Category Archives: Uncategorized

Some things I made, part 1

A few people have shown interest in some of the things I make, so I decided to put photos and sometimes descriptions up here. This is the first, it’s a sculpture I finished in March this year, which I gave to my father as a birthday present. I started it in early 2013 (yep) after seeing a piece called Two Forms with White, by Barbara Hepworth, at the Hepworth Gallery in Wakefield in late 2012. My piece was broadly influenced by that work, although I didn’t use a single block of wood, instead laminating around 20 pieces of different thickness and type. The wood used included pine, kauri, mahogany and oak. The shape was then coated in several layers of Danish oil. There’s also a small piece of aluminium in there, which I cast and then shaped to fit.

Language as alienation

This was written as a companion piece and response to an earlier post, Abstract and concrete language in debate.

Commodification is the process of valuing items according to what they can be exchanged for [1]. Exchange generally takes the form of money, but it can hypothetically be anything, as in Smith’s infamous yet rarely-existing barter [2]. The traditional critique of commodification comes from Marx and briefly states that in commodifying a thing, be it immaterial or material, we are reducing its existence to one concept and ignoring all others. In this frame, the only thing that matters is the exchange-value, the dollars we can swap it for. The other qualities of the thing are irrelevant and increasingly do not at all determine its exchange-value, as they did in the time of Marx and the other classical economists [3]. Regardless of the source of the “value” of an item or concept, through commodification, those values are stripped away, to leave only price to represent it. In so doing, we impoverish our existence, reduce ourselves to one-dimensional creatures and our limit behaviour to a single way of examining the world and our interactions.

After recently reading the first chapter of Adorno and Horkmeimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment [4], and previously reading Writing and Seeing Architecture, by Protzamparc and Sollers [5], I realise this critique of contemporary life does not go far enough in its questioning of abstraction. As commodification reduces items and concepts to a single simplified, abstract, quantifiable representation, that of money, so science and its tool, abstract language, reduce all experience to a single concept, that of their relation to and use by humans in the pursuit of some goal. These goals in the era of modernity and postmodernity have been varied, but have mostly revolved around Kant’s suggestion that “Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-imposed immaturity. Immaturity is the inability to use one’s understanding without guidance form another” [6]. From this, we see the goal as being the project of understanding the world and acting on it in a controlled, useful manner. As Adorno and Horkheimer point out, this requires the reduction of the world as it exists and as we sense it, to representations which are solely relative to us as humans, for the requirements we have, rather than in terms which are inherent to the object or concept. These two positions, that of sensing and of representing, lie along a continuum; of course there is no possibility of referring to anything without some hint of a human’s relation to that thing, but it appears science and modernity have pushed us ever closer to a more abstract, human-oriented view of the world. Similarly to commodification, this reduces our world, impoverishes our experience, alienates us from the world, exactly as we gain more understanding of it. No longer are we able or permitted to merely engage with the world according to our senses, feelings and emotions, we must abstract away from those and replace them with a world view constructed entirely of our own making, in our heads, using non-worldly, non-sense-based, images and ideas we overlay on existence. I suggest that this is similar in form to commodification; it is more expressive no doubt, but it is not the totality of the thing, merely a human-produced representation. The more we refine that representation, the more it obscures the original, tending towards Baudrillard’s simulacra [7].

It appears we have discovered the positive in the non-representational/sensory/concrete interpretation of the world, a position referenced as less important in the earlier post on this topic. We might also go along with Adorno and Horkheimer in stating that abstraction is one of the key process, if not the defining factor, of the enlightenment project, which lends a distinctly deterministic air to the process of commodification. It further  raises questions about the seeming contradiction of using abstract language to dissent against the use of markets and commodification.

There have been various techniques and mechanisms suggested to reduce this condition of being elsewhere, from meditation, to mindfulness to simply turning off the computer/mobile device (it is an interesting although unsurprising artefact of the omnipresent Unix philosophy that all communication should be in human language [8] and thus be a series of abstractions). We might add to this list anything which brings us closer to the thing itself, such as rejecting mass-produced food, walking instead of driving or engaging in immanent rather than transcendent governance. Immanent versus transcendent is probably another way of viewing abstract versus concrete. All of these ideas, while useful, feel to me trite and simplistic, as if suggesting they only solve part of the problem, as if there is a gap between the two which is unfulfilled. Is there no way to engage with complicated, non-sensory ideas and concepts which is not alienating? Is the solution to this alienation nothing more than a “balance” between the sensory and the representational? Looking ahead to fantasy science-fiction, how would so-called “thought-reading” affect this, would that still entail a level of abstraction or would the short-circuiting of language remove it?

