31 January 2007

Political Media Literacy 101

I feel insulted. Either the Conservative Party of Canada thinks I - along with all other Canadians - am stupid, or their advisers and leader are so cynical that they think I will uncritically believe blatant political trickery. Of course, I'm talking about the launch of Conservative Party attack ads.

Anyone with even the least bit of media literacy will see them for what they are, that is, crudely-edited snippets from the Liberal leadership debates, over-larded with rhetoric and bluster during the bare-knuckles brawl that characterizes hotly contested leadership races. With a little more media literacy, it is easily seen that the clips have undergone a "context-ectomy" - all figure, and no ground, meaning that they have no meaning, aside from that provided by the viewer herself. And anyone who has observed partisan political contests over the past few elections will know that such childish attempts at name-calling signal desperation and fear, most especially when they appear before the (anticipated late-spring) election has been called.

The effect of such ads, even at the best of times, may solidify the base, and possibly swing the vote of the "soft" party supporter looking for a pseudo-rational justification to vote against their inner moral judgement or conscience. However, these ads also damage the democratic process by reducing political discourse of important issues facing the country to partisan chicanery and schoolyard bully tactics. In doing so, this type of advertising disengage the more (media-)perceptive and thoughtful among the society, most notably those comprising the youth demographic.

I have two things to say to the Conservative Party of Canada. First: Mr. Harper - please stop hurting Canada by stifling meaningful political engagement and examination of the issues. Second: This will backfire badly on the (non-progressive) Conservative Party. By alienating the youth and young adult vote at the same time that Stephane Dion and Gerard Kennedy are mobilizing that same demographic, you are effecting a massive swing of momentum in favour of the Liberal Party.

On second thought, Mr. Harper, ignore those last couple of pieces of advice. Go on. Attack some more.

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5 Minutes of Electrical Rest for the Planet

This is a a French initiative that is just arriving in North America: On the 1st of February 2007, participate in the biggest mobilization of citizens against climate change. The Alliance for the Planet (pseudo-English translation here), a group of environmental associations, is calling on all citizens to create 5 minutes of electrical rest for the planet.
People all over the world should turn off their lights and electrical appliances on the first of February 2007, between 1:55 pm and 2:00 pm in New York, 18:55 for London, and 19:55 for Paris, Bruxelles, and Italy. 1:55pm in Toronto and Ottawa, 10:55am on the Pacific Coast of North America.

This is not just about saving 5 minutes worth of electricity; this is about getting the attention of the media, politicians, and ourselves. Five minutes of electrical down time for the planet does not take long, and costs nothing, and will show all political leaders that global warming is an issue that needs to come first and foremost in political debate.

Why February 1? This is the day when the new UN report on global climate change will come out in Paris.

This event affects us all, involves us all, and provides an occasion to show how important an issue global warming is to us. If we all participate, this action can have real media and political weight.
I guess this also means computers.

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29 January 2007

A Green Winter: Climate Change and the Canadian Identity

A quietly brilliant and poignant visual essay from my friend, Franke James, musing on the nature of Canadian identity, and our future in a climatically changed environment.
It was inspired by a conversation with Freakonomics author Steven Levitt. I asked him how he would solve Global Warming. Levitt quipped, "Why would you worry about it? Global Warming will be good for Canada. Look how much more of the country will be populated if it's warmer!"

Update (1 Feb 2007): Franke's visual essay has caught the attention of the Toronto Star, which is featuring it on the front page of the GTA section.

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28 January 2007

The Present, not Future, of TV

That's the problem with (nominally) being an expert (yeah, I'm in there). People are always calling to ask, "What is the future of...?" The trick is, if you know how to perceive the invisible, "the future of the future is the present." And that brings me to someone who is probably one of the worst prognosticators in the business, Bill Gates. Yes, the same Bill Gates who famously said that the Internet was a fad, and can typically only predict what is already in the super-secret Microsoft R&D pipeline. Take a look at his latest prediction, spoken recently at the World Economic Forum in Davos: "The Internet is set to revolutionize television within five years, due to an explosion of online video content and the merging of PCs and TV sets."

Talk about predicting the present. But what is a little more interesting, if only for its rear-view mirror quality, is this gem: "In the years ahead, more and more viewers will hanker after the flexibility offered by online video and abandon conventional broadcast television, with its fixed program slots and advertisements that interrupt shows." A few years ahead?

