Category Archives: new media

SOPA, Media Conglomerates, and the Moral Obligation to Boycott

SOPA, in its current form, is dead. But the fight to keep the internet an open platform for communication, creativity, and commerce is far from over. Pacts like ACTA are in some ways more troubling than SOPA/PIPA, as they represent attempts of copyright extremists to do an end-run around the US Congress. (Rep. Daniel Issa has spoken about this recently.) The root problem is not a specific piece of legislation, or even a single piece of technology, but fundamental disagreements about the nature of intellectual property, the relationship between the producers and consumers of media, and the role of government regulation in shaping and enforcing worldviews (be they conservative and profit-focused, or progressive and individual-focused). The fight will continue for as long as these disagreements persist. And the copyright extremists will continue to have sway as long as they have enormous amounts of money, and as long as the political system is arranged in such a way that deep pockets dictate legislative agendas.

This conception of the problem suggests two broad strategies. First: attempt to change the political structures that allow campaign and lobbying money to play such a significant role in the legislative process. Primarily, this is an argument about campaign finance reform. For a very readable outline of the problem, as well as the sketch of a few specific strategies for combatting it, I highly recommend Lawrence Lessig’s recent book Republic, Lost. Needless to say, solving the problems of money in politics is enormously difficult and complex, so I’ll set it aside for the moment.

The strategy that I want to consider here focuses more directly on the fact that media companies are very rich, and can afford political canoodling. (Operating here on the admittedly oversimplified assumption that media companies – TV, movie, music, book publishers – are driving the legislation.) These companies get their money from the people who buy their wares. So, in theory, if everyone stopped going to the movies, buying music, watching TV, etc, then they’d have no money. In other words, a boycott.

A few days ago, I tweeted something suggestive along these lines:

When you buy music, watch TV, or see a movie, don’t forget: the makers hate the free internet & will spend huge amounts of money to kill it.

Assume that the premise here is right (namely, that the people who make media – by which I mean, those who choose which media gets created in the first place, who fund its creation, who are responsible for its distribution and marketing, etc – hate the internet as it currently stands). That means that when you make them richer by buying their stuff, you are increasing their ability to fight the internet. All things being equal, then, someone who values the open internet should not spend money in this way – that is, you’d be morally obligated to boycott.

But all things are not equal. (Such is life.) There are some factors that may mitigate the obligation to boycott:

  • How valuable is the open internet, really?

    I’m assuming that an open internet is valuable enough to defend. I may be totally wrong about this, or I may be overestimating how valuable it is. The less valuable the internet, the less obliged we are to fight against the forces that would wreck it.

  • How much collateral damage would a boycott cause?

    The supporters of SOPA/PIPA talked a lot about the zillions of Americans who make their livings working for media conglomerates. If boycotting media companies would put them all out of work and out on the street, that’d be a bad thing. Of course, this is a complete caricature. For one thing, you can (and should, and hopefully did) make the very same argument about the zillions of Internet professionals who would be harmed by stifling legislation. More importantly, it’s not as if SOPA vs non-SOPA is a zero-sum game, where media professionals all lose their jobs if SOPAesque bills don’t pass. It’s likely that piracy is not as financially harmful as these companies complain, and it’s likely that there are anti-piracy measures that would not harm Internet professionals.

    There’s another kind of collateral damage you might be worried about: the damage caused to the creative people (musicians, writers, actors) who are directly responsible for the media that people love, and the subsequent damage to the “art” itself. In addition to the general points made in the foregoing paragraph, I’ll add that this assumes that the stuff produced by these companies is worth saving. For every The Wire (or whatever your favorite piece of popular media is), there are thousands upon thousands of pieces of trash. Taking these turds out of circulation is probably a *good* thing. Moreover, new models of direct funding for quality art (think Radiohead, Louis CK, projects taking place on Kickstarter) reduce collateral damage even further.

  • How much do you value the media produced by these companies?

    If you’re a TV junkie, or you love the movies, then it’s certainly rational for you to cling to them a bit more than someone who doesn’t care about these media (see the ‘turd’ comment above).

