Is free culture enlightened?

This essay was written for my sociology studies at University of Auckland – it will examine the concept of free culture from the point of view of the enlightenment, i.e. the idea that humanity can be improved through the power of reason, particularly the suggestion the latter demands critique of one’s surroundings and situation.

Introduction

An in-depth definition of free culture is not of importance here, as it has been discussed in great detail elsewhere (Paulson, 2010; Stallman, 2002); suffice to say it involves creating works which are not under the monopoly control of one entity, as is the case for most content generated by the current capitalist system, but are instead owned by ‘the commons’. This content includes creative works such as films, music, photographs and computer software. The lack of monopoly control is achieved through a large group of individuals working on projects which are then released under a particular group of licences. These licenses allow other entities remarkable latitude to examine, use and re-distribute the work more or less as they see fit (Lessig, 2004; Stallman, 2002), albeit with some minor restrictions. This freedom to re-use these products appears to challenge and critique the existing order and the products themselves, thus somewhat fulfilling the requirements for enlightenment, as defined by Kant when he states “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred minority” (1996, p. 17), and “For this enlightenment, nothing is required but freedom, …” (1996, p. 18).

The suggestion of enlightenment as questioning religiously-held values is paralleled in free software, when Eco, albeit somewhat tongue-in-cheek, suggests that the choice between operating systems from Microsoft and Apple is akin to making a choice between religious denominations (1994). Free culture, which values control over the products used by the owner rather than a content company, could be said to sacralise the individual and to reject the notion of an omniscient, all-powerful entity (represented here by a large, opaque private company which dictates how a user will conduct him or herself in certain matters). In this regard, free culture demonstrates a turn away from religious-like behaviours, which concurs with the suggestion by Bronner that “the need remains for an unrelenting assault on religious fanaticism” (2004, p. 14), (cited in (Toscano, 2010, p. 98)). However, this do.s not tell the full story; free culture is itself highly ideological and involves adherence to a fixed set of values (although perversely, the tools and methods used to achieve this aim are continually in an unstable flux) – the phrase “information wants to be free” has become so embedded that it has become axiomatic, unquestioned and unchallenged. In rejecting the prevailing ideology (Microsoft/Apple), there is a move towards the questioning and critique demanded by Kant. Unfortunately, this appears to fail, as shown by examining Toscano (2010) when he admonishes Brenner for his stance: the old ideology is merely replaced with a new set of entrenched values which are not to be questioned, demonstrating tendencies towards fanaticism, and thus the somewhat un-enlightened nature of free culture.

According to Habermas, there are three ‘levels’ of cognitive interest which make up the enquiry required for enlightenment. The appropriation of knowledge can take three forms: analytic-empirical (i.e. the means to achieve some task); hermeneutic-historical (understanding the world around us) and emancipatory (freeing humanity) (1972, p. 308). Modernity mainly concerns itself with knowledge lying in the first level, with little attention to the other two – hermeneutic-historical and emancipatory. Within free software there are, broadly, two different camps – those who use the products because of their quality, and those who use them for more ideological reasons. The first group clearly fall squarely into the first category – the software is generally of high quality and superior to that produced by traditional software companies. The potential for emancipation is hypothetically high, although the tendency within free culture is to fall into the same trap as the rest of society – typical neoliberal values, such as personal responsibility (implicit in the decentralised, DIY nature of the products), efficiency and high productivity are often referenced as being benefited by free software. This implicitly suggests little desire to question the values of the current system, pointing to a lack of enlightened thought in this area.

The freedom to modify, re-use, remix and re-distribute the artefacts released under free culture licences implies a freedom to critique – the work is no longer fixed and defined from above as those created by traditional content providers are. It is free to be re-interpreted as anyone else sees fit – in this sense, this somewhat fulfils the definition of enlightenment put forward by Kant.

However, this critique is tempered; the freedom stated above is highly ideological – the majority of free culture works are only distributed online, and the class system, replicated somewhat in internet access, says that if one is Western, well off and educated, one will be more likely to have access to the works than someone who is not. This is compounded by the requirement for a set of highly technical skills necessary to modify the works – computer coding, graphics design, etc., rendering the potential for critique by the masses close to meaningless; even those who can access the works are subject to the same inability to modify, and thus critique, as those who use non-free culture products.

