Academic freedom under government spying

Both Tim Wu and Nick Bilton make good points in their pieces on digital snooping. Wu points to the structure of the information industry, and the consequences of a centralized and monopolized industry on the ease with which governments can spy on the communications between it’s citizens. Wu also points out that it may not matter whether a monopoly like Google does or does not want to cooperate with the state; such monopolies do not have a choice because current laws are designed to make such organizations complicit in state actions. Bilton’s argument is very similar, but instead of focusing on the structure of the industry, it foregrounds the everyday practices of sharing data online, and highlights the one big truth about the Internet: nothing you do on the Internet can be completely erased from it. Contradicting Wu a little bit, Bilton seems to argue that it may not matter if there are one or multiple companies to track since a proliferation of web-services and types of data does not preclude government spying.

Both Wu and Bilton are very good at stating the problem, but their stated solutions seem to be inadequate. Wu indicates that breaking up monopolies (the government’s job) should do the trick; but following his own argument, there would be no incentive for the national-security state to enforce antitrust regulations. Wu also suggests that, at the personal level, we start using multiple search engines, social media and other web-services in order to scatter the data and make it harder for the government to watch us, and given what we know about how the government currently collects information from the Internet, this may be a good strategy. But Bilton contradicts this – and a quick understanding of the infrastructure of the Internet shows that data can be ‘wiretapped’ from any number of points on the Internet’s infrastructure. Bilton, offering some solutions as well, suggests that there are ways that technologists can out-innovate the government, but he does not provide any examples of this.

I’m not trying to be overly-critical of Wu and Bilton here; I understand that they have thought about this much more and for much longer than I have. Which makes my point even starker – are there even adequate solutions for this problem if people like Wu and Bilton cannot provide any? Bilton says that there are ways to out-innovate the government, but would that look like closing up all sorts of OSS codes, or encrypting our data to the point where it is not publicly shareable? If one of the design principles behind the Internet is ‘openness’ and if we are not quite ready to sacrifice that principle, should we even change anything about the Internet or how we act on it? Or, should we change the source of the problem – the government spying/the spying government.

This also brings up the question of academic (and pedagogical) freedom – in an era of heightened government (and non-government) watching, how do we maintain the integrity of academic freedom? When we put our names on things we say on Twitter and Facebook, we are also putting the weight of our intellectual training and institutional affiliation behind those arguments. At the same time, we are risking unwarranted scrutiny by the government or potential employers. And this can also get particularly dicey with teaching. How can we successfully teach our students to be openly critical of the government and its policies in hybrid or online courses? This question reminds me of Mark D. Pepper’s Teaching Fail article on JITP, where he describes the reaction of other students when a student, in response to an assignment prompt, posted a picture of the September 11 attacks on the Twin Towers with the word ‘Deserved’ on the class blog. Pepper does not mention this in his article (since his point is something else), but one could imagine such a posting being picked up by the snooping agents of the government. I offer this example to make a subtler point though – given that we now have a deeper understanding of how and what the government spies on, do we, in small ways, filter our online pedagogy, become less critical or radical, or even change our way of thinking? When we write nowadays, we almost always do it online, and so I wonder whether writing online, given the context of a digital panopticon, changes what and how much we write? In other words, do we subconsciously censor ourselves (or change our thinking altogether) when we write online in a way we would not if we wrote on paper?

To me, it seems that if we follow Wu and Bilton’s suggestions on how to out-maneuvour the government, we may end up going down a spiral of self-censorship, privacy, closed-up coding and a clamp-down on sharing that is so central to the structure of Web 2.0 technologies and the democratic ideologies and practices that they seem to encourage right now. Confronting the government’s spying policies may be a longer and harder fight, but it also may be more fruitful at the end.

Code is Law or the Legal System of the Internet

Throughout this whole academic year, we have been talking about technology, its uses, its abuses, the power differentials it promotes or conceals, the possibilities it affords and the dangers it belies. We have been lifted up high by utopian accounts just to be brought back down by more cynical ones. What all them, however, have in common is the notion that technology, particularly the Internet, is a somewhat special place, alternative reality if you will, where new rules, new identities, new collaborations, new societies, and new possibilities can arise, often times in contradiction to the established order offline.

