Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Intelligent Design

Whither Goest Thou Today?

To: All Users
From: Intelligent Design Support Center (AKA IDSC)
Subject: Reality (Version 2008)

As of 1/1/2008 the present version of Reality 2007 will be superseded by Version 2008. This update of Reality is now open source and therefore not copy protected. You can now create your own Reality. As a consequence, idiosyncratic reality testing must now be conducted at your discretion. All forks to alternate realities will be at the user's risk and expense. To minimize conflicts, Reality Version 2008 can be networked in order to permit multiple realities.

Reality (2008) supports the following:

  • You can have your cake and eat it, too. Calories consumed count only at the user's choosing.
  • Once you've made your bed, you don't have to sleep in it. You can sleep in someone else's bed.
  • You can go home again. If home doesn't exist in your current reality, V2008's windows allow you to go into someone else's home. When leaving one reality for another, please turn off the lights and lock up.
  • Beauty is no longer restricted to the eyes of the beholder. It now includes the nose, ears, and forehead. In addition, beauty is no longer just skin deep, but now extends to underlying muscles as well.
  • Undelete Function: Errors, omissions, faux pas, etc. can now be corrected by issuing the "OOPS" command. This command does not apply to forgotten birthdays or anniversaries, sports events or pregnancies.

There has been considerable confusion concerning the ultimate physical structures that have constituted Versions 1905 and higher. Especially noted has been the lack of macro-level analogies to illustrate sub-atomic activity and the difficulty in dealing with events on a cosmic scale.

IDSC has therefore decided to revert to the structure of Reality Version 400 BCE. All elements will once again be constituted from some combination of earth, air, fire and/or water. The substance of space beyond Earth's atmosphere will be composed of "aether" and all distances in outer space will be traversable within a human lifetime. This revision does not restore spontaneous generation or a geocentric cosmology.

Bugs In Reality Version 2007

Many users have called our attention to so-called bugs in previous versions of Reality, including war, disease, death, poverty, male pattern baldness, and the presence of human life on Earth. IDSC would like to make it clear that these are features of Reality, not bugs.

Note: Due to increased use of our Reality Support Hot Lines, we are forced to limit free phone support to the first ninety days of life. Support after that time will be available at a nominal charge. Increase support staff and additional phone lines should reduce call-in waiting time from the current 1-2 millennia to just a few hundred years. Subscribers will also be entitled to periodic revelations as well as our quarterly manifestations.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

On Paul Levinson and the FCC

A contrarian stance on media consolidation points out the failures of our Fourth Estate.

My friend and fellow blog critic Paul Levinson (author of Digital McLuhan, The Soft Edge and more recently The Plot to Save Socrates) has an interesting but seemingly counterintuitive post on his blog, Paul Levinson's Infinite Regress. Under the title “FCC Ends Longstanding Ban on Cross-Ownership: Good!” Levinson applauds the FCC’s recent decision to lift cross ownership rules and allow media companies to own both print and broadcast news outlets in the same market:
So why am I applauding the 3-2 FCC ruling - a great example of even a broken clock being right twice a day?

Two reasons:

1. Media concentration is becoming less of a threat to diversity of communication in the age of the Internet. Plainly, there are many more voices on YouTube and countless other web sites than a decade ago, and the net result is even if every major broadcast medium were owned by the same organization, Americans would still have more variety in communication than ever before. The Obama Girl videos and Ron Paul's candidacy are two examples of profound developments in media that had nothing to do with broadcasting - and, in the case of Ron Paul, was actively opposed by mainstream media.

2. Even more importantly, even were the Web not providing unprecedented diversity in media, the FCC relaxation of ownership standards would be a good thing. The FCC is an affront to the First Amendment, and its injunction that Congress shall make no abridging freedom of speech or press. Much as I dislike media concentration, I see government regulation as a far worse threat to our freedom. You don't bring in a snake (the FCC) to control a rat problem (media concentration) - because, obviously, the snake can then slither around and bite you.
So to summarize Levinson’s argument, the multiplicity of alternate information sources on the internet make cross ownership of traditional media insignificant, and, FCC regulation of media ownership is contrary to the First Amendment anyway.

