Monday, May 31, 2010

Momma's Got a Brand New Bag

Check out the revamped version of Bag News Notes, where those seeking a "progressive site dedicated to visual politics and the analysis of news images" can find a number of new features. I have followed the Bag for years, so it is interesting to see them branch out into new areas of digital rhetoric in their new "Salon" section.

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The official webpage for the Deepwater Horizon Response attempts to bring together institutional stakeholders from corporate and government sectors involved in the giant response to the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. Given the amount of negative publicity that the story of the environmental disaster has generated, attempts to use social network sites like Facebook and Flickr seem oddly out of touch with rhetorical realities.

At the same time that grim images showing the dire effects of oil washing ashore on wildlife have been reaching the front pages, the Flickr page for the official response presents a much more positive set of messages.

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Hacking the Academy Update

Speaking of Dan Cohen, I wanted to provide an update on the Hacking the Academy book project, about which I expressed some skepticism here. One week later it does look like Cohen seems to have done the impossible in soliciting enough material to create an actual book to be published both by a scholarly publisher and online in an open access format.

Contributors include many, many friends of Virtualpolitik: Cathy Davidson, David Parry, Jana Remy, Mark Sample, Leslie Madsen-Brooks, Holly Willis, Virginia Kuhn, Craig Dietrich, Matthew Gold, Alex Juhasz, Michael Wesch, Bethany Nowviskie, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, Chris Kelty, John Unsworth, Stephen Ramsay, Tara McPherson, Ian Bogost, and Matthew Kirschenbaum. I will be included at the end as part of the "coda" called "Criticisms of this Book."

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Sunday, May 30, 2010

A Dan with a Plan

On of the highlights of last week was touring the Center for History and New Media with Director Dan Cohen and interviewing him for a scholarly multimodal hypertext about civic participation and new media that I have been working on for the past year in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Vectors journal. (Other participants include Henry Jenkins, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Ian Bogost, Chris Kelty, Christopher Soghoian, Chris Swain, and Wendy Chun.)

Cohen showed me the file folders and work stations where the Papers of the War Department are being digitized. Of course, fire destroyed the office of the War Department and all its files in 1800, along with details about the day-to-day workings of the early federal government that included primary sources about Indian affairs, veteran affairs, pre-1798 naval affairs, and a number of militia and army matters. For the past two centuries both professional and amateur historians have been reconstituting the 55,000 documents in the collection. The Center is also using this archive as a case study for developing an online transcription tool that uses crowd-sourcing to improve letter recognition, which is funded as part of the We Are the People project.

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Saturday, May 29, 2010

In Praise of Amateurs

In the Virtualpolitik book, I write about how the NASA website took advantage of the enthusiasm of amateur astronomers to connect to a vibrant online community that was interested in sharing personal experiences and data. So it was interesting to meet Iona Munteneanu of the Smithsonian Institution at the Gov 2.0 Expo, since she is considering how to engage amateur naturalists in a similar way. Of course, the challenge is that data from fieldwork done by non-professional botanists, birdwatchers, and others may not be as uniform as the astronomy work, and there may be fewer pre-existing personal connections between formal and informal communities of practice. However, in the age of database science being funded by the NSF and iPhone applications able to recognize biological taxonomic distinctions, there is hope that more could be done in this area.

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Race by Any Other Name

During time for networking, one of the more interesting conversations that I had at the Gov 2.0 Expo was with Shireen Mitchell of Digital Sistas. Mitchell described her work as a social media consultant and trainer specializing in issues involving women and people of color as target groups. She agreed with Craig Watkins that black technology users are often early adopters who are poorly understood by firm believers in antiquated notions of the digital divide that necessarily imagine urban youth as needing technical education. But she also described how insulting she thought Facebook was in claiming that it could get demographic statistics about race despite not having a data gathering checkbox by assuming that an index of common surnames of African-Americans would tell the story.

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Engagement Ring

While I was in Washington D.C. for Gov 2.0 Expo, I enjoyed meeting open source and public engagement advocate Molly Moran of the State Department. At the Expo, some complained that I was too critical of State Department efforts in e-government, even though I only devoted one slide to the subject and limited my criticism to only one aspect of what I thought was a largely successful adoption of Twitter by the group, so I hope that I am setting the record straight when it comes to a branch of government that tends to attract the best and the brightest of federal employees.

As this State Department posting on Applying the Tools of 21st Century Statecraft to Public Engagement explains, the new media discussion group included Andrew Cedar, Katie Dowd, Luke Forgerson, Suzanne Hall, Darren Krape, Duncan MacInnes, Bill May, Cash McCracken, Molly Moran, Lawrence Randolph, Victor Riche, Aaron Tarver, Erica Thibault, Scott Weinhold, and Norma Williamson. I had presented on a panel about diplomacy in virtual worlds at the State of Play conference with May last year and had followed the work of many others in the group.

The blog entry summarizes the wide range of subjects addressed by the project:

Under Secretary Judith McHale recently convened a series of discussions and asked State Department colleagues to move public diplomacy forward in innovative ways. These discussions focused on several activities, including everything from student exchanges to English-language teaching programs . . . Engaging the public -- going beyond government to government communication -- has long held a place in American diplomacy, from the Marshall Plan following World War II to sports exchanges during the Cold War. Today, new tools and technologies enable us to reach more people, more quickly, more directly, than ever before, and activity in the online world is already having a tangible impact on foreign policy priorities . . . Given these examples, how would you use new media tools to engage the public on critical foreign policy topics and global issues? Let us know your ideas, and we look forward to sharing them with State Department colleagues and leadership.

My only gripe with the State Department's call for public feedback on the initiative was the illustration used as the banner image, a photo of a woman in a headscarf at a PC workstation. The image of women in headscarves interacting with technology has become a sort of stock image of Western liberalism that may be more subject to misinterpretation than Americans may imagine. It isn't always the universal signifier of female empowerment that those in public diplomacy consider it to be. As François Bar has cautioned in talks detailing his large-scale multi-year studies of public computing practices abroad, U.S. citizens should be wary of their own biases about both individual consumer technologies and the relationship between gender, space, and technology.

(For example, why does this woman have to have a man on the screen? Why isn't it more obvious that she is in a social computing setting with a numbered carrel, perhaps a cybercafe with sex-segregated hours? How would the image be different if she were shown on-the-go with her computing done on a mobile device? Why isn't she interacting with other women either as an "infomediary" or as one who benefits from their knowledge? Where is her family? Where is her community? Americans don't ask these questions, but other people in the world do.)

For more about experiments done in the State Department, you can see this Mashable article about the use of new media in diplomacy and other forms of transnational outreach by the government.

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Friday, May 28, 2010

Order in the Court

Kate Bladow of showed some of her group's projects designed to make court procedures more transparent to low-income clients. Although Bladow might not have been the most polished of Ignite style speakers, she made a powerful argument about access to legal services in a time in which more citizens are choosing to represent themselves in court. She described how court forms continue to be the most important documents in justice system processes. (For more about e-government, access to forms, and Weberian bureaucracy, see the great work on the "virtual state" done a decade ago by Jane Fountain.) Bladow explained how "online interactive interviews" could solve some of the problems created by incorrectly filled out forms and showed several examples from LawHelp Interactive and discussed how materials could be retasked and crowdsourced for low-cost efficiency. So far the system has generated over 12,000 correct and legible forms in the New York area alone. In areas such as Kentucky and Oklahoma, courts are experimenting with eliminating confusing forms altogether.