Slashdot is a popular technology/politics website inhabited by a large number of free culture contributors, which hosts discussions on news topics of the day and thus forms an example of ‘the read/write web’. The site is well known for generating several memes in internet culture, including “First post!” (Forbes.com, 2000). Amongst a large number of users, creating the first post is highly sought after, something which must be done within seconds of the news item hitting the front page, thus necessitating one not read the article. In this forum, there is the possibility of extensively discussing and thus critiquing news items on highly influential topics, but for a significant number of users (enough for the site’s administrators to block this practise), speed is everything and content nothing, thus exemplifying “No one is concerned with the ideology, as long as it is expedient” (Adorno, 1981, p. 30).

Conclusion

On comparing the concept of free culture against several theorists’ ideas around enlightenment, it appears to offer much potential, but rather than this being fulfilled, it has instead repeated and reinforced the values of neoliberalism. The ‘freedom’ that it professes to offer is confined to those who have the skills to take advantage, leaving significant numbers of the population unaffected. Further, the views of those who follow the values sometimes border on the fanatical – free culture at all costs, regardless of the outcome. From a Habermasian point-of-view, the concept appears to reach as far as advancing technical knowledge, although this is hardly an area which needs any help under liberalism, while neglecting the higher, emancipatory values of knowledge.

Bibliography

Adorno, T. W. (1981). Prisms (1st ed.). Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Bronner, S. E. (2004). Reclaiming the Enlightenment: Toward a Politics of Radical Engagement. New York: Columbia University Press.

Eco, U. (1994, September 30). Eco – “Writings: IBM vs. Mac.” Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.themodernword.com/eco/eco_mac_vs_pc.html

Forbes.com. (2000). Net vs. Norm: The Slashdot Effect – Forbes.com. Retrieved July 27, 2011, from http://www.forbes.com/asap/2000/0221/043.html

Habermas, J. (1972). Knowledge and Human Interests. London: Heinemann.

Kant, I. (1996). Practical Philosophy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Lessig, L. (2004). Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock down Culture and Control Creativity. New York: Penguin Press.

Paulson, R. (2010). Application of the theoretical tools of the culture industry to the concept of free culture. Retrieved October 25, 2010, from http://bumblepuppy.org/blog/?p=4

Stallman, R. (2002). Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. (J. Gay, Ed.) (1st ed.). Boston, MA: GNU Press, Free Software Foundation.

Toscano, A. (2010). Raving with Reason: Fanaticism and Enlightenment. Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea. London: Verso.

Collaborative Writing, part 2

Last year, myself and a group of friends got together and wrote a story about…well, we wrote a story – let’s leave it at that.  Great fun was had by all, and we vowed to do it again.

A year later, we got round to writing more – this time, we created six stories, in tandem. Here they are.

