Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: Empire State’s Worldbuilder

Empire State Building by Tom Simpson cc-licensed
“Empire State Building” by Tom Simpson

When my students and I talk about the digital age, one of the changes we trace is the relationship between author and audience.  In oral cultures, the relationship is direct — the one telling you the story is standing within earshot, so you can ask questions and work out details together.  Literacy changes that, separating the reader from the author by the distance of a letter or generations.  This breaks the text away from the author (as the New Critics noticed) and changes the nature of the relationship of author to reader.  Electracy changes the relationship again.  The immediacy of digital communication means that a two-way communication channel has now opened up.  But because of the open publishing nature of the web, the audience is also filled with authors, and the two can reflect one another back and forth.  I finished reading Adam Christopher’s Empire State recently, and the end of the audiobook featured two addenda that I thought were particularly interesting illustrations of the shifting relationship between author and reader.

First, it had the soundtrack for the writing of the book.  Christopher explains each song choice for both its musical quality and the use he made of it while writing.  He also offers a link to the soundtrack so you can listen yourself.  This meta-narrative information is interesting, both as a tidbit about the writer and his taste in music, but also about the mood the novel should cast.  I haven’t seen this yet, but it’s probably just a matter of time until an ebook comes with a soundtrack that you listen to while you read.  It probably couldn’t be songs with words, but it could be a modular thematic instrumental soundtrack, broken up perhaps by chapter or even page.  Somebody go build that!

Second, the end of the book includes an invitation to produce fan fiction in the world of Empire State.  Christopher invites fan authors to create their own stories for the novel, and hosts a place where they can share them.  At the same time, he reserves the scenes in the novel from fan adaptation (because it could create conflicting storylines) and he asks people not to write in the future of the Empire State (after the end of the novel), as he may want to write a sequel and he doesn’t want to be influenced by something one of them wrote.  The website also features a pre-built set of terms in which fan artists whose work the Empire State folk choose to publish will get 25% of something–it’s not clear to me what or how much the royalty goes to.

Fan art will appear.  The savvy writer encourages it and helps guide it to fit his own goals for the source work.  This is storytelling in the digital age.

Dispatches from the Age of Electracy: I Zombify Myself to Teach About Zombies

A couple weeks ago, I was invited to Skype in to the Crane River Theater company’s zombie run training session to provide a little information for the zombie participants there.  I wasn’t able to do it live, so I sent them a 15 minute video to show instead.  They recently sent me a thank you note and a couple photos of my ‘talk.’  This line of events struck me as amazing and weird:

  • Unable to work out a time for me to attend the event…
  • I was invited to attend digitally but couldn’t make the time they had in mind…
  • So I sent a video of me talking about zombies…
  • Which their participants watched (and, I’m told, enjoyed)…
  • During which their photographer took photos…
  • Printed those photos…
  • And mailed them to me.

It’s awesome.

Crane River Theater Zombie Run Training Session crane-river-theater02-web

Also, it occurs to me that I’ve enabled some digital zombification of myself.  The organizers can take my video and use it in future runs, or distribute it, or do whatever.  I suppose nominally they’re limited by copyright law, but I didn’t do much to secure any rights to the video.  In my essay “The E-Dead,” I argued that part of the confluence of the zombie genre and the Internet comes in our fear of being out of control of ourselves.  As we make and distribute digital artifacts, we all experience the artist’s dilemma more and more (the artist’s dilemma being that you cannot control your work once you release it into the world).  And that experience of being controlled by other people feels an awful lot like being a voodoo zombie.

*Need context on the Age of Electracy?*

PCA/ACA Copyright and Intellectual Property Area, 2012

At the PCA/ACA 2012 meeting in Boston last week, I chaired two panels for my area, Copyright and Intellectual Property.  They were both excellent, if I can say so myself.  First, the panels:

Plagiarism and Fair Use

fair using: the second factor  

Even though I’ll talk about legal issues, this isn’t about law. It’s about the ethical…

Gunnar Swanson East Carolina University
Plagiarius: Blurring Plagiarism and Piracy in Academia With the ease of cut-and-paste as well the multitude of “free paper” sites on the Internet,… Sandra Leonard Indiana University of PA
What Does Plagiarism *Feel* Like? Considering Audience Intuition in Questions of Choreographic Copyright  

In their work on choreographic copyright, scholars and journalists such as Sally Banes…

