Access Matters

Access to health care matters. Access to dental care matters. Access to information about where one can find these things matters. We all failed you Deamonte Diver.



Seems like some who use the terrorist moniker like it's table salt don't like it being used on them.


Defusing a Meme

A lot of people believe the enthymeme that CNN is "liberal" (people, at least during the Clinton administration, gave it the nickname the "Clinton News Network"--others have since dubbed it the "Conservative News Network"). A recent story on a documentary by James Cameron that claims to have found Jesus' remains is broken on CNN as a sort of disembodied denial. The headline reads Archaeologists, scholars dispute Jesus documentary. This wouldn't merit attention, sans the fact that they had not reported even the presence of a documentary. While I think Cameron is a latter day P.T. Barnum, this should serve to underline CNN's desired audience.

Hint: it ain't the skeptics.


Semiotics of Power (part 2)

In an earlier post, I analyzed Senator Obama's campaign kickoff strategy--launching in a location associated with Abraham Lincoln, echoing Lincoln's words, dressing in a greatcoat that evokes Lincoln's trademark severe attire, and positioning himself at an angle where photographers would most likely emphasize or accentuate height and a lanky physique. This strategy snapshot is easy to capture and describe. What is not so easy is tracking the effects of the combination of words and images through the cultural circuit. An analysis at CNN gives a bit of a glimpse of what happens on the way through the circuit by way of rhetorical foreign object debris. One thing that often happens in the discursive development of a particular identity are counter-discourses that attempt to derail or discredit particular semiotic constructions. One old standard is characterizing Republican slipups, gaffes, or simply normal speech as a "lack of intelligence." Another pretty usual move is to try to locate images, stories (some fabricated), or evidence of Democratic sexual impropriety. Some less-obvious, but deeply-embedded strategies involve playing on prejudice, gender stereotype, and racism.

A piece on CNN's website by news analyst Bill Schneider (a fellow at the right-leaning American Enterprise Institute) illustrates just how subtlely a writer can ply on these prejudices without coming out and using obviously offensive language or reasoning.

His piece starts by indicating that there was some sort of "fight" between Hillary Rodham-Clinton and Barak Obama (Ms. Rodham-Clinton had an issue with a very public Mr. Geffen when he criticized her. She responded by asking Mr. Obama to return campaign funds. When asked, Mr. Obama failed to see how a supporter's comments about his opponent made him culpable).

The dust-up also raises issues for Obama. Is he really a different kind of politician? Just last Sunday, Obama denounced what he called "slash and burn'' politics, but his campaign issued a slashing attack on Clinton.

"It's not clear to me why would I be apologizing for someone else's remarks," Obama said in Iowa Wednesday night,

"My sense is that Mr. Geffen may have differences with the Clintons," Obama said. "That doesn't really have anything to do with our campaign."

Obama, though, quickly got back on the high road.

Mr. Schneider's characterizes Mr. Obama's non-involvement and non-apology as "slash and burn," defies common sense and borders on semantic meaningless (if I pay Albertson's money for milk and then complain about Kroger, would Albertson's refusal to return my money or to apologize to Kroger be reasonably interpreted as "slash and burn"? Hardly). This non-sequitur isn't necessarily evidence of "bias" (as some might complain), but is actually more of a trojan horse for the real question posed--is Hillary or Obama electable? The real question is more basic, is a black man or a woman going to get your vote when there are no substantive issues on the table? The non-intelligibilty of the cooked-up "controversy," when juxtaposed against the stripped-down iconography of the aging woman and the head shot of the African-American indicates pretty clearly that the writer thinks the answer is "no." Clearly, this question is never asked of McCain or Guliani (even though the article ends with the real meat of the story "Five national polls have come out this month pitting Clinton and Obama against Republican front-runners Rudy Giuliani and John McCain. The results are always very close -- usually within the margin of error.")

Apparently, the only "high road" for women or non-white candidates is one that involves being stripped down to a racial or gendered symbol. This technique of stripping people down to their basic sign ("woman," "black," or even "rich") is only one pernicious way of creating a counter-discourse to unravel any number of carefully crafted messages by a particular candidate.


