13 Feb 2009, 1:18pm
feminism media & technology
by jordan

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women and video games

my friend and fellow grad student Morgan Romine was featured on Fast Company earlier this month, blogging on “Why Women Should Play Video Games.” Here’s an exerpt:

I realize that gaming is still a decidedly male-dominated pastime and industry, and I understand that mainstream culture is still deeply influenced by the notion that games are only for the stereotypical antisocial, tech-nerdy, teenage male. But I’ve been advocating games for years now, and playing them for longer, so I’m impatient for the change in popular perception that I’m sure is waiting right around the corner.

13 Feb 2009, 1:06pm
media & technology
by jordan

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netbooks: lowering the bar to entry

reading various tech blogs and discussion boards lately, i’ve been following some of the debate around “netbooks,” small, underpowered laptops that cost much less than full-sized ones. so-called netbooks aim to meet basic internet and computing needs (email, web surfing, some wordprocessing) in a superportable form, such as Acer’s Aspire One, the ASUS Eee PC, the Dell Mini 10, or the MSI Wind. some netbooks seem to be more like glorified handhelds — cramped keyboards, small screens, and limited processing power (many run on Intel’s Atom chip), but long battery life — and they have been touted for precisely these features. in theory, netbooks are poised to fill a niche between smartphones and full-sized laptops, offering an inexpensive, internet-capable device with the benefits of both — perfect for traveling or taking to a coffeeshop.

one purported use of the netbook is as a secondary computer, an ultralight portable for an affluent consumer who already owns a larger, more valuable, and full-featured machine. for such users, a netbook can offer a disposable, affordable alternative for their “mobile lifestyle,” presuming, of course, a particular kind of mobile, middle-class, professional consumer (not coincidentally, the targeted demographic for many shiny new tech devices). but unlike an iPhone or a Blackberry, which remain expensive devices with pricey data services, a netbook is priced low relative to that of full-sized laptops. low-end PC notebooks in the same range ($300-600) are inevitably bulky, heavy, and impractical for taking on the go.

still, netbooks’ inadequacies have been criticized by Techcrunch’s Michael Arrington, who contends that their popularity will be limited: “Netbooks are designed to appeal to two very different markets – the price sensitive and the size sensitive. The two are really mutually exclusive.” Arrington makes a good point, but at the same time, there are shifts in how people are using technology which will make netbooks more appealing. personal computers have become primarily networked devices, for messaging, web browsing, streaming music and video, and so on, where an earlier generation of computers were seen as “productivity” tools. WiFi and wireless data networks make it possible to connect to the internet from almost anywhere — on campuses, in coffeeshops, at the airport. while smartphones have greatly improved their capacity to access the internet and social media services, they remain expensive compared to mobile phones without data plans, and are only used by a minority.

what’s more, computers, like cell phones, have become highly personalized items — for those as can afford it. no longer primarily a shared family or classroom device, laptops conform to a modern Western ideal of possessive individualism — a sense of personhood as singular and individual, One Laptop Per Child. netbooks, precisely by virtue of their affordability, promise to make available the always-on, interconnected world of social networking sites, cloud computing, and streaming media to a wide audience. as personal computers go, they offer a highly portable, technologically sufficient device that provides access to popular media and services, in a market saturated by products overpowered for many everyday uses. moreover, the coming popularity of off-site “cloud” computing may make netbooks even more viable.

still, i suspect the netbook naysayers are correct in their dismay with netbooks’ constrained capacities, and that most people won’t prefer to have an undersized, underpowered device as their main computer. but for a growing generation of students, young people, and others of limited means, netbooks may offer the most cost-effective way of participating in a digitized, networked world of personal portable devices, regardless of preference. netbooks offer the promise of improving access to new media for many, but this comes at the cost of better performing, more expensive computers. technology use will remain marked by its economically and socially uneven terrain.

7 Feb 2009, 5:35pm
media & technology research
by jordan

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recent projects

i’ve been continuing to think about questions of mobility, spatial scales, and technology, particularly in terms of how our ideas about mobility often influence what kind of new media are developed and marketed. most recently, i proposed a small project funded by Intel as part of collaborative effort between Intel’s People and Practices group and UC Irvine. there are a whole number of interesting projects as part of the initiative, which you can read more about on the PAPR blog.

in addition, i’ve returned to blogging for Smart Mobs, so keep an eye out for me there.

