I Don't Want To Be A Nerd!

The blog of Nicholas Paul Sheppard
Archive for december 2014

Not quite free

2014-12-22 by Nick S., tagged as commerce

I noticed that both Wikipedia and Firefox have been asking for donations recently. They're welcome to do this, but I couldn't help wonder if a few curmudgeons might be thinking: I told you so. Having wowed folks like Chris Anderson with their part in destroying any incentive for people to pay for encyclopaedias and web browsers, they've now discovered that they do, in fact, need money to provide the services that they do.

In The Logic of Collective Action (1971), Mancur Olson observes that most citizens say that tax-supported services are a good thing, and yet no government ever got by on donations. Had he been writing today, he might have said the same about encyclopaedias and web browsers. The problem for governments is that, without compulsory taxation, individual citizens are far too tempted to leave the paying to someone else.

Of course I noticed this because I myself launched Firefox and visited Wikipedia. It's hard not to when Wikipedia enjoys special billing on both Bing and Google, and, while I bought Opera once upon a time, I now couldn't buy a web browser even if I wanted to. (Of course I could donate to Firefox but why would I while Opera and Chrome aren't even asking for donations, and all three of them seem to have become clones these days?)

Both Wikipedia and Mozilla make pleas that illustrate the depths of their users' unwillingness to pay. According to Wikipedia, "if everyone reading this right now gave $3, our fundraiser would be done within an hour". Put another way, Wikipedia has been reduced to this sort of begging by users' unwillingness to pay even a measly $3 for access to an encyclopaedia. But who led them to expect that the price of an encyclopaedia is $0?

Chris Anderson and others correctly observe that the marginal cost of electronic goods like web sites and software is very low, perhaps even "too cheap to meter" in the sense that setting up a metering and payment infrastructure for it might cost more than the good itself. But it isn't zero, and the fixed costs can be very high. "Free" can therefore only ever be part of a financially viable strategy for producing such goods.

What Wikipedia, Mozilla and others have achieved for very little money is nonetheless impressive in many respects. What we don't know is: how much more could have been achieved had some more funding been available? And how could such funding ever be raised while everyone expects these services to be provided free of charge?

Cultural buzz or helpless consumption?

2014-12-14 by Nick S., tagged as digital media

The Conversation this week provided some commentary from Nicolas Suzor and Eleanor Angel on the Australian Government's recent instruction to Internet service providers and copyright owners to come to an agreement on policing file-sharing. At the end of the article is the crux of Australians' recent complaints about unfair and extortionate pricing of access to blockbuster television programmes: "exclusively restrict[ing] access to premium channels — such as Foxtel — are more profitable than making the same content available faster to more people at a lower price". This being so, why would anyone expect copyright owners to do anything else?

Suzor and another colleague, Paula Dootson, discuss the issue at greater length in an academic article linked to the statement above. They paraphrase the director of Game of Thrones as saying that "these series depend on 'cultural buzz' — the discussion generated and fed by viewers". What's more, "the entertainment industries have become adept at encouraging this 'cultural buzz' in order to drive up demand for their premium offerings." Fans of Game of Thrones and other series value being a part of this buzz, and feel cheated when if they can't participate because the companies behind the series delay its release into the region in which the fans live.

An alternative reading of cultural buzz is that, for all the talk of user participation and empowerment over the past 10-15 years, television viewers remain helpless consumers of the entertainment industry, unable to choose whether or not to watch a television programme, or at what time to watch it. (Of course such consumers complain that they want to watch it at the time of first release, but who chose that time?)

Over at the ABC, Mark Pesce presents himself as one such helpless consumer. Pesce complains that film studios put a lot of effort into generating interest in their films, only to cruelly ask viewers to pay for them when they're released and to castigate those who take it without paying. It isn't clear why he thinks they should behave any other way — what business would want no interest in its products, and no one to pay for them? — and perhaps pro-copyright folks can take some heart from the number of commenters who lined up to call out Pesce's rant as unconstructive, illogical and immature.

Against the "helpless consumer" interpretation, though, one could contend that participation in any cultural buzz, even one pushed by entertainment companies, is nonetheless participation. What's more, participation requires access to the material at the centre of the buzz at the same time as everyone else. In this interpretation, television viewers are instead "time-critical participants".

Against the "time-critical participant" interpretation, one could point out that hardly any of us alive today participated in any cultural buzz surrounding the release of Hamlet, 1984 or The Lord of the Rings, yet many of us nonetheless continue to enjoy, discuss, and be inspired by these things. The first release of an artwork can only ever be ephemeral, and a work's real worth evolves over a much longer period of time than the one at the focus of debates over restricted releases. In ten (or even one) year's time, will anyone care whether they saw Game of Thrones yesterday, today, tomorrow or, indeed, at all?

