Technical Micropolitics and Musical Amateurs

I presented at AOIR today as part of a panel on Music and Sound. Here’s the PDF of my talk, complete with notes.

I did this with an extreme headache, and a growing sense that I need to, as my friend and colleague Flo articulated it the other day, “coccoon” myself in books again for a while. Assez des conférences maintenant!

4S, Montreal

Production-consumption continuumI’m blogging this from the Society for Social Studies of Science (4S) conference in Montréal. We (Roy Bendor, Jack Post, Peter-Paul Verbeek and I) just completed our panel on Bruno Latour (“Translating Latour”) and I’m now in a very interesting panel about “Problematizing Technological Appropriation”. My first impression is that it’s a great complement to my presentation on digital music and Latour/Hennion, which I’ve attached as a PDF here (PDF, 364 K, with notes!).

The theoretical work around appropriation has really flowered since I first stepped into this space in 2004. It’s interesting – and reassuring – to witness so many theorists constructing diagrams of production/consumption that echo, build upon, and totally dwarf in profundity the one I first proposed then (at right). I’m referring to the work of Ron Eglash – who has constructed a continuum of production and consumption that accounts for appropriation, power and marginality. Cool stuff – I should be reading this.

Other than that, I’m running on a third wave of sleep denial therapy induced by (1) a sleepless redeye flight on the same day I taught for a ten hour day, (2) compressed conference schedule (2 within 2 weeks), and (3) baby’s sleeping schedule. I’ll sleep after my head is over-full with musings on the ethics of cloning, toppling streetcars in the 19th century, the programmable web, Yahoo Pipes and postphenomenology. What dreams may come?

Ex-Perry Mental Geekery

Nice to be back in the swim of things. I just put a final report out the door on a research project that I’d been working on for 14 months. It was a difficult project – one that didn’t always go as planned, that got intermittently sidelined by other events in my life (buying an apartment, having a first baby), and included a whole feeling of responsibility and guilt unlike any other research project I’d ever worked on. More than anything, it was in a research area worlds away from poopular (yes, I mean poopular, it’s not just the baby talking) music, which is my number one research passion.

I’m not going to divulge any more details about that project here (details of it will soon be published elsewhere), but your takeaway from the above blurb should be that now that the project’s done, much more of my time can be devoted to my work in music and my work in mobile – both of which are central themes of this blog.

To wit, I’m TAing a 3rd year course in popular music studies this semester, and the gearing up is invigorating. We’re doing something of an experimental “taste laboratory” of sorts on I’ve invited the 76 students in the class to join so we can have some healthy backchannel in a music-rich environment. We’ll be sticking to the books and lectures in tutorial, but I figured having this optional addon for students who are so inclined can be instructive, and perhaps give some students some concrete experience with which to grapple whilst reading Hebdige, Attali, Adorno, McRobbie, and others (PS – I didn’t design the reading list, so if you have a problem with it, take it up with the Sessional).

The other thing I’m diving into now is a short ethnographic study (yes, the third in a series) of mobile phone use, using the Nokia 95. I’ve been playing with one of them for a couple of days now, and I am quite impressed with its ergonomic design. Something about this phone feels just alright, as Lou Reed would say. However, the phone keeps crashing when using the built in photo gallery app. Looking for a workaround.

Oh, and of course, there’s the upcoming AOIR, which I’m helping out with (and presenting at).

I’ll be keeping you posted.

AOIR 8 Vancouver, 50 Parties, etc. (Oct. 2007)

Heya. I am presenting in a panel at AOIR this year (the title of my presentation/paper is “The Technical Micropolitics of the Online Music Industry, 1997-2007″, abstract here). For those of you who’ve followed my blog, you’ll know something of what to expect, except that I’ll be strictly framing up the narrative in terms of something called “technical micropolitics”, which, with any luck, I’ll have a competent grasp of by the time the conference rolls along. Theory, y’know? One minute you think you’ve got it, and the next minute, well, you sound like Daffy Duck.

Which brings me to another announcement of sorts – one more suited to quacking unintelligibly [& yes, readers coming in via The ORG should get that one]. I volunteered to organize (hopefully not all by my lonesome self!) the Vancouver instantiation of something Jimmy Wales started called “Heather and Jimmy’s 50 Party Club“. See the links I’ve provided for as detailed an explanation as you’re going to get (which admittedly ain’t much), but in a nutshell, you can expect a gathering of an international set of free culture/creative commons/open source nerds drinking together in the same physical space and engaging in as-yet-undetermined activities to keep each other vaguely entertained. Go to the wiki and pitch in! Your help is needed. Know of a potential sponsor (hint – local microbreweries or wineries love nerds because nerds drink lots!)? A venue? An entertainment source? A fax machine we can rig up to send loopfaxes to Larry Lessig for quitting the good fight? Or do you just wanna show up and make an arse of yourself? Get with our little planning wiki, whatever the case. Let’s have some fun.

