Monthly Archives: November 2006

Opening the source

Now that I’ve officially finished my fieldwork, and with all the talk going on about Open Access Anthropology, I thought I’d try my own little Open Access experiment. I’ve decided to publish the question guide I’ve used for my fieldwork under the GPL. I’ve even indented and commented them in proper code fashion (or, at least, as far as I’ve been capable of emulating it).

Also, at suggestion of one of my informants, I’ve answered my own questions to offer my informants and other interested parties a bit more background in my own interest in computers, Ubuntu and the F/OSS world.

One of my hopes in doing this is that more people in the community will find interest in looking at the questions, and possibly even writing up their own answers. If that were to be the case, I would love to see them and incorporate them into my thesis. So send me any answers you feel like writing! 🙂

Democracy as a beauty contest

A long time ago, I wrote a fictional news article of an election in the East-european state of Syldavia and how they dealt with the continuing problem of having two similar political blocs fighting over a small decisive vote to win political power for the next term – as is seen in so many of the Western democracies these days.

Now I’ve finally found the relevant theory to explain why this model with two blocs of like alternatives has come about. The term is “deliberate democracy” and it was coined by Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter in his 1943 monography “Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy”. In it he writes:

The democratic principle merely means that the reins of authority are handed to those who win greater political support than their political opponents. […] The voters’ primary function is to pick a government to rule.

That is to say: Democracy is not about representing different classes or interests, it is all about making a choice, picking a leader, the better candidate in political beauty contest. To hand power to one group rather than the other to ensure that the business is well run. Not unlike when the shareholders and the board of directors convene to pick a new CEO.

In Schumpeter’s view, Western democracy would sooner or later converge on the pattern seen in the US and the UK with two big parties with each their own leader candidate vying for dominant political power. And that is what we are seeing today where voters no longer see themselves as part of a class or a special demographic with political values aligned to specific political parties.

Instead they are free to shop for values or personal qualities that they appreciate. Parties and leaders no longer seek to legitimize themselves through their representative function, but rather through their ability to lead.

This leads to the kind of election run-ins we see today where parties no longer market themselves on ideology or programs, but rather on general values personified in their leaders and on their general competence as leaders. In essence the message of these political campaigns are: “Our man is better than theirs.”

This focus on leadership values is reflected in the way that these political parties end up governing. Schumpeter aptly describes how the democratically elected leader’s troubles:

You can suitably compare the prime minister in a democracy with a jockey who is so busy staying in the saddle that he cannot plan his route – or a general who is so preoccupied making sure that his army follows his commands that he is forced to let the overall strategy take care of itself.

As pessimistic as this sounds, I’m afraid that this is quite close to the truth. Most political leaders seem to be so taken with appearing strong and proactive in their daily leadership that they fail to build a vision and ambition for the longer-term. This is partly due to incessant polling that takes place on every single political issue and visibly forces the government’s hand on issues where the public has strong opinions.

As Neil Postman points out in his book Technopoly, polling may be accurate, but that does not mean that it is useful. The public’s “opinion” will almost always be a function of the question asked. It all depends on how you phrase and interpret the questions on which the poll is based, as well as how much of the context surrounding the question that you choose to ignore:

[…] let us imagine what we would think of opinion polls if the questions came in pairs, indicating what people “believe” and what they “know” about the subject. If I may make up some figures, let us suppose we read the following: “The latest poll indicates that 72 percent of the American public believes we should withdraw economic aid from Nicaragua. Of those who expressed this opinion, 28 percent thought Nicaragua was in central Asia, 18 percent thought it was an island near New Zealand, and 27.4 percent believed that ‘Africans should help themselves,’ obviously confusing Nicaragua with Nigeria. Moreover, of those polled, 61.8 percent did not know that we give economic aid to Nicaragua, and 23 percent did not know what ‘economic aid’ means.” Were pollsters to inclined to provide such information, the prestige and power of polling would be considerably reduced. Perhaps even congressmen, confronted by massive ignorance would invest their own understandings with greater trust.

Thus, if politicians were less concerned about constantly looking good in random polls, they might actually get something done. In Schumpeter’s view they wouldn’t have to worry too much about whether they would get reelected or not, since their political opponents would be implementing much the same political agenda in any case. That would of course mean that to some extent it would cease to be a democracy. Though Schumpeter would argue that that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing.


Jørgen Møller: “Helt efter bogen” – Weekendavisen, 2.-8. december 2005

Neil Postman: “Technopoly” – Vintage Books, New York 1993.

On beauty

I recently came across a Youtube video which questions our ideals of beauty. With digital editing, all the images we see in advertisements, model photos, and feature films can be – and are! – cleaned up of every blemish and subtle mistake.

Digging around, I found a few other examples of how advertisers and stylists are using Photoshop to distort our perception of beauty. Just have a look at this thorough dissection of a magazine cover picture.

All of this just reinforces the effect of the recent news that a 21-year old Brazilian photo model basically starved herself to death in order to ensure her success.

Our perception of beauty, it seems, is not healthy.

On the concretization of imagination

I tried hard to find a better title for this blog post, but I guess I failed.

