March 29, 2010

Do you Open the Hood or Do you Free the Source?

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 5:44 am

So I tend to de-emphasize the differences between free and open source software as it tends to break down when you look at what people do (as opposed to what certain purists say). That said, there are important differences, especially given certain conditions and questions. In the fall, I participated in a debate on this very question, representing at some level the angle of free, the artist, Zach Lieberman representing open source. I think the meat of the event is during the Q and A so if you are interested in this issue, it might be worth a whirl. I also think this format might work really well for Debconf10 so if you can think of some hot-button issue that should be subject to debate, do propose.

March 12, 2010

Stuff I have been enjoying (a freaken lot)

So in the last week I have read some stuff, seen some presentations, and visited some sites that I have really loved, so here they are to share:

Trollcats (this will take my power point slides to a whole NEW level) and here is one for all the free software geeks, in particular.

I finally read Manuela Carneiro da Cunha fantastic Prickly Paradigm press book “Culture” and Culture: Traditional Knowledge and Intellectual Rights. If you don’t know jack about the thorny issues around indigenous knowledge an IPR, the first 2/3 provides a pretty darn good introduction rooted not only in an explanation of trade treaties, the limited repertoire available for indigenous groups to politically respond, but a great story about a specific frog that secretes a sticky film that basically F’s you up (if you let it seep in your open wounds). It is entertaining. The last 1/3 takes a far more theoretical turn and will be harder to understand for novices (it helps if you have like at least a BA, possibly MA in anthro, best if you have a PhD from her academic home, U of Chicago). It is there where she discusses the relationship between culture as “reflexive” (hey, peoples of the world, we have x, y, c culture) as lived unreflexively (the unconscious plane of norms that helps guide perception and action). I loved her theoretical somersaults whereby she explained how contradictions between the two are experienced as anything but a contradiction.

Ok so today I went to this conference Radars and Fences III (where I presented my anon/scientology talk for the first time 3 years ago!). I was not able to stay the whole day but I saw Ricardo Dominguez & Amy Sara Carroll from the Electronic Disturbance Theater present on the Transborder Immigrant Tool, which I knew about but did not know how infused it was in poetry, poetry that is, in fact, an integral part of its arsenal. Their presentation was fantastic and it reminds me the great political work being done at the interface of art and technology (and believe me, these 2 are rabble rousers. UCSD, who helped fund the project, are not all that happy they did and they also get not hate mail they get but the HATE mail).

Then I saw Laila El Haddad & Mushon Zer-Aviv present on an amazing project You are Not Here which is a bit hard to explain briefly but I will try (and their site introduces it as “an urban tourism mash-up. It takes place in the streets of one city and invites participants to become meta-tourists of another city.”

So basically there are two interlinked sites (NYC and Baghdad and Tel Aviv and Gaza) where you can be a tourist (though the physical place to follow the symbols are only in NYC and Tel Aviv). You need a map. You get a map. The map, once put up to the light shows two cities/places with symbols that indicate a special spot on the map. You find the physical spot, there is sticker or other sign with a phone number, you call, and you hear a story not about NYC or Tel Aviv (where you would physically go) but about Baghdad or Gaza and a story that pertains to the area of the map that overlaps where you are in NYC or Tel Aviv. We saw a bunch of examples and they were riveting and powerful.

March 11, 2010

Libre Planet

Category: Conferences,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 6:05 am

There was a plug for an up and coming conference in my last post but it was a bit buried and it deserves a bit more attention: the Libre Planet Conference in Cambridge, MA. It is fast approaching but there are still spots, student rates, and funding for female attendees. Though I can’t go as I will be out of town, this seems like it will be a great event: excellent speakers, lots of interesting folks, and I am sure a fantastic set of discussions.

March 10, 2010

A Cultural Alibi of Sorts

Category: Academic,F/OSS,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 7:08 am

There is an interesting conversation over at about the “nature” of peer production, and “crowd” based production over at PBS. Thankfully folks right off the bat noted that the types of activities they are addressing—that range from 4chan to open source—are so freaken distinct that perhaps it is not all that useful to use one moniker for them.