  • How likely is it that a boycott will make a difference?

    Probably hundreds of millions of Americans are consumers of TV, movies, books, and music. For a company like NBC Universal to take notice of a boycott, much less to change corporate policies as a result of the boycott, would require huge numbers of boycotters. You might thus argue that your individual boycott would have no positive value.

    Sadly, this is at least partly true – I’m sure there are many times more people who would go to bat for their TV shows than for the kind of heady internet freedoms that intellectuals get excited about. That said, January’s blackouts demonstrated a deep dependence on the Internet for a broader swath of Americans than I might have guessed. In any case, even a single dollar kept out of media company coffers is one dollar they can’t use to fight the open internet. The “everybody else is buying media anyway” argument is the same kind of reasoning that leads to looting during blackouts. (See also Kant.)

So what does this all mean? I think that there are a couple of takeaways:

  1. I think there’s a decent case to be made for a broad boycott.
  2. Even in the absence of an organized boycott, I think there’s a decent case to be made for individuals to boycott.
  3. If you care about the internet (if you’re reading this blog post, you probably do), you cannot continue to patronize these media companies without at least recognizing the indirect effects of your actions.

This last point is the most important. Every meaningful decision that you make is an ethical trade-off, and this one is no different. When you continue to patronize media conglomerates, you are saying that what you get from them is worth the damage that you thereby do to the cause of an open internet. You may be right about the value of this trade-off, or you may be wrong, but you can’t in good faith continue to consume without at least thinking about it.

Do something about SOPA

Hey you! Do something about SOPA and PROTECT IP..

The Stop Online Privacy Act (and its cousin in the Senate, the PROTECT IP Act) are inching closer to passage. Time is running short for you to do what you can to stymie this legislation, which could very well destroy the open internet as we know it. (Don’t know about SOPA? Get a nice overview in this short video, or check out Jeff Sayre’s helpful bibliography of resources about the bill.)

Why you should care about this

If you are reading my blog, you likely fall into one of a few camps, each of which has a vested interest in preventing the passage of SOPA and PROTECTIP:

  • If you are a developer, user, or advocate of free and open source software, you have several reasons to be concerned about the proposed legislation.

    For one thing, the small-to-medium sized web organizations that are most likely to be targets of SOPA’s blacklisting protocols make up the bulk of the clientele for many web developers I know. These organizations generally do not have the visibility or high profile to put up a stink when and if they fall prey to overzealous “copyright” claims, nor do they have the deep pockets to fund the necessary legal defenses. The danger is especially great for websites that accept – or are built on – user-generated content, like many WordPress and BuddyPress sites; SOPA provides for the blacklisting of entire domains, based merely on the a few pieces of “offending” content, even if the content was not created or posted by the domain owners. Over time, these threats and constraints are bound to make the development of these kinds of sites far less feasible and attractive, resulting in less work for developers – and less development on the open source projects that are largely subsidized by this kind of work.

    On a deeper level, those who are interested in the philosophical underpinnings of free software – the rights of the user – should be terrified by the prospect of media corporations gaining what amounts to veto power over our most fecund channels for the exercise of free expression. Free software lives and dies alongside a free internet. When one level of our internet infrastructure (DNS) is under the control of a self-interested few, it makes “freedom” at higher levels of abstraction – like the level of the user-facing software – into an illusion.

  • If you are an educator or an instructional technologist, especially one who endorses the spirit of open educational movements like (the OG) edupunk and ds106, you should be flipping out about SOPA.

    At an institutional level, thoughtful folks in higher ed and edtech have been fighting for years against a FERPA-fueled obsession with privacy and closedness. They’ve made strides. Platforms that foster learning in open spaces – stuff like institutional blog and wiki installations – have become increasingly commonplace, demonstrating to the powers that be that, for one thing, the legal dangers are not so great, and for another, whatever legal concerns there may be are far outweighed by the pedagogical benefits to be reaped from the open nature of the systems. The threats put into place by SOPA are likely to undo much of this work, by tipping the scales back in the direction of fear-driven policy written by CYA-focused university lawyers. Advocates of open education, and the platforms that support it, should be keen not to let their efforts go to waste.

