George Stroumboulopoulos & k-os

I watched the Hour episode that aired on Nov 19th. What was interesting about this particular episode was that I was even allowed to watch it. (No one else was home) But also that George discussed the way music is marketed these days after his talk with David Foster. George said that musicians were choosing to release songs and albums over the Internet. In particular he talked about k-os offering free downloads of sections of music tracks, which k-os then encourages users to remix and send back. If k-os likes what you did and decides to use it, he’ll pay you.

Is this a totally cool example of mass collaboration or what?

Transparent Culture

“It makes culture more transparent to its inhabitants. (275)” Benkler in The Wealth of Networks discusses the way the average person with a connection to the Internet and a few simple tools (mostly free if one scouts around for opensource) can create and participate in a resurgence of folk culture. It may not be mom and pop strumming a guitar in the living room, but it is being created by the regular “folk.” According to Benkler what is significant about this is the mystery that used to surround production is now able to be understood by those participating in the creation of new artifacts. With this new understanding comes the ability to critique it and in turn critique our culture. (Perhaps this is the reason that I respect a critique about my own work coming from another artist rather than those who are not – although non-artists (you know what I mean so don’t give me any flack about my term) sometimes offer the most interesting observations.)

I really appreciated Benkler’s explanation and treatment of background knowledge or shared assumptions and meaning making in the shaping and changing of our collective culture. Benkler describes culture as the collective understanding of who we are, the way things ought to be, and our attempt at making sense of the world we live in. This is made possible through dialog among people. Which is where all this participation in the creation of artifacts is so important. No longer is it the only the elite who have access to understand and use the tools necessary, but (as we have heard 5 billion times now) anyone with a computer and an Internet connection.

Creative Commons definitely has a role to play in fostering this transparent conversation. For example, I could be one of those special elite people with bags and bags of money, but I might feel quite comfortable with the fact that someone might have more to “say” based on what I “said.” Why not allow them to copy, paste and remix. I can then copy, paste and remix a response. We can engage in an open conversation and change our minds about meaning, thus changing the culture. At any rate, whether I explained that very well or not, Creative Commons allows me to use artifacts from the culture to create new works.

Fresh on my mind though was the story yesterday about the girls in Afghanistan who were attacked with acid for daring to attend school. How does everything I have been reading in Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks apply to them? They don’t have any computers that I could see in the empty class on today’s news. The Taliban and/or other terrorists don’t care if I post some remix denouncing what they did. I wonder if the Taliban would be up for a little remix of their ideas. I am pretty sure that it is in our background knowledge (the big bad West) that throwing acid on girls and women is unacceptable. Or is it?

Tools in the Public Sphere

Ah yes, Utopia on earth. It has been discussed, debated and philosophized about for centuries. Personally, I don’t believe that in our present condition that we humans will ever achieve said Utopia. Benkler in The Wealth of Networks also acknowledges that the dream of  utopia through the Internet was a naive notion (215). What we are dealing with now is a maturation.

First, it is important to note that this does not mean that things cannot change for the better. Improvements can come. Benkler discusses two great examples of the ways in which the tools, i.e. the Internet and the tools for use within it’s framework, create a public sphere where change and influence can and does occur. I appreciated the real examples of how this so-called democratization would actually look. I had been struggling with some of the concepts without concrete stories. The first example deals with Sinclair Broadcasting where tools on the Internet were utilized to exert pressure on the network to stop an airing of an apparently biased documentary. The second dealt with Diebold, a manufacturer of electronic voting machines, and the trouble they ran into when internal documentation was found to be accessible to the Internet and the implications of impropriety within those documents. What is significant, I think, about this story is that when threatened with legal action to remove Diebold information, students at Swarthmore College engaged in “electronic civil disobedience. (230)” I am taking notes on how they did that.

Secondly, I think the argument that the Internet could possibly be a great equalizer is misplaced. Benkler acknowledges that “this does not mean that all these statements [ones we make on the Internet] are heard by the relevant others to whom they are addressed. (216)” While we may have computers, connections and tools available to enter and engage in the public sphere as never before, we do not all have the influence, stature, or writing abilities of, for example, Ariana Huffington. I mean, how many people read this post? Benkler then adds that achieving the success of those involved in the Sinclair and Diebold cases had is “something a single committed individual could choose to do. (225)” I’m not sure I agree.

Thirdly, I think it is very interesting in both the examples that the “blogosphere” influenced the mainstream media. There was enough buzz about those issues on the Internet to make the editors take notice and make decisions to run stories, further influencing events. While I have always held the belief that we are responsible for what the media dishes out (I will explain my thinking in the another post…someday), it is heartening to see hope in others that they can have influence over what they read, see, and talk about. Or not.

In closing, I leave you with a Benkler quote.
“Understanding what we will lose if such changes [redesign of computer equipment to make it harder for end users to exchange information] indeed warp the topology of the network, and through it the basic structure of the networked public sphere, is precisely the object of this book as a whole. (261)”

Women & Autonomy

This weeks reading comes from The Wealth of Networks, by Yochai Benkler. I have to confess that sometimes I feel that I am taking in more information than my brain can actually digest. It might have something to do with taking 18 credits, but maybe not, maybe I am just getting older, but then I am told that is crazy.

There are some very interesting concepts in this reading. For example, Benkler describes autonomy (as I understand it) as an individual having the options before him and deciding for himself which to choose. Benkler points out that this is only possible if the person is presented with all the options in the first place. Kind of like being in a bar and the waiter looks at my clothes and decides to tell me that they only have Lucky beer on tap. When meanwhile they also have Anchor Steam beer in bottles. I may want Lucky beer, but the waiter is not giving me the option, reducing my autonomy, thereby exerting a kind of control over my decision. Benkler writes that “a law that systematically gives some people the power to control the options perceived by, or the preferences of, other, is a law [or rule, standard, usual way of operating] that harms autonomy.”

Now, I always take things to the realm of women, The realm I live in (I live in other ones too, but there are too many to discuss here). I try to apply these principles to this realm. The high school I went to had a process where each student would take an employment aptitude test and then would be counseled as to what types of jobs they should consider for their future. Exciting I thought, now I will know what I will be best at. What do you think the counselor told me? You guessed it, it is 1976, and I am being told that I should be a nurse, or a frikin secretary! Where was police officer, or pilot, or prime minister, lawyer, or urologist? Why, when I look at the school I currently go to, is the president of the school a male and his secretary a female? I know it is possible that the people in those jobs are genuinely suited to and love their work, but I also wonder why most of the jobs with big control are held by men and the supporting jobs to those men are held by women.

I don’t have daughters, so I don’t know what young women are being told these days. Are they being given the option to be what they want and more importantly encouraged to do so? If I as a woman am encouraged to choose to be a stay at home mother and/or to be an engineer equally, and I choose the first, then I made that choice with all the options in front of me and keep my autonomy. If I gauge it by what I see in the media then things do not look good at all. If the dominant option placed in front of a woman is to cut herself in order to get and keep a man, then she is certainly not autonomous.

All that said, I do acknowledge that I may not have thought all this through well enough. Am I missing something? Or did I get it?

PS 5 billion people don’t have computers.