Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

Chinese with Ward Cunningham

Wednesday, October 24th, 2007

I met Ward Cunningham the other day and had lunch with him at an innocuous Chinese restaurant in Montreal’s Chinatown. I am just finishing up at WikiSym, the only academic conference dedicated to wikis. On Day 1, he dropped in on an open space session I was in, where the discussion centered on the viability of wiki communities. I realized (sometimes I can be slow) that this was the perfect chance to meet and talk with the guy who’s work got me interested in wikis in the first place.

So I introduced myself after the session, briefly contextualized my interest in his work and asked if I could interview him. He agreed and we began chatting, waiting for lunch plans to materialize (as they inevitably do in open space conferences). What interests me mostly about Ward (everyone here calls him that) is his self-conscious effort to build what he calls “humane” software. In particular, he writes on his wiki (WikiWikiWeb – the very first wiki!) that trustworthiness is a principle that inspired his initial wiki design: “This is at the core of wiki. Trust the people, trust the process, enable trust-building.” (See here for more about Ward’s wiki design principles).

Ward decided to build a type of software that would essentially force people to work together – wiki’s don’t function without collaboration.This broke from the traditional approach to proprietary software development, where a manager divided a project into a number of tasks and then assigned them to individuals, who then worked on their task individually. This was just “silly”, according to Ward.

Ward seemed to take a real advocacy approach and I asked him if he considered himself an activist. Now, as you know, most of this hardcore computer types tend toward libertarianism. So I was shocked when he said yes. Turns out, Ward thinks users should be able to easily use software – not just the experts. So he designed a piece of software (wiki) to facilitate collaboration in order to engender better software design. What I think is interesting – and perhaps it’s just serendipitous – is this: the process that enables software engineers to design “humane” software is a humanizing process: working together. This goes beyond simple sharing or cooperation as it is creative, and requires skills that nurture community. Wiki, as a software, concept, method, has turned out to be profound.

Web of Change and me

Sunday, September 23rd, 2007

So here I am at Hollyhock, on Cortes Island, for Web of Change, for the second year running. I need to quickly put down some things or I’ll lose them. So this will be a fast and dirty post.

The main reason for this is that there is no time, despite this conference being organized largely on Open Space. The conference is bigger this year, for one thing. There are about 100 peeps here. And of these, there are so many fascinating, killer sharp folks that I want to chat with, in addition to attending the sessions, that it’s literally becoming a bit like work to track down and “pencil in” these moments. When in conversation with one, another will walk by and I interrupt myself to “bookmark” that person, to say hey, let’s talk later. Things like answering emails, mentally preparing for my return to normal life/work and facebooking (even though I’m over it) are taking up some precious “down time”…

Peeps I need to further bookmark:

Jon Stahl: I have linked to him on this blog for some time. He is a WoC alumnus but was not here last year. I am pleased to meet him f2f and he has lots of very interesting thoughts on the intersection of non-profits and open source, and he doesn’t mind getting political n shit… He posted this essay on his blog, which I skimmed but will treat more in depth when I return.

David Eaves: This guy is tack sharp. He presented a session called “Online collaboration: Quantifying the problem, designing a solution”. The main problem he identified stopped me in my mental tracks. It was just this: What we consider to be collaborative work online isn’t true collaboration. That is, offline, it would be considered something entirely different. This reminded me of the cyberutopian claim that the internet was a virtual agora that would revitalize democracy etc. etc. We saw this uncritical approach in a lot of early academic writing on the Internet. Now that I’m thinking about online practices and values, and their potential for contributing to offline social change, I’ve been hyping on “collaboration”, unconsciously and uncritically valorizing it as a practice that inheres within internet technology. My bad. This critical interpretation of online collaboration is one I need to flesh out and add to my growing collection of ideas around the prospects for 1. democratizing Internet technology and 2. translating this process offline (democratizing society). Thank you Dave.

Rolf Kleef: Another WoC alumn whom I became aware of through the WoC mailing list, but just met. His tagline on his card is: Online communication and collaboration. Rolf is from the Netherlands; I wonder if this accounts for his political orientation to Internet technology. For a little light reading he brought a book I’ve used (and now will reread): Cyberprotest: New media, citizens and social movements. He is an acquaintance of one of the editors, Wim van de Donk, whose work I totally dig. What are the chances? What interested me about Rolf was his insight that often,within organizations (he’s a consultant) problems that are identified as technical are, in fact social. This reminds (me) of the tendency to abstract technology from its social grounding and treat it as a panacea.

Communing with nature

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

Tonight I saw the sunset.

