Technologies of Control & Desire Notes

The first class discussion & lecture of the Civic Media course began with the suitably vague title Technologies of Control and Desire. The purpose of this lecture was to introduce technology into the discussion of ethics and communication. The idea was to talk about the ways in which technologies have been seen both as a source of salvation and as a threat to the society in which they are introduced.

Unsurprisingly, in my eagerness I forgot to talk about the first slide which was a advertisement for an early television remote control.

Eugene PolleyOften the invention of the remote control is credited to Eugene Polley (1915 – 2012) it was an invention that had to happen. People didn’t want to have to stand up to change the channel. What we tend not to think about is that the invention of the remote control allowed for many changes. Thousands of channels would not be able to compete or exist without a remote control. Also advertising was forced to adapt once people could effortlessly change channels or lower the volume. Eugene Polley didn’t create the couch potato but he certainly made life easier for this group.

The first section of the presentation was a very, very brief introduction to technology ethics in order to arrive at the discussion of whether we have free choice or not. Are we choosing to do what we do based on ethical decision making? Or maybe on chance? Or maybe something else? What is the role of technology in forming our worlds and “assisting” our choices.

I included a quote from the composer Stravinsky

In America I had arranged with a gramophone firm to make some of my music. This suggested the idea that I should compose something whose length should be determined by the capacity of the record.

This is a nice illustration where art is no longer necessarily a choice of the creator but rather a decision based on technological limitations. Keeping on the theme of technology I also introduced the idea of technology enabling us to act – or to put it more extremely – technology “forcing” us to act.

To illustrate this I showed them the web page for the iPod Classic which has the line “Your top 40 000”. This refers to the capacity of the device to store 40 000 songs. But how would someone go about collecting so much music? Could it be done legally? Or does this tagline implicitly encourage piracy?

From this point I introduced technological determinism and the idea of choice. Without refuting that we always have choice I gave examples of social and technological mass choices that seem to indicate a high level of determinism.

From this position I pointed out that the way in which technology is accepted depends on the way in which we see it either as a threat or a benefit to our lifestyle. Using weird and wonderful advertisements and technical articles from the past I demonstrated a utopian vision where farmers work from home, students learn without reading and asthma is cured with cigarettes.

In order to demonstrate techno-pessimism I used quotes from Plato (against writing), a snippet against books from Johannes Trithemius’ (1494) In Praise of Scribes

The word written on parchment will last a thousand years. The printed word is on paper. How long will it last? The most you can expect a book of paper to survive is two hundred years.

Referencing social media I pointed at George M Beard’s (1881) concern that newspapers and telegraph create nervous disorders by exposing people to “the sorrows of individuals everywhere”

In closing I reminded the audience of Postman’s comparison between Orwell and Huxley’s visions of the future: Orwell was concerned that we would be oppressed by a technology wielding state. Huxley was concerned that we would all be sucked into the shallow pleasures offered by technology. I pointed out that it has become popular to say Huxley has “won” because social media seems to be people settling for shallow pleasures. However, this is not entirely true and states are increasingly using Orwellian means to control those who would engage in deeper discussions that threaten the state.

I finished off with a short video of Morosov’s work (which can be found online here) and a class discussion. The slides I used for the class are online here


Life according to the movies

After a friend quoted Braveheart to me I go to thinking about movie quotes and arrived at the realization that if something is worth saying it will be parodied in the movies.

So which movie quotes do you remember, or maybe just cannot get out of your mind. Classics like Scarface’s “Say hello to my little friend”, Rhett Butler: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” (Gone With the Wind) or most of the The Godfather tend to appear on people’s list of all time quotes – and for good reason. But when I think of movie quotes I end up with some of the more odd stuff like Ghostbusters – “Back off, I’m a scientist” (which another friend of mine wanted to have on the cover of his thesis but thought better of it – it seemed unnecessary to piss of the examination committee). Another cool one is “Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!” from Dr. Strangelove.

I am also fond of scenes when movies parody other movies. Here is the smoking man from the x-files “doing” Forrest Gump:

“Life…is like a box of chocolates. A cheap, thoughtless, perfunctory gift that nobody ever asks for. Unreturnable, because all you get back is another box of chocolates. So, you’re stuck with this undefinable whipped mint crap that you mindlessly wolf down when there’s nothing else left to eat. Sure, once in a while, there’s a peanut butter cup, or an english toffee, but they’re gone too fast, and the taste is…fleeting. So you end up with nothing but broken bits filled with hardened jelly and teeth-shattering nuts. And if you’re desperate enough to eat those, all you’ve got left is an empty box filled with useless brown paper wrappers.”