Alexandra Harlig The Ohio State University Department of Dance
  • Swanson’s talk focused on the second of the four “factors” that have been created to judge fair use.  He focused mostly on the fact that these factors came entirely from judicial common law, and focused a lot on the idea of originality as central to creativity.  He also explored the notion of “transformativeness” as one aspect of the second factor.  An interesting and informative talk.
  • Leonard focused on the strange collision of plagiarism and piracy in the minds of undergraduates, offering a compelling tale of a student accused of plagiarism who pleaded “Please don’t sue me for piracy.”  Her essential argument is that because both piracy and plagiarism are “copying” and the rhetoric of plagiarism mirrors the rhetoric of piracy more and more closely, students are beginning to see them as the same thing.  Ironically, this means they’re less likely to feel any compunction against plagiarism, as they view anti-piracy laws as an antiquated legal convention rather than an ethical imperative.  Leonard’s is a compelling, interesting argument.
  • Harlig presented a very compelling discussion of the current landscape around dance choreography, common practice, ethics, and copyright.  She used a series of Beyonce videos to explore the conversation about how dancers think about borrowing work from one another.  It’s just the kind of muddy water I find really interesting.

The Challenges of Copyright in the Digital Age

Pirates at the Gates: a discussion of the media coverage of SOPA and PIPA This presentation explores the philosophical and rhetorical positions taken by the actors and… Brendan Riley Columbia College Chicago
Shadowy Margins and Sinkholes: Authorship, Online Archives, and IP Law As my title suggests, I will focus on the legal challenges facing administrators of websites and… Gavin Keulks Western Oregon University
Striking a Chord that Satisfies Copyright Owners and Allows Free Speech to Keep Singing Mash-ups and remixes are not new, but they have been in the news a lot lately due to changes in… Lisa Macklem University of Western Ontario
  • I’ve already detailed my talk: SOPA/PIPA and the conundrum at the core of copyright — part 1, part 2.
  • Keulks’ talk outlined the complicated landscape walked by academics who study writers.  Using his own experience as the Martin Amis Web archivist, Keulks showed how recalcitrant publishers and un-helpful heirs can make such projects counter-productive or even impossible to create.  If ever there was a strong argument for a significant re-write of copyright law, this is it right here.
  • Macklem’s presentation focused on the fuzzy copyright issues at the core of remix culture.  She points out how the flexibility of the law makes it hard for remix artists to ply their trade.  As a lawyer, Macklem brought a different perspective to the table, one that sought a legal solution to the thorny space of remix.

Overall, it was an invigorating and exciting pair of panels, with great questions and good conversation.  I was particularly pleased with the audience for the second panel, which was up against George Takei’s keynote talk and still garnered 10 people or more.  Several of us went to Legal Seafood (an apt choice, if I do say so) afterward to continue the discussion.

SOPA/ PIPA and the conundrum at the core of copyright, part 2

Continued from yesterday
– Is Copyright law okay they way it is now, or should it be changed?
– If changed, should it be more or less strict?
– How long should you get to own the monopoly on your creative work?
– How often do you violate copyright?

The answers tend to be that copyright law should be more strict, they should get to own their own work for their life or longer, and they violate copyright often and without much ethical compunction and hardly any legal fear.  I feel like the conundrum at the heart of these questions is what makes the Copyright question so interesting to discuss with students.

4. Some Provocations:
Cory Doctorow makes a connection in RIP! A Remix Manifesto between the Victorian attitude toward sex and the current attitude toward copyright.  We all, as he says, violate copyright at one time or another.  But we talk about it as if we don’t.  One of my students put it best one time when he said “My mom gets mad at me for downloading movies and music, but she always forgets about disliking piracy when it’s time for me to get her TurboTax each year.”

Larry Lessig’s phrase from his TED talk is perhaps the most crucial one for me: “Common sense revolts.”  I suspect as time goes on, the ideas that we all have about how art does and should circulate will change.  That change will be crucial, I think.

Adrian Hon’s Modest Proposal for eternal copyright makes a good mockery of the current ever-extending copyright term limits.  At what point does the benefit to the public become an issue in the face of potential corporate value.

A Remix Manifesto provides a solid set of easy-to-digest arguments for why we should work on changing the status quo in regards to copyright.

5. Solutions
I propose a number of considerations for how this issue should be discussed.  In the main, I’d like to see teachers take a much bigger role in educating students to think about copyright in different ways than history demanded.

First, teachers (professors, etc) need to decide for themselves what they think about how copyright should work and endeavor to practice what they preach.  I generally try for a very low copyright-violating number, but that doesn’t mean I go without violating the rules ever.  But I think it makes it easier for me to talk about the ethics of the situation if I’m confident about my own ethical place in the system.

Second, we need to work on complicating students’ notion of how copyright works.  Right now, very few students have thought about how artists should be compensated, and what it means to take what they want without paying for it.  In some ways, this means I’m discouraging students from copying as an ethical issue — they want protections that they’re unwilling to afford to others in their own practice.