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Commodification
[2] Graeber, David. Debt: The First 5,000 Years. Chapter 2
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socially_necessary_labour_time
[4] Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Pages 6-7
[5] Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, Writing and seeing architecture. Page 46
[6] http://theliterarylink.com/kant.html
[7] http://web.mit.edu/allanmc/www/baudrillard.theartauction%20.pdfhttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Simulacra_and_Simulation
[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unix_philosophy

Crypto-currences and production

Electronic/crypto currencies are a fascinating comment on value, the way production is shaped and an insight into financialisation of the world. in previous eras (let’s say 1500 – 1950, the era in which classical economics was dominant), price was a representation of the work that had gone into creating something: if a pair of shoes cost y dollars, that represented a certain number of hours of work. Similarly for a car that cost 200 times y dollars, or a house that cost 10,000 times y dollars – not only would the cost of the car be 200 times the cost of the shoes, so would the approximate hours needed to create it. There was a definite and somewhat fixed correlation between price (exchange value) and utility (use value) [1]. This has been smashed in the last 50 years, with increasing mechanisation which has reduced the amount of labour t produce anything to near zero. In parallel, there has been a rise in the use of financial instruments including futures, collaterised debt obligations, credit default swaps and derivatives. The prices of these instruments change, go up and down in a self-referential manner; their prices no longer represent the usefulness of them [2] but of socially-agreed upon importance (between traders and owners of these instruments anyway, ordinary people aren’t permitted to intervene, through price-based discrimination). The end results of this collective hallucination is a herd mentality, including tendencies towards panic and fear, then a huge drop in the price of the instruments as everyone tries to sell them. The 2008 crash is a prime example of this, but it has happened many times in the last 40 years, see also the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 [3]. This idea of price being based on belief entirely blows apart Adam Smith’s idea that selfish behaviour by individuals would produce increased wealth for everyone:

“The rich…are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society…” [4]

So, what’s this got to do with crypto currencies? Well, there is an identical complete detachment between price of the currency and useful production. The currencies have a price, some number of dollars, but “mining” (a title which is nothing more than a manipulative attempt to link them to something useful, something tangible as if the process is searching for something useful) them creates nothing of any value, does nothing for anyone else. In fact, the mining destroys value – it uses electricity, creates carbon emissions, uses resources to create the computer along with the other knock-on effects of building, transporting, using and disposing of the components, not to mention further enslaving some workers in China who have to make the components in terrible conditions. In Smith’s terms, it is selfishness which only benefits the individual undertaking the act, there is no “promoting the happiness of mankind”.

It’s an interesting insight into why “building wealth” in the current era is at best utterly useless for most of us, at worst actively damaging. That wealth never reaches us, only piles up against us, making us less and less relevant, less and less powerful.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socially_necessary_labour_time
[2] http://www.bbc.co.uk/science/horizon/1999/midas.shtml
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4auzn4bK1bM
http://www.elgar.govt.nz/record=b2479645~S1
[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1997_Asian_financial_crisis
[4] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Invisible_hand#Adam_Smith

Abstract and concrete language in debate

I’m reading a fascinating book at the moment, about architecture and language. One chapter from the book has helped me understand a bit about some of the disagreements which occur between various members. This is the relevant paragraph from the book, I’ll dig into it in a moment and explain why I think it’s important:

According to our Western tradition, from the time of the ancient Greeks, the cogito, there is no thought outside of language because language is its sole vehicle. It is through language that we succeeded in freeing ourselves from the muck of the multitude of sensations enveloping us, from prejudgments and fears, in order to name, classify, choose; this is what the rational thought that came into being in ancient Greece holds. Language extracts us from the sensible world and spares us from having to experience or reexperience or mimic a thing, an affect, so as to be able to imagine it. The aim is to short-circuit experience; it is thus that the concept comes into being. We still have this preconceived idea that intelligence requires abstraction. [1]