The temperature was much warmer today and I went outside seeking relief from the heavy heat inside. This time I had no blanket, but was not cold. The wind was flirtatious, at times coming on strong, massaging my whole body, then withdrawing to nothing but a light tickle about the face and neck.

The sun was a low, ill-defined orange ball. It was the same sun I’ve seen set many times over various bodies of water – Lake Ontario, Lake Erie, Lake Superior, the Detroit River (you can tell I’m from Ontario…) But I haven’t seen it go down over the Georgia Straight, while sitting on a bench, caressed by the wind, reading Marx’s Capital Vol. 1 (Ch. 15). It was nice.

An aside: last night I dreamed I was blogging. Let me clarify: I wasn’t dreaming about blogging; I experienced my dream as if I were writing a blog post. I dreamed through the device or act of blogging. So far, I’ve dreamed “in game” – again, unconscious experience mediated through metaphor of gaming. Also I have dreamed I’ve been instant messaging someone – communication twice removed (first through IM, second through the dream, or vice versa). Now it is the blog that is enframing my unconscious self. Goddess help me.

Parksville or bust

Wednesday, July 11th, 2007

I am sitting on a log, on the beach, looking upon the ocean. Well, the Georgia Straight. Same diff. It is sunset. I came out just to catch it, because the house I’m staying at in Parksville overlooks this vista, and it seems like something I should do. Also, my kid was out here last night, and I wanted to see what he saw, if that makes any sense.

When I first came out, in my jams, with my tea (Twinings Earl Grey) and an afghan wrapped around my body, I immediately went back inside. I was looking for the camera because I figured, if I was going to see this ocean sunset, and it was going to be as beautiful as everyone would have imagined, I should take a picture of it. You know, preserve the moment etc. etc.

But I couldn’t find it. So I grabbed the next best time-freezing technology, my iBook. And here I am, now sitting on a log, casting the occasional glance out to sea and the setting sun. On the horizon, mountains meet ocean; some clearly snow-capped. Oceanside sounds surround me: the white noise of the ever-moving mass of water before me; the raspy shifting of sand grasses; the occasional distant honk from a flock of geese; the worried cheeping of the Sandpiper who has a nest around here somewhere (saw the babies on the beach when the tide was out yesterday).

We spent most of the day on the beach. The kids had a blast – we barely moved 50 feet from the backyard. What with the tide pools (too many crabs to count), fresh water stream complete w/tadpoles, all those geese (I counted 96), a blue heron, terns, the aforementioned sandpiper and brood plus sand, all manner of rocks, driftwood logs, shells — well, the kids are in heaven. Their needs are so simple, really. A picnic of peanut butter sandwiches, fruit and juice and we were set.

It smells good out here; reminds me of northern Ontario, when my dad would take us kids camping to Lake Simcoe. OK, not so north, but out of the city, cottage country anyhow. For this city girl, it might as well have been Temagami (never mind Fort Severn!). I vaguely associate this outdoors smell with bug repellent, though it’s clear to me now that referent was misplaced.

So it was a good day, in all. The worst is trying to keep the children from destroying this nice house we’re staying in. It’s full of all these nicnacks and artwork from Indonesia or some such place. Already the daughter’s (non-exotic) fairy statue has been dropped and chipped. Not sure what to do about that one…

As I look out at the mountainscape, it appears that I missed the sunset. It’s just a diminishing line of dull orange, sinking deeper and deeper behind the mountains, and also into the sea. Gawd. I need to commune with Nature more.

An aside: I haven’t had wireless access. This was a rude shock, and has taken some adjustment. Have I become spoiled? As my friendly acquaintance Derek said the other day, what did I use my computer for before the Internet? Crazy (shaking my head). Obviously, there is a bit of a time lag with this post…

Schuyler to the rescue

Friday, May 25th, 2007

Schuyler Erle, a mapping hack I met at Rococo, tells me the name of the instrument mentioned in the last post is the kora. So there you have it – Schuyler to the rescue. Incidentally, he is an interesting dude. He is an open software developer and has some exciting projects on the go. Schuyler is one of those really *smart* people I met at Rococo. This is his blog. and the last about my trip

Thursday, May 24th, 2007

The last thing I wanted to say about my trip to Montreal is that it was a kickass time. You might be getting that by now. I met so many interesting, cool people. One of them was He was part of the [CTRL] collective that organized the Politics under Fire symposium on Thursday. He dj’d the interactive arts event that night and also the closing party for Rococo. Nice beats. I’m listening to his site as I type; very down. Now, I know I’m no music afficionado (that would be Jean, perhaps) but I’ve never known of a DJ to have an “ontological statement” before. That rocks my academic sensibilities; seriously. However, I feel I must draw attention to Tobias’ irreverence for my old friend Richie Hawtin. On his site, he and his compatriot Fishead, spoof Hawtin’s groundbreaking release, Decks, EFX and 909, jamming it into “Dicks, Sex and 69″. I’m no prude, but I do reserve a healthy amount of respect for Hawtin and his Plus 8/Minus recording empire. He’s pushed the edge of minimalist techno and turntable technique for years, and is literally the best. But I’ll let it slide… I do have a sense of humour.

