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This is really “Breaking” news?

This morning, the president of the united states had a press conference make a major announcement. You might think it had to do with the budget crisis we are having or the lack of job crisis we’ve having you would be wrong. In a time when half of the world is at war or on the brink of one, the President had to show people his birth certificate proving he is an american citizen.

After reading the transcript of the press conference, I’m sad? angry? disappointed? No embarrassed that this is what had to happen for what 30% of the country to believe their commander and chief was born in this country. The people who have been making these allegations for almost three years will insist they are not racist but they are either in denial or lying. This would have never been an issue if John McCain or Howard Dean had been elected president.



When I tell people I’m in grad school, I get excite for the next question. I’m always asked what I’m studying. I tell people I’m studying how technology has changed the way we communicate as people. They always think this means I can help them understand how to use twitter or explain Facebook. And sometime I let them think that because explaining Foucault at a party can be difficult. When I get to really explain it (this is when I get excited), I always start with the question about why ebooks have page numbers. No one has been able to answer this question yet (outside of EMAC). But I had an unusual encounter yesterday that let me know that no matter how many people use Facebook, twitter or email as their primary methods of communication, we still have a long way to go before it’s the default method of communication in this country.

I was talking to a coworker yesterday about the fact that I was in grad school and when I gave her the answer I always give to the question everybody ask, her reply surprised me. She told me she hates email and never reads it. This was the first person I’ve met who doesn’t communicate with some sort of electronic medium. This got me to thinking about my own conversion to using email as my default and Facebook and Twitter as my primary forms of communication.

What was so surprising about this conversation to me was how unwilling this woman seemed to me to buy into the need for these forms of communication. How would she be in the loop with people if she didn’t check her multiple profiles in her social network? But why would she need to do this if her network wasn’t connected through websites? This woman hasn’t been recoded like I have. This transition in thinking is what Lessig’s book Code 2.0 is about.

Lessig approaches this change in thinking by giving four examples about how cyberspace changes the way people think about solutions to problems. The one problem/solution that gave a good example about finding new solutions to old problems was the story about borders. In this example, Lessig recounts how cyberspace borders are different from meat space borders in a lot of ways. Two neighbors were having a dispute about responsibility. Martha likes to grow beautiful flowers that are poisonous. Her neighbor Dank had a dog who died from eating one of the poisonous plants. Dank wanted to know why Martha grew plants that were dangerous to those around her. Martha wanted to know why Dank’s dog could be poisoned to death? Both parties wanted the responsibility to be on the other person to protect their border. The solution to the problem, this problem being one that took place in cyberspace, was merely in how to code the solution. Lessig asked, ” What does it mean to live in a world where problems can be coded away? And when, in that world, should we code problems away, rather than learn to work them out or punish those who cause them?” Lessig also makes the point, ” The problems of these spaces are problems of the Internet in general. And as more of our life becomes wired… these questions will become more pressing.”

How we think about solutions to the problems that the Internet raises in how we live our lives has to change. Applying old laws or old translations of laws to new methods means the past controls the future. Why should innovations in technology be threatened by old thinking? We must develop new thinking, new ways of looking. The woman who I work with who doesn’t like email hasn’t seen how new methods of communication can change how she interacts with people only how this is something new and something she has to learn how to navigate. It’s become a barrier keeping her in the old way of thinking. I hope one day she can see it other wise learn to recode her thinking.

New Literacies and Bridging the Divide

I was listening to a popular morning radio show on the way to work this week and heard John Hope Bryant, the author of this book: Love Leadership: The New Way to Lead in a Fear-Based World as a special guest. He talked about his inspiration for writing the book being the chaos he witnessed during the L.A. riots back in the 90’s. What he witnessed most wasn’t the violence and anger but the fear most people had. Because people couldn’t see a way out of their poverty, they acted out of fear. In fact John Hope Bryant say most leaders in the country today lead out of fear and that fear as a foundation of leadership will lead to failure.

His way out a fear based leadership? Financial literacy. As someone who has taken financial classes and seen the impact and advantage that has given me over some of my peers I see how helping people manage what they have gives them a better understanding of what they need. I think his thinking is going in the right direction. Making people aware of what they have and where they are is a step toward helping them achieve their life goals. Those goals can range from are owning their own business, becoming CEO of a billion dollar company or becoming debt free.

Financial literacy along with new media, digital and other literacies (computer, video games, information, etc.) form the New Literacies. These literacies alone will not overcome the digital divide but they will build a bridge that will help those who choose to take that path cross over it.


