Sunday, July 31, 2005

The labors of "democratic, citizen journalism"

An essay by Rory O'Connor over at Global Journalist lauds the blossoming of online "citizen-journalists" (such as bloggers but also individuals contributing to new cooperative and "open source" web ventures like and Open Media Network) and links this revolution not only to the increasing household penetration of the broadband Internet, but to the consumption of personal digital appliances for media manipulation like digital cameras:

The rise in high-speed Internet connections is fueling an evolution of the Web from a medium heavy on text and graphics into a source of audio and moving pictures, and the proliferation of low-priced digital cameras, camcorders, recording gear and a host of personal electronic devices has created millions of potential journalists. With these tools of production now cheaper, faster and more accessible than ever, the tools of dissemination are becoming more ubiquitous and democratic than ever.

This tendency to equate the expansion of consumer technology to "democratization" is not new (see for example the 2nd volume of the Americans trilogy by historian Daniel Boorstin in the late 1970s) but claiming that a particular class of technology-consuming consumers can not only ehance, but replace professional journalism seems pretty risky to me. I think we need to ask some critical questions before we come to any conclusions: Which persons have the media literacy, the disposable income, the previous work- or education-related knowledge of the professional media industries, and the considerable "disposable time" to become effective citizen journalists? What kind of journalism, from what positionality and directed to what audiences and social ends, are these persons likely to produce (or even able to produce)? In many cases the answers to these questions might be inspiring and optimistic: say, educated individuals in societies which repress their political-economic participation or dismiss the value of their life experience finally able to find a collective voice through low-cost publishing of text to collective weblogs. At the other extreme, the answers to these questions might point to the snowballing production of an "echo chamber" where idle consumers of one narrow media slice parrot and quote tidbits back into the mediasphere for like-minded (and like-positioned fans). Many weblogs, in fact, might be judged to display both of these polarized sides simultaneously (this one included).

I think the key in making such judgements -- as we as critical consumers of any media must inevitably do, like it or not -- is to evaluate such activities neither on the basis of the "democratizing" consumer technology they use -- text blogs or photo blogs or video blogs or (mark my words) virtual-reality gaming-engine full-immersion experience blogs -- nor on the consumer popularity they elicit, but on the basis of the labor practices they promote, demand and sustain. And in that sense i think the divide between groups of "citizen-journalists" and groups of "fan communities" and groups of "online diarists" and any other subset of bloggers that we might try to bound is going to be their adoption of, and contribution back to, notions of careful, critical, and conscionable rhetoric, analysis, research, and documentation. These are skills one learns at, say, the university, rather than purchasing them at Best Buy.

Friday, July 29, 2005

Biased information labor at PBS?

Just can't let this one go by without a short comment, for the benefit of any students out there who might be reading this.

An editorial this week over at Fox News from David Boaz, executive vice president of the avowedly libertarian Cato Institute, purported to list the "Top Ten Reasons to Privatize Public Broadcasting". I don't have the time or interest to try to refute all of his allegations -- some are grounded in important debates over the direction of public broadcasting and don't deserve to be dismissed out of hand, and not all of the allegations are of equal value or import to the debate -- but I wanted to point out two in particular, which strike me as comically contradictory:

7. Public broadcasting has a liberal bias. The reason the Republicans are poking around in PBS’s business is that they’re tired of taxpayer-funded radio and television networks being used to campaign against Republican administrations and their policies. Does public broadcasting have a liberal bias? Is the Pope Catholic? I have the luxury of choosing from two NPR stations. On Wednesday evening, June 29, a Robert Reich (search) commentary came on. I switched to the other station, which was broadcasting a Daniel Schorr (search) commentary. That's not just liberal bias, it's a liberal roadblock.


1. The separation of news and state. We wouldn’t want the federal government to publish a national newspaper. Why should we have a government television network and a government radio network? If anything should be kept separate from government and politics, it’s the news and public affairs programming that Americans watch. When government brings us the news—with all the inevitable bias and spin—the government is putting its thumb on the scales of democracy. It’s time for that to stop.

So for the head of the Cato think tank, a group which is funded by partisan interests and provides research and rhetoric to those partisan interests, the problem with PBS is "liberal bias." OK, I understand they don't want taxpayer dollars promoting bias one way or another. I'll forget for a moment the fact that it was the FCC under the Reagan Administration in the 1980s which let the former "Fairness Doctrine," a regulatory principle over the privatized airwaves that demanded a sense of "balance" in news reporting, die a lonely death (allowing the meteoric rise of "right-wing talk radio," among other things). And I will forgive the "Is the Pope Catholic?" line of "common sense" reasoning, even though the Cato institute, as a supposedly research-based think tank, should be able to supply actual research to back up its claims -- I understand this is an editorial on Fox, meant to be snappy, not authoritative. But if PBS is so liberal, then how can it possibly be an outlet for government propaganda, as Boaz indicates in his number one reason to privatize PBS? (Hasn't Boaz been paying attention to the recent revelations that in fact it has been the Bush Administration who has been using taxpayer dollars to pay media consultants to support its policies on the air, and to produce "Video News Releases" sent to local television news programs who pass this propaganda off as independent reporting?) In fact, if two out of the three branches of federal government are now controlled by the economic and social conservative side of the political spectrum (with a new Supreme Court justice likely tipping the balance of the third branch as well), might we not want a watchdog voice to represent a more moderate (which they see as "liberal") set of views?