Story C

The chicken was salty; he was already beginning to regret his choice, when in walked a likely candidate for his contact. “How was the swim?” “Not bad” clucked Simon the rooster. “But the fricken sharks were a problem”. The contact didn’t look like the normal Head Office choice; for starters, he was a she. “Oh well, better take a walk on the wild side,” thought Simon, mustering his strength to finish the mission. He pulled out a shark tooth and cleaned his bill with it, looking to see if this got a reaction. His contact is playing with her notes; waste of a good pose really.
“The baron will be having his daughter’s wedding tonight,” she said. “You will be going as Doctor McNuggets; he’ll be expecting you”
“Oh, I really doubt that” said Simon, thinking back to the previous night’s excess at calendar Girls.
After which, Simon pulled out his glock-for-roosters and shot himself. Of course, not before saying to the baron’s daughter “Hope you ike KFC.” his body slumped to the ground, a trail of red liquid glistening in the flare of the gas light. The contact fled, to be caught near the dead body of one of Britain’s finest secret squirrel chickens would meanyears behind the bars of a medical testing facility. Simon sat up “Hah, those fake paint bullets worked a treat.”
Simon’s earpiece crackled. It was his handler at the home base. “What did you go and do that for you idiot? That was the fucking contact!!”
“Fuck” though Simon. “Now how do I get to the wedding?”
“What a cock up”, he muttered as he ambled off to the end of this chapter.
A new day dawned and a new chapter began. Baron Sanders was just beginning to prepare the preaparations to prepare the hall. Suddenly there was a crackle of electricity and a badly singed chicken blundered out of a hole in reality.
“Ah, good” said Simon, “I’m not late”. As the latest Paul McCartney offering dribbled out of the stereo, the flower seller approached with the usual array of cellophane-wrapped roses and carnations. “Flower for you hen, sir?”, he enquired brightly.
“No thanks, do you have a cleaver? We had so much fun last night with a cleaver, I tell you, the number fo things you can do with a cleaver in the bedroom is…”
“OK, TMI” exclaimed the florist and shot Simon dead, between the eyes and through his heart. an expert double-tap if there ever was one. but now Simon the incompetent spy-rooster ws dead, the florist was wanted for murder and no one was left to stop Baron Sanders daughter from marrying a man she had no idea was the reincarnated Osama bin Laden.
Luckily for her, simon was not dead, again, for the finagling florist was factually our feathered frined himself! But Miss Sanders was not yet saved.
Simon rumaged through the baron’s chest of magical objects and found the mmost magical of all, the keys to a large pickup truck. He took the keys, started the truck and drove it over a cliff; the brakes had been tampered with.

The end.

Story D

The sky darkened and Simon ran.  The pumice under his feet crackled and slid as he took each step, threatening to tip him over the low wall to his left and down the steep slope.  Then, all of a sudden, there appeared a mystical figure wreathed in the mist that was swirling down from the ravine. “Grab my hand commanded the misty figure, “Quick! There’s not much time!”. There was a widening chasm between him and the figure, and although Simon had never seen this person before, he knew he must trust him. Simon swallowed his courage and reached across the chasm.  He felt the icy, bony knuckles wrap his, and effortlessly withdrew him from certain death.  Simon met his rescuer’s eyes, or lack thereof.  “You’re a skeleton”, said Simon.  “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” They scrambled together up a clif.  Fromt he top Simon could appreciate his position for the first time.  The vilalge he had left in a hurry was off to the east of the volcano; the rocky cove clockwise wound the peak, accoridng to the map memorised from the table in the cottage.  Then, from absolutely nowhere, a ten tonne anvil dropped from the sky.  “Beep beep”, squawked Simon and sped awy ina  cloud of dust, away from Wyle Coyote and his evil tricks.  Luckily in his position as Regional Sales Manger for Acme Co. Ltd., Simon was in possession of the latest technology in Coyote-escaping technology. He pulled into the park beside a local inn and parked his Road Runner (TM) bike, which was aptented, naturally – or, rather, unnaturally; not to say that what is ‘natural’ us necessarily right, though it may be…but anyway, the local inn caught fire and burned down and he had to get on the road again.  Then the skeleton slapped him “Are you alright?” he asked, “It looks like you’re going faint from the gas”. Simon didn’t know waht he was talking aobut; he felt fine and his legs were made of ham.  THe skeleton waited maybe a second longer and then lifted him onto his shoulders.  Have to move, he thought, theis fleshy needs to breathe.  The skeleton jumped into the Transit van sitting by the kerb, throowing Simon into the gap between the front seats, amongst the a congealing, half-eaten cheeseburgerm fluff-encrusted Murray ints and a worryingly fresh-looking Curly Wurly.  Then, from absolutely nowhere, a ten tonne anvil burst from the ground beneath them.  The anvil attached itself to the engine of teh van, converting into pure energy adn rocketing the can through the skeleton’s own portal.  A portal to hell.  And back, if you pay 50% more for a day pass.  The sky darkened and Simon ran…

Fin

The Odd Couple – the John and Rodney show

Oh Mr. Key how you kid us about Rodney, the big bad wolf from the ‘extremist’ Act Party.  How the two of you bicker and squabble in public, how you dislike that dastardly Mr. Hide and all he stands for!

