July 8, 2010

Debian in the World: Buidling an Institution vs Managing a Crowd

Category: Academic,Debian,Ethics,F/OSS,My Work — Biella @ 8:10 am

So there are times that I think “of course anyone remotely interested in Free Software, virtual projects, and similar endeavors” knows about Debian and its “strange” rituals. I am pretty mistaken, actually. Recently I have attended various events where it has been made clear to me that there are hordes of folks interested in the politics of openness, access, and free software who have heard about Debian but don’t really know what it takes, socially and politically, to manage such a project. Luckily I had the chance to spread some of the ‘esoteric knowledge’ during a talk at MIT for the Knight News Challenge winners and I have received many emails, excited and some surprised about the governance structures of Debian.

If interested, here is a video of my talk, which is quite short, so I don’t go into as much detail as I would like. There is a great audio quote from a Debian developer, taken from this class visit for which there is a podcast and which I recommend as well. If you can’t play flash, you can download the a video of the talk here (look at the right hand side of the page for download link).

update: Interesting blog post on Why the open source way trumps the crowdsourcing way that explores some of the issues I raise in the panel talk. I don’t think it always trumps open source but it is certainly a niche form of production that is useful in some cases but all too often confused with expert peer production in quite unproductive and empirically wrong ways.

November 3, 2009

Touching Music via the Voice-O-Graph

Category: Academic,Aesthetics,Digital Media,Ethics,Music — Biella @ 7:54 am

In no way can I be describe myself as music aficionado for I rarely seek music. But music being that it makes its way into your ears through so many venues and vehicles, certainly finds me. A few years ago I stumbled upon Owen Chapman’s music at live performance (using ice among other objects) at a conference on copyright’s counterparts.

I immediately loved it not only because it is a genre of electronic music I tend to like but because of the depth of its texture. While all music enfolds this feature, when I listen to his music, it is as if I am not listening to music but also touching it (and vice-versa).

He just released an album whose song and sounds keep with his signature style of deep texture. It also makes an ethical call and claim: since remixing/sampling is citational, akin to academic quotation, it thus deserves a kind of explicit recognition and commentary. To honor this he is providing his music free of charge once one dips in with their own commentary and contribution. Full details and music here

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).

March 15, 2009

Hyperparenting: The Ethnography

I have a long list (it exists only in my head unfortunately) of various ethnographic projects I would like to conduct. I might start the real list soon but in the meantime, I will just through the half-baked ideas here and perhaps it will inspire others to take it on. I am currently reading a fantastic book, The Case Against Perfection, and am on a section on hyperparenting and well, while I think at a common sense level we know what psychological havoc such controlled parenting can cause, I think an ethnography of some of the practices and institutions of hyperparenting would, nonetheless, make for a fascinating read. If anyone knows of anything that even resembles this, do drop me a line.

Update: Not exactly an ethnography but certainly fun to read.

December 14, 2008

Thinking Responsibily about the Drugs among Us

Category: Academic,Disability Studies,Ethics,Human Enhancement — Biella @ 12:51 pm

Next semester I am teaching a new undergraduate course tentatively titled “Technology, Society, and Media: The Body under Transition, in Movement, and under (Massive) Transformation(s).” As designed, the course should address technology and media in fairly broad stokes (which I do) but I narrow and control what is a truly unwieldy subject by framing the issues/readings in relation to the human body. Generally speaking, we will interrogate the ways in which technology engenders or erases bodily/human possibilities/capacities and especially the ethical and political ramifications that precipitate from the use/abuse of technology. We traverse a wide range of topics from the telegraph (and how it was used to speak with the dead) to the role of human enhancement technologies of today, to questions of surveillance and privacy, among many other topics.

I am pretty far along with the syllabus and pretty happy with it. So far I think I have struck a nice balance between fun/light/accessible readings and some which are bit more theoretically dense. I am still looking for one or two pieces, perhaps one on tattoos and body modification and another about karaoke. If anyone knows any great articles on these topics, do pass along the information.

