Thursday, April 30, 2009

Pixar's Up: the latest theatrical trailer

Sadly I still haven't gotten time to watch WALL-E. And I never bothered with Cars, having long since evolved past the stage where talking cars are cool--i.e., I turned seven.

But this looks like another winner from Pixar. I like the premise--it reminds me of William Pène du Bois' 1947 children's novel The Twenty-One Balloons--and, judging from this footage, it definitely has a great sense of understated comedic timing.

Up hits theaters May 29.

Socialism hits home for students in "Texas Tech" morality play

Here's one of those email forwards that boils an extremely complex issue into a little parable, so enjoy the message but take it with the grain of salt that it merits. This one makes an economic point that will resonate with students and anyone who has ever been a student (i.e. basically everyone).

An economics professor at Texas Tech said he had never failed a single student before but had, once, failed an entire class. That class had insisted that socialism worked and that no one would be poor and no one would be rich, a great equalizer. The professor then said ok, we will have an experiment in this class on socialism.

All grades would be averaged and everyone would receive the same grade so no one would fail and no one would receive an A. After the first test the grades were averaged and everyone got a B. The students who studied hard were upset and the students who studied little were happy. But, as the second test rolled around, the students who studied little had studied even less and the ones who studied hard decided they wanted a free ride too; so they studied little.. The second test average was a D! No one was happy. When the 3rd test rolled around the average was an F.

The scores never increased as bickering, blame, name calling all resulted in hard feelings and no one would study for the benefit of anyone else. All failed, to their great surprise, and the professor told them that socialism would also ultimately fail because when the reward is great, the effort to succeed is great; but when government takes all the reward away; no one will try or want to succeed.

Could not be any simpler than that....

It's quite clearly a fabrication, largely obvious from the lack of specifics as well as the fact that no college administration would allow such an experiment to continue once they got wind of it. Still, despite the obvious hyperbole in the last line, it possesses a kernel of truth that we all recognize.

The piece surfaced in March and has been making the rounds of blogs and conservative mailing lists, hitting my inbox from a Libertarian Party Yahoo group I belong to. You may even have seen it already. The piece even got a writeup on Snopes, who add that the tale is at least as old as 1994.

ABC joins Hulu, catches up to the 21st century

Upon closing, the agreement will enhance Hulu's programming line-up through the expanded online distribution of Disney's most popular current and library primetime series and library feature films. In particular, full-length episodes of hit current and library programs like Lost, Grey's Anatomy, Desperate Housewives, Private Practice, Ugly Betty, Scrubs, Greek, Hope and Faith, Less Than Perfect, Wizards of Waverly Place, Phineas and Ferb, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, General Hospital, The View and The Secret Life of the American Teenager will soon be streamed on Hulu on an ad-supported basis. [...]

Jonathan M. Nelson, CEO of Providence, said "Hulu is creating significant value for users, advertisers and content owners. This balance, together with aggregated professional content and an expanding base of over 200 brand advertisers, is establishing Hulu as a compelling online video monetization platform. Hulu is a bright spot in the new media landscape."

Unfortunately for me, I don't watch a single ABC show, except occasionally Scrubs, but it's always good to see more networks abandon their shitty, laggy proprietary players to join the Hulu bandwagon.

And anyway, there's better stuff in their back catalog which will, I'm sure, make its way online eventually, such as Roots, Boy Meets World, Spin City, Eli Stone, Max Headroom, the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (although with the DVDs only just released in 2007 and 2008, I'm under no illusions the eps will be posted anytime soon), Galactica 1980 (the original Battlestar Galactica is already on Hulu), even Back to the Future: The Animated Series.

Because, come on, Bifficus Antanneny absolutely needs to see the light of day again, am I right?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Kids and media: Part II

No in-depth commentary here--just today's Zits comic that seemed a nice followup to my earlier, slightly more intellectual post on communication for the next generation. Click for larger, clearer version and have a nice weekend.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The power of suggestion

A very cool old commercial: very simple, yet well-executed and memorable.

It's a good reminder that a commercial doesn't need to be elaborate to be effective. I was also going to say it doesn't need to be expensive, but Pepsi probably spent as much getting Michael J. Fox as they spent on, say, this futuristic ad which has a much more striking production.

The YouTube link dates it at 1985, although this post says Michael left shooting Back to the Future III for three days to do these commercials, which would obviously put it a couple of years later.