But what about the quotes that are funny besides themselves like: “You’re gonna need a bigger boat” from Jaws or “Soylent Green is people” from Soylent Green.

Or two quotes which can illustrate the demise of the writer in the movies: “When I’m good, I’m very, very good, but when I’m bad, I’m better” Mae West as Tira in “I’m No Angel” compared to  “Yo, Adrian” – Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky”. OK so this was maybe an unfair comparison 🙂

Whatever your tastes and needs a good movie quote is always good to have.

Thousand Splendid Suns

Over the holiday I read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (author of The Kite Runner) the book tells the tale of the horrors faced by women in Afghanistan. It’s the kind of book which is impossible to put down – so filled with tragedy and misery that compells you to read on.

There were some small sparks of optimism among which is the wonderful quote of a woman being led to her execution after a life of total misery. The spark of positivism is probably an exaggeration of reality but it was necessary to enable the reader to carry on…

Miriam wished for so much in those final moments. Yet as she closed her eyes, it was not regret any longer but a sensation of abundant peace that washed over her. She thought of her entry into this world, the harami child of a lowly villager, an unintended thing , a pitiable, regrettable accident. A weed. And yet she was leaving the world as a woman who had loved and been loved back. She was leaving it as a friend, a companion, a guardian. A mother. A person of consequence at last. No. It was not so bad, Miriam thought, that she should die this way. Not so bad. This was a legitimate end to a life of illegitimate belongings.

Cannot explain the value of this quote – just read the book.

What is the lecture?

No one can tell you what the lecture is… sorry for the silly Matrix reference. The question here is on the issue of property and the lecture. The questions I hope to address are Who owns the lecture? Who controls the lecture? Who owns the lecture notes? What can the audience do? Who owns the audiences’ notes?

Some early background: In November 2006 I wrote the post Do you hand out your handouts which was concerned with students demanding (not asking) to have handouts in advance. This is also part of a larger issue of the impact of becoming dependent on technology in teaching (see post Teaching with powerpoint).

What triggered these reflections was the news that University of Florida professor Michael Moulton was claiming the right to prevent his students from selling their lecture notes. His claim was based upon the concept that the students notes were actually derivative works from his own notes and therefore the lecturer could use copyright to prevent the students from selling their notes. This is the basic story read more details at Wired.

Standing and talking i.e. giving a lecture is not copyrightable per se, this is actually a good thing as most lectures tend to be the explanation of the works of many others (not all mentioned). A lecture on basic copyright law will include ideas and direct quotes from the law, courts and often other jurists. The nature of the lecture is to educate the audience on a certain issue and therefore cannot be only the ideas and opinions of the lecturer. This use of the ideas and texts of others is neither copyright infringement or plagiarism.

The lecture becomes copyrightable when it is a derivative work of the lecture notes. In other words a lecture given without notes is not copyrightable, nor is a lecture given from notes taken from the public domain. If the non-copyrightable lecture is filmed or recorded then the copyright goes to the person recording (the director).

The “right” of the lecturer to refuse the audience to record is actually not a question of copyright but more a question of labor law. For example, if I were to refuse to let my students record me the question would be one of my refusal to carry out my job as a lecturer. The ensuing discussion between my employer and me would be a re-negotiation of my contract to take into account the audiences’ desire to record my work. Many lecturers I have spoken to are not aware of this position and some react very strongly to being recorded while they work. The audience taking notes is a developed fair use but again the lecturer could theoretically refuse to talk if someone were holding a pen (as with a recording device) but it is doubtful that the academic employer would support this position.

What can the audience do with their notes or recordings? If we presume that the lecture is based upon the copyrightable notes of the lecturer (as opposed to an ad hoc talk or a folk dance following a traditional pattern i.e. uncopyrightable) then any kind of reproduction of the notes/recording would be a violation of the copyright of the lecturer. The audience can however sell their copies or make copies for their friends within the limits of fair use but this would not allow them to make several copies or post the notes/recording on the Internet.

Therefore the lecture is a collection of rights and it intersects with different legal areas. Beyond that it is also a specific situation based upon the traditions and expectations of the audience and lecturer. The lecturer seems to have more power since he/she has chosen the subject, scheduled the event and does all the talking  but this is not necessarily the case. The lecture is a socially constructed affair which requires audience participation in specific forms (coming on time, sitting properly, silence, attention etc)

On top of all this comes the control via labor law and contracts. Wow, who said that giving a lecture was easy?

