Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Internet Use Up; Television Use Down

The University of Southern California Annenberg School's Center for the Digital Future released their fourth annual report on the Internet and its impact.
Among the findings from Year Four of the Digital Future Project:

• Internet access has risen to its highest level ever. About three-quarters of Americans now go online.
• The number of hours spent online continues to increase, rising to an average of 12.5 hours per week – the highest level in the study thus far.
• Although the Internet has become the most important source of current information for users, the initially high level of credibility of information on the Internet began to drop in the third year of the study, and declined even further in Year Four.
• The number of users who believe that only about half of the information on the Internet is accurate and reliable is growing and has now passed 40 percent of users for the first time.
• The study showed that most users trust information on the websites they visit regularly, and on pages created by established media and the government.
• Information pages posted by individuals have the lowest credibility: only 9.5 percent of users say information on those sites is reliable and accurate.
• Television viewing continues to decline among Internet users, raising the question: “What will happen as a nation that once spent an extremely large portion of time in a passive activity (watching television) transfers increasingly large portions of that time to an interactive activity (the Internet)?”

The Digital Future Project compares findings from all four years of the study, looking at five major areas: who is online and who is not, media use and trust, consumer behavior, communication patterns, and social and psychological effects. (Quoted from Press Release Summary/Report on Ten Trends)

The CDF also identified ten trends they see emerging from this and their prior reports, many of which, in the summary linked to above, offer elaborations on the list above from the 4th year study by drawing on prior studies as well. I'm interested in three items from the list above and the list of ten.
  1. More people are going online and spending more time online, especially as they increasingly move from dial up to broadband. As people move online and become Internet regulars, the Internet becomes a more important source of information, often the primary source.
  2. People are properly more skeptical of the information they find online as they spend more time online. That is, they become more savvy. However, once they come to trust a source or site, they return to it, whether a government source, an established news source, a particular blog, community, and so on.
  3. As people spend more time online, they spend less time watching television, including television news.
I think this election cycle is a benchmark moment in these trends. We're seeing quite clearly the confluence of these trends, both its benefits and risks. For a recent example of course, look no further than bloggers who assailed the authenticity of the Killian memos used in the 60 Minutes report. The Dean campaign's, and currently Kerry and Bush campaigns', use of blogs as fundraising tools has proven pivotal.

Or more impressively to me, and not campaign related, are the bicyclists who started posting streaming video demos of how they could pick their bike's U-shaped Kryptonite locks. It caused a consumer backlash and pr fiasco that forced the company to offer a redesigned locked to its customers (though that may have come too late). But the lock owners, using cyclist message boards and WWW sites, drove this story before any consumer reporter managed to do a report on the local, let alone national, news.

But back to the bloggers. Bloggers, mostly, in this case, conservative bloggers skeptical of the so-called "elite media," drove the Killian memo story, with assist from conservative traditional media such as Fox News and The National Review Online. Even so, it was an impressive event that forced traditional media to look more quickly into the documents authenticity than they may otherwise have. It helped set the news coverage agenda. (Note: This kind of thing cuts both ways, politically/culturally: a while back mostly liberal bloggers called out Trent Lott's remarks on Strom Thurmond, and got that into mainstream press.)

The bic-lock story is even more impressive because it wasn't so much second hand press criticism, but actual reporting and demonstrating key information factually.

Both stories benefited from broadband --the streaming video and graphics images showing the picked lock; the swapping of PDF's of the Killian documents and word files mimicing the fonts in those documents via blogs in the Killian story.

But broadband's not a key just because it allows for richer and more interactive content. It's also a key because it lets you always be on the Internet if you want to be, without tying up a phone line. Those of us who work this way know the benefits: turn on the computer and you're on the Internet. You can check your email on a whim. Browse your favorite WWW sites between phone calls or meetings. Read an article online, hear a news report on the radio or see it on television, and blog a response while you're reading, listening, or watching. Read other bloggers, and respond to them. Or respond in email lists or discussion boards and other community spaces. People are making their own protest posters and campaign art. They're making their own Internet based position ads, satires, and commentary in Flash and other digital video formats.

