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.

Punctuated Equilibria

The first chapter of The Wealth of Networks (How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom) by Yochai Benkler was very interesting reading. I am looking forward to reading more.

In an earlier post, I talked about how mass collaboration is only possible for those with a computer and an internet connection. It does not include many in the developing world and those that do have it in most of those countries are not girls. It is hardly inclusive at this stage of the game. Benkler too points out that the “declining price of computation, communication, and storage have, as a practical matter, placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population – on the order of a billion people around the globe. (3)” This still leaves over 5 billion people without that means. My guess is that it is primarily those who live at a subsistence level. Why guess? Check the Number of computers per 100 inhabitants by Country. The top five are Switzerland, United States, Sweden, Canada and Australia, while the bottom five are Cambodia, Central African Republic, Burkina Faso, Malawi and Chad.

Benkler also says that the marks of what a society’s freedom looks like is based on “how we make information, how we get it, how we speak to others, and how others speak to us. (7)” If we were to look at women as a segment of any society I wonder if we could use Benkler’s analysis as a reliable test. Let’s look at Switzerland then. Hmmm, women won the right to vote in 1971. 59% of Swiss women are employed while 75% of men are, but that does not tell us if they are seeking employment. Would the numbers be similar for who is making the information? What about Chad then? Women in Chad could vote in 1958. Well before Switzerland. Women in the workforce in Chad? About 44%. I don’t think this is going to work as a test without some heavy duty analysis. Just because women are given the right to vote doesn’t mean they take advantage of it or even have the ability to exercise that right. That is what is so incredibly embarrassing about the latest vote I participated in. Under 60%! Shameful.

What is also touched on in previous posts, as well as posts by classmates, is the idea that these technologies can bring about social change. Benkler says, “The technology will not overcome their resistance through an insurmountable progressive impulse.” It won’t just happen. “The reorganization of production and the advances it can bring in freedom and justice will emerge, therefore, only as a result of social and political action aimed at protecting the new social patterns from incumbents’ assaults. (23)” It is fragile and it requires those who are willing to fight for it in order to preserve it. Benkler also adds to that discussion by pointing out that the tension between economics, institutions, laws and technology is dynamic, yet it is never in tension for too long a period and usually finds a kind of equilibrium. I suppose then that we can and should look forward to the change that is coming as a result of the economic “shock” we are now experiencing.

What will we renegotiate? What will we fight for?

On Closed Systems & Freedom

I have been a busy, busy little bee. Ok I am not that little, but I have been busy.

Part One
Catching up on this past week’s reading in Wikinomics (by Tapscott and Williams), I took note of anything that struck me as I read. On page 238 I made a notation, “Unlimited Growth?” I am not sure in re-reading that page why I wrote that, but it does raise an interesting question, but first an illustration from life.

When I was in grade nine and introduced to the wonders of Biology (by a teacher who reminded us that we should not hold hands because eventually that could lead us to do things we would be sorry about later) and the Pond Experiment. We were required to get a jar and fill it with pond water. We were to make sure we got some plant life in there and a bit of pond muck too. Punching a few holes in the lid top ensured that the only thing in or out was air. Essentially a closed system (I know technically not, but for a bunch of grade niners it was close enough). On a bi-weekly basis we began to make a log of the organism count. At first, there were a nice number of floaty things under the slides. A couple of weeks later the number was skyrocketing, then suddenly a drop off to nill. Nothing. Nada. All gone. No life at all.

Economic systems are like that. I remember hearing an Amway presentation once. What happens if all the people in the world sign up, I asked. It just does not make sense to me. We cannot grow forever. Our economies cannot grow forever. (Unless we can start mining the moon) But, this new openness, peering, sharing and acting globally (is the rest of the globe on board?) has new possibilites. I know there are all kinds of people out there ready to make their bucks, but I think it also has the potential for all kinds of social change. I fear for it though. I think it is pretty fragile yet.

Part Two
Another thing I noted was the use of all the adjectives used to tell the Geek Squad story, beginning on page 241. As a former employee at a small tech company, I was one of three females (one web site designer, two programmers) among 15 males, I have the feeling that there are not too many female Geek Squaders.

With descriptions like, “Global domination,” “special agent badge,” “black clip-on tie,” “black ops,” “James Bond,” “all play Battlefield 2 online,” and “simultaneously fighting each other,” what do you think?

Part Three
Email at the workplace sucks. On page 252 Tapscott and Willimas quote Mayfield as saying that the average Fortune 500 employee spends 4 hours in their Inbox! Wow! The upside is that apparently many employees are using wikis to communicate without approval coming from up on high first. This is a good thing and I think it is also something that some of us have achieved in this course. Hey, how about a Ning, sounds good let’s do it, and poof there it is!

Part Four
Another section where I made copious notes was in the section titled “War on the open internet.” Again I am reminded that freedom is always bought at a cost. It never comes without a fight. I don’t mean a guns and blood fight (although that is sometimes necessary…my parents were freed from dictatorial occupation by people who used guns and spilled blood to do it), but one must be ever vigilant. If we want freedom, we will have to fight for it.

