Copyright: DRM vs the Darknet

AUTHOR: Bryan Alexander

Reading this post on BoingBoing today, I was reminded of a paper presented more than two years ago at an ACM conference. Now, a story about police manically seizing all non-commercially-produced digital media might not trigger such an academic reaction, but bear with me for a moment.
In fact, a better objection is that one of the major themes of modern copyright is its shift from national regime to international system. But I should leave that for another time, because my point really applies to that.

That paper, “The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution”, raised a controversy when it argued that any system of digital content lockdown would fail, given, ah, imperfections, hacks, and the efficiencies of digital networks. Read, as they say, the whole thing. The paper even inspired a fine book of the same name.

It came out when many companies were striving for digital rights management (DRM) solutions, including that one which funded the think tank where “Darknet”‘s authors worked. I and others were struck by the stark oppositon the paper’s appearance articulated, between digital enclosures and rapid sharing. Between DRM and the darknet, in other words, was a handy catchphrase for describing the battles over digital copyright.

How has that phrase played out between the ACM and yesterday’s Manila cop attack? DRM continues to advance, led most notably by the speedbumps and restrictions Apple placed around iTunes. PDF files have had restrictions available for longer, but without the publicity. DVDs continue to experiment with limits on free access, from self-annihilation to disabling fastforward. At the same time, BitTorrent has sped up file-sharing, and content continues to be hacked open. Between DRM and darknet, the amount of digital content keeps increasing, beyond metadata labeling and effective search.
Continue reading “Copyright: DRM vs the Darknet”


If we used categories for this blog I would probably assign “meta” to this entry.

But maybe it does make sense to use categories in a blog of this type and we had decided on a simple categorization scheme earlier but I have come up with another idea. Since we want our guest bloggers to leave an impression on the blog why not let them create categories for us (when they do their guest blogging). In that way we would end up with an evolving ontology co-created by a number of (prominent) guest bloggers. Of course categorization would not be obligatory and the question is whether we would end up in the structure Bryan and others create – or whether we would resist (and why).

The Death of a World

I Chat with a colleague and friend in Singapore, while I am in Umeå Sweden, in an Adobe Atmosphere online world.

“We’re sorry, but Adobe has discontinued the sale and development of Adobe® Atmosphere® software.”

……Adobe Website, February 2005


I began working with Adobe’s 3D web world program Atmosphere in November 2003 and continue today with it. It has taught me a lot about the nature of 3D virtual space, digital texturally and how to construct and negotiate a virtual space as visual text. On the 19th December 2004 Adobe began the process which they term “End of Life” for Adobe Atmosphere.

I have created two online worlds in Adobe Atmosphere and I was part of the Beta testing program, which ran for over two years. One of the worlds which I created can be visited HERE (for the ITAS network). The player however seems to be disappearing from the Net fast as a download and it has become illegal to host an unauthorized version for download. It seems the end is inevitable. It feels a bit like a death.

The implications of this are interesting. I can archive my own work, I have many images from the building process and each can stand alone as a piece of digital art. I can run the worlds on a local server at the moment but what will happen in the future with system designs? I expect in 5 years it would require a special emulator for those who have a player. It I think in the terms of my academic context (Modern Languages, English literature), if a publishing house closes down, all the books it had published do not disappear or are recalled and destroyed. Instead they continue to be exchanged and read, forming strata in the continuum of language, culture and history. From the discussions going on at the moment on the Atmosphere user forums it seems even the file extension for the Atmosphere program (.aer) will itself be disallowed and become unusable online. Archiving of worlds and limited distribution to users on local servers may keep the program alive in one sense. However it is a life support system that fails to maintain the vitality that I remember when Atmosphere 1.0 was first released. The forum was rolling alone with hundreds of entries and links to online worlds being posted each day during the first six months after release.

With the loss of Atmosphere it seems that the structure remains, as a abandoned city or megalith, but the meaning of the symbols, the language and community which employed them has moved on in time and space. Their works resigned to a museum and the few who remember the stories “the Atmospherians” told in their worlds of light late at night in spots around the planet.

A Bird’s eye view of the HUMlab Atmosphere world.

A new approach to metadata: social tagging

AUTHOR: Bryan Alexander

A new approach to metadata has taken the internet by storm, and continues to advance through controversies and rapid development. This post is an introduction and provocation.

