Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Virtually in Washington

As the Obama inauguration approaches, I have been thinking about how those assembled in Washington D.C. will represent it to those not in attendance on popular sites for sharing photographs, texts, and videos. How will people's Twitter updates and Facebook walls and Flickr photostreams record the occasion for those who can not be present?

Looking back to the Lincoln inaugurations, a legacy to which Obama has often alluded, it is interesting to think about an image from the Library of Congress that I have taught about in the past, which shows a shorthand diary and the crowd in front of an unfinished Capitol dome watching the swearing in. I had never really thought of it as a social media document before, perhaps because of the cryptic nature of the personally inscribed shorthand, but it made me think about how stereoscopic images have circulated in the pre-digital era as a token of both presence and distance at significant public events.

In many ways, it's an image not about Lincoln but about the crowd. In several essays in the book Making Things Public, edited by Bruno Latour, the authors argue that photographs and paintings of such crowd scenes represent important political imaginaries, such as the notion of a general will in democratic government.

According to the Library of Congress's website, Internet crowd sourcing apparently played a critical role in identifying what the crowd was doing in rare steroscopic images of Lincoln's Second Inauguration.

Three stereoscopic negatives at the Library of Congress, heretofore misidentified as showing either the Grand Review of the Armies or the inauguration of President Grant, have been determined to actually show the crowd in front of the Capitol for the second inauguration of Abraham Lincoln on March 4, 1865.

The discovery was made by Carol Johnson, curator of photography at the Library of Congress, after a patron alerted her to the fact that two stereo images that obviously showed the same scene had radically different identifications in the library’s online Civil War photographic negative collection. (

Before this discovery, there were two known images of the crowd gathered for the second inauguration taken from the same vicinity, one of those being a print at the library (LC-USZ62-7812). But the patron’s recent query to Johnson prompted her to re-examine the library’s identifications on three successive images near the end the group of stereoscopic negatives attributed to Alexander Gardner. These images are LC B811-1284, LC B815-1285 and LC B815-1286.

The library had 1284 identified as the Grand Review of the armies in May 1865, while 1285 and 1286 were said to show the inauguration of President U.S. Grant on March 4, 1869. However, there is a curious notation "Lincoln?" next to the entries for 1285 and 1286 in the library’s printed index log for the Civil War negatives.

That prompted Johnson to take a closer look at the three images, and she was able to link them to the second inauguration of Lincoln, on March 4, 1865, though the print in the library’s collection (LC USZ62-7812) that is identified as having been taken at Lincoln’s second inaugural.

The trees are leafless in all three images, so 1284 could not have been taken in May 1865, which was the time of the Grand Review. Images 1285 and 1286 do not show Grant's inauguration because other photos of that event show that a platform was constructed that extended out from the steps of the Capitol, and no such platform is in these images.

These three ‘new’ images of the crowd gathering for Lincoln's second inauguration mimic three frames from a movie, with 1284 and 1285 showing the troops as they march in and prepare to assemble, and 1286 showing everyone in place for the ceremony. The images do not show any part of the podium where the ceremony occurred.

As with the discovery of Lincoln himself in the two images from the Gettysburg Address ceremony, this discovery came about because someone took the trouble to take a careful, detailed look at the various images in question.

It's interesting that the library's patron who contributed to the discovery remains anonymous in this account of archival detective work. It is worth noting that there are also many stereoscopic photographs of Lincoln's funeral in Library of Congress collections online, even though his casket visited the states of many of his constituents before burial.

Labels: ,

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Shoe In

A Facebook group is encouraging members to Send Your Smelly Old Shoes to George W. Bush to show support for the Iraqi journalist who hurled his footwear at the lame duck president. The mailing address on Pennsylvania Avenue is included along with instructions for delivering the snail mail message. From online games to Facebook groups, it is interesting to see how the shoe-throwing incident has become an Internet meme. Visitors to the site are also encouraged to sign a human rights online petition for fair treatment for the journalist who is currently in detention.

Labels: , ,

So Many Blogs Get Abandoned Every Year, Why Not This One?

Yes, this is the actual photo collage at Dipnote, the truly unreadable blog from the Department of State, that is celebrating the end of the year with the equivalent of a highlights reel, where they plug their other social media products.

The most popular individual entry of the year was "U.S. Department of State and Social Media: Tell Us What You Think" by DipNote's Editor-in-Chief Heath Kern Gibson. I find this particularly encouraging, because it demonstrates that you -- our readers -- are as excited about our efforts as we are. It also gives me an excuse to plug these efforts: follow DipNote on Twitter, become a fan on Facebook and participate in Spokesman Sean McCormack's Briefing 2.0 on the State Department's YouTube Channel.

(The #2 most popular entry is this mawkish tribute to September 11 and a Jesuit education.)

Dipnote has never been a good government blog. Its prose makes the blog of the Transportation Security Administration look lively and compelling by comparison. And, of course, it shows on a daily basis yet again why the British have been doing much better Internet public diplomacy than the Americans, despite comparatively few resources.

I've made fun of Dipnote a lot here and have even posted a parody of it called Dopenote to mock its online efforts at digital rhetoric. Even though they attempt to pay some lip service to their readership in the excerpt below, they've offered little more than canned press releases on the site:

As I tallied DipNote's 2008 entries, I was consistently impressed with the informed and heartfelt comments that you, our readers, have posted. I was also reminded of how grateful I am to our Department contributors -- for the work they do and for taking the time to share it with us. Next week, I'll highlight some of the entries that I personally found memorable. In the meantime, the DipNote team thanks our readers and contributors for a successful year and wishes all of you a very happy and healthy holiday season.

Labels: ,

It Keeps on Ticking

Online counters that are designed to be posted on blogs and other websites are used for a number of political purposes from tracking the national deficit to tallying fatalities in Iraq. This online ticker that tracks Colombian tariffs and publicizes the country's unwillingness to participate in free trade agreements is actually posted on a government website for the US Department of Agriculture, a site that also presents this PowerPoint slideshow about the subject that was apparently intended somehow to appear on paper bags. The page also has a jab at the Democratic congress from the executive branch, since it includes a tag line that argues that "foreign policy" is too important to be left to "politicians." As the press release that accompanies the ticker explains, it is intended to spur legislation and attack the administration's opponents as partisan operatives:

Today, the Bush Administration launched a tool for Americans to see just how much money is being paid to Colombia in tariffs for our products going into their country, while the Colombian products arrive on our shores duty free!