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Award Season

At the Gov 2.0 Expo, Clay Johnson of the Sunlight Foundation, an organization devoted to political transparency, explained how Sunlight Labs has sponsored two design contest in successive years. Last year the group encouraged programmers and artists to create mash-ups using data that Sunlight had harvested, and this year sponsorship focused on software applications derived from government data on Johnson showed a gallery of winners from Apps for America 2: The Challenge. He apologized for displaying non-interactive versions of the winning web content with his screenshots in his "static" electronic slideshow.

The winner for redesign of a government website went not to one of my Foley winners, but to a heavily used but not-so-bad-to-begin-with website: The Redesign of from We Are a Good Company emphasized the rhetorical presentation of the website. As they put it, "The IRS presence on the web could be a powerful tool to educate people about their taxes, helping the average American understand how and why they pay taxes."

For best visual explanation of a complex process, the laurels went to How Our Laws Are Made. Johnson also explained how his own idea for an explanation of Senate rules only got one entry, albeit a praise-worthy one.

The motion graphics and dynamic typography project Cool Kids at the White House, which shows who has meetings with whom, was built with Adobe Flex, which I have also used in my own work. But I was a bit surprised to hear Johnson apologizing to Adobe, because his provocative manifesto Adobe is Bad for Open Government, which he defended on air, raised a number of excellent issues about openness and readability.

You can read more about this year's winners and runners-up here. Johnson also announced the new Design for America contest, which encourages developers to exploit content at,, and a number of other data sources.

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Thursday, May 27, 2010

Looking in the Medicine Cabinet

One of the most interesting projects that I heard about at the Gov 2.0 Expo was being developed by David Hale of the U.S. National Library of Medicine. You can see one of the slideshows he developed about so-called "Medicine 2.0" here and an interview with Hale here, in which he explains Pillbox, a pill identification program and patient safety initiative supported by the National Institutes of Health. The project had to deal with a number of challenges, given the thousands of pills on the market in the huge prescription medicine dataset, but they are already considering a number of different kinds of potential applications, although the system can not yet be used by poison control officials or drug enforcement officers, because the website was still a prototype. Nonetheless, Hale described a day in which citizens may be able to use smartphones to shoot digital photos of the seven-day pillboxes of overmedicated relatives and get a complete set of warning labels and cautionary materials about possible drug interactions.

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Okay, I Take It Back

Just a few days ago I was making fun of the efforts of But after hearing Michelle Chronister present before me at the Gov 2.0 Expo, I changed my mind. She made a good argument both for considering the importance of information literacy practices around the credibility of domain names and for honoring open source development with a Drupal-based project.

Besides, she gave me another good example of an extraneous .gov domain name:

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Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Talking to the Digital Natives

The words "digital natives" have been falling out of favor with Internet researchers. It is even a term that has even achieved disrepute at the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project, where the phrase was once regularly sprinkled in reports. To me, as I've explained, the words have sounded very much like nails on a chalkboard for a long time. I hate the way it calls up noble savages, natural competencies, and exotic others who feel content will maintaining a sharp generational divide in society. That's why the use of the phrase "digital natives" three times in the "Transparency Begins at Home" talk of the State Department's Richard Boly marred an otherwise good talk about in-house tools that diplomats are using to improve preparation and communication in a field with frequent dislocation and turnover by design.

In providing history of this federal department, he explained how in 1995 an e-mail could take two hours just to travel from one floor to another. Although "teaching diplomats how to type" proved to be a minor obstacle, the State Department had faced a number of other major obstacles in adopting new communications technologies, because of their dependence upon outdated Wang terminals at the dawn of the Microsoft Windows era.

As an example of one of the group's efforts to promote institutional memory, Boly pointed to Communities@State, which serves as the umbrella for a range of collaboratively oriented blogs from Afghan Strategic Communication to Japan Economic Scope. He also discussed Diplopedia and Deskipedia as part of their eDiplomacy initiatives, which focus on "knowledge management within the organization" rather than public diplomacy aimed abroad. As he explained, wikis often seemed particularly natural platforms for his agency's employees, because "there is a strong culture of editing in the State Department."

One of the most daring projects he discussed was "The Sounding Board," which serves as an "ideation tool" to encourage professional diplomats to make personal suggestions as individuals with first and last names who are assumed to be equal. The submissions come in unweighted without regard to job title, and then these suggestions can be voted either up or down by other participants. In this way Boly explained how an article on military training in Diplopedia emerged from a request for more formal training in military norms.

It is worth noting that Boly used the Prezi presentation tool. As a sign of his interest in software alternatives, it was a particularly significant choice, given that few at the conference chose any PowerPoint alternatives. For other examples of this particular form of digital rhetoric that I have observed on the conference circuit, see postings here and here.

He closed with a discussion on his department's efforts to "crowdsource" after the Haiti earthquake using SMS messaging and geolocation data with an Ushahidi program based in Tufts University.

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The World's Most Expensive Newspaper

In 2006 technology writer Clive Thompson wrote an article about "Open Source Spying" for The New York Times. At the Gov 2.0 Expo panel with the same title and some of the same informants, many lamented that little had improved when it came to the use of collaborative technologies to speed and streamline information gathering.

For example, Lewis Shepherd talking frankly about the "glacial pace" of change in the intelligence community despite the enormous amount of taxpayer dollars invested. In generating threat reports or what has been called "the world's most expensive newspaper," the many writers and analysts working in the intelligence community are failing much like actual journalists are to adapt to technological change. When a questioner in the audience complained of being presented with a panel of white men to represent change, Lewis quipped that "we express our frustration, Caucasian or not." (Later several noted that many of the senior leadership positions in the intelligence community were occupied by women, a fact that my own interactions with these government agencies has confirmed.)

Chris Rasmussen described the efforts of those who worked on Intellipedia and Intellipublia, but complained of resistance from a "finished intel 3-ring binder culture" in the federal government. He also complained of the "it's always Nigeria" problem in which technical tools are never tested with high-risk, high-value intelligence operations, because of anxieties about "stopping the mail" and disrupting existing systems with established workflows that never have a down season like that experienced by the IRS. The "product-centered" approach invariably supported what invariably became for Rasmussen a "theological argument" in which invoking the soldier for patriotic purposes and his close engagement in the field obfuscated the advantages of aggregation at a distance by drawing on multiple sources.

Matthew Burton joined the chorus to express his frustration with censorship of the dissemination of new organizational ideas by public affairs people who don't want to see policy debated in the pages of Federal Computer Week. He also noted that analysts with ideas about collaborative technologies were often reduced to finding "microwave towers all day long" rather than using systems like Intelink to make change.

During the Q and A for the session there were questions about the other meaning that "open source spying" could have in a world in which much intelligence could be gathered from the open web in a world with sixty million Twitter users. I didn't take Rasmussen's advice to "put 'Facebook' and 'OPSEC'" in the title of a blog posting in order to garner a million hits.

