Thursday, April 30, 2009

In the Saddle

I'll be on the road for the next few days. On May 1 at 1PM, I'll be at the third floor of the Harvard Cooperative Bookstore doing a book event for the Virtualpolitik book. I'll also be speaking at Harvard's Berkman Center on May 5th at 12:30 PM. The talk is called "From the Crowd to the Cloud: Social Media and the Obama Administration." I will also be attending the New Media Literacies conference at MIT on the 2nd and talking with a range of faculty members and researchers at MIT about instructional technology, as I start composing the new book about pedagogical "early adopters" and the rhetoric around computer-aided learning.


Wednesday, April 29, 2009


According to Mark Poster, philosopher of technology Andrew Feenberg has a long history engaging with both the theory and the practice of new online cultural formations. As Poster tells it, Feenberg was experimenting with forms of distance learning in the nineteen eighties by using distributed conferencing to teach about the Frankfurt School and poststructuralism at the Western Behavioral Sciences Institute where Poster said Feenberg once instructed “elites” such as “actors,” “generals,” and “executives.”

Feenberg’s talk today about a “Democratic Internet” covered a broad swath of utopian and dystopian thought about human agency in relationship to technology. He began with Bellamy’s “neat path to utopia” that imagined an industrialized society structured by technical mastery and morality that was both “collectivist” and highly differentiated, since cultural creators could also accumulate “subscribers” that would allow them to opt out of the main workforce, and the voluntary matching of labor to demand would allow individuals time for self-improvement. Unlike capitalist and communist societies, Feenberg argued that Bellamy’s utopia was “bipolar” in fostering both Bildung and scientific, technical reason.

In contrast, Feenberg said that Huxley’s Brave New World showed his cognizance of future media manipulations that Bellamy couldn’t imagine in his utopia of freely adopted lifestyles and political choices. However, for Feenberg the definitive dystopian philosopher of the twentieth century was Heidegger, who saw the “revealing” of craft labor being supplanted by the “enframing” of modern technologies. As a Marcuse specialist, Feenberg noted the Heideggerian influences on his subject’s thinking, which incorporated Marxism to oppose “intrinsic” modes of living with “extrinsic” ones in which people become raw materials, although the possibilities for technologies of liberation still exists. Long before the popularization of Foucault in the academy, Feenberg traced new attitudes of skepticism about rational, technical projects in the Heideggerian technophobia and distrust of big government of the counterculture.

Later, Feenberg argued that the dystopians were supplanted by Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, and their ilk, who denigrated the earlier critiques of modernity as nostalgic. I didn’t think that Feenberg’s grouping of Haraway, who grapples with the Cold War’s mixed legacies, or Latour, who makes deliberative processes the focus of much of his work, with celebratory “posthuman” thinkers is especially precise, but his argument against this trend in thinking was otherwise persuasive.

In light of recent user revolts, such as those involving Facebook's agreements about ownership and authorship, Feenberg reminded his audience of Langdon Winner's characterization of "technology as a form of constitution," although Feenberg defined it as being "more like a code of laws." For Feenberg, the question was how do new technologies represent their users, particularly now that such representation is no longer tied to one's geographical location, as it was in the pre-industrial past.

Given how most participants in technical networks were unorganized, Feenberg acknowledged that Dewey's fears of potential threats to community were not completely unwarranted, and he noted the continuing value of Habermas's distinction betweeen system and lifeworld. However, he noted how the lifeworld/system binary breaks down in the informational age. For example, the telephone network is a system that manifests particular structures of power, frameworks, and procedural rules, and yet it is used for communicative purposes to enhance intimacy and human contact.

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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

DJs and Monkeys and Swishers, Oh My!

The DJ as rhetorician is becoming an important figure in academia. NYU's Aram Sinnreich has done an entire book-length study of DJ practices, and Spencer Schaffner has given academic talks in DJ form. Graduate students like Michael Bullock and Kevin Driscoll are also identifying themselves with the DJ m métie.

The DJ was also an important figure at today's session of Persuasive 2009, BJ Fogg, the father of captology as an academic discipline made the argument that the group's work aimed to "make the world a better place" through "mass interventions" that were altruistic rather than intended to "make a ton of money."

Fogg was suggesting a different matrix for thinking about persuasion that was fundamentally different from more conventional models for persuasive technologies, which he characterized in the bulleted list below:
  • Change attitude – behavior
  • Deep thinking
  • Theory guides steps
  • Control intervention
  • Measure result
  • Share with experts
Now he argued that "tradition" could be at odds with "impact," so he outlined three possible approaches that might be more successful in the age of the Internet.

1) "Million Monkeys" used automated or random mechanics to generate results. Like the "infinite monkey theory," it relied on creating many trials, on the assumption that traditional focus groups often couldn't create true viral sensations such as YouTube's Fred because they weren't considering enough possible results. As an example, Fogg showed Hunch, which "helps you make decisions and gets smarter the more you use it." Fogg argued that this approach fostered "branching knowledge" as content-creators kept busy "rolling out interventions."

2) "Savvy DJs" also uses creating many trials, but Fogg argued that for this group "metrics drive iteration." Just as a DJ has an audience and finds grooves people respond to, persuasive technologies could thing about "moving crowd and changing it up" by taking advantage of "feedback loops" and rapid analysis of "matching patterns." Fogg takes lessons from RockYou!, zynga, and slide as top application creators. He interviews Jia Shen and Johnnie Manzari to learn about how they "iterate multiple times a day" by being in constant contact via cell phone, since they need to watch metrics constantly and are "obsessing about the numbers all day and all night." Fogg argued that a program like Texting for Health fits this model, particularly since "what happens" can be tracked with a "built-in user base."

3) "Swishers" represents a more refined and analytic approach based on the sensibility of a critical individual. Fogg takes as his model Kara Swisher of the Boom Town all things digital blog for the Wall Street Journal, who "already analyzes what already exists." Like the DJ, this activity involves "pattern matching intelligence," where it "could be person or could be code," she resists the "schedule drives output" mode with her appealing video format that may well change "how we do journalism." In his talk, Fogg showed her working method in which viewers never ever see her face but understand her critical commentary through the eye of her flip camera. As Fogg notes, "people love point of view," although "as scientists, we are resistant to point of view."

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Leave No Trace

It might be called the "movie popcorn problem." How can you persuade people to change their attitude about the environment, when their own contributions to waste that fouls a given area have become unconscious and unwitnessed by others. Just as noone cleans up their own trash in their own seat at a movie theater, because mechanisms against littering aren't in place, so too are people reluctant to take responsibility for their own contributions to landfills, atmospheric emissions, and energy drains.

At Persuasive 2009, there were a number of technological applications designed to change this pattern of behavior. Games such as EcoIsland use the metaphor of the sinking island to conserve, a mode of persuasion that is most powerful when there are others watching. Unlike the rapidly emerging crises that often cause resources to be quickly marshaled, of the kind specialized in by groups like ISCRAM, Jorge L. Zapico pointed out that all too often risk communication is stymied by a slow crisis, auxh as global warming. Zapico proposed that persuasive technologists should be doing more to use mobile phones, pervasive sensors, and social media that are changing communicaiton patters and how we work to intervene in the global crisis. Some forms of personal tracking can actually encourage anti-social behavior, such as Dopplr's "Personal Velocity" feature. After all, who wants to be a duck like the speaker when you can be a lizard like his girlfriend?

Yet social networking allows the possibility of self-monitoring, social comparison, social facilitation, and reduction that emphasizes lack of effort. As Zapico argued, the tragedy of the commons could be broken using social media, even if reducing one's carbon footprint meant not traveling to conferences. Websites like 43 things can encourage environmental goal-setting. Carbon Calc even presents an iPhone application that allows mobile users to see the aggregation of their actions, and the we:offset feature on Nokia phones allows users to pay their carbon offset on the spot. In Canada One Million Acts of Green encourages user-generated content about sustainable living, with the aim of making the normal green rather than the green normal. Principles include social facilitation, reciprocity, social comparison, normative influence, and social learning. As Zampico said, why not consider "the ramifications of easiness in a complicated system."