The comments I am most fascinated by are danah’s who notes:

“”We” assume that the collective voice will be populist and, more importantly, that it will reflect the diversity of the populous. Yet, as we’ve seen time and time again, certain values and attitudes and voices are over-represented in crowd-sourced activities. Who is looking out for those who aren’t represented? In what ways are we reinforcing structural inequalities? What are the implications of this?”

And then Clay’s response:

So, to re-ask your question in a non-rhetorical way, under what
circumstances would we want to make the population of Deviant Art,
say, less white, or Linux less male, and if we wanted to do so, what
would need to happen?

What I find interesting about this discussion (and will be talking about this topic here, next week) is there not enough recognition of two related things: 1) the efforts are there (more on this soon) 2) that perhaps hacking and F/OSS in particular are not fully accessible to all and everyone because they are full-fledged, full-bodied, cultural worlds —and all cultural worlds—are to some degree not fully accessible and transparent for there are built on particularities, often invisible and unarticulated, forms of value. That is, just as some norms and values of Indo-Guyanese to take one random example, are not of my world, so too is hacking partially inaccessible for the fact that it is culturally configured.

But I am starting to suspect that the “culture-ness” of these domains are often overlooked because they are overwhelmingly white, male, and chock full of computers (and so economically lucrative). All three, I suspect are (incorrectly) seen as lacking culture, as domains of rationality. (I stand rightly corrected and also forget this very fact, though I know it well from all the Brazil/Latin America Debconfs, as this diversity gets a bit lost from a pure US-European perspective, which I was assuming).

Other historical factors have also produced certain distortions that don’t allow us to see (easily at least) these worlds as culture-full. First is the fact that so many folks—outside of this world—lobbed onto F/OSS for being radical (and this is partially right in so far as its challenge to intellectual property can be seen as radical). But the portrayal or mere suggestion of these worlds as uber-democratic and populist, made people expect these groups to behave as radical egalitarian collectives. For the most part, they don’t and yet never portrayed their own politics and forms of organization as such (openness comes in the form of code and technical merit).

But this vision stuck and when some folks realized that larger projects, for example are very organized (which many people addressed only very late), have hierarchies (which are flexible and also allow them to function, which is I think is a good thing), and are not as diverse, there was deep disappointment that they did not conform to the sense that there was something extremely radical going on as opposed to a cultural group really into producing free software.

But if I am offering a cultural alibi of sorts—in which barriers to participation are to some degree a function of culture, one of the great things about the norms, values, ideas that compose culture is that there are dynamic and changing. They are alive and historical. They are pushed and pulled upon by insiders and outsiders based on wider social values.

And there is an answer to these questions about diversity for there has been a dramatic, noticeable, and noteworthy push within this world, one that really started to coalesce I would say in the last year or so, to address these issues and it ranges from Python’s mammoth efforts at addressing diversity (and I have been told that there was a great speech on the topic at Pycon recently), the geek feminism wiki, and smaller but increasingly common efforts such as Libre Planet’s women’s caucus and their funding of women to participate.

So while I do think that culture goes at least part of the way to explain why these worlds are not fully open—for culture limits—this very domain has grown dissatisfied with its representational make-up and are leading some efforts for cultural change.

February 11, 2010

Explosive Mural

Category: Academic,Geek,Research,Visualization — Biella @ 7:35 pm

A mural that geeks just might like. (via one of my students…)

January 28, 2010

Freedom in the Cloud

Category: Academic,Events,F/OSS,Geek — Biella @ 5:42 pm

Eben Moglen, Professor of Law and Legal History at Columbia University,
and founder, Director-Counsel and Chairman of the Software Freedom Law
Center, will speak about “Freedom in the Cloud: Software Freedom,
Privacy and Security for Web 2.0 and Cloud Computing” on Friday,
February 5, 2010, 7-9 pm. This event will be webcast live.

* What: ISOC-NY Public Meeting: Eben Moglen – ‘Freedom In The Cloud’
* When: Fri. Feb 5 2010 7pm-9pm
* Where: Room 109, Warren Weaver Hall, 251 Mercer Street NYC (SW corner
of West 4th) (See note below)
* Webcast:

* Note: Use the entrance on the west side since construction blocks the
Mercer Street entrance. Must bring ID.

