Monthly Archives: January 2006

“people talk about ‘the future’ being tomorrow, ‘the future’ is now.”

nam june paik on the fluxtour of soho, 1975The artist Nam June Paik passed away on Sunday. Paik’s justifiably known as the first video artist, but thinking of him as “the guy who did things with TVs” does him the disservice of neglecting how visionary his thought was – and that goes beyond his coining of the term “electronic superhighway” (in a 1978 report for the Ford Foundation) to describe the increasingly ubiquitous network that surrounds us. Consider as well his vision of Utopian Laser Television, a manifesto from 1962 that argued for

a new communications medium based on hundreds of television channels. Each channel would narrowcast its own program to an audience of those who wanted the program without regard to the size of the audience. It wouldn’t make a difference whether the audience was made of two viewers or two billion. It wouldn’t even matter whether the programs were intelligent or ridiculous, commonly comprehensible or perfectly eccentric. The medium would make it possible for all information to be transmitted and each member of each audience would be free to select or choose his own programming based on a menu of infinitely large possibilities.

(Described by Ken Friedman in “Twelve Fluxus Ideas“.) Paik had some of the particulars wrong – always the bugbear of those who would describe the future – but in essence this is a spot-on description of the Web we know and use every day. The network was the subject of his art, both directly – in his closed-circuit television sculptures, for example – and indirectly, in the thought that informed them. In 1978, he considered the problem of networks of distribution:

Marx gave much thought about the dialectics of the production and the production medium. He had thought rather simply that if workers (producers) OWNED the production’s medium, everything would be fine. He did not give creative room to the DISTRIBUTION system. The problem of the art world in the ’60s and ’70s is that although the artist owns the production’s medium, such as paint or brush, even sometimes a printing press, they are excluded from the highly centralized DISTRIBUTION system of the art world.
     George Maciunas‘ Genius is the early detection of this post-Marxistic situation and he tried to seize not only the production’s medium but also the DISTRIBUTION SYSTEM of the art world.

(from “George Maciunas and Fluxus”, Flash Art, quoted in Owen F. Smith’s “Fluxus Praxis: an exploration of connections, creativity and community”.) As it was for the artists, so it is now for the rest of us: the problems of art are now the problems of the Internet. This could very easily be part of the ongoing argument about “who owns the pipes”.

Paik’s questions haven’t gone away, and they won’t be going away any time soon. I suspect that he knew this would be the case: “People talk about ‘the future’ being tomorrow,” he said in an interview with Artnews in 1995, “ ‘the future’ is now.”

artist as blogger


last spring we invited Alex Itin to be our first artist-in-residence at the institute. i first met Alex in the fall of 2000, during an art festival in Dumbo. he was set-up in a gallery painting portraits on pages of used books. i quite liked the paintings and got the perverse idea that it would be interesting to encourage someone who was using books in this way to work on an electronic book. i was working at Night Kitchen at the time. we had just released the beta version of TK3, the software we made for authoring and reading media rich electronic books. we lent Alex a Mac and he made his first electronic piece, Zoodoo – a series of paintings done on paperback pages which accompanied a beautiful Amiri Baraka poem. (if you first install the free TK3 Reader you can download Zoodoo from this page.) Alex kept experimenting and over time began animating the surface of his scanned-in paintings. while there has been a long history of filmmakers who painted on the surface of film, Alex was perhaps one of the first painters to integrate video into his paintings.

From “Self Portait” by Alex Itin

as a condition of his artist-in-residency we asked Alex to keep a blog in which we hoped he would write about his work as he did it. we were amazed after a few days to realize that alex was beginning to use the blog not as a way to talk about his work, but rather it was just another venue for his work. at first Alex posted paintings, drawings and photos sometimes with a text commentary. after a while he started to include animated gifs and sound. although the artist-in-residency ended almost a year ago, alex has been keeping up the blog. in fact, he’s been on a creative tear the past few weeks. check out the last two entries — the “thousand year crane” (be sure to start the music track) and the Chinese new year tree.

(disclaimer: i’ve been collecting Alex’s work for six years now, so my interest in his success is not purely altruistic)

the comissar vanishes

this photograph has been modified.
The Lowell Sun reports that staff members of Representative Marty Meehan (Democrat, Massachusetts) have been found editing the representatives Wikipedia entry. As has been noted in a number of places (see, for example, this Slashdot discussion), Meehan’s staff edited out references to his campaign promise to leave the House after eight years, among other things, and considerably brightened the picture of Meehan painted by his biography there.