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Monday, April 27, 2009

Democracy, Privacy, Technology, and Persuasion

At Persuasive 2009, Janet Davis of Grinnell made the argument for "Design Methods for Ethical Persuasive Technology" that exposed certain paradoxes inherent in the very words "persuasive technologies," which she described as "fraught with ethical problems," particularly when "principles are important," although she claimed that "existing design methods can help." Citing
BJ Fogg, she was eager to distinguish "persuasion" from "deception," "coercion," or "manipulation." Furthermore, with the use of computational media, novelty can blind users to persuasive intent, computers are seen as intelligent and fair, computers can be ubiquitous and persistent, computers can not be negotiated with, computers don’t have emotions, and computers do not share in moral responsibility.

Yet, according to "Bias in information systems," a 1996 article by Friedman & Nissenbaum 1996 that explored everything from how travel agents book airline flights to automating applications for citizenship, procedural systems are far from unbiased. Furthermore, Friedman, Millet & Felton have pointed out that privacy concerns are rarely closely examined by busy computer users who relegate privacy issues to default behaviors, because examining cookies is fatiguing. Furthermore, Johnson and Mulvey's 1995 study of "Accountability and computer decision systems" notes that designers rarely can be held accountable for the systems that they create. Moreover, Mason and Fleishman identify three "covenants" around reality, values, transparency for making visible models, mechanisms, and assumptions. Finally, Berdichevsky & Neuenschwander claim in 1999 in "Toward and Ethics of Persuasive Technologies" that eight principles are important in "ethical persuasive technology."

Using this research, Davis asked a number of questions of an audience that may have a tendency to focus on geegaws rather than social consensensus, such as "How can we predict outcomes?" and "Why do we prioritize privacy?" and "How do we ensure that disclosure is understood?" and "Could other values be just as or more important?" (Such values could include courtesy, for example.)

Davis noted that the "Golden Rule" that requires perspective taking may still be relevant to persuasive technologists, particularly those interested in the "value sensitive design," as outlined by Friedman, Kahn and Borning in 2006. Davis asserted the importance of "empirical investigations of how principles are understood by regular people" that are "iterative and integrative" and attention to the "context of use, value to be supported, and existing technology." For her, "dark side scenarios" and "value scenarios" from Berdichevsky & Neuenschwander's work in 1999 are also worth paying attention to.

The work of Jessica Miller was also important in the Davis talk, whether it involved "knowledge-sharing," the role of positive or negative as well as negative recognition, considerations of "privacy, trust, awareness," and the "value dams" and "flows" that are described in "Value tensions in design." However, Muller's 2003 work on "participatory design" (as opposed to value centered design) was also key, along with Bødker, Grønbæk, and Kyng's Cooperative Design: Techniques and Experiences From the Scandinavian Scene.

For Davis, this concerned not only value of democracy, which at the level of "systems development" was "too abstract," but also participatory design now beyond work, as in the case of recent deliberations about voting on Facebook agreements. Workshop, games, play, and cooperative prototyping were all critical for the development process, along with the idea of "design as rhetoric" that was expressed in Carl DiSalvo's 2008 Neighborhood Networks in which ambient persuasive systems could address poor air quality and other problems in a neighborhood, such as noise and speeding. Another exemplar came from ADAPT: Audience Design of Ambient Persuasive technology from Miller, Rich, and Davis in 2009.

Given the fact that Berdichevsky himself sent a text message to attendee BJ Fogg abut the role of intermediaries, and Fogg addressed the issue of surveillance on Facebook, it seemed that the discussion would be ongoing.

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Lenses of Contact

As someone generally interested in raising awareness of "architectures of control," I've been a big fan of Dan Lockton's Design with Intent blog for a while, because it draws attention to how our experiences of consumerism and urbanism involve interactions with designed systems that reinforce particular kinds of rules. Today, at the Persuasive 2009 conference, Lockton presented part of his Design with Intent Toolkit, which outlined six possible "lenses" through which to see the design process. Given this toolkit, Lockton's work is also obviously relevant to my own interest in government persuasion around the four trends that I followed in the Virtualpolitik book: public diplomacy, social marketing, risk communication, and institutional branding, as political institutions move away from print-based media and toward computational media platforms.

Lockton began his talk with a series of behavioral contradictions that compromise energy efficiency as consumers buy energy-efficient light bulbs but leave them on all night, never explore other settings on their washers, leave water running while brushing teeth, and -- in his own country -- indulge in unnecessary overfilling of teakettles that if not wasted would provide almost enough energy to power all the street lights across the UK.

In looking at the level of "simple interaction with an everyday product," Lockton suggested a number of obvious conundrums, such as "What level do I work at?" in relation to the interface or "Whose side am I on?" in relation to ethical boundaries. As he put it, "Is it still user-centered design if we are trying to change behavior rather than accommodate it?"

To try to visualize these questions, Lockton provided three diagrams that represented 1) motivating behavior, 2) enabling behavior, and 3) constraining behavior. As an example of the motivational category of persuasion, he pointed out the presence of the EcoButton in the attendees' conference swag bags and briefly explained how the gadget worked. He also cited a number of influences on his work. For example, in explaining the role of "reduction" and "tunneling," he payed homage to B.J. Fogg, who was sitting in the second row, and he also praised the aesthetic of simplicity epitomized by John Maeda. He also displayed a number of quotations that emphasized the larger philosophical dimensions in these kinds of design activities. He noted the continuing influence of Buckminster Fuller as well, particularly in regard to making modifications in the environment to "get man moving in the right direction." (Fuller was also an important figure in Fred Turner's talk at U.C. Irvine last week.) In acknowledging influences on his thinking, Lockton wasn't afraid to air some of the potentially disturbing aspects of persuasive technologies that might actually remove options for users, which runs contrary to the principles of those like Heinz von Foerster who only want to maximize liberty through invention. As he pointed out, hypertext pioneer Ted Nelson once cynically defined technology as something that somebody wants someone to submit to, and Cory Doctorow similarly noted that no customer woke up this morning wishing to do less with his or her property. He also gave a plug for the book Nudge and the work of Richard Thayler.

Lockton then quickly reviewed the six lenses that constitute each "worldview on behavior change." They include the Persuasive lens, which includes "self-monitoring" and "kairos," the
Cognitive lens that addresses heuristics, structures of bias, and constructs of self-interest, which includes "social proof" and "framing," the Errorproofing lens, which includes "defaults" and "interlock," the Architectural lens, which includes "positioning" and "layouts," the Visual lens, which includes "prominence" and "metaphors," and finally the Security lens that less ethically seems to use components to coerce, which includes "surveillance" and "atmospherics." However, he pointed out that using classical music to drive away younger users was in practice not much different from using the smell of fresh-baked bread to draw customers in. Furthermore, in response to the constraints of the errorproofing approach, he asserted that when it came to nuclear safety or preventing medical error, few would advocate for the user's liberty.

For Lockton, these categories were often mixed, so that the same design choice could be read through multiple lenses. For example, Amazon's feature that informs users of what others who bought the same product also bought served both "social proof" and "kairos."

He then ran through a series of designed scenarios from a sign over a lightswitch reading "your bonus depends on this" to a two-color switch that seems visibly disorded when switched on. He even described a system created by a designer from the University of Chicago that dimmed lights as appliances and lights were turned on to raise awareness about excessive energy use.

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Beyond Biofeedback

In the 1970s my mother was working on a Master's degree in psychology and like many others in the period she was interested in the concept of biofeedback that encourages the monitoring of bodily functions to control stress and pursue strategies of well-being. I well remember having the biofeedback machine set up in the dining room, where various test subjects would recline on our orange shag carpet to be hooked up to the gizmo for their benefit. Today at the Persuasive 2009 conference, I couldn't help but think about the biofeedback machine as I listened to some of the talks about persuasive technologies.