The text is talking about the so-called “progression” from concrete (sense-based) to abstract (language-based) interaction with the world and how this shapes human behaviour. It’s rather biased, using sly language to posit one type of behaviour as bad (muck, fears), the other as good (rational, freeing), but the principle under the judgement is sound. As an example, here are some examples of concrete (sense-based) and abstract (language-based) interaction with the world:

Question: What is a car?
Concrete (sense-based) answer 1: That is a car [points to a vehicle on the side of the road].
Concrete (sense-based) answer 2: A car gets me to work in the morning
Concrete (sense-based) answer 3: Cars on the motorway next to my house keep me awake until 3am
(and so on)

Abstract (language-based) answer: A car is a motor vehicle, generally with an internal combustion engine fuelled by petrol or Diesel, although electric motor are more common recently. It generally has four wheels, although may have three or up to six. It usually seats 4 or 5 people, but may have space for as few as two or as many as seven. It can also usually carry luggage and travels at speeds of up to 100km/h, some may travel faster, up to 400km/h. (and so on)

Note that each term within the abstract answer relies upon further abstract definitions which we must understand in order that we can comprehend it, and those on further definitions, and so on. Turtles all the way down, as the late, great Terry Pratchett reminded us.

The concrete answers here rely on direct human experience and the senses, the abstract answer on language and concepts, fairly convoluted language at that. The first answers are something everyone can relate to and understand; although they may be imprecise and inaccurate, they are sufficient for ordinary day-to-day activities. The last answer is typical of an academic mind set, that is a university-based understanding of the world where everything is generalised in order to produce rules and predict behaviour, whereas the first set of answers attempts no generalisation and talks about specific examples of behaviour in a direct way. These positions (language and sense-based interactions) lie along a continuum, with pure abstraction/language at one end, pure concreteness/sensation at the other. All interactions lie in between on the continuum and there are probably no pure examples of either, but some are closer to one end than the other. I would suggest that the thinking of those with a certain type of academic background (philosophy, business, computer science, maths, sociology) lies closer to the abstract end and the thinking of those with a vocational/non-academic background (plumbing, nursing, welding) lies closer to the concrete/sense-based end, although this is not totailising. When the interactions of those two types collide there is a problem, they are talking in different languages, rooted in a different understanding of the world. An important side note here are the recent changes in non-academic/vocational; during the last half century, there have been tendencies in those areas for more abstraction and conceptualisation, less sense-based understanding. For more, see Empire, Multitude and Commonwealth by Michael Hardt and Antonion Negri, specifically the concept of cognitive labour.

So, what’s the point of this, how does this usefully relate to Tangle Ball and the rest of the world?

Firstly, I’m not entirely sure. Secondly, it indicates there are deeper differences between some humans than we perhaps account for when we have a discussion. When a person explains some abstract concept or other to someone who interacts with the world in a concrete way, they are doing something akin to speaking in a different language, producing confusion. As Yoda tells us, this confusion results in fear, anger and eventually hatred. That bad situation is partly resolved by understanding and proceeding cautiously, although there will probably always be a gap and I don’t know how to fix that.

A further, compounding part of the problem is that the two ways of seeing the world are not viewed as equal-but-different, but one (abstract/language) is seen as fundamentally more important than the other (concrete/sense). This is flawed and strays from the principle that all humans are important and valid and equal, and also negates the essential role sense-based interpretation plays in carrying out tasks involving the manipulation of physical objects. Suggestions welcome for how to fix or mitigate this problem.

Those of you who are paying attention will have noticed the irony here: the description of this idea is and can only be entirely abstract, based in language, not in the senses

[1] Christian de Portzamparc and Philippe Sollers, Writing and seeing architecture. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, c2008. p 46

Auckland Library Of Things

I recently read this article, which details a ‘borrowing shop’, or ‘library of things’ in Berlin. The idea behind the project is a repository of items which the local community can use. This has several advantages over the traditional model of ownership, a few of which are:
* Save money: rather than each member of the community buying an item which may be expensive, only one or two are required to buy it. The others can then use it. For larger items, a group may pitch in together and buy it between them
* Reduce waste: the resources required to manufacture, transport, maintain, clean, etc. an item are huge. Why have multiple copies of the same thing, when one can be shared between many?
* Build communities and social meaningful relationships: Each of us buying a copy of some gadget or other leaves us isolated from our neighbours, rather sharing one or more opens the possibility for relating to and socialising with our neighbours and other community members.
One of the most telling statistics from the link above is that about the average power drill being used for 13 minutes in its life. This is certainly a factoid, and may not even be true, but it highlights an important point: a large number of people do not need access to a given tool or other item 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, in fact we may only need it once a year for a few minutes. In which case, sharing that item between a group makes far more sense than each of us owning a copy.