I would like to encourage media and information students of mine to check out the Fox editorial, and then to follow up some other sources as well, such as Salon reporter Eric Boehlert's nice article on the current attack on PBS (posted at and a 1999 Vassar College study of actual persons appearing on PBS news and public interest programs (posted at which showed that the dominant voice is not "liberal," but corporate. Not only is PBS not as "liberal" as the Cato institute -- representing the epitome of economic conservatism and, as libertarians, often social liberalism! -- would have Fox viewers believe, but PBS is, in a very real sense, already privatized: both dependent for corporate funding to produce and screen much of its programming, and providing a showcase for corporate America pundits in its nightly news just as every other professional national news service tends to do.

Yet I still think we need PBS, and instead of pointing to as the canonical argument for why we do (although I still think this is a very good example and argument) I'll point to another informational resource that is unique in America -- and around the world -- to PBS alone, an unparalleled source of investigative, documentary filmmaking AND a great example of how, as a publicly-based endeavor, that information is able to be enhanced and preserved over the new media of the global Internet. I'm talking about Frontline, and if you've never seen this program or visited this web site, please do it now and discover just what journalism COULD become in an environment free of corporate pressures for avoiding any and all least-common-demoninator objections of affluent and/or targeted consumers.

Friday, July 22, 2005

Talking points on the value of public univeristy information labor to a state

Here in Wisconsin, university faculty and staff have been fighting to keep their benefits, gain cost-of-living raises, and avoid the need to raise tuition on students, arguing against a Republican-controlled state legislature which doesn't seem to agree that public research universities are a wise investment of tax dollars. Here are a few quick talking points presented in open testimony by the group PROFS, which lobbies the state on behalf of faculty interests -- talking points no doubt applicable to other state university systems besides Wisconsin's as well.

Other universities and states are taking note of the fact that UW-Madison salaries are slipping further behind our peers. They are pursuing our faculty at an increasing rate.

The numbers tell the story. A couple years ago, we had 52 faculty members receive outside offers, and we were able to retain 75% of them. Last year, we had nearly twice as many - 98 - receive outside offers, and we were only able to retain 52% of them.

Make no mistake about it. We are losing some very good people.

Why should you and the rest of the state care about retaining and recruiting UW-Madison faculty? There are many reasons. UW-Madison faculty members bring in, on average, more than $250,000 in federal research funding annually, which has a huge multiplier effect on the state. The university's 2004-05 budget includes a great deal more federal funding ($526 million) than state tax dollars ($370 million).

UW-Madison's economic impact on the state is estimated to be at least $4.7 billion annually. At least 218 Wisconsin companies have been started as a result of ties to UW research done by faculty. These companies employ more than 7,000 people and have gross revenues of well over $1 billion.

And momentum for business growth is building, as an average of 13 companies have been formed from the research at UW-Madison in each of the last five years. Forbes magazine recently rated Madison the best place in the nation to launch a business or career, due in large measure to the presence of the university.

While calculating the direct economic benefits of university research is an effective strategy, I hope we (and the Republican lawmakers) don't lose sight of the fact that university faculty and staff also spend significant time and effort teaching and mentoring the state's young adults, so that they too might find jobs where they can apply critical thinking skills in service of the greater public interest -- and get paid a fair wage to do so. (And many of these jobs, in todays increasingly globalized, increasingly informatized society, will necessarily involve "information labor.") That's all we ask for ourselves, and personally, that's my greatest wish for our students.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

How higher education is viewed by some in Congress

The online magazine Inside Higher Ed reported on the House Education and Workforce Committee as "it was considering hugely important
legislation that determines how the government spends tens of billions of dollars a year on students and colleges" in a "session to amend the Higher Education Act". Two contradictory bits stand out in particular. First, the debate over the "watered-down version of David Horowitz's Academic Bill of Rights" that was to be attached to the act, to protect conservative students from alleged abuse by "liberal" professors who supposedly run rampant in grading them poorly simply on the basis of their political views:

One issue emerged Wednesday that college groups had thought was largely settled. Last month, a group of higher education associations issued a statement aimed at altering a resolution included in the Republican leaders’ Higher Education Act legislation that mirrored the Academic Bill of Rights that is rattling around several state legislatures. The House committee’s leaders applauded the colleges’ statement and largely incorporated it into the latest drafts of their bill. The language makes the point that academe is not monolithic ideologically and that colleges can — without the government — deal with professors (a distinct few, according to most academic leaders) who punish students for their views.

But at the urging of faculty unions and other groups that had not approved the statement, Rep. John F. Tierney (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment Wednesday that aimed to drop the compromise language, which he said “interferes with the longstanding principles of academic autonomy.” “There is no place for this kind of ideology in the Higher Education Act,” Tierney said.

Added Rep. Timothy H. Bishop (D-N.Y.), a longtime administrator at Southampton College: “The fact that we are including this suggests that we are accepting the fiction that this is a problem.”

As the Democrats spoke, Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, looked like his head might explode. “It’s embarrassing that people are going on record against this,” he sputtered, characterizing the mistreatment of conservative students by liberal professors as a “sweeping and pervasive problem.”
Students, he said, “should know that the United States Congress stands behind them.”

The tide turned a bit when Rep. Ron Kind (D-Wisc.) said he thought a bigger problem were the “thought police” — small groups of students at various campuses who are creating blacklists of professors whose views they don’t agree with and trying to get the instructors fired. Souder said he “supposed that professors ought to have this right, too,” and so Tierney withdrew his amendment “temporarily” with the understanding that Democrats and Republicans might work together to alter the bill’s language to ensure that professors’ free speech rights are protected, too.

