D-Day for Tiree Touchable

This is it, D-Day — installing the projected touch table in Tiree Rural Centre (see “microwave — Tiree Touchtable“).  Everything made up and ready on the ground after a week of sawing, screwing, drilling and gluing.  So now just (!) climbing up ladders and bolting it all onto the beams, 5 metres up, then seeing if it all works!

A few minor problems along the way, lost one Kinect due to (Alan’s) over-enthusiastic use of a centre punch when drilling holes.  One broken mirror — oops, don’t I remember something about those?  And tetchy projector that doesn’t want to talk to its remote control (helpful manufacturers online FAQ says, “if the remote doesn’t work, use the control panel”).

If we manage the day without dropping a computer 20 foot, we will probably be happy.

Full report and photos later today …

Alt-HCI open reviews – please join in

Papers are online for the Alt-HCI trcak of British HCI conference in September.

These are papers that are trying in various ways to push the limits of HCI, and we would like as many people as possible to join in discussion around them … and this discussion will be part of process for deciding which papers are presented at the conference, and possibly how long we give them!

Here are the papers  — please visit the site, comment, discuss, Tweet/Facebook about them.

paper #154 — How good is this conference? Evaluating conference reviewing and selectivity
        do conference reviews get it right? is it possible to measure this?

paper #165 — Hackinars: tinkering with academic practice
        doing vs talking – would you swop seminars for hack days?

paper #170 — Deriving Global Navigation from Taxonomic Lexical Relations
        website design – can you find perfect words and structure for everyone?

paper #181 — User Experience Study of Multiple Photo Streams Visualization
        lots of photos, devices, people – how to see them all?

paper #186 — You Only Live Twice or The Years We Wasted Caring about Shoulder-Surfing
        are people peeking at your passwords? what’s the real security problem?

paper #191 — Constructing the Cool Wall: A Tool to Explore Teen Meanings of Cool
        do you want to make thing teens think cool?  find out how!

paper #201 — A computer for the mature: what might it look like, and can we get there from here?
        over 50s have 80% of wealth, do you design well for them?

paper #222 — Remediation of the wearable space at the intersection of wearable technologies and interactive architecture
        wearable technology meets interactive architecture

paper #223 — Designing Blended Spaces
        where real and digital worlds collide

Status Code 451- and the burning of books

I was really pleased to see that Alessio Malizia has just started to blog.  An early entry is a link to a Guardian article about Tim Bray‘s suggestion for a new status code of 451 when a site is blocked for legal reasons.

Bray’s tongue-in-cheek suggestion is both honouring Ray Bradbury, the author of Faranheit 451, and also satirising the censorship implicit in IP blocking such as the UK High Court decision in April to force ISPs to block Pirate Bay.

However, I have a feeling that perhaps the satire could be seen, so to speak, as on the other foot.

Faranheit 451 is about a future where books are burnt because they have increasingly been regarded as meaningless by a public focused on quick fix entertainment and mindless media: censorship more the result than the cause of societal malaise.

Just as Huxley’s Brave New World seemed to sneak up upon us until science fiction was everyday life, maybe Bradbury’s world is here with the web itself not the least force in the dissolution of intellectual life.

Bradbury foresaw ‘firemen’ who burnt the forbidden books, following in a long history of biblioclasts from the destruction of the Royal Library of Ashurbanipal at Ninevah to Nazi book burnings in the 1930s.  However, today it is the availability of information on the internet which is often used as an excuse for the closure of libraries, and publishers foresee the end of paper publication in the next five years.

Paradoxically it is the rearguard actions of publishers (albeit largely to protect profit not principle) that is one of the drivers behind IP blocking and ‘censorship’ of copyright piracy sites.  If I were to assign roles from Faranheit 451 to the current day protagonists it would be hard to decide which is more like the book-burning firemen.

Maybe Faranheit 451 has happened and we never noticed.

One week to the next Tech Wave

Just a week to go now before the next Tiree Tech Wave starts, although the first person is coming on Sunday and one person is going to hang on for a while after getting some surfing in.

