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Archive for April, 2005

Jimbo Wales on Wikipedia and the Digital Divide

Wednesday, April 27th, 2005

Inspired by John Palfrey‘s disclaimer and subtle encouragement, I skipped the 2nd half of class last night to hear Jimbo Wales chat about “the digital divide.” An incoming Berkman fellow, Wales is best known as the founder of the mighty Wikipedia.

I snuck into the lecture hall about ten minutes late to find that Wales already had Q&A in full swing. Projected onto a screen behind the podium were two windows full of periodically scrolling text. We learned later that the left-hand window referred to activity on the German language Wikipedia while the (much more active) right-hand window represented activity on the English-language edition. Ambience was produced from four speakers playing bird calls triggered by the continuous creation, revision, reversion, and discussion of Wikipedia articles online. This multimedia display provided a fitting backdrop for the discussion underway on the development of non-English editions of Wikipedia.

Wales spoke first to the barriers slowing participation in several different cultures. One of the most interesting speedbumps is found in the design of PC interface devices. Hindi speakers, for example, rarely type in their spoken language. Their PC’s are typically equipped with a keyboard designed for English. This makes typing in Hindi a laborious process frustrating enough to seriously inhibit their participation.

Another barrier is attracting early adopters, the people who will write “seeding” articles to get the ball rolling. These articles represent the pre-natal stage of a new wiki. Often, the seeding process involves dumping in large quantities of rough data to be shaped later when the pool of volunteers has grown. There is an on-going effort by participants in the wiki about wikipedia about developing a list of articles all languages should include..

The dominance of English on the Web prejudices English-language speakers who can cut-and-paste wholesale from an enormous number of resources. For new languages, creating this stem-cell content can be difficult, especially if authors have to turn to traditional offline sources. There have been several approaches to dealing with this problem, some involving hiring or compensating a corps of seeding authors.

The Bambara Wikipedia provides an excellent example. Organizers pay authors approximately $0.20(US) per article with a maximum of 200 articles. With $4.00(US) being roughly equivalent to 10% of a respectable monthly salary, authors are eager to participate. Wales indicated some reservations about this startup method, however, citing confidence in the volunteerism and enthusiasm present in the community of “committed amateurs” who have made Wikipedia such a success in French, German, and Japanese (not to mention English!) While Wales was quick to dismiss the idea of using software interpreters to mass-translate any documents he suggested that organizers of a new bilingual Wiki start by simply translating articles directly from an
existing Wikipedia.

At this point, one audience member questioned the relevance many of the English-language articles might have for the residents of developing nations. Another audience member observed that Wikipedia works on shared interests. Wikis grow, he stated, because of connections made between contributors who write about their personal interests and visitors who find the information they need in these articles. Hopefully, as a new Wiki gains local users, the amount of content relevant to readers of a particular language will proliferate naturally.

Discussion turned here to serving the needs of the non-literate. Wales cited a peculiar penetration of mobile phones in some developing nations. There is a possibility that Wikipedia content could be made available over the telephone via text-to-speech synthesis. Audience members speculated on the possibility for non-literate users to edit content over the phone, either through sophisticated voice-recognition or a transcription service, a la Livejournal’s Post by Phone service.

Taking the discussion to the off-line, tangible realm, Wales expressed encouragement for any entrepreneurs wishing to provide printed editions of Wikipedia content. He imagined the cost savings for a school opting for printed Wikipedia over a shelf of Britannica. Wikipedia is committed to enabling the sale and distribution of Wikipedia content offline as CD-ROMs or print material. Wales cited Brewster Kahle’s bookmobile as inspiration.

While Wikipedia passed up tremendous sums by foregoing advertising, the financial future looks bright. As Wikipedia leaves its adolescence and receives 501.3c non-profit status, donations are more reliable than ever. Wales told of a three-week, $75000(US) fundraising drive cut short after $95000(US) was collected in only two! Yahoo recently donated a data center to create homebase for Asian wiki initiatives. The next step for Wikipedia is NGO-status which, according to Wales, requires a more traditionally bureaucratic infrastructure in order that it may “interface” better with other large-scale international organizations.

