A Tale of Two Articles: On Socialism, Libertarianism and Open Source

open_source_communismAn interesting pair of complementary articles have today sprung to my attention from my unfiltered and rapidly growing twitstorms.

First, Readwriteweb carries a story about the research of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger. Mayer-Schönberger has synthesized research into open source communities, arguing that radical ideas suffer in networks where there is a greater abundance of interconnections. Well-connected networks suffer, he claims, from groupthink and are characterized by incremental (rather than radical) change. In contrast, networks with “structural holes” tend to have other dynamics at play (notably, modular competition, as in some corporate or institutional innovation scenarios, which encourage participants to take greater risks).

To my mind, the analogy holds in consideration of projects like Linux or the Firefox communities, and perhaps Wikipedia – I’m not one to criticize a data set I don’t have the time nor skepticism to vet. But (as I commented on the post) the nature of the Web has enabled likeminded radical (or queer, or kinky, or just bizarre) people to locate each other, form communities and make themselves (and their ideas) much more visible in the wider society (see Jenkins and Benkler for accounts of how this works). Surely these demonstrated network effects preclude the application of this hypothesis to different realms of human activity? Aren’t we becoming more radical and less risk-averse on the web?

The second article was written by Lawrence Lessig, in response to Kevin Kelley’s “The New Socialism“. Herein Lessig reduces socialism to “coercion by the state”, which struck me greatly about the face and neck. Surely a scholar of this stature wouldn’t fall victim to such a terrible misconception? He writes “At the core of socialism is coercion (justified or not is a separate question)” and “socialism is using the power of the state to force a result that otherwise would not have been chosen voluntarily by the people.” Ouch. Surely you’ve read some critical political theory, Larry? It’s clear that you are sympathetic toward those who have been branded as commies, but why should we deny the branding, anyway? Is the “socialism” label really so inflammatory? I suppose if you mis-read “socialism” as “coercion by the state”, it might be. At any rate, Lessig’s commenters have done much more with less effort than I can do to counterargue here.

I think both of these articles are indicative of how American intellectual culture bears the hallmarks of a system of political indoctrination (nothing new to readers of Chomsky, McChesney, and other Americans – not to mention nonAmerican critics). In both of these instances we can see where evidence is ignored to justify a critique of forms of collective action (the Mayer-Schönberger article), and where an idea is reduced and distorted to disavow it any attributive value to various impugned folks (Lessig).

Just saying, Open Source and Free Software gurus: We peace-loving socialists have noticed your Libertarian (e.g., small government, gun-in-every-nursery) streaks. Why are you afraid to bunk with us?

Open Web Vancouver

I’m attending (and presenting at) Open Web Vancouver next week, celebrating (and problematizing) with many others the many affordances and limitations of open source and open formats in our digitally mediated world. My talk will likely be rather policy-wonkish, as a current concern of mine (and a crucial chapter in my dissertation research) is that of the potential impact of broad public participation in wireless and mobile internet policy development. If you haven’t yet, register here. The leader of the Pirate Party is keynoting, so it’s well worth the hundred and eighty five clams, to my mind.

Hope to see you there.

Last.fm and misinformation

I need to retract a decision I made based on seemingly false news.

Just over a month ago I posted an announcement that Simulacre Media would be removing its entire catalog from the Last.fm service due to the imposition of user fees in countries other than the US, UK, and Germany. I read a misleading Canwest story (and others) that missed the memo about how the new user fees would apply to Last.fm Radio only. Seemingly, I missed this memo too. More correctly, the memo was never explicit about what the changes would actually mean.

Before I posted my original decision, I consulted the original source (Last.fm’s Blog) to clarify what the changes actually meant, and for whom. The responses, as well as the original announcement on March 24 (to be fair to the many naïve journalists who rode the wave of hype) were actually never explicit about how this affected the availability of free music on the site. The Last.fm announcement reads that “scrobbling, recommendations, charts, biographies, events, videos etc. will remain free in all countries”. There is no explicit mention of free music, downloads, or streaming (as distinct from “radio”, if it were to be a distinct thing) in this announcement. So I made and posted my decision anyway, decoding this as surreptitious PR jostling – after all, it is still CBS at the end of the day, right?