    At the level of the individual student, the case is more profound. The most promising thread in the story of higher ed and the internet – the thread running through Gardner Campbell’s Bags of Gold and Jim Groom’s a domain of one’s own – is, in my understanding, founded on notions about student power and agency. Users of the internet are not, and should not be, passive actors and consumers of content. Instead, they should take control of their (digital) selves, becoming active participants in the construction of the web, the web’s content, and their own avatars. SOPA and its ilk are an endorsement of the opposite idea: the “ownership” of creative content on the internet is heavily weighted toward media companies, which is to say that you are allowed to be in control of your digital self until it causes a problem for a suit at MPAA or RIAA. The entire remix/mashup culture of ds106 is impossible in such a scenario. If you think that this culture, and the ideology of student personhood that underscores the culture, is worth saving, you should be fighting SOPA tooth and nail.

What can you do? Write a blog post. Join or support the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Most importantly, if you are an American, contact your representatives in Congress. The Stop American Censorship site makes this easy, and gives you all the talking points you’ll need. (“This bill is a job killer!”)

Do it now!

Fake Retweets

Twitter communities are built on trust – sometimes too much trust. Recent XSS and XSRF exploits on Twitter have shown that the Twitter platform has been designed in a way that accidentally allows such trust to be used for evil purposes. My Fake Retweets experiment suggests that not all Twitter exploits are platform-level, architectural problems.

First things first: The real point of fake retweets is that they’re funny. What better way to make fun of your friends (or enemies) than to pretend to retweet stupid things that they allegedly said? I am not a performance artist, online or off.

Yet fake retweets do seem to say something worth saying about the medium. FRTs only work as a vehicle for jokes because there is a general assumption that all retweets are genuine. To some extent, this has nothing to do with Twitter. The only reason why jokes (or lies, or metaphors, or irony) work at all is because there exists a contrary convention that the jokester (liar, ironist) consciously flouts. In a world where people only tell lies, lies do not work in the same way that lies work in our world. I might lie about my dog eating my homework so that the teacher will give me an extension; but if there is no presumption in favor of truth, teachers will have no reason to grant an extension based on such a claim. (Echoes of Kant.) Jokes seem to work in a similar way: if we all spoke in puns all the time, for instance, then the utterance of a pun would have no element of surprise, robbing the joke of much of its value.

Thus the efficacy of fake retweets is at least in part an instance of a broader phenomenon. Anecdotally, though, it seems like Twitter is a particularly fertile yet underutilized environment for this kind of convention-flouting. With limited exceptions, people on Twitter generally seem to believe that everyone else is being genuine. There are some counterexamples, like Mark Sample‘s #MarksDH2010 or accounts like FakeAPStylebook. But both are either so absurd that no one could possibly think that they weren’t fake, or actively wear their fakeness on their sleeves with hashtags, or both. (This fact doesn’t necessarily take away from the funniness of the jokes in question. It just means that they don’t have the intent to deceive.) Aside from these sorts of extravagant Twitter charades, it’s hard to think of examples (from personal experience) where real live lying takes place on Twitter.

That’s not to say that my Fake Retweets were meant to deceive. (But they did. In one instance, a follower who commented on the fakeness of one retweet took another one as serious just a few minutes later.) The spirit of Fake Retweets in this case is to poke fun at friends, which means that my FRTs were mainly friendly and totally directed at friends. Yet I have to admit a little trepidation to the FRT, even with such benign content. There’s something about faking another person’s voice (perhaps especially in a community of academics) that seems to cross a sacred line.

The sense of violation in FRTs, it seems, is related to the fact that we all spend so much effort cultivating a specific persona via Twitter. Yet again, such cultivation is not a Twitter-specific phenomenon – surely there’s a sense in which personae are necessarily self-constructed – but it seems to be especially evident on Twitter. Maybe it’s because on Twitter, you control your own stream. In real life, all my eloquence and fashion won’t prevent the occasional piece of food in my teeth; in meatspace, there are infinite vectors for our self-constructed selves to get out of hand. Twitter, in contrast, has very few dimensions for self-presentation to run amok: tweets are finite in length and in number, you get to choose your avatar, you can spend hours crafting your 140-character pearls, you can even edit and delete mistaken tweets. The FRT threatens to cleave this controlled space, to taint our carefully manicured self-images.