How to maintain your Republic

The how to guide for keeping your republic Vader free.
As a citizen who likes to stay aware of whats going on in the world and my country I read the news. Read is the wrong verb, consume would be a better description. I watch news clips, read tweets, catch headlines in the paper while I wait in line at the store. There are certain websites I’m sure to read on a weekly basis, reading complete articles they publish to get the in-depth story. There are also sites I stay away from as I think they give an unnecessary negative slant to their news tainting it in too much bias.  I don’t expect my news to be bias free as that is not the age we live in, I only expect it to be accurate. If I wanted to only hear news from one side or the other, that would be easy. People would argue that this is all the Internet is, people standing to one side of the line and shouting at their side, feeding off the uproarious applause making them shout louder and feel more right about the argument.

I wouldn’t say that is entirely true. It is easy to find people who are like-minded on the Internet and bury yourself within that crowd, each person vibing off the feed back and becoming an echo chamber. Because there are so many voices, it is just as easy to find people who will disagree with you and challenge your way of thinking. Cass Sunstein warns against the echo chamber in his book Republic.com 2.0.

“Censorship is indeed the largest threat to democracy and freedom.” Though Sunstein is talking about government censorship, he is also referring to citizens who self censor themselves into an enclave. Customizing filters to their preferences, never hearing an opinion they wouldn’t already choose that is the danger.

 “People should be exposed to materials that they would not have chosen in advance. Unplanned, unanticipated encounters are central to democracy itself.” This helps to prevent fragmentation amount the citizens. In order for people to feel that they belong to the community or nation, they must share in common experiences.“A democracy does not benefit from echo chambers or information cocoons.”

What Sunstein is getting at is a system of free expression. He says later in the text that one of the purposes of this book is to look at how to maintain a republic. The democracy we currently live in isn’t a democracy in the literal definition, it is a republic. He wants to know how can the technology that is new today and being developed for years to come helping to maintain it. Of the three points he makes, I think Sunstein feels most strongly about this one.  What is needed to maintenance of our carefully constructed republic is a well-functioning system of free expression.

General Interest Intermediaries or broadcasters of every type (newspapers, magazines, TV, blogs, etc), are now used as the public forum for this expression. In the past when the pubic would gather in public places like the park on a regular basis this type of discourse would happen there. Today it happens through old and new media types.Also important to the discourse is the diversity of the expression. For the expression to truly be free, it has to be inclusionary.  Diverse speakers should be able to reach a diverse public. This is also assuming there is a culture of free expression, people expect the opportunity to be heard and to hear others.

Though Sunstein wants you to know how important it is that all voices have the ability to be heard, he wants you to also understand people also need to have choice in what they can filter in or out. Having this freedom is one of the key points he gives in how to maintain a republic. Sunstein also warns against having too much faith or fear in the Internet as it can help a republic but hurt it even more.

The one thing I took from this book as something that I can do everyday is being open to hearing voices I would not normally hear. I would like to think I do this but when you’re forced to look at your habits often they aren’t as diverse as they could be. I hope this is one change I can make that isn’t short term.


The Revolution of Meh

Most public schools have a computer lab or computers in the classrooms. I remember when this happen in DISD as my mother works for that district. They were purchased because of all the possibilities they opened up for children. Computers would make kids smarter faster. The Superintendent was sure of it. So were parents.

Fast forward 2 decades to today. School districts have spent millions of dollars on maintaining, protecting, upgrading and keeping the computers physically in the schools. I remember my mom telling me one year a principal gave laptops to his teachers then permanently attached the laptops to the teacher’s desk so they wouldn’t get stolen. Computers in the classrooms were supposed to increase test scores and make students learn faster without the teachers having to work harder. This was general idea before the internet became mainstream which had a whole other effect on computers in the classroom that no one could have predicted.

When the internet first became mainstream, right after everyone bought the idea that this thing would change our lives, the possibilities seemed endless. Whole libraries where digitized. An entire encyclopedia could fix on a CD-Rom. The distribution of information became very cheap. Anybody with a computer had access to all the information that ever was and they had around the clock access. If you wanted to read all the books that Harvard students were reading you could do that. You no longer needed the degree to get the education. It seemed that the playing field was being leveled, everyone was equal with the internet. But this wasn’t and still isn’t true. Why? Because of cat videos.

One of the major costs considered too late when school districts started putting computers in classrooms was the installation of a network firewall. The firewall had to be added as another layer of protection so that hackers wouldn’t hijack  and compromise district materials (student names, grades, private personal materials, etc). Another thing the firewall is good at keeping out is “bad” websites. Of course pornography but sites that are seen as a waste of time are also blocked. Facebook is one of the big three, the other two being YouTube and Myspace. But why would you need to block sites like these at a school? Wouldn’t children just look up educational sites while they are at school? Given the choice between cat videos and educational websites, cat videos win hands down every time. This isn’t the first time this choice has been given. It has come up before in East Germany.