The technologies of big media sit increasingly on everyone's desktops (yes, there's still a digital divide, but it's closing, if slowly). What's also important is that the skepticism people learn to bring to Internet sources begins to bleed and to applied to more traditional sources, including of course newspapers, magazines, and television news and infotainment. So the authority of all sources is being questioned.

The risk is that the skepticism and questioning becomes kneejerk and based on dogma (see Wayne Booth's Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent for what that entails), where you distrust a source not for what they say, but for who or what entitity is saying it and fail to move beyond that distrust to give the source a fair hearing. This leads to paranoia.

What's needed is a healthy skepticism, one that allows, at least, for the possibility that sources you don't agree with and don't fully trust at face value might none-the-less have good points to make, good and accurate stories to tell from time to time.

As a teacher, I wonder often how best to bring students to healthy skeptics and not just paranoid skeptics.

Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Research and Order in WPA Land

I'm reading Jeff Rice's "Yellow Dog" blog entries WPA II and WPA. Just a few thoughts in response, in no particular order.

By way of summary: WPA stands for Writing Program Administrator, and in the first post, Works Progress Administration. In WPA, Rice describes how he links these meanings using Greg Ulmer's idea of "puncept" to question composition studies "dependence on "order" as a governing principle of methodology and pedagogy." In WPA II, he elaborates, in response to the comments others made on the WPA post.

In WPA II, he writes:
I'm reading Nancy Sommers' article in the latest CCC, "The Novice as Expert," and here we find a nice example of the WPA instituting order. Like Andrea Lunsford's St. Martin's Handbook, Sommers justifies her work and research as WPA at Harvard with student comments collected in an evaluation process. All of the comments are supportive and enthusiastic.
I don't have the Sommers' essay at hand, but I am familiar with Andrea Lunsford's St. Martin's Handbook. I currently work for Bedford/St. Martin's, the company which publishes the book, and I worked on The St. Martin's Handbook even before coming to work full-time for Bedford/St. Martin's.

No where does Andrea Lunsford justify the research that went into the St. Martin's Handbook "with student comments collected in an evaluation process." Lunsford and Bob Connors, when they began their work for the St. Martin's Handbook, did research on the frequency of formal error in student writing, drawing a large and extensive national sample of 30,000 student essays. (That research was published in their Ma and Pa Kettle Do Research essay). In subsequent editions of the book, they returned to those essays and asked different questions. They also surveyed instructors and students prior to the 4th edition, asking about how the Internet, computers, and other digital technologies were shaping how students write. That was a national survey of 2,500 students and 53 teachers. The current (5th) edition of the book was informed, in part, by Lunsford's interviews with first year student writers at Stanford University, where Lunsford teaches.

But those were formal research interviews, not course evaluations.

That said, it seems to me that there are two key issues raised by Rice.
  1. What is the role of order and why does a Writing Program Adminstrator seek it?
  2. Can applied 'puncepting' (if that's the way to phrase it) be a form of invention?
One of the main connections between the two questions --order and invention-- is found for Rice in textbooks:
The usefulness of these kinds of writings, I believe, is the exploration of digital invention (not codification of..) whose focus does not mirror the ways invention is typically taught in a composition textbook or classroom. (WPA)
Or to put it even more explicitely, in a comment on this post, Rice writes:

"Where do you find the common expressions valuing order in writing programs?"

Textbooks, textbooks, textbooks. (WPA, see comments)

I think this is a fair conclusion. Textbooks do provide some order and structure to a composition course, and when adopted program wide with a common syllabus, to a program. But what I've learned from working at a textbook publisher for the past four plus years is that order found in textbooks emerges from the field, from what and where people are teaching and from how instructors see the role and purpose of the writing they teach.

And I think this is the heart of Rice's critique: the role is traditional, or what Rice, in his examination of Sommers' essay, calls cliche'. First year college writing programs and courses and curriculum are gateway --not gatekeeping-- entities. Yes, if students don't do well in a FYC, that might contribute to them quitting college, or in some cases, if they don't repeat the course to reach a certain grade, being forced to leave college. But the fact is, most WPA's and most writing instructors see themselves as there to help students succeed in college. And yes, that success often means, supporting either the given order and idealized form of order as enlightened participation in civil discourse.