We’re led to believe our beloved Prime Minister, with his ‘ordinary New Zealanders’ line – because only a man with a $9 million dollar home in Parnell, not to mention other houses in Omaha Beach, Helensville and Hawaii – knows about the general population and what they want, think and feel, and is protecting us from the radical types off to the right.  The same party who they signed up to a confidence and supply agreement with; the same party who they gave ministerial posts to.

During the Auckland city shake-up over the last two years, various media types, opposition politicians and other commentators were quick to lay into Rodney Hide for his right-wing transformation of the city, against the wishes of the people, and asked why was Mr. Key not reigning him in?  Well, there’s a simple answer – John Key is quite happy with what Rodney did.  The National Party might be at odds with a significant number of the population, but they’re not so dim as to think Rodney Hide would do anything other than put in place right-wing ideals when working on the ‘super city’.  Let’s be clear – John Key chose him as minister for local government, gave him the mandate and let him loose.  For over a year there were constant attacks on the Act leader from the political left, even the NZ Herald portrayed him as undemocratic.  Did anything change in Government?  Did John ask Rodney to reign it in, listen to what the public were saying?  No, of course he didn’t.  The National Party led by John Key is as extreme as Act, but a hell of a lot smarter.  Rodney is quite happy to get publicity by any means, even if it means being seen as the big bogeyman – let’s not forget, this is a man who appeared on the TV show Strictly Come Dancing, was utterly hopeless as a dancer and dropped his partner on her head while attempting a far from simple manoeuvre – hardly the actions of a mild-mannered introvert who lets his work in public office do the talking.  So, John gave Rodney a position in Government, knowing full well what he will do, but not overtly backing any of his actions, remaining silent and portraying a shocked demeanour, implying ‘Oh, Rodney – what have you done! That wasn’t what we wanted, oh if only there was some way of stopping you!’.  Well, there is, and you didn’t take it.  The worst case scenario for National was Rodney doing something very dim, and being kicked out.  As he’s shown, he’s not the brightest kid around and sure enough he got booted by his own party.  Does Mr. Key care?  Not really – at the worst he’s lost a foil to blame all the radical right-wing policies on, but National still look clean and like they represent ‘ordinary New Zealanders’.  So Act have a new leader, and Rodney’s career is likely over for the short-term – will Don Brash fulfil the same role as his predecessor?  He’s never been the image-conscious showman that Rodney is, but I suspect he will still be more than keen to take the ‘credit’ for whatever unpalatable policies National come up with.  Maybe after the next election they will make Don a Minister with the mandate to sell off NZ-owned assets, and then sit back and watch us attack Act again?  National gets its wish to privatise everything including the air we breathe, and still looks like they are in touch and a caring Government.

Copyright Amendment Bill aka removal of basic human rights

The ‘file-sharing’ argument has rattled around the courts, parliaments and media of the world for the last 40 years – remember ‘home recording will kill the music industry’ in 197-whatever (and how it didn’t kill the industry, although perhaps it should have)?  Yesterday in New Zealand politics, things took a dark turn.  A bill, the Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill, was passed.  On the face of it, this was nothing surprising – it criminalises the sharing of copyrighted material.  Hardly the most heinous of crimes, but in line with the state’s intentions to protect property rights.

What is outrageous, is the attack on basic human rights when a suspected infringer is identified.  Since the birth of liberal democracy, which New Zealand had a good claim to be until yesterday, one of the values enshrined in law, constitution or Bill of Rights has been the right to presumption of innocence.

This puts the burden of proof on those accusing a person of wrongdoing, and is an important part of our modern justice system – it protects all from frivolous and unjust prosecution.

The Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Bill passed yesterday allows a content provider to accuse a suspected infringer of illegally sharing copyrighted content.  The onus is then on the accused to show their innocence.  The copyright owner is not required to prove their allegation – accusation alone is enough alone to begin legal proceedings.  If innocence it not proved, punishment is handed out in the form of cutting off the user’s internet (as an aside, access to an internet connection is now considered a basic human right in some countries and protected under law – apparently we are not so enlightened in New Zealand).

Regardless of your view on copyright and illegal file-sharing, this approach of requiring the accused to prove their innocence, constitutes a significant attack on basic human rights – it opens the door for more legislation which puts the burden of proof on the accused.

