Geeks and global justice has moved!!

March 23rd, 2008

I have finally moved blogs – for a number of reasons I will not enumerate here.

But suffice it to say I’ve got a new (and improved) blog over at It’s the hub and clearing house for my research project, which is finally underway. For the personal musing (ranting?) you’ve come to know and love from this blog, check out http// And change your RSS feeds!

See you on the other side!

Chinese with Ward Cunningham

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.

Freeing the net in Vancouver

October 5th, 2007

The other night I went to a Free the Net meeting at Bryght in Gastown. I hadn’t been there since two BarCamps ago, when they’d barely moved in and everything was primer white. They’ve pimped their space fo’ sho’…. Flourescent apple green walls, obnoxious red chairs and sticky notes offering moustache rides, $1. It’s a cool space, despite its efforts; across the plexiglass divide is another Drupal shop, Raincity Studios. I’m guessing it’s a fun place to work.

Anyhoo. About 15 peeps, including usual suspects (and hosts) kk+, Boris and Roland, plus a variety of geeks about town. SFU was in tha house, with Richard Smith, Jéan Hébert (see his post about the event here) and yours truly representin’. I did my usual gender check: 12 nerdy boys to 3 geeky girls. The more things change the more they stay the same etc. etc…

So what is this business about freeing the net? Isn’t it free already, sorta? Well there’s this idea of mesh that’s going to blow things apart, sorta. It evolved out of MIT’s roofnet project, which developed the protocols for mesh networking on PCs. According to Wikipedia, mesh networking “is a way to route data, voice and instructions between nodes. It allows for continuous connections and reconfiguration around broken or blocked paths by ‘hopping’ from node to node until the destination is reached.” There is no longer a need for base stations; instead an arrangement of short p2p connections evolves as more users join the network.

Basically mesh routing technology increases range and network capacity, enabling one internet connection to go a long way, perhaps unwiring an entire neighbourhood. The more nodes that connect up, the broader the reach. The coolest part is that people hopping on to the mesh network don’t need to have an Internet connex; they basically share the host’s bandwidth.

At this meeting, I bought a Meraki Mini, a small wireless mesh repeater. I’m just like that. It has plug ‘n play setup and configuration (thank goddess) so when I eventually take it out of the box I’ll become the host node for my ‘hood’s meshwork – no fuss no muss. The idea is to hook up to other nearby nodes to extend and strengthen Vancouver’s emergent wifi system. According to Meraki, its hosted back-end system automatically configures every router as part of each individual network; the company’s web-based centralized management shows how things are working through an allegedly simple, intuitive interface (I’ll let you know) that can be securely used from anywhere in the world.

Boris wrote about community wireless a year ago. He wasn’t sure about Meraki then but the other day he was the guy handing out the nifty gadgets for $60 a pop. The big deal is this: Meraki’s mesh networks supposedly cover significantly more geographic area and users than earlier wireless networks.

This is how the company explains it: “Instead of relying on a single large antenna to cover every user, each radio in a Meraki network cooperates to find the best path to carry a user’s traffic to the Internet. As they operate, every network re-evaluates thousands of routing paths every minute, resulting in amazing reliability and network capacity. Meraki’s intelligent mesh routing means every repeater you add extends the reach of the network and makes the mesh more reliable by adding additional links.” So intelligent traffic queuing and packet prioritization plus the capacity to add unlimited network gateways enables demand-based growth of the network.

This works well for unwiring a low-income housing project, or an entire city. Again, supposedly, hundreds of neighbours can share a robust and reliable network supplied by only a few broadband connections. One Mini has a range of between 30-50 metres. Because it’s relatively cheap and apparently idiot-proof, networks can be built with a high density of repeaters; obviously this leads to better coverage and a more robust mesh.

According to MIT’s Technology Review, Meraki “is using San Francisco as a testing ground to see if a user-driven mesh network can connect a large urban area.” Where Google and Earthlink have thus far failed to install a free city-wide wifi system in SanFran, Meraki has had some early success, with 6000 users able to access the Internet thanks to their “Free the Net” program. The company has plans to expand its initial giveaway of 200 routers by a few thousand. The system will be built from the rooftops, balconies, and windows of anyone who wants to participate.