Katarina Segerståhl described her work with exercise training with heart rate monitors as an example of "concrete software technologies" based on a "persuasive systems design model" to persuade people to incorporate lighter exercise and more flexibility exercises rather than subscribe to short-lived and injury-prone exercise regimens where the feedback loop boiled down to no-pain-no-gain assumptions. Many actually used the device in "a game-like manner," but the team discovered that not all were motivated by getting a reward, since some said "I want it to kick my ass" or, as Clifford Nass would predict based on his work on credibility, distrusted an overly friendly voice of support that was seen as too simple-mineded to be trusted.

Segerståhl was followed by Anja Meiland Ranfelt, who discussed the HANDS project for autistic teenagers who benefited from an "HIPD" device. However Ranfelt was stymied by questions about her project's rhetorical dimension, an aspect of persuasive technology that was key for the next presenter, Wolfgang Reitberger, who created a pervasive interactive mannequin or "PIM mannequin" for shop windows that acknowledged the importance of what classical rhetoricians called kairos or capitalizing on the right time and the right place. Talking inspiration from Philips Homelab, Reitberger lauded the benefits of real shops over online shops because they provide sensory perception, immediate gratification, and social interaction. Echoing new media theorists who argue for the continuing relevance of the flâneur, Reitberger asserted that "shop windows are an important interface" because they provide the attractions of attention, engagement, and information.

Later in the day presenters returned to studies of persuasive technologies that encouraged physical activity, which like energy conservation seemed to be one of the targeted behaviors for technologically enhanced persuasion at the conference. Sunny Consalvo of Ubifit systems opened by citing Locke & Latham's work on Goal-Setting Theory to introduce the Ubifit garden, which combines a fitness device with the individual’s mobile phone to record and track different types of physical activity. In the information representation of the garden, different types of flower represented different kinds of exercise, and butterflies appeared when a fitness goal was attained. Thus, a single screen could represent a week of physical activity and month of goals achieved. (Although yoga or swimming couldn’t be as easily inferred by the device, user input could provide accommodation for this.) Consalvo admitted, however, that the goal-setting sources were often not preferred as was the medical advice. To users, apparently the appearance of the personal trainer was very important, which is interesting given the emphasis of other systems on physiological data. Although somewhat counterintuitive to those who might be using social network sites for fitness regimes, Consalvo discovered that many users felt that deplying networks with strangers was more effective, because they felt that they could make more excuses with friends.

Joyca Lacroix's talk on "Understanding User Cognitions to Guide the Tailoring of Persuasive Technology-based Physical Activity Interventions" reiterated Consalvo's point that users wanted persuasive technologists to "customize, customize, customize," which can be difficult to do she claimed because "technology allows for that," but humans are oriented around continuous feedback. She showed information about the Philips exercise program at In addition to exercise

In the final panel of the day about how mobile computing has an important role to play in persuasive technologies, Kendra Markle of the Kaiser Permanente health network and not only discussed work on exercise but also explained her group's initiatives that used mobile devices for stress management, cognitive behavior therapy, and mindful meditation. Alongside her, Kevin Patrick emphasized the lasting value of the Texting 4 Health conference and listed a range of programs that included mDiet, e/Balance, my/Balance, PALMS, SMART, and CitSense. Collectively the speakers emphasized how these devices facilitated goal setting, reminders, tracking, rewards, and social support.

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"Consumer" is a Dirty Word

Today at Persuasive 2009, the fourth annual international conference on persuasive technologies being held at Claremont University.

The opening keynote by Brenda Laurel on "meeting people where they are" began with Laurel explaining how she sees herself "as a social activist" affirming "humanistic values" and her own status as a "culture worker" as she advocates for human-centered research. Laurel noted how at the present moment the climate change debate illustrated how intent-driven grand strategy approaches still had to address attitudes and behaviors when crafting communication, invention, and political strategies. As she pointed out, "strategies generate tactics," but those who listen to Al Gore might require different tactics from those who listen to Rush Limbaugh, which entails inquiry into building a much more complicated model, which she later suggested might be inspired by The Art of War but goes beyond it.

For Laurel, the ubiquitousness of computing was a given, as she listed mainframe, laptop, desktop, mobile, wearable, pervasive, and cloud technologies to demonstrate how contemporary computing constituted a "field not a point." She sketched out an "almost Aristotelian" schema in which she cited the Poetics to chart out how "sensation," "perception/cognition," "emotion/thought," and "behavior/outcome" were connected in a causal chain. In listing the characteristics of computing and persuasion, she emphasized their natural synercies, since computing manages sensory input, senses its effects, and adapts, and persuasion embodies intent, orchestrates effects, and manifests change. In Laurel's talk, she emphasized the word "embodies" in "embodies intent" to differentiate her approach from many in "interface design." As Laurel said, "The person is the environment for the computer, and the person is the environment for persuasion."

In explaining her methodology, Laurel presented a chronology of her career as an innovater known for work on screen identities, gender and play, and design education. As a veteran of the "design business" in 1976 who worked at Atari and remembered her days "lip synching animation," she explained how she used to ask questions of sports teams and watch boys play arcade games at a time that few people were doing this kind of research, which she described as oriented around "finding opportunity space." (Laurel praised Star Raiders as her favorite classic videogame, although sge often found herself "looking for the negotiate button." Even when in the corporate world, she said she was keenly aware of "the importance of ethics" and was an avid read of play theory, feminist theory, and primatology research, although she said that PR people often wanted her ape books moved out of publicity shots for fear of alienating the Christian anti-evolution component of the market. Although she said that she could have sold her research on girls to "an evil cosmetics company," she instead followed the business philosophy that she described in her book Utopian Entrepreneur. She explained about how she was able to do interviews of a thousand children and five hundred adults in eight cities from which she realized that games could do more to offer "rehearsal space" to girls who need "a sense of personal agency" in lives that seem to them driven by "horrible inevitability." She not only described the difficulty of analysis, which she defined differently from "findings" from ethnographic research, although she said that values could be reintegrated after gathering the data. She described asking the researchers she mentored to write down their attitudes on topics such as "six-year-old boys" and then have these post-its burned in a cauldron.

At her digital entertainment company Purple Moon she described having three to four million registered users in a firm driven by "opportunity space" and oriented around exploring gender, technology, and play. She had, however, no kind words for the Mattel corporation that created a Barbie game in 1985 that she said assumed that women were "bad with projectiles" and would therefore be more comfortable with "throwing marshmallows." She also described Mattel Jill Barad as a "pink clad bitch" who allowed her interactive division to crash and burn after methodically removing all the digital competition to Barbie through a process of corporate acquisition.

Laurel emphasized the value of dyad interviews -- which unlike focus groups that are limited to what she calls a "snapshot of the social dynamic" or single interviews in which an insecure isolated individual may merely want to tell the investigator what he or she wants to hear -- that foster disclosure as only the presence of a best friend can do.

In drawing attention to gender disparities, Laurel was careful not to essentialize and to describe her findings as "overlapping Gaussian distributions" in which girls may be more different from each other when looking at the full distribution of behavior than typical boys and girls are from each other. Like primates, Laurel asserted that young people organize themselves into same-sex groups in which meaning-making is constituted through measuring social status among peers. The patterns she showed emphasized the difference between overt competition and covert competition (with a boy saying "I got to level 73" in this game vs. a girl saying "Have you seen the green dragon yet?") In differentiating between the status hierarchies of boys and the status networks of girls, she pointed out female practices of affiliation and exclusion and how having the greatest number of social connections was more important than beating others in contests. She mocked the simplistic vision of girls as nurturing creatures who were naturally repelled by the agression of videogames, and she also said that her own relationship to gender norms was complicated by her own personal competitiveness.

In addition to her dyad interviews, Laurel conducted "photo audits" in which young people shot pictures that were frequently revealing, although she said such research was difficult to do today, given the "problem with digital images" in which kids' "naughty bits" can be disseminated on Internet. She also had young people interact with products that had mixed gender signals, such as a pink fuzzy truck, a diary-like "war journal," a dolphin with teeth, and "the toy nobody wanted," a "battle hair" Barbie.