Based upon these ideas, we are starting a Library Of Things in Auckland, it will be known as “Auckland Library Of Things”, or ALOT. The group involved in the project are loosely affiliated to Tangle Ball, Auckland’s maker space, although this will be a separate project. We have been discussing the project for several weeks, and have made a number of decisions, although these are not set in stone:
* The library will be decentralised; items will not be stored at a central location, rather at the homes/offices/etc. of the members. This reduces costs associated with storage, allows a quick start to the project and scales with members. It also reduces the possibility of poor quality and useless being dumped at the Library.
* All members will function as librarians, and all will function as patrons; no-one will be granted arbitrary privileges or access to resources which other members cannot access
* Any item can be added to the Library; whoever adds the item will also store it, until someone else requests to use it.
* Low barrier to entry; we wish to not deny access to anyone, all should have opportunities to take part.

Initially, we are continuing to talk through the values and logistics of the project, while putting together a website. This website will allow members to see what items are available in the Library, make requests for items, and other logistical tasks. We are mindful that some do not have access to the internet, and/or the necessary skills, so are discussing and investigating ways to not deny access to people in that situation.
The software is being developed here, all are welcome to join in, make suggestions, patches, etc.
A website will be launched in the near future, with details on physical meetings and other information.

A YaCy search engine node at Tangle Ball

As of today, Tangle Ball has attached a node to the Yacy search engine network. Yacy is a decentralised crawler and search engine software. It runs on several hundred nodes over the planet, which share their crawl indices with each other. The node hosted by Tangle Ball can be reached here, where web searches can be carried out.

What is the significance of this?

The majority of people connected to the internet use a commercial search engine, such as Google, Bing or Yahoo. There are multiple problems with this massive centralisation of searching. Researchers have found that Google promotes its own results over those of competitors, and builds up profiles of those who perform searches. The results of these profiles are used for two reasons, firstly to return results which the person searching will be more likely to want to see. This sounds great, of course we want search engines to return what we’re looking for, but it rapidly descends into a situation where we are “protected” from seeing anything we might disagree with. Eli Pariser has conducted studies into the effect of this, in an effect known as “bubbling”, the results of which are presented in his book The Filter Bubble. This is one of the reasons behind Duck Duck Go, a search engine which neither profiles nor bubbles those who use it.

However, the results from Duck Duck Go search engine are still produced by commercial entities, mainly Microsoft and Yahoo, and thus conform to their values. Particularly in the case of Microsoft, these values have long been recognised as not in the best interests of those who use their services and products. Numerous court cases, fines and criminal convictions stand testament to this.

A second use of the profiles built up from using these commercial search engines is the aggregation of the data, which is then used to target adverts at users. Google offers a variety of services, which mean most people are almost constantly logged into either Google Mail, Google Documents or some other product, meaning any searches they make are saved and stored alongside other data from their email, the places they visit, and the RSS feeds they subscribe to. These allow a sophisticated model of each person to be built up, allowing precise direction of advertising at the person. The popular retort to this, as to any advertising, is “you don’t have to buy what they advertise”, but this is only partly true as it ignores the methods which advertisers use. The success alone of marketing, promotion and advertising demonstrates that the methods used are persuasive, and can induce people to buy items they might not otherwise. For an insight into how marketing works, take a look at “The Century of the Self”, by Adam Curtis at the BBC; it’s very informative, and free to watch, available here.

Yacy suffers from none of these problems: owing to its decentralised nature, no single entity controls the search results, and no entity can profile users, as they do not have access to search data. Further, it has no single point of failure, so is tolerant to any node failing.

If you would like to take part in the Yacy network, you can do so by carrying out searches here. To contribute data to the Yacy network, you can use any internet-capable computer, one with a recent Linux-based distribution is best, although it will also work on Windows and Mac OSX. The software can be downloaded from here. The computer you install it on must be reachable from the net, that is you must configure your router to allow connections from other computers.

Yacy is free software, released under the GNU General Public License, and thus can be freely examined, used, modified and redistributed.

