Jeff Koons Must Die!!!

Of course computers and computer games have had an impact on art. There are fields that study art and video games, or indeed even art in games, but I was particularly amused by this twist to the theme. It’s art in the form of an old style arcade video game. The game is created by Hunter Jonakin and is called Jeff Koons Must Die!!!

The game is a first-person shooter and the goal is to destroy as much of Koons’ artwork as possible. If the player does not destroy the game ends.

However, if one or more pieces are destroyed, an animated model of Jeff Koons walks out and chastises the viewer for annihilating his art. He then sends guards to kill the player. If the player survives this round then he or she is afforded the ability to enter a room where waves of curators, lawyers, assistants, and guards spawn until the player is dead.

The motivation for the game is given on the website:

Jeff Koons is one of the most polarizing and well known contemporary artists living today. He attempts to elevate the banal by constructing large metal sculptures that resemble balloon animals, oil paintings that contain subject matter derived from digital collage, and large-scale pornographic photographs featuring the artist and his former wife, to name a few. All of Koons’s art is constructed by assistants. In general, viewers love or hate Koons and his work, and that is why he was chosen as the subject matter for this piece.


Recently Jeff Koons – who has himself been sued for copyright violation – sued for copyright violation (see Koons strikes back) but eventually backed off. It’s going to be interesting to see his reaction both to seeing his works replicated in digital format, used (abused?) in this manner and then the fact that he himself is portrayed in the game.

What libraries should protect

In the digital age the idea of being concerned about someone knowing which books we read may seem strange. But as a matter of principle I feel it should be important that this kind of information is not saved. Very often we hear the argument: if you have done nothing wrong, then you have nothing to hide.

That argument is so stupid that its incredible. It shows that a pithy statement will turn peoples intelligence off. Think about any persecuted minority and then repeat the statement one more time. I dare you.

So back to the library.

The books I read can tell you a lot about me. But the problem is that you cannot know what books I read and how they have impacted my life from a list of books I have borrowed from the library. This list will tell you nothing about whether I read them, how I understood them, if I read them to criticize or to admire… or just to impress someone else. All you know is that I have borrowed them. Unfortunately, in times of stress, such data will be used as “proof” of something. And not only in times of stress.

In January this year the Swedish Justitiekanslern (Chancellor of Justice) found that the university library in Göteborg (my uni) was not wrong to save data on borrowed books and the borrower even after the books were returned. (case 2356-09-42: Personsuppgiftslagen (1998:204) är inte tillämplig på personuppgifter i ett låntagarregister som förs fortlöpande vid ett universitetsbibliotek decided 2011-01-17

Their reasoning is that the information about the books and borrower fall under the well established Offentlighetsprincipen (principle of public access) and would be saved – and made accessible to anyone who wants it. Information that falls under Offentlighetsprincipen may be removed from the archives under certain conditions.

In the case of the books individual borrowers have borrowed this data is removed two years after the library card expires.

Since I have had a library card at my library since 1997 or maybe even earlier all the books I have every borrowed from my university library are a matter of public record and can be extracted by anyone.

So I am dismayed, but not surprised, by the outcome of the decision by the Chancellor of Justice. But what really gets me annoyed is the attitude of the libraries. This is not the kind of data they should be collecting. This is not the attitude they should be having towards their readers. Their behavior does not promote openness, but rather will decrease the likelihood of people reading “suspect” material – whatever that may be. I thought libraries were all about open mindedness and learning. Now I am sure that what they are doing is convenient for them – and we have come to expect companies selling the souls of their employees and customers for their convenience.

But libraries? For shame.

Passion and perseverance, not poetry, make a PhD

Sad, but unfortunately not uncommon, news today… yet another bright young colleague has dropped out from his PhD. The easy reaction was to throw out the obvious question: Why? But in reality it does not really matter. The reasons for people dropping doctoral studies are as varied, as there are people and even if you asked could you ever get the true reason for people’s actions?