I have to admit that I just got hooked on the fabulous new show from NBC (shown on Global in Canada), Heroes. My family watches it on either the east or west coast feeds via satellite for time flexibility, and records it on the computer so I can see it later during the week to accommodate my seminar facilitation schedule at the university. I missed the fall broadcasts, but have caught up on the first eleven episodes via downloaded torrents (legal, for now, in Canada). So yes, the UCaPP world (which includes more than just the Internet itself) provides considerable flexibility and availability of this fabulous content. [A side note on the downloading bit: If I hadn't downloaded the torrents, I would not have become hooked on the program, and would have missed not only the experience, but the constant advertisements for the Nissan Versa. And yes, we'll probably buy the DVD boxed set when it comes out for next holiday season. So there is something to the argument about so-called pirated downloads expanding the market for the legitimate goods and merchandising spin-offs.]

But there's more to both the story and experience of Heroes that enables it to transcend what was formerly called broadcast television. First of all, Heroes uses non-linear storytelling to construct its narrative as a linked network of events, connected via character nodes, drawing from the changed structural metaphor of UCaPP (start in the middle and work your way to the periphery), rather than conventional literate linearity of beginning, middle, and end.

Next, using the 'net for augmentation of the show experience, rather than as a billboard or simple rehash of content, NBC offers character and plot background, and lately, previews through the graphic novels offered on its website (graphic novels and their artist being a key theme/character in the show). There is an official wiki, and one of the main characters has a weblog with comments enabled. Naturally, there is the now-obligatory fan wiki, chock-full of Hero-ly goodness. In addition, there may be a physical space game related to the in-show company, accessible via the "company's" website, a toll-free phone number, and SMS texting. There are also full episodes available on the NBC site, but only if you live (or use a proxy server) in the U.S.

For now, Heroes is a fairly fine exemplar of the present of television. As for the future? I'm betting on WiBrain implants that enable true UCaPP, with flash memory capable of holding several lifetimes worth of immersive, participatory, collaboratively-produced emergent narrative and culture.

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Connect the Dots

Hysterical reports lately about how Canada is the source of 50% of movie piracy around the world. (First terrorists, and now pirates. Some country, eh?) Such reports, and the threatened consequences - an up-to-two-week delay in releasing first-run features in Canada (Horrors! Won't someone think of the popcorn!) - will clearly make our parliamentarians focus on the pending legislation that apparently seeks to implement one of the most onerous copyright regimes in the world - possibly including a provision that will make it illegal to rip your legally purchased CD to your MP3 player. All of this foofarah is music to the ears of Canada's copyright lobby, who have had unprecedented (and ethically questionable) access to the ear of Bev Oda, the current heritage minister.

And the timing of the "50% problem" story has nothing, nothing at all to do with the lobbying efforts directed at the current legislative agenda, right?

Update (5 Feb 2007): Michael Geist blows the lid off the movie industry's propaganda campaign in today's Star column:
While the reports have succeeded in attracting considerable attention, a closer examination of the industry's own data reveals that the claims are based primarily on fiction rather than fact. In the best Hollywood tradition, Canadians have been treated to a show from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its Canadian counterpart (the Canadian Motion Pictures Distributors Association) that is much ado about nothing, featuring unsubstantiated and inconsistent claims about camcording, exaggerations about its economic harm and misleading critiques of Canadian law.

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22 January 2007

Quick Thoughts on Education

I had a long conversation today about the extreme lack of substantive debate about a radical recasting of our educational system. I'm not specifically talking about more funding, or curriculum reform, or any of the myriad issues that are the topics of discussion around the various ministries of education, policy makers, teachers' unions, and PTA meetings. What I'm referring to goes to first principles: What is the role of education - and particularly publicly funded education - in the contemporary UCaPP world? Two minor observations to stir the thoughtful soul:
  1. Students go through the education system, but very few are actually touched by it, because very few have been actually engaged by it.
  2. The content of any course or subject is merely an excuse for the real learning that occurs (or doesn't, which is far too often the case).

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19 January 2007

SNL Stock Footage Awards

I do a fair amount of interviews and commentary for the so-called mainstream media on a variety of subjects, usually pertaining to UCaPP effects on society. Today's interview with CityTV had to do with the changes in political engagement among those who are connected, spurred by Senator Barak Obama's online announcement of his candidacy for the White House.

What annoys me about most television interviews is the "b-roll" - those stock shots of the interviewee typing at a computer, walking into an office, taking a book off a shelf, or entering a building. (Thanks, Amber, for not doing a b-roll today!) But I'm being unfair. Without the b-roll or stock footage, what would illustrate the breaking news story of the day? With that in mind, here is Saturday Night Live's homage to the lowly b-roll, the Stock Footage Awards.

