Friday, December 22, 2006

so long, and thanks for all the fish!

Hi Greg!

I always make my students write a little cover letter for their blogs, and I guess because of that, I feel compelled to do so. Teaching habits are hard to break. :)

I enjoyed the class very much, got some tips on some books to add to my choose-your-own-adventure prelims list (I'm taking them next summer), and in particular, enjoyed doing the research on open source software. In fact, I think I'm going to present something on the community's response to legal challenges at a conference in the spring. So, thanks for the opportunity to do some interesting, in-depth research as well.

About the blog...I didn't post on every reading. I read more than I posted on, and I sometimes forgot to post, stayed up too late reading, etc. But I think more than that, I had a lot of difficulty trying to make myself post short see?-I-did-the-reading posts, and that's all I would have had time for if I had posted on every reading. Instead, I thought a lot about the posts I did do, tried to use them to connect readings and ideas in the class to general thoughts I was having about technology and writing, etc. It probably sounds like a cop-out, and at some level it is, but I did take the blog seriously. And I did find it helpful as I digested all the material from the class and tried to make it relevant to my studies.

It was certainly useful for me to be on the writing end of the class blog! Perhaps I have more empathy for my students now. They're right; it's a lot of work. ;)


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

questioning authority

My boyfriend and I just finished a long discussion about the virtues of Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica. As much as I reveled in that Nature article when it came out, I found myself defending Britannica after reading their rebuttal. Sure, they're haughty and dismissive of major issues concerning their editing process, but their concerns are valid; Nature really does seem to have performed some sloppy work.

The major concerns I have about Britannica are parts that they don't seem to find problematic at all, as evidenced by the fact that they admit to their practices without issue.
  • "Dozens of inaccuracies attributed to the Britannicawere not inaccuracies at all, and a number of the articles Nature examined were not even in the Encyclopædia Britannica." Here, I later learned that they were referring to articles that had been chosen from their yearbook or elsewhere. But initially, I thought they were admitting that certain articles in Wikipedia weren't present in Britannica. One of the beautiful things about Wikipedia is that it does not have to meet publishing criteria; it can have lengthy articles about every South Park episode ever made, and only the readers interested in such things need to be burdened with all that space being taken up with those articles. Wikipedia can cover information so much more arcane, and so much faster, than any "authoritative" publication.
  • "This is not a critical omission. This 825-word article sets out to explain the most significant contributions of Dirac’s career, and it does just that." Well, it does just that, according to the editors. So, what are the most important things about Dirac? How does one know this? Wikipedia doesn't have to edit things down, so it's all included.
This flattening-of-informational-hierarchy vs. experienced editing was where the boyfriend and I really disagreed. Sure it's great to have everyone participate, show the messiness of all editorial decisions, how there are no right answers, etc. But sometimes you just need the 5 sentence explanation for what Dirac did so that you can catch the reference in the thing you're reading and then move on. As someone who edits professionally, I have a lot invested in the idea that there are more and less logical ways of presenting information. Giant, unorganized data dumps help no one understand anything. Progressively more complicated, nuanced explanations do help.

That said, I agree with him that authority is a problem. When you see the great Wizard of Oz and don't get to view behind the curtain, you may think that he's great and powerful and absolutely right all the time. The implicit authority of publications like Encyclopedia Britannica, which is not unconnected to the British colonial project and the idea of the supremacy of British knowledge, is what's erased women and minorities from many historical events. As in the Light article on "When computers were women," authorities have their own biases (which EB actually admits and argues with in their rebuttal), and these biases have very real, though often tacit impacts on our perceptions of history.

Is there a happy medium behind the unedited messiness of Wikipedia and the imposing authority of Britannica?

Wednesday, November 29, 2006


This post will not be able to cover all my thoughts about the DCMA--not even close. I've spent a lot of time thinking about this things as a person interested in intellectual property, a teacher, advocate of broad interpretations of fair use, supporter of open source software, and partner of a savvy computer programmer and game designer. None of these positions make me sympathetic to the "Micky Mouse Act" copyright term extension, digital protections that ensure your ownership of media is only ever provisional, and arguments for poor, starving recording artists.

