Net Culture Politics Technology

The Open Rights Group Party…

As some of you know, I’m on the advisory board of ORG, the British Open Rights Group which is a non-profit organisation focused on making sure that British people have the right to use technology in reasonable ways and that their traditional rights aren’t compromised by companies using technology in restrictive ways. The organisation acts as a balance to some of the vested interests in business, government and elsewhere. It’s there to try and fight people who would rather compromise your rights to protect out of date business models than they would innovate and change. It’s there to make people aware of the abuses or errors that might result from electronic voting schemes or huge databases of information on UK citizens. It is, generally, a pretty honourable little organisation and a smaller, bottom-up version of the EFF.

But that’s not important right now. The important thing is that they’re having a party for supporters and people who are interested in their activities on Shoreditch High Street in London next Wednesday, and that you should find some way to come along.

There will be ‘public domain’ DJs celebrating the importance of publically owned culture, remixed visuals and free culture goodie bags as well as the appearance of Danny O’Brien, long time NTK nerd, EFF activist and general wit. It’s free to attend, although obviously we’re hoping it’ll result in a few more people signing up to fund ORGs activities.

The event will be at Bar Kick at 127 Shoreditch High Street, London E1 6JE from 6pm until 11pm next Wednesday 11th April. You can find more information and register for the party on the support ORG page which also includes a map and instructions for how to find the venue. Hope to see you there. There’s also a raffle


Destroying meaning and undermining language…

I have absolutely no idea whether or not Americans actually feel that Hilary Clinton is a Big Brother style control freak with a desire to enforce some kind of conformity or not. And in a way that’s not the point of the video detournment below. What I find absolutely gripping is that it’s an active demonstration about how easy it is to take the empty language of contemporary politics—language that is so circumspect about what it asserts as to be fundamentally meaningless—and make it seem to mean pretty much anything.

Contemporary satirists have known for a while that it’s really quite easy to take the vacuity of these soundbites and put them under a harsh spotlight that makes them shrivel and die. What’s new is the ease with which they can be made to appear not to be depressing or hypocritical but genuinely creepy and evil.

In this the 1984 associations seem genuinely apropos—this is language deformed and broken, language as a fog of reassuring noise where the words no longer have even the slightest hypothesised reference to the real world. I have, of course, no evidence that Barack Obama is any better.

Law Politics

My first reactions to the Gowers Review…

So the Gower’s Review has been released and you can download it as a PDF. I’ve not read it in detail yet, although I hope to in the next couple of days, but the impression I get is that in general it’s pretty positive – if I’m reading it correctly, it contains recommendations that individuals should have the right to make private copies of their music, that copyright terms should not be extended and that there should be a general provision that any subsequent term extensions should not be retroactive – ie. that people with copyright get what they were entitled to when the work was created. It looks like he’s also recommended no changes to the EU’s patent law with regards to software patents or genes or business practices, and that there should be provisions which require media that contains DRM to be clearly labelled. That one alone is pretty bloody interesting. In addition orphaned worksstuff that no author can be found forwould be easier to reuse legally, and libraries and research institutions should be given special provisions to protect, preserve and utilise copyrighted information.

There’s some stuff I’m less sure about. It’s probably reasonable to make sure there are mechanisms in place to dissuade the illegal commercial distribution of copyrighted material and to protect legitimate IP. However I’m a bit confused about the specifics of how this might conceptually affect people whosaygive music to friends, as teenagers have been doing since the creation of the blank cassette tape decades back. And obviously, you have to think about loopholes and ways in which companies can find ways to circumvent the spirit of the law while remaining within the letter – for example, I’m not sure that the rights for Libraries to make copies for preservation counts for much if they don’t have the right to circumvent DRM restrictions to do so. I’ll look forward to reading more about that later when I’ve got more time.

Any reactions from anyone else? What do you think about Gowers?