But I still want to comment on the doctoral process. In 2006 I wrote a post called Advice to a shiny new PhD student which still contains some good advice.

What I want to add is that the work of the PhD is not a sprint it’s more like a marathon on a bad day. Its seems endless and thankless when you are doing it – sure some people wave to cheer you up on the way but in reality nobody cares about your work – but it’s the end that makes it worth it.

In a marathon you don’t want to be a specialist… You want to be the beige super generalist.

The PhD student will be surrounded by people who are brighter, more poetic, more prolific, more intelligent, better read, more beautiful, etc. In fact no matter what trait you can imagine there will be someone who is better than you. And this is not a depressing thought!?

To survive a PhD is not about being the best in those ways. It’s about become the best at a certain subject. To become the best in academia you really need two things more than anything else. First, a passion for the subject. The reason why your topic is interesting is because it is unexplored. The reason it is unexplored is usually because it is obscure. You will not be loved for you subject, you will be alone with your subject. To survive with little outside stimuli you need passion.

The second thing you will need is perseverance – because it will be boring. No matter how interesting it sounds any topic becomes boring. This does not mean it will never be exciting again – but recognize that you passion for your chosen topic will ebb and flow.

So ignore the poetry and get on with it!

Limiting the Open Society: notes from a lecture

Today I was presenting on the FSCONS track of the GoOpen conference in Oslo and the topic for my talk was Limiting the Open Society: Regulation by proxy

To set the stage for my talk I began by asking the question why free speech was important. This was closely followed by a secondary question asking whether or not anyone was listening.

The point for beginning with this question was to re-kindle the listeners interest in free speech and also to wake the idea that the concept of free speech maybe is something which belongs in the past a remnant of a lost analog age which should be seen as a quaint time – but not relevant today.

Naturally it was not possible to present a full set of articles on the reasons for why free speech is important during a 20 minute presentation but I could not help picking up three arguments (with a side comment asking whether anyone could imagine a politician saying free speech was unimportant).

The main arguments were
John Stuart Mill’s truth argument presented in On Liberty (1869) from which this quote is central:

“However unwillingly a person who has a strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not a living truth”

Basically Mill’s argument can be broken down into four parts:

  1. The oppressed may represent the truth
  2. Without criticism we are left with dead dogma
  3. Opinion without debate meaningless
  4. Deviant opinions may be unaccepted truth

The second argument I presented was from Lee Bollinger’s The Tolerant Society: Freedom of Speech and Extremist Speech in America (1986)

Bollinger argues that the urge to suppress disagreeable speech is part of a need to suppress all ideas and behavior that threaten social stability. While Mill argues that it is important to support speech because it maybe right Bollinger argues that habits of tolerance in all its forms (including speech) are important to combat paternalism.

“…the free speech principle involves a special act of carving out one area of social interaction for extraordinary self-restraint, the purpose of which is to develop and demonstrate a social capacity to control feelings evoked by a host of social encounters.”

The final argument I presented was one of positive law – free speech is important because the law says it is important. The high point of this argument can be seen as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which created an international understanding of the importance of rights (including speech).

After this introduction I presented the concepts in an historical background. Again I needed to be brief so I could not really go into detail. I jumped straight into the period 300 years ago when the discussion on the rights of man in Europe was at a high point. The fear of censorship in advance (imprimatur) or punishment after the fact was of great interest. The results of these discussions were documents like The Rights of Man and the Citizen presented after the French revolution, the United States Declaration of Independence and the Swedish Freedom of the Press Act of 1766.

The problems with these documents and the regulatory acts which followed where that they presented potential rights but did nothing to ensure access to communications media. In fact the communications media became ever more centralized and access was granted to a more and more limited group of (similarly minded) people. The negative aspect of this situation were (1) centralized media can easily be controlled and (2) allowing small group access means that the individual members have to conform to remain in the in-group.

