Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Looking…Around

At the outset of PUB 802 I wasn’t really sure what to expect, but I have been pleasantly surprised at the way the course has encouraged me to reflect on the role that technology plays in my life and how I relate to technology. Technology and Web 2.0 are so ubiquitous in my life, and has been for so long—I realized over the course of this semester how complacent I had become with how it functions and even the lack of awareness that I had related to a lot of things that go on behind the scenes. This has played out in regards to each of the course objectives.

Appetite: Whetted

This course has encouraged me to think more critically about how interact with and consume content in a digital environment. I’ve reflected on my reading habits; for instance, last week’s reading on Being a Better Digital Reader  has made me more aware of the obstacles we face trying to engage deeply with content online, which has had the twofold effect of alleviating some of my anxiety/guilt regarding sometimes feeling like I’m not full absorbing online content, and also allowing me to consciously employ strategies to absorb content online in a more meaningful way.

Hey, I See what You’re Doing over There

This course has also educated me on the function that data serves in the Web 2.0  economy. I was aware of this in a vague sense before coming to PUB 802, but I had no idea how extensive and pervasive of an issue this really was. Reading this Twitter thread about Google and this article about Facebook really brought into focus the surveillance economy. I feel like, now that I know more, I can make conscious decisions about how I’m using technology in my life, and, when I am offering up my personal data as currency in exchange for a service or product, I can make a more informed decision and weigh the cost against the value of the service.

A Peak Behind the Techno Curtain 

My technological knowledge was very use-based before coming to this course; I understood how programs worked from a user’s perspective, but I really had no idea what was going on behind the scenes. It was so interesting for me to learn about the origins of the Internet and how information travels. Specifically, I appreciated acronyms like IP, HTTP, and CSS being demystified. I like understanding what’s going on around me, and when it comes to something as ubiquitous as the Internet, I really appreciate things being made a little more transparent.

I Do, Therefore I Am

The Wikipedia assignment, admittedly, was not a favourite of the 2018/19 MPub cohort. That being said, I’m happy to have completed the training module. It’s empowering to feel like I’m equipped to contribute to public knowledge production projects like Wikipedia, and I also enjoyed the WordPress work that we had to do. I think it’s good in a course like this that there is a hands-on aspect to the learning, because I think technology really lends itself to learning this way.

I also really appreciated working with Hypothes.is. All throughout this year, in PUB 800 and 802, it was a great tool for our cohort to make meaning out of the readings, and also build community among us. Even when serious knowledge production wasn’t necessarily happening in those margins, it helped bring us together as a group, and it was also a fun GIF testing ground.

Wrapping Up

Prior to coming to 801, my relationship to technology was quiet passive—things were what they were, and I didn’t necessarily spend much time or energy thinking about how technology functioned in my life or how it affected me, I think partially because I didn’t think there was anything I could do about it. After having completed this course, however, I do feel more engaged, informed, and empowered when it comes to thinking critically about technology in our society. Thank you for an interesting course, and have a good summer!

 

 

The Social Life of Numbers

Increasingly, data analytics is becoming a major driver in many markets. This is largely in part due to the proliferation of data that is out there and the many sophisticated tools that people have developed for analyzing this data. Now, more than ever, businesses are able to make informed decisions, and conversely businesses are realizing that to ignore data would prove detrimental to their success. Publishing is seeing uptake of this mindset with initiatives such as Booknet, Nielsen BookScan, (now The NPD Group), and Bookstat, among others, which track book sales, and projects that attempt to mine the data of literature at more granular levels, such as plot and sentence structure. Other initiatives are aiming to crack the “blockbuster” code—that is, scan manuscripts using a sophisticated algorithm to determine whether or not this book could be the next big hit.

I support the gathering and usage of data at the point-of-sale level. This data can provide insights about the size and shape of the publishing industry, help publishers manage inventory and distribution, and can also be used to help predict sales, which can help publishers at numerous stages of the acquisition and production process. I believe that this kind of macro-level data can support the human decision making process without supplanting it, and it is for this basic reason that I object to the use of algorithmic data to scan manuscripts. I believe that data use in this way would fundamentally stifle innovation because the algorithm would essentially be backward-looking, because it was built using books already published. For this reason, I also feel like it may be unable to accomplish the task it was designed to do. Blockbusters are so successful partially because they are doing something new or fresh—readers are intelligent, and they know when they’re being sold something that they’ve seen before.