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" Failed"

Miguel Gomez took a very different approach from other speakers at the Gov 2.0 Expo by opening his presentation about by asserting that was a failure. Of course, this attention-getting gambit wasn't a real admission of failure, since Gomez described a highly successful campaign that his program had initiated in which those who text 566948 from cell phones could quickly find an HIV testing center. But he did explain how people scared about HIV "don't care about Twitter" and how 80% of users simply wanted information about the disease.

I've described several times on this blog how I would advise the government against creating still more domain names not tied to specific federal agencies that would have the responsibility to maintain them, but apparently the Obama administration is also planning to launch "," "," and several other similar sin sites. But I have to give Gomez credit for a good argument about "repurposing content" and how the text from a blog posting could be reused as a podcast script and picked over for factoids to be tweeted at Twitter. He also described how excessive monitoring of user-generated content on the page on Facebook proved to be unnecessary and how "the community took care of it already" when a single abusive comment appeared.

Despite the program's revamping, I still think there are oddities in how seems to conceive of its audience. A prominent section on "Using New Media" seems particular inappropriate for its client population and its frontline community service providers.

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"We Were Really Bad about Telling the World about It"

When the United States boasted about being the world leader in data transparency and gifting its expertise to Great Britain, I expressed my skepticism here. The session at the Gov 2.0 Expo on "Four Perspectives on" seemed designed to confirm my suspicions definitely, as speakers reminded audience members that they were often first in what they called a kind of "arms race" for which nation would have the greatest government transparency. As Dominic Campbell of pointed out, despite leading the way in the competition to launch Gov 2.0 initiatives, "we were really bad about telling the world about it for a while." He also argued that the transparency efforts of were civil service driven rather than politically driven, as such efforts were in the U.S.

Several speakers on this panel organized by Tim Berners-Lee noted the oddity of the particular political moment in great Britain now that the "new marriage" of the Conservative and the Liberal Democratic parties had begun after years of Labor party rule. They noted that the Conservative Party had actually issued a Technology Manifesto, although "her majesty's shrinking budget" was also changing the technology scene.

Chris Thorpe of The Guardian noted that in March 9, 2006, Charles Arthur called upon the government to "free our data" long before the Obama administration took office. He also pointed to the success of the initiative Rewired State, which appeared three years later. Also worthy of note were data visualizations like the Voter Power Index and GIS projects like a map of cycling blackspots, although Thorpe explained that he had personal interest in developing a simple API for schools.

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Morning in America

In the Virtualpolitik book I praise the NASA website for successfully engaging informal learners from amateur astronomy and rocketry communities with and for using online video in ways that captivated its audience members as they watched live feeds from the Mars rovers.

At the Government 2.0 Expo this morning, NASA Chief Information Officer Linda Cureton devoted much of her pitch to the benefits of cloud computing. She also made what would become a familiar rhetorical gesture for the day: pointing to a data innovation of the past to make an argument about data innovation in the present. In her case she pointed to moralizing from naysayers about the destabilizing effects of a communication device known as the telephone, a not unfamiliar analogy in the digital culture community. Later in this session of short keynotes, David Eaves argued that a previous transparency movement for making baseball statistics available had transformed America's pastime.

The panel that followed Cureton's presentation with the City of Los Angeles's Randi Levin and Google executive Dave Girouard caused some of those on Twitter in the audience to ask if they were watching "an ad for Google," as city managers praised the tech company. Although Google critics were dismissed as those who saw Google and cloud computing more generally as "the devil incarnate," more complex arguments about what Siva Vaidhyanathan has called "The Googlization of Government" in his larger argument in the forthcoming book The Googlization of Everything weren't really addressed in the session. Of course, host Tim O'Reilly opened the discussion by asking, "How different is government from a big corporation?" Although the pair presented an interesting argument about the need for automatic translation tools in multi-ethnic cities, they may have lost some credibility among academics who study Government 2.0 by devoting a considerable among of their limited time to criticizing the press, specifically a relatively rare example of due diligence by the normally idiotic Los Angeles Times in covering issues about platforms and proprietary software for once. At one point the group onstage agreed, "If you took the politics out we could probably be done by now." (More complete coverage of the controversy for further reading is here.)

There were also several good arguments made about ease of access and consumer friendliness. Open API was also a key theme during this morning session about e-government, such as the presentation by Joshua Robin of Massachusetts public transit, who showed the proliferation of successful applications for telephone, mobile computing, and display areas in public spaces that were launched at no cost to the government, simply because they had released the data to potential developers.

However, open APIs and cloud computing were often discussed in the same breath in ways that didn't always clearly differentiate between them or articulate the positions of government technologists in relation to specific technologies and vendors in more complete and convincing forms. For example, the possible threat to consumer protection posed by current US computer law that effectively prohibits the testing of potential security flaws by third parties, such as academic experts, was never mentioned, despite the libertarian leanings of many audience members and the supposed argument for technologies that weren't locked down.

Furthermore, relatively little was said about open source technologies in a venue largely funded by corporate sponsors that specialize in proprietary software, even though the advantages of open source approaches would prove to be an important theme in many of the smaller sessions at the conference.

If those in the audience like Ren Reynolds were amused by the promotion of Google at the start of the session, the appearance of Australian Senator Kate Lundy and her discussion of the "three pillars" of democracy and Internet prompted the following Twitter outburst: "keep in mind when listening to this that Australia are attempting to filter the entire net, kinda like china." Indeed, as this blog has pointed out here, despite flagship events like GovHack, Australia's digital rights' record has some significantly ugly features that weren't addressed anywhere in Lundy's optimistic presentation.

Tim Burners-Lee, who is often called the inventor of the World Wide Web, also spoke on the morning's bill about his own interest in transparency issues. He discussed how government entities could see their web outreach efforts as a system of "earning stars" for data access and reusability. Just putting up data in any form merits one star, putting it up in a spreadsheet format that enables mash-ups earns another, and making that data available in an open format would earn a third star in his system. Then he specified how having individual URLs and enabling notation systems and data linking could lead to the highest levels of star-earning. His other simple analogy involved a bag of chips in which he discussed how data should be both machine readable and aimed toward having a social impact. To develop this analogy he contrasted the nutritional information labeling on a typical bag of chips with its UPC code.

At the conference, several people who came up to chat with me compared me to the next morning speaker on the program, danah boyd. This comparison wasn't made based on the fact that we are both blondes or that we are both bloggers for Digital Media and Learning Central. It was based on the fact that we were both perceived as critical voices in our respective keynote line-ups with talks that pointed out potential pitfalls to Gov 2.0 utopianism. Ironically, the parallels were even closer, since in the original version of my talk I had a slide about Megan's Law to illustrate the risks of total transparency undertaken without serious reflection, because vigilantes could use the addresses of sex offenders to enact street justice that is just as likely to harass their family members as it is to target supposed criminals on parole.

I'm glad that I took out that slide the editing process, because I thought boyd did a much better job that I would have in developing a sustained critique of mainstream ideologies about sexual predators. She opened by establishing her ethos with the audience by explaining that a family member had been raped and murdered by a neighbor and that she had always been an advocate for preventing violence against women and girls. But she also pointed out that there were 700,000 people on the sex offenders list and that those offenders included teenagers who had oral sex with other teenagers. Furthermore, she challenged how the oft-cited statistic that one in seven minors had been sexually solicited online had been received without considering how those minors were generally solicited by other minors. Now that 15% of teens had been involved in "sexting" or the sharing of explicit photos, boyd was concerned that a large number of young people could even been charged with child pornography offenses.

