Archive for the ‘Fieldnotes’ 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.

Freeing the net in Vancouver

Friday, 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

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.

Down with VanBarCamp 07

Thursday, 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.

Looking for geeks at Wired Woman

Tuesday, July 3rd, 2007

I forgot to write about Wired Woman. This is a social networking group for women working in various aspects of technology; there are two chapters – one in Toronto and one here in Van. They had their “summer splash” event at Subeez last week and I signed up. So far, my research into free software/open source development, as well as tech activism, has found a largely male dominated arena. Although this has been explicitly identified as problematic within Indymedia (the techs have all the power b/c they have the code, Sherri Herndon, co-founder of Seattle IMC, once told me), no formal critique has been forwarded (that I’ve seen, anyhow). I thought a look at the local scene might be a helpful, and interesting, counterpart to my feminist readings on technology (for example, today’s reading, Judy Wajcman’s Feminism Confronts Technology)

I wasn’t certain what to expect – I’m not a professional and I’m not used to hobnobbing, eating canapés and passing about my business card (possibly because I don’t have one). On the Facebook group, a number of men well known in the local tech scene had rsvp’d so I wasn’t sure how woman-focused this would be. A friend told me about a similar event in Montreal, and about half of the people who showed up were dudes; apparently it was a topic of discussion at the event itself.

But there were hardly any guys – except this totally cheesy politician, BC’s Minister of Small Business and Revenue, who was all red in the face and smarmy. He presented Wired Woman w/one of those oversized cheques – for 10K. Not too shabby. I was at the back of the group during the speechifying with another friend, who wondered aloud if we were allowed to heckle. While the politician was blathering on about how he and Premier Campbell were such supporters of women in technology, how important this was, we were snickering, wondering if their “support” extended into the realm of daycare and mental health care access for women. A bit more fundamental to women’s day-to-day existence, I’d venture.

Anyway, while I did appreciate the spread (including wine bar), I didn’t meet too many women actually working in the tech sector. There was a life coach, a real estate developer and some sort of recruiter. But very few (of those I met) were programmers or IT peeps or what-have-you. But I bought a membership and I’ll check out their next event. It was fun, and I am, typically, a glass-half-full kind of person. Hope springs eternal etc. etc. And of course, there were the usual antics concerning Air, KA and a parking metre.

Rococo and Open Space Techology

Wednesday, May 23rd, 2007

A few more things about Rococo

Thing one: I’ve caught the bug. I always knew there was something to this wiki biz. The next Recent Changes Camp is in San Francisco, another city I love, so it won’t be any hardship to attend. But that’s a ways away. There’s always Vancouver BarCamp. I wasn’t planning on going, b/c I have my last exam at the end of August, but now I’m rethinking….

Thing two: Open Space Technology. This is the “tool”, method or process by which the conference is organized and run. It was created in the mid-80s by an organizational consultant who realized that people attending his conferences seemed to get more out of networking during the coffee breaks than the formal presentations. Open Space conferences have no keynotes, no predetermined schedules of workshops, panels etc. Rather, participants begin the event by sitting in a large circle and collaborativelyd determining the agenda by stating their needs, specialities and interests. A large, blank agenda is posted on a wall – the “marketplace” and people then post the sessions they’d like to lead or “initiate” in various time slots. This agenda is flexible and fluid, and throughout the weekend, it will change as people add, drop, shift and combine sessions.

At such an “unconference” it is typically understood that all attendees will also be participants – they will lead session, take photos of the sessions and post to Flickr, take notes of sessions and post in the wiki, take video and upload it to to YouTube.

The 8th rule of BarCamp is that everyone will be an interactive participant. This freaked me out when I first attended VanBarCamp last year. I was used to attending conferences as a passive listener, or having been vetted by a search committee that has approved my work, sanctioned it with all the authority of the academy. I wasn’t used to the idea that I could judge the worth of my own work. So I made myself present then, and it was well attended. I actually felt like a bit of a rock star, with all the folks who came up to me after, with their questions, their ideas etc. It was fun. I had similar reservations at Rococo but presented anyway, and it was, of course, well worthwhile (and fun).