For those of us who are disciples of Laurence Lessig and Robert McChesney, Levinson’s stance is problematic. Clearly, the current concentration of media ownership is a contributing factor to our dysfunctional political system and quite possibly a key enabler in the attempt of the Republican Party to overthrow the Constitution. What good do First Amendment protections do us if the administration blatantly ignores the Constitution anyway? I also worry about the continuing independence of the Internet. The debate over net neutrality underlines fears that major corporations may find ways to choke off the freedom of the internet, rendering internet diversity moot.

While accepting the validity of these concerns, I think that Levinson has identified a significant trend in our information culture. Whether due to media concentration, “Beltway Village” mentality, or just plain laziness, it is apparent that the majority of our Fourth Estate have not been doing their job. As Stephen Colbert pointed out in his now famous White House Correspondence Dinner address, journalism is not stenography. Political blogs have moved in to fill a void left by the non-functioning traditional media press. At the very least, blog writers have required the traditional media to justify their ineptitude.

In addition, blog authors’ willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and deficient journalism practices has had a positive impact on the current election cycle. Though marginalized by the mainstream media, Presidential wannabees like Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich and Chris Dodd have been able to use the internet to their advantage.

So we arrive at a chicken and egg question. Given current and pending concentration of our traditional mass media, if the internet didn’t exist would it have to be created? Paul Levinson would say “yes.” His theory of “media remediation” suggests that no medium impact is inevitable or irreversible. If the internet didn’t exist, the need to fill the journalism void would have precipitated other responses. Given recent United States history, I am not as sanguine.

I believe that America is on the cusp of a transition from a Republic to an Empire. In times of political crisis, some types of temporary intervention in the normal evolution of media ownership may be necessary. For example, the FCC could issue a temporary ruling restraining media consolidation until the net neutrality issue is resolved.

If we, and not our technology, are ultimately responsible for the health of our media ecology, measured interventions are appropriate.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Sakai and Social Networking

I'm attending the 2007 Sakai Conference in California this week. The Sakai Foundation, a consortium of colleges and universities, oversees the creation of a new “open source” course management system (CMS).

For those of you not connected to an academic institution (Anyone? Anyone?), a CMS such as Blackboard, WebCT, ANGEL, Desire2Learn and now, Sakai, provides university faculty with computer network resources to design and manage their classes.

Within the confines of their particular university's network professors can post their syllabi online, conduct discussions or chats, run quizzes and other evaluation tools, disseminate copies of their course materials and maintain their grade books electronically.

What Sakai brings to the equation is control. True to the “open source” movement, the Sakai code is completely completely free. This means that not only can any individual or institution take the code and do anything they want with it (use it, sell it, change it) but any corporation could do the same. Meanwhile, Sakai members provide staff and resources to develop the product, approve enhancements and correct bugs.

The open source movement, as compared to corporate software development, benefits from many, many eyes surveying the product and providing suggestions. The process provides for speedier product updates and better, more error-free code. Those of us whom Microsoft still sees as guinea pigs for their latest software (Vista anyone? Anyone?) can appreciate this.

Twice a year those institutions involved in the Sakai initiative gather at some appropriate location to share their knowledge and experiences.

But Sakai and open source software isn't what I want to talk about in this post. I want to draw your attention to an article that appeared this past Sunday in the New York Times Week in Review, available here and to the letter to the editor I submitted which is available here.

The article by Alex Wright, Friending, Ancient or Otherwise, discusses the new ways of social networking enabled by such online sites as MySpace and Facebook. Wright writes:

The growth of social networks — and the Internet as a whole — stems largely from an outpouring of expression that often feels more like “talking” than writing: blog posts, comments, homemade videos and, lately, an outpouring of epigrammatic one-liners broadcast using services like Twitter and Facebook status updates (usually proving Gertrude Stein’s maxim that “literature is not remarks”).

In the course of his examination of social networking, Wright quotes my friend Lance Strate who has taking to social networking in a big way (1,335 MySpace friends!) and intends to teach a course on the subject at Fordham University this fall:

“Orality is the base of all human experience,” says Lance Strate, a communications professor at Fordham University and devoted MySpace user. He says he is convinced that the popularity of social networks stems from their appeal to deep-seated, prehistoric patterns of human communication. “We evolved with speech,” he says. “We didn’t evolve with writing.”

Lance's own blog, that, for reasons I can't fathom, he has titled "Lance Strate's Blog Time Passing" can be accessed here. His MySpace site is here. When Lance first posted notice of his contribution to social networking I offered this comment, which I later modified for submission to the New York Times:

My take on the social networking phenomena is that it represents a retrieval, though sped up to electric speeds, of the culture of correspondence of the 18th and 19th centuries.