Politics Radio & Music

On Gower and Release the Music…

Tomorrow the Gowers Review of Intellectual Property will report its findings, which should be of interest to everyone in the UK who cares about everything from DRM, the legal situation regarding copying your own music onto your iPod (strictly speaking, this is currently illegal) all the way to whether or not you think that work created today should move into the public domain at some point in the future or not. It’s an important review, and one well worth looking out for.

I’m on the advisory board of the Open Rights Group who are awaiting the review with considerable interest, particularlybut not exclusively—because many of the traditional rights of people in the UK to use, reuse, protect and even create works are under threat by shifts in technology and pressures to extend copyright terms. This review will be a significant indication of whether that particular tide is likely to turn.

In particular, one thing that ORG cares a lot about is the proposed extension of copyright on sound recordings. People in favour of copyright extension argue that it’s necessary to give artists income into their pensionable years, but for the most part artists very rarely make any money at all from recordings that record companies refuse to distribute. The people who make money from such moves are the record companies themselves and a tiny proportion of recording artists, the rest of whom find that they cannot even get their music out into the world because it’s not financially viable for the record companies.

More importantly, these moves are part of a larger trend from copyright holders to keep extending copyright to be in effect a right that should extend in perpetuity. Since a few years ago when it looked like Mickey Mouse might be about to move into the public domain, well funded interest groups in the US have fought to extend copyright terms to keep these few immensely valuable properties in the hands of multi-nationals. In the meantime, these moves have kept immense repositories of literature and art and creative work that had fallen out of circulation from ever seeing the light of day. This affects everyone from libraries and historians through to the wider culture, who may never have access to vast archives of interesting and useful creative material the way that they do have access to Shakespeare or Beethoven.

A couple of years ago I attended an event called Content 2.0 in which Tony Wilson was interviewing someone significant at the BPI. I forget his name, I’m afraid. I asked one question of him. It went as follows:

I see from your suing of file-sharers that you are an honourable man who believes that theft is wrong. Can I take this to mean that you will fight against copyright extension, which amounts to an attempt by the companies that you represent to steal from every man, woman and child in this country?

The answer I received was, let’s just say, not particularly helpful. Amid spurious assertions about the UK’s need to compete with the US and statements about artist’s right to get recompense, one thing gradually became clear, which became even clearer when Tony Wilson stated out loud that he absolutely did not see why created material should ever move into the public domain, and that work created by Thomas Hardy should always remain exploitable by Hardy’s descendants.

Whether or not you believe that should be the case, this is not an argument that you hear much from the copyright extension lobby, but it is the heart of their enterpriseeven when it’s worth wondering how often the rights to these works reside with the heirs at all, or how many labours of love created by individuals must lay forgotten and unappreciated in order to protect the tiny proportion that might still make money a hundred years on.

It’s for these reasons that I’d like to encourage everyone who reads this site to look at the recommendations of the Gower Review carefully and to be aware of the weight of issues that it might have an impact upon. Andif I can be more forward stillI’d like to ask you to consider signing the petitions on Release the music and on the Downing Street Petition Site and help to make a statement that copyright extension should not be a default position, that it is not obvious, and that we are prepared to resist the incursion of corporate interest over what belongs to each and everyone of us and to our culture as a whole.

Film Politics Technology

An Inconvenient Truth…

My politics are pretty well known to people who read this site, I suspect – I’m basically economically centrist, believing in the the necessary efficiencies of a free market curbed from excesses and derailment by regulation at the extremes. I hold a simultaneous belief that vulnerable individuals should be protected from the occasionally inhuman logic of this system through social security and healthcare. I would also argue that this latter support actually helps the functioning of the larger economy by reducing the causes of crime, and maintaining a healthy and educated workforce.

