Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Take Out

Food would seem to be one kind of experience that would be relatively difficult to represent digitally in online environments, since smell and taste can not be easily manifested on the screen or speakers of most computer stations. And yet, in the field of e-commerce, food-related businesses are often thriving, and thanks to their Internet presences, many local eateries are finding new clientele to savor their products.

As a city-dweller who often walks past the physical locations of many fancy food purveyors, I rarely find myself stopping in Santa Monica's pricey and noisy restaurants. Instead I am much more likely to go in some of the specialty stores, many of which depend on their online customers to supplement the income derived from foot traffic.

So I've assembled my own top-ten list of places to eat in Santa Monica to which I would be happy to direct tourists and others who come here from neighboring municipalities.

1. Andrew’s Cheese Shop is a newcomer to the neighborhood, but for those homesick for French cheese shops, it offers a genuine fromagerie in which the cheese is not suffocated by plastic. I wouldn't give their website particularly high marks, but it does have a listing of "cheese bytes" with the information for cheese platters that Andrew also disseminates on physical notecards with his product.

2. Bay Cities Italian Deli has been a community staple for the better part of a century, since it once represented the Italian fishermen and gambling operators who flocked to the city during its early years, when it was a mini-metropolis of poverty and corruption up to the time of Raymond Chandler novels. The store sells fresh canoli and warm bread to reject any Atkins diet for, along with real Parma proscuitto and other meaty delicacies from the Boot. The heart of the business has always been their sandwiches, for which there are often very long lines, so more efficient Internet orders for same day lunch items are a popular feature of the Italian table cloth website.
3. The Continental Shop offers the possibility of recreating every nasty flavor described in Thomas Pychon's famous "Disgusting English Candy Drill" from Gravity's Rainbow. You can also buy every kind of canned British product imaginable along with PAL conversions and bucket shop flights to London. Their website also includes the history of their business.

4. Funnel Mill is not a place to go if you want a quick coffee to go, since each serving is created in your own individual French press and brought to your table on a silver tray with peanuts on the side. This place is designed for hard-core coffee connoisseurs and is even known to serve Kopi Luwak, the coffee made from beans found in the excrement of a civet. Despite the exoticism of many of their coffees and teas, the website is poorly designed for Internet orders and instead emphasizes "events" and "associates" that are situated in the physical space.

5. Le Pain du Jour should be appreciated by Francophiles who miss good bread and good tarts and can't stand the greasy monstrosities that impersonate croissants throughout the region. They are currently remodeling their store, which is already in a place that gets little food traffic, so it is probably good that they are finally investing in a website, although it is little more than stock photos and a list of products.

6. Santa Monica Farmers' Markets provide fresh fruit, vegetables, seafood, flowers, eggs, cheese, and even meat. Although the market has been a site of shots in Hollywood movies and at least one horrific scene of real-life death, in general the focus is on healthy food. The local government website that hosts information about the markets does little to promote products or lure visitors, but it does offer interactive maps to the locations of other farmers' markets and information about what constitutes "organic" for their purposes.

7. Santa Monica Seafood is planning to expand their gourmet seafood operation into a new hybrid site in my neighborhood that is part store and part restaurant. The website for their current location contains information about prices and specials, so you don't have to haggle, and a calendar to announce upcoming tastings and foodie events.

8. Di Dios can satisfy your craving for blood orange gelato and novelty candies and still manages to compete with the ritzier Angelato store on the promenade, despite not having its own designated website. (Address and hours are here.)

9. J&T Gourmet Food is an important gathering place for Eastern European émigrés and is probably best known as a place to get fresh Polish sausage. It also doesn't have a website, so the hours and address are only available on review sites like this one.

10. Ukrainia Deli sells everything related to the former Soviet Union from gourmet caviar to Russian nesting dolls with contemporary figures. Alas, they too do not have a website, although this website give you basic information about the when and where.

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Change Letter

E-mail is often underestimated as a tool of political participation in the current social media mileu, particularly in comparison to blogs and online video services, and yet a recent story titled "Wasilla, Alaska, gadfly goes viral" illustrates how a single mass e-mail from a citizen can create an explosion of electronic discourse. After Anne Kilkenny sent her famous e-mail about the performance of vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin as mayor of her city to friends and family outside of Alaska, she received a flood of e-mail in her inbox from critics and supporters who had seen it reposted on blogs and social network sites, and Internet spoilers debated about whether or not she was even a real person.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Circumstantial Evidence

As the Los Angeles Times explains, there are a number of ways that profile pages on social network sites are playing a role in the criminal and civil justice system. "Jury duty? You may want to edit your online profile" describes how trial consultants are searching online sources for clues to how potential jurors might approach a specific case and its associated deliberative processes in order to select jurors more likely to support a particular verdict. For example, in a case about a "lucrative Internet dating service" that had copied the "client's search engine accelerator without paying for it, the reporter recounts the following anecdote from a consultant.

As he now does routinely, Hirschhorn went online to learn more about the prospective jurors. On the pageant supplier's business website, he found something he thought could bode well for his client. The septuagenarian, it turned out when he asked her about what he had learned online, had spent a lifetime marketing exclusive sequined gowns for beauty contestants only to have them copied without compensation.

"We loved her," said Hirschhorn, who has been profiling jurors for more than two decades. "She told this story about how she would show these dresses to someone who claimed not to be interested and the next thing you know the same design would show up on a contestant. . . . It's all about accusing people of using your property without permission."

Now consultants associated with the National Legal Resource Center claim that Facebook and MySpace have become important sites to check to gain an advantage during voir dire by anticipating possible consequences created by the selection of individual jurors who make private details public online.

In "Pregnant woman gets probation in fatal crash," the accused woman's MySpace profile was pointed to by many as evidence that she was unrepentent about her excessive drinking even after killing a bystander pedestrian during a drunk driving accident. Nonetheless, this defendent was granted leniency by a judge, who considered the fact of her pregnancy and the biological state of her material body more important than her virtual presence.

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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Shrink Rap

I've written about the use of digital media by the distributors of the anti-Muslim film Obsession before here on Virtualpolitik, but apparently the insertion of such disks into newpapers has created more controversy, according to "Newspaper-insert DVDs on 'radical Islam' stir up swing states" in the Los Angeles Times.

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Saturday, September 27, 2008

Board of the Rings

Sarah Robbins points out the existence of BoardNetUSA, a free web-based service designed to connect nonprofit organizations with community members who might be interested in sitting on their official boards. It's a bare-bones site for matching would-be agents of philanthropy, but users have to complete a "profile" designed to help both parties find appropriate participants.

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Vision Test

I'm no intellectual property lawyer, but I watched this video about the film Children of Men with commentary from theorist Slavoj Žižek with great interest as what seemed to me an example of online digital video that would seem to be a classic case of fair use, in which use of the footage could be justified by the clearly pedagogical and critical orientation of the material and its attention to background details rather than the "heart of the work" in arguing for his thesis about the "paradox of anamorphosis" in which the "signs of oppression" and "ideological despair" can not be looked at directly in cultural production under conditions of late capitalism. And yet, shortly after Žižek says that such films "can guarantee that cinema as art will really survive," a copyright acknowledgment appears from Universal Studios, so that the careful viewer is made aware that Žižek at least solicited formal permission from the studio's lawyers and may have even produced this piece of latent Marxism in cooperation with Universal's marketing whiz kids.

