Thinking about our online/media habits

images-3We had an interesting discussion to launch our semester-long analysis of new media.  Opening up with a consideration of our overall digital practices and the way new media is woven into our lives, you did some individual freewriting and then moved on to shared reflection.   The Think-Pair-Share exercise brought to the collective surface some interesting tensions regarding our relationship to digital tools and technologies in our lives.  In listening to all of you, I sensed a distinct ambivalence regarding technology, devices, new media, and social media.  You all acknowledged the empowerment that is gained and how crucial technology is to our everyday functioning.  But there was also more than a heavy dose of anxiety that accompanied that positive acknowledgement.  There seemed to be a concern over blurred boundaries between work time and down time.  You expressed an inherent unease with a lack of control over time, …fear of a lack of presence/focus.  There was a consistent acknowledgement of being disconnected from our bodies when connecting to new media portals (i.e. sloth-like stasis, slumping and hunching over, etc.).  And many of you expressed a distinct anxiety regarding the accelerated effect these new tools might have on the development of young people.

imagesI think this clear ambivalence regarding new media is a useful acknowledgement with which to kick off the semester.  As we set a course for a rigorous consideration of how technology tools have effected individuals, communities, and culture, let us bear in mind this particular starting point.  It might be instructive to revisit a similar self assessment as we wind down our discussions at the end of the semester.  What might evolve, shift, and/or endure regarding our understanding of new media in our lives?

Coming up next week:

-Martha will inaugurate our “discussion lead” class tradition with two articles:  Scott Rosenberg’s In the Context of Web Context: How to Check Out Any Web Page; and Neil Postman’s Bullshit and the Art of Crap Detection.  These two articles will be read in conjunction with Howard Rheingold’s Net Smart (Chapters 2 & 3).  Martha will lead us through the first half of the class (4:30 – 5:45).

-For the second half of the class, we have a few items on the agenda:

  • We need to confirm the reading(s) that each presentation will cover.  Please look over the Reading Roster carefully now that you know what night you will be presenting (and what theme you will be considering generally speaking).  Please be ready to share with me what coverage of texts you plan for your lead night.  If you are working with a partner, please confer about this.
  • Howard Rheingold will be joining us for about 30-45 mins for the latter part of class (via Skype) on the evening of February 10 (the week after next).  We should decide what we want to talk to him about.  Let’s discuss this in person and make a thoughtful plan for our time with him.
  • We should begin our discussion of a final class project.  This will be an ongoing negotiation for a few more weeks, but we should at least get some ideas started regarding what you would like to do as a culminating project for the course.

Your to do list for next class:

1.  Send me your Contract Grade email with the grade you will be earning this semester.  I need a formal record of the contract from everyone.

2.  Post and tweet (to #NewMediaStudies) your BLOG #1.  Your blog post should consider the readings for the week (listed above).  You do not need to address every aspect of all the readings.  Rather, write a thoughtful response based on some aspect of your synthesis of the readings.  Some of you might choose to highlight something specific, others might want to reflect as a broad overview.   I look forward to reading a variety of different takes/angles.

3. Before class, check out your classmates first blog (under Student Blogs).  Surfing through your classmates posts will certainly enrich our discussions and understanding.

See you next week everyone!

Dr. Zamora

Net Smart: Intro – Chapter 2

Rheingold's book "Net Smart: How to Thrive Online" is about using the web properly. The introduction starts by convincing readers that they need to read this book to get the most out of the web and to avoid the pitfalls of not being in-the-know. Then, Chapter 1 discusses the science of attention, how the internet erodes our ability to pay attention, and offers advise on how to be more mindful; how to pay attention to our intentions. He uses words like "compulsion" and "obsession" describing people's attachment to their online devices. He also mentions works I've already read by Turkle, Carr, and  Shirkey. I am surprised, after reading all those authors, that Rheingold chose a more academic and less conversational tone. Chapter 1 reads like a literature review, except Rheingold offers his opinion on everyone's work, including his mostly negative opinion of Carr, who I liked.

Chapter 2 is about Crap Detection. It's Rheingold's take on how to determine the ethos of a website. I like the CRAAP test, which is a well-known standard he doesn't mention. He also describes the best ways to search on Google or similar search engines. The section in Chapter 2 called "Tuning Your Crap Detector" was useful, in that it included notes that led to some cool websites. Here are some I appreciated, and some not so much:


Factcheck.org reports on political claims, and it's super.
Factchecked.org takes you directly to Annenberg Classroom for civics education. Not so useful.
The New York Times' Urban Legends site is informative.
The url for Faculty Scholarly Productivity Index crashed my computer and probably gave it a virus.
The US Department of State's Conspiracy Theories site doesn't exist at the url given. Conspiracy??
Foreign nations reporting world news from differing perspectives at Global Voices Online. Nice.
Snopes is a site I already use when I hear a rumor. Love it.
Aggregate.com takes you to a site of a construction company. Not useful.
Netvibes looks pretty neat, and if I ever decide I need an RSS feed, I would try it.
Truthy is sort of like snopes or factcheck, but on Twitter. I followed them. They have good tweets. Their handle is truthyatindiana.

Chapter 3 is about participation. I'll talk more about that in another post. My discussion lead is due in one week, so I'm off to work on that. Chapter 3 will wait.

blog 1

Reading assignment: Intro and Ch 1, Net Smart


Despite "the internet" and "social media" being so omnipresent in our everyday lives, I like how the author refers to the sensation as being in the "still-early" years. Though he was speaking of the immense power of our in-hand devices, in a way, the publicly accessible version of the internet itself is still in its early years. Google wasn't founded until 1998. There are a few of us in this class alone (myself included) who are literally older than Google (yet it knows more than we ever will).

The idea of "mindful use" of technology is really interesting and thought provoking. Although the author was speaking of avoiding "click bait" and "impulsively checking your phone, I interpreted it to also include the way people engage online. The digital culture we live in does engage in a bit over over documentation, where everything is share-worthy. Though sometimes I've wondered things like "why were they recording in the first place??" or "was this really worth posting?" it has only been in extreme cases. But when something ridiculous or outrageous goes viral, I usually just give in to the shock factor and don't worry about the why or the how. And it seems that people post things in this way too. This can be seen from younger people posting things at random, maybe things they shouldn't be posting, and being surprised when these posts get them into trouble. Or when an an employee calls in sick to get out of work and then posts pictures of a football game they went to that afternoon, And then wonders why they got fired.  More than "mindful use" it seems like there has been a complete disregard for consequences. Do we post so often that we forget other people see the things we post? Has sharing become so second nature that we are unable to recognize appropriateness? Social media, it seems, has become too candid.

Information credibility testing certainly is a big issue these days. Although I do feel that many sites are getting better about validating their own content. When I was younger, I never remember seeing any indication at all about who was on the other side of the web page. And I don't think it occurred to me to ever wonder. (Was I the only one taking things at face value in the early 2000's?) But now, it seems like every web page includes, at minimum, the author and the date written.

The idea of the "thoughtful society" and the "master digital network(er)" are two mutually exclusive groups does seem to be a big issue that influences social interactions (specially older generations towards younger generations: "You kids are always in your phones"). However, I don't think these groups are completely separate in the slightest.

"Architecture of participation" I like that a lot. Especially because it doesn't minimize the individual effort. With the web being so endlessly large, it's easy to feel like something you do-- maybe something you do because you love it -- doesn't matter. but the idea that every input contributes to the "overall good" is really cool.

I also like the idea that the power does not lie within the technology, but with us when we decide what to use the technology for ("literacies made possible by the technology").

"being empowered or manipulated" interesting perspective, although that could be said for any medium. The news, for example. Is your news channel of choice biased or indifferent? How can we ever truly know? Isn't it possible that feeling "empowered" could just be blindness to being manipulated?

"social competency" that DOES seem to be mutually exclusive of digital skill (literacy). I;m sure we've all heard that the constant digital interactions are shrinking the part of the brain that processes empathy. (Scary stuff if it actually is true. I have not yet validated it for myself.)

"drowning in torrents of misinformation" it seems like we've already passed that point in our digital history, but I could be wrong.

Social media being "toxic" for our social lives is very real, despite the fact that bringing this up automatically puts people on the defense.

The fear of emails (the "digital treadmill") says a lot about how we are communicating. Or rather, how we AREN'T communicating. I, too, hate going through my emails, as most of them are impersonal alerts and advertisements for things I don't want.

On his comment about answering the phone during dinner, before smart phones: it is true that distractions have existed for years. It is human nature to want the newest, most advanced anything that exist. The latest convenience. Social media is just the newest "big thing." It may even be replaced by something one day. Humanity itself is stuck in a cycle of "we're making history" and "X years ago, this was state of the art. But now..." It's a very surreal feeling.

87% of teenagers being online sounds significantly more accurate than the "50% of teenagers creating/consuming digital media." That seems like a huge understatement.

"Competitive dramas" it does seem like everybody is trying to out dramatize each other. A strange combination of masochism and egotism?

A typewriter! Wow. I remember  seeing only one typewriter in my whole life. My mother would take me to visit my father at work, and he has a typewriter in his office. I don't believe he ever used it. I just remember hitting any and all the keys I could, thinking I was writing some fantastic novel when, in reality, I couldn't even read a Dr. Seuss book without trouble yet. Again is that feeling of "that  used to be state of the art."

The issue of attention should be interesting to explore, as I feel it is not solely influenced by the digital era. Anything can be distracting, as the author mentioned earlier about answering the phone during dinner. I think the digital era has more power over our memories than anything.

7. Wherein the Writer Learns to Bake

I have a cousin that I looked up to growing up. It was from he and his brother that I inherited a lot of hand-me-downs. Hockey equipment, clothes, toys, and on the best of days, video games. I played video games a lot growing up, in a lot of different settings, and the happiest of these was when I was sharing the experience with my cousins, who were until a certain age my best and closest friends. My cousin Mike, to whom I referred at the top there, is a few year older than me, so naturally to me more or less everything he ever did was cool. Fortunately for both of us it ended up that we had and have a lot of shared interests, one of which has always been video games. A year ago, maybe two, Mike told me about something he saw on the internet, and it gave him an idea. He had found some plans for building an old arcade-style game cabinet, but much more importantly, he had learned about a technology that would allow us to use this machine to play any and every game we had ever enjoyed from our earliest memories up through the turn of the millennium. Logistical concerns aside, I was on board.

 

The technologies Mike was talking about, as spoken about previously, are the Raspberry Pi (Model B) computer and the RetroPie software. The Raspberry Pi, pictured above, is not a computer as most people think of them. This little circuit board fits in the palm of the hand, and comes equipped with ports for power, audio, HDMI, (4) USB and an SD card reader. Much smaller than even the sleekest GameBoy I’ve ever had, the Pi can run all of my favorite childhood (and in fairness adolescent and possibly adult) games with nary a glitch and without ever needing a cool down break or a special touch or for somebody to blow on it. It must be said of the Raspberry Pi that this little computer has the versatility to be put to work on any number of projects, and can accomplish much nobler things for the world than letting me play Captain Skyhawk, but this is what I’m using the device for. To learn more about the Raspberry Pi and what it can do from the people behind it, go here. For our purposes, the USB ports are for connecting video game controllers, the HDMI port of course is used to connect the machine to a display (it’s amazing how good a 25 year old video game can look on a new HD TV), and the SD card slot holds the ever important brains of the operation: all the many 1000s of ROMs, and the operating system (OS) RetroPie.

 

The Raspberry Pi cannot operate without an SD card. The machine itself has processing power but no storage, so in order to use it, you must load an SD card with a compatible operating system of your choosing. In this case, RetroPie. RetroPie, the menu screen of which is seen above, is essentially a collection of emulators organized in a graphical interface. The emulators are presented on a side scrolling list, and when selected, each will offer the user the list of ROMs she has loaded onto the SD card that run through that particular emulator. In practice, it’s like having all of the game consoles you ever wanted available at the touch of a button, and every game you could ever think of ready to play at the touch of a second button. On a 32 gigabyte SD card, a user could load RetroPie alongside 800 Nintendo games, 700 Sega Genesis games, 900 Super Nintendo games, and hundreds of other games for other systems like Neo Geo, Atari, etc. and have access to all of them at any given time. As I believe I’m mentioned before, this is what 10 year old me would have called unlimited power. There are advertisements on the back of Nintendo Power magazine with a kid on a dark cyber mountain wearing a Power Glove while lightning strikes everything (or like, something like this) and as a little kid that seemed like that coolest thing in the world, and I imagine that having this machine is what being the kid in that advertisement scenario would have felt like.

So these are the components that make up this game-changing machine, and because this is kind of a maker project, assembly is required. Full disclosure- it was my cousin Mike who did all of the first and hardest work here. He more or less handed me a working device and gave me access to a simplified process of putting the pieces together and making it all go. Even so, I’m going to walk through the process of making one of these things from scratch as well as I can. Before anything else, you need the hardware. Mike made I list and I put in the order. He has been researching in his free time, so he figured out which power supply (essentially a cell phone charger) would be best, what size SD card we should use (32 GB to start) and picked a case (a simple black box). He also found the site that made retro console controllers (either refitted originals or REALLY good replicas) with USB plugs. We went with Super Nintendo controllers for our first round of testing. In truth, we had no idea if this project was going to work, and with two sets of everything this had already cost us like $90 each (I get paid minimum wage, don’t be snooty) so we didn’t want to buy a bunch of accessories that we might not be able to use. Spoiler alert: it worked great and we bought more controllers.

While we waited for the parts and for sometime before, Mike diligently googled the whole situation he had gotten us into to find out just how the machine worked, how to use the OS, and how to put the two together. A while before, we met and went down our greatest hits lists to make sure we downloaded all of our favorite games to put onto our SD cards. What we quickly found out after that was that our all time favorites list (excluding PS1 and N64 games both because of file size and functionality issues with the emulators) would take up just a few megabytes our 32 gigabyte cards. Our natural next step was to simply find the entire catalogue of games for all of the systems we played on as kids and just download them all. The ROM for the original Legend of Zelda is something like 14 KB. We could fit so many thousands upon thousands of copies of The Legend of Zelda on our new magic gaming computers that it was beyond comical. We started measuring later, larger games in terms of how many Zeldas could fit in their space. (A new PS4 game today? Like 200,000 Zeldas. Not joking.) The next task after downloading these entire libraries was to sift through them for the files we needed to move over to the Pi. Mike downloaded these huge batches of files that included things like foreign releases, fan-made games, read me files and things like that, so we had to find the actual game file for each ROM to put onto our SD cards. A great work of tedium, Mike compiled folders for each system and had them ready to go when we got the hardware. The next step, once we got our gear, was to get our SD cards loaded up with the OS and then filling them up with games. That took downloading a couple of programs to help us format the cards and get them ready for the Pi, again that Mike had to research online. The final step was to literally, physically put the pieces together, which entailed screwing our plastic cases into place around the tiny computers, sliding the SD cards into their tiny slots, plugging in all of the cords and seeing what would happen.

What happened was awesome. It worked exactly like it was supposed to. At first we only loaded some of the games, just to test it out, but there they all were. It was amazing. I forget which game we played the first night the Pis were working. I want to say it was a game called Monster in my Pocket, which was one of my childhood favorites but I had never owned it. As test cases go, this one was fantastic. The tension of a black screen broke as the game’s publisher’s information materialized and faded, and then with spooky 8 bit Nintendo music an image appears of a denim pocket on a black field, and something keeps trying to burst out of (I know, but we were children) when suddenly out from the top fly dozens of little monsters and the game’s logo. After that you’re a tiny vampire (or tiny Frankenstein[‘s monster I KNOW, GOD!] if you’re player two) running around suburban environments beating up other monsters to… some positive end. I know it’s ridiculous, and I can’t say why, but to this day I love that game. It was just so pleasing to play around with it again, like I’d done as a really little kid. This was a Nintendo game, so it came and went probably in the early nineties. By the time I was maybe ten Nintendo alone was already two major consoles beyond their original NES that I so enjoyed as a child. Lucky for me we weren’t rich, so I didn’t get the new consoles right away, if I got them at all. Still, it had been at least 15 years and probably a few more than that since I’d gotten my hand on this game and many like it. It was a happy reunion. And just like that, Mike and I were back to playing bizarre, 2D ridiculously hard games that we used to play together at birthday parties and after dark at family barbecues or when we’d get stuck at our grandmother’s house for too long and our parents took pity on us.

Now for like $70, after waiting 2 days for amazon I can make one of these things in about an hour. The files are saved and ready, I have the software- all I need is a place to plug in my computer. The fact that it has become so easy kind of takes away from the mystical quality the Pi once had. But in another way, learning more about this machine and how it works has brought me closer to a part of my childhood that was really important to me, and that otherwise I might not have been able to access in the same way maybe ever again. Right down to the feel of the controller in hand, this has been a genuine experience of revisiting a past that had for a time been off limits. It’s what I imagine it would be like if I could go back, now as an adult, to the house where I lived until i was 13 or so, and find it unchanged. Feel the texture of the plaster, see the coffee stain on that absurd salmon carpet, watch dust motes float through the sun beams cut up the the square panes of the window in my old bedroom. Smell the cold damp of the basement. That’s something that I’ll never get. Like unless the people who bought the house are real weird and have kept it exactly as we left it, that’s something I’ll never get. But I can hold a Nintendo controller and feel the plastic creak as I squeeze it, trying to urge Mega Man over a long jump, straining my own muscles and adrenaline to match, and I can remember how it was to sit in a group of my cousins and attack a game like that for an afternoon like our lives depended on it. So I feel like in a way, psychologically (I don’t know anything about psychology) by playing some of these old games, I can experience being back in that TV room with my cousins for a little while. At least I can remember how much fun we had. And in-game experiences call to mind real life circumstances, like who was there when we beat such and such a level, and things like that. If nothing else, the machine has helped me bond with my friend, and remember times when things were a little bit simpler for both of us, and I think that’s ok.


Blog #1 Intro

Hi everyone! I have decided to use my blog from last semester’s class Writing Theory and Practice. I have kept all of my blog posts to try and keep a record of my learning process. I am excited for this class and what we will be learning. I have been in class with many of you already but as always I look forward to our collective learning community and what each of us can bring to the discussion. See you all next week!


6. Wherein the Writer saves the game

One game designer interviewed for Tom Bissel’s collection of essays Extra Lives said of his work that he felt like he was writing his legacy in water. I though that was a remarkably poetic image and was impressed, but I also understood what was at the root of his concern. Video games, even popular titles and series, have a history of riotously nonstandard formats and radical changes in the span of only a few short years. The Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) for example, was a machine that was the original home of many of the most memorable and popular game franchises in history. (It’s true that Mario got his start- kind of– in arcade games. We’re ignoring that asterisk here for simplicity’s sake.) These foundational games, these landmarks of the form and sometimes originators of genres existed only on plastic cartridges that could be read only by the port fitted in the NES. For most of the world, that means the only way to access these games- their visual design, music, gameplay mechanics, narratives, etc.- was and still is to dust off an NES, plug it in, dig up an old Ninja Gaiden cartridge, and say a brief prayer that your ancient console still remembers your touch well enough that it will work for you. By the way, that’s another thing. The NES (and the Sega Genesis, Super Nintend0, N64, etc.) were and are NOTORIOUSLY finicky. Even when they were not yet obsolete an in fact relatively new (within a period of five years let’s say) a bizarre, technical/superstitious ritual had to be observed to ensure both your system and the game you wanted to play would work when you wanted them to. The exact amount of pressure plugging in the wires, the exact amount of force inserting the game cartridge, the correct direction and number of times to blow on the electrical connectors to ward off interfering dust and malevolent spirits. This was an exercise from which no gamer was excluded in the era of cartridge gaming. So it was to the almost comically, certainly unreliable arms of these divinely capricious consoles that game designers offered their Mona Lisas, the best work they could do expressing the height of the technology available to them. And sometimes all they had to show for their diligence was a staticky green screen, until some toddler came along and spit on their masterpiece enough to get it to work.