Where I feel that data could be used more meaningfully and beneficially in publishing is in the area of marketing and social media. Increasingly it seems to be the case that books live or die depending on their author’s social media platform and presence. I believe that this is owing to the ubiquity of social media—people are now able to be connected to almost everyone almost always, which has conditioned them to want this. Consequently, the figure of the author is becoming more and more central to a book’s success.

So, what if there was a way to analyze an author’s social media presence and reach in a streamlined way, and then apply that knowledge to knowledge of the social media market on a large scale, to help construct and plan a social media strategy to gain that author the greatest reach possible? An algorithm could be constructed based off of press campaigns for past books and authors, sales data, and social media reach before and after the campaign. Ideally, the algorithm could also look at market distribution to help publishers plan book launch tours based on where receptive audiences (according to interest, affiliation, etc.) cluster.

Essentially, I’m not comfortable using data to help shape the history of literature. I believe that that should be done with the human eye, to allow for and encourage innovation. I do, however, believe that we could be using data in a more meaningful and robust way to help market books once they have been selected for publication.

 

 

Data Privacy 101: An Introduction to Surveillance Capitalism

The issue of data privacy is of central importance in the modern age, and, given the business models that now depend on metrics gathered via surveillance, it doesn’t seem that it will change in the near future. Furthermore,  much of people’s discomfort around data gathering seems to stem from the lack of transparency and knowledge about what data is gathered and stored, and how that data is used. As a result, and, influenced by education that I received regarding sharing on social media, I do think that education about this issue should be built into curriculums, and that it could be spearheaded by the government.

Often times corporations argue that users have agreed to have their data monitored and collected, however the terms by which users agree to this are invariably written in legalese and buried deep in long contracts that users have gotten used to skimming or ignoring completely because they are so long and often impenetrable. Often, I think, even if users did read the entire document, they wouldn’t fully understand what was being communicated or what they were agreeing to.

If the issue is a lack of understanding and knowledge about data collection and use, then the method of redress should aim to demystify and make transparent the issue of data collection and use. The problem is that, as surveillance capitalism becomes more and more commonplace, and the methods by which data is gathered, and—in fact—the data gathered become more and more extensive, we can’t expect private companies who stand to profit under this system to educate people. It would be great if they did, but they stand to gain too much from people remaining uneducated.

For this reason, I actually think the government could and should assume the responsibility of educating people about data collection and privacy. When I was in high school, we had a number of assemblies and lectures about what sort of information we were sharing on social media. It was framed as a matter of safety, and also from the perspective that nothing that was shared could ever really truly be deleted or taken back.

In a lot of ways, a conversation about data collection is an extension of this issue—essentially, it is still a matter of privacy. The difference is that the lessons I was taught in high school were about information and content I was choosing to share, whereas the conversations we need to be having now are about information that is being collected without our knowledge.

I think that educating people about how their data is collected and used is essential to people being able to make informed decisions about their digital lives. Furthermore, the current structures in place for doing this (Terms and Conditions documents, etc.) are not accomplishing this, (probably because ignorance of this matter is actually in corporations’ best interest.) Therefore, the government should intervene and build education about data privacy into curriculums. It should be something that becomes a basic part of peoples’ consciousness, as digital technology is increasingly becoming intertwined with peoples’ daily lives, and surveillance capitalism may be here to stay.

Rentmeester v. Nike, Inc.: A Tale of Two Photographs

It was the best of poses, it was the… well, it’s a pretty iconic pose. In modern media, you’d be hard pressed to find someone who didn’t recognize Nike’s “Jumpman” logo. Even if you wouldn’t know to call it the Jumpman, you’ve seen it if you’ve ever seen a pair of Air Jordans, or any of the (excessive) merchandising that’s been done connected to the Air Jordan image/brand.

The logo was made using a silhouette produced from an actual photo of Michael Jordan, commissioned by Nike sometime before 1988, when the logo was first used by the company. It’s hard to assign a dollar amount to the value of that image, but certainly, culturally, it’s been accruing cache internationally for the last three decades, and has become synonymous with the Air Jordan brand.