The second debate, ironically and frighteningly, was a proposal by a conservative legislator to, yes, punish professors on the basis of their political views (and to legislate just what appropriate political views are):

[The committee] Gave reasonably serious consideration to an amendment by Rep. Charles Norwood (R-Ga.) that would have withdrawn funds from international education programs that engaged in “anti-American activities.” Disbelieving Democrats repeatedly evoked the House Un-American Activities Committee and many Republican members looked embarrassed and shook their heads as Norwood, occasionally drawing titters from the audience, stuck to his guns in urging a crackdown against programs and professors who “teach distrust of America.” The measure failed, but 10 of the panel’s nearly 40 members voted for it.


Norwood’s proposal to cut back on anti-American activity, which would give a new international education advisory board that the legislation would create the power to define and identify such activity. He said that many international studies programs in the United States “teach distrust of America” and “teach young Americans to be against their own country.”

Asked repeatedly for examples, he demurred, drawing criticism from skeptical Democrats. “I am opposed to letting any committee of Americans define what is un-American for another group of Americans,” said Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.).

Again, I fear, this is just one more example of a broader trend in which politicians supported by certain constituencies and monied interests seem intent on pushing anti-intellectual, anti-rationalist (if rationality means "open to critique"), and anti-critical restraints on education, research, and media production. Individually, such efforts might sometimes seem absurd, but they should be analyzed and mobilized against as a coordinated whole.

Wednesday, July 20, 2005

On the jailing of journalists for protecting sources (updated)

(Originally posted 08 July 2005 ... updates follow)

Journalism is information labor, and the ability of journalists to find and secure trusted sources is crucial to that labor -- crucial to useful, truthful journalism. In the current US media climate where "journalism" is too often redefined in the public mind to mean punditry, product placement, or puff pieces, we must remember that real journalism requires real labor, and often real risks on the part of both journalists and their sources. The best and most succinct statement of this with regard to the recent jailing of a New York Times reporter for adhering to her professional principles comes not from the "objective" US media, but from the avowedly left-of-center UK Guardian:

The American constitution no longer protects the unfettered freedom of the press. That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the remarkable case of the New York Times journalist Judith Miller, who has just begun what is likely to be a four-month prison term for refusing to reveal her sources for a story that was never published. Protecting the confidentiality of a source, the US courts have ruled, does not outweigh all other considerations.

Rarely has the term Kafka-esque been used with greater justification than to describe the events leading to Ms Miller's imprisonment on Wednesday. Ms Miller had investigated - but not reported on - the naming of an undercover CIA agent, Valerie Plame, whose husband, a former diplomat, had written a New York Times article questioning the validity of key intelligence on the eve of the Iraq war. Mrs Plame was identified soon afterwards, in a column written by the rightwing polemicist Robert Novak. That naming was a criminal offence and an inquiry was launched into who had provided the information. Strangely, nothing is known of Mr Novak's contribution to the investigation, but Ms Miller was subpoenaed. In a further twist, Ms Miller has been highlighted as one of the New York Times reporters who had relied too heavily on Iraqi exiles for overstated reports of Saddam Hussein's possession of weapons of mass destruction. Uncharitable commentators claim she is now trying to redeem herself by her uncompromising stand in the current case.

Throughout, the US courts have accepted that precedence must be given to the task of bringing to justice the person who committed the crime of naming a CIA agent rather than the principle of protecting the confidentiality of a journalist's source. The British courts would, under the Human Rights Act, also have to balance the right to privacy with the right to freedom of expression.

Confidentiality of sources is an indispensible, if not an entirely untrammelled, weapon in the pursuit of truth, on which the Guardian writes with the humility of past experience. To reiterate one of those principles that Tony Blair promised to uphold after yesterday's London bombings: the more accessible truth is, the better informed the electorate, and the better protected democracy. It is not clear who Ms Miller spoke to or what she was told. But she should not be in prison and if the constitution does not protect her, then surely it is time for a federal law that will. And we should guard against this change in the legal climate crossing the Atlantic.

The tricky things about this story, of course, are that (1) the source being protected by the reporter is actually the person targeted for wrongdoing, not a whistleblower reporting the wrondoing of others; (2) the nature of the wrondoing was itself the source's "speech act" of revealing government security information to the reporter; and (3) the social and political context of the "war on terror" privileges the government's role in managing secrecy (remember too that the grand jury investigation itself is secret and may even be subject to "gag orders" restricting those who have participated so far). Keeping a reporter out of jail might have been easier if any one of these conditions had been different. And it would be easy to label this a "special case" where general press freedoms must be challenged. It's not an easy decision. But I have to believe that upholding the freedom of the press to use sources without revealing them to the state will, in the long run, increase the security of the US, and reproduce an environment where the truth will more readily be uncoverered -- even apart from secret grand jury investigations. Hopefully there are still smart and brave journalists out there willing to investigate the original story of the Republican Administration security leak, which after all was the real problem here, not the "liberal media".

Update 20 July 2005 ... as this story has unfolded and I've listened to and read more discussion on both the specific case at hand and the general principle at stake, I've come to agree that I should take into account a few other considerations in addition to the three I ended with above: (4) the reporter actually in jail didn't even write an article based on communication with the source, so it is unclear what public truth would come from protecting the individual (or whether that individual could even be regarded as a "source" for an article that was never written); (5) the reporters who did print information leaked by the source(s) were perhaps being used by the source(s) in a dishonest manner to smear a critic of the Bush Administration, in which case any truth-for-confidentiality claim might have already been broken; and (6) the profession of journalism should very well be held to a similar standard to other professions which regularly deal with personal confidences as a means to a greater good, such as medicine and law -- and in these professions precedents certainly do exist for deciding when confidentiality between a professional and an individual client (or source) must be abandoned in favor of the public good (or even the risk of direct harm to other indiviuals). Whew.