Meehan’s staff editing the Wikipedia doesn’t appear to be illegal, as far as I can tell, even if they’re trying to distort his record. It does thrust some issues about how Wikipedia works into the spotlight – much as Beppe Grillo did in Italy last week. Sunlight disinfects; this has brought up the problem of political vandalism stemming from Washington, and Wikipedia has taken the step of banning the editing of Wikipedia by all IP address from Congress while they try to figure out what to do about it: see the discussion here.

This is the sort of problem that was bound to come up with Wikipedia: it will be interesting to see how they attempt to surmount it. In a broad sense, trying to forcibly stop political vandalism is as much of a political statement as anything anyone in the Capitol could write. Something in me recoils from the idea of the Wikipedia banning people from editing it, even if they are politicians. The most useful contribution of the Wikipedia isn’t their networked search for a neutral portrait of truth, for this will always be flawed; it’s the idea that the truth is inherently in flux. Just as we should approach the mass media with an incredulous eye, we should approach Wikipedia with an incredulous eye. With Wikipedia, however, we know that we need to – and this is an advance.

google gets mid-evil

At the World Economic Forum in Davos last Friday, Google CEO Eric Schmidt assured a questioner in the audience that his company had in fact thoroughly searched its soul before deciding to roll out a politically sanitized search engine in China:

We concluded that although we weren’t wild about the restrictions, it was even worse to not try to serve those users at all… We actually did an evil scale and decided not to serve at all was worse evil.

(via Ditherati)

who owns this space?

The disclaimer on the editorial page of The Onion reads:

The Onion neither publishes nor accepts letters from its readers. It is The Onion‘s editorial policy that the readers should have no voice whatsoever and that The Onion newspaper shall be solely a one-way conduit of information. The editorial page is reserved for the exclusive use of the newspaper staff to advance whatever opinion or agenda it sees fit, or, in certain cases, for paid advertorials by the business community.”
—Passed by a majority of the editorial board, March 17, 1873.

They’ve had this policy for a long time, though perhaps not since 1873. I remember seeing it (or something very similar) in the first copies of The Onion I saw, picked up during high school trips to Madison in the early 1990s. I liked the text enough to crib it for my first webpage, which has (thankfully) long since dissipated into the mists of the Internet.

I thought it was funny then, and I still do. And at the risk of tearing roses to pieces to find what makes them smell that way: it’s funny, I think, because it’s true. Usually, the mission statement on a newspaper’s editorial page bends over backward to declare that the editorial pages belong in some sense to the readers of the newspapers as well as the editors. But really, a newspaper’s editorial page – or, for that matter, the newspaper – is a one-way conduit for information: the editors, not the reader, choose what appears on it. The Onion‘s statement is bluntly honest about who really controls the press: the owners.

Declaring a website in 1995 to be a “one-way conduit of information” was also true, by and large, although I certainly wasn’t trying to make a grand statement about communication. At that point in time, a website was something that could be read; to make a website that readers could change, you needed to know something about scripting languages. Being, by and large, the same sort of dilettante I remain, I knew nothing about such things.

Ten years on the web allows much more direct two-way communication. Anyone can start a blog, post things, and have readers comment on them. Nobody involved in the process needs even a cursory knowledge of HTML for this to happen – it helps, of course, but it’s not strictly necessary. This is an advance, but I don’t need to say that at this point in time: the year of the blog was 2004.

At the Institute, we’ve been talking with McKenzie Wark, author of A Hacker Manifesto about doing a book-in-process blog, like we’ve been doing with Mitchell Stephens. Over lunch with Wark a couple months back, we asked him why he, very much a man of technology, didn’t have a blog already – everybody else does. His answer was interesting: he prefers the give-and-take of discussions on a list server to the post and response of the blog format. But what most stuck in my mind was his qualification for this: blogs, he suggested, are too proprietary, as they always belong to someone. This inhibits equitable discussion: somebody’s already in charge because they own the discussion forum.

There’s something to Wark’s idea. If I have a blog and post something on it, the text of my post resides somewhere on my server (it’s probably somebody’s else’s server, but it’s still my account). In most blogs, visitor can post comments. But: usually comments have to be approved by a moderator, if only to block spam. And: successful blogs even tend to disable comments entirely , at which point discourse is functionally back at the level of The Onion‘s editorial page. (One might note the recent experience of The Washington Post.) The authority over who is allowed to speak, and the manner in which they speak, belongs to the blog owner, who is usually not a disinterested party, being (generally) part of the conversation.

