iDistraction

As you read this, you’re probably thinking about whether your classmate has written you back yet. You might have stopped halfway through that last sentence to check your e-mail. Maybe you checked your Facebook to see what time some event starts tonight. If I still have your attention right now, I have overcome the most difficult hurdle for a writer in the age of technology: Keeping someone’s attention when there are so many other things to do simultaneously at your fingertips.

Still with me? Good.

Last week, I was at dinner with four friends. Each one had their black, sleek iPhone sitting out. In the middle of dinner, one friend would respond to a buzz and proceed to text message under the table. He checked CNN. With time to spare, he checked the weather. This was all before the entrees arrived. Twitter was during dessert.

I felt left out with my Sony Ericsson sitting on the table beside me. In comparison, my phone has the capability to send text messages and take pictures. That’s about it. I was at a crossroads. Would I spring for a more versatile phone in order to fit in with my friends, or would I keep this limited, practically archaic phone?

The answer came when my mom asked me if I’d like a BlackBerry for my soon-approaching birthday. Almost without hesitation, I said no.

I’m afraid what such a multifaceted piece of technology will do to my already screen-oriented lifestyle as a college student. I’m addicted to Facebook, and I don’t want it to take over my life any more than it already has. I’m completely vulnerable to distractions whenever I sit down in front of my computer to do something, like say, write this blog. Do I want to finish this assignment, or do I want to watch The Office instantly on Netflix? Where I could have spent an hour editing a paper for class, a considerably short venture turns into a three-hour marathon where people can chat with me through at least four different mediums: Skype, Gmail, AOL or Facebook. Then comes 2 a.m. and that paper still isn’t finished. And still, chat windows are popping up from friends and acquaintances alike who want to engage in entirely insignificant conversations at such a late hour. So I know I can’t be the only one who allows distractions to get in the way.

When I leave my computer, that’s my only opportunity to be free of all the confines that technology brings. We are literally tied to a screen. Don’t get me started on the future of bookstores thanks to the Kindle. Call this all Emersonian, but I’m afraid that the advances of technology are making us so distracted that we can’t enjoy the moment anymore. I consider the compaction of different technologies to be more of a setback than progress. In some ways, it is completely helpful to have infinite knowledge only a click away. It’s great for when you’re lost and you need to look up a map, or for communicating with people you would have never kept in touch with otherwise. But when you can’t get through a dinner without everyone whipping out their phones … I see that as problematic. How important is it to know instantaneously whether someone has e-mailed you at the expense of giving the person in front of you your undivided attention?

I am personally taking small steps to help combat my own proneness to distractions. Ironically, one of the solutions has come via a new application for Macs.

This is what my screen looks as I write this:

This program, WriteRoom, blocks out everything else — every Internet page I have open, every chat window — to create an entirely black screen with, I admit, cryptic green writing. As long as it’s open, there is no Twitter or e-mail to distract me. Unlike the programs that try to do everything, WriteRoom is a completely minimalist writing tool. I can’t even distract myself by changing fonts.

I use this in class so that I don’t become one of those students who check Facebook and zone their teacher out. I use it at home when I’m writing an assignment so that my desire to procrastinate doesn’t trump the need to work. I’m sure the kids sitting in back of me in class think that some alien force has taken over my computer. Probably, but it’s worth it.

Now if only there was an application to block out every distraction when you’re at dinner with a friend.

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In this corner, a rogue. In the other, Oprah.

As always, Sarah Palin has been attracting more attention than she probably deserves. Alaska’s resident hockey mom had a lot going on this week. First, the release of her memoir, Going Rogue. Then, she duked it out for top billing against the father of her daughter’s baby, Levi Johnston, who made a…erm… debut of his own in Playgirl. Throw in an unauthorized Newsweek cover that had her crying out sexism and an interview with Oprah, and we had ourselves a Sarah Palin bonanza.

Palin detractors are astounded by her staying power months after her media gaffes have tallied way past the point of excusable. How, they ask, is Palin, an ex-governor and former vice presidential candidate, able to score Newsweek’s cover story and Oprah’s hot seat all in such quick succession?

If anything, I blame the media personalities who have had the opportunity to interview her. The way they have framed their questions and depicted her has given Palin a spot forevermore on the political stage.

