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Sometimes I Wish That It Would Rain Here

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

unintentional shrines

I came across an interesting article in the LA Times this morning. when a MySpace user passes away, what happens to their MySpace? turns out, their friends end up making their MySpace into a shrine of sorts for the deceased. it's partly a memoir, partly a letter to the departed. this is really interesting in light of Genevieve Bell's recent ubicomp paper on techno-spiritual practices. in it, she talks, among other things, about how some Chinese families were creating online shrines to honor their dead ancestors and relatives, to some extent taking the place of traditional shrines and allowing those physically disparate to participate in remembering their family members.

I think that the MySpace shrines are particularly interesting in light of Genevieve's paper. the shrining aspect is really just a fall out of the permanance of MySpace pages, not something that was explicitly designed into the application. should MySpace do something to allow a user to be declared dead? how would you go about doing so? should MySpace account explicitly not be deleted after a period of inactivity so as to support this practice? or, should MySpace just continue on, effectively ignoring this emergent practice that their site supports?

Monday, January 22, 2007

counter consumption culture

a recent Ars post got me thinking about some DRM and file-sharing stuff. at a recent conference in Cannes called Midem about how the music industry is approaching digital formats. what caught my eye was the following, partially a quote from Fritz Attaway, exec VP of the MPAA.

Attaway said, "When one consumes a movie by viewing it, there is some obligation to compensate those involved in making it."

This sounds fair, but immediately we must ask: just who does he expect to pay and how often? When I "consume" a Coke, I pay for it. When I consume another, I pay for it, too. Is this what Attaway means? What if I share my Coke with my wife? Do we both pay? What if what we're sharing isn't a traditional consumable good? 10 people can watch a movie at the same time, but 10 people can't really share a Coke at once.

this reminds me very strongly of a talk I saw by Mark Poster about p2p in all sorts of forms. he made a number of really great points about the nature of music/movie content and how it just doesn’t jive with our current perceptions and practices. for example, consider the above. if I buy a Coke from you, you no longer have it; there is only one instance of each individual Coke. however, if I buy a recording of a song from you, essentially a copy, you still have the song and can just as easily sell it to someone else as you can sell it to me. this really pokes a hole in the way that content associations (RIAA/MPAA) and current business models approach music. music’s nature as a commodity is very different from that of other products in a producer/consumer society, and as such it merits different business models.

beyond this, Poster argues, music is not just a commodity, but a cultural object. before certain modern technologies, music only existed in its performance. the only way to experience a piece of music was through a live concert, a cultural exchange between performer and audience. with the advent of the printing press, it became possible for the same piece of music to be widely distributed and have multiple instantiations, but each was unique.

this shift to the digital, however, brings a new sort of cultural object. with a CD, if I sell you my copy of the CD, I don’t have it anymore. however, with digitizing, I can create an exact or nearly exact copy of the CD and thus no longer need the original. furthermore, I don’t even need to give you the CD, I can just make you a copy of the CD, the digital version, or any number of other things. in a pseudo-Marxist twist, the progression of technology challenges and nearly overturns the commodification of music, taking it from something that must be produced and consumed to something that can be used and shared. Poster draws further implications about how, in cultures where music only passes via performance, each performer but his own variations on the music, and the ways in which this practice is mirrored in remixes, “mash-ups,” etc.

there are two side points of note here. first, with the advent of the printing press came the Scriptoria, an association of professional scribes who got permission to destroy printing presses and burn printed manuscripts. Poster claims that this is analogous to the way that the content industry associations go after grandmothers and little kids for music piracy. I’m not totally convinced that this is an exact parallel, but the is a comparison in that both are cases of professional organizations rejecting technological change because it drastically changes their way of business. second, one wonders if there isn’t a parallel here with Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy, which catalogues many of the cognitive and cultural changes that occurred as a result of the transition from primarily oral societies to primarily chirographic ones. an upcoming ACM interactions article by Jonathan Grudin talks about the ways in which digital communication draws partially on written tradition but also partially on oral. however, I don’t think he really talks about the cultural aspects that go along with it. there are certainly cognitive and stylistic changes when moving from a written medium to a digital one. however, due to certain aspects of digital media (e.g. nearly instantaneous transmission of information, nearly effortless exact reproduction, widely available access, etc.), there are bound to also be cultural shifts, not only in the way the digital media are produced, but how they are used (not consumed).

