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 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.

July 31, 2009

Help Me Find This

Category: Academic,Debian,Hackers — Biella @ 5:31 am

I have asked for this before and nothing turned up. The article for which this is (hopefully) for will soon go to press so I am trying once more. If I can’t find it, there are other options but nothing as perfect as this shot!

Help Me Find This, originally uploaded by the biella.

A long while back, I wrote a blog entry about debconf4, which became fodder for a section in my dissertation, and which will be published as a stand alone article this summer or fall in Anthropological Quarterly. I am including a number of images, most of which are mine or taken from the Debconf Gallery but I have a few images of unknown source/origin and it would be great to help me find it.

The first is the photo pictured above, which I uploaded to my flickr page. Someone sent it to me a long time ago and all I know that it is from one of the Dutch Hacker Conferences, possibly HIP. Does anyone know where I can find a copy on the web? Seen it before? Are the kid pictured in the photo? Think you are the kid pictured in the photo? Sort of look like the kid pictured in the photo? Know of a service where you can upload a photo on a page and it will locate other copies?? Know of another similarly awesome photo?

The second picture is of two Debian developers Gustavo and Jonas dancing at Debconf. I can’t seem to locate it in the gallery and I am not sure who took it but I would love to find out to get permission to use it in the piece.

Finally: do you have any pictures (in the gallery on not) that capture the joy of conferencing that you would not mind published either in this article or my book? If yes, feel free to send any along!

May 8, 2009

Capital Punishment

Category: Hackers — Biella @ 2:22 pm

Check out the one comment

April 13, 2009

Paris in June (and better with hackers)

Category: Conferences,Hackers — Biella @ 6:04 pm

/tmp/lab announces the second Hacker Space Festival
(Paris, 26-30 June 2009)

Hacker Space Festival 2009 | Call For Proposals | HSF2009

In 2008, we organized HSF[1] on the spot, as an ad-hoc meeting for
hackerspaces-related networks, technical and artistic research emerging
from them and social questionning arising from them. This sudden
experiment proved to be a huge success, as much as on the
self-organizing level as on the participants and meetings quality, as
well as the emotionally-charged ambient, the kind of which you make
fond memories.

The 2008 edition generated a strong emulation in France, from its
historical role as the first official hack meeting there, and in Europe
with the subsequent creation of the Hacker Space Brussels[2], the
rapprochement with The Fiber in Amsterdam and the[3]
network. Initiatives of hackerspace openings in Grenoble or Lille, or
the upcoming FrHack[4] conference show an actual enthusiasm in the
French hackers community that was doomed to the “underground” not so
long ago. We salute these initiatives and their diversity!

Soon enough, we wanted to reiterate the HSF experience : however, it
was out of the question to institutionalize this temporary autonomous
zone, nor make it an ersatz of the previous edition, nor even to wrap
it into an “elite” or “underground” aura. On the opposite, we ardently
desire; and especially to explore further, in all directions some
lesser known domains (see below) et foster meeting and sharing around
experiences at the confluence of art, technology and politics.

The world financial crisis, the decay of democracy in Europe, the
obscurantism, paranoia and lack of culture presiding over legislation
(Internet and Reaction… Err… Creation Law[5][6]) seem a fertile
environment for the sensible development of new (social…) life forms.
Quick! Let’s rest for a few days in jubilation and ecstasy to take a
deep breathe of freedom under the indelicate smells of the medicine
factory nearby!

For if the public space is shrinking to oblivion, where any side-step
becomes suspect, and that, from an early age (deviant behavior
detection in nursery school), where moving without a mobile phone
becomes suspect (hello you Julien Coupat[7], a French political
prisoner in France!), there’s a domain that the Leviathan would have a
lot of trouble to contain, and for a reason: that of sensitivity. Even
the desperate attempts of the State to block the free and premonitory
expression of sense (hello you Demeure du Chaos![8]) cannot do anything
against a loud laughter or a knowing glance, a sensual kiss or an
explosion of colors.

Sensitivity, we could say, is what is left to a human being when she
has nothing anymore, and differenciates her from the body corporate or
the institution, that are, in essence, devoid of it. Therefore, Art
definitely remains the public space to share between humans, and only
between us. And if it the last one to share, we propose to explore it
and take it over during the upcoming edition of the Hacker Space
Festival, from the 26th to 30th of June, 2009 at Vitry sur Seine[9].

Keynote Speakers: Sergey Grim and Larry Fake with Eric Schmoudt
Groogle Summer of Crode, Survivor style
“VLC, I vote against you because you really fucked up when…”

== W A N T E D =========================================================


March 15, 2009

Obsessing: A Way of Life

Category: Hackers — Biella @ 4:17 am

When I teach my course on computer hackers, one of the first things that students learn is that many hackers are “obsessed”–a viewpoint promulgated by academics and media types alike. I tend to agree with the assessment but turn it on its head a little by pointing out that many professionals (doctors, lawyers, investment bankers and my own profession, which, attracts and houses nerds and geeks alike) are equally obsessed. It is just that the “professional” work is legitimized via all sorts of norms, expectations, and practices, unlike hacking, which is often treated in quite exceptional terms.

February 10, 2009

Wild Hacker

Category: Hackers — Biella @ 8:06 pm

This takes the cake as most ludicrious hacker representation….. It is like Blue Man Group, gone arctic and hackish at the same time.

February 2, 2009

Hacking RFID

Category: Hackers,Politics — Biella @ 4:01 pm

Have you seen the New American Passport? If you have, you know it is kinda creepy. First, the abundance of patriotic pictures (eagles, presidents, flags, you get the picture) is in fact so patriotic, it might burn a hole in your hand if you hold onto it for too long. Aside from the visual creepiness, well, it is also RFID enabled and depending on your take, this is creepy (or not). But whatever your view, here is a great example of how easy it is to crack, . RFID is, as Chris Paget puts it succinctly “available to be queried by a suitable reader.

December 12, 2008


Category: Academic,Disability Studies,Hackers — Biella @ 6:52 pm

This person really is not happy I wrote about hacking on this disability blog.


I think your article is an outrage.

An outrage

Craft Hackers

Category: Gender,Hackers,New York,New York City — Biella @ 12:44 pm

Craft Hackers is a panel being held tonight at the New Museum in NYC. Looks craftastic.

Craft Hackers is a panel discussion among artists who use crafting techniques to explore high-tech culture and the relationship between needlework and computer programming. Panelists include Cat Mazza, who translates moving images into stills knit in yarn; Christy Matson, who uses Jacquard Looms (some of the earliest computers) to knit landscape images from computer games; Ben Fino-Radin, whose witty needlepoint sculptures translate the World Wide Web into yarn and plastic, one pixel at a time; and Cody Trepte, whose embroidery of retired computer punch cards rekindles an old-fashioned love affair with the hand of the artist