Of course, Žižek has exploited the Internet in a number of ways to put forward himself as a public intellectual with much more imagination than his colleagues in media and psychoanalytic criticism have thought to do here in U.S. It may have begun when he published "Welcome to the Desert of the Real" online four days after the September 11th attacks. Since 9/11, videos of Žižek's talks, such as this one on politeness and tolerance -- two issues often important in computer-mediated communication -- in which he describes threatening to put "in his free Professor Žižek time surfs the Internet for pedophilia" on a recent book jacket, are frequently disseminated through Internet channels. As a celebrity in academic circles, even his wedding photos have been much commented upon in the scholarly blogosphere. (My favorite example of Internet ephemera related to the philosopher from the former Yugoslavia is this video of a Žižek impersonator in a Halloween mask.)

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Flat Liner

During the presidential debates, there were a number of attempts to employ ubiquitous computing technologies and real-time data visualizations to create a more exciting political spectacle than what many television producers assumed would be the reaction to the traditional oratorial situation alone. However, as "CNN Debate Audience Reaction Meter: Watching Approval Ratings In Real Time During Presidential Debates" explains, audiences often had difficulty interpreting the results. Frequently, in fact, audience reactions from the mix of Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters canceled each other out, so CNN viewers saw nothing more than a flat line for much of the broadcast.

Of course, now that live blogging has also become the norm for just-in-time political reception, a number of people have begun to skewer the genre during this election season. For example, Virtualpolitik pals Andy Borowitz and Mark Bell offered their own tongue-in-cheek real-time reactions to the debate. Borowitz presented the parodic Levi Johnston Liveblogs the Debate in honor of the would-be vice presidential son-in-law responsible for the out-of-wedlock pregnancy of the candidate's daughter. In contrast, Bell kept it a little more real by using Twitter to record how the four six-year-old children in his household responded to the debate.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Future Chalk

Mimi Ito has launched The Futures of Learning Blog, which looks beyond her own well-known empirical research on digital learning among young people to report on work being done in the current transnational critical milieu by other scholars considering how ubiquitous communication, gaming, file-sharing, and public writing for the web are reshaping both what can be considered the pedagogical environment and the larger context in which teaching and learning takes place. "Empirical" is obviously an important word for defining the kind of research that the blog will cover, but otherwise it plans to presents a wide variety of subject matter relevant to how digital social media facilitate peer-t0-peer learning and amateur cultural production.

I’ll be among a really great international group of researchers, who will be taking a few months to do reading on research and practice in the area of new media and learning, and also to visit different institutions and projects in the US and elsewhere that are innovating in this space. Along the way, we will be using this blog as a way to share some of what we are learning, and to solicit feedback on our work in progress. We will be posting book and article reviews and reports from our visits to various sites and conferences.

In the past I've complained about how Internet research is often disproportionately focused on the activities of the young, and my Sivacracy colleague Siva Vaidhyanathan has expressed his own skepticism about the very existence of a distinct "digital generation" separate from their analog elders. But I've always admired Ito's work for its willingness to explore counterintuitive possibilities and its hesitance to jump to one-dimensionally celebratory conclusions. For example, some of her work about the ideologies of educational videogames undermines easy equations of technology with more sophisticated learning techniques. So I'm delighted that she has joined the Humanities Research Institute at UC Irvine on my own campus.

One particularly noteworthy aspect of this blog project is its emphasis on its multilingual team of researchers. As Geert Lovink has noted in the case of German critics of new media, too often relevant work is not disseminated, because it is not translated into English. For example, the blog already includes work by researchers who are publishing in Korean and presses based in Asia rather than the United States.

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Sherman's March

As details of the government bailout of Wall Street were released for the Treasury Secretary's 700 billion dollar deal requiring congressional approval that would buy troubled mortgage-based assets from investment banks, one of the first legislators to raise the alarm against the plan from the Executive Branch was California's Brad Sherman, congressman from the San Fernando Valley.

Today Sherman was in the news for sending out a mass e-mail inviting legislators to a "skeptics caucus" to explore concerns from elected representatives and their constituents about the plan's lack of oversight, possible excessive compensation for failed executives, and tendency to overlook root causes in deregulation. Surprisingly, however, Brad Sherman's official site says nothing about his very public profile on this issue. Although Sherman's website says little about current plans for public financing to shore up the economy, he does express strong opinions about privatization. For example, one of his rhetorical tools is "Calculate How Much You Will Lose" if Social Security is privatized. According to my input numbers from my own personal finances, Sherman's online calculator predicts that privatization would cost me about four and a half thousand dollars a year in benefits as a senior citizen.

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Thursday, September 25, 2008

Sleep Tight

ARGNet: Operation Sleeper Cell explains how in 2007 a competition was announced, Let's Change the Game, to encourage the designers of alternate reality games to "design a game to beat cancer." Organizers promised a range of resources, which included access to direct marketing, television ads, shops working with Cancer Research UK, live events -- such as fundraising athletic races, and a dedicated island on Second Life. Now the winner has been announced, and it looks like a team from Law 37 has taken the prize for two websites: Operation Sleeper Cell and We Are Not the Agency, which plays upon certain stereotypes about government websites for covert agencies and skewers current post-Cold War clash-of-civilizations rhetoric.

Welcome to the Agency’s site. Or rather, a site that doesn’t belong to the Agency in any shape or form. If you think we actually are the Agency and just in deep cover, then we’re afraid you’re very much mistaken. Anyway, our favourite biscuit of the week and the current E.V.I.L threat level is below, plus some of the loveliest things in the world today. Take a look around for some more Very Interesting Things. That of course are not really related to the Agency, even if they say they are.

Of course, it's not the only game about cancer. Young sufferers of the disease can play Re-Mission, which is staged as an "epic battle" that "rages deep in the realms of the human body." The metaphors of Sleeper Cell are much more about secrecy, conspiracy, and stealth warfare than the open combat imagined by the shooter game for patients.

Thanks to Marc Van Gurp of Osocio for the link.

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Back-to-School Night

The instructional technology movement that has become an integral part of staffing and building design on many college campuses has also taken on a much more prominent role in K-12 education. This evening I attended the parents' back-to-school night at Lincoln Middle School, and I was struck by how many teachers were using corporal presentation technologies, particularly digital slideware. Only the music teacher spoke to parents without an electronic aid. English, history, math, and science teachers all had PowerPoint presentations prepared for the rooms of expectant parents. The art teacher used overheads, but they were created with a digital printer, and the physical education teacher showed parents a tour of his HTML website. (From this same PE teacher I learned that YouTube had been blocked by the school's computer administrators and that this often created problems in showing particular game plays, dance steps, or modes of physical activity imported to the U.S. from other countries.)

Many teachers were actively involved in online video production with student participation: two math teachers were busy creating "Mathcasts" starring Tuesday afterschool students, and the PE teacher offered to upload videos of his charges performing to a password-protected site, where only parents could view only their particular children engaged in the fitness curriculum. Many others also showcased tablet PCs purchased by class gifts or by grant monies. I thought that a science teacher's use of her document camera was particularly notable: she not only used it to show experiments to the class that would otherwise be difficult to see -- such as a seed growing in a plastic cup -- but she also thought to use the document camera as a way to display the appearance of model student work, particularly in the area of scientific illustration in which explanatory clarity might be far more important than artistic polish.