Some have sugested that the correct professional course of action, regardless of a personal reporter's desire to act on the basis of civil disobedience, would be to push for blanket shield laws, accept legal challenge to those laws on a case-by-case basis, and abide by the legal precedent set for interpeting these laws vis a vis the public interest or the absence of harm to other individuals. In other words, protect journalists, but trust in the rule of law, and abide by the law in the case of exceptions. After all, the legal system, like good journalism, also has a responsibilty to uncover the truth and protect the public interest (ideally). I'm coming around to this position, although I hope the fact that one of the sources "outed" under this logic is the architect of the two-time victory of an individual president, an administration, and a party whose policies I do not support has not unjustly influenced my position ... I want whatever standard the journalistic profession agrees upon, and whatever standard is written into federal law (and there SHOULD be such a standard), to apply equally well when the source being protected is distasteful to me as when the source is a hero to me -- but only if that protection serves the futher uncovering of the truth, and therefore the public interest.

But this is a more complicated issue than a blog post or two can do justice to (as are they all, really) so I'll sit on my hands now and watch the drama unfold before weighing in again. P.S. Thanks to a sly posting of Aaron Veenstra's over at Civility in Public Discourse for prodding me to rethink all this.

Fox pundit calls all science (and science-based policy) into question

Somehow I knew that Fox News would have a field day with this one -- especially in light of recent legisltative attacks on the science behind consensus theories on global warming via calls for the entire research and data records of three particular scientists to be handed over to some angry congressman with ties to the energy lobby -- and I just feel compelled to respond.

A Fox pundit led off her column today with the deceptive statement that "A review of medical studies published from 1990 to 2003 in three prestigious journals -- the New England Journal of Medicine, JAMA and Lancet -- has called the validity of approximately one-third of them into severe question." She then opined, "If a relatively 'hard' science (like medicine) has such difficulty with accuracy, then the results offered by the so-called 'soft' sciences (like sociology) should be approached with a high degree of skepticism," and that "Inaccurate studies become entrenched in laws that govern our daily lives. [...] In the best of circumstances, research is unreliable outside strictly defined limitations; even within those limits, research generally provides only an indication rather than a proof.

First of all, the original AP story she cites spins the review entirely differently: "Subsequent research contradicted results of seven studies -- 16 percent -- and reported weaker results for seven others, an additional 16 percent." The distinction is important: Fox leaves the impression that a single "review" found flaws in one-third of the the studies published in the three journals. But the reality is that it was a series of other studies subsequently published in those and other medical journals which, over time, modified the results of the original reports, and sometimes contradicted them outright.

Far from an indictment of academic research as "unreliable," this is, in fact, an example that the peer-review and research-duplication process for academic research works. The original studies in question were published because they met the standards for solid initial research results on novel ideas and questions. The subsequent studies built on these original reports, also worked their way through the peer review process, and were able to make claims of more general validity. It is likely that not only were these "scaled-up" studies, but that they were also studies with increased amounts of funding.

This is why it is unfathomable to me that the Fox pundit would use this moment to incite her readers to "Bring skepticism and common sense to all data you hear; withhold your tax dollars." She argues,

Consider the 'feminist' issues of rape or domestic violence. Studies that address these areas are often released in combination with policy recommendations. Indeed, they sometimes appear to be little more than a springboard from which advocates can launch a campaign for more law.

In turn, the laws that result often provide for more research. The Violence Against Women Act or VAWA -- now up for re-authorization before Congress -- is an example. VAWA includes provisions for more tax-funded research, for precisely the sort of research that created it in the first place.

And, so, a re-enforcing cycle is established: studies lead to laws that lead to similar tax-funded studies, which call for more law.

Leaving aside for the moment the unanswered question of why this pundit is attacking the Violence Against Women Act (and "feminists"), she seems to be arguing that (a) research by "advocates" is by definition tainted; (b) law should not in any way be based on research because research may be called into question; and (c) the federal government should not fund research with tax dollars because research may be used to formulate policy or law.

In answer to (a), the idea that research by persons with political interests is always tainted, I would argue that all persons have political interests (by definition) and that it is the set of structures and processes through which research flows which allows us to judge its truth value and/or utility. I expect and want researchers to be interested in the topics they are researching. I hope that people interested in curbing violence are the ones researching causes and patterns of violence, for example. But I want that research to be undertaken by someone trained in academic methods and ethics; I want the work funded by sources without political interests in reproducing their own position of power; I want that research to flow through a process of professional peer review and publication; and I want that research to then be called into question over and over again if necessary, by other persons from the same kind of training, with the same kind of interests in finding the truth, and working through the same funding-neutral, peer-review process.

This also answers (b), in that of course research should be called into question. That's the definition of rational argument, as opposed to, say, "faith" or "common sense" (which by definition cannot be called into question). I would rather have my government basing its laws and policies on rational argument which can, if conditions change or of new information is revealed, be called into question, rather than on someone's singular and unwavering idea of faith-based law and policy.

