Things Have Been Found

What I’m thinking about from time to time

A Walk Up The Parkway

leave a comment »

Written by Tyler Baber

December 3, 2008 at 8:37 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Google and New Media Search Engines

leave a comment »

All about Google

View SlideShare presentation or Upload your own. (tags: google technology)

Even on the web there are “old media” models with distinct differences from the “new media” models found in the user-generated content technological revolution. If the User-generated content model views individuals as producers, rather than simply consumers, then web sites operating in this model will put the needs of the user ahead of the goals of driving consumption.

Yahoo! might be seen as an “old media”search engine, adding features to its homepage so that it resembles a mall more than a library reference desk. Contrast this with Google, whose sparse homepage invites the user to view the site as a tool rather than a content-producer:

Screenshots of Yahoo! and Google's homepage changes
Image by John Maeda, September 5 2005: http://weblogs.media.mit.edu/SIMPLICITY/archives/000263.html [Accessed 2 December 2008]

Google and Search Engines as Message Producers

Content production and distribution, Stuart Hall points out, is inextricably tied to constructing “the message,” or meaning/ideology (1). A key difference between the Web and traditional media is that “producing content” on the Web is itself an abstract notion: Google, one of the most successful new media companies produces practically no original content but instead directs users to preexisting content through its search capabilities.  Google’s official goal is “to organize the world’s information to make it universally accessible,” (2) which it seeks to do through indexing “readily available information on the internet” (3). Google, and most search engines in general, differ from traditional “old media” content distribution models in that, due to algorithms that respond to search queries by presenting the most popular results first, the engine’s promoting allows it to abdicate from encoding meaning into the results. The results presented are the result of previous users’ determining the popularity of pages, these sites argue. Whether this is a true position, whether Google-style search engines are free from ideology-production, is explored in greater depth here.

Google’s unofficial motto reflects the revolutionary promises some see in the Web, especially in user-generated content technologies: “Don’t be evil” (4).“Don’t be evil” is an extreme ideological statement but as a dominant producer in the Web economy Google demands more critical review. As the company extends its service to new global markets the “impact of Googlisation upon the nation-state, and vice versa, is intrinsically linked to the control of information in cyberspace” (3). In his analysis of three separate cases of Google’s corporate reach coming up against government systems in France, the USA and China, Dai reviews how Google spreads its reach in ways “detrimental to the autonomy of nation-states” (3), while the nation-states react by attempting to protect their own interests.


Google and Governments

Google’s relationship with China has drawn criticism from many sources as Google complied with the Chinese government’s censorship policies. As Lewis explains in the Intelligence Squared US debate on the topic “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto,”

If you Google “Tibetan independence” (in the US) you’ll get back pointers to some sites that advocate the freedom of Tibet from Chinese rule… But if you do it inside China, you won’t get references to [these same sites]… The world looks very different through the window that Google provides, in China, than through the window on the world that you have available to yourselves here (5).

Thus, Lewis and others argue, by complying with oppressive policies when it is in Google’s commercial interest the company is violating both its “Don’t be evil” motto as well as its goal to make all the world’s information accessible. This violation of the motto is all the more intriguing when coupled with other instances of Google’s interactions with nation-states: Google actively refused participation in a USA Department of Justice inquiry in the interest of “protecting users privacy” (and, by extension, its commercial interests); and the French government sought to establish a national search engine to protect its culture and economy from what it viewed as American imperialist tendencies. By working so actively to protect its commercial interest Google can be viewed through the propaganda model as representing “new tools of domination for achieving a familiar set of ends” (6).


Google Is Good?

