Solstice Special

moonmars_071127_harms800.jpgI haven’t posted much here lately, but I have been writing. I just finished my first semester as a doctoral student in the Journalism school and completed a flurry of term papers.

These two are from my pro-seminar with Michael Schudson, a class meant to introduce us to the history of the field and the faculty in the program. Our final assignment was to identify gaps in the field, which is a tough one, as all non-existence proofs are — especially in an interdisciplinary field, there will always be a fringe element occupying the gap.

People in the class interpreted the assignment in two ways — some chose to identify gaps, while other actually went out and tried to fill some. I took the opportunity to begin to pre-emptively answer the question I am sure to be challenged with in the years ahead – the ever-daunting methodolgical quetsion — what on earth am I doing and how am I am doing it?

Out of Thin Air: Metaphor, Imagination, and Design in Communication Studies

(and this was the midterm paper which got me thinking in this direction Transcending Tradition: America and the Philosophers of Communication).

I also took a wonderful class this semester at the New School taught by Paolo Carpignano (The Political Economy of Media – here is the syllabus). The class was all about the shifting relations between fabrication and communication, or more colloquially, work and play. We opened with Marx and Arendt and closed with Benkler and boyd. I took the opportunity to capture some of my experiences working on the Plone project before they fade from memory.

Fabricating Freedom: Free Software Developers at Work and Play

I am really glad to be done with the semester and am looking forward to a few weeks of “just” working full time!

The long-tail wagging the drugged out pooch?

Drugged out dogA few months ago the giant pharmaceutical company Pfiezer laid off 10,000 people, or about a tenth of its global workforce. There are many factors that are draining the industry of profits including the fact that patents eventually expire allowing generics to compete, it is extremely costly to develop new drugs, and the industry is caught in a vicious advertising/marketing arms race that is diverting significant percentages of development costs (in similar proportions to the marketing of a big budget Hollywood movie).

There is plenty to chew on here in terms of how intellectual property laws are impacting human rights (keeping lifesaving drugs out of many patient’s reach) and the notion that as “mission critical” drugs come out of patent, drug companies are busy inventing new “lifestyle illnesses” for which they conveniently sell the cure. The concept of illness has become a major US export, as the documentary Does Your Soul Have a Cold? begins to explore.

But what really caught my attention in this story is the idea that the pharmaceutical industry is witnessing a phenomena that is becoming familiar to the media/entertainment industry – the death of “hits” or the multi-billion dollar blockbuster.

As Henri Termeer, chief executive of Genzyme, a big biotechnology firm, argues, “the blockbuster model becomes less important over time as specialized therapies take off.”

As Chris Anderson describes:

The theory of the Long Tail is that our culture and economy is increasingly shifting away from a focus on a relatively small number of “hits” (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve and toward a huge number of niches in the tail.

Anderson does anticipate this economic trend extending beyond media and entertainment, but it is still a real trip imaging these forces playing out beyond the realm of information goods/services and in the realm of physical goods. I mean, I have often heard that media can be considered a drug, but the reverse is a bit harder to swallow – drugs as a form of media?

Of course, as I speculated when I was conjuring Free Energy if It really is derived from Bit then we shouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that the economic forces that govern information systems also apply to physical goods. (You can probably arrive at a similar conclusion without resorting to quasi-mystical metaphysics, but I like invoking this perspective).

The forces at play in the world of pharma are actually strikingly similar to the entertainment world. Perhaps the rise of
genomics and personalized pills (not very far off) is equivalent to user created content on the internet.

Hit-driven economics is a creation of an age without enough room to carry everything for everybody. Not enough shelf space for all the CDs, DVDs, and games produced. Not enough screens to show all the available movies. Not enough channels to broadcast all the TV programs, not enough radio waves to play all the music created, and not enough hours in the day to squeeze everything out through either of those sets of slots.

This is the world of scarcity. Now, with online distribution and retail, we are entering a world of abundance. And the differences are profound.