Having been a veteran of many parents' nights, however, I was struck by the fact that far fewer parents asked questions of the teachers than I had seen in previous years and how much the technology reinforced the one-to-many character of the exchanges that did take place. Parents were far more likely in this situation, it seemed, to behave as passive spectators rather than active participants.

I also wondered about the ways that these technologies decrease the physical proximities of teachers to their pupils when students never have a reason to gather around the instructor's desk to see something small and singular and about how the optics of wonder can be reshaped by even a laudatory use of a document camera. Yes, by keeping students seated, these technologies reduce disruption, but they also relegate students to an audience at some remove from the pedagogical show.

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The Squeaky Wheel

It's interesting to note the poor sound quality on this digital video posted by a major news source, CNBC, in which the President of the United States is arguing for a 700 billion dollar bailout of the banking industry holding mortgage-backed securities. The viewer at home hears squeaking from the material conditions of the podium as a site of oratory. In contrast, the online video from the White House website lacks these distracting artifacts from the situation of recording.

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Drinking Breakfast

When I think of New York sophisticates, I rarely think of quaffing a bourbon-based drink with bacon grease and maple syrup as ingredients, but in this YouTube video a bartender shows how it can be properly done. This video is also an interesting example of the intersection of print culture and Internet culture, which Julia Lupton has called "the Printernet," as glossy magazines struggle to survive, since veteran coffee table standard New York Magazine shot the spot.

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Chapel of Love

I thought that I would indulge in a little thought experiment: suppose I was a member of a gay couple seeking to wed in California. What could I learn about the process and its associated procedures and products from merely doing Google searches on the web. Of course, there is a certain amount of official information from the state authorities, such as these instructions for clerks, but it is surprising how little how-to advice there is to be had on the web, given the DIY culture that the Internet promulgates.

The search engine results from "gay marriage California" and "gay wedding California" obviously carry different connotations, but the emphasis in both sets of web pages suggested by the Google algorithm is frequently on policy rather than ceremony. For example, although there are many wedding planner sites on the web for straight couples, there are surprisingly few matrimony mavens proffering their services for gay intendeds. Sites like "Plan Your Gay Wedding" offer little more than bullet points, and there are still just about as many results for "gay wedding Canada" as there are for "gay wedding California," despite the state's draw to out-of-state tourists.

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Monday, September 22, 2008

A Veiled Facebook

As reporters for media organizations become more likely to be members on Facebook themselves, the coverage of the popular social network sites has begun to change.

A recent article in the Los Angeles Times, "Facebook reflects struggle over Islam's role" demonstrates that the print media has begun to see such online social media venues as more that virtual reality playgrounds for teens and tweens, although one of the interview subjects characterized the demographic of his readership as "Sixty-seven percent . . . between 18 and 24."

Given that the current administration has expended so much time and so many resources to the proposition that the Internet and jihadist radicalism are related, a look at some of the most trafficked sites shows the role of pro-Western bloggers in shaping the discussion. It is also interesting to see coverage of the Facebook wars between the secularists and the fundamentalists manifesting the kinds of cultural dynamics that Geert Lovink has described in Zero Comments, in which distributed social media channels polarize political opinions and promote extremist views on either side. And yet, what the LA Times describes taking place in practice in the article, is often collective deliberation rather than bisected debate and civil exchanges between those with very different religious or political views rather than flame wars.

In contrast, another recent story analyzing the role of Facebook in the broader culture reinforces the idea that social network sites are something to be outgrown rather than sites of public rhetoric that could be exploited for professional or activist purposes. In "College Applicants, Beware: Your Facebook Page Is Showing," the Wall Street Journal reports that a surprisingly large number of college admissions officials are looking for virtual dirt online in sites that are often considered to be private walled gardens, at least to their occupants.

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Infinite Regress

As promised, here it is: "What Could Go Wrong?" or my online lecture about online lectures that I gave in the Annenberg series at USC.

Of course, in my e-mail inbox this morning I learn that a Study by UW E-Business Institute Reveals Strong Undergraduate Preference for Lecture Capture. I would be interested in examining the methodology of this study of online lectures closely, which purports to find "data supporting undergraduate students’ clear preference for classes that are webcasted vs. courses that only feature in-room instruction," even though such canned pedagogical presentations lack interactivity and faculty engagement with problem-based, inquiry-based, or project-based learning. This study could also be easily used by distance learning advocates who might be tempted to interpret a study that may show undergraduates in favor of multimedia supplements to be an argument for multimedia substitutes.

Update: U.C. Irvine German professor Gail Hart points out a piece in Inside Higher Ed, "I'll Take My Lecture to Go, Please" that covers the arguments in favor of lecture capture that are presented in the study.

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Speaking of alternate reality games, Jane McGonigal has announced the launch of the multivariable apocalyptic scenario Superstruct, which makes her previous ARG about a World Without Oil look relatively happy and sunny by comparison. And yet, despite being structured around five superthreats (disease, famine, struggles for energy dominance, privacy and civil rights crises, and population displacements), McGonigal maintains a spirit of playfulness about the simulation. For example, she uses a number of social media platforms to facilitate social play: the game has its own Facebook group, and a number of YouTube videos are already posted to the site.

What does the world of 2019 look like? Find out now.

The full report from the Global Extinction Awareness System is LIVE -- and you can read it here for the first time anywhere. Find out exactly why the human species may face extinction by the year 2042 – and what we can do about it.

With this report, the Superstruct Story is just beginning. Two weeks from today, on October 6, 2008, we’ll flip the game switch on. Then it’s YOUR turn to tell the story of 2019 – and to help invent the future.

So read the scenario now... and get ready to start superstructing!

What McGonigal describes as the "world’s first massively multiplayer forecasting game" is named after what she characterizes as a fundamental feature of human nature: superstructing.

We build new structures on old structures. We build media on top of language and communication networks. We build communities on top of family structures. We build corporations on top of platforms for manufacturing, marketing, and distribution. Superstructing has allowed us to survive in the past and it will help us survive the super-threats.

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Sunday, September 21, 2008

"Are You in the Game?"

I've only been mistaken for a prostitute once in my life. It was when I was a college student visiting London, and I was walking back from a posh dinner party to my fleabag backpacker's hotel in Bayswater.

A balding, bearded middle age man came up to me hesitantly to inquire about the price. He did not mention any kind of sexual transaction in his query about "how much?", so I must have looked at him quite blankly. At this point he asked me with a mixture of irritation and embarrassment, "Are you in the game?" It was not an expression that I was familiar with at the time, so I continued to peer at him quizzically. Finally, he asked if I was "working," a phrase that I actually recognized as street lingo. As soon as he saw my aghast response, he expressed his mortification and vanished.

The irony to me was that I was wearing perhaps the most conservative outfit that I owned at the time: a nineteen-sixties navy Chanel suit knock-off with a white collar and big white buttons. Like many in the punk rock generation, I often wore fishnet stockings, leather halter tops, and lycra mini-skirts. But for some reason this garb never caused any confusion about my profession. And yet my school marmy apparel registered with this would-be john as a sign that I was costumed as one who was "in the game" in the alternate reality game that is urban prostitution.