Some important points about mesh networking that came out of the meeting:

1. It provides low cost access based on a business model.
2. It is user driven (no bureaucratic/political red tape etc.)
3. It enables a community to connect to itself
4. It can facilitate critical mass through mobile on demand wireless for events
5. It reduces the digital divide within “developed” nations

Some community wireless projects:
1. BC Wireless
2. Montreal’s Ile Sans Fil
3. Wireless Toronto

Some mesh projects:
4. Wireless Nomad
5. NetEquality

Richard Smith summed up the importance of mesh networking: “People who own and operate a mesh node contribute to the overall health and vitality of the network.” On the one hand, this seems an unlikely form of community activism; on the other hand, maybe that’s just what being in a community is about.

Web of Change and me

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.

Comps: Rocked, locked and kicked to the curb

September 10th, 2007

I finished my second comprehensive exam last Friday: The social construction of the Internet. It went a lot smoother this time round; I wasn’t writing scared in the final hours. I learned a few things. Imagine.

About a week before this second exam, I found that my brain reached a saturation point. I managed nonetheless to read a few new texts (!) and reread some ones read 4 months ago – texts I knew were foundational. That was very helpful. The main thing I did differently was write up some stuff ahead of time. This was something TedH had recommended way back, 6 months ago or so. For whatever reason I just didn’t have it in me for the first exam. But this time, I started my exam a day earlier. That is, after thinking about it for a bit, I decided 1. what I wanted to write on; and 2. what was likely going to be on the exam. Happily these things coincided. So I began writing out Marx’s theory of technology, based on my contention that he was, in fact, a social constructivist. Seen from another light, this amounts to a defense of Marx against charges of technological determinism.

The first question (of the 5 I received) was a doozy (thanks Rick!) and it was exactly that Marx question. I took that as a good omen. The second and final question I chose happened to be the subject of a conference paper I’ve been thinking about for my panel at the Union for Democratic Communication conference this fall. So that was a great chance to write out some ideas that have been fermenting; I hope to use that answer as a starting point for my paper.

I kept up my same schedule as the first time, breaking for lunch, taking tea as I worked and heading out for a run at 6pm. I wrote the exam in Point Grey, so runs along the ocean were amazingly invigorating. Dinner at 7, then writing till too tired, around 11 both nights. I finished the first question on the first day; last time I was still writing the first question part way into the second day which, obviously, wasn’t good.

Nonetheless, by the second day I was feeling it – the pressure, the brain drain, the exhaustion was setting in. But I just kept plugging away and you know, I think things turned out ok. I even had a chance to proof read this time, so there were limited embarrassing typos. It is an exam after all, so I have to believe there’s a bit of grace.

The experience of the first exam really helped, I think. In part, just knowing what to expect is hugely valuable. Also, writing ahead – even a few hundred words of a coherent argument – is immensely advantageous. And also thinking about what it is you want to write about, and then selecting your questions and framing your answers with that in mind, is key. I mean, this is my career – my life, really – not some random hoop I’ve got to jumpt (though in truth, it is that too). I should be writing about what I’m interested in, what I’ll be researching in the near or distant future.

While I felt my first exam was was a hazing ritual with little pedagogical value (and said as much to the Grad Chair), it seemed this time that I really got something out of it. I could, at last, see the value of this process.

So now the oral defense in three weeks. But before that a few things: 1. first day of teaching CMNS 253 solo tomorrow; 2. Web of Change, where I’ll present; and then back in town for the defense. God love Rick Gruneau for calling it a chat, b/c that’s about all I’ll be in the mood for.

BarCamp again: Roland’s session

August 31st, 2007

I forgot to mention Roland Tanglao’s BarCamp session. The night before, at the party, I walked into a conversation Roland was having with someone, telling them even he couldn’t pronounce his last name. I suggested he could be like Madonna, and just go by his first name.

Anyhoo. Air and I attended Social Media for Parents. It was interesting: there was a range of tolerance regarding privacy on the net, from way open (anything goes – personal details, kids names etc.) to as closed as possible while still maintaining a presence in cyberspace. I was somewhere in the middle. I don’t mind giving up the odd bit about myself, but steer clear of talking about my family, except in fairly vague terms. The problem of handling photos, especially when family members are dispersed across the continent, is something. I’ve used good old fashioned email thus far, and that works ok but isn’t that efficient. It does become a bit of an issue, though, if you’re like Roland, the family digital archivist, with 8000 digital photos to organize and dispense…

I don’t even have a camera anymore (old one jes died) and need to get a new one (any suggestions?) so right now, it’s not a big deal. Roland (see, like Madonna) wrote a bit more on the subject here.

