Gender & Technology

Most of us (should) know that the net is not a particularly nice place. It is a neutral tool that allows all users to go out there and be themselves. Unfortunately the technology also offers people pseudo-anonymity or the illusion of real anonymity. I say unfortunately because this really brings the weirdos out of the woodwork. One of the most casual forms is the misogynist – but racism may be more common.

In an article on Women on the Web, Caitlin Fitzsimmons writes about the way in which men use technology to spread fear against women and approaches ways in which to deal with the issue. Many tend to think that the best approach is to ignore those who behave badly. This approach can be justified in different ways:

1. The simplest reason many ignore the problem is by claiming to be too tired/busy to react. This is usually connected to arguments that there are simply too many things to react to. So in general I agree with this argument except for the problem that too many people use this as an excuse all the time and react to nothing. If you cannot fight against everything then at least pick one injustice and fight against that!

2. Social shunning as punishment. In real life when someone behaves badly we often do not tell them or make a big fuss. Often it is enough to ignore what has happened, in particular if we ignore it visibly. We can, for example, create an embarrassing silence. This is the social equivalent of banishment and the socially aware individual recognizes that boundaries have been crossed and will adjust his/her behavior in the future. The problem with attempting this online is that the offender must feel the need to belong to the group for this to work. Also embarrassing silences only work when the whole social group falls unnaturally silent. This does not work online.

3. The third approach is the concept of the marketplace of ideas. This basically means that it is actually good for the weirdo’s to get out in the open and test their ideas since this will only encourage the opposition to develop better arguments and convince the weirdo’s that they are wrong. In an offline world this may work in theory in an open debate but it is hardly likely to work in practice.  In an online environment this approach is misguided. It also gives the weirdo’s way too much leeway and opportunity to cause pain to others.

Fitzsimmons writes:

The question is then how to tackle the problem. The panellists agreed that while there was no point in engaging directly with hateful comments, ignoring them was not really a viable option.’s Valenti said online misogyny was different to offline abuse in two key respects. “Unlike someone coming up to you on the street, it can be really hard to assess what kind of danger you’re in,” she added. “You don’t know if it’s a 15 year-old in Idaho spouting off or a really scary guy who really is likely to come around and rape you.”

The online/offline worlds are different and attempting to apply theoretical approaches to handling uncomfortable/threatening/harmful situations in the online world may only cause more harm. No I do not have a solution but I really like the way in which blogs like Feministing are using  technology to reach new readers – or actually viewers since Feministing uses YouTube videos (check out their channel here).

What is art? Confusion in copyright

In many forum discussions the acronym ianal (I am not a lawyer) is used to denote that the writer is not a lawyer. In all fairness then I should begin this article by adding ianaa – I am not an artist. My interest in the definition of what is, can and should be art come mainly from my work in the field of copyright – even though I have an amateur interest in art.

When I first attempted to approach the question of art in 2003 I was naïve enough to think that there was a simple answer to be found and that it was just a question of locating it. Boy was I wrong. The only thing that I have found to be common to a definition of art at large and art in copyright is that it must have an expressive element.

Most often the artist must intend a work to be art for it to be considered art. But this is not always necessary. In some cases the viewers of the work may raise an aesthetic expression to the status of art despite their being no intention from the creator.

The utilitarian object: A dustpan in my house is not art. A dustpan hanging in the cleaning closet at the museum of modern art is not art. A dustpan hanging on the wall displayed among exhibits of the museum of modern art is art. The creator of the dustpan did not have the intention of creating art however the artist may use this everyday object as a piece of art and display it as art in order to create an aesthetic expression.

In 2004 a survey among 500 art experts chose Marcel Duchamp’s urinal to be the most influential modern art work of all time. The creator of the urinal does not have copyright in it – although he or she may have protection for its design but this protection can only be awarded for the elements of the design that are not their for solely functional use.

urinal2.jpg urinal.jpg

Left image of Duchamp’s urinal 1917 photo: Readymade by GriXx (CC by-nc-nd), Right image photo Urinal by Eatmorechips (CC by-nc-nd)

Copyright law is in trouble here since the object cannot be protected as it is and yet it is possible to protect the work via copyright. The photo’s here are the copyright of the photographers. The Duchamp urinal is made specific via his signature and making copies of it are limited since the rights to the work belong to the copyright holder.