And finally, in terms of (c), I want my democratic, transparent, politically-accountable federal government funding research with tax dollars, because that is precisely how we may produce the kind of unbiased research results the Fox pundit claims to desire. If by contrast research is only funded by undemocratic, private, secretive, corporate sources, how likely is it that research which threatens to undermine the power position of these sources might be funded, distributed, and used?

Tuesday, July 19, 2005

A computer programmer labor shortage at Microsoft and in the US?

A recent article in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer reported that Microsoft is feeling a shortage of qualified information labor, and blames declining enrollments in US university computer science programs:

Microsoft isn't able to hire enough computer scientists in the United States to fill its available positions, Bill Gates said yesterday, citing decreasing interest in the field and fierce competition for qualified talent.

Gates, speaking to an international audience of computer science faculty members on the company's Redmond campus, said Microsoft's inability to meet its employment needs is affecting 'the speed at which we do things.'

The Microsoft chairman said he was perplexed by the declining enrollment in computer science programs at the nation's universities. [...]

Gates made the comments yesterday to more than 350 university faculty members from 20 countries at the Microsoft Research Faculty Summit.

Does Microsoft's hiring difficulty mean economic ruin for the "new economy" in the US? The report cites a UCLA study which "found a 60 percent decline between 2000 and 2004 in the number of college freshmen who planned to major in computer science," and cites a consulting study which found "Enrollment in computer science programs at North American universities has dropped by 7 percent in each of the past two years." But at the same time, "The U.S. unemployment rate for computer occupations was 4.3 percent in 2004, noticeably worse than the 2.8 percent unemployment for all professional occupations in the same year, according to an analysis of federal employment data by the U.S. division of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers." Might this not mean that we actually have a glut of programming labor available in the US as a whole, and that students are making a rational choice to avoid a crowded field?

There's another angle to this question which the Seattle Post-Intelligencer story neglects to report. As succintly described by the management-friendly National Public Employer Labor Relations Association in this summary, Microsoft has been involved in litigation over its use and classification of part-time, contingent information labor all through the 1990s:

The seminal case examining whether contingent workers are "employees" for certain benefits purposes is Vizcaino v. Microsoft. Vizcaino involved a group of independent contractors who were hired to work on special projects and who signed agreements acknowledging they would not receive benefits. Microsoft did not withhold the workers' federal income tax or allow them to participate in the company pension and welfare plans, which included a 401(k) plan and an Employee Stock Purchase Plan. The independent contractors were paid from accounts receivable and not payroll.

However, the workers were treated similarly to company employees in most other manners. They worked with company employees on projects, had the same supervisors as those employees, worked the same hours as company employees, and were provided with supplies by Microsoft. In 1990, the IRS examined Microsoft's records and determined that based on a "right to control" test, the workers were "employees" for tax purposes.

This and related cases dragged on at least until 2000, when the Surpreme Court denied to review a previous ruling from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on the matter, resulting in an ambiguous case where "employers are [...] left without guidance from the Supreme Court regarding the classification of contingent workers who are employees of third party staffing agencies" while "the Microsoft litigation has opened the door for such employees to bring costly litigation if they are denied certain benefits."

If Microsoft is truly concerned about growing IT laborers in the US through university education, versus simply trying to secure the cheapest and most pliable IT labor force it can -- through tapping saturated labor markets, using third-party contingent workers, or importing and offshoring of IT labor -- then maybe besides leading the IT industry in lobbying for the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in order to find cheaper labor markets, or requesting the single greatest number of H-1B visas and permanent guest status for workers it wants to bring to the US, Microsoft should lobby the federal government to increase aid to states, where public higher education has faced serious budget cuts for years.

Friday, July 15, 2005

Critique of US television news media from "Baghdad Burning"

A recent visit to Baghdad Burning reminded me why I think universal accessibility to weblog tools is now such an important aspect of any definition of the global "digital divide". The author talks about her surprise at finding US-media news programming broadcast throughout Iraq in recent months, and provides a lively deconstruction of what she sees:

I've been enchanted with the shows these last few weeks. The thing that strikes me most is the fact that the news is so ... clean. It's like hospital food. It's all organized and disinfected. Everything is partitioned and you can feel how it has been doled out carefully with extreme attention to the portions- 2 minutes on women's rights in Afghanistan, 1 minute on training troops in Iraq and 20 minutes on Terri Schiavo! All the reportages are upbeat and somewhat cheerful, and the anchor person manages to look properly concerned and completely uncaring all at once.

About a month ago, we were treated to an interview on 20/20 with Sabrina Harman- the witch in some of the Abu Ghraib pictures. You know- the one smiling over faceless, naked Iraqis piled up to make a human pyramid. Elizabeth Vargus was doing the interview and the whole show was revolting. They were trying to portray Sabrina as an innocent who was caught up in military orders and fear of higher ranking officers. The show went on and on about how American troops never really got seminars on Geneva Conventions (like one needs to be taught humanity) and how poor Sabrina was being made a scapegoat. They showed the restaurant where she worked before the war and how everyone thought she was "such a nice person" who couldn't hurt a fly!

We sat there watching like we were a part of another world, in another galaxy. I've always sensed from the various websites that American mainstream news is far-removed from reality- I just didn't know how far. Everything is so tame and simplified. Everyone is so sincere.

The key here, in my opinion, is the dialectical connection between media consumption and production that her weblog posting makes possible: I can sit in the US and read the weblog of a woman in Iraq, who is watching media designed to be distributed in the US that instead is now being redistributed in that society, and see her reacting from her perspective and challenging the images of US media she had previously heard secondhand from other Internet resources which she had long had access to. The dissemination of such personal interpretations of "dislocated" media to wider audiences, which themselves are reading those interpretations from their own "dislocated" positionality in a sense, is just wonderful.

