ways to connect, relay, disconnect -- and again reconnect -- a veritable stampede of pirate radio waves, video art, animations, hoaxes, wi-fi networks, music jam sessions, Xerox cultures, performances, grassroots robotics, cinema screenings, street graffitti, and (don't forget) computer code" accurately describes how tactical media attempt to engage public audiences by mixing branding with political subversion and high art with low. Despite the critique of blogging with which Lovink opens Zero Comments, he also argues that "blogs are an essential vehicle" for "sticky ideas."

One could argue that the recent public showdown between friends, colleagues, and fellow copyleft advocates Kembrew McLeod and Siva Vaidhyanathan over a robot-costume/Bill-Clinton-heckling incident also represented a kind of showdown between Tactical Media Activism and Critical Information Studies. There are certainly those who use tactical media who have a place in the academy and even members of The Yes Men are known to keep campus office hours and go to department meetings. But there is certainly tension between those who embrace the spirit of what Lovink calls "protestivals" and those who focus on public testimony wearing suits to try to convince policy makers by using formal channels for official political deliberation.

Finally, I tend to side with Lovink when he says that at least theory needs to be part of the globalization debate as well, but -- since I studied with Derrida and Lyotard in graduate school -- I may not seem like the most neutral party on that question to readers of this blog.

(Speaking of Tactical Media Activism, I will be giving a talk about hacktivism at this year's Popular Culture Association in San Francisco.)

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Before and After

In the personal reportage in Zero Comments, Geert Lovink discusses the challenges to sustaining international collaborations that use digital media over time and the politics of project management in "Revisiting Sarai" and "ICT after Development." In the section on Sarai, Lovink discussed some of the challenges to the project in that English-centric "programs and keyboards" were often poorly suited to Hindi digital projects and yet the center's Hindi-language projects also wanted to maintain a spirit of international exchange and avoid the obsession with cultural purity associated with the Hindu nationalists. (See the work of Humanities Core Course colleague Vinayak Chaturvedi about the tropes and "politics of naming" of Hindutva for more on this subject.) I found the projects that had been done by the Sarai Cybermohalla as an interesting way to rethink the digital divide. He pointed out the importance of promulgating public writing practices through the centers' "streetlogs," which acknowledged the importance of "listening" as well as authorship in producing responsible social media, and he asked where there might be a "new media equivalent of revolutionary Third World educator Paolo Freire."

Having presented at an international conference devoted to crisis management technologies (at which -- sadly -- participants were confused about why humanists should be part of the conversation to talk about ideologies and cultural imaginaries that have real world consequences for victims), I was sorry not to have been present for the "Crisis Media" event described in the book.

Lovink also argued that Sarai projects that were intended to subvert the hegemony of Microsoft had to acknowledge that free software can't be isolated from "social reality." Unlike those associated with the One Laptop Per Child initiative, Lovink described the uncomfortable realities of how compromises had to be negotiated between stakeholders and how rifts even emerged between artists and hackers seemingly that had to be negotiated by the Indian project managers. He even printed the text of a controversial e-mail from a West German former resident in the project

The chapter on ICT and "The Incommunicado Agenda," Lovink looked much more specifically at OLPC and what he characterized as an agenda of promoting "(Western) subjectivity." However, sometimes Lovink sounded more like Manuel Castells than a digital artist in this chapter, when he grappled with the erosion of the traditional U.S. role of policy making and how large private corporations are filling the vacuum with proprietary technologies. At the same time he uses the fascinating account from the personal digital literacy narrative of African economist Sylvestre Ouédraogo to show "the failures of a technocratic approach that only focuses on access."

Although he criticizes "PowerPoint optimism" and encourages more discussion of the "Why did my project fail" question, Lovink gives considerable praise to the projects oriented around civil society initiatives (rather than less sustainable "grass roots" movements). Much of this chapter looks at Incommunicado and the hope that groups of such groups could successfully hold summits on information policy that take the needs of non-Western countries seriously by organizing the equivalent of a "Digital Bandung."

Unfortunately, books on digital media rapidly become dated. I don't know if today, Lovink would assert, as he does in Zero Comments, that NGOs are reluctant "to use blogs, wikis, and social networks," although he may still be rights that "there are no global NGOs like Greenpeace, Amnesty, or Oxfam that critically investigate the Internet and the new media/telecom sector" to provide an international equivalent of the Electronic Freedom Foundation.

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Time-Share Mondos

Near the center of Geert Lovink's Zero Comments, there is a chapter about Internet time called "Indifference of the Networked Presence," much of which deals with concepts about economies of attention and distraction familiar to readers of Richard Lanham and Peter Krapp respectively. Lovink points out how these fluctuations in attention and distraction also contribute to the abandonment of blogging by early-adopter figures like Joi Ito (and I would argue Krapp also).

In much of the chapter Lovink describes the common fugue experience of online time in which minutes, hours, and days disappear in time passed in front of the computer screen that is spent engaging with a range of texts and social actors. Rather than adopt a Puritan attitude about time wasted, Lovink compares this wandering through online environments to the figure of the flaneur familiar to readers of Lev Manovich and Ian Bogost, as well as to those more obviously of Walter Benjamin.

I thought that Lovink made a convincing case for the rise of "enhanced global time awareness" in the Internet age rather than the need for any one regime of standardized online time that would be enforced by a single regulatory structure. As someone who frequently collaborates with people in other continents, I try to be sensitive to the circadian rhythms of global others, even if I will admit to doing the math wrong at first when I scheduled James Kotecki to come to my class via teleconference.

Unfortunately, this form of temporal consideration often doesn't occur to conference organizers who make automated online submission cutoffs dependent on implicit assumptions about the time zone naturalized by possible participants. I'm grateful whenever I see a due date of "11:59 PM Apia Time" on a call for papers and know that I'm dealing with academics who understand that even deadlines can be relative for those in other time zones and that the best policy is one with the most generous interpretation.