She argued that her research showed that girl’s identity construction involved both an inner life and a social life. The inner life may be nurturing, constituted by hidden knowledge, directed by self-awareness, and enlivened with magical talents. The outer life manifests the features of affiliation and exclusion, covert power, and self-image that she had discovered from thinking about status games. At the intersection she found four themes: "relationships," "secrets," "self-esteem," and "stories." Although she argued that the common mythology about girls having "secret garden" wasn't entirely untrue, she argued that "they want nature to take care of them" rather than nurture various creatures altruistically. This realization helped shape the Purple Moon game Secret Paths.

She also discussed her work in academia, which began with a long stint at the Art Center College of Design, where she said her stance as an "unapologetic leftist" was an essential part of her faculty identity but also asserted that she tells students not to stay aloof from the mainstream. As she put it to students, "Someone makes popular culture. It might as well be me."

Now at California College of the Arts, Laurel talked about how "bounding terms" functioned in four case studies. In 2001, working with the "empty space" between "energy," "entitlement," and "brand" on a project called "Upshift" on hybrid cars, her team of students who went to Hemet, a region that she described as "as close to Indiana as you can get in California," to attempt a hybrid purchase discovered that car dealers were actually hiding such cars and discouraging consumers from buying them. She described this odd rhetorical situation in which
the "audience for persuasion is the salesman." The group attempted to solve the problem with a user-friendly PDA with an explanatory tutorial for both pitchman and customer and with a mock television commercial that sold the virtues of silence.

In reminding the audience that value propositions could be different for different customers, she also described her own design philosophy that de-emphasizes language about consumers. As she said, among her "seven dirty words," the first one is "consumer," which only represents a "tube that runs from retail to landfill" that noone wants to be. She advised designers to call them "players" or "drivers" or some functional identity divorced from the logic of consumption.

She also described her student's work with bounding terms for cell phones, in a project in which the product was called "Mobo," an interactive object that was intended to be an attentive personal means for tween to relieve stress on millennials, and for an initiative involving six-year-old boys and what they were learning about manliness from media in a project called "blux." Her research team found that such kids valued the outside, which was perceived as unbranded and associated with an often absent dad. Such kids would rather play outside than play a game. The probes of their study about "heroes" were also telling, since the researchers found out that parents didn’t want their kids to be soldiers, fireman, or president, so that children had to grapple with a conflict between what they were getting from their parents and they were getting from media, which she described as a "dicey area." To understand the dynamics around masculinity for young boys, she distributed "magic bags" in which cards could be assigned "for dad," "for mom," or "for me."

Since coming to the California College of the Arts, Laurel has worked on Shades of Green in 2007 to promote farmer's markets, buying bulk organic, and better information design, where she discovered that green had many connotations that included "local," "organic," and "healthy," which could be in conflict. In trying to make "outlier behavior normative" she emphasized the possible value of designed objects such as a dryer for plastic bags or the "unfrigerator," which her student "framed" as a "provocation" to get away from letting refrigerators merely serve as kiosks for brands. In 2008 she had her students work on attitudes and behaviors about energy, which included a particularly memorable slide about how to make a medical marijuana farm more energy efficient. She ended by showing several of the programs and products that her students created, which included gold stars, change cards, parent bags for newborns in hospitals (who often jettison concerns about waste with disposable diapers), and a solar-powered "energy buddy" for young children to teach them that "things you plug in have different energy footprints."

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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Where Movement Happens

Tonight at the opera I was struck by the number of gray-haired septuagenarians and octogenarians fiddling with their glowing Blackberry devices in the most prized seats at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. For the past month I have had several such experience in which the users of social networks and ubiquitous computing technologies seem to be very different from the over-hyped digital youth that get media attention. Earlier this month I was at a church meeting where a number of senior citizens were discussing their experiences on Facebook. And that same week I noticed that my seventy-five-year-old mother was using emoticons in her e-mails to clarify that she was making a joke.

Often in academia I hear people confidently predict that the university will go digital when enough Luddite faculty members retire or die from the ranks to allow the social computing revolution to be finally felt in ivy-girded classrooms and tenure-review committees. I've never been entirely convinced that this is necessarily a valid argument, and as I watch some early adopters who have mentored my own work retiring I fear that they might not always be being replaced with equally technologically savvy peers.

Like many people, I am looking forward to seeing the results from the large study on "The Future of Scholarly Communication" from Berkeley's Center for Studies in Higher Education. Early word is that young scholars are not the drivers of innovation, contrary to expectations, based on 160 interviews that represent academics in seven disciplines.

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Virtual House Calls

I first learned about how the Obama administration was using the online virtual world Second Life for focus groups about health care from documentary filmmaker and machinima artist Nonny de la Peña, who appears in this film in an orange jumpsuit. From social marketing expert Nedra Weinreich I already knew that the Centers for Disease control had a virtual office in Second Life, which was staffed by a male administrator with a female avatar during the Bush administration.

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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Family and State

Who would have thought that three years ago when I wrote about, the federal government's website devoted to teen abstinence that it would still be online post-Obama? Yet, despite the Bristol Palin unwed teen fiasco for the Republicans and a mountain of data that shows that abstinence education doesn't work, official rhetoric still emphasizes this unlikely conjunction of family and state.

Here's the home page of the site during the Bush administration, shortly after it was launched in 2005.

And here it is in 2009 with an almost identical abstinence message.

Many of the hokey "coversation starters" designed for parents to discourage teens from becoming sexual active are almost identical to the regrettable ones from the previous administration.

2005: "I was at the store yesterday and ran into Kendrick, Mrs. Jakes' son. He is joining the military after high school. What do you think you want to do when you graduate from high school?"

2009: "I was at the store yesterday and ran into Richard, Mrs. Jackson’s son. He joined AmeriCorps right after high school. What do you think you want to do when you graduate from high school?"

Note the subsitution of "military" with "AmeriCorps."

Fortunately, at least praise to the right-wing National Physicians Center has been omitted and particularly sexist sections of the Bush era FAQ have been deleted, such as this gem of oversimplified generalization that assumes that biology is destiny:

Why do males and females seem to respond differently to parental direction?

Males sometimes respond well to concrete, direct language, while girls often respond well to feeling, relational language. Direction with only a few words may work for males, while females may prefer more details and explanation.

But the site's continuing existence raises a legitimate question: is the most pressing message that the government has to get to parents the one about controlling their children's sexuality outside of marriage?

I would think that there are other ways that state authority is either more directly helped or hindered by parental authority, which merit a more appropriate apportionment of digital rhetoric. For example, what are you doing as a parent to encourage your children to vote, serve on juries, and take part in other forms of civic participation? Or what are you doing as a parent to ensure that your children obey the rule of law and respect the state? Or are there any ways that you as a parent may be using your parental authority to flout the law or violate principles of justice, such as beating your children, which far too many parents do?

Obviously, the updated site, like many webpages produced by the Obama administration also incorporates links to official content posted on commercial social media platforms like Twitter, but since receiving scoldings about privacy from digital rights activists like Chris Soghoian, they at least include a lengthy disclaimer.

You are about to leave the website. provides links to other Internet sites as a service to its users, and is not responsible for the availability or content of these external sites., its employees, and contractors do not endorse, warrant, or guarantee the products, services, or information described or offered at these other Internet sites. Any reference to a commercial product, process, or service is not an endorsement or recommendation by the, its employees, or contractors. For documents available from this server, the U.S. Government does not warrant or assume any legal liability or responsibility for the accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information, apparatus, product, or process disclosed.

On the site, you can also check out how the new "Gadget" public service announcement is being customized for non-white audiences.

I also thought I might look at other sites on .gov domains about policing female sexuality to see how they have changed under a Democratic president. See this home page for in 2007 and ask yourself why there is no

Notice how the same emphasis on pastel colors and consumerism still persists in 2009.

Although there isn't any to complement, it's interesting to observe that this site was surprisingly progressive under the Bush administration and even included information about emergency contraception and lesbian health.

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Friday, April 24, 2009

Now You Hear Me; Now You Don't

This local news piece from WHTR about "Tapping Your Cell Phone" on how "anonymous stalkers literally took control" of a suburban family's cell phones presents an interesting form of risk communication from the popular media about the dangers of hacking. The story emphasizes the dark side of ubiquitous computing technologies that facilitate omnipresent surveillance and the fact that "your privacy isn't your privacy" with these devices. The narrative combines a horror-movie style harasser in the shadows serving as voyeur with James Bond style gadgetry in which the reporter traces his quarry's whereabouts on a digital map that he eventually coinhabits.