The aspects of Twitter that make FRTs so uncomfortable aren’t necessarily bad things. Maybe the world would be a better place if it were as trusting as the Twitter community. (Though I wouldn’t want to be vulnerable to cross-site scripting in real life.) But certainly there is room for a little more skepticism when you see something come across your screen. Think before you click that link, before you believe that RT.

The meat of Facebook

danah boyd wrote a blog post arguing that Facebook ought to be regulated like a utility. What exactly it means to be a utility, and why utilities ought to be regulated in general, is not the main focus of her piece, and she adds in an addendum that the issue is not so much that FB is a utility as that it is trying to be one. But, in any case, I want to push against the utility analogy with one of my own.

I take it that the reason why utilities ought to be regulated is that they are monopolies, and in a single-provider market, people can’t realistically use the threat of leaving for a competitor as leverage for bargaining with the monopolistic company. To claim this is the case for Facebook is surely an overstatement: people can and do opt out of using Facebook, and certainly there are enough other social options out there to block the analogy between them and “people who are building cabins in the woods” (an analogy suggested by boyd). Even if Facebook is dominant, it’s not a monopoly in the way that utility companies are, so the same arguments for regulation don’t really work.

The government sees fit to regulate in other sorts of cases, though. Take the meat industry. The government regulates certain aspects of the meat industry (however lax or ill-conceived USDA oversight might be). The justification here is not that the meat industry is monopolistic (though I’m sure it is mostly controlled by a couple conglomerates, and insofar as this is true it should be additionally regulated as a monopoly). Instead, the justification seems to be: 1) this kind of industry has the potential to do great harm if left to its own devices (E. coli and stuff like that), and 2) it is unlikely that many (or any) consumers of this industry’s goods are in a position to verify independently the claims of the industry (not many have access to labs where they can test for bacteria, etc). The government is justified in protecting its citizens at their most vulnerable (you might even say this is the primary reason for government). So they’re justified in regulating the meat industry.

The case of Facebook is parallel. 1) Because people keep a lot of their most important stuff in Facebook, a large amount of harm could be done if Zuck decided to start selling it to advertisers or something more nefarious still. 2) It’s difficult, if not impossible, for most people to verify the claims of FB with respect to how FB claims to store and use data. For one thing, the “privacy” settings are arcane to the point of incomprehensibility. And even if you figure out the settings, without access to FB’s software and servers, you can’t really know whether they’re living up to their word. Thus, government regulation might be justified.

Someone needs to write The Jungle, Part II: Zuckerpunched.

Tensions between disciplinary and media instruction

I’ve been talking with a colleague about coming up with a mission statement for our educational technology program, so as to better position ourselves to assess our successes and failures. We’ve got a ways to go before we’ll have anything approaching a final version, but the brainstorming conversations we’ve had so far have been fruitful. In particular, a conversation we had yesterday gave me a chance to articulate a tension fundamental to the promotion of meaningful ed tech, a tension that had been bouncing around in my head for a while but that I had never formalized. I thought it’d be worthwhile to post it here.

My view is that there are two broad, interrelated reasons for implementing various kinds of technology in the classroom. One, certain kinds of technology can help to achieve the independently existing goals of the course. (For example, blogging in an Intro to Philosophy class might help students get a better introduction to philosophical methods and topics.) Two, it’s independently valuable for students to engage critically with and create content with new media. There are a couple justifications for this second point, I suppose, the more obvious of which is that there’s a vocational advantage to having Google-fu, web savviness, etc. More important, perhaps, the nature of information, and the relationship between information and its producers and consumers, is in significant flux. The more information the internet provides, the more necessity there is for students to develop effective bullshit filters – filters which can only be developed through critical practice with the medium. Moreover, the increasing ease of production (computers, cameras, etc that are cheaper and easier to use; sites like YouTube that allow people to publish and distribute in free and massive ways) means that today’s students could potentially be much greater participants in the creation and dissemination of knowledge than past generations. Part of the educator’s job is to teach students how to harness their creative power for their own good as well as for the greater good.