Zittrain’s book is no exception. I did leave me with the feeling that Internet is that other world, in which things do and can happen. At the same time, his account posed some very interesting questions regarding the legal system of that world.

Referring to Lessig and Reidenberg, Zittrain stated that “code could be law.” In fact, it might as well be. A careful observer can very quickly conclude that all of our online interactions are subject to the algorithms written by the creators of whatever software we use. In a sense, we are not free to act as we please. Unless… we know how to code… At the same time, there are people and structures invested in impeding our ability to code freely… they assert their own power and control. Consequently, it begins to look like, programers are the lawmakers of the Internet.

With this in mind, we can speculate that code is law in at least two different ways: 1) code is the law of online social conduct. It dictates the order of our operations to an particular extent. 2) Code is law in a legal way. It tracks our moves and delivers data to appropriate parties, enforcing the legal system of the offline world within its online counterpart. This status of code as law is further reinforced by the massive adaptation of software control over human lives. And IBM’s Smart Cities is a great example of that movement.

As I read this week’s material, I began to think about the following: to what extent traditional legal concepts, such as freedom of speech, reasonable privacy expectations, etc. apply to online interactions and how do we begin to think about them in a way that is both safe and productive? Do the reasonable expectation of privacy in my home and expectation of privacy online mean the same things? Does being in my home connected to a computer and engaged in a public forum change the way my privacy is defined at the moment? Can trespassing happen online or does it require physical presence? Is stalking online equally illegal and dangerous than stalking offline?

So I guess my big question to you is Does the future of the internet holds in it the re-imagining of our rights, laws, and the way our legal system is structured and if yes, who are the lawmakers?

Wikipedia “Success” and Smart Searching

Some thoughts and questions about Zittrain and Grimmelmann:

This may seem like a strange thing to say, considering the topic of this week’s readings, but I was struck–as I often have been this semester—by how much optimism there is in writing about technology. For all that Jonathan Zittrain’s The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It raises the alarm about the “perfect enforcement” and declines in “generativity,” it also devotes a lot of space to prescriptions and solutions. Given our experiences in this course, I was particularly interested in his ideas in chapter 6, “The Lessons of Wikipedia.” Zittrain is frank about the problems and failures of Wikipedia’s strange structure and operation but he pronounces it overall a “success story,” defining that success by “the survival-even growth-of a core of editors who subscribe to and enforce its ethos, amid an influx of users who know nothing of that ethos” (142). I see his point; Wikipedia is a widely used resource, people know about it and trust it, and it doesn’t often have serious (publicly known) lapses in accuracy. But having recently interacted with the site as an editor for the first time, I feel less inclined to accept Zittrain’s sanguine attitude. My own experience was pretty uneventful but the negative experiences that some of you had with other editors stuck with me. How does our experience as a class match up with Zittrain’s evaluation of Wikipedia?

I found Grimmelmann’s article interesting from a pedagogical perspective because one of the activities that I have integrated in my classes is using Google image searches to help students understand the physical worlds of the plays that we are reading. Students tend to be cavalier about search terms, which often produces results that are totally inappropriate to a play’s geographic or temporal setting. A favorite example of mine is the students who displayed a Greek Orthodox priest for the character of Teiresias, a prophet, in the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King. It only took one question from me–“What is that person wearing around his neck that might suggest that this image is not appropriate for this play?”– for them to realize that they hadn’t been careful enough in their word choice. (The answer, if you can’t immediately call up a mental picture, is a cross. Not an accessory for anyone in 429 BC, the approximate date that the play was written, nor for someone who explicitly worships Apollo.) My students are not stupid, nor are they lazy. Instead it seems to me that they haven’t been taught to think critically about internet searching. I’ve tried to get them to be more critical by asking questions about their results and trying to guide them toward better search terms. Are there ways that any of you have found to engage your students with more thoughtful, critical uses of the internet?

