Category Archives: philosophy

DRM and the damage done to libraries

New York Public Library

A recent BBC article draws attention to widespread concerns among UK librarians (concerns I know are shared by librarians and educators on this side of the Atlantic) regarding the potentially disastrous impact of digital rights management on the long-term viability of electronic collections. At present, when downloads represent only a tiny fraction of most libraries’ circulation, DRM is more of a nuisance than a threat. At the New York Public library, for instance, only one “copy” of each downloadable ebook or audio book title can be “checked out” at a time — a frustrating policy that all but cancels out the value of its modest digital collection. But the implications further down the road, when an increasing portion of library holdings will be non-physical, are far more grave.
What these restrictions in effect do is place locks on books, journals and other publications — locks for which there are generally no keys. What happens, for example, when a work passes into the public domain but its code restrictions remain intact? Or when materials must be converted to newer formats but can’t be extracted from their original files? The question we must ask is: how can librarians, now or in the future, be expected to effectively manage, preserve and update their collections in such straightjacketed conditions?
This is another example of how the prevailing copyright fundamentalism threatens to constrict the flow and preservation of knowledge for future generations. I say “fundamentalism” because the current copyright regime in this country is radical and unprecedented in its scope, yet traces its roots back to the initially sound concept of limited intellectual property rights as an incentive to production, which, in turn, stemmed from the Enlightenment idea of an author’s natural rights. What was originally granted (hesitantly) as a temporary, statutory limitation on the public domain has spun out of control into a full-blown culture of intellectual control that chokes the flow of ideas through society — the very thing copyright was supposed to promote in the first place.
If we don’t come to our senses, we seem destined for a new dark age where every utterance must be sanctioned by some rights holder or licensing agent. Free thought isn’t possible, after all, when every thought is taxed. In his “An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment?” Kant condemns as criminal any contract that compromises the potential of future generations to advance their knowledge. He’s talking about the church, but this can just as easily be applied to the information monopolists of our times and their new tool, DRM, which, in its insidious way, is a kind of contract (though one that is by definition non-negotiable since enforced by a machine):

But would a society of pastors, perhaps a church assembly or venerable presbytery (as those among the Dutch call themselves), not be justified in binding itself by oath to a certain unalterable symbol in order to secure a constant guardianship over each of its members and through them over the people, and this for all time: I say that this is wholly impossible. Such a contract, whose intention is to preclude forever all further enlightenment of the human race, is absolutely null and void, even if it should be ratified by the supreme power, by parliaments, and by the most solemn peace treaties. One age cannot bind itself, and thus conspire, to place a succeeding one in a condition whereby it would be impossible for the later age to expand its knowledge (particularly where it is so very important), to rid itself of errors, and generally to increase its enlightenment. That would be a crime against human nature, whose essential destiny lies precisely in such progress; subsequent generations are thus completely justified in dismissing such agreements as unauthorized and criminal.

We can only hope that subsequent generations prove more enlightened than those presently in charge.