Even after a wave of international user feedback expressing much confusion (not to mention feelings of betrayal) over the impending changes, the Last.fm team followed up with another announcement on March 30 about the change that still did not clarify what would happen to free music hosted on the site. There was no clear indication at the time, either, about (1)  how a “subscription” would be distinct from a “user account” on Last.fm, nor about (2) whether individuals providing music for the service would be exempt from the fees, which only compounded everyone’s confusion (not to mention feelings of betrayal). It felt like we were losing control over the right to manage our relationships with fans in the ways that are consistent with our business model/ethos/philosophy (as the case may be). User fees would end our ability to share music for free, wouldn’t they?

I decided to wait and see what would happen before removing the music. April 1 came and went, and the Simulacre catalogue was still all available, all free, for download or streaming. I checked a few weeks later – the streaming links were gone, but the “free download” links were still functional.

I checked again today, and now I see some links to a subscription page on some sort of radio widget that I’ve never seen there before. Still, our catalogue is available for free downloading. Streaming is gone, which hurts Last.fm’s extensibility in the social media world immensely, but it’s not really a deal-breaker from an artist’s or label’s point of view, to my mind (it is still a free service for us). Overall, the changes are not as drastic as at first they seemed, according to the vague Last.fm announcements, and the wave of media hype that followed them.

I cannot presume that this story is over (we’ve seen mammoths in this space rise and fall spectacularly before, haven’t we?… transforming eventually into things that barely resemble their original selves). However, for the time being, it seems we’re still able to give our music away on Last.fm. So long as a platform permits users to download our music for free and interact with our artists in meaningful ways, then we will continue to share our catalogue and support said platform.

It’s simply weird to charge user fees in a music economy that is increasingly devaluing its former prime currency (the recorded artifact) in favour of new sources of revenue, and doing so likely marks the beginning of the end for Last.fm (no more sharing and capturing friends’ streams or playlists, kids!), not to mention how Last.fm radio (with its widgets, extensibility into desktop apps, other social media sites, etc.) will likely become a crippled version of what it could be if free.

I suppose we’ll have to wait and see.

summer summer summer summer/it’s like a merry-go-round

Perhaps it would be more appropriate for me to entitle this post with a reference to Cheap Trick’s “Surrender” (given that Isabel has mysteriously begun singing “mummy’s alright/and daddy’s alright/and baby’s alright/bla bla bla etc…” – where’d she get that? her new nanny? SFU childcare? hopefully no one’s introducing her to that lame Guitar Hero crapola) rather than The Cars as I have done, but given how things have been unfolding around here I think the Rik Ocasek lyric is most appropriate. And I blurt all this even though I should be disassociating myself from 20C Top 40 posthaste, given the maturation and crustification of my tastes (I mostly listen to music from various parts of Africa now. Western pop is becoming increasingly foreign and bewildering to me, and calm down, I’m not bragging or anything – it’s simply the way it’s playing out for me at the ripe old age of 37. Like I care anymore what anyone thinks).

Hello self-indulgent LJ-land. Anyhoo, the merry-go-round. Ah, well, it’s an exaggeration, really. I just have a bunch of conferences coming up. Cossette Convergence next week (part of Vancouver Digital Week), CCA at the end of the month, Open Web Vancouver and Communicating Cities in June. I’m also teaching a 2nd year course (CMNS 253) at SFU this summer, which promises to take up much time. So, retainer firmly in mouth (temporary speech impediment on), I’m talking lots this summer: about tech, about the history of broadcasting, the internet and new media, and about the pervasive (mobile) social web’s potential to afford broader social inclusion, emancipation, and revolutionary change in the nodes in which it is activated.