Still plenty of room for anyone who decides to come at the last minute.

Things have been a little hectic, as having to do more of the local organisation this time, so running round the island a bit, but really looking forward to when people get here 🙂  Last two times I’ve felt a bit of tension leading up to the event as I feel responsible.  It is difficult planning an event and not having a schedule “person A giving talk at 9:30, person B at 10:45”; strangely much harder having nothing, simply trusting that good things will happen.  Hopefully this time I now have had enough experience to know that if I just hang back and resist the urge to ‘do something’, then people will start to talk together, work together, make together — I just need to have the confidence to do nothing1.

At previous TTW we have had open evenings when people from the local community have come in to see what is being done.  This time, as well as having a general welcome to people to come and see,  Jonnet from HighWire at Lancaster is going to run a community workshop on mending based on her personal and PhD work on ‘Futuremenders‘. Central to this is Jonnet’s pledge to not acquire any more clothes, ever, but instead to mend and remake. This picks up on textile themes on the island especially the ‘Rags to Riches Eco-Chic‘ fashion award and community tapestry group, but also Tech Wave themes of making, repurposing and generally taking things to pieces.   Jonnet’s work is not techno-fashion (no electroluminescent skirts, or LEDs stitched into your wooly hat), but does use social connections both physical and through the web to create mass participation, including mass panda knitting and an attempt on the world mass darning record.

For the past few weeks I have had an unusual (although I hope to become usual) period of relative stability on the island after a previous period of 8 months almost constantly on the move.  This has included some data hacking and learning HTML5 for mobile devices (hence some hacker-ish blog posts recently) I hope to finish off one mini-project during the TTW that will be particularly pertinent the weekend the clocks ‘go forward’ an hour for British Summer Time.  Will blog if I do.

I hit the road last November almost immediately the Tech Wave finished, so never got time to tidy things up.  So, before this one starts, I really should try to write a up a couple of activities from last time as I’m sure there will plenty more this time round…

  1. Strange I always give people the same advice we they take on management roles, “the brave manager does nothing”.  How rare that is.  In a university, new Vice Chancellor starts and feels he/she has to change things — new faculty structure, new committees. “In the long run, will be better”, everyone says, but I’ve always found such re-organisation is itself re-organised before we ever get to t “the long run”.[back]

Wikipedia blackout and why SOPA winging gets up my nose

Nobody on the web can be unaware of the Wikipedia blackout, and if they haven’t heard of SOPA or PIPA before will have now.  Few who understand the issues would deny that SOPA and PIPA are misguided and ill-informed, even Apple and other software giants abandoned it, and Obama’s recent statement has effectively scuppered SOPA in its current form.  However, at the risk of apparently annoying everyone, am I the only person who finds some of the anti-SOPA rhetoric at best naive and at times simply arrogant?

Wikipedia Blackout screenshot

The ignorance behind SOPA and a raft of similar legislation and court cases across the world is deeply worrying.  Only recently I posted about the recent NLA case in the UK, that creates potential copyright issues when linking on the web reminiscent of the Shetland Times case nearly 15 years ago.

However, that is no excuse for blinkered views on the other side.

I got particularly fed up a few days ago reading an article “Lockdown: The coming war on general-purpose computing1  by copyright ativist Cory Doctorow based on a keynote he gave at the Chaos Computer Congress.  The argument was that attempts to limit the internet destroyed the very essence of  the computer as a general purpose device and were therefore fundamentally wrong.  I know that Sweden has just recognised Kopimism as a religion, but still an argument that relies on the inviolate nature of computation leaves one wondering.

The article also argued that elected members of Parliament and Congress are by their nature layfolk, and so quite reasonably not expert in every area:

And yet those people who are experts in policy and politics, not technical disciplines, still manage to pass good rules that make sense.

Doctorow has trust in the nature of elected democracy for every area from biochemistry to urban planning, but not information technology, which, he asserts, is in some sense special.

Now even as a computer person I find this hard to swallow, but what would a geneticist, physicist, or even a financier using the Black-Scholes model make of this?