Down with VanBarCamp 07

August 30th, 2007

Almost 2 weeks ago (can’t a girl study?), I attended Vancouver BarCamp at Workspace, same as last year. I didn’t present this year, but when I arrived (late and a tad hung over from the Alibi Room party the night previous where KA and I got up to our usual antics. Gawd.) I realized that this was a mistake. There was nothing on wikis: it shoulda been me. Next year. Fine.

Anyhoo. There weren’t a tonne of sessions that grabbed my attention this year, which was a bit of a drag. I did attend Tod Maffin’s session on cool apps for geeks (or something like that) but being late I was seated far away and could barely hear, or see well, for that matter.

One session that did catch my eye, from a research perspective, was Robert Scales’ session on open source as a business model. This was intriguing to me, because sharing and cooperation among firms does not fit under the horizon of capitalism or its fundamental and essential goal, the god profit. Not normally, anyhow.

But Scales (as everyone seems to call him) has a different view of the Van tech scene. According to this view, the various Drupal shops operate in a vague sort of affiliation, working together on what are (from the clients’ perspective) competitive bids and sliding each other business if it’s a better fit for another shop.

Scales says the various companies, including his Raincity Studios, a drupal web development/design firm, and Bryght (whatup kk+?) work together to bolster the local tech scene, focusing on cooperation rather than competition. Or as Scales put it, “competitive collaboration.” (I just learned there’s another word for this, a neologism, in fact: co-opetition.)

This is certainly an unusual business model but it seems to be working. Inspired by the open source software development method, they work collaboratively on client proposals, and follow a similar pricing scheme in order not to undercut one another. They regularly pass clients back and forth, depending on their own particular specialties, the clients’ needs and, of course, how busy they are.

And they are busy. Scales says Raincity will be turning away business for the foreseeable future. But this hasn’t seemed to dampen their enthusiasm for open source or their passion for contributing to the Drupal project. Scales says that educating clients about the benefits of open source (not least of which is financial) is an important aspect of their work. Giving back to the Drupal community remains fundamental.

So what’s the overall vision? Scales talked about the about need for larger projects, for training; for building open employment communities; and for pooling talent. “If we’re bringing all these entities together in a super-collaboration, will it work? Or will there be a clash of ideologies? The tension, as he identified it, is this: “We’re out to make money, and to make the world better.” Scales tossed out the idea of a mega agency collecting all the different aspects of the Van tech scene together, in a loose federation, or under some sort of umbrella organization. (He talks more about his open business approach here). This is a big, bold, innovative idea. I think it would be amazing if it worked….

I also attended Lee Lefever’s session, Fighting Complexity with Video. Businesses hire Lee’s Seattle-based consulting company, Common Craft to make short, explanatory videos for their websites. I first came across Common Craft when searching for a good resource for teaching wikis. Mark Dilley suggested Wikis in Plain English, which does rock. I showed it to my class last semester and they really dug it. CC also has videos on RSS and Social Bookmarking, which I am definitely going to check out. Anyhow, I missed most of Lee’s session, cause it ran concurrently with Scales’. So I only caught the tale end. Another drag.

The last session I attended was one about Drupal and Facebook (there were a number of sessions having to do with Facebook. Have I mentioned I am over Facebook?) Anyhow, it was pretty short, and all I could really get out of it (with my limited technical knowledge/skills) was that a seemingly cool new fb app, using Drupal for the back end, is in the works, and I’ll prolly add it when it’s ready. It’s from Project Opus, an online music community designed to support artists, fans and local music. and it allows you to make a mix tape, and then share your player. Something like that.

That’s enough. BarCamp was fun. It was on my birthday, and nerdy as it truly is, I found it a great way to celebrate gettin’ older. When I got home, there was a surprise dinner, surprise guests and surprise presents. The only thing not a surprise was the cake which, when you have kids, is a requirement.

I am a nerd

July 20th, 2007

People who know me well, know this about me. But for those of you (well, most of you I suppose…) who think I am ultra cool, know this: I like coins.