I can set the software to crawl any site, if there are any in particular you think worth indexing, let me know in the comments below – include a few words why it’s worthwhile.

The Digital Commons: Escape From Capital?

So, after a year of reading, study, analysis and writing, my thesis is complete. It’s on the digital commons, of course, this particular piece is an analysis to determine whether or not the digital commons represents an escape from, or a continuation of, capitalism. The full text is behind the link below.

The Digital Commons: Escape From Capital?

In the conclusion I suggested various changes which could be made to avert the encroachment of capitalist modes, as such I will be releasing various pieces of software and other artefacts over the coming months.

For those who are impatient, here’s the abstract, the conclusion is further down:

In this thesis I examine the suggestion that the digital commons represents a form of social organisation that operates outside any capitalist relationships. I do this by carrying out an analysis of the community and methods of three projects, namely Linux, a piece of software; Wikipedia, an encyclopedia; and Open Street Map, a geographic database.

Each of these projects, similarly to the rest of the digital commons, do not require any money or other commodities in return for accessing them, thus denying exchange as the dominant method of distributing resources, instead offering a more social way of conducting relations. They further allow the participation of anyone who desires to take part, in relatively unhindered ways. This is in contrast to the capitalist model of
requiring participants demonstrate their value, and take part in ways demanded by capital.

The digital commons thus appear to resist the capitalist mode of production. My analysis uses concepts from Marx’s Capital Volume 1, and Philosophic and Economic Manuscripts of 1844, with further support from Hardt and Negri’s Empire trilogy. It analyses five concepts, those of class, commodities, alienation, commodity fetishism and surplus-value.

I conclude by demonstrating that the digital commons mostly operates outside capitalist exchange relations, although there are areas where indicators of this have begun to encroach. I offer a series of suggestions to remedy this situation.

Here’s the conclusion:

This thesis has explored the relationship between the digital commons and aspects of the capitalist mode of production, taking three iconic projects: the Linux operating system kernel, the Wikipedia encyclopedia and the Open Street Map geographical database as case studies. As a result of these analyses, it appears digital commons represent a partial escape from the domination of capital.

 

As the artefacts assembled by our three case studies can be accessed by almost anybody who desires, there appear to be few class barriers in place. At the centre of this is the maxim “information wants to be free” 1 underpinning the digital commons, which results in assistance and education being widely disseminated rather than hoarded. However, there are important resources whose access is determined by a small group in each project, rather than by a wider set of commoners. This prevents all commoners who take part in the projects from attaining their full potential, favouring one group and thus one set of values over others. Despite the highly ideological suggestion that anyone can fork a project at any time and do with it as they wish, which would suggest a lack of class barriers, there is significant inertia which makes this difficult to achieve. It should be stressed however, that the exploitation and domination existing within the three case studies is relatively minor when compared to typical capitalist class relations. Those who contribute are a highly educated elite segment of society, with high levels of self-motivation and confidence, which serves to temper what the project leaders and administrators can do.

 

The artefacts assembled cannot be exchanged as commodities, due to the license under which they are released, which demands that the underlying information, be it the source code, knowledge or geographical data always be available to anyone who comes into contact with the artefact, that it remain in the commons in perpetuity.

 

This lack of commoditisation of the artefacts similarly resists the alienation of those who assemble them. The thing made by workers can be freely used by them, they make significant decisions around how it is assembled, and due to the collaborative nature essential to the process of assembly, constructive, positive, valuable relationships are built with collaborators, both within the company and without. This reinforces Stallman’s suggestion that free software, and thus the digital commons is a more social way of being 2.

 

Further, the method through which the artefacts are assembled reduces the likelihood of fetishisation. The work is necessarily communal, and involves communication and association between those commoners who make and those who use. This assists the collaboration essential for such high quality artefacts, and simultaneously invites a richer relationship between those commoners who take part. However, as has been shown, recent changes have shown there are situations where the social nature of the artefacts is being partially obscured, in favour of speed, convenience and quality, thus demonstrating a possible fetishisation.

