July 26, 2010

New Publications

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Research — Biella @ 1:22 pm

I have a few new (academic) publications out and most are on my website. Hope to get a copy of the Annual Review of Anthropology up there in the fall!

July 14, 2010

Annual Review of Anthropology on Digital Media

I don’t remember how but I remember when I first stumbled on an “Annual Review of Anthropology.” Reading the first one was like stumbling accidentally into a pirate chest of gold doubloons. I was simultaneously flabbergasted, elated, and somewhat annoyed. I could not believe how helpful of a resource the articles were, how interesting it was to learn about the state of the field (since each review covers one topic) and what a time saver it was in terms of research. I was annoyed only because no one had really properly clued me into its existence and felt like it was one of the things that every graduate student should know about like before they even entered their program.

When I got asked to write one a few years ago, a mix of conflicting emotions welled up. I was honored and horrified at the same time for I knew that it would require some of the heaviest lifting I have ever engaged in, which turned out to be the case. I almost quit twice but managed to turn in the first draft on time, before the deadline (thanks to a scheduled trip to NZ).

After a parade of months of reading, drafting, and rethinking, the uncorrected proofs are now online on the ARA wesbite (you need library access to fetch it and the link is tiny and on the right hand corner). The corrected proofs will be there in a few months but all the mistakes at this point are typos, although I would check back to get the final copy for the purposes of citation.

There is a lot more I want to say about the piece and the process of writing it but I will leave such ruminations for future posts. For now, it suffices to say that with a piece like this, you become a dart board, as my friend cleverly put it the other night. I am sure I have overlooked folks (I was working within very thrifty parameters, 6000 words, 150 citations though I managed to get a bit more) and I could have pushed everything further than I did, though this again was very hard to do given the constraints. I decided in the end to be as inclusive as I could, which meant sacrificing a few lines of thought, which I hope to pick up in the future. The part I like the most is the last bit, where I conclude by with the help of systems administrators and spam.

February 6, 2010

Hard to imagine but it is our history

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 10:12 am

Stowe v Thomas (1853) where the court argued that a German translation of Uncle’s Tom’s Cabins did not constitute copyright infringement (quoted from Meredith McGill’s excellent bookAmerican Literature and the Culture of Reprinting, 1834-1853:

“Before publication [the author] has the exclusive possession of his invention. His dominion is perfect. But when he has published his book and given his thoughts, sentiments, knowledge or discoveries to the world, he can have no longer an exclusive possession of them. Such an appropriation becomes impossible, and is inconsistent with the object of publication. The author’s conceptions have become common property of his readers, who cannot be deprived of the use of them, or their right to communicate them to others clothed in their own language, by lecture or by treatise”

August 14, 2009

1998 and the Irish Accent is Why I Study F/OSS

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Debian,F/OSS,Free Speech,Hackers — Biella @ 6:03 am

Update: Geek feminism blog has a great entry with a collection of personal reflections on what transpired during the course of 1998.

Cultural Anthropology has published a supplemental section for my articlee, one that not only has some nifty images, but gives a nice overview of the article. I have also received some feedback via email and blogs, which have been helpful and have already made their way into the book manuscript–the first draft of which is almost done (I am sending it to some folks very soon for comments).

Fred Benenson, Free Culture rabble rouser, wrote a retrospective, noting how DeCSS radicalized him, with apologies to MLK (you sill just have to read to see why he is apologizing, it is amusing).

James Vasile from the SFLC wrote a blog entry asking me to make some linkages between free speech and the freedom to associate, which is an excellent, excellent point, elaborated in his own words:

My point of departure from Biella is that she doesn’t go far enough. Code is speech, but it’s also very much more important than that. It’s community. The first amendment protects three areas of freedom: belief, speech and association. The first two are just examples of the third; free speech and religion are meaningless in the absence of community

Don Marti wrote an interesting email highlighting the importance of 1998, which I could not agree with more (bits from his email provided below). It was a pivotal year that really stirred the pot, so much so, that was the year I ditched my other project and decided to go with F/OSS for my dissertation. The problems was at the time my dissertation committee did not bite (they loved the idea, but were understandably concerned about my job prospects). I let the idea go for a few weeks, possibly months until one Very Important Conversation over coffee transpired with an Irish classmate who riveted me, in part with her accent, to press on if that is what I wanted to study. Given I have a real real real soft spot for Irish accents (like everything sounds so important, even revolutionary when an Irish person speaks), I was swayed, went back to my committee and well, here I am a decade later. And now you know how to convince me of something: get an Irish person to do the arguing.

