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.

August 11, 2009

What We Know So Far

Category: Events — Biella @ 6:58 am

So when I like something, I tend to REALLY LIKE it. One of my great likes is the Brooklyn-based performance group What We Know So Far. They focus on Internety/geeky/memey things and give a really entertaining and clever show. In just 2 days, New Yorkers will have the chance to see Not One, Not Two, But Three of their performance pieces at the Third Ward.

So what I am saying is that if you are in like an 80 mile radius, you should go.

If you miss it, that is sort of ok as we are hosting them at NYU on October 9th.

Dear Lazy Web: RTFM-in-Action

Category: Academic,Advice,Debian,Geek,My Work — Biella @ 5:01 am


So I am currently working on a section of my book that examines the duality/tension between sharing and self-reliance among hackers. I have some great examples from IRC of sharing but none of RTFMing, which indeed, is more rare. Do you have in your quote file some funny example of RTFM (or a kindred ‘eff you’) or know of a mailing list discussion where this happened? I would love to include in the book. For those that are not geeky readers, RTFM = Read The Fucking Manual and is a stylized rebuff that some people find very offensive and others less so because it is a canned response. Whatever the case…here is a snippet from the book:

On the one hand, hackers speak of the importance of learning from others and construe knowledge production as a collective enterprise—this rhetoric is often matched in practice by truly generous and copious acts of constant sharing. In any given minute of the day, I can head over to one of the developers IRC channels and there will be some developers asking a question, getting an answer, and giving thanks. On the other hand, hackers at times express an extreme commitment to individual self-reliance, which can be at times displayed in a quite abrasive and elitist tone. Hacker discourse creates fine discriminations among the projects of individual programmers and valorizes independent control over technical environments and production

I have some great examples of sharing-in-action on IRC because frankly, that is what happens much of the time. I also have a great analytical discussion of RTFM among DD’s but what I don’t have is an RTFM in action.

I can 1) spend the next 48 hours straight starting at #debian and other channels to see whether one comes up and just might have to do so.

But if you have some IRC log/quote file that captures this fine moment or know of a mailing list discussion where this happened, can you please pass along?

ps. Here is my favorite description of RTFM:

[RTFM] is a big chromatic dragon with bloodshot beady eyes and fangs the size of oars. RTFM is me screaming at you as fireballs come out of my mouth to get off your precious no-good tush, march down to the local bookstore or MAN page repository, and get the eff off my back because I’m trying very hard to get some freakin’ work done. Jeez.

August 9, 2009

Free Software in the CS Academy

Category: F/OSS,IP Law,Open Access,Politics — Biella @ 1:52 pm

The world of Free Software is riddled with ironies, or so I like to tell myself, as I am devoting a history chapter that uses the frame of irony to trace the historical rise of this technological domain. One irony (though not entertained in the chapter) has to do with the status of Free Software in the academy: it is pretty weak among CS-ey types and yet Free Software is often identified as a paragon example of the openness and communitarian elements of how academic science is supposed to work. So.. what is exactly going on?

Recently I had the pleasure of discussing this issue a bit with Colin Turner, a professor of Mathematics at University of Ulster who has given this issue a lot of careful thought and is trying to make some changes on the academic side of things. You can read and learn a little more about his them in this thoughtful interview and his blog.

Do you know of any academic programs where FS was nowhere to be found but with some clever or bold initiative it flourished? Thoughts of what can be done to make FS a realistic presence in academic department? Is this perhaps where the future of Free Software advocacy should be headed?

August 8, 2009

Rectifying Mistakes: IdeaPad S Series netbook

Category: Advice,Computers — Biella @ 5:33 am

When I started my job, I decided to get an Apple Laptop because I wanted to try something new. I installed Linux (which is not so smooth to do on Apple). It was to put bluntly, a mistake.I really dislike the hardware and keyboard and it is just, like so much Apple hardware, flimsy. My CD/DVD player is already busted (and it is too much effort being in PR to fix it right now) and I feel like I have to treat the machine as a fragile one. I have heard so many Apple owners say “my hardware crashed, I sent my machine to be fixed” and when I point out that it messed up, many respod “but they have a great warranty.” The best warranty is not having to use the warranty. If you are not a Linux user, I understand why people prefer Apple software over MS software. But I will never get Mapple again.

Anyhow so I am going to get a netbook cuz I am traveling a whole lot next year and I can’t trust the Apple. I am thinking of IdeaPad S-series as it seems nifty and seems to work very well with Debian/Ubuntu. I have spent the morning reading reviews, and all in all, it seems like a winner.

If you have any experience with it, negative or positive, feel free to shoot me a line or drop a note in the comments.

update: Thanks for everyone’s very useful comments. I am now leaning toward Asus EeePC 1000 HE

August 6, 2009

Sorry, this email is not so clever

Category: Academic,Geek,Hackers,Humor — Biella @ 9:18 am

Over the years it has been interesting to see the ethical ping pong between Ubuntu and Debian. Most recently a new issue has bubbled up having to do with the timing of the Debian release and the extent to which it was going to align with its cousin (as I like to think of Ubuntu). Mr Shuttleworth has finally emerged from his silence and penned down some thoughts, which I found pretty thoughtful.