To re-enforce the concept of in-group and out-group I showed an image of the speaker’s corner in London where any individual may speak without being harassed its not a legal right even if it seems to be an established practice. Speaker’s corner is sometimes seen as an example of openness but in reality it is proof of the failure of our ability to speak openly anywhere.

Then we moved quickly along to the Internet as an example of where a technology was developed that made personal mass communication available to a wider audience.

The exciting thing about the Internet is that it carries within it freedom as a side effect of its creation. This freedom was developed by common agreement (of a homogeneous group) into the open end-to-end, packet switching “liberal” ideology that we experienced in the early days of technology.

Naturally the problem with any idea that is developed under a consensus is that any use, concept, idea or speech which falls outside the consensus is easily suppressed and lost. But more on this later.

In the early days we were overly optimistic and believed texts such as John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace:

Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.

But naturally this was not going to last since the freedom we relied on was in reality a bi-product of corporate activity.

Our reliance on technology is a reliance on services created and provided mainly by corporate actors. And corporate actors have different priorities. It’s not about individual goodwill but it is about profit. Milton Friedman wrote in Capitalism and Freedom (1962)

There is one and only one social responsibility of business—to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits…

It is not evil for companies to be all about profit but if there ever is a clash between individual freedom and profit then the corporation has an obligation to focus on profit at the cost of freedom.

At this stage at the lecture I shifted on to the problem of censorship. First I addressed the issue of self-censorship and used a quote by George Orwell on the topic.

Circus dogs jump when the trainer cracks his whip, but the really well-trained dog is the one that turns his somersault when there is no whip.

It is very difficult for us to know that we are censoring ourselves.

The next problem is the fact that even if we have something to say this does not mean that there is anyone who will (or can) listen. Basically we are lost in crowds.

These first two hindrances to communication are inevitable but they also create a bias against speech and the spread of ideas. From this point I began to address issues that can be (and should be) addressed.

The first issue was affordances. I showed the image of by Yumiko Hayakawa of the ‘Anti-Homeless’ park bench. And as I always do I asked the audience to spot the ethical problem in the image. The problem is that the bench discriminates among users by allowing only certain types of use. People with weak legs (old people?) struggle to use this bench, no people will loiter on this bench, and naturally no homeless people can sleep on this bench.

image from Yumiko Hayakawa essay Public Benches Turn ‘Anti-Homeless’ (also recommend Design with Intent)

Without engaging in a wider discussion the park authority can implement regulation without rules. No law expelling homeless people is necessary and therefore no legal review is ever carried out.

On the topic of affordances I brought up the German engineer problem. Here is the story behind the creation of SMS messaging (LA Times)

Alone in a room in his home in Bonn, Germany, Friedhelm Hillebrand sat at his typewriter, tapping out random sentences and questions on a sheet of paper.

As he went along, Hillebrand counted the number of letters, numbers, punctuation marks and spaces on the page. Each blurb ran on for a line or two and nearly always clocked in under 160 characters.

That became Hillebrand’s magic number — and set the standard for one of today’s most popular forms of digital communication: text messaging.

“This is perfectly sufficient,” he recalled thinking during that epiphany of 1985, when he was 45 years old. “Perfectly sufficient.”

Since then Twitter was developed from SMS and therefore we see how a engineer speaking German is today controlling the way in which we communicate today.

Another form of censorship is the whole problem of the chilling effect of law when it’s law is applied in situations where it has the effect of limiting speech – even if the purpose of the law was something completely different.

As a final form of censorship I spoke about the negative effects of End-User License Agreements (EULA). Many of the platforms upon which we depend for our communication have demanded of us that we agree to terms of use which we may not understand or which may have changed dramatically since we last read them. The result is that users are stuck in a perpetually weak situation.

So what’s really going on? Why doesn’t the state act or react to the erosion of our rights. These rights which are apparently so fundamental and important.

Well in part its lack of knowledge. Many states do not know the problems we are facing. The second part is that these are contractual agreements and the state is concerned about intervening in agreements (between consenting parties) and finally – and more ominously – the state benefits from the system.