Alongside my economic centrism, I’m basically socially libertarian – quite possibly as a result of being gay and necessarily slightly on the fringes of mainstream acceptability, particularly in some of the more religious parts of the world. I’m a confirmed atheist of long-standing, a rationalist humanist that sees religion as a blot of superstition upon the world, something that confuses and muddies and disguises truths much more than it reveals them. And having spent time working and thinking about ancient cultures and from there moving into the technology industries, I’ve probably gradually moved towards a technologically determinist position on the world – that while changes in technology and changes in politics and belief influence and effect one another, changes in technology are leading that particular dance. If you’re really interested, you can see my positioning on the political compass (and if you want to generate your own, you can do so here).

I say all this to contextualise what I’m to say next – that there is, however, one thing I’ve never really had that much strength of feeling about and that is green politics. It’s probably a clich√©, but at some level I suppose I’ve never really been significantly convinced that the impact that humankind had on the planet was as dramatic as had been claimed. In addition, I’d never really been convinced that any individual could make any kind of realistic difference to the changes that were happening.

It seemed to me that significant change was only likely to happen at the level of hundreds of years and that many of the environmental movement’s particular missions were sort of indulgently anthropocentic. I mean, I care that species go extinct every day. It does matter to me. It’s a terrible thing that humankind has done to that part of the world, but people fight tooth and nail to protect the Panda because they think they’re cute and adorable, because they want to be able to fool themselves that somehow if a few tiny leaves of a once-massive tree remain trapped in some kind of evolutionary terrarium that they’ve somehow saved the world. It’s nature as spectacle, nature as theme-park, where the guilt and prurient interest of humankind has to be assuaged by futile token acts. That’s never appealed to me, because it seems self-deceiving. To an extent I still feel this way.

But on the plane over from the UK on Monday I watched An Inconvenient Truth and I have to confess, it actually feels to me like it’s had a significant personal impact and that it’s genuinely changed my opinions on a whole range of things.

It’s extraordinarily rare for me now to find myself genuinely persuaded by a documentary but Al Gore’s personal walk through the statistics and effects of global warming was convincing, clear and the obvious product of a serious and intelligent man who had read and thought widely on the subject. I found it genuinely interesting, moving and significant – and only slightly polluted by the interweaving of some of the maudlin personal political history of a man who emerges more effectively in action than in narrative and is revealed as a charismatic, intelligent, rational and passionate individual.

I genuinely believe that if you have access to a cinema (I believe it’s just come out in the UK) that you should go and see this film and – if nothing else – let it be a corrective to the other media that we’ve all consumed around this issue. Don’t let it convince you out of hand, but let it stimulate your desire to find out more and to interrogate your own prejudices about the green movement. And in the meantime, as half of America slowly starts to wake up to the realisation that they’ve had the wrong head of state for the last six years, I find myself – like many others in the technology community and beyond – wondering what the world might have looked like now had Al Gore won in the year 2000.

Conference Notes Politics Science

On the Politicisation of Science… (FOO '06)

One talk from FOO Camp 06 started off fascinating me and end up driving me to distraction with frustration. Chris Csikszentmih√°lyi from the MIT Media Lab did a talk about the implicit politics that lies behind all technology. Initially I found this highly engaging – it reminded me a lot about the cultural studies work that I’d been involved with during my incomplete doctorate – only with a more practical bent. Specifically Emily Martin’s article The Egg and the Sperm: How Science has Constructed a Romance based on Stereotypical Male-Female roles leapt into my brain – an article that argued that scientific discourse was regularly distorted by cultural prejudices and explained how unexamined assumptions made a mockery of concepts like ‘good science’.

Csikszentmih√°lyi described his work as exploring the implicit assumptions of technological work and science – the difference between what the scientists think they’re doing and what actually happens. One of the interesting facts he revealed was that only 3%-5% of experiments in advanced science are ever reproven (ie. the experiments are successfully replicated) for a whole range of reasons. This is not because the science was wrong (necessarily) but simply because some of the experiments can only be performed using incredibly expensive equipment that might only be owned by one laboratory (CERN’s particle accelerators?) and that many of the experiments could only be replicated with the ‘tacit knowledge’ of the people who had performed the initial experiments – knowledge that often was not successfully captured in the write-ups of the experiments. He argued that, ‘scientific conflict is not resolved by individuals replicating stuff like that, it’s resolved in a remarkable social process’.