When you think about this process in terms of conversation, you realize how strange it is. Imagine David and Freddy having a conversation: David speaks freely, but for Freddy to say anything, he has to write it down and submit it to David for his approval before he can actually say it. If anyone else wanted to join the conversation, they’d also have to submit to Freddy’s authority. David’s policy of refusal might vary – he might refuse everything any one else says, he might allow anyone to say anything. But he’s still in charge of the conversation.

A quick navel gazing moment: you might imagine that our blog is an exception to this, as it’s a group blog, and a number of us regularly post on it. We’ve also given people outside of the Institute posting authority – during our discussion of his book, for example, we let Steven Johnson post rather than just having him comment on our posts. But the problem of authority can’t be avoided. You can see it in my words: we’ve “given”, we “let”. It’s ours in a sense.(1) We control who’s given a login. As much as we like you, dear readers, the form in which we’re conversing in enforces a distinction between you & us. Sorry.

The list server model, which Wark prefers, works differently. While there might still be a moderator, the moderator’s usually not part of the conversation being moderated. If David and Freddy are having a conversation, they have to submit what they’re saying to Linda before they can say it. It’s still mediated – and a very odd way to have a conversation! – but it’s not inherently weighted towards one party of the conversation, unless your moderator goes bad. And more importantly: the message is sent to everyone on the list. Everyone gets their own copy: the text can’t be said to belong to any one recipient in particular.

List servers, however more democratic a form they might be than blogs, never took off like blogs.(2) There has never been a Year of the List Server, and one suspects there might never be one. The list server, being email based, tends to be somewhat private; some aren’t even publicly accessible.

Blogs comparatively trumpet themselves: they’re an easy way to announce yourself to the world. This is necessary, useful, and a good part of the reason that they’ve caught on. But what happens once you’ve announced yourself? One would like to believe that when we start blogs, we’re aspiring to conversation, but the form itself would seem to discourage it.

The question remains: how can we have equitable conversations online?

* * * * *

1. This same sense of ownership is usefully articulated – if elaborated to the point of absurdity – in Donald Barthelme’s short story “Some of Us Had Been Threatening Our Friend Colby” which is predicated on the idea that since Colby is the narrators’ friend, he belongs to them, and they have the right to do with him as they like – in this particular case, hanging him: “. . . although hanging Colby was almost certainly against the law, we had a perfect moral right to do so because he was our friend, belonged to us in various important senses, and he had after all gone too far.”

2. A similar argument might be made for the style of newsgroups, which largely flourished before blogs and even the WWW. I suspect at this point newsgroup usage is considerably below that of list servers; however, it might be useful to examine the success and failures of newsgroups as a venue for communication some other time.

illusions of a borderless world

china google falun gong.jpg
A number of influential folks around the blogosphere are reluctantly endorsing Google’s decision to play by China’s censorship rules on its new service — what one local commentator calls a “eunuch version” of Here’s a sampler of opinions:
Ethan Zuckerman (“Google in China: Cause For Any Hope?”):

It’s a compromise that doesn’t make me happy, that probably doesn’t make most of the people who work for Google very happy, but which has been carefully thought through…
In launching, Google made an interesting decision – they did not launch versions of Gmail or Blogger, both services where users create content. This helps Google escape situations like the one Yahoo faced when the Chinese government asked for information on Shi Tao, or when MSN pulled Michael Anti’s blog. This suggests to me that Google’s willing to sacrifice revenue and market share in exchange for minimizing situations where they’re asked to put Chinese users at risk of arrest or detention… This, in turn, gives me some cause for hope.

Rebecca MacKinnon (“Google in China: Degrees of Evil”):

At the end of the day, this compromise puts Google a little lower on the evil scale than many other internet companies in China. But is this compromise something Google should be proud of? No. They have put a foot further into the mud. Now let’s see whether they get sucked in deeper or whether they end up holding their ground.

David Weinberger (“Google in China”):

If forced to choose — as Google has been — I’d probably do what Google is doing. It sucks, it stinks, but how would an information embargo help? It wouldn’t apply pressure on the Chinese government. Chinese citizens would not be any more likely to rise up against the government because they don’t have access to Google. Staying out of China would not lead to a more free China.

Doc Searls (“Doing Less Evil, Possibly”):

I believe constant engagement — conversation, if you will — with the Chinese government, beats picking up one’s very large marbles and going home. Which seems to be the alternative.