I found myself thinking about this incident again as I begin to sit down and work on this paper on alternate reality games that I've agreed to give at the American Studies Association conference in October. Of late I've been thinking a lot about politeness and games, whether it is politeness in Facebook games in this paper or the politeness involved in this meditation on cheek kissing and collision detection.

Since proposing to talk about "Taking It To the Streets" in these urban alternate reality games, there have already been a number of new additions in the field of improvisational streetscape play, such as Massively Multiplayer Soba from Mary Flanagan of Tiltfactor Laboratory.

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School Supplies

I've posted this year's online video introduction to my digital rhetoric class this Fall on YouTube.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Storing War Stories

Speaking of the military, I recently learned about the the Army's fascinating Flickr site, from where I navigated to the YouTube channel and Twitter hub also run by the Soldiers Media Center. All three social media venues are interesting as efforts at public diplomacy and institutional branding.

The content on the Flickr site indicates that managers understand many of the participatory culture conventions that are common among the free service's users. Those who post photos use a relatively bare bones "attribution" Creative Commons license to signal public domain access to these high-resolution images. They also allow for critical comments such as this one: "I saw also some photos of children killed by some americain bombing,so Why this propaganda?"Unlike the Library of Congress Flickr site, however, visitors are unable to affix notes to the image interface. Photographs of soldiers interacting with happy Iraqi children are probably overrepresented for those searching for free journalistic content to represent the war.

In contrast, the videos on the YouTube channel seem to be much less sensitive to YouTube vernacular video norms than another of the channels operated by the Department of Defense, which I write about in an article about government YouTube channels in the upcoming Video Vortex reader. Rather than present raw footage that would be useful to those seeking B-roll for other kinds of stories, the Soldiers Media Center presents short films that have been edited and enhanced with digital effects and incorporate obvious motion graphics and green screen technologies that are commonly derived from software packages such as After Effects.

The Twitter site does not seem to be using microblogging for real-time situations. Instead, the service is used primarily to disseminate web links as tinyurls, as a conventional PR news feed would.

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G I Joke

In "U.S. Army Invades Schools," Ian Bogost reports on an almost unbelievable story that the controversial military videogame America's Army will be used as an educational tool in K-12 learning. Through a partnership with a group called Project Lead the Way, which describes itself as a "501 c3, not-for-profit educational program that helps give middle and high school students the rigorous ground-level education they need to develop strong backgrounds in science and engineering," this initiative would mod the existing technology to create stand-alone teaching modules. A press release describes one possible application of the game engine to classroom use:

Utilizing the gaming platform, PLTW, Ohio DOE and the America's Army team have developed a number of applications which will be implemented over the coming year to enhance PLTW's engineering curriculum, currently implemented in 3,000 middle schools and high schools nationwide. The first educational module will be incorporated into the PLTW Principles of Engineering course. Students will use the America's Army gaming technology to explore kinematics in a ballistics project. They will be able to test the accuracy of their calculations in the virtual environment to observe how different variables such as displacement, time, velocity and elevation angles affect the principles of engineering. They will be able to visualize a parabola trajectory and calculate the varied velocities, ranges, and angles of their device within the game. Students will also be able to 'drive' a vehicle around a virtual obstacle course as well as perform a virtual helicopter drop and determine how various factors will affect the physics of the activity.

The politics of this game are already complicated: you can't play as a female, guns magically turn from AK-47s to M-16s to maintain the fiction that you can never be a non-American, and alerts to users about a "security patch" needed actually did nothing but change the name of "Sniper School" to something seemingly less anti-social for PR reasons. Furthermore, as Bogost points out, there are already international conventions against recruiting child soldiers. Grand Text Auto recently discussed how the America's Army game has fostered debate within the game development community, particularly among those working on serious games. Particularly when there are certainly stand-alone physics engines available, the particular choice of game title seems inexplicable.

By my nature, I am a suspicious and skeptical person, which is a necessary job requirement for anyone studying Internet culture, so I felt compelled to poke around in Project Lead the Way's website. I noticed that the group seems to have strong ties to the highly lucrative distance learning and educational outcomes assessment markets. I suspect that they may be more motivated by the cheap automation and standardization than pro-military political ideology.

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Friday, September 19, 2008

I'll Show You Yours If You'll Show Me Mine

There is a remarkable large database detailing the base salaries of public employees of the State of California that has been published by the Sacramento Bee. This database, which discloses the salaries of those in the governor's office does not seem to include Arnold Schwarzenegger himself. However, it does seem to include me and all my faculty colleagues in the U.C. System and lists base salaries from last year. My own feelings about inclusion are complicated: I feel that this is "private" information about myself and yet I understand the obligation to disclose the details of a budget that is heavily based on compensating public employees.

It is interesting that those in the Cal State system of second-tier institutions of higher education don't seem to be included in this database. The newspaper has already responded to union complaints from other quarters about disclosure of this information, since this type of data obviously has a lot of rhetorical power for people from many different job titles.

The actual functioning of this kind of transparency in the workplace has yet to be entirely seen, but it does seem like interesting data to be visualized in other ways that get beyond pull-down menus and text boxes. Perhaps California state employee Lev Manovich of Culturevis, who is also in the database, could also take a crack at a better aesthetic presentation. It also might be interesting to map such data against other kinds of visualizations, such as the organizational hierarchies by which universities are structured.

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Double or Nothing

Christopher Soghoian has made a bet with his readers at Surveillance State to see if they could trigger a content takedown involving the King James Bible rather than the obscene materials involving minors that a new regulation is supposedly designed to control. The problem with these new rules, as Soghoian points out, is that they consign what is actually a law enforcement responsibility to a private, nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization: the high-profile Center for Missing & Exploited Children.

As he explains in "Cable giants bullied into new child porn censorship deal," cable companies that serve as Internet service providers have entered into a very unconventional agreement that does not involve the FCC or other governmental bodies.

The major national cable providers are all to sign a troubling yet major censorship deal with a private anti-child porn organization. The deal would give the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC) carte blanche power to issue a takedown of any customer's content hosted on a cable provider's servers.

The group will provide each cable company with a list of Web site addresses that they believe contain child porn. The cable companies will then, per the agreement, scrub the content from their servers.

Soghoian's posting is also rhetorically interesting because he highlights the persuasive power of arguments that become linked to a prominent moral panic issue in recent decades, the electronic distribution of child pornography.

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Swan Song

Over on Sivacracy we are bidding adieu to readers as one of what was once one of the most prominent free culture blogs is discontinued. My goodbye message is here.

Among my humble contributions to Siva Vaidhyanathan's blog in my time on the Sivacracy team, probably this posting, carried on BoingBoing here, resulted in the most enthusiastic e-mails from readers. Many were hoping that I would actually have such a cloth and thread Boy Scout patch available for distribution, or they wanted to make up DIY versions of their own.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Open Mailbox

Virtualpolitik friend
James Kotecki needs to work on his French, but he has some good ideas to share with Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin about choosing an appropriate screen name, after she came under fire for using a personal e-mail account to conduct some of Alaska's state business. Palin was targeted by hackers who posted messages on Wikileaks.org, as Scientific American's "Hackers hit Palin, expose the dangers of using personal e-mail to conduct business" describes. The hackers were apparently veterans of another exploit involving private data from the Church of Scientology. Many of the screen shots that depict a combination of work and life ephemera can be accessed from this page.