Enter Jacobus Rentmeester. The year is 2015, and the photographer has just filed a copyright claim against Nike, Inc. claiming that the photograph they commissioned, which the Jumpman logo was created from, constituted a plagiarization of his original photo. Did you follow that? According to Rentmeester’s line of thinking, his photo—let’s call it Photo A (of Michael Jordan, originally published in TIME magazine in 1984)—provided the concept and raw material for Nike’s commissioned photo—Photo B—which begat the Jumpman logo.

It’s not an entirely unreasonable claim. Many things between the two photographs are (at least) similar. Both photos are of Michael Jordan; compositionally, both feature a figure to the left of a basketball hoop, jumping towards the hoop, ball in hand. In both photos, the player’s legs are splayed impossibly wide, and the camera is positioned slightly lower than eye level, so that the viewers looks up towards Jordan. This gives Jordan a sense of being larger-than-life, daunting, even superhuman. The lighting in both photos is also similar: in both photos, Jordan is backlit, which creates a high-contrast visual effect, which in turn contributes to a feeling of monumental drama.

There are also some differences between the photos: Nike’s commissioned photo has a closer crop than Rentmeester’s, and the subject (Jordan) is smack in the middle of the photo. Rentmeester’s photo was originally part of a magazine spread, which by good sense dictated that Jordan had to be one side of the photo. Jordan’s physical position is also subtly different. In Rentmeester’s photo, Jordan’s right hand is raised, while in Nike’s photo, his right hand is stretched out behind him. In both photos, Jordan’s right hand is stretched wide open, but this is much easier to see in the Nike photograph.

The two photos also tell a slightly different story: in Rentmeester’s photograph, the focus is squarely on Jordan’s athleticism. The horizon is a grassy hill in the foreground, and  he is wearing plain athletic wear. Altogether, the main thrust feels like a passion for the sport—the only things that exist in the world of this photograph are a basketball player, a basketball, and a hoop. In Nike’s commissioned photo, on the other hand, a silhouetted city skyline is in the background. Jordan occupies the center of the photograph, decked-out in flashy, colour-coordinated sportswear (and, conspicuously, Air Jordans). The story here is a superstar basketball player in an urban setting.

The case concluded in February 2018 with a ruling against Rentmeester’s claim. The court panel and jury analysis is a little hard to parse without a firm grasp of legal jargon, but essentially the salient idea was that the “expression of the pose” did reasonably belong to Rentmeester, but that the photos were ” as a matter of law not substantially similar” (Stanford University Libraries, 2018).

 

It’s difficult to respond to the ruling without having a firm understanding of the information or decision-making process, but I think this case presents a very interesting question. We’ve accepted that a photograph is the property of the photographer, but what about the contents of that photograph? It reminds me of the basic copyright principle that a person doesn’t own an idea, but the unique expression of that idea. But how does that apply to a photograph? If the idea is the subject, the pose, and the basic composition of the photograph, couldn’t the unique expression be the combination of all of these things? In this case, the law would say no. As for my opinion, the jury is still in deliberation.

Works Consulted

Stanford University Libraries. “Rentmeester v. Nike, Inc.” Copyright and Fair Use. https://fairuse.stanford.edu/case/rentmeester-v-nike-inc/. Accessed 1 March 2019.

Esquenet, Margaret A. “United States: Photographer Sues Nike for Copyright Infringement of Iconic Jordan Logo.” Mondaq. http://www.mondaq.com/unitedstates/x/377138/Copyright/Photographer+Sues+Nike+For+Copyright+Infringement+Of+Iconic+Jordan+Logo. Accessed 1 March 2019.

“Jumpman (logo).” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jumpman_(logo). Accessed 1 March 2019.

 

 

So Much Depends/ Upon/ So Many/ Business Models

In any ecosystem, heterogeneity is a healthy thing. We love flowers and they’re beautiful, but if Vancouver *only* had flowers—no trees, no grasses, no vines or bushes, the ecosystem would collapse. Likewise, if we only had, say, Maple trees and violets and no other trees or flowers, we would have an impoverished ecosystem because only a select few other plants and limited animals would be able to survive here.

The same is true of any market. The danger of any business model—Patreon, Kickstarter, or ad-generated revenue—becoming dominant is that each of these models allows for a certain type of content to survive. Patreon works ideally for artists who have grown a platform elsewhere and have an ongoing artistic practice that would exist with or without patrons—that is, it works best when the income earned is supplemental as opposed to substantial. Of course some people do survive off of their Patreon income, but as we’ve seen, that’s an incredibly small percentage of people using the platform, and I think putting this expectation on the platform is unreasonable.

