Long Post

I have been pretty interested in the idea of LAN parties lately. I guess what sparked my interest is that one day a few months ago (via some simple facebook stalking), I found out that a colleague of mine from high school was studying abroad in Europe last fall, and he traveled to DreamHack, the biggest LAN party in the world! I was checking it out and apparently there were over 10,000 people there. It’s kind of interesting how they’ve really created a festival around the celebration of computers and the digital age; it’s like the Woodstock of the tech world.

I guess I am also fascinated with the social dynamics of LAN parties. While there are those like DreamHack that are full-on computer festivals, I don’t really get the point of everyone getting together in the same room to sit and play a computer game that they could play from their homes. Most LAN parties are obviously not the size of DreamHack; some can be as small as a few friends getting together to game (see photo below).

In these cases, I think the social aspects are interesting. The standard critique of gamers is that they isolate themselves and participate in sometimes violent, potentially brain-rotting activities when they should be getting out of the house and adopting some more socially acceptable hobby. But I tend to think that LAN parties provide a social setting for people who share a common interest to get together and do what they love. How is that different from a book club getting together, or a bunch of musicians getting together for a jam session?

Over January Term I took a book discussion class on the book Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today’s Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson. He made a somewhat compelling argument that video games actually bring people together rather than force them to isolate themselves. Additionally, video games definitely do require mental capacity; they’re not just activities for lazy people.

I personally think that events like DreamHack in Sweden sound pretty awesome. I’m definitely not a gamer (except perhaps in the case of the incredibly addictive bubble shooter), but I think the festival would be fun to attend to learn about computers and the digital age in general. I’m not sure Woodstock provided its guests with the same educational experience that DreamHack-goers receive. But maybe some people, while at DreamHack, could go to a music festival in Second Life?

Either way, does anyone think the Smith College conference fund would subsidize costs for a student who wanted to attend DreamHack? Or maybe a certain American Studies department could sponsor its Digital Ecology class on a field trip?? Just an idea.

Below is a panoramic photo from DreamHack. Pretty cool, right?


I recently read a very interesting blog post on boingboing.net about a new art exhibit opening on Second Life. But this isn’t just a regular art exhibit, it’s interactive art. In this exhibit, called Sheep Vortex, each art piece, which is more than just a digital painting hanging on a wall in a Second Life museum or gallery. Instead, it is a full on experience for the viewer in which he or she literally participates in the art. The Node Zero Gallery, which hosts the exhibit, features digital artist Spot Draves (known as Spot Schism in Second Life) in collaborations with Somatika Xiao (David Stumbaugh in Second Life). Additionally, seven new artists are also debuting digital art experiences.

One thing that really caught my mind was the description of the Node Art Gallery that blogger Lisa Rein offers: “The Node Zero Gallery art experience is like no other, and must be experienced to be truly understood. Some of its installations you can literally walk around inside of, bathing in the sights and sounds around you. While, others take you on little adventures, complete with hidden treasures and puzzles for you to find, explore, and work your way through.” It really made me want to participate in this “digital art experience” for myself! But sadly enough, only those who have a Second Life are able to “transport” into the Node Zero Gallery.

More than anything, though, this piece got me thinking about art in general. It is something we attempt to critique often in American Studies. We’re often asking ourselves “what is art?” or “what qualifies as art”? Does the creation of Second Life art indicate that someone who is simply a good computer programmer could be an established digital artist in Second Life? Is it only important what the artist is creating or who is it also important that the creator be considered an “artist”?

Forgive my scattered thoughts, but the question of art and authenticity is reminding me of a really excellent documentary I saw recently called My Kid Could Paint That. The film followed the whirlwind rise of 4-year-old Marla Olmstead’s art career and her family’s involvement. At first Marla was regarded as a child prodigy who produced incredible abstract canvasses. However, in a controversial turn of events, it seemed as if Marla’s parents may or may not have been guiding her or even doctoring her work to make it more sophisticated. While her parents vehemently denied the accusations, they were also unable to prove that Marla was the sole creator of the pieces. This was the central plot of the documentary, but I tend to wonder, if the pieces are beautiful, does learning that her parents may have aided her make them less beautiful? And also, even if this girl is the sole creator of the works, does the intent (or lack of intent) behind the works matter? It is evident from early on in the film, at least to me, that while she may be creating some beautiful stuff, to her it’s just pushing a bunch of paint around a canvas until the colors are aesthetically pleasing. I always sort of thought that the meaning behind a piece or art was as important as the piece itself. So I guess I wonder, is Marla’s work just “coincidental art”?