The recording industry argued against radio play during the 1920s and again in the 1940s (I learned this studying jazz ages ago, but here's another reference to this). It argued against VCRs in the early 1980s (see Sony vs. Universal Studios 464 US 417, 1984). Now it's arguing against circumvention of all the crappy DRM stuff that is embedded in the media they sell to consumers, or the larger issue, that their consumers are trading their music and assets without giving them more money. For each of those earlier arguments, after some kicking and screaming, the industry eventually realized they couldn't argue against the new technology, and simply had to adjust their market strategy to survive.

They're surviving perfectly well now, but it's true that file-sharing is dipping into their profits. But they're supposedly creative...can they imagine giving consumers something they're willing to pay for? Live concerts are still untradable, so are paraphrenalia of bands such as t-shirts and posters and really awesome CD cover art and packaging. If people are less willing to pay for the songs themselves, would they be willing to pay for accessories of these songs, or perhaps licenses for legit mash-ups?

Monday, November 27, 2006

the avoiding technology experiment

It's taken me a while to post my response to the avoiding technology experiment because I'm a little embarrassed to describe my relationship to technology. I can start by explaing the things I considered giving up, and why I didn't:
  • Facebook, as suggested in class: I'm a grad student, so 0% of my social networking happens on that forum. I have an account, but visit it so seldomly that giving it up would be a nominal effort.
  • My cell phone: It's my only phone. Sometimes important people call me, and I conduct important business on the phone. It seems dangerous to give it up.
  • email: OK, so I never honestly considered this. It would be professionally reckless, since I get emails from my students and my bosses as well as my friends.
  • TV: I own a TV, but I don't get cable. I don't own a TiVO, and never watch network TV.
  • websites: I've been trying to be better about reading news sites, blogs, etc, so giving this up seemed counterproductive. I wouldn't feel the pain. Sortof like having a good excuse to not go to the gym, it doesn't do anyone any good.
  • iPod: I own one, but use it only at the gym. Sometimes I forget it anyway and I deal with watching Family Feud with closed-captioning. This is not an activity that is good for me.
  • video games: OK, so occasionally I play them. But not often during the semester, and mostly in social situations. I wasn't sure that I'd find a good time to give them up that I would feel their absence.
If I were really feeling masochistic, I'd give up something like my car. I ride the bus to and from campus, but if I had to ride the bus everywhere, I'd certainly feel it. I guess I don't need a technology avoidance experiment to tell me that though, and in the meantime, I'd be carsick and cranky by the time I arrived at my job on the west side of town.

Instead, I gave up watching DVDs of shows that I like to watch while eating dinner. It's a habit that my boyfriend and I have gotten into, and I enjoy relaxing while watching shows and eating. Giving it up wasn't too painful, however, because we often don't watch them anyway and talk instead. To force a lesson here, I'd say that sometimes technology allows me to avoid deeper conversation, and that avoidance may make my life easier, but not happier.

Thursday, November 16, 2006


OK, so Greg was right and I should have started the book this weekend, because of course you can't skim a good book of fiction and you always want to know what happens in the end. So, now it's two in the morning, I finished the book, and I have to say something about it. In the spirit of the book I just finished--Feed, by MT Anderson--I'll write things in one sentence stories, or as wikipedia might say, "stubs."
  • The names are great; I love the mix between weirdly old names like Titus and Violet and Calista and weirdly new names like Loga and Quendy.
  • Why is it that the weirdos in high school are always sortof right, but they're so uncool that they give "right" a bad name? I used to make fun of the computer dorks and insist I never would really have to learn to type.
  • Anderson gets slang just right. I meg loved "prong."
  • Lesions. ew. I really hope the world isn't actually coming to this.
  • the feed? I can totally see it happening. Maybe the equivalent of Web 10.0?
  • Violet was a little pretentious. But since we're all retro like her, we can love her.
  • Unit! Titus is a jerk. I don't think he redeems himself ever, and perhaps this is some global way of saying, "ladies, in the future, you're still better than the boys." Except for the weird elective lesioning thing.
  • I wonder what Anderson thinks of plastic surgery? OK, no I don't.
Time for bed. It was a great book!