December 29, 2009

This is one if for you: the hacker conference as ritual

Category: Academic,Debian,F/OSS,Geek,Hackers,My_work — Biella @ 10:08 am

One of the most frustrating things about being an untenured anthropology professor (aside from being untenured) is that, for the most part, the articles you must write to get tenure strike those you write about as hopelessly boring and jargony. I always imagine that when geeks read my articles, the experience can be represented as follows:

%*&%*&*(((& Linux *(&*(^%&%%^%% DeCSS &*(&^&&*^&^&^& Free Speech %^&%^%^%%^ Hacking &*(&^*(^^*^**^*Code*((*&&**&&*&* Emacs **(**)*( New Maintainer Process *&())))))))))&*&7&&*&)*&*&*&& DMCA **(**((( Copyleft. ****W$$&& TINC

Well, finally, I have my hands on the uncorrected proofs of an article that is far far more readable, accessible, and truth be told, romantic than anything I have written “The Hacker Conference: A Ritual Condensation and Celebration of a Lifeworld.” This article’s ancestry goes back to this ancient blog entry that I wrote after Debconf4 in Brazil, later made it into my dissertation, and finally a gabillion years later is on the verge of publication.

Debian developers, in particular, might dig this piece. I made use of your blog entries, mailing list discussions, interviews, and photos to reveal what is special about these events and also memorialize some important events, such as the the founding of Debian Women.

So while some I am sure some academics will find this piece distasteful for idealizing these events, so be it. I grew very fond of these conferences, they changed the way I thought of computer hacking, and why not write something that makes those you worked with feel good (as opposed to bored and confused). Finally, academics have totally missed the theoretical boat when it comes to conferences, which are probably one of the most important ritual forms of modernity and yet there is so little written on them—an issue I address briefly in the conclusion.

Note that this version has various mistakes (including the name of Joel “Espy” Klecker and the caption under Figure 3, and Figure 9). Since many of your are human debugging machines, if anyone takes a preview read and finds any typos, feel free to send along as I will be sending the proofs back next week.

November 20, 2009

Moral Grey Zones: Roller-Hitching

Category: Debian,Geek,Geekitude,Humor,Uncategorized — Biella @ 2:58 pm

Moral Grey Zone

Many moons ago while doing fieldwork I went to a radical tech activist camp sponsored by The Ruckus Society to give a presentation on Free Software (which I actually still have online in the gaudy orange I so loved. I could only stay 2 days as I had to go to Debconf2 in Toronto for fieldwork but it forever changed my life in pretty significant ways.

One remarkable thing about Ruckus was that for the first time I meet a particular kind of geek I had yet to come across: the crunchy and chewy granola/environmentalist/hippie hacker– a type of hacker that can be found world over but is likely to be (unsurprisingly) living, sometimes in the trees (literally) in the Pacific Northwest. They are one of my favorite kind of people as I can talk endlessly to them about 2 of my great passions: Free Software and environmental justice. Comfrey, pictured above, was one such hacker from Portland who I met at the Ruckus event and now routinely shows up, usually unannounced to our house at least 1-2x a year.

I woke up this morning to find him on our couch, got a bunch of knot-weed to chew on compliments of his foraging, and took the afternoon off to share some food. Among many stories, he told me of a new transportational pursuit of his, Roller-Hitching, which he uses to get around the country. He uses old school roller skates to skate along the road, even highways, until he gets picked up and get where he needs to go.

Naturally, these old school states are not just functional in the sense that they are faster than two feet in motion, but since they signify a particular spirit of the 1970s–you know, the groovy, dynamite, free love spirit of things, they draw positive attention and apparently when he roller-hitches, he gets picked up frequently (and made it from Minneapolis to Portland in 2 hours and 2 days: not shabby).


In California while on the 101 north of Arcata, California, Comfrey got stopped by the highway patrol and basically the cop wanted to kick him off on the grounds the he was a pedestrian (apparently prohibited on this patch of the 101). Comfrey, being a bright fellow, basically noted that roller skating is not really a pedestrian activity, that he was using, much a like a biker, a transportation device of sorts, so that he was in a grey zone between bikes and walking.