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Double Dutch

Geert Lovink weekend continues here on Virtualpolitik, as I respond to the book Zero Comments, the excellent critique of Web 2.0 that arrived in my holiday stocking. Having spent some time in the Netherlands recently, visiting with friends and going to a conference, the chapter on "Blogging and Building: the Netherlands after Digitization" was of much more interest to me than it might be to many other Americans, who think of little more than Xaviera Hollander and legalized marijuana when they think of the country. Part of my own blogging practice is situated in the Netherlands, since I write for Marc van Gurp's Osocio, which is based there and in fact began its Internet life as the Dutch-language Houtlust.

In this chapter he makes what might seem to be a tenuous connection between Dutch architecture and practices of urbanism and the distributed networks and social media platforms of the Internet. Furthermore, as Lovink writes, "I was more concerned with how architecture is networked and less how the network obtains architecture." He points out that for all the awards and international accolades that Dutch architecture has earned, "the Internet and mobile phones remain largely overlooked in the environmental planning debates."

Given Lev Manovich's argument about "transcoding" and the way that the 3D software program Maya, which I am currently learning, is increasingly likely to shape the dimensions of the urban landscape, it is interesting that Lovink asserts that "virtual architecture is all too often cast as nothing more than some inconsequential trick of the trade or marketing tool."

Lovink also quotes some remarkable passages from the writings of Jennifer W. Leung about architecture, which like Anna Munster's book on the subject, interrogate Cartesian ideas about space. Leung's arguments about modeling dynamic activities in urban spaces in order to run simulations rather than pitch static models to clients is an interesting argument for re-imaging software.

In this chapter Lovink also looks critically at the rise of user-generated architectural content by consumers who can now use software to design and remodel spaces with off-the-shelf architectural components. He rehearses some of the debates about "architecture without architects" that relate to "rise of the amateur" discussions going on in recent years about writing and filming for Web 2.0 more generally. In contrast, an argument could be made for participation by progressive architects in a "Creative Commons" that makes some of their designs freely available for re-use and re-mixing.

Lovink also examines Amsterdam's Digital City project and issues about "digital empty lots" in ways that might also be relevant for the current debate about whether Second Life is empty and if virtual real estate is inevitably abandoned.

Finally, Lovink suggests that this connection between the real and the virtual opens up certain ethical dilemmas for a society, so that "democratization of computer-generated design begs the moral question of whether everything that can be designed, should be allowed to be built."

Below, you can see one perspective on Dutch urbanism and its use of resources that I shot when I was playing Jane McGonigal's virtual reality game World Without Oil, a simulation of what life would be like day by day if there were a global energy crisis.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Good Germans

In "Whereabouts of German Media Theory" in Zero Comments, Geert Lovink argues that more German media theory should be translated into English in order to elevate the field of "media studies" with perspectives from German "media philosophy" to speak more broadly to themes and issues in the humanities more generally. As he points out, significant works by Kittler, Siegert, Flusser, Luhmann, and Theweleit are not currently available in English.

Unfortunately, for the "media philosophy" problem, those who participate in international conferences also see the talking at cross-purposes that Lovink describes in the second chapter of his book. As an attendee at last year's interesting but sometimes fragmented "Philosophy of Computer Games" conference organized by Espen Aarseth, I was often struck by the disciplinary divides between philosophers and game studies researchers that were even more obvious than the linguistic divisions between the attendees.

It's interesting that Lovink also refuses to define the term "medium" too precisely beyond characterizing his subject matter as a "raw mix of sociological, philosophical, and semiotic questions that deal with the problems of our technologically advanced culture."

Yet, for a theorist so interested in systems analysis and labor politics, Lovink is surprisingly uninterested in the practical obstacles to the task of the translator and the institutional pressures on media scholars to produce original scholarly monographs, which are so valued for tenure and promotion, rather than translations of the work of others that do little to advance an American academic career.

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Escape from the Gallery

Zero Comments is also a wake-up call to the digital arts community that takes issue with the self-satisfied virtual navel-gazing that occupies so many new media artists. Geert Lovink's chapter on "The Cool Obscure: Crisis of New Media Arts" is a much needed corrective for the dozens of academic books that are dedicated to gallery shows or Joycean hypertexts that are only experienced by a handful of people in the cultural elite. As someone who has looked at state institutions as digital media makers for the better part of a decade and the uneasy relationship between computational media and democratic deliberation, I would tend to agree with Lovink's assessment that digital media need to acknowledge much more diverse audiences in the public sphere who suffer the real-world consequences of badly designed networks, databases, and user interfaces. As he writes, "Instead of taking the heroic stand of the avant-garde, many new media practitioners have chosen to simply drift away in clouds of images, texts, and URLs" so that "both science and business have successfully ignored the creative community."

I also like the fact that he frequently cites Anna Munster, the author of the terrific and yet under-read book Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics, which looks closely at Cartesian ideologies and legitimates the counternarratives of Leibniz and baroque sensibilities. Although she appears nowhere by name in this chapter, Lovink's discussion of "expensive, proprietary VR installations" can't be taken as anything but a swipe at Char Davies and her ilk, about whom, in fairness, I should point out, my UCI colleague Michael Heim has written sensitively. Lovink also argues that the bio-art produced by Stelarc and other would-be cyborgs misses many of the connections to be made between art and science, particularly those suggested by the work of Bruno Latour on the social aspects of cultural and epistemological production. Lovink also acknowledges the low-tech contributions to be made by including DIY and DJ cultural practices.

At one point Lovink cites Chris Crawford's devastating summation of a typical interactive entertainment conference.

Artists have organized conferences on interactive entertainment and games, to which they always invite some representatives of the techie/games community . . . These conferences always start with an earnest declaration of the need for academia and industry to work hand in hand. Then a techie gets up and talks about what he wants from academia: students trained in 3D artwork, programming, and animation. An artsie gets up and lectures about the semiotics of Mario Brothers. A techie follows with a lecture on production techniques in the games industry. Another artsie analyzes the modalities of mimetics in text adventures. And so it goes, both sides happily talking right past each other, and neither side having the slightest interest or comprehension of the other side's work.

Of course, I think I've been at some of those conferences, mentally watching them bounce back and forth like a ping pong match after I'm done giving my paper.

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Nihil Obstat

Hey voters and coders, it's time for another Virtualpolitik book review.

