Dispatch from the Age of Electracy: C2E2 edition

One of my prized possessions (thank you, Joe Hancock and Joy Sperling) is a Dawn of the Dead poster signed by George Romero, Ken Foree, David Emgee, Scott Reiniger, and Gaylen Ross.  Among the various bits of stuff that the seller provided were photos of the signings — attesting to their provenance.  With C2E2 today, I now find myself in the position of preparing to seek photos and autographs from luminaries and scribblers, so this seemed an apt time to offer a few comments on signatures.

Paintings or It Didn't Happen
Paintings or It Didn’t Happen

The signature attests to presence and agreement.  It used to be ubiquitous on contracts and love letters.  It had to be witnessed (the more important the contract, the more crucial the witness).  We have special people whose job it is to watch other people apply their signatures.  In encounters with celebrities, we ask them to sign things as a souvenir, as an agreement (I was here with this thing).  It’s a tangible thing we can take away from our encounter with them.  I can imagine two teens in high school in the fifties:

Teen 1: You’ll never guess who I met when I was in Los Angeles last weekend.  Maryiln Monroe!
Teen 2: Autograph or it didn’t happen.

Of course, the signature only stays reliable as long as we want it to.  In the age of the digital manipulation, it’s but a matter of moments to scan, copy, paste, and render a document that looks as though it was signed by someone who didn’t sign it.  One of the more bizarre ways we maintain a belief in the integrity of the signature is in the use of Faxed, but not emailed, documents.  Two different financial organizations I work with accept faxes as legally binding documents, but NOT email.  Of course, the easiest way for me to fax things is to scan them and use a PDF to Fax service to send them.  We’re approaching angels on pinhead territory here.

With the rise of ubiquitous cameras, the autograph has given way to another form of “I met a celebrity” — the selfie or posed picture.  When we were at Comic-Con last year, we were far more interested in getting photos with recognizable celebrities than autographs.  First, they’re much more compelling as something to share.  Second, they document the human interaction — I met this person — rather than the human/object interaction — this person touched this thing.  Third, for the celebrity, the photo attests to true fanhood because it’s not a commodity.  No one will want to buy a copy of my photo of me and John Hodgman, though there might be people who’d pay slightly more for my autographed copies of his books.

It will be interesting to see if the photograph of the signing makes its way back into legal spaces.  I can imagine photos embedded as part of legal documents showing all the signers and witnesses together, holding up the signed document.  There would be joyous photos (the shared signing of incorporation papers, for instance) and grim ones (I can imagine a thread somewhere highlighting the most depressing divorce-papers-signing photos).

Someday, we’ll have to upload a photo to attach to our e-filing of our taxes, face next to the screen.  It will be automatically updated as our driver’s license picture, and the circle will be complete.


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Unbreakable

I’m not sure how much of an essay is worth writing here.  Slate excellent pieces about the race issues in Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and in particular the disturbing trope of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope that has become so common.  Aisha Harris writes:

The tongue-in-cheek song will be familiar to anyone who’s followed the news or viral trends in the past few years. You may not remember their names, but the faces of the notorious bystanders who have provided unintentional laughs via YouTube sound bites have clearly inspired the character of Bankston, and are impossible to forget. So are their inadvertent catchphrases—“Ain’t nobody got time for that!”; “Hide yo’ kids! Hide yo’ wife!” “I was eatin’ my McDonald’s …”—which have been quoted, remixed, auto-tuned, and meme-ified to excess. These are, of course, the “hilarious black neighbors.” …

Indeed, the hilarious black neighbor has long been an accepted part of contemporary culture, though fraught with race and class connotations. There is a very subtle creative choice here that distinguishes Bankston from the way Charles Ramsey, Sweet Brown, and Antoine Dodson have been received by the public, however: In Kimmy Schmidt, the song is both cleverly subversive and empowering. “White dudes hold the record for creepy crimes,” he says, making the cult leader the butt of the joke; and then, “But females are strong as hell!” It’s not quite as hard-hitting as Ramsey’s oft-ignored, brutally honest statement that “he knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms,” but the sentiment of pointing out the long-held racial division in the U.S. remains. (link)

Like many things about Kimmy Schmidt, the opening sequence doesn’t easily fit into a particular spot as we talk about race.  It’s a complicated commentary on popular culture while also engaging in many of the tropes that shape that same culture.

But what I’m interested in writing about today is the remediation of the auto-tuned news opening.  Consider this path:

  • Six years ago, the Gregory Brothers began posting auto-tuned clips of the news, and quickly became kings of a new style of news interpretation and remix. Sparking many imitators.
  • Over the last several years, some of the most viral moments of news coverage have been auto-tuned by the Gregory Brothers (and others), and the people involved in those stories have, themselves, become famous.  (See the essay quoted above for a discussion of the troubling implications of this trend.)
  • Then, when the creators of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt–a show purchased by a network that only “airs” its shows through online streaming–were inspired by the Ariel Castro case, they decided to use as the introduction a song written in the style of the auto-tuned news songs of Charles Ramsey that circulated after the original kidnapping.
  • So they wrote a satire/close copy of the “hilarious black neighbor” trope, filmed it as a news package (or a bunch of news packages), added in some B-roll, and gave it to…
  • The Gregory Brothers, who then auto-tuned the fake news to be a simulacrum of the real auto-tuned news pieces they create regularly.

