December 1, 2009

The Politics of Piracy and Spicing the Political Life

Category: Academic,Canada,Digital Media,IP Law,Piracy,Pirates,Politics — Biella @ 7:36 pm

Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable. Stephen Duncombe

This fall I have been awash in a few obsessions including book piracy and spam. I recently got to talk about one of these obsessions when I was interviewed about book piracy by Nora Young for her weekly CBC radio and podcast show Spark. I mostly gave a lay of the land panorama with a nod toward some of the conditions, technological and social, that can help us grasp the contemporary explosion of book piracy and also raised some thoughts about what might change the future landscape.

What I don’t raise is whether a politics built around an explicit embrace of “piracy” is regressive, progressive, or something else but these ethical questions were posed in the comments left for the full interview. Some of the comments pointed to the pitfalls and shortcoming that can follow the terminology of piracy many of which I share.

But what keeps me interested in the politics of piracy is how it can speak the language of spectacle, which can be a powerful tactic and technique for broadcasting a political message. Here I just paraphrasing and cribbing the work of Stephen Duncombe, who has argued, I think quite persuasively, that we cannot rely solely on reasoned debate for building political programs. Duncombe does not argue that we must toss out rationality and truth seeking (these are absolutely necessary) but notes how on their own or if not clothed in some other cloak, they may not be enough to convey and compel, especially in this day of total media saturation. Or to put a but more poetically by him “Reality needs fantasy to render it desirable, just as fantasy needs reality to make it believable.”

Much (though not all) of contemporary digital piracy follows the logic of spectacle. It builds and conveys a fantastical drama of right and wrong, of new possibilities, of freedom from the noose of the law; it signals and speaks to the thrill and fun in twisting, even breaking, existing structures and constraints; and provides a window into another way of acting/behaving. In many cases what it provides is a commons (and I will be exploring it in depth in my class next semester on the commons) and many folks, I imagine, turn to piracy simply for the free stuff, and a number of them come out of the other side transformed into copy fighters willing to engage in a politics beyond sharing stuff and waving the pirate flag.

For those of us who believe in greater access and different ways of imagining structures and strategies of re-compensation, piracy on its own is not certainly enough and I understand fully and even to some degree, share the skepticism many feel toward such language. But I am not quite ready to declare a politics of piracy as always politically bankrupt or necessarily backward. I guess what I embrace is a diverse political ecology. For some, the drama of spectacle and thrill of transgression are what turns their political mojo on; for others it is the cool and reasoned debate common to policy and reform; for others, they want to focus on building alternatives as we see with Free Software or radical tech collectives. For some, it is both the reasoned salt and the transgressive pepper that spices their political world. And I would rather have more spice than less, especially in an era where the blandness of political apathy is that which is our most dangerous enemy.

Related Links:

Here is a wonderful animation by the NZ Book Council that captures what I love about books and renders its materiality wonderfully alive. On the Media has a episode on book publishing and Cory Doctorow has penned some thoughts about the future of book selling. If you want to keep abreast on the politics of liberating books, check out Free our Books. If you are more interested in the technical side of things, check out the book liberator project.

November 21, 2009

How Far Can it Go?

Category: Academic,Berkman,F/OSS,Free Culture,IP Law,Open Access,Politics — Biella @ 10:20 am

During the month of October I spent quite a bit of time thinking about the past, present, and future of F/OSS. This was due in part to participation in a Berkman Center event on Free Culture, where we discussed the historical arc of Free Software to Free Culture, the relationships between them (and their differences), and also the content and meaning each. Over the years, what I have found so interesting about Free Software is how it left its enclave to inspire countless groups into rethinking the politics and ethics of production and access and yet, as I raised in this pod-cast interview (due to the prompting of my interviewer, Elizabeth Stark), Free Software and/or Free Culture is still pretty bounded and contained phenomenon especially when compared to something like the existing consciousness over the environmental movement, which many folks “know” about and understand even when and if they are not involved in doing anything for the movement. I always ask my first year students whether they know what Free Software or Free Culture is and 9 out 10 stare at me with those blank eyes that basically speak in silence: “no.”