Kickstarter, on the other hand, works best when it’s enabling a project to move forward. As opposed to Patreon, which has little-to-no community or tools for discovery, it is possible to find projects on Kickstarter without knowing *exactly* who—or what—you’re looking for. For this reason, having a following is definitely beneficial but not absolutely necessary in the same way it is with Patreon. Where Kickstarter (and other crowdfunding) platforms excel is actually in building awareness and support for projects—monetary and otherwise. For this reason, it’s best suited for large, one-off projects that exist outside of an artist’s regular practice.

The existence of ad-generated revenue is also essential because it allows for “free” content, or at least content that is widely and openly accessible without the user having to pay money. Because the Internet is so ubiquitous in, and in many ways, essential to modern life, it’s important that there are services, communities, and content that are accessible without a fee. This is, of course, outside of the conversation about privacy and the politics of collecting information in lieu of a fee, which isn’t necessarily an ideal substitute for a fee. That being said, however, while I use Facebook (for communicating with fellow cohort members and for finding out about/RSVPing to events,) I’m not sure that I would pay for it. Personally, I’m okay with the exchange of some online privacy for a service that I feel is useful but not absolutely essential.

Part of what makes the Internet as great and useful (and at times scary) is that it allows for so many different types of content and creators to flourish. As with almost anything, however, one size does not fit all, and too much of a good thing is not a good thing. In my opinion, the Internet benefits from creators with an ongoing artistic practice, creators with big ambitious ideas, and free services, and for all of these to survive, there needs to be a variety different business/funding models to properly support them.

Platform Cooperativism Takes to Publishing

I’m going to take a stab at applying platform cooperativism to publishing, which I actually don’t think is that much of a stretch from established chapbook/anthology cultures.

It starts with five authors. No, it starts with only two. They’re best friends. They went through writing school together, but they haven’t had any luck submitting their work to literary journals. They’re frustrated with the gatekeeper system, so they decide to publish a chapbook together using their own money and limited understanding of design/layout. It’s a bit ramshackle, but it’s a sincere effort. They tell their friends and they bring some by to small art spaces around the city. Some of their friends express an interest in putting together a similar project, so the next time around, there are five authors. With the growth of the group, their reach also expands, and they’re gaining the interest of writers and creatives outside of their immediate social circles. They start to think of themselves as a collective. They stumble over involving people that they don’t directly know, but the city is small and the people interested are still friends-of-friends, so they start holding meetings and thinking about putting together another chapbook.

From my understanding, the story so far is one that many independent presses more or less have in common—it’s also analogous to various artists throughout history who have been unable to find mainstream success, so they’ve broken out and done their own thing instead (for one very notable example, check out the history of the Impressionist movement, following the initial Salon des Refusés  of 1863.)

How I’m imagining this venture could mature into a platform cooperative, however, is if they continued to publish anthologies as opposed to  collections or pieces written by one person. I say this because it seems more compatible with the cooperative model—in the Shareable article, “What is a Platform Co-op?” the contributors talk about the importance of the platform providing a service or selling a product, as well as the centrality of the platform being collectively owned and governed.

I think it takes a great deal of goodwill and organization to set something like this up, but perhaps the collective could be run by an editorial board and an executive board. People on both boards would be voted in, and every member of the collective would contribute a certain amount of money. Collective members could submit pieces for inclusion in that year’s issue, and the editorial board would decide what to publish. A portion of proceeds would go towards supporting the publishing etc., but anything earned beyond that could be paid back to the collective members.

Obviously this sort of idea is only scalable to a point, but I do think it’s possible. It almost feels like a hybrid between a Patreon-like model and a true platform cooperative, but I think it’s the most realistic way to apply the idea to publishing.

Work Cited

Mai Sutton, Cat Johnson, and Neal Gorenflo. “A Shareable Explainer: What is a Platform Co-op?” Shareable. August 16, 2016.

 

Less “What Was”, More “What Is” and “What Can Be”

This readings for this week, in conjunction with the previous week’s readings, have encouraged me to think about the web more critically. I’ve grown pretty tired of the “something precious has been lost forever”, good-old-days rhetoric, but these readings have caused me to think about the web in a way that recognizes its fluidity as opposed to taking for granted a static sense of status quo.