It’s certainly a tall order to replace a multi-billion dollar pipeline overnight as a drug comes out of patent, but perhaps the end of the blockbuster, one-size-fits all drug will lead to a healthier world of personalized treatment tailored to an individual’s needs, not a lab rat’s.

Emergent Intentionality

fractal.gifOr, My Fancy Rationale for Indulging in Conspiracy Theories.

New Scientist just ran a story on The Lure of Conspiracy Theory. They claim that:

Conspiracy theories can have a valuable role in society. We need people to think “outside the box”, even if there is usually more sense to be found inside the box. The close scrutiny of evidence and the dogged pursuit of alternative explanations are key features of investigative journalism and critical scientific thinking. Conspiracy theorists can sometimes be the little guys who bring the big guys to account – including multinational companies and governments.

I strongly agree with this position, and consider the natural tension between dogged skepticism and flagrant bootstrapping to be a good methodology for fostering creative scientific thought.

But I think the NS story misses an important angle of conspiracy theories that I have been wondering about lately.

The question I have been wondering about is to what extent can group behavior can be understood or characterized as conscious/willful/intentional. How much ideology do members of a group need to share before their behavior can be understood (and perhaps predicted) as an intentional agent? Is postulating intentionality a useful heuristic for understanding group behavior?

I am not going to follow this idea too far in this post, but this position provides an alternative perspective on theories like the idea that all Peace Corp volunteers are CIA agents, and why theories like this become so popular. Our cognitive capacities are poorly equipped to percieve complex emergent behaviors, and postulating intentionality may serve as a natural (and useful) strategy for capturing these patterns.

I personally trace the philosophical genealogy of this idea to Daniel Dennett’s Intensional Stance, but a friend of mine pointed out that this idea can also be found in Madison’s Federalist Paper #10. The main idea behind Dennett’s intensional stance is that we can bracket the deep, hard, ontological questions about the nature of consciousness and simply observe how useful taking the intensional stance is as a heuristic for understanding other people’s behavior. We posit intentionality which yields reliable predictions about agents (philosophical agents, not the ones working for letter agencies) in the world around us. And we don’t limit the intensional stance to other people either – we regularly adopt this stance with animals and machines, often to great utility.

For whatever its worth, labeling something a conspiracy theory sometimes seems like a pejorative, non-rational critique. Heck, Al-Queda is a conspiracy theory (and an open source project, according to Bruce Sterling’s SXSW ’07 Rant), but perversely, it’s the Power of Nightmare‘s attempt to dispel this fabrication that is labeled the conspiracy.

But, I really want to live in a universe in which we actually landed on the moon.

Can you keep a dark secret?

caduceus.jpgThe Alchemist in me feels compelled to respond to the excellent documentary that aired on PBS the other week entitled Newton’s Dark Secret. The film profiled Sir Issac Newton’s fascination with the ancient art/science/craft of Alchemy.

Many of the experts interviewed regarded Newton’s Alchemical experiments to be shameful, perhaps reflecting more on our modern epistemic prejudices than on Newton. Contemporary experts seem threatened by the prospect than anybody in historical times understood things about the world that we don’t.

Beyond the shame of taking Alchemy seriously, they also considered Newton’s alchemy to be his greatest failure. Failure?!? During the period Newton was practicing alchemy he wrote the Principica Mathematica, and also catapulted his way into the power elite – he became knighted, was appointed the head of the Royal Society, and earned power, prestige and wealth beyond his wildest dreams. To this day one of the most respected chairs in physics still bears his name. From this perspective, his alchemical pursuits seem quite successful. Smashingly successful if you consider this blogs tagline “Aurum nostrum non est aurum vulgi” – Our gold is not ordinary gold.

The Alchemists understood metaphor, and it was essential to their theory and practice. Why do most modern thinkers insist upon interpreting the craft so literally?
My girlfriend shared a Bahá’í quote on a related subject.

