Archive for May, 2007

A beautiful day in the neighbourhood

Thursday, May 31st, 2007

Today is a beautiful day in Van. As I walked to the skytrain this morning, I paused mid-sidewalk to absorb the sun. My friend’s dad said I’m not getting any real immediate benefits from Vitamin D but I *believe* this to be true nonetheless. So I absorb my sunlight, and my vitamin D, and I feel myself grow a little bit, like a plant. And then I continue walking. Incidentally, the sights and sounds of my corner – Commercial Drive and Broadway (basically) are not so life-affirming – typically sirens of various sorts, the emergency vehicles careening by, cars frantically pulling to the side (or not – some like to try to outrun the firetrucks etc.), and also garbage, assorted motley crews sitting on patios, waiting for buses or just hanging about, sometimes asking for money or selling drugs. But for all these attributes of downtown, it isn’t – closer to suburban hell, but not that either.

Anyhow. I digress. About the weather. Vancouverites tolerate the rain rather well, I think. It takes a lot (like 29 days of nonstop rain) to get them to complain about it. Mostly, it’s not discussed. On the other hand, a mild summer day, with a weak sun and a cool breeze, is the perfect weather here, and people will not stop raving about such a day. It’s all people will mention, all day long. But like too much rain, there’s such a thing as too much heat in this town. The difference is the threshold. Like today, for example. It was 23 C, but felt much warmer (indeed, the rumour I heard was 30). On Burnaby Mountain, of course, it’s always a couple degrees cooler. And even so, on my way to the gym, I heard one of those “in passing” conversations – you know, not just a “hello” but also some minimal banal exchange. The subject? How it was too hot!! Said with disproval and a touch of indignation.

Too funny… I knew there were some things that I liked about this town. This cantankerousness is right up my alley.

Calling all radical bloggers

Sunday, May 27th, 2007

My friend, Steve Anderson, a cool cat and fellow grad, is helping organize Media Democracy Day in Vancouver this year. One of his ideas is to set up a table where local bloggers could provide a description of their blog and maybe flyers promoting their community and work.

This year the Media Democracy Day event will coincide with the Union for Democratic Communication conference, titled “Enclosure, Emancipatory Communication and the Global City”. Featured speakers include Dan Schiller, Nick Dyer-Witheford (may I recommend his excellent book, Cyber-Marx?), Dorothy Kidd, Mike Davis and Dee Dee Halleck. Of course, you will likely want to attend my panel, “Communicative practice online: The quest for “technical democracy”, where I will present (casestudy: Rococo) along with Steve, Roy Bendor and my would-be collaborator Michael Felczak.

You have to register for the conference, but the MDD event is free. Contact Steve at for more info, to get involved or to help develop the radical bloggers idea. Or you can sign up to the list.

As Steve says, keep moving.

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 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…

McKenzie Wark: Hacking and gaming

Sunday, May 20th, 2007

So two days ago I attended [CRTL], which was a symposium about art, technology and society. The keynote was McKenzie Wark, whom I’d vaguely heard of in the context of his 2004 book, A Hacker Manifesto. I haven’t read it, but anyone who knows me would know I would like anything with “manifesto” in the title. I’m just that kinda girl…

Wark framed his talk with the notion of contemporary personas – two in particular: the hacker and the gamer. These personas offer a way of negotiating between abstract concepts/principles and the particulars of everyday experience. They help us get from everyday to abstract concepts, with the latter more closely approximating “how the world is run” (that is to say, everyday particulars are the result, not cause, of abstract concepts on which society is based, organized)

Wark’s goal with A Hacker Manifesto was to resurrect it as a category, reclaiming it from the realm of criminality, and reinstate it as a critical concept. He defines hacker quite loosely: it refers to the creative use of information (that may or may not use technology). So a hacker is one who cuts, edits, remixes information.

This provided a segue into Wark’s next topic, intellectual property, on which information creation historically has been dependent. IP’s advancement was accelerated by the invention of the machine layer that makes information’s relation to materiality completely contingent: the relation between information and its material form is arbitrary.
The evolution of digital technology enabled the separation of layers, thus digital information can become tangible, can be embedded in other, forms.