I’m not sure what it is that fascinates me about this arc.  Perhaps it’s the meta-and-not-meta aspect of the auto-tuned news package prepared by the same people who auto-tune real news packages.  Perhaps it’s the way tropes of the digital age are finding their way into popular culture in ever-faster cycles. (Evan Gregory says, in an interview about the song, “You know something is an accepted part of culture when it begins to be placed as a plot point in sitcoms.”)

Many people have lamented the notion of “infotainment” or “news as entertainment,” and the way that ratings and the 24 hour news cycle create unwanted (perhaps) market motivations for sensational storytelling.  One aspect of the digital age’s single channel of information might be the blending of that content in our mind.  When we watch news clips on Youtube and we watch fake news clips on Youtube, does our sense of the truth value at the heart of those news clips diminish?

Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Two (un)related notes that I wanted to share:

  • As I was writing and reading about the Antoine Dodson and Charles Ramsey viral auto-tunes, I must admit feeling divided about what to say and how to talk about these individuals.  On the one hand, the narrative of the “hilarious black neighbor” is troubling, and the way the Internet chews up these people is pretty disturbing.  And for their part in it, one could be critical of the Gregory Brothers.  In addition, there’s potential friction to be read in the racial implications of white people using a black person’s work to make money.  On the other hand, the fact that the Gregory Brothers have been making this kind of music for a while reduces many of those concerns for me–they’ve established their bona fides to songify the news. Criticisms of the songs are further dampened, to my mind, by the ethical approach the Brothers take to the song publishing — they credit the author of the original video as a co-writer, and split the proceeds 50/50.
  • During the course of researching for this piece, I encountered the strange story of Jay Jackson, the amazing actor who played straightforward news anchor Perd Hapley on Parks and Recreation and has played a newscaster in several other venues. (I know I always giggle at him in Scandal, as his Parks and Rec role has destabilized him as a serious news anchor for me.)  As NPR reports, Jackson is so good at playing an anchor because that was his career before he went into acting. So again, we have a real professional who goes into acting to play a pretend professional doing the same thing.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Mea Culpa

For your consideration: Apologies.

It was the third episode in this list that got me thinking about the topic.  But here are three moments in my podcast listening that struck me as interesting:

  1. This American Life – “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory” – After using a whole hour to explore one reporter’s experience in China visiting an Apple factory, This American Life spends a full episode retracting its coverage and apologize. (3/16/2012)
  2. Startup, “We Made a Mistake” – After slipping up by failing to inform one interviewee that they were being interviewed for a commerical, Startup did a whole episode exploring what happened. (12/9/2014)
  3. TL;DR – “Quiet, Wadhwa” – After spending a whole episode (approx 20 minutes) on how a prominent male spokesperson on women in tech is resented by some women in tech, WNYC pulled the episode because the subject of the story had not been given the opportunity to comment on the story.  (2/19/2015)
"Sorry Explored" by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)
“Sorry (Explored)” by Joe Penniston (cc-licensed)

Other examples of mistakes and apologies from the last few years:

  • The Newsroom – The entire second season of the Aaron Sorkin show was about a massive error and a retracted episode of the show.
  • Brian Williams – Williams is on forced hiatus right now as his exaggerations about his experiences in Iraq have caught up with him.
  • Bill O’Reilly – After excoriating Brian Williams for his errors, O’Reilly is finding himself under fire for similar mistakes in his reporting.

It all started with Dan Rather, to my mind.  Rather’s downfall over the fraudulent Killian documents occurred in the early days of web 2.0 (2004), when crowd-sourcing was possible and the news media in general was just starting to understand what a powerful fact-checking engine the mob is (many eyeballs make shallow bugs).  Since then, news media have had to answer errors in ever-faster cycles, and address them more thoroughly.

But I’m interested here in the genre of the apology episode. I like to imagine that the apology episodes I’m pointing to spring from a couple factors:

First, podcasts are intimate experiences that feel more like conversations than like stage shows.  A podcaster in your ear feels identical to hearing a telephone call.  So when these intimate acquaintances let us down, it feels more personal.  We expect a personal apology.

Second, with social media, the need for public apology rises dramatically — before social media, one angry person (like, say, the soldier who posted on Brian Williams’ Facebook Page that he didn’t remember Williams being there) now has the ability to be public immediately, and the rumor spreads at the same speed it would in a crowd, but now that crowd is the whole world.

Brian Williams' Apology
Brian Williams’ Apology

Third, they create an honest atmosphere in which trust can be re-built.  The newscaster who shies away from blame makes things worse, not better, for themselves.