 

The extraction of surplus-value is, however, present. The surplus extracted is not money, but in the form of symbolic capital. This recognition from others can be exchanged for other forms of capital, enabling the leaders of the three projects investigated here to gain high paying, intellectually fulfilling jobs, and to spread their political beliefs. While it appears there is thus exploitation of the commoners who contribute to these projects, it is firstly mild, and secondly does not result in a huge imbalance of wealth and opportunity, although this should not be seen as an apology for the behaviour which goes on. Whether in future this will change, and the wealth extracted will enable the emergence of a super-rich as seen in the likes of Bill Gates, the Koch brothers and Larry Ellison remains to be seen, but it appears unlikely.

 

There are however ways in which these problems could be overcome. At present, the projects are centred upon one website, and an infrastructure and values, all generally controlled by a small group who are often self-selected, or selected by some external group with their own agenda. This reflects a hierarchical set of relationships, which could possibly be addressed through further decentralisation of key resources. For examples of this, we can look at YaCy 3, a search engine released under a free software license. The software can be used in one of a number of ways, the most interesting of these is network mode, in which several computers federate their results together. Each node searches a different set of web sites, which can be customised, the results from each node are then pooled, thus when a commoner carries out a search, the terms are searched for in the databases of several computers, and the results aggregated. This model of decentralisation prevents one entity taking control over what are a large and significant set of resources, and thus decreases the possibility of exploitation, domination and the other attendant problems of minority control or ownership over the means of production.

 

Addressing the problem of capitalists continuing to extract surplus, requires a technically simple, but ideologically difficult, solution. There is a general belief within the projects discussed that any use of the artefacts is fine, so long as the license is complied with. Eric Raymond, author of the influential book on digital commons governance and other matters, The Cathedral and The Bazaar, and populariser of the term open source, is perhaps most vocal about this, stating that the copyleft tradition of Stallman’s GNU is overly restrictive of what people, by which he means businesses, can do, and that BSD-style, no copyleft licenses are the way forward 4. The majority of commoners taking part do not follow his explicit preference for no copyleft licenses, but nonetheless have no problem with business use of the artefacts, suggesting that wide spread use makes the tools better, and that sharing is inherently good. It appears they either do not have a problem with this, or perhaps more likely do not understand that this permissiveness allows for uses that they might not approve of. Should this change, a license switch to something preventing commercial use is one possibility.

1Roger Clarke, ‘Roger Clarke’s “Information Wants to Be Free …”’, Roger Clarke’s Web-Site, 2013, http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/IWtbF.html.

2Richard Stallman, Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman, ed. Joshua Gay, 2nd ed (Boston, MA: GNU Press, Free Software Foundation, 2010), 8.

3YaCy, ‘Home’, YaCy – The Peer to Peer Search Engine, 2013, http://yacy.net/.

4Eric S. Raymond, The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source by an Accidental Revolutionary, ed. Tim O’Reilly, 2nd ed. (Sebastopol, California: O’Reilly, 2001), 68–69.

Upcoming Improvements to Impero

Zotero is a wonderful piece of software, I have used it for several years to manage and cite references for my university study, and it has proved useful and reliable. However, there are some areas i would like to improve it, and as it’s released under the Affero GPL, I can do exactly that.

I’ve already talked about a user running their own sync server, and made my own modifications to the Firefox extension so this could happen. The people behind Zotero aren’t interested in making data server installation easy, or in fact anything less than dangerous for one’s data, so that sub-project is ongoing, albeit slowly – analysis and documentation of the sync protocol is required, to make sure the extension and the sync server work together correctly. As I’ve already written, I’m not impressed about their insisting on storing my data on their servers, this reminds me of Google and Facebook’s attitude to users: “you are the product, not the customer”. In the situation of these two companies, the customer is whoever buys access to users’ data, and hence the ability to sell more precisely to them. There has been much written on this so I won’t go further: check out these links to find out more. Are Zotero selling, or not being careful with, their users’ data? They say not, but there are many ways to effect data transfer which get around any legal statement. Personally, I’d rather remove the possibility they could, rather than have to trust their competency and morals.

