Gear for hacker kids

Twenty-odd years ago, a whole generation of kids grew up tinkering with Commodores, Ataris, and clunky Intel 286s. Back then families shelled out a good chunk of change to participate in The Personal Computer Revolution, hoping to give their kids a head start in the hazy future of computers and electronics. It wasn't all fun and games though. These devices weren't just toys, and they encouraged anyone, adults and kids alike, to delve deeper into their mechanic and electronic underpinnings. For our generation, I hope we also pass on the favour to the kids, to allow them the opportunity to tinker, to think, to come to terms with the future in their own way. Here's the state of the art in exploration, to the delight of kids and adults alike:

For the toddlers, the One Laptop Per Child project's OLPC XO-1 junior convertible tablet takes the crown as the cutest, bubbliest tablet currently not on the market. A few years ago, it was possible to get these laptop/tablets via the Give One Get One program, which donates a device to the developing world for every one purchased. The project has since discontinued this deal, but it's still possible to find these on eBay. However, the best way to get one of these is to participate in the OLPC project itself. The project has loaner models for volunteers, whether as coder, hardware developer, or even evangelist. The hardware itself is fairly hackable, and as the OS is based on Fedora Linux, with large parts of the UI based on Python, it's an easy and early entry point for kids into the wonderful world of UNIX. There is a higher spec "high school" version currently in development: the XO-1.5.

For the curious teen, looking to brag about the biggest, baddest robot on the block, there's the MakerBot:


The MakerBot is a construction kit for the modern age. It's a do-it-yourself, DIY 3D printer. For $950, it allows you to construct objects from models designed on a computer. The base material is ABS plastic, which the MakerBot spits out layer by layer to form the finished product. A video is worth a million words, so here's Bre Pettis, a founder of Makerbot Industries.

Missing a Lego piece? Maybe you can make one yourself. Or perhaps try to refine this experimental Coke and Mentos driven engine. Tons of space for learning and fun here.

For the fledgling adolescent, wanting to know more about why one boy is so different from another, or needing information on coming to terms with family histories of illness, we have the gateway to genetic analysis and biotechnology in the upcoming OpenPCR project. While the science of the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) is more advanced, the goal remains the same: it's a tool for enlightening and learning about our world. The OpenPCR is a DIY box for replicating DNA, as the first basic step in genetic screening, testing, and analysis. The purpose of the PCR process is to create enough copies of the microscopic DNA from a sample, so that we can visualize it, and use other tools to break it apart or match it for certain patterns. The project is requesting funding at their KickStarter page, which has a good video intro to the process.

Why would kids be interested in this? Because they can use it to prove that they really do hate brussels sprouts, so don't even try making them for dinner.

Of course, the MakerBot and OpenPCR both require plenty of adult supervision, but that's also the point, isn't it?—to spend some quality time with the kids thinking and learning about the world together, outside the influence of ads and TV, away from ready-made toys and the latest gadgets du jour. I'm sure there are many other exciting gear and tools that allow kids to experiment and learn about emerging technologies and sciences. Let me know in the comments if you run into something cool.

Another great idea that you heard here first

Remember last June when I said it would be great idea to have a browser plug-in that would allow users to navigate blogs using the J and K keys, much as one does in Google Reader? Well, just this week BoingBoing unveiled some similar technology on their blog:

"You can now jump between posts on the front door of Boing Boing by hitting J and K. It should work on most browsers."

I guess Boing Boing has a few more resources behind them—all BlogCampaigning has is a hard-working editor-in-chief, a cute girl, a lazy German, an absentee founder, and a fantastic copy editor.

We're still on the cutting edge of cool, though. Follow us on Twitter.


More thoughts on laptop DJing (in response to...)

Recently I wrote a post for BlogCampaigning on my experience transitioning from a vinyl DJ to a laptop DJ, which, from personal comments, appears to have been generally well received. But the only comment anyone actually posted on the blog was quite negative and passively critical. Initially, I wanted to tell the semi-anonymous commenter where to go, but I decided to take the high road, thanking the fellow for his post and offering a very brief apologetic response. I was wrong. I've thought about it, and I now recognize that that person's comment was uninformed and thoughtless, and I had no reason to apologize. I don't want to insult him, and I hope this response doesn't simply come off as petty. I have a far more appropriate response in mind, and it is basically a brief description of the nature of entertainment media today.

