April 28, 2009

"But I Wanted to Vote for Obama!"

On an episode of "The Simpsons" a few months back, Homer walks into the electronic voting booth. He attempts to vote for Barack Obama, but the speaker spits out, "One vote for John McCain." Frustrated, Homer tries again. Again, the vote registers as one for McCain. And in the midst of recounts and debates on every aspect of the voting process, it's hard not to wonder where we're going.

Paper votes can get thrown out. Automatic machines can be rigged or can malfunction. As conspiracy-theorist as it may sound, there's probably no way to make sure that 100 percent of the correctly cast ballots will be counted. Some of the proposals considered to help get the nation out of sticky spots are rather well thought-out - instant run-off voting is one of them. If that were the case here in Minnesota, we probably would have been spared this ongoing Senate battle. And any disenfranchised Dean Barkley voters would have their second choice vote - Franken or Coleman - really count.

However, some of the solutions offered are inane... like voting on the Internet. Something which has been proven time-and-again to be one of the easiest things to hack into, and some people want to leave something as important as elections to that. It also brings up interesting questions about the digital divide - exactly how many people would be able to vote if it was online only? And if it was a melding of the two, what's to stop someone from voting several times at public computers, home computers, friends' computers, and finally in person? Any final solution will probably more of a realization than anything else: nothing is perfect, but there are ways of being fairly accurate. And an online poll isn't one of them.

April 14, 2009

The Changing Face of IM

This week in class we're discussing Professor Stern's book "Instant Identity," about the online habits of tweens and teen girls. The majority of were data was compiled in 2002 and 2003, when I was in high school and a fairly frequent user of Instant Messenger myself. Since then my habits have changed entirely. I believe IM habits have changed nationwide as well, thanks to the advent of two things: Facebook and texting.

Professor Stern says none of her girls really dabbled in online blogs or diaries at the time she was researching her book. However, at the exact same time, many of my friends were setting up accounts on LiveJournal, Xanga or MySpace. I was a junior in high school at the time - so perhaps a year or two older than the girls included in the book - but the "future" of online journalling was already apparent to me. I created my own MySpace around this time, mainly because so many of my friends already had one. However, I rarely updated it and haven't logged onto the site for at least four years. Perhaps this has something to do with the serious college student thinking MySpace is too high school, but I think it's more than that. After I graduated, I more or less stopped using IM altogether. It could be that I just became too busy to spend hours online talking... or it could be that I created my Facebook page a month or two into my freshman semester.

While IM is still a widely-used resource, it does not seem as important to me as it did a few years ago. Facebook has absorbed everything I used IM for anyway - I can send people messages without having to remember their e-mail, I can set up get togethers, etc. Facebook Chat even has the same purpose as IM - making something like AOL or Yahoo Instant Messenger seem obsolete. There's another thing that seems to be replacing IMing - texting. While it may not allow for comprehensive discussions (my texting plan only sends out messages up to 160 characters), it gets the job done. If I'm trying to get some friends together, all I need to do is send out a massive text to everyone I'm trying to get a hold of. Like Facebook, texting seems to offer everything that IM ever did. And while it probably won't go away anytime soon, these days IMing is being seen as more and more of an old, unexciting technology.

March 12, 2009

Fighting the Digital Divide

In Wednesday’s class we discussed ways to fight the digital divide. While I think some of the ideas presented to us were unrealistic and rather far-fetched, I think several actually had merit to them. The idea I most enthusiastically support is the proposal to put laptop labs in low-income public schools. This was one of the few options that does not require someone to either own a computer or purchase access to the Internet. If students in public schools have access to laptops, it doesn’t even matter if they have a computer at home – they will still know how to use it. This will be extremely helpful as they go on, especially if they look for jobs that require Internet savvy. Though this may only help fight the digital divide in certain countries, it could still go a long way.

Free classes in public places could also play into this option. The schools with laptop labs could also offer after-school or nighttime classes for nonstudents – much like some schools offer language classes to immigrants and non-English speakers. The cooperation between the two ideas would be easy to maneuver, particularly in areas with a high concentration of immigrants. The students will learn to navigate the Internet during school, and their families can do the same through the schools’ free classes.