I don't quite see how a system of communication based on messages like this, typed into the internet, can reflect the biases of oral cultures, but maybe that's what happens when letter writing is pushed to the extreme and flips into its opposite.

To which Lance replied:

I understand your point, Bob, but part of the distinctive quality of correspondence is the length of time that it takes the message to be delivered. Speeding up the interaction restores some of the immediacy of face-to-face interaction, which is why people tend to fall into conversational modes online, rather than draw on formal letter-writing. And letter-writing was a very pure kind of literary activity, where handwriting was the closest thing to a sense of presence, whereas in social networking we have profile pictures, we also have picture albums that others can check out, and potentially there are sound recordings available as MP3s, and video uploads. It is a multimedia environment that represents something much closer to physical presence than letter writing.

As a model media ecologist, Bob, you know that retrieval is one of McLuhan's four laws of media, but it's probably the most problematic one of all. and yes, you could say that e-mail obsolesces (another law) telephone conversations and retrieves letter writing, but I don't think that begins to cover the enormity of the social networking phenomenon. web 2.0, as it is sometimes referred to, is about adding more flexibility and interactivity to the original world-wide web, which was about making the internet more like a mass medium such as publishing, the internet having been a way to make electronic communications more flexible and interactive. it's been a real information war, as our friend Doug Rushkoff has argued. now, what would Levi-Strauss have to say about that?

And to which I responded:

I can't presume to speak for Levi-Strauss, especially concerning the new media social networks, about which, I believe, he has not stated an opinion.

However, if I did presume to put words into Levi-Strauss's mouth, I might suggest that social networking as it is manifested in places like MySpace and Facebook is neither social nor networking in the classic anthropological sense. It may represent the illusion of social networking, just like Second Life presents the illusion of life. It may be next to (ie "meta") social networking, the way metaphysics is "next to" physics.

Native oral cultures exist within three general systems: kinship, mythological and taboo. Kinship systems, as defined by structural anthropologists, are systems of the mutual exchange of goods and women that define social hierarchies and social obligations. Mythological systems operate to overcome or deny the inherent contradictions that exists in a culture's explanation of the world, thereby reinforcing and maintaining the assumptions, interpretations and belief systems of that culture. Taboo systems define what is touchable and what in untouchable in the environment. All these systems allow their participants to create and maintain categories into which they can divide the concrete elements of their particular environment.

The New York Times article mentions that you have 1,335 MySpace friends. That makes me think of the old joke about Chicago's Mayor Daly who would throw parties and invite 10,000 of his closest friends. Surely our definition of "friends" must change as the number approaches the thousands.

So Levi-Strauss might argue that the internet based "social networks" do not meet the requirements of the traditional social networks of oral societies, and so must be something else. We call them social networks the way we first called the automobile the "horseless carriage" or the radio the "wireless."

My own impression is that social networks have more to do with "I" than "Thou" and so represent, not social networks, but rather personal expression. We think we are communicating with other people, but we are really carrying on an elaborate conversation with ourselves.

Which brings us back to Sakai and the open source conference. There is some heresy spreading at the conference that the goal of Sakai, that is, to emulate the functionality of existing CMS's, is "rear view mirror" thinking. Many university faculty are moving beyond the limitations of course management software in the design and conduct of their courses, taking advantage of the vast array of social networking tools available on the internet. Many require their students to start a blog about the class. Some actively incorporate use of Facebook or MySpace into their syllabi. Some predict that to survive and compete against commercial competitors Sakai's course management software must evolve to take advantage of the capabilities of Web 2.0, the fully realized internet.

Sakai open source software development and MySpace-type social networking. Neither could exist without the internet. Both take advantage of the self-reflexive, self correcting characteristics of "many to many" communications. Both represent a new metaphor of social interaction that is still in its infancy.

We may yet witness the formation of elaborate kinship systems, based not on tribal relations but network connections. We may participate in the creation of a new mythologic system, one whose narrative explains the social networks that have come into being and hides whatever internal contradictions arise. And we may or may not become aware of a new set of taboos that appear as if by magic to help us maintain our new categories.

In short, we see the beginnings of what Marshall McLuhan called the elaborate social infrastructure brought about and sustained by any new medium of communication, in this case, the internet.