Much as I hate to say it, this does seem to be the sensible position — not unlike opposing America’s embargo of Cuba. The logic goes that isolating Castro only serves to further isolate the Cuban people, whereas exposure to the rest of the world — even restricted and filtered — might, over time, loosen the state’s monopoly on civic life. Of course, you might say that trading Castro for globalization is merely an exchange of one tyranny for another. But what is perhaps more interesting to ponder right now, in the wake of Google’s decision, is the palpable melancholy felt in the comments above. What does it reveal about what we assume — or used to assume — about the internet and its relationship to politics and geography?
A favorite “what if” of recent history is what might have happened in the Soviet Union had it lasted into the internet age. Would the Kremlin have managed to secure its virtual borders? Or censor and filter the net into a state-controlled intranet — a Union of Soviet Socialist Networks? Or would the decentralized nature of the technology, mixed with the cultural stirrings of glasnost, have toppled the totalitarian state from beneath?
Ten years ago, in the heady early days of the internet, most would probably have placed their bets against the Soviets. The Cold War was over. Some even speculated that history itself had ended, that free-market capitalism and democracy, on the wings of the information revolution, would usher in a long era of prosperity and peace. No borders. No limits.

jingjing_1.jpg chacha.jpg
“Jingjing” and “Chacha.” Internet police officers from the city of Shenzhen who float over web pages and monitor the cyber-traffic of local users.

It’s interesting now to see how exactly the opposite has occurred. Bubbles burst. Towers fell. History, as we now realize, did not end, it was merely on vacation; while the utopian vision of the internet — as a placeless place removed from the inequities of the physical world — has all but evaporated. We realize now that geography matters. Concrete features have begun to crystallize on this massive information plain: ports, gateways and customs houses erected, borders drawn. With each passing year, the internet comes more and more to resemble a map of the world.
Those of us tickled by the “what if” of the Soviet net now have ourselves a plausible answer in China, who, through a stunning feat of pipe control — a combination of censoring filters, on-the-ground enforcement, and general peering over the shoulders of its citizens — has managed to create a heavily restricted local net in its own image. Barely a decade after the fall of the Iron Curtain, we have the Great Firewall of China.
And as we’ve seen this week, and in several highly publicized instances over the past year, the virtual hand of the Chinese government has been substantially strengthened by Western technology companies willing to play by local rules so as not to be shut out of the explosive Chinese market. Tech giants like Google, Yahoo! , and Cisco Systems have proved only too willing to abide by China’s censorship policies, blocking certain search returns and politically sensitive terms like “Taiwanese democracy,” “multi-party elections” or “Falun Gong”. They also specialize in precision bombing, sometimes removing the pages of specific users at the government’s bidding. The most recent incident came just after New Year’s when Microsoft acquiesced to government requests to shut down the My Space site of popular muckraking blogger Zhao Jing, aka Michael Anti.
One of many angry responses that circulated the non-Chinese net in the days that followed.
We tend to forget that the virtual is built of physical stuff: wires, cable, fiber — the pipes. Whoever controls those pipes, be it governments or telecomms, has the potential to control what passes through them. The result is that the internet comes in many flavors, depending in large part on where you are logging in. As Jack Goldsmith and Timothy Wu explain in an excellent article in Legal Affairs (adapted from their forthcoming book Who Controls the Internet? : Illusions of a Borderless World), China, far from being the boxed-in exception to an otherwise borderless net, is actually just the uglier side of a global reality. The net has been mapped out geographically into “a collection of nation-state networks,” each with its own politics, social mores, and consumer appetites. The very same technology that enables Chinese authorities to write the rules of their local net enables companies around the world to target advertising and gear services toward local markets. Goldsmith and Wu:

…information does not want to be free. It wants to be labeled, organized, and filtered so that it can be searched, cross-referenced, and consumed….Geography turns out to be one of the most important ways to organize information on this medium that was supposed to destroy geography.

Who knows? When networked devices truly are ubiquitous and can pinpoint our location wherever we roam, the internet could be censored or tailored right down to the individual level (like the empire in Borges’ fable that commissions a one-to-one map of its territory that upon completion perfectly covers every corresponding inch of land like a quilt).
The case of Google, while by no means unique, serves well to illustrate how threadbare the illusion of the borderless world has become. The company’s famous credo, “don’t be evil,” just doesn’t hold up in the messy, complicated real world. “Choose the lesser evil” might be more appropriate. Also crumbling upon contact with air is Google’s famous mission, “to make the world’s information universally accessible and useful,” since, as we’ve learned, Google will actually vary the world’s information depending on where in the world it operates.
Google may be behaving responsibly for a corporation, but it’s still a corporation, and corporations, in spite of well-intentioned employees, some of whom may go to great lengths to steer their company onto the righteous path, are still ultimately built to do one thing: get ahead. Last week in the States, the get-ahead impulse happened to be consonant with our values. Not wanting to spook American users, Google chose to refuse a Dept. of Justice request for search records to aid its anti-pornography crackdown. But this week, not wanting to ruffle the Chinese government, Google compromised and became an agent of political repression. “Degrees of evil,” as Rebecca MacKinnon put it.
The great irony is that technologies we romanticized as inherently anti-tyrannical have turned out to be powerful instruments of control, highly adaptable to local political realities, be they state or market-driven. Not only does the Chinese government use these technologies to suppress democracy, it does so with the help of its former Cold War adversary, America — or rather, the corporations that in a globalized world are the de facto co-authors of American foreign policy. The internet is coming of age and with that comes the inevitable fall from innocence. Part of us desperately wanted to believe Google’s silly slogans because they said something about the utopian promise of the net. But the net is part of the world, and the world is not so simple.