Ever since Palin captivated American audiences with her debut speech at the Republican National Convention, people have had either positive or negative feelings toward her. Palin moderates are few and far between — so few and far that I don’t know of any. She has been an extremely polarizing figure since day one. In turn, the news media also fed into the fixation. Interviewers like Katie Couric and Oprah do not treat Palin as an ordinary politician. Their respective approaches toward Palin have created a celebrity out of her.

Because interviewers are the people who lead the dialogue, interviews are primarily reflective of the interviewer’s personality and motives. Most reporters go in with a preconceived notion of what they expect to extract from their subject. Whether they are successful depends on their own preparedness, as well as the preparedness and personality of their subject. Both players, therefore, are crucial to the outcome of the interview.

The David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews proved how the personalities of the two combatants affect the outcome of an interview. Here were two men both floundering for their former glory, who both had everything to lose and everything to gain during those 1977 interviews. So set was Frost on getting what he and the American public wanted — a confession and an apology — that the whole interview became that of a hostile interrogator grilling the defendant. Outside of this zero-sum situation, Frost and Nixon had a mutual respect for each other’s modest beginnings. But Frost’s motivations outweighed his desire to approach Nixon on human grounds. In other words, he was no Oprah.

Couric’s sit-down with Palin during the 2008 election was, like the Frost/Nixon session, a battle of wits. Couric’s skepticism and negativity toward Palin was evident. She tossed curveballs at Palin that would seem like throwaway questions for any other person. For example: “What do you read?” Here, Couric strategically wanted to catch Palin off guard. She did not ask that question expecting Palin to come back with a rundown of her favorite publications. Palin, unsurprisingly, offered so many unintelligent, rambling answers that they quickly became fodder for Tina Fey and the rest of the Saturday Night Live writers. (Palin also told Oprah that she was flustered and put off by Couric’s inquiry into her choice of reading materials, deeming the question an insult to her intelligence.) That one interview contributed to the undermining of the McCain-Palin ticket and our endless fascination with her.

In contrast, critics noticed that Palin’s recent interview with Oprah on Monday didn’t result in as many flubs as her interview with Couric. Palin appeared confident and more like the Sarah we first saw when she clued us in to the difference between hockey moms and pit bulls. Oprah scaled back her usual “How do you feel…” line of questioning. Though she did push Palin on certain other subjects, Oprah was for the most part willing to stick to a Palin-approved script about Going Rogue. It didn’t hurt either that Palin had pages of recently published autobiography material to draw upon. Getting to mull over and write down her version of history — the script of her life — before being asked about it on live TV did wonders for preparedness, I’m sure.

Neither interview was that of an unbiased interlocutor asking a politician straightforward questions. Palin was either the subject of too much scrutiny and gotcha journalism, as with Katie Couric, or she was not scrutinized enough, as with Oprah. In short, Palin has never been treated as a normal guest. As a result, the public does not see her as ordinary, and she has risen in the ranks from mere politician to a celebrity wonder because of that.

If the interviewer and subject do not have the same goals for the interview or do not see eye- to-eye, the interview quickly escalates from a question and answer session to a journalism duel. A seasoned politician, a rogue even, should be able to handle either situation. Chalk it up to inexperience and unpreparedness for Palin. Still, Couric and Oprah have bought into, and even fueled, the media’s obsession with Palin. Thus, it is Palin who comes out the true winner.

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Lord of the blogs

Most professors want students to continue to avoid Wikipedia like the plague. Almost every syllabi I’ve ever skimmed on the first day of class said that the site does not count as a source in any bibliography for any assignment. Ever. Professionals and journalists too lament how the emerging blogosphere allows Joe Schmoe, who has no press credentials, to write anything as fact without being held accountable, thereby skirting around the traditional information gatekeepers. Still, the popular online encyclopedia says a lot about the future of the Internet and information.

Academics’ disdain for Wikipedia is legitimate to an extent. We shouldn’t necessarily rely on one page for all our information.The evolution of Wikipedia, however, shows that people demand the same order and bureaucracy in the digital age that they require in everyday society. As much as we brandish our First Amendment rights, there is a resistance against user-generated content being uncensored. Wikipedia is already going in a direction where its users are expected to cite their sources. Eventually the site could become just as reliable as an academic journal.