I wish I could write about the debate in my book but I am already way over the word count (not a surprise).There are many many fascinating things about this multi-year debate but the one I find particularly interesting has to do with unwritten codes of conduct. The terms of the GPL allow Mr Shuttleworth to take Debian code and not do anything in return. Informal etiquette, of course speaks differently, mandating that if you take, you should make a reasonable effort to give back. Over the years, Debian and Ubuntu have been learning just how to manage this relationship and of course key players who have a foot in both projects, have had a hand in making this more of a reality.

While the content of this email won’t make it into the book, I do think that one particular line will and it is the line where where Mark actually apologizes for not being witty!

“Apologies in advance if this mail is lengthy and not particularly witty!”

One of my chapters is on wit, humor, and pleasure unearthing the ways you can read both the formal and poetic properties of hacking through humor and wit. When I started my research, one of the most surprising things was the sheer abundance of humor in the hacker habitat, which I describe in the following terms:

In the middle of some complicated technical discussion at a conference or over dinner, hackers will freely pepper their conversation with a series of clever quips. While joking is a very common convention used by speakers during public talks to break the proverbial ice (at least in the American context), during a hacker conference it is not simply speakers who joke; audience members will not hesitate to interrupt the speaker for the sake of humor, an occurrence that I have come to believe never offends and is actually expected and celebrated. In other words, humor is much more prevalent in their social sphere than most other vocational groups, with perhaps the exception of comedians.

As such, after mere weeks of fieldwork, it became undeniably apparent to me that humor is the privileged medium by which hackers express their cultural affection for cleverness and pleasure and became a way for me to take hold of the affective stance of pleasure, which is otherwise so difficult to capture analytically. Humor, to put it simply, is pleasure and play made socially material/tangible. Further, since hacker humor is also so often about technical matters, it works as the cultural glue that binds hackers together in a social collective…

Though a very small and passing detail, Mark’s apology, nonetheless signals the important of wit and hopefully I can find a seamless way to integrate it into the book, even if I can’t address the larger issues raised in the email, which again, are pretty interesting and deserve more attention.

August 5, 2009

Defective by Design, the Kindle

Category: Not Wholesome,Politics — Biella @ 12:46 pm

Most readers of this blog are well aware of recently Amazon kindle 1984 creepiness, so I won’t rehearse the details here again. If you care about these issues, well, Defective by Design has a petition you can sign.

August 4, 2009

Coming to a University Near YOU (well maybe)

Category: Academic,Classes — Biella @ 6:29 am

I have now taught a course on computer hacking 3 times and will do so again next year. I think it is also time to develop a new course that overlaps some with the hacker course but goes in a slightly different territory and I think THIS is what I am inspired to teach…

The Rude Boys of Technology: From Phreakers to Griefers (and everything in between)

Or maybe it should be:

The Rude Boyzzzzzzzzzzzzz of Tech: From Phreakers to Griefers (and everything in between)

Syllabus coming soon!

update: here and on facebook, a people noted the problematic use of rude boys. It is gender specific and indeed there are of griefers who are not boys or men but girls, women, and transgender folk too. I picked Rude Boys though as it references one of my favorite icons, the Jamaican Rude Boy.

The connection is also not just incidental. I have written a long time ago about how smack talking among geeks and smack talking among Carribeanites has a few formal similarities and would love to explore that further.

Perhaps I will change to reflect something more gender neutral or make explicit my reference and of course explore the politics of gender among these shadowy characters ;-)

Take that Assoicated Press

Category: Academic,Fair Use,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 3:43 am

There is a lawyer down the road from me, who I am lucky enough to see on a fairly regular basis. He is just a neat guy to talk to and when it comes to the law, I am extra fond of him because of these types of clever smackdowns he is so good at formulating. Well said James.

August 2, 2009

Stopping the train of IP: some lessons in the politics of copyleft

Category: Academic,Fair Use,Hackers,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 12:31 pm

I had my first bona fide twitter/facebook/identica argument. I stopped it pretty quickly as it is already pretty annoying to receive a parade of tweets; it is more annoying when it is a shouting match.

The content of the argument, however, was interesting. I had posted a short excerpt from RMS musings about how the Pirate Party position backfires on free software

I posted an abbreviated version of the following:

“I could support a law that would make GPL-covered software’s source code available in the public domain after 5 years, provided it has the same effect on proprietary software’s source code. After all, copyleft is a means to an end (users’ freedom), not an end in itself. And I’d rather not be an advocate for a stronger copyright.”

Jeremy was kind enough to take the argument off the 140 character twitterverse and post a thoughtful response. His stance is that copyleft and CC are actually part of the problem—representing some wimpy band-aid that does nothing to solve the problem of copyright and perhaps make it worse because it sanctions copyright as appropriate. In his own words:

However, because people can license things under copyright and ‘give them away’ or enter into other terms of contract. There is no felt necessity for resolving the real problem of copyright.

