Sunday, February 28, 2010
Lessig's #wireside Chat
I watched Larry Lessig's "#Wireside Chat" live last Thursday evening, viewing it from Halle Library at EMU along with Steve and a few graduate students in his winter C&W course. I took a few notes during the talk; thought I'd translate them into something more coherent.
Lessig opened with an allegory: an extended narrative linking a dilemma facing cigarette smokers of yesteryear with a dilemma facing users of mobile devices and wireless internet, an allegory inspired by Christopher Ketcham's recent article in GQ. Just as early reports on the cancerous effects of smoking tobacco were speculative and contested, so are today's investigations into the insidious effects of wireless signals murky and tentative. Lessig cited Henry Lai, whose research on non-ionizing radiation has clarified a troubling pattern of self-interest: industry-funded research finds wireless to be harmless, while non-industry-funded research finds wireless to be harmful. The basic idea here is that research of this sort reflects the bias of its funding source. And this builds toward a crisis because 1) everyday people cannot know which research to trust and 2) the binaristic "debate" creates doubt such that reasonable people can think either way about the issue, rendering it undecidable.
From this, Lessig shifted to Part Two, a different debate concerning free culture. He credited a graduate student who "fed him" ideas from Aldous Huxley and John Philip Sousa about technologies threatening creative culture. Huxley worried about the ways broadcast media cemented audiences in read-only passivity. Sousa lamented similarly that the phonograph would hobble music creation. He expected that read-only (or listen-only) would thwart production and result in conditioned passive consumption. In the free culture debate, Lessig locates 2004 as a key shift: read-write culture was revived that year, with Wikipedia as its poster child. Lessig says "remix" is the best name to describe this shift.
In 2006, via YouTube, we witnessed another key shift, this time tied to video: the remix technique is further democratized. In numerous examples, we can see read-write in action. According to Lessig, "This begins to be precisely what Sousa romantisized." At this point in his talk, Lessig rehearsed the legal developments around copyright, albeit in fairly sweeping terms (Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act to courts more recently "getting it right"). Lessig was obviously quite wrapped up in efforts to persuade the Supreme Court to the merits of free culture, but he described the results as an utter defeat. Lessig went on in his talk to discuss the way Disney invokes copyright law and uses their copyright extension lobby to block efforts by others to do as they did to Brothers Grimm. His discussion of Disney included a thoughtful aside about the remix premise of Little Einsteins--a program I've gotten to know well in the last 18 months. Finally, Lessig tried to create some fusion between his work on free culture and his interests, more recently, in congressional reform. He explained that the read/write movement does not have in Congress a receptive audience, but that we must continue to imagine YouTube as a powerful platform for forcing these issues. Emphasizing repeatedly the value in fair and free codecs and fair and free use, Lessig concluded his talk, urging his audience to "Continue the work to build the tools to make this culture free."
I want to mention two things I was thinking of as the talk wrapped up and during the Q&A. The first is that this talk had all the markings of Lessig-in-intellectual-transition. It was abundantly clear that he is in a cross-over period, moving from his many years of hard work on free culture and Creative Commons, to something more directly concerned with Washington D.C. lobbying practices and corrupt politics. The appearance of this transition is not necessarily bad, but I think it created a muddle for a couple of key points, which brings me to the second thing I was thinking about. Lessig argued for the cultural force of YouTube, but it almost sounded like he envisioned in remixing practices a great political force, as well. In a fairly abstract way, I buy the premise that remixing can effect change, but I didn't find in Lessig's examples anything impressive enough to make an impact on the scale he seemed more genuinely interested in reaching (national government). I guess the question of impact circles back around to this: What are the most impressive or memorable examples of remix, and for whom are they impactful? Or else these: What exactly is the difference they are making in, say, political processes? How are they consequential? Other than something like a YouTube presidential debate (which isn't exactly remix), what is an example of YouTube impacting a political process? Then again, maybe I am looking for consequences too much in the remixes themselves and not enough in the slow rise of cultural creation by these means. In other words, perhaps their impact lies in their collective affirmation of free speech.
There's much more to say about the Wireside Chat, but these notes will do for now. I will be interested in revisiting this periodically to rethink the power of remix and whether we have in the months and years to come realized a different degree of impact in it than we have seen in YouTube's first five years.
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Spring Break begins tomorrow. No beach-side cabana and umbrella-garnished cocktails in my foreseeable future. Just life at a slightly altered (i.e., re-charging) pace until classes resume on March 8. I believe this is the earliest Spring Break I've ever had.