That, and I thought I’d post because I’m totally stoked about the first Android phones coming to Canada. I want one. I want everyone to have one. Open mobiles, baby!

recent MIT mososos

MIT students are developing some really interesting mobile apps, on various platforms. I especially like Mobile Trader (no link?) – there’s much potential for enabling microeconomies using its “craigslist/1.5 mile diet” mashup for Symbian. However, CashTrack seems designed for cheap people, though. C’mon? Do we really need to track who owes whom what based on serial unevenly-paid dinners? Maybe if you’re Kenny Bania – where the question of whether the soup counts matters – this logic makes sense. Also at odds with the Android (for which it’s written) ethos?

Just saying.

Commercial Whiplash: Nokia, carriers, and why Canada is still full of crap mobiles

On Nokia’s shrinking North American market share: “(Samsung & others) were quick to meet carriers’ customization demands, an area in which Nokia proved reluctant.” (http://bit.ly/zuSN).

But this is precisely why Nokia ought to be lauded – for its efforts in putting out handsets that straddle grids/networks (3g/wi-fi) and balancing different interaction design models in the same devices (creators+consumers, and their inevitable Web 2.0 hybrids). The N97 is out now soon [thanks Roland!] (as is the much awaited N96). Both of these are weighted heavily on the media creators’ side of things (for media creators, camera quality, rather than a touch screen, is premium, and Nokia must know this, or it would’ve gone to the extra bother of putting a touch screen in the N97, sacrificing who-knows-what. [CORRECTION, Jan 5 2009: sloppy reading on my part – it does have a touch screen, though it’s not a front stage feature of this handset, as confirmed at Mobile Review.].

Why should the carriers be allowed to influence the design of multiplatform devices? They aren’t their end users. Their sole relation to the handest is, seemingly, to coerce people into buying plans of various shapes and sizes. Thus, their influence helps shape handsets using a logic born of advertising and seduction/coercion techniques (and then further, techniques to induce users into using the devices in ways that turn uncomplicated profits) – not genuine interest in how users proactively seek their own tools of creation (and destruction). This benefits no one except the carriers themselves.

I think Nokia gets this.

The real problem is that Canadian wireless carriers don’t care if their user base consists of any media creators. Rather, they’re probably scared of that prospect, just like the music industry is still scared of amateurs. This is why upload rates are typically throttled as compared to download rates, and it’s why Rogers and others keep peddling handsets that in any other country would be laughed at, gonged off stage, and tossed in a landfill.

Personally I’ll stay out of buying a new handset until we see more severe trickle down of advanced features, and some reasonable data plans without a 2 year commitment in this IT ghetto called Canada. But here’s hoping Nokia doesn’t start pulling its resources out of North America, as some have speculated (see above-linked article).

I’m frankly tired of being treated by carriers as an unproductive media eater, a “pocket potato”, if you will. Bring on the dancing handsets (irrelevant link, just for fun, love that song).

Mesh Potato, Community Wireless, Design by Constraint

I’m hyped about Mesh Potato and I am aiming to be involved in their project in whatever way I can be useful, whether via some connection to Mobile Muse, or just plain old twit-and-post evangelism.

Mesh Potato is an Open Hardware project to create a wireless (mesh) access point that can function as an independent cellular phone network. The goal is to enable groups around the world to offer affordable voice and data services to small communities that cannot afford existing service from the major telcos (or who must use exorbitant but low barrier to entry pay-as-you-go services).

Also quite cool – the design principles underlying their project and goals. By way of Roland I read this article by Steve Song who recounts the strategy, inspired by Ethan Zuckerman’s idea of Innovating From Constraint:

With the Village Telco, we have a wireless project that has a number of self-imposed constraints.