Third, we must complicate how we, and students, understand the creative process.  While it never has been true that art springs fully formed and uninfluenced by the culture around it, we have given in to that idea very strongly in extending copyright on and on and on.  We must demand that the cultural aquifer from which all artists draw start being refilled; all artists draw from culture as they work, we must demand that they start giving back in a more practical way.

SOPA/ PIPA and the conundrum at the core of copyright, part 1

So here’s the quick and dirty version of the talk I gave today at the PCAACA conference in Boston (By the way, my co-panelists were GREAT; all six papers that appeared in the Copyright and Intellectual Property Area were, in fact, great.)

The SOPA and PIPA acts were bills wending their way through congress that would have changed some rules about how the Internet runs, particularly in the context of copyright violations.  There were two predominant perspectives expressed in the press about this issue.  First, most mainstream press and congress people concentrated on the digital blacklist, which allowed for the government to issue a court order to block some websites.  While this is one of the less distressing ideas on the face of it — since it’s got judicial oversight — it still asks for the gv’t to construct a great firewall, something antithetical to the core concern of the Internet.  But the goal, to stop the rampant piracy, isn’t necessarily a bad one.

The opposing perspective focused on the change in the safe harbor law, which fundamentally changed how liable websites are/were to respond (esp. by cutting off payment processing) to copyright complaints.  Not only did the idea of this kind of financial coercion without judicial oversight seem outrageous, it also asked user-based content hosts to become web censors.  Boo!

So with the Wikipedia/Google protest, these perspectives were cast into stark relief, and it makes for a teachable, talkable moment.

2. Ideas at the heart of this debate
There are two perspectives at work in the debate about copyright and creative works.  (Obviously, there are a lot more than two.  These are the two key ones.)  On one side is the proprietary perspective: I own it, I made it, you get NOTHING unless you pay.  On the other side is the communal perspective: all art emerges from the context of culture, artists must earn a living, but they cannot shirk their responsibility to contribute back to the culture their work grows from.

There are also two perspectives of the Internet at issue here.  One group sees the Internet as a content-delivery system, primarily.  Sure, people like to dabble in Wikipeding, but really they just want to watch videos and listen to music.  And thus the content owners who feel threatened by this change invoke piracy to demand change.  The other group sees the Internet as a tool for a new kind of expression and free speech, one that mustn’t be limited except in the most dire of circumstances.

So where one philosophy could understand the SOPA/PIPA bills as a reasonable approach to stopping piratical users, the other group blanches at the outrageous unintended consequences that will likely spring from these bills.

3. Student attitudes toward copyright
I regularly wrangle with the cognitive dissonance at the heart of the student approach to copyright by asking them to answer four questions (usually on paper, with no prompting or prep work):


What did you think I was doing for that hour?


Three bits of effluvia:

  • The French courts have just found in favor of a map company that sued Google for unfair competition, claiming Google would start charging for access to its mapping service once its competitors had been run out of business.
  • Cory Doctorow has an amusing story called “Scroogled,” in which he imagines a world where Google has become evil.  Doctorow suggests that the company’s motives were good at first, but their slow accumulation of data about everyone turns them slowly evil, as powerful forces gain access to total information and start using it like the secret police in undemocratic countries.  It’s a worst-case scenario account of the effect being described by Siva Vaidhyanathan in The Googlization of Everything (as far as I can tell from the blurbs and interviews I’ve seen with him).
  • There’s a great scene in the classic poker comedy Maverick in which the title character joins a group of rogues for a game of poker.  He promises to sit at the table for an hour, paying an ante every hand and always folding.  After he the hour, he starts playing well, taking their money like gangbusters.  One of the other players gets angry, and Maverick says something to the effect of “Well what did you think I was doing this whole hour?  I was learning your tells.”

The advent of Google’s new privacy policy makes it clear just how much different Google services will walk to one another as they collect more and more data about us, and makes me wonder how long it will be before Google stops its ante-and-fold strategy.  They’ve spent a decade learning our tells and gaining our trust.




Makers by Cory Doctorow, narrated by Bernadette Dunne

Doctorow weaves a complicated plot in three stages, jumping forward in blips and blurps like Charles’ Stross’ Accelerando, but reduced in time by a factor of ten.  The novel follows the rise, fall, and aftermath of the “new work” movement, an allegory for the dot-com bubble and its aftermath.  It weaves a whole bunch of near-future technologies that may make a big difference in our lives soon together with a story about economics both pragmatic and optimistic.

The first half of the novel feels too optimistic, buoyed by the same delight that the characters feel for these new kinds of activity.  But the second half wrecks its characters just as the world around them crumbles.  Doctorow’s future is inundated with cool shit and plagued with stark poverty and an awful lot of making do.