This time I'll be examining Geert Lovink's Zero Comments: Blogging and Critical Internet Culture, which represents a much more sophisticated critique of Web 2.0 than books that are heavily self-promoted to mass market audiences, such as the terrible Cult of the Amateur. I'm not sure that I agree with Peter Krapp that Lovink's book "reads like a blog," even though much of it is written from the personal perspective of working closely with other digital artists and critics in sites of activity around the world. I think it would be a hard book to teach, even in a graduate seminar, even though Lovink is careful to define terms, not only because it assumes that the reader has read widely in media theory and critical theory more generally but also because it has a kind of assumed cosmopolitanism of life experience and an international viewpoint and engagement with the politics of art and the art of politics that people of a certain age who go straight from one provincialism to another in the transition from undergraduate education to graduate school probably can't relate to.

In the opening of the book, Lovink promises to offer a "general theory of blogging," which characterizes these discursive practices as historically situated in post-9/11 cynicism and the sloganism that feeds political polarities that Lovink sees at work in the virtual communities on both sides of the murder of filmmaker Theo van Gogh. Although Lovink can be seen as a kind of polar opposite of Henry Jenkins, who has achieved fame celebrating "participatory" fan cultures or branded transmedia narratives, both Jenkins and Lovink agree that social media and user-generated content doesn't necessarily produce progressive political dialogue. When characterizing YouTube, Jenkins has said that "participatory culture is not always progressive." Lovink would seem to be making an even stronger statement about the radical and reactionary dynamic of blogs, which he points out "seemlessly fit into the talk radio and cable news landscape." (For a Virtualpolitik review of Henry Jenkins' book Convergence Culture, go here.)

In his chapter on "Blogging, the Nihilist Impulse," Lovink argues that although these blogs encourage political extremism, they are simultaneously emblematic of diaristic "vague media" that lack direction and engagement with public action. At a theoretical level, Lovink clearly owes much to Michel Foucault in that he points out how blogs function as a "tool to manage the self." He also uncouples the widely promoted vision that links blogging with "citizen journalism." Lovink cites one-time Howard Dean strategist Joe Trippi to argue that in a divided electorate, blogs are important and yet marginal.

Unfortunately, he also reinterates the truism that equates social media with oral tradition, a connection that I argue can also have disastrous consequences if it blinds policy makers to the subtleties of these new genres. And in reading the first chapter, I also wish that he engaged more in the interesting debate about blogging that has been going on in journalism schools. Saying bloggers "rarely add new facts to a news story" is a gross oversimplification, even if I resent the creeping influence of what I have called "Facebook journalism" in the news media.

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The Leper Colony

There may be some interruption of service on Virtualpolitik, thanks a "quarantine" from my cable Internet Service Provider. Should listings here not be regularly updated on this page, you can check out "Classic Virtualpolitik" until things get back to normal.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

Behind the Orange Curtain

Now that I've finished Geert Lovink's Zero Comments (a multi-part review will begin after this post), I've had a chance to reflect on the often uneasy relationship between tactical media activism and Web 2.0 corporate opportunism, which Lovink describes as frequently playing out in computer-mediated communication environments.

Certainly, conservative Orange County -- where I work -- is usually not an easy place to be an activist, even though there are certainly many wrongs to be righted in the immediate area: preserving the coastal environment, protecting the rights of disenfranchised members of an increasingly multicultural population, and defending principles of secular public education and academic freedom that are frequently under threat in the region.

Yet longtime friends Virtualpolitik friends Lisa Alvarez and Andrew Tonkovich have made a home there and have used tactical media approaches for many years in ways that have brought attention to local causes. They've dressed up in costumes for photo ops, arranged readings of banned books, staged Lysistra performances to protest the war, wrote hilariously sarcastic editorials about immigration policies in free weeklies, and put out samizdat publications of their own.

I met Alvarez many years ago in grad school, where we both had creative writing fellowships, and then her partner Tonkovich. I was actually surprised that our paths hadn't crossed before, because we had both worked as educators in the social service sector in the same progressive community and had even taught some of the same clients doing interventions with the juvenile justice system. In addition to her professorial duties in the Irvine Valley College English Department, Alvarez also co-directs the fiction writing workshops at the Squaw Valley Community of Writers.

For over a decade, sometimes sporadically in classic blog fashion, she has written for DISSENT the BLOG and now has a newer project promoting book culture in the O.C. at The Mark on the Wall. Tonkovich has a blog of his own at Bibliocracy Radio to promote his new transmedia venture, a radio show that features guests who often highlight the politics of authorship. (UCI colleague historian Jon Wiener is also a radio host on the same channel.)

Skeptics might point out that the Tonkovich/Alvarez blogs use software owned and operated by search and social computing giant Google and that the book events that they promote support the niche marketing efforts of huge media conglomerates who thrive on the culture of literary celebrity being sold to the public. I think it's hard to generalize about complex media and political ecologies and the social networks between activists that sustain them.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Lights, Camera, Non-Action

In coverage of the developing news story involving images of high school water polo players photographed by a UC Irvine police dispatcher and then uploaded to gay porn sites without the subjects' knowledge, it is interesting to note how many of those sites seem to have benefited from free advertising from the coverage. For example, in "UCI Police Dispatcher Placed on Leave," there are mentions by name of "" and "" The article also explains the inadvertent connection between social media sites used for file-sharing by players and their parents and adult sites operated by less-than-scrupulous photographers:

Parents have confirmed that some photographs discovered on gay porn sites were reposted from sites intended only for the use by players' families and friends. It is not known who reposted the photographs.

A non-action photograph of one prominent Orange County high school water polo player that has been the subject of numerous lewd comments on several gay porn sites was originally posted on a page with dozens of photographs taken by a parent for other parents and friends to purchase.

The phrase "non-action" actually appears four times in the article and appears to be a euphemism for "non-sexual." It reminds me of the fame of the legendary figure "The Action Man" when I was in college, who was known for calling Harvard dorm rooms in search of male undergraduates who might be interested in "action."

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

After All, the Camera Adds Ten Pounds

Today, youthful political pundit James Kotecki was mocking Republican congressional candidate Dean Hrbacek for using pictures of himself that were Photoshopped onto a thinner body. The Associated Press quotes Hrbacek's campaign manager, who handles the damage control:

Campaign manager Scott Broschart acknowledged to The Houston Chronicle that the image is a fake. Hrbacek has been so busy that he had no time to pose for a full-length photo for the mailing, Broschart said.