  1. Get pay-as-you-go voice services right.  Data services are a given on a wireless platform but the one thing we want to make bullet-proof is affordable, simple-to-bill voice services.
  2. Make a telco as simple to set up as a wordpress blog.  Wireless meshes, least-cost-routing, etc.  Let’s make as much of that complexity disappear into default behaviours that can be tweaked as the owner/entrepreneur becomes more comfortable with the product.
  3. Be as open as possible.  This is more of a philosophical than a practical constraint.  We believe we can attract maximum participation by making software and hardware as open as possible.  We believe that Open Hardware strategies devices like the Mesh Potato can change the way people think about hardware.
  4. Break even in six months.  The technology ought to be cheap enough and easy enough to deploy that anyone with a reasonable head for business could have recouped their investment and be making a profit in six months.

Simplicity, rather than constraint, seems to be the operative theme here. Still, as a musical aside, this recalls for me Eno’s Oblique Strategies, which is similar in principle (limiting options to incite creative thinking), but which operates on aesthetic endeavor (which is about much more than “problem solving”, ultimately).

Hot potato, hot potato, sez my daughter.

Twittering the Election, SIFTing Media Collections

If you haven’t seen this already, then go check it out. Terse political opinions fly by with impunity. What to do, what to do…and how does media theory speak to this? I can anticipate hundreds of approaches, from critical political economy to social constructivism to what-have-you … but then again, I’m directly implicated in the construction of these very tools, for better or for worse.

Case in point – if you can imagine a media rich version of this, then you might be interested in what Mobile Muse (in partnership with the affable people at Raincity Studios) has been working on for the past little while: the Social Information Feed Tracker (SIFT) Tool. Currently in beta, this application allows SMS and social media from sites like Youtube and Flickr to be aggregated in custom channels. More functionality is being added as we speak – watch for a full public announcement of this and other Mobile Muse innovations very shortly…

Android

Exciting times. Right on the heels of our Open Mobile event, the first Google Android handset has been released on T Mobile – the HTC Dream, announced just this morning in NYC.

And it’s wi-fi (!!!)

Now if only I had an in over at HTC, or if a Canadian provider had this handset available – I’ve been using their 6800s a bit on Bell. Any rumours going around about Rogers or Fido picking this up, perhaps? Anyone?

Of course, the most hilarious bit in all this is that it’s the first open platform handset, but it’s “locked” to the T-Mobile network. Maybe T-Mobile doesn’t quite understand that paradox?

Open Mobile

I’m presenting a keynote this Sunday for an event called Open Mobile, presented in part by Mobile Muse as part of New Forms Festival 2008. I’m co-presenting with Roland Tanglao and Jesse Scott (artist info here), who will be my visual accompanists. But hopefully their visuals will override and scramble my messages such that the audience comes away more confused than I am going in. No, seriously. It should be a good opportunity to talk about mobiles with a highly creative audience, fresh from ArtCamp and other New Forms goings-on.

Here’s the abstract for my talk in draft form:

Opening Mobiles, Community Activation and the One Wireless Web
It was once said that the Sony Walkman, not love, would tear us apart. Contrary to these claims about mobile privatization, whereby individuating technologies are said to produce alienated populations running around in mobile media cocoons, and for some quite unexpectedly, the diffusion of advanced mobile devices and applications offers new opportunities to build and activate communities, invoking a radical reconstruction of media, art production, intellectual property, and public space. Ubiquitous, open, mobile, and accessible internetworking technologies, heralded by portable wi-fi devices such as the Nokia N95 or Apple’s iPhone, will enable us to continue the legacy of our tethered social media cloud – media sharing, wikis, tagging, twemes – in a radically different space than we’re used to (or one that we’ve simply forgotten about somewhat): public space. This is contested terrain, with a complex political economy, but the potential for a ubiquitous mobile web is now too alluring to ignore. This talk will navigate the mobile web space with one eye on media history and political economy, and another eye on the accompanying VJ screen, to assess how the speaker’s messages are being scrambled while this all unfolds.

Check out the Open Mobile Eventbrite page for more details about speakers, times, location and so forth.

Update: Here’s a compressed PDF of my presentation. I’ll post a link to the video later on…