“Perversely, pathologically optimistic,” (and still afraid of kicking out the Klingons) Jimbo Wales is demonstrating the enabling, democratic promises of the Web with every ambitious new project.

Copynight Cambridge

Tuesday, April 26th, 2005

Today is World Intellectual Property Day! People interested (and obsessed) with pushing for greater IP equity will be meeting to celebrate Copynight in several cities around the country. I’ll be in class tonight but Boston folks are gathering on Cambridge Common.

Gender and geography in a “global” debate

Wednesday, April 20th, 2005

Tonight, we discussed jurisdiction. The most intriguing question was raised right at the start of the classtime, is the internet truly as “global” as we like to think? The first caveat to the “global” tag is certainly found among barriers to access in many parts of the world. Secondly, how “global” is the internet experience for users in Saudia Arabia or China when we consider government censorship and filtration?

Tying this to the Download Debate I watched this afternoon, let me quote
from the blog of Siva Vaidhyanathan, an NYU Prof and speaker at the Cornell discussion

[Recently,] Yale had a wonderful conference on “global flows of information” yet almost every speaker was from North America (excluding Mexico and Central America, of course). There were a handful of Europeans and Israelis. […]

A year ago a great journalist did a big piece for a national magazine about the public-interest copyright movement. When he interviewed me […] He mentioned the same list of speakers […] Again, all men. […]

I told him about the great work of Rosemarie Coombe, Pam Samuelson, Jessica Litman, Julie Cohen, and of course Ann Bartow. […] Coming up fast: Sonia Katyal, Susan Crawford, Beth Simone Noveck, and Rebecca Tushnet. Among activists, Jenny Toomey, Wendy Selzer, and Carrie McLaren have contributed much. And the list beyond the borders of the United States is long and growing as well.

It is easy to pin “global” on to the internet because architecturally it has the potential to become “global” … but we are not there yet. Unless policy and code decisions are made that allow for equity in participation across the lines of gender, class, and geography, the internet will remain stunted in its democratizing potential.

Gender imbalance in academia is a problem that extends beyond the limits of those interested in digital media debate, in fact, as recent data suggests, it extends to the job market at large. I hope that over the next year, a community that is working to sustain democratic, participatory, enabling technology on a global scale can ensure that those same values persist through its own institutions.

Digital media market self-destruction

Monday, April 18th, 2005

Today Adobe announces its purchase of Macromedia and I am forced to wonder, how much further consolidation can the digital media market endure? How far from competition can a market stray before it begins to collapse in on itself like some bloatware blackhole? I am very concerned about the future of the products under the new Adobe/Macromedia umbrella. Photoshop, Illustrator, Acrobat, Premier, Dreamweaver, Director, and Flash (in both cracked and legal form) are tools that have enabled the development of an art space online free from credential and geography. How will this community be affected? Also, can we expect even more restrictive anti-piracy measures?

Widespread piracy of these softwares is due largely to their lofty retail prices (even with an educator’s discount.) As such, purchasing them legally is simply foolish for the majority of hobbyists and amateurs with no hope or intention of recouping that expense through revenue or as a tax write-off. With even less competition influencing pricing, will we see more people looking to f/oss solutions such as the Gimp?

Participatory Culture takes on TV

Thursday, April 14th, 2005

If I had to explain my involvement with these affairs in a word it would be this: participation. In the last few years, open forms of digital media have caused access barriers to crumble with startling efficiency. There are bloggers in the white house, NPR is podcasting, a sci-fi author finds success in giving away his books, and a bedroom record called the Grey Album is the most popular download of the day. Now, Downhill Battle comes at us with perhaps the loftiest challenge: TV.

With a new moniker deployed expressly for this project, DHB is redubbed the Participatory Culture Foundation and Wednesday announced, “Anyone can broadcast full-screen video to thousands of people at virtually no cost.” They are presently seeking volunteers to get the DTV client and Broadcast Machine publishing tool up and running by mid-June!

GPL, RSS, XML, HTTP, BitTorrent, cross-platform, community-driven and developed, free as in free beer – TV is Dead, long live DTV.