So in that vein, I think I would definitely consider the Second Life “digital art experiences” to be authentic art. The meaning behind the art is definitely there and the artists are doing something unquestionably innovative.

Believing, Forgetting, and Accepting

At this point I don’t think any of you would be taxed to believe that I make it a habit of reading several serious conspiracy theory blogs, and that I post on many of their affiliated message boards. I will often find myself several pages into a thread about, say…satanic ritual abuse (or H.A.A.R.P., or reptoids, or the illuminati), rapt with conviction. But every time I have the same moment where I realize that none of this is substantiated, and yet I’m so compelled to believe it.

Often I’ll be moving extremely fast through a series of hyperlinks, and get the sensation of physically traveling very fast. But time and again I find myself in the same physical space, at my desk, or in a chair. This occurs more bluntly in online game’s with complex GUIs,  but the sensation seems ruined by the literalness.

Similarly I’ll have countless tabs and windows open, and text or image pattern location software open checking and cross referencing page after page after page against each other and what were at one point flat pages of text now appear to me as a great grid of information.

Now, it would hardly be difficult to turn this into a discussion about honesty, truth, and how easily humans can convince themselves to feel a certain way, but I’d rather talk about why certain, often improbable sensations can seem so believable at times on the internet. What criteria do you consider when assessing someone’s image, “value”, and believability in online contexts? How do certain aspects of someone translate into the online world, out of a social networking context (which is all we can seem to talk about sometimes)? How is it that flat panes can become rich landscapes. Or, more thing to ponder is how we relate to the web as a whole, actual space, realized as a spatial, information rich, “world”.

More and more I see people submitting to what I like to call the “soft web”, that is, sites like digg, facebook, and wikipedia that aggregate, distribute, and democratize information. This is in contrast to the “hard web” that I grew up with and remains my stomping grounds; personal sites, minor message boards, information depositories. Are we quickly forgetting the hard web, where things are more nebulous but the information more diverse, in favor of a more democratized and smoothed over internet? What are we losing by doing this? What are we gaining?

What I’m trying to convey is that people discuss, to great lengths the way in which we realize ourselves on the internet. But again and again the conversations fall to myspace or facebook. I find this particularly dissatisfying because, as I see it, those technologies only cover a fraction of the available means of expression and feelings available on the internet. But what it really comes down to is the question of what the internet really is. obviously its different for everybody, but is it a database, a narrative, or a realized space? I think it is none of those specifically, but each are equally important. For the internet to be fully realized, I think it is up to the individuals who use it to embrace a multi-faceted existence on it. Myspace and facebook are obviously narratives, the great repositories of raw information are not lacking, and to an extent technologies like Second Life are providing a spatial quality to it all (although I think its metaphor is a bit thin), what is lacking is an understanding of how these three qualities work together to fill the virtual landscape. And the ultimate question, is it another world, or an extension of our own?

As probably most of you know, this past Tuesday evening there was a controversial event at Smith college.  The Smith Republican Club invited a speaker named Ryan Sorba to give a lecture entitled “The Born Gay Hoax”.  Before and after the actual event, Smith’s online forum which is part of the “daily jolt” website was overrun with postings about the controversy.  The postings were mainly questions about what would be the proper action to take against the speech and the concept of free speech in reference to the event.  Sorba’s speech was ultimately met with a massive, raucous protest using queer activism protest techniques meant to silence the voice of Sorba, who’s lecture was meant to deny queer people of our identity, and ultimately our voices.  Protest techniques such as chanting, sitting with backs facing the speaker, and public displays of affection were utilized.  Many of the protesters were close friends of mine who felt their efforts were successful, as Sorba eventually left the room unable to share his speech.  I am curious about the daily jolt forum’s role in this controversy.  I believe this forum created a space for dialogue about the event, but I also believe that the anonymity of the forum created a problematic divide between people who were opposed to the ideas that Sorba intended to articulate in his speech.  Some of the buzz words that have come up in postings about the event are “ashamed” and “inappropriate” in reference to the protest tactics used, as well as “you gave him what he wanted”.  Furthermore, outside of the online forum, these words were used again by Smith students in a Hampshire class of mine today when we were asked to describe the incident.  Controversial situations usually produce buzz words, due to the amount of communication that surrounds them.  The forum brought this dialogue into our dorm rooms, our classrooms, and essentially anywhere that a computer could be accessed.  I found myself reading and posting about the issue in the early hours of the morning, and the late hours of the night, when I would normally be sleeping.  The amount of dialogue that went into this event was facilitated by the use of the daily jolt forum.  I hold strong to the belief that the protest was empowering and successful, and many of the posts on the daily jolt struck a rough chord with me personally, yet I believe that they were necessary.  I am glad that such a broad dialogue was created about this event, and I hope that it continues to infiltrate our thoughts and conversations.  I think that although the forum spurned a lot of passionate interactions and the exchange of opinions, that in order for it to be effective, it should be brought outside of the anonymous digital world of the daily jolt.  