This emphasis is expressed in many forms -- course descriptions premised on "college writing," or assignments that emphasize "research skills," "critical thinking," "analyses," and "academic conventions." The arugment is that through these skills, students will learn to question authority, to critique order, to seek alternatives, to invent new ideas and persuade others of their values in a civil and orderly way. Textbooks are in fact part of this system, and do express the values and views of a discipline.

Textbooks come from ideas about teaching, and those come from one of two places generally: An instructor who has a teaching idea that he or she thinks would work in a book, an idea, usually that other books do not address at all nor in quite the right way. This idea is presented to a publisher for consideration. The other way a book gets done is when an editor hears an idea or approach or issue arise in the field that they think a textbok could help address.

And editors are avid followers, indeed members of, the field they edit and develop books in: they read journals; attend sessions at conferences; talk to professors about teaching and other professional issues when they travel to campus; participate in discipline email lists and blogs; and when they can, talk to students. So when an editor has an idea, they'll sometimes get in touch with those instructors and scholars whose work they've come to know and they'll invite them to work on a book of some kind.

I wouldn't be surprised if someday an editor doesn't ask Rice about using puncepts in a writing book, or else seeing that idea picked up and put into a first year composition textbook. It's a good idea; it would be fun to do and fun to teach.

Which brings me back to puncepts and order. If puncepts are an example of a good way to create new topoitic paths of invention, and if those paths somehow disrupt the current order, that's only going to be temporary. Once an idea begins to circulate, whether through a textbook, or lore, or professional workshops, blogs, conferences, email lists, or other means, it becomes absorbed, and goes from revolutionary to merely evolutionary before settling down into routine. In other words, it becomes codified.

What gets lost in the transition from new to codified is the excitement of something being risky, rare, and well, a bit disorderly because it's an experiment. What is also often lost are the intellectual excitements that made an idea new. We see it in terms that were once liberating to the field, and needed to used with some explanation of what they meant, like "writing process," and that are now taken for granted and attached to the original insights and research that lead to the term by a kind of collective shorthand. Jenny Edbauer, I think, is getting at this process of loss, as order inevitably finds a way to codify (and commodify) what was once unodered. Her post to WPA-L on rhetorical analysis essays turning up in paper mills is a good example.

What's useful too, in this context, are two things. Ideas like those Rice pursues which attempt to bring something new to the mix, in this case, puncept as a way of invention, and work like Edbauer's, where if I'm reading right, she's trying to, in her dissertation, make the familiar, rhetorical analysis, strange again by rediscovering and recalling forth the circumstances that made the approach exciting and unpaper millable. In her case the move to do this is to bring back the complexity at the root of such assignments and to remind instructors that the complexity is required. These teaching things --by which I mean not just rhetorical analysis assignments or a given invention strategy-- to work well, can't be rote or routine. They need to be invented anew each time.

The question I always wonder about is can you make and sustain huge changes, upset a given order, in an institutional context without going about it very deliberatively and patiently and politically astutely. In other words, in an orderly fashion. When departments undergo radical revisions in direction without building consensus and support, they're often disbanded, abandoned, or the WPA is replaced and reputiated. Those failures are often about a failed revolutionary approach, a failed cult of personality at the top (Not always of course; we've seen great programs gutted for no logical reason, which leads to the cause in the final clause.) , or the perception from higher powers that be than the WPA that what the program is doing isn't worth pursuing. And what happens when programs implode, or get taken over? What happens to those people, those faculty and students? Where do they go and what do they become?

So I don't see how a WPA can proceed without some order. Or how a textbook can be orderless, even if it were purely hypertextual in every sense of that word. But it should be possible to create a model where there was room for recreation and reinvention.

I doubt, though, that within an institution as conservative in purpose and goals as a college, you're going to have any truely revolutionarily unordered approaches. Even a Montesorri college, where there such a thing, would not be unordered. If only because there's a theory to give it shape and order.

Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Bloggers Crow

Bloggers --especially conservative bloggers-- are crowing that blogs, in questioning the authenticity of the Killian memos have brought down, have even killed, the power of old media/big media. Andrew Sullivan's written a piece on this for Time Magazine.