Now, there are a group of activists, many located in Europe, a number of them with deep roots in the social justice movement who are taking Free Culture down a different path, trying to expand its meaning and conjoin it to social justice issues, build a broad set of coalitions across the political spectrum so as to override the fragmentation that is so characteristic to contemporary political moment, and use FC as an opportunity to critique the market fundamentalism of the last few decades.

If you are interested in these issues, take a look at their charter: they are looking for comments (critical and constructive) as well as endorsements (here is the long version).

I myself have a few comments, for example, I think it is worth noting something like the limits of what FC can do, that even if in many ways it can be activated to do good in the world, it is also best to highlight in the same swoop that FC is not some political panacea and has limits.

For example some groups in the world, notably some indigenous communities abide by a different logic of access and culture, whereby full access is not culturally or ethically desirable, as the work of Kim Christen has illuminated. I also wonder in what ways issues of labor might be addressed more forcefully, and though they briefly raise the question of environmental sustainability, it is worth expanding these more directly and deeplyas this article by Toby Miller and Richard Maxwell make clear.

There is more to say but I will leave it here for now and just say it is really great to see Free Culture taken down another political path that is rooted in coalition building.

November 10, 2009

Fsck Purity: The Politics and Pleasures of Free Software

The great thing about living and working in NYC is that there is a steady stream of conferences to attend, such as the fast approaching digital labor conference entitled ‘Internet as Playground and Factory.’ The problem is that since I live 1/3 of the year in San Juan and often get stranded and stuck when my mother gets hospitalized, as is the case now, I am often not in NYC. Depending on my mom’s prognosis tomorrow, I may or may not make it but I am working on my slides and revamping a few of my thoughts as I would like to attend.

My new title is one I think some readers of the blog might enjoy: “Fsck Purity: The politics and pleasures of free software” (thanks karl) and the talk will be part of a panel “The Emancipatory Politics of Play” with Chris Kelty, Fred Turner, and Ben Peters. If you are interested in attending, register soon as it is free and open to the public but requires advanced registration. There are also already a collection of short interviews videos available, the one by me is a basic discussion of the politics of free software, conducted at the end of a very long teaching day, so I am not sure it makes any sense. I never watch my own interviews so I can’t quite be the judge :-)

October 25, 2009

Branding Politics, Branding Change

Category: Academic,Events,New York City,Politics — Biella @ 6:42 am

Brands are most often associated with the world of crass consumerism but they can play a key role in fomenting political change. Or so claim some pretty clever thinkers and activists and they will be giving talk about the importance of branding for democratic politics, this Monday at 7 PM, at the Change You Want to See

Please join us this Monday, October 26th as we continue our series on Symbols, Branding and Persuasion with an exploration of branding in the context of electoral and legislative politics. We’ll start with a presentation by media theorist Stephen Duncombe, author of Dream: Reimagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy and the forthcoming Branding the New Deal. Afterward Jessica Teal, design manager for the Obama 2008 presidential campaign will join Duncombe for a conversation via video skype.

Like it or not, propaganda and mass persuasion are part of modern democratic politics. Many progressives today have an adverse reaction to propaganda: ours is a politics based in reason and rationality, not symbols and fantasy. Given our last administration’s fondness for selling fantasies as reality, this aversion to branding, marketing and propaganda is understandable. But it is also naïve. Mass persuasion is a necessary part of democratic politics, the real issue is what ethics it embodies and which values it expresses.

Looking critically at how the Roosevelt Administration tried to “brand” the New Deal and how the Obama campaign leveraged principles of marketing and advertising gives us an opportunity to think about different models of political persuasion.

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!

August 27, 2009

Updates: Private Foundations and Licensing

Category: Berkman,F/OSS,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 1:57 pm

A few updates on the EveryBlock case and the Knight Foundation. Tieguy (Luis Villa) left a comment which I am quoting in full below:

That said, it is entirely possible that Knight was ill-advised and believed (as many casual users do) in the magical power of open source licenses to create community. If this did indeed catch Knight off guard, it might be worth pulling people together to discuss best practices for grant-making organizations who want to create real value and not just lumps of well-licensed code.