She noted that people love to buy books like Blink or Freakanomics about "how we are terrible at interpreting data," but even this widespread consciousness-raising had had little impact on policy. She described her own feelings about being dismissed by justice system officials and law enforcement after the appearance of Enhancing Child Safety and Online Technologies, a report from Harvard's Berkman Center. (I had also heard this from John Palfrey.) She asserted that "information is power" and "information is not neutral" and argued for more information literacy efforts, particularly those guided by the research of Eszter Hargittai.

After boyd's appearance things quickly went from the sublime to the ridiculous, with an argument for "passion" and people "kicking ass" and "killer" technologies and "cool" strategies with Kathy Sierra. Although her examples about how a water quality report could be made interesting were interesting, it eventually degenerated into a facile argument that lolcats and comic books were the solution for open government.

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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

400 Pages in 5 Minutes

As a rhetorician, I find this talk a bit difficult to watch, and the words "rhetorician, heal thyself" did occur to me at one point. (Note to self: look to camera not to monitor.) But I do think I at least covered more ground in more areas of criticism than I thought I could in five minutes.

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Lightning Round

I've posted the slides for my talk at the Gov 2.0 Expo here.

Here are my 12 Don't for Government 2.0:

1. Don’t Promise What You Can’t Deliver

Personal communication made possible by services like Twitter can also be a channel for broken promises, particularly if a statement is made on a controversial matter without approval from higher-ups.

2. Don’t Pander, Especially to Children

Kids don't go to government websites to admire your cartoon characters; they come to do research for school reports.

Kids don’t go to your websites to play hangman or do mazes either. They need information literacy not madlibs.

3. Don’t Get Too Far Ahead of Yourself

It’s fun to build an office or an embassy in Second Life. And it is so much more quiet than a real office or embassy. The real challenge is building communities not 3-D buildings. And you need to think about the Internet users of the present rather than the ones of the future.

4. Don’t Believe That a Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

Photos and videos don’t necessarily resolve controversies. Images can be ambiguous, and many people study them to search for clues and conspiracies in the details.

5. Don’t Pretend You’re Listening, When You’re Not

If you ask people to "share your story" and then you don’t do anything special with it, they will become cynical about the government's interest in user-generated content.

6. Don’t Assume That No One Will Mess With You

It’s the Internet, you need to think about security. Your users do things with unsecured networks all the time, which makes them vulnerable to hackers. But there are also griefers, trolls, and spoilers to worry about and the question of what to do when conventions are broken rather than actual laws.

7. Don’t Assume That Everyone is Messing With You

Don’t send threatening legal letters just because artists and activists challenge your authority. It is your job to be above parody, which is Constitutionally protected speech.

8. Don’t Take Things Out of the Public Domain

Don’t say people can’t remix your content. It’s the Internet. That’s what people do.

And please don’t ever ever put copyright symbols on material in the public record. You are the government, not the recording industry or the movie business.

9. Don’t Live For the Moment

Who will maintain government domain names like or or or Once born who will assure that all of these new URLs that aren't associated with actual government agencies will not be orphaned.

10. Don’t Drink the Corporate Cool-Aid

With the expanding use of commercial Web 2.0 technologies by government agencies, there is the danger that -- in the name of “participatory culture” -- the government may risk compelling its citizens to participate in particular copyright regimes that constrain speech, to submit to corporate user agreements that rewrite the social contract, and to divulge private information to commercial vendors without their consent.

Besides, you are the government. You are not a brand. Calvin Klein is a brand. The Gap is a brand. US AID is not a brand.

11. Don’t Think the Military Knows Everything Just Because They Hire Eighteen-Year-Olds and Because They Have a Lot of Awesome James Bond Looking Stuff

The exciting thing about the new technologies that can transform democratic processes is that they are being adopted by people of all ages, from all classes, and from many different backgrounds.

12. Don’t Ignore Academics Just Because They Tell You What You Don’t Want to Hear

Check out my work and work by Rebecca MacKinnon, Siva Vaidhyanathan, Ian Bogost, Geert Lovink, Laura DiNardis, and many others on the web.

Video to come soon from me and my fellow speakers.

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Live on the Air

Today I appeared live on the Kojo Nnamdi show for a one-hour session on "Fear and Loathing of Government 2.0," which you can listen to here.

Nnamdi actually has a long record of covering stories about the rhetorics of e-government. Nnamdi has done segments on information technology and the military, government e-mail and transparency, e-diplomacy initiatives, data programs to transform government, obstacles to open government, information control, and Tim O'Reilly's vision of "government 2.0."

You can also read the transcript of Nnamdi's interview with White House Director of New Media Macon Phillips here.

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Monday, May 24, 2010

"Richard Blumenthal removed Vietnam from the Places I've Been Application"

This parody of an Obama Facebook news feed, which was published by Slate magazine and lampoons political "friending" and "unfriending" in the midterm elections, serves as a good reminder that the O'Reilly sponsored 2010 Gov 2.0 conference will be starting up tomorrow, which is devoted to the use of social network technologies and computational media by government agencies.

I will be speaking at the keynote kickoffs in an Ignite-style "lightning" talk, trying out a form of digital rhetoric that is new to me.

I will also be interviewed on the Kojo Nnamdi show at the local NPR affiliate in Washington D.C. tomorrow afternoon.

Thanks to Jeff Brazil for the link!

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Sunday, May 23, 2010

Will "Hacking the Academy" Be Understood as "Backing the Academy"?

Hacktivism and the Humanities

Recently I was having dinner with a younger couple in Washington D.C. She worked for an elite government agency, and he worked for a university. They both complained about bureaucracy and obstacles to collaboration in their respective workplaces. At one point he told about participating in a project tentatively called "Hacking Georgetown" and described how a more senior colleague had objected to the name. "Does it have to be called 'Hacking Georgetown'?" his coworker asked. "What about 'DIY Georgetown' instead?"

I am actually very sympathetic to such anxieties from members of the old guard when it comes to talking about "hacking the university" or "hacking the academy." After all, in the common parlance, hackers are far too often associated with stealthy behavior and highly specialized knowledge that they seem to exploit largely for ego and personal gain. Hackers are seen as those who take matters into their own hands, break rules, and subvert traditional practices of deliberation and negotiation.

In a provocative announcement, head of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University Dan Cohen put forth a challenge to fellow advocates for digital media and learning in higher education. "One Week, One Book: Hacking the Academy" describes a book that Cohen is planning to edit, along with Found History's Tom Scheinfeldt, that will target the following potential areas for reform:

* Lectures and classrooms
* Scholarly societies
* Conferences and meetings
* Journals
* Books and monographs
* Tenure and academic employment
* Scholarly Identity and the CV
* Departments and disciplines
* Educational technology
* Libraries

Certainly I share Cohen's concerns that if reform doesn't come from within the scholarly community, the public mission of the university will lose support from the very communities that it is intended to serve. I would also agree with my friend instructional technologist Sue Gautsch that far too often "distance learning begins in the second row."