"He may appreciate that we took a few pounds off him," Broschart said. "I think the voters ... are more concerned with the issues as opposed to pretty photo shoots."

Lev Manovich has argued that Photoshop is a profoundly postmodern software package. We've covered a number of campaign Photoshop news items here on Virtualpolitik, including another one that seems head-on-shoulders above the rest, but this story about Endorsement by Photoshop with a template provided by Jesse Jackson Jr. may be one of the
most quintessentially postmodern.

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Raising the Bar

As Siva Vaidhyanathan points out on Sivacracy, the Center for Public Integrity has produced The War Card, which provides an information graphic that represents "False Statements by Month" from White House sources about allegedly Iraqi involvement in Al Qaeda and the production of weapons of mass destruction. This quantitative representation of information is presented in a PowerPoint-style bar chart, a genre from corporate rhetoric that also played a part in making a case for war to begin with.

The group also offers a database of false statements with a handy search engine here.

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Name Calling

On the cover of today's calendar section in "Do the right thing, WGA," Patrick Goldstein of The Los Angeles Times says a lot of not very nice things about Virtualpolitik pal and Writer's Guild of America President Patric Verrone. What's interesting about this opinion piece is the author's contention that the WGA should have paid more attention to the data about Internet revenues.

I knew things were looking bad for you when the first mom I ran into at my kid's school on Friday recited every boneheaded move she thought you'd made, notably the decision to blow off the DGA when they offered to share the results of their $2-million study about the impact of new media -- a study that now looks like it played a big role in the DGA's successful negotiating strategy.

Of course, since I study the what's visible and invisible on the Internet, I'm not sure that the price tag of research on digital media says much about its quality. After all, the U.S. government paid SAIC contractors seven million dollars to find evidence of terrorist use of the Internet, and the best thing they came up with was a fan film from Battlefield 2 with a soundtrack from the movie Team America. (Details here.) The fact that a high-profile study by the MPAA about illegal downloading had a gross statistical error doesn't inspire much confidence in the entertainment industry's ability to gauge impacts of online user behavior accurately.

Besides, as Jeffrey Bardzell argued in "Developing a 'Sensibility for the Particular': Coping with the Scale and Dynamics of Participatory Culture," at this year's AoIR conference, there's a kind of mathematical sublime involved if one makes materials on the World Wide Web an object of study. It's difficult for quantitative research to say much about the Internet just in the United States, much less in relation to the global distribution chain of Hollywood production.

For more on the YouTube rhetoric of unionization, I do have to show my current favorite strike video on YouTube, however, which was made by another VP college buddy, Rodman Flender.

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Monday, January 21, 2008

Internet Allegories

This somewhat rude and crude video from hit-and-miss humor magazine Cracked shows Google,Amazon, eBay, Facebook, MySpace, Wikipedia, Snopes, and a number of popular Internet websites as if they were all personified as young party-goers whooping it up when a teenager's parents are out of town.

There have been a number of these Internet allegories in various online formats, although the morality of this one may be considerably less clear than its literary precursors that span a time period from the Everyman story to eighteenth-century satires. Of course, thanks to advertising, this representative technique is also used for humorous purposes by competing computer manufacturers, as the Mac vs. PC demonstrate.

(Thanks to a former student who would like to remain anonymous for the link.)

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Sunday, January 20, 2008

What's in a Name?

This past week, I was in the Special Collections archive at UCLA, learning about the prehistories of digital libraries to be explored in the papers of Albert Boni, where I was thinking about analogies between contemporary data encryption and proprietary techniques of photographic miniaturization from the previous century.

On my way out, I noticed that a building that had once been labeled "Library and Information Science" was now "Education and Information Studies" on the campus, and it made me think about the differences in connotation between "Information Science" and "Information Studies" as academic disciplines and the way these discourses might also migrate from one of what C.P. Snow called "The Two Cultures" to another as recognized expertise shifts from the sciences into the scholarly realms of the humanities.

I'm certainly a strong advocate of Critical Information Studies, as it has been advocated for in the academy by Siva Vaidhyanathan, but I like taking advantage of the cultural capital that the word "science" has for many faculty members obsessed with notions of "scholarly rigor" who might otherwise discount the importance of ideological messages that are directly relevant to the work of computer scientists and other designers of digital architecture that only seek affiliation with the world of facts, of markets, and of physical matter. Given the need for common taxonomies in ordering texts, I certainly see the argument for calling "Library Science" a scientific field.

Of course, since so much energy was expended in the middle of the last century to establish "Information Science" as an appropriately academic discipline to be taken seriously by universities and governments in ways that specifically excluded women who had previously worked succesfully in the field, both in the writings of information pioneers like Vannevar Bush and J.C.R. Licklider and in the discriminatory practices described in When Computers Were Human, maybe I shouldn't feel so nostalgic about the term.

(According to the webpage for the UCLA Department of Information Studies, the program still offers a Master's degree in "Library and Information Science.")

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

What's Missing from this Picture?

To commemorate the Martin Luther King holiday, this parody by Virtualpolitik pal Mark Marino of Michael Wesch's much-watched video "A Vision of Students Today" raises questions about the lack of representation of students of color in the virtual angst that Wesch depicts.

Given Kansas demographics, the whiteness shown from Wesch's campus isn't much of a surprise. In many ways, for all its diversity, the University of California where I work has less justification for the small fraction of Latino/Latina students, since they occupy such a large proportion of the population of the state, even if our typical classes might look more socially just on camera.

Update: Marino provides more context and commentary for the mailing list of the Institute for Distributed Creativity here.

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Friday, January 18, 2008

Trial Watching

A new federal law will expand an existing federal website to require the posting of all information about all clinical trials regarding drugs and devices, even if researchers choose not to have the results published, as has been the case with some high-profile recent cases in which negative outcomes appear to have been suppressed by manufacturers with the stalling tactic that additional years were needed to analyze the data in the medical study properly.