Furthermore, Congress is chastised for finding unemployment more important than copyright, and the UN for giving first regard to health and economics — of course, any reasonable person is expected to understand this is utter foolishness.  From what parallel universe does this kind of thinking emerge?

Of course, Doctorow takes an extreme position, but the Electronic Freedom Foundation’s position statement, which Wikipedia points to, offers no alternative proposals and employs scaremongering arguments more reminiscent of the tabloid press, in particular the claim that:

venture capitalists have said en masse they won’t invest in online startups if PIPA and SOPA pass

This turns out to be a Google sponsored report2 and refers to “digital content intermediaries (DCIs)“, those “search, hosting, and distribution services for digital content“, not startups in general.

When this is the quality of argument being mustered against SOPA and PIPA is there any wonder that Congress is influenced more by the barons of the entertainment industry?

Obviously some, such as Doctorow and more fundamental anti-copyright activists, would wish to see a completely unregulated net.  Indeed, this is starting to be the case de facto in some areas, where covers are distributed pretty freely on YouTube without apparently leading to a collapse in the music industry, and offering new bands much easier ways to make an initial name for themselves.  Maybe in 20 years time Hollywood will have withered and we will live off a diet of YouTube videos :-/

I suspect most of those opposing SOPA and PIPA do not share this vision, indeed Google has been paying 1/2 million per patent in recent acquisitions!

I guess the idealist position sees a world of individual freedom, but it is not clear that is where things are heading.  In many areas online distribution has already resulted in a shift of power from the traditional producers, the different record companies and book publishers (often relatively large companies themselves), to often one mega-corporation in each sector: Amazon, Apple iTunes. For the latter this was in no small part driven by the need for the music industry to react to widespread filesharing.  To be honest, however bad the legislation, I would rather trust myself to elected representatives, than unaccountable multinational corporations3.

If we do not wish to see poor legislation passed we need to offer better alternatives, both in terms of the law of the net and how we reward and fund the creative industries.  Maybe the BBC model is best, high quality entertainment funded by the public purse and then distributed freely.  However, I don’t see the US Congress nationalising Hollywood in the near future.

Of course copyright and IP is only part of a bigger picture where the net is challenging traditional notions of national borders and sovereignty.  In the UK we have seen recent cases where Twitter was used to undermine court injunctions.  The injunctions were in place to protect a few celebrities, so were ‘fair game’ anyway, and so elicited little public sympathy.  However, the Leveson Inquiry has heard evidence from the editor of the Express defending his paper’s suggestion that the McCann’s may have killed their own daughter; we expect and enforce (the Expresss paid £500,000 after a libel case) standards in the print media, would we expect less if the Express hosted a parallel new website in the Cayman Islands?

Whether it is privacy, malware or child pornography, we do expect and need to think of ways to limit the excess of the web whilst preserving its strengths.  Maybe the solution is more international agreements, hopefull not yet more extra-terratorial laws from the US4.

Could this day without Wikipedia be not just a call to protest, but also an opportunity to envision what a better future might be.

  1. blanked out today, see Google cache[back]
  2. By Booz&Co, which I thought at first was a wind-up, but appears to be a real company![back]
  3. As I write this, I am reminded of the  corporation-controlled world of Rollerball and other dystopian SciFi.[back]
  4. How come there is more protest over plans to shut out overseas web sites than there is over unmanned drones performing extra-judicial executions each week.[back]

changing rules of copyright on the web – the NLA case

I’ve been wondering about the broader copyright implications of a case that went through the England and Wales Court of Appeal earlier this year.  The case was brought by  the NLA (Newspaper Licensing Agency) against Meltwater, who run commercial media-alert services; for example telling  you or your company when and where you have been mentioned in the press.

While the case is specifically about a news service, it appears to have  broader implications for the web, not least because it makes new judgements on:

  • the use of titles/headlines — they are copyright in their own right
  • the use of short snippets (in this case no more than 256 characters) — they too potentially infringe copyright
  • whether a URL link is sufficient acknowledgement of copyright material for fair use – it isn’t!