Incentivizing failure

There is no magic in innovation and good design. That seems to be the one big lesson of both Scott Berkun’s lecture on the myth of innovation, and Richard Gabriel’s push for the adoption of ‘worse-is-better’ philosophy in the Lisp programming language community. Both Berkun and Gabriel stress the importance of sheer hard work and strategy – yes, you have to simply start to make/do/build, but you also have to sometimes pull back and look at what is the simplest design you can put out there from the complex structure you are designing.

This (as well as Allison Carr’s piece) reminded me a lot of Howard Becker’s Writing for Social Scientists, where Becker reminds us that writing (a paper, book, or some scholarly production) is not a magical activity, but something that requires a lot of work. We usually have an image of some brilliant academic or writer sitting on her computer with finalized thoughts pouring out of her fingers and onto the word processor. This, Becker reminds us, is not the case – in fact, the very first thoughts put on paper (or screen) usually need a lot of simplifying, massaging, and editing to get them to a coherent argument, brilliant academic or not. (On a related note – Becker, as a sociologist, studies how art is made and constructed socially, and he applies the same theory to his ‘art worlds’.)

As scholars, we constantly write, or are expected to anyway. As teachers, we also constantly engage with students’ writings. Hence, I want to connect Berkun and Gabriel’s pieces to both how we do our scholarship and how we teach. I think that the ‘worse-is-better’ philosophy makes a lot of sense when we apply it to our written work – re-writing drafts of papers to get to the basic idea and make it as clear as possible (getting rid of jargon and unnecessary, duplicate, or confusing language). But how can we teach this to our students? How can we encourage them to consider failure when it is precisely what they are socialized to avoid at all costs? More specifically, how can we get them to see their written work as works-in-progress rather than one-time all-nighters? (Yes, scaffolding and peer-review are important here, but what else?)

I think this also has a lot to do with the system of incentives we live in. We not only incentivize success, but also incentivize hiding all our failures that led to that very success (another great point in Berkun’s talk). This is where spaces like Teaching Fails on JITP are useful – the failures are out in the open to be learned from. So can this be replicated for innovators? Should we set up a blog or other kind of space to document and share our failures as we progress with our ITP projects?

PS – I failed to get this posted on time because I was at a location where I thought I would have wifi over the weekend; bad foresight on my part. My apologies for getting this in later than expected.

I fail. You fail. We all fail at some point.

I was initially drawn towards the topic of failure not only as a graduate student, but also as a relatively new undergraduate teacher that frequently encounters failure in the classroom. Halfway through the article by Carr (In Support of Failure), I had an Ah-Ha moment. The author describes how we can re-conceptualize failure to include not only the personal realm, but also to consider the sociocultural context in which the failure occurs. Students may be either “held back” or placed in “remedial” classes to compensate for their lack of understanding of course material. The personal failures of the student are punished by segregating them into another classroom, distant from his/her peer group. I agree that we should consider the sociocultural context of the failure, but we should also seek to examine whether the nature of the undergraduate classroom (specifically) can transform how students and we (as educators) understand and communicate our failures.

I recently handed back graded papers, in which most of the class scored around the C-range. Immediately after handing back the paper one of my student’s hands shot up. She wondered what the class average was. When I answered her questions with, “a C average” I could sense the release of tension in a room. Students frequently use social comparisons to determine the “degree” of their failures within the classroom. It seems that the sense of shame that Carr later discusses can be transformed into a group-shame dynamic in college that often lightens the burden of experiencing this heavy emotion. As teachers, we may give students the class grade distributions and consequently, we may be encouraging students to accept their failures in relation to their peers. Will this transformation of shame and the subsequent movement towards students’ acceptance of their failures lead to a classroom full of unmotivated/lazy students? If we are to encourage students to accept failure (as Carr suggests), this paradigm shift must permeate beyond my classroom and into an entire campus for it to be effective. I also wondered whether there were differences in “failure acceptance” across the CUNY campuses. Are some of our campuses promoting the acceptance of failure? If so, how are they doing it effectively without creating an underachieving student body?