Copyright/Creative Commons Lecture

I delivered a lecture today for my 200 level Communication class on “Copyright, Commerce, and the Creative Commons”. It might need work around its rougher edges still, but I’m kinda modestly proud to have gotten it into the shape it’s in now. The emphasis is on (1) the historicization of copyright law using a political economy of media approach, and (2), in the second half, confronting the current era of massively collaborative media and imagining alternative regimes of remuneration/distribution. The images are low resolution to enable quick downloads. If anyone wants high-resolution images, or links to the embedded URLs/movie clips, make some noise and I can provide that info.

Feedback is welcome, of course. I’m always looking to improve on this stuff.

Here’s the file: Copyright, Commerce, and the Creative Commons

Going mobile with alternative energy

Orange will soon debut this nifty looking wind-powered charger for mobile phones. For those who want to be ostentatious about their environmentalism in a very geeky way. Represent!

Solar powered solutions for various charging tote bags, purses, and even golf bags will also be available soon.

The price tags are significant, but this is still early stages. I am curious how much power can be squeezed out of a day at the beach (or at an outdoor music festival). But certainly this represents a progressive re-tooling of the standard car adaptor (which is what the juice bag uses). I think this is exemplary of what one of my professors, Andrew Feenberg would call subversive rationalization.

Links via textually.

Autoanalysis and Taste: Genius or totally off the deep end?

Andrew Kuo's Bright Eyes ChartsIn today’s NY Times there’s a story about Andrew Kuo, super-fan extraordinaire. He’s created some mind-boggling charts (pictured right, click the image for enlargement) of indie music appreciation indices (centering around a recent Bright Eyes concert-stalking binge), all of which stem from a very eccentric self-absorption with his own taste. He’s done this for other artists on his blog, too. a couple of years running. This is a far cry from air-guitaring, slash fiction (more on that topic than you can possibly absorb in one sitting over at Henry Jenkins’ blog, here), or celebrity stalking. This is some of the most meticulous compulsivity over music I’ve ever witnessed.

On this question I am stumped: is there anything in fandom history that is comparable to this, where the very parameters of one’s taste are subjected to such introspection? I inspect my own stats on a regular basis (even though it’s taking me some time to build up enough data to analyze), and I can and do do a factorial ANOVA every now and then, but combining these into a peculiar hybrid art/science exploration and documentation of my own taste is, well, to be quite honest, what Bourdieu would have done if he had really been a poststructuralist. And completely insane.

My chapeau is off to ya, Andrew. I honestly have no idea what to call whatever it is you’re doing.

Via Listenerd.

Don’t let assholes rent space in your head

Cory Doctorow wrote an excellent piece about trolls here (from which I took a phrase to furnish the title field for this post).

Here be sage advice. Life’s too short for meaningless quibbles with people who are either pathologically argumentative, or who will simply never understand your point of view. Ignore them when you can.

Goodness knows, I’ve had a few rows during my life online. My first exposure to a flame war was in 1997, while I was an undergrad. I had subscribed to an anti-APEC email list (this was around the time Indonesia’s then-murderous president Suharto was invited for a global trade meeting at my university at the time, which involved the famous barricading of the MOA, as well as the ANSOC department, and much of Northwest Marine Drive, to boot, remember? Then, when protesters scaled the fence they got pepper sprayed by the RCMP who at the behest of the Feds were determined to protect the delicate Suharto from ever seeing a placard…not to mention the civil liberties of many students were violated when they were arrested prior to the demonstrations, prohibiting them from taking part…).

Anyway, did I say email list? Yes. After subscribing to this well-intentioned and valuable email list for about a week, many of the well-intentioned and lovely people who posted to it heavily began to disagree over..tactics, was it? I can’t remember – perhaps there’s an archive somewhere. In retrospect, there were two fundamental errors made by this group of hostile posters: (1) they had no mechanism for defusing or deflaming flame wars, and (2) they had not a whiff of respect for the concept of using “Reply All” sparingly, self-centeredly posting their arguments for all to see, rather than emailing their opponent in private. The eventual result was a mass unsubscribe, which quietened what could have been such an amazing tool for student mobilization at a time when it was required.

Then there was the time (don’t I sound like an octogenarian….maybe in Internet years, I am!) I took a week off from EVERYTHING to defeat an Indymedia troll (likely a Provincial right wing political campaign office flak flunkie … shall we call them “flakkies”?) who sought to defame a grassroots recall campaigner here in Vancouver. I used every rhetorical trick and legal resource I could muster to embarrass this servile piece of crap, staying well within Indymedia’s guidelines, and being as polite as possible. Eventually the asshole retreated (logic triumphed over emotion), and I think his final salvo was of the “get a life” variety. Sadly, he was right. I fell behind in term papers, in course readings, and my girlfriend just stared at me like I had transformed into an insect, much like Kafka’s Gregor, fit only to be shut up in my room, a burden to everyone…whatever, I won.