In the book The Net Delusion by Evgeny Morozov, the author recounts the effect cable TV had on the communist state the German Democratic Republic, AKA East Germany. For all of the German Democratic Republics existent, it was able to view Western television. Because of the geography it was hard for the state to block the transmissions so it stop trying after a while and let people watch what they wanted. People in the West thought this would make the citizens of the GDR more susceptible to Western ideology and political views making the people unhappy with their government and more likely to raise up against their leaders. This surprisingly was not the case.

When illegal satellite dishes were installed, certain government officials wanted to remove them. The local authorities spoke up,

“The members of their community were “‘much more content’ since the introduction of West German television,” that their attitudes toward the East german regime had become “more positive”, and that all applications for exit visas had been withdrawn.”

We would like to think that the East Germans where interested in the latest news  but what they preferred were shows like Dallas, Miami Vice and Sesame Street. Because of the abundance of entertainment available to the East Germans, the population as activist were useless. They were being pacified with entertainment making them satisfied enough with their regime.

“West German Television allowed East Germans to vicariously escape life under communism at least for a couple of hours each night, making their lives more bearable and the East German regime more tolerable”

So how does all of this relate to American school children today? When given the choice of free access to information, more often than not people will choose to be entertained. They will look up videos of cats sitting on turtles instead of learning about the history of a foreign country like Germany. This true of people without regard to social standing. Those who are disenfranchised are just as likely to be pacified by entertainment and stay in their current situation as opposed to working to overcome social boundaries.

Granting access to the information doesn’t mean that people will access it. Too many people are optimistic about the power of the internet, much like Vilem Flusser was about computers. Though Flusser didn’t know it would be a computer, he theorized about a device that would help mankind reach its full potential. He thought that once we had enough memory to store all information in instead of our heads, we would start to invent the cure for cancer and end world hunger. Because we had to memorize so many things, our brains were being taxed in the wrong way and if we could just have something else do all this memorizing for us the world would be a better place.

We now have that thing to hold all of our memories, history, personal information and everything else. Google has more data on its user then people probably remember about themselves. And what do we do now that we no longer have to remember? Now that we have access to all the information about everything? We watch videos like this:


Friend me, it’s good for your health

Over Spring Break my grandmother came to visit my family. She is eighty-seven years old and lives in the Ozark mountains with my uncle. I remember a time when she would get up at the crack of dawn and make breakfast for a dozen people, work all day, cook dinner for a dozen people, go to church all night and get in the bed well after midnight. These days she doesn’t do those things any more. When she first came to our house her health had declined more than normal and she was very depressed. It was hard to talk to her because she would just cry. It seemed nothing we did would cheer her up. It got so bad she ended up being admitted to the hospital. Little did I know this would be her turning point.

After the doctors treated her, people started to visit her in the hospital. A lot of people. The only time she was alone was at night when she was asleep. Her attitude changed by the third day. Her health got better as well but this was pretty much due to the treatment she was receiving. In the past her physical health has never had much effect on her attitude. This time the difference between her previous trips to the hospital and this trip was the amount of visitors she received. She has a lot of friends here in Dallas who come to see her when she visits us. These people make up part of her vast network.
In the book Connected by Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler the effect of a social network on individuals is explained. A social network specifically is an organized set of people who consists of two kinds of elements: human beings and the connections between them (p.13). This sets the network apart from a crowd in that the connections between people in a crowd are not necessarily known. My grandmother’s network is quite large. She has lived a long life adding nodes (people) to her network over time. This makes her the center of her network, each node connecting to her and each node connecting to each other.

This interconnection between nodes is called transitive, the more people in the network who know each other make the network more efficient in its ability to share things across the network. Things like information, emotions, sickness, money, etc. This aspect of the network, its contagion, is what contributed to my grandmother’s recovery. We usually associate things like sickness traveling through the network quickly. So can things like joy and happiness. The more people who visited her, the better she begin to feel. Those people who visited her would call other people and those people would visit her again increasing how she felt.

Christakis and Fowler explain this in the section on emotional contagion. Because as human beings we are empathic to how others feel,

“Emotions spread from person to person because of two features of human interaction: we are biologically hardwired to mimic others outwardly, and in mimicking their outward displays, we come to adopt their inward states.”

Every person who came to visit my grandmother was happy to see her, they smiled at her and told her how glad they were to see her. This in turn lifted her spirits. The more people visited her, the more they smiled at her and talked to her, the better she begin to feel.

“If your friends feels happy, she smiles, you smile and in the act of smiling you also come to feel happy,”

Another reason for this contagious feeling of happiness is what the authors call mirror neuron system. Because our brains practice doing what we observe others doing, we want to do it ourselves. This is evident when you out a baby in front of a tv and show them someone dancing. Often the baby will start to move along with the music and primitively mimic what the dancers on the tv are doing. I find I do this to but to a different degree as I think in my head, “Those moves don’t look that hard, I should be able to pick up this routine easily.”