Re: Return of the blog

This is an open message to my instructor. (I would have left a comment on your blog, but alas, it did not allow me to…) Anyway, I think this class is great! In talking with another student they confessed that if it was not for this class they might never have started a blog and now they are so happy that they did. They, as will I, will continue blogging after the course is finished. As a matter of fact, I even have some ideas on how to make the blog into a work.

Here is my mashup to cheer you up:

Don’t worry about the F’s…I mean I don’t sleep at night anyway…

What Would Walter Benjamin Do?

Being a total amateur, I had to look up Walter Benjamin after the question was posed in relation to this week’s reading of Tapscott and Williams, Wikinomics.

So, Benjamin (naturally I looked him up at Wikipedia) was a “German-Jewish Marxist literary critic.” His main contribution to studies in Humanities is reputed to be his essay, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technical Reproducibility. Once I researched a little further, I realized that I had indeed been exposed to his ideas during some of my studies. Benjamin talked about the “aura” to refer to the charisma, a work of art might have, and the feeling one would experience in the objects presence. For Benjamin this did not mean that the “aura” was present because of the actual object, but was felt because of the association the work has with the artist (their status), its perceived cultural value, and its authenticity. It is also present because of restricted opportunities to see or access the work. Take for example the Mona Lisa. When it was stolen from the Louvre in August 1911, the Louvre experienced a surge in visitors to view the salon and place the painting was stolen from (Leader, 3). Patrons could not see the actual painting, but they could see the place it had be taken from; the spot that might still have its “aura.” Benjamin argues that this “aura” is removed in the age of mechanical reproduction, which he viewed as a step in the right direction as art (i.e. cultural objects) was now accessible to anyone. Ironically the police distributed 6,500 photographic reproductions of the Mona Lisa in an effort to find the painting (Leader, 172).

Well, I suppose that Benjamin would be welcoming the changes. Benjamin might concur with Lessig when he says, “You have got to make the clueless politicians aware of what nineteenth-century law is doing to the twenty first century…They don’t get it. They think they’re stopping ‘pirates’ when they stop all sorts of creativity. (124)” Benjamin may well start his own blog to publish his ideas, give his support to those who are fighting for ‘copyleft,’ and join people like Doctorow on the boards of Participatory Culture Foundation, or the Open Rights Group.

Tapscott and Williams point out that there is a new surge of creativity, which might give the Renaissance a run for its money. What with all those prosumers out there, just waiting to get their hands on the next thing they can reconfigure…


Darian Leader, Stealing the Mona Lisa, 2002

Trust, Web 2.0 & Relationships

Trust. In the context of Web 2.0, our readings and podcast lectures have been very revealing. Web 2.0 products enable people to become part of vibrant communities that do everything from create and build new software, publish podcasts and books, create entertainment, share knowledge, get a weight loss buddy, to helping people solve global problems. Some people (you know who you are!) have even suggested using mashups to create and vote on public art projects or develop re-purposing plans for buildings. While many of these contributors may never meet face to face, they are part of a shared ownership and shared responsibility to make things work. To make the world a better place.

The part that resonated personally was the statement made during one of our lectures that trust in a Web 2.0 networked environment was about, “trusting the communication process.” How true.

As a young person I did not trust, …anyone. As I began to mature (and I don’t have a fat head about that; I have a looong way to go), I realized that if I was to have any sort of meaningful relationships, it was going to be necessary for me to become vulnerable. I was going to need to be open and to share in order for the other person to feel comfortable and to enable them to trust me. I would need to take a risk.

Wikipedia would not exist if it were not taking a risk, becoming vulnerable and trusting first. That is why it works, in my opinion. Other people then want to become worthy of that trust and become trustable. (Some sociologist out there probably has a term for it)

It will be very interesting to see how far we can take these ideas. We live in exciting times.

Ideas & Change

Its interesting how one idea can create such profound change. Tapscott and Williams, in Wikinomics, discuss N-Geners as prosumers. File sharing accounts for half the internet traffic they say (I’ll bet most of that is porn, but that is another issue), and this is “signalling that the Net Generation is renegotiating the definitions of copyright and intellectual property.” (52)

N-Gener? I think I gave birth to a couple of those. While I educated them about how stealing is bad, and hitting is bad, and how to respect women (they’re men), and how to be strong and kind all at the same time, they still had no difficulty downloading stuff from the Internet. Games, codes, movies, music, hacking, it is all fair as far as they are concerned. Stealing from the store is never considered, but copying bytes, no problem. As Cory Doctorow points out, “computers copy, that’s what they do.”

Change is not only inevitable, but I for one welcome it. (I wouldn’t go so far as to say that one period in history is better than any other, because I think each has it’s own set of challenges, ideologies, pros and cons. Just like the one, we are in now.) I like the whole idea of renegotiating meaning. I am sure that some disagree, but I like that the meaning behind the concept of wife, has changed a bit over the last century. Stagnant water just gets, well, stagnant and undrinkable.