Anyway, back to the technical stuff. The next thing I will be modifying is the citation process. At the moment it is simple to do, but the process is somewhat abstract, and does not assist a user as much as it could, particularly in the case where there are lots of references being used for a given passage of text. For example, let’s say I’m writing a piece on the “digital commons” and “surplus-value”. Incidentally, I am, and the size of this task is what prompted me to think about the process. Now, I have several ideas I’ve written about this subject in note form, and will be expanding upon these in the formal text, including citations from a large number of sources. At the present, the way this is done is to write a piece of text in quote or paraphrase form, and refer to the text which the idea or quote comes from. But, which text? There are 700+ in my 3 year-old database, and I’m sure other users have much larger bibliographies. The easiest way to get around this at the moment is to use tags. So, for instance, I can tag Marx’s Capital with “surplus-value”, some quote from Linus Torvalds with “digital commons”, then when I’m working on this piece, I only bring up those items tagged appropriately and can cite them, while copying and pasting a quote from the text. This is where the potential for improvements start. It is not currently possible to select some text from a work, turn it into a quote, and have that linked to the original work by Impero. So, for instance, I am using Capital to write about several concepts: commodities, surplus-value, primitive accumulation, etc. Rather than typing in a tag and getting the entire work returned, I would like to tag individual quotes from a work with “surplus-value” or whatever, which can then be shown when say I want to see everything with that tag, i.e. when I am working on a given section. This gives me direct access to the necessary quotes rather than having to search through the entire work, and presents them all at once, in their correct context.

It is currently possible to create a note containing the text, and then use this as a citation. But inserting this note into a document does not work correctly; the author of the quote is not set as the author of the work, and the quote is put inside quotes, inside brackets (for the APA style anyway), which is wrong.

Secondly, the Zotero “Add citation” dialogue needs to change. It currently works in such a way that it is opened when I want to add a citation, and then closes when it has been added. This seems unnecessary, so I aim to have it, or its replacement, open at all times, and then use an ‘Add’ rather than ‘OK’ button to insert a citation.

Thirdly, and linked to the first change, it can get clunky typing whichever term into the tag box, so I aim to set Zotero up to check for whichever tags have been applied to the current section within Libre Office Writer, based upon cursor position. If the cursor is within a section titled “surplus-value”, then all the references and quotes with the tag “surplus-value” get shown. This will show the quote, and also the context it is in, so probably 20 words either side.

Domino is now known as Impero

So, someone pointed out to me that the name ‘Domino’ is owned by a small technology company named IBM, who are apparently somewhat trigger-happy when it comes to intellectual property, lawyers and people who cross them. Thus, Domino is now known as ‘Impero’. Development is ongoing, a number of small changes have recently been merged from the Zotero repository.

Domino: an extension of Zotero

Since starting at university, I’ve been using the ‘Zotero‘ extension for Firefox, to add in-text citations to essays I write.  This is one of the most powerful extensions I have found for Firefox, making referencing sources very simple.

However, there is room for improvement to fit my way of working.  I value having control over as much of what I do as I can, particularly online, for that reason I run my own email, blog and backup server.  Zotero has two server components, one of which stores electronic copies of references.  It also uses a central server to coordinate the data stored in a citation database, allowing access from multiple computers.  Both of these services can be hosted by the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, the group behind Zotero.  And a fine job they do of this, I used their services for several months while I was learning to run a server and how to use WebDAV.  However, as with any online service, doing so leaves one in the hands of a third party, with a variety of undesired outcomes possible. Data breach? Request from the FBI for user data? Technical problems causing loss of service?  All these and more can cause problems, and render the user beholden to those who run the service.

As the technology to run a WebDAV server is mature and predictable, the Zotero team are willing to advertise the possibilities for a user to do so, easily allowing a user to enter their server details into the preferences for Zotero.  It seems they are not so keen to do so for the sync server however. Various reasons are cited, including a seemingly Apple-inspired ‘guaranteeing a good user experience’.  There’s some merit in this, although I disagree with it.  Fortunately, they are more prepared than Apple to let users go their own way if they want to, as the source code for the server and the extension are available under the GPL, allowing us to roll our own versions.

So, here’s Domino, my updated version of the Zotero extension, with changes which allow you to set your own sync server from the preferences dialogue. The sync server is released here. If you are going to use this, be careful: Zotero uses its own protocol, and it is not documented or looked over by a third-party such as the World Wide Web consortium, which looks after other standards such as HTML and HTTP.  As such, there are chances for things to go wrong. At the worst, you could lose or corrupt your citation database.  The Zotero team are working on the server code also and I aim to join in soon, at some point it’ll be released as a deb package.

Zotero will not merge my changes to the extension into their mainline release, so I’ll be merging the changes between each of their new releases and my fork, a few days after they release a new version.

If you’d like to contribute, my version of the code is on github here.

For more progress on Domino, check this page.