At the time, the cop was convinced enough but did tell Comfrey to look up the law in the library cuz the next time he would give him a ticket and the next time after that throw him in jail. Comfrey has yet ‘sourced’ the law but soon will. When he does, since I like to report on geeks and the law, I too will report on whether one can roller skate down or up the highway for those that might want to give Roller-Hitching a try.

October 19, 2009

Improving Code: a moral tale

Category: Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 5:00 pm

Sweet and Clever. Almost makes the existence of Mike USA worth it.

September 1, 2009

Hello Ladies (aka learning from the lady geeks)

Category: Academic,Debian,Geek,Gender,Politics — Biella @ 6:48 am


Whenever I attend Debconf, the first day is always a bit disorienting due to the confluence of jet lag with the sea of male programmers swarming at the venue. I am not sure I should be admitting this but one of the first things that pops to mind is the very cheesy one hit wonder whose video is filled with many bikini clad men, Its raining men.

So for a few hours, maybe a day, I sometimes feel out of place but this this first wave of discomfort usually gives way to comfort. This is not only because I connect with friends but because Debconf as well as many other hacker events—and this sits in marked contrast to professional academic conferences—are remarkably accepting of diversity and difference, at least that has been my personal experience. Most notably, people could care less about how you look, disabilities are consistently accommodated, and some things, like gender changing, which would raise serious eyebrows for instance in most academic conferences, is accepted with next to no gossip.

I raise this because this is how I personally have experienced the world of Free Software: overwhelming male but overwhelming accepting of difference as well. So even while I think it is key to confront the problems of discrimination in this world, it is not a simple story, for again, it is an environment that is also accommodates difference and quirkiness to some notable degree.

The question of gender in F/OSS is complicated one and here I am not going to ruminate on sources of gender bias except to say that I am sure there are some in operation (as there are in most domains)–some of which are internal to Free Software and other’s external to Free Software. But what I have been struck by, especially over the course of the summer, is the explosion of sites, blogs, and debates that have confronted gender in Free Software. It has been nothing short of astounding and a really positive turn.

The most notable example is this AWEEEEEEEEEEESOME pair: a wiki and a blog that confront gender head on. These are notable because the wiki, for example, catalogs all sorts of controversial events, comments on them, leaving a very visible trace of debate, one that is necessary to change the gender make-up and dynamic within Free Software project.

Along with these, the FSF is finally hosting a min-summit, which is great (less great is that participation seems invite only but perhaps they have some good reasons for doing so). And today I just learned of this diversity page coming out the Python project.

These are perfect examples of the recursive public in action raised in Chris Kelty’s work. And I have long been impressed with the dialogue that has followed from some controversial events in the world of Free Software, including those related to gender and this summer seems to be a watershed of sorts and I look forward to their developments over time.

Indeed and this may be controversial as well, but I think my academic field—of media, law, and culture –has something to learn from these gender politics for there are some very real, though probably unintentional forms of discrimination that are not under that much active discussion.

The most glaring problem is the underwhelming presence of female scholars during conferences (and as we know, conferences are exceedingly important for one’s professional development and career). What I find most striking about this trend is the number of female scholars is significant. That is, when it comes to scholars and this seems different from the world of tech, there is a sizable community of women scholars and activists so when there is a 5% female participation , as for example, with this event, one has to wonder why is it raining men at these conferences?

It also seems that while the debate exists, it is not as vibrant as with what is going on right now in F/OSS. Take for example, this recent mailing list post which unapologetically highlighted the lack of female presence in the up and coming Free Culture event at the Berkman Center.

While the post generated a handful of thoughtful responses, including this supremely classic, biting, and quite clever response from Georgetown professor Julie Cohen, the debate did not linger on (however short, the posts and discussion were quite fruitful).

What to do? Frankly, blame and finger pointing are pretty counterproductive, mostly because the “discrimination” is quite unintentional and I believe change can be brought about via more constructive paths. More important is we need to make the issue visible, identify some possible sources, and then create projects that can remedy the problem. Along with Elizabeth Stark, who has also been keen to note and change the gender problems, I am currently whipping together a wiki with a list of female scholars, leaders, and technologists as a resource for folks organizing conferences. We already have a base list (with a remarkably long list of folks) and will hopefully in the course of the next month throwing it up on the wiki. I don’t think it will ever be as cool as the Geek Feminism Wiki but it will hopefully do some good!