Debating people online is always a risky endeavor, as text seems to (for disputed reasons) lend itself to easy enflamement; this observation is nothing new. My main pitfall is my tendency to feed trolls, who then become emboldened and attack, like raccoons do in cities when they are fed (don’t feed the fucking raccoons, either!). I’d like to swear off it altogether, but I don’t think it’s healthy (for the web) to do so, as I and many acquaintainces of mine report learning something from the exchanges. I do keep myself in check better than previously, which is working out well, and there are some old fora in which I no longer even lurk (believe it or not, some trolls manage to dominate and sustain entire communities that center around their own childlike political whims). And yes, the comments on this blog are moderated. Lump it.

What lessons can we take away from this shambolic retrospective about my experience with trolls and flaming? Well, for one (as argued by the perpetually insightful Alex Halavais here), show respect for the community, email list, or what-have-you to which you’re subscribed if you really want to be there. Secondly, if you really want to parade around like an emperor of something in the marketplace of ideas, get a fucking blog like I did. And thirdly – and this is especially directed at well-intentioned political activists out there – be sure to understand the nature of the medium you are using to mobilize and motivate people. As with the APEC student movement case, the email list got the better of the group to some extent, because they apparently had no idea that email was different from shouting through a megaphone.

And to reiterate, reclaim your head whenever it’s possible. Squatters should inhabit empty houses – not open minds.

(Apologies to my Facebook mates – I promise it’s the last time I’ll post this phrase here. You must be sick of it by now.)

Jonathan Coulton, repoproduction, and technological determinism

A recent story in the New York Times about the Jonathan Coulton phenomenon (remember – he’s the guy who posted a song a week on his blog for a year and so launched an infamous viral campaign interacting with fans who made videos for his songs, and who even recorded guitar solos for him to use) raises the spectre of how the internet has revised the rules of interaction between musicians and their listeners. I particularly like the second half of the article, where the author discusses the changing definition of what it means to be an artist in an online mediated regime of musical exchange:

Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world. Neither would, say, Margo Timmins of the Cowboy Junkies, a singer who was initially so intimidated by a crowd that she would sit facing the back of the stage. What happens to art when people like that are chased away?

This resonates strongly with my own missives and misgivings on art in the age of digital recoproduction (or maybe it’s the age of repoproduction?).

But skim down the article a bit to get to this stuff – the first half of the piece is just more empty technological determinism such as we often see in conventional journalism:

In the past — way back in the mid-’90s, say — artists had only occasional contact with their fans. If a musician was feeling friendly, he might greet a few audience members at the bar after a show. Then the Internet swept in. Now fans think nothing of sending an e-mail message to their favorite singer — and they actually expect a personal reply…

The article goes on to credit the internet for its seemingly mystical ability to raise artists from obscurity to fame, arguing that “without the Internet, (Coulton’s) musical career might not exist at all.” Of course, this determinism grossly underemphasizes the basic characteristic of technology that explains why some musicians build profitable careers online while others do not: it’s what you make it. If Coulton is successful in building a profitable musical life online, it’s precisely because he is predisposed to a specific kind of marketing expertise that is appropriate for internet-mediated exchanges between himself and his listeners.

In simple terms – for whatever reason, this sort of musician is more comfortable or motivated working at his/her laptop for six hours a day than s/he would be pounding the pavement, harassing college radio programmers on the phone, postering, and getting friends of friends to submit reviews of his recordings to local music rags (how it was done – and still is done – in many localized music scenes). And then when a critical mass of indies take up this practice, it becomes just as mundane, routine, and enlurked by snake oil salesman as the old indie-major terrain used to be (and still is). The difference between people who successfully navigate one or the other network (or both networks), in my view, comes down to the simple calculus of which mode of communication they can tolerate better – yakking on the phone all day or clacking on their keyboard.

Anyway, I’m off to enjoy some much-needed sunshine in my still-musically-peripheral-city-despite-the-internet.

Cory Doctorow Leonardo Lecture at SFU

Cory Doctorow
The Faculty of Applied Sciences at SFU warmly welcomed Cory Doctorow to deliver our Leonardo Lecture for 2007 (entitled “The Totalitarian Urge: total information awareness and the cosmic billiards”).

It was a packed event, and a great speech (the same one he’s been delivering elsewhere of late). Ivaniv at Blogaholics has posted audio from the event.


Some of we grad students got a chance to chat with Cory earlier in the day. The man’s an encyclopedia, able to switch from discussing the feudal commons to discussing authoring collectives to marketing to activism in rapid succession. Although there was insufficient time to thoroughly articulate my critique of the application of open knowledge paradigms to artistic spheres (I will be continuing the dialogue over email, Cory), it was a great opportunity to converse in person with someone who’s been so entrenched in free culture activism as him. Kudos to Barry Shell, Richard Smith, and Brian Lewis (and whoever else I’ve maybe missed) for bringing this event here.

More photos from the day are on my Flickr page.