Further proof that Wikipedia is susceptible to intervention and not just an academic Lord of the Flies free-for-all occurred last week when two Germans convicted of murdering an actor sued Wikipedia for publishing their names on the site. According to German privacy law, criminals are granted anonymity in the news after they have paid their debt to society. The two men, who have served their sentence, want Wikipedia to grant them the anonymity they are given back home — pitting American First Amendment rights against other countries’ laws.

Though the outcome hasn’t been decided, the case shows that the information posted by anyone on Wikipedia is not immune to being challenged. Wikipedia’s content is now subject to the law, and other institutions. For example, during the period of journalist Daniel Pearl’s abduction, Wikipedia honored The New York Times’ request that no one write of his kidnapping. NYT felt that such news would only further endanger Pearl. Not only did Wikipedia participate in this unprecedented media blackout, but the editors also went in and revised information to make Pearl appear more sympathetic toward the Muslim faith, so as to appease his kidnappers.

Online articles have begun linking to Wikipedia. One article I was reading on Slate about physiognomy directed me to Wikipedia’s definition of the art. Though our professors might still scorn the site, newspapers – which are supposed to be the ultimate source of credibility – are now entrusting Wikipedia to give readers accurate information.

And as of August, Wikipedia editors control all the information. Though anyone can still go in and update a page, the changes don’t show up until an editor has reviewed and approved the revision.

This democratic information age is mirroring a real life democratic society. The people’s voices still matter, but gatekeepers are springing up to bring order. Some people have cried out against this new Wikipedia filter, the way some people desire limited government.

Though Wikipedia is still riddled with errors and isn’t the most reliable source, the direction it is aiming for indicates that online information can only be entirely unrestricted for so long.

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Oh, Mickey, you’re so…fine?

M-I-C

See you real soon!

K-E-Y

Why? Because we like you.

M-O-U-S-E.

Ah, the Mickey Mouse Club. Those were the days. Britney Spears, fresh-faced and pure, existing in harmony with fellow cast member Christina Aguilera, sans shaved head and pregnant Jamie Lynn. Little Justin Timberlake, from head to toe in gray flannel, not a tattoo in sight. Those were the days before putting Britney and Justin together in a sentence prompted questions about Britney’s virginity, Lance Bass’s sexuality and Kevin Federline’s existence.

Those were the days I preferred. Mickey Mouse was the umbrella under which all this squeaky clean, good fun existed.

Now replace that image of cheery Mickey with a dark, brooding Mickey.

This is Disney’s latest rendering of Mickey’s world in the video game Epic Mickey. If this were the world Mickey lived in during the Mickey Mouse Club, the show probably would have been a lot less early 1990s and a lot more midriff from Britney and Christina.

Some people have taken to decrying the transformation of the Disney icon. Significantly, those people are my age and older. The Mickey debate reveals a deep generational conflict. It seems that those close in age to me and older are nostalgic for the feel-good shows that were on a few years ago.  I can’t even begin to impress how many times I’ve sat through a conversation rehashing old Nickelodeon cartoons and how much better they were than the shows on today.

Doug!”

“What about Salute Your Shorts?”

“Oh yeah!” a few people exclaim, pretending to conjure up the tune of Camp Anawanna from the deep abyss of their memory, though they just had this same conversation last week.

“And Hey Arnold!”

Many of the same people, including myself, aren’t interested in the less heartfelt cartoons that are on TV today. Our preference for the gentle and mild is drastically different from a more desensitized generation that prefers Epic Mickey. Disney’s team of researchers has concluded that, indeed, Epic Mickey is what the kids want.

BusinessWeek took note that businesses would have to completely revamp their marketing approach for the latest generation:

Marketers haven’t been dealt an opportunity like this since the baby boom hit. Yet for a lot of entrenched brands, Gen Y poses mammoth risks. Boomer brands flopped in their attempts to reach Generation X, but with a mere 17 million in its ranks, that miss was tolerable. The boomer brands won’t get off so lightly with Gen Y. This is the first generation to come along that’s big enough to hurt a boomer brand simply by giving it the cold shoulder–and big enough to launch rival brands with enough heft to threaten the status quo.