I agree with some reviewers that Doctorow’s writing lacks the kind of poetic voice we enjoy in a China Mieville or Margaret Atwood, but the story seethes with ideas, tossed out like M&Ms on the ground.  I also felt like the book went on a little long, and that the early sections especially feel like summaries of vast swaths of BoingBoing (though to be fair, if Doctorow blogs about his ideas and writes novels about them too, this is to be expected).

At the same time, I thought the oscillation of the characters in the second half of the novel worked well — each of them got a bit more complex, revealing flaws in the people we thought we’d liked, revealing qualities in people we thought we hated.  The end was satisfying, t00.  I’m glad he included the Epilogue: the story that finished in that section needed to be told.

This is my third adult Doctorow novel (Little Brother is aimed at young adults, and carries a distinctly pedagogical voice), and while I think Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom still holds its place for me as an important way to think about the emerging world, Makers will definitely hang around in my subconscious in a way that Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town hasn’t.


The Art of the Steal

Art of the Steal
Art of the Steal

The Art of the Steal

In the mood for something a little out of the way, we decided to watch the documentary (described as “gripping”) about the fight over the multi-billion dollar art education institution known as the Barnes Collection.  It’s a fascinating tale about the way the art establishment and the politicians of Philadelphia tried to overturn a trust document to secure the art in a facility for the city, at a distinct contrast to the wishes of the original donor.  A few thoughts:

  • The conflict comes from Dr. Barnes’ hatred of the snooty art establishment, which seemed more interested in art for the power and glamor of it than in the art itself.  He created an institute for education which housed literally 20 Billion dollars’ worth (by today’s money) of Cezannes, Van Goghs, Matisses, and others.  But these artworks were available to see only in this small building, built as a school, rarely open to the public.   From the moment he died, powerful people in the Philadelphia art establishment began challenging his vision, trying to wrest the paintings out of the institute and into other venues.
  • The crux of the argument the film presents is the idea that this lone visionary, who had a democratic view of art as something to be learned about and loved, should get to do what he likes with the paintings in his estate.  He left them in trust with a non-profit educational institution, and specifically said they could never be loaned, sold, or moved.  This is the part the forces aligned against the Barnes collection dismantled.
  • At the same time, there’s something interesting in saying that a secluded building, closed to most all the public, is the most democratic way to develop the art.  There wasn’t much in the film to say what you had to do in order to study at the Barnes Institute, but these people seem just as snooty about the art as the art establishment does.  It’s like Indie Record producers versus the Big Record producers.  Each does something different with the art, but one could make the argument that the Big Record producers do more to get the art to lots of people (such as send the Barnes collection on tour).
  • There’s one moment where the Barnes Institute advocates are protesting outside the location of the new facility.  One of them, holding a sign over his head, is in the middle of complaining about a black-tie party being held on the site  when he stops and shouts, at the top of his lungs, “Philistines!”  I thought this was immeasurably funny.  Jenny did not.  The same guy shouted, a bit later, “Just wait until it’s your will!”  And he was right.  The filmmakers highlighted this later when they pointed out that another collector had left his art to the NY Met, with the stipulation that the paintings never be sold, loaned, or moved.  Heh.
  • I was particularly interested in the excellent way the filmmakers pushed you toward strong, strong feelings on behalf of the people defending the Barnes collection.  You really come to dislike the villains of the piece by the end of the film, despite the fact that they are mostly working with good intentions.    It’s an artful piece of editing and storycraft.

Worth watching, certainly.

The complex landscape of digital photography, privacy, and sex

I know I’ve seen and heard this all discussed in various places and ways before, but I thought I’d just write it out here for posterity and usefulness.  If I’m inadvertently repeating arguments made by other people (likely Cory Doctorow at some point), I hereby cite them European style (i.e., if you know the reference, I shouldn’t need to mention it).

First, a few contexts:

  1. Do you remember that case a while back where a school in Pennsylvania had software on district-issued laptops that could use the built-in laptops?  The district got in trouble because it was secretly (and automatically) taking pictures of students without their knowledge.  Since the kids could take the computers home, it’s quite likely that some of those images could be classified as child pornography.
  2. Recently the ACLU settled a case with another Pennsylvania school where a school official had confiscated a girl’s phone for violated the “no in-school use” rules, and then turned the phone over to the police when he found nude or partially nude images on the phone.  The D.A. involved threatened to prosecute the student for child pornography.
  3. When some adult actors from Glee did a racy photo shoot for GQ, some family groups got upset because these people, known primarily for playing minors, were depicted in very sexual situations.  (I wonder if this family group was based in Pennsylvania.)