In his passive-aggressive note, the commenter appears to make three points:

1. DJs who use iTunes (or similar software) don't deserve to entertain club or bar crowds. 2. Whatever happened to DJs who can match beats by simply listening to songs (as opposed to using software to digitally and automatically beat-match)? 3. DJs today suck.

Where to begin?

First, the nature of DJing has changed completely in recent years, and "disc jockeying" is basically an anachronism in the same way as "film processing" or "going to print". With digital music collections advancing far faster than physical collections, and the ease of collecting and transporting digital music, it should be no surprise that DJs are turning to software solutions. And now, there are hardware solutions, as well, to replace bulky turntables and CD players. Everyone who wants to be a DJ has already got a laptop. A DJ starting out now would almost be a fool to choose physical media over virtual. As for iTunes, well, as I said in my original post, it's not good for DJing, and it's not appropriate for DJing, but in a pinch, which is where I found myself on that night, it will perform the required function.

What software or hardware one chooses to use, however, is basically irrelevant—a simple matter of pleasure or circumstance. I started DJing on a kit hobbled together from whatever bits of stereo equipment my friends, Josh and James, and I had at home—and later some rented gear. Even when MP3s came around, I only used them to create mixes that I could play on CD decks. But if the software existed at the time, I almost certainly would have chosen to use a laptop over CDs. (Vinyl is always a special case.) The only relevant question is: how well does the DJ entertain the crowd?

So, complain all you want, but this mode of DJing is just the way it is and will be. Frankly, these days I'd be more surprised to see a DJ using turntables at a club than using a laptop—with or without some extra hardware.

(I'm not saying I fully approve of the rise of the laptop DJ. As with photography, and journalism, and any other medium that has found itself in a similar situation, not everyone who performs as a DJ deserves to call themselves a DJ. There is a core skill set that one must develop, and no software or hardware can allow a person to bypass that process. No doubt many DJs today never bother to acquire those skills; but this has ever been the case.)

The other thing is that the digital revolution has caused a tsunami of DJs, just as it has turned everyone into a photographer, and a web designer, and an illustrator, and a journalist, and a media expert, and so on. There's more to this: I don't want to get into the details, but the expanding middle class has somehow achieved a sort of critical nexus of leisure time and disposable income that practically compels their young to go to bars and clubs and dance. In Toronto, at least, new bars, clubs, and restaurants open all the time and everywhere. Each one of them needs to entertain their clientele—ideally at a low cost—and more than ever now the common factor is the DJ.

More venues + more leisure time and money = more DJs

Unfortunately, as I touched on above—and in this I agree with the commenter—more DJs doesn't mean more quality. In fact, it almost definitely means lower quality overall; but it doesn't simply mean that all laptop DJs are awful or that the club owner has hired his inexperienced cousin who just downloaded some trial software and wants to give it a go. There are certainly many experienced and skilled DJs who use (and choose) computers over traditional DJ gear.

You know what, I'm not even ashamed to say that I have played a song here and there from YouTube when I haven't found it in my collection. I would never do this in a club or bar with a high-quality sound system, but for a private party or a standard bar night, why not? If you can mix it and make it fit, and it sounds good, that is really the only issue.

You'll probably be better off paying attention to what music the DJ is playing and how well she does it, rather than the gear she is using. If you find it still doesn't live up to your standards, you can always try your hand at DJing yourself.

Thanks for your comment.

What does Twitter do? (Part 1)

I've been using Twitter now for a few months, and I still have little idea of it's purpose—or if it even has one. At it's base, Twitter is a simple way to share and receive bits of information, the modern currency. It's like a data marketplace—a microcosm of the internet itself, and more manageable than the world wide web. But I like that it has undefined boundaries, and that users have come up with new uses for it. I don't go out of my way to read about Twitter's development on technology blogs or whatever. I have my interests (technology and internet culture among them), and I read about them semi-regularly; but I don't have the time or the interest to consume or sort through all of the blather, opinion, and predictions about something like Twitter, which I would prefer to explore myself.