These, particularly the last, seems to have implications for any form of publicly available lists, bookmarks, summaries, or even search results on the web.  While NLA specifically allow free services such as Google News and Google Alerts, it appears that this is ‘grace and favour’, not use by right.   I am reminded of the Shetland case1, which led to many organisations having paranoid policies regarding external linking (e.g. seeking explicit permission for every link!).

So, in the UK at least, web law copyright law changed significantly through precedent, and I didn’t even notice at the time!

In fact, the original case was heard more than a year ago November 2010 (full judgement) and then the appeal in July 2011 (full judgement), but is sufficiently important that the NLA are still headlining it on their home page (see below, and also their press releases (PDF) about the original judgement and appeal).  So effectively things changed at least at that point, although as this is a judgement about law, not new legislation, it presumably also acts retrospectively.  However, I only recently became aware of it after seeing a notice in The Times last week – I guess because it is time for annual licences to be renewed.

Newspaper Licensing Agency (home page) on 26th Dec 2011

The actual case was, in summary, as follows. Meltwater News produce commercial media monitoring services, that include the title, first few words, and a short snippet of  news items that satisfy some criteria, for example mentioning a company name or product.  NLA have a license agreement for such companies and for those using such services, but Meltwater claimed it did not need such a license and, even if it did, its clients certainly did not require any licence.  However, the original judgement and the appeal found pretty overwhelmingly in favour of NLA.

In fact, my gut feeling in this case was with the NLA.  Meltwater were making substantial money from a service that (a) depends on the presence of news services and (b) would, for equivalent print services, require some form of licence fee to be paid.  So while I actually feel the judgement is fair in the particular case, it makes decisions that seem worrying when looked at in terms of the web in general.

Summary of the judgement

The appeal supported the original judgement so summarising the main points from the latter (indented text quoting from the text of the judgement).

Headlines

The status of headlines (and I guess by extension book titles, etc.) in UK law are certainly materially changed by this ruling (para 70/71), from previous case law (Fairfax, Para. 62).

Para. 70. The evidence in the present case (incidentally much fuller than that before Bennett J in Fairfax -see her observations at [28]) is that headlines involve considerable skill in devising and they are specifically designed to entice by informing the reader of the content of the article in an entertaining manner.

Para. 71. In my opinion headlines are capable of being literary works, whether independently or as part of the articles to which they relate. Some of the headlines in the Daily Mail with which I have been provided are certainly independent literary works within the Infopaq test. However, I am unable to rule in the abstract, particularly as I do not know the precise process that went into creating any of them. I accept Mr Howe’s submission that it is not the completed work as published but the process of creation and the identification of the skill and labour that has gone into it which falls to be assessed.

Links and fair use

The ruling explicitly says that a link is not sufficient acknowledgement in terms of fair use:

Para. 146. I do not accept that argument either. The Link directs the End User to the original article. It is no better an acknowledgment than a citation of the title of a book coupled with an indication of where the book may be found, because unless the End User decides to go to the book, he will not be able to identify the author. This interpretation of identification of the author for the purposes of the definition of “sufficient acknowledgment” renders the requirement to identify the author virtually otiose.

Links as copies

Para 45 (not part of the judgement, but part of NLA’s case) says:

Para. 45. … By clicking on a Link to an article, the End User will make a copy of the article within the meaning of s. 17 and will be in possession of an infringing copy in the course of business within the meaning of s. 23.

The argument here is that the site has some terms and conditions that say it is not for ‘commercial user’.

As far as I can see the judge equivocates on this issue, but happily does not seem convinced:

Para 100. I was taken to no authority as to the effect of incorporation of terms and conditions through small type, as to implied licences, as to what is commercial user for the purposes of the terms and conditions or as to how such factors impact on whether direct access to the Publishers’ websites creates infringing copies. As I understand it, I am being asked to take a broad brush approach to the deployment of the websites by the Publishers and the use by End Users. There is undoubtedly however a tension between (i) complaining that Meltwater’s services result in a small click-through rate (ii) complaining that a direct click to the article skips the home page which contains the link to the terms and conditions and (iii) asserting that the End Users are commercial users who are not permitted to use the websites anyway.