The current version of seems to be aimed at patients with disorders who might be seeking experimental treatment in a particular geographic region. The model search they show reads "Heart Attack AND Los Angeles," as though the city is a contributing factor.

I tested the site's search engine out, but soon discovered that there aren't any trials for the one bonafide disorder I have: "superior oblique tendon sheath syndrome," otherwise known a "Brown's syndrome," a form of "lazy eye" that requires me to wear a prism in my glasses and for which I've been prescribed treatments from surgery to eye exercises. I did discover that there were clinical trials more generally for strabismus in Iran, Germany, and the Netherlands, since the database includes information from 153 different countries.

Although the website design was pretty visually austere and used tabs, which many visitors will miss, I thought that the no-nonsense functionality of the site was almost as good as the ideal of transparency that it represents. It's not a super-sexy example of information aesthetics, but the page came with "Basic Search," "Advanced Search," "Studies by Topic," and "Studies on a Map." Unfortunately, this final category has limited its granularity to the level of individual states, which for those of us who live in large states seems to defy the logic of patient transportation, since it is a long way to drive from San Diego to Humboldt County. To its credit, users can also set up RSS feeds, so they can keep up-to-date on research for their particular condition, which -- if fast-changing treatment paradigms are involved -- could prove to be very useful.

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Thursday, January 17, 2008

Shop Till You Drop

Theorist Michel de Certeau argued that certain activities of consumption that are part of the "practices of everyday life" could be seen as tactical maneuvers or even forms of public rhetoric rather than passive behavior that signals acceptance of the status quo. With the news that Microsoft is developing new digital ads for grocery stores that depend on "smart" shopping carts, data from customer loyalty cards, and positioning information appropriate to the shelves on actual aisles, it seems that highly targeted advertising could interfere with the free will generally associated with the experience of browsing.

Now this seems a prime opportunity for hacktivists who might want consumers to be alerted to environmental, labor, or health issues that might otherwise be invisible, by piggybacking on the targeted ad system. Not that I would recommend breaking into a closed computer network, but perhaps those currently planning "shop dropping" campaigns would have some creative ideas.

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Franchise Operation

Although Reuters reports that "Skepticism greets 'Al Qaeda in Britain' founding" among security experts who see it as more noise than signal, there are still some alarmists in NATO who are expressing concern about an anonymous Internet posting that declares that the global terror organization now has opened a branch office in the British Isles.

Today, Australian newspapers are announcing "UK aiming to curb terrorists on the Internet," who -- along with pedophiles -- will apparently be subject to more policing and be thwarted by more takedown orders enforced by Internet service providers. Perhaps the most bizarre statement about constraining violent political sentiments in virtual communities in the article is this assertion: "Smith said she planned to consult with the internet industry in the coming weeks and told reporters it should be possible to develop filters to remove militant material from the internet like those commonly used to stop children accessing adult content."

Of course, not only has filtering proven ineffective for pornography, particularly when the hardcore content is titled with bland descriptions, and such ideological screening is burdened with negative connotations for those who might draw analogies with policies of China and other authoritarian states, but also the rhetoric of criminality about supposed subversive online activities sometimes has embarrassing results, if policy-makers turn out to have overreacted to a lone digital message.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Candid Camera

As CNET reports in "Strict new rules for video-sharing in China; but will they be enforced," at the end of this month, Chinese citizens will be barred from certain common digital practices involving video-sharing sites on the mainland, which would then be limited to officially sanctioned content-providers. But it appears that computer users would still be technically able to use offshore providers such as YouTube. Part of the impetus for the new rule was apparently anxiety about the upcoming Beijing Olympics being disrupted, after scripted CCTV coverage was interrupted by an enraged Hu Ziwei accusing her husband of adultery and protesting corruption at the station in a scene shot by a cell phone, which had a second life online.

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Software Soapbox

With news in The New York Times that the "Videogame Industry Seeks Political Clout" by forming a PAC to support lobbying in Washington, I think the real question is how they will define game-friendly legislation.

My concern would be that this group from the Entertainment Software Association will probably just focus narrowly on "don't-regulate-us" libertarianism with a little bit of contradictory anti-piracy sentiment on the side. Ironically, I can think of several political positions that would support their industry, starting with more funding for art in schools and for teaching object-oriented programming. Right now "computer literacy" often just means installing machines in school labs and having students use highly-constrained commercial products to do everything. Of course, if they were really concerned about the health of their industry long-term, they would be lobbying against proprietary technologies that inhibit independent development of new products, but with backers like the Walt Disney Company and Microsoft in the group, it seems pretty unlikely. And certainly the consumers of their product, who don't have a lobbying group of their own, would like more transparency and choice when it comes to the privacy of their data and the end-user license agreements that they click through.

According to the Times, the ESA initiative is being spearheaded by Michael Gallagher. His line-up of endorsements doesn't include input from the EFF or more politically progressive digital rights groups, although it is interesting to see that the Center for Democracy and Technology, occasional readers of this blog are included. Given Gallagher's pre-history in the Bush administration, I'm skeptical that there will be much engagement with educational or media literacy issues that require public infrastructure or a commitment to taxpayer-supported computer education, much less interest in real user-generated content paradigms or innovation in interface design.

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Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Learning Curve

Lately, I've been thinking about the idea of a "learning curve" differently, since I've started classes in the 3D animation and modeling software program Maya, which now literally shapes many cultural artifacts from contemporary architecture to film.

Perhaps I have curves on the brain today, because we are learning about path animation and u-values, which measure the distance of a curve as it twists and turns from its beginning (a value of 0) to its end (a value of 1). This afternoon, we were expected to produce a sun/earth/moon animation of three nested rotating spheres, a cone on a slow down-speed up roller coaster, and a soaring plane that banked as it made its turns. Since just this morning I was working on animating a simple bouncing ball with basic squash-and-stretch dynamics, I sometimes wonder what a nice literary girl like me is doing in a place like this.

The answer has to do with three areas that I think are important for doing digital media research.

First, it's useful to know something about a given system's available operations and the workflow practices among user communities, particularly if you are talking to designers of 3D games and virtual worlds -- as I often do -- and would like to have some vocabulary in common if need be.