That said, here are a few of the ways in which Twitter has changed my internet and information consumption behaviour.

1. Interest-targeted information I never had a selection of specific blogs that I would visit regularly to find news on a certain topic. I retrieved stuff from the internet mostly via news sites (e.g.,, search engines, and aggregators (e.g., Digg and Reddit), each of which serves a particular purpose for finding information. Google news was my main news source for a brief while a couple of years ago. I also began using Google Reader to follow with pitiful—make that pathetic—regularity my friends' blogs.

These all might have their own purposes, but I found them inefficient because they forced me to visit a website and scan through bits of info for what I wanted to read. I had heard of RSS feeds, which could send interesting links directly to a central location, such as your e-mail or a web application like Google Reader, but I was too lazy to bother figuring it out, and besides, Facebook had captured most of my internet attention; and with Facebook, I could share information as well as receive it.

This was all before Twitter. I looked at Twitter last year some time and thought, like just about everyone else on the planet (that's facetious western arrogance, by the way): "What is this nonsense? Who cares about what everybody/nobody has to say about their nonsense lives?" I hardly realized that millions were already paying attention to others' nonsense on Facebook all day long. But Twitter just seemed too simple and pointless: why would anyone actually want to know about what others were doing or, you know, thought about stuff?

Well, I was wrong. I mean, I still don't care about what most people are doing or what they think about stuff—my use of Twitter has actually made this abundantly clear. I also note that recently (even before Twitter) I've been using Facebook far less than in the past. The thing is, now I can "follow" "twitterers" who "tweet" information in which I am interested, as well as my friends—those who are currently taking advantage of the service—and all of that information goes to one central place, where I can scan it with far greater ease than before.

For example, I used to visit Digg, which aggregates user-submitted stories from the web, placing the top stories (by users' votes) on the "front page". This is incredibly useful, but the content is still all over the place. Current events and world politics are combined in an unholy mixture with pictures of cute animals, celebrity "news" and UFO and crop circle sightings, and eventually, I found myself disillusioned with sifting through all of the stuff I wasn't interested in. As for friends' blogs, as I mentioned, I simply didn't look at them very often, probably because I was spending my online time scanning Digg.

Twitter allows me to narrow the scope of my information retrieval. I follow certain news sources and blogs that mainly focus on local (i.e., Toronto) news, for example:

Torontoist for general Toronto news, mostly written by local independent journalists BlogTO for more general news NOW Magazine for the "alternative" news Urban Toronto) for a great look at Toronto's history and future

Some of my other interests are satisfied via:

The Lunar Orbiter Image Recovery Project Tech news, commonly involving Google at myunblinkingeye News about all the good food we produce in Ontario from Foodland Ontario

I follow friends (including the writers of BlogCampaigning):

Justin Broadbent, a terrific artist, illustrator, photographer, and videographer Angie Johnson, fashion designer and Montréal boutique owner extraordinaire Tyson Bodnarchuk, another terrific artist and Montréal boutique owner extraordinaire

And I even follow the odd celebrity: Neil Gaiman, writer of fantasy and science fiction Rainn Wilson (kind of), via his "big questions" blog, Soul Pancake

I could go on, but I fear that I'm already pushing the boundaries of attention, and will raise the ire of my fellow blogcampaigners with my first post.

So, to wrap up: maybe you're not an information junkie to the extent that I am, but if you use the internet to seek useful or interesting information for personal or professional use, and you find you're not satisfied with your current methods, I recommend you give Twitter a try. It's not difficult to understand and use, and it should be even easier for people who are already somewhat social-media savvy.

Let me know if you've got questions. I probably won't be able to answer them, but I'd like to hear them!

Upcoming: Twitter as human-powered search engine—the new (better) Google!? Twitter as hyper-modern communication tool—not just for nerds!

How I Met the Inventor of the Videogame

Ralph Baer, inventor of the videogame console, recently came to Berlin to celebrate the online launch of the "History of Video Games Timeline" by the Berlin Computer Game Museum. Quite an exciting moment for me, and probably the last chance to have a chat with the man behind the craze that touched our lives and changed the world.