rethinking copyright: learning from the pro sports?

As Ben has reported, the Economics of Open Content conference spent a good deal of time discussing issues of copyright and fair use. During a presentation, David Pierce from Copyright Services noted that the major media companies are mainly concerned about protecting their most valuable assets. The obvious example is Disney’s extreme vested interest in protecting the Mickey Mouse, now 78 years old, from entering the public domain. Further, Pierce mentioned that these media companies fight to extend the copyright protection of everything they own in order to protect their most valuable assets. Finally, he stated that only a small portions of their total film libraries are available to consumers. Many people in attendance were intrigued by these ideas, including myself and Paul Courant from the University of Michigan. Earlier in the conference, Courant explained that 90-95% of UM’s library is out of print, and presumably much of that is under copyright protection.
If this situation is true, then, staggering amounts of media are being kept from the public domain or are closed from licensing for little or no reason. A little further thinking quickly leads to alternative structures of copyright that would move media into the public domain or at the least increase its availability, while appeasing the media conglomerates economic concerns.
Rules controlling the protection of assets is nothing new. For instance, in US professional sports, fairly elaborate structures are in place determine how players can be traded. Common sense dictates that teams cannot stockpile players from other teams. In the free agency era of the National Football League, teams have limited rights to control players from signing with other teams. Each NFL team can designate a single athlete as a “franchise” player, according to the current Collecting Bargaining Agreement with the player union. This designation gives them exclusive rights in retaining their player from competing offers. Similarly, in the National Basketball Association, when the league adds a new team, existing teams are allowed to protect eight players from being drafted and signed from the expansion team(s). What can we learn from these institutions? The examples show hoarding players is not good for sports, similarly hoarding assets is not in the best interest of the public good either.
The sports example has obviously limitations. In the NBA, team rosters are limited to fifteen players. On the other hand, a media company can hold an unlimited number of assets. In turn, applying this model would allow companies to seek extensions to only a portion of their copyright assets. Defining this proportion would certainly be difficult. For instance, it is still unclear to me how this might adapt to owners of one copyrighted property.
Another variant interpretation of this model would be to move the burden of responsibility back to the copyright holder. Here, copyright holders must show active economic use and value from these properties. This strategy would force media companies to make their archives available or put the media into the public domain. These copyright holders need to overcome their fears of flooding the markets and dated claims of limited shelf space, which are simply not relevant in the digital media / e-commerce age. Further, media companies would be encouraged to license their holdings for derivatives works, which would in fact lead to more profits. In that, these implementations would increase revenue by challenging the current shortsighted marketing decisions which fail to account for the long tail economic value of their holdings. Although these materials would not enter the public domain, they would be become accessible.
Would this block innovation? Creators of content will still be able to profit from their work for decades. When limited copyright did exist in its original implementation, creative innovation was certainly not hindered. Therefore, the argument that limiting protection of all of a media company’s assets in perpetuity would slow innovation is baseless. By the end of the current time copyright period, holders have ample time to extract value from those assets. In fact, infinite copyright protection slows innovation by removing incentives to create new intellectual property.
Finally, few last comments are worth noting. These models are, at best, compromises. I present them because the current state of copyright protection and extensions seems headed towards former Motion Pictures Association of America President Jack Valenti’s now infamous suggestion of extending copyright to “forever less a day.” Although these media companies have a huge financial stake in controlling these copyrights, I cannot overemphasize our Constitutional right to place these materials in the public domain. Article I, Section 8, clause 8 of the United States Constitution states:

Congress has the power to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Rights to their respective Writings and Discoveries.