The most commonly used term for this new method is “folksonomy“, a neologism formed by taking the stem from “taxonomy” and adding “folk-” as a prefix, emphasizing its social nature.

The term, coined by Thomas Vander Wal and popularized by coined by Adam Mathes, seeks to address the metadata scheme seen in Web services like, Flickr, FURL, and Technorati’s blog tag initiative. In these projects users tag up items they value (pictures, URLs) according to language they devise. In knowledge management terms, these are user-generated or private taxonomies/ontologies. But folksonomies go further, in that they exist primarily for sharing. For example, I can check the delicious network for most popular URLs, and get a snapshot of social concerns by skimming the leading tags. A glance at a user’s tags or a group’s affords a sense of their research concerns. As per knowledge management, a group can surface a better sense of their thinking by generating tags for their work.

Flickr’s CEO sees this as an outcome of the historical development of cyberculture:

So the proliferation of capture devices, the always-on lifestyle, and the fact that people are now more familiar with computers and the Internet, very simply leads people to be more comfortable with interacting with each other online. It’s not weird to publish a stream of your photos and have people tune into that.

Perhaps most significant is that folksonomies have, so far, succeeded where professional metadata systems have failed, in getting users to tag their own work.
Continue reading “A new approach to metadata: social tagging”

The internet as horror genre continues

AUTHOR: Bryan Alexander

Several recent stories remind us that the rhetoric of cyberspace as locus horribilis is alive and well, not to mention historically persistent. We continue to construe digitally networked technology as the dark side of social mores, the realm of the uncanny, a haunted space of the excluded and despised.

British and Canadian media describe the internet as a zone of predation, where children (often: teenagers) are positioned as victims, their purity posited and sullied in the same discursive arc. The passivity of these subjects is very important, in that it screens out their unruly desires; such accounts as these are the obverse of, reaction to, containment of teen voice social software like LiveJournal and Xanga.

The media/war scandal of the hostage doll explores a different stratum of the uncanny internet. This is the uncanny valley of subjects blurred with objects, threatening and powerful as Kristeva’s abject. Kleist’s puppets went further, offering to replace humanity at the end of all things. The GI Joe Iraq case forecloses this apocalyptic edge, but only to lodge more firmly in the posthuman. The kidnapped doll, known only through the Web, is the flip side of an army transformed by information operations, where subjects and objective data are knitted closely together, and media warfare is at the first rank of strategy.

The Language of Space

A theatre constructed in a virtual 3D space provides the means by which a ‘language’ of space, as has been found in theatre since its beginnings, can be interpreted, analysed and imitated with innovation by a student.

The Virtual Theatre and Drama Teaching project at Umeå University is interesting for me as it deals with the meaning and use of a space usually severely demarcated between the audience and the production, the subject and the student, the past and the present. Here we can descend beyond the line of the two dimensional reconstructions of The Globe theatre found in text books and “live in the history” of the virtual space. We realise how far it is from the front to the back of the stage, not in numbers but in steps taken in time and how near the audience was to our feet. As well the immense size of a grand Greek amphitheatre swallows us as we peer down to the distant flat space of action at its centre. Spatiality becomes the domain of meaning without the necessity of us becoming an involved subject in the actual space.

I have experienced what is described as ‘presence’ in virtual worlds. For me this is the feeling of a virtual place being a location and not only an image. Despite a familiarity with this impression it was not until I walked around Paris for 10 days in the summer that I realised just how a space can evoke narrativity as text. Every street is laden with meaning in the historical areas I visited. This meaning not only unfolds emotionally and psychologically through the negotiation of the points of reference but it also influences the behaviour of those people who now are both experiencing and are part of the spatial text.

Virtual theatre, and in similar projects concerned with spatiality in historical or cultural settings, awakens the three dimensional point of view that is second nature as we engage with daily reality, but requires honing and development when working with the narrative spaces of theatre.

creating reality

I teach drama three days a week at a local ‘high school’ where the students have little to no previous experience. The biggest aspect that I struggle with as a drama teacher is that theater is an art as well as a process. You can not just memorize the line, get up on stage, and present a convincing character. The vdrama project (see the two previous posts for more information)emphasizes that drama is a process rather than a product and I believe that this is its biggest strength.