Anyway, so far so good. He then talked about tool neutrality and how where you received funding from – and the perspective from which you were viewing the research – inevitably revealed that all work was political, and that ideas like ‘tool neutrality’ (I’m making something neutral and it can be used for good or ill) and ‘technology is out of control’ were both missing the point and were completely irrelevant to the debate. That the politicised nature of science was indisputable, but did not necessarily result in anti-technological standpoints.

The parts that got difficult for me were when – accepting that there was no science that was not political – Csikszentmih√°lyi seemed to me to wander rapidly down into relativism, almost seeming to argue that there was no such thing as empirically ‘better’ or ‘worse’ science, but simply different political takes on the same field. I tried to get him to expand around this and challenged a few points that seemed to be logical extensions of this without much success at all, and left frustrated and irritated by the whole enterprise. It seems to me that the inevitable idea that science is politicised needs to be kept distinct from the quite abhorent concept that there is no qualitative difference between different theories, only perspectival ones. This seems to me to be an idea that’s seeped into the world from my old discipline to the good of precisely no one. It seems to me that there remains some way of arguing that a theory that was demonstrably disprovable was conceptually ‘worse’ than a theory that fitted the available data, and that this metric was implicated in and connected to but orthogonal to the inevitably politicised nature of the science itself. That is to say that the politicisation would inevitably exist and would always and inevitably obfuscate any model of a ‘real world’ that one might wish to posit as a useful mechanism to think against (subject to disproval, of course). But that while we accepted that, there were metrics that could often be used to measure practicality, utility, plausibility or whatever that could be a debased but functional analogue to ideas of ‘what makes good science’.

I have no sense of whether I managed to successfully challenge Chris on these theoretical issues, whether he simply did not get what I was trying to ask him or whether I was just evidencing my stupidity in public again. However, the whole thing did seem to reach a nasty point when I said that he seemed to be arguing for the death of logic itself, only for him to say that he believed in logic – as a fundamentally perspectival and human way of interpreting the world. At which point I could not help but feel he’d managed to destroy the platform on which he himself was talking – running hard into the wall between modernity and post-modernity that left feminism with no concept of a woman left to defend.

I’m still thinking around this talk, and would appreciate any insights anyone else might have on it out there in the world. From talking to many of my ex-colleagues in the humanities it seems that much of the sociological and philosophical frameworks for these kinds of the positions are being rapidly abandoned by community after community – but this is purely hearsay. Anyone got any thoughts?


A major terrorist alert is crippling airports…

So pretty clearly the biggest news of the day is that – according to Scotland Yard – a terrorist plot to blow up planes in mid-flight from the UK to the US has been uncovered. The UK’s threat level has been raised to ‘Critical’ (more about threat levels) and the BBC has reported that the US Department of Homeland security has increased the threat-level to US-bound flights from the UK. The most obvious effect to most people who are flying soon will be that there is now no hand luggage allowed on planes – you can take tickets, passports and wallets aboard in a transparent plastic bag. No laptops are allowed on the plane. No gaming devices. No iPods. The Guardian has more coverage. While obviously it’s just an inconvenience compared to the alternative, you can’t help thinking this is likely to affect US/UK business a fair amount. Simon, Paul and I are flying to the US in just over a week, so I wonder what it’ll be like then.

More troubling is that it’s reported that the principle people concerned in the plot were British-born, and arrested around High Wycombe, London and Birmingham. What an extraordinary world we’re living in at the moment where groups of people brought up in the UK want to commit these kinds of acts. It’s very troubling.

Politics Social Software

On Massively Multiplayer Propaganda…

Simon drew my attention to a site called the other day and it’s been in my thoughts ever since, and I’ve come to think of it as a really troubling kind of troll-supporting political malware, representing a technologically-empowered massively-distributed form of propoganda that I’ve never seen before. The site’s full name is Give Israel Your United Support and it works like this – individuals download a tool (the Megaphone Desktop Tool) which then alerts people to new articles and polls around the web that question Israel’s policies in the Middle East or ask for public opinion about them. The people concerned are then supposed to visit the site directly and respond to the poll or story or write an e-mail or whatever. They present an example on the page of one of the things that you could be alerted to:

The reason for this activity? Stated at the top of the page, “Today’s conflicts are won by public opinion. Now is the time to be active and voice Israel’s side to the world.” The software is designed to do two things – firstly to make it clear that there’s a large active pro-Israel population in the world, but also it’s there to make sure that the pro-Israel point of view is over-represented in the popular media. These are – let me repeat – the project’s stated goals.

Now I want to make it very clear here very early on that I’m not going to be making an anti-Israeli tract. It’s pretty much irrelevant to me who is using this particular tool – just that the tool exists. Or more specifically – since there’s no way to put the genie back in the bottle – that tools like this exist and will continue to exist from now on as ways to attempt to deform the social discourse – whether that be for Democrats, Republicans, Israelis, Iraqis, Americans, Conservatives. This should be troubling to all of us, although I’m not sure that there’s very much we can do about it.

The short term consequence will be that all large scale public discussions and polls on the internet will become highly suspect – none of these groups are set up to deal with this kind of political spam yet. And that has to heavily affect the ability of organisations that deal with feedback from their audiences to do so fairly or to respond to a real constituency rather than just innumerable interest groups. This is, in effect, a way of harnessing hundreds of thousands of people to massage the public debate – the massively distributed conversation of the internet now has a form of PR – a form of propoganda – to match.

In substance, of course, there is little that has changed here – politicians and religious groups have always wanted to get out their vocal supporters, they’ve always wanted to move public opinion and help people spread the word. And they’ve used all kinds of techniques to do it – right back to the simple letter-writing campaign. And it’s far from the first time that new communicative, democratising technologies have been co-opted or bought ought by organisations who believe that they have to – or simply wish to – take every advantage they possibly can to win, even if it devalues the environment for all in the process. But it’s still something to be pointed towards with anxiety, to be acknowledged as it is recognised – if only so we can mourn the passing of a particular open spirit as the gamers and the trolls colonise the public spaces and set-up shop. We can expect to see this kind of campaigning tool being used in the next US elections I should think, and who knows – perhaps people I know, people like me, will feel they need to use them to see the change they want in the world, or to fight fire with fire.

Of course there is another way this could end. Because a tool that alerts people to points of debate around Israel isn’t only useful to Israelis, any more than a tool that alerts the Green lobby to big issues is of use only to environmental activists. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the same tools exposing the same data being co-opted by the direct opponents of the various groups that set them up. Each poll or news article may become nothing more than flashpoint fights between radicals of every persuasion in which the quieter, more average voices get completely drowned out. So there you have it – flashpoints of argument, massively multiplayer campaigning and propoganda techniques, the loss of the common voice and a scouring of the commons. So much for a democratising medium…

Net Culture Politics Technology

Protect your bits with the Open Rights Group…

Tell you what – you go on holiday for a couple of weeks and the e-mail that piles up… Sheesh, I’ll be ploughing through this lot for weeks. Earlier today I think I managed to get up to a rate of replying to around ten serious e-mails per hour, but now people are bloody replying to the earlier ones, so now I’m struggling to break-even. And given that I’ve got another five hundred to plough through, I could be here quite a while. Sigh. And this is after I’ve got rid of all the bloody spam and mailing list stuff.

Anyway, one of the more interesting e-mails I’ve received was from Suw Charman of the Open Rights Group – a progressive digital rights organisation that I’m on the advisory board of. The whole thing came about because of Danny O’Brien’s pledgebank proposal during which a thousand people pledged to donate five pounds a month to support an organisation that could fight for digital rights in the UK. Unfortunately – several months down the line – there’s still a bit of a shortfall between the people who said they’d donate and those that actually have. Hence a new project – to get another five hundred people to sign-up and donate. That five hundred, along with the current supporters, will become known as the Founding 1000, and will be able to stand up proudly and say that they were working to change the digital rights landscape in the UK.