Second, it's helpful to know about the interface and the menus, so a critic can have a sense of what is easy and hard to do, what are the defaults, and what are the most basic constraints. Since I write about rhetoric, nothing is more mortifying that reading a theorist who just assumes that all aspects of digital message-creation are intentional or explicit.

Third, if Lev Manovich is right and we need to be cognizant of "transcoding," we can't understand much about how software shapes our social practices and lived environment if we don't know anything about the distinctive properties and procedures of the software itself.

Of course, I find the experience of taking these classes daunting in a number of ways, even after a year of the grind of digital video editing and effects creation and another year of ActionScript at the same institution.

First, I'm perfectly willing to admit that I'm a terrible observer of physics. I tend to notice social and linguistic interactions much more readily than those of mass, position, and motion. For example, I'm fascinated with the variation in how people do seemingly simple things, especially things that they've learned to do themselves, like snapping their fingers or whistling. But I can't reconstruct or imitate those gestures, even if I have a whole classroom, cocktail party, or restaurant discussing them and comparing them at my instigation.

Second, as someone who supports interdisciplinary collaboration and a DIY sensibility, I'm discomforted by the post-Fordist division of labor in the computer animation industry, where people only do one thing for hours all day. Lighting or particle effects or rigging or texturing or scripting are essentially separate guilds with their own mysteries.

Fortunately, at least "Xanadu" was an answer to one of the first tests in the class, even if it was a movie about Olivia Newton John as a roller skating alien, not the familiar electronic file structure system developed by Ted Nelson.

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Monday, January 14, 2008

Wheel of Fortune

Recently, someone in our extended social circle was accused of international money laundering, which included some actual time on a federal Most Wanted List, in which the poster described him as "well dressed." What I found interesting is that his attorney had a "relationship map" that showed social-network-style spokes to clients like Barry Bonds and OJ Simpson, as well as to her domestic partner, her law firm, and her professional association.

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Sunday, January 13, 2008

Whatever It Is, It's Not Supposed to be Square

Speaking of the Pentagon, it is interesting to note that the architecture of this structure near the Capitol now has its own website. In fact, the Department of Defense continues to venture forth in a number of transmedia Internet areas. This includes the "Bloggers Roundtable," which portrays little of the struggles with authority with which the military blogging community is frequently associated by limiting their coverage to conventional press releases, perhaps with an audio component.

The Bloggers' Roundtable provides source material for stories in the blogosphere concerning the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Global War on Terrorism by bloggers and online journalists. Where available, this includes transcripts, biographies, related fact sheets and video.

There may be more spontaneity in the pseudo-reality show The Grill Sergeants, as the clip below on "cakes" shows.

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Now You See It

As debate continues about what happened in the Strait of Hormuz, Iranian and U.S. policy makers hold press conferences and release digital videos that seem to support their competing versions of the story. Of course, both sides also accuse the other of selective editing and perhaps even altering the digital file by adding fictional elements or computer generated effects. According to Informed Comment, it at least appears that the audio and video were recorded separately in the American version and later combined.

To settle the whole controversy, I am releasing my own version of the confrontation between Iranian and American naval personnel in the Persian Gulf, which I have included below. Note the presence of the Loch Ness Monster and the Flying Spaghetti Monster in addition to the "Filipino Monkey" who is now being blamed by many for this episode of aquatic abuse.

Convincing, isn't it?

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

More Than Footloose and Fancy Free

Henry Jenkins has argued that YouTube has a strong element of vaudeville entertainment to it. An interesting case in point is the much-watched "she without arm, he without leg" video from Chinese television that shows disabled dancers Zhai Xiaowei and Mai Li competing in a televised national dance contest in a format familiar to many Americans who watch performance spectacle/reality programming.

This video is interesting because YouTube has also been an important venue for providing advocacy and community for the disabled, including those with cognitive impairments, such as autism, obsessive compulsive disorder, and
psychiatric illnesses that require medication.

(Thanks to my wonderful former student Sara Huber for the link.)

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Friday, January 11, 2008

Smoked Out

The current television ads for the "voice - have your say" program for the youth-centric media project with the subheading "Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation" show a young person engaged in tactical media activism who is taking part in a staged event against the tobacco industry by showing body bags at a demonstration. Although the website seems to feature culture jamming language and opposition to the dominant advertising paradigm, there are also certain clues that consumerism is the expected form of behavior.

Some of the copy reads:

Lots of companies out there are targeting us. Roxy, Quiksilver, Powerade, Gap, BMX, Vana and Phat Farm. Heck, so is McDonalds, Taco Bell (we know there is some sketchy meat there) and other chains. Simply put though. Using these products, putting them on WON'T KILL YOU.

Although "sketchy meat" is clearly not an endorsement, this website does insert brand names into its social marketing message in ways that validate those enterprises. And activists who have come out against fast food pitches and labor practices involved with the clothing industry probably don't appreciate the way that they are dismissed as harmless. Headings like "cool stuff" and the promise of free downloads also seem calculated to legitimate the attitudes of marketers about the allegedly impressionable young.

Overall, the website indicates a certain incoherence of mission. Obviously this and other state campaigns in Colorado, Iowa, and Washington have been influenced by the supposedly edgy style of "The Truth" social marketing campaign from the trendy Miami-based ad agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which is currently featuring a nonsensical viral "Squirt Alert." Many of these sites also emphasize the availability of free swag as a selling point.

For more on tactical media activism (without its appropriations) see Geert Lovink's new Zero Comments, which is also a critique of Web 2.0.


Thursday, January 10, 2008

Enter the Dragging

Kung Fu Election is an online political game based on martial arts-style one-player or two-player fighting videogames. The joke of the game relies on orientalist humor in which presidential candidates appear as sumo wrestlers (Richardson), dragon ladies (Clinton), Fu Manchu villains (Giuliani), or humble coolie hat-wearing peasants (Huckabee). An introductory song depicts a young, disaffected, Gen-Y voter who croons "I just wanna fight Ku Fu, baby" rather than be "bored" and watch the news to choose a candidate.

Despite lots of cartoonish blood and decapitation, the problem with the game is that the weapons and abilities of the political candidates aren't depicted with much wit or originality. The similarly themed Bible Fight may be more fun to play and also more likely to raise a genuine chuckle.