“Should a man try to fly with the wing of religion alone he would quickly fall into the quagmire of superstition, whilst on the other hand, with the wing of science alone he would also make no progress, but fall into the despairing slough of materialism.” — Abdu’l-Bahá, The Fourth Principle

Or, to paraphrase, Religion without Science is superstition, Science without Religion is reductionism”

I have long believed that Alchemy is a framework which seeks to reconcile spiritual integrity with material wealth, or more broadly, science and religion.

Perhaps the ancients might have been on to something that modern science has truly forgotten. It is tough to challenge Newton’s genius – maybe his alchemical theories deserve a more respectful examination.

Teaching, Thinking, and Playing: Day One

Today I attended day 1 of this year’s amazing Cultural Studies conference at Teachers College – Popular Culture in the Classroom: Teach, Think, Play.

The morning kicked off with a Keynote by Taylor Mali, a spoken word philosopher-poet who perpetrates lyrical homicide against those who judge others according to their salary instead of the difference people are making in the world. I highly recommend taking a listen to some of his work, as he is working to inspire 1000 new teachers, and is only up to ~160.
I presented a hybrid of my SXSW talk, Teaching in the New Vernacular, and Chris Blizzard’s OLPC introduction in a session called:

Portable Culture Machines: One Multimedia Studio Per Child (the proposal had been published on OLPCNews).

The talk was well attended, and the conference attendees were very excited to see/touch/feel/smell the XO device I borrowed from a friend.

Ernest Washington gave a great session on teaching w/ hip hop, but for me the real takeaway was a perspective on education as the “cultivation of emotions” – this talk really connected alot of dots I have been working on lately, especially the “chemical swaddling” conversation I have been having with Philip Dawdy of Furious Seasons.
The Media About Youth Consortium, a group print and film journalists (Alissa Quart, Jennifer Dworkin, Maia Szalavitz, Joie Jager-Hyman) spoke about their work and issues they are facing on the publishing front.

Jan Jagodzinski gave a fabulous and fun (but substantive and deeply critical )reading of everything from Borat to South Park, and of designer capitalism through the eyes of a Kynic (not to be confused with a cynic).

Art Spiegelman, the creative force behind Maus gave a wonderful history of the comic strip (and more generally, the genre of narrative storytelling with text and images) and his wife, Francoise Mouly, the Art editor of the New Yorker, gave back to back talks.

Finally, Will Pearson the President of mental_floss (a magazine in the spirit of highlights which entertains while it teaches) closed out the day with a lively talk explaining their history, and why Einstein appears on every cover.
And tomorrow’s schedule is jam packed too!

“Wait until pictures start getting indexed.”

police_sketch.jpgWell, I called it:

In in class I took with Eben Moglen I predicted in a class discussion that pictures on the internet would soon be indexed:

Re: video cameras (Feb. 11, 2005)

Many people in the class were skeptical

Well, here it is, less than two years later:

Face Search Engine Raises Privacy Concerns

Of course, there are standard objections to the two primary critiques of surviellance “paranioa”.

  1. If I am not breaking the law, why should I care?
  2. There is so much informatoin being gathered, who could possibly sort through it all?

The responses to these objections should be well rehersed.

  1. Pervasive Omniscient Surviellance will have an impact on the basic fabric of personal social and cultural interactions as we currently understand them.
  2. The AI is coming, getting more powerful by the day.

Permanent Records

Sonnabend DiagramToday I presented last year’s bioport Part II paper to the 2nd annual Cultural Studies conference at Teachers College.

Permanent Records: Personal, Cultural, and Social Implications of Pervasive Omniscient Surveillance

I think the distilled version of this model if far more digestible and accessible than the papers.

One of my co-panelists is doing some really interesting work with urban
youth in the bronx, and gathering incredible interview materials about
the perceptions of surveillance by these youth, and their forms of
resistance. These stories might help convey the violence of a
surveillance society.