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Today, the Los Angeles Times presented a number of news stories about the commuter train accident that took the lives of twenty-five people and the fact that the apparently negligent engineer used his cellular telephone to send personal text messages while at work, although investigators "did not say how many text messages Sanchez sent and received." Because there was another accident this year in which ubiquitous communication may have been a factor, Metrolink has moved to ban the use of wireless devices by train crews, as "Train's engineer received, sent text messages on duty, records show" and "Metrolink crash leads to ban on cellphone use by train crews" explain.

For other companies considering similar policies, it is possible that workers may rebel. Cellular technologies have extended the reach of work much farther into the time and space allotted for personal life, so it is not surprising that many use the devices to reclaim some of the domestic sphere from an effectively much longer workday.

And yet in the competing economies of attention and distraction that multiple screens and windows represent, it is understandable why employers are worried about time on task for jobs that require vigilance. There are relatively few of these jobs for which a lapse of surveiling vision can be a life-or-death matter: air traffic controller, internsive care nurse, etc. In those professions the public expects workers to be focused on their jobs. It is very different from the ridiculous legislation proposed to bar iPod use among urban pedestrians or other intrusive efforts to manage or visual or auditory culture. (See Siva Vaidhyanathan ridiculing the iPod pedestrian law in a radio interview here.)

From visiting the Metrolink website, I also learned that commuters can get service updates on Twitter.

Update: The New York Times has run a piece on such regulatory efforts in several fields called "As Text Messages Fly, Danger Lurks."

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Holding Forth on the F-Word

Today, I gave a talk about "The F-Word: Learning from Failure in Serious Games" at the Institute for Creative Technologies, which has created a number of high-profile military videogames.

It wasn't as wide-ranging a discussion as the GDC's 2006 session on "What's Wrong with Serious Games?" But it was a lively interchange. Slides are here.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Darn, Now I'll Never Learn to be a Terrorist

The Associated Press reports that YouTube bans terrorism training videos, and Wired shows that the Defense Department is on to possible plots to plan attacks against the United States in the shadowy realms of virtual worlds in an item about how a "Pentagon Researcher Conjures Warcraft Terror Plot."

Didn't these people learn anything about the risks of associating terrorism with the digital practices of the vast majority of peaceful citizens from the embarrassment of the "expert" testimony before the House Intelligence Committee about the SonicJihad Battlefield 2 fan film?

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Cheat Sheets

Today's Shreveport Times has an article about YouTube cheating videos in which I'm quoted: "Videos teach students deception."

Elizabeth Losh, writing director of the human core course at University of California-Irvine, knows these videos well. As a teacher of digital rhetoric, she analyzes how media affects society. The YouTube videos are really a way for people to boast, she said.

"It's a whole kind of tradition on YouTube — how do you subvert something, how do you break-in to something," she said. "In some ways, I'm not surprised that the genre has evolved."

. . .

Chris Ciocchetti, adviser to the Centenary College Honor Court, has watched the videos.

"They are very deliberate about it," he said. "Will they use it? They might. I've seen similar things."

Ciocchetti is surprised with the boldness of some of the videos' techniques. Much like Kiki in her video, others make cheating look easy and almost acceptable. One such video uses a Coke bottle and photo altering software to sneak the answers past teachers.

"The boldness does worry me," he said. "Students that cheat think that everyone does it. But students that don't, don't think it's appropriate. The Internet reflects back to us, and that's the worrisome part."

But Losh wasn't surprised by their boldness.

"Another thing about the approaches are the techniques," she said. "They take so much time you might as well study. I can laugh about the inventiveness, but it's sad more than anything else."

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Free as in Free Online Game

Paolo at Molleindustria announces the release of a "tiny abstract pretentious game" called the Free Culture Game.

The goal is to provide a simplified interactive rendition of theories and propositions about knowledge capitalism (es. Negri, Lessing, Wark). It's a game you cannot lose. Even if you stop playing the game always tend to a dynamic equilibrium between market and Common. The basic assumption is that there will never be a complete privatization of
shared knowledge and without a strong opposition (represented by the player's action) the forces of the market will indefinitely exploit the innovative ideas emerging from the society.

He also promotes the group's legal resource center, which is designed for fighting for copyleft, fair use, and public domain designations.

This issue of whether or not games themselves can be copyrighted has been much debated this year, in light of the controversy over Alex Galloway's adaptation of Guy Debord's Game of War. Here are the words of wisdom from the U.S. Copyright Office.

For more about Molleindustria's products, check out this posting from Virtualpolitik about one of their earlier games, Operation: Pedopriest.

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Myth America

I'm quoted in Siva Vaidhyanathan's great piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education: "Generational Myth: Not all young people are tech-savvy."

It's a terrific review of all the arguments against the stereotype of the "digital generation" that debates both parts of the term in ways that are useful for anyone studying the cultural practices that surround computer-mediated communication.

Consider all the pundits, professors, and pop critics who have wrung their hands over the inadequacies of the so-called digital generation of young people filling our colleges and jobs. Then consider those commentators who celebrate the creative brilliance of digitally adept youth. To them all, I want to ask: Whom are you talking about? There is no such thing as a "digital generation."

. . .

On my blog, Sivacracy, Elizabeth Losh, writing director of the humanities core course at the University of California at Irvine and author of the forthcoming Virtualpolitik: An Electronic History of Government Media-Making in Time of War, Scandal, Disaster, Miscommunication, and Mistakes (MIT Press, 2009), kept the online conversation going: "Unlike many in today's supposed 'digital generation,' we learned real programming skills — with punch cards in the beginning — from the time we were in elementary school. What passes for 'media literacy' now is often nothing more than teaching kids to make prepackaged PowerPoint presentations." Losh also pointed out that the supposed existence of a digital generation has had an impact on education, as distance-learning corporations with bells-and-whistles technology get public attention while traditional classroom teaching is ignored.

In this essay, Vaidhyanathan provides an excellent survey of many of the important recent arguments presented about "digital youth." He also inspired the subtitle of the book that I am working on now: Early Adopters: The Instructional Technology Movement and the Myth of the Digital Generation.

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We'll Name It Track If It's a Boy and Bristol If It's a Girl

I realize that I had sworn off writing about Sarah Palin Internet humor entirely for the near future as a legitimate source of meaningful digital rhetoric.

And then Julie Platt pointed out the existence of the Sarah Palin Baby Name Generator.

Well, I just couldn't resist. After all, I wrote an entire scholarly paper about the web generator as a genre of satire.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Get Rid of One, and Two Will Take Its Place

This CNN roundup of YouTube Sarah Palin impersonators sums up the variety of approaches to this current Internet meme, one that has lost its charm for me much faster than the hamster dance or the Numa Numa song.

From a specifically digital rhetoric perspective, only the videos that use green screen to intercut the impersonator with the real broadcast media footage or that parody other YouTube videos are of much interest as objects of study.