I’m curious about this, and have a few questions to think about as the idea continues to evolve for me.

  1. Are apologies of this size and frequency new?  I know there are and have always been retraction columns, and occasionally stories will make big news for the story itself (the Sokal affair comes to mind), but the character of these feels different to me.
  2. Does the heightened awareness among media consumers about how media is made help or hurt these apologies?  In other words, are we more forgiving now that we’re all becoming media producer/consumers?
  3. Is there a lower bar for newscasters (or podcasters) to regain the trust of the listeners than there was before?  If media makers own their mistakes quickly and try to address them ethically (as in the episodes at the top of the page), does this make it easier for them to regain the public’s trust?


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Obsolete before it ships

Rule 34
Rule 34

Charles Stross reflected on the relentless pace of culture and the difficulty of writing about the near future or the present in a post about his book Rule 34:

There is a certain pub in Edinburgh that I’ve used as a setting for some key scenes, because it’s quarried out of the side of a near-cliff and is notorious for having no mobile phone or wifi signal. Imagine my joy on discovering that it has acquired a strong 3G signal in the roughly two months since I checked the copy-edited manuscript. (link)

I’m watching this happen, a bit, in the context of my forthcoming book, Title Still to be Determined.  My book, which should come out sometime next Spring, is a monograph about the digital age and detective fiction.  At one point, I make an extended example of the anti-vaccine community as a group that flourishes through the Internet using gate-keeping and strong peer pressure to shape its conversations.  This is an example I wrote a couple years ago (this book has been slow in gestation) that’s now becoming too obvious.

On the one hand, I like that people are now waking up to the dangers of our reduced herd immunity, though I wish we’d not needed the Disneyland Measles Outbreak to get the conversation started.  On the other hand, I’d rather not see any examples or parts of my book become more common than they already are.  Can everyone stop writing about the Internet for the next fifteen months or so?  Thanks.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Empire State’s Worldbuilder

Empire State Building by Tom Simpson cc-licensed
“Empire State Building” by Tom Simpson

When my students and I talk about the digital age, one of the changes we trace is the relationship between author and audience.  In oral cultures, the relationship is direct — the one telling you the story is standing within earshot, so you can ask questions and work out details together.  Literacy changes that, separating the reader from the author by the distance of a letter or generations.  This breaks the text away from the author (as the New Critics noticed) and changes the nature of the relationship of author to reader.  Electracy changes the relationship again.  The immediacy of digital communication means that a two-way communication channel has now opened up.  But because of the open publishing nature of the web, the audience is also filled with authors, and the two can reflect one another back and forth.  I finished reading Adam Christopher’s Empire State recently, and the end of the audiobook featured two addenda that I thought were particularly interesting illustrations of the shifting relationship between author and reader.

First, it had the soundtrack for the writing of the book.  Christopher explains each song choice for both its musical quality and the use he made of it while writing.  He also offers a link to the soundtrack so you can listen yourself.  This meta-narrative information is interesting, both as a tidbit about the writer and his taste in music, but also about the mood the novel should cast.  I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until an ebook comes with a soundtrack that you listen to while you read.  It probably couldn’t be songs with words, but it could be a modular thematic instrumental soundtrack, broken up perhaps by chapter or even page.  Somebody go build that!

Second, the end of the book includes an invitation to produce fan fiction in the world of Empire State.  Christopher invites fan authors to create their own stories for the novel, and hosts a place where they can share them.  At the same time, he reserves the scenes in the novel from fan adaptation (because it could create conflicting storylines) and he asks people not to write in the future of the Empire State (after the end of the novel), as he may want to write a sequel and he doesn’t want to be influenced by something one of them wrote.  The website also features a pre-built set of terms in which fan artists whose work the Empire State folk choose to publish will get 25% of something–it’s not clear to me what or how much the royalty goes to.

Fan art will appear.  The savvy writer encourages it and helps guide it to fit his own goals for the source work.  This is storytelling in the digital age.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Tales from Kickstarter, part 2

This week’s Dispatch follows up on last week’s discussion of Kickstarter and board games.

Settlers of Catan Menaced (Tony J Case, cc-licensed)
Settlers of Catan Menaced (Tony J Case, cc-licensed)

In response to the three problems I pointed out last week, we’re starting to see a number of changes in KS habits for board game producers.

Stretch Goal Fever
The companies that do well fighting this problem have learned a couple things.  First, that free or cheap to produce stretch goals are key.  Adding a sheet of stickers?  Great!  Adding another miniature? Bad.  I like the companies that do small runs of KS extras that will be tossed in with the box — both Heroes Wanted and Epic Resort did this, adding little packets of extra stuff that regular buyers of the game wouldn’t be able to get.  On the other hand, sometimes we get extra trinkets that just feel like a waste of money (I’m looking at you, sheet of stickers).

Another response is to avoid stretch goals altogether, or only offer a couple at huge milestones.

