Posted on 2016/11/15 by

The Last Time You Probed Me: Nicolas Bourriaud’s Exform and Jen Bervin’s Nets

I write this introduction post-facto, in order to denounce myself. I am guilty, though I know not for what. On the one hand I’m trying very hard to be critical; on the other hand, I must be critical of criticism; and by accusing criticism of being uncritical, I accuse myself.

This “probe” – in the most painful sense of the word – somehow weaves in words like “Jen Bervin’s Nets”, and “Nicolas Bourriaud’s The Exform“, but if the reader expects a straightforward definition of these terms, I will ask him to spare me that additional moral pain

First Circle of Hell

It is horrifying to me how much of close-reading criticism has as its task to present interpretations which, if the reader let his mind wander eventually, he would hit upon; criticism here functions as a physic in the worst sense. To name something as an exform, then, in opening up new meanings also operates the gesture which closes them off; it does the psychic work for the mind, leaving the mind more under the grasp of censorship.

I suppose what I might do is to offer my illegitimate masquerade of a materialist glossing over of Jen Bervin’s Nets. In the nets, the more one tries to read, the more one is confronted with the need to signify, the need to have context for meaning. What the Nets do is deconstruct and present the function of each contextual element of meaning. Is the author Jen Bervin, Shakespeare, myself, society? Are these words selected – how much of this selection is done by whom? To what am I supposed to tie these words? To themselves? To the words in the sonnets? To none? What is the nature of these ties? If no ties, why is the word doing things to me? Where have rhyme and metre gone? Do I miss them? In other words, the Nets force us to assemble an interpretive method from scratch.

Have I changed the Nets?

They cannot be changed because they are an object. Yes, I have changed them because they exist as phenomena. They cannot be changed because they are change itself. That is not the right question, because you are assuming that there is something to change. You are assuming that the Nets are a thing. The Nets are a thing, and exist as I define them. There is a truth to the Nets that can be discovered by consensus. We will discover what the Nets have always already been.

To say that the Nets force wide the void of meaning creates. A new meaning erupts. If it is taken, the beholder donates his authorship; or, it has already been robbed. The creation of such criticism works against the exform. To describe the exform is to avoid it.

The words in Nets do not mean anything on their own. The act of interpreting Nets brings to the fore the nature of tradition as tradition, of signifier as signifier, and their incompatibility; it opens up the very space of context, of interpretation. To characterize such an object as an exform is of course besides the point, there being no point at all; if we think without a centre, we do indeed describe the exform.

My Laptop

Will a materialist critique show everything? How does it interact with its own history? Can it be edited? Can words be erased? The trace of the erased word is invisible to the human audience, only the computer knows it. The laptop as object is completely aware of the essay, the laptop has a materialist understanding. Or does he? The laptop is unaware of anything outside the pressure on its keys; as far as it knows, it is struggling very hard to write an essay. Or perhaps it is composing one with ease.

From my perspective, the erasure is pure loss. The trace buries itself in me somehow and I must make its death meaningful as I forget it through new writing. Does the beholder experience the erasure as it is lived?

The erased is the space of the excluded. Erasure is the idealist gesture par excellence, yet only so if the erasure remains. That is, the veil must always hide the truth, which may only be viewed in glimpses. The veil draws attention to itself; thus what it veils is less what is behind it, than the fact that it is drawing attention away from what isn’t veiled. It is easy to read the Nets idealistically, whereby the gesture of erasure leaves intact the essence of the sonnet; this essence existing only by this gesture, by the gesture of interpretation; within that erasure itself would be located the truth. We might then say that there is nothing behind the veil but a void; we might then say that the erasure itself is truth.

To attempt a critique of Jen Bervin’s Nets is to work against them, to ignore them; to critique them is not to read them. I’ve highlighted some standard aspects of critical discourse which could be used in critiquing them, all calling attention to themselves, not the nets. “Beyond all date /////// bold” evokes a beach in me; there is no way I could justify that in standard criticism, in a standard close-reading; as I’ve mentioned, the nets are “open, porous, possible”, their author-function non-fixed, non-centred, radicant-like, perhaps; if anything is an exform, they should be. Yet this criticism has little to do with Nets.

 

Works Cited:

Bervin, Jen. Nets. 2004. Sixth printing, Ugly Duckling Presse, 2011.

Bourriaud, Nicolas. The Exform. Translated by Erik Butler. Verso, 2016.