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Swimsuit Issue

In response to the famed Photoshopped bikini photograph of Sarah Palin, Nell Scovell has designed some similar Biden shots for Vanity Fair. In this case I don't think that there will be as much debate about the authenticity of the three photos in the spread, especially for the one in which Biden appears in a red, white, and blue women's bikini.

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Monday, September 15, 2008

Size Matters

Although Americans are often criticized for their lack of numeracy, statistics have become increasingly important in the age of social media, since they serve as one of the main metrics of worth. The number of views, the number of friends, or the number of members of a given group presents a form of enthymeme that gets taken to be a conclusion about worth. With the candidacy of Sarah Palin for Vice President, the size of her state and city, her years of experience in office, and the number of earmarks that her constituents receive have all become placed in rhetorical context by groups in social network sites. For example, there is a Facebook group for This Group Has a Larger Population than Wasilla, Alaska and one for I Have More Foreign Policy Experience Than Sarah Palin.

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Fireside Chatbot

Svitlana Matviyenko points out the existence of a John McCain chatbot that might be of interest to those who think about how our contemporary political processes may remind one of Warren Weaver's observations about the pseudo-interactivity of the "Horses of Elberfeld" in the 19th century.

After a negative experience with a supposed anti-McCain Wesley Clark chatbot who tediously started every instant message with a phrase beginning "Yes, I do honor his service . . .," I'm not sure that the talking points of political chatbots are much fun.

Nonetheless, it is interesting to see the number of disclaimers that the developers of the McCain chatbot present to forestall any litigiousness among potential users:

The Robotsin2008.com "chat bots" are:
- Not real people
- Not the real candidates running for office in 2008
- Not affiliated with the candidates their political parties
- Not paid directly by any political party or affiliated organization
- Do not represent the full, complete or accurate views of the real candidates
- Not endorsed by the candidates
- Not directly funded by anyone associated with politics
- Funded through sponsored ads matched to these pages through 3rd party ad systems
- Funded through affiliate links to book or other merchandise associated with candidates
- Intended for your entertainment only

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Ring My Bell

This weekend, the Los Angeles Times published an interesting analysis of how ubiquitous communication devices are changing story lines in "Remember movies before the cellphone?"

While cellphones appear to help storytellers, since they allow anyone to talk to anyone at any time, "that seeming freedom only makes it all the more difficult," says Robert McKee, the screenwriting guru and author of "Story." "It takes away a possible source of conflict -- the difficulty of communicating, the difficulty of calling for help."

McKee compares the situation to the loosening of rules about depicting sexuality -- writers have more options, but they lose the tension created when they're forced to be implicit rather than explicit. Still, he doesn't see the development as negative. "All it means is that the writer has to be even more ingenious in building the conflicts and the tensions in a credible way," he says.

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Sunday, September 14, 2008

Hearing Test

Virtualpolitik friend Nick Diakopoulos has just released Audiopuzzler, a game that responds to the tendency in many videogames to privilege sight over the other senses. Although the altitude of the high scores may be intimidating to first-time players, the game is designed to be user-friendly. Unfortunately, players who have unpleasant memories of typing tests and dictation drills (a.k.a. any woman who was born before 1970 in the era in which girls had to learn secretarial skills in school separate from boys) may be more resistant to the game. Audio snippets include an anti-Obama political ad about gas prices and a clip from An Inconvenient Truth. Diakopoulos explains the game's rationale as follows:

In the process of playing the game, players contribute transcriptions of snippets of video - the better the transcription, the more points the player earns. These transcription snippets contribute to the enrichment of the video for other users and can facilitate things like close captioning among other things. It's a way to have fun with a meaningful by-product - one especially valuable considering the difficulty of achieving high accuracy video transcriptions using automatic methods.

Diakopoulos also uses crowd sourcing in a game about tagging photos with metadata.

Although I am intrigued by this example, I also wonder about the implications of giving multiple parties access to audio files from news and entertainment sources in this way, because of rights clearance questions. Too often projects intended to improve digital materials for the disabled -- such as electronic readers for the blind -- have encountered problems with copyright restrictions. In this case the snippets may be minuscule enough and the cause so worthy that intellectual property issues may not trump other concerns.

More on Water Cooler Games.

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Spore Sports

Like many households this week in which the much-anticipated game Spore has arrived, there's been nonstop creature-creation in our home on one of the laptop PCs, sometimes -- as this photo shows -- until the wee hours of the night.

It's certainly worth asking, as Ian Bogost has, "Is Spore for Everyone?", but to me there are at least two interesting pedagogical aspects to the game: what it teaches about science and what it teaches about international relations.

What does Spore teach about evolution? What does it mean to equate leveling up with evolving?

At a time when fewer Americans believe in the theory of evolution than any other time since my birth, it is interesting that EA has decided to release this high-profile big-budget game, which transports a potential political agenda. Of course, the worldwide market for the game would not be affected by the rising attachment to creationism among citizens of the United States. Phrases like "then human beings evolved" seem to appear as uncontested factual statements in public discourses in French, German, and Japanese and among the denizens of other English-speaking countries. Yet the company might be interested in capitalizing on possible controversy to move units, although the seeming right-wing blog AntiSpore: Resisting EA's War on Creationism was recently revealed to be a hoax.

Slate magazine recently ran a long piece about "Spore's Intelligent Designer" that argues that the politics of Spore's creator reflect both progressive and reactionary philosophies ant that the game may not necessarily be the book to Darwinians that it might initially seem to be, since many advocates for Intelligent Design have already latched upon the game.

Some pro-I.D. groups have already targeted Spore as a possible eduational vehicle. "It raises a lot of the questions we've been thinking about," Casey Luskin of the Intelligent Design Evolution and Awareness Center told me three months ago. "It has interesting pro-I.D. implications. ... I know of at least two video-game developers affiliated with this who are pro-I.D." Luskin wouldn't tell me who those developers were, but he did recently weigh in on the Discovery Institute's blog to list five reasons why Spore will destroy common objections to intelligent design. His conclusion: "Spore is a video game that is intelligently designed to allow users to create fantasy worlds where evolution really can take place."

The author also argues that the actual science of the game does little to teach the principles of the evolution of distinct species: not only does the game make "no room for random mutation, the real source of differentiation," but also "natural selection plays only a minor role." Certainly, I see certain Lamarckian tendencies in the game, although it does work against the fallacy of gradualism with its panoramas of punctuated equilibrium characterized by sudden shifts and massive extinctions.

As someone who has taught the Origin of Species, it seems that that little is also done with that tricky chapter on sexual selection, which caused such a problem for Darwin the Victorian patriarch who focused on the combat between males where survival of the fittest would depend on superior strength and obviously adaptive traits, and yet -- as a specialist in birds -- he could not ignore the role of female preference for particular kinds of mates, some with features that would seem to make them more likely to be subject to predators or less equipped for hunting and gathering.

(It is interesting that the religious right doesn't appear yet to be bothering itself about the number of phallic creatures that are possible to generate with the software and the plethora of sexual organs frolicking about computer screens with their gorgeous procedural animation. I personally would prefer to make one of these anti-DRM critters.)

How does Spore depict the exploitation of foreign peoples and their material resources?