Sunday Van Halen Interlude

When It's Love (Words by Van Halen)

Everybody's lookin' for somethin'
Somethin' to fill in the holes
We think a lot but don't talk much about it
'Till things get out of control

How do I know when it's love?
I can't tell you but it lasts forever
Oh! How does it feel when it's love?
It's just somethin' you feel together

When it's love

You look at every face in a crowd
Some shine and some keep you guessin'
Waiting for someone to come into focus
Teach you your final love lesson

How do I know when it's love?
I can't tell you but it lasts forever
How does it feel when it's love?
It's just something you feel together

Oh, when it's love
You can feel it
Nothin's missin'

Yeah, you can feel it
When it's love
When nothin's missing

How do I know when it's love?
I can't tell you but it lasts forever
How does it feel when it' love?
It's just something you feel together

How do I know when it's love?
I can't tell you but it lasts forever
When it's love
When it's love
It'll last forever

When it's love
You and I, we're gonna feel this thing together
When it's love
When it's love
You can feel it
We'll make it last forever

when it's love


Addendum to the Last Post

This recent shameful episode perfectly illustrates the perils of creating a public persona in a shaming culture (and a violent one at that). Overlapping media. Not-so-smart mobs.

The "Shame" of the Social

Alex, at Digital Digs, has an interesting riff on online social reputation systems and Henry Jenkin's thoughts on MIT's comparative media program and the YouNiversity.

I have been thinking a lot about Jenkin's thoughts and the program that is growing out of a social approach to media and education. A piece of the puzzle that worries me in the goldrush towards electrate social networking is the use of reputation systems as a sort of social algorithm. The ratings on RateMyProfessor, Amazon, and even on proprietary educational Content Management Systems like BlackBoard are turning multilayered and complex human interactions into popularity contests. Unfortunately, I don't know if/where there is scholarship on is the concept of shaming. A lot of the reputation systems use the Junior High system of social stigmitization as a primary motivation for interaction. People who have had a bad experience, marketers working for rival companies, or just plain disgruntled folks often use these rating systems to heap scorn on a product, company, or even individual. The multiple portals/spoofs/identities of particularly motivated people can create a Potemkin village of anger and makes a lot of these services pretty unuseful (i.e Facebook groups that spring up like weeds and "www.firesuchandsuchcoach.com"). Journalists on the take (either through direct remuneration or via favors and freebies) have been a major feature of the tech landscape for years. Alex is right on the money when he challenges his students to think about how they would feel if they were subject to these social reputation systems in the university (the old standby, the course grade, has been all but neutralized by grade inflation, with a few examples in the form of weedout courses, standardized tests, and particularly prestigous pre-professional majors).

I am also curious how an "open-hand" commons model might learn some of the lessons of shaming implemented in more meatspace institutions like jurisprudence, churches, and more semiotic class demarcations (there are places you don't go if you are marked in particular ways). Places like Facebook, which represent friendship as a quick consumption deal rather like Pokemon (and with little possibility of exclusion) temporarily suspends or minimizes that socialized shaming that helps break down large social groups into smaller communities of affect (excpet that the "trace" of repulsion is the obvious mechanism).

Why does any of this matter? Many of my (our) students use these online spaces as places to try out new identities w/o an awareness that their risk taking might come back to haunt them later. When I proposed a FB group for an inter-class project recently, one student very publicly asked about opting out because there might be some images that s/he might not want an instructor to see. I responded that we all need to be careful what we put online, because of the ease of copying and disseminating compromising images/text/work. My initial response came off as bit defensive (notwithstanding the fact that students can block out particular users from seeing part or all of their collected digital artifacts). Still, I wonder if there has been much work on how web 2.0 communities use digital tools to demarcate outsider status through particular semiotic practices (posting "drunken bender" or "racist party" pics, unbecoming rants or embarassing disclosures, etc.). If there has been this work, what does the research show happens to the background "in loco parentis" promises still implied in University settings?

I guess one of the challenges to blending Civic Engagement with New Media practices is bringing students into the knowledge that what happens in any demarcated "safe space" of enculturation eventually bleeds out into the cold and harsh public glare. Grades, evaluations, skills, and even ostenisbly private matters like personal identity eventually make up the strands of a public persona that one must eventually inhabit. The process of "revising" identity, even as one remixes identity through media becomes an important part of gaining entrance into larger public spheres.

Mr. Vaynar's over-the-top video portfolio broadcast and ridicule in the national press is an extreme example of what can happen if people forget some of the connections between identity creation and a spectator culture of ridicule. I guess I see shades of the portfolio pedagogical practice that Mike defends, except that the stakes of a student's online practices "portfolio" writ large can have a faster and broader impact.