(Thanks to Marc Van Gurp for the link.)

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

E-Any Harm

Yesterday, while listening to coverage of the New Hampshire primary, I was surprised to discover that a number of voters had chosen candidates based on online quizzes in which they answered a series of questions about policy issues in an attempt to find a primary contender who would be the best "match" to their own personal views.

Like the online dating sites that these presidential questionnaires obviously emulate, there are also ways that the procedural rhetoric of these websites should be interrogated by anyone interested in how a seemingly neutral online interface may rely on hidden rules that could potentially produce an ideologically filtered output. For example, the Select a Candidate Quiz ordered its questions in ways that definitely suggested a right-wing bias, while Glassbooth's version put left-wing issues front and center.

To increase page views, many traditional news outlets also constructed these quizzes, some of which were surprisingly simplistic. The Washington Post Choose Your Candidate Quiz begins with the assumption that one would never consider a candidate from an opposing party or be a truly centrist independent voter by making one choose party loyalty before beginning the question process. Much as e-Harmony has been criticized for its exclusively heterosexual extremely gendered design, electoral matches can have built-in biases. Even worse, the ABC News Match-o-Matic makes its political theatre into a crass burlesque with the look-and-feel of a cretinous political whack-a-mole game.

I tried several of these sites, none of which gave me candidates that I would seriously consider to be among my top choices in the upcoming California Primary. Besides, I'm interested in the larger rhetorical context of how governance is imagined. So I am reluctant to boil down the rich oratory of the campaign trail to the binary yes-or-no votes of the simplest forms of representative democracy.

In their defense, several of these online quizzes allow participants to "weight" issues, such as Pick Your Candidate. By allowing relatively weights, it could be argued that such quizzes allow for more complex forms of deliberation than current electronic voting schemes allow, but they are also a black box computational medium that also discourages serious interrogation of their underlying architectures and constraints.

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Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Point and Click Parenting

A new cyber-safety site from the cable television industry with an overly long URL,, offers little new to the digital family for stimulating discussion about the electronic rights and responsibilities of young people.

However, one of the clear messages of its opening Flash screen is that young people now have ubiquitous computing devices, such as hand-held gaming systems, cell phones, laptop computers, and iPods that can be difficult for parents to supervise. The implicit message would seem to be that cable television companies offer a comforting form of centralization that seems to make monitoring of their children's computer-mediated communication possible in ways that can be a challenge if junior is picking up the wireless of a neighbor with a hand-held device and regularly clearing incriminating material out of his cached data. Their motto "Control Education Choice" should raise some questions, given the noncompetitive nature of many local cable monopolies and the industry's resistance to network neutrality, which has been an important issue for many computer-savvy consumers.

As a work of Flash design it is also a terrible example of information aesthetics, a veritable what-not-to-do list for teaching any reputable web development class. The PointSmartClickSafe website includes annoying sound effects and distracting load screens, dated use of tabs for navigation, and inefficient turning-the-pages interfaces.

It is interesting to note that the PTA, American Association of School Librarians, and Public Library Association are featured alongside Cable in the Classroom, despite the fact the CIC can be seen as another troubling attempt to get broadcast advertising into schools under the guise of media literacy that should remind critics of the Channel One controversy of the previous century.

The cable industry is also sponsoring, where those who have held out against cable and satellite TV and still get signals out of the air are reminded that their days of free television are numbered, since -- as of February 2009 -- broadcasters will discontinue traditional transmissions entirely.

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Monday, January 07, 2008

Visible Evidence

In "On Procedurality," I discussed the bad interface design of the entrance to a local city hospital. As you can see in this photograph, a tree has been allowed to grow over the lettering that identifies the entrance, and even the front door is too high off the ground to be seen from street level.

Update: neighbor Jenny Cool has contacted hospital administrators about the hard to find entrance. Kudos to her for civic action!

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Hanging Chads

The New York Times Magazine has run a long piece, "Can You Count on Voting Machines?," which raises many of the issues that have troubled Americans about the possibility that the most basic processes of political participation could be tinkered with and thus these unwelcome technologies undercut citizens' trust in the reliability of electoral results. Sadly, the article doesn't include some of the interesting ideas of Chris Kelty, who asks why the technology hasn't encouraged us to explore other schemes for deliberation.

The Times also ran a piece about how "Loose Lips Win Elections" without raising the issue of how electronic communication is often represented as a kind of conversational medium that is closer to politically influential speech than writing.


Sunday, January 06, 2008

On Facebook Will Candidates Know to Throw Sheep Rather than Kiss Babies?

In the wake of the Obama and Huckabee come-from-behind victories in Iowa, I thought it would be interesting to look at the candidates' Facebook profiles and to think about appeals to college-age voters in the 2008 campaign.

Obviously, as any close-reading literary critic can see, all of the candidates seem to be having trouble with the first-person/third-person problem, which indicates the collective authorship practices of a campaign organizations. Of course, Facebook itself perpetuates this in that profile segments use both grammatical positions and display the discursive strains between "Your Name Here" public and "My Desktop" private.

Obama's Facebook profile, which currently features Iowa victory headlines, seems to be constructed by someone relatively familiar with the genre. Favorite books include college-educated fare such as "Song of Solomon (Toni Morrison), Moby Dick, Shakespeare's Tragedies, Parting the Waters, Gilead (Robinson), Self-Reliance (Emerson), The Bible, Lincoln's Collected Writings." His music choices establish him as a member of their parents' generation, much like an un-hip professor: "Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Johann Sebastian Bach (cello suites), and The Fugees."

Given Giuliani's past as a prosecutor and an advocate for positive images of Italian-Americans, it's interesting that The Godfather and The Sopranos figure so prominently in his media favorites on his profile. The Godfather also makes it onto Obama's list. Giuliani's page currently includes a fear-mongering campaign video about Muslim extremism.

In contrast, Hillary Clinton's campaign page contains little information about personal preferences and substitutes an autobiographical paragraph that cites her own campaign website as a source:

I was raised in a middle-class family in the middle of America. From that classic suburban childhood in Park Ridge, Illinois, I went on to become one of America's foremost advocates for children and families; an attorney twice voted one of the most influential in America; a First Lady of Arkansas who helped transform the schools; a bestselling author; a First Lady for America who helped transform that role, becoming a champion for health care and families at home and a champion of women's rights and human rights around the world.