We cannot allow this to happen, we cannot allow the law to stand,  or we slide ever closer to a dictatorship which benefits the few.

More to come.

Openstreetmap New Zealand – Auckland meetings

As discussed earlier, we will be hosting Openstreetmap New Zealand meetings from February 2011.  The venue and date are now finalised:

Where: Tangle Ball, 27 Edinburgh Street, Newton, Auckland
When: Thursday, February 24th from 7pm till around 8:30pm

The first meeting will discuss the general direction OSM New Zealand will take and future meeting topics.
We will also be pushing forward with the LINZ import – we need developers to put together a web application for importing and merging the data.

This is open to anyone who has an interest in Openstreetmap specifically, or mapping or free data in general.  We would also love to have developers along who can help with the import application.

OpenStreetMap New Zealand – website launch

Recently I talked about launching an OpenStreetMap New Zealand website, and holding monthly meetings for OSM in New Zealand, in a bid to expand our community.  The first part is done – click here for the temporary site address (until I figure out Apache virtual hosts).  Please test it, and let me know if you find anything wrong. I’m particularly struggling with getting OpenLayers to display the different sets of map tiles – the blue ‘+’ at top-right should allow the user to switch between different renders of the data, but there’s something wrong at the moment.

Any suggestions, please send them to the NZopenGIS group, or email me.

The first OpenStreetMap New Zealand meeting will be later on, more to come once it’s been organised.

 

Openstreetmap New Zealand

I’ve been involved with Openstreetmap for 3 1/2 years now, and there is only a very small contributor base in New Zealand (most of whom got involved through personal contacts).  I hear from members of the German OSM community about the thousands of contributors they have and the OSM groups in every major city, and wondered why we don’t have that in NZ.  There are already some resources for NZ contributors: a Google Group – which some potential contributors refuse to join, because … well, because it’s Google – and a few pages on the OSM wiki. However, these are rather dry and technical, and only appeal to those who already get/are involved in free software/open data, etc at a philosphical level – they don’t cater much to those who don’t know about Stallman/Lessig and the ideological underpinnings.  So, starting in the next few weeks, I will be launching www.openstreetmap.org.nz, and holding associated regular meets in Auckland.

The site will be basic, with the following content:
*What is OSM?
*What is OSM New Zealand?
*A New Zealand-specific map. This takes lots of resources to render and host, so it will use tiles hosted elsewhere, probably a custom Cloudmade style
**Dual English/Maori place names
**Unusual geographic features – volcanoes, other geothermal activity
**Anything else specific/unusual to NZ
*How can I get involved with OSM?
*NZ-related news such as upcoming meets, mapping parties, the status of imports, etc.

As a start point, I’ll be copying the www.openstreetmap.de website, which is available and (of course) released under some liberal license.  As more people come on board, perhaps a better web dev than me will help improve it.

The meets will aim to be once a month, and now that Tangleball is running, there is a ready-made venue.  The LINZ import web application will probably be the subject of the first meet.  From there, there are other topics that may be interesting:
*The Zenbu import
*Using Potlach (the online editor)
*Using JOSM (the more advanced editor)
*Creating mapnik, osmarender and kosmos rendering rules
*How to collect mapping data
*Using a GPS to record tracks and waypoints
*Mapping party

If you’re interested in helping out, be it web dev, graphics design or ideas, let me know either by email, in the comments below or on the Google Group.

OM record – a sample collection tool

A couple of years ago i bought an Openmoko Freerunner mobile phone handheld computer with GSM modem. This is a very useful device, which can run Debian and a number of other free operating systems.

One of the tasks I want to carry out with the Freerunner is recording samples to use in musical compositions – insect noises, mechanical rhythms, etc. A decent field recorder is in the US$3-400 range, so using my Freerunner for the task would be a good idea, and would also make me feel slightly less aggrieved about the large, heavy, expensive and slow brick in my pocket. There’s nothing available in free software land that I have found (although qarecord is pretty close; shame about having to manually name the record file each time it is fired up – maybe I will modify it to do this automatically, as it has the bonus of built-in recording meters), so I had to write my own.