Reasonable people can agree that child pornography is certainly wrong as a broad category.  As minors, children are unable to give consent, so taking pictures of them and/or using pictures of them for sexual purposes is unethical (and awful).  This is not contentious.

"Camera Ham" by kelvin255
"Camera Ham" by kelvin255

CGI: A bit more troublesome is the question of digitally-created sexual imagery of minors.  On one hand, it’s hard to argue that computer-generated nude images of minors are directly harmful, because no minors are harmed in producing the images.  On the other hand, our society regularly embraces the idea that images matter and influence behavior, and as such we can certainly agree that such computer-generated images would be harmful in that they encourage the sexualization of minors and perhaps encourage troubled people to foster, rather than abandon, an unhealthy fantasy.  (Possible tangents I won’t enter into here: violent imagery as encouraging violence/ pornography as safety valve vs. pornography as instigator to misogyny and violence.)

If it looks like a minor: And then we have the twofold problem of “acceptable” sexualization of minors and/or sexualized images of adults who look like minors.  When the Glee cast poses for racy photos, are they crossing an ethical line by creating sexual images of figures who are minors?  Is this like digitally-created imagery?  When Britney Spears’ first album dropped, she had just turned 18, and her very sexualized video got little comment despite the fact that it cultivated a “schoolgirl” look that’s downright creepy.  Miley Cyrus has had more trouble, as her career broke earlier and a number of scandals emerged regarding racy photos taken  in the past couple years.  So what do we do with these images?  Are they child pornography?  Who draws that line?

Home photography: Most important, perhaps, are the less public but no-less-significant problems that crop up with teenagers, sex, and digital photography.  There are numerous stories about teenagers using in-laptop webcams and cellphones to exchange sexually-explicit imagery with one another.  While we’re certainly willing to say that nude photos of a fifteen or sixteen year old are child pornography if taken by an adult, is it reasonable to claim the same legal status for those images taken by the teen themselves and exchanged with another teen?  (I’m leaving aside the mechanisms by which such images might be published outside the teenager’s control, though that certainly happens as well.)  I think many people would claim that a person’s fundamental right to control their own body should extend to images of that body.  If they’re engaging in otherwise legal sexual behavior (most statues allow for sex between teen peers), should taking photos of oneself really be illegal?

Archives: And then consider the archive, where two concerns spring to mind.  First, what are the legal ramifications for a teenager who takes explicit photos of him/herself and stores them on his/her computer?  If we’re going to make the argument that the photos should not be illegal to take in the beginning, do they suddenly become illegal once the teenager is no longer a minor?  What about other teenagers to whom the first teenager willingly gave copies of those photos?  Setting aside questions of publishing the images, what happens to a nineteen-year-old whose three-year-old pictures of her naked boyfriend are found by law enforcement?  Does she get charged with possessing “child pornography?”

Second, should it be illegal for the teenager to sell the photos of him/herself?  While we can agree that the child, at the time the photos were taken, could not give consent to their distribution, can we still make that argument about the adult the child would become?  The argument against such sales depends on the same logic as that making digitally-produced images illegal–the presumption that such images encourage unhealthy fantasies.

Conclusion: The world of digital images and sexual content will only get more complicated as digital natives grow older.  Right now, a naked picture of oneself online is seen as a terrible black mark — worse(?) than drunken Facebook pictures.  But as digital natives get older and more people who’ve made these mistakes get into positions of power, will the norms governing reactions to such content change?


New Facebook Terms by hubspot
New Facebook Terms by hubspot

Two interesting developments in privacy this week:

  1. We’ve all heard about the egregious new Facebook terms that not only say they get to keep all your information in perpetuity, but that such information is now private automagically.  The ever-awesome Al Franken has provided easy-to-follow instructions for “opting out” of this program. But it’s now being reported that an open-source Facebook alternative has been started through a quick fundraising campaign on the interwebs.  Diaspora plans to offer open-source software to allow Facebook without the glass walls.
  2. Amazon has added a new “popular highlights” and aggregated notes feature to its Kindle.  Apparently, it works by uploading and aggregating all the highlights and notes Kindle users make on their machines.  While there are some neat benefits to this (automatic annotated volumes, for instance, or a kind of Kindle Book Club), there are some serious drawbacks as well.  Aside from the general fact that people aren’t told up front about this “feature,” there’s the specific fact that some people may not want to make their notes and highlights public.  As a working academic, I can think of plenty of times when I’m not sure I’d want my notes for a project made public — and if I were using Kindle to make those notes, I wouldn’t have a choice.