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Posted on 2016/11/15 by

The Controller is Mightier than the Pen: How Video Games Blur the Lines of Authorship

There’s an argument to be made that the video game, as a medium, is inherently post-modern. If that, as a statement, is too general or perhaps diminutive, then it’s perhaps safer to say that the medium reflects certain key characteristics of post-modernism as it appears in art: there’s a tendency towards self-reflexivity, an arguably necessary awareness of its audience, an obvious emphasis on interactivity and art that is “used”, and a blurring of boundaries between the author and the reader, or the producer and the consumer.

probe3-wowyoulosexIn that sense, there’s almost no doubt that games are post-modern by nature: they do not exist as a passive means of entertainment, but require player interaction. Even the earliest of games had the “post-modern” tendency of, as it’s colloquially known, breaking the fourth wall and acknowledging the audience: consider non-diegetic text appearing over the screen that informs the player, ‘You lose!’, or a game over screen that asks, ‘Try again?’ – the audience is being directly addressed in these instances but rarely as a stylistic choice, simply because it’s the most efficient way of instructing the audience on what’s to come next. Games are “usable art” in the sense that the literature of a game – its stories, both embedded and emergent – cease to exist until someone interacts with the dormant coding and mechanics of the game. In his book “Postproduction: Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World”, Nicolas Bourriaud points to “an emerging culture of use, in which meaning is born of collaboration and negotiation between the artist and the one who comes to view the work.” (Bourriaud)

On that note, games afford audiences a certain authorship in the form of emergent narratives – narratives that come from gameplay choices and player action, as opposed to the embedded plot that might supply the game’s premise. This variability in narrative form is called out by Dr. Alistair Brown in his essay “Are Video Game Narratives Postmodern?”:

“A game like Mass Effect, with 250,000 words of dialogue, might well be studied narratologically, but if so it offers a very different type of “narrative” to that of Minecraft in which the only story is that which the player writes for themselves through their own methods of creation.” (Brown)

Brown speaks to the allegedly post-modern nature of games by asserting that “As long as it [is] talked in Barthesian terms about the death of the author and licensed the reader to act as co-producer of the text, literary theory could situate games within a model that stressed narrative variability”, but goes on to argue that to simply graft the literary characteristics of post-modernism onto games is ultimately unhelpful, as games operate differently from the way the novel, the film, or the poem operates. If all games are post-modern, then are any games really post-modern? What would a post-modern game be?

Brown quotes philosopher Alan Kirby who coins the term ‘pseudo-modernism’, which does in fact take into account the computer game. Kirby says:

“Pseudo-modernism also includes computer games, which similarly place the individual in a context where they invent the cultural content, within pre-delineated limits. The content of each individual act of playing the game varies according to the particular player.” (Kirby, emphasis mine)

To effectively illustrate post- or pseudo-modernism in games, I look to a popular example: The Sims (Maxis Entertainment, Series, 2000-2016).

The Sims, as its catchy name would imply, is a game series built around the idea of simulation. The player is given an unparalleled amount of control over and asked to, essentially, create and maintain the lives of individual characters known as ‘sims’. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, designing the Sims’ physical appearances, crafting their personalities, aspirations, and character traits, building their homes, creating or managing their family and other inter-personal relations, climbing a career ladder, and more. To ask what is the exact goal or objective of The Sims is a foolhardy task, as the game is infinitely flexible to the playstyles of different players. Fulfilling a Sim’s ambitions and achieving monetary wealth and professional success is just as ‘valid’ a way to play as creating sims simply to drown them in a pool, or to not create sims at all and use the game simply as an interior decorating simulator. None of these playstyles result in a screen proclaiming that you have ‘won’ or ‘lost’, nor is there any ending set in stone within the game’s data. As such, The Sims finds its roots not in objective-based or competition-based games, but in toys like the dollhouse, that provide the player with a basic framework but invite them, ultimately, to create the cultural content of the ‘game’.

I choose to focus on a game that is so endlessly malleable because it exemplifies better than most Bourriaud’s concept of usable art. It would be much harder to map the narrative of The Sims onto another medium – for example, a film adaptation – as it would be for a more traditionally literary game like the Final Fantasy or Mass Effect series, both of which make use of far more traditional narrative devices. The Sims relies almost entirely on the player for any kind of story to emerge, and it’s this extreme level of authorship that speaks loudest to the post-modern notion of collaborative storytelling.