Turning more inward, Carr also talks about giving ourselves permission to experience failure “on its own terms,” and many of the articles in the Journal of IT & P illustrate personal reflections from educators on failures they’ve had within the classroom. We’ve been taught to feel shameful of our behaviors, but why don’t we as educators discuss our failures in an effort to learn from each other? I’ve noticed that student teachers do this frequently through informal conversations in the hallways, but we don’t publicly discuss these failures. I’m not advocating for teachers to publicize all of their classroom failures, but I’d love to learn from the successes and failures of other educators. How do we get far enough past the shame associated with failure to discuss our personal classroom failures with other teachers?

Can I pay for this with my good intentions?

There are a lot of big ideas in Lawrence Lessig’s talk REMIX: How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law and Chapters 2 and 9 of Lewis Hyde’s book Common as Air: Revolution, Art and Ownership. Big ideas that are certainly related and relatable yet too numerous and too large for me to pin down and fully synthesize in this short blog post. What I will say, though, is that the focus in these works on the creations and not the creators concerns me. The big ideas in these works address the survival and freedom of creations, but what are we doing to address the survival and freedom of creators? What about the common of estovers—the right of subsistence—Hyde describes? The common of estovers meant that a commoner would not lack food, fuel, or shelter. If creators of culture have a “copyduty” obligation to make their work available to benefit the community in the commons, what obligation does the community have to ensure the well-being of the creator? Hyde brings up an idea from Michael Walzer’s Spheres of Justice that “…a basic form of inequality, if not tyranny, arises whenever one sphere of social life begins to command the others” (p. 222).  How can we protect the cultural commoners from the tyranny of the need to earn to survive in a capitalistic economy?

In Common as Air Lewis Hyde states that “…our practices in regard to property fit us or unfit us for particular ways of being human” (p. 41). I would argue that current capitalist economic practices “unfit” us for being the types of humans that give away our labor for free. Grocery stores accept money in exchange for food—if you need to make money to feed yourself, how can you afford to give away your labor? How can people who concentrate their energies on creating art and ideas afford to buy land or houses if, as Hyde asserts, “…art and ideas, unlike land or houses, belong by nature to a cultural commons, open to all” (p. 214)? I wholly support making culture and knowledge freely accessible to all in a cultural commons, but how are those that contribute to the commons supposed to support themselves? Are creators of culture and knowledge expected to work a day job to buy groceries and pay rent and then work the night shift creating culture to give away for free? Energy is not limitless and mental fatigue is a real thing.

According to Lawrence Lessig’s talk REMIX: How Creativity is Being Strangled by the Law, creativity is being strangled by the law. I disagree. I mean, I agree with Lessig’s points and his argument, but saying the law is strangling creativity is like saying “guns kill people”. The truth is that people kill people using guns and capitalism strangles creativity using the law. To loosen the stranglehold copyright law has on creativity, Lessig and others created a set of alternative Creative Commons licenses, which give creators finer-grained control of how their works are made available or restricted for public use. I am concerned that we are distracted so much by the instrument used to commit the crime that we fail to see who’s holding it. As optimistic as the creation of things like Creative Commons licenses makes me about the possible existence of a cultural commons, I won’t be truly convinced of this possibility until I see the development of a creative commons economy. Hyde states that for the commons to endure, it must be protected from despotic dominion and the market. We must remember here that the commons is not just the land, but also the rights, customs, and the social structures governing these uses. If things like Creative Commons licenses loosen the grip of law on cultural creations, what equivalent do we have protecting the cultural commoners and their ways of interacting from the squeeze brought on by the need to survive in a capitalistic society?