The dominant view toward Google might be understood as “at its heart, a good company that provides extraordinary services to the public, and makes extraordinary amounts of information available to the public, and is working around the world to make information available” (5). Indeed as Google (and the Internet in general) has emerged as a tool connecting users to amounts of information unimaginable by old media, the prevailing concept has been that of a Digital Revolution, as opposed to Grazian’s argument that can perhaps be simplified as a “Digital continuation of status quo.” In a debate between six scholars and journalists on the topic “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto,” even those arguing for the motion conceded that any evil on the part of Google is better understood in relation to the company’s stated goal, rather than through comparing Google to other companies that may act far more “evil.” In his final statement in the debate Randal Picker, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School, said we should ask “when are they making a choice that we should understand to be one that benefits Google and hurts the market, hurts other participants in the market” (5), not necessarily whether Google as a whole is evil. For any argument against Google’s actions abetting the Chinese government’s censorship policies there exists another point saying Google’s very existence in China is a step toward democratizing information in the country (5). Likewise, where Jeanneny and Dai point to Google as an example of American-globalization of content/culture others see “increasing transparency and… personal autonomy” (5).


References

1. Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding.” Media and Cultural Studies Key Works Revised Edition. Eds. Meenakshi Gigi Durham and Douglas M. Kellner. Malden: Blackwell Publishing Ltd, 2006. 163-173.

2.  “Corporate Information – Company Overview.” http://www.google.com/corporate/ [Accessed 29 November 2008].

3 Dai, Xiudian. “Google.” New Political Economy. September 2007, 433-442.

4. “Google Investor Relations.” http://investor.google.com/conduct.html [Accessed 29 November 2008].

5. “Google Violates Its ‘Don’t Be Evil’ Motto.” Intelligence Squared US. NPR.org, 26 November 2008. http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97216369 [Accessed 28 November 2008].

6. Grazian, David. “A Digital Revolution? A Reassessment of New Media and Cultural Production in the Digital Age.” The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Jan 2005: 209-222.

Written by Tyler Baber

December 3, 2008 at 8:33 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Abstracts of recent readings

leave a comment »

 

Schaefer, PD and Durham, MG. “On the Social Implications of Invisibility: The iMac G5 and the Effacement of the Technological Object.” Critical Studies in Media Communication Vol. 24, No. 1, March 2007: 39–56

Schaefer and Durham argue that the iMac G5 serves as an example of how, as new technologies allow machines to blend in with their environment, the effaced design hides the role of new technology as what they call a “social apparatus.” Through its design the iMac G5 disorients the user from its “materiality,” including the circumstances of its production and the implications of its disposal, while orienting “users in line with the corporate ideology of its manufacturer” (48).

The authors utilize arguments put forth by Fredric Jameson and other cultural philosophers who explain how new technologies change the operating structure of capitalism into something “indecipherable,” what Jameson described as a “postmodern ‘hyperspace’ [which] results in spatial mutations” (45). The authors connect Jameson’s theory to “lifestyle-based technology” and draw conclusions about how this technology affects individual users.

The authors give few other specific examples of the “effacement of the technological object” and, although they discuss the evolution of the iMac’s design, they do not discuss how more traditional computer designs avoid the implications of effacement. While the iMac G5 illustrates how the “computer becomes a surface” rather than a tool (44), the authors do not fully explain why traditional personal computers are more socially responsible.

Still, “computer design… [exemplifies] a growing gap between perceptual simplicity of technology and the increasing complexity of economic structures” (46). The authors propose users approach these new technologies critically in order to be aware of unequal social structures. Drawing attention to the disparities between the production and disposal of the iMac G5 and its effaced design, the authors decode the ideology espoused by the technology’s corporate manufacturer.

Dai, X. “Google.” New Political Economy Vol 12, No. 3, September 2007, 433-442

Dai explores how Google has grown in recent years and how this growth has affected the company’s relationships with nation-states. Google’s dominating the global market for internet searches  “Googlisation [has an impact] upon the nation-state, and vice versa” (434).

Dai analyzes the growth of Google into “the most highly valued media company” (435) through its ad sales and public trading. Dai goes on to explore Google’s implications in a global marketplace by performing three case studies of the company’s relationships with France, the US, and China. In France Google is viewed as a synecdoche of American digital imperialism. In the US Google cited protecting users’ privacy as a reason to not hand over information to the Department of Justice; Dai suggests that Google was actually protecting “commercial interest” as much as protecting user privacy. Finally, in China Google cooperated with governmental policies of censorship.