Another reason for my grandmothers rising spirits is the level of happiness around her increased. When the authors did an experiment graphing the happiness of a social network, they found that unhappy people clustered with unhappy people and that happy people clustered with happy people. Her visitors here in Dallas are happy people. She doesn’t have many visitors in the mountains where she lives making her connection to happiness less frequent, dulling its affect on her. With the increase of happy nodes, her happiness levels rose.

Christakis and Fowler also found that those unhappy people also had the least amount of ties in the network keeping them on the edges of the network. Their research found that a person was more likely to be happy if they’re directly connected to a person who is happy themselves. This was true to the influence of two degree of separation. So if your sister is always happy and her friend is always happy (and you know her friend), you are likely to be a happy person. Likewise if your sister and her friends are depressed most of the time, you’re likely to be more depressed.

The effects of being a central member of a social network has great benefit for people as we are social beings. I can see the effect it has had on my family recently and that is one lesson  I don’t think I will soon forget.


Highlights from tomorrow’s game

Super bowl 45 was the best Super bowl ever in the history of the NFL. It was the highest grossing sporting event in North Texas ever and it was so the most mediated sporting event of the year. The NFL championship game is always the biggest television event of the year in America. Companies pay millions of dollars on commercials and millions on production of those commercials with hopes that those ads will endear customers to them so they can make more money.

In fact the game itself has become a low priority to the masses. It’s all about the pageantry of the event instead of the game. I was unaware of the politics surrounding the game until the new Cowboy stadium won the bid for the Super bowl 45. It seemed all people talked about was the ancillary activities that accompanied the game. Where would people stay? Where would they eat? What would they do while they where here? I remember reading an article about how the city of Arlington was offended that people weren’t talking more about how great a city it was because Fort Worth had so many of those ancillary events. Not only was it not about the game but also about where the game was not.

Predicting the event became just as much news as the future event. I caught a broadcast of ESPN’s Sports Center after the AFC championship game. One of the segments of the shows was highlights from a mock NFC championship game where the Green Bay Packer defeated the Chicago Bears to advance to the Super bowl. This wasn’t the first time a mock game was played to suppose the outcome of a sporting event. Millions of Madden fans play mock Super bowl games the two weeks before the actual games is played. What was new to me was the amount of time spend during a primetime broadcast analysing footage of a mock game.

Highlights of the game where showed in slow-motion and given the full Sports Center treatment. The anchors commented on each other banter and talked if the game being highlights was real. In the past such mock games were mentioned at the end of a broadcast but never had I seen so much time given to a non-event during valuable air time.

But this kind of premediation has come to be expected of broadcasts news. Richard Grusin examines his theory of premediation in the book of the same title. When something is premeditated, it is hypermediated before it exist. Like the mock Super bowl game on Sports Center and the preseason analysis of which team will go to the Super bowl before the official NFL season starts, possible out comes of an event are discussed and mediated. Predicting the correct future isn’t the object of premediation.

The goal is to make the public aware of what could happen and over stimulate them so much that when the event happens, they aren’t surprised by it. By maintaining this constant undercurrent of fear, people are held in an always engaged state that keeps them from experiencing anything new. Because all thought of avenues are mediated, remediated and sometimes hypermediated, when the event comes (sporting event, political election, Reality show season finally) it has a feeling of anticlimacticism and repetition.  Seeing a sporting event several time before the actual event could irritate viewers into missing the event altogether.

I think one side effect of this theory not mentioned is the rise in Cynicism among the masses. This is one of the reasons I don’t watch broadcast TV, too much repetition. It get to the point where the news is repeated so much, it isn’t news anymore. Grusin says this is one of the purposes of premediation is to reduce news events into irritating information.

“Their preference for information, which loses its surprise value through publication, that is, is constantly transformed into non-information makes it clear that the function of the mass media consist in the constant generation and processing of irritation – neither in increasing knowledge nor in socializing or educating people in conformity to norms”

This happens to me when I watch news about weather events. Tornado season is known to mess up ones TV viewing as local news is quick to interrupt their regular schedule to show a brightly colored map of a storm “on its way” to do some damage to some part of the metroplex. Once that damage is done, news trucks hurry to the site to find something broken, destroyed or ruined to splash across the screen to let people know they are lucky this wasn’t them. After a few minutes, I don’t care about the high winds or the flash flooding. I just want to turn the TV off and take my chances as I would rather be in the dark about what’s going on then watch one more minute of this broadcast the keeping telling me the worst is always just around the corner.