Even as someone who has been very slowly putting together the manuscript for my second book, which is based on years of conference papers and presentations that cover many of the same headings, I can't say that I am only envious of their planned rapid turnaround time. Books about digital higher ed need to be coming out sooner rather than later, particularly when even a rapidly prototyped academic book like The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age primarily offers older examples from K-12 learning.

I would be the last one to argue that the system isn't broken. For ten years I have served as the Writing Director of a large-enrollment year-long humanities core course. I have seen students "Facebooking through their classes" much like the dynamic described in Michael Wesch's "A Vision of Students Today." I have read evaluations in which students boast about never attending lectures or cracking open the assigned reading.

Unfortunately, the exact questions asked in this call for manifestos on the future of higher education could be easily misread as encouragement to the current administrative crop of cost-conscious budget cutters who are already eager to reward for-profit, self-service distance education initiatives that are oriented toward individual profit in the marketplace rather than sustaining the collective good longterm.

Can an algorithm edit a journal? Can a library exist without books? Can students build and manage their own learning management platforms? Can a conference be held without a program? Can Twitter replace a scholarly society?

As someone who has seen the terrible work done by automatic indexing programs and who has written about the nonsense that gets rewarded when text generators create what appears to be scholarly articles, I'm not ready to fire the journal editors just yet.

As someone teaching at the University of California, which is contemplating adopting something more like a "netflix" model for its library system in order to dramatically cut costs, I worry about how the supposed efficiencies of a "library without books" might discourage the kinds of deep reading practices and forms of curation that interaction with print documents affords.

As someone who has seen students struggle with assessing credibility of sources or creating executable code, I'm not sure I'm ready to jettison the electronic educational environment at my campus, where friendly programmers and web designers are only a few buildings away.

As someone who agrees that it is hard to judge a conference based on the Twitter feed, I'm not sure I'm eager to give up my professional associations just yet, as reprehensible as their current complicity in perpetuating closed access expensive subscription publishing may be.

And, yes, I love conferences without programs like THATCAMP, but I also like the ones that are the products of several iterations and that include potentially unpopular speakers who would be unlikely to be favored by a crowd-sourcing model. After all, I watched a THATCAMP divide by gender lines before my very eyes, so it may not be the utopian form of collegiality that it wishes to be just yet.

In a time when public universities are seeing many core undergraduate programs on the chopping block, particularly those related to digital literacy, which is somehow supposed to be naturally occurring among "digital natives" or the "digital generation," I worry about potential misreadings of what Cohen is proposing by budget-minded cost-cutters with little pedagogical experience or appreciation of the slow growth histories of campus infrastructure.

Instead of talking about "hacking," I have argued that we should be talking about "hacktivism" and curricular, scholarly, and societal changes that focus on digital rights and responsibilities more generally. For example, Siva Vaidhyanathan has written his own manifesto that argues for interdisciplinary engagement with what he calls "Critical Information Studies" and a joint defense of work done outside of the academy in the name of fair use, free culture, open access, open source, collective intelligence, network neutrality, user privacy, and digital inclusion.

I would like to ask a different set of questions. There is no doubt that movements for civil rights, women's rights, gay rights, the rights of ethnic minorities from both immigrant and indigenous populations, and the rights of the disabled have transformed not only the academy but also the larger society as a whole. What would it mean to have campus protests, walkouts, and strikes to champion digital rights and how could it change the mission of the university itself? If the anti-war movement moved universities and governments toward transparency, what could a movement specifically concerned with information transparency do?

Of course, I am well aware that institutions of higher education are inherently conservative. As places that preserve tradition and maintain cultures of continous knowledge-transmission, universities would be remiss to not be conservative. I think cyber-utopianists would be foolish to ignore a recent Mellon report on "The Future Landscape of Scholarly Communication," which argues that there is little evidence that an empowered "digital generation" will be taking over the academy any time soon. Principal Investigator Diane Harley details practices that characterize the "conservatism of younger scholars" that I have seen at work in my own institution. Ironically older "early adopters" are even reaching retirement age at my campus and are not being replaced.

Now when I talk about "hacktivism," I think it is important also to distinguish this movement from well-intentioned but remote do-gooderism. Last year, on a HASTAC blog, humanists were encouraged to find kindred spirits in computer science who were knowledgeable about exploits to bring down the websites of a religiously fundamentalist Iranian government after a disputed election. First off, this could easily backfire and confirm suspicions in the Middle East about a meddling West. More important, it misses the point about how hactivism in the humanities could be transformative. What about instead creating a visualization tool that highlights voting irregularities at polling places? Wouldn't that be more persuasive?

How can hacktivism be a call to action that is still relevant to everyday classroom practice without seeming to proselytize for an extraneous political agenda? There are already a number of good models of university teaching that emphasize critical thinking about computer platforms, interfaces, code, and their respectively learning communities. The most essential aspect of successful programs is that they combine theories of digital content-creation with practice.

Note: This posting has been updated since its original publication online.


Saturday, May 22, 2010

Heilo Kitty

If there are two things that the Internet loves it is cute pictures of household pets and comparisons to Adolph Hitler, so it is perhaps not so surprising to see the website Cats That Look Like Hitler, where owners of so called "kitlers" can send in pictures for fellow Führer feline fanciers to admire.

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I Will Be Coining the Term "Bobcat" in this Post

According to "Google Restricts Ads for 'Cougar' Sites," the search engine giant is restricting advertising aimed at matching younger men with older women as sexual partners, even though parallel restrictions on ads for hook ups for "sugar daddies and sugar babies" are apparently not in place.

May I suggest some other feline dating terms that Google might consider banning?

How about "Leopard" for people partial to freckles? Or "Bobcat" for people interested in utility vehicles? Or "Ocelot" for those who fancy sleep during the day and activity at night?

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Code Puce

Having written about the rhetoric of various parodies of the Homeland Security threat assessment color spectrum, I had to say something about this the Bad Actor Alert. It is also worth noting that the threat level itself, which was once prominently placed on so many government websites, has now been relegated below "traveler's redress" and "career opportunities" for the bureau.

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Friday, May 21, 2010

Game Day

Today, Google featured an homage to the classic videogame arcade game Pac-Man and celebrated its thirtieth birthday today with a simulator available from its main search engine portal.

A news story called "Pac Man 30th Anniversary: Meet the Gurus Behind Insert Coin" features self-congratulation from the emulators designers, but I personally found game play sluggish and the cramped vertical space unpleasant.

It's noteworthy, however, that the game is not created in Flash, unlike many similar online games. As The Guardian points out "as Apple, Google and Adobe war with each other over the importance of Adobe's Flash system," it is interesting to note that "the doodle is written entirely in HTML, CSS and Javascript - Flash isn't required. That means it works on iPhones too..." This assertion was qualified with a later note that noted that "the sound is in Flash - so that doesn't work on the iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad."

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Thursday, May 20, 2010

Short and Sweet

Thank heaven that the government has a new URL shortener all its own at that will let "lets government employees create short .gov URLs from official government domains, such as .gov, .mil,, or URLs." Obviously, this is the most important possible use of our tax dollars on computational resources, since microblogging is really critical to most Americans in their interactions with government entities.