After he gave a speech on his time at Sanders, where he started working on the Brown Box—the grandfather of all consoles—as early as 1966 and invented the light gun, I had the chance to have a brief chat with him.

He really is a likable chap. However, you can tell that he had to fight hard for recognition. If you asked a random person on the street who invented the videogame, the answer would very likely be: "Atari!"

As a matter of fact, though, Nolan Bushnell's inspiration for Pong came from a game included in the first video game console, the Magnavox Odyssey, the 1972 commercial iteration of the Brown Box.

While Bushnell can be considered the inventor of the videogame industry, Baer was the inventor of its basis.

He has the documents to prove it, and he held the patents. Consequently, Magnavox not only succeeded in suing Atari for patent infringement but also Coleco, Mattel, Activision, and Nintendo.

Unfortunately he could not sue the public's imagination. As a result, he likes to remind everyone that it was in fact he who made the first step.

When I asked him to sign my copy of Steve Kent's Ultimate History of Videogames, he pointed out that he really liked the book because it presented his version of events. But even someone as invested in game history as Steve needed some persuasion to believe his story.

This is probably the reason why Baer never holds back when it comes to pointing out his numerous inventions and how much ahead of their time they were.

Asked if he considered the Wii the spiritual successor to the Brown Box and the Odyssey, given their family-friendly focus and use of peripherals, the first thing he told me was how he thought up a similar concept in the late 1980s.

But credit where credit is due: the patents he holds are indeed evidence of his visionary nature. He thought of delivering games via cable, entertained the idea of online games and invented other electronic games, such as Simon.

This was finally recognized by the American government in 2007, when was awarded the National Medal of Technology, the highest honor the US can confer for achievements related to technological progress.

He was still wearing the pin when he was in Berlin. It was an honour to meet him.


Off the Couch, On the Couch: Consoles' Future

There're two trends in video-gaming I've noticed lately: First, a shift towards more peripherals and consoles taking over more functions of computers—a development confirmed by the latest E3. One of the first companies to successfully introduce accessory-enhanced games into the mainstream was Sony with its Singstar and Buzz franchises.

Then there was the final breakthrough: Guitar Hero, first just being bundled with a plastic guitar, later even with a drum set. This step was a huge risk: Bemani games were pretty much relegated to a niche existence in the West, no one knew if people were willing to spend significantly more on a game with a toy guitar, and the competition for scarce retail space was intense.

The risk, however, paid off: People loved the new interfaces, which allowed them to immerse themselves in the gaming experience deeper than before. Dreams of a rock star career were easier to pursue with a plastic axe than with a joypad.

Apart from appealing to people who never might have played video games before, another advantage is obvious: Games can be pirated, peripherals can't. You want to play your Pirate Bay Rock Band with a controller? Sure, bore yourself to death.

We had also better get used to the thought of these new interfaces. Kids these days often play their first games on the Wii. As this generation grows up, it won't understand why it can't control FPSs in a similar, active way. The couch will be deserted, that's for sure.

But then again, a second trend might keep people right there: Increasingly, consoles take over the functions of computers.

Think about the Xbox, for example; it was basically introduced because Microsoft wanted to carry the dominance it had in the office environment over into your living room, a space which at that stage was mostly in the hands of the PlayStation.

Soon you'll be able to access your Facebook profile with it, update your Twitter status and listen to These are very significant developments. Microsoft might have won, we just haven't realized it yet.

This Offworld piece makes some very good points:

"The announcement that I thought was missed was the opening of the Xbox Live Dashboard interface to the internet," [industry analyst Michael] Pachter told Gamasutra. "Later this year, Microsoft will allow members to access and to select music, to access Netflix and instantly watch films/TV shows, to access Facebook and interact with other friends, and to access Twitter and post/read tweets."

Pachter argues that the gaming media entirely missed the significance of this announcement, which puts the 360 firmly in the same territory as Apple's AppleTV, only with a library of awesome games. With so many 360s already installed around the world, MS have a good chance to become the default choice for web media on your TV.

The author adds:

If the 360 does start to support all these things (there's no confirmation as to whether Last.FM will be able to run in the background as a soundtrack to your games), it'll become the kind of gaming machine that I want to spend my time with for more reasons than just because it has some games that my PC doesn't.