Cultural production in the classroom

The theme for this week’s readings was ‘applied free culture’, but also, I think, culture in general, and who has the license to play with it. Here, I want to start thinking about what we mean by and how we participate in culture in the context of copyright laws. I’m also responding specifically to the ‘A Fair(y) Use Tale‘ video by Eric Faden, and the ‘Let’s Go Crazy‘ assignment by xtine burrough. Both of these pieces highlight the limitations of copyright laws (i.e., fair use), and try to push those limits further.

These readings really got me thinking seriously about culture and how it’s produced. They brought to mind a lot of ‘old-school’ Marxist sociology about how the economic structure informs culture, and about how culture is (in industrial and postindustrial societies) a construction of industrial and legal relations. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer’s ‘culture industry’ thesis came to mind as well – the theory that the production of popular culture mirrors the production of industrial goods, that popular culture is an industrial good, cheap, reproducible and lacking in critique, because it is closely controlled by a small number of companies. But of course, Adorno and Horkheimer imagined a passive audience, and today we mostly don’t. And even though Lessig’s read/write culture is definitely a far cry from the culture industry and its reproducible (but never re-writable) pop culture, the lesson from many of the readings is that we have not come very far in removing the stranglehold of industrial-capitalism from culture and how it’s produced.

A remix of the FBI copyright warning

A remix of the FBI copyright warning

Given this stranglehold of culture by the Walt Disneys of the world, what can we do in our roles as both culture-makers (or critics) and as teachers? How can we promote the accessibility of cultural products to ourselves and our students without necessarily putting them in the trenches of Jack Valenti’s copyright wars? Class is of course a part of this – poor students are not expected to be actively engaged with culture-creation, which is not unconnected to the debate around copyright. And just like cultural-production, culture-hacking can be a largely male, white, upper/middle-class phenomenon.  So, how can we encourage our students to think about culture as something they can play with and hack, or even create? I think that both Eric Faden and xtine burrough do just this type of work (while also exemplifying the class distinctions that make the work possible) – Faden uses clips from Disney movies to explain copyright laws and fair use (where the video itself is an example of fair use because it is both educational and a parody of Disney), and xtine burrough creates a class assignment that makes use of a court ruling in favor of the fair use of Prince’s ‘Let’s Get Crazy’ song as background music in personal YouTube videos.

But is this enough? Does fair use have to be limited to “purposes of criticism, news reporting, teaching and parody” only? What about cultural production – i.e., building on previous work and making new cultural goods? Could this be the reason the humanities (and the social sciences, to a certain extent) have put most of their energies toward critique (and parody sometimes), but not so much toward creation? How would learning (and teaching) be different if students were allowed to build on current cultural products and make them publicly available?

Final Project Proposal

Your final work for Core 2 is to produce a project proposal that includes a proof of concept. Yes, we will be reading it for a grade, but your true audience for this proposal are the gatekeepers who hold institutional purse strings, allocate resources and space, approve curriculum, or administer technology resources. Your job is to convince this hypothetical reader that your project is intellectually and/or pedagogically vital, builds on but doesn’t duplicate existing work, is done in the most effective and efficient way possible, uses the right tech, and most importantly: that you can pull it off in the time frame that you have available to you.

This project proposal does not have a fixed length requirement. You are welcome to follow the guidelines for the NEH Digital Humanities grants, or another discipline specific set of requirements. This proposal can as also double as a first draft of your ITP Independent Study proposal. Generally, it needs to include an abstract or summary with a clear problem statement, a project narrative that gives the practical, historical, theoretical, and technical contexts for the project proposed, a clear work plan or project timeline, and proof that you can complete the project. Proposals typically include a budget; you may choose to include this, but it is not required. You may find it useful to include your personas and your use case scenarios. Some disciplines may have other, discipline specific requirements; please include those.

The proof that you can complete the project sometimes comes in the form of your biography, or a description of how the proposed project builds on your previous and related work, but in this instance, you need to complete a proof of concept for the project. This will be different for each of you, but it needs to demonstrate that you have learned enough about the task at hand that you will be able to complete it. Most of this learning is technical, but it might not be exclusively technical. Some examples of past proofs of concept:

  • When proposing a group wiki assignment, one person created a simulation of one assignment at the halfway state, with the text edited in character by the user accounts for each of the 4 personas described.
  • When proposing a mobile app, one person found an open source quiz app they could build on, changed the text of one of questions, and recompiled the app.
  • When proposing a student assignment to create multimedia historical maps of NYC neighborhoods, one student created a sample map with the Google Maps API that contained a map point for each type of media expected to be used (video, audio, photograph, text).