I am probably most excited about the cluster of issues that address eugenics (and most students know next to nothing about America’s central role in unleashing the Eugenics’ movement), disability rights activism, human enhancement technologies, and transhumanism. Considering human enhancement in light of previous efforts to enhance our population brings into relief the similar and distinct ethical issues that haunt this field.

One of the most hot button issues of today concern the use of human enhancing drugs. The prestigious journal Nature has just published an editorial on the topic of cognitive enhancement drugs,Towards responsible use of cognitive-enhancing drugs by the healthy, which is a fairly interesting read and covers some of the main controversies.

For me, however, the interesting issue is not only whether human enhancement is right or wrong–though this is certainly important–but what our embrace of these drugs tell us about the conditions under which our bodies live and labor. That is, I think we are actually missing out on posing some other important questions simply by framing this int terms of human enhancement.

I suspect, and this is where ethnography would really help out, that many people turning to enhancement drugs may not be medically sick, in the technical sense but I don’t think they are healthy either. Many who turn to these drugs feel pretty worn, pretty exhausted, pretty frazzled (the perfect word, I think, is agotado, Spanish for exhausted) and use these drugs as crutches, as band-aids, as an elixir to help out one preserver in tough work circumstances. I am sure there are folks who take these drugs feel fine and are just trying to push their limits and capacities but I troll many many many patient support sites and it also seems to me that many people live under a state of low-grade chronic state of unwellness. Given the pace of society, given what and how we eat, given the extraordinary rates of depression in our society ,given the fact that babies are born with 200 + chemicals in their bodies (what a way to start out life) I am skeptical that enhancement really captures what is going on with these drugs.

I have not yet come up with the right term, but I am trying to come up with a phrase that would reflect the ways in which these drugs are not used as therapies for a discrete condition (Type 1 diabetes) but how they are a collective response to a state of low grade chronic unwellness that seems to mark the lives of a whole lot of people. This, I think, would be one responsible approach to human “enhancement” technologies that would contextualize their use within a much broader frame, one that is attuned to how bodies have been made, remade, and limited under actual material conditions of labor and life in the 21st century.

April 30, 2008

The Future of the Internet Depends on its Past

Category: Ethics,F/OSS,Internet,IP Law,Politics,Tech — Biella @ 8:41 am

A few weeks ago, NYU hosted an interesting event about the future of the Internet, appropriately tittled The Futures of the Internet, the video of which is now available here. One of the panelists was Jonathan Zittrain (who recently wrote an important new book bearing the same name as the event) and during the talk he provided a few ideas about how geeks and developers can help secure the Future of the Internet. While I agree with a lot—in fact most—of his assessments about the state and fate of the Internet as he lays out in his book and his talks, his characterization of geek/hacker/developer politics is not one of them.

Basically, one of Zittrain’s claims is that developers are not doing enough to save the Future of the Internet and it is their rampant, Atlas-like libertarianism, which is, in part, to blame (first made 37:20 minutes into the video for those who want to listen to the actual comments). They have little-to-no “political consciousness,” are “too cool” to care about the “fine print” and they don’t care about the broader politics of the the Internet because they assume that they can just hack around any sort of barrier and impediment.

While we can, without a doubt, identify a strain of libertarianism among hackers, it is by no means representative of all of geekdom and in fact, is becoming more and more a worn out 1990s stereotype/cliché as time passes than an accurate representation of what is a far more variegated set of ethics and practices among hackers (and I will soon publish an article on this topic).

It also completely fails to capture the ethical spirit as well as sociological, and political workings of one of the most important strains of hacking—free and open source software—which not only powers most of our (open) Internet but which in fact has provided a pretty hefty ethical backbone by which to conceptualize one of the ways we should think about the fight for the future of the Internet.

