Category Archives: conferences_and_excursions

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.

the economics of open content

For the next two days, Ray and I are attending what hopes to be a fascinating conference in Cambridge, MA — The Economics of Open Content — co-hosted by Intelligent Television and MIT Open CourseWare.

This project is a systematic study of why and how it makes sense for commercial companies and noncommercial institutions active in culture, education, and media to make certain materials widely available for free–and also how free services are morphing into commercial companies while retaining their peer-to-peer quality.

They’ve assembled an excellent cross-section of people from the emerging open access movement, business, law, the academy, the tech sector and from virtually every media industry to address one of the most important (and counter-intuitive) questions of our age: how do you make money by giving things away for free?
Rather than continue, in an age of information abundance, to embrace economic models predicated on information scarcity, we need to look ahead to new models for sustainability and creative production. I look forward to hearing from some of the visionaries gathered in this room.
More to come…

lessig in second life

Wednesday evening, I attended an interview with Larry Lessig, which took place in the virtual world of Second Life. New World Notes announced the event and is posting coverage and transcripts of the interview. As it was my first experience in SL, I will post more on the experience of attending an interview/ lecture in a virtual space. For now, I am going to comment upon two quotes that Lessig covered as it relates to our work at the institute.

Lawrence Lessig: Because as life moves online we should have the SAME FREEDOMS (at least) that we had in real life. There’s no doubt that in real life you could act out a movie or a different ending to a movie. There’s no doubt that would have been “free” of copyright in real life. But as we move online things that were before were free now are regulated.

Yesterday, Bob made the point that our memories increasingly exist outside of ourselves. At the institute, we have discussed the mediated life, and a substantial part of that mediation occurs as we continue to digitize more parts of our lives, from photo albums to diaries. Things we once created in the physical world now reside on the network, which means that it is being published. Photo albums documenting our trips to Disneyland or the Space Needle (whose facade is trademarked and protected) that one rested within the home, are uploaded to flickr, potentially accessible to anyone browsing the Internet, a regulated space. This regulation has enormous influence on the creative outlets of everyone, not just professionals. Without trying to sound overly naive, my concern is not just that speech and discourse of all people are being compromised. As companies become more litigious towards copyright infringement (especially when their arguments are weak), the safe guards of the courts and legislation are not protecting its constituents.

Lawrence Lessig: Copyright is about creating incentives. Incentives are prospective. No matter what even the US Congress does, it will not give Elvis any more incentive to create in 1954. So whatever the length of copyright should be prospectively, we know it can make no sense of incentives to extend the term for work that is already created.

The increasing accessibility of digital technology allows people to become creators and distributors of content. Lessig notes that with each year, the increasing evidence from cases such as the Google Book Search controversy show the inadequacy of current copyright legislation. Further, he insightfully suggests to learn from the creations that young people produce such as anime music videos. Their completely different approach to intellectual property informs the cultural shift that is running counter to the legal status quo. Lessig suggest that these creative works have the potential to inform policy makers that these attitudes are moving toward the original intentions of copyright law. Then, policy makers hopefully may begin to question why these works are currently considered illegal.
The courts’ failure to clearly define an interpretation of fair use puts at risk the discourse that a functioning democracy requires. The stringent attitudes towards using copyrighted material goes against the spirit of the original intentions of the law. Although, it may not be a role of the government and the courts to actively encourage creativity. It is sad that bipartisan government actions and courts rulings actively discourage innovation and creativity.

the future of the book: korea, 13th century

The database:
tripitaka3.jpg tripitaka2.jpg
Nestled in the Gaya mountain range in southern Korea, the Haeinsa monastery houses the Tripitaka Koreana, the largest, most complete set of Buddhist scriptures in existence — over 80,000 wooden tablets (enough to print all of Buddhism’s sacred texts) kept in open-air storage for the past six centuries. The tablets were carved between 1237 and 1251 in anticipation of the impending Mongol invasion, both as a spiritual effort to ward off the attack, and as an insurance policy. They replaced an earlier set of blocks that had been destroyed in the last Mongol incursion in 1231.
From Korea’s national heritage site description of the tablets:
The printing blocks are some 70cm wide 24cm long and 2.8cm thick on the average. Each block has 23 lines of text, each with 14 characters, on each side. Each block thus has a total of 644 characters on both sides. Some 30 men carved the total 52,382,960 characters in the clean and simple style of Song Chinese master calligrapher Ou-yang Hsun, which was widely favored by the aristocratic elites of Goryeo. The carvers worked with incredible dedication and precision without making a single error. They are said to have knelt down and bowed after carving each character. The script is so uniform from beginning to end that the woodblocks look like the work of one person.
I stayed at the Haeinsa temple last Friday night on a sleeping mat in bare room with a heated floor, alongside a number of noisy Koreans (including the rather sardonic temple webmaster — Haiensa is a Unesco World Heritage site and so keeps a high profile). At three in the morning, at the call to the day’s first service, I tramped around the snowy courtyards under crisp, chill stars and watched as the monks pounded a massive barrel-shaped drum hanging inside a pagoda. This was for the benefit of those praying inside the temple (where it sounds like distant thunder). Shivering to the side, I continued to watch as they rang a bell the size of a Volkswagen with a polished log swung on ropes like a wrecking ball. Next to it, another monk ripped out a loud, clattering drum roll inside the wooden ribs of a dragon-like fish, also suspended from the pagoda’s roof. It was freezing cold with a biting wind — not pleasant to be outside, and at such an hour. But the stars were absolutely vivid. I’m no good at picking out constellations, but Orion was poised unmistakeably above the mountains as though stalking an elk on the other side of the ridge.
It’s a magical, somewhat harsh place, Haiensa. The Changgyeonggak, the two storage halls that house the Tripitaka, were built ingeniously to preserve the tablets by blocking wind, facilitating ventilation and distributing moisture. You see the monks busying themselves with devotions and chores, practicing an ancient way of life founded upon those tablets. The whole monastery a kind of computer, the monks running routines to and from the database. The mountains, Orion, the drum all part of the program. It seemed almost more hi-tech than cutting edge Seoul.
More on that later.