GAM3R 7H30RY: a work in progress… in progress

McKenzie Wark

I’m pleased to report that the institute is gearing up for another book-blog experiment to run alongside Mitchell Stephens’ ongoing endeavor at Without Gods — this one a collaboration with McKenzie Wark, professor of cultural and media studies at the New School and author most recently of A Hacker Manifesto. Ken’s next book, Gamer Theory, is an examination of single-player video games that comes out of the analytic tradition of the Frankfurt School (among other influences). Unlike Mitch’s project (a history of atheism), Ken’s book is already written — or a draft of it anyway — so in putting together a public portal, we are faced with a very different set of challenges.
As with Hacker Manifesto, Ken has written Gamer Theory in numbered paragraphs, a modular structure that makes the text highly adaptable to different formats and distribution schemes — be it RSS syndication, ebook, or print copy. We thought the obvious thing to do, then, would be to release the book serially, chunk by chunk, and to gather commentary and feedback from readers as it progressed. The trouble is that if you do only this — that is, syndicate the book and gather feedback — you forfeit the possibility of a more free-flowing discussion, which could end up being just as valuable (or more) as the direct critique of the book. After all, the point of this experiment is to expose the book to the collective knowledge, experience and multiple viewpoints of the network. If new ideas are to be brought to light, then there ought to be ways for readers to contribute, not just in direct response to material the author has put forth, but in their own terms (this returns us to the tricky proprietary nature of blogs that Dan discussed on Monday).
So for the past couple of weeks, we’ve been hashing out a fairly ambitious design for a web site — a blog, but a little more complicated — that attempts to solve (or at least begin to solve) some of the problems outlined above. Our first aim was to infuse the single-author book/blog with the democratic, free-fire discussion of list servers — a feat, of course, that is far easier said than done. Another concern, simply from an interface standpoint, was to find ways of organizing the real estate of the screen that are more intuitive for reading.
Another thing we’ve lamented about blogs, and web sites in general, is their overwhelming verticality. Vertical scrolling fields — an artifact of supercomputer terminals and the long spools of code they spit out — are taken for granted as the standard way to read online. But nowhere was this ordained as the ideal interface — in fact it is designed more for machines than for humans, yet humans are the users on the front end. Text does admittedly flow down, but we read left to right, and its easier to move your eye across a text that is fixed than one that is constantly moving. A site we’ve often admired is The International Herald Tribune, which arranges its articles in elegant, fixed plates that flip horizontally from one to the next. With these things in mind, we set it as a challenge for ourselves to try for some kind of horizontally oriented design for Ken’s blog.
There’s been a fairly rigorous back and forth on email over the past two weeks in which we’ve wrestled with these questions, and in the interest of working in the open, we’ve posted the exchange below (most of it anyway) with the thought that it might actually shed some light on what happens — from design and conceptual standpoints — when you try to mash up two inherently different forms, the blog and the book. Jesse has been the main creative force behind the design, and he’s put together a lovely annotated page explaining the various mockups we’ve developed over the past week. If you read the emails (which are can be found directly below this paragraph) you will see that we are still very much in the midst of figuring this out. Feedback would be much appreciated. (See also GAM3R 7H30RY: part 2).

Continue reading

without gods: an experiment

without gods screenshot.jpg Just in time for the holidays, a little god-free fun…
The institute is pleased to announce the launch of Without Gods, a new blog by New York University journalism professor and media historian Mitchell Stephens that will serve as a public workshop and forum for the writing of his latest book. Mitch, whose previous works include A History of News and the rise of the image the fall of the word, is in the early stages of writing a narrative history of atheism, to be published in 2007 by Carroll and Graf. The book will tell the story of the human struggle to live without gods, focusing on those individuals, “from Greek philosophers to Romantic poets to formerly Islamic novelists,” who have undertaken the cause of atheism – “a cause that promises no heavenly reward.”
Without Gods will be a place for Mitch to think out loud and begin a substantive exchange with readers. Our hope is that the conversation will be joined, that ideas will be challenged, facts corrected, queries and probes answered; that lively and intelligent discussion will ensue. As Mitch says: “We expect that the book’s acknowledgements will eventually include a number of individuals best known to me by email address.”
Without Gods is the first in a series of blogs the institute is hosting to challenge the traditional relationship between authors and readers, to learn how the network might more directly inform the usually solitary business of authorship. We are interested to see how a partial exposure of the writing process might affect the eventual finished book, and at the same time to gently undermine the notion that a book can ever be entirely finished. We invite you to read Without Gods, to spread the word, and to take part in this experiment.

malcom gladwell on the social life of paper.

I’m going to devote a series of posts to some (mostly online) texts that have been useful in my teaching and thinking about new media, textuality, and print technologies over the past few years. To start, I’d like to resurrect a three-year old New Yorker piece by Malcom Gladwell called “The Social Life Of Paper,” which distills the arguments of Abigail Sellen and Richard Harper’s book The Myth of the Paperless Office.
Gladwell (like Sellen and Harper) is interested in whether or not giving up paper entirely is practical or even possible. He suggests that for some tasks, paper remains the “killer app;” attempts to digitize such tasks might actually make them more difficult to do. His most compelling example, in the opening paragraph of his article, is the work of the air traffic controller:

On a busy day, a typical air-traffic controller might be in charge of as many as twenty-five airplanes at a time–some ascending, some descending, each at a different altitude and travelling at a different speed. He peers at a large, monochromatic radar console, tracking the movement of tiny tagged blips moving slowly across the screen. He talks to the sector where a plane is headed, and talks to the pilots passing through his sector, and talks to the other controllers about any new traffic on the horizon. And, as a controller juggles all those planes overhead, he scribbles notes on little pieces of paper, moving them around on his desk as he does. Air-traffic control depends on computers and radar. It also depends, heavily, on paper and ink.