On Friday night, Rococo carried on after the sessions at this cool little cafe called L’Utopik. This is a resto-bar and hostel, whose mission is “to promote relations between people who share a common vision on ecology, society, communuty and culture.” Near UQAM, Anne told me it was also a haven for local geeks. The food was veg, mostly organic and the fusion of politics and culture was evident in every aspect of this 2nd floor little gem. Later, this awesome trio played to a packed house – some west African dude on the djembe, a cute college type playing stand-up bass and a woman on some other instrument that I was told the name of but forgot after a few glasses of red wine. It was some of the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.
And now I think I’ve said all I have to say about Rococo and Montreal…

Rococo: Saving the world one wiki at a time

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2007

I am back from Rococo and basking in the afterglow of an amazing weekend. I can’t even believe that so many cool, creative, socially aware, dedicated (and did I say smart?) people would be together in the same space, all wanting to talk about the same thing: wikis (and by extension, social software) and their potential for progressive social change. It was thrilling to be amongst them (corny as that sounds), and absorb their vibe, their enthusiasm and their big ideas.

The two people responsible for me even knowing about Rococo in the first place are Anne Goldenberg, one of the main organizers, and Stephane Couture. They both work in the LabCMO, part of the School of Media at Universite du Quebec a Montreal (UQAM), where they are doctoral students. They are big fans of Feenberg, and the three of us have a stunning amount in common, in terms of our research, our approach to pedagogy, and activism through the academy. It was really good to connect with them, to realize I’m not working in obscurity, on an arcane subject matter.

Anne is an amazing woman. She’s an activist, well traveled, but originally from France (and so would lapse into French while speaking to me and not even realize it). She spent the last year organizing Rococo. She did a fantastic job; as I say, the conference was great. Stephane is intense, passionate about his work, and crazy sharp. Like a typical grad student, he talked all weekend about the paper he had to write, but managed to show up nonetheless. I first met them both at last year’s CCA (I’m not going this year, btw – no funding, no time and Saskatoon?). I had organized a panel on various applications of critical theory of technology (Feenberg, again, of course) and Stephane attended. He stopped me after to offer up a Latourian critique of my presentation (geeks, wikis and IMC etc.), which intrigued me, though I didn’t understand it. I’m still waiting to hash that out with him. According to my friend NinaB, everyone could always use a little moreLatour.

One of the first sessions I attended was “initiated” by Marc Laporte. It was called “TikiWiki: The Wiki way applied to software development.” I was nominated, après le fait, to be note taker (merci, Marc). This is what happens when you’re always clickety-clacking away on your laptop. I did have notes, but they required some work before I would post them in the wiki. Which, incidentally, is one of the great things about these tech unconferences – all the sessions are either liveblogged (Web of Change), or recorded in various media (BarCamp) and/or transcribed and then put in the wiki (Rococo).

This is awesome, because those participating remotely can keep up w/events, and of course, because of the historical record created. By the end of the conference, the wiki has become this rich repository of raw and semi-processed data, complete with all the links and contact info for attendees. This is an invaluable resource from the perspective of a researcher. And noticeably absent from regular academic conferences, where all that is available (if you’re unable to attend for financial or scheduling reasons) is an abstract on a static website. (Not helpful. But I’ll save rant about public intellectuals for another post. At least there’s Public Knowledge Project, which is a start anyhow…)

Marc’s session was cool, but pretty geeky; I mostly just listened, and sometimes required translation (e.g. from geek into English) but it was just the sort of thing I’m interested in. You can check my post on it here.

Another interesting session was led by Mark Dilley. This is a very cool guy; I recognized him right away (by his accent) as a Michigander. Talking to him was familiar, like being home; it transported me back to Windsor and that core of environmental and labour activists that made living in that city bearable. Mark is a labour organizer, who became radicalized almost a decade ago as a rank and file worker. Once he realized that his social justice goals could be pursued through the union, he became an organizer. Now he’s caught the wiki bug and now does wiki evangelism (see the notes from session Sunir Shah and Stuart Mader’s session on this. Incidentally, I saw Stewart talk about the use of wikis in education at Northern Voice 2007), though I don’t think Mark would call it that. But he’s definitely enthusiastic about the potential for radical democratic organizing through wikis.