Now, I’m no coin collector, if that’s what you’re thinking. I don’t like all coins. In fact, I don’t like most coins. What I like, and maybe this makes me even nerdier, is Canadian quarters. As a kid, there were only two kinds: the regular kind (moose head) and the “fancy” kind (mountie). As I recall there was also a “fancy” dime – some sort of bird – a tern perhaps? (feel free to correct me, anyone). That’s about it.

Whenever I came across one of these special quarters, I would feel a little thrill. And then tuck it away, to be spent only when I ran out of allowance and wanted a junkfood fix from Tucker’s corner store. But that habit of saving these coins, even if only briefly, stayed with me. When they changed all the bills, back when I was a late teen/early twentysomething, I saved the old ones too.

So you can imagine I was in heaven when the new “province” series of quarters came out. I began collecting with diligence that only (or often or sometimes) comes with early adulthood. Infrequently, but then with increasing regularity, “they” (that would be the mint, I suppose) began releasing more and more “fancy” quarters. This made them a bit less special. But I still stowed them in my old jewelry box – the one my dad brought me back from Egypt when I was 10, and which I have carted around with me from apartment to apartment, and from house to house, ever since.

I can’t say that I have saved them all. But certain ones did get me excited. Like the colourized ones – the breast cancer one, or the poppy one, which caused a great spy kerfuffle south of the border. I also liked the Terry Fox one, and the recent hockey one I’ve seen (though I’m not an especial fan of the sport) but have yet to hang on to. Now I tell myself I’m saving them for my kids; my son, already, shows sure signs of nerdiness. He is a gearhead, and also enjoys simple, repetitive actions, like digging and planting in the garden, or packing and unpacking the camping cooler.

All of which brings me to a news story on CBC radio I heard at suppertime. There is a new $20 coin which is the world’s first coin with plasma effect (to create the “blue hues and capture the frigid essence of the Arctic”) and which, ok, didn’t interest me too much at first. As I say, I like quarters. But then I heard the story behind it. The coin is meant to honour polar exploration, and so on it is 16th c. explorer Martin Frobisher, as well as an Inuit man paddling his kayak. But, “as it happens”, this juxtaposition evokes a dark moment in Canadian history. This Frobisher dude actually kidnapped some Inuits, on two different occasions, and brought them back to England as proof of his successful voyage to the “new world”, and where they promptly died. So that was a drag, to say the least, and a poor choice by the folks at the Royal Canadian Mint.

Goddessforbid anybody do a little fact checking never mind learning a bit of history.

Either way, I’m still a nerd.

Marx vs. the Machine

July 15th, 2007

I’m going talk more about Marx’s contribution to the study of technology, as well as his ideas on the relationship b/w sociological and economic analyses of technology. But I’m going to do this with the help of Donald MacKenzie. Just so’s you know…

MacKenzie, in chapter 2 of his book Knowing Machines, details Marx’s account of the way the machine was made stable, highlihgting how social relationships (within which production occurs) impact production technology – indeed are a major factor in the shaping and success or failure of technical systems. This jives with Marx’s insistence that, when analyzing markets, one must remember “capital is not a thing, but a social relation b/w persons which is mediated thru things.”

One of Marx’s big ideas is this: with the advent of large-scale mechanized production, social relations molded technology, not vice versa. The determinist reading of Marx views the forces of production as technology itself. But the forces of production also include labour power, people, skills, knowledge. Indeed, Marx always afforded agency to workers, stressing that what was specific to human work was that it was conscious: people as much as machines make human history.

Marx defines the machine as “a mechanism that, after being set in motion, performs w/its tools the same operations as the worker formerly did w/similar tools.” With the machine began the Industrial Revolution: it undermined the basis on which manufacturing workers had resisted emergent capitalism. Whereas in manufacture, the organization of the social labour process was purely subjective (a combination of specialized workers), the machine system of large-scale industry was a totally objective organization of production, which appears to the worker as a pre-given material condition of production.

The machine contributes to valorization via “relative surplus value”; the reduction in labour time required to produce the equivalent of the worker’s wage generates an increase in surplus value accruing to capitalist. Thus the machine liberates capital to accrue absolute surplus value; by undermining skilled workers, by drawing new sectors into the labour market, by threatening/generating unemployment, the machine “is able to break all resistance” to lengthening the working day. Alienation of the collective and intellectual aspects of work achieves its technical embodiment in the machine. Further, the machine embodies the power of the capitalist: science + natural forces + mass of social labour converge in the system of machinery, which represents the power of the “master”. Thus, capitalist social relations achieve technical embodiment in labour process

For Marx, the “conditions of work” represent the means of production in their social form as capital; the means of production therefore employ the worker instead of the worker employing the means of production. This was the goal under manufacture and handicraft labour BUT its only w/machinery that this inversion acquires technical reality. Not surprisingly, then, the worker regards the machine is a direct threat; it is capital’s material form. Indeed, the connection b/w class struggle and technical innovation was part and parcel of the Industrial Revolution in 19th c. Britain. Skilled labour, especially, stubbornly resisted the discipline of factory work. Marx links worker recalcitrance directly to technical innovation, which was a response to and a weapon against working-class revolt. New machinery did not always increase efficiency or profit but DID reduce the capitalist’s dependence on highly skilled and paid labourers with minds of their own. Marx thus concludes that Luddism was, in fact, a working class critique of machinery.

Marx’s account of the machine is an attempt to theorize the social causes of organizational and technical changes in labour process (how perfect for a “social shaper” like MacKenzie!). For example, technical changes in the steam engine resulted from shifting relations b/w capital and labour as a result of new labour legislation that shortened the working day. While machines were more efficient than human muscle power, there was still the need to squeeze more from the worker during the shortened period

Again, Marx stresses that capital is not a thing (e.g. not a sum of money or commodities) but comprises social relations b/w persons mediated through things. Thus the relation b/w capitalist and worker consists of wages, hours of work; the law and the state; supervision discipline, culture, collective organization, power, conflict and so on. Here MacKenzie points out a weakness in Marx’s understanding of this: the social relations of production (w/in which technology develops) are not just b/w worker and capitalist but also worker and worker. That is, relations b/w men and women workers, older and younger, workers, and likely immigrant and native workers must be accounted for.

He lists three ways the split b/w male and female workers influences technological production: 1. New machinery caters to highly unskilled and low-paid worker, always women (and children), who initially displace the highly skilled male workers (left over from days of manufacture). 2. Some skills, like sewing, were considered women’s work, and learned at home. There was no need, therefore, to automate this process. Such work was entirely unregulated and devastatingly underpaid and because in the home, isolated, with little to no chance for workers to organize. 3. Skilled, all-male unions marshaled their power to keep at least some control over the new technology and defensively keep women out of their organizations.

At this point, MacKenzie asks a Feenbergian question: Does the design of machinery reflect the social relations w/in which it develops? Marx equivocates on this, he says, sometimes treating machines as victims of capital and not in their design inherently capitalist. Nonetheless, a specifically capitalist form of production emerges, including at the technological level. This is a rather orthodox interpretation, then, one that accepts that social relations impact the pace of technical change (e.g. mechanization was spurred by valorization-imposed needs to displace skilled workers and their power to resist) BUT denies that those relations influenced the design of technical artifacts.

If technology is neutral, and the system of social organization corrupt, then progressive social change will occur simply by changing how society is organized. No need to worry about the technological infrastructure, which can, apparently, be coopted, adapted and reconstituted. Substitute a workers’ government for the capitalist’s government, add water and presto! A workers’ utopia.

MacKenzie’s social shaping self concludes by suggesting that understanding how social relations interact with technical design turns on the contingency of design, and the need to identify where and how things could have been different. This leaves only one (albeit burning) question: why one design was chosen over another. Indeed.

So… is this enough Marx for you?

Gettin’ it strait

July 15th, 2007

My Friend informs me (with a certain amount of smugness) that it is the Georgia Strait, or more preferably, the Strait of Georgia. Not to be confused with the Georgia Straight and its hippie-freak origins, whose biggest claim to fame, as far as I’m concerned is that Bob Geldof did a stint there in the 70s.

I’m not from here. What do you want? I’ve always liked homonyms anyhow…

Which reminds me of a t-shirt I saw on this guy during my first Gay Pride Parade, when I was all of 20 tender years. It read: I’m so gay, I can’t even think straight.

Oh how I digress… But seriously, back to Marx.