25 Sep 2008, 2:41pm
media & technology youth
by jordan

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whose mobility?

with this summer’s iPhone 3G from Apple and Google’s latest unveiling of the G1 smartphone, mobility seems to be the current communications tech buzzword, especially for so-called social media. having just acquired a new iPhone myself, i admit i’m pretty excited by its possibilities — continuous data, location-based services, and a superslick interface that may indicate the future of touch-based interfaces. i’ve been especially impressed by the free applications offered by established social media sites, like Facebook, MySpace, Last.fm, and Twitter. where internet services have tended to focus on web-based applications, the iPhone redirects usage back to standalone apps which implement their own framework while drawing on networked content.

i find myself updating my Facebook and checking my Myspace messages more often, as the iPhone apps are often quicker and cleaner than their web-based counterparts, and more fun to use. i’m titillated (and a little creeped out) by how Yelp and Google Maps can now figure out where i am, and deliver data specific to my location. i’m beginning to envision how devices like the iPhone and G1 might allow for more constant engagement and interactivity with peers — as long as, of course, they also own the pricey equipment and pay for the data subscription (not to mention having a working wireless network, which neither AT&T nor T-Mobile consistently provide).

this brings me to my current question concerning increasing mobility — whose mobility is at stake here? the “digital divide” between technological haves and have-nots may not be a foreign concept in tech circles, but it’s not one that has been very well addressed either, as it’s often chalked up to socio-economic inequities that must be solved separately. certainly it’s not surprising that tricked-out web-capable smartphones are mostly available to consumers in the upper social strata (with devices starting at $179 and combined voice/data plans running $55/month and up). moreover, social and geographic mobility have often been the purview of the middle (and upper middle) classes, those who are more likely to leave home for college, take jobs in different cities, and establish themselves far away from their extended families.

migration, of course, is a reality for many working-class people in the US and abroad, whose ability to earn a living is often tied to the movement of global capital. the demands of the global market tend to drive mass labor migrations, as people must move to find jobs that can support them and their families — often living far from home and working abroad illegally (from migrant Mexican and Central American laborers in the US, to domestic workers in Europe and the Gulf states who come from South Asia, the Phillipines, and elsewhere). mobility per se may not be limited to those with greater resources, but voluntary mobility is still a privilege.

yet by contrast, mobile communications technologies have precisely been adopted in places where more extensive infrastructure may not exist. in the US, for instance, mobile phones were adopted first by younger users, partly because they’re less likely to have their own landline (or own a home), and also because cell phone carriers began offering pre-paid plans that made phones accessible to those without steady incomes (the Pew Internet Project has some interesting reports on cell phone and internet use among different American demographics, though their methodology is limited to phone interviews, and they appear to conflate race with regional ethnic identity). outside the industrialized world, furthermore, mobile phones increasingly provide communications access to low-income regions and neighborhoods where landlines are simply unavailable. according to this article on MobileActive.org, for example, Brazilians living in favelas (slums) have taken up cell phone use, as have low-income youth in South Africa. free incoming calls and text messaging make mobile phones useable where landlines aren’t, and encourage different ways of engaging with mobile technologies. according to Jeffrey Juris’ review, The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication, shows how mobile phones in Jamaica allow low-income users to intensify their social networks in beneficial ways.

what’s clear is that mobile technologies are used differently by different groups, often in ways not intended or imagined by marketers or tech companies. marginalized populations are probably less likely to be targeted by companies like Apple or Google, but at the same time, new technologies do present novel possibilities for social interaction at multiple social strata. text messaging, as the New York Times anxiously warned last week, is on the rise, often over and against voice calls, while improved handheld devices might actually provide web access to those who can’t afford more expensive computer equipment (though Apple and Google for now are both assuming their devices will be paired with a home computer and broadband connection). mobility may turn out to mean more than just the latest toys for those of us who can afford them, and perhaps suggests an emerging way to think about and analyze new patterns in technology practice.

23 May 2007, 1:28pm
myspace news media youth
by jordan

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the ongoing hype over online predation

MySpace reaches accord with Attorneys General – May. 21, 2007

so via Broadsheet, i noticed the news that MySpace has partnered with a “background verificantion” firm (Sentinel Tech Holdings Corp) to create a database of convicted sex offenders, which MySpace then used to begin expunging users who were cross-listed. of course, not all sex offenders are pedophiles, and statutory rape laws still mean that sometimes consenting teen couples have sex across age lines, and the older partner is charged and becomes a registered offender. but fine, so MySpace is trying to keep convicted sex offenders off the site, as a way to respond to charges from both legislators, the press, parents and others that social networking sites are havens for predators seeking to lure naive children to their lairs (or wherever) and abuse them.