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16 January 2007

Five Ideas for Stressful Living

A brilliantly comical, but telling satire on how to live a more stressful life. Among the tips:
Most people look almost exclusively to external things and circumstances for their satisfaction, instead of looking within. And apart from being an important factor in the perpetuation of stress, it is also what mainly drives the mechanics of western society. It’s the reason why people spend most of their time working for the purpose of accumulating more things, and then their free time on trying hard to extract as much satisfaction as possible from these things in order to justify the means of attaining them. To be caught in this upward spiral of more and more work for more and more sensory satisfaction is what characterizes the affluent parts of our culture, and the potential for stress on this path is endless, simply because more is never enough. Never has been, never will be.

But this is not to say you need to be affluent to enjoy stressful living. The method of looking to external things for satisfaction can take other forms in the lives of the less materially endowed, through the well worn path of future-projection and hypothesis. All around you there are people who have everything the world has to offer and seem to be blissful because of it, and so you can keep yourself occupied in a cycle of fantasy, envy, and frustration, which then fuels a continuous sense of lack, of not having enough. So, the only real difference between the affluent and the non-affluent, in this regard, is that the former are given an opportunity to confirm the fact that more is never enough, while the latter can keep telling themselves that if only they had more stuff they’d be fine. And when you always feel like you are missing out, stress automatically becomes your habitual state of being.

(Via Lifehacker)
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15 January 2007

Digital Alzheimer's, and its Remedy

I've written several times on the topic of collective cultural amnesia wrought by digital technologies. How then to explain (aside from some of its dysfunctional members) the deliberate memory erasure of the McLuhan Program's weblog? Its archive, from January 2003 until July 2005 provided not only McLuhan-flavoured observation and insight into the changes in culture and society, but also a journal of sorts that recorded the events and initiatives of what was then a vibrant and interesting place.

Thankfully, the Wayback Machine captured the archives. You can access the last valid complete archive list, and from there, all of the individual entries, month-by-month.

Those in the Faculty of Information Studies who now (claim to) administer the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology - and in actuality seem to be presiding over its tragic demise - should really have another look at the famous movie queue scene from Annie Hall. To more-or-less quote the master: "You know nothing of my work. How you got to administer [actually, "teach"] anything is beyond me."

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14 January 2007

Beware the Ides of March (and it's only January)

The second season of HBO's Rome begins tonight. I'm a fan of this lavish, epic, historical soap opera. At the end of last season, Gaius Julius Caesar fell (as did Niobe Vorenus), as much the victim of his own imperial hubris as of the treachery of the women beside him.

The leader of the modern equivalent of the Imperial Roman Empire is poised to fall at the end of next year - election season - if not felled by Congress any sooner (which will likely not happen). But the hubris and imperial aspirations of those in the administration of Bush-the-younger are no less troublesome than those of the archetypal tyrant of history. According to Dahlia Lithwick, a senior editor at Slate,
Guantanamo stays open for the same reason Padilla stays on trial. Having claimed the right to label enemy combatants and detain them indefinitely without charges, the Bush administration is unable to retreat from that position without ceding ground. In some sense, the president is now as much a prisoner of Guantanamo as the detainees. And having gone nose-to-nose with the Congress over his authority to craft stripped-down courts for these "enemies," courts guaranteed to produce guilty verdicts, Bush cannot just call off the trials.

The endgame in the war on terror isn't holding the line against terrorists. It's holding the line on hard-fought claims to absolutely limitless presidential authority.

Enter these signing statements. The most recent of the all-but-meaningless postscripts Bush tacks onto legislation gives him the power to "authorize a search of mail in an emergency" to ''protect human life and safety" and "for foreign intelligence collection." There is some debate about whether the president has that power already, but it misses the point. The purpose of these signing statements is simply to plant a flag on the moon—one more way for the president to stake out the furthest corners in his field of constitutional dreams.
Of course comparing GWB to GJC is a little unfair: Caesar is portrayed as caring more for the opinions of the average person than pandering to the nobility.

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12 January 2007

And Speaking of Emergent Transparency

Emergent transparency works on the principle of little tidbits of information that are widely distributed, suddenly brought into proximity through the technologies of ubiquitous connectivity. Individually, each information morsel is relatively inconsequential. Together, they often produce an emergent pattern that reveals the inner workings of governments, corporations, and plain old ordinary corruption.

Now, entering the picture is the WikiLeaks project. From the FAQ:
Wikileaks is an uncensorable version of Wikipedia for untraceable mass document leaking and analysis. It combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface.

Principled leaking has changed the course of history for the better; it can alter the course of history in the present; it can lead us to a better future.

Consider Daniel Ellsberg, working within the US government during the Vietnam War. He comes into contact with the Pentagon Papers, a meticulously kept record of military and strategic planning throughout the war. Those papers reveal the depths to which the US government has sunk in deceiving the population about the war. Yet the public and the media know nothing of this urgent and shocking information. Indeed, secrecy laws are being used to keep the public ignorant of gross dishonesty practiced by their government. In spite of those secrecy laws and at great personal risk, Ellsberg manages to disseminate the Pentagon papers to journalists and to the world. Despite facing criminal charges, eventually dropped, the release of the Pentagon papers shocks the world, exposes the government, and helps to shorten the war and save thousands of lives.

The power of principled leaking to embarrass governments, corporations and institutions is amply demonstrated through recent history. Public scrutiny of otherwise unaccountable and secretive institutions pressures them to act ethically. What official will chance a secret, corrupt transaction when the public is likely to find out? What repressive plan will be carried out when it is revealed to the citizenry, not just of its own country, but the world? When the risks of embarrassment through openness and honesty increase, the tables are turned against conspiracy, corruption, exploitation and oppression. Open government answers injustice rather than causing it. Open government exposes and undoes corruption. Open governance is the most cost effective method of promoting good governance.
This facility opens an entirely new chapter in the world of investigative journalism - and seems to address a number of interesting issues related to my experiences yesterday.

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The Present and Future of the Mass Newsmedia

Yesterday was my "mass newsmedia" day. I had been invited as the luncheon guest of the 2006-2007 Massey College Journalism Fellows. They comprise an interesting group of mid-career journalists:
Nazim Baksh is the CBC/Radio Canada Fellow. Baksh, [is] a broadcast correspondent with the CBC... Marcus Gee, editorial page editor of The Globe and Mail, is the Webster/McConnell Fellow. ... Kevin Sylvester, a sports journalist with the CBC, has been named the Knowlton Nash Fellow. ... The St. Clair Balfour Fellow is Rob Warner, city editor for the Ottawa Citizen. ... Emmanuel Akli, a reporter and editor with The Chronicle, a newspaper published in Ghana, is the Gordon N. Fisher Fellow.
The conversation is officially off-the-record, so I cannot report on the details. However, I did raise the question of what it actually meant for an otherwise conventional newsmedium publisher or broadcaster to engage with the UCaPP (ubiquitously connected and pervasively proximate) world. The traditional role of the press in society is to act as the fourth estate of government - ensuring that the people to whom those in power are accountable can truly create informed opinion about matters of public concern. Given that the world is experiencing historic - some might say mythic - changes that impact upon Western societies in particular, the intended role of the press may be the same, but the means through which that role is enacted must change, and change profoundly.

The problem is that the managing and controlling echelons of business and government are fully occupied by the chronically literate, those for whom the linear, causal, and hierarchical constructs of society are taken as given. For them, the UCaPP effects of Internet and other mechanisms of mass connectivity can only be adopted and adapted-to. Part of the conversation yesterday revolved around the fact that many of the stress-inducing aspects of contemporary technology result from using UCaPP-creating technologies in a linear, literate fashion. My recommendation to the Fellows is to be of the web, not merely on the web.

Then, yesterday evening, I was invited as a guest panelist on Steve Paikin's TVO program, The Agenda. The topic was another spin on the same theme: the demise of conventional news consumption and its replacement with online delivery of news content. The effect of this is an alleged news-ignorance among those people under 40, according to the featured interview guest, David Mindich. To me, Mindich seems to be one of the chronically literate, not understanding that, despite the demise of central authority - a predicted effect of the UCaPP world - young people today (those under 40? No mid-life crisis for Mindich, eh?) understand the creation of distributed and emergent authority, the effects of emergent transparency, and the ability to source raw news, be it via YouTube, newswire feeds, or leaked documents. I would have loved to gone one-on-one with Mindich, challenging his assertions (essentially that, because his study could not find evidence of distributed authority, it doesn't exist).

To be fair, Mindich is reporting on an American phenomenon manifest as systemic ignorance that, to my mind, is being actively promoted through the "perfect storm" of a dysfunctional education system and the overarching commercial interests of the conventional massmedia companies. This is not so much an Internet effect as it is a neoliberal policy effect - but that conversation is for another day.