It will become a device that has more of the networked infrastructure, and more of the media tweaks and toys that I take for granted as part of my desktop computer.

The thing is: This development does not only apply to stationary consoles: Just think of the iPhone and its growing success as a gaming device. People play on it because they always take it with them and it combines pretty much everything you can ask for: wifi, email, surfing the net, games, etc. Before my iPod Touch was stolen (donations welcome!), I totally neglected my DS, simply for the fact that the iPod combined all my entertainment needs.

The PSP is taking the same direction; its new incarnation, the PSP Go, will come with an app shop (albeit without a touch screen).

When thinking about these developments, keep in mind the falling price of the 360. As the Offworld piece points out:

Rather than having to release a new console, the 360 just gets cheaper, and makes more sense, to more people, because it does something that it didn't do before: Guitar Hero, Last.FM, Twitter, motion-tracking control... A spiralling feature list, a net that gets bigger and drags in more people.

The Xbox indeed develops back to its PC heritage and becomes increasingly flexible. It fulfils a PC's functions, but with the convenience of a console. Sony does have a lot of competition on their hands, and yet they don't seem to do much about it. In view of the PS3's impressive hardware architecture, it's difficult to say if they are able to lower its price, but that would be a first step in the right direction.

All this doesn't even take into account the effect of cloud computing. Maybe the 360 will be the last console you ever buy, because the rest will be done in the cloud. Not only would this apply to applications but also to gaming.

This demands the questions: Will one platform be obsolete one day? What will happen to the PC? Surely it won't disappear, but it will suffer. Eventually you might simply end up with another Microsoft product.

What do you think? Are consoles the future of computing?


The Decline of the PC Market and its Impact on Communication: Microblogging to the Fore?

If one feels homesick for the future Japan seems the country of choice. Now you can witness a trend that might be an indicator of how our way of communicating is going to change. As Newsvine reports the PC's role in Japanese homes is diminishing, as its once-awesome monopoly on processing power is encroached by gadgets such as smart phones that act like pocket-size computers, advanced Internet-connected game consoles and digital video recorders with terabytes of memory. Writes Newsvine:

Japan's PC market is already shrinking, leading analysts to wonder whether Japan will become the first major market to see a decline in personal computer use some 25 years after it revolutionized household electronics — and whether this could be the picture of things to come in other countries.

One of the reasons for the decline of the PC market is the increasing popularity of sophisticated mobile devices such as cell phones. According to a study conducted by the Ministry of Internal Affairs more than 50 percent of Japanese send e-mail and browse the Internet from their mobile phones. The increased use of cell phones to access the internet obviously affects the websites itself. From the Newsvine piece:

The fastest growing social networking site here, Mobagay Town, is designed exclusively for cell phones. Other networking sites like mixi, Facebook and MySpace can all be accessed and updated from handsets, as can the video-sharing site YouTube.

If this really is the picture of things to come of course one has to ask how this affects blogging and its use for political campaigns. Content will have to comply to the nature of cell-phones with small screens and users used to short messages due to the lack of a keyboard. Consequently this makes a rise of microblogging likely. Already used by John Edwards and Barack Obama to inform their followers what they are up to at pretty much any given time and post quick event updates it also, as Asbjørn Sørensen Poulsen points out, "does seem to give the debate an edge when you are forced to express yourself in 140 characters".

While microblogging seems certainly seems a good way of keeping one's devotees up to date and very quickly reacting to new developments I think it might be problematic in the way that it adds to a shallowness of the process. It's not really based on exchange. To be forced to express oneself in 140 characters also comprises the danger of reducing politics to even emptier slogans and phrases, simplifying a complicated world.

As a complementary communication tool, microblogging certainly seems like a good idea. Tanding by itself though there are issues and challenges that need to be addressed if we really are following Japan in our communication habits.

(If that's ever going happen. As Parker reminded me by sending me this link to Deep Jive Interests the whole wireless-infrastructure of Japan is way more sophisticated than in North America or Europe and there's no sign – or demand for that matter – that this is going to change anytime soon. At least the "tremendous heritage in other technologies such as console gaming" is gaining foothold with consoles having overtaken PCs as the favorite gaming platforms).