President Bush sent Congress legislation to implement the Colombia Free Trade Agreement. (FTA) The House changed the rules in the middle of the game, delaying a vote to implement the agreement. This important agreement would provide a level playing field for America's farmers, ranchers and businesses. Instead, the House is continuing to work against the best interests of the American people.

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 29, 2008

Forget Police Brutality, Check Out the Superhero Footage on YouTube!

Two recent big budget movies emphasize the potential risk to the ethos of a superhero of the video-sharing service YouTube, since they show an embarrassing side to law enforcement when the agents of order are subject to venal appetites. In Hancock, the superhero is seen behaving in a crass and callous manner, while in Hellboy II compromising videos of the unlikeable superhero must be quashed by the governments. It is interesting that two separate Hollywood scripts incorporate the same trope about the small-screen competition in which anxiety about the sousveillance made possible by mobile devices undermines the authority of the state.

Labels: , ,

Vote for Writing

Composition theorist Charles Bazerman, known for his "socially based theories of genre, activity system, interaction, intertextuality, and cognitive development" and for his studies of "the history of scientific writing, other forms of writing used in advancing technological projects, and the relation of writing to the development of disciplines of knowledge," has posted instructions for how to advocate for writing instruction, particularly writing for professional, scholarly, and public contexts, which often gets left out of the literacy debates.

I have just posted the question below for the President Elect at There are a couple of other writing focused questions on the education page of the "open for question" feature. So far writing has been hidden on the national education agenda and we need to start making it visible. Voting for these questions and adding your own is one small way to start bringing writing forward.

Learning to read without learning to write is like trying to learn language by listening and never speaking. Our testing prioritizes reading greatly over writing.

What will you do to create a balance between writing and reading?"

Chuck, Santa Barbara, California

Instructions (adapted from a political list I subscribe to)

1. go to

2. Sign in. Click to sign into the website. It's just one easy step. You
won't need to check your Email, and you'll be returned to the screen you were on.

3. Search. On the Open-for-Questions page type or paste into the search box: writing

4. Vote. That should bring up a series of questions which you can then vote for by
clicking on the check mark.

Labels: , ,

The Anxiety of Influential

One notable feature of the end of the year is the emphasis on measuring the "most influential" media-makers in online digital ventures. Even NowPublic, which prides itself on its indymedia sensibilities as a site for the rhetoric of "crowd powered news stories," including this beautifully composed recent photo of Barack Obama, issues a list of top digerati in its "Most Public Index" for New York, Silicon Valley, and Los Angeles.

The site explains its criteria for recognition as follows:

NowPublic’s formula gauges influence and “publicness” across four categories, including:
  • Online Visibility
  • Presence on User-Generated Content and Social Networking Sites
  • Interactivity and Accessibility
  • The “R” Factor: Presence on Microblogging Platforms (Flickr, Twitter, Tumblr, etc.)
It is interesting to see how "influence" has begun to translate into "presence" or even "activity," as this separate list of the 150 most active designers on Twitter also seems to indicate.

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Sea Monsters

As Donna Haraway reminds us, the etymology of "monsters" comes from the verb "to show," so the use of computer animation in this surreal French sexuality education film designed to emphasize condom use to prevent HIV/AIDS is an interesting application of computational media both to illustrate the perceived extravagance of certain modes of sexual experience and to provide an acceptable fiction that makes the public message not strictly speaking obscene. In other words, in many ways it underlines a conventional normative moral message. Of course, it could be argued that this video also may allude to a specific artistic tradition in Japanese erotic prints in which women are shown in sexual congress with fantastically proportioned sea creatures.

Thanks to Marc van Gurp of Osocio for the link!

Labels: ,

Who are the Digital Natives?

There's a panel at the Modern Language Association called "Digital Immigrants Teaching Digital Natives" that seems to rely on a stereotype that Siva Vaidhyanathan recently declared to be a "Digital Myth" in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Ethnography long ago realized that the status of the "native" is always hybridized in a number of ways, so its strange to have pedagogy absorb the language of anthropological metaphors that are no longer used.

In teaching my own Digital Rhetoric class, often I found myself more commonly in the role of helping recent arrivals to particular corners of cyberspace assimilate or trading knowledge with my more tech-savvy students in an atmosphere of Socratic dialogue, so this situation imagined by the panel seems hard to envision.

Nonetheless, it's probably true that there are certain areas in which knowledge transfer doesn't follow the conventional future-forward generational lines of supposedly traditional culture in which cultural memes pass from ancestor to descendant over time. A case in point often cited is videogames, which I have argued families should play together, although parent neophytes might find that they need to have the humility to take some pointers from their kids.

This holiday I've been playing World of Warcraft with my twelve-year-old and have enjoyed teaming up with him to fight various virtual foes. (Besides, I'm disinclined to join a guild in the game and have little hope of gaining competitive advantage otherwise.) Since he's logged more hours on MMORPGs than I have, he's obviously an asset to me in a number of ways, such as knowing to set up keyboard shortcuts for common attack and defense moves. But I'm also struck by some of the adult advantages of life experience for game play, which include being able to read maps, follow complicated written directions, avoid unnecessary conflict, and engage in financial planning.

As Espen Aarseth argues in the case of virtual economies, MMORPGs illustrate how difficult it can be to untangle the "real" as a separate category of experience, when we are constantly engaged in many kinds of rule-based cultural fictions in our daily lives. In other words, nowadays, what forms of expertise are purely "digital" and which are purely "analog"?

Furthermore, parents often find themselves serving as informants for their own parents, so they are hardly immigrants in that situation. I often have to explain certain features of web-based applications to my senior citizen parents, just I watched my own father explaining escalators and airline travel to his mother.

There are complicated exchanges that take place in the social dynamics of families and classrooms around technology. My kids know relatively little about computer programming, which I took as an actual academic subject when I was their age, just as I rely on graphical user interfaces that my father poo poos, as a product of FORTRAN and the slide rule. Similarly, my students are so dependent upon proprietary software, that "naturalness" is perhaps worth interrogating.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Courage Campaign

The Courage Campaign is encouraging Flickr users to post images of gay couples who married before the passage of Proposition 8, which are often accompanied by messages with user-generated pleas to "please don't divorce us" or several variants on that theme.

Thanks to Marc van Gurp of Osocio for the link!

Labels: , ,

In Simple Packages

MediaArtHistories looks like an relatively unremarkable Blogspot blog, but it's a great site for new books, calls for papers, and general geekdom related to media archeology and old media/new media cryptohistories, in addition to a place for promoting the MIT Press book Media Art Histories. I've added it to the blogroll at right and would recommend it to VP readers looking for less policy wonkdom and more wonder.