British hax0rz stocking up on cocoa

Tuesday, April 12th, 2005

“More than 70% of people would reveal their computer password in exchange for a bar of chocolate [according to a survey of commuters passing through Liverpool Station last month.]” — Passwords revealed by sweet deal, BBCNews, 20 April 2005

All the more depressing when you consider the underwhelming nature of chocolate in the UK. Of coure for hot chocolate from Burdick Cafe, I might actually be tempted.

Anybody can do that

Sunday, April 10th, 2005

Punctuated equilibrium is a term from evolutionary theory which I borrow here to describe the development of my own thinking. Last Friday marked such punctuation, a burst of change, and a flurry of new thoughts. I spent the day at the Museum of Fine Arts with high school art students and the evening with folks from the Signal/Noise conference.

During both segments of my Friday, I heard the phrase “anyone can do it” in both positively excited and negatively dismissive tone. Students shook their heads at the Minimalism of Sol LeWitt’s massive geometry, One-Two-One with Two Half-Off and Sir Anthony Caro’s painted steel Kasser. “This isn’t art,” they told me, “anyone can do this.”

A few hours later, I sat beneath the carved dragons of Ames Courtroom watching Michael Bell-Smith manipulate a piercing guitar sample into a believable drum pattern. Total production time including making comment was just around the length of the average pop song. It was a startling demonstration of the transformative power of available digital media tools. Anyone can do it.

The students visiting the museum sought sublimity. They were attracted to work demanding the dedication and mastery of a craft. Of the last century, I saw them react most strongly to Carol Cohen‘s three-dimensional glass paintings. With rare exception, conceptual and abstract objects did not capture their attention. They value the production over the product. Marvel at the labor and eclipse the result.

There is a deep desire in many human beings to witness attempts to defy the accepted limits of the species. We cheer on the athletic accomplishments of Olympians and the brilliant innovations of automotive engineers. However, it seems that appreciating works requiring expert craftsmanship rather than those that “anyone can do” is little more than celebration of the freaks; in painting, they are those statistical outliers with the ability to convincingly represent three-dimensional space on a two-dimensional plane with a limited set of pigments. Given enough time and proper instruction, anyone with intact control of the hands and wrists could mimic the seemingly superhuman production of a Caravaggio. (Many already have. Art historians occasionally confuse works of the Masters with works by their students and assistants.)

To warp this analogy to the 21st century, present technology can have many effects on an audience’s commitment to craftsmanship. Creative use of technology is about the quality of the product, rarely the production. I can program a computer to perform Mozart. However, I will likely never receive the accolades of a concert pianist. There are dozens of similarly high quality recordings of Mozart. Audiences support the classical pianist for her production, not her product.

Frequently, folks are disappointed to discover that their favorite pop singer is lip synching. There are numerous pitch-correcting tools that digitally adjust a live vocal recording to ensure it matches a predetermined melody. Country singers opposing this practice now put stickers on their records proudly proclaiming that they are singing “naturally.” Debate raged deep into the night when Kid Kameleon was called out for digitally arranging his Shocking mixtape diptych rather than mixing live on turntables. When the traditional value of production over product is applied to creative uses of digital media, it creates strange dissonances.

In the comments that followed Michael’s presentation, one attendee raised an important question: if we can mutate any gurgle or fart into a tightly wound snare drum, why sample a recording protected by copyright? This led another member of the audience to speculate on the mysterious “swing” and “feel” of a 70’s breakbeat. A later comment pointed to the recently scarce “warmth” of analog recordings. Is this purely nostalgic mythology or can better code provide swing, feel, funkiness, warmth, and soul?

I don’t mind hyperbole: anyone can do anything. If I practiced hard enough, I could sink 100 consecutive free throws. However, I can’t be Lebron James. Perhaps in the world of digital media production, we value the producer over the product.

Slides from Free Beer/ Free Computers online

Sunday, April 3rd, 2005

Slides from my recent talk, Free Beer/ Free Computers are now online. Given during the second Cloud City exhibition at the Massachusetts College of Art, this talk offers a quick’n’dirty history of personal computing, an introduction to the hacker ethos, an attempt to demystify the guts of the beige box, and advice on building a useful PC free of cost. Interested folks can check the PDF at

If you prefer another format, by all means make a written request and I will do my best to support you. Try kevin AT kevindriscoll DOT info. Happy hacking!