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Open Source

The Emancipatory Potential of Tech Activism

The final speaker in this first AoIR 2013 plenary is Christina Dunbar-Hester, whose focus is on activist technical projects - such as micropower radio stations or community wifi networks. The activists describe such activities with the Amish term of barnraising, highlighting the community empowerment and self-sufficiency aspects of such initiatives. The hope is to demystify technology and generate political engagement through further hands-on knowledge sharing.

There is a big difference in this in how technical expertise is seen as empowering (through sharing) rather than disempowering (through the emergence of knowledge elites). But there remains a strong white middle-class basis to this - such sharing continues to speak largely to a male white addressee, and the involvement of women or minorities in these initiatives remains rare.

The Politics of Open Source

We move on at ECPR 2011 to Andrea Calderaro, who zooms in on the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) movement as a form of political struggle in the network society. It is important here to move beyond digital media as a mere tool, but to question the code itself; FOSS does this by open-sourcing code to allow greater interaction and transparency.

Open Access as Enabler for e-Democracy

The next keynote speaker at EDEM 2010 is Stevan Harnad, who shifts our focus to the question of open access to research - which is perhaps not a democratic issue in the strict sense of the word, but connects closely to questions of open government data, of course. The point of contention here is the unresolved question of how specialist knowledge connects with broad-based user-driven approaches to knowledge management - best examplified perhaps by Wikipedia. This is about user empowerment, but is not democratic in any traditional sense - and citizen engagement initiatives in e-democracy face similar challenges (especially in the context of complicated and controversially debated issues).

Shared Tools in the Share Economy

The final keynote on this first day of next09 is by Matthias Schrader of next09 conference organisers Sinnerschrader, who brings us back to the conference theme 'share economy'. What can we share, what do we want to share, what do we get out of sharing?

In the share economy, what we share are in the first place the tools we use; using (physical, mechanical) tools, of course, has long been seen as a uniquely human trait (although that belief has now been shown to be mistaken - other animals use tools, too). Perhaps the next step from here is the belief that only humans use tools to create other tools - that is, that only humans innovate by combining small, modular, commodity tools into more complex, composite, cutting-edge 'meta-tools'.

Communities? Wikipedia, YouTube, and Other Projects

The next session at AoIR 2007 begins with a paper by Ralph Schroeder and Mattijs den Besten on the section in the Pynchon wiki which has sprung up to collaboratively annotate Thomas Pynchon's much-anticipated novel Against the Day. There are some interesting statistics on how user participation shifted from the Pynchon mailing-list before the release of the book to the wiki once it was released; today, the wiki works as a reference source, as a tool highlighting connections to other Pynchon novels, and interpreting the content of the book. By July 2007, it had 200 contributors, 5000 entries, and contained some 400,000 words.

Towards More Democratic IT Infrastructures?

We're continuing in a law and policy vein. The final session for today is on the potential for a democratisation of IT infrastructures. Dan Wielsch is the first presenter, focussing on infrastructure governance. He notes that the governance principles of distribution technology are changing - more people than ever before have access to the means of information production and exchange, drastically reducing entry costs to communication (also known as 'cheap speech'). This is markedly different from the previous industrial information economy, of course. In the new network information economy there is a serious increase in non-market content production, leading to more and more diverse content and content producers.

Artistic Tools and DIY Networks

Finally met Jill Walker during the break! Now on to the next panel - but it's very dark in here so I'll apologise in advance for any typing errors. Mary Flanagan and Ken Perlin are presenting on their RAPUNSEL project. The motivation is that very few of the programmers and other IT professionals in the US are women (7%), so the project is to develop a game to attract girls to the area. The main drop-off point for interest amongst girls is around middle school, but they are and remain very interested in online gaming (over 60% of the gamers in Sims Online are women). The project builds on this by using 'computer clubhouses' in poor and ethnically diverse neighbourhoods in New York (which are sponsored by Intel). The combination of everyday desires and technology enables the expression of a possible world (building on Deleuze). So how can hacker and middle-schooler cultures be connected in this way?

Open Source Panel

Early Start...We've now started the last day of the conference proper here in Helsinki - with a session on open source cultures that also contains my own paper. I'll blog most of this but of course not my paper itself - I'll upload this to this site soon. Not a bad turnout for a 9.30 start on a Saturday morning, either!

Mark Tribe has now made a start on his panel, beginning with a brief history of free and open source software (FOSS) and its ideology. But Mark's own interest is in open source as a broader cultural phenomenon, which also occurs in the domain of art (and he quotes Stravinsky as saying that "a good composer doesn't imitate, he steals"). This of course is a key development of the last century - the conscious building of new art on existing material, be it ideas or actual found material (as also in the emergence of collage as a new art form - take the dada movement for example).

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