I respectfully but totally disagree. It is not that I inherently value the legal counter-power that copyleft licenses represents. It is just when viewed in historical context, copyleft was and is still no band-aid . A better metaphor is it was the tourniquet that saved the life of software, whose life was being slowly but surely suffocated by the mighty weight of IP law.

When RMS came up with his legal hack, there was literally a hundred year train (really older) barreling in one direction, going 1000 milers per hour whose sole purpose was to make property out of everything—software, seeds, modified bacteria, NBA scores–a trend that went nearly unabated through the 1980s and 1990s. One was not going to stop that mighty train and the 1000 pound gorilla (aka the trade associations) riding/driving the train. Indeed, Lessig made a valiant attempt at slowing down the train with Eldred and failed miserably (no fault of his)—so much so—that the court was not even split on the decision. It was overwhelmingly unwilling to stop the march on congress that allowed for greater and greater term extensions!

At the time Stallman took action, there was little to no room in the court of policy, in the court of law, and in the court of traditional politics to do much of anything to fix the problem. If he had waited ten years, I would not be publishing this entry on Word Press but some gawd awful proprietary system, probably run by AOL or something.

So Stallman fixed the problem as a hacker might: he understood the system so well, he used it to undermine it and take it down a different path.

Which gets me to my second point: when it comes to CC licenses, it is certainly the case that these might indeed affirm copyright as there is no clear standard of freedom. Further the language that Lessig likes to uphold as well as that of “choice,” which creeps close to a neoliberal ideology. This has been magnificently critiqued by lawyers, notably by Niva Elkin Koren in her piece Exploring Creative Commons: a Skeptical View of a Worthy Pursuit and Free Software advocate Mako Hill….

When it comes to the copyleft, I in fact don’t think it upholds copyright in any meaningful way. In fact, it signals the complete opposite. Now, I am going to dip into a little Derrida, which I hope does not deter some of the geeky readers. On the whole I can’t understand the guy but he has some great insights, when my brain can get it and I do my best to make him palpable.

One of his points is that naturalized proposition (like heterosexuality or until recently copyright) or social fact both presupposes and ultimately propagates what it excludes (also explored by Judy B as I like to call her and David Graeber).

It is just this structural quality of language and cultural concepts that Richard Stallman exploited when he established the first F/OSS license, the GPL. What is important to highlight is that while mainstream copyright discourse and related IP laws necessarily presuppose their opposition, they lack any meta-pragmatic indication of this presupposition. Most of copyright’s recent legal history represents a vehement disavowal, through economic incentive theory, of oppositional entailment of the copyright. The GPL more clearly speaks a meta-pragmatic commentary on its oppositional existence, an awareness even built into its informal name: copyleft, which explicitly indexes “copyright.” That is, it is created in direct opposition to copyright even if it makes use of it, which is why in the end, it does not serve the purpose, aim, or content of copyright.

In an essay on the law, “The Force of the Law: The Mystical Foundation of Authority” Derrida also makes the point that law is respected not because it is just, though it can be, but because it inherently carries with it a whole lot of authority, sanctioned by state power and all sorts of small and large acts (getting a ticket, getting thrown in jail) which keeps us all in our legal place. It also takes a whole lot of (effing draining, deflating) effort and gobs of money to challenge a law, which is one reason it carries this authority (his argument is far more sophisticated but I think you get the gist).

I would add that constitutional laws, like copyright, are doubly more authoritative as it they are buoyed by the foundation story/myth what have you of this country. That is, there is law, and there is Law, and Constitutional Law is of the latter kind.

And yet, RMS questioned or deflated the very authority of the law, which is precisely what was so transgressive and exciting about his actions. He took a a Constitutional mandate and redirected without the courts, without the judges, and for the most part without the lawyers (he, of course, used Eben Moglen’s help to draft the language).

Derrida, drawing on Walter Benjamin, notes how the figure of the criminal inspires and garners our attention, admiration, and awe, because he stands outside of the law and thus also reveals the violence of the law—or the ways in which we are all bound by the law whether we like it or not. Now, Stallman is no criminal. But in creating the copyleft, RMS did some violence to copyright, demonstrating its oppression (as applied) and another path, again without going through the usual legal paths.

This is not to say that his path or that of CC are the only ones or the best one’s for IP in the future. This is not to say that all is peachy in Copyleft-Landia. I take seriously Peter Jaszi’s critique that a legal counter power might rob the argumentative power for fair use.

I, for one, would like shorter copyright’s for all sorts of media and genres. I want the type of fair use where I can include this photo in my forthcoming article and not think twice about it. And I would looooooooooove a policy or legal or traditional grassroots movement that would kick some serious ass in Congress or the courts. And indeed, having a vibrant example to turn to in the form of CC/Copyelft, is perfect ammunition for whatever traditional political path may crop up. I don’t think that its existence automatically entails death of or for the politics of fair use or any other anti-copyright measures. One must be crafty about how to conjoin various streams and movements because in the end, a diverse political ecology is what we need instead of a political mono-culture.

This is also not to say policy and traditional politics are not powerful in their own right. It is just in the historical circumstance of the time, when the legal push to make property out of everything was unstoppable, RMS’ solution was/is far more than mere band-aid.