Tech convergence FTW: Adventures in The New Media

Well, I've finally caved and signed up for Twitter, mostly out of curiosity.

I already had Facebook Mobile enabled, which meant I could update my status via text message. Now I hooked up Twitter to simultaneously update my Facebook status, and I can update my Twitter via text. So via a single text the same line shows up in my Facebook, Twitter, and the Twitter feed gadget on the side of the blog here. (I've been trying to get my Twitter RSS to merge right into my blog column, but no such luck.)

The verdict on this new toy is pending, although I had fun wasting the better part of two days combining Facebook, Twitter, Blogger, Gmail, texting, and Netflix (via a Facebook app which updates my newsfeed with Netflix activity) into a single superhighway of overshare. Next up: direct corneal feed!

All this resulted, of course in a paradigmatic anecdote of accidental tech overkill: I texted a test post to my Twitter ... simultaneously updating my Facebook status ... thus generating a text notification to my friend Seth's Bluetooth phone.

He was in the next room.

I wonder if this is how Alexander Graham Bell felt.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Kids and media literacy: A young adult's more optimistic perspective on the next generation

"I've never really been very interested in computers themselves. I don't watch them; I watch how people behave around them. That's becoming more difficult to do because everything is 'around them.' " -- William Gibson, February 2006*

It can be difficult to take the topic of childrens' media use seriously—there is a venerable genre of "sky is falling" articles decrying the decline in morals of the younger generation and the inability of their parents to deal with advancing technology and an overbearing media. Yawn. But as much as we might roll our eyes, we cannot deny that the pace of technological change in media has advanced more in the last couple of decades than in most of human history. It definitely bears studying.

One topic stood out for me: young children’s Internet usage—particularly in communicating with each other, posting user content, and access to information. As a member of the first computer-native generation, and one which is now beginning to reproduce, I hope to bring a slightly more nuanced perspective than the kneejerk Ludditism from the older generations of educators and child advocates.

The last of a breed

The current generation of college students is the last generation to really remember what it was like "before the Internet." The Gen-Xers (born 1965 to 1982) were older children by the time powerful home computers became widespread, and most of them were long past their formative years before the Internet had become what it is today. We are the transitional generation—the Web came into widespread use during our childhood and teenage years—thus we are the last one to understand firsthand its transformative effects.

Today’s middle- and high-schoolers are at the forefront of this wave. They have grown up with a mouse in one hand and a text-messaging cellphone in the other, but still appreciate the significance of recent advances such as the rise of YouTube, Wikipedia, and the near-ubiquity of broadband access which enables streaming video content and the uploading and downloading of massive files.

The cycle accelerates?

Our generation is starting to reproduce (scary, I know) and it will be interesting to watch what happens when a highly computer-literate cohort raises children of its own. Many current parents are astoundingly computer-illiterate, particularly when it comes to their children's web usage. Their ability to effectively to control the content to which their children are exposed is stymied by this technological barrier. They have enough trouble with television, movies, and music—areas in which they themselves are quite technologically conversant.

People will make the argument that filtering software and V-chips will never work, since kids tend to be more technology-savvy than parents and will inevitably get around the restrictions. This is true, but misses the point. Kids will always get their hands on forbidden content, but you don’t need to hand it to them on a silver platter. Resigning oneself to the fact that your eight-year-old will sneak a look at a dirty magazine or watch Saw V at the neighbor kid’s house is different from piping Laguna Beach and Nip/Tuck directly into his or her bedroom. Restricting content communicates the message that this sort of material is not suitable for them at their current age. (Some types of content, of course, is unacceptable for users of any age, and this message is something that all too many parents seem to have failed to pass along.)

The rebuttal, of course, is the "forbidden fruit" argument: that which is banned will only become more desirable. This is a fair point, but the idea here is not to be arbitrary and draconian, but to combine content restriction with talking to your children about what kinds of programs and images are acceptable/unacceptable, and the reasons for it.

Ubiquitous connectivity

The fact that today’s children are more browser-savvy than their parents is only one component of their technical literacy. There are wider sociological effects as well. Children who have been born in the last few years will never have experienced a world without broadband internet, cell phones, and other forms of connectivity. Because of this, they are increasingly growing up online as much as offline:
“Young students don't differentiate between the face-to-face world and the internet world," said Susan Patrick, who oversees technology for the [Department of Education]. "They were born into the age of the internet. They see it as part of the continuum of the way life is today.” (Wired*)
This manifests in many ways, but particularly in posting user content, interuser communication, and the ways they think about access to information.