Free use

Finally, the following extract suggests that NLA would not be seeking to enforce the full licence on certain free services:

Para. 20. The Publishers have arrangements or understandings with certain free media monitoring services such as Google News and Google Alerts whereby those services are currently licensed or otherwise permitted. It would apparently be open to the End Users to use such free services, or indeed a general search engine, instead of a paid media monitoring service without (currently at any rate) encountering opposition from the Publishers. That is so even though the End Users may be using such services for their own commercial purposes. The WEUL only applies to customers of a commercial media monitoring service.

Of course, the fact that they allow it without licence, suggests they feel the same copyright rules do apply, that is the search collation services are subject to copyright.  The judge does not make a big point of this piece of evidence in any way, which would suggest that these free services do not have a right to abstract and link.  However, the fact that Meltwater (the agency NA is acting against) is making substantial money was clearly noted by the judge, as was the fact that users could choose to use alternative services free.

Thinking about it

As noted my gut feeling is that fairness goes to the newspapers involved; news gathering and reportingis costly, and openly accessible online newspapers are of benefit to us all; so, if news providers are unable to make money, we all lose.

Indeed, years ago in dot.com days, at aQtive we were very careful that onCue, our intelligent internet sidebar, did not break the business models of the services we pointed to. While we effectively pre-filled forms and submitted them silently, we did not scrape results and present these directly, but instead sent the user to the web page that provided the information.  This was partly out a feeling that this was the right and fair thing to do, partly because if we treated others fairly they would be happy for us to provide this value-added service on top of what they provided, and partly because we relied on these third-party services for our business, so our commercial success relied on theirs.

This would all apply equally to the NLA v. Meltwater case.

However, like the Shetland case all those years ago, it is not the particular of the case that seems significant, but the wide ranging implications.  I, like so many others, frequently cite web materials in blog posts, web pages and resource lists by title alone with the words live and pointing to the source site.  According to this judgement the title is copyright, and even if my use of it is “fair use” (as it normally would be), the use of the live link is NOT sufficient acknowledgement.

Maybe, things are not quite so bad as they seem. In the NLA vs. Meltwater case, the NLA had a specific licence model and agreement.  The NLA were not seeking retrospective damages for copyright infringement before this was in place, merely requiring that Meltwater subscribe fully to the licence.  The issue was not that just that copyright had been infringed, but that it had been when there was a specific commercial option in place.  In UK copyright law, I believe, it is not sufficient to say copyright has been infringed, but also to show that the copyright owner has been materially disadvantaged by the infringement; so, the existence of the licence option was probably critical to the specific judgement.   However the general principles probably apply to any case where the owner could claim damage … and maybe claim so merely in order to seek an out-of-court settlement.

This case was resolved five months ago, and I’ve not heard of any rush of law firms creating vexatious copyright claims.  So maybe there will not be any long-lasting major repercussions from the case … or maybe the storm is still to come.

Certainly, the courts have become far more internet savvy since the 1990s, but judges can only deal with the laws they are give, and it is not at all clear that law-makers really understand the implications of their legislation on the smooth running of the web.

  1. This was the case in the late 1990s where the Shetland Times sued the Shetland News for including links to its articles.  Although the particular case involved material that appeared to be re-badged, the legal issues endangered the very act of linking at all. See NUJ Freelance “NUJ still supports Shetland News in internet case“, BBC “Shetland Internet squabble settled out of court“, The Lawyer “Shetland Internet copyright case is settled out of court“[back]

After the Tech Wave is over

The Second Tiree Tech Wave is over.   Yesterday the last participants left by ferry and plane and after a final few hours tidying, the Rural Centre, which the day before had been a tangle of wire and felt, books and papers, cups and biscuit packets, is now as it had been before.  And as I left, the last boxes under my arm, it was strangely silent with only the memory of voices and laughter in my mind.