Of course, the issue here has to do with terms of service and the still new wilds of technological sharing.  As long as we all assume we have some privacy, each invasion of privacy feels unpleasant.  We regret or dislike the Googlexposure of youthful indiscretions or lies posted by people who don’t like us.  So what’s the solution here?  More careful reading of TOS?  Laws designed to prevent such egregious abuses of consumers?  Consumer boycotts (that’s the one I’m probably going to shift toward)?

A big part of me just gets angry at this kind of thing.  Not the practice of collecting and sharing information, but the sneaky practice of changing the terms without saying anything.  In no other realm of consumer practice would this be even remotely acceptable: your restaurant can’t change the terms of your transaction without your consent:

“Waitress, why is my bill so high?”
“Oh, those jalapeno poppers went up $5 since you ordered them.”

Regardless, it’s important to keep these companies and ideas in mind as we move forward.  I know that I’m not going to buy a Kindle — I’ve been considering the Sony reader, but frankly I already have too much to read: I don’t know when I’d read it.  But perhaps on the train…

The Secular Conscience

The Secular Conscience: Why Belief Belongs in Public Life by Austin Dacey

This book is pretty heavy in its philosophy for a general readership, but worth the slog.  Dacey argues that the problem with modern secular liberalism stems from what he calls the Liberty Fallacy: that because matters of conscience are matters of individual Liberty, they’re also not open to question or criticism.  This fallacy results in ethical waffling and a reluctance to criticize ideas from other cultures.

By contrast, Dacey argues that religious belief is private, but conscience must be open and up to debate.  He weaves a long and interesting discussion of the issue, exploring the way that open societies have fostered respect for human beings and a separation of church and state, and that closed societies often violate those two elements.  He also suggests that regardless of personal reasons, public debate ought to function from a consequentialist perspective, namely that discussions about ethics and morals should focus on the human impact of those decisions.  He argues for an ethics of the golden rule.

Two interesting things emerge at the end of the book.The second to last chapter is a warning call to Europe, particularly, about fundamentalist Islam.  Dacey argues that in refusing to debate conscience decisions made due to religious reasons, secular liberals are giving away their culture.  He suggests that fundamentalist religious countries are railing against secularism, and Europe doesn’t get it.

The secular, open society has met its antithesis.  It comes in many forms: Salafist jihad, clerical totalitarianism, the rule of sharia law.  What unites them is the willing sacrifice of freedom and human rights before a sacred order and their dependence on Islam for their existence.  And yet there are millions of secular liberal Muslims, and potential alternative interpretations of the faith abound.  One would think that secular liberals would be at the center of this struggle. Instead, reluctant to “impose” their values on others, fearful of the taint of American imperialism, most are submerged into silence.  The result?  Public discussion of Islam tends to veer between chauvinistic denunciations by conservative Christians … and useless overgeneralizations by politicians.  Words are liberals’ first weapon of choice.  Unfortunately, they now find themselves facing something they’ve sworn they not to talk about–religion.  If it is to rise to the historical moment and engage with both faces of Islam, secular liberalism needs a new self-understanding. (185)

And then, in Chapter 11, he cites Open Source as a key model for modern knowledge generation.  Ha!

The traditional model of conscience is a mirror of revelation.  Not a voice from an angel in a cave or a burning bush, but a revelation from within, a “still, small voice.”  But from where?  In the picture of conscience developed in this book, the model is not a revelation but a network.  The network of open source ethics is a public, collaborative and critical enterprise that builds up a storehouse of shareable answers to challenges faced by a community.  The sound of conscience is the clamor of conversation, not the eerie whisper of revelation.(202)

And finally:

If secular liberalism is to continue to stand for reason and freedom, the separation of religion and state, personal autonomy, equality, toleration, and self-criticism, secular liberals must stand up for these values in public debate.  This means returning conscience to its proper place at the heart of secular liberalism.  Matters of conscience–including religion and values–are open.  Like the sciences and open source methods, they are fit subjects of public discussion, they are guided by shared, objective, evaluative standards, and they are revisable in light of future experience.  The point of open, secular society is not to privatize or bracket questions of conscience, but to pursue them in conversation with others.  Like a free press, conscience is freed from coercion so that it may perform a vital public function: reasoning together about questions of meaning, identity, and value.  (209-210).

How do you like them apples?

ruffin writes:

There are certain myths about the power of free software, and some apparently [sic] misunderstandings about its characteristics. Though Reilly and Williams mean well (and the sources they site for the history of OSS are well selected; I can personally vouch for Brendan Riley and Laurie Taylor as particularly good people, even if they are from the SEC, and their article at the earlier link (cited by Reilly and Williams) is a good intro to OSS as concept.)