Crushed by Success
Limiting specialized stretch goals is a key part of this process — individualized rewards mean tons of extra work in fulfillment, and thus lots of work outside of making the game.  Boo.  Ludicreations is the paramount of restraint here.  Not only do they do NO stretch goals at all, they actually limit the number of games they will issue as rewards so they can be sure to fulfill the game on time.  Here’s what they say:


What You See Is What You Get – this is our doctrine, and we like to run simple, straightforward campaigns. We are aware that offering add-ons and/or introducing stretch goals would increase the funding total. However, we have already thrown everything into this game – a lot of time, effort, and money. We intend to print with the highest quality materials anyway and we will not cut any corners.

We also want to offer the game at the cheapest cost possible – and that is incompatible with stretch goals. We’d have to add “hidden” profit in the pledge levels, that we can then “spend” to give you stretch goals to get excited about. Therefore, raising money beyond our goal does not give us extra money on hand to create stretch goals.

Furthermore, because the games are made in Europe, and because we do small print runs, we do not benefit by economies of scale by producing more copies of the game.

If we do offer additional content, we will lock past pledge levels. That’s it – you do not need to pay more, or like us on Facebook, follow us on Twitter or be a fan on BGG – although all of those things are nice of you if you do them, we want you to do them if you want to, not because of a carrot we dangle in front of you.

We do not do add-ons (not even our other games), because we want to keep our operations simple, and deliver efficiently. We are in this for the long run, so it does not help us to squeeze a few more dollars from a few backers, if we disappoint *all* backers.

Will it be any good?
Ludicreations has also done a great job soliciting reviews of their games to combat the problem of games that look cool but aren’t fun to play.  As Steven Johnson predicted in Interface Culture, reviewers have become the filter for us, a way to find games that work.  By tapping into this fan culture, KS companies bypass the judgment of game production companies in favor of the wisdom of crowds.

The personal touch
My favorite company producing games through Kickstarter right now is Funto11 games (current KS: Epic PVP: Fantasy).  These folks have a long track record of producing great games and delivering on time.  They also do a great job of offering substantial and interesting stretch goals without going overboard.  I also love the personal touch at the heart of all their projects.  For instance, when they were doing the KS for Castle Dice, one of the stretch goals was bigger dice, but in the last week before the KS ended, Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast, and the team saw backers withdrawing at about an even rate as new ones were signing up.  They wrote this:

Just when a campaign should be taking off toward the end, we’ve been noticing a very large number of cancellations which is offsetting any new backer momentum. This is totally unlike our previous 2 campaigns and the campaigns that our friends have run in the past. It’s pretty clear to us that this is due to folks hunkering down from the storm on the East Coast.

We love making games and we think even expensive games like Castle Dice are an affordable way for folks to have fun (especially when you compare it to things like going to the movies or having a nice meal out). That said, We don’t want anyone feeling any sort of pressure to open their wallet more than they feel comfortable with to help us reach a stretch goal at a time like this.

As such, we’re taking down the stretch goal and marking it “achieved.” We’ll cover any uncovered costs associated with the upgrade (we have some extra money from MSfG and Flame War – none of us have taken a dime from Fun to 11 to date). And while we’re happy with any support we get in these last 3 days, we’re not announcing any new stretch goals for this product. Instead we will be donating 10% of every dollar raised between now and the end of the campaign to hurricane relief. It just feels like the right thing to do now. We’ve always said that Fun to 11 isn’t in this for the money, so it’s time we put those words into practice.

Thanks for all of your support folks and to all of you on the wrecked coast, hang tough,

Luke, Jay, Kai, Dave, and Rob

How cool is that?

All of this, of course, points to both the pleasures and the dangers of electracy.  On the plus side, we get to know game developers in ways we couldn’t before.  On the down side, we don’t have the smarts of the marketplace protecting us from flashy amateurs who don’t actually have the experience to get the game to market.  And having to use our own judgment to filter those folks means that sometimes we’ll get screwed.


Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Tales from Kickstarter

"Die Zehn" by David Eccles
“Die Zehn” by David Eccles (cc-licensed)

If you follow this blog much, you know I enjoy a good kickstarter campaign — particularly for board games, which are relatively cheap in terms of development (mostly costing the developers time and energy and potentially little else), but can be very expensive in terms of production.  Thus, Kickstarter can be an excellent way to fund the production of a game — it allows for the producer to get pre-orders before committing to produce anything, and to moderate the print run as a project becomes a success.

There are some companies that go a bit crazy with “stretch goal fever,” offering too much without having thought through the consequences.  Exemplar case study, the foundering-but-still-might-eventually-get-produced Teramyyd: Earthsphere, a game of steampunk blimp piracy.  They went absolutely bonkers with their stretch goals, and being a relatively new game company, they drastically under-estimated the cost involved in producing these things.