Monday, November 13, 2006


In “Weaving Women and Cybernetics,” Sadie Plant takes us on a journey from the mother of computer programming, Ada Lovelace, through the practice of weaving, then on to feminist philosopher Luce Irigaray and (masculinist?) psychiatrist Freud, and finally spins off into a mid-‘90s fantasia on cybernetics, feminism and strained metaphors regarding women, software and computers. She begins by tracing the lineage of software back to Ada Lovelace, a key figure in early thinking about programming for machines; she continues this trace (skipping over the many men involved in the process) to the one other quasi-famous female programmer, Grace Hopper, and suggests that software and programming is a feminine domain. Charles Babbage, with his inventions of the Difference Engine and the Analytical Engine, was the father of hardware, which frames an easy dichotomy between man/woman and software/hardware. Plant pushes this dichotomy further as the essay progresses, finally splitting man into the seeming master of war machines, who is ultimately defeated by the software/woman/science he can’t control.

But before she reaches that conclusion, Plant uses weaving and the technology of the loom that served as a metaphor for the early computer and its punch cards as a way to connect her metaphors of woman and computers/software. She writes, “It seems that weaving is always already entangled with the question of female identity, and its mechanization an inevitable disruption of the scene in which woman appears as the weaver” (431). Perhaps is it in this mechanization that woman enters Plant’s computer metaphor, as a ghost in the machine?

After discussing some of the history of weaving and its metaphorical connections to women and early software, she notes, “Like woman, software systems are used as man’s tools, his media and his weapons; all are developed in the interests of man, but all are poised to betray him…” (432). How does this betrayal happen? Plant is unspecific about details here, but through a series of more and more abstract metaphors concerning veils, the womb, the matrix and the absence/presence of space behind the computer screen, Plant argues that it ultimately happens through woman’s capacity for mimicry. From Irigaray, Plant uses woman’s innate capacity for simulation (mostly as background, supporter, canvas for man), to liken her to the computer: “she is not [the] only performer: now that the digital comes on stream, the computer is cast in precisely the same light: it, too, is merely the imitation of nature, providing assistance and additional capacity for man…” (433).

Ultimately, woman and the machine “may aspire to be the same as man, but in every effort they become more complex than he has ever been” (436) and enter the matrix. This matrix, or cyberspace, “joins women on and as the interface between man and matter, identity and different, one and zero, the actual and the virtual…the veils are already cybernetic” (437).

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

bimber, part deux

I admit, when I joined a to-remain-nameless online political organization in 2004, I was motivated. And I was excited that finally—FINALLY! Politics was moving into the digital age. Howard Dean was out of the race by then, but he’d shown people the light. I responded to a few of the emails, wrote my congresswoman, etc. It was really cool to get emails letting me know about issues; it seemed more personal than headlines in newspapers, and since I’d signed myself up and could unsubscribe at any time, and since it involved no cheesy pictures of politicians with kids in front of schools, I found it far less offensive than the direct mail that litters my porch during election season.

After the 2004 election, they kept emailing me. I wasn’t sure what to do then; I’d signed up for a specific purpose, the time for that purpose had elapsed, and here they were, shifting gears. They were trying to mobilize a huge, motivated, self-subscribing list of citizens towards other, related projects—not all of which I agreed with. I still get their emails, but I rarely do anything more than glance at them. As Bimber notes in summarizing his case studies (p. 194), activist organizations have to be careful about the volume of mail that they send, or I’ll suffer from “activist fatigue.” I guess that’s where I am now. It’s no longer novel that I get emails targeting my issues.

But I still notice when a candidate spends the time to look polished in a technological arena. When I read the voting guide published in our local paper, I scoffed at candidates that didn’t provide emails or web addresses. And I visited some of the websites, even for candidates I didn’t plan to vote for, anyway. Perhaps it’s an ideological stance: if a candidate doesn’t pay enough attention to his constituency to provide them with a modern way of getting to know his views, I won’t pay enough attention to him. Get a website, politicians! Or better yet, an army of bloggers. It’s a commitment to teh FUTUR3!