Enter, then, in the 21st century, the ROM and emulator. Gaming technology has advanced as quickly if not quite a bit mores than the admittedly rapid pace of technology in general in the last several decades. A wristwatch in 2016 can do things it might have taken a whole room full of dedicated servers to do in 1996, or so my best memory of James Bond tells me. So then it comes as no surprise that the crowning achievements of technology in the early years of console gaming (circa 1985) can now be duplicated by a kid on his home computer between homework time and dinner. For the man who’s legacy was written in water, this is not as bleak as it may seem. With the type of processing power and storage space that comes with the average home computer today, it is a relatively simple task for them to duplicate, or emulate, the work done by the gaming consoles and cartridges of yesteryear. ROMs are more or less transliterated video game files, and emulators are pieces of software that allow your computer to run these ROMs as if you had taken an old Nintendo cartridge and somehow plugged it into the USB port. This means that anyone with a remotely new computer can play all of the old games he used to love, without relying on the clunky hardware to which they used to be bound. To further sweeten the deal, one day some charitable coder came along and designed an operation system called RetroPie, which would run on a tiny computer called the Raspberry Pi. The RetroPie OS collected emulators for a dozen or so game consoles like the NES and put them on one, easy to use menu. Once downloading the OS and installing it on a handy micro-SD card, all a nostalgic gamer would have to do would be to hit the internet and download the ROMs of all of her favorite games, load them up, and get playing. Thus, literally thousands of games, many of which are decades old and incredibly obscure, can now be made available to anyone with about $100 who isn’t overly nervous about copyright laws. Ironically, the advent of technology that the developer worried would wash away the record of his achievement like a new high score on an arcade game, has actually come around to save and maintain, if unofficially, the memory of his work. These collections can now be protected and curated as if by a museum, and they well should be.

Just like the printed word or the automobile, the video game is an example of a technology that was once privileged and has since entered a more common domain. And it has been this dissemination that has allowed for the preservation and continued cultural relevance of what would be called “classic” games. In essence, ROMs and emulators and their uses on the RaspberryPi  are just an example of porting. When a game is ported, it is adapted from its originally medium (say for example, a standalone arcade cabinet) to another (like an NES cartridge, or more contemporarily a downloadable file). This was and is done all the time with games, so this evolution is no different except that it’s all done entirely by fans and enthusiasts rather than the corporate owners of the games and IP. The fact that game companies did not make greater provisions to preserve and maintain their game libraries is kind of mind-boggling. Even now, as Nintendo and Sony and maybe Microsoft too have mined their IP vaults for old titles that they can make available for download through their online portals and reboot and make new for next gen console, there are plenty of games that would never again see the light of day if not for the Pi. Game companies are only going to dedicate resources to revamping and remaking games that they think they can sell or that fit their brand, and beyond that there are plenty of games that were own by companies that are now defunct, making the the legal legwork before making the game prohibitively difficult. Unfortunately, the Pi is only a grassroots movement in terms of preservation, so these disregarded games are only tentatively held.

My experience with getting to know the RaspberryPi, its joys and frustrations, I’ll document later. The simple fact that it exists, and that with my meager abilities I can manipulate it, is still surprising to me and as I will explore in another post, would in 1995 have simply overwhelmed my eight year old self with the sensation of unlimited power. As far as I know at the moment, it stands as the only nearly comprehensive method of vintage games preservation that is widely available.


Off to a good start!

imagesI know this course will be a memorable one, as I am confident that the combination of people participating in this class will yield some exceptional learning moments.  It was so nice to connect with all of you again to get this thing started.

A review of what we did: -We introduced ourselves. -We talked through the course website and the documents that comprise a traditional syllabus. -Together we set the tone for our time together, establishing the foundation for a thoughtful learning community.

For your to-do list this week:

IMG_4568Make sure you acquire the two texts that are not provided for you electronically.  Those two texts are Net Smart by Howard Rheingold, and Participatory Culture in the Networked Era by Henry Jenkins, Mizuko Ito, & danah boyd.  These two books should be available now in the campus bookstore, or you are welcome to get them via other venues as well. (* All other texts are accessible by link on the class Reading Roster).

-Please read the Introduction & Chapter 1 from Net Smart.

-Please send me the url for your class blog and your twitter handle.

-Finally, please take a closer look at the Reading Roster, identifying what readings and media might be of particular interest to you.  Consider what date you might want to “present” on the calendar, and also consider if you want to present individually, or in partnership with another colleague in the class.  We will work on filling out the course schedule in the second half of class next week.  If each of you have a few dates in mind, and a couple of topics with corresponding readings selected, I think that will make our course scheduling process move forward smoothly.

imagesAgain, a great class to start us off on this journey together. I’ll see you next week.

Sincerely,

Dr. Zamora