Having been a long-time fan of J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, I remember watching the first of the “Lord of the Rings” films and being sorely disappointed, even somewhat angry at how badly the film’s art directors had concretized many elements of the story:

The hobbits were too young, their ears were wrong, as well as a big part of their demeanor. Aragorn was too young and handsome, Gollum wasn’t quite menacing and hissy enough. The elves not only looked wrong, they felt wrong. They had none of that otherworldly magic that I had imagined when reading the books when I was 12.

Generally there was a lot of small things that I was unhappy with, especially since such a big budget film might well end up providing the canonical images for how the Middle Earth mythos will be remembered by coming generations. This upset me as I fear the images of the films will limit the depth and room for personal interpretation of the books, and thus give new generations of readers a less personal experience reading them.

And so the other day, I had a thought about the fury caused by the publication of the images of Muhammad and how much of that anger was based in the lapse between how these people imagined Muhammad and the concrete depictions of the cartoons.

I don’t know much about how young muslims are taught about the life of Muhammad, but for someone raised in a Christian country it is difficult to imagine how you can do this without any kind of visual depictions of God and the prophets which are prohibited by tradition.

When you grow up hearing so much about Muhammad and how his actions shaped the world, and continues to shape your world. He will naturally become the focus for a fair bit of your imagination: What was he like? What did his beard really look like? Would he laugh heartily or smile solemnly? Did he sneer or smile?

All of these questions would be left to the individual Muslim’s imagination, to build a mental image of the prophet which would the ideal of their individual faith, of their interpretation of Islam. To draw and ridicule the prophet would thus not just be to harm each individual Muslim’s understanding of Islam but also disrupt the shaping of Islamic faith for new learners.

Reading Tolkien didn’t manifestly shape my world view or define me markedly as a person, but I still felt betrayed with what I thought to be misrepresentations of the mental images I had developed from the books. Imagine how much worse this anger would be if I read Tolkien as a guide on how to live my life, and saw his characters as guides to how I should lead my life.

I don’t claim to understand anything about Muslims’ relationship with images of Muhammad, the Qu’ran or Lord of the Rings, but I thought the parallel interesting, and as a potentially useful way of understanding the firestorm sparked by those cartoons. And it raises some interesting questions about how our world is shaped by our imagination. Comments are welcome.


Rainy grey Seattle. Yet always the magical thrill of seeing the hint of mountains in the distance.

Staying with Stefan and Karen Lise:

Stefan og Karen Lise

Disappointment at the Space Needle. They should have kept it orange.

Walking through Pike Place Market. The inevitable curiosa shops, the throwing fish market. The convinced Left Bank Books where fierce hope reigns still (I bought A People’s History of the United States there for Stefan).

Walking in the Discovery Park to find the Daybreak Star Cultural Centre, a haven for Native Americans in the Seattle area and a natural point of attraction for passing anthropologists. The Native Americans are only represented through their artifacts, their totem poles. The city generally giving the impression that they aren’t here anymore and are of no influence or relevance.

They’re still there.

Walking through the greatest rainfall of any November in the history of the city. Walking back from the pub through the university campus one night when the raining finally had ceased. Only to find that the university grass sprinkling system had been activated, sprinkling even more water onto the soaked lawns!

The amazing story of the Underground beneath Seattle.

The Columbia Centre Skyscraper:


And the views from its 73rd floor:

Seattleite Sunset

Stefan in Seattle

The joy of hanging out with a photogenic couple:

Karen Lise and Stefan's reflection

Getting a well-cooked Thai meal at the tiniest, busiest restaurant in the University district, Thai Tom’s – all while listening to grooving reggae. Who would have thought that reggae and Thai food go so well together?

The idea that you can use the premise of installing Linux on somebody’s computer as a way to get a date. Well, at least a “maybe-date”.


More notes from my trip abroad:

Rainy grey Vancouver. Yet always the magical thrill of seeing the hint of mountains in the distance.

Meeting up with James, Stefan and Karen Lise – sharing our secrets in Danish to be drowned out by the multi-cultural roar of the city.

The “strip” of Granville Street in downtown Vancouver. Intensely grimy urban, dirty wet streets reflecting the neon-lighted facades in a very Blade Runner like way. Constant down-pour.

Visiting Stanley Park. The husky atmosphere of the forest, dripping wet and heavy with life:

Stanley Park

San Francisco

I’ve just arrived back in Copenhagen after two weeks on the west coast of North America: San Francisco, Vancouver and Seattle. I barely managed to blog while I was there, simply because I was so busy taking it all in.

Luckily, taking it in for me also means taking down some notes once in a while, and along the way I invested in what Simon calls a “hipster PDA” to contain my random scribblings. So my recollections from my trip will not be very coherent, more random notes and points.

Arriving in the US and being told over the loudspeakers that “We are currently at Homeland Security Threat Level Orange” before having to submit to x-ray scanning of my shoes and fingerprint and photo registration to gain entry into the land of the free.

The Ubuntu Developer Summit, meeting people and again being surprised at how different they are from the mental images you build while interacting with them on-line.

Hanging out with Leslie and friends at her house. Immersing myself in the geek ghettos of Silicon Valley.