One solution that I feel has a lot of problems is citywide wireless. This has already been implemented in Minneapolis, but not without issues. It appears that the Internet can only be accessed through the city in certain parts – possibly where most residents would already have access. It would also seem that to be able to access the citywide wireless network, you’ll have to have a computer. The whole issue with the digital divide is that some people simply can’t afford to spend several hundred dollars on a computer, regardless if that means they can access the Internet for free.

March 9, 2009

Second Life Scares Me

These past few weeks, we've discussed Internet use a great deal. I am definitely on the side of researching Internet addiction - I think there are clear signals that some people use the Internet in an unhealthy way. One of the major red flags that was raised for me was the article about Second Life - particularly the man who spends nearly all day on the computer in Second Life. Not only was the man's personal life affected by his dedication to the game, his eating habits seemed to suffer. His breakfast sat beside him for hours one day without him noticing, even though his wife came in to bring it to him. The stories of people starving to death from playing World of Warcraft could be embellished or not, but I think this instance is a clear example of some people losing touch with the outside world.

But I do think determining Internet addiction is a careful line to tread. In "Growing Up Online," it seemed some parents thought their children were far too reliant on the Internet, and wouldn't know how to function without it. These days, part of that reliance is necessary for work. It seems nearly impossible to be a Journalism student here without Internet access to online articles, e-mail and other sites. Last week, I was without home Internet access for several days and had to use campus computers in order to finish my homework. I went without Facebook and YouTube for a week and survived without any signs of withdrawal.

But I am wary of Internet habits more extensive than my own, and I found myself agreeing with some parents in the program. I, for one, would be extremely concerned if I were unable to get someone's attention because they're too engrossed in their computers. I would never resort to monitoring my kids' online activity (since they'd probably be able to work around it), but I would absolutely set boundaries to use and access to put a cap on what I see as healthy use and addiction. Hopefully by the time I'll have to deal with this as a parent, Internet addiction will have been more researched and credited.

February 19, 2009

Andrew Keen

Recently in class we’ve been discussing Andrew Keen’s “The Cult of the Amateur.” During the group discussion last Friday, Professor Thiel-Stern asked the group members about one thing they agreed with Keen on and one thing they disagreed on. This is something I’d like to try. I agree with Keen when he says some of today’s most popular sites (YouTube, MySpace, etc.) have had an effect on the old way of doing things. Piracy and illegal downloading has had an effect on the music and movie industry, etc. But I don’t think the situation is as dire as Keen makes it out to be.

In particular, he cites a decline in 2005 domestic box office revenues. But those revenues have increased ever since then – the past two years have been more profitable than any years before. This year is setting off at a record pace as well, with record-breaking months in January and February. I also disagree with the impression Keen seems to give that the population can’t tell the difference between professionals and amateurs. We discussed this in class when Professor Thiel-Stern asked if anyone used blogs as their main source of news. But this extends to more entertainment-based Web sites like YouTube as well. While some people spend a lot of time on YouTube, I don’t think it’s eventually going to replace other forms of entertainment. We’re not going to see “dinner and a movie” date nights become “dinner and watching vlogs on YouTube” nights.

February 6, 2009

The First Three Weeks...

As I write this, we are finishing up our third week of lectures. Discussions so far have mostly been historical in nature, examining and discussing the general development of technology. While I know this is pretty much filler for the discussions we'll have later in the semester, I was extremely interested in learning the history of public use. It's fascinating to look back and see how much has changed in such a little amount of time - moving from records to 8-track tapes to cassettes to CDs to digital music in 30 years, etc. I think it will provide a good sense of perspective as we move forward. Things change quickly when a new technology catches on, and that trend continues to this day.

One interesting thing I've found is how McLuhan's "The Medium is the Message" has directly tied into every topic we've covered since reading it. This is particularly obvious when we look at Internet sensations like YouTube, which blends McLuhan's concept of hot and cool media like nothing else. The article "It Should Happen to You" also raises some interesting points about the increasingly hectic and fast-paced nature of fame. 15 minutes of fame used to mean getting on television for an unusual reason. Now it's more like 15 seconds of fame because of the waves of YouTube sensations that seem to hit every week.