I was going to write that bloggers should temper that crow with some humble pie, that the blogosphere would be only one, big self referencing pool of opiners were it not for the fact that broadcast outlets, often starting with talk radio and cablenews, give their views air time.

Except that this would be wrong. I think broadcast attention helps, but really what we're seeing is not so much the death of big media like CBS, NBC, and ABC, as we are the diffusion of media outlets and means. That is, certain well trod blogs are part of a new universe of more diverse news, or unewsiverse. The shift isn't so much about blogs as it is about fiber optics. The growth of cable television and the growth of the Internet happened pretty much at the same time.

We're at the point where slightly more than half of Internet users now have broadband access. As that shift continues, we'll see even more growth in people turning to the Internet for news, and a greater merging of the role that blogundrity, analysis, and on rare occasions actual reporting start to play. The reporting will be, most likely, of the kind that we see now in traditional news when reporters interview eye witnesses, first on the scene responders or air "amatuer video" of crashes, beatings, hurricanes, tornadoes and so on.

Often those reports are fairly unfiltered and those interviewed aren't given column inches or air time for any other reason that represent immediacy to the event. News reporters aren't so much filters as conduits, with perhaps the reporter offering more context.

In the new media landscape, the context will be linking and cross referencing. A videoblogger will upload his or her video of some event, an amatuer photographer will get a picture the wire services didn't, and they might give their impressions of what they saw in a supporting text entry or audionote. Other bloggers will notice and opine. Broadcasters will go to the WWW site for the video, or report on the bloggers analysis.

And so things will merge even further.

What's at risk is the slow and patient vetting of news, the investigatory story, the deep and patient reporting that takes time and money and sustained access.

Update: This piece by the Philadelphia Inquirer nails it (link found via Romensko's MediaNews) . Here's a key quote:

Writers for Web logs - or blogs - began the questioning of the bogus documents. Bravo to the "blogosphere" for that. But other "old media" such as newspapers nailed the story down and drove it home.

The blogosphere is citizen dialogue in action, which is great. If bloggers' watchdogging makes journalists more careful, that's also great. The real lesson for the mainstream media is a very old one: Get the facts right. Speed without accuracy is no good.

Saturday, September 11, 2004

Typewriter Science

Update: Below, where I reposted Slate Fray messages, I say in two places that independent experts should examine CBS's original Killian documents. However, CBS doesn't have the originals, according to this excerpt from the end of an LA Times story on the controversy:

Howard Rile of Long Beach, former president of the American Board of Forensic Document Examiners, cautioned against feverish vetting of the memos without seeing the originals and other documents produced at the same time and place.

That could be difficult because CBS says it does not have the original memos.

"We shouldn't have to be be doing this over the Internet," Rile said. "This sounds like a case that could be resolved very quickly if you get the evidence and examine it; if you get the original."

CBS has made the same mistake so many blogs and conservative radio talkers are making -- coming to conclusions about a document's authenticity (and it's only one document of the four that that is being challenged) without looking at the original. With the original, one could assess the age of the paper, perhaps test the ink, see the way the letters are embedded into the paper by the typewriter's keys, and so on.

Where is the original? Without it, we're stuck in a rounds of circumstantial analysis and counterarguments, which no doubt is part of the point with Bush backers. Because even without the one memo, there are enough facts to clearly show that George Bush got into the guard because of his connections, and that as time went on, he became increasingly indifferent to his obligation. He was a spoiled and aimless rich kid from one of the most politically connected families in the country.

I just read a summary of the Killian memo debate in a Slate piece by Josh Levin. I've posted a response to that article, followed by a reply to a Fray poster who responded to my response. Here are those posts, edited a bit for clarity (changes appear in italics), with links to the originals I put up in Slate.
Subject:Further Updates: Or More You Need to Know
Date:Sep 11 2004 5:23AM

From The Boston Globe, "Authenticity backed on Bush documents" By Francie Latour and Michael Rezendes, September 11, 2004:

After CBS News on Wednesday trumpeted newly discovered documents that referred to a 1973 effort to "sugar coat" President Bush's service record in the Texas Air National Guard, the network almost immediately faced charges that the documents were forgeries, with typography that was not available on typewriters used at that time.