Oh, wait, a new Pew Report shows that Twitter, Facebook, and other short-form status-update driven social media platforms are not really very important to average citizens. Although " has shortened 8179 URLs that have been clicked 1604902 times," the system privileges early adopter sites, such as top ranked material from the Library of Congress or NASA.

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Fiction Truer Than Fact

Who can resist this piece from The Onion: New Social Networking Site Changing The Way Oh, Christ, Forget It Let Someone Else Report On This Bullshit? For those who follow how newspapers cover social media every day . . . and do so in a totally perfunctory fashion, we appreciate how spot-on this parody of media cynicism really is, from the talking-head academic expert to the man-on-the-street portrait of digital youth at its most unthinking worst.

See Ian Bogost's write-up at "Endless String of Meaningless Buzzwords" for more about media non-events.

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Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Underconference Underdogs

Few people snarkily appreciate conference culture more than fellow digital humanist Mark Sample who has posted a new blog entry called "Forget Unconferences, Let's Think about Underconferences."

Sample opens his position statement with a discussion of a forthcoming THATCAMP and of the ideals of the "unconference" experience in general. (See my comments about a recent THATCAMP in Southern California here for more first-person context.)

Then Sample suggests that a more subversive "underconference" may be a preferable venue for changing scholarly practice. To provide a framework for his discussion, he cited two recent examples: his spoof "Mark's Digital Humanities Conference" hosted on Twitter (about which see wrap-up here) and the recent Critical Code Studies virtual conference organized by Virtualpolitik friend Mark Marino, which featured interesting work from Stephen Ramsay, Wendy Chun, Jeremy Douglass, and many others, which was hosted on Ning.

He closes with a manifesto about how the underconference could be imagined more creatively:

The Underconference is:

  1. Playful, exploring the boundaries of an existing structure;
  2. Collaborative, rather than antagonistic; and
  3. Eruptive, not disruptive.

What might an underconference actually look like?

  • Whereas the work of the conference takes place in meeting rooms and exhibit halls, the underconference takes place in “the streets” of the conference: the hallways and stairwells, the lobbies and bars.
  • The underconference begins with a few “seed” shadow sessions, planned and coordinated events that occur in the public spaces of the conference venue: an unannounced poetry reading in a lobby, an impromptu Pecha Kucha projected inside an elevator, a panel discussion in the fitness room.
  • As the underconference builds momentum, bystanders who find themselves in the midst of an unevent are encouraged to recruit others and to hold their own improvised sessions.
  • The underconference has much to learn from alternate reality games (ARGs), and should incorporate scavenger hunts, geolocation, environmental puzzles, and even a reward or badge system that parodies the official system of awards and prizes.
  • I have reason to believe that at least a few of the major academic conferences would look the other way if they were to find themselves paired with an underconference, if not openly sanction a parallel conference. Support might eventually take the form of dedicated space, perhaps the academic equivalent of Harry Potter’s Room of Requirement.

Do you get the idea? It’s a bold and ambitious plan, and I don’t expect many to think it’s doable, let alone worthwhile. Which is exactly why I want to do it. My experiences with virtual conferences, simulated conferences, and unconferences have convinced me that good things come from challenging the conventions of academic discourse. For every institutionalized practice we must develop a counter-practice. For every preordained discussion there should be an infusion of unpredictability and surprise. For every conference there should be an underconference.

Having taken part in at least two ARGs at conferences, I'm not sure that Sample is right that they will transform the behavior of scholars in substantive ways, but as a two-time conference organizer this year (as program coordinator for DAC and as PI for a recent digital humanities conference based on the Rorty born-digital archive), I'm certainly open to new ideas. Of course, I just think that free food is the most important thing and that virtual interaction is considerably less essential.

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Tuesday, May 18, 2010

No Forwarding Address

At the blog for, White House Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra made a dramatic announcement about the kind of platform on which the data visualization site devoted to government transparency would be housed in the future: "Today, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board announced that it is moving to the cloud. As the world’s largest consumer of information technology and as stewards of taxpayer dollars, the Federal Government has a duty to be a leader in pioneering the use of new technologies that are more efficient and economical."

What is interesting about this announcement is, of course, the lack of specifics, and the homey metaphor that followed about what cloud computing is.

For those of you not familiar with cloud computing, here is a brief explanation. There was a time when every household, town, or village had its own water well. Today, shared public utilities give us access to clean water by simply turning on the tap. Cloud computing works a lot like our shared public utilities. However, instead of water coming from a tap, users access computing power from a pool of shared resources. Just like the tap in your kitchen, cloud computing services can be turned on or off as needed, and, when the tap isn’t on, not only can the water be used by someone else, but you aren’t paying for resources that you don’t use. Cloud computing is a new model for delivering computing resources – such as networks, servers, storage, or software applications.

Note that citizens aren't told where precisely this cloud will be and whether or not government data will continue to be housed on government-owner servers. Those who worry about the so-called "Googlization of Government," like Siva Vaidhyanathan, may be concerned about the potential for a privatization model. Often cloud computing services provided by companies like Google to universities and other public institutions cause privacy, security, and accountability advocates to have concerns about this distributed model for managing the resources of server space. Here is a more complete definition of cloud computing that addresses some of these concerns.

Nonetheless, it sounds like may well be the first of many government domains to move into the cloud. is the first government-wide system to move to the cloud. The move is part of the Administration’s overall efforts to cut waste and fix or end government programs that don’t work. By migrating to the public cloud, the Recovery Board is in position to leverage many advantages including the ability keep the site up as millions of Americans help report potential fraud, waste, and abuse. The Board expects savings of about $750,000 during its current budget cycle and significantly more savings in the long-term.

Update: Later in the week Kundra himself has admitted that the standards aren't yet ready for cloud computing adoption by the government.

Further Update: had a radical online makeover this week, one which took away its blog and blog-style layout and emphasized the idea of citizens uploading photographs to Flickr that depict recovery projects launched during the Obama administration.


Mark My Words

I'm had some unkind things to say about the YouTube performances of UC President Mark Yudof in the past, but I honestly think that his digital rhetoric is getting better at using online video as a potentially persuasive tool, thanks perhaps to media consultants who have chunked his arguments into discrete points that punctuated with stock footage.

But I do wonder about his "decider" reference about twelve seconds in, a phrase perhaps permanently associated in online discourses with previous U.S. president George W. Bush and his attitude about executive authority. As if that weren't enough, three seconds later he uses another Bushism with his mention of "heck of a job" in connection with the U.C. mission.

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Monday, May 17, 2010

Troop Troupe

I've written a lot about the ways that common vernacular video practices have embarrassed the U.S. military. For example, when videos appear in which American soldiers seem to be taunting children, mocking the destruction of mosques, or killing puppies, not to speak of the Abu Ghraib footage, there are often obvious costs to public diplomacy efforts. Of course, defense department officials often express anxiety about how digital technologies and ubiquitous recording devices compromise national security rather than set back public relations or will emphasize sanctioned portals with approved content that gives a supposedly "truer" picture of the military.