Now if only we could fix our own broadcast news media here at home ...

Global information labor and global information education

From a recent article in the Christian Science Monitor comes an ironic example of the dialectical relationship between information-labor education and the wider information-labor economy -- in India:

In a sign of growing pains within India's high-tech economy, the government last week slashed the intake capacity of engineering schools by more than 25,000 seats across the country's private university system.

A dramatic shortage of engineering teachers with doctoral degrees prompted the cuts. Various experts estimate that India has only 10 to 30 percent of the qualified instructors it needs.

The shortfall is a product of India' s economic success story - as well as a peril to its future expansion. High salaries and abundant jobs are attracting more students to engineering, and at the same time wooing teachers away from classrooms and into the office parks that now dot many of India' s southern cities.

In an interesting twist, these cutbacks come after years of increasing privatization of India's higher-education system:

Private engineering institutions have spawned all over India because the government has not had the funds to increase significantly the number of engineering schools it runs. In 1970, India had a total of 139 engineering institutions, and only four of these were private.

Today, India has nearly 1,400 engineering institutions; only about 200 belong to the government. This explosion in higher education has allowed many more Indians to pursue an engineering degree [...] seats were so few 20 years ago that only 1 percent of aspiring students got in; today, nearly 70 percent manage to find places.

But with cutbacks in enrollment allowances (mandated by qualified teacher-to-student ratios in the private schools of 1:15), the private schools may face financial ruin from lack of paying students, just as successful graduates face financial windfalls for choosing private-sector employment over academic employment:

Today, a fresh engineering graduate can get paid twice as much as an assistant professor who has spent a minimum of six extra years and a hefty Rs. 300,000 to 400,000 ($6,896 to $9,195) more to earn his master's degree and PhD.

The story doesn't address the globalization side of this issue, however: not only are high industry salaries in India fueled by offshoring of IT labor from transnational North American, European, and Asian firms, but transnational Indian students still find educational opportunities in these regions as well. What might the relations between high-tech training and high-tech labor become in, say, the United States if US-based transnational firms increasingly seek workers around the globe, but would-be global workers increasingly turn to the US for education and training?

My own preference would be for just and equitable education and employment chances for all potential information laborers around the globe. But I wonder if the declining value placed on academic labor in the US, coupled with the declining committment to make academic education universally available to US students -- products of tight state and federal budgets linked to both endemic government privatization efforts and disingenuous conservative charges of "liberal bias" in academia -- might eventually make the US both a poor choice for recruiting information labor, and a poor choice for training and educating that labor.

Monday, July 11, 2005

Hidden information labor behind "reality TV"

The supposed draw of "reality TV" for viewers is that such entertainment presents an unscripted, unfiltered view of human behavior and human drama; the supposed draw of "reality TV" for networks is that such entertainment removes the need to hire peksy and expensive creative talent such as writers and actors. Both assumptions are wrong, as a recent New York Times article on labor disputes behind reality TV illustrates. For example, on the reality TV show "The Bachelor," the producer recently found that in a cost-cutting measure "the production had eliminated the low-level clerks, called loggers, who catalogue the contents of hundreds of hours of video taken of the contestants." These high-level workers acknowledged to be necessary to reality TV, like the producers, not only end up covering more diverse information labor tasks, but work under harsher wage conditions:

Salaries for producers and editors on reality shows vary widely, and often depend on the production company, though network shows tend to pay more than cable. One show may offer $2,500 a week for a field producer, while another may offer $1,600 a week. By comparison, the minimum guild rate for a writer on a prime-time, 13-week scripted show is $3,477 per week.

Part of the problem is related to the different temporal rhythm of reality TV. Unlike scripted drama or comedy, some reality shows take "only weeks, rather than months, to be bought, produced and appear on the air." Production companies which offer the quickest turnaround and the lowest bid win the contract -- often by cutting out traditional steps in the labor process. One producer called it "the Wal-Mart model".

Such labor cuts are helping to create a backlash of pro-union sentiment. "nearly 1,000 writers, editors and producers [...] have signed with the Writers Guild of America, West, to try to force reality production companies and the networks that present the shows to negotiate a union contract." Similarly, "the Directors Guild of America has struck agreement with about 35 reality shows".

The head of the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers dismisses such efforts: "A lot of people in this country would love to have the work these people are doing, and the rates of pay that they receive, millions of people," he said. "Sports people work long hours. News people work long hours. It's a business that basically adjusts to the needs of production, and hopefully people get time off later." But the NYT report says "that's exactly what editors and producers in the reality genre say that they do not get. On scripted shows, they said, writers work abnormally long hours during the year, but have long hiatuses between seasons. And their compensation is commonly twice what reality show producers - the people who devise the story lines, but who are rarely called 'writers' in the credits - earn."

The NYT article points out that underlying all of these questions is a key definition wrapped up in the idea of creative information laobr: "Is the work done by producers and editors on reality shows really the same as writing?" For example, I'm studying the work of broadcast closed captioners which bears striking similarities to the plight of reality TV workers: their work is under severe time pressure, they are often targeted for elimination by cost-cutting production companies, and they are not considered "authors" even though they must creatively interpret information in one modality (audio) and turn it into information in a totally different modality (text) while taking into consideration audience needs such as reading speed, education level, and cultural background.