These case studies showcase Google’s different responses to challenges in the global marketplace and Dai explains how Google’s responses could “be seen as detrimental to the autonomy of nation-states,” (441) so that ‘omnigooglisation’ serves as a tool for globalization. The case study approach allows Dai to reinforce this through specific examples and the example of Google’s relationship with China shows problems the company faces in disseminating its ultimate goals. However, Dai could elaborate more with deeper analysis into Google’s growth in case study countries.

Google’s growth in the global marketplace is “intrinsically linked to the control of information for the purpose of empowerment,” (441) and nation-states and Google are each attempting to guide this growth in order to protect their separate interests.

 

Mossberger, K; Tolbert, C and Stansbury, M. Virtual Inequality: Beyond the Digital Divide. 2003 Washington: Georgetown University Press.

Mossberger, Tolbert, and Stansbury suggest their survey of low-income and minority American households proves the existence of a ‘digital divide’ that can be broken down into distinct access, skill, economic opportunity, and democratic divides. This understanding of the digital divide can influence public perception and policy.

The authors conducted a broad survey of households in high-poverty areas and compared the results with the general population. They analyze their results for evidence of the shapes and sizes of each of their four digital divides to assess which results are most significant. The survey approach allows them to quantify the digital divide in order to make a case for the divide’s existence and the need for governmental response.

The survey took into account many elements of the four distinct divides the authors proposed, determining which respondents had easy access to computers and the internet, what skills users possessed, how digital access was viewed and utilized as a tool for economic advancement, and the openness of respondents to using digital access for civic involvement. The authors conclude that there is a clear access divide based on socioeconomic background, and that along with this access divide there exists a skills divide where a significant portion of the low income respondents lacked the resources to properly use computers and the internet. The authors found that the majority of respondents do believe computer and internet skills enhance economic opportunity, but while respondents were open to using the internet to access information about government they were less willing to vote or participate in electronic meetings.

While the survey approach provides clear evidence for the existence of the access and skills divide it may not be an adequate tool for explaining how digital technology increases economic opportunity or civic involvement; the respondents perception that digital access is related to these latter divides is correlational but not proof. Additionally, the survey was structured so that it was looking specifically at the four proposed divides and thus did not allow for the possibility of additional divides like social status. The approach was also limited by the veracity of the responses; the authors say there was no way to measure literacy in the respondents (116) and that “there was a low response rate to questions about income level” (10). Ultimately the digital divide is an evolving issue and while this survey lays out a comprehensive framework, five years is a long time in this field and an update would be necessary to see how the field has changed since the study was undertaken.

The survey did verify that the digital access and skills divides do exist, and the authors lay out a case for why public policy intervention is necessary to solve these divides. They suggest several potential directions for policy to alleviate these divides. The authors did find that younger respondents were more likely to have the skills necessary to utilize digital tools to bridge the economic opportunity and democratic divides and propose that education is the key to narrowing the digital divide.

Written by Tyler Baber

November 10, 2008 at 4:42 pm

An Intellectual Biography

leave a comment »

 

Introduction: Understanding Media as an Extension of Understanding Man

          If, as Marshall McLuhan posited in his interview with Playboy, “all media… are extension of man that cause deep and lasting changes in him and transform his environment,” then attempting to understand those changes and exploring the transformed environment is an extension of understanding man. In this way the media scholar is like the philosopher as much as he or she is like the sociologist. And why not? Mass media operate as teacher, counselor, friend, babysitter, minister, politician, parent, and wallpaper; it only follows that attempting to study and understand media is also an attempt at pedagogy, anthropology, theology, historiography, political philosophy, carpentry, and interior design.

          Media operate as an extension of “man,” generally, but also of “man” (or “woman”) individually. Thus part of understanding and studying media must include introspection: how has my life changed deeply, how has my environment been changed? Just as important is the question of how media may have driven me to study it. The concept of “calling” is important to modern western Christianity. By being “called” to study or create media, am I more like the priest or the missionary?