So I encourage folks to take a read, it is readable, or so I think. Or maybe I should say far less jargony than some of my other stuff. I still welcome comments!

Here are some of Don’s thoughts about 1998:

1998 was a really weird year.

The intellectua lproprietarians got the DMCA — 98
to nothing in the Senate, voice vote in the House.
The Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act passed
the same year. The IT industry was rapidly giving
up on the bickering, greedy Unix vendors, and Unix’s
non-fungible admins with a sort of literary tradition,
and moving instead to standardized certified MSCEs.
(A co-worker at the time told me that the main selling
point for Windows NT was that it didn’t have “cheeky
Unix geeks”.)

1998 was the apparent high-water mark for the
de-hackerification of the industry. Even long-time
hackerish companies were getting a haircut and
a shave. SGI introduced the Visual Workstation,
running Microsoft Windows NT, and O’Reilly and
Associates was pushing the company’s first and only
shrink-wrap software, a web server for Windows NT.
The spring 1998 O’Reilly catalog had all Windows books
on the cover, and all the Unix stuff was in back.
Netscape was on its way down in flames.

But all this stuff happened too.


Oracle for Linux. VC investment for Red Hat.
Open-source releases for Mozilla, Qt, and IBM Secure
Mailer (now Postfix). Linus Torvalds on the cover
of _Forbes_. It was also the first year that Linux
kernel developers got full-time jobs doing just
kernel work.

So there was all this fascinating news and code for
recruiting new hackers at the same time that there
was a huge power grab intended to drive hackers out.
It was a recipe for a political debate.

The Stallmanite incarnation of Free Software often
talks about recapturing a pre-EULA state of innocence
– not just the fabled environment of the MIT AI Lab,
where Stallman developed his code-sharing habits,
but a lot of early science and business computing.
Copyleft, a tool for defending Free Software,
is Stallman’s brainchild. (I remember seeing
a (Sperry?) ad at the Computer History Museum,
advertising a large software sharing community as
a feature of the company’s hardware line. Need to
find this again.)

Is copyright law a constitutional mandate? It’s in
the section with Letters of Marque and Reprisal, all
things that Congress is allowed, but not required,
to do.

Why do free software developers act as their own
lawyers? Maybe for the same reason they act as
their own testers, PR people, documenters, sysadmins,
whatever. Developers do their own law the same way
they do their own logos. When you get the processes,
connectivity, and tools to increase a development
organization’s tooth/tail ratio, any necessary
“tail” (context) tasks get picked up by “tooth”
(core) people.

July 9, 2009

Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Debian,F/OSS,Free Speech,IP Law — Biella @ 7:12 am

After quite a few years of work, revisions, procrastination, and a few life changes, I have finally published a lengthy piece in Cultural Anthropology on code and speech entitled “Code is Speech: Legal Tinkering, Expertise, and Protest among Free and Open Source Software Developers, published in Cultural Anthropology. Debian figures pretty prominently as does the arrests of Jon Johansen and Dmitry Sklyarov and the DeCSS Haiku

update: If you have access to a University library, you can get it now. If you don’t, it will be available for free (as in beer) in a few months, and I might also post an uncorrected proof (as I believe I have permission to do so) or can send it to you if you request it. I have posted the pre-print proof here. Since these are the uncorrected proofs, there are a few minor mistakes.

Though published, this is also, much like software, a work in progress as the material represented here will also be in my book and the good news, is I can seriously expand on the issues I have raised. So I am looking for interested readers for feedback, which will thankfully make it in a book that I can post here.