Unintentional art: In an recent post about snowmen and copyright I discussed how a snowmen scene (two snowmen pushing and pulling a large wheel over a third snow figure lying in front of the wheel) could be seen as art even if it may not have been the intention of the creators to create anything beyond their own amusement. The creator may, for many reasons, not be intending to create art but the world at large may appreciate the results and classify the work as art. In this case the expression is awarded the full protection of copyright law despite the lack of author intention.

Koko is a lowland gorilla with a sign language vocabulary of 1000 words. Koko has also painted many pictures which have been sold in art auctions.

Bird Red Slice (abstract) by Koko (acrylic on canvas) 1984

The problem with copyright in unintentional art is interesting but it is made even more so by Koko. First, does copyright have a requirement of intent in the expression of art? Here the answer should be no. Second, and more specific to unintentional animal art (Koko is not alone) can animals be authors as understood by copyright law? There does not seem to be a formal requirement to be human in the law but I have been unable to find a non-human copyright holder.


The problem is that this is not the way in which art is defined by Encyclopedia Britannica (login required): “…the use of skill and imagination in the creation of aesthetic objects, environments, or experiences that can be shared with others…” since this definition seems to require the intent of the creator.

Art and copyright are complicated subjects and I think that the only way to end this quote is with a Monty Python classic sketch with the pope discussing art with Michelangelo which ends with a comment by the pope (played by John Cleese): Look! I’m the bloody pope, I am! May not know much about art, but I know what I like!

New sins and old

The Catholic Church has proposed seven new deadly sins:

Environmental destruction
Genetic Manipulation
Amassing unreasonable wealth
Causing poverty
Drug dealing
Using drugs

The list seems sensible enough since these actions cause pain and suffering to others. Naturally some of them are vague (what is unreasonable) but as a lawyer I know that it would be unfair to complain too much about that.

My beef, besides the whole church organization (all organizations exist to amass power), lies a bit with Catholic Church talking about unreasonable wealth – isn’t this the pot calling the kettle black? Actually my main beef is with the last one. I am not pro-drugs but it lies in the lack of definition of drugs.

Which drugs? Naturally narcotics, but what about abuse of prescription drugs? What about the discussion on hard and soft drugs? What about coffee, tobacco & alcohol? Their abuse, and sometimes their production, cause pain to the individual and others. Actually it would be kind of strange if the Church were to try to claim that wine was a deadly sin.

The list is published in L’Osservatore Romano and was created to help people in the confessional. Naturally the old seven deadly sins (lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride) still apply so this actually means that there are fourteen deadly sins.

Update: Read more about this at Times Online

Update 2:  Obviously I could not count as I only added six new sins when there were supposed to seven – there seems to be some confusion online as to the actual content of the list – I am not sure if it is actually a list or rather groups of social ills but there seems to be a general consensus on this…

Environmental pollution

Genetic manipulation

Accumulating excessive wealth

Inflicting poverty

Drug trafficking and consumption

Morally debatable experiments

Violation of fundamental rights of human nature

(BBC news online)

Thoughts in the London Drizzle

Its kind of sad when wifi rules your thoughts and I am pretty sure that their are lots of ways of rationalizing the need for an internet connection but I must admit it is pretty sad. Sad people should be pitied but when it comes to Internet connections they are not pitied they are preyed upon. The prices hotels seem to think they can charge (maybe they can) for a connection are absolutely ridiculous. Amazingly enough the better the hotel the higher they want to charge – it should sort of be the other way around. The hotel last night only had wifi in the lobby and wanted to charge 80 pounds for a 24 hour connection!!!! This was a new record for me and naturally I went without until today when I can scrounge off someone else.

After arriving yesterday I gave a lecture at the LSE on Disobedience and Resistance in Online Environments – it went very well and the students were quick to join the discussion. Today I will be discussing PhD projects with four students and then its out in the London drizzle. Thanks to the Internet connection I uploaded the last of the Ljubljana pictures – the city is a very cool center for innovative street art.

The rest of my photos are on Flickr

Paperless? I think not.

The New York Times has published an article about the demise of paper. The article suggests that the change is not only imminent but it is already here. The usual approach of quoting experts is used in an attempt to show that paper is gone and that only wasteful employees are still printing.

The biggest expert is the family of an engineering director at google and the chairman of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. The latter however sort of diminishes the general upbeat article by admitting that scanned books are not as pleasant as the old fashioned alternative.