Forming an Individual Groundwork of Understanding Interpretation of Media

          It is no mistake that I rely heavily on religious language to explain how, on a personal level, I (and, I believe, others) experience and understand media. The Bible, as a medium, elicits extreme and varied responses from its users: fundamentalists and skeptics, evangelicals and liberals, spiritualists and intellectuals, radicals and conservatives; all point to this single medium as the place from which their ideology arises. In High School I attended two distinct church youth groups. Dwayne, the liberal-arts educated Greek and Wesleyan history scholar, would lead a group of high school students through discussions blending eschatology with practical application, pointing out where our young minds may have been over simplifying complex statements or misapplying teachings meant for a specific context. Perhaps Paul’s letter to the Romans, Dwayne might suggest, really was meant first for the church around 58 AD and we, in modern times, are meant to look to it as teaching without necessarily viewing it as written specifically for 21st century life. Pastor Kelly, the young and enthusiastic youth pastor at the nearby Assemblies of God church, meanwhile, could give a sermon to a group of youth on the same epistle to the Romans and tell us that this was a God-breathed book firmly indicating how a simple prayer could ensure salvation. As a medium the Bible provides no tools to declare whether Pastor Kelly or Dwayne were correct or severely misguided. However, the Bible also was not operating as a blank slate for Pastor Kelly or Dwayne to write their own ideologies. No, the Bible serves simply complexly as an extension in the exact sense McLuhan (himself a devout Roman Catholic) implied.

           The one clear teaching these apparently irreconcilable approaches to the same medium had on my 16-year old mind was that understanding was not simple; analysis, questioning, research, and a critical mind are required if one wants to learn. Looking back it is clear also that the lesson I took away from comparing Dwayne and Pastor Kelly was the very postmodern idea that multiple understandings, indeed multiple truths, exist. Both Dwayne and Pastor Kelly, the liberal theologian and the evangelical pulpit pounder, both a critical approach to interpreting scripture and a fundamentalist approach, should be viewed as true. This truth, though, is not necessarily applied to the specific words of the Bible–for instance a literal seven day creation of the earth, culminating in Adam and Eve as individuals as the start of humanity. Rather, the “truth” is that these multiple and divergent understandings arise by extension through the medium itself dependent on a user. Perhaps the proverbial tree falling in the forest sounds different depending on the location of the listener.

Developing an Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding Media

          The questions that arose through interacting with the Bible/Christianity, and just as much through interacting with Pastor Kelly and Dwayne, were reinforced through attending Messiah College for undergraduate studies. Studying Film and English literature and writing, I was given an opportunity to apply the critical mind to other media. Because the student as a user is forced to make connections that the professor of an individual subject is unable to foresee–an individual taking courses on Digital Video Production, Modernist Literary Theory, and Pre-modern Non-Western History in the same semester can not help but combine these multiple fields into one “knowledge base”– the very model of higher education encourages users to develop different understandings. My Digital Video Production course may have included students who were studying painting; they would approach the class differently than I would if I’m studying Final Cut Pro alongside Virginia Wolfe. This interdisciplinary model is extended all the more by, say, my extracurricular involvement in planning Student Activities, studying abroad in England, eating dinner in front of the TV or in the cafeteria with my peers. College, as a medium, is not like the television that is only able to show one channel at a time and intensify a single experience; college is more akin to the computer that allows and encourages engaging multiple senses with various programs at concurrent times.

          The interdisciplinary approach that informed my “spiritual” intellectual growth in youth group as well as my college experience helps in beginning to understand how multiple truths can be arrived at through users of the same media but it does not answer the question of how media are spread, of why one medium is successful over another. Understanding the diffusion of media, and the diffusion of user understanding of the media, is important if the goal of media study is to better understand how humanity operates. How, for instance, do certain genres and styles gain in popularity as Western films did in the 1950s, or as southern-style rap music did in the early 2000s? How are different audiences approaching these styles?