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Bourriaud’s concept of postproduction is coded into the very way in which The Sims is played. As he claims, “The artistic question is no longer: “what can we make that is new?” but “how can we make do with what we have?” In other words, how can we produce singularity and meaning from this chaotic mass of objects, names, and references that constitutes our daily life?” (Bourriaud). In The Sims, traditional gameplay occurs in two different ‘modes’ – ‘Live Mode’, in which Sims are controllable and go about their daily lives, ‘Buy/Build Mode’, in which the Sims are frozen in place and the player is free to manipulate the world around them, usually by buying and placing furniture, constructing walls and floors, and further customizing their homes. Players select ready-made objects, wallpapers, floor designs, and more from in-game catalogs and are then free to place them however they like. Aside from pre-made houses, the game offers no guidance on where to place furniture, leaving it up to the player and their assumed ability to recognize a 3D model of a toilet as a signifier for a real toilet and its functions, and thus choose to place it in the appropriate room of a home. As such, there’s nothing stopping a player from creating a room in which there is a toilet, a pool table, and a barbecue all together (The Sims’ allowance for absurdity is, of course, also recognizably post-modern). This is all to say that, while The Sims offers a staggering amount of creativity in its gameplay, the player is rarely creating raw material, but rather recontextualizing ready-made objects and symbols in order to create further meaning: there is nothing to distinguish a bathroom from a bedroom aside from the ways in which the player chooses to design them, often drawing on their familiarity with their real-life counterparts to create combinations of objects, wallpapers, floors, etc. to create spaces that are meaningful to the player (that is to say, legible as familiar to their real-life counterparts) as well as digitally meaningful to their Sims’ coding (for example, not creating a room in which sims play pool and use the toilet at the same time, as this would simply create friction that would cause the sims to act inefficiently). As Bourriaud puts it, unintentionally summarizing the gameplay ethos of The Sims: “It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects.” (Bourriaud)

Bourriaud says, “To learn how to use forms … is above all to know how to make them one’s own, to inhabit them” (Bourriaud). As I’ve illustrated, the way The Sims is played is entirely about making it one’s own and tailoring gameplay to suit the individual player, but the way The Sims is used extends beyond its use as a game. The Sims can be used as, itself, a tool with which to create more art: there’s the obvious example of the game being used as a tool to create architectural art, interior designs, or character designs. Beyond even that, however, The Sims has been used to create comics, web series, music videos and other narrative forms.

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These artists use the game’s assets and mechanics, in conjunction with photo or video editing software to generate more art. With the game’s ability to create unique-looking characters, the ease with which it allows the building of locations and backdrops, and its in-game camera feature capable of taking both still images and recording videos, there is no doubting the creative potential of The Sims as a generative tool. A game about recontextualizing symbolic objects to create meaningful spaces simultaneously offers symbols and materials ripe for the picking in order to create further meaningful art, a concept that strikes this academic as remarkably post-/pseudo-modern.

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Posted on 2016/11/15 by

Kowloon Chic: The Atemporality of Ghost in the Shell

With a live-action adaptation of the Ghost in the Shell franchise looming, I thought I’d take a crack at applying Bruce Sterling’s thoughts on the concept of ‘atemporality’ (as the concept applies to creative artists), to the films Ghost in the Shell (1995) and Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence (2004).

In the first of these two films, viewers encounter a sci-fi vision of the future located somewhere between dystopia and utopia. The movie draws heavily from earlier films like Blade Runner; both films merged noir with cyberpunk aesthetics and dealt with the use of cyborgs (or androids in Blade Runner’s case) as tools of law enforcement.

In Ghost in the Shell, as in Blade Runner, existential questions about the nature of thought, consciousness, and ‘humanity’ for the cyborg permeate the narrative. But unlike Blade Runner, characters in Ghost in the Shell (particularly The Major Kusanagi), are not androids, but former humans that are now heavily posthuman.

Major Kusanagi’s brain is the only part of her physical body that still retains organic tissue, and even large parts of that organ are artificial. This leads the Major to wonder if she was ever human at all, since her memories could have been implanted, edited, or erased and, as she points out to her partner Batou at one point, she has no evidence that her brain is anything but completely artificial either. So what does this have to do with atemporality, and how does Ghost in the Shell stand up to Sterling’s criticisms of similar creative efforts?

Sterling criticizes efforts like Ghost in the Shell, characterizing them as “Frankenstein mashups” that “lead to the kind of leveling blandness of ‘world music’” (Sterling). However, Ghost in the Shell manages to “refuse the awe of the future [and] refuse reverence to the past” (Sterling), as Sterling urges his audience to do.

The universe of Ghost in the Shell acknowledges and explores both what Sterling calls the ‘Gothic High-Tech’ and what he terms ‘Favela Chic’ (i.e.: failed modes of historicizing culture and failed systems of knowledge management; and the underground, pseodu-punk, pseudo-legal network culture that’s emerging, or has emerged in the case of Ghost in the Shell, as the dominant order of society). The franchise transcends even vaguely-postmodern hybrid labels like ‘cyberpunk noir’ by attempting to represent responses to the projected dominance of network culture in markedly ahistorical ways.

The Major and one of her subordinates have an interesting conversation near the beginning of the film. The subordinate, Togusa, chose not to augment his body beyond the necessary brain implants required to maintain covert communication with his team. He even goes so far as to continue to use a barely-regulation old-school revolