Rhetoric of the Link

Rhetorics of the Web (by Nicholas Burbules at Wesleyan University) is an often-cited overview of various kinds of hyperlinks and the rhetorical strategies that they employ. In the course of teaching a new media class this fall, I’ve begun to wonder whether Burbules’ examples are too general, ahistorical, or even naive about the possibilities of the link.

I see the central question of the link to be this: in what ways can the same surface text develop wildly different meanings depending upon its link? What political potential resides in every link?

To begin to explore this question I’ve created a simple exercise: the same phrase–Who lives in the White House–repeated multiple times with a different link each time. What rhetorical strategies are at work in each example? How does the tenor of the question change each time?

GMU Course Blogs

I’ve been fed up with the standard issue university courseware options–namely Blackboard and WebCT–so I decided this semester to wing it with my own version of courseware (what I’m calling “of-courseware”) powered by WordPress.

Although Sample Reality runs on Movable Type, I’ve been hearing good things about WordPress, and I thought I’d give it a spin. So now my Fall 2005 courses at George Mason University run on the open-source WordPress platform. The syllabi, links to online readings, and most important as the semester develops, the collectively-written class blog, are online, open to the public, indexed by Google, and just generally out there. Which is something you cannot say for courses kept chained up, locked down, and closed up by Blackboard or WebCT.

Here are the courses. The sites are in their embryonic stages (the semester hasn’t even begun yet), but I expect them to turn into full-blown resources as time goes on:

I should add that the subject matter of both of these courses–postmodern culture and new media–could not be better suited for an networked environment. It would be absurd not to develop these courses in an open, linked way, connected to the rest of the web. It’s of-courseware!

Atlases & Maps before GPS

I love maps, and I’m fascinated by the history of mapmaking. Check out this anonymous 17th century atlas I’ve come across, published in London in 1650. The title is succinct enough: A book and map of all Europe with the names of all the towns of note in that known quarter of the world: so that any one of the least capacity, finding the town in the alphabet, shall presently lay his finger upon the town in the map: a work very usefull for all schollars, marchants, mariners, tradesmen, and all that desire to know forreign parts, and especially in these times of warres and commotions that are now in Europe.
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What I think is so wonderful about this “book and map” is first, the reader–who is perhaps new to the concept of maps and maybe even books–is given very explicit instructions on how to use an atlas:: “…any one of the least capacity, finding the town in the alphabet, shall presently lay his finger upon the town in the map.”

Second, this instruction connects seeing the map in the book with somehow experiencing the physical presence of any given town (“lay his finger upon the town”). In the hindsight of the 20th century this seems like a very Borgesian sentiment.

From the fable “Of Exactitude in Science” in The Maker (1960) by Jorge Luis Borges:

…In that Empire, the craft of Cartography attained such Perfection that the Map of a Single province covered the space of an entire City, and the Map of the Empire itself an entire Province. In the course of Time, these Extensive maps were found somehow wanting, and so the College of Cartographers evolved a Map of the Empire that was of the same Scale as the Empire and that coincided with it point for point. Less attentive to the Study of Cartography, succeeding Generations came to judge a map of such Magnitude cumbersome, and, not without Irreverence, they abandoned it to the Rigours of sun and Rain. In the western Deserts, tattered Fragments of the Map are still to be found, Sheltering an occasional Beast or beggar; in the whole Nation, no other relic is left of the Discipline of Geography.

Mark Sample Identity Theft Watch

As if I didn’t already have a problem with my absurdly generic name, I’m discovering that there are other “Mark Sample’s” out there.

So, for the record, the following Mark Sample’s are not me:

  1. Mark Sample (Monroe Community College)
  2. Mark Sample (Texas Christian University)
  3. Mark Sample (Stanly Community College)
  4. Mark Sample (game developer)

The following Mark Sample‘s are me, or at least alternative personalities of me:

  1. Mark Sample (George Mason University)
  2. Mark Sample (University of Pennsylvania) (where I was a graduate student)
  3. Mark Sample (Georgetown University) (home to a research project I work with)


Jonathan Harris’s new work is dazzling. It’s called 10×10 / 100 Words and Pictures that Define the Time, and it provides an automatically generated snapshot of the world, based on what the current news are reporting.

Harris employs an algorithm to scan several online news sources and linguistically rank the most prevalent keywords. Harris’s program then captures related photographs and arranges them on a 10×10 grid.

Harris aptly calls himself an “information artist” and he’s got me wondering, how can more people become information artists? How can we take control over the ceaseless flow of data in our lives, much of it ugly, more of it depressing, and the rest trivial, and turn it into something artful, something beautiful?

Exxon Secrets

Last May I mentioned Josh On’s website They Rule, and lately I’ve been exploring his newest creation, Exxon Secrets. Produced with his wife for Greenpeace, Exxon Secrets details how funding from the ExxonMobil corporation funds influential institutions and think-tanks that promote anti-environmental agendas. In particular, these groups challenge at every turn all scientific proof of global climatic change. Since 1998 ExxonMobil, the world’s largest oil company, has given over $12 million to organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and the neocon American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research (which has enormous ties–some might say a stranglehold–on the current Bush administration).

I should point out that these organizations not only strive to influence national environmental policy, they have also provided much of the ideological justification for the war in Iraq. Freedom! Liberty! Of course, whatever ideology says, the real reason for the war is oil. Exxon Secrets reveals, for example, the little remarked-upon fact that Condoleezza Rice, Bush’s National Security Advisor, is a former director on the corporate board of Chevron, the world’s fourth largest publicly-held oil and gas company, with drilling facilities as far away as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. (Kuwait? Didn’t America do something there a few years back? Can’t remember what. But whatever it was, ChevronTexaco’s “production in the Partitioned Neutral Zone, between Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, has more than tripled since 1990.”)

Chevron was so impressed with Rice, who served as a director from 1991 to 2001, that the company even named an oil tanker after her in 1993. Alas, in May 2001, shortly after Rice left Chevron to become Bush’s National Security Advisor, Chevron quietly renamed the Condoleezza Rice tanker to Altair Voyager. Chevron’s spokesperson said that this was simply “to eliminate the unnecessary attention caused by the vessel’s original name.”

They’re so modest, those oil companies.

Josh On provides a few more insights to Exxon Secrets in this online interview with the online zine Kopenhagen.

Videogames and War

The intersection of new media and warfare has recently been a preoccupation of mine, and I was more than a little unsettled by Clive Thompson’s recent article in the August 22nd New York Times Magazine about so-called “X Box Warriors.”

The gist of the article is this: the U.S. military is training its forces using videogames as simulations. What unsettles me is not the military’s predictable turn toward new media as a cost-effective virtual battlefield, but that in the process entertainment and warfare become practically indistinguishable from each other. “Many of the military’s young soldiers [in Iraq], members of the PlayStation generation,” Thompson reports, “spend much of their downtime each week playing games.” These videogames include Full Spectrum Warrior and Full Spectrum Command. The latter is designed to train soldiers in urban warfare (like the kind American troops currently face in Iraq).

Videogames are not only used to recreate real world scenarios to help soldiers hone their teamworking and decision-making skills, however. The U.S. Army has gone into the consumer videogame business with America’s Army, “The Official U.S. Army Game” for Macs and PCs. As the America’s Army website announces, the game provides “civilians with an inside perspective and a virtual role in today’s premier land force: the U.S. Army.” But why would the army go to all this trouble to release of realistic game for free to American civilians. Because “it is part of the Army’s communications strategy.” In other words, it is a recruiting tool. Here is the army’s official gloss:

The game is designed to provide young adults and their influencers with virtual insights into entry level Soldier training, training in units and Army operations so as to provide insights into what the Army is like. As in the past, the Army’s success in attracting high-potential young adults is essential to building the world’s premier land force. With the passage of time, elimination of the draft and reductions in the size of the Army have resulted in a marked decrease in the number of Americans who have served in the Army and from whom young adults can gain vicarious insights into the challenges and rewards of Soldiering and national service. Therefore, the game is designed to substitute virtual experiences for vicarious insights. It does this in an engaging format that takes advantage of young adults’ broad use of the Internet for research and communication and their interest in games for entertainment and exploration.

So the game offers “insights” into “Soldiering” to “young adults”–i.e., teenagers. That the game is intended for children is made all the more clear by the Army’s insistence that the game “falls well within the parameters of a teen rating (age +13).” Make no mistake about it, while the game “does not include any dismemberment or disfigurement” like many popular videogames (Halo, Doom 3, and so on), it does portray death–government-sanctioned death in the name of the “defense of freedom.” The lack of gore is in some ways just as disturbing as too much gore. “When a Soldier is killed,” the America’s Army FAQ reads, “that Soldier simply falls to the ground and is no longer part of the ongoing mission.” Thus the 13+ young adults (in other words, boys) see violence but without the gutwrenching consequences of that violence. If only every wounded, dying, or dead American soldier “simply” fell to the ground in battle. If only the civilians caught in the crossfire “simply” fell too. If only war were so sanitary.

Google My Computer

Recent reports have it that Google is working on a desktop search engine powered by the same algorithms that Google uses to search and rank websites. This tool could replace Windows’ own built-in, highly ineffective search feature.

It’s about time.

How absurd is it that it’s often easier to find information on the World Wide Web than on your own computer? It’s easier to find exactly what you want among the thousands of terabytes on the Internet with one or two keywords than it is to find a Word document, saved on your own 120 gig computer, that you wrote only a month ago. Or that email you sent last fall. Or that videoclip you downloaded yesterday.

Google is so effective that many people no longer bookmark websites. Instead they simply use Google to find the sites again. As for me, I am awash in data, not just on the web, but on my own computer, and I’m willing to try anything to help me easily sort through it all. How great it would be if I could find my own files in “My Documents” as easily as I search online (say, for that South Korean pair of new media artists I had heard about), using one or two keywords in the Google Deskbar. And then to have the search execute as swiftly as a Google web search. No more browsing through nested folders, no more using Windows’ clumsy search sidebar.

The best desktop search engine will be the one to anticipate connections you haven’t made yet, between keywords and documents, and between documents and other documents. To know what’s on your computer better than you do. To know what you’re searching for, even when you only vaguely recall the substance of any document.

Search Inside This Book

Like many avid readers and scholars I am thoroughly enamored of Amazon.com’s Search Inside the Book feature. The feature debuted October 23, 2003 with the complete text of more than 120,000 books. I can’t find any recent data on how large the digital archive has grown in the past several months, but the folks at Amazon have said they would eventually like to have their entire catalog full-text searchable.

Gary Wolf explores the different dimensions of such a huge undertaking in “The Great Library of Amazonia”, an article in this past December’s Wired. As much as I agree with Wolf (“We want books to be as accessible and searchable as the Web”), there is one aspect of the whole project I find troubling. And that is, who performs the actual labor of digitizing these thousands of books? It sounds counter-intuitive, but publishers must send Amazon a physical copy of every book to be included in the database. And then some person, somewhere, manually turns and scans every page of that book.

There are machines that will automate the scanning process, like the Kirtas APT BookScan 1200, which costs a cool $150,000 and can scan 1,200 pages in one hour. But Wolf reports that Amazon.com has sent shipments of books to India to be scanned by human workers. There, according to a related Wired article, the workers turn pages by hand and make 40 cents an hour.

So, it is an unsettling fact of this global economy that I can search Amazon’s catalog for a book with the phrase “imperialist lackeys and running dogs” and then buy that book for $11.20–an exorbitant sum for that worker in India, about 28 hours’ worth of work. The only consolation is that however little 40 cents an hour is, it is still twice India’s average daily wage. Of course, this speaks more to the inequities of global capitalism than to the generosity of Amazon.com.

UPDATE (23 July 2009)

In the years since I wrote this post, I’ve created a number of assignments that use Amazon’s full-text search feature, such as this writing assignment for Jessica Hagedorn’s Dream Jungle.