With the telekinetic monkey and 24/7 soldier, and whatever other enhancements for humans that may become available in the future, I wonder what the true benefits to humankind these will offer.  We focused on this in class–will people willfully subject themselves to these ‘improvements’ to gain new powers and abilities, or will they simply try to preserve what it means to be “human”?  

The concept of evolution and especially Darwinism addresses the concept that a single species will try to perpetuate their own kind for an indefinite period of time.  This includes the concept of survival of the fittest.  Inevitably the best-fit individuals will outcompete the ‘weaker’ individuals so that the better genes will be in the gene pool, continually making the population more fit for survival.  We see that as time goes on, when you compare states A and B, chances are you’ll see a drastic change in the environment, climate, competitors, food sources, and other things.  Social Darwinists took this concept with respect to superiority of people and to legitimize slavery, etc.  Similarly, evolution can occur with respect to technology, as we have seen happen since the medieval ages, and even before.  

Heilbroner argues that the advancement of technology also facilitates the evolution of people in terms of skills and knowledge, and as a result our interactions with one another also change.  The entire social structure changes.  It may be a slow transformation, as are most things in the natural world.  Comparing the organic to the synthetic is interesting because anything that we create came from the natural world, no matter how one tries to argue it.  So, with this development of new products, in particular the two that I mentioned, we are essentially creating a new type of human sub-species.  These enhancements surely affect how effective, efficient, and innovative we will become, but I wonder where will be the point/when will this change from Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens technologica (really creative, I know) occur?  And will our species be replaced by the new incomers?  

Perhaps I am thinking way in the future, but nonetheless it is evident today the ‘new’ type of athletes that compete with the ‘normal’ ones that do not undergo any doping or enhancement treatments.  These are basically the new athlete (sub?-)species for which new rules for competition like drug testing have been implemented =sociocultural change.

I feel like what has been fabricated in scifi may actually become real somewhere in the near future and I’m not sure if I am ecstatic or just scared by the fact though, it would be interesting to see some of this technology to be in its near-final stage of development…

As I was walking through town yesterday, I came across a very interesting flier. The flier [which was posted in an assortment of areas (on the ground, on poles)] depicted an open cell phone with a text message on the screen. The text reads: “Text Msg: Message: I wanted to do this face to face, but now you know. I don’t want you to work here anymore. If you want to talk about it we can, but my decision is final.” I am completely unsure of where this flier is from or what it’s actually about, but it raised some interesting questions for me. I know we’ve discussed the topic of text messaging in class once or twice before but it’s a significant topic that I’d like to explore a bit more.

The flier immediately struck me for two reasons. 1) While it seems absurd to fire someone via text message, the idea really isn’t that outlandish these days and 2) The flier itself displays how removed we have all become. It is a drawing on a flier of a text message on a cell phone screen that is conveying a message that one would normally think of as needing to be communicated in person. The second point really sat with me and made me reflect on my own experiences with this dynamic. (By this dynamic I am referring to the use of text message to communicate very personal/intimate/important information.)

