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Tactics, Strategies, Distribution, and Collaboration

We're still in the first paper session at ISEA 2008 - but I'll start a new post for the next three presentations. The next speaker is Konrad Becker, who has previously published the Tactical Reality Dictionary and is now working on a Strategic Reality Dictionary to complement it. He notes that tactical media spontaneity nonetheless relies on the availability of underlying infrastructures, raising questions around the strategic dimension. Tactics are more strongly related to temporal considerations, strategies to spatial issues. Konrad now shows a matrix tracing different combinations of space and time, and points to scientific understandings of time and space.

Mapping comes into this in a significant way; mapping can be seen both as representing the map maker, and as defining the territory. Mapping is connected closely with navigation, and indeed with life itself (or representations of life). The latest frontier in this context is space (in the sense of both outer and inner space: space travel as much as mind travel). A further dimension added to this is speed - with the rise of what's been called dromological society. This is driven in part by the military-entertainment-academic complex, Konrad suggests, and it mixes 'real life' with virtual reality. Game theory has an important role to play here.

Konrad now shows a video from the Global Security Alliance, which (I take it) examines the securitisation of media and politics in the context of the 'war on terror', in a more or less tongue-in-cheek manner. Phew.

Up next is Jefferson Goolsby, who notes that what's currently happening is no longer a revolution of content production, but also one of content distribution (an argument close to my own work on produsage). This affects art, entertainment, and the economic framework for them - what we create, what we consume, and where the money goes. This is framed largely as a struggle between the individual and the corporate level, but there are also questions of aesthetic transformation that need to be considered here.

Jefferson begins by highlighting the YouTube phenomenon which was spurred by an anonymous guitar player posting a metal version of Pachelbel's canon - a video which was viewed some 50 million times (but generated no revenue at all for the performer, who was later revealed to be the Korean computer science student Jeong-Hyun Lim - Jefferson contrasts this with the US$1.6b of YouTube itself to Google).

Music is just one example for this transformation of production and distribution, and the industries surrounding them. Historically, the music industry had a production and distribution monopoly; the first of these has now disappeared, so that the major fight in the music industry has now shifted to issues around distribution - a fight which has involved major battles around such sites as Napster, iTunes, and YouTube. (While the exact nature of the central issues has shifted from battle to battle, neither side in these battles is inherently concerned with the rights of the artists themselves, Jefferson notes.)

Centrally, the music industry has been involved in efforts to shut down unauthorised distribution - by taking action against software companies, service providers, and individuals, and by attempting to undermine Net neutrality itself (in the U.S.). At the same time, user practices of exchanging news, information, and media content have continued nonetheless. In the process, there has been a gradual shift in (Web-based) media aesthetics.

Ultimately, industry efforts are likely to fail, and Jefferson suggests that this will lead to a redistribution of wealth towards content creators themselves. For the industry, he suggests that it is going through five stages of death (denial, anger, bargaining - the current stage -, depression, and acceptance).

The final speaker is Nathaniel Tkacz, whose interest is in the study of open source projects and peer production and focusses here especially on Wikipedia. He begins by noting the significant interest in (mass) collaboration, and the way that this is portrayed also in contrast to capitalism as a controlling force. He notes my work on produsage, described as a form of collaborative content creation - the shift from static to dynamic content and from product-based content creation to an ongoing, inherently unfinished process organised by community consensus. Nate also points to similar descriptions of commons-based peer production by Yochai Benkler, and the way this is being taken up in business and entrepreneurial language - for example in the book Wikinomics.

He suggests that the term 'collaboration' remains underdefined in this work; it is pitted against controlled and hierarchical systems, and described therefore largely through what's absent - it is decentralised and non-proprietary in Benkler's description, for example. Chantal Mouffe describes collaboration as post-political. Collaboration discourse of this form hinders the development of a more detailed understanding of collaboration, Nate says.

There is also significant conflict in mass collaboration, of course. Nate notes for example the Wikipedia entry on the prophet Muhammad, which includes images of the prophet (a practice that is forbidden in some forms of Islam) - this has caused considerable and possibly unresolvable controversy on the site. Consensus is not possible here.

Nate now points to Mark Elliott's work on stigmergy - a term from entomology which describes how large structures can be built without any one individual participant understanding the full structure; it is built on individuals simply modifying their immediate environment, with such modifications in turn influencing the actions of others. At the same time, this describes the overall, general level, with little attention to specific projects or cases.

By contrast, Christoph Spehr describes the difference between abstract, forced, and free cooperation; for him, collaboration is nothing special as we are all involved in collaborative processes all the time. What is important, then, is the type of collaboration, and the rules underlying it - ideally, this involves an embrace of conflict and a questioning of members' expected roles (taking of one's mask); this requires a new programme for collective action, and free cooperation describes this programme.

Nate is most interested in the different forms of distribution of power in such collaborative projects. It is necessary here especially to consider large, mass collaborative projects, in which individual members no longer have a reasonably sound understanding of the whole. This approaches collaborative projects in a different fashion - and Nate suggests Chantal Mouffe's work as a useful element in this approach. She describes the political as necessarily related to a we/they decision; but this is ideally agonistic rather than antagonistic - it is not about reconciliing differences, but neither is it about falling into stable, static configurations that must remain forever unchanged.

When mass collaborations are successful, we/they relations are harnessed productively and antagonisms fall away. Clashes provide a chance to rethink both sides of the argument. In Wikipedia, this must be further foregrounded - the fluidity of positions and alliances must be recognised.

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