The "Profit Solves All Problems" Meme Put to a Test

I have been watching the for-profit Universities slowly changing the regulatory landscape over the past decade or so, lobbying Department of Education regulators to ratchet scrutiny of traditional not-for-profit education, loosening the purse strings for student aid, and assaulting the current method of accreditation. Looks like they are getting some blowback from such aggressive tactics.

From the New York Times
(free registration required):

The university says that its graduation rate, using the federal standard, is 16 percent, which is among the nation’s lowest, according to Department of Education data. But the university has dozens of campuses, and at many, the rate is even lower.


The complaints have built through months of turmoil. The president resigned, as did the chief executive and other top officers at the Apollo Group, the university’s parent corporation. A federal court reinstated a lawsuit accusing the university of fraudulently obtaining hundreds of millions of dollars in financial aid. The university denies wrongdoing. Apollo stock fell so far that in November, CNBC featured it on a “Biggest Losers” segment. The stock has since gained back some ground. In November, the Intel Corporation excluded the university from its tuition reimbursement program, saying it lacked top-notch accreditation.

It adds up to a damaging turnaround for an institution that rocketed from makeshift origins here in 1976 to become the nation’s largest private university, with 300,000 students on campuses in 39 states and online. Its fortunes are closely watched because it is the giant of for-profit postsecondary education; it received $1.8 billion in federal student aid in 2004-5.



“The university takes quality in the classroom seriously,” he said. The university brings a low-overhead approach not only to its campuses, most of which are office buildings near freeways, but also to its academic model. About 95 percent of instructors are part-time, according to federal statistics, compared with an average of 47 percent across all universities. Most have full-time day jobs. Courses are written at university headquarters, easing class preparation time for instructors.

The College Board reports the university’s annual tuition and fees as $9,630, about half the average at private four-year colleges and twice that of four-year public colleges.

Students take one course at a time, online or in evening classes, which meet for four hours, once a week, for five or six weeks, depending on degree level. As a result, students spend 20 to 24 hours with an instructor during each course, compared with about 40 hours at a traditional university. The university also requires students to teach one another by working on projects for four or five hours per week in what it calls “learning teams.”

Government auditors in 2000 ruled that this schedule fell short of the minimum time required for federal aid programs, and the university paid a $6 million settlement. But in 2002, the Department of Education relaxed its requirements, and the university’s stripped-down schedule is an attractive feature for many adults eager to obtain a university degree while working. But critics say it leaves courses with little meat.

“Their business degree is an M.B.A. Lite,” said Henry M. Levin, a professor of higher education at Teachers College at Columbia University. “I’ve looked at their course materials. It’s a very low level of instruction.”



Many students accuse recruiters of misleading them, and the university’s legal troubles trace back to similar accusations of recruitment abuses. In 2003, two enrollment counselors in California filed a whistle-blower lawsuit in federal court accusing the university of paying them based on how many students they enrolled, a violation of a federal rule.

After the lawsuit was filed, the Department of Education sent inspectors to California and Arizona campuses. The department’s report, which became public in 2004, concluded that the university had provided incentives to recruit unqualified students and “systematically operates in a duplicitous manner.”


To be honest, I don't think this stems merely from injecting the profit motive into the institution, as I believe that even nonprofits and not-for-profit educational institutions have profit motives. What is at stake here is the redefinition of education and even human beings themselves as factory line parts. The act of centrally locating the decision making structure and giving a one-size-fits-all curriculum to workers incapable of on-site customization (despite claims of the opposite) reveals that the problem is probably not one of profit or nonprofit, but of control. What has made not-for-profit American Universities the best in the world is neither their altruism nor their conservative cultural value. Instead, it is a potent combination of their symbolic role in the class-amnesia of the "American Dream" coupled with a more distributed profit motive. Individual departments and disciplines combine their unique talents to keep the creative engine running (or slowly die off). There is still enough incentive to do good work, and the outside pressures have certainly not allowed the wholesale corruption or greedy metastisizing that occurs in any insulated and decadent institution (indeed, non-profits are dangerously close to losing one key to that success altogether--tenure). No, the University of Phoenix, with its centralized decision-making and politbureau top-down control looks more like Communist Russia than the not-for-profits' competition between teachers, departments, disciplines, colleges, universities, and conferences. When many people criticize Universities for homogenaity, it brings a smile to my face because I know they know not whereof they speak. While Michael Bérubé has documented a particular ideational trait in one strand of the Liberal Arts, there is a much, much, much larger ecosphere of ideas and practices battling across the thousands of institutions and WITHIN each institution. That competition is exactly what the U of Phoenix lacks. While they were busy naming stadia and wrapping themselves in the trappings of capitalism, they unhooked the small competition structures that make Universities actually function. No wonder the teachers lie about their degrees and send the students off to teach themselves.


Semiotics of Power

A lot of scholars in my field (technical communication) have tried to locate and describe the relationship between different types of symbolism and action. Many point towards sociohistorical research like Foucault or Deleuze and Guattari (among others) and their different tracings and descriptions of how symbolic systems emerge and change the possibilities of action. I borrow a lot of these particular techniques of geneaology, archaeology, and cultural criticism (especially the "cultural circuit") in order to describe how semiotic shifts and emergences distort not just a particular symbol, but what Derrida called "trace" (the sort of "ground" inherent in the "figure" of any sign--the entire "not" that is supposedly occluded in any meaning-making act). Where this resonates with my scholarship is problematizing the notion of "power," a sort of god-term in most social analyses of language. Barbara Mirel, at an earlier WIDE event discussed some of her research on medicine and language and talked about what "dye" she used to study the communication "circulation" in a larger hospital communication ecology. In other words, how do you trace deformations of symbolic practices? For example, how can you tell if a new hospital charting practice is effecting new patient-nurse relationships? You can certainly game a situation and ask nurses to do something different and then ask them if they notice a change. That carries the very real risk of not only bias (the intervention is already different than situated and naturalized practice), but the impossibility of a completely objective distance from embedded subjective experience. Tracing phonemes, morphemes, or any other linguistic unit seems iffy as well. The complexity of representation quickly sends you way past X-bar linguistics and into Beautiful Mind territory.

What do some tech comm folks do? Some call it "power" and throw up their hands. Others try to "mark" particular images, peculiar discursive characteristics, distinct practices--or assemblages of two or three of these--and observe how things travel through the system. Complex assemblages of meaning, like Barak Obama's Lincolnesque greatcoat and the podium that requires a photography perspective to cast Obama as a Lincolnesque figure in conjunction with very overt references to Abraham Lincoln's rhetoric, are places where one can test the "dye" of semiotic power. Who carries this particular iconic arrangement? FOX News? No (notice how the image crops away most of the coat, does away with the perspective, and uses the most unflattering pose)--they are unapologetically aligned with Republican interests and frequently invite discussion about how the GOP is the still "Party of Lincoln." I found this picture at the New York Times, which is not a surprise, because of the historical alignment of the paper with "Yankee" interests (the shift of the Democratic party over to what was the Republican north has been well documented). Even my use of the traditional "Democratic" descriptor of the party has been called into question by the Republican use of the foreshortened "Democrat" moniker as a way to conducting their own "friend or foe" marking and semiotic power experiment. The networks that were forged in a civil war almost 150 years ago persist, and one can trace them in the narratives that coarse through the "body politic," corporate networks, social electrate networks, etc.

What do Barak Obama's semiotic strategies have to do with tech comm? Quite a bit, actually. While many in our field are slicing and dicing texts and practices into constituent parts for XML-enabled efficiency practices like single-sourcing, etc., the users that we (and our university and corporate benefactors) are trying to advocate for (supposedly) are busy trying to reassemble these things into the the context of a life. It is tough to integrate the macro narratological aspects of communication with the micro techniques of producing communication, to be sure. Seeing how politicians launch campaigns (or mislaunch them with echoes of racial hygiene rhetoric) can illuminate the broader symbolic landscape that technical writers negotiate--not just the legal and formal topography, but the very complex human topos that limit and enable action in particular and shifting contexts.


A Dilemma

I have a confession. I think I lost a DVD from Netflix. Now, they are pretty good about it, and let you just fess up and pay $20 for it. Problem is, if I slow down my movie viewing enough, I don't have to replace it right away. Of course, if you use Netflix Calculus (CalcuFlix?), you realize that you are losing about 10 bucks per month for not just reducing your movie allotment from three to two. I'm probably going to pay up soon, despite the fact that I have already probably spent more for the delay than it would have cost to just replace the darn thing in the first place. It's what economists call "sunk costs," and I have no qualms about walking away when I'm down to avoid losing even more (I'm a Vegas nightmare, baby!).

Here's my dilemma. What do I call this phenomenon of clogging up one queue space with a missing disc?

The missing Flix?

A wounded queue?


A Little Post on my Horrible No-Good Predictions

I didn't watch the Superbowl. I kept an eye on the "GameCast" in one of my 10 or so open windows on my desktop. I grew up watching both the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Dallas Cowboys during dinner (my dad was born in Pittsburgh and grew up in Texas). While I eventually learned how to play football and even played a little in high school (defensive back), tennis and then basketball took up most of my athletic energy. The Rez doesn't have much in the way of tennis courts (we played with our parents' old wood rackets in the street), but basketball is practically a religion in many Native communities. My town was no different. Not only did every barren playground have at least a half-dozen hoops to hone your skills on, my church's gym always had their rims let down to the floor and a fresh net to give that wonderful "shook" sound when the ball grazed through the rim.

That love of basketball kept building after I moved off the Rez. I religiously watched the University of Arizona basketball before Lute Olson was canonized (yes, I saw that magical season when Steve Kerr, the son of the assassinated American-Lebanese Academic, would hear the crowd scream Steeeeeeveeee Kerrrrrrrrr after every made three point shot). Even though the Wildcats were relegated to grainy UHF stations, I was hooked.

Many of my best memories revolve around basketball. I gained a big measure of self confidence in High School arranging and playing pre-class pickup games between the math faculty and my friends (including the Arizona co-player of the year--yes, #12 Lopez). I learned a little street playing park games in Phoenix against teams from LA and even some of the scrubs from the Phoenix Suns. Most important, I got to know sport during March Madness. Sport and I usually trade turns winning the March Madness brackets we enter--you have been warned.

To be honest, I don't really watch professional sports. I cheer for the Steelers and the Bears (mostly because I got to see Brian Urlacher play at my University, but also because I can use the term "Bears" and "old school" in the same sentence without laughing). If I had to be totally honest, I would rank my favorite sports viewing this way:
1. NCAA Basketball (men's and women's)
2. NCAA football
3. Surfing (when I can get it)
4. NFL
5. Tennis

So, if you are inclined to believe random blogs about sports, I would limit that belief to NCAA basketball and football (yes, I picked Florida for both sports the last two championships). My picks for the next two champions? Right now I think Wisconsin has a good shot at both basketball and football.


I was wrong

But darn it. MY Bears are still the best NFL team in the whole wide world.

Superbowl Mid-dictions

1. The Bears will win the Superbowl.
2. It won't be close.



I. Hate. Being. Sick.



The more the officials defend their reaction, the worse they look. Yes, disguising a bomb as a Lite-Brite is certainly one way to announce your intentions, but so is parking one of THESE THINGS anwhere in a city. Drop the suit against the artists and the network and get back to work.

But Cyborgs are Scary...

from a WIRED magazine feature on Donna Haraway:

Sitting on the porch, listening to Haraway explain her ideas over a background of singing birds and buzzing insects, it's hard not to feel she's talking about some parallel world, some chrome-and-neon settlement in a cyberpunk novel. "We're talking about whole new forms of subjectivity here. We're talking seriously mutated worlds that never existed on this planet before. And it's not just ideas. It's new flesh."

But she is not talking about some putative future or a technologically advanced corner of the present. The cyborg age is here and now, everywhere there's a car or a phone or a VCR. Being a cyborg isn't about how many bits of silicon you have under your skin or how many prosthetics your body contains. It's about Donna Haraway going to the gym, looking at a shelf of carbo-loaded bodybuilding foods, checking out the Nautilus machines, and realizing that she's in a place that wouldn't exist without the idea of the body as high-performance machine. It's about athletic shoes.

"Think about the technology of sports footwear," she says. "Before the Civil War, right and left feet weren't even differentiated in shoe manufacture. Now we have a shoe for every activity." Winning the Olympics in the cyborg era isn't just about running fast. It's about "the interaction of medicine, diet, training practices, clothing and equipment manufacture, visualization and timekeeping." When the furor about the cyborgization of athletes through performance-enhancing drugs reached fever pitch last summer, Haraway could hardly see what the fuss was about. Drugs or no drugs, the training and technology make every Olympian a node in an international technocultural network just as "artificial" as sprinter Ben Johnson at his steroid peak.

If this sounds complicated, that's because it is. Haraway's world is one of tangled networks - part human, part machine; complex hybrids of meat and metal that relegate old-fashioned concepts like natural and artificial to the archives. These hybrid networks are the cyborgs, and they don't just surround us - they incorporate us. An automated production line in a factory, an office computer network, a club's dancers, lights, and sound systems - all are cyborg constructions of people and machines.