In classes, we wrapped up a three-week unit on wiki writing today. The assignment went something like this: for twenty-one days, assume various roles in the production of a wiki--facilitation, discussion, research, entry writing, editing, and coding. Last semester I set up groups. This semester I didn't. My aim with the wiki assignment has always been to immerse in the mess, to dive in, or, for the more cautious, to wade through some quick compositional emergence, or distributed, self-paced, collaborative writing. All the while, we should keep in mind the question of what is stylistically available in wiki writing. There is no single answer to this, of course, but it seems like wiki writing often (I am tempted to say "always") returns to an "average effect," more studium than punctum.
I'm not sure we fully achieved the mess I had in mind. A snow day on February 10 threw off the early development of the project. Facilitation and early discussion was cut short. Twelve days into the project I brought graphs to class--a simple activity distribution curved, as you might have guessed, like a long tail. A few had done much work; many had done much less, just like on Wikipedia. Also, the graph reflected two data-sets, one for number of edits and one for frequency of logins. So that everyone processes the assignment by a distributed pace rather than a climactic pace, the prompt encouraged logging in and making identifiable contributions every other day or so. Halfway in, this wasn't quite working. But the graph confronted us with the problem, and, consequently, it moved us collectively nearer to the quick-writing messiness I had in mind. For the remaining nine days, the wiki came alive--to the tune of 38 contributors, an impressive blur of edits, revisions, and rearrangement.
Certainly we gained some experience with wiki writing--wiki writing connected with our continuing inquiry into style and technology. And, for the most part, I stand by this approach (i.e., will try it again), even if it still has a few wrinkles to smooth out. I prefer it to a common alternative, which is something like wiki-as-showcase, where the wiki functions as a platform for sharing individually authored pieces, where collaboration is predefined, where discrete contributions carry over into some kind of portfolio or autonomous collection of best works (many variations on this, to be fair). The showcase approach to wiki writing is fine, but I want to continue to think through the near-aleatory, massively collaborative chaos available in wikis and to think through the this chaotic approach for a school assignment and for the question of what is stylistically available. How? I'll begin by reading and commenting 36 or so reflective essays over the next couple of days.
Thursday, February 18, 2010
I'm an avid skimmer of Google Reader. On most days, I periodically login and use quick keys to flip through 100 or so items. I might read one or two of them, start another few items, publish one or two as shared items. The key is to use it as productive digression, not to get bogged down with it as an obligation or labor-intensive duty. When I miss a day or find the feeds creating an insurmountable backlog, it's easy enough to mark all as read.
This morning I noticed Google Reader's down-counting ticker kept hitching--stopping on a number and no longer counting down, no matter how many times I pressed 'N'ext. For months I've had Helvetireader working through Greasemonkey in Firefox; figured that must be it. But even after I deactivated Greasemonkey, the ticker continued to act up, firing only for the first few items and then sticking. The ticker would stop on a number (e.g., 80), and the fed RSS items would continue skipping down the page, many of them reruns. The service wasn't broken, exactly. But it was (and remains) up on the blocks. Somebody is tinkering with it.
I caught a few clues on Twitter during the day (Thurs., a day I usually spend at home, half fathering, half professing) speculating about whether Google had activated Pubsubhubbub, a nearer to real-time relay process for RSS deliveries. Then, a few minutes ago, both in Google Reader and via Will Richardson's Twitter stream, I saw this entry from The Next Web, "Has Google Reader Just Gone Real Time?" Possibly: Google is adjusting Reader so it will turn around RSS-fed content momentarily. Until now, Google Reader-fed material was delayed, arriving anywhere from 30-90 minutes after the content was first published. Google's demure response (cited in The Next Web piece) is unsurprising in light of reactions to Google Buzz. But an upgrade to Google Reader that nudges it toward the ever-unfolding now is an intriguing, promising development, nevertheless. Moving Reader toward the now may dislodge assumptions about its readerly orientation and help us come to terms with it differently as a writerly/receivable mechanism--a platform for collaborative filtering (like Delicious networks) and threaded conversational annotation (both of which take GR well beyond a flat consumption practice). I'm encouraged to see some new energy routed Google Reader's way. In fact, while it's much too early for me to be decided about Google Buzz, if it makes any appreciable impact on Google Reader, all the better.