There is a general trend among adult and especially teenage users for user-generated content to fragment into smaller and smaller pieces, updated increasingly often. We have gone from emails, to blogs, to instant messaging, to sites like Twitter where users post "tweets" or brief status updates of 140 characters or less.

And with cellphone and wireless access, it becomes possible to update in real time. Updates become ever more frequent as the complexity and size of the content shrinks correspondingly. I think we are approaching the smallest possible conceptual units, beyond which meaning begins to break down. Indeed, we are also approaching the point where it all blends into a continuous hum of background noise and whereas many of us are still entranced by its novelty, perhaps the next generation of kids will learn to tune it out from the beginning, simply as part of their "coping mechanism" the same way we learn to tune out extraneous conversations in a room.

The older generation likes to rant about Twitter, but the thing is, it's not for you. And anyway, the quality (or lack thereof) of its content is to blame on the users, not the medium itself.

A more intellectually significant, but still related, advance is the ubiquity of easily-searchable information on the Internet. Of course, databases and searchable catalogs have been around for decades, especially privately, but every year more and more information becomes quickly and publicly accessible. Examples include Google, Wikipedia, and any number of scholarly catalogs like JSTOR.

Wikipedia is something of its own beast and has several obvious drawbacks, so it is perhaps most useful as a portal guiding you to further sources, both online and in print. (This is how I've used it in my own academic and personal research.) For many, it is has become the first destination in information queries, but one would hope that most people don’t stop there.

As more and more content becomes uploaded to the web, and the web becomes accessible nearly everywhere (with the advent of Mobile Web on cell phones, Wi-Fi hotspots in restaurants and libraries, and municipal wireless networks going up around the country) the relationship between information access and physical location has been severed. This conceptual shift is important because it changes the way people learn. There is a realization that accurate information is only a wireless device away. This is still a novelty for many older users who are accustomed to having to physically hunt down a book to look something up. The next generation, and to a lesser extent my own, will soon take this for granted.

Media background noise

Furthermore, I argue that the astounding number of households with almost continuous television activity is evidence of a related trend:
Two out of three zero- to six-year-olds live in homes where the TV is usually left on at least half the time, even if no one is watching, and one-third live in homes where the TV is on “almost all” or “most” of the time; and children in the latter group of homes appear to read less than other children and to be slower to learn to read. ("Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers"*)
A television left running all the time, even if no one is watching, may communicate to children the message that it is an appropriate thing to be absorbing continuously. (Conversely, it may end up as simply background noise to children, as noted above.) It is, in some ways, the opposite of the user-generated content, because television viewing is a passive exercise, especially if it's running while the user is reading or writing something else. And yet, at the same time, as television converges with the Internet, more and more of the content on the "tube" is user-generated:
Postmodernism conceived of contemporary culture as a spectacle before which the individual sat powerless, and within which questions of the real were problematised. It therefore emphasised the television or the cinema screen. Its successor, which I will call pseudo-modernism, makes the individual’s action the necessary condition of the cultural product. Pseudo-modernism includes all television or radio programmes or parts of programmes, all ‘texts’, whose content and dynamics are invented or directed by the participating viewer or listener (although these latter terms, with their passivity and emphasis on reception, are obsolete: whatever a telephoning Big Brother voter or a telephoning 6-0-6 football fan are doing, they are not simply viewing or listening). (Alan Kirby, "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond"*)
Children now enter the world without preconceived notions of divisions between “passive” television content and “interactive” Internet content, or between “online” and “offline” experiences, and it will be interesting as time passes to watch how the next generation, growing up entirely within a wired context, will come to terms with the ever-increasing convergence of all these media forms.

What does it mean?

Our generation and those that came before it have had to integrate, to one degree or another, newly invented technologies into our existing lives, but the children of tomorrow will have all these tools available from the beginning, and no one yet knows how they will make sense of them or what uses they will put them to. But I'm definitely looking forward to finding out.

* Works Cited:

Associated Press. "Pre-schoolers Play Online." Wired, 4 June 2005.

Kaiser Family Foundation. "Zero to Six: Electronic Media in the Lives of Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers." 2003.

Kirby, Alan. "The Death of Postmodernism and Beyond." Philosophy Now, November/December 2006.

PC Magazine. "Q&A: William Gibson." February 2006.