Others founder under the pressure of their own success.  Queen games has, for instance, run into fulfillment issues because their orders were far larger than they’d planned for, and their production and fulfillment facilities are small houses. [UPDATE 2/3 5PM: When I arrived home today, Escape from the Temple, which was supposed to ship last October, had arrived.] Thus, while the production of their games should have been pretty straightforward (since they used all pre-made assets), the delivery of those games has been, well, slow.  This was also the issue with Greg Rucka et al’s very successful run on their graphic novel, Lady Sabre and the really long title, which apparently took forever to mail out (I know Rucka was still posting mailing updates six months after I’d received my copy).

Last, one worry with kickstarter games is that they just won’t be that good.  So far, I’ve had a lot of luck.  All the kickstarter games I’ve gotten have been pretty fun — I haven’t had one yet where I was disappointed in it.  In fact, one of them (A Study in Emerald) is among my favorite games in my collection.  Dork Tower has done a great job talking about the finances of KS, the dangers of KS, and the need for a place where people have already played the games.

Next week, I’ll write a bit about the changes I’ve seen in the KS game community that respond to these challenges.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Note: I’ll be taking a break from the Dispatches from the Age of Electracy series until after the new year.

An interesting conversation opened up on Facebook last week about grading.  The OP asked “Hypothetically, what should I say to a student who’s unhappy about getting 91/100?”

Grading Conversation Original Post
(click ‘read more’ below to see the full conversation)

The comments were varied and interesting, from snarky answers that few teachers would actually say aloud to serious answers about how to assuage or rebuff the student’s concerns.  But while the two tones seem strikingly different, I would suggest most instructors fall in the middle regarding their attitude about students, grading, and the nuances of it.

  • Frustration with minor grievances – it’s really frustrating when students fixate on small grade grievances.  Boy howdy, I know it is.  But where we see ‘just one assignment,’ some students put a lot of stock or interest or faith.  Plus, they only see one of the assignment, rather than the 20 (or 80) we have.
  • Grading is a weird piece of job performance because it’s very subjective (CAVEAT: I’m writing here about subjectively graded assignments, judgments of quality rather than accuracy.).  Teachers build an instinctual “I know it when I see it” meter that allows us to assess quality of projects quickly, but then we have to, you know, explain the grades.  It’s the gap between the assessment and the explanation that’s at discussion here.  And when the difference between two projects comes down to “good but not great,” that’s a hard line to explain or help a student understand how to improve.
  • That said, even adding in a helping of excuse for the caustic space of the Internet, I find the dismissive tone of some of these comments pretty harsh.  It’s easy, as a teacher, to lose empathy for the student and their efforts to understand grades and grading.  And as instructors, we sometimes forget the power this evaluative tool has for our students, and the weight with which the hammer comes down.

And, I think, many of these effects are amplified by Electracy.  The shifting nature of knowledge acquisition and learning means many of the values and relationships between teacher and student are changing, have changed, and will change; these changes manifest, in some ways, on the grading page.  A few thoughts about this:

  • The shift from “Sage on the Stage” to “Guide on the Side” models of teaching recognize that the modern teacher’s role is to facilitate exploration of the subject as an expert.  I’ve written before that what we’re selling in modern higher education is not knowledge, it’s time with someone who understands the field and is good at explaining it.  The grade itself becomes less important because we’re less important as arbiters of correctness or validity alone.  Instead, it’s our ability to explain why the student’s work earned a particular grade that makes us more valuable than Wikipedia.
  • The flattening of hierarchies urges us to be more approachable and urges students to see us that way.  This alteration of relationship (admittedly, this may be a very subjective point) makes it easier for students to discuss and question their grades than they might have before.  The open lines of communication between student and instructor also facilitate this kind of conversation.  I suspect the professor who decided she’d no longer accept emails was, in part, motivated by the idea that if the problem isn’t big enough to come in to discuss, it’s not important enough to discuss at all.  I’d interpret things a different way.
  • Electronic grading also opens up the system, making it visible to students in ways it just wasn’t when grades were kept entirely on paper.  In the past, students couldn’t really “keep track” of their grade.  The professor could do so, but wasn’t really accountable to students if they didn’t.  Now, with electronic grade books, students expect that grades will be updated and up-to-date, and professors have a reasonable obligation to maintain that visibility.  At the same time, students acquire an obligation to manage their own grade.  If something is a surprise, it’s not our fault.

In these contexts, we’ve come to see a more nuanced idea of grading.  It’s not an arbiter of quality alone, it’s an assessment of achievement.  We use rubrics to communicate our expectations and we evaluate using those guidelines.  There’s still plenty of fuzzy subjectivity in our grading, but the onus is on us to explain ourselves, and then on the students to take more responsibility for the process.


Continue reading Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: End of the semester grading

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I want to be part of the digital revolution!

Hallie and Jim

This season’s The Newsroom has re-told the story of the Snowden leaks on a smaller scale, exploring the idea of the reporter being jailed for contempt of court on refusing to name their source.  While this has been interesting, I find the plotlines about the intersection of the Internet and the news far more compelling.