According to CNN (via Reuters), MySpace worked out a legal way to hand over this information to government officials (a group of state attorney generals). So far, they’ve deleted about 7,000 profiles identified as belong to sex offenders (out of a total of about 180 million (that’s about 0.00004% for the curious).

as usual, i think this raises some issues of privacy — does being convicted of a sexual offense deprive you of your right to create online profiles, and is any profile you create subject to government surveillance? i imagine MySpace has some legal standing in denying accounts to sex offenders, but i think targeting all sex offenders so widely tends to conflate a range of offenses as equally dangerous, when they may not be.

but in my mind, the bigger question still revolves around the visibility of MySpace against the actual risk to young people who use the service. the Connecticut attorney general was quoted as saying “Social networking sites should not be playgrounds for predators.” and yet, most children are still at much greater risk from people they know than strangers on the internet — a risk which can be further minimized by basic safety practices around meeting new people online.

perhaps it makes sense for all minors with MySpace accounts to have private profiles, so only their friends can see their personal info — but digital technologies tend to make it difficult to ascertain the real age of members. digital media require learning new habits for safety and protection, similar to being cautious with personal financial information. the danger of “predators” on MySpace is continually hyped in the media (even the usually critical blog Broadsheet jumping in), at the expense of the most common forms of abuse experienced by children. perhaps after we insure that all American children have health insurance and are free from violence or abuse at home, we can begin to concern ourselves with digital dangers. until then, though, we have to keep asking why sex offenders seem to capture the legal imagination and divert our attention away from the less sensationalistic violence of the everyday.

15 Mar 2007, 3:11pm
media & technology
by jordan

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digi-pedia: wikipedia’s digital hegemony

the other day on NPR, i heard a brief segment about Wikipedia, and how conservative critics have put together an online alternative called “Conservapedia,” supposedly in correction to the “liberal bias” rampant in the former. i would believe that many of Wikipedia’s articles reproduce liberal perspectives, particularly the academically-informed entries which tend to reflect leftist scholarly criticism, but i’m not convinced that this kind of “bias” needs to be “balanced” by an opposite conservative opinion. the polarized political spectrum doesn’t always represent two equally valid critical positions. or maybe i’ve just been reading too much Althusser.

still, clearly Wikipedia cannot offer a neutrally produced body of knowledge — all knowledge is situated and specific to the contexts in which it emerged. Wikipedia is necessarily a result of the communities that collaborate on it — particularly those that are technologically enabled, and often academically informed. establishing “Conservapedia” strikes me as a bit fruitless, since once you assert your political position openly, you’ve already marked your ideas in a particular way. i suspect that the original site will maintain its dominant ground as the unmarked, normative version which most people will prefer. it’s bad enough when students try to use Wikipedia as an academic reference — imagine those who try to support their arguments with an explicitly biased source!

Conservapedia aside, i’m also not convinced that “bias” is the most pressing issue limiting Wikipedia’s legitimacy. i’m interested more in its overall structure as a site of knowledge production — in particular, what kinds of entries are created in the first place? i’ve noticed an increasing number of individual figures with their own Wikipedia page (especially those who are well-known online, like jwz, danah boyd, and howard rheingold), as well as night clubs, internet memes, and various contemporary yet transient topics. should every person, place, and concept ultimately have its own page? of course, entries on Wikipedia tend to reflect its users’ predilections for all things digitally mediated, a tendency i think is more significant than any alleged “liberal bias.”

generally, i accept the premise that Wikipedia’s content is regulated by an interactive style of editing that allows users to continually tweak and rewrite entries according to their own level of engagement with a given topic, and i’m often impressed by the quality of articles on historical figures, terms from critical theory, and general knowledge of popular culture, all of which make the encyclopedia incredibly useful for general reference. but at what point does it become a promotional site for certain kinds of people and ideas, or an archive of internet fads? the open editing process of a wiki can’t exercise much influence over what kinds of entries are useful or appropriate, something that more traditional editing might allow. interestingly, Wikipedia has been using “dis-ambiguation” pages recently to clarify related terms and redirect users to pages of interest. i think this highlights some of the possible drawbacks of an interactive, communally produced reference work. perhaps the proliferation of pages will be managed through user interest and will self-regulate in practice, but it’s worth considering how interactive and collaborative sites of knowledge may privilege certain trends, ideas, and information over others. Wikipedia’s conservative detractors are feeling nervous precisely because of that potential ability to dominate popular thought.

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