As Celia Pearce points out, games like Civilization and Age of Empires often could be described as "sanitized colonialism" or "Disneyfied imperialism" in which the conquest of supposedly inferior people always maximizes your chances for success in the game and rarely produces any blowback. In contrast, players who follow the path of the warmonger in Spore often find themselves meeting unexpected forms of postcolonial resistance or unanticipated systemic failures as they attempt to subjugate others and cart away their valuable spices and precious goods.

Pearce and I are actually working on the preliminary stages of a research project about ideologies of war in videogames that should bring together her scholarship on player communities and group ideologies and my work in the Humanities Core Course teaching about the literature, philosophy, and history of colonialism and globalization. Possible topics for considering how these attitudes toward war and combat in game worlds are formulated include just war doctrine, rules of engagement, the definition of war crimes, preventative war theory, etc. I'll be presenting some of this work in a PAMLA session on "Violence and Representation: Epistemologies of War in Philosophy, Fiction, and Film" in November.

(Thanks to Robert Tercek for pointing out the link to the Slate.com piece. I haven't yet been able to play the game for myself for any extended period, so I'd be interested in exploring the supposed emphasis on religious practices in the game -- something my own kids seem to be ignoring -- which the article describes as well.)

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Lincoln Logs

Internet search engines are used by many households to locate the exact origins of common or at least memorable quotations, although the presence of sizable amounts of misinformation about the authorship of well-known texts can make these exercises in drawing upon the resources of collective intelligence subject to mistaken attributions. Those who follow the trajectories of such urban legends may be interested in the current debate about the citation of Lincoln by Sarah Palin to explain her prior comments about God's will and the war in Iraq. David Emery presents all the sides weighing in at "Did Palin misquote Lincoln?" from historians to television pundits.

Thanks to Vivian Folkenflik for the link.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

I'll Have My People Call Your People

This weekend the New York Times explains in "Twittering from the Cradle" that some parents are actually maintaining updates on social network sites that are designed for babies and toddlers on places like Kidmondo and Totspot. Many things in the story are clearly designed to shock traditionalists and to activate fears that children's privacy is being violated, that cloud computing is a lousy place for keepsakes, or that social network sites are forcing the young to grow up far too soon.

But the thing that I find most disturbing about this story, as a rhetorician, is the way that these parents are appropriating their kids' voices and speaking as if the children are the ones recording the events in their own lives. One parent even expresses the fallacy that a child would want to pick up seemlessly from the discourse of the parent: 'Knowing his daddy, it won’t be long before he’s blogging about himself anyway,' she said." And clearly even the parents that who claim that their kids love such sites are missing the fact that their offspring are expressing concerns about questions of self-representation:

Daniel Hallac and his wife Carole, co-founders of Kidmondo, believe that someday children themselves will go to the site. “Our son Shaun is only a year and a half so he’s not all that interested yet,” Mr. Hallac said. “But we have a page on our site for our older son Davide, who is 6. He checks up on it a lot and loves to read his story. Sometimes he’ll say something like ‘How come you didn’t write about my baseball game yesterday?’”

On the other hand, as someone who utterly failed to keep a physical baby book for my own two children, despite my very best intentions, I can actually understand the appeal of a virtual one. I've never been very good at the material culture of print literacy, whether it involves keeping a longhand journal or sending thank you notes with stamps or filling in the spaces to balance my checkbook, so for me computer-mediated communication has been a godsend.

The baby book my mother kept about me used a standard template with none of the DIY charm (or insane investment of time) that I associate with the current scrapbooking movement. But the existence of this artifact does give her a sense of remembering time in her life that would otherwise be lost in a fog of sleep deprivation, and it gives me minute information about my growth and development that is useful for understanding my own children's milestones. In particular, I was impressed by her conscientious recording of the catalog of words that I uttered at different ages and how that list reflects where my own weird personal lexicon began.

Yet I will also confess to looking at my baby book and seeing a person I don't recognize: someone cute rather than critical, someone precocious rather than slow to judge, someone who wins prizes rather than gives them to others. Perhaps this person is someone that certain kinds of parents might wish for a child to remain rather than enter the perpetual adolescence in which we all eventually find ourselves.

Given my own experiences, I wonder how the children in this article will look back at their electronic baby books in time.

Thanks to Elayne Zalis for the link.

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Ice Queen

I fear that this blog is in danger of becoming nothing but a record of the latest Internet ephemera related to the candidacy of Vice Presidential contender Sarah Palin, since I've already written about Palin-related e-mails, Palin Photoshop forgeries, Palin Facebook posters, regrettable audioclips from Palin flunkies, and phony Palin blogs.

But Dennis McCauley's Game Politics points out that there is already a Sarah Palin videogame, which was noted by the blog a mere three days after they observed that she had her own action figure appear. For the better part of an hour I played Polar Palin, a game in which I assumed the role of an adorable dynamite-toting polar bear who must blow up oil drilling rigs on the ice floes while avoiding murderous tanks driven by Palin clones

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Scare Tactics

Today Marc Van Gurp informed me about the furor involving the free online game "Muslim Massacre," which made its debut with the following content description.

The United States of America, a leader and role model for all in the modern world, is taking drastic measures to secure the freedom and safety of the world. Having born witness to the atrocities of the followers of Islam time and time again, it has been decided that the entire Muslim race shall be wiped from the surface of the Earth.

You, the American Hero, have valiantly volunteered to make landfall in the Middle East and ensure that no Muslim man or woman is left alive. Your mission priorities are to seek out and neutralize the Muslim leader Osama bin Laden, their radical cult leader Muhammad and finally Allah, taking down any targets you meet on the way.

According to an article in The Independent, the apparent hate-mongering stance of the game quickly became a cause for protest among Muslim groups. Many of their objections had to do with possible negative influences on the young.

British Muslim youth organisation The Ramadhan Foundation expressed its "deep condemnation and anger" at the game.

The group said: "This game is glorifying the killing of Muslims in the Middle East and we urge ISP providers to take action to remove this site from their services as it incites violence towards Muslims and is trying to justify the killing of innocent Muslims.

"We have written to the British Government to urge an inquiry into this game and take action to shut down the site. This is not satire but a deliberate attempt to demonise Muslims."

The foundation's chief executive, Mohammed Shafiq, added: "Encouraging children and young people in a game to kill Muslims is unacceptable, tasteless and deeply offensive.

"There is an increase in violence in this country and some of it comes from video games. When kids spend six hours a day on violent games they are more likely to go outside and commit violence.

The rhetorical situation surrounding the game soon became even more complex, as the creator of the game came forward and issued the following public apology on his website:

I would like to make a public apology for any offense that I might have caused through releasing this game, and to Muslims in particular. My intentions when releasing this project were to mock the foreign policy of the United States and the commonly held belief in the United States that Muslims are a hostile people to be held with suspicion. I would like to make it clear that I have never shared such a belief and my intention was to mock those who actually do believe these things.

It quickly became obvious to me that releasing this game did not achieve its intended effect and instead only caused hurt to hospitable, innocent people. I believe removing this game and website will do much more to attain my desired effect than leaving it on the internet, so I am doing just that.

I would like to ask for the forgiveness of Muslims around the world and to make it clear that I did not release this game with ill intent. So without further ado, I would like to say that I am truly apologetic for what I have done and will take full responsibility for all offense that has been caused. I can only hope that any further misgivings can be laid to rest.