The German Goes Home

I finally ended my love-hate relationship with the Gold Coast and moved back to Germany – the country with one of the strictest videogame laws in the world. If games burned as well as books I'd probably be able to witness quite some bonfires.So what are the reasons for the Teutonic paranoia and the accompanying hysterical public discourse? First of all new technology is always cause for suspicion since it challenges our usual ways of life; also: things that we don't quite comprehend always cause fears, this is even more true for technologies that convey popular forms of culture: "As Bourdieu… has observed, the denigration of the popular may be understood in terms of its impenetrability. Consequently, popular forms are frequently presented as uncouth, dangerous and harmful by those lacking the knowledge and strategies to make sense of them“ (Newman, James: Videogames). Then there's of course the "hangover" from WWII which causes the public resepectively the political establishment to view violent games or games that glorify military endeavours very sceptically. But I think there are deeper sociocultural reasons. As Norbert Elias explains in his book "The Civilization Process" the German bourgeoisie of the 18th century was unable to exercise political influence and had to find other ways to claim a form of power. It sought legitimation through scientific and artistic achievements which stood in stark contrast to the supposedly superficial values of the ruling noble classes (based on ceremonies and shallow politness based on French patterns). Through this the bourgeois element of the society gained self-esteem although it was still unable to get involved in the political process. But the bourgeoisie was allowed to commit itself to writing and to the education of the self; a vent beyond politics and economics that created a typical German intelligentsia – which in turn became the carrier of the national self-esteem and, very late, the ruling class, turning its social character into the national character. Even though something like a "national character" is always a false, since invented construct I think Elias gives an interesting hint at the possible source of resistance towards forms of popular culture. As Bourdieu points out, highbrow culture is not open to everyone, one needs special tools to understand it (tools delivered through education) and as "cultural capital" it is also closely to the exercise of power. Popular culture on the other hand has to be necessarily open to everyone, it's based on a broad appeal and therefore doesn't allow any distinction from other classes or groups, denying the whole basis of the bourgeois legitimation. Now if you look into German media history popular culture always had an especially difficult time, digital games just being latest victim. In the 19th century cheap pulp novels were shunned, when movies were introduced scepticism arose (one of the catchwords here: the cinema reformation movement), the same happened with television, video tapes etc. (the exception here is radio whose introduction was forced by the Nazis who were devoid of any highbrow cultural ethos). What's interesting here is that this attitude prevailed despite generational changes and changing political attitudes. Take Theodor Adorno for example, one of the main figures behind the German 1968 student movement. In his despise for popular forms of expression (which he saw as a vehicle for hegemonic values and surpression; as standardized culture that intensified the commodification of artistic expression) he's not much different to conservative disdain for mass culture (see e.g. John Sinclair's text in The Media and Communications in Australia, 2002); a 2007 study by the German Sinus-Sociovision-Institute found that postmaterialists and conservatives (= the influential parts of society) both value intellectuality, education and literariness and use these values for self-definition despite having fought an intense cultural war. Such an attitude of course prevents an involvement of the bourgeois deciders with digital games, the consequence of this "media-incompetence" being fear. While younger Germans posses the knowledge to make sense of digital games and their surrounding culture the political elites don't, the consequences being ridiculously strict laws and a lack of support for the industry. While this might (over)simplify the matter I think it's worth to follow this lead, and I'll try to elaborate on this matter in later posts after sighting some more literature.


Blog Campaigning: Introduction


“We’re entering a different era of political communication, and no one is an expert at it yet. The velocity of change is extraordinary. Everyone is experimenting online, because we don’t know yet what will work” (Rosenberg in Mussenden 2007)