But specialists interviewed by the Globe and some other news organizations say the specialized characters used in the documents, and the type format, were common to electric typewriters in wide use in the early 1970s, when Bush was a first lieutenant.

Read More at:

See also, Daily Kos

Unless and until an expert examines the original documents in CBS's possession, and not PDF's downloaded from the Net, the forgery claims have little basis in anything but speculation. And many of the bloggers who jump-started the discussion are getting their facts wrong (for example claiming that no typewriter existed at that time that could create superscripted "th" of the type found in the documents), and are making observations that are beside the point (They can replicate the layout and font with Microsoft Word. Well yeah, that's what a font is supposed to do, look the same whenever it's used. So what's the point?)

Slate Fray Link:

Reply to a Fray Post by gadfly19

Subject:RE: Further Updates: Or More You Need to Know
Date:Sep 11 2004 6:30AM

I agree with your observations, generally. A few thoughts:

I think the best way, perhaps the only way, to help settle it --there will be groups that are never satified-- is for CBS News to share the original documents with independent examiners.

As for Killian's family, I feel for them. It's got to be painful to have someone you love, who has beed deceased for so long, cast posthumously into this debate about events from over 30 years ago. That said, it's very possible that they're wrong. Or put another way, as much as you love and know a person, there's often a lot you don't know about their day-to-day lives at work. I know my wife, for example, whom I'm very close to, doesn't know everything I do at work, what I write, and so on. I know the family claims aren't that simple, but I can see where it's possible that they might believe to the point of absolute certitude that the Killian wouldn't have held or written the views in the documents, but they could well be wrong.

And yet, for all that, here's where I agree with you most: Even if the documents are proved indisputedly genuine or undoubtedly forged, we're still not left with a serious discussion of current issues. I'd rather have that discussion than this campaign coverage reduced to a bad episode of Cold Case.

Can some reporter, any reporter, just ask each candidate this: You've said we're at war with terror, but terror is a tactic. And to say we're at war with terrorists, people who commit terror acts, is circular. Who are these people? What is their ideology? And how do we successfully end this war with them?

Slate Fray Link:

Long Now

On the Internet, Sterling is amassing a roll call of their once-honored personal computer names: Altair, Amiga, Amstrad, Apples I, II and III, Apple Lisa, Apricot, Atari, AT&T, Commodore, CompuPro, Cromemco, Epson, Franklin, Grid, IBM PCjr, IBM XT, Kaypro, Morrow, NEC PC-8081, NorthStar, Osborne, Sinclair, Tandy, Wang, Xerox Star, Yamaha CX5M. Buried with them are whole clans of programming languages, operating systems, storage formats, and countless rotting applications in an infinite variety of mutually incompatible versions. Everything written on them was written on the wind, leaving not a trace.
Stewart Brand, from the Purpose Statement for Long Now's Library Project.

Long Now is a foundation that was established in 01966; the group adds a zero to the front of the establishment year and to all contemporary dates because its goal is to think, and plan, for into the future: 10,000 years. The zero leaves room for the future, reminds us of it, and asks us to think about it and to work towards it. Long Now seeks to counter Here Now thinking, short term thinking. In thinking long, they've established two main projects; one that has to do with preservation (The Library Project), another that has to with planning for the future (The Clock Project).

James Wolcott referenced Long Now in a post about the current presidential election, which is mired on the documentary minutiae of where Bush and Kerry were 30 years ago, and whether what they were doing matches precisely to what their biographies claim. Nor are the campaigns themselves talking much about the future. The future, for both campaigns is now. Both candidates, between swipes at one another, profess to be candidates of optomism who bring hope for the future, but neither seems willing to discuss the future, or to plan for what will sustain us in the future. But really campaigns are essentially cynical operations. They lofty rhetoric is a patina stretched thin over a relentlessy negative message about the opposition.

So like Wolcott, I found the visit to Long Now to be refreshing, especially for me, the library project. How do we record and preserve the works and records of our day so that the future can learn from both our triumphs and mistakes? And the question for Long Now isn't philosophical, it's also practical. They're not just imagining a library that will be there in 10,000 years from now, they're working to build it. Now that's optomism.