Seeing all the lovely Ubuntu hackers again after having visited so many of them individually. Seeing the community shaping and re-shaping itself intensely.

Sneaking off from the Summit hotel on Wednesday evening with Simon to the Dorkbot session in San Francisco, seeing a wondrous sound visualization program and hearing of how the Aphex Twin song commonly referred to as “Complex Mathematical Equation” is in fact an image as sound. So that when played and visualized, the intended image is shown.

Meeting Simon’s friends Meredith and Jake and going out for excellent sushi – including the amazing Wasabi Tobiko roll which is a taste powerhouse concealed in Flying Fish roe:

Wasabi Tobiko Roll

Going to Jake’s apartment afterwards for late night coffee. Meeting his housemate Alex and ending up crashing on their couch which allowed me easy access to downtown San Francisco for sight seeing the following day.

Not bringing my camera to San Francisco.

Walking up and down the hilly streets of the city, breathing the sea air, getting lost and getting my bearings in yet another iconic location.

Taking the Caltrain back to Sunnyvale in the evening. Getting lost and walking for miles along 4-lane streets with no sidewalks in a suburban Silicon Valley landscape designed for cars. With huge parking lots, blocks and drive-in stores. Navigating home safely all the same.

On Free Software Conferences

When I tell people that I do fieldwork among Free Software developers, I often try to relate it to more traditional anthropological ventures as a way to make it clearer to people what it is I do. Traditionally, anthropologists travelled to the part of the world that used to be colonized and lived among the conquered natives. Seeking to understand their social structures, their values and their rituals – basically their way of life.

So I compare Free Software projects to these native tribes that anthropologists usually study. For it is a community that is built around a common interest in computing and shared values around that interest. The difference is that it is a tribe that is defined not by its association to any specific place but rather by its use of a technology.

For most of the time, the interaction within Free Software projects are shaped by the technology they use – mailing lists, IRC channels, web forums, even VOIP phone calls, but once in a while they gather at conferences to create those real human face-to-face connections that add a vital, physical dimension to the social life of a project.

These ‘tribal gatherings’ have been described as ‘the quintessential hacker vacation’ and reminds me most of all of a (Boys’) Summer Camps. They are intense festivals celebrating all things hackish where the developers gather to wear themselves down with sleep deprivation, cumulative hangover, shared passion for technology and constant social interaction. The conferences offer excellent opportunity to revitalize and energize the developers’ interest and belief in the project.

Conflicts are resolved, plans are laid out, specifications are written, unexpected meetings happen and friends are made. A different degree of collaboration is made possible by the conference as the tribe convenes and for a week or two actually is a temporary village of its own.

This week such a village has been erected by the Ubuntu community at the Google Headquarters in Mountain View, California. More than 160 Ubuntu developers, community members and upstream developers have convened from around the world in order to review and plan the next release of Ubuntu, due in April 2007.

The Ubuntu community differs from many other Free Software projects in their close relationship to Canonical – the company that employs a number of the core Ubuntu developers, drives the tight time based release schedule, and organizes the very focused and professionally planned Ubuntu Developer Summits to which they sponsor a good number of the community members and upstream developers from projects such as KDE, LTSP and GNOME whose work is central to Ubuntu.

This means that a snapshot of the Free Software world as seen from an Ubuntu perspective gathers every six months to collaborate and get to know each other in person – something that often proves to be invaluable when it is augmented through the digital means of communication where a previous awareness of a person’s personality and physical presence can make the difference between understanding and conflict.

Since conferences are such an integral part of Free Software development, the location and organization of the conference is essential, and this got me thinking. With Google hosting this conference, the facilities are generally in very good order. Unfortunately, the hotel where most of the developers are staying are 15 minutes away by bus and the logistic problems of ferrying people back and forth are not insubstantial.

Other conferences in other locations have other problems(such as bad food, bad bandwidth and bad conference facilities) so my thought is: Why not make a hotel specialized for the needs of free software projects? Based on my observations, I’ve drafted up an idealised list of requirements:

– Located close to an easily accessible

A Dane in Norway

I just came back from 4 days in Norway late last night, having only two days to prepare for my trip to California.

Going to Norway is like entering a big Danish thesaurus. All the words are recognizable and usable in Danish, they’re just not that common. Here’s a list of some of the Norwegian words I noted:

‘Vakker’ rather than ‘smuk’
‘Kjeltring’ rather than ‘forbryder’
‘løvskåret skinke’ rather than ‘fintskåret skinke’
‘Minnepinne’ rather than ‘memory stick’ (good Danish that)

Further, the Norwegian language is like Danish just littered with spelling mistakes – which makes it even more interesting and can create some curious misconceptions. For instance the way that Danish ‘kneb’ (Danish for ‘trick’) is subtly changed to ‘knep’ (Danish for ‘fuck’).

Or my personal favourite, one of the biggest Danish gossip magazines is called ‘Her og nu’ has a Norwegian pendant called ‘Her & Nå’

Which in Danish is like turning ‘here and now’ into ‘here and so’ – the question mark almost pronounced with it. I find this hilarious since it pretty much sums up my attitude to gossip magazines in that Danish word: “Nå?”