Of course, I am always interested to see how the rhetoric of such shows presents the individual stalker as threat but does not bother with institutional data collection as a concern for privacy advocates. I also am struck by the irony of how this story about how the efficacy of "latest spy technology for cell phones" available on the Internet will likely lead to more downloads of this illegal software from the web.

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Thursday, April 23, 2009

Gosh, You've Really Said It Now

"Universities will be 'irrelevant' by 2020, Y. professor says" might be a headline that David Wiley regrets right now. Of course, Wiley is becoming known for making predictions and for staking out some of the more extreme positions in the Open CourseWare movement, as I argue in this recent talk, so these fighting words might not come as much of a surprise to those who know his public pronouncements.

What I find interesting is reading the hundred-plus comments and the kinds of metaphors that online writers draw upon to describe the educational system. For example, this one makes an analogy of education to physical health, which is difficult to commodify and package.

Wiley is an ignoramus. He assumes that "knowledge" and "education" are things – commodities that can be stored on a hard drive, downloaded onto an iPod, and transferred into the passive brain of a “student”. That is equivalent to thinking that “health” can be packaged, stored, downloaded, and ingested in a pill form. Wrong. Education, like physical health, is an dynamic, active, living, changing experience in relation with other people, at least one of whom has demonstrated him/her-self as having achieved a higher level of “education” (intellectual health). It cannot be packaged and ingested no matter how amazing technology becomes! Education and knowledge are organic, social, and experiential. Wiley doesn’t get it, which is why he reveals himself to have a substandard education and a lack of knowledge. He should be dismissed as nothing more than a peer wacko with Steven E Jones, formerly of BYU.

This comment makes a comparison of universities to newspapers, which not only need to change with the times to adapt to digital delivery systems but also to consider their supposedly unpopular partisan political positions as well.

Sounds like universities have the same problem that newspapers do, they don't like the truth, are left-leaning, and are institutions where socialist collude.

At the same time, there are different kinds of attention-getting calls for educational reform in higher education that are coming from Zeno Franco, who I've written about before in connection with his work on risk communication and who has also done some interesting work with Philip Zimbardo of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment. Now Franco is putting forward his own interdisciplinary manifesto and group project at his Metaversity Project site. Those who know Clark Kerr's work on how the "university" is really a "multiversity" may find Franco's definitional work particularly interesting.

Update: Cathy Davidson of HASTAC points out that an opinion piece the New York Times called "End the University as We Know It" is well worth reading.

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The Search Engine on the Other Side of Black Rock

Fred Turner's talk today, "What Burning Man does for Google" shows that he has developed his thesis about what he sees as an "anti-intuitive" confluence of Protestant ethic and California ideology that represents a possible "utopianist vision of work and play," since I last heard him speak about "Burning Man at Google: How Art Worlds Help Sustain New Media Industries" in 2007. (This paper of Turner's provides citations for many of his main points.)

Turner opened by noting that his academic perspective was also informed by his ten years as journalist and by ironically observing how the UC Irvine campus itself represents the "intense integration of interpersonal and personal growth and commercial activity" in its franchised consumer architecture that he would end up arguing is analogous to "the ethos of new media manufacturing" that would be the subject of his talk.

Turner described himself as currently a scholar of "large-scale bureaucratic organizations, distributed social networks, and remnants of collaborative military culture," economic systems whose interests were not necessarily opposed to "commons-based peer production." Taking Paul DiMaggio's argument from "Cultural Entrepeneurship in Nineteenth-Century Boston" about the function of the Protestant cathedral in Boston to industrial firms in Lowell Massachusetts, Turner argued that the Burning Man festival in the Black Rock desert of Nevada served a similar cultural function for Google. To set the stage, he went back to cultural infrastructure and Marx and how aesthetic formations emerged out of need to live life in relation to mode of production. However, he also insisted that "we’ve entered a period in which culture is becoming the base of production."

Much as he did in a recent Annenberg talk, Turner used the Burning Man photographs in the lobby of Building 43 in Google's Mountain View headquarters as his first piece of evidence of the status of art installations in the desert as "factory sites." Although Google's lobby presents a fundamentally different appearance than the headquarters of IBM in the fifties, which was furnished with blond wood, wool-suited receptionists, and imposing THINK signs, the Google decor similarly establishes a distinctive corporate style. He rehearsed the history of the company's allegiances to Burning man, including the time that Larry Page and Sergey Brin shut down much of the firm in 1999 to allow employees to attend and the narrative that credits Eric Schmidt's attendance at the festival to his hiring in 2001 as CEO. Furthermore, Turner registered the uncanniness of having those on the Google payroll attend company events in their Burning Mans costumes, so that they mixed with colleagues improbably clad in chaps or fake fur. Their corporate education program actually extended to making how-to videos for cooking and camping at the Playa and conversely offering internal seminars for co-workers in the remote site.

Based on his "two summers of running with the crowd," which included ecstatic experiences riding a bicycle around at night, Turner claimed that the "festival serves as an infrastructure." He argued that "we tend to think in voluntary contexts" with Wikipedia as the model when considering "commons-based peer production," however he sketched out a more complex structure to characterize such arrangements. He listed the following ingredients as essential: a notion of the commons, a leveled management structures, interpersonal visibility that allows one to be seen by others, subsidy, and a communal ethos. For example, as some companies would allow their programmers a day off to “play” with Linux, Google had workers use 20% of their time for pet projects that could be developed into lucrative consumer products. However, Turner asserted that this "rhetoric of community" does not mean that resources are distributed equitably. Much like George Orwell's line about how "some animals are more equal than others," Turner wryly observed that some people make money but some people don’t, so this system actually constitutes a "mode of manufacturing" rather than just volunteering.

Turner claimed that this mode of production enables a number of effects: the fusion of personal and professional “growth,” the use of financial AND social numeration, and the transformation of the worksite into home and home into worksite. The openness at Google isn't always divorced from coersion, Turner noted, since people were jammed into offices with three people in systems of forced collaboration that also included open e-mail lists to facilitate talking to one another and developing ideas for goods. He pointed out that Marissa Mayer, who was project manager for 20% time, acknowledged that it was profitable for the company, since more than 50% of new products were developed on 20% times, but insisted that the key to this productivity wasn’t the 20% but rather being employed “a company that really trusts them” in ways that were not strictly contractual. Turner argued that executives like Mayer were harnessing the individual’s desire to create and to grow for the earnings of the firm in ways that make a global appeal for the greater good in Google's "don't be evil" dictum, which Turner compared to the motto "what’s good for the world is good for GM."

As an illustration of the effectiveness of the Google gift economy he told the story of Krishna Bharat who had been searching for 9/11 news items after the attack on the World Trade Center by Al Qaeda. Bharat wrote a script for finding related articles and then circulated the script on a company listserv as a "gift" the the "community." From this exchange, Google managers spotted a product and developed it into what would later become Google News.

In explaining the principles that govern the "peer theater" that is Burning Man, Turner listed its statement of fundamental principles: 1) radical inclusion, 2) gifting, 3) decommodification, 4) radical self-reliance, 5) radical self-expression , 6) communal effort, 7) civic responsibility, 8) leave no trace, 9) participation, 10) immediacy

He noted how this version of self-reliance actually mirrored the state of many technology workers who labor with no pension packages, experience rapid turnover with 2.5 year average stints, and a nomadic ethic about "not working for the company but for the valley." He also claimed that the stated aim of radical inclusion was in practice limited to white, rave-oriented hipsters who were less diverse than the acid generation, despite a landscape defined by the public transportation dictated by art cars. Moreover, he observed that "leave no trace" still required a team to stay behind for six weeks and clean up. Even though the limitations on commerce could be starkly summed up ("you can buy coffee, and you can buy ice"), and people were instructed to cover up all logos, Turner argued that many of the practices of corporate capitalism were still maintained and that he found himself "gifted with more business card than a conference." As he put it, "there was money everywhere" even though "there was no cash," because the money was in the trailers, in the amenities, and in the privileged few who flew in and the fact that even the many who drove paid a $300 basic admission.