In contrast, there are feel-good videos with soldiers hamming it up to popular songs, like this video of "Hey Ya." (See here, here, here, here, and here for more; these videos get a lot of views.) Music companies are also smart enough not to send take-down notices to those who post these expressions of remix culture. There are also examples like "This is Why I'm Hot (Deployed Edition)" that use new lyrics. There's a lot to draw attention to these videos: viewers want to express support for the troops by disseminating the links, people like displays of vernacular dancing, and its an ironic send-up of the military ideal of coordinated action.

That's why I find the latest military video getting a million plus views interesting. It's much campier than the other videos, with soldiers dancing to Lady Gaga's "Telephone" in homoerotic poses and transgender costumes. It seems to show a military more comfortable with its own potentially subversive digital video practices out in the field.

(Strangely, the official video original from Lady Gaga doesn't show the cellphone communication described in the lyrics; the choreographed action is largely set in a women's prison and a roadside diner for some reason, and little is depicted with the cellphone as the "electronic leash" that the song laments.)

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Ball and Chain Letters

Yesterday's New York Times covered an interesting phenomenon in the online protest cultures of Iran, the circulation of letters on the Internet from wives to dissident husbands in jail. These digital documents, which use the conventions of the more conventional epistolary discourse associated with old-fashioned love letters, are intended to infuse political resistance with personal sentiment. According to the article "To Reza in Jail -- Love and Unity," these letters are frequently sent to sympathizers via e-mail or posted on blogs.

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Sunday, May 16, 2010

The Man With No Name

Since I wrote a chapter in the Virtualpolitik book about e-mail and am fascinated by e-mail etiquette more generally, it is not surprising that I read the official campus e-mails that I receive from the chancellor with a more critical rhetorical eye than most. I've noticed a peculiar pattern in these communications, the fact that they often contain remarkably little information. For example, we often get notices about a "death" of a faculty member or student, but the fact that it is getting coverage in the news media because the death is a murder or suicide is generally omitted.

My theory about these strange communications is that there are two possible explanations for these Sybil's leaves: 1) campus officers suffer from an over-reliance on a decorum of officialese that they have inherited and thus use a generic "campus tragedy" or "campus scandal" template for all bad news with little room for the granularity of particulars or 2) campus officers have been so immersed in damage control during the past sleepless twenty-four hours that they have forgotten that their audience might not have shared the same experience and thus might have absolutely no idea what they are talking about.

I submit the following example from this week:

As I often do when events occur that breach our university's commitment to values and civility, I feel a necessity to speak out. I'm speaking today of the offensive remarks supporting terrorism made during the question period following a noontime lecture at the flagpole on Thursday.

The past week included several speeches, lectures and discussions providing opposing views on the Middle East conflict, one of the world's most troubling confrontations. Much of what was said was the type of discourse on a difficult issue that is the hallmark of an educational institution committed to an exchange of ideas. Some of these views are very difficult and offensive to listen to. As is the case on all campuses, events sponsored by campus organizations and visitors may feature ideas and opinions that can be starkly different from ours. But as we know, it is nevertheless incumbent upon us to protect the freedom of speech of those who visit our campus to express their views, even when we disagree.

Let me be clear: we condemn the speaker's endorsement of terrorism. Nothing could be more contrary to our fundamental values and our commitment to dialogue and democratic rule, not violence. We are an educational institution that promotes, practices and teaches tolerance; these remarks supporting terrorism were deplorable.

As a public university our free speech venue is open to a broad range of views, and we're a stronger campus for doing that. But we will never allow ourselves to be defined by the outside views of others.

They may speak here, but they don't speak for us.

Chancellor Michael Drake

Okay, at this point I am baffled. I find myself asking the same basic questions that I ask students who are faced with explicating a few lines of poetry. "Who is the speaker?" "What precisely was said?" Proper names and direct quotations would certainly be helpful here.

From "Speaker denounces Zionism in UCI Protest" in the Orange County Register, I would guess that the e-mail refers to Islamic activist Amir Abdel Malik Ali, an admitted supporter of Hamas and Hezbollah. The president of the Muslim Student Union, known for bringing controversial speakers to campus, did not answer definitively about his own feelings about those groups, although he did say "I condemn the killing of innocent civilians." Opposing faculty members wrote an open letter to the campus newspaper protesting activities around "Wall Week."

In the course of gathering this background information, I was struck by the paper's comments policy. Unlike the Los Angeles Times or the San Francisco Chronicle, which have given up, the Register is trying to reign in joking about tragedies.

Reader Comments
Comments are encouraged, but you must follow our User Agreement.
1. Keep it civil and stay on topic.
2. No profanity, vulgarity, racial slurs or personal attacks.
3. People who harass others or joke about tragedies will be blocked.

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Saturday, May 15, 2010

Time Will Tell, But Epistemology Won't: Part VI

Although MLA Vice President Michael Bérubé had been, in fact, a longtime blogger, at American Airspace among other sites, he confessed -- as the final speaker at the Richard Rorty archive conference -- to an "ambivalence about the technologies that we have been talking about" and even declared tongue-in-cheek declaration that "I will not join Facebook," since "the more people who join," the more inevitable it was that "Facebook will become self-aware." Nonetheless, Bérubé also admitted to his pleasure in the fact that "I can watch John Coltrane on YouTube" and marveled that "the ancient library of Alexandria" might be "available on Google cache." As he explained his method in his talk about "Reading Rorty Rhetorically," Bérubé announced from the start that "I will not read Rorty philosophically." Nonetheless, there were certainly several commentaries on philosophical texts in his hour of remarks.

Bérubé began by descibing how he "e-met" Dave Maier when Maier was a doctoral student in philosophy in Columbia and an enthusiastic commenter on The Valve, an online literary publication that has often been cited as an example of the future of e-scholarship, particularly when it comes to more copious reviews of academic work that bridge academic publishing and the academic blogosphere. He reminded the audience of the number of postings, not always sensitive or nuanced that appeared in response to the short, declarative sentence "Richard Rorty has died" and the fact that 4,000 word posts about Rorty (and about his own work) are not uncommon in the blogosphere.

For example, Bérubé noted the lack of print reviews for What’s Liberal about the Liberal Arts. (The book did earn, however, an amusing graphic novelization here.) However, Maier provided an in-depth reading of one section of Bérubé's book in a posting on his blog in which he cautioned Bérubé against "the cutting of philosophical corners" in his application of Rorty. Maier also was the author of "Dave Maier tells you interesting stuff about Rorty," which Bérubé described as part of a larger debate about the deniability of the existence of "true statements that get things right." In the wide-ranging discussion, Bérubé noted that "the entire exchange took place on blogs."

(Bérubé also alluded to his exchanges with Mark Bauerlein over The Employment of English: Theory, Jobs, and the Future of Literary Studies, some of which appeared in the pages of boundary 2. Having sparred with Bauerlein myself a bit in the blogosphere, it seemed a relatively restrained performance on his part.)

In Bérubé's reading of his exchanges with Maier and others about Rorty and the issue of relativism at the center of the debate and the question of how "resistance to realism must be global," the historical context of the Alan Sokal hoax in Social Text was key. Nonetheless, at one point Bérubé made fun of the continuing discussion of Sokal's fake postructural quantum physics article and indicated that he had grown tired of its many sequels, which he joked could be called The Conquest of the Hoax or Return from the Valley of the Hoax.