Labels: , ,

Borrowed Time

The New York Times describes the short-lived pardon of Isaac Toussie, when it was revealed that his father, Robert Toussie, had made substantial contributions to the Republican party and to the McCain campaign, the fact of which the Bush administration claimed to be unaware and quickly rescinded the pardon to avoid the appearance of impropriety. This gaffe is surprising, given the role that search engines for political contributions, such as NewsMeat, play in the vernacular data-mining practices of regular citizens, who may be nosy about the political giving habits of their friends and neighbors, and the relative rarity of the Toussie last name as a search term. It is likely that future pardon candidates will be vetted much more completely in this way to avoid future embarrassment to the Executive Branch.

Labels: ,

John Berryman on Twitter

The annual rite of the Modern Language Association has begun, as its convention starts up in San Francisco. As in any year, I always think of the MLA poem by John Berryman, the thirty-fifth of his Dream Songs, in which the poet exclaims, "Hey, out there!—assistant professors, full, associates,—instructors—others—any—I have a sing to shay" and goes on to recommend subversive activities like seducing faculty wives or engaging in collegial back-stabbing of one's seniors. (A Google search on Berryman soon reveals that term paper mills are among the top results, so the MLA may have had the last laugh.)

This year, the generally staid print-based organization is including a number of panels and events devoted to digital texts. In addition to the annual reception for the Electronic Literature Association, HASTAC announces that there will also be a panel on Twitter and one with MacArthur Foundation grant recipients from the Digital Media and Learning Competition.

Here's the full rundown of sessions on these topics:

General Literature: Electronic Technology (Teaching, Research, and Theory)

52. Defoe, James, and Beerbohm: Computer-Assisted Criticism of Three Authors
108. Using Technology to Teach Languages
163. Scholarly Editing in the Twenty-First Century: Digital Media and Editing
174. Microblogging: Producing Discourse in 140 Characters or Less
224. Methodologies for Literary Studies in the Digital Age
271. Genre, Form, and Cultural Practice in Contemporary Electronic Literature
320. Biocultures: Closing the Science-Humanities Gap
369. Promoting the Useful Arts: Copyright, Fair Use, and the Digital Scholar
421. Digital Immigrants Teaching Digital Natives
464. Online Course Management: Friend or Foe?
497. Digital Initiatives in Early Modern English Literature
543. The Library of Google: Researching Scanned Books
617. Editing Manuscripts in Digital and Print Forms
724. E-Criticism: New Critical Methods and Modalities
796. The Audiobook

Labels: , ,

In Poor Taste

Southern California news consumers have been engrossed with the story of the Christmas Santa slayings, in which a recently divorced man in a Santa Claus suit took out his rage by killing nine members of his wife's family in an elaborate scheme for revenge that included strapping seventeen thousand dollars worth of cash to his body and making travel plans to Canada.

There is one very interesting revision of the historical record that has to do with the response of the killer's brother to the carnage and with conventions involving electronic communication. In the original version of the story that was posted online, the distraught brother's response is described as follows: "He said he and his wife would be sending e-mails later today to the victims' families, expressing their sympathy." By the time the story appeared in print form on doorsteps this morning, the copy had been revised to say this instead: "He and his wife planned to write letters of condolence to the victims' families." Obviously, "sending e-mails" was seen by readers of the Los Angeles Times and the would-be sympathy writers as too callous a response and a modification was made in the name of epistolary propriety.

As the LA Times continues to play out its endgame as a publishing venture at the close of a once proud history in which the paper justifiably garnered Pulitzer Prizes at one point, the rhetorical missteps continue to aggregate as they reduce their staffs to minimum wage mentality workers. Last night, as much of the newspaper's text was occupied with the horrific Santa suit killing spree, the user-generated content page for holiday photos was topped with an image titled "Scared of Santa."

Labels: , , ,

Friday, December 26, 2008

Gunned Down

As someone who studies digital media created by the legitimate organs of representative government, playing the rough-and-tumble social game Mob Wars on Facebook would seem to have little to do with my interests in recognized political discourses or with forms of online interaction in which social actors are closely connected to their real-world identities in the hierarchical organizations of work, family, and community, which I explore in a recent talk, "In Polite Company: Rules of Play in Five Facebook Games," but there are a number of ways that the game in interesting from a digital rhetoric standpoint.

Supposedly Mob Wars in now the most lucrative game on Facebook, based on the virtual economy it generates through real money transactions. (PackRat, which I have written about before and played obsessively, comes in third on this list, although the introduction of pay-to-play "tickets" created wide-spread resistance among players who were unhappy with the role that monetary resources could play in skewing results in the game.) A recent interview with developers argues that games make far more money than applications for gift-giving or social channel-checking.

Like most computer games, there is also a rich corpus of discourses related to cheating techniques, whether it is the cryptic video above or this list of strategy guidelines, which proves yet again the validity of the insights in Mia Consalvo's book on Cheating. Given the importance of subversive identity positions in the game and role-playing on the Internet more generally with websites like the Mafia name generator, this demi-monde is hardly surprising.

Reviewers also note that the need to expand your gang size is a serious bottleneck, since asking other friends to add the application could be seen as a serious social faux pas, in light of the nature of game play where your real-life boss could soon find himself punched in the face or put on a hit list by pseudonymous strangers. Unlike the Facebook game Zombies and its ilk, fights are generally with strangers rather than with real-life associates near your own game level, so many might see the aggression as lacking in the normal social rituals associated with competition.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Christmas in Cyberspace

I didn't spend Christmas in cyberspace this year. I stayed offline for all of the actual eve of Christmas eve and all of Christmas day, during time I spent time with family, friends, and members of my Unitarian church congregation marking the holiday with various rituals of the season.

That didn't mean that there wasn't a digital dimension to any of the festivities of the occasion. Driving around we listened to local "those darn kids" station KXLU, which sponsored a holiday concert by X and the New York Dolls (now nostalgia bands for us punk rock oldsters) and played eerie computer synthesized voices reading Christmas poetry and carol lyrics over dissonant holiday white noise.

Under the Christmas tree this year there was also an awesome Korg Kaossilator with a wide palette of sounds to play around with for fun for the whole family.

I'm also taking a moment to open my digital rhetoric holiday stocking, which was full of links from Virtualpolitik pal Jennifer Brancato. Goodies of electronic ephemera collected from her inbox during the 2008 election included Photoshopped images of Presidents in Drag, a PDF of a racist note supposedly sent to an Obama supporter by her neighbors, a database argument called "You Can't Fool a Baby" that shows Obama with happy babies and Bush and McCain with crying ones, and a much-forwarded e-mail about "What if Things Were Switched Around?"