So is it as if it had never been?  I there anything left behind?  There are a few sheets of Magic Whiteboard on the walls, that I left so that those visiting the Rural Centre in the coming weeks can see something of what we were doing, and there are used teabags and fish-and-chip boxes in the bin, but few traces.

We trod lightly, like the agriculture of the island, where Corncrake and orchid live alongside sheep and cattle.

Some may have heard me talk about the way design is like a Spaghetti Western. In the beginning of the film Clint Eastwood walks into the town, and at the end walks away.  He does not stay, happily ever after, with a girl on his arm, but leaves almost as if nothing had ever happened.

But while he, like the designer, ultimately leaves, things are not the same.  The Carson brothers who had the town in fear for years lie dead in their ranch at the edge of town, the sharp tang of gunfire still in the air and the buzz of flies slowly growing over the elsewise silent bodies.  The crooked major, who had been in the pocket of the Carson brothers, is strapped over a mule heading across the desert towards Mexico, and not a few wooden rails and water buts need to be repaired.  The job of the designer is not to stay, but to leave, but leave change: intervention more than invention.

But the deepest changes are not those visible in the bullet-pocked saloon door, but in the people.  The drunk who used to sit all day at the bar, has discovered that he is not just a drunk, but he is a man, and the barmaid, who used to stand behind the bar has discovered that she is not just a barmaid, but she is a woman.

This is true of the artefacts we create and leave behind as designers, but much more so of the events, which come and go through our lives.  It is not so much the material traces they leave in the environment, but the changes in ourselves.

I know that, as the plane and ferry left with those last participants, a little of myself left with them, and I know many, probably all, felt a little of themselves left behind on Tiree.  This is partly abut the island itself; indeed I know one participant was already planning a family holiday here and another was looking at Tiree houses for sale on RightMove!  But it was also the intensity of five, sometimes relaxed, sometimes frenetic, days together.

So what did we do?

There was no programme of twenty minute talks, no keynotes or demo, indeed no plan nor schedule at all, unusual in our diary-obsessed, deadline-driven world.

Well, we talked.  Not at a podium with microphone and Powerpoint slides, but while sitting around tables, while walking on the beach, and while standing looking up at Tilly, the community wind turbine, the deep sound of her swinging blades resonating in our bones.  And we continued to talk as the sun fell and the overwhelmingly many stars came out , we talked while eating, while drinking and while playing (not so expertly) darts.

We met people from the island those who came to the open evening on Saturday, or popped in during the days, and some at the Harvest Service on Sunday.  We met Mark who told us about the future plans for Tiree Broadband, Jane at PaperWorks who made everything happen, Fiona and others at the Lodge who provided our meals, and many more. Indeed, many thanks to all those on the island who in various ways helped or made those at TTW feel welcome.

We also wrote.  We wrote on sheets of paper, notes and diagrams, and filled in TAPT forms for Clare who was attempting unpack our experiences of peace and calmness in the hope of designing computer systems that aid rather than assault our solitude.  Three large Magic Whiteboard sheets were entitled “I make because …”, “I make with …”, “I make …” and were filled with comments.  And, in these days of measurable objectives, I know that at least a grant proposal, book chapter and paper were written during the long weekend; and the comments on the whiteboards and experiences of the event will be used to create a methodological reflection of the role of making in research which we’ll put into Interfaces and the TTW web site.

We moved.  Walking, throwing darts, washing dishes, and I think all heavily gesturing with our hands while taking.  And became more aware of those movements during Layda’s warm-up improvisation exercises when we mirrored one another’s movements, before using our bodies in RePlay to investigate issues of creativity and act out the internal architecture of Magnus’ planned digital literature system.

We directly encountered the chill of wind and warmth of sunshine, the cattle and sheep, often on the roads as well as in the fields.  We saw on maps the pattern of settlement on the island and on display boards the wools from different breeds on the island. Some of us went to the local historical centre, An Iodhlann [[ http://www.aniodhlann.org.uk/ ]], to see artefacts, documents and displays of the island in times past, from breadbasket of the west of Scotland to wartime airbase.