Generation Y, at 60 million strong according to BusinessWeek in 1999, is a generation that is exposed to more graphic and explicit images at an early age. With far less censorship, movies are packed with sex, action and violence. As a result, desensitization occurs.

I see this within my own family. Though my brother and I are part of the same generation, I grew up much more sheltered since I’m almost 10 years older. My brother, 12, spends a lot more time than I did playing violent video games and watching cruder cartoons. When I was 12, there was no Facebook. My brother uses it to talk to his friends about the fights he witnesses at school. Same parenting, different generations.

Interestingly, Epic Mickey was not a concept derived by the old-timers at Disney, but by interns working there in 2004. This further compounds the notion that the desensitization of Mickey is an idea embraced by a younger, less nostalgic demographic.

The premise of the game is ironically symbolic of Mickey’s struggle with his celebrity status:

Mickey is forced to become more aggressive because he’s entered into a dark Disney world where he is no longer famous. He must scribble and draw his way through different levels (which, granted, doesn’t seem so frightening) to reclaim his spotlight as Disney’s mascot. This evil underworld — where celebrities’ stardom ceases to shine— is run by Oswald the Rabbit. (Desperate for fame…evil underworld…I wonder if Lindsay Lohan was one of those interns.) If you don’t know who Oswald is, that’s the point. He was the Disney star pre-Mickey Mouse, before Disney disputes lead the character down the rabbit hole and into obscurity. Disney just acquired the rights to the character again in 2006.

Why bother to touch a beloved character and overhaul a trademark? Disney thinks this risky venture is going to breathe new life into a character that generates about $5 billion in merchandise a year. (That’s a lot of cheese for a little mouse.) Disney is afraid that Mickey has lost his appeal to younger audiences. On a different note, Mickey remains extremely popular internationally, which suggests that perhaps it is specifically the American mindset that is desensitized. It’s unknown whether the Disney researchers have made any conclusive findings about this, though.

Still, the generational divide seems to be the biggest issue at play. A secondary divide is gender. The company is actively trying to draw in young boys, whose interests lay with edgier characters. Disney’s studies on boys’ interests have concluded, not surprisingly, that Disney princesses and everything sweet and nice don’t cut it for the boys as much as it does for the girls. Boys are still watching Disney, but girls are more likely to follow through with buying merchandise. Because of this, we have new Mickey merchandise that looks like this:

Boys, Disney found, are more likely to publicly proclaim their fandom for cars, dinosaurs, and now, conniving Mickey Mouse. I can see where there is some logic to Disney’s approach. My friend touts his love for Disney/Pixar’s Cars. “Why do you like Cars so much?” I asked him, expecting him to gush about the music, or the subtle innuendos.

“Um…it has cars.” Well put.

I for one would rather not see Mickey become part of some Disney black hole. I am much fonder of the Mickey Mouse that — forget a conniving grin —had a toothless smile. Rather than reinventing an icon, there must be a way to bring back the Mickey we know and love so that everyone wins — the young and the old, the boys and the girls. Hopefully the next set of Disney interns get to work.

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I Can See Hogwarts From My House

I was surprised by the results of a recent Vanity Fair poll that asked readers which upcoming memoir by a Republican politician they’d be most likely to read. Condoleezza Rice won with 22 percent of the votes.

I’d be much more interested to see what Sarah Palin, who received 9 percent, had to say . . . if only for laughs. In all seriousness though, while I wasn’t rooting for her to become the next VP by any means, I would be intrigued to hear her side of things.

Who would you pick?

On a semi-related note (OK, so that might be somewhat of a stretch), I am going to plug this video of Daniel Radcliffe trying on Sarah Palin glasses and saying, “I can see Hogwarts from my house.” Kanye West Potter is also pretty funny, and I’m sure there’s an Ima let you finish joke to be had somewhere among these competing authors.

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USC loses significant portion of its endowment

$1.2 billion to be exact.

The world market did not bode well for private universities these past two years. USC’s endowment was about $3.7 billion at its high in 2007, and is somewhere around $2.5 billion now, although figures for the last financial quarter haven’t been released yet. USC, unlike private schools such as Harvard with much greater endowment pools, doesn’t rely too heavily on its endowment for everyday spending, so it wasn’t affected the same way.