The requirements are:
* a simple interface with large controls (start record, stop record, maybe measure levels and volume control)
* automatic filenaming (either incremental, by date, or some other non-interactive method)
* something i could quickly write with my basic programming skills (shell scripts)

The application has a UI based upon gtkdialog, and uses arecord (a wave recording utility forming part of the Advanced Linux Sound Architecture, or ALSA, utilities) to record the files. The first attempt is pretty simple: running the shell script creates a dialogue with one button, which says ‘Record’. Hitting the button starts recording from the soundcard listed in the script (on my Freerunner, this is a Samson C01U USB microphone, connected via a USB male-male converter), and also pops up another diaogue which says ‘Stop’. I’ll leave it to you to figure out what that does. At the moment it’s pretty hacky – the recording is stopped by using the sledgehammer-like ‘killall arecord’ command, it’s split into two scripts because of the inherent clunkiness of gtkdialog, there’s no deb/rpm/portage package, and hence no dependency checking.

Click here to get a tar.gz of the code (two scripts, one for the UI and one to call arecord) and two basic .png files for the ‘record’ and ‘stop’ buttons

To use it, you will need:
gtkdialog (tested with 0.7.20-4), which is currently in debian lenny and squeeze – i think development on the package has stopped though
alsa-utils (tested with 1.0.23-2ubuntu3.4), which is currently in debian lenny and squeeze

Uncompress the files somewhere, make sure the scripts are executable, and then run:
$ ./om_rec

The files will be recorded in the ‘samples’ sub-directory of the user’s home directory.

To do (likely):
* add a level meter
* add a volume control
To do (unlikely):
* replace ‘killall arecord’ with ‘kill <pid>’
* make a .deb package
* find out which versions of arecord it works with (I think it’s poor programming to only check it against what I have installed)
* record via libasound directly rather than calling arecord
* allow a different soundcard to be selected without editing the code
* find out why gtkdialog is not developed anymore, and possibly replace it with something still actively maintained (possibly ‘dialog’, whiptail’, ‘kdialog’, ‘cdialog’ or ‘ssft’)
* convince someone to rewrite qrecord so it automatically names the files

The code is released under the GNU GPL version 2 – click here to see what that means, and your rights for using the software
The images are released under cc-by-sa 3.0 unported – click here to see what that means, and your rights for using the images

If you are prepared to help, either by working on this or qarecord, drop me a line.

Auckland Creative Space is live

We have a venue – the ground floor of a building at:

27 Edinburgh Street,
Newton,
Auckland

and we have a new name: Tangle Ball

After several months of planning, promoting, discussing, and visiting buildings, we are ready to go.  The place needs some work; Neftaly and others are building a partition wall and benches this week, and there are other changes planned after then.

Members have committed money for membership fees, time and items to use in the space.

We have started planning events also, and plan to have a launch party around December 4th.  for now, the group is live, and there will be people in the venue most evenings – check the website to find out more:

http://creativespace.org.nz

Come visit us, bring your friends, bring your projects.

Cooperatives and collectives in practice – Auckland Server Cooperative

This is a follow-up from a post from a few days ago, concerning collectives and cooperatives, and the implementation of that idea.

The next cooperative, and the first intended to be run in a formal fashion, is going to be a collective running computer servers.  Why?  Well, I know several people who run hobby servers for email, web-hosting, blogs and so on who are also keen on DIY/privacy/control of their own lives – so there’s a ready-made group there.  The services providing this in New Zealand aren’t that great, and we’d like to have more control over our systems, plus maybe save some money – although that’s not so important.

The Auckland Creative Space and the community food project I mentioned in an earlier post are already going along similar lines, although less formally, and the community gardens is on hold while the mess that is the ‘Super City’ settles down – that should start again sometime next year.  From there?  I’d like to think these projects will inspire others to start more groups along similar lines, and there are plenty of areas I’d like to do this in.

Invitations have gone out to various individuals and mailing lists, and there are around 10 of us interested.  The first meet will be after University of Auckland exams, so probably around 15th November.  We’ve already had offers of time, and donations of hardware.  We’ll get together, discuss what we’d like, and then go from there.  More to come.

Part of the inspiration for this is the ‘Tech Co-op‘ in Canada (not USA as I originally put- thanks for the correction Abhishek).