So yes we like paperless tickets and nobody understands why we need to kill forests to print telephone books (but not many seem to be complaining about the Ikea catalogue) but does this mean we are paperless? Looking around my desk I think not. Maybe I am not representative. Looking around the office I still don’t think so. Maybe we are not representative? Looking around the places I live and hang out – I still don’t think so…

Somehow the paperless office still has not made it. It never did. And I doubt that it ever will. Yes, lots of people are prepared to read books on their palms but not all (read excellent article on this here). Lets face it, paper is here to stay. It simply has the best traits…

The article is not all bad though and it does bring up the environmental issues involved with changing from paper to all the electronic gadgets.

Others who have commented on the article are Question Technology, Treehugger and LifeHacker

The Information Society for None

Free the Mind has blogged about the report Cultural industries in the context of the Lisbon strategy [PDF] being discussed in the European Parliaments Committee on Culture and Education.

Article 9 in the report attempts to address online piracy and should be seen as a step in the right direction. The authors have reached the understanding that …criminalising consumers so as to combat digital piracy is not the right solution.

However the committee members did not agree with this and several of them have submitted proposals for changes [PDF]. The most serious is the proposal from Christopher Hilton-Hearris. His proposal will force Internet providers into action and to close the accounts of those caught violating others copyright:

This cooperation of Internet service providers should include the use of filtering technologies to prevent their networks being used to infringe intellectual property, the removal from the networks or the blocking of content that infringes intellectual property, and the enforcement of their contractual terms and conditions, which permit them to suspend or terminate their contracts with those subscribers who repeatedly or on a wide scale infringe intellectual property

He even proposes that the EU-Commission launch pro intellectual property campaigns to the general public and as a subject in schools. He is not alone in his suggestion to cut off Internet supply to those involved in copyright violations. The Committee on Industry, Research and Energy has recommended the Committee for Culture and Education to:

Calls on the internet service providers to cooperate in the fight against internet piracy and enforce their contractual terms and conditions or terminate contracts with subscribers who infringe intellectual property rights. Internet service providers should apply filtering measures to prevent copyright and stop existing infringements

Photo hear hear by massdistraction

This is an extremely simplistic and naive approach to the problem of copyright violation in digital environments.

Now that politicians are actively attempting to shut down connections the dream of creating an inclusive society based upon a technological infrastructure (for example Information Society for All) seems to be on its way out.

Why is banning people from the Internet a bad idea?

The Internet has been promoted and become our most basic communications infrastructure (obviously my focus here is Europe since this is where the proposal is being discussed).

1. The punishment does not fit the crime: We have changed the way Banks, Post Offices, ticket sales, hotel booking, insurance (etc, etc) work and banning someone from the Internet will be tantamount to branding a symbol of guilt onto the person. Not to mention the increased costs involved in time and money. Indeed why should copyright violation prevent me from online banking?

2. Group punishment: If an Internet connection is involved in copyright violation this does not mean that all those dependent upon that connection should be punished. The actual violator may be underage or the network may be open to others.

3. Privatizing the law: The ability to punish copyright violators should not be delegated to private bodies. Internet providers are not equipped to mete out legal punishments.

The proposals seen above are simplistic, naive and dangerous they show a fundamental lack of understanding not only of technology or its role in society but also a lack of understanding of the role of communication in a democratic society. The actions of the politicians proposing such measures show that they are not acting in the interests of the individuals they are there to serve.

Is the people's car a good idea?

The Indian Tata corporation have presented their new car the Tata Nano at a car show in New Delhi. The car is being described as as a people’s car due to it’s low price (100,000 rupees or $2,500). It will go on sale later this year. The main market for the car is to provide cheap motor transportation to developing countries. The Nano is a four-door five-seater car with no extras (no air conditioning, electric windows or power steering) and has a 33bhp, 624cc, engine at the rear.


Simply looking at the specs above make me concerned. I would not like to be among the five people in this car when it gets hit by a truck.

Is producing a cheap people’s car really a good idea? While I am pretty sure that Tata Motors will sell lots of cars I did not mean this question as a risk analysis in a business venture.

Considering the experiences of all highly motorized countries the car has caused plenty of trouble. The implementation of a personalised transport technology means that it will become a natural part of the infrastructure. It will be used and the costs to the environment in the forms of pollution and overcrowding will be felt.