On technological determinism and classrooms

2014-12-08 by Nick S., tagged as education

At the same time that I was complaining about technological determinism and law(non)making in my previous entry, The Conversation published an article from Joanne Orlando that I at first took to be a quite different form of technological determinism. Orlando disputes the importance of remembering information in the classroom (though it isn't clear to me who actually claims that it is the high point of learning), and along the way claims that electronic devices can be just as useful, if not more so, than handwriting in classrooms.

According to Orlando, a character who records photos, video and audio of a presentation "can use their digital notes to create something new that builds on the topic", while another character who makes handwritten notes finds this "not so easy". For Orlando, studies showing that handwritten notes provide better recall are beside the point: the character with the recording devices can achieve the same or better by building something out of the recordings.

Orlando doesn't say much about what ensures that the device-wielding character actually builds on the topic rather than simply leaves the recordings where they lie, and doesn't explain at all what stops the pen-wielding character from also building on the topic. I therefore took Orlando to be claiming that the mere availability of electronic recording devices led to intelligent processing and re-combination of recordings, as might be claimed by an enthusiastic proponent of mash-ups and re-mixes.

In writing a response to the article, and re-reading Orlando's article several times in the process, I realised two things. Firstly, Orlando probably didn't mean to claim that re-mixes and mash-ups are necessarily intelligent or useful, only that is possible for them to be. This point, however, is obscured by conflating the actions of memorisation and of constructing new knowledge. Coming to this understanding through the process of writing a blog entry illustrates exactly what Orlando wants to happen, but might not have happened had I simply left Orlando's article on its web site.

Orlando acknowledges that recall of a certain amount of basic information is, in fact, necessary for mastery of a topic as well as day-to-day business. Having a dictionary of French in one's pocket, for example, does not make one a fluent speaker of French, no matter how good one is at looking up words. For memorising information of this sort, writing it out it is surely better than merely making an electronic recording, as the studies cited in Orlando's article say.

Nonetheless, Orlando is correct to say that electronic recordings can be of use in constructing new knowledge — I used The Conversation's web site rather than a handwritten copy of Orlando's article in developing this very blog entry — and that memorisation of useful facts may happen along the way. My experience matches that of Cat Brown, however, whose comment points out that many students' use of electronic material is far from the ideal that Orlando imagines, being to "simply regurgitate chunks of undigested facts that google has delivered to their computers". (No doubt students can write out similarly undigested facts with a pen, though maybe they'd at least remember some of them.)

Teachers with experiences like Cat Brown's and mine may be tempted to subscribe to a form of technological determinism that is opposite to the one that I initially read into Orlando's article: electronic devices lead to unthinking reproduction of search engine results. I now suppose that Orlando meant to critique exactly this view. The real question is not whether pens or cameras and microphones result in better learning, but how do teachers get their students to use their tools intelligently?

Lawmakers on technology, and technologists on lawmaking

2014-12-05 by Nick S., tagged as law

The Register, the ABC and The Conversation all recently reported the European Parliament's "Resolution on the Digital Single Market", which seeks to "unbundle search engines from commercial services". The resolution is presumed to target Google, and to address allegations that its search results might favour its own services over services from other providers. No one seems to expect that the resolution will have any practical effect, and a good thing too according to technology enthusiasts like David Glance at The Conversation and Marty Gauvin, interviewed for the ABC piece.

I'm not familiar with European institutions, haven't read the resolution, and can't comment on the merits of this particular resolution. The dismissals offered by Glance and Gauvin, however, seem to be underpinned by a presumption that technology makers know best and that silly uninformed lawmakers should keep out of their way.

I find it a little depressing to think that "the technology landscape fundamentally can't be shaped by politics or the law", as Glance claims. The defeatism that follows this claim doesn't explicitly acknowledge it, but the alternative seems to be to sit back and allow technology — and the companies that control it — to have its way with us. Technology companies and their cheerleaders may be comfortable with this, but are the rest of us?

Bill McKibben, in Enough (2004), points out that claims that some technology or another (he is writing about biotechnology) is "inevitable" represent attempts to sidestep debate over the merits of the claimants' technology. He notes that the Amish, for one, are famous for demonstrating that societies do have a choice to accept or reject technology. Even more mainstream societies routinely govern car technology by road rules, food technology by health regulations, and construction technology by building standards.

Enthusiasts for trendier technologies like computing and biotechnology might like to think that they are uniquely placed to understand said technologies and their effects on society, if they accept that it is possible for their favourite technologies to have a negative impact at all. But why should we believe that technologists, let alone companies with vested interests in selling technology, know any more than lawmakers about what society wants or how to achieve it?

Glance seems to accept towards the end of his article that there are, in fact, things that lawmakers can and should do address "small stuff" like privacy, intellectual property and mis-use of market power. I suppose that he means to say that the law can fiddle around the edges, but that technologies themselves appear and disappear without the input of lawmakers. Lawmakers didn't choose to invent search engines, for example. Yet lawmakers are able to decide to respond to them, and it's not clear to me why doing this should be "large stuff" beyond our ability to address if we determine a need for it.