It is painful though, and it has never been without pain. Just one example from the multitudes is the pain that came for the early 19th century handloom weavers. Weavers were unable to support their families as textile manufacturing moved to factories, driving down their profits. I’ll bet that even today most of us cannot afford to pay for hand woven blankets, and the deal at the department store fits into our budget better.

And how about living without all those cheap factory made goods?

Wiki Wiki or Get Left Behind

Wikinomics, and the few pages required reading for SOCS300 was thought provoking. Already the margins marked with scribblings, question and exclamation marks.

Tapscott and Williams in their 2006 book, Wikinomics, show us the differences between the old model of economics and the newer models of mass collaboration. Top down management and hierarchies versus community, peering and sharing. A “Do what I say or I’ll smack you” and a “How do you think we can solve this problem?” contradiction. Tapscott and Williams point out that the market place is changing and the change is BIG. While they don’t use the Hadron Collider as an example in their book, the project does provide another picture of mass collaboration. The Hadron Collider project’s shear scope is impossible without the ideas, money and collaboration between multiple countries, scientists, and universities. Get on board, utilize the tools or eat your fear for breakfast.

What fascinates me is the human factor. The theory behind Wikinomics is based on mass collaboration. Not of the type that goes hand in hand with communism where individuality is suppressed, but the kind that wants, respects and values your particular ideas, in order to make the end concept or commodity better. It sounds Utopian. Equality based on your unique experiences and knowledge, not your gender, pigment, country of origin, or level of education.

Meeting together with people from other parts of the globe and sharing ideas will mean that ideas about politics and culture are shared too. Good ideas as well as bad ones can flow in both directions and it’s not like the west has all the good ideas. Or the bad ones.

Importantly we must be careful that we do not remain “westcentric” in our thinking. Case in point, Massively Collaborative Direct Democracy has a web site advocating the exploration of a massively collaborative direct democracy. The problem is that the site is in English only, implying a minimum level of literacy in English. It is on a web site requiring a computer and internet connection. It is “opt-in.” While it may not occur to us in the West, in most parts of the developing world education is still a premium and don’t even talk about the education of girls. I mean have at it, but remember it will not be inclusive, but exclusive.

Trouble with Sources & Saying What I Want

Reading assignment number one, for SOCS300, is a few pages from Mark Frauenfelder’s book Rule the Web. Frauenfelder points out that, a blog database, lists over 57 million blogs (13)! While I found that Technorati returned results formatted with too much information for a quick assessment, I did find the Top 100 blogs tab to be very useful. It seems amazing that blogging as a tool for communication did not even begin until 1996 (15), the very same year I purchased my first computer, a Mac Power PC running Mac OS 7.5.3 (it crashed…a lot). Frauenfelder’s excitement rubs off as he explains that anyone with a computer and a “$20 Internet connection” can publish virtually anything to an “audience of a billion people” (22). Truly amazing.

What initially began as light-hearted informative reading became worrying. Frauenfelder relates the story of Zouhair Yahyaoui who was arrested, tortured and died in prison because of a post on a blog (26). I decided to investigate and what I found was troubling and interesting on two levels.

In the first case, I was concerned that this could be happening frequently. Worse yet, it may also be under-reported. Researching at Human Rights Watch I found a few more troubling stories. Such as that of Abd al-Raziq al-Mansuri. Mansuri had been detained and then convicted on October 19, 2005 for illegally possessing a handgun. Apparently, over the previous year he had written approximately 50 articles as a journalist for a UK based web site, which were unflattering to the Libyan government. (I can’t confirm as it is written in Arabic.) Mansuri’s story is just one among others at HRW, such as the plights of Huang Qi, Liu Di, Dr. Nguyen Dan Que, Le Chi Quang, Nguyen Khac Toan, and Pham Hong Son.

Also troubling, was the story I initially read about Zouhair Yahyaoui in Rule the Web. Frauenfelder, without citing a source, wrote that Yahyaoui was arrested in 2004 and died in prison in 2005 (26). Reporters Without Borders claims that Yahyaoui was jailed on June 4, 2002 and released from prison on November 18, 2003. HRW confirms Yahyaoui’s release from prison in 2003 and also reports that Yahyaoui died of a heart attack on March 13, 2005 at age 36.

It seems that the free flow of information can cause difficulties on, at the very least, two fronts. It can be a problem for those using “mashed” up information, which has been drawn from multiple resources, as a final reliable source. This leaves me with more questions. For example, what sources can I truly trust? Printed or Digital? Or does it matter?

More importantly, speaking freely can result in fines, arrest, torture and imprisonment for those very individuals who are fighting to keep that right. Will I always have that right? How important is it for me to consider the rights of my society as a whole? How hard will I have to fight to keep it?