Diffusion of Innovations

          One tool that can be useful in understanding the diffusion of media, and the understanding thereof, is Everett Roger’s theory of the diffusion of innovations. Rogers posited that innovators create a product, a small number of early adopters–those eager to try new innovations– help spread this product, a much larger group of secondary adopters–those who may be more cautious about the product until they see it in use– spike the use of the product, later adopters join in when the product’s popularity is declining, and so on. The diffusion thus appears as a bell curve, with a clear peak and an eventual decline.

“]//cq-pan.cqu.edu.au/david-jones/Reading/Adoption/onweb/  [Accessed 6 October 2008]

 

Though this model was intended to help understand marketing and consumer habits, it can easily be applied to the habits of individuals approaching any medium. This theory, importantly, places the responsibility for a product’s success (be the product physical, like a computer, ephemeral, like a web site, or theoretical, like an ideology) in the hands of the users. The user is the base from which the innovation extends.

          Through exploring how innovations are developed and how they are adopted and spread we begin to develop an understanding of the users: by studying the “extension of man” we are necessarily studying the “man.”  The innovators and the early adopters, as sets of users who actively create and spread products much the same way as the high school youth group leader or college professor, are arguably the most responsible for influencing how the product is understood and interpreted by later adopters. Analyzing how innovators and early adopters spread products and make choices is tantamount to studying both the products and the users at the earliest levels.

Applying the Diffusion of Innovations: Research Directions

          Growing up in the developing digital and web-culture of the Internet boom in the 1990s, I have been witness to several innovations that have had radical effects on the larger society, causing McLuhanian “deep and lasting changes… and transforming environments.” Two particular innovators, whose media developments have significantly transformed environments in surprisingly different ways, are Apple and Google. Both companies have successfully influenced huge amounts of early adopters to spread their products to the extent that the products are now ubiquitous and have caused “deep and lasting changes” to the way we approach media and, by extension, life.

Despite significant, and nearly unparalleled, influence over the early adopters–certainly the larger culture no longer watches Microsoft or AOL’s developments with the same interest–these two companies operate quite differently. Apple has branded itself so that the CEO, Steve Jobs, is personally associated with any given innovation whereas Google is branded to appear either anonymous, as with the Google search tool and Gmail, or collective, as with YouTube. Thus Apple structures its innovations to be diffused ‘top down:’ Steve Jobs is the innovator who spreads iTunes, Macbooks, and iPhones; physical products that profit Apple by continuing to serve as marketplaces (the iTunes store or the App store on the iPhone).  Conversely Google is ‘bottom up:’ the individual users are given the appearance of having control of the innovation at least at some level, as with targeted advertising to match search results and history; Google’s profit comes not from the users purchasing products but from the advertisers using Google as a means to reaching consumers.

          I would like to explore more deeply how these two innovators operate, but just as much I would like to explore the connections between the early adopters for each. Because both Apple and Google are among the most popular innovators in the Web and digital technology world they share several interested users who make up the class of early adopters. How are the early adopters interpreting Apple and Google, and how are they spreading their interpretations?

Future Directions and Conclusions

          This is but one aspect of the innovator/early adopter model that I would like to apply to understanding media and how it serves as an extension of man. In the future I would be interested in further exploring the social implications of the Roger’s theory of the diffusion of innovation—how does this theory speak to what “cool” is, in terms of social currency; how do former early adopters react to the demise/failure of innovations like HD-DVD or a political candidate like Hillary Clinton; how do the late majority and laggards interpret new innovations prior to adoption?

          The interdisciplinary model of the New School’s Media Studies masters program is designed to encourage the sort of analytical, critical thinking I developed during my undergraduate years. Because I am interested in specifically exploring the developing digital media landscape, the online program and production courses will allow immersion in the language and tools of media creation. At the same time, blended production and theory courses encourages forming connections and experiencing multiple interpretations to the same medium. Forming and building upon the groundwork of understanding media is essential to growth as a teacher, as a historian, as a political scientist, as an artist, as a craftsman, as a person.