Technology, therefore, increasingly facilitates the separation of information from ownership altogether; info escapes from scarcity, necessity. Walter Benjamin anticipates this possibility, regarding it as an enabling stage for collective repossession of info as something through which we can manage our own world. The property system prevents this, Wark contended, because “owned” information creates a conflict b/w info as creation vs. info as property.

Shifting to game theory, Wark invoked Plato’s Cave, positioning the gamer in a prison of a shadowy game world, who emerges into the “real world” to find everyone hunched over their computers. In Wark’s inversion, the whole world has turned into a computer game; everyday life is an impoverished version of life, where things never seem fair, where the rules are unclear, and the umpire is unknown. In games, there is a level playing field, where the rules are known and achieving success is possible.

It is not the content of the game (against modernist aesthetics) that is important; rather, said Wark, the underlying algorithm of the game; this algorithmic gamer culture becomes a way of grasping the world. The algorithm, he argued, is a way of thinking allegorically about time, for example, in everyday life. With politics a horse race, the economy a casino and work a rat race, life more and more approximates the culture of the game, with the objective to turn whole of culture into algorithm. It is an attempt to manage life as one entire algorithmic game experience.

This raises some obvious questions. Is there a limit to algorithmic thinking? What does it exclude to its detriment, that has to do w/quality of digital (in that the digital necessarily excludes ambiguity)? We can divide all of what’s to be experienced into code, into 1s and 0s. But is something lost in this translation?

All of this to get around to this question: How can you democratize knowledge? Wark invoked critical theory as one way. He talked closed by imagining practices of making knowledge democratic that does not fetishize; a process to which we can attach an ethics, maybe even a politics.

[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!

Comprehensive Exam #1 – the lowdown

Monday, May 14th, 2007

I know, there is a lot of sex-related spam to this blog and I need to do something about it soon. I will, I promise.

But in the mean time, I will tell you about my comprehensive exam. It went something like this:

i recieved 4 questions at 10 am. They appeared equallly difficult as I assessed the 48 hours before me. I figured it should break down, 50-50 (or 24h-24h).

I picked one question -almost at random. I had to pick something. It was the historical question:

“Outline the main developments in Marxist theory from Marx’s day down through Habermas, discussing Lukács, the Frankfurt school, and any other trend that you reviewed in the course of your reading.”

The answer to this question, I realized, was the justification for my exam, and I felt impelled to answer it, in order to answer myself.

And so I did, but it was *painfully* slow and long and belaboured. I looked EVERYTHING up, not leaving a thing to chance, and it took a long time. Hence, I encroached on the next 24h, earmarked soley for Question#2. What could I do? I was going as fast as I could. I got tired. I went to bed but couldn’t sleep. When I fell asleep, I awoke mere hours later (like 3). I thought it was time to get up, and did. After my shower, and boiling tea, it was 6:15am. I began.

I finished, I don’t know when, and began the next question:

“What advice can you give for the social activist of the twenty-first century that is consistent with or builds upon what you have read in these comp areas? In particular, what “emancipatory communication” strategies seem likely/possible and what would the practical steps necessary to create them, learning from the lessons of the 19th and 20th centuries?”

It was the only one (of the remaining 3) that allowed me to continue my first question (which I had not finished answering), using it as a rhetorical device. I felt clever (I know you’re reading this Richard).

Anyhoo, that question was much more creative, and dare I say fun, but I didn’t have quite enough time to answer it in the way I’d like. I finished at 1 am the 2nd day, and set my alarm for 6am the next. The exam was due at 10 am.

Upon waking, I wrote for 4 hours straight. No shower, no breakie. Just the me and the computer, locked in battle. Who would be triumphant? Unfortunately, I won’t know till September, after I write the next comp, and then defend both exams orally. But I’ll say this: it *was* an experience (Ted was right, natch). I accomplished something. I *did* it, whatever “it” is. I don’t agree with the pedagogical method of this exam – perhaps I’ll go more into it later. Suffice it to say, it’s more like an endurance test e.g. a marathon, than a proper test of academic ability. But I fucking did it. And I’ll do it again, only better.

But for now, I’m teaching. And studying. And thinking about summer (deadly). Right now, things are ok.