Monthly Archives: October 2007

Digital (ethnographic) montage

Among some of the old unfinished projects that I’ve had time to finish recently, is the HTML version of my essay on the use of montage as a means of ethnographic presentation. It’s definitely experimental, since I have little experience with how clicks flow through websites like this, and it is not very pretty by today’s standards either. But at least it’s small, and it won’t ruin the Internet for anyone.

Feel free to try it out and write your comments here. You can also read the more conventional .PDF version to see if you missed something.

My montage is inspired by similar experiments by anthropologist Michael Wesch and archaeologist Cornelius Holtorf.

Wesch has since expanded into proper montage with a series of short films exploring the possibilities of digital montage both in communication and as a new means of teaching. They are fascinating and well worth the watch.

The nature of corruption

Lawrence Lessig, the Stanford law professor and founder of the Creative Commons project, which I have mentioned several times on these pages, recently changed his main research and activist focus from copyright law to examining the dynamics of political corruption. As he explains it on his Wiki:

I want to discuss “corruption” in a very particular sense. I’m not interested in overt lawbreaking or outright bribery (e.g., Congressman X takes $50,000 personally to vote Nay on a particular bill); I am instead interested in non-obvious corruption–instances where a decision is improperly and/or subtly influenced by a government actor’s anticipation of some sort of indirect economic gain or loss. Where a person in power is motivated more by, e.g., money to their campaign, support for favored research, etc., than the interests they claim to or otherwise should be advancing.

Lessig quotes figures saying that American politicians spend 50 to 70% of their work on raising campaign funds rather than doing the actual parliamentary work in the relevant government institutions. In that way, it cannot come as a surprise if they also pay more attention to the interests of these specific campaign contributors than the interests of the people who voted for them?

When Lessig visited Denmark recently, he discussed these issues briefly on Danish national TV:

If this piques your interest, there’s more. As Lessig recently put the first version of his new talk on political corruption on-line. It is well worth the watch as he not only highlights the problems, but also potential ways of breaking out of this corrupt status quo.

Human Computation

A long time ago, I came across an interesting talk by Luis von Ahn, a young assistent professor in computer science at Carnegie Mellon University, on what he calls Human Computation. This concept basically revolves around a computational process which performs its function by outsourcing certain steps of its process to humans.

How does this work? Von Ahn uses the example of Captchas. A captcha is one of those “prove you’re human” tests which you have to take in order to register for various on-line services. They typically look like this:

captchas

Since various robots crawling the web can’t read the distorted text, they can’t register again and again for various on-line sites, while humans can. Basically, by using a test, which people can solve but which programs can’t, you can limit spam and various other nasty by-products of the Internet.

Luis von Ahn has been expanding on the concept of Captchas to explore how this idea of human computation can be used. He has started a project called re-captcha, which directs the human computation used in solving captchas (for instance to post comments on websites such as this) to read words in scanned books which the OCR programs scanning the text weren’t sure of. Thus, not only does the project prevent spam, it also directs the human computation towards a task which computers wouldn’t be able to solve on their own.

Von Ahn’s talk is fascinating, as it builds on the notion that all of the time and energy people spend on various trivial tasks such as recognizing words in captchas or playing solitaire actually can also produce relevant results as well. His main example is how he has developed small games around adding tags to images, getting people involved to play the games. In this way, the structure of these small games become a sort of algorithm for human computation.

I find this perspective on computer games absolutely intriguing. How can you utilize all of the energy which people pour into computer games not only to give them a fun, learning experience but also make the Internet a safer, better place? That seems like a worthy challenge for game developers.

Free documentaries online

At the Danish Social Forum, there was a film festival called “This way out” which showcased a collection of the latest political documentaries. I saw Johan Söderberg’s film The Planet a visual feast examining the same issues as “An Inconvenient Truth” – but it does so in a more poetic and somewhat less factual way. As one of the film interviewees notes, climate change will force humanity to change its outlook of the world from unhindered human progress to sustainable living. This is a change of such epic proportions that we cannot fathom it. We can only relate to the immediate crises produced by this environmental change. So how bad does it have to get before we will get our act together?