Whether it's reality TV, a closed-captioned movie-of-the-week, or your local network news, the analytical points of relation -- and potential opportunities for collective political action -- seem to hinge on the ability of information workers hired on different broadcast products to be able to recognize the labor processes, employment conditions, and social roles they share as skilled and creative mediators of media messages. Only then can they make claims of legitimacy, solidarity, and value back to both their employers (producers) and their customers (audiences).

Update: An article today in the New York Times reports that "A lawsuit filed last week against producers and broadcasters of reality television shows accused those companies - including ABC, CBS and the WB - of planning to falsify payroll records of employees to avoid paying wages for overtime. The lawsuit, filed on July 7 in Los Angeles Superior Court, seeks class-action status and is part of a broader effort by the Writers Guild of America, West, to organize nearly 1,000 workers who edit and produce the reality programs. The union says the workers toil lengthy schedules for dismal wages with no health or pension benefits, unlike counterparts on scripted television shows."

Wednesday, July 06, 2005

War as information labor

A story in the UK Guardian today mentions a potential shift in the way the Pentagon assesses military readiness, away from the current "two major wars" criteria:

The Iraq counter-insurgency is forcing the Pentagon to question its military doctrine that requires forces to be able to fight two major wars at the same time, it was claimed yesterday. A four-yearly review of US military power is not due until early next year, but it is already clear that the strategy is under great strain from the Iraq war. The length and ferocity of the insurgency has surprised the Pentagon. Two years after 'major combat operations' were declared over by George Bush, there are still 138,000 US troops in Iraq, costing $5bn a month. Yet under US military doctrine it is not even defined as a war. In theory, US forces should be able to fight two major wars and contain the insurgents, but the credibility of that claim is being stretched thin.

The current criteria for military levels is actually more complicated than simply "two wars," and apparently goes by the shorthand "1-4-2-1":

The September 11 attacks showed the US was facing an entirely new foe, so the defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, adapted the goals. From then on, the military would have to defend the homeland from terrorism, keep a presence capable of deterring conflict in four critical regions, fight and quickly win two major wars and win so decisively in one of them as to remove the enemy regime. The formula was called 1-4-2-1. But with so many troops pinned down in Iraq, the conflict is draining US forces of the capacity to fight elsewhere.

The new approach being discussed might be called "1-1-1-1" by contrast, since the goal would be "to fight four entirely different kinds of war at the same time: traditional large-scale combat; counter-insurgency; defending the US against attack (involving weapons of mass destruction); and 'disruptive' warfare" such as information-infrastructure attacks. Interestingly, this new definition of readiness privileges information labor in warfare like never before, according to Loren Thompson, "a strategic analyst at the Lexington Institute, a Washington thinktank":

'The debate is moving away from hi-tech weapons and futuristic technology and in the direction of counter-insurgency and country expertise,' Mr Thompson said. The change would raise the importance of special forces, but would transform training for infantrymen, to emphasise language skills, military intelligence and familiarity with foreign cultures.'One of reason we rely so much on reserves now is because those kind of skills had been relegated to the reserves in the cold war,' he said.

If our armed forces indeed need to be trained more as information workers, with emphasis on language, problem-solving, and cultural skills, I wonder what this means for all-volunteer recruiting efforts which are not only currently under stress (with enlistments down and recruiting quotas going unfilled) but have historically targeted precisely those areas of the nation which have lacked investment in basic education, information technology infrastructure, and vibrant knowledge economies?

Monday, July 04, 2005

Wisconsin's dilemma: Short-term budget fix vs. long-term investment in the production of information workers

Here in my current home state of Wisconsin, the two houses of the Republican-controlled State Legislature are wrangling with their budget proposal for 2005-2007 (the state budgets in two-year blocks) and it appears that once again, the University of Wisconsin System -- including the flagship research university UW-Madison which employs me -- will take a hit. From a recent report in the Wisconsin State Journal:

As passed by the Assembly, the budget would give the UW System about $1 billion in each of the next two years, or about $9 million more than the state currently provides.

But System officials say they really face a budget hole of about $90 million after factoring in new items requested by lawmakers and projected increased costs for things such as debt payments, utilities and health insurance.

The Senate amendment would increase that gap to $130 million. The Senate's budget would provide about $30 million less to the UW System in 2005-07 than it received in the current two-year budget.

Compare these priorities to the ones set by the Wisconsin Technology Council (a public/private partnership which advises state government on growing the high-tech economy in Wisconsin) in its May 2005 report entitled "Human Capital and Brain Power in the Wisconsin Economy: Shaping the New Wisconsin Economy"

Wisconsin continues to trail the U.S in terms of college-educated in the workforce. In 2004, 25.6 percent, or about 906,240 Wisconsin residents had earned at least a bachelor's degree as compared to 27.7 percent of the U.S. population. Wisconsin has increased its college-educated percentage of the workforce in every year since 2000 but the rate of growth is not enough to close the gap with the national averages.


Below average numbers of college graduates is an area of concern. One only has to look to neighboring Minnesota to find a state that has 20 percent more colleges graduates in its workforce and per capita income that is nearly $4,000 higher. That economic equation is compelling and should provide a clear path for Wisconsin’s future actions.