We slept.  I in my own bed, some in the Lodge, some in the B&B round the corner, Matjaz and Klem in a camper van and Magnus – brave heart – in a tent amongst the sand dunes.  Occasionally some took a break and dozed in the chairs at the Rural Centre or even nodded off over a good dinner (was that me?).

We showed things we had brought with us, including Magnus’ tangle of wires and circuit boards that almost worked, myself a small pack of FireFly units (enough to play with I hope in a future Tech Wave), Layda’s various pieces she had made in previous tech-arts workshops, Steve’s musical instrument combining Android phone and cardboard foil tube, and Alessio’s impressively modified table lamp.

And we made.  We do after all describe this as a making event!  Helen and Claire explored the limits of ZigBee wireless signals.  Several people contributed to an audio experience using proximity sensors and Arduino boards, and Steve’s CogWork Chip: Lego and electronics, maybe the world’s first mechanical random-signal generator.  Descriptions of many of these and other aspects of the event will appear in due course on the TTW site and participants’ blogs.


But it was a remark that Graham made as he was waiting in the ferry queue that is most telling.  It was not the doing that was central, the making, even the talking, but the fact that he didn’t have to do anything at all.  It was the lack of a plan that made space to fill with doing, or not to do so.

Is that the heart?  We need time and space for non-doing, or maybe even un-doing, unwinding tangles of self as well as wire.

There will be another Tiree Tech Wave in March/April, do come to share in some more not doing then.

Who was there:

  • Alessio Malizia – across the seas from Madrid, blurring the boundaries between information, light and space
  • Helen  Pritchard – artist, student of innovation and interested in cows
  • Claire  Andrews – roller girl and researching the design of assistive products
  • Clare  Hooper – investigating creativity, innovation and a sprinkling of SemWeb
  • Magnus  Lawrie – artist, tent-dweller and researcher of digital humanities
  • Steve Gill – designer, daredevil and (when he can get me to make time) co-authoring book on physicality TouchIT
  • Graham Dean – ex-computer science lecturer, ex-businessman, and current student and auto-ethnographer of maker-culture
  • Steve Foreshaw – builder, artist, magician and explorer of alien artefacts
  • Matjaz Kljun – researcher of personal information and olive oil maker
  • Layda Gongora – artist, curator, studying improvisation, meditation and wild hair
  • Alan Dix – me

Or … is Amazon becoming the publishing Industry?

A recent Blog Kindle post asked “Is Amazon’s Kindle Destroying the Publishing Industry?“.  The post defends Kindle seeing the traditional publishers as reactionaries, whose business model depended on paper publishing and, effectively. keeping authors from their public.

However, as an author myself (albeit academic) this seems to completely miss the reasons for the publishing industry.  The printing of physical volumes has long been a minimal part of the value, indeed traditional publishers have made good use of the changes in physical print industry to outsource actual production.  The core value for the author are the things around this: marketing, distribution and payment management.

Of these, distribution is of course much easier now with the web, whether delivering electronic copies, or physical copies via print-on demand services.  However, the other core values persist – at their best publishers do not ring fence the public from the author, but on the contrary connect the two.

I recall as a child being in the Puffin Club and receiving the monthly magazine.  I could not afford many books at the time, but since have read many of the books described in its pages and recall the excitement of reading those reviews.  A friend has a collection of the early Puffins (1-200) in their original covers; although some stories age, some are better, some worse, still just being a Puffin Book was a pretty good indication it was worth reading.

The myth we are being peddled is of a dis-intermediated networked world where customers connect directly to suppliers, authors to readers1, musicians to fans.  For me, this has some truth, I am well enough known and well enough connected to distribute effectively.  However for most that ‘direct’ connection is mediated by one of a small number of global sites … and smaller number of companies: YouTube, Twitter, Google, iTunes, eBay, not to forget Amazon.

For publishing as in other areas, what matters is not physical production, the paper, but the route, the connection, the channel.

And crucially Kindle is not just the device, but the channel.