Despite its chaotic appearance, Open Space is highly organized and, being self-organized, never breaks down. It relies on a fundamental assumption: that everyone attending the conference is passionate about the topic and are willing to take responsibility around translating and channelling that passion into some tangible realities. Sessions begin immediately, and are held in “breakout spaces”, designated areas or separate rooms. Participants are free to move amongst the discussion groups, following the “Law of Two Feet”. The premise is that if you’re not learning or contributing anything, it’s time to move one.

On of the key things about Open Space Technology is that it enables groups varying sizes to address complex issues and achieve meaningful results quickly. There is a facilitator who guides, supports and responds to the group. Now if you know me at all, you know I shy completely away from all things remotely New Agey – I don’t typically go in for the touchy-feely, circle of trust, talking stick and talisman approach. But our facilitator, Deborah Hartmann, was truly amazing. I think she is one of the main reasons Rococo was such a success. Through her facilitation of the event, I could see how Open Space is a philosophy and practice, as much as an organizing technique.

Her job was to explain the process to all participants and keep things flowing. At any time, however, members of the group can redirect or make suggestions, which the facilitator then incorporates and implements. At the end of the event, there is a convergence, where the full group gathers for a final debriefing – comments and reflection, final thoughts etc. This enables participants to catch up on things they might have missed, make final connections and generally re-engage.

Open Space is evidently an efficient method of self-organizing, but more important, I think, are the underlying principles grounded on collaboration, mutual trust, and non-hierarchical social relations. In this way, Open Space is ideal for discussing wikis. Someone (I forget who – it may have been Mark Dilley) said that Rococo was, indeed, the physical manifestion of a wiki. An offline, f2f, real live wiki. Which is exactly the sort of thing I’m thinking of in my academic work.

The core idea of Open Space – taking responsibility for what you love – was clearly manifest community that made this Recent Changes Camp. It was truly an amazing thing.

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…

Rococo a-go-go and the wiki world

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

Finally, as Recent Changes Camp wraps up (I’m in the “closing circle” right now as I type), I’m blogging it. It’s been pretty fun, I have to say. I was remarking to one fellow camper that I never attend all the sessions at regular conferences. I’m quite a delinquent when it comes to enduring beyond my own panel (selfish, I know). But there’s something so dynamic and organic about these “unconferences” that almost impels one to participate.

What is really the best, I think, is how smart these wiki cats are. That’s the difference b/w Recent Changes and BarCamp – the VanBarCamp I found to be largely industry-centred. Here it’s all about wiki ohana and spreading the wiki love.

Did I say smart? I mean *really* smart. Smart in a way that you don’t typically get in the academy (no offence). So smart. I’m humbled. And humbled into silence (for once). It’s important and refreshing to have your intellectual identity challenged every once in awhile…

I presented my little speil on tech activism and discovered a number of social justice activists. But the cool and inspiring thing about the wiki community is that changing the world for the better is one of the underlying goals of wiki-types, especially the developers. It’s just part of their language, of the way they frame their work. There’s no grand narrative, no plan for reorganizing society, just identifying human problems and figuring out how to fix them, in creative and effective ways. This necessarily shifts how I conceive of social change agents. Self-conscious vs. naturalized. I’ll need to think on that.

More on some sessions later but now, there are more pressing issues, like the closing party…

[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!

Northern Voice, open knowledge and the most famous “Robert”

Monday, March 5th, 2007

So I went to Northern Voice last weekend.

I giggle to think that I’m blogging about a blogging conference one week (exactly) after it happened. I’m so lame.

But no, I”m not (said with all humilty). Like all but the professionally unemployed or the geekily employed, I find there’s not a lot of time left to blog after paid work, school work, house work and kids – not in that order, of course.