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Nominees Wanted

As the year comes to a close, it's time for my list of annual online worsts to recognize spectacular failures in government digital media-making.

For inspiration, you can check out the "winners" of the Foley awards for 2007 and 2006. I'm hoping for good entries in categories like "Worst Government Website," "Worst Taxpayer-Funded Videogame," and "Worst PowerPoint Presentation to Congress."

Labels: , ,

EL Phone Home

For many years I have shot photos of cell phone trees that are camouflaged to appear like actual trees in order to assuage the objections of civic beautification advocates or environmentalists. It's a way to read the urban jungle somewhat differently on my commuting corridors, and I like the I-Spy quality of the hunt.

This Christmas, following the lead of Zazzle-user Ian Bogost, who wrote a very interesting blog post about his experiences creating personally crafted consumer goods, "Por favor manténgase alejado de las puertas: Fandom and Detritus," which extends his critique of Henry Jenkins and also offers an interesting meditation about the nature of a "license" that deserves to be included in the recent scholarly literature about copyright.

On the back of the calendar, there is an assemblage of Google Earth maps with the locations of each towering example of pseudo-vegetation marked. To track down your own favorite examples in your own neck of the woods, you can try Antenna Search with your location info.

Labels: , , , ,

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Beauty of Numbers

Southern California media theorist Lev Manovich has been busy adding content to the web with both the online publication of Software Takes Command and new contributions to his blog data beautiful, which include this visualization of the demographics of different professions set against a century and a half timeline of industrial and then post-industrial economics.

Manovich also puts in a plug for the new Radiohead video in which "no cameras or lights were used."

Instead two technologies were used to capture 3D images: Geometric Informatics and Velodyne LIDAR. Geometric Informatics scanning systems produce structured light to capture 3D images at close proximity, while a Velodyne Lidar system that uses multiple lasers is used to capture large environments such as landscapes. In this video, 64 lasers rotating and shooting in a 360 degree radius 900 times per minute produced all the exterior scenes.

Of course, the band is also known for their In Rainbows experiment in which their album was put online and fans were given free choice about the price they wanted to pay. Although many paid nothing for the download, In Rainbows generated healthy sales and served as a highly effective promotional vehicle.

Labels: ,

I Heard It Through the Grapevine (and through Harris Ranch Too!)

As someone who used to drive this route from Los Angeles to Northern California on a monthly basis in the era before widespread ubiquitous computing technologies, it is interesting to see this frenetic image of the journey north assembled from film clips and posts to the microblogging site Twitter. Link via Hustler of Culture

Labels: ,

Getting to Know You

Kudos to Virtualpolitik friend Gina Levy for her work as a filmmaker with, a website that advocates for marriage equality by putting a "face on the issue" with five 30-second commercials to air during inauguration week, many of which show gays and lesbians as adoptive parents and active community members. The site also promises more than the "television media campaign," because the website "will serve as an online archive for gay and lesbian stories." Now ads are up on the site yet, but they are actively soliciting user-generated content now from gay families, as they argue that some of the reason for political failure in the past has been caused by a tendency to rely on more "abstract" rights-based discourses.

Labels: ,

Monday, December 22, 2008

Passing the Virtual Hat

In a season traditionally associated with giving, National Public Radio ran two stories about how online services are supposedly fostering personal generosity: "For Those In Need, An Online Helping Hand" and "How To Use Technology To Donate To Charities."

As someone who has been both a meal/childcare donor and a meal/childcare recipient in response to hospitalization for a serious illness, I can appreciate the logistical advantages of using a service like Lotsa Helping Hands that coordinates family, friends, and church and community members who want to bring a meal or do a kid pick-up when a mother is out of commission or find out how treatment and recovery is progressing without bothering loved ones.

The second NPR piece mentioned the work of, which allows charitable giving to target particular small-scale projects, such as school supplies for classrooms in low-income public schools, like the one for which Bronx happenings impressario and my friend of many decades Mitsu Hadeishi is growing a mustache.

(Mitsu and I go way back to the days of programming in BASIC on TRS-80s in middle school and hanging out in Cal Tech's Tournament Park, so please consider donating to his cause.)

I suppose that my main reservation about this kind of point-and-click donation is that I think responsible charity is about understanding problems as well as giving generously, and to some degree this involves understanding constraints. In other words, in community-based face-to-face giving situations, you learn the importance of the strings that are attached. For example, a large toy or one with many pieces isn't always appreciated if a child is homeless. Many households below the poverty line don't have stoves and so food that can be heated with a microwave or hot plate may be more usable. A donation of books to a half-way house shouldn't assume a college (or even high school) reading level. And the Salvation Army isn't there just to haul away your junk: goods need to be not just repairable but also salable. Of course, often it is procedures and rules that create crises as well, but whether it is Christmas bicycles or an XO laptop, it can be important to understand why some gifts aren't wanted as well.

Labels: ,

La Dolce Online Vita

The radio story "Facebook fanatics in Italy" describes how Italian employers are deploying blocking software to prevent workplace visits to the popular social network site, which one interview subject describes as a "virtual piazza." Government workers have been some of the first targets of this effort, although if they are Internet researchers, this prohibition hardly seems fair.

Labels: ,

Never Trust Anyone Over 22

The career of two-time guest to my digital rhetoric class James Kotecki at has apparently come to an end, as Kotecki leaves for a career in public policy research and analysis for a consulting firm. I've used Kotecki as a case of successful creation of an online media persona by a college student, since the news is often dominated by campus rhetorical disasters. As articles in the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, and U.S. News & World Report explain, Kotecki first rose to prominence as a Georgetown senior making videos critical of the presidential candidates' YouTube appearances and then capitalized on interest in his commentaries during the election.

Labels: ,

Controversy is Mother's Milk

A new group called "Hey, Facebook, breastfeeding is not obscene!(Official petition to Facebook)" complains that Facebook users who post wholesome breastfeeding images are having their content removed from the site as objectionable and are threatened with having their user accounts deleted.

Recently, Facebook has started 'pulling a myspace' by not allowing people to post profile pictures of babies nursing. The pictures have been reported as 'obscene' and have been removed- their posters warned not to repost or fear being kicked off of Facebook.

We're wondering: what about a baby breastfeeding is obscene? Especially in comparison to MANY other pictures posted all over Facebook that really are obscene.

Facebook, we expect more from you, and we expect you to realize that nursing moms everywhere have a right to show pictures of their babies eating, just like bottle-fed babies have a right to be seen. In an effort to appease the closed-minded, you are only serving to be detrimental to babies, women, and society.

**Facebook, allow breastfeeding pictures, and stop classifying them as obscene!**

Perhaps even this image, from the state-sanctioned MedlinePlus encyclopedia of the National Institutes of Health would be considered a violation of the Facebook user agreement.

However, at least one blogger has argued that the move protects the women's privacy and that lactivists should form their own social network site that is better tailored to their needs.

Since my children are now old enough to be on Facebook, I will spare my friends on the popular social network site my own contributions to the genre, which might be tempting to post in protest otherwise. After all, I once had plenty of super-cute pictures of babies nursing as well, so I understand the urge for sharing with other women.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Stagecraft for the Small Screen

In "Making a point in Washington? You'll need a prop," a reporter from the Los Angeles Times argues that stunts on the Capitol steps have become more prop-driven in the age of YouTube as congressional representatives draw out dead fish, live wolves, and fuel efficient cars to score political points that translate well to YouTube and other distributed media news sources. Some pols argue, however, that this stagecraft risks highly publicized failure if it is not a perfect virtuoso performance.

"Political theater still has a role in highlighting a cause or issue, but . . . it's important not to get buried in the part," said Pete Sepp of the National Taxpayers Union. "Given the wealth of online video, for example, a failed publicity stunt can be seen by millions instead of just a roomful of people."

I wasn't entirely convinced, however, by the article's argument for a new media connection, given how difficult it was to find the videos described using popular Internet search engines that look for content that is heavily trafficked and frequently viewed. The video below is one exception, which also highlight a DIY rhetoric that is often important for an Internet appeal as this elected official shows how a border fence could be built as modular units by using a small model.

Labels: ,

Meat and Greet

Even though the election is over, many are still interested in data-mining activities involving the loyalties of friends and family members at NEWSMEAT, which describes itself as "America's Most Popular Campaign Donor Search Engine" and still shows information graphics such as Fundraising Advantage by State from the previous election and encourages visitors to also conduct research on the giving habits of celebrities.

Labels: , ,

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Preacher Man

As the controversy brews about Obama's choice of anti-gay marriage pastor Rick Warren to give the invocation at the presidential inauguration, I thought it might be useful to look at the digital media-making efforts of Warren and his church and the digital rhetoric strategies that they deploy to reach audiences who might not necessarily be otherwise attracted to his mega-church.

In particular, it is worth noting that Warren has announced the launch of Purpose Driven Connection, a "Christian social networking site" undertaken in association with Reader's Digest. Certainly his Internet presence shows familiarity with the "vlog" solo talking head format, complete with abrupt cuts in the footage, as he indicates in videos such as "How to Make a Marriage Work."

Warren's wife Kay Warren also has a carefully crafted online media persona that emphasizes her career as a nurse in connection with the church's HIV/AIDS mission.

There are also a number of virtual tours of Warren's church at Saddleback Family, where the physical space is presented as a site for intergenerational fun and social interchange.

Labels: ,

Conscience by Committee

When it comes to web design and compatibility with social media platforms, the website of the Senate Arms Services Committee is one of the most obviously retro among federal .gov websites, but its recently released "torture report" has been widely circulated on the Internet. Additional documents point to a number of relevant "web links" that show how revelations about torture perpetuated by the United States government in the name of gathering intelligence information through extreme interrogation methods has been justified throughout the whole chain of command.

Labels: ,

A Journal That Assigns Cliff Notes

Speaking of the relationship between Wikipedia and the academy, in "Journal requires peer-reviewed Wikipedia entry to publish," the megablog ars technica reports that the peer-reviewed journal RNA Biology asks contributors to compose a Wikipedia entry to summarize and complement their scholarly research for more specialized audiences. Although the journal's current guidelines for authors do not seem to indicate the existence of this provision, a recent article in Nature explains how the process will work, since Wikipedia is explicitly not a venue for original research.

Labels: ,

Do You Have Blackbeard in a Can?

Cathy Davidson of HASTAC points out a clever hoax perpetuated by a class at George Mason University in "Edward Owens, Pirate and Hoax: Shiver Me Timbers!" Apparently some bloggers were taken in by the story of "The Last American Pirate," particularly when students were playing along with stories of "finds" like the last will and testament of Owens. I particularly like the earnest peer reviewer who expressed the following disingenuous statements about the will:

This is AMAZING!! I wish I had found something like this for my paper. Most of my information for my paper is coming from interviews from people in the area. Which I think would be something helpful for your paper. If you need more help talk to the people in the area.

In addition to spreading the Owens narrative through blogs and person-to-person social media contacts, the group also concocted a Wikipedia entry about the fictional Edward Owens, which has now been corrected to reveal the hoax.

Of course, given how real-life classes are using blogs and wikis in collective intelligence projects that showcase the work of student historians, such as the Keywords for American Cultural Studies project, this hoax could be read in a number of ways, not all of them flattering to Web 2.0 teaching. The course had one of my favorite catalog titles,"Lying about the Past," taught by T. Mills Kelly, author of edwired.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, December 19, 2008

Man of a Thousand Faces

Pablo Manriquez, Flickr user and curator of Net art objects points out that the venerable TIME magazine online site has run a piece about representations of Barack Obama on Flickr. It's also interesting to note the large number of photomosaics that have been created of the candidate and the representative function that those images present of a leader as a synecdochal head of state. For more on the genre of the photomosaic, there is an essay in Making Things Public on the subject.

Labels: , ,

The Final Cut

It's the final Bush Christmas at the official White House website with the seventh annual Barney Cam video in which the First Family's black Scottish terrier cavorts with the Bushes, White House staffers, and celebrities while diligently decorating the White House despite his desires to pursue the agenda of his separate inner life. These surreal videos, in which Barney has been known to romp with Karl Rove, have been parodied several times, since the Quicktime files are easily accessible to potential mash-up artists. This year the theme was "a red, white, and blue Christmas," although much of the content was tied to the exploits of this year's Beijing Olympics. The digital effects were particularly bad in this year's edition and included bad rotoscoping and several noticeable wobbles from miskeyed sections.

Labels: , , ,

North Pole Norad

One might easily assume that NORAD Tracks Santa is just an independently produced parody that has no connection to the joint U.S./Canadian agency that handles missile defense, but a press release on the NORAD official website makes clear that the site, which allows you to "track Santa in 3-D" on December 24th using Google Earth is actually a bit of state-sanctioned holiday mirth. One can also track Santa on your mobile phone using Google maps or download an iGoogle gadget to follow the progress of Father Christmas.