tying this back to music and DRM, we see a new hybrid here. it has flavors of the “literary” age of music: exact reproductions of a performance, the ability to listen at will, etc. but it also has aspects of the “oral” age of music: easy passage between individuals, the ability to adapt and restyle music to one’s own personal preferences, etc. the question becomes, how do artists (not the music/movie industry, but artists) make a living off of this sort of cultural object? Poster suggests things like allowing for free distribution of original music content and earning revenue from things like cell phone ringtones, web advertising, personalization of content, etc. I also know many people don’t buy music, but prefer to invest in bands via concerts and merchandise. these may all be good answers, but they still require large corporations to enact. how does the small, unsigned indie band, film-maker, etc. make a buck to keep making decent, real music/movies while allowing their fans to experience their music/movies in a way that fits this new cultural style? my guess is that it will likely not have to do with advertising, with ringtones, with DRM, or with content distribution in general, but in some way leverages the way that music listening, sharing, and performance are all sites of cultural production.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

apologizing for code

a few months back, I attended two interdisciplinary events back-to-back. the first was a AAAI Symposium on Interaction and Emergence in Artificial Societies, and second was a workshop on gaming research held at UCI. Both were very cool events; among other things, the former renewed my faith in AI conferences, and the later gave me a chance to bounce early stages of dissertation ideas off of some really smart folks. however, there was an interesting trend at both of these events which was called to mind today by a discussion in a reading group on ubiquitous computing. I’ll get to that in a minute.

both of these events were very interdisciplinary: attendees ranged in backgrounds from computer graphics to game development to artificial life-based art to critical theory to education to AI to anthropology to law to software engineering. my long-standing impression about being interdisciplinary echoes recent advice from danah: being interdisciplinary is much, much harder. it’s not about being half of two parts, it’s about being two (or more) wholes. you have to know the intricate details of the technical aspects of a field like computer science, and you simultaneously have to be well versed in the rhetoric of fields like critical theory. why is it, then, that at both of these events, people apologized for delving into the technical details of their projects? at the AAAI symposium, one presenter accompanied a slide of code with an apology, stating that there would only be one slide with code, and it wouldn’t be that bad. at the game research workshop, a discussant prefaced a question about the implementation details of some multi-device graphics with an apology for focusing on the technical aspects. interestingly, though, when one of the artists at the AAAI symposium got up to present her work, she never once apologized for discussions of critical theory and the emphasis on reflection about the nature of machines in her work. why is this? why do interdisciplinary computer science researchers feel they must apologize for focusing on the technical aspects of their craft but do not seem to expect such apologies from collaborators coming from other fields? this might be going out on a limb, but I would like to put forth the suggestion that there is largely one rather ugly cause for all of this:

arrogance. computer scientists feel that what they do is harder, more challenging, more demanding, and more rigorous than work done by artists, anthropologists, or social scientists. it’s not that CS folks don’t want to bore everyone with all the technical minutiae of their latest project. rather, it’s that CS folks think their work is above people outside of their discipline and thus inaccessible to them. it’s OK for them to stoop to discussing social theory, but it’s not OK for a social scientist to ask about how to optimize his or her SQL query.

this was brought up again today during a discussion of Yvonne Rogers recent paper (pdf) at this past Ubicomp. one of the questions I raised was, “does this paper belong at ubicomp?” it’s certainly about ubicomp issues, it’s certainly relevant to the field, and it certainly highlights a trend that others have noted, as well. trouble is, for a technical audience, a reflection/critique paper looks easy. sure, they say, it’s easy to point to all the things that are wrong with the field and make claims about where the field is going, especially when, like in the case of the Rogers paper, there is no implementation to say “we should be doing more stuff like this.” but writing the next generation of location prediction algorithms, now that takes really skill, and if you do it well enough, then you really deserve that conference paper. this is a multifaceted issue that I don’t really have the space to treat here, but it is another indicator of this trend in viewing technical aspects as superior to others.

let’s get over it. I suspect the problem is not that our craft is really all that incomprehensible to those outside our discipline. rather, I think it’s mainly that people in CS tend to have really poor communication skills when it comes to explaining anything technical to non-CS types. if presented in an obfuscating way, structuration theory can be just as confusing as polymorphism (personally, I think Giddens’ explanation of his own theory is rather obfuscating, but that’s just me). I remember going through this with my mother when I was in high school. she would ask what I did that day, and I would have to explain to her multiple inheritance, or infinite series, or Shakespeare’s use of, and deviation from, iambic pentameter. the point being, even given an audience that is not at all technically savvy, one should be able to give at least a somewhat intuitive explanation of what one is doing that will (a) satisfy those with the technical background and (b) at least impart some understand to those without such a technical background. furthermore, I believe that it is one’s own best interest to periodically explain one’s work to those outside of one’s discipline. not only does this force you to be familiar enough with every aspect to explain it thoroughly and comprehensibly, it helps to improve your communication skills with those within your own discipline. while this is a bit of a complaint about people apologizing for code, I have seen far too many talks that consisted of the presenter simply reading through slide after slide of dense math, code, and disciplinary jargon. explaining things to those outside your own discipline gives you a better handle on explaining it to those within your discipline.