States are able to stand tall and use words like rights, democracy, speech without limiting or censoring. They don’t have to. What the state does is they require acts (like data retention or surveillance) carried out by our service providers. If the state needs anything it can then collect it from the providers. The good news is that the state can claim to have clean hands. This is regulation by proxy.

So what can be done? Here I presented three strategies:

First, keep focused; remember what free speech is for. A second quote from George Orwell, this time from his preface of Animal Farm:

If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.

Second a demand that the state should end regulation by proxy and return to its own purpose. And the protection of citizen’s rights should include limiting the rights of actors. Speech on any medium should be protected – not only from the acts of the state.

Thirdly. The third was not really a new suggestion but more of an alternative. If the state cannot protect our speech then it should declare free speech as a thing of the past a remnant of a bygone analog age. This will not help much – but at least it will stop the hypocrisy.

GoOpen Oslo

On the train to Norway to participate in GoOpen in Oslo. My talk is entitled Limiting the Open Society here is the abstract

With social media quickly becoming the communications tool of choice many have hailed this as an introduction to an open transparent society. But how open is this open society? Is this new stage in the information society really open or is this an illusion brought about by popular technology? This talk looks at the weaknesses and control mechanisms built into the technology and the different regulations and policies implemented to control our communications.

The GoOpen event has lots of great presenters! I am looking forward to hearing Bente Kalsnes on How open should open data be?, Karin Kosina on Art and Hacking in Syria, Berglind Ósk Bergsdóttir on IMMI – Redefining Free Speech for a Digital Age, Smári McCarthy on The Industrialization of the Internet, Primavera di Filippi on Cloud Computing and Regulatory Policies, Christian Siefkes on Commons-based Peer Production and many many more.

So if you are in the neighborhood you should really drop by!

Linking to sources

Ben Goldacre over at BadScience has written an interesting piece showing that the reason journalists don’t link to primary sources is – basically they are lying and would look really stupid if they did. Naturally there are exceptions but it seems to be a plausible argument and the examples are amusing and enlightening.

He goes on to compare media forms and argues for the reasons bloggers link to sources:

Of course, this is a problem that generalises well beyond science. Over and again, you read comment pieces that purport to be responding to an earlier piece, but distort the earlier arguments, or miss out the most important ones: they count on it being inconvenient for you to check. It’s also an interesting difference between different forms of media: most bloggers have no institutional credibility, and so they must build it, by linking transparently, and allowing you to easily double check their work.

I think that this only catches half the truth. Sure bloggers lack “institutional credibility” but when they do have such credibility they continue to link (well, often at least). I think its a cultural thing. News media comes from an analog tradition where you were not necessarily required to link to others. In addition to being cumbersome and time-consuming (a bit) it also takes up space.

Blogs are built on a different base technology and their culture forms from that. Links are not difficult, the readers demand them (because of the nature of web) and linking becomes a natural part of the way in which blogs work. This also means that the reader of a blog will judge a post, in part, from the links it contains.

Or is this just a romantic/naive view of blogs?

Reality based business models

Not sure where I read or heard it but recently I came across this:

it used to be that a band toured to promote an album, but now they release an album to promote a tour

This is really the essence of the way in which new media habits are changing the behaviors and business models of the music industry. You can blame it on the pirates, you can blame it on the technology but in the end placing blame doesn’t get you anywhere. Realizing the reality of the market does get you somewhere.

Take for example the indie band Sick of Sarah who have teamed up with BitTorrent (via Torrentfreak)

Last month the punky girl-rock band Sick of Sarah decided to release their latest album ’2205′ to the public on BitTorrent, at no cost. In order to gain maximum exposure the band partnered with BitTorrent Inc. who helped to promote the free download through an app in the uTorrent BitTorrent client.

The album has now broken records and been downloaded a million times.

Success in any field must come first from an acceptance and understanding of the realities of the world. Expecting or hoping to keep the world mired in outdated realities and dead dogmas is inevitably going to fail.