The conference format was a bit disappointing. I can barely believe academics still read their papers to each other at conferences – there are so many things that Open Source does right, including, knowing how to throw a great conference. Even the variety of presentation formats is an idea that needs to spread – BOFs, lighting talks, presentations and posters all create different spaces and dynamics for interactions between participants. The traditional model is so intimidating that it seems like many people are discouraged from participating.

More importantly, the social justice issues and governance models that are being explored by F/OSS projects are really important for the Cultural/Critical studies folks to be considering. It is also shocking how disconnected they are from the freeculture movement, and its theoretical roots. Arguably, the freeculture movement is a shadow struggle, mirroring the struggles for sustainability, and against globalization and the logic of capitalism being conducted in the physical world. But, it may also represent the actual ground on which that struggle is being conducted.

slipery handles

Today I leared that a friend of mine changes her IM handle every time she switches jobs. That’s nothing, she changes emails every time a relationship ends.

I don’t know why or when she started doing this, but the more I think about it, the more sense it makes.

“Because its your music, and you paid for it”

This afternoon I attended a talk given by Bill Gates at Columbia University. The talk was a part of his university tour, probably prompted by the well documented braindrain happening at MS right now (Certain well known competitors seem to be following the strategy outlined in Good to Great – get the smartest people you can find “on the bus”, and then let them drive…).

Here are my raw notes.

I must say that this afternoon’s talk was a bizarre experience. Perhaps its all the theory stuff I have been reading lately, but I was in a very psychoanalytic, read between the lines, kind of mood, trying to pay as much attention to what he didn’t say, as to what he did.

First, he has clearly taken some lessons from Steve Jobs. He presented casually and demoed live software. One big difference – while Jobs enjoys demoing creative authoring tools, Gates spends most of his time demoing tools of consumption. He continues to treat his gadgets as receivers, not transmitters, and this is all getting a bit tiring.

Next, close to all the software contexts he described were business and work related. There was very little talk about socializing or play (save for the xbox, and socializing in that virtual space). It was eerie that when someone asked him what his greatest accomplishments were, he responded how much he loved work (and working at his foundation). All of his examples for the uses of ubiquitous computing were work/consumer related (auto tracking receipts for expense reports, shopping, collecting business cards when traveling, Location info – while in traffic (presumably while commuting)) — this is all summed up with his grand vision of the future smartphone as replacement for wallet.

Isn’t there something else the phone could replace? Could our phones become surrogate brains, man’s best friend, or personal assistants? Can’t we conjure up a better metaphor than wallets for how software will change the world? Will it do anything beyond making us better and more efficient shoppers?

The talk kept getting weirder – Gates played a video, which most of the audience thought was very funny. I will have to save my analysis for my Media and Cultural Theory class (or the comments), but it really threw me off.

Gates never mentioned Google, Firefox, or Linux. Did acknowledge the wikipedia (by name), freebsd, sendmail, and the NSCA browser. He even made two truly surprising statements regarding IP – after demoing that the new XBox 360 will connect to an IPod, an audience member asked if it would be able to play fairplay protected ACC files. Gates responded that it won’t be able to, because Apple won’t let him (Ha!), to which he added “its your music and you paid for it.” He also stated that “studios have gone overboard in protection scheme”, and ” will always have free and commercial software.”

Before the session, they passed around cards with potential questions (I am still not sure if the questioners were plants, reading these cards…).

Here were my, never asked questions:
1) Technology can bend towards good or evil. What can we do to insure that it is used for the Good? What is M$ doing to promote the use of its software for the Good.

2) In the upcoming world of omniscient surveillance, what role will M$ play in insuring individuality, privacy, and anonymity. What is M$ doing to contribute


I have an extensive background in software architecture, design, and development. Prior to joining the center, I was the lead developer at Abstract Edge, an interactive marketing firm which serviced both non-profit and corporate clients. I was also a senior developer at MaMaMedia, a children’s educational Web site. I am an active open source contributer whose technical interests include Linux, Python, and Content Management.
[This blog was started for MSTU Social Software Affordances, and this post was written as an introduction].

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