Citing his mentor Bennett Berger, Turner insisted that Burning Man facilitates "ideological work" that responds to pressures that might otherwise result in bending or breaking of common cultural myths, so the attendees must do reparative work through their collective stories. He also alluded to the work of Emile Durkheim about "aboriginal effervescence" that results from shared happy feelings of being together in the outback, which can serve as a "persistent symbolic resevoir" long after the event that may be commemorated by necklaces that mark tribal occasion. In this way the dominant narratives about "engineers first" and "mad scientists" can be sustained to cope with supplying "what new media promises but does not deliver." Turner credited his own field work as well, which he described as interviewing leaders and founders of the event, among others in a pool of about a hundred informants (including about fifty on-site interviewees) .

To illustrate how some Google products directly relate to this nostalgic attachment, Turner showed a rendering of the Virtual Playa that combines a Microsoft flight simulator with Google's mapping features for a future avatar-based Google Earth application that would allow a participant to fly back down into camp from an aerial view high above the planet.

He closed by describing a "persistent cultural infrastructure" for "ideological work by employees, users and others" that is based on "distributed, peer-based modes of product development" that serves as its material setting. He finished by suggesting that it may "also model a new relationship between culture and industry," since "in the nineteenth-century industrialists went to church and built museums," but with the Google/Burning Man synergy "church, museum, and factory are one."

Respondent Jeanne Scheper expressed appreciation for Turner's talk, but also pointed to a number of possible loose ends, such as relationship of the festival to contemporary aesthetics or to postmodern urbanism. The examples she cited included the Art in America piece "In defense of Burning Man: the controversial, anarchic arts festival, held every summer in the Nevada desert, is now in its 20th year" and the ways that "deindustrialized cities" were hoping that bohemians will save them. She also looked to Alan Liu's work on the uses of cool as a way to provide another reading of the event.

Turner answered that there were even more threads to be followed that he hadn't addressed. For example, in looking back to his prior work on the Whole Earth Catalog and the role of Stewart Brand in countercultural entepreneurship, he argued that the story he was telling wasn't about a cooptation by commerce but an embrace of the military, which included affections for Norbert Wiener, Buckminister Fuller, and military whole systems theory. He also argued that the "new communalism" represented by Burning Man not only "embraced commerce, collaboration, research, and lab style" but also "turned away from politics" and retreated from the civil rights and free speech movements of the sixties that effected more fundamental change. Not only does the Burning Man culture represent a crypto-military and anti-political form of organization, Turner argued that although not "not officially racially exclusive," the absence of hip hop music and the loneliness of the protesting presence of the "soul tent" attested to the color-coding of "cultural things that are cool and uncool," "apportioning resources," and "knowing symbolic codes." In answer to a comment from Jerome Christensen about the Heidelberg art project's status as art, Turner also argued that at Burning Man art could function "as a category like religion that can disclaim its connection to the material world."

There also were two significant defenders of Burning Man in the crowd who resisted Turner's corporate reading and claimed their own authority to speak as long-time participant-observers with over a decade of perspective apiece. Tom Jennings argued that the event did facilitate forms of significant social action and consciousness raising, as evidenced by the existence of charitable actions in places like Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans by groups like Burners without Borders, despite what he called the "corruption" of a profit-making structure with thousands of volunteers and what Turner had called "rule-based sexuality" built around the self in sites like the bondage-oriented Camp Arachnid. Speaking as an ethnographer, Jenny Cool argued that people were attracted by the promise of a "temporary autonomous zone," like the one theorized by Hakim Bey, even if it what can and can’t take place was tacitly and not so tacitly regulated so that nudity and drugs could be sanctioned but not liability producing guns.

Turner responded with an extended criticism of the "T.A.Z." explanation. As he said, "One thing utopia isn’t is a temporary autonomous zone." For Turner, utopian visions are about "reaching out to those who are different in fundamental ways rather than just tolerating those with different personal predilections ( ecstacy vs. acid, men vs. women). As proof, he pointed to the absense of immigrants at Burning Man, despite its position in relation to a nation of immigrants. Although he said that he treasured his own "personal sexual drug-doing freedom," he also wanted to "live with people unlike myself" and accept "maybe a character flaw" in his "intellectual attachment to the Puritans."

Turner's T.A.Z. rebuttal also involved the current events issue of piracy, which has made headlines of late both because of the Swedish pirate party of copyright scofflaws and because of the Somali pirates terrifying merchant ships off the African coast. Turner pointed to the ways that discourses about pirates could be connected to temporary autonomous zones. He also observed that Buckminster Fuller celebrated pirates as ideal citizens who built their own societies in in-between spaces and functioned as network entrepreneurs. Turner questioned this ideology of individual empowerment and freedom by recalling his how his students in his Digital Media and Society class responded to his opening day question "What’s a computer?" by saying "a thing that let’s me do anything I want."

Catherine Liu echoed many of Turner's concerns about "new media money’s relationship to culture" and the ways that it supported "artistic" self-expression rather than "art" in the sense of Marcuse’s semi-autonomous sphere. As an example, she mentioned Paul Allen's narcissistic philanthropy and the way technologists pride themselves on not taking art as a fetish to the extent that they may laud the kitsch of a Norman Rockwell Museum. She argued that Alan Liu’s vision of the ethical humane is too weak an abandonment of critique and that it cedes to much to the "very libertarian" Silicon Valley set. She also argued that the Burning Man enthusiasts actually exemplified Protestant ideology by praising "enjoyment in moderation" and the idea of the "reasonable" individual.

There were also those in the business contingent who questioned how deep the Burning Man roots really were in high-tech companies or how exemplary a case study Google really was. In response, Turner reminded the audience of his business communications credentials as a veteran of the Sloan school who considered himself well-versed in "the sociology of the firm" and "the affective part of the worker." However, he qualified his claims somewhat by conceding that this was not just "a digital world story," because it connected to a "deeper shift toward a knowledge-based economy" bent on "harnessing the individual in the life of the firm," much as corporations in the 1980s embraced team-building to "push back against the Japanese and Toyotaism." Notheless, some took issue with how he was defining "manufacturing" and materiality, given the models of "China, Brazil, and Mexico," which Turner described as representative of the fact that he wasn't talking about "one regime replacing another" but a "layering." Still, Turner insisted that it was hard to ignore that big companies sent employees to Burning Man for "creativity training" in nice trailers.

As Paul Dourish noted, "a lot of Apple people go," but he suspected that they do so "differently." To this Turner commented that there were ironies to the Apple company's hierarchical structure and locked down code, given the countercultural ethos the firm projects ever since casting itself as a rebel to a 1984-style regime. (He described Steve Jobs as having only "thin connections to counterculture" despite Jobs' claim at Stanford that the Whole Earth Catalog was his bible.) Given that this connection to counterculture was "more ideological and less organizational," he agreed that it was "not fair to let Google stand in." Turner also indulged in some Apple mockery by mentioning the "complex announcement of showing an iPhone" or how he was once booed by an audience that saw he had a PC.

He also offered a critique of the STS (Science and Technology Studies) perspective about "values built into design" and "how users matter," although he acknowledged that this might have been the case for the bicycle and the laptop in that users' interaction with designers helped produce a stable technology. But he counterargued that structures of capital and commodity also shape technological design, as Alan Kay's reading of the Whole Earth Catalog as a "guide to interface design" might represent. For Turner, ingrained collective practices of "engineers tweaking stuff in relations to things already made" in cultures supported by their own highly specific cultural myths might be more significant. Turner claimed that the focus should be on "what things are meaningful" and how "suppliers of meanings and frameworks meet machines" rather than just intellectually "hunkering down with users and machines" alone.

He described his own viewpoint as "inside/outside" and "in love with both." To explain his attitude he described being a reporter in Providence, RI who covered a man who "bilked widows out of houses" that he nonetheless found "charming." The man's enemies loved that he "busted the bastard" in the story, and the man's friends liked how Turner showed what an accomplished businessman he was.

