The web as a contested landscape

The Incredible 2-Headed Transplant
It’s late in the semester, and hopefully everyone’s drunk a fair share of web 2.0 kool-aid. So, let’s supplement the tools and techniques of the course with a bit of context about the problems of using them. This is by no means a complete list. It should be enough to start you thinking.

Where is the public space online?

Public space  is generally considered pretty critical to, among other things, a functional civil society. Consider how many governments fall because of mass street protests. Or the curfews that totalitarian regimes impose upon the use of public space.

PAD Demonstration. Sukhumvit Road. Bangkok. 20th October 2008.

Thai political protestors throng in a Bangkok street

2008 WYD SYD 1007

devotees of a minority religious grouping make use of Australia's public spaces

As public discourse (even voting) moves online, it is timely to consider what the online equivalents might be of physical public space.

For me, a lot of the internet reminds me of a trip to Jakarta for their Biennale. Massive exhibitions, crammed overwhelmingly into malls. When I asked “why?”, the curators were surprised I’d even bother with the question. “Where else do people hang out?” they’d say in reply.

Thriving public square

The thrumming village square atmosphere of your typical Jakarta mall

In some ways, exhibiting your work in a mall is not only a higher profile place than on the street, but cheaper. Apparently, the overlapping systems of gang protectionism, bribery and bureaucracy are so tortuous that simple street murals cost more time and labour on top of the cash- and it’s harder to get sponsorship.

In the internet, where almost every bit of virtual space is provided by for-profit commercial concerns, it’s worth wondering if the virtual world is basically the equivalent of an endless online mall.

And even if it is not yet, as peoples online experience become more consolidated by social networking sites into the hands of a few companies, it may get more so. Sure any of us can get set up a web space for not much cash, but if all we can afford is a little streetside nook, and not prime mall shopspace, will anyone hang around to look at it?

The naked web

Running your own low-budget webspace is all very well, but it doesn't grant you legitimacy

So where are we in this course displaying our work? In the malls or in the street of the internet conurbation? Do we have to make that choice online, or does the metaphor a poor one for the infinitely remixable world of the net? Are city parks and commons even meaningful or desirable online? Does money actually make a difference, and is it a concern if it does?

Doing it yourself, versus getting yourself done.

We went over the commercial/technical risks of self-versus corporate hosting last time. Let’s look at some legal and political ones, in a bit of historical context.

So, people have been rolling their own sites for a long time. I’ve mentioned Indymedia in class before now, which was one of the attempts to formalise the early success of the citizen journalism movements springing out of the activist dissatisfaction with mass media reporting. Indymedia has had its problems in its esteemed history, but is of particular relevance here because it was strongly associated with Sydney through the Cat@lyst collective (who incidentally taught me how to code in PHP back in 2001 in their weird icecream factory hideout). These guys were hand soldering a lot of their equipment, and pulling stuff out of bins to make the technology cheap and accessible – and to keep it in the hands of people using it. (Compare and contrast with what some argue is a more modern version of that, the commercial service Opera Unite. Does it obviate the need for all this messing about in factories?) More modern appraches that have sprung from the same community include, for example,, which I’ve banged on about in class every now and again.

But these folks were in turn building upon the efforts of earlier pioneers – the servers they were building were running GNU software, which came attached to strong stances about “freedom” as something which applied to bits and bytes as well as personal rights. And I’ve mentioned this phrase “open source” before. Just to confirm, all the software we’re running on our servers in this course is “open source”, from jQuery via apache httpd through to wordpress, not to mention Firefox, Chrome and (mostly) safari. Not only may you use it for free, but you may modify it for your own ends also for free i f you have the requisite skills. There’s a kind of massive distributed skillshare out there, rooted in these communities that believe in the principle of providing you with the tools to do it yourself.

Not all the software we use, mind. That’s a whole ‘nother story, what with Dreamweaver, with Yahoo Pipes and the various other cloud hosting options we’ve discussed. But rather, I want to tease out one of the important threads in the online tapestry, one which has zero marketing budget: the community driven, collaborative software that underpins large sections of the web.

And there are whole worlds of co-operation and antagonism between these communities of openness and the bodies of closed, metered resources controlled by Microsoft, Apple and Google and so on.

This one might be closest to home, all you firefox fans out there: Code Rush in the Creative Commons

Who owns the mix?

There’s another kind of intellectual property evolution going on here too, but it’s to do with what some people might call creative works. Music (and piracy thereof). News (And reproduction thereof). Movies (and cheap distribution thereof). Hell, textbooks and postcodes are all up for disputes and negotiations about who gets to distribute them to whom when. As we’ve discussed, the Australian government itself is reconsidering what data its happy to share and what not.

The news is an interesting one, given the proximity of the the renown journalism faculty to us here. Has anyone been following the story of Associated Press versus Google (12)? There’s a really nice exposé on  ABC’s Background Briefing called Who Owns The News? that I recommend you check out. (Also check out the upcoming show on piracy.) Long story short: There’s heaps of unverified citizen journalism sloshing around the internet, or even just copied versions of the official newspapers and whatnot, and traditional media organisations feel they are being driven out fo business by it. They also feel they have a legitimate case that the respectability, research budget and accountability of new organisations is a public good that we can’t afford to lose. Is it a pure problem of the economics of oversupply? The attention economy? (see also the seminal Goldhaber essay about this)

Other barriers, some might argue more profound ones, to unregulated interchange of data. How about standards about how you exchange your data? (see google’s cute PR project around this one, and my earlier lecture). How about laws about who can pump what data over which wires?

One little bit of the struggle that may amuse you is the CSS Descrambler saga, where America’s DMCA made it illegal to expor the very simple software needed to play DVDs, which resulted in an amazingly inventive variety of methods used to do it.

It’s intersting to me that now that mp3 trading is old hat, newspapers and books are the new contentiousness. Have you seen the The Google Books Settlement furore? (You should have, since I believe Kiaya has already posted it to the friendfeed)

Who owns you?

Here’s one video I couldn’t embed in this blog: Google Opt Out

Most of us don’t run a crumbling media empire whose profits we are anxious to shore up with aggressive prosecution of those who get our content for free. But we might feel a little more ownership of our own data- what others are allow to know of us, and what we are allowed to see of other peoples’.

Who here has run into google Google Analytics? Who uses it on their own site?If you’ve not seen it, here’s a screen grab:

how recently my users last visited

Think about what it might mean that my site (and by extension, google) knows that you last visited my site “between 121 and 364 days ago”. Now, do you remember this video from week 2?

All I had given him was my e-mail and name,” Dakan said. “He knew everywhere I’d lived, every car I had driven, and even someone else in Alabama who was using my Social Security number since 1983. (more here)

OK, so our privacy is compromised – should we get over that because giving it up is so useful?

On the other side of the coin, what you may and may not view on the internet is fascinating. Most recently in Australia’s we had the ACMA censorship scandal. Other countries have more thoroughly documented censorship regimes, e.g.  The american Chilling Effects database. Did anyone partake of the enthusiastic vicarious Iranian revolution by twitter? Is anyone here a scientologist? Then you’ll know about the stoush with Anonymous. Is Conroy’s clean feed a good idea or not?

Or, relatedly, who chooses what information you do get? Has anyone run into the Sourcewatch wiki, which monotor’s the PR industry’s hold on communication? Is that a public benefit of the internet? How about wikileaks? Would it be a good thing if we were involved in internet privacy schemes? Or would that give license to child pornographers?


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