Furthermore, open-source technologies facilitate a commitment to open-content, making the knowledge and information contained within and delivered by technologies, such as course management software and web sites, available to all.” (Reilly & Williams 69)

There’s nothing particular about open source that enables open content, beyond knowing that on no level will others be required to purchase licensed software to access it. Microsoft Word saves to Rich Text, and rich text can be opened by a number of applications, like AbiWord or OpenOffice, that are, themselves, open source software solutions. It’s not like Microsoft claims copyright over your work because you composed in Word. Open content can come equally easily from open source and open content.

I certainly agree that there’s nothing about open source that enables open content, but as many people are arguing (including Laurie and me), academia depends upon a foundational philosophy of an intellectual commons that demands open access to content. By placing our knowledge back in the commons, we accelerate everyone’s use of it.

This attitude does depend, as ruffin seems to acknowledge, on an idea that one must give up one’s claims on “intellectual property,” at least to some degree. He writes:

Others can still use your content to teach for pay. Your dean could still throw fifteen sections of the class on the books using your open content without asking, and now he could do it even if your university doesn’t claim to own the materials by virtue of some esoteric server ownership pact with the devil.

Yep, they can! (Only in Higher Ed would we find this scandalous at all. If you work in any other industry and produce something as part of your work, the company is expected to take that thing and do stuff with it. The folks who came up with the Nike swoosh got paid for doing so, but they don’t maintain rights over it. My cousin who works in biomedical engineering certainly doesn’t expect to keep her research or control it. Only teachers argue that their teaching materials are anything other than “work for hire.”)

Of course, as per Eric Raymond’s rules about gift culture economies, your Dean sure as hell better keep your name on the course. I’ve seen this tendency in action in our Game Design program. I created a course called Game Culture for them that opened up into a multi-section requirement. Being of generous spirit (polish my knuckles on my shirt here), I happily acquiesce to changes they want to make to the syllabus as it evolves past the course that I taught into the course that two or three other instructors teach. While I wouldn’t mind if they took my name off, they still carefully note that the original course was designed by me, and they consult me for each new edition of the syllabus.

Them Apples

But as the MIT OpenCourseWare program suggests, the course materials do not make the course. We learned from Good Will Hunting that all we need for a college education is a library card, right? Maybe if you’re a Southie. Instead, as Alex Reid suggested a while ago on Digital Digs, what students are paying for in higher ed is time: time with an expert, time to discuss and ponder, time with someone trained in both the depth of the discipline and a set of tools to help groups of people think through ideas in a productive way. This is the reason online education has not become the boon administrators thought it would be: you have to staff online courses with people who know what they’re doing, and they need time to do it. Wikipedia makes not only high school research projects nearly worthless (“write a report on dolphins and fishing”), but endangers lecture classes in the same way.

Thus, the concern that someone might sell my syllabus is a limited one, to me–particularly since every syllabus I’ve written is online and CCd, but that’s beside the point. I could see feeling a little chagrined if someone started making bucketloads of money from them, but ultimately my teaching materials are another form of my scholarship–they’re what I’m contributing back to the commons. And our culture is so wedded to the idea that we own our ideas that the idea of losing control of those ideas makes us revolt.

SCMS roundup

I went to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference in Philly this last weekend. A good time was had by all, or by me at least.

1. My paper

My presentation considered my same ol’ shtick, what happens to the detective as we enter electracy. This time I took a run at the discussion through mise-en-scene (the stuff in the movie that isn’t dialogue, plot, or sound). In short, I suggested that the pregnancy of possibility that film noir revels in encourages its detectives to operate differently, not by ratiocination but by intuition (conductively, to use the grammatological neologism).

2. Other people’s papers

Sometimes I’m a conference marathoner, going to oodles of panels. This year, I narrowed the field a bit, attending five or six panels only (out of a total 16 at the event). My highlights:

  • Jonathan Frome did an interesting paper on the paradox of fiction as it operates in one of the Zelda games.
  • Bob Buerkle pondered the odd use of the term “first-person shooter” for an operation that is really “second person” if we use the original meaning of those terms. I don’t entirely buy his argument, but I appreciated it.
  • Zach Whalen did an excellent talk about excavating useful nuggets of knowledge from inside game code. Reminds me a bit of the branch of film studies who look at shooting scripts and the like.
  • Josh Guilford spoke about advertising and the real/sellout dichotomy in early skateboard advertising. An amusing and interesting talk.
  • Rob Jones gave an interesting talk about the evolution of machinimateurs and its shift from free production work toward being a potential career. Interesting implications in conversation with the talks I heard about mix culture and its similar potential for monetary value to its producers.
  • Amanda Fleming did a fan-culture analysis of serial killer fan sites. It was an interesting expose, but I felt the salient issue in exploring these fan cultures is not just to point out what techniques and ideas they share with other fan communities, but also to consider the ethics of their behavior (which she avoided doing).
  • Nic Guest-Jelley’s paper about Chaplin was excellent. I like this notion of the wisdom of the slapstick comedian. Perhaps he will eventually help me understand why the Three Stooges are so popular.
  • My paper was, well, see above.
  • Brian Doan’s always enjoyable writing shone as he wove an entertaining and insightful discussion of The O.C. using the entrypoint of Peter Gallagher’s Eyebrows.
  • Joshua Green gave an excellent talk about fan culture and how it needs to change as it begins to wrestle with “produsers.”
  • Patricia Lange’s audience analysis of YouTube videos was great, and fit nicely with conversations I’ve had with my Game Culture students about how our we have to manage our personae online.
  • Peter Decherney gave a very interesting talk about Chaplin and his copyright battles.
  • Abigail Derecho’s talk about the early days of mix culture before the law and the music industry decided that any unauthorized sampling was illegal highlighted how important it is that we understand the law around copyright.
  • Peter Jaszi’s discussion of the Center for Social Media’s best practices documents and their effect on publishing practice with regard to Fair Use kicked ass.  An excellent, inspirational talk.
  • Lucas Hilderbrand led another interesting talk about copyright law, focusing on the Family Copyright Act of 2006, which clarified some weird bits of copyright law that I’ll write about a bit more some other time.
  • The Workshop on Scholarly Writing in the Digital Age was invigorating and excellent.  It highlighted for me, though, the rule that when we move to new media, we take old media forms with us, and they continue to limit our thinking.  We heard several talks about ways to make more interactive books.  Books.  Online books.  Why keep the book model?  To be fair, Jason Mittell did explicitly change his language to focus on “project” rather than book.  The conversation after the presentation was even more conservative in some ways.  Nonetheless, a fascinating and interesting workshop.

3. Philly

I did a bit of walking Saturday afternoon with Brian.  We checked out the Liberty Bell and the outside of Independence Hall (which closed minutes before we got there, darn it).   It was a nice walk and pleasant, but not as organized as some of my other trips.  Nonetheless, I took lots of photos.  You can check out my Flickr Philly set for more about that.

responses to a suspicious post

I got a comment, on the old installation of my blog, in response to my post about The Blind Assassin (old thread here):

hello. I also enjoyed the book. What’s more, I’m writing a essay on it, and I would like to ask you what themes/subject did you find throughtout the book? For example, the role of women, the truth, etc…I’d appreciate your thoughts.

Here are some of the responses I considered, and the winner, which is less amusing than pretty much any of these, but I’d prefer to just let it go away.

  • I think it’s an allegory for the rise of the modern industrial state.  The conflict of the sisters and the two men (the husband and the communist boyfriend) represent oppositional forces in American economics, and the sister’s plunge into the river certainly symbolizes the death of American ingenuity.
  • Yes, I think women had roles throughout the book.  Both telling the truth and not.
  • Wow! I should write an essay on it, too, and we can compare!  I think I’ll write about the role of truthful women as a thematic trope throughout the book.  When is it due, er, when should we post our comparison versions?
  • Your comment fits the classic trope of the undergraduate looking for cheap paper-writing help online.  Are you indeed an independent scholar writing an essay on Atwood’s book, or are you trolling for free paper-writing services?

And I ultimately went with

  • Hrm, this seems like a homework question. Are you asking me to write your essay for you?

I wish I were wittier.

The Hacker Crackdown

by Bruce Sterling; narrated by Cory Doctorow

I really enjoyed this account of the beginning of the EFF and the digital civil liberties movement.  Sterling’s book is written in several parts, detailing the worlds of the Hacker Underground, the Law Enforcers, the Civil Libertarians, and the events involved in the crackdown of 1990.  It details the dangerous state of Cyberspace before EFF and others began campaigning on our behalf.

Doctorow’s reading (spread out over half a year in podcasts, but listened in straight succession) is entertaining.  His reading style is jaunty and casual, which gives the book a conversational feel.  I have to admit, though, that I only listened to five minutes of the twenty minute E-911 document.

The most interesting part of the book, for me, was Sterling’s red herring.  In the early crackdown, Steve Jackson Games was raided and had their computers confiscated because of an RPG they were working on.  The lawsuit here is as interesting to me as anything else in the book, but Sterling just mentions it briefly and then goes off on another tangent.  He returns for a page or two in the final chapter, but without the depth I was hoping for.  Now I will have to seek out the document SJG released on the lawsuit.