The issue is not whether Kindle kills the publishing industry, but whether Amazon becomes the publishing industry.  Furthermore, if Amazon’s standard markdown and distribution deals for small publishers are anything to go by, Amazon is hardly going to be a cuddly home for future authors.

To some extent this is an apparently inexorable path that has happened in the traditional industries, with a few large publishing conglomerates buying up the smaller publishing houses, and on the high street a few large bookstore chains such as Waterstones, Barnes & Noble squeezing out the small bookshops (remember “You’ve Got Mail“), and it is hard to have sympathy with Waterstones recent financial problems given this history.

Philip Jones of the Bookseller recently blogged about these changes, noting that it is in fact book selling, not publishing that is struggling with profits … even Amazon – no wonder Amazon want more of the publishing action.  However, while Jones notes that the “digital will lead to smaller book chains, stocking fewer titles” in fact “It wasn’t digital that drove this, but it is about to deliver the coup de grâce.”

Which does seem a depressing vision both as author and reader.

  1. Maybe unbound.co.uk is actually doing this – see Guardian article, although it sounds more useful to the already successful writer than the new author.[back]

French subvert democatic process to pass draconian internet laws

Just saw on Rob @ dynamicorange, that the French have passed a law forcing ISPs to withdraw access based on accusations of IP infringement. Whether one agrees or disagrees  or even understands the issues involved, it appear this was forced through by a vote of 16 (out of 577) members of the French parliament at a time when the vote was not expected.  This reminds me of the notorious Shetland Times case back in the late 1990s, where the judgement  implied that simply, linking to another site infringed copyright and caused some sites to stop interlinking for fear of prosecution1, not to mention some early US patents that were granted because patent officers simply did not understand the technology and its implications2.

It would be nice to think that the UK had learnt from the Shetland case, but sadly not.  Earler this year the Government released its interim Digital Britain report. This starts well declaring “The success of our manufacturing and services industries will increasingly be defined by their ability to use and develop digital technologies“; however the sum total of its action plan to promote ‘Digital Content’ is to strengthen IP protection.  Whatever one’s views on copyright, file sharing etc., the fact that a digital economy is a global economy seems to have somehow been missed on the way; and this is the UK’s “action plan to secure the UK’s place at the forefront of innovation, investment and quality in the digital and communications industries3.

  1. See “Copyright battles: The Shetlands” @ Ariadne and “Scottish Court Orders Online Newspaper to Remove Links to Competitor’s Web Site” @ Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet & Society.[back]
  2. and for that matter, more recent cases like the ‘wish list’ patent[back]
  3. UK Department for Culture, Media and Sport Press Release 106/08 “Digital Britain – the future of communications” 17th October 2008[back]

Tags and Tagging: from semiology to scatology

I’ve just been at a two-day workshop on “Tags and Tagging” organised by the “Branded Meeting Places” project.

Tags are of course becoming ubiquitous in the digital world: Flickr photos, del.icio.us bookmarks; at the digital/physical boundary: RFID and barcodes; and in the physical world: supermarket price stickers, luggage labels and images of Paddington Bear or wartime evacuees each with a brown paper label round their necks. Indeed we started off the day being given just such brown paper tags to design labels for ourselves.

Alan's tag

As well as being labels so we know each other, they were also used as digital identifiers using a mobile-phone-based image-recognition system, which has been used in a number of projects by the project team at Edinburgh (see some student projects here). We could photograph each others tags with our own phones, MMS the picture to a special phone number, then a few moments later an SMS message would arrive with the other person’s profile.

Being focused on a single topic and even single word ‘tag’ soon everything begins to be seen through the lens of “tagging”, so that when we left the building and saw a traffic warden at work outside the building, instantly the thought came “tagging the car”!

Vocal Thumbs logoThe workshop covered loads of ground and included the design and then construction of a real application – part of the project’s methodology of research through design. However, two things that I want to write about. The first is the way the workshop made me think about the ontology or maybe semiology of tags and tagging, and the second is a particular tag (or maybe label, notice?) … on a toilet door … yes the good old British scatological obsession.

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