But I’m blogging about it now, and all should be forgiven. For me, it’s not part of membership in a club. Indeed, it was in the name of fieldwork that I attended. I have this blog for my research, not for the integrity of blogging (if such a thing may be said). That said, I’m uncomfortable in my role as “researcher” because my “subjects” (again, a problematic term) are human – living, sentient beings, not in fact objects to be studied, extracted from life and later “coded” for my empirical results. I get an icky feeling about it all – in grade school, they would have called me a “user”.

So I don’t approach conferences like this with half the amount of professionalism I “should.” I go, check out the panels that even vaguely corelate to my work, and then go for a beer. What else is there?

And it was over a beer that I met the most famous Robert on Google. I innocently asked the man across form me at the bar (apres conference) – so, what’s your blog? He said, I’m the number one Robert on Google. And he is. Two above Robert DiNero (he’s occupies spots number one AND two) and four above Canadian children’s author, Robert Munsch.

You don’t say!

I learned later that night that his fortune rose as the “Microsoft blogger” and the rest (as “they” say), as far as his place in the blogosphere goes, is history. I have two things to say about the guy: 1. He looks like Philip Seymour Hoffman (perhaps a tad handsomer?) and 2. He was very nice. I’ll leave you to pronounce on his geekiness.

But back to Northern Voice. It was full of the usual suspects – that is, the “who’s who” of the Van tech scene, plus many more my ignorance prevents me from immortalizing. I missed the opening addres by Anil Dash (I could only think of Damon Dash – what does that say about me?) but I made it in time for coffee (which was very important, given my haul on the B-Line and hike halfway across UBC campus – a vast and alien territory for me). There was one panel that was, in fact, a perfect match. It was called “Building Rich Communities with Wikis” and the discussants were Stewart Mader and John Willinsky. Now Mader was interesting – he spoke of his experience publishing a book about wikis on a wiki. You can check it out here.

But it was Willinsky, a UBC english prof, who really caught my attention. He was an engaging and fascinating speaker, but it was the substance of his talk that really fired me up. Willinsky is in deep in the Public Knowledge Project, a federally funded research initiative at UBC and Simon Fraser University that “seeks to improve the scholarly and public quality of academic research through the development of innovative online environments. PKP has developed free, open source software for the management, publishing, and indexing of journals and conferences. Open Journal Systems and Open Conference Systems increase access to knowledge, improve management, and reduce publishing costs.”

Willinsky described how he used wikis in the post-secondary classroom setting. I’m fairly familiar with this through CMNS 253, which I’ve TA’d for two semesters. Nonetheless, I was inspired. I asked about my pet interest – open knowledge. I take this to be similar to the products of wiki collaboration (Wikipedia, for one) but within the academy. Can scholars collaboratively produce “authenticated” knowledge, given the restrictions of copyright, and the requirement to innovate new ideas to ensure career advancement (e.g. single authorship, the “coining” of terms, notions, concepts or methods, “it’s MY idea” etc.) Essentially, the question is: Can we “wikify” academic knowledge?

Willinsky mistook my question, and corrected me: “Open access.” And proceeded to explain his involvement in this movement. Which is entirely worthy, and certainly adjacent to my concerns. But if we want to democratize society further – if we believe in the liberatory and progressive elements of knowlege; if we want to challenge the limits of capitalist democracy (My Friend says I have to stop using the “C” word if I want to make any headway…) we need to take on the Academy (and here I use it with a capital “A” for emphasis) head on. I mean, in a no-holds barred, street brawl kinda way. If the academy is the last bastion of free thought, the preserve of rational (and hence progressive) thinking, then why is access to its knowledge restricted (see the Public Knowledge Project); why must academics “publish or perish” with all the sacrifice to education (and quality of knowledge production) that entails; why the stinginess, the slyness and the lack of openness when it comes to presenting one’s ideas to the public (e.g. publishing)?

These are some (!) of my burning questions. I’m going to ask Willinsky, see what he has to say. I support his project. One of my collegues has been quite involved in the Open Journal Systems that supports the Canadian Journal of Communication’s online presence. There’s no question it’s innovative, important. But I maintain it goes beyond access to knowledge – right to the heart of the matter, to knowledge production itself. Open knowledge. How will it play out?