As I read Lev Manovich's new Creative Commons-licensed online book, Software Takes Command, it is interesting to see how the Google API has been appropriated by the onetime Cold Warriors at NORAD. The group also takes a comparitively liberal view about the portability of their distinctive brand at a time that many government agencies have extensive legal disclaimers about their exclusive rights to authoritative intellectual property, as their media information page shows.

Download the logo for personal use and send it around to your friends, include it on your blog, your social networking page or turn it into your desktop wallpaper or your screensaver. Use of the logo for any purpose other than personal use, including commercial or promotional purposes, is not permitted without the express prior written approval of the NORAD Public Affairs Office.

Although the site is aimed at Internet users, apparently this service also offers telephone lines for calls with children who are eagerly tracing the globe-trotting of St. Nick. Background on the program's original media history is here.

Thanks to Michael Powers for the link!

Labels: , ,

Playing Nurse

This week I played two levels in the Red Cross Game and solved a number of virtual public health and safety crises involving first an earthquake in Argentina and then conflict and dislocation in war-torn Zimbabwe. In order to tackle my next task, a flood in Mexico, it seemed as if I would need to pay $19.95 to purchase the full version of the game, which offers a free online training module and about a half-hour of teaser play as part of what is both an exercise in consciousness-raising and a fund-raising maneuver.

In comparison with the humanitarian game Food Force from the U.N. World Food Program, I found the Red Cross missions not much better and in some ways worse than the UN version of these scenarios. For example, driving and directions were not as tricky as they should be when navigating new territory, a factor of game play that could sometimes be tricky in Food Force, and there weren't enough obstacles of language, tribe, bureaucracy, or culture to make for a very engaging play experience as a Red Cross worker. And what about maintaining prisons in Zimbabwe? Shouldn't that be tricky territory to negotiate ethically?

Given the sales pitch for a computer game, it is ironic that the relationship between the Red Cross and game developers has sometimes been notably strained. In one case, the head of the Canadian Red Cross sent a legalistic cease-and-desist letter to game developers who used the Red Cross logo in first-person shooter games.

Labels: ,

Thursday, December 18, 2008

What a Dickens!

As Public Radio International reports in "Putting Dickens Online" in an interview with Professor Joel Brattin, archivists are hoping to give online readers a sense of how the works of Charles Dickens originally appeared in the form of serial publication to reach mass audiences in which costs of readership were lowered to the micropayment level by offering cheap one-shilling portions of the book that were also capitalized with advertisements.

As a document of the popular culture of literacy of the nineteenth century, visitors can check out Dicken's last work of fiction, The Mystery of Edwin Drood from the Robert D. Fellman Dickens Collection at Wooster Polytechnic Institute to get a sense of the snackability of this earlier reading experience.

Labels: , ,

The Wrong Stuff

The sentencing of Bilal Abdulla this week to life for his role in the conspiracy to murder civilians in London's West End and the Glasgow Airport is also a reminder of the fallibility of online sources. The Times of London notes that Abdulla and his fellow terrorists "researched bombmaking techniques on the internet and obtained advice on circuitry in chat rooms." The fact that these devices failed to detonate because of incorrect proportions of ingredients may indicate, as we often tell our students, that information from websites and Internet informants often lacks credibility because the expertise there is not vetted by the channels of scholarship, experimental science, or public deliberation.

Labels: ,

Bunker Mentality

A truly hilarious subtitles mash-up from Kairos about the prospect of a digital rhetoric search in an embattled English department. Link via the glamorous and always well-coiffed Cheryl Ball.

Update: As SpoutBlog points out, after an alert by Chuck Tryon of The Chutry Experiment, the "Downfall meme" has a rich life on YouTube. Videos of Hitler as a frustrated Vista user are still available online, but ones in which he struggles with the Xbox or represents the doomed Hillary Clinton campaign have been pulled by the German production company on the grounds of copyright violations. Hopefully the Kairos piece will get some academic fair use consideration, although the blanket takedown policies of YouTube often foreclose dialogue about the critical functions of remixing.

Labels: , , ,

Battle of the Renderings

As the fate of sixties landmark the Century Plaza Hotel continues to be debated by developers, preservationists, and local politicians, the role that renderings created with computer software plays doesn't make it into headlines like today's Los Angeles Times story about the plans of financial titan Woodridge Capital: "Developer proposes to demolish Century Plaza hotel."

The glossy renderings of Pei Cobb Freed and Partners that reflect the greenery of ground level onto the reflective towers is clearly intended to support their rhetoric of what Jane Jacobs called the "garden city" prototype and the ideology of promoting greenspace.

Labels: ,

The Fifth Estate

Writing for the New York Times, Helene Cooper complains of what she calls the "The Skip-the-Press Maneuver" in both the Internet pitches to the public of the new Obama administration and the prior use of YouTube, blogs, and other social media tools by State Department spokesman Sean McCormack, the father of "Briefing 2.0" a staged media event in which the videos of pre-selected YouTube viewers asking softball questions are played while reporters silently observe the distributed online media show.

Cooper argues that Obama's advisors are planning a "host of YouTube and other efforts aimed at bypassing the media and communicating directly with voters." She claims that not only "John Q. Public may have as difficult a time getting answers out of government officials as representatives of the mainstream media do," but also this represents a potentially serious setback for fact-finding and public communication through a "bypass-the-press" strategy. I think Cooper gives McCormack too much credit as a propaganda mastermind, since remarkable few Internet users paid any efforts to the State Department's canned rhetoric on its blog Dipnote and its YouTube channel. (For context, when it comes to the numbers, my blog and YouTube channel generally receive more views.)

In Thomas Carlyle's On Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History credits British politician Edmund Burke with coining the term "fourth estate" to describe the role of the press in government. Given Cooper's criticism of these social media outlets, it is interesting to see the full quotation in context and the absence of language that indicates that journalism would be seen as a profession with institutional privilege or initiated membership in a select knowledge community.

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a _Fourth Estate_ more important far than they all. It is not a figure of speech, or a witty saying; it is a literal fact,--very momentous to us in these times. Literature is our Parliament too. Printing, which comes necessarily out of Writing, I say often, is equivalent to Democracy: invent Writing, Democracy is inevitable. Writing brings Printing; brings universal everyday extempore Printing, as we see at present. Whoever can speak, speaking now to the whole nation, becomes a power, a branch of government, with inalienable weight in law-making, in all acts of authority. It matters not what rank he has, what revenues or garnitures. The requisite thing is, that he have a tongue which others will listen to; this and nothing more is requisite.