One interesting focus of this project is its emphasis on stage space. Students tend to interact with each other on a 2D level, leaving a lot of space left empty. The vdrama students are exposed to a variety of virtual stages in which their avatar can move and explore. This is a similar problem I face with my students. It is so useful to have these different spaces, not only for sheer exploration, but also because you can change the viewpoint of the avatar between first and third person. The third person view is similar to watching your performance on camera, and can allow the student the opportunity to id problems that he or she may not notice from the first person.

This seems to be a very pedagogical project. The benefits of constructivist learning greatly offset the low cost of renting a space in this environment.

seminar: virtual theaters

Claes Rosenqvist is presently doing a seminar in the lab on an educational project where students have built historical theaters in a graphical virtual environment. Live stream available from here.


He has already touched on several intersting issues: highly realistic VR representations being very similiar to traditional slides, the importance of creating and spatial understanding. He also just talked about how student representations are often “2D” early on although in a 3D world (building along walls for instance). Claes also talked about how the project has changed the curriculum and work practices (which is something that rather few educational projects actually achieve).

Update: Another picture added.

IMGP0269 resize.jpg

Finding our voice

My fellow PhD students and I have spent a lot of time talking about voice in relation to the HUMlab blog. We all blog on our own, so having a blog voice is nothing new, but for some reason we are all having trouble on this blog. Today Jim and I spoke about it at some length. We discussed how blogs illustrate a process rather than a fixed point. We come from so many different backgrounds (yet all research something to do with cyber theory) that finding a link in our processes can seem simple, but can also be deceptively tricky. Another possibility for the proverbial cat holding our collective tongues has a lot to do with the concept of the word ‘lab’. We are looking at this concept in two different ways. In one way, we are representing a lab that means a lot to each of us. It is a space that we feel free to think outside the box, to be creative and innovative. It is a special place where people from a wide variety of disciplines can come together and find common ground. We want to represent lab itself in a way that does it justice. Jim and I talked about feeling the need to think analytically, write profoundly. Capture the essence of this space in such a way that was not necessary in the Jokkmokk blog project (mainly descriptive/creating an experience). Nor is this style necessary in our respective blogs. Combined with the need, the second meaning of ‘lab’ comes into play. The blog itself is a sort of lab; an experiment. We are constantly learning in this space…learning how to write, how to criticize, how to review. It is an intense verbal environment where we are testing out new theories and pushing the virtual boundaries of our physical space. 

We will continue to write, push the process and find our collective voice. It will be very interesting in 6 months time to take the archives of this blog and run it through a program (such as Sigmund) which will give us an idea of the topics we center on, the conversations we initiate and participate in. Perhaps such analysis will help shape our voices. I tend to believe, however, that our voices will be shaped more from practice and from feeling that we have a something valuable to say in this space than from word frequency. Tools like the above will be useful for tracing the paths of our combined trains of thought and for initiating new projects.

introducing Bryan

Our first guest blogger is Bryan Alexander and he will guest blog February 7 – February 20. He has informed us that he will be traveling during this time but knowing Bryan, we know that multi-tasking is part of who he is. We remember Bryan doing a presentation in a virtual world (an activity we organized) at the same time as doing a real-world presentation at some American university. We also remember Bryan telling people to feel free to blog, do email or whatever while he did his seminar in HUMlab (streamed seminar available here).

For a rather substantial bookmarks page, check Bryan’s collection out. This page reflects his interests and energy. Bryan does work on educational technology, blogs, copyright and intellectural property, haunted spaces (and media), the history of information and many other things. Infocult: Information, Culture, Policy, Education is one of Bryan’s weblogs. Bryan is involved in a great many weblogs, online forums and communities.

I quoted Howard Rheingold (from this article) in an earlier post:

I will never forget my first meeting with Bryan Alexander. I bet most people remember their first meeting with him. He’s friendly and cheerful, sports a big, black, civil-war general (or Biblical prophet) beard, and the light of some kind of fervor burns in his eyes. Ideas excite him and he’s not averse to passionate oratory.

I am very happy to have Bryan Alexander as our first guest blogger and I have very good hopes for the next two weeks. It will also be interesting to see how the interaction between guest blogger and “local” bloggers will work. Also, most of the HUMlab bloggers (blogging here) are still trying to find their voice (in this collaborative, institutional blog)…