Liam O’Doherty’s session was right up my alley – on wikis and activism. Liam, besides having grown up a few streets away from me in the Beach, and having gone to the same grade school, is the creator of This is a wiki that exists to inform people about the negative aspects of consumer products – what to avoid and why. The wiki is a marriage of art, design and information; the offspring is subvertising. It’s basically a wiki culture jam (think AdBusters). This kid (he’s only 20!) has big ideas and lots of enthusiasm; he’s getting ready to bust out, I can feel it.

I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised at the number of activists I met at Rococo, including Antoine Beaupre, from Koumbit, who is a cool cat (an anarcat, in fact!). They knew which “movement” I was talking about, and a number had attended the FTAA demo in Quebec City in 2001. This is in contrast to BarCamp where I think there were two – me and one other guy, who used to work with resist!ca.

I need to write about Open Space, which is the concept behind how Rococo was actually run (vs. organized). But I’m not going to do it now. Consider this a footnote, a promise and a reminder to me…

Another aside: I love Montreal; I knew there was a reason I always wanted to live there. On my trip back to Van, the absence of bilingualism was striking. I missed immediately the omnipresence of the French language, floating by in conversation, humming in the background, ever-present in casual encounters – the hello’s, goodbye’s and excuse me’s. At one point, I found myself in a session that switched into French, me being the only English speaker. There was the offer to translate but I declined, content to just listen, to try to understand as best I could. I enjoyed hovering on the edge of French conversations at the bar, over coffee or in between sessions. I felt a bit like an eavesdropper but it was fun. By the end of the weekend, my comprehension had improved markedly, and I was following along much better.

Crikey, this is a long post; enough for now; more later…

[CTRL]: Technology: Art: Society

Friday, May 18th, 2007

So here I am in la belle province, attending this art, music and technology symposium called a [CTRL]: TAS – Politics Under Fire, organized by the grads from Media at McGill. The first session I attended was called Democracy, Art & Media. Dru Oja Jay spoke on progressive/activist uses of the Internet and the link to traditional media. He now runs Fair Trade Media, and edits this online publication, The Dominion. I first came across him when writing my thesis. I read with interest and used his article on Open Publishing (doesn’t seem to be online anymore), wherein he develops some interesting solutions to the persistent problems of OP.

Then Michael Lenczner, from Ile Sans Fil spoke about the importance of technological infrastructure. Unfortunately, time ran out and he didn’t get to fully explain about his project, which installs wireless “hotspots” about Montreal, in parks and other unlikely places.

Lenczner briefly discussed the infrastructural influence on society, suggesting that though we first shape our technological tools, the tools always shape us, in ways we are typically unaware of (critical theory of technology, anyone?). We are forced to use the infrastructure but the feedback loop is long, such that it’s difficult to see the social influence. He described this account as “not quite deterministic” but neither would he concede that the socio-technical relationship was mutually constituted. I wanted to hear more, but the session ended, out of time as usual, and we all shifted venues for the keynote, by MacKenzie Wark, author of A Hacker Manifesto, and the just-published Gamer Theory. More on that in a bit…

After the session I said hi to Marc Raboy, who was there, and who gave the 2005 Spry lecture at SFU. He mentioned to me that my main man, Andrew Feenberg had just been to McGill; this is the interview Darrin Barney, (a Vancouver native, incidentally) did w/him. The world jes keeps getting smaller.

An aside: my walk over to McGill from St. Laurent, where I’m staying, was intoxicating. I got so excited to be “back east” as they say in Vancouver, and also in an old city. I felt it on the cab ride in last night. Despite the dark, I recognized the lights, the architecture of the highways. Right away I was at home. Vancouver is young, in terms of its development (if not years). Montreal has that same feel as Toronto – that grit, that inner city narrowness and colour, that “olden days” feel of row houses, psuedo-gothic churches, industrial architecture. There’s brick everywhere, which I so miss living in Van (where bricks can’t withstand the rain). I miss the city – it’s where I belong. The pigeons, the forgotten parks, the dense living, the congested streets where bicycles reign supreme. I breathe this city in, locating it deep within me. As I walked, I felt my feet connect w/the sidewalk in a way they hadn’t in a long time. I felt the vibe of the city surge up through the concrete, enter me through the soles of my feet and diffuse through my body. In my dreams I return.

I feel my way instinctively around this city; I intuit it. I don’t think I can ever get lost (unlike Van where I still lose my sense of direction on occasion, despite knowing the mountains are “north”). One irony: it was raining when I arrived. And cold. 4 degrees. Two days ago it was sunny and 25 in Vancouver. I need to fly 5 hours for weather worse than Van’s most miserable winter day?! Hah!