You can read the whole story here.

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War of the Worlds Strikes Again

Almost 71 years ago this Halloween, people cowered in their living rooms. They prayed and cried. The aliens were invading.

Given the fun Orson Welles undoubtedly had spooking the public that night, it might not be so far-fetched to think he is the culprit behind nearly every fright story reported on the news by cable TV. His being dead, however, quickly kills that hypothesis. This can only mean that the sensationalistic stories about the rise of teenage “Super-Predators” and “bio-underclass” crack babies are neither parody nor farce.

If we bought the alien story in 1938, on Halloween no less, who would bother to question stories like Newsweek’s “After Iran Gets the Bomb” issue last week, with its none-too-subtle photo of a mushroom cloud? After all, how many people even know that Iran has a “no strike first” doctrine?

Almost every article is susceptible to scaremongering these days. Just today, a gem of an article on CNN about online identity theft was one of the headlining stories:  “If you’re on Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site, you could be the next victim,” it began.

But before I cower under my bed and delete my Facebook account, lest I become a victim of something called “phishing,” which sounds ominous and yet is left undefined, let’s do some quick math (something that journalists are averse to):

There are 300 million users on Facebook. Since 2006, the article said, there have been 3,200 cases of this social networking “cybercrime.” (Again with the scary words.) A few clicks on my calculator widget tell me that this averages out to less than 1 percent of users being hacked each year — even less if we were just including Facebook.

I think my Facebook account may just live to see another day.

Journalists are abandoning their purpose as they continue to turn and distort facts into dramatics. President Obama is spurning Fox News for its one-sided, skewed reporting. If he really wanted to make a statement for the public good and not just his administration, he could turn the other cheek, or at least rebuke, every news organization that does a disservice to the public by paralyzing them with hair-raising phrases and inaccurate statistics.

So what if the media is prone to spurious reporting, you might ask.  Shouldn’t the average news consumer shoulder the blame for being so darn gullible?

I concede that it might do us some good to approach what we read and hear more analytically, and take the time to fact check the likelihood of becoming the next target on a cyberthief’s to-do list. Still, we shouldn’t just chalk our gullibility up to stupidity or laziness.

As for the War of the Worlds incident, let’s give listeners the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were so hysterical that they missed the disclaimers that it was a hoax. (Please, humanity, let this be true.) Also, consider the time it was broadcast — shortly before War World II. People were especially on edge, the way we were after September 11. No one expected it to happen, and no one could anticipate what might come next. Things we never dreamed of happening really did turn our world upside down. That, with the onslaught of bleak news — some accurate and some not so much — leaves us vulnerable to the idea that we could be the next victims of something out of this world. And the news media capitalize on that.

That’s why we don’t always think to second guess reporters. The way we don’t expect someone who has spent every Sunday in services to steal, we also don’t expect a reporter who has been trained upon a code of ethics to create words out of thin air like “Super-Predators” and “crack babies.” Et tu, Nancy Grace?

So no, I don’t believe we can place too much blame on the consumer. To borrow a line from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, I think that we’ve entrusted journalists with “great power and great responsibility.” We’ve bestowed them with the job of gatekeeper. We’ve put our trust in their hands. It is the journalist’s job to produce work that does not require hours on end of sifting through information to figure out where the cool logic and reasoning is hidden among vague and misreported facts.

The problem boils down to just plain careless reporting. There are two main reasons I see for this:

First, to throw in another superhero reference for good measure: A news company’s kryptonite is its profits. More than ever, the media are driven by the need to survive, and that means money. To be the first across the finish line with the story, decisions are made on the fly, instead of being painstakingly deliberated. (Now if only Clark Kent applied his superhero powers to ridding The Daily Planet of sensationalism.)

Second, journalists are paranoid freaks like the rest of us. (Guilty.) Maybe they are writing about the rise of Super-Predators because they truly believe they’re out there lurking in the dark, waiting. Despite what journalists say about being unbiased watchdogs, reporters do not just throw away their identities, morals, personalities and beliefs when they sit down to write. The words they write and say are the best window into their cognition. It’s likely that if reporters are spewing out jitter-inducing phrases, they are allowing their own paranoia to blind them from reality. They too are vulnerable to the frightful ideas their sources leak.

So, journalists, I implore you to examine your priorities and your frame of mind. Both are preventing you from upholding the good name of journalism. Remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

Super-Predators” and “bio-underclass” crack babies are neither parody nor farce.

If we bought the alien story in 1938, on Halloween no less, who would bother to question Newsweek’s “After Iran Gets the Bomb” issue last week, with its none-too-subtle photo of a mushroom cloud? How many people know that Iran has a “no strike first” doctrine?

Another scaremongering gem from CNN the other day began, “If you’re on Facebook, Twitter or any other social networking site, you could be the next victim.” But before I cower under my bed and delete my Facebook account, lest I become a victim of the dreading “phishing,” let’s do some quick math (something that journalists are averse to):

There are 300 million users on Facebook. Since 2006, the article said, there have been 3,200 cases of this social networking “cybercrime.” (Again with the scary words.) A few clicks on my calculator widget tell me that this averages out to less than 1 percent of users being hacked each year — even less if we were just including Facebook.

I think my Facebook account may just live to see another day.

So what if the media is prone to spurious reporting, you might ask.  Shouldn’t the average news consumer shoulder the blame for being so darn gullible?

I concede that it might do us some good to approach what we read and hear more analytically, and take the time to fact check the likelihood of becoming the next target on a cyberthief’s to-do list. Still, we shouldn’t   just chalk our gullibility up to stupidity or laziness.

As for the War of the Worlds incident, let’s give listeners the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps they were so hysterical that they missed the disclaimers that it was a hoax. (Please, humanity, let this be true.) Also, consider the time it was broadcast — shortly before War World II. People were especially on edge, the way we were after September 11. No one expected it to happen, and no one could anticipate what might come next. Things we never dreamed of happening really did turn our world upside down. That, with the onslaught of bleak news — some accurate and some not so much — leaves us vulnerable to the idea that we could be the next victims of something out of this world. And the news media capitalize on that.

That’s why we don’t always think to second guess reporters. The way we don’t expect someone who has spent every Sunday in services to steal, we also don’t expect a reporter who has been trained upon a code of ethics to create words out of thin air like “Super-Predators” and “crack babies.” Et tu, Nancy Grace?

So no, I don’t believe we can place too much blame on the consumer. To borrow a line from Spiderman’s Uncle Ben, I think that we’ve entrusted journalists with great power and great responsibility. We’ve bestowed them with the job of gatekeeper. We’ve put our trust in their hands. It is the journalist’s job to produce work that does not require hours on end of sifting through information to figure out where the cool logic and reasoning is hidden among vague and misreported facts.

Journalists are abandoning their purpose as they continue to turn and distort facts into dramatics. President Obama is spurning Fox News for its one-sided, skewed reporting. If he really wanted to make a statement for the public good and not just his administration, he could turn the other cheek, or at least rebuke, every news organization that does a disservice to the public by paralyzing them with hair-raising phrases and inaccurate statistics.

There are two main reasons I can see for such careless reporting:

First, to throw in another superhero reference for good measure, is that a news company’s kryptonite is its profits. More than ever, the media are driven by the need to survive, and that means money. To be the first across the finish line with the story, decisions are made on the fly, instead of being painstakingly deliberated. (Now if only Clark Kent applied his superhero powers to ridding The Daily Planet of sensationalism.)

Second, journalists are paranoid freaks like the rest of us. (Guilty.) Maybe they are writing about the rise of Super-Predators because they truly believe they’re out there lurking in the dark, waiting. Despite what journalists say about being unbiased watchdogs, reporters do not just throw away their identities, morals, personalities and beliefs when they sit down to write. The words they write and say are the best window into their cognition. It’s likely that if reporters are spewing out jitter-inducing phrases, they are allowing their own paranoia to blind them from reality. They too are vulnerable to the frightful ideas their sources leak.

So, journalists, I implore you to examine your priorities and your frame of mind. Both are preventing you from upholding the good name of journalism. Remember: With great power comes great responsibility.

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