Under these proposed schemes, fair use becomes even more cruical. Conceding that the extraordinary preciousness of intellectual property as Mickey Mouse and Bugs Bunny supersedes rights found in our Constitution implies a similarly extraordinary importance of these properties to our culture and society. Thus, democratic access to these properties for use in education and critical discourse must be equally imperative to the progress of culture and society. In the end, the choice, as a society, is ours. We do not need to concede anything.

what I heard at MIT

Over the next few days I’ll be sifting through notes, links, and assorted epiphanies crumpled up in my pocket from two packed, and at times profound, days at the Economics of Open Content symposium, hosted in Cambridge, MA by Intelligent Television and MIT Open CourseWare. For now, here are some initial impressions — things I heard, both spoken in the room and ricocheting inside my head during and since. An oral history of the conference? Not exactly. More an attempt to jog the memory. Hopefully, though, something coherent will come across. I’ll pick up some of these threads in greater detail over the next few days. I should add that this post owes a substantial debt in form to Eliot Weinberger’s “What I Heard in Iraq” series (here and here).
Naturally, I heard a lot about “open content.”
I heard that there are two kinds of “open.” Open as in open access — to knowledge, archives, medical information etc. (like Public Library of Science or Project Gutenberg). And open as in open process — work that is out in the open, open to input, even open-ended (like Linux, Wikipedia or our experiment with MItch Stephens, Without Gods).
I heard that “content” is actually a demeaning term, treating works of authorship as filler for slots — a commodity as opposed to a public good.
I heard that open content is not necessarily the same as free content. Both can be part of a business model, but the defining difference is control — open content is often still controlled content.
I heard that for “open” to win real user investment that will feedback innovation and even result in profit, it has to be really open, not sort of open. Otherwise “open” will always be a burden.
I heard that if you build the open-access resources and demonstrate their value, the money will come later.
I heard that content should be given away for free and that the money is to be made talking about the content.
I heard that reputation and an audience are the most valuable currency anyway.
I heard that the academy’s core mission — education, research and public service — makes it a moral imperative to have all scholarly knowledge fully accessible to the public.
I heard that if knowledge is not made widely available and usable then its status as knowledge is in question.
I heard that libraries may become the digital publishing centers of tomorrow through simple, open-access platforms, overhauling the print journal system and redefining how scholarship is disseminated throughout the world.
And I heard a lot about copyright…
I heard that probably about 50% of the production budget of an average documentary film goes toward rights clearances.
I heard that many of those clearances are for “underlying” rights to third-party materials appearing in the background or reproduced within reproduced footage. I heard that these are often things like incidental images, video or sound; or corporate logos or facades of buildings that happen to be caught on film.
I heard that there is basically no “fair use” space carved out for visual and aural media.
I heard that this all but paralyzes our ability as a culture to fully examine ourselves in terms of the media that surround us.
I heard that the various alternative copyright movements are not necessarily all pulling in the same direction.
I heard that there is an “inter-operability” problem between alternative licensing schemes — that, for instance, Wikipedia’s GNU Free Documentation License is not inter-operable with any Creative Commons licenses.
I heard that since the mass market content industries have such tremendous influence on policy, that a significant extension of existing copyright laws (in the United States, at least) is likely in the near future.
I heard one person go so far as to call this a “totalitarian” intellectual property regime — a police state for content.
I heard that one possible benefit of this extension would be a general improvement of internet content distribution, and possibly greater freedom for creators to independently sell their work since they would have greater control over the flow of digital copies and be less reliant on infrastructure that today only big companies can provide.
I heard that another possible benefit of such control would be price discrimination — i.e. a graduated pricing scale for content varying according to the means of individual consumers, which could result in fairer prices. Basically, a graduated cultural consumption tax imposed by media conglomerates
I heard, however, that such a system would be possible only through a substantial invasion of users’ privacy: tracking users’ consumption patterns in other markets (right down to their local grocery store), pinpointing of users’ geographical location and analysis of their socioeconomic status.
I heard that this degree of control could be achieved only through persistent surveillance of the flow of content through codes and controls embedded in files, software and hardware.
I heard that such a wholesale compromise on privacy is all but inevitable — is in fact already happening.
I heard that in an “information economy,” user data is a major asset of companies — an asset that, like financial or physical property assets, can be liquidated, traded or sold to other companies in the event of bankruptcy, merger or acquisition.
I heard that within such an over-extended (and personally intrusive) copyright system, there would still exist the possibility of less restrictive alternatives — e.g. a peer-to-peer content cooperative where, for a single low fee, one can exchange and consume content without restriction; money is then distributed to content creators in proportion to the demand for and use of their content.
I heard that such an alternative could theoretically be implemented on the state level, with every citizen paying a single low tax (less than $10 per year) giving them unfettered access to all published media, and easily maintaining the profit margins of media industries.
I heard that, while such a scheme is highly unlikely to be implemented in the United States, a similar proposal is in early stages of debate in the French parliament.
And I heard a lot about peer-to-peer…
I heard that p2p is not just a way to exchange files or information, it is a paradigm shift that is totally changing the way societies communicate, trade, and build.
I heard that between 1840 and 1850 the first newspapers appeared in America that could be said to have mass circulation. I heard that as a result — in the space of that single decade — the cost of starting a print daily rose approximately %250.
I heard that modern democracies have basically always existed within a mass media system, a system that goes hand in hand with a centralized, mass-market capital structure.
I heard that we are now moving into a radically decentralized capital structure based on social modes of production in a peer-to-peer information commons, in what is essentially a new chapter for democratic societies.
I heard that the public sphere will never be the same again.
I heard that emerging practices of “remix culture” are in an apprentice stage focused on popular entertainment, but will soon begin manifesting in higher stakes arenas (as suggested by politically charged works like “The French Democracy” or this latest Black Lantern video about the Stanley Williams execution in California).
I heard that in a networked information commons the potential for political critique, free inquiry, and citizen action will be greatly increased.
I heard that whether we will live up to our potential is far from clear.
I heard that there is a battle over pipes, the outcome of which could have huge consequences for the health and wealth of p2p.
I heard that since the telecomm monopolies have such tremendous influence on policy, a radical deregulation of physical network infrastructure is likely in the near future.
I heard that this will entrench those monopolies, shifting the balance of the internet to consumption rather than production.
I heard this is because pre-p2p business models see one-way distribution with maximum control over individual copies, downloads and streams as the most profitable way to move content.
I heard also that policing works most effectively through top-down control over broadband.
I heard that the Chinese can attest to this.
I heard that what we need is an open spectrum commons, where connections to the network are as distributed, decentralized, and collaboratively load-sharing as the network itself.
I heard that there is nothing sacred about a business model — that it is totally dependent on capital structures, which are constantly changing throughout history.
I heard that history is shifting in a big way.
I heard it is shifting to p2p.
I heard this is the most powerful mechanism for distributing material and intellectual wealth the world has ever seen.
I heard, however, that old business models will be radically clung to, as though they are sacred.
I heard that this will be painful.