I’ve already started encouraging the crew at Barbelith to sign-up, and now I’m going to ask you lot to stand up and be counted as well. You can get badges for the ORG on this blog post: Protect your bits. Support ORG or you can just leap straight in and start supporting ORG. You won’t regret getting involved, however peripherally. It’s a really good bunch of people trying to move the culture in a really positive direction, but they need funding and volunteers to really start having an impact. You can help.

Support the Open Rights Group


On Charles Kennedy's resignation…

I’m not a great commentator on UK party politics on this site. That’s not to say that I don’t have strong political beliefs. Far from it – I have clear and well-established views on a lot of issues, I care about what happens in my country and on occasion I stand up and make my voice heard on this site and elsewhere. However, I’ve found on a few occasions in the past – mostly around issues concerned with the war in Iraq and the fall-out from September 11th – that the weblogging culture can be rabid and aggressive and indulge in random ad hominem attacks on people with different views. It can be enormously unpleasant to have several hundred people ridicule you and – ignoring any complexities of position or argument – lurch into stereotyping or go for easy point-scoring simply to win. I should add that I don’t think that this behaviour is a particular feature of the weblogging community, I think it’s a feature of all public spaces – only this time expressed through software. But I’m digressing…

What I wanted to talk about today was about Charles Kennedy’s resignation as leader of the Liberal Democrats. I’ve not been following this enormously closely, but obviously Charles Kennedy has had a reputation as a drinker for a while now (Westminster’s worst kept secret?). And when the vultures start to circle as vigorously as they have been circling, then you have to accept that the end is probably near. But it is a shame in so many ways – I’ve not voted Liberal for almost fifteen years, but I understand them in a way that I don’t understand any other party. They’ve never had the excitement of the early Blairite Labour party, or the apparent backbone of the right, but they’ve grown in influence substantially over the last couple of decades and have – on some issues – really helped define the path that gradually all the other parties have found themselves walking. You have to celebrate Charles Kennedy’s part in that process, whatever failings he may otherwise have.

I think the one thing that really stuck in my head as I watched the video of his resignation speech (which would I would really recommend a glance at) was his statements about principles. For years I’ve watched representatives of the Conservative party on television talking about how they had to change their messages and their policies to keep up with the electorate and find a new identity and purpose, and I’ve always found that approach weak, duplicitous and calculating. If you believe in something, if you stand for something, then sure, your policies might change, but their end goal should be much more secure. And yes, of course you can be wrong in your principles and you can seek to change them, but that’s a process that comes from testing them and seeing where you were wrong. You can’t change your principles in response to public disengagement. People can tell when you stand for nothing, and observe with disgust people running brazenly to change their views to fit in with what’s politically in vogue. If the principles that underlie a party cease to be attractive to the people it wants to serve, then the party should die and be replaced.

Charles Kennedy was clear about what he thought the Liberals should do – he stated that they shouldn’t run after the expedient policies, that they shouldn’t scrabble to distinguish the party from Conservatives and Labour as the latter move more and more into the central ground. No, it should live or die by its principles, stand up for what it believed to be right – internationalisation, international law, support for the have-nots etc. I thought there was a lot to be said for his speech – an aspiration towards a better set of personal and political standards that perhaps only the Liberals can evidence (because they’re the third party) but is still pretty wonderful to hear. So let’s hope that all the progress they’ve made isn’t put at risk by this transition. Let’s hope that the new leader – whether we vote for him or not – stands up similarly for a personal integrity of government, and for a belief in sticking by your principles and letting the people decide if they’re ones they identify with too. If so, then Charles Kennedy’s time in politics, and the time of Paddy Ashdown before him, will not have been in vain.