Hallie’s work for a gawker-like blog makes Jim upset because her pay depends, to a degree, on traffic.  She begins adopting a more personal writing style (including writing about a fight she had with Jim) which doesn’t seem to be about news so much as about entertainment.  But Hallie makes key points to Jim — first, that audience concerns drives television news too, and that their ability to tell certain stories depends on their audience share.  Second, she asserts that a more personal writing style will connect with the readers.  I couldn’t help but think about the fact that in the digital age, the audience must be much more concerned with the people writing its news.  The automatic credibility obtained by working for ACN, for instance, doesn’t apply to Internet writers, so by building a personal connection with her audience, Hallie is amplifying the connection she makes with them.  Jim’s luxury of being able to only write “real news” is failing, hard. (It’s in her argument with Jim that Hallie shouts “I want to be part of the digital revolution!”)

The most recent episode had two more stories focused on the Internet era.  The new owner of ACN, played with perfect arrogance by B.J. Novak, demands programming and reporting changes that have angered the ‘pure journalists’ of the show but have pulled the network’s ratings up.  At the crux of this episode is their app, ACNywhere, which allows people to post celebrity sightings.  Sloan finds this awful, and invites the arrogant man who created the app on television to eviscerate him.  The episode perfectly captures the tension between the connectedness of the modern age and the dangerous nature of big data and its affordances.

Last, in a highly charged and strongly criticized sub-plot, Don was ordered to do a story on a website where women are invited to share their experiences of sexual assault where the police or other authorities did not pursue charges against the womens’ attackers.  The sub-plot attempted to explore the dangers of unfettered publication on the web, and the possibility for people to be tarnished by that story.  But in failing to adequately address the question of how to cover rape, its real effect was to make a hash of the public debate about rape and our terrible handling of it, both legally and socially.

Sonia Saraiya at Salon makes a convincing argument that the show’s season-length plot about the role of ‘citizen journalists’ is capped by the leaker story, the ultimate citizen journalism case into which all these concerns flow.  It wonders about publicity being directed at those who don’t deserve it, worries about the unforeseen consequences of releasing information into the world, and makes us think about the nature of truth in the digital age.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Profile Pictures and the Digital Age

In a professional development panel at Midwest PCA 2014, I spoke with two colleagues about the job search and job interview process.  In particular, the subject of our panel was “how to give a good interview.”  We discussed Skype interviews and the many pitfalls that emerge from them.  In particular, I mentioned that it was worthwhile to attend to the image behind the person doing the skyping, and to show a professional demeanor in all things.  As a corollary, one of my colleagues mentioned how a member of an interview committee was so turned off by the interviewee’s “unprofessional” profile picture (which featured him holding a puppy) that it soured his analysis of the interview.

I couldn’t help but think of that when someone I Skyped with recently, in a professional context, had this profile pic:


I noticed, just before we connected, that I hadn’t adjusted my profile picture either, which isn’t terrible, but isn’t terribly professional either.  Here it is, just for fairness’ sake:


*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Beguiled by Spam

As all blog owners do, I regularly clear the spam queue from my blog, rarely giving a second glance to comments so clearly machine generated.  I believe early machine comments with non-advertising contents are designed to build a spambot’s reputation on a site so later they can post SEO click content.  Anyway, yesterday I got this comment that was so vague it had to be spam:


But it was posted as a comment on a movie review post that I really liked. So I really wanted it to be real.  Of course, when I googled the email address, I found it on a list of ‘free email addresses’ for spammers and jerkwads to use.  I marked it as spam, but sadly.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I Zombify Myself to Teach About Zombies

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to Skype in to the Crane River Theater company’s zombie run training session to provide a little information for the zombie participants there.  I wasn’t able to do it live, so I sent them a 15 minute video to show instead.  They recently sent me a thank you note and a couple photos of my ‘talk.’  This line of events struck me as amazing and weird:

  • Unable to work out a time for me to attend the event…
  • I was invited to attend digitally but couldn’t make the time they had in mind…
  • So I sent a video of me talking about zombies…
  • Which their participants watched (and, I’m told, enjoyed)…
  • During which their photographer took photos…
  • Printed those photos…
  • And mailed them to me.

It’s awesome.

Crane River Theater Zombie Run Training Session crane-river-theater02-web

Also, it occurs to me that I’ve enabled some digital zombification of myself.  The organizers can take my video and use it in future runs, or distribute it, or do whatever.  I suppose nominally they’re limited by copyright law, but I didn’t do much to secure any rights to the video.  In my essay “The E-Dead,” I argued that part of the confluence of the zombie genre and the Internet comes in our fear of being out of control of ourselves.  As we make and distribute digital artifacts, we all experience the artist’s dilemma more and more (the artist’s dilemma being that you cannot control your work once you release it into the world).  And that experience of being controlled by other people feels an awful lot like being a voodoo zombie.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

This is the fourth in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.


In Parts 1, 2, and 3 of this series, I reflected on the challenges facing the institution of university education in the Age of Electracy.  Like the industries I explored in part 1, the University must reconceive its project if it is to survive in the new era, and more importantly, if it is to remain valuable to the students it educates.