letters from second life

Last week, Bob mentioned that Larry Lessig, law profressor and intellectual property scholar, was being interviewed in Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Lab. Having heard a lot of Second Life before, I was pleased to have a reason and opportunity to create an account and explore it. Basically I quickly learned that it’s Metaverse, as described in Neil Stephenson’s Snowcrash, in operation today, and I’m now a part of it too.
I already covered the actual interview. Here are a few observations from my introduction to SL.
Second Life is a humbling place, especially for beginners. Everything ,even the simplest things, must be relearned. It took me 5 minutes to learn how to sit down, another 5 minutes to read something, and on and on. Traveling to the site of Lessig event was an even more daunting task. I was given the location of this event, a name and coordinates, without any idea of what to do with them. Second Life is a vast space, and it wasn’t clear to me how to get from one point to another. I had no idea how to travel in SL, and had to ask around someone.
I presume it is evident that I’m very new to SL, by my constant trampling over people and inanimate objects. So, I continue walking into trees and rocks until I come across someone whose title contains “Mentor,” and figure that this is a good person to ask for help. Not knowing how to strike up a private conversation, I start talking out loud, not even sure if anyone is even going to pay attention.
(I will come to learn that you travel from place to place via teleportation.)
“Hi Harold.”
I am relieved to discover that people are basically nice in SL, maybe even nicer than in New York. This fellow avatar is happy to chat and answer questions. Second List has a feature called “Friends” which operates like Buddies in Instant Messaging. However, I’m not sure what the social protocol for making friends is, so I make no assumptions. As I was typing “can we be friends?” I sigh with the realization that I am, in fact, back in fourth grade.
second_life_clothes.jpgPeople around me have much more sophisticated outfits than I do. So, I try out the free clothing features. I darken my pants to a deep blue and my shoes black. Then, my default shirt gets turned into a loose white t-shirt. Somehow I end up a bit like a GAP model crossed with Max Headroom. After making my first “friend,” another complete stranger comes up to me and just starts giving me clothes. Apparently, my clothes still need a little work. I try on the cowboy boots and faded jeans. Happy that I’ve moved beyond the standard issue clothes, I thank my benefactor and begin to make my way to the event.
The builders of Second Life force people to rely on other people within the virtual world. However, assistance in the real world certainly helps too. Entering Second Life, the feeling of displacement is quite clear, as if I arrived to a new city in the real world with a single address, where I don’t know anyone or how to navigate the city. The virtual world often mimics the real world, but my surprise each time I learn this fact is still ongoing. It definitely helps to know people, both in where to go that’s interesting and how to do things.
After teleporting to the event, I found myself around people who had common interests, which was great and similar to attending a lecture in the real world. At different times, I struck up a conversation with an avatar who is a publisher on the West Coast and then talked to an academic who runs a media center. In both cases, I was talking to the person literally “next” to me.
When I first heard about the interview, I learned at there was limited spacing. Which seemed strange to me, as it was taking place in a viritual space. When I arrived at the event place, I saw the ampitheater with video screens, that would show a live web stream of Lessig. The limited seating made more sense, seeing the seat of the theater. I also believe that the SL servers also have a finite capacity for the number of people to be located within a small area, because movement was jerky around concentrated groups of people. I guess I’ll have to wait for the Second Life Woodstock.
The space was crowded with people walking around, chatting, and getting up their free digital copy of Lessig’s book, “Free Culture.” (I’ve included a picture of me reading Free Culture in Second Life. You can actually read the text.) second_life_reading.jpg The interview is about to begin, as an avatar with large red wings walks by me. I say out loud, “I know she was going to sit in front of me.” Adding, “Just kidding,” in case I might be offending someone, who knows who this person could be. Fortunately, she found a seat outside my sight line without incident, and the introductory remarks began.
There was a strange duality where I had to both learn what was being said, but also how to navigate the environment of a lecture as well. The interview proceeds within the social norms of a lecture. People are mostly quiet, clap and for the moderator runs the question and answer session. Afterwards, I line up to get Lessig to “sign” my virtual book at the virtual booksigning, as in my virtual public event. I finally stumble my way through the line, all the while asking many question on what I’m supposed to do. With my signed book in hand, I look at the sky, which is quite dark. I log out and return to the real world.