Although he warned that like the Puritan's City on the Hill, we may be creating new exclusionary narratives that are "white" and "separate and maybe equal," he also held out hope for other kinds of contemporary sociality that were more inclusive, such as the culture around bike shops in San Francisco or "the White House recently." In his criticism of Burning Man, Turner insisted that he was defending the "40s ideal of universalism" that included incorporating the poor in ways that often only churches were willing to do now. As a final anecdote, he described how his costume at Burning Man of "khakis and button-down shirt" irritated a man who was wearing a dress who was highly offended by Turner's seeming lack of freedom in dress, a freedom that Turner characterized as really operating under another set of constraints.

(For those who want to have a newsreel to illustrate this post, you can check out films about Burning Man like Beyond Black Rock and Dust and Illustions.)

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Rest in Remix

RIP: A Remix Manifesto makes the rhetorical dimension of documentary film-making quite explicit by framing the film as a "manifesto" and organizing it into chapters, each with a specific "call to action." Now that there are a number of documentaries out there about copyright and creativity, director Brett Gaylor makes his film stand out by explicitly encouraging others to remix it online. As Steve Franklin notes, there is some irony to the fact that the film received funding from the National Film Board of Canada, given the fact that the national government has also funded a number of copyright enforcement campaigns.

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Wednesday, April 22, 2009


The recent #amazonfail burst of traffic on Twitter to protest Amazon's pulling of sales ranking for gay literature inspired me to look for similar hashtags. Not surprisingly, there are a number of terms to describe other Internet-related "fail" experiences from the user perspective, such as #iphonefail, #vistafail, and #microsoftfail. But the "fail" category is hardly limited to technology. For example, there is #yankeesfail for disgruntled sports fans and #obamafail for discontented political watchers of all partisan stripes.

The phenomenon isn't limited to microblogging. The participatory cultures surrounding the epic "fail" as a cultural event are given a forum at places like Fail blog.

In a unit on "Making," my UCI colleague Julia Lupton lectures to freshmen about what Malcolm Gladwell calls "coolhunting," but -- with the exception of a brief mention of the blog Stuff White People Like -- I might suggest that Lupton could say more about the inverse form of the selection process that Gladwell describes, a form of detective work and a marshaling of collective intelligence that could be described as "lamehunting."

For example, for those who've tired of the competition between cooler-than-thou Flickr photostreams, what could be better than Look at this Fucking Hipster to see the results of the LATFH's ongoing photo safaris in major cities in where lamehunters seek to catch their colorful poseurs in their native habitats. There are a group of a thousand-plus people on Flickr devoted to hating the typeface comic sans and rooting of examples of its (mis)uses.

Sometimes, however, there's real heart under even the most mocking site. As one who follows the role of DIY culture in the long tail of the Internet, I've been a fan of the lamehunting at Craftastrophe with home-sewn fail items like "Someone Got a Laminator for Their Birthday," "Peekaru!!!!!" and "Jam Out With Your Clam Out." However, in "Pull Up a Chair. We Need to Talk," Craftastrophe blogger Karen also explains how this month the site wants people personally to pitch in for the March of Dimes after the death of a child among their online community of bloggers. As the Los Angeles Times explains in "Death of blogger mom's daughter prompts outpouring from Internet community," the Internet can be tender as well as tough.

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If an Archive Falls in a Forest, Does it Make a Sound?

There's a chilling possible conclusion to be reached from "Digital Archives That Disappear," which explains how Google News purchased, a news collection that was particularly prized by historians for its coverage of Mexican history. Today's Inside Higher Ed writes that the American Historical Association raised the alarm in "'Paper of Record' Disappears, Leaving Historians in the Lurch." The Google forum of angry former users also includes many amateur genealogists who are joining their professional brethren in expressing irritation over what they consider the company's insufficient explanation of the abrupt yanking of access to content they had been researching:

We're currently working on the most effective way to search and browse this valuable content. We're doing our best to find a solution to include as much of the acquired content as possible.

While a lot of this content has been made available through Archive search, we're still refining processes to include incompatible newspaper images in our index. We're also working with certain publishers to acquire the rights to display their content. All of this takes time, and we appreciate your patience. We're constantly making improvements to ensure the best user experience.

Often when I describe my argument about digital libraries in the eighth chapter of the Virtualpolitik book, I'm surprised to hear people's incredulity when considering the possibility that I raise that a private corporation might not be the best conservator for digital copies of materials in the public domain. No academic likes to sound like a proponent of conspiracy theories, so stories like this can be useful to encourage caution about Google's digital acquisitions.

As the New York Times explains in "Google’s Plan for Out-of-Print Books Is Challenged," researchers are also expressing concern this month about Google's acquisition of access rights to orphaned works.

(Thanks to Siva Vaidhyanathan for the links!)

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Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Theme Park Politics

Some interactive websites don't need to do much to be entertaining. Many years ago, I well remember shelling out francs to the operator of a giant mechanical magnifier who would focus on key details in Rogier van der Weyden's Last Judgment in the Hôtel-Dieu in Beaune, France that showed the torments and moral failings in the smallest details of the damned.

Ian Bogost points out that one can have similar magnifier fun in the imagined theme park environment of The George Bush Presidential Librarium.

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Saving for a Brainy Day

Rhetorical appeals that involve the status of the brain are designed to be particularly attention-getting, although perhaps not as ubiquitous in our society as those that target issues about preservation and maintenance of the body. Last month I wrote about some of the supposedly scientific arguments being made about how social computing may be rewiring young brains and the tendencies of those research to assume negative effects a priori.

In "This is Your Brain of Facebook" Seed magazine, writer Rob Mitchum not only argues that some of the doom forecasters are offering up pseudo-science to get attention, but also claims that researchers such as Gary Small of UCLA and Daphne Bavelier of the University of Rochester may be on to something when examining possibly positive neurological effects from everyday activities like Google searching or playing videogames.

Small and Bavelier’s research suggests that actually researching, rather than just baselessly speculating about, the effect of popular media on brain activity and function reveals more benefits than ill consequences. Although both researchers caution that the brain’s limited resources mean that strengthening certain regions and processes may weaken others, that trade-off still remains worlds away from the dire warnings from Greenfield and others before her.

As if to prove the point, last week, the same publication that trumpeted Susan Greenfield's largely anecdotal conclusions about social network sites, The Mirror, is now presenting another argument with an appeal to scientific authority about brain-related disorders to be had from social media: "Twitter can make you immoral, claim scientists"

(Thanks to Jonathan Alexander for the link!)

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Monday, April 20, 2009

Blonde Ambition

If you don't remember the truly forgettable "McCain Space," the social network site for the 2008 Republican candidate that was supposed to bring him victory with the younger Internet-savvy set, I thought I'd post a screen shot in commemoration of the doomed venture that was soon colonized by the white middle-aged lovelorn and life-weary almost as soon as it was launched.

The only person on the McCain team who seemed to know anything about social media was McCain's daughter who was featured on McCain Spce but was probably more important to the campaign as author of her McCain Blogette blog.

As the Huffington Post notes in "Meghan McCain: 'Old School' Republicans Are 'Scared Shitless'," she's now dishing out some frank talk that argues that the Grand Old Party has far more serious troubles than its failure to capitalize on the Internet, when "she called out those officials in the Republican tent who insist that tactical improvements, technology and brass-knuckle politicking are the path back to relevance."

"Simply embracing technology isn't going to fix our problem," she said. "Republicans using Twitter and Facebook isn't going to miraculously make people think we're cool again. Breaking free from obsolete positions and providing real solutions that don't divide our nation further will. That's why some in our party are scared. They sense the world around them is changing and they are unable to take the risk to jump free of what's keeping our party down."

Now Meghan McCain is getting attention on Twitter, some of it probably of the wrong kind in the mind's of the party's handlers. For example, stories like "Meghan McCain Caught On Twitter: 'I Would Have Been a Horrible First Daughter'" seem to suggest that she's undermining Republican history one hundred forty characters at a time.