So I take it as given that there are plenty of justifications, independent of the specific content of a course, for teaching new media literacy. And such literacy can only be taught through practice and iterative reflection. I propose the caveat, though, that one can only become fluent with new media by the right kind of practice. What counts as “right” can vary, but what is definitely not right is to simply do digital versions of analog assignments. If I have my students write traditional, argumentative papers, and then post them on a website, I am just porting an analog assignment to a digital medium. When they add videos or hyperlinks or a comment section or a “tweet this” button, only then are they engaging with features of the native features of the medium that set it apart from what they’d do on paper.

From this I conclude that an educational use of a technology isn’t independently beneficial unless the use engages the meaningful or “native” features of the medium enabled by the technology. Instructional technologists, if they are to be advocates for the most effective uses of tech in learning, should therefore be advocating for native uses.

Here’s the tension. “Native” uses of ed tech – uses that are typified by a real engagement with the features of the technology that set it apart from different media – are, at least prima facie, exactly the kinds of uses that instructors will and should resist. Most instructors I’ve talked with see the instructional goals of their class as primarily disciplinary. Broader benefits, like the kind of media literacy I’ve urged here, are nice, but distinctly secondary, considerations. And the problem with the desire to teach your discipline first is that your sense of what counts as good disciplinary instruction is determined by the state of your discipline in general. Take philosophy as an example. With few exceptions, what constitutes quality philosophical work is linear, text-only, relatively long-form prose. The bodies which are de facto responsible for setting the standard for philosophical legitimacy – journal editors; tenure, promotion, and hiring committees; graduate school professors; etc. – reward this kind of work nearly exclusively. The ramifications for the philosophy instructor are that (a) in the absence of alternative motives, the production of traditional philosophical works is the end goal when training budding philosophers, and (b) the means for achieving the goal of traditional philosophers will mirror the results that we desire to achieve – in other words, the only way to produce a student who’s good at writing traditional philosophy is to have them write traditional philosophy.

What it boils down to is that the instructor who focuses on disciplinary goals is, at least at first glance, beholden to the traditional disciplinary methods to get there. And since those traditional methods are necessarily at odds with “native” uses of instructional technology (because in order to be native, a use must engage in a critical way with a feature of the medium that sets it apart from traditional media), disciplinary instruction seems almost incompatible with new media literacy instruction.

I have a few ideas about how the cycle might be broken. One is that the de facto standards of excellence in a discipline are de facto only, and if we examine what we really value in (say) a good philosopher, we’ll see that the traditional medium is not critical. Another is that traditional disciplinary excellence can and should be taught by methods other than simply aping the greats – in other words, it might not be the case that writing a lot of traditional philosophy texts is not the best way to make a better writer of traditional philosophy texts. Whatever the response to the tension I’ve described above, it is crucial to respond to it if instructional technology is to be able to fulfill both its goal of enabling disciplinary ends and striving for increased student facility with new media.

Doctorow on ethics and copyright

I’m posting this passage from Cory Doctorow’s generally awesome discussion of copyright to Microsoft because it’s too long to tweet:

Copyright isn’t an ethical proposition, it’s a utlititarian one. There’s nothing *moral* about paying a composer tuppence for the piano-roll rights, there’s nothing *immoral* about not paying Hollywood for the right to videotape a movie off your TV. They’re just the best way of balancing out so that people’s physical property rights in their VCRs and phonographs are respected and so that creators get enough of a dangling carrot to go on making shows and music and books and paintings.

Now, I think this is perhaps overly simplistic, since utilitarian considerations might ipso facto be ethical ones. More explicitly, if it’s true that violating copyright reduces the efficacy of Doctorow’s “carrot”, and if the ensuing decreased productivity of content producers has negative overall “utilitarian” impact, then that initial act of piracy might rightly have negative ethical import.