Abstract below:

In this essay, I examine the channels through which Free and Open Source Software (F/OSS) developers reconfigure central tenets of the liberal tradition—and the meanings of both freedom and speech—to defend against efforts to constrain their productive autonomy. I demonstrate how F/OSS developers contest and specify the meaning of liberal freedom—especially free speech—through the development of legal tools and discourses within the context of the F/OSS project. I highlight how developers concurrently tinker with technology and the law using similar skills, which transform and consolidate ethical precepts among developers. I contrast this legal pedagogy with more extraordinary legal battles over intellectual property, speech, and software. I concentrate on the arrests of two programmers, Jon Johansen and Dmitry Sklyarov, and on the protests they provoked, which unfolded between 1999 and 2003. These events are analytically significant because they dramatized and thus made visible tacit social processes. They publicized the challenge that F/OSS represents to the dominant regime of intellectual property (and clarified the democratic stakes involved) and also stabilized a rival liberal legal regime intimately connecting source code to speech.

June 30, 2009

Academic Publishing

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Open Access — Biella @ 5:56 am

Last spring I secured a Creative Commons license for my book, which is under contract with Princeton University Press. It was was a huge relief for me as I want to publish with PUP but knew there was a serious contradiction if I published a book on Free Software under a copyright license (sort of like printing a Hindu prayer book on leather…).

This article in the chronicle Saving Texts From Oblivion, which opens with a fascinating though unsurprising finding, points to other reasons why an open license is a sensible thing to do, that is, if you want students to read your book:

At a focus group in Oxford University Press’s offices in New York last month, we heard that in a recent essay assignment for a Columbia University classics class, 70 percent of the undergraduates had cited a book published in 1900, even though it had not been on any reading list and had long been overlooked in the world of classics scholarship. Why so many of the students had suddenly discovered a 109-year-old work and dragged it out of obscurity in preference to the excellent modern works on their reading lists is simple: The full text of the 1900 work is online, available on Google Book Search; the modern works are not.

The article, written by Oxford’s editor, has an interesting set arguments about why to support the Google book settlement. It does not, however, really address the question of book piracy, which if anyone has taken a minute to explore, will notice that it is a booming underground economy and the quality of the books is utterly fantastic.

Given these conditions: what will the academic publishers do? No one, at least in academia, wants them to go under and yet conditions have made it difficult for them to survive. I do hope that some interesting solutions, with the financial aid of university support (after all, many are calling for open access) are hacked up.

Calling for tighter copyright controls as this famous judge has done in the case of newspapers is not the path that I hope anyone entertains. In fact, releasing books after a year or two under a CC license might be one path to take, along with providing affordable e-books so that those who do want to support authors and books buy them instead of hitting the pirate stands.

June 11, 2009

In Defense of Distraction

Category: Books/Articles — Biella @ 2:32 pm

This article on the benefits of distraction published in New York Magazine is a bit old (by I-time, at least). But with 30+ tabs open I could not get to it until today when I did the job of pruning my tabs.

At first I was a little taken aback by its length (sort of ironic for an article on distraction: one is bound to be distracted but I read it in one sittings (actually couch lying). But I got really into it: the prose is excellent and he maneuvers through the landscape–the bad, good, and ugly–of today’s digital distraction with ease, insight, and humor. I think you will enjoy it.

June 6, 2009

OY Vey, Enid did you hear? Fieldwork is not…

Category: Academic,Books/Articles — Biella @ 4:24 pm

OOOI Vey: Fieldwork is not what it used to be! So, when I hear the title of this new book, I basically hear/see an old Jewish academic kvetching about the glory days of anthropology and fieldwork and complaining about his aching back. But that is just my mind in humorous mode as I am extraordinarily excited to read the book and pretty psyched that fieldwork is not what once was.

Not only does the collection have a piece by one of my dissertation advisors but it has a motley collection of folks who basically helped push along anthropology to a better place. Most of them (in fact all of them, I think) had some connection to the Rice Anthropology department. Clearly something in the water and air makes folks from there hang tight with the experimental mode!

May 7, 2009

Make our words glisten

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Geek,Humor,Uncategorized,Wholesome — Biella @ 10:46 am

glisten vs hardened words, originally uploaded by the biella.

Now that I am (thankfully) done teaching until September, I have time to devour two small mountains of readings that I need to finish before I return to my manuscript, which I will be working on, I hope uber-productively, all summer long. One pile of readings deals with coding, open source, and the commons, such as Scott Rosenberg’s Dreaming in Code and David Bollier’s Viral Spiral. Another pile of reading edges toward the theoretical side of things, having to do with craft, pleasure, and humor, since it is pleasure in its many many many guises—from from the calm feeling of self-satisfaction that underlies pride in one’s craft, to the more sublime feeling of ecstatic bliss—that powers many creative sprints.

If one entertains pleasure, one must also entertain its darker side, for all of this “feel good” stuff is nonetheless often springs forth from a deep sea of passionate frustration. This seems to be the driving theme of Dreaming in Code and it is also what animates Ellen Ullman’s fictional account of pure frustration, The Bug. I am quite fond of “native” expressions of geek frustration and recently was provided with an exquisite example—a rant against the Adobe PSD format. The author of Xee, “A light-weight, fast and convenient image viewer for Mac OS X” explained his utter contempt for the Adobe PSD in the following way:

 At this point, I’d like to take a moment to speak to you about the Adobe PSD format. PSD is not a good format. PSD is not even a bad format. Calling it such would be an insult to other bad formats, such as PCX or JPEG. No, PSD is an abysmal format. Having worked on this code for several weeks now, my hate for PSD has grown to a raging fire that burns with the fierce passion of a million suns. If there are two different ways of doing something, PSD will do both, in different places. It will then make up three more ways no sane human would think of, and do those too. PSD makes inconsistency an art form. Why, for instance, did it suddenly decide that *these* particular chunks should be aligned to four bytes, and that this alignement should *not* be included in the size? Other chunks in other places are either unaligned, or aligned with the alignment included in the size. Here, though, it is not included.

Were it within my power, I would gather every single copy of those specs, and launch them on a spaceship directly into the sun.

Even if this account represents unadulterated irritation, he leaves us, the reader, with nothing of the irritation, only pleasure. This aftermath of frustration is delivered through the vehicle of humor, which within the hacker context, is the cultural container that best captures the spirit of hacker pleasure or so I will be arguing. Like many humorous rants from the world of hacking (and please send me any others you know of), this text dances with liveliness; it exudes its own rhythm; it “glistens” to use Ronald Barthes’ apt phrasing from his short book “The Pleasure of Text,” which I just finished as part of my theoretical escape into the pleasure-dome.

Although there are parts of his book which are to be frank, *really* *not* *pleasurable*, partly due to obscure references to High French Theory, which elide even an academic pair of eyes, the book generally pleases. And one of the most pleasing chunks is his definition of a stereotype:

“The stereotype is the word repeated without any magic, any enthusiasm, as though it were natural, as though by some miracle this recurring words were adequate on each occasion for different reasons, as though to imitate could no longer be sensed as an imitation: an unconstrained word that claims consistency and is unaware of its own insistence”

In contrast to the stereotype, a string of words that enchants does so by slipping off the page to hit you squarely in the heart or the gut. Unfortunately, while academic writing steers clear of stereotypes, often trying to present the detailed singularity of a phenomena (even when conditioned by social forces), it does not exactly “glisten,” though there are a handful of exceptions. I think we need more texts that glisten, even if only during sections or parts of our books and articles (much like the rant helped enliven the more staid technical document).

In recent years, in large part due to the influence of free software, there has been an explosion, a move toward going open access. All of this is laudable and I fully embrace it (and have gotten into some small battles over it). But without an aesthetic politics that values pleasure in reading and writing we are doomed to obscurity anyway. A move toward making our knowledge public also required a move toward thinking about the literary aesthetics of pleasure.

May 6, 2009

The Year’s Work in Lebowski Studies

Category: Academic,Books/Articles — Biella @ 2:30 pm

Our beloved dude is now the subject/object of academic study. I hope the essays are playful or else they just won’t cut it.