Gladwell goes on to make the point that this while kind of reliance on bit of paper drives productivity-managers crazy, anyone who tries to change the way that an air traffic controller works is overlooking a simple fact: the strips of paper supply a stream of “cues” that mesh beautifully with the cognitive labor of the air traffic controller; they are, Gladwell says, “physical manifestations of what goes on inside his head.”
Expanding on this example, Gladwell goes on to argue that while computers are excellent at storing information — much better than the file cabinet with its paper documents — they are often less useful for collaborative work and for the sort of intellectual tasks that are facilitated by piles of paper one can shuffle, rearrange, edit and discard on one’s desk.
“The problem that paper solves,” he writes, “is the problem that most concerns us today, which is how to support knowledge work. In fretting over paper, we have been tripped up by a historical accident of innovation, confused by the assumption that the most important invention is always the most recent. Had the computer come first — and paper second — no one would raise an eyebrow at the flight strips cluttering our air-traffic-control centers.”
This is a pretty strong statement, and I find the logic both seductive and a bit flawed. I’m seduced because I too have piles of paper all over the place, and I’d like to think that these are not simply bits of dead tree, but instead artifacts intrinsic to knowledge work. But I’m skeptical because I think it’s safe to assume that standard cognitive processes can change from generation to generation; for example, those who are growing up using ichat and texting are less likely to think of bits and scraps of paper as representative of cognitive immediacy in the same way I do.
When I’ve taught this essay, I usually also assign Sven Birkets’ Into the Electronic Millenium, a text which argues (in a somewhat Lamarckian way) that electronic mediation is pretty much rewiring our brains in a way that makes it impossible for computer-mediated youth to process information in the same way as their elders. Most of them will agree with both Gladwell and Birkets — yes, there will always be a need for paper because our brain will always process certain things certain ways, but also yes, digital technologies are changing the way that our brain works. My job is to get them to see that those two concepts contradict one another. Birkets espouses a peculiar and curmudgeonly sort of technological determinism. Gladwell, on the other hand, with his focus on an embodied way of knowing, flips the equation and wonders how best to get technology to work FOR us, instead of thinking how technology might work ON us.
I can see why my students are drawn to both arguments: even though I don’t essentially agree with either essay, I often catch myself falling into Birket’s trap of extreme technological determinism — or alternately, thinking, like Gladwell, that because a certain way of doing things seems optimal it must be the “natural” way to do it.

it’s about TIME

on tuesday Tom De Zengotita came over to williamsburg to have lunch with the insitute. Tom teaches philosophy at Dalton and NYU and recently published a terrific book, Mediated, about modern media’s profound effects on the human psyche and culture.
we invited Tom to lunch to discuss a new project we’re thinking about — how to use the web to encourage discussion about the BIG QUESTIONS facing humanity. we’ll write much more about this soon, but i couldn’t wait to mention one point that Tom made that’s really got me thinking.
Tom said “It’s about TIME.” if we are going to be serious about confronting big, first order questions, we have to be willing to put in the time to go deeply. we actually have to read the material; we have to wrestle with the ideas; we have to follow through.
this of course runs counter to our current mediated existence which favors shallow surfing over digging deep. i wonder if a sea-change is possible?

the blog carnival

The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a good piece last week by Henry Farrell — “The Blogosphere As A Carnival of Ideas” — looking at the small but growing minority of scholars who have become bloggers. Farrell is a poli sci professor at George Washington, and a contributor to the popular group blog Crooked Timber. He argues from experience how blogs have invigorated scholarly exchange within and across fields, allowing for a more relaxed discourse, free of the jargon and stuffy manner of journals. In some cases, blogs have enabled previously obscure academics to break beyond the ivory tower to connect with a large general readership hungry for their insight and expertise.
What Farrell neglects to mention — which is surprising given the title of the piece — is the phenomenon of the “blog carnival,” an interesting subculture of the web that has been adopted in certain academic, or quasi-academic, circles. A blog carnival is like a roving journal, a rotating showcase of interesting writing from around the blogosphere within a particular discipline. Individual bloggers volunteer to host a carnival on their personal blog, acting as chief editor for that edition. It falls to them to collect noteworthy items, and to sort through suggestions from the community, many of which are direct submissions from authors. On the appointed date (carnivals generally keep to a regular schedule) the carnival gets published and the community is treated to a richly annotated feast of new writing in the field.
Granted, not all participating bloggers are academics. Some are students, some simply enthusiasts. Anyone with a serious interest in the given area is usually welcome. Among the more active blog carnivals are Tangled Bank, a science carnival currently in its 38th edition, the Philosophers’ Carnival, whose 20th edition was just posted this past Sunday, and the History Carnival, currently in its 17th edition.
Here’s a small taste from the most recent offering at History Carnival, hosted by The Apocalyptic Historian:

New Deal liberalism has been on the minds of politicians lately. Hiram Hover posts about the recent talk of New Deal analogies from politicians in deciding how to help the victims of Katrina in “Responding to Katrina: Is History Any Guide?” Caleb McDaniel at Mode for Caleb draws a startling historical parallel between the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Phildelphia and New Orleans after Katrina in 2005.
In a comparison of another of Bush’s crises in the making, Jim MacDonald revisits the history of the Sepoy Rebellion with comments on the current situation in Iraq. Meanwhile Sepoy contributes to a recent attempt to compile the views Westerners have about Islam at Chapati Mystery.
How many times have humans believed the world was coming to an end? Natalie Bennett reviews a recent work on the Anabaptist takeover of Münster in 1534, when the belief in the impending apocalypse sent that city into chaos.

Most carnivals have a central site that indexes links to past editions and provides a schedule of upcoming ones, but the posts themselves exist on the various blogs that comprise the community. Hence the “carnival” — a traveling festival of ideas, a party that moves from house to house. Participating blogs generally display a badge on their sidebar signaling their affiliation with a particular collective.
carnivalesque.jpg Though carnivals keep to a strict schedule, there is no mandated format or style. Host bloggers can organize the material however they choose, putting their own personal spin or filter on the current round — just as long as they stick to the overall topic. The latest issue of Carnivalesque, a monthly circuit on medieval and early modern history, shows how far some hosts will go — styled as a full magazine, the October issue is complete with a mock cover, a letter from the editor, and links organized by section.
The concept of the carnival seems to have originated in 2002 with “The Carnival of the Vanities,” which for a while served as a venue for bloggers to promote their best writing — a way of fighting the swift sinking of words in a sea of rapidly updating blogs. It’s not surprising that the idea was then taken up by academic types, since the carnival model, in its essence, rather jives with the main warranting mechanism of all scholarly publication: peer review. It’s a looser, less formal peer review to be sure, but still operates according to the ethos of the self-evaluating collective.
It’s worth paying attention to how these carnivals work because they provide at least part of the answer to a larger concern about the web: how to maintain quality and authority in a flood of amateur self-publishing. In the cycle of the carnival, blogging becomes a kind of open application process where your best work is dangled in the path of roving editors. You might say all bloggers are roving editors, but these ones represent an authoritative collective, one with a self-sustaining focus.
So the idea of the carnival, refined and sharpened by academics and lifelong learners, might in fact have broader application for electronic publishing. It happily incorporates the de-centralized nature of the web, thriving through collaborative labor, and yet it retains the primacy of individual voices and editorial sensibilities. Again, you might point out that its formula is far from unique, that this is in fact the procedure of just about any blog: find interesting stuff on the web and link to it with a few original comments. But the carnival focuses this practice into a regular, more durable form, providing an authoritative context that can be counted on week after week, even year after year. Sounds sort of like a magazine doesn’t it? But its offices are constantly in flux, its editorial chair a rotating one. I’m interested to see how it evolves. If blogs in cyberspace are like the single-cell organism in the primordial porridge, might the carnival be a form of multi-cell life?

podcast: discussing neil postman’s “building a bridge to the 18th century”

book_building_a_bridge.jpg (Annotated audio recordings of this discussion appear further down.)
On the dedication page of “Building a Bridge to the 18th Century,” Neil Postman quotes the poet Randall Jarrell:

Soon we shall know everything the 18th century didn’t know, and nothing it did, and it will be hard to live with us.