But the core of what Doctorow is saying strikes me as absolutely correct: to act like the copying of a CD is a violation of someone’s rights is to make a lot of very questionable assumptions about the concept of intellectual property.

The piece is worth reading in its entirety. Do it!

Mashups, authorship, and audience

At the BLSCI Symposium last week (see the previous post for more info), I had the good fortune to work a bit with Gardner Campbell, including attending his afternoon workshop titled “Speaker, Listener, Network: The Concept of Audience in a Web 2.0 World”. The main thrust of the talk was that Web 2.0 technologies, and in particular the phenomenon of open APIs and the mashups they allow, call into question our notion of what constitutes the (or even an) audience for the content that we produce. It is through the lens of the author that one can really see this at work.


via quinnanya

Here’s how I would reconstruct the argument. Communication – I’m thinking primarily here of linguistic communication, but it could be the case with other kinds of conventionalized communication as well – works because of a set of assumptions that the author (a term I might for the moment apply broadly to anyone who “authors” an utterance with communicative intent) has about his audience. If I say “Gee, it’s cold in here” because I want you to close the door, I am assuming, among other things: that you are a sufficiently competent speaker of English, that your hearing is functioning properly, that you will grasp the “literal” meaning of my sentence (i.e. that the ambient temperature in the room is too low for my comfort), that you will assume that I must have uttered the sentence not just to inform you of my beliefs regarding the temperature of the room but to make you close the door, that you like me well enough to want to make me more comfortable, that you are physically able to close the door. And so on, ad nauseum. More generally, the communicative gesture that an author chooses to make (a gesture like an utterance) will depend on his beliefs about who or what his audience is. (None of this is very new or very original, of course.)

We might think of certain kinds of authorship, such as writing a book or painting a picture, as less direct than the kind of authorship described in the foregoing paragraph, because the author is separated further from his audience and, as a result, has less information about them. When I write a book entitled Gee, It’s Cold In Here, I make some of the assumptions discussed above, but some I do not. Using Twitter is probably something like this, as you might be justified in making some assumptions about your audience (you know the handles of your followers, for instance), but it’s impossible to judge the potential scope of this audience, or to know many details about most of them.

When an author’s work is mashed up after the fact, his connection to his audience is so indirect that you might call it altogether disconnection. I might send a tweet, something like “boonebgorges: Gee, it’s cold in here”, with the intent to get a rise out of my Twitter followers. Let’s say it gets pulled into Twistori (perhaps the tweet should have been “I hate how cold it is in here”…). Think about the people who now view this tweet in its new context. Not only do I not know who they are, but I had never really even considered the possibility of their existence when authoring the original tweet. In this sense, whatever assumptions I had originally made about my audience have been entirely subverted by the reuse of my work. There is a sense in which I am no longer the author of what I wrote: I didn’t code Twistori, I didn’t conceptualize the potential visitors to, etc. As with any remix – from DJing to quilting to objet trouvĂ© art – the idea of authorship being vested in a single individual has been overthrown (if it was ever that simple even in the case of more traditional authorship).

Once authorship becomes decentralized, so too does audienceship. Let’s say that you are one of my Twitter followers. You saw my initial tweet in its original context, in your Twitter timeline. Let’s imagine further that you are checking out Twistori at some later date and see my tweet repurposed in the Twistori timeline. Who, at that moment, is the audience for my tweet, and why? Are you the audience, because the tweet was originally written with you in mind? Are you the audience, because you’re now reading the tweet on Twistori? Is no one the audience since no one can be definitely picked out? There is a certain amount of self-selection that has to happen; the reader must construct an audienceship around himself. Reading a disembodied, mashed-up tweet written by a stranger, you could imagine yourself as a friend of the original tweeter, as a viewer of a piece of abstract art, or any number of other things. When you get enough people – enough intentional actions – between you and the original producer of the content, you have to make decisions for yourself about what kind of audience you are a part of, if any.

Anyway, this is all very interesting to me, and I have some thoughts about whether there are – or should be – any “right” answers to the questions of how to circumscribe authorship and audience. I need some more time to think about that, though.