Although it’s embarrassing, I am willing to admit that I’ve had many very significant conversations via text messaging. For example, I once conducted a “what are we actually doing with each other” conversation via text messaging. What strikes me as being more absurd than the fact that I actually had this exchange with someone is the fact that at the time I didn’t think of how bizarre it is to try to talk about such a complicated thing over such a detached medium. But these types of interactions occur on a daily basis now. Text messaging has become such an integral part of our social landscape and our ways of communicating with one another. Cell phones have continuously developed to adapt to consumers’ growing desire for easy text messaging (QWERTY keyboards).

I’ve only recently become much more aware of how often I use text messaging to engage with people and, moreover, how detached that engagement is. A couple months ago I started conversing with a friend over text message and he replied “If you want to have an actual conversation, call me.” I was startled by his response and jokingly referred to him as ‘an old man’ who wasn’t quite up to date. But more and more I’m making a conscious effort to call instead of text.

I think it’s very important to ask ourselves what text messaging has done to the way that we interact with each other. Most interestingly, what are the politics of interaction that have emerged out of text messaging (or even facebook messaging for that matter)? I’ve always found these politics to be very fascinating. For example, if person A messages person B at 7 pm, person B feels inclined to wait X amount of hours or days before responding, for fear of seeming overzealous. Certainly, not all messaging threads work under these circumstances but I’ve certainly seen a good handful of these kinds of interactions. What’s most upsetting about all of this is how it translates to our ways of interacting with each other in person. I have definitely noticed with certain friends from back home that our communication becomes solely text based. I haven’t seen incredibly strong support for the statement that I’m about to make but I’ve experienced a decent amount of change in the ways that people who I know interact with me because of the development of text messaging and facebook messaging, etc. There is a certain freedom and ease with which things can be said over these mediums that in turn, I think, inhibits people from expressing themselves freely in person. It’s a shame and I wonder what any of you think can be done to remedy its effects (other than the individual working on their own to bridge the gap).

Facebook announced that 7 of my friends had joined the Course Hero Inc. group. Naturally, I checked it out.

Here are excerpts from what I found:

Help spread the word about the largest open online community of college course materials

More Students = More Course Materials. And that’s a very good thing

It’s the Course Hero way–Student Peers Learning From & Teaching Each Other

“If I have seen a little further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” – Isaac Newton

Is this a “very good thing?” How much collaboration—and what type—should happen in the classroom?

The Open Educational Resources (OER) movement in the academic (primarily college) community. This term was coined in 2002 at the United Nations Education, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) conference. Resources include full course content (such as the MIT podcast classes) and tools to complement this content (such as chemistry drawing applications or games intended to teach typing or math). These resources can be top down—like when UNESCO, institutions, or even faculty create the content—or bottom up—like Course Hero, where the content is driven by students.

I initially thought that this group was something like Spark Notes, which began in 1999 by four Harvard Students and has grown exponentially. Course Hero began by students at Cornell and since then has collaborated with Facebook. The difference is, once you register with Course Hero, you have to upload documents to be able to see other documents. Five documents uploads will get you one month access, ten document uploads will get you three months, and fifty documents will get you unlimited access. The most popular course right now is taught at Cornell and features 119 documents! For Spark Notes, you pay in American currency, but for Course Hero, you pay in document uploads.

Course Hero features general information about topics, as well as text-book specific reading notes, school-specific guidelines, and even course-specific assignments. In a way, students are able to focus on what they find most important in the courses—but the professors still have authority over which textbooks to assign, what concepts to focus on, and what concepts to put on the exams. This type of “get and give” community requires that some users are active and post their resources—but what about the passive students?

I am concerned about what happens to the ‘freeloaders’ who only take away. Is it, though, a skill to be able to find, take away, and consolidate others information? This, arguably, happens in traditional study groups as well—that some of the group members are prepared, and others passively take in others condensed information. Ultimately, students have been sharing information for a long time. In fraternity houses, the brothers frequently saved their old course packets and exams to aid the younger classes. I can imagine the same happened in sports teams, clubs, and among friends. In some classes, we often skip over the primary text and only study how others have interpreted the original material and what others have concluded. Perhaps Course Hero only makes these exchanges more accessible.

More information can be found about the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement and the Open Access (OA) movement at these sites:

MIT Open CourseWare (http://ocw.mit.edu/)
OER Commons (http://www.oercommons.org/)
Students for Free Culture (http://freeculture.org/)
Free Online Education (http://education.jimmyr.com/)

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