Bérubé drew the audience's attention instead to "stupid realists tricks that I am not performing" since there was going to be "no teleology" in a cosmology in which "it’s going to be quantum turtles all the way down." In other words, he challenged the notion that physics is foundationalist and insisted that it was "not the template for the rest of human knowledge."

As an example, Bérubé cited the existence of Cosmic Background InfraRed Radiation. (If readers want to know more about the subject, I would recommend that they go to this part of an excellent tutorial written by Virtualpolitik friend Ned Wright.) For Bérubé, it is a classic example of Latour's "science in action," since the connection made between two different disciplinary fields was made possible by a social process to enable interpretation when nature was "not talking to us but just chattering."

In reading Rorty alongside John Searle, Bérubé wants to address the possibility that "anti-foundationalism" might operate in a different realm of truth than "quarks and Neptune." He urged his critics to "stop conflating natural and the social." Rather than spend too much time on Sokal, he returned to his reading of Sam Harris, the anti-religious author of The End of Faith, which was in the defense of Rorty section of What's Liberal that Maier analyzed.

Also important in Bérubé's argument is his own position as the parent of a disabled child. His book Life As We Know It: A Father, A Family, and an Exceptional Child chronicles his experiences as the parent of a child with Down's Syndrome a decade before "disability studies" became a recognized academic field. He talked about the ways that such disabilities challenge traditional notions of "social constructionism" and expose the stereotypical assumptions underlying the hackneyed "nature vs. nurture" debate. He also mocked the "Upper Westside criteria for being human" that are further dismantled here.

In this context, it is worth noting that earlier in the day at the Rorty conference, philosopher Margaret Gilbert discussed Rorty's position on human rights, which Rorty had developed most fully in his famed Oxford Amnesty lecture, where he described human rights discourses as driven by "long sad stories" and what he calls "sentimentality." (Gilbert also alluded to Thomas Jefferson in her opening, which caused the eighteenth-century literature specialists in the audience to later remember that this American slave-holding founder of human rights doctrine had read Lawrence Sterne to his wife on her deathbed in his own sentimental scene.) Gilbert's own opinion about human rights philosophy appeared to be that good agreements might be more important than either ideals or pathetic narratives. Bérubé returned to this earlier discussion at least once with a reference to "moral disagreements about the rights of the disabled."

Like a good closing speaker, Bérubé also referred back to other discussions earlier in the day, especially the presentations by the two Heideggerian philosophers at the conference: Iain Thomson and Mark Wrathall. He dryly apologized for being a person "not good at fixing alleged bugs in the dualist mainframe." He also discussed the value of "coherence and consensus" in exchanges in which he might "persuade most of you not all of you" based on "standards of evidence and argumentation." He said that he was "not arguing about something that can’t argue back" or obliterating the "distinction between brute fact and social fact" in the process. Rather than thinking about that which might "push back" in a Heideggerian sense, Bérubé was engaging in discussions more on the order of debates like "are there really neutrinos?"

Bérubé also described his own uncanny encounter with a remnant left by his younger self when reading in the Rorty archive at UC Irvine. He had found a three-page handwritten note to Rorty, which he had written while a student in Rorty's Heidegger seminar at the University of Virginia. "I actually did this!" he marveled. He also asked himself, "What am I going to say about Heidegger to Rorty?" He explained that he eventually turned in a fifty page paper and thus further established his status at the time as "the graduate student from hell." He also recollected his interest at the time in a particular section of Being and Time about Isaac Newton, which was on pages forty-three and forty-four of his text, and opined that the conjunction between science and philosophy that he had explored remained relevant in contemporary discussions. He shared other memories about Rorty as a teacher as well and expressed respect for his "intellectual demeanor" and the fact that "he gave us essays of people that disagreed with him" and was always determined "to keep a civil conversation going." He also described how in the mid-eighties Rorty gave seminars to true believers on Derrida and then Freud that offered both "possible vocabularies" and substantive criticism of both thinkers.

Rather than memorialize Rorty, Bérubé often emphasized the living character of his legacy. At one point he encouraged the crowd to "imagine a Rorty that has the affect of a Žižek." He also suggested that this Rorty might be just as interested in "zoning laws and recycling structures" and other matters quotidian rather than numinous. He even quoted on of the great Rorty ironic lines in this respect: "that’s what a heaven is for."

He also praised Rorty for his "clear, declarative sentences." While Derrida often sounded "more like James Joyce than like John Rawls," Rorty penned straightforward sentences like this: "Derrida learned from Heidegger that phonemes matter." As Bérubé exclaimed, "How could anyone would write a sentence like this?" He joked about the intellectual press for which Rorty often wrote and its frequently inferior authors: "Dissent and Commentary merged to form Dysentery."

Bérubé returned to his discussion of academic blogging, although he conceded that "you say you have a blog, and people treat you like you own a ferret." Overheated blogging, he seemed to argue, was a uniquely academic pursuit, since "of seven people I have banned from my blog, all but one has been an academic." He granted that the use of blogs for scholarly discussions was creating a "really difficult problem for the archive" with "discussions that are ephemeral" like "seminars happening in real time."

He pointed to John Holbo's online essay about "Rorty's Rhetoric of Anticipatory Retrospective" as a commentary on the "third backlash against theories." Holbo defines this "anticipatory retrospective" as follows:

How does it go? Rorty wants to change your mind about politics. How does he do it? Not by giving you reasons not to think a certain way. Rather, by inviting you to consider the ‘hopeful’ possibility of a future when ‘we’ will no longer think this way. That is, he imagines a time when the sorts of people he is disagreeing with will, ex hypothesi, have had their paradigm shifted, so that it will simply ‘no longer occur to them’ to think the thoughts Rorty thinks are not useful to think.

Holbo finds Rorty's rhetoric ultimately "unsatisfactory." As Bérubé summarized it, "he thought it all went wrong with Sassure" and wants to defend the Kierkegaardian position. Bérubé also argued that all this attention to the "difference between religion and secularism" in the blogosphere "speaks as if secularism is a done deal."

According to Bérubé, now Rorty has undergone a "distinct change in cultural status," as he has become "a piñata for the left" for having composed works like "The Unpatriotic Academy." Furthermore, Bérubé said, "religion as conversation stopper" in the era of Stephen Carter’s laments. He also discussed the ironies of seeing all twentieth century liberals together as "people who all inhabit the same pantheon." (Bérubé reflects his own relationship to the American left in this interview.)

Bérubé closed by looking at one more opposition: Rorty vs. Nancy Fraser. In conversations leading up to the conference, he discussed the analysis of Rorty in The Way We Argue Now. In considering Fraser's "Dilemmas of Justice in the 'Postsocialist' Age" and its analysis of "interests and identities" in a"postphilosophical society," he wondered aloud about where we would be going from here.

As Bérubé ended his talk, he described a bizarre scene in which critics of poststructuralism gloated when de Man's articles in support of the Nazis appeared and cried, "Now we’ve got you!" to all poststructuralists, even the ones who weren't of the de Man School, such as Lacanian feminists who were already making different claims on truth and objectivity.

In defending "philosophy as creative enterprise," Bérubé faced questions from the audience about "pragmatism and romanticism," but the end of his talk turned out to be only the beginning of an evening of socializing in which the day's conversation continued.

Update: Bérubé's own wrap-up is here.

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