Though often failing to provide satisfying answers, Postman asks the kind of first-order questions one hears all too infrequently at a time when technology’s impact on our social, political and intellectual lives grows ever more profound. Postman has been accused of deep reactionism toward technology, and indeed, his hostility toward computers and telecommunications betrays an elitism that discredits some of his larger, and quite compelling observations.
In spite of this, Postman’s diagnosis is persuasive: that the idea of technological progress bequeathed by the Enlightenment has detached from reason and become a runaway train, that we are unquestioningly embracing new technologies that unleash massive change on our family and communal life, our democracy, and our capacity to think critically. We have stopped asking the single most important question that should be applied to all new technological innovations: does this technology solve a problem? If so, then at what cost? To whose benefit? And at whose expense?
Postman portrays the contemporary West as a culture without a narrative, littered with the shards of broken ideologies – depressed, unmotivated, and therefore uncritical of the new technologies that are foisted upon it by a rapacious capitalist system. The culprit, as he sees it, is postmodernism, which he lambasts (rather simplistically) as a corrosive intellectual trend, picking at the corpse of the Enlightenment, and instilling torpor and malaise at all levels of culture through its distrust of language and dogged refusal to accept one truth over another. This kind of thinking, Postman argues, is seductive, but it starves humans of their inspiration and sense of purpose.
To be saved, he goes on, and to build a better future, we would do well to look back to the philosophes of 18th century Europe, who, in the face of surging industrialization, defined a new idea of universal rational humanism – one that allowed for various interpretations within its fold, was rigorously suspicious of religious or any other kind of dogma, and yet gave the world a sense of moral uplift and progress. Postman does not suggest that we copy the 18th century, but rather give it careful study in order to draw inspiration for a new positive narrative, and for a reinvigoration of our critical outlook. This, Postman insists, offers us the best chance of surviving our future.
Postman’s note of alarm, if at times shrill, is nonetheless a refreshing antidote to the techno-optimism that pervades contemporary culture. And his recognition of our “crisis in narrative” – a formulation borrowed from Vaclav Havel – is dead on.
September 19: Bob, Dan, Kim, and Ben discuss Postman’s book at our new Brooklyn office (special prize if you pick out the sound of the ice cream truck passing by).
1. Bob’s preface – thoughts about how we do business at the institute (1:56) (download)

2. Ben’s first impressions – childhood under threat… Dan’s first impressions into discussion – a Clinton-era book, sets up a rather straw man caricature with the postmodernists, but society’s need for a narrative is compelling – why the Christian right has done so well… Postman seems to be assuming that progress is a law, that there is a directed narrative to history – problems with how he treats evolution. (6:43) (download)

3. Bob: Postman is much better at identifying problems than at coming up with solutions. Which is what makes him compelling. His stance is courageous. People assume with technology that just because something can be done it should be done. This is a tremendous problem – an affliction. If you could go back in time and be the inventor of the automobile, would you do it? People get angry at the responsibility this question imputes to them. How can we put these big questions at the center of our work? (13:34) (download)

4. Another big question… “An electronic community is only a simulation of a real community”? Flickr, Friendster, Howard Dean campaign? What is the vehicle for talking about this? What format is best for engaging these questions? Looking for new forms that illuminate or activate the questions. (15:43) (download)

5. Where/who are the public intellectuals today? [The ice cream truck passes by.] Strange bifurcation of the intellectual elite – many of the best-educated people most able to deal with abstraction make their living producing popular media that controls society. (10:07) (download)

6. Is capitalism the problem? Postman’s bias: written language will never be surpassed in its power to deal with abstract thought and cultivation of ideas. But we are arguably past the primacy of print. What is our attitude toward this? (9:39) (download)

7. What opportunities for reflection do different media afford? Films on DVD can be read and reread like a book – the viewer controls, rather than being controlled – a possibility for reflection not available in broadcast. What is the proper venue for discussing this? Capitalism is the 800 lb. gorilla in the room. How do we create, if not a mass agitation, then at least a mass discussion? Tie it to the larger pressing problems of the world and how they will be better addressed by certain forms of discourse and reflection. Averting ecological catastrophe as one possible narrative – an inspiring motivator that will get people moving. How do find our way back into history? (10:09) (download)

8. What should we read next as counterpoint/antidote to Postman? The Matrix – are we headed that way? (12:33) (download)

9. How do we organize new kinds of debates about technology and society? Other issues to be addressed – class, race and gender inequality. (11:26) (download)