Written by Tyler Baber

October 21, 2008 at 3:16 pm

Mapping the World

leave a comment »

Number of Internet Users in 2002

Number of Internet Users in 2002

The Atlas of the Real World is a new book that uses a map of the world as a graph to indicate statistics based on country. The map above shows how internet use is distributed throughout the world in 2002. It’s surprising to see how even the US and Japan are, while some European countries and Canada seem to be lagging.

More interesting maps from the book can be found here.

Written by Tyler Baber

October 8, 2008 at 6:35 pm

Rethinking (new/old/any) media…

leave a comment »

Thanks to John Drew for linking to this in my ‘Media Studies: Ideas’ class… this basically lays out the reasons I’m interested in studying new digital media.

Written by Tyler Baber

September 21, 2008 at 5:09 pm

In an Election Year… the message is the medium?

leave a comment »

After reading this piece in Slate comparing Democratic and Republican presidents and the US economy going back to 1959, I began wondering if it’s actually important that Democrats may actually be better for the economy (in the ‘conservative’ ways of increased economic growth and decreased spending) than Republicans, or if the results aren’t as important as the promises.

Regardless of what this piece shows, or how in depth it goes, it’s hard to imagine the tables turning and Americans beginning to view Democrats as the standard-bearers of decreased spending and increased job growth. Even this election cycle, where Obama’s plan calls for tax-cuts for the middle class and the democrats keep trying to paint McCain as bad for the economy, polls are still showing McCain is only 5 points behind Obama in polls asking who is trusted to handle the economy. Why? Because regardless of how they deliver on economic promises as presidents, Republicans are undeniably good at spreading a message.

Marshall McLuhan said ‘the medium is the message,’ meaning the way to deliver content is more influential and important than the actual content. More specifically, McLuhan said that every medium was composed of another medium: A TV shows moving pictures, moving pictures are made of still pictures, still pictures are understood through the senses of sight and hearing, thought is processed. Thought, then, being perhaps the only pure medium (this being McLuhan, take it all with a grain of salt).

Election-season news is dominated by the “narrative”- tv ads, speeches, news stories, and radio talk shows are devoted to specific issues and stories that define a candidate moreso than the candidate’s positions, voting record, or platforms. This year Obama=Change/hope, McCain=experience/character. But, as a quick watch of the RNC or a McCain commercial, Obama also = higher taxes, fewer jobs, etc. There’s no real reason to say that an Obama presidency would be worse for the average american, economically speaking, than a McCain one, and using history as a guide it seems like the reverse is probably true.

But the candidates deal in ‘messages,’ in distilling concepts to their purest form so that only sound clips and catchphrases remain. Thus the message becomes the medium to convey a candidate; and only the messages that fit into the established ‘narrative’ will catch on. This is why the scandals that plague Obama- rev. wright, for example- are ones which paint Obama as something other than “change.”

Much has been made in recent weeks of McCain’s attacks on Obama being outright lies or purposeful distortions. I would argue, though, that it doesn’t matter if McCain is lying. All that matters is whether people will believe it. And people will believe Republicans are better for the economy because Republicans keep talking about how Democrats will raise taxes; meanwhile Democrats don’t really make “lower taxes” part of their message/narrative.

By using ‘Narrative’ as the means to portray a candidate to America, the medium of ‘narrative’ becomes the only piece of the puzzle. Discussing the issues will only be important when it fits in the narrative. Straying from the issues only works when it fits in the narrative. Charges of corruption against Palin don’t matter because her identity isn’t tied to standing against “firing state employees for personal reasons.” Trying to paint Obama as a Muslim is unlikely to sway any real independent swing voter because, try as he and others might to portray him as a man of faith, Religion just doesn’t fit into his narrative (probably due to his Democrat roots, and the fact that his religion is too different from that of mainstream white America where an inner-city African American church’s message has little to do with the sermons of their suburban evangelical churches).

The message is the medium.

Written by Tyler Baber

September 16, 2008 at 7:33 pm