wikipedia as civic duty

beppe-grillo.jpgNumber 14 on Technorati’s listings of the most popular blogs is Beppe Grillo. Who’s Beppe Grillo? He’s an immensely popular Italian political satirist, roughly the Italian Jon Stewart. Grillo has been hellbent on exposing corruption in the political system there, and has emerged as a major force in the ongoing elections there. While he happily and effectively skewers just about everybody involved in the Italian political process, Dario Fo, currently running for mayor of Milan under the refreshing slogan “I am not a moderate” manages to receive Grillo’s endorsement.

Grillo’s use of new media makes sense: he has effectively been banned from Italian television. While he performs around the country, his blog – which is also offered in English just as deadpan and full of bold-faced phrases as the Italian – has become one of his major vehicles. It’s proven astonishingly popular, as his Technorati ranking reveals.

His latest post (in English or Italian) is particularly interesting. (It’s also drawn a great deal of debate: note the 1044 comments – at this writing – on the Italian version.) Grillo’s been pushing the Wikipedia for a while; here, he suggests to his public that they should, in the name of transparency, have a go at revising the Wikipedia entry on Silvio Berlusconi.

un piccolo berlusconiBerlusconi is an apt target. He is, of course, the right-wing prime minister of Italy as well as its richest citizen, and at one point or another, he’s had his fingers in a lot of pies of dubious legality. In the five years that he’s been in power, he’s been systematically rewriting Italian laws standing in his way – laws against, for example, media monopolies. Berlusconi effectively controls most Italian television: it’s a fair guess that he has something to do with Grillo’s ban from Italian television. Indirectly, he’s probably responsible for Grillo turning to new media: Berlusconi doesn’t yet own the internet.

Or the Wikipedia. Grillo brilliantly posits the editing of the Wikipedia as a civic duty. This is consonant with Grillo’s general attitude: he’s also been advocating environmental responsibility, for example. The public editing Berlusconi’s biography seems apt: famously, during the 2001 election, Berlusconi sent out a 200-page biography to every mailbox in Italy which breathlessly chronicled his rise from a singer on cruise ships to the owner of most of Italy. This vanity press biography presented itself as being neutral and objective. Grillo doesn’t buy it: history, he argues, should be written and rewritten by the masses. While Wikipedia claims to strive for a neutral point of view, its real value lies in its capacity to be rewritten by anyone.

How has Grillo’s suggestion played out? Wikipedia has evidently been swamped by “BeppeGrillati” attempting to modify Berlusconi’s biography. The Italian Wikipedia has declared “una edit war” and put a temporary lock on editing the page. From an administrative point of view, this seems understandable; for what it’s worth, there’s a similar, if less stringent, stricture on the English page for Mr. Bush. But this can’t help but feel like a betrayal of Wikipedia’s principals. Editing the Wikipedia should be a civic duty.