Like the fanfilm of "SonicJihad," which was the subject of an article about high-profile misunderstandings of digital media that I wrote, questions of intent can be difficult to gauge without more information about the rhetorical purpose of a content creator of "funny" material. Unlike the unapologetic SonicJihad, however, "Sigvatr" has issued a public mea culpa.

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Friday, September 12, 2008

Tea Party

An interesting example of a meditation on what Ian Bogost calls "procedural rhetoric" has to do with reflecting on the seemingly straightforward process of making tea. Joe Davis's stretchtext piece, Telescopic Text, provides its own kind of electronic tea ceremony as the individual components of a cup of tea are expanded upon. Over the years I've seen several versions of Ted Nelson's concept, from the Tinderbox Stretchtext Template to an opening of file-folders version of "He Began. She Ended." by Jeremy Douglass, but this was a particularly interesting connection of the content to the form. After all, I used to carpool to work with a philosopher who once studied assembly language, although he felt that his most memorable project was an algorithm for making tea.

(Thanks to Dan Lockton of the always readable Architectures of Control for the link, where you can also learn about health-conscious salt shaker design in fish and chips shops in the U.K.)

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The United States of Amnesia

"In Digital Age, Federal Files Blip Into Oblivion" from the New York Times warns that many records that once were permanently archived by federal agencies are now being deleted entirely since they were only stored temporarily in digital form and procedures either don't exist for creating lasting databases or political interests are fostering a culture of radical novelty in governance. Reporter Robert Pear describes a situation in which the web pages of federal agencies are riddled with broken links, e-mails are both discarded and purged without oversight from public watchdogs, and the National Archives has decided not even to keep snapshots of the websites of this administration.

Federal agencies have rushed to embrace the Internet and new information technology, but their record-keeping efforts lag far behind. Moreover, federal investigators have found widespread violations of federal record-keeping requirements.

Many federal officials admit to a haphazard approach to preserving e-mail and other electronic records of their work. Indeed, many say they are unsure what materials they are supposed to preserve.

This confusion is causing alarm among historians, archivists, librarians, Congressional investigators and watchdog groups that want to trace the decision-making process and hold federal officials accountable. With the imminent change in administrations, the concern about lost records has become more acute.

As a scholar who specializes in writing about the government as a digital media-maker, I have found the virtual quicksand in which electronic ephemera regularly disappears profoundly frustrating. My recommendations to others working in this area would be to use free and open source software that records the location, content, and date stamp of supposedly authoritative materials on the web. My two favorites for this purpose are Zotero, which has a snapshot feature, and CamStudio for multimedia pages.

Update: A recent article in the New York Times about Alaska governor Sarah Palin's administration also documents some interesting problems with the archiving of e-mail at the state level of government In "Once Elected, Palin Hired Friends and Lashed Foes," the reporter describes state officials who used personal e-mail addresses to conduct state business and avoided subpoenas requesting e-mailed opinions of scientists about global warming.

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Iconic Moments

Gonzalo Frasca of Powerful Robot has unveiled "Debate Night," a two-level online game, which the creators describe as structured by a game mechanic of "Zuma meets Bejeweled."

Many remember that Frasca was also involved in the creation of the first videogame designed for a presidential run, the Dean for America game. He has now returned with a pro-Obama game that shows how the "debate" often consists of little more than sequences of single issues that can be reduced to icons for hot-button topics like gun policy, Iran, same sex marriage, etc. Shoot two issues and they switch positions, group three together for points, and keep your main pet personal issue -- which can be one of your own choosing -- placed up in front of the queue. (I chose "minibars," since Lev Manovich is right that they really should be better designed, which appeared as "MIN/IBA/RS" in my icon.)

Spoiler alert: After you beat the game, a George Bush cartoon figure appears to move the numbers around on the tally of votes.

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The Top of Their Game

It's not surprising that the word "game" appears six times in Ann Powers' review of Metallica's new album in today's Los Angeles Times, since Powers also reports on how the business model of the record's release depends on a cross-platform deal with the makers of the videogame Guitar Hero. Although Metallica admits to being "bad at Guitar Hero," the band is likely to profit on the unconventional deal that finds a novel solution to the revenue problem associated with easily replicable digital music. As the Times Online reports, "The veteran rockers broke new ground by releasing their first album in five years simultaneously as a CD and as a computer game, making the album and bonus material available via Activision’s Guitar Hero III for about £8."

Now that Metallica played with cellos is part of the YouTube repertoire, it seems that the band members and their fans are cultivating a strong transmedia presence.

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Lipstick on a YouTube Video

This "web ad" video from the multimedia arm of the McCain campaign initially incorporated footage of CBS news anchor Katie Couric descrying sexism aimed at female candidates, which led to a takedown notice from the network on the grounds of unauthorized use of the Couric footage and copyright violation by the Republicans. Apparently, this is the sixth copyright violation of the campaign.

Additionally, this AP video points out that the ad may also be misleading since the lipstick + animal comments of Obama and Palin refered to totally different contexts. The ad titled "Lipstick" on the McCain website now led to an entirely different clip of a stump speech, but -- as the video above shows -- McCain supporters have already trimmed the video to preserve the attack on Obama but excise the film owned by CBS and reposted it multiple times on YouTube.

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Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sidney Greenstreet He Aint

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times carried a remarkable story about Internet public diplomacy efforts in Africa that involved a British diplomat going by the name "Fat White Man," who is known for his criticism of political corruption as it expresses itself in the denigration of civic values at the level of everyday practices in the street culture. This is not surprising since the British Foreign & Commonwealth Office is known for its lively, personable, sharp-tongued, and attention-getting roll of official bloggers among the diplomatic corps. Unlike the canned public relations style and drearily impersonal writing on Dipnote, the official blog of the U.S. Department of State, British bloggers generate engaging prose.

However the title of "Zimbabwe bloggers shine a light on their troubled country" may be misleading, since most of the writing in Philip Barclay and Grace Mutandwa's Harare Blog is done by a foreign national for whom the country is not "his." The article also misses the fact that there is also a lot of Internet-based human rights activism being done in the country that recognizes that few Zimbabweans have the economic resources to surf the web regularly on a personal home computer. Instead, projects like Tad Hirsch's Dialup Radio use the Internet with mobile phones. Although much of the attention goes to compelling reading based on personal narratives on blogs like the gonzo journalistic Comrade Fatso or the epistolary CathyBuckle.com, the article does mention how Kubatana.net uses text messages to disseminate information about venues for protest.

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Calling Cards

Seven years after the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, commemoration of September 11th continues. The September 11 Digital Archive is showing a beta version of its new website, which includes exhibits created in collaboration with museum partners such as Ground One: Voices from Post-911 Chinatown and September 11: Bearing Witness to History from the Smithsonian. Web-oriented archives have created september11.archive.org with the cooperation of the Wayback Machine from the Internet Archive and the Pew Internet & American Life center. These two digital archives are preserving and curating different aspects of the experience that were recorded in the auditory and Internet cultures of the period. What is interesting to me is the emphasis on the local in these exhibites, even though the event involved many kinds of transnational networks and migrating social actors.

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