What we are not:

One thing we need to consider is the way Electracy has changed what we do.  In the era of high literacy, we offered access to knowledge, both physically (with our tremendous storehouses of information) and mentally (by teaching the skills and offering pathways through that knowledge).  While the second half still holds somewhat, the first half has become increasingly irrelevant.  While our function as a museum might still hold in some way, that’s very different from being an institution of learning.  We are not a repository of knowledge.

In the past fifty years since the G.I. bill sent so many middle- and lower-middle class men to college, we have seen a significant rise in our credentialing function.  The past few decades have seen a cultural shift in which these degrees are, more than ever, gateways to basic middle class job opportunities.  As such, we’ve gotten into the business of authorizing entry into that class, but the value we purport to guarantee has not stayed consistent in the public’s mind.  More and more people see the degree not as an assemblage of learning but as a piece of paper that lets them apply for jobs.  As such, alternate (less expensive) forms of credentialing have emerged in place of our expensive credentialing.  We are not a credential granting body.

What we should do:

Those of us who value university learning understand that a good education means more than that piece of paper, it represents an array of skills and problem-solving abilities hard-won over the course of several years of study.  More and more, it’s crucial that we focus on providing students with those skills and helping them understand the skillsets they maintain.  As a professor in the humanities, this challenges me because our skill tools are difficult to measure and slow to emerge.  We hear from students how the work they do with us comes back in a year or two to augment their later work with others.  But we need to think about how to frame the education we do through the public utilitarian lens.  I’m not suggesting that we move toward quantifying our output, but that an articulated sense of the practical results students gain from working with us is valuable and important.

We need to continue jettisoning the antiquated idea of the professor as distant lecturer/expert or imparter-of-sacred-knowledge.  The aspect of our work that does not scale up is the personal, the individual attention to personal learning and guidance with an expert.  It’s in this guise that I think we offer the best learning to our students and the means by which we transition toward an Electrate model of education.

Finally, we need to reconsider how we take advantage of intrinsic motivation across the whole of the student experience.  It’s cliche to say we need to revise the very basic premises on which we educate students in this country, but as an instructor I feel strongly that we must do just that.

We have a long way to go, but I think the fact that so many smart people are already thinking about this stuff (see part 1 for my inspirations/ sources/ informants) is a very encouraging situation.

It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3

This is the third in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.


Monkey with glasses
I couldn’t think of a good image to accompany this post, so here’s a monkey with glasses.

In Part 1 of this series, I offered as object lessons service industries that saw significant upheaval in the Age of Electracy.  In Part 2, I suggested that universities face significant challenges from “above” because of the changing shape of public opinion.  These factors don’t correlate very closely with what happened to travel agents or stock brokers.  By contrast, the rising forces of competition certainly analogize closely.

At its heart, the University faces the same problem Travel Agents and Stock Brokers faced — a shift from information scarcity to information abundance and the emergence of technologies that automate (or scale, at least) key parts of our business model.  I’ll write a bit about three pressures we face, each of which has emerged significantly because of the digital age and each of which challenges our conception of who we are and what we do for students.

1. Lectures, information, and syllabi

For many subjects and much of the history of university study, college professors imparted knowledge to students via what Paolo Freire famously called the “banking model.”  We dispense knowledge via lectures and books, the students store that knowledge in their memory, and deposit it back on tests.  Hopefully some of it sticks.  This model worked for many reasons — first, knowledge itself was relatively rare, and the means to sort it were difficult to find and not easily copied.  Second, the expert who understands and can dispense that knowledge was even more rare, and he (or she, but usually he) could only be reached via classrooms and visits to musty offices.

The internet has, I’m afraid, disrupted that scarcity.  Information is no longer rare.  It’s getting easier to find and index every moment, and smart agents, search engines, and widely available tools mean that less and less do professors hold monopolies on what information is best nor do we limit how it can be accessed.  On top of that, with easy-to-distribute digital recordings, our dispensation of that knowledge need not be rare either.  A lecture given once is no longer ephemeral, but can be captured and placed online where it can be viewed in perpetuity.

As a result, the lecture model of instruction in face-to-face classrooms has dropped out of favor as professors and students alike come to recognize that such one-way interaction does not necessarily make the best use of synchronous classroom time.  For professors rooted in the older culture, though, this challenges us to think about what we ought to be doing.

2. Convenience

It’s become very clear to nearly every professional working in higher education that students want more online offerings available for their study.  They like the convenience, the flexible schedule, and perhaps the ability to thrive under their own intrinsic motivations.

Marginal outfits and for profit schools like Phoenix University colonized a lot of this landscape early, and many traditional universities were slow to join the bandwagon.  And when they do, they often misunderstand such offerings as an economic boon, a way to eschew the ghastly overhead that makes face-to-face classes expensive to offer.

But as brick and mortar universities work to understand the role online offerings should take in their larger environment, many students are opting for those other institutions, and suddenly there’s competition in the marketplace from these venues.