I wrote last week about my frustration with the aforementioned something-precious-lost narrative, but for the purposes of this entry and this topic, I want to mention one other issue, and that is the rose-coloured-glasses effect of nostalgia. While the web of yore did definitely function in a way different from the web of today, and while some of the differences could probably be seen as a decline in [insert virtue here], I think it’s also important to recognize that romanticizing the past often has a tendency to focus on what was good instead of what was not-good. I’m a little out of my depth in this subject area, but I’m sure that there were things about the Web that Used to Be that aren’t so desirable.

That all being said, this examination of the history and evolution of the web has shifted the way in which I think of things in a way that I’m more mindful of the the fact that the web is a structure with architecture and technology behind it. It seems obvious, but the way I conceived of the web before was a lot more like a mountain—an inevitable landform resulting direct and indirect forces, but essentially inevitable, fixed, and to a certain extent, organic. The readings from the last few weeks, however, have encouraged me to think of the web more as a series of scaffolds—intentionally built and maintained by human engineering, very much un-fixed, and essentially mutable. The web as we know it today may not be functioning exactly in the way that the original architects envisioned, but the functions and structures that exist exist because someone (or, more likely, a team of someones) decided that this function or structure would benefit the overall whole of the structure or user base. No part of the integral design of the web has been accidental or organic. The web does not design itself.

This paradigm, where the web is fluid and built by humans (it of course seems so obvious when you put it that way). Is a much more empowering relationship to have with technology in general. It’s easy to take technology and the web especially for granted when you’ve grown up with it and you’ve also sort of grown and evolved in step with technology—it’s easy for it to all feel inevitable and fixed, but it very much isn’t. And if it isn’t, then it can be better.

 

Fuzzy Wuzzy Was an Ever-Waser

No, I’m not comparing myself to the titular bear, but doesn’t all of this lingo remind anyone else of that tongue twister?

Anyways, let’s get down to it: Adam Gopnik, in his New Yorker article, “The Information,” lays out three categories of people, divided according to how they feel about the evolution of technology. The Never-Betters feel very optimistic about technology’s continued evolution; The Better-Nevers, as a foil, feel equally pessimistic. The Ever-Wasers have a more ambivalent relationship to technology—or, at least, they accept it for what it is currently and acknowledge that it will continue to evolve and change.

I’d sort myself into this third category. Quite frankly, the Golden Era rhetoric is getting a little tiring. I get that for people whose livelihood/identity was associated with the Internet at a specific point in its evolution, there’s more on the line. They have a horse in the race that I admittedly do not. I think also for my generation, who grew up as the Internet was growing up, maybe it’s easier for us to take these changes in stride.

But I also think that underlying this conversation is a bit of a blindspot regarding technology and evolution. Technology and media exists as a continuum, and it’s never really been stagnant. People have always been pushing forward—be it by combining different parts of the printing process into one mega machine, putting telephone’s in people’s homes, or building smaller (and then bigger) and smarter cell phones. Also, at every point in history, as technology has evolved, there’s been someone saying that it was so much better before  X existed, and that X is corrupting The Youth, ruining humanity’s collective existence, etc. Perhaps the issue is that technology evolves faster and more dramatically than we do.

There’s also a part of me that feels like the Golden Era rhetoric is ageist. Saying “the Internet/technology was better way back when” is at least similar to saying “my Internet/technology is better than your Internet/technology” (which, also, returning to my previous point, is more or less the same as “my generation’s music is better than your generation’s music”.) I feel like it goes hand in hand with “you had to be there”. But we weren’t.

Finally, an issue that was raised in this week’s readings that I feel relates back to this conversation is the issue of the Internet/technology being misused and generally evil. I resent the implication that humans for the first time in history are being mislead or being exposed to biased information. Media and news has always come from somewhere, and as long as it’s been coming from anywhere, the framing and colouring of the news has reflected the views/biases of the person writing the copy, or paying for the broadcast station.

Technology is not any better or worse than it’s ever been. It may be stronger and bigger, but I’m positive that in 20 years, someone will look back and call this a golden era. So, relax. These are the golden days. They always have been. They always will be.