You can watch the entire show by going to The Agenda's Video page, and clicking on the link for "David Mindich | The World According to You" (which launches a video viewer).

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11 January 2007

Jesus H. Phone!

Remember when content was king? Or at least, supposed to be king. Ahh, for the good ol' simple days of the net. But it was never really so. Design was king. Design is king. Design will forever be king. Unless she's queen, of course.

It's hard not to like Apple's consistently exceptional design among almost all its products. But for heaven's sakes - the way some are going completely nuts over Apple's iPhone announcement, you'd think this had happened.

(And yeah, the first time I'm forced to accept Vista with a new computer, I'm buying a Mac. If I have to swallow a learning curve, it'll be with a less evil OS.)
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10 January 2007

Periodic Table of Visualizations

Imagine a set of over a hundred visualization methods - covering everything from data through information, concept, strategy, metaphor and compound forms - arranged in the form of the traditional periodic table of elements. The beauty of the thing is that you can mouse-over each method element and up pops an example. Now stop imagining and go visualize the thing at the periodic table of visualization methods. A fabulous boon to just about anyone who needs to think through or present non-trivial ideas.
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Cute Marketing

There's a restaurant site near OISE that has repeatedly gone out of business through several owners over the past couple of years. I liked its last incarnation, especially for its decor, cool music, and cheap prix fixe oriental lunch. Too cheap, perhaps. Alas, the standard eviction notice, prominently labelled "Notice to Tenant" has been an all too common, periodic adornment to the premises.

The windows had been covered up and it appeared as if something was happening inside (the last time was a movie shoot), but once again, a Notice to Tenant letter was posted on the window this morning. But this one was different.

Click for larger imageThe text reads as follows: You are hereby notified that a Warrant has been duly executed to Cluckberg, Chuckleton and Lowenthal LLP in accordance with the Commercial Tendencies Act B.S. 1977 Chapter C1 vs 1 through 6 and pursuant to the desires of the community at large.

As a result of the ongoing deficiency of available foodstuffs classified under the Southern BBQ Act of 1857 , and in accordance with the aforementioned Act, you are hereby notified that you have until, oh, say, about the middle of March to cause and effect a plan to remedy said deficiency.

I'm not sure whether it was the Southern BBQ Act or the "oh, say, about the middle of March" that clued me in. The footer says, "Made you look." A cute reversal used as a probe of the now clich├ęd Notice.
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06 January 2007

Daylife: The Hyperlinked News... Paper?

I recently wrote about sites that aggregate news stories from sources around the world and present them as a gestalt, either in graphical or headline fashion. The evolution of the traditional newspaper as an archetype of informing oneself has been a hot topic over the past couple of years - the gestalt form corresponding to McLuhan's reference to pattern recognition that emerges from information overload (one of his early reversals in Understanding Media). We have seen nearly every traditional broadsheet around the globe take to the web: some, like the Globe and Mail, incorporating community-forming aspects like comment threads on major articles (okay, so it's often a dysfunctional community). Others, like the Toronto Star, simply move from one confusing mess of a web presence to another.

At first glance, it would seem that the traditional newspaper might be tailor-made for translation to the web. Articles are juxtaposed on the page according to (editors' judgement of) importance, or topic relation, or by page theme. Individual pages are grouped into sections according to major taxonomic divisions - The World, The Nation, Sports, Entertainment and so forth. But inherently, newspapers are nonlinear and both explicitly and implicitly hyperlinked ("see more on page 10; related articles on pages 12-15"). So, aside from the convenience of reading multiple newspapers online each morning (and not having to haul pixels for recycling to the curb every other week), why is the online newspaper such a boring medium?

Perhaps a look at the recently launched Daylife can provide some clues. The "cover" feels a bit like a magazine - a large photograph that highlights an editorially-selected topic of note for the day's theme. "Inside," the top stories - as well as all the other content - are entirely algorithmically generated collations from news sources around the world, like Daylife's forebear, Google News. What makes Daylife unique is the assembly of related topic and article links throughout the page. Among all of the aggregate pages are related stories, pictures, quotes, people, organizations and places that effect the type of juxtaposition that so characterizes traditional newspapers, leading McLuhan to observe that one steps into the daily newspaper as one might step into a bath.

I'm impressed by Daylife, particularly for its human feel and aesthetic, and its implicit understanding that the world in which we live, and on which it reports, is primarily about relationships and connections. More so than most other sources, Daylife demonstrates this basic and important understanding amidst the chaotic flow of the day's news.

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