Story-Space-Surveillance Triangle

My posting the other day about DARPA’s now-defunct Total Information Awareness project inspired me to rethink a New Media course I’ve been designing, using the concept of TIA as one of the three themes for the course.

The technology that DARPA proposed in its Total Information Awareness program is an example of what Laura Marks calls “invisible media” — the surveillance-based, database-driven media of the military, the healthcare industry, and financial institutions that are ubiquitous but hidden from everyday view. ATM cameras, pharmacy records, credit card transactions, E-ZPass sensors — these and other technologies document our nearly every move. In a recent episode of FOX’s 24, one character at the Counter Terrorism Unit had a live feed from a local hospital’s operating room piped into her desktop. It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.

What is the relationship between these invisible media and the more “traditional” new media like hypertext and digital art installations celebrated by academics and new media theorists?

To answer this question, I first want to suggest that popular versions of new media theory have thus far primarily focused on one of two ways of understanding new media: (1) as an innovative way to tell stories (like Janet Murray’s Hamlet on the Holodeck); or (2) as a space, where virtual structures are created and experienced (and often, contested, as Henry Jenkins argues).

These two terms — story and space — form a neat pair, but I think the line that runs from one to the other represents only a fraction of the power of new media. I see story and space as the two points of an inverted pyramid, a pyramid that only looks like a straight line; underneath this line the two points converge upon an upside-down apex. This is the third term, hidden beneath the surface of the other two. It is invisible media.


This Story-Space pyramid is the central image in my course for understanding new media. Very quickly it becomes apparent that each pair of terms on the pyramid generates other terms, which then become additional keywords framing the class. For example, the drive toward narration and the mechanisms of invisible media produce what Mark Poster calls “superpanopticons,” vast databases in which our identities and life stories are constructed in our absence and without our knowledge. Invisible media also map information onto space, creating “augmented space.” This is physical space, according to Lev Manovich, onto which streams of data are overlayed. And of course, the terms story and space interact with each other and manifest themselves in architecture, landscape design, urban planning, but also in software packages, video games, and so on. All of these terms in turn generate new sets of concepts with which to approach and critically discuss new media.


Twenty years after the Police’s Synchronicity, the word finally seems to have entered everyday language. One of UPS’s new slogans, which I just saw on the side of a brown truck in Philadelphia, is now “Synchronizing the World of Commerce.”

I know what “synchronizing” means, I guess, but what does that slogan mean? Why does the world of commerce need to be synchronized? Is it out-of-synch?

I suddenly began thinking of all the ways we know use the word “synchronize”—we do it with our Palms and Pocket PCs, our email accounts, our files, anything where we have multiple copies of something and one is more recent than the others. (Ignore for the moment the out-of-date and oh-so-nineties N-Sync.) Synchronicity here deals with time. Something that has been synchronized is now closer to the present (and thereby, on the near edge of the future) than something that has not been synchronized.

With the UPS slogan, however, a new dimension has been added to the essence of “synchronize.” That dimension is the dimension of space, for that is what UPS is known for: moving objects through physical space. UPS’s new slogan extends UPS’s dominance to the dimension of time. “Synchronicity” is a marriage of time and space, or really, the fantasy of enfolded space. A sort of time warp, where information travels instantly because space is folded on itself. What we have here is the dream of instantaneous information (made possible by UPS’s pioneering infrastructure). I find this vision very close the the fantasy of total complete information. The new media theorist Stuart Moulthrop has written about the “game of perfect information“—that if we possess enough computing power and access to the best available data, we can make perfect decisions. Moulthrop was talking about this way back in the nineties, and he was eerily prescient of the Defense Department’s failed Total Information Awareness Project.

The UPS slogan articulates the same cultural tendencies that led Admiral Poindexter, the “visionary” behind the Total Information Awareness program, to pursue a means to “imagine, develop, apply, integrate, demonstrate and transition information technologies, components and prototype, closed-loop, information systems.” This mission statement is so vague (not to mention grammatically difficult to parse) that it could apply to a corporation’s strategy for dominance in global commerce as well as to a nation’s “war” against terrorism.