Of course, I basically agree with Cooper that this is a troubling trend for the investment of resources for public communication, as I argue in my essay about state-sanctioned YouTube channels in the Video Vortex Reader. It is interesting that Cooper also observes that Obama's aides "intend to make full use of the millions of email address that they have collected over the course of the campaign." Obviously this process of stockpiling e-mail addresses continues, as I can attest, since I have received many mass e-mails since applying to work for the new administration at the site.

Labels: , , ,

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Christmas Cheer

Writing for one of the blogs of the New York Times, Susan Cheever explains her feelings of "Drunkenfreude" as New Year's Eve approaches, which got me reflecting upon the relationship between drinking, the holidays, and online social networks that I've been thinking about lately.

I'm not a non-drinker, but I certainly understand Cheever's sentiments, and I'm sensitive about the way that I am perceived by others and thus want to maintain an air of sobriety even if I choose to imbibe. This extends to the way I want to be seen on sites like Flickr and Facebook. If I'm at a party and a digital camera comes out, I tend to be one to put my drink down before the shutter click or place any alcoholic beverages behind my back or the backs of others. In contrast, many of my friends on social network sites or media sharing sites can be seen happily toasting, clinking glasses, or proffering a glass to the Internet viewer.

According to Alcoholics Anonymous, the holidays can be a difficult time for those in recovery, so I visited the national AA website to look at its user interface and to see how they might be incorporating online tools in their presentations to the public. Although AA clearly constitutes an established social network, it delivers its services largely through face-to-face meetings and mentoring and by disseminating print ephemera to potential members. Although Facebook has a number of ad hoc groups for both AA and its euphemism "Friends of Bill W," the organization does relatively little to maintain a sustained online network. However, the national AA group does offer podcasts of the ironically named Grapevine and a directory of office locations that are accessible through Google maps. The Southern California local chapter is no better, despite the fact that a better designed calendar application for those seeking meetings would be an obvious service to offer, since their current collection of online calendars omits a number of districts.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving also has a largely pre-social media website although they do host a MADD blog.

Labels: ,

Do They Know It's Christmas?

Here are two holiday videos about the financial crisis: one -- by filmmaker Juan Devis -- is serious, and the other is parodic.

Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the "Bleed the World" link.

Labels: , ,

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

The Torture Test

When I met Peter Rauch in Reggio Emilia at the Philosophy of Computer Games conference, he was presenting about the way that torture functioned in the game mechanic of a number of popular videogames and was also arguing that it could be possible to build a serious game, possibly for the purposes of training military personnel, that would show why torture was inhumane and ultimately counterproductive, in order to underscore the value of human rights pinciples.

As the issue of torture is back in the headlines during what is essentially an interregnum between the Bush and Obama administrations, Rauch's questions about modeling torture with computational media are worth examining again, especially given some of the recent game criticism in the blogosphere about The Torture Game 2, a simple physics simulation with ropes, implements of torture, and lethal weapons that I found similar to many of the Internet "theatres of cruelty" already out there, such as Interactive Buddy, whic I write about in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book.

There is certainly a long literary history of graphic descriptions of ingenious forms of torture from early modern lives of the saints to postmodern fiction, and there is also a tradition of creating compelling representational experiences by placing the reader in a position of agency (or potential agency) in the story of a tortured body in great works by Poe, Kafka, and many others.

It is the aesthetics of horror that MSNBC's Winda Benedetti acknowledges when she points out the creative uses of the "paint" function of the game in its Grand Guignol potential artistry. Perhaps the most interesting extended argument about how The Torture Game 2 functions is made by Ian Bogost in "Simulating Torture," who claims that the lack of vividness and verisimilitude in the experience of interacting with what he calls a "voodoo doll" does little to raise consciousness about the human dimensions of torture and that Manhunt 2 is much more likely to move potential players to reflect about the larger meanings of the rules of a game about torture.

When I interviewed one of the developers of the negotiation training game ELECT BiLAT, Peggy Weil, I asked her if there were any kinds of military videogames that she would never do. As someone also involved with the Gone Gitmo project, which simulates human rights violations taking place at the Guantanamo Bay facility in Second Life, Weil initially responded that she would never make an interrogation game, although she later qualified that statement by observing that being willing to participate in discourses about interrogation could also be a way to prevent abuse.

Certainly more nuanced thinking about this subject needs to be pursued as we contemplate our geopolitical future and the role we all play in enacting U.S. policy as citizens.

Labels: ,

Sing Along with the CDC

Social marketing expert Nedra Weinreich points out the questionable mirth of the Centers for Disease Control's Yuletide offering to the World Wide Web that appears as "The 12 Ways to Health Holiday Song." Although not available as a ringtone, you can download this song about public health dos and don'ts to your MP3 player or send it as an e-card to your loved ones.

My favorite part of their portion of epidemiological online Christmas cheer had to be this legal disclaimer at the bottom of the website, which is sadly one of the rare definitive assertions of "fair use" seen on federal government web pages.

*Disclaimer: Under the Copyright Act (17 USC Section 107), the use of the tune The Twelve Days of Christmas on this website is permitted under the "fair use" exemption for the purposes of nonprofit education and public health information dissemination. For any other purpose, this work may have copyright protection under 17 USC Sections 106-120.

Labels: , ,

Monday, December 15, 2008

Jive Talk

Ren Reynolds notes the unintentional humor in MP Tom Watson's site for teens, which includes the following pitch for the online bureaucracy of the virtual state.

Get involved - to the extreme!

The BBC politics for kids/teens site is, like, totally wacked! Ditto for the Parliament education site, which even has a section for younger yoof. Fanta-stick!

YoungGov is totally the business for having your say, and there are even wicked Youth Parliament sites for the UK, Scotland and Europe.

(Hey, chill with the anti-Europe vibes already! You totally won’t be able to wear the word ‘fcuk’ on your shirt anymore if we break our connection with France, y’dig? ROFFLE!)

So, cut it with the bling bling and do something for the community, man. Join in and take action with any of the groovy sites we’ve listed, or just drop Tom a line for a quiet rap by the electronic e-mail. Tom’s well-up on the Interwebnet, and he won’t harsh your buzz or dis you down the line.

Although -- in general -- British government websites tend to be less rhetorically tone-deaf than their American counterparts, one wonders how a child doing a school report would feel about the mazes and puzzles of sites like this one that do little to link information literacy and citizenship.  How about online materials that teach young people how to use search engines as a more productive alternative?

Labels: ,

Letting the Other Shoe Drop

The most replayed video clip today on the web is probably the footage of President Bush twice ducking shoes thrown at him at a press conference by an Iraqi reporter. A number of digital content creators have also created animated gifs that present the incident as an infinite loop. See, for example, this message board for a number of samples that include one in which the lobbed shoe runs backwards.

Update: Mosaic at Link TV has an interesting round-up of coverage of the incident in Middle Eastern news stations. Ian Bogost has posted a list of a half-dozen shoe-wielding online games at Water Cooler Games.

Labels: , , ,

Life of the Political Party

As the season for holiday parties arrives, it is important to keep in mind the possible consequences of inauspiciously photographed festivities. One cautionary tale is recounted in the Huffington Post's story this month: "Facebook: Obama Speechwriter Parties With Clinton Cutout." As the Washington Post reports, an incriminating photo on the popular social network site showed politically-themed revelers tastelessly tipping a beer into Clinton's gullet and fondling the two-dimensional breast of her life-sized cardboard effigy.

Of course, there are also more positive representations of citizens interacting with Clinton's flattened effigy on the web, but it is sophomoric behavior recorded in Internet ephemera that makes for the national story.

(Thanks to historian Jennifer Luff for the link.)

Labels: ,

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Civil Exchanges Hollywood Style

Even as the Writer's Guild of America looks back on the union disputes of the previous year about Internet royalties and looks ahead to currently brewing conflicts with producers, it is interesting to hear how Hollywood writers are putting distributed digital media in the context of friend rather than foe in the course of the annual round of holiday parties in Los Angeles.

It's particularly remarkable to hear how many writers argue that rather than encourage a form of non-communicable polarization, as many Internet critics have argued happens with other political issues in which stakeholders solidify social networks with like-minded others and avoid deliberative activities or negotiations with partisan opposites, productive dialogue emerged. For example, YouTube celebrity and WGA negotiator John Bowman argues that the availability of online channels of communication allowed for fact-checking, compelling argumentation, and the mobilization of smart mobs of diverse social actors.

Labels: ,

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Structuralism Lives

Last month French theorist Claude Lévi-Strauss celebrated his 100th birthday with worldwide felicitations including good wishes from poet Pierre Joris and journalists at NPR. As a graduate student, I wrote an encyclopedia entry about the famed structuralist and anthropologist and was impressed with his generosity in responding to queries and gently augmenting the piece.

Despite its advanced age, the structuralist legacy that Lévi-Strauss's life represents remains relevant for those who use computational media to create interactive narratives, since -- even though he complained of the destructive effects of Western technologies -- what could be called Lévi-Strauss's unit operations way of seeing the world can still be applied to creating cultural narratives and ways of knowing.


A Life Well Lived

This student of mine's final project seemed particularly relevant today as I was commemorating the life of my friend and former colleague Liz Wiatr, whose Internet guest book hardly reflects her scholarly work examining the visual education movement of the early twentieth century with the aid of classroom technologies such as stereoscopes and magic lanterns as instructional aids or her efforts as a filmmaker creating works such as her homage to the city of Los Angeles in her Cal Arts film about Chapbook of the Non-Eminent. Friends and colleagues had forwarded e-mails to me from Liz in a strange process of reconstituting Internet traces.

At her wake today, there was a Mac laptop set up with a slideshow of photographs from her life, much as is also often seen at the milestone birthday parties of Angeleno digerati, but the mourning was also marked by many analog processes: speeches, rock 'n' roll jams, and -- of course -- eating.

Labels: , , ,

Friday, December 12, 2008

Rising to the Occasion

Anyone who teaches rhetoric for a living has to appreciate these forty inspirational speeches in two minutes. Link via Julie Platt.

Labels: , ,

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Business as Ususal

This morning the official website of embattled Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich showed little of the firestorm of controversy about his pay-to-play negotiation style, which was revealed this week by federal prosecutors who presented evidence that Blagojevich actually tried to sell the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Barack Obama to the highest bidder. Today, the governor's website links to innocuous public pablum such as campaigns that include Keep Warm Illinois and a photo album commemorating the highlights and quotidian happenings of his administration. Nowhere do his spokespeople make reference to the scandal with either public denials or admissions of culpability.

Also part of this political controversy is the governor's wife, who sought well-paying positions on corporate boards as part of her husband's gubernatorial wheeling and dealing. However, her site uses demure pastel tones rather than the boldly patriotic red, white, and blue color palette of her husband's digital presence.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Fighting the Not-So-Good Fight

I'm interested in the rhetoric of online tutorials for corporate employees, and I have written quite specifically about the ways that users can game the UCI sexual harassment prevention tutorial on this blog here and here and have argued that it is an interesting case of what Ian Bogost has called "procedural rhetoric" in the "What is Digital Rhetoric?" chapter in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book from MIT Press.

However, UCI biologist Alexander McPherson has garnered a considerable amount of media attention for formulating a very different set of objections to this training. In a confrontational Op-Ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, called the "The sham of sex harassment training," Professor McPherson throws down the gauntlet and declares that he will refuse to participate in this employee-mandated training.

First of all, I believe the training is a disgraceful sham. As far as I can tell from my colleagues, it is worthless, a childish piece of theater, an insult to anyone with a respectable IQ, primarily designed to relieve the university of liability in the case of lawsuits. I have not been shown any evidence that this training will discourage a harasser or aid in alerting the faculty to the presence of harassment.

What's more, the state, acting through the university, is trying to coerce and bully me into doing something I find repugnant and offensive. I find it offensive not only because of the insinuations it carries and the potential stigma it implies, but also because I am being required to do it for political reasons. The fact is that there is a vocal political/cultural interest group promoting this silliness as part of a politically correct agenda that I don't particularly agree with.

As someone who has completed the training, I think that McPherson is probably putting forward a problematic argument, since many female colleagues who have been personally subjected to harassment in the workplace and yet were required to finish the tutorial hardly considered themselves guilty by association just by interacting with the software. Furthermore, as a feminist, I might argue that this training isn't actually "politically correct" enough, since it focuses on blatant harassment rather than more subtle and pervasive forms of discrimination based on gender and sexuality.

Now McPherson's own university web page for his lab has become a designated site for his fiery online rhetoric, where he posts selective reader comments from a story in the Orange County Register, "UCI prof risks job by refusing sexual harassment training," and rebuts an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education that addresses his case, "New Lessons in Dealing with Sexual Harassment."

McPherson's whole site is an interesting expression of what has been the traditionally hands-off campus policy about faculty website discourse in the name of academic freedom at a university in which faculty members have posted controversial personal materials that run the gamut from obscene acronyms to heart-rending stories of personal tragedy on their .edu sites. One possible unintended consequence of this case might be calls for more decorum -- or censorship, depending upon your perspective -- on officially sanctioned UCI sites.

Labels: , , ,