Market researchers wouldn't pay much for that profile, so as a privacy advocate I would suggest that others follow Clinton's course in their own Facebook pages. Unlike many of the male candidates, she also doesn't list her birthdate on her page.

Clinton does, however, use Facebook's blog feeds functionality to give news about campaign stops and get-out-the-vote strategies. She also takes advantage of trans-platform features to highlight Flickr images.

Huckabee's profile includes a pitch directly to Facebook audiences:

Dear Facebook Friends:

I just wanted to take this opportunity to say hello and thank you for your support of my bid to become the next President of the United States.

I believe that the internet will play a huge role in the 2008 campaign and sites such as this are wonderful tools for people to come together and show their support for the candidate of their choice. Sites such as this also help to get a candidate's name and message out to voters all across the country, especially the younger generation of Americans.

I am able to visit this site periodically and I enjoy reading all the encouraging messages and comments that are left for me.

Again, I truly appreciate your support and your prayers, and I hope to see you soon on the campaign trail in the weeks and months ahead!

Mike Huckabee

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

2007, The Year in Digital Rhetoric

This is the revised version of this video. For context, my 2006 digital rhetoric review is here.

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Friday, January 04, 2008

The Write Stuff

It's true that I tend to spend much of my bandwidth on criticisms of the government as a digital media-maker, a process that culminates in the annual Foley awards for Internet worsts produced by state interests. (See the 2006 and 2007 winners for more.)

And yet, even from the very beginning of writing this blog, I have also tried to recognize the occasional examples of competence and even foresight in constructing what Jane Fountain has called "The Virtual State."

This year, the best examples of combining information aesthetics with agitprop may have been the database mash-ups of activists, who combine public records with particular forms of political literacy, whether it is the Policy Analysis Database on farm subsidies or word trees with the testimony and speeches of government officials.

However, government agencies also produced some noteworthy digital media this year.

Best Use of YouTube

On the federal level, my pick would be the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which created a YouTube channel to explain the rights of teen workers. In state government, I like the YouTube channel of the California DMV, which is also trying to reach younger first-time drivers with useful information.

Best Blogging

The Department of Health and Human Services was ahead of the pack with its Pandemic Flu Leadership Blog. I only wish the blog of the Secretary of Health and Human Services was as well-written as the prose of this crew of guest bloggers.

Best Government Website

Even though they had an institutional template that used tired corporate graphic identity stand-bys, such as shadow type, the website of the Federal Reserve was a model of disclosure, despite the oligarchical character of the agency that it represented.

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Thursday, January 03, 2008

Light Padding

Jay Leno had to stretch material for The Tonight Show last night in the absence of his striking writers, but including the latest Jib-Jab cartoon, which summed up the 2007 year, may not have added much original content, given the number of "We Didn't Start the Fire" parody videos that are already on the Internet before the Jib-Jab debut.

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Off the Rails

For a website for a local government agency, this Tour of the Red Line is one of the worst bells-and-whistles abuses of Flash that I have ever seen. It includes dizzying VRML-style footage in its virtual tour and obnoxious sound effects that feature tinkling change, honking train horns, irritating footsteps, and sappy guitar music. Given all the explanations of navigation included in the site, it certainly isn't an intuitive example of information aesthetics that serves the purpose of getting more people to try public transportation in order to ease their commutes.

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The Shot Heard Round the World

In a blog posting entitled "Bhutto Assassination is Big Media's First 'Sharable' Event," the writer points out that news agencies, such as Reuters and The Washington Post are now creating video content that is designed to be embedded in other social media products. For many years, news organizations have tried to keep video closely tied to the framing from their Internet portals, which includes accompanying stories and the context of their reporters' prose. As people all around the world study these film clips and advance their own theories based on their own sleuthing, they are distributing traditional media content as well.

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Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Reading Corner

The Los Angeles Times recently carried an interesting piece about an "Unlikely Forum for Iran's Youth" in an online book group, which is based here in my hometown of Santa Monica. The site, Goodreads, uses an appeal to peer-to-peer practices to "see what your friends are reading" and "get great book recommendations from people you know." As the Times explains, the Persian language groups are often devoted to politics and reach those still in Iran via the expatriate community in Southern California.

The Iranian government demands that private Internet service providers block access to MySpace, YouTube and several other social networking sites, and it arrests bloggers and online journalists who write unfavorably about the regime. Two feminists, Maryam Hosseinkhah and Jelveh Javaheri, are in Evin Prison in Tehran, charged with "putting out inaccurate news, stirring up public opinion and writing against the Islamic Republic" on the Internet.

But Goodreads seems to be mostly under Tehran's radar, possibly because it has a relatively small audience and is ostensibly focused on books rather than politics. Not all service providers filter out the site, and enterprising Iranians often find proxy servers or other online tools to circumvent restrictions.

Of course, this is exactly the kind of positive cultural activity, which serves both literacy and human rights, that would be banned by the revived version of DOPA.

Take that sexual predators!

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Wearing Electronic Labels

According to 2008 Statistics on American Politics on Facebook, it appears that relative and yet oppositional labels like "liberal" and "conservative" are more meaningful to members of the electorate who use social networking sites than information that indicates their actual party affiliation. It was also interesting to read about geographical "Facebook penetration" and the fact that California's potential voters are much less likely to be connected to the social networking site than those of Washington D.C.

(Thanks to Mark Bell for the link!)

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Start the Resolution without Me

In 2008, according to "Foul Play? CCIA Contends Companies Mislead Consumers About Fair Use," the Computer and Communications Industry Association and their Defend Fair Use arm plan to pursue their FTC complaint about copyright warning notices that could be considered a form of deceptive labeling by omitting mentions of possible fair uses of copied media. Based on America's experiences with the tobacco and entertainment industries, I'm not sure that labeling laws have much of an impact on effecting cultural change. Other forms of regulation that target social practices that are situated in lifestyle decisions or the architectures of public spaces often are better ways to communicate messages about rights and responsibilities.

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