The landscape of political communication is changing rapidly. “Technology has changed the way people interact with one another” (Simmons 2005, p. 1) and “the creation of an electronic media has revolutionized the way information is gathered and transmitted” (Simmons 2005, p. 1). Since 2004, the world has experienced an enormous growth in online political activity. The emergence of social media and social networking sites has given room for a new political era. People can now engage in political activities via a computer as long as they have access to the Internet. This new form of political engagement has created a new and attractive market of voters for politicians to target. In an effort to optimize their reach to this new segment of voters, a growing number of politicians have started embracing some of the technologies that have emerged from the social media scene, including them in their overall political strategy. One of the latest and fastest growing technological developments to emerge from the social media scene that has been adapted by political parties and candidates in their overall communication strategy is the weblog – more often referred to as the blog. In the 2004 U.S. presidential election blogs were for the first time added by political candidates to their bag of campaign tricks (Lawson-Border & Kirk 2005, p. 1, Trammell 2005, p. 2). Few claimed then that the tool had a significant impact on the election. Three years later, facing the 2008 U.S. presidential election, “political bloggers say that their trade is becoming more influential than standard election techniques” (The University Daily Kansan News 14 February 2007). Even experts claim blogs play a larger part in the political campaigning process than traditional ways of informing the public. According to new-media expert Sean Mussenden (2007) of Media General News Service, this election’s (the 2008 U.S. presidential election) candidates are helping redefine online politics:

“Candidates are speaking directly to voters through text and video blogs displayed on their increasingly sophisticated Web pages. They also are lobbying influential political bloggers for endorsements -- and in some cases putting them on the payroll” (Mussenden 2007).

But just how effective has this new online communication instrument become as a campaign tool? Julie Barko Germany, deputy director of the Institute for Politics, Democracy and the Internet, claimed recently that: “The race to the White House in 2008 will be all about how candidates talk to people online” (in Havenstein 2007). Joe Trippi, who ran Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004 and was the most profiled of the online-oriented campaign managers during the campaign, told Agence France-Presse that:

“The Web will be playing a bigger role than ever in the 2008 campaign, so much so that for the first time, it will actually change the outcome of the election” (in Zablit 2007).

Trippi’s statement might be sensational, even simplistic. But it raises an interesting question: What impact does an online communication tool like a blog have on the democratic election process? In an effort to reach a better understanding of this issue, this paper will analyse the following research questions:

• How do political parties and candidates use blogs? • Does electioneering via blogs influence political campaigns? • How do we measure the impact blogs have on the outcome of an election?

To answer these questions the paper will examine how political parties and candidates have used blogs as a campaigning instrument in elections to date, locate situations where blogs might have helped a campaign produce an upset election outcome, and debate how we can measure a blog’s ability to affect voting decisions.

Blog Campaigning: 3. The medium that is revolutionising political campaigning

The medium that is revolutionising political campaigning

New technologies started to change the nature of political campaigns already in the 1960s, when computers for the first time were used to assist candidates with database management (Stockwell 2005, p. 231). “Computers now power most of the political technologies in use today” (Stockwell 2005, p. 62), assisting campaigns “automate fund-raising, control campaign finances, manage the phone system for opinion polling then analyse the results, produce direct mail, ensure most effective bookings for advertising, organise volunteers, carry out research on opponents and their policies and even provide assistance in telephone marketing to key voters” (Shannon in Stockwell 2005, p. 62). The creation of the Internet in the early 1990s brought a whole new paradigm to the technological advantages of the computer (Stockwell 2005, p. 231) allowing campaigns to interact with voters in a way never before experienced: “the first major technological advance since the telephone to allow real reciprocity in a two-way flow of information” (Stockwell 2005, p. 231).

Margolis (in Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 3) claims that the Internet was first used for campaign purposes in the 1992 U.S. presidential race, but it was not until the 1996 election that voters experienced concerted cyber-campaigning with Bob Dole and Bill Clinton both running high profile websites. The 1996 election therefore marked the start of a new era for cyber-campaigning. More and more campaigns started investing time and money on online technologies, and it did not take long before websites became a standard part of every political campaign’s communication strategy. However, as with every technological invention, it took time to understand how the website could optimise a campaign’s message management. Overall, the early web campaigns were accused of recycling offline content to an online environment, not taking advantage of the interactive capabilities that the web presented (Stone in Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 4).

“Sites typically comprised a photograph, some biographical information, a policy or position statement and contact details that sometimes incorporated an email address” (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 4).

The first indication of the medium’s power to influence an election outcome came with the surprise victory of independent candidate Jesse Ventura in the 1998 Minnesota gubernatorial race (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 4).

“Ventura’s use of the web and email was widely credited with enlarging his support base, particularly among younger voters and thereby delivering him the crucial extra votes needed to win office” (Fineman in Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 4).

John McCain’s success in raising money from online donations through his website in the Republican presidential primaries of 2000 gave him widespread coverage in mainstream media, and provided a further boost for Internet campaigning (Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 4). But for most commentators it was the emergence of Howard Dean in 2003 and his innovative use of social networking sites, in particular the blog, that really signalled the coming age of the Internet campaign (Hindman 2005, Wolf 2004, Williams and Weinburg 2004 in Gibson & McAllister 2005, p. 5).

This chapter will further look at how blogs have merged into the landscape of political communication and identify some aspects necessary to comprehend to understand the medium’s role in the modern election campaign. The chapter will answer questions such as: What is a blog? How did blogs enter the political arena? Why can a blog serve as a useful communication instrument for political campaigns? And how can blogs influence politics?

Post-Now and Loving It (a real Slashdot dump)

I'm a little behind in my posting lately, but that shouldn't matter because what is happening in the world these days is so positively post-now that it'll probably never go out of style. It seems that a group of hackers in Italy have managed to mess with those in-car navigation systems. In my personal life, I couldn't really care less about this because I don't have a car and (unless someone wants to buy the BlogCampaigning domain name for a lot of cash) I don't forsee myself buying one soon. However, I can see the cause for concern. Immediately, security experts will probably point out that this will make it easier to send an important vehicle (say, the limousine for a head-of-state or an armored car) down a different path, and directly into an elaborate ambush. As much as I would love to plan an ambush like that (planning ANY ambush involving an armored car would be pretty sweet), this technology has way bigger implications for the average consumer. I envision one gas station jamming a car-navigation signal in order to lead drivers away from a rival station. Ditto for restaurants, or even shopping malls. Forget saying that there is trouble down on road, this kind of tech can probably just erase roads. Considering that the majority of the population probably spends more time looking at the screen than the road, they won't even notice and will instead just cruise over to wherever the little machine tells them.

Also in the news this past week or so is a story (via Slashdot) about rival botnet gangs brawling it out for cyber supremacy. I don't know exactly what that entails, but I would imagine that, despite the medium, it gets pretty personal. I would love to hear more details about this whole thing, right down to the average day in the life of a soldier in the botnet mafia.

I still feel like there is money to made in spam, and I'm sure that botnet crime bosses have it good. I know people would hate me, but I could probably just live somewhere awesome and surf my life away on spam money. Sweet, sweet spam cash.

Lastly, I don't even know what this means, but it sounds awesome. Experimental memory created by nanosecond pulses of electric current pushing magnetic regions along a wire? There is nothing that doesn't sound cool about that. (Thanks again, Slashdot)

My friends and I refer to things like the above stories as post-now, where something currently happening in the world resembles a science-fiction film or novel. We also describe the inverse as post-now, where something in a piece of sci-fi resembles modern society, or is at least a few years of easy extrapolation from the current situation. Think Bladerunner, Minority Report, that sort of shit. I'm still working out the details of post-now theory and how it differs from post-modernism, but its going to be hot, so watch out. Oh, and reading Paleo-Future pretty much gives me post-now willies.

I wonder how ol' Billy G feels about all this?


An Insightful Idea from Techdirt

Regular readers of Techdirt will notice that a few weeks ago, they began accepting applications for Techdirt Insight Community (if you don't read Techdirt, start; these guys are fucking smart). My best explanation of it is that they are pooling together a talented group of individuals who have knowledge about different technology-related fields. While it would be infeasible to keep this collective on a full-time payroll, having them login occassionally to answer questions on topics within their field for smaller amounts of cash makes good econonomic sense. Rather than having tasks assigned to them, individual members of the community can pick and choose which issues they'd like to work on. I don't know what kinds of rates companies pay to receive advice or answers from the Techdirt Insight Community, but I'm sure that it is well worth it. For a much better explanation, check out this post and video by Techdirt.

I've applied, but been far too busy with work to really get into it. If anyone else out there has applied, or if you are with a company working with Techdirt, I would love to hear about your experiences.