3. Credentialling

The one place traditional universities still hold a strong lead is in credentialling, the purpose for which much of the external world understands us to exist.  By giving someone a degree, we certify that they know what they’re doing, and our reputation as an educational institution (as well as our certification from the credentialling bodies) means that employers and other interested parties can quickly grasp the value of our offerings and our graduates.

But it would be a mistake to imagine that this monopoly will hold for much longer.  As offerings diversify, credentialling will do so as well.  Already, formal networks like LinkedIn allow for users to certify other users, a practice that doesn’t carry much weight now but could easily do so in the future.  Programs like Badges (the idea of earning a mini-certification in a specific skill based on free or open coursework) and initiatives like MOOCs mean that more and more, people will seek alternate means to certify their competence in many fields of endeavor.

These three factors all heavily influence the reasons students choose (or choose NOT) to attend our institutions.  As the costs continue to rise (which they will inevitably do), information abundance, online offerings, and diversified credential schemes will hack away at the underbelly of academia, a surface made weak by our centuries-old monopoly on the training of the middle and upper classes.

In part four, I will explore a bit about what I think we need to do, as educators concerned with the future of higher education, to transition our institutions to meet the needs of the Electrate public.

Read more: We’re surrounded!: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 4

Death from Above: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 2

Battletech mech jumping on another mech
“Battletech Stompin” image borrowed from Operation Bulldog

This is the second in a four-part blog series taking a snapshot of the current economic, political, and grammatological situation facing the modern American university system.  In part one, I provided a preface for this discussion.  Parts two, three, and four focus specifically on pressures from different quarters challenging us to re-imagine what it is we do.



Part 2

Lessons learned from big jumping robots

When I was in high school, my pals and I enjoyed a brief stint playing the tabletop roleplaying game Battletech, a game whose plot involved large, heavily-weaponed robots (“mechs”) shooting at one another.  I became particularly enamored of a maneuver in the rulebook called “Death from Above,” in which a player’s mech jumps on another player’s mech, rendering lots of damage to the head and shoulders of the victim and simultaneously receiving lots of damage to the attacker’s legs.

It’s a tricky move to pull off in the mechanics of the game, and generally not very productive for the attacker.  But despite the Pyrrhic aspect of the attack, it was darn satisfying to perform.  There was delight for my teenage self in the image of my robot jumping through the air and stomping on another robot.  My own security be damned.


David Anderegg’s book makes a cogent case that the way our society talks about smart people damages children.  At the core of his argument is the American anti-intellectual streak, which he traces all the way back to Washington Irving and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”  Sleepy Hollow is, at its core, a story about teaching nerds to mind their place in the pecking order.

One of the more obvious ways this translates to modern American attitudes is a contempt for education as a public entity.  The last fifty years have seen us resting on our laurels regarding our educational apparatus, funding it at barely-breathing levels in poor districts and eroding funding for higher ed as the rhetoric has shifted from “let’s all pitch in to beat the Russians” to “college will help individuals get better jobs.”  Individuals ought not get government handouts.

My feelings about education are that we need much, much more spending.  Sam from The West Wing put it this way in the season one, ep ‘Six Meetings Before Lunch’:

Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes, we need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce. They should be making six figure salaries. Schools should be extremely expensive for governments and absolutely free of charge for its citizens just like national defense. That’s my position. I just haven’t figured how to do it yet.

But this series isn’t about how the forces assailing universities ought to change, it’s just meant to set the stage for understanding those forces, as I see them.

Research or die

The failing funding from above drives universities toward certain kinds of money: grants and donations.  Donations drive the uneconomic support of large scale sports programs, while grants encourage a rapacious fever for grant money that rarely returns focus to the students to whom we purportedly owe our purpose.

Alas, there aren’t a lot of things colleges and universities can do to stop the pressure/hemorrhage from above.  Barring a shocking change in the American attitude toward higher ed, we’re unlikely to see public support for college increasing any time soon, so colleges best re-think how they do business with the same attitude that most workers of my generation have about social security–it’s a nice idea, but we doubt it will be there for us.

Death from Above

Accusatory monkey
Accusatory monkey

My initial discussion was apt, I think, because it highlights the particularly gruesome aspect that our failing funding for education on all levels (including higher ed) presents for us.  For the people that disdain public funding of anything, and for the people who rail against universities for all their drinking at the “Big Government” teat, the reduced funding and failing systems feel like victory.  “See,” they snarl, pointing like that monkey in Family Guy, “education is screwed! We’d best jump ship now.”  But like the robot jumping on another robot, they ignore the damage they do to themselves.  In this case, they don’t see the society around them, where our lead or even our competitiveness are fast falling behind the other first-world countries and rising countries from other parts of the world.  And instead of crying that we’ve got a national emergency and pumping money into the education system in massive boluses, they bemoan its death and revel in their own victory, inured to the leg-armor falling to the ground all around them.

Read more: It will never get harder to copy things: Universities, Electracy, and the coming tsunami, part 3