Another of the interviewees, an economist, argues that once the unexpected climate costs of focusing solely on human progress through economic growth hits us, we will have to realize that this single-minded focus on “economic growth” easily can turn into “uneconomic growth” as the costs of natural disasters, pollution, and urbanization will continue to increase.

These are all issues which documentaries do well to illuminate. Like the Austrian montage Our Daily Bread shows how our food production has become industrialized and alienated from natural cycles. Or the film Darwin’s Nightmare, which describes the horrid effects of a globalized economy solely focused on economic growth at high environmental and social cost. Or the Canadian documentary The Corporation which describes the history of the multi-national corporation as the main institution generating and propagating this economic growth at all costs throughout the 20th century.

And there are lots more. Recently, I came across a website which provides access to loads of documentaries for free, which is well worth a look. And meanwhile, expensive documentaries such as The Corporation are also released for free, to some extent practicing what they preach. So go see a documentary film today. You might learn something.

The future of copyright

This weekend, I went to the Danish Social Forum, which is a Danish version of the World Social Forum – a gathering of various grassroots organizations seeking to bring focus to the many alternative ways that the world can develop, all under the heading “another world is possible.”

Mainly, I went to see the the panel debate on the future of copyright, since Lawrence Lessig was to attend and give a presentation on copyright. Lessig is the founder of the Creative Commons movement which is an attempt to make a voluntary reform of the copyright system, which has been distorted and corrupted by what he calls a “an economy of influence” within the US political system, where politicians spend 70 to 80% of their time raising campaign money from various lobbyists and interest organizations.

Lessig is a brilliant and lucid speaker, and it is always a joy to hear him give a presentation. He was joined in the panel debate by Rasmus Fleischer of the Swedish Piratbyrån (Bureau of Piracy) – one of the leading proponents of copyright piracy and the ideologists behind the Pirate Bay filesharing site. As Fleischer put it, “it’s not that we’re anti-copyright, it’s just that we don’t believe in it. I don’t mind copyright as long as it doesn’t get in the way of any creativity I like.”

The third panel participant was Johan Söderberg, a Swedish film editor, who has edited several documentaries as well as the famed “Read my lips” duet between Tony Blair and George W. Bush, which is a integral part of Lessig’s Creative Commons presentations on remix culture.

The discussion as such wasn’t very fluid, but there were some interesting points along the way – mostly in the individual presentations. Söderberg noted that he made a clear distinction between films that he wants to make money making, and films that he’s just making to put on the Internet. With the first category, he makes sure to pay for all the clips he uses, to support the photographers producing all the film which made his film possible. With the second category, he doesn’t pay for anything, he simply uploads it to the Internet for all to see, and he rarely gets in trouble for it.

Söderberg noted that many people seem to be unable to connect the notions of “sharing the work you like” with “supporting the artists you like”, and while he liked the idea of the Creative Commons, he thought it difficult to accomplish, since how would you guarantee any sort of income for the artists?

This in fact, proved to be the crux of the problem: Generally, artists are quite supportive of free sharing and spreading of good ideas, as allowed by the Creative Commons, but how are they going to make any money from it?

Lessig noted that sure, piracy of copyrighted materials was a sort of civil disobedience – a way to show that you don’t approve the grotesquely long copyright terms instituted, last through the Sonny Bono copyright term extension act, but it is unhelpful disobedience: Traditionally, civil disobedience involved undergoing various hardships to show your lack of respect for the law: Going to jail for resisting the draft or refusing to pay your taxes. With piracy, you’re basically just getting stuff for free. It produces a misleading message.

Both Lessig and Fleischer argued that a good solution would be to shorten the copyright term to around 3 to 5 years, allowing freer use of the material much sooner. Fleischer also argued that it would be necessary to change the focus from solely on the end product to view creativity as a continuing conversation, where the individual performance or physical manifestation of the digital creativity would be ways to earn money. For example band’s live performances or the T-shirts and books sold by webcomic artists.

At the moment, though, the main problem is not so much finding ways for the individual artists to make money off their creativity. There are plenty of people exploring new ways to make a living through their digital creativity, whether through ads, merchandise, live performances, or other such.

The main problem is the enormous cowardice which rules the education, media, and art institutions currently owning the vast majority of copyrighted material in existence today. Lawrence Lessig argued convincingly that it is these institutions that will need to lead the way towards copyright reform.