Related to this, Berkman has released a whitepaper on (apparently) just this topic today. Probably worth checking out for folks interested in this topic.

Then there is this excellent interview led by Jonah Bossewitch with Chris Mackie who is a program office at Mellon.

Update: Here are some thoughts I penned down very very quickly in response to the interview:

1. I can see the argument about complex software products benefiting
from the BSD: at the same time I can totally see the value of just
keeping it open as well so everyone can benefit from improvements to
something that is as complex as Chris points point. Also if you keep
it totally internal to your shop, you don’t need to re-release,
although if you want to combine propriety and non-proprietary software
and then re-release I can see the value of the BSD code

2. When it comes to the question of ownership, where he says IP trumps licenses,
Chris Mackie does not seem to link the complexity of project to the licenses. When I was
having a discussion about this on Debian-devel, a number of folks
mentioned how very complex projects with many contributors, each who
had copyright and asserted GPL, worked through this swarm to protect
one person trumping ownership at some future point. They saw this as a
feature, not a bug, which I completely agree with. So some projects
are –and please correct me if I am wrong–far far more susceptible to
of weakness of the licenses if 1) they don’t hand over to a
trustworthy organization, like the FSF or the copyrights are held in a
few small hands. Once you start spreading the copyrights over a large
mas of people, it becomes very very difficult to ever assert a
copyright up and above the GPL.

August 18, 2009

In Detail: The Nuances of the Everyblock Sale to MSNB

Category: F/OSS,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 9:55 am

Chris Anderson, who is mentioned in my previous post on Everyblock, has penned a very thoughtful blog post The Nuances of the Everyblock Sale to MSNBC. He sums up the debate so far and raises some interesting new points. It provides a great summary of some basic legal points in conversation with the particular case.

His conclusion included below:

I’d like to see all future versions of code devloped under the Knight grant remain open, whoever buys them. I think this is an ethical use of Knight grant money — and a good business strategy as well.

ps– a number of folks have told me that “grassroots” is def not the way they would describe Everyblock, even among those who think it is a pretty neat project.

update: (linked fixed) Here is another exxxceelllent blog entry about code. community, and foundations by John Eckman’s who finishes with this important insight:

Put differently, communities are great at creating (and maintaining, supporting, extending) code: code is not great at creating communities.

August 17, 2009

Is this legal? Is it ethical?

Category: Academic,Ethics,F/OSS,IP Law,Politics — Biella @ 4:02 pm

So my buddy Chris Anderson, a fellow digital/comm scholar pointed me to this very interesting case concerning an open source project, originally funded by a foundation that was just sold to a Large Corporation. Here are the details:

Everyblock is/was a grassroots journalism web-based project that got a kick start thanks to a 1.1 million grant provided by the Knight Foundation. The project, as its name, suggests, reports on uber-local news, like your hood, your block. That sort of thing. Laudable stuff. The Knight Foundation required that the code be open source and it looks like there is a GPLv3 attached to the codebase.

Apparently, Everyblock was just acquired by MSNBC. At question is not only whether the future of its codebase will remain open but whether it is ethical to take foundation money and turn around such a high profit from a corporate buy out.

Chris, whose passion is grassroots journalism, has been tracking development and has noted some of this ethical and possibly legal quandaries. As he noted on Gawker:

That’s not good enough, says CUNY assistant professor Christopher Anderson, who writes that MSNBC has skimmed off the value of a project “developed by common labor;” Anderson is upset in part because it’s not clear whether EveryBlock’s code will remain openly available. NYU Local publisher Cody Brown has called for more transparency around the deal.

Whether or not one agrees selling a foundation-funded project to a corporation is kinda dodgy or not, the legal question remains: since the code is under a GPL3, doesn’t MSNBC have to also keep it under the same license if modified? Or can they take the code base since Everyblock is a web-based service? (I really am looking for answers here).

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?