The science thing

Defining science is never easy:

“If it squirms, it’s biology; if it stinks, it’s chemistry; if it doesn’t work, it’s physics; and if you can’t understand it, it’s mathematics.” Magnus Pyke

“Scientists are people of very dissimilar temperaments doing different things in very different ways. Among scientists are collectors, classifiers and compulsive tidiers-up; many are detectives by temperament and many are explorers; some are artists and others artisans. There are poet-scientists and philosopher-scientists and even a few mystics.” Peter Medawar (Pluto’s Republic, p. 116).

I needed to go back and look at the meaning of science for an article I am writing and besides the formal definition I came across two quotes that I like. The formal definition is something like this: Scientific knowledge is proven knowledge, arrived at in some rigorous manner, untouched by personal preferences and opinions. This rigor and lack of objective knowledge makes scientific knowledge more dependable than the alternatives.

Absurdist theatre and reality

The existentialist Albert Camus actively explored the absurd in human existence. Among his work was the play Caligula in which he used the example of the mad roman emperor to show that reality is a mad game. In the play the madness of Caligula (the emperor) is not totally irrational but it is a way in forcing people to realize that the world is totally crazy and that individuals must react.

So in the play when Caligula acts madly (he claims to be the goddess Venus, appointing his horse to Consul and priest, forcing senators wives to act as prostitutes in state brothels) he does so to make a point. It makes for a fascinating interpretation but most probably it was just plain old madness.

Via Neatorama I came across the quotes of Prince Philip and after a bit of googling the examples flooded in – the man is so politically incorrect it almost seems like he is acting with a purpose. But like the Caligula in reality he is just a nightmare of politically incorrect behavior.

Here are some examples:

To a native woman in Kenya: You are a woman, aren’t you?

At a World Wildlife Fund meeting: If it has four legs and is not a chair, has wings and is not an aeroplane, or swims and is not a submarine, the Cantonese will eat it.

To a driving instructor in Scotland: How do you keep the natives off the booze long enough to get them through the test?

To a student who had been trekking in Papua New Guinea: You managed not to get eaten, then?

To an Aboriginal man on Australia: Do you still throw spears at each other?

To the President of Nigeria, who was dressed in traditional robes: You look like you’re ready for bed!

For an expanded list of his mad quotes go here

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.

Fear and Courage

Naturally no one can live life through quotations but there are some quotations that kind of manage to capture a sentiment of importance. These also tend to stick in my mind – not that I remember the exact quote, more the general idea. While in Kalmar I came across a second hand bookshop and found a philosophical book on the topic of courage. I am looking forward to reading it.

One of the more curious quotes that I like is from Camilo Jose Cela’s Journey to the Alcarria

Sometimes one has frightening sensations of well-being, strong enough to move mountains; one must fight them courageously, as one would fight an enemy. And then, with the passage of time, they leave something like a drop of gall in ones heart…

Contentment is one of the more dangerous enemies that prevent our development. When we arrive in a situation of contentment we occasionally do not dare to take a risk that may help us develop. Not really sure about the “drop of gall” part.

Part of the problem is the fear of failure or the fear of losing out. But, to quote another writer, there is another way of looking at this problem:

By embracing the inescapable, I lost my fear of it. I’ll tell you a secret about fear: its an absolutist. With fear, its all or nothing. Either, like any bullying tyrant, it rules your life with a stupid blinding omnipotence, or else you overthrow it, and its power vanishes like a puff of smoke. And another secret: the revolution against fear, the engendering of that tawdry despots fall, has more or less nothing to do with ‘courage’. It is driven by something much more straightforward: the simple need to get on with your life.

This is from Salman Rushdie’s “The Moors Last Sigh” and it hits the exact point that the fear of fear is more serious than the thing we fear itself. Overcoming our fears are as Rushdie puts it not really a matter of being overly courageous but more a need to get on with our lives…

Oh, please!

On the train traveling back from Stockholm I spent the time watching the Da Vinci Code (extended version no less). I must stay this â?? what a load of bull. OK so I did not expect much but the film could have been much better. It was long and boring and contained silly representations of everything from bankers to technology, from monks to academics.

The one highlight in the film was the quote: I have to get to a library â?? fast.

This must be one of the sillier film quotes I have heard in a long time…