In addition to this the personal car has also changed the way in which we organize ourselves socially. Were we choose to work, live and socialize depends very much upon the transportation possibilities around us.
But is it fair for someone living in a motorized community to preach the environment and social change? Sure these are the downsides to adding to the amount of cars on the roads. But what about the needs of the people to travel in countries where cars are today an un-affordable luxury? Should the motorized societies be allowed to preach to the non-motorized from the driver seats of our SUV’s?

(via BBC online)

The Story of Stuff

Don’t you just love it when you find cool stuff online? When you find something that someone has worked on to create and perfect so that others can enjoy? I do.

The film The Story of Stuff attempts to educate consumers about the costs of all or stuff. Or as the question of the film is poed in the begining of the movie – how can it be that a radio can cost as little as 4.99?

The online blurb explains:

From its extraction through sale, use and disposal, all the stuff in our lives affects communities at home and abroad, yet most of this is hidden from view. The Story of Stuff is a 20-minute, fast-paced, fact-filled look at the underside of our production and consumption patterns. The Story of Stuff exposes the connections between a huge number of environmental and social issues, and calls us together to create a more sustainable and just world. It’ll teach you something, it’ll make you laugh, and it just may change the way you look at all the stuff in your life forever.

I am particularly fond of the quote: “You cannot run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely”.

So go to the site watch the movie, download the movie (its CC licensed) listen and learn. How can our stuff cost next to nothing…

Never mention the technology

A few posts back I talked about travel and was stupid enough to mention the vulnerability of technology while traveling. I could do this because fundamentally I am not a superstitious person and I was speaking about the risk of forgetting a vital part of technology like a cable. Naturally things like this do not go unpunished and I was (almost) instantly struck by lightening.

The keyboard and pad to my macbook pro just stopped working. Using an external mouse and keyboard worked fine – basically a hardware error. But I was far away from rescue disks, backup systems, external hardware, support and any kind of help. Basically I was screwed.

So I spent my days traveling with dead technology, wishing it to work but to no avail. Fortunately I was back at home base (Göteborg) on Monday. Major backups, handing in the laptop to the repairman and then attempting to get my old laptop into some kind of working order. My old one is very unstable and insecure no matter what I do to it.

Getting a computer into shape takes time. All the minor adjustments that turns it from a mass market product into a comfortable work environment is a slow process. Eventually I managed to get to sleep only to wake up two hours later for no reason. Returning to sleep never worked. After tossing and turning I succumbed to the temptation and went back to adjusting my laptop.

Sometime during the night I began to think about an idea of my former professor, Bo Dahlbom. He used to claim that we were becoming a nomadic society. Naturally he was referring to a segment of society and generalizing. Even though it’s mostly by train I am beginning to feel like a nomadic tribesman. But there is a problem with the nomad analogy.

The nomads are a self-reliant group, their technology is durable, lightweight and basic. If they cannot carry it, service it or fix it then they will not use it. The same cannot be said of the tecchie nomads who need a well functioning infrastructure around them to be able to carry out the semblance of what they (we?) would call a normal life.

On the train platform I saw my first iPhone – sweet!

Students and Technology

Remember Michael Wesch? He created the excellent video The Machine is Us/ing Us about web2.0. Its message: The Machine is us was very nicely argued. Prof Wesch is back again with another video, A Vision of Students Today, about the student life today. Mainly (but not only) about the relationship between teaching and technology.

The students surveyed themselves and this resulted in the following statements – but don’t stop here – the film is very much worth watching both for its message and presentation. Here are some of the statements which arise from the survey:

  • I complete 49% of readings assigned to me
  • I will read 8 books this year, 2300 web pages & 1281 facebook profiles
  • I facebook through most of my classes

The film contains two important quotes – the first my McLuhan (1967)

Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns subjects and schedules.

and the second from 1841 when Josiah F. Bumstead said about the inventor of the blackboard:

The inventor of the system deserves to be ranked among the best contributors to learning science, if not the greatest benefactors of mankind.

Don’t make the mistake of interpreting Wesch as a luddite. It is very important to be able to criticize technology. The amazing thing is that we are allowed to criticize cars without being accused of luddism but if you are critical towards IT you stand accused of wanting to return to the stone age.

Wesch is making an important point that teaching should be more relevant and less dependent upon technology. Simply adding technology, or supplying it to students, does not improve teaching, learning or education.

Prof Wesch Digital Ethnography Blog

Oh, and while you are there check out their Information R/evolution video.