I am surprised that this statistic putting Wisconsin's college graduate population below that of the general US population isn't the first talking point off of every state politician's lips. Instead, vague accustions about how Wisconsin is the "highest taxed state in the nation" serve as the sound bite of political currency. Yet policy organizations that actually analyze the tax system on the basis of social justice, such as the Center on Wisconsin Strategy, report that the problem is not one of overtaxation, but of regressive taxation:

COWS recently released a national report explaining exactly “Who Pays?” taxes in Wisconsin. Going beyond rhetoric and simplistic state-by-state tax comparisons, the report details the “incidence” of taxation in each state – in other words, how much of a person’s income is paid in taxes, broken down by different income groups. The report was produced by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, a national leader on fiscal issues and frequent collaborator with COWS. The results of the report, which revealed how Wisconsin’s poor pay more in taxes as a percent of their income than the wealthiest in the state, generated significant media attention and public concern.

Education, on the other hand, is a progressive action -- a proven vehicle for class mobility. Wisconsin is doing an adequate job, measured against the rest of the nation, of producing high-school graduates. But in the 21st century I believe the currency of the good life in the global information economy is now a college education -- one focused not just on technology, but on multicultural diversity, social equity, and critical thinking. Defund the state university system and you abandon these important social goals -- and the citizens who wish to reach them.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Appalling information labor factoid of the day

From a NYT book review of Clyde Prestowitz's Three billion new capitalists, reviewer Henry Blodget offered up this sad example of the future of the US information-labor workforce (and our society's committment to that future):

Globally, our 12th-graders rank only in the 10th percentile in math (that's 10th percentile, not 10th). Our students also rank first in their assessment of their own performance: we're not only poorly prepared, we have delusions of grandeur.

Something to think about the next time your local government cuts funding to public education (Madison, I'm talking to you), or your state government cuts funding to university education (Wisconsin, I'm talking to you).

Saturday, July 02, 2005

The so-called "jobless recovery" even in Silicon Valley

Today an article in the NYT entitled Profit, Not Jobs in Silicon Valley points to the frustrating phenomenon for information professionals at all levels of status and wages in Silicon Valley (and perhaps, to a lesser degree, around the US): "demand, sales and profits are rising quickly while job growth continues to stagnate"

In the last three years, profits at the seven largest companies in Silicon Valley by market value have increased by an average of more than 500 percent while Santa Clara County employment has declined to 767,600, from 787,200. During the previous economic recovery, between 1995 and 1997, the county, which is the heart of Silicon Valley, added more than 82,800 jobs.

Changes in technology and business strategy are raising fundamental questions about the future of the valley, the nation's high technology heartland. In part, the change is driven by the very automation that Silicon Valley has largely made possible, allowing companies to create more value with fewer workers.

This question of labor productivity in the high-tech industry complicates the typical narrative for "old economy" industry, where the usual suspects of outsourcing and offshoring are assumed whenever employment stagnation (or wage stagnation) in a local economy is seen along with stable or rising revenues and profits. The article points out that

One key measure, known as value added per employee, rose 3.7 percent in 2004, to $222,000 in economic value per worker. That compares with $85,000 per worker in the rest of the country, according to data reported by Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a regional economic research group.

By a number of other measures, companies are watching profits and sales rise. An analysis published in April by The San Jose Mercury News found that the top 100 public companies in the region had revenues of $336 billion in 2004, an increase of 14 percent from the previous year.

Of course, this is what information technology in the hands of educated labor is supposed to do, right? Raise productivity and profits for those who invest in it, and raise the wages and working conditions of those who use it. But it's interesting to imagine that something like the "deindustrialization" of, say, Detroit -- due simultaneously to such things as increased US worker costs and productivity, foreign firm competition, shifting consumer demand, and reluctance of US employers to invest in places where they've historically supported whole communities when presented with opportunities to instead divest of assets and take higher profits elsewhere -- might be happening to some degree now in Silicon Valley. Post-deindustrialization, anyone?

Friday, July 01, 2005

More on the "labor" that consumers perform on behalf of advertisers

An article today in the New York Times entitled Consumers, Long the Targets, Become the Shapers of Campaigns describes that one reaction to consumers shirking their "labor" responsibilities in watching broadcast television commercials has been to shift this labor to Web activity -- not just forcing consumers to click-to-dismiss pop-over and pop-under advertising windows, but enlisting consumers as marketing consultants and product designers "interactively":

WHEN Crest introduced a toothpaste line two years ago, it used focus groups to help pick three flavors: cinnamon, herbal and citrus. This time around, the new Crest flavors will be chosen by customers.

Crest, a division of Procter & Gamble, is asking people to go to the Web to vote for their favorite from a short list of contenders: lemon ice, sweet berry punch or tropica exotica. Samples of the flavors are attached to some Crest products.Marketing executives say the campaign reflects an increasing interest by companies in involving consumers in their advertising. The trend is another way to break from traditional advertising that viewers increasingly can tune out with TiVo and other digital video recorders. Marketers say the Internet has also made interactive campaigns easier to conduct.

'This comes with the inherent declining power of traditional media advertising,' said Clive Chajet, chairman of Chajet Consultancy, a brand consulting firm in New York. 'All marketers today are seeking different ways to market their products.' Crest is running television and magazine advertisements about the promotion, which were created by Saatchi & Saatchi, part of Publicis Groupe. It also is sending e-mail to four million consumers on the company's e-mail list. Voters must go to to register and vote. Then, they receive an e-mail message from Crest urging them to vote every day.

Every day!? Will the end result of such "interactive" campaigns be perhaps a reversal from the target-marketing of products to consumers based on their ability and willingness to pay (eg. affluent and status-conscious consumers) and instead to the default-marketing to consumers based on their ability and willingness to spend hours each week participating in online interactive surveys? (Please cast your vote now.)