In writing for The Daily Beast, the young blonde McCain suggests that there's more to be learned from the Twittersphere about personal character, rhetorical appeals, and political style than mere gossip-mongering. "Karl Rove, Twitter Creep" argues that Rove's Twitter feed shows his lamely executed machinations and calculations while her father Senator McCain's feed displays the enthusiasm of a novice user genuinely concerned with communication to a wide-ranging constituency.

You can check out Meghan McCain on Twitter (and her exchanges with liberal celebs like Perez Hilton) for yourself.

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The Man Behind the Curtain

In "Obama Picks Technology And Performance Officers," the Washington Post discusses the President's choice of Aneesh P. Chopra as the U.S. Chief Technology Officer. This represents fulfillment of a campaign promise that he made while outlining his technology policies, which focused on three areas: 1) network neutrality, 2) infrastructure modernization of broadband networks, and 3)defense of the intellectual property status quo in the name of protecting "competitiveness." Having a CTO for the nation sets and interesting precedent that shows how institutional structures in government may be borrowing from Silicon Valley (even as they rethink their corporate structures of governance).

Chopra has been the technology officer for the State of Virginia and was an important architect of Obama's web presence during the campaign. (The state issued a joint statement praising his service.) Chopra has a public policy background from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government as well. Of course, his past at the for-profit think tank The Advisory Board Company and his past ties to Comcast and Cox cable TV interests may give some free culture advocates pause.

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Sunday, April 19, 2009

Do-It-Yourself Diplomacy

I'll confess to being a fan of the YouTube channel for Howcast, which offers its viewers a heterogeneous range of do-it-yourself tips, how-to guides, and life hacking basics. (One of its most watched videos is a checklist called "How to Have Sex in the Office") Now they have a line-up of videos about participating in the 5th Summit of Americas, where President Obama has been making historic diplomatic overtures to the absent Cuban government. Despite snazzy graphics and attention to information aesthetics, online comments seem to indicate that the regular Howcast audience doesn't appreciate the wonky new offerings from the group.

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Talking with the Gatekeepers

Today Henry Jenkins recommended reading "A new online safety: The means, not the end" by Ann Collier, which also has a great list of reference links at the end. In explaining why schools are making a mistake in cutting off access to almost all social media, Collier offers a summary of the risk to civil society as a whole created by too much Internet gatekeeping:

That puts "online safety" in danger of becoming a barrier rather than a support to young people's constructive, enriching use of social media and technologies. If that happens, it also becomes a barrier to their full participation in participatory culture and democracy.

Collier argues that a recent Pew Report about The Internet's Role in Campaign 2008 proves that the Internet has finally become a major factor in political participation, after years of online campaigning failing to live up to the hype. She insists that connectivity to social network sites and streaming media channels is important and that good netiquette is best taught through "training in citizenship, ethics, empathy, new media literacy" rather than walling off most of the web in schools and libraries.

I know that in my kids' own cases, in order to play games in the computer labs, they have actually exploited vulnerabilities in the school's computer security systems and sometimes have even helped their teachers deal with the YouTube ban that narrows their instructional options by showing them some of their computer circumvention techniques.

In my own Ten Principles for the Digital Family, which has been disseminated by some PTAs, I support the kind of pragmatism and rationality for which Collier advocates, but I all too often find what I call the "Virtual Global Taskforce" mentality at work that turns everything designed for a parents' meeting into a law enforcement problem, thus feeding predator panic or cyberbullying hysteria.

Ironically, in many ways Collier is more conservative about safety than many of the most hyper-vigilant school computer monitors, because she includes a category for "reputational safety" along with "physical safety" and "psychological safety."

This brings me to my current "do I say anything" dilemma.

Last month, I received a "Dear Parent" letter from UCLA, which asked for my permission for my younger child to participate in the "UCLA Teen Online Survey." The project was led by Jaana Juvonen and seemed to be related to an earlier 2008 study on cyberbullying that was done with an anonymous web-based survey. The letter described the aims of the study as follows:

Our goal is to learn about youth's use of the internet and their experiences communicating with one another online (e.g., using IM, email, social networking sites). Specifically, we are interesting in negative and mean comments and actions that youth can encounter while interacting with peers online and in school.

Of course, what I was immediately struck by was the absence of any inquiry into positive online experiences and how online social bonding might function in more complex ways than simple exclusion and persecution.

But I do Internet research myself, and I have to deal with IRB reviews, and I know the challenges of maintaining a decent pool size of human subjects in the face of incomplete surveys and project drop-outs. So I signed the paperwork, despite my initial reservations.

In participating in the Juvonen survey, my twelve-year-old was baffled by many of the researchers' questions, which he felt were addressed to more social network-friendly older kids, but he was at least able to answer some of the questions, based on his experiences playing MMOs with live chat.

(My kids in general are very cooperative research subjects, because they know what I do for a living and are cognizant of the fact that there is a magical substance called "grant money" that sometimes means an extra week of camp or faster purchase of equipment they've been asking for. So, when other kids were filling out a separate drug survey disingenuously with humorous answers that indicated that they sniffed glue every hour and shot heroin for breakfast, my younger boy told them -- untruthfully -- that the bar code on the bottom was tied to their names, and they would get in trouble with school authorities for their lies in order to get them to not be bad actors in the research study.)

Based on my son's experiences with Juvonen's cyberbullying team, it sounds like many kids might similarly feel that they are missing out on something they should know about, and that their cautionary UCLA study may actually encourage more online experimentation with genres perceived as more "grown up" than the ones that they normally used.

A few weeks later I received another letter from the school that began as follows:

We have recently seen an increase in three disturbing behaviors athat are occurring among students at ______ Middle School: cyberbullying, promoting fights between two students involving gambling on the expected outcome and the possession of illegal substances.

Cyberbullying is a form of bullying that uses technology, email, text messages, chat rooms, mobile phones and phone cameras to post messages that harass or intimidate another student. A student who wouldn't normally say hurtful things to others may be empowered by the anonymity and the fact that they can't see the impact on the victim.

Fight promoting involves a student organizer who targets two potential combatants. The targeted students are encouraged or intimidated by the student organizer to fight while other students watch and bet money on the fight outcome. If the target refuses to engage in the fight, he/she is expected to repay the bystanders the amount of their initial bets. Sometimes the student organizer posts the fight on the Internet.

Posession of illegal substances, such as marijuana, is not only illegal for minors but for the general public as well. We do not advocate or tolerate possession, use or sales of any controlled substances on our campus.

We are extremely concerned because cyberbullying, fight promotion and drug possession are physically and psychologically dangerous, creating an unsafe school environment. They violate the Education Code, which could lead to suspension or expulsion, and the California Penal Code, involving students in the Juvenile Justice System.

I couldn't help but notice that the behavior involving new technology, cyberbullying, got top billing over and over, despite the gravity of the other crimes on the list. More astonishing, when I turned the page, there was a full page of bullet-pointed items on "The Challenge of Cyberbullying," "Signs of Being Cyberbullied," and "Signs of Participation in Cyberbullying." Nowhere were there tips for parents about fighting or drug use. Besides, I actually know some of the children involved. Because of privacy concerns, I don't want to give any specifics, but key factors were all about the RL environments not virtual ones: offsite parents, a walkable physical geography, stashed contraband, adolescent growth spurts, and the absence of appealing afterschool programs (partly because of moronic computer bans).

So now I am in a quandary. Do I bother saying that cyberbullying is dominating too much of the cultural conversation at my kid's school? Do I go out of my way to make Collier's argument that we need more Internet access not less?

As gatekeepers, I'm not sure how much good talking to them will do. These are school officials afraid of liability and invested in their status as authority figures. Moreover, I find that when I do my "fellow educator" routine, it often makes teachers and administrators defensive, because they feel that their expertise in K-12 is being disrespected by someone from a research university.

Maybe I'll start with the parents. But I live in an affluent community, where most kids have at least one computer. (My kids have two a piece.) They might not see the school's policies as having any effect on their children's behavior, because they are on the right side of the digital divide.

Or maybe with only a month and a half left in the school year, I'll just keep my head down and lecture to others about online creativity without ever seriously making the case on my own home turf.

We'll see what my conscience says on Monday.

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