You will be turning in a text, and giving a presentation. The presentation will take place on one of the last three weeks of class May 7, 14, or 21. These will be 15 minute presentations, with 15-20 minutes of discussion/feedback afterwards, depending on how many schedule per day. We will invite all ITP faculty to join us, though we don’t expect all will be able to make it for all of the days. One advantage of presenting early: you can incorporate your feedback into your text. The text as a .doc/.odt will be due May 21st. Sign up for a time slot in the doc in our course group.

OER the hills and far away

OER (Open Educational Resources) are “digitized materials offered openly and freely to educators, students, and self-learners to use and reuse for teaching, learning, and research.”1 Referring to the openness of open educational resources, John Hilton [et al] has written that

“the ‘open’ in open educational resources is not a simple binary concept; rather, the construct of openness is rich and multi-dimensional. To use an analogy, openness is not like a light switch that is either ‘on’ or ‘off.’ Rather it is like a dimmer switch, with varying degrees of openness.”2

It seems to me that one important aspect of defining what is meant by “openness” is to consider how easy the OER is to locate.  Discoverability of an OER is thus an important consideration as to how genuinely open it really is. In order for OER to be reused it is necessary for them to be found. If an OER cannot be discovered, from a practical perspective it might as well be closed behind an institutional firewall.

Along similar lines, as Peter Suber points out in his Oct. 2013 Guardian article “Open Access: Six Myths Put to Rest,” there seems to be quite a bit of confusion in academia as to what open access does and doesn’t mean, and how it does and does not function. The difference between journal-delivered “gold” open access and repository “green” open access, for example, needs to be clarified and publicized in a clear way. Authors of scholarly articles, regardless of discipline, need to learn that their work can most likely be shared via green open access repository, even if the  work initially appears in a conventional academic journal. I doubt that most scholars want their work to  languish unread on remote library shelves and behind firewalls. If more people in the academic world knew what their publishing options actually were, and that rendering their work accessible is often an author-initiated choice, surely more of them would opt to open their scholarship to a potentially wider audience. Right?

1Bissell, Ahrash. “Permission Granted: Open Licensing for Educational Resources.” Open Learning, The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, vol. 24. 2009.

2 Hilton, J., Wiley, D., Stein, J., Johnson. “The Four R’s of Openness and ALMS Analysis: Frameworks for Open Educational Resources.” Open Learning: The Journal of Open and Distance Learning, vol. 25. 2010.

(Digital) Culture Industry

As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper with the same title as this post on Benjamin’s revolutionary vision of mechanical reproduction and Adorno’s grim outlook in his Culture Industry and tried to apply it to the up and coming digital age.  I focused mostly on music production and sharing, but I find it extremely interesting how well it applies to this particular case of digital scholarship and publishing.  Dawson’s account of the revolutionary potential of OA and online publishing/scholarship mixed with her fear of hegemonic control of said technology and potential is reminiscent of this age old power struggle.  As with anything dangerous or possibly threatening to the hegemony, often the ruling powers assimilate and control and/or ostracize and destroy, which they clearly are trying to do with digital revolutions and the like.  However, where I think Benjamin might have been over zealous with mechanical production, digital technology rears revolution back to the forefront of society because the means of production and distribution cannot be controlled.  This to me is the key for successful restructuring of society.  As we are seeing with the music industry, I believe the same can be executed in scholarship and publishing.

My question for you guys, I guess, is:

There will always be a struggle between the scholar, the institution, and those at the top, so will all of this potential be swallowed by capitalist measures and assimilated and controlled or could this digital age actually usher new potential for distinct and definite positive change?