Ok, time for a rant now :-)

Geeks not only designed the Internet, an indisputably revolutionary medium, but also implemented, and continue to maintain it, and then in their copious spare time, also engage in fighting back the political, legal and corporate encroachment which threatens to limit the very revolutionary nature of the Internet (as Chris Kelty’s new book on Free Software argues). If these acts by geeks are not enough political action, then maybe the development of not just one, but multiple entirely open and free alternatives to the only two proprietary operating systems that exist today might be a political act that would satisfy? Many would agree that even simply using a free operating system is a political act. It would be better to claim that individuals, lawyers and other political actors are not doing enough to save the Future of the Internet, rather than imploring the already overtaxed geeks to set aside everything that they are already doing to do something even more.

(end rant)

It also seems that when it comes to political questions related to the Internet, net neutrality being the hot topic now, or fighting restrictive and problematic laws like the DMCA, one of the only groups of people (outside of lawyers and librarians) to actually understand and dissect the fine print (and geeks actually are pretty attuned to and like to dissect the fine legal print), to protest these unsavory laws, and to support the organizations who are doing something about it (like the EFF), are geeks and hackers. While many geeks are not necessarily keen on conceptualizing their labor in traditional political terms, or aligning their technical projects with a political affiliation, and yes would rather just be writing good code, they do fight for their productive freedom and this productive freedom just happens to relate to most questions and concerns related to an open, accessible, and tweakable Internet, built by the geeks, lest we forget

What was perhaps most surprising was that he also seemed to think that geeks and developers have not turned to “apprenticeship,” nor policies and procedure to coordinate their development projects, unlike Wikipedia, which he considers a shining example that geeks should look towards as a beacon of policy that geeks should consider emulating in their projects (comments made answering my question). He clearly has not been hanging out with any Debian developers in the last 10 years nor has he gone through their New Maintainer Process ;-)

In other words, he seems to think they are allergic to regulation due to their accentuated libertarianism, or are against structure because of their anarchism, neither which is remotely true. I think I found this characterization most ironic and problematic for before Wikipedia was even an entry on a Wiki, projects like Debian (and most other F/OSS projects) were transforming and changing to integrate normative procedures and policies that allowed a group of people to work together, scale, grow and deal with crises’. No, they don’t have the Wikipedia “badge” system, but that system is emblematic of Wikipedia’s own transformation into integrating its own normative procedures and policies for working together, not an example of an idealized policy system that other projects are too primitive to have evolved into yet.

About one hour into the talk when questions opened up, I objected to his characterization, but given his answer back to me, I did not make much of a dent in his thinking. Another lawyer Tim Wu (who also wrote a wonderful book on the Internet) chimed in to give me some props and also made a good point that even if geeks are the only groups of people who would “storm AT&T” and know intimately about the importance of net neutrality, there is a lot of room for thinking about how to strengthen and improve the tactics and politics among geeks and developers so that we can ensure the type of open and “generative” Internet and set of technologies we value.

As part of thinking and rethinking new strategies, it is as key to acknowledge and honor the past. In this regard, free software development has been pivotal both in terms of providing software (and making it is an important political act as is choosing to use free software over propriety software) and a set of important set of ideas that a lot of lawyers like Yochai Benkler and Lawrence Lessig have run with to make some important political claims of their own.

So despite my rant above, which was a rant and thus exaggerates things to some degree, I do think there is much more that geeks and non-geeks can do, such as help translate these uber-geeky issues into less geeky terms (and actually this is already being done by some geeks as the work of Jelena Karanovic has shown, or translate the technical issues into new domains as the uber-geek Karl Fogel is doing with question copyright but first lets give credit where credit it due and recognize that labor is political

August 24, 2007

Decoding Liberation… Available

Category: Academic,Books/Articles,Ethics,F/OSS,Tech — Biella @ 11:26 am

It is nice to see books on free software finally get their day under the sun and today, Samir Chopra and Scott Dexter have announced the release of Decoding Liberation. Because it is a bit on the pricey side, try to get your library or work to order it and then when you get it, enjoy. I know I did and had the pleasure of reading early versions during an informal reading ground held in NYC 2 years ago and final versions more recently.

Among other great chapters, the one on the aesthetics of code, is, well beautiful. I can’t wait to re-read it.

If you are in the city, make sure to catch one of the book events that will be happening; your very own will help lead a discussion on October 3rd and I might write something up more formal about the book (and of course post here) then.