I will admit that there are other possibilities. while even the most jargon-laden discussions of critical theory are at least still in English, a blurb of Java really is, to some approximation, in a foreign language. if code is absolutely necessary to get the point at hand across, it would be best not to alienate those who can’t read it, and it would also be good not to belittle those who can. also, both of these events were run under the auspices of computer science organizations. AAAI is about AI research, which usually is done with computers, and the two organizers of the game research workshop both hold appointments in UCI’s Informatics department. as such, it would behoove those present to make visitors from other disciplines feel welcomed, not estranged. I would argue that the best way to do that is to explain to them your craft, not assume it is over their heads, but I understand why there is the focus on code in their situations.

what do you think? am I imagining this air of supposed superiority about computer scientists? do your interdisciplinary collaborations have hints of arrogance from the computing side of things? what do you do when presenting at interdisciplinary gatherings?

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

don't buy a Chrysler

I was beyond incredulous after reading the remarks of Chrysler's cheif economist Van Jolissaint that question the severity and immediacy of global warming. according to the BBC, Jolissaint said that "global warming [is] a far-off risk whose magnitude [is] uncertain." what? you must be joking? I just don't get it. even if he thinks climate change isn't a big concert (which is beyond foolish), the buying public certainly thinks it's a big deal, and it would behoove companies to get "greener," if for no other reason than to appeal to consumers.

Jolissaint went so far as to call the European attitude toward global warming "quasi-hysterical" and akin to that of "chicken little." chicken little? you know what, the sky may not be falling, but it sure is getting hotter, and all you have to do is open your eyes to see some of the effects.

Sunday, January 07, 2007


we could do some interpretation here. well, a little bit. but let's go down a bit farther, there's a bunch of stuff for interpretation down there.

when it was founded, the city of Irvine set aside land that was to be preserved and never developed. in the interest of keeping the land as pristine as possible, it is not open to the public. this land is referred to as the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve and is managed by the Irvine Ranch Land Reserve Trust. in addition to removing invasive species and other ecological restoration, part of the Trust’s role involves organizing activities where volunteer docents lead hikes, mountain biking, equestrian rides, and other events so that the public can enjoy the land without damaging it. I know, there’s a bit of backward thinking here, but I suspect that the majority of people who live in the OC would not know how to treat nature with respect. it sucks that the minority can’t use the land freely as a result, but this is a debate for another day.

today, I went on a mountain biking ride that the Trust organized. I’m a novice mountain biker still, so I went on the beginning/intermediate ride. during these rides, they occasionally stop to let everyone regroup and make sure no one gets left behind. at one such stop, one of the volunteers leading ride make some comment about “interpretation,” which is paraphrased above. I was rather confused. were they going to be doing an interpretive mountain bike dance? at any rate, once the whole group made it to the next stopping point, one of the guides started talking about the native plant life. he described how the north and south faces of a hill will have different vegetation because of the different amounts of sunlight they receive and pointed out a few examples. my girlfriend, who works for the Trust and was helping lead the ride, pointed out some mustard, an invasive species in the area. some of the other volunteers chimed in with information about the wildlife that lives in that region. altogether, rather informative.

I was still, however, quite confused. was this interpretation? and if it was, why was it so named? hmm, very interesting. let’s unpack this a bit, shall we?

the first thing that struck me, when the guide began his explanation, was that we was going to look at the land and interpret it to determine what geological events had occurred to make it so shaped, e.g., this valley is the result of the massive rains two years ago, or this ridge is the result of ice shelves receding at the end of the last ice age. but, no, it was just informing us about the flora and fauna. my girlfriend later informed me that the Trust organizes “interpretive hikes,” in which docents spend the entire hike interpreting the landscape. my question, then, is why call it interpretive hikes? why not informative? or educational? or instructional? I suspect the answer may be that these docents really see themselves as not just educating the public, but interpreting the landscape for them. I think in this case there may be two relevant senses of interpret.

first, I’m struck by the way that someone can interpret a text, or scene from a play, or a single sentence. for example, the sentence “no fruit flies like a banana” has at least two possible interpretations. in this context, interpreting is analyzing the form, using it to discern underlying meaning, and sharing that meaning with others. with this sense of the word, guides see themselves as finding the meaning behind the landscape and passing it along to participants.

second, when a translator is hired to serve as an intermediary between two people who speak different languages, the person who does the translation is sometimes referred to as an interpreter. in a similar sense, guides may see themselves as the intermediary, translating between the landscape and between the public, between mother nature and her uncomprehending children.

both these cases contain the transmission between two parties via an intermediary of an idea, of some thought, of meaning. in this view, under this conceptual stance, using this metaphor, nature is not the environment in which we live, but is a conscious, competent entity that can readily communicate with us, if only we know how to interpret what it/she says. considering that most of these guides chose to engage in activities like hiking and mountain biking, that these activities take place outside, that the areas where these activities take place are some of the few places in the OC to get away from suburbia, it is unsurprising that the language they use would have such a stance towards nature as a part of its underpinnings.

may be just random word choice, but I think it’s significant. what do you think? is this an arbitrarily chosen term, or might there be some deeper meaning behind it? what other possible senses of “interpretation” could shed light on this word choice?