off to seoul

Over the next couple of weeks I will be traveling in South Korea, the land that invented moveable type (1234), and which to this day is cooking up the future of the book on a high flame: from massivly multiplayer online games, to Samsung’s Ubiquitous Dream Hall, to the massively multiplayer citizen journalism site OhmyNews. It will take me about 20 hours to get there but I feel I’ll be stepping a few years into the future. I expect… well, I have no idea what to expect. And all this futurama is only the tip of the iceberg. I have a camera and it shouldn’t be too hard to find an internet connection, so expect a few postcards.

e-poetry 2005

E-Poetry 2005, “an international digital poetry festival,” will be held this fall, September 28 through October 1, in London:

E-Poetry 2005 is both a conference and festival, dedicated to showcasing the best talent in digital poetry and poetics from around the world. E-Poetry combines both a high-level academic conference and workshop, examining growing trends in this young and emergent art form, with a festival of the latest and most exciting work from both established and new practitioners.

(via Grand Text Auto)

Networked Pedagogies: Opensourcing the Writing Classroom

Penn State has initiated a pilot program of 10 wiki-based composition classes. Richard Doyle, Jeff Pruchnic, and Trey Conner, instructors in the pilot-program discussed their experiences this morning at the Computers & Writing Conference in Stanford. They found that students produce better work in a peer-reviewed environment. Grammar and mechanics are contextualized and there is greater motivation to create error-free work. Students read each other’s work, which forces them to consider their arguments carefully in order to avoid repeating someone else’s point.
They also found that the self-governing ecology of the networked wiki format creates a fruitful environment for discussion and debate. The wiki places control over the direction and duration of the discussion into the student’s hands. Richard Doyle also pointed out that there has not been a single editing war in the years that he has been teaching the course. He attributes the lack of unproductive “flame wars” to the amount of work his students have. Each student produces about 100 pages of material and must read, comment on, and GRADE their fellow students’ work. This is a learner-centered environment where, as Richard Doyle puts it, “the teacher acts as coach or zen master, making periodic interventions.” Doyle also points out that in these wiki-based courses, “students are learning how to interact in an information dense environment responsibly. They are being trained to deal with the fluid environments they are going to find themselves in.”

transliteracies: the politics of online reading

Warren Sack presented two interesting diagrams yesterday at Transliteracies. The first was a map of how political conversations happen in newsgroups:

a map of a conversation in a political newsgroup

The work is that of John Kelly, Danyel Fisher, and Marc Smith; it shows conversations on the newsgroup alt.politics.bush. Blue dots are left-leaning participants in the newsgroup; red dots are right-leaning participants. Lines between dots show a conversation. Here, it’s clear that a conversation is predominantly taking place across the political lines: people are arguing with each other.

The second is a map of how conversations (represented by links) happen on political blogs in the United States:

a map of the political blogosphere

This is the work of Lada Adamic and Natalie Glance and it shows connections between political blogs. Blue dots are leftist blogs; red dots are rightist blogs. One notes here that the left-leaning blogs and right-leaning blogs tend to link to themselves, not across the political divide. People are reinforcing their own beliefs.

Obviously, it’s a stretch to claim that American politics became more polarized and civics died a death because internet conversations moved from newsgroups to blogs. But it’s clear from these diagrams that the way in which different forms of online reading take place (and the communities that are formed by this online reading) has political ramifications of which we need to be conscious.


the pinpoint accuracy of computer-searches, leaves those of us lucky enough to have spent time in library stacks, nostalgic for the unexpected discovery of something we didn’t know we were looking for but which just happened, serendipitously, to be on a nearby shelf. George Legrady, artist and prof at UC Santa Barbara, just showed a project he is working on for the new public library in Seattle that gave the first glimpse of serendipity in online library searching which lets you see all the books that have recently been checked out on a particular subject. Beautiful and Exciting.

the cramped root: worshipping the artifact

A plant in a container grows differently than a plant in open soil. The roots conform to the shape of the pot. Similarly, our very notions of reading, of books, of knowledge classification are defined by the pot in which they grew. The texture of paper, the topography of the library, the entire university system – these were defined by restraints. Physical, economic, etc. And to a significant extent they are artifacts of their times. An example: the act of reading in bed, as Dan mentions, is frequently invoked as the ideal, as the supreme pleasure of reading, something that computers could never match. But this supine, passive reading stance is not pre-ordained. It is in many ways an artifact of the growth of the novel – a grand, fictional creation to be read in leisure settings. Lying down works well. It’s pleasurable. You get lost in rich, immersive worlds. But there are immersive worlds that require a different posture. And there are kinds of reading that are more active.
The computer, too, in its current stage of development, is an artifact of the paper book, the typewriter, and the supercomputer terminal. These define the “pot” in which the computer has grown. And so far, the questions about online “reading” are defined by this cramped root structure. Even though the pot has shattered, we continue to grow as though the walls were there.
Another analogy: the horseless carriage. For years after its invention, the automobile was known as “the horseless carriage.” People could define it only in terms of what had come before. You could say that online reading is the territory of “the horseless book.”