June 28, 2007

Minimizing Lingusitic Drift for the Sake of Political Clarity and Integrity

Category: Academic,Ethics,F/OSS,Hackers,Research,Tech — Biella @ 6:24 am

I am finally catching up with the remarkably thick goulash of email and blogs entries that comes from traveling for well over a month and today I read one in particular When is Open Source not Open Source? that captivated my interest for it compellingly addresses the dangers that follow from diluting, or one might say hijacking, the term open source.

When people learn that I study “free software” one of the most common questions I get asked is: “why did I chose free software over open source?” The answer is quite simple: given that the bread and butter of my research covers ethics, freedom, and liberalism, free software is the obvious path to follow, yet I also feel like a lot of my work is still relevant to the open source camp because of the affinities between the two.

I have long maintained that the ideological gulf between open source and free software is not so great nor impassable, but more modest. As most know, both share a certain strong commitment to access and in a strict technical sense they refer to the same set of licenses. Philosophically there is agreement that openness and, especially, non-discrimination are essential for the quality of software and often by close extension, the vibrancy of community responsible for the software.

Of course, when pontificating the ramifications and implications of openness, they do part company and enter into different territories. Free software tends to flag rights and freedoms, while open source meanders into a discussion of markets, business, and competition and in this regard they do craft different visions of the social world and human behavior, etc.

But the case that Karl Fogel writes about, where OSI is strongly opposing the use of the term open source for licenses that don’t adhere to the definition demonstrates where the two positions join. As Michael Tiemann from the OSI succinctly put it:

“The FSF may have got the orthodoxy wrong, and the OSI may have got the interpretation wrong, but we both agree that prohibition of commercial use without special permission is antithetical to both positions.”

There is a unmistakable kernel of agreement and it is great to see the OSI taking such a strong stance in this regard.

Now, David Richard’s response, who seeks, I think, to essentially dilute the term open source, is as (or perhaps even more) fascinating for in a nut shell, and using a lot of florid religious imagery, it accuses the OSI of being too rigid! In his own words:

“I believe the OSI has a wonderful opportunity to continue being relevant and helping to lead the movement forward. If, however, y’all choose to define your denomination of this religion in a way that we don’t fit in, that’s fine. No hard feelings. It’s your choice. You’ll ultimately be excluding a large congregation and we for one will continue trying to build a church made up of others like ourselves.”

In response, I would say that the goal of F/OSS is not to be inclusive of anyone who wants to release bits of source code, but to create the conditions under which software, as it has been defined by the community, can be created. Join the “church” if you would like to make free/open source software as defined and you can go elsewhere (i.e., create a different term) if you are creating something different, even if it is only slightly different.

Integrity matters.

And again inclusiveness, if it comes at the expense of the main goal, is not a boon but a danger to F/OSS. The OSI will remain relevant by halting the dilution of the term OSI, not by expanding the definition so that it is left with no substance.

And in contradistinction to what David Richard maintains, however, there is a great degree of flexibility within this domain but it does not lie in the strict definition of F/OSS but in the realm of interpretation. You are also free, as Mako and I have argued elsewhere to interpret the significance of F/OSS in multiple ways.

And I think this is where the political strength of free software lies. There is interplay between a well-defined goal (in this case for creating free software) and a more flexible realm of interpreting the significance of these technical practice.

And we wold lose—and I might add, a lot—if we became flexible about the strict definition of F/OSS and inflexible about its political significance.

I get irked with folks like David Richards who would like to bend open source rules to meet their (often commercial) interests and I find it pretty naïve when folks say the political significance of F/OSS is just x (or worse should be x) for in reality its political significance lies in the fact that it has spawned multiple types of political and economic projects.

And there is something almost playfully ironic, (or at least it makes me smile) in this fact. Though there is strict definition contained withing F/OSS, this strictness has, at least to some extent, encouraged by an extreme and very healthy form of political proliferation and promiscuity.

More than anyone else I know, Mako has most passionately and thoughtfully argued for the importance of what I would call political clarity and integrity. That is, the importance of having a well articulated definition for social movements, for they act, as he says “a rallying point” to realize a social movement. Urging the Creative Commons to learn from F/OSS and dare to simultaneously narrow and more clearly define their goals, he states it quite nicely in the following terms:

“Free software advocates have been able to use the free software definition as the rallying point for a powerful social movement. Free software, like the concept of freedom in any freedom movement, is something that one can demand, something that one can protest for, and something that one can work toward. Working toward these goals, free and open source software movements have created the GNU/Linux operating system and billions of lines of freely available computer code.”

In essence, a definition that people can abide by, respect, and perhaps eventually cherish is the condition of possibility to make “working political code.” And given how hard it is to make social change happen (at least in comparison to build computer code), we should learn from what F/OSS has to offer.

And at the same time there is another lesson embedded in F/OSS. The Free Software Definition is well defined; but it must be emphasized, narrowly so. It does not try to do everything and have everyone pledge allegiance to an inordinately complex set of commitments.

Clarity, narrowness, and well-defined goals –> these three attributes have powered it far and wide and I hope it remains so.

Now, since the term open source is not trademarked, we are left with the problem of how to challenge the current hijacking of the term. For the solution, I will leave you with Karl Fogel, who I think proposes a good solution:

Note that the OSI’s objection is not to the Zimbra license per se. The objection is just to Zimbra’s calling that license “open source”. They can use any license they want, but they shouldn’t call it open source unless it actually is. Freedom is freedom, and no amount of spin will change that.

So what should we do about this?

The term “open source” isn’t trademarked. Years ago, the OSI tried to register it, but it was apparently too generic. …But there is public opinion. What Danese and Michael are proposing doing is organizing a lot of open source developers (and I mean “open source” according to the traditional definition, the one the OSI and I and most other open source developers I know adhere to) to stand up and, basically, say “All of us agree on what the definition of ‘open source’ is, and we reject as non-open source any license that does not comply with the letter and spirit of the Open Source Definition.”

January 17, 2007

Science on the Money Effect

Category: Academic,Ethics,Politics,Research,Tech — Biella @ 8:29 pm

Within 36 hours of my return to Edmonton, from the blowing Caribbean winds to the still calm of white snow, I have fallen sick with a cold, that while not a flu (at least not 24 hrs later), is still a severe cold, knocking on flu’s door. But ever since I had various horrible experiences having to work with horrible colds (like during my qualifying exams), I don’t mind colds so long as I can stay at home and let the cold run its course, which at least is my current predicament.

Because I have been parked at home, I have spent a fair amount of time on the computer today playing catching up with blog entries and emails and I came across a few potentially interesting articles about the effects of money on tieguy’s blog (run law student who knows a heck of a lot about tech, law, and free software but his blog seems to be down at the moment). He linked to pair of articles on the psychological effects of money. I have not read the articles yet (and will post them, hopefully tomorrow once I get access to them via my U of A account), but I bet this will be of interest to some Debianista’s given the recent debates and controversies over the injection of money into Debian via the Dunc-Tanc project.

Now a disclaimer: I don’t have a position on Dunc-Tanc, and this is so for many reasons–the primary being I have not delved deeply into the issues an all of the debate and discussion and well, I also experience the ethical issues somewhat more of an outsider, though I do want to see Debian survive well into the future. So I have keep mostly mum on the topic but later I may have more to say.

I also have yet to read the articles and am usually a little suspect of psychological experiments that purport to have universal applicability (and am not sure if these fall into this class) so I am not sure how relevant these will be to this particular case. But nonetheless, here they are, and hopefully someone will find some use in them (and sorry if they have been posted here, I am very behind on planet, thanks to dial-up for a month).

On a somewhat related though different note, check out Joseph Reagle’s excellent summary of how online communities work well.

Now time for much needed sleep.

April 23, 2006

Tatooed politics

Category: Ethics,Hackers,Politics — @ 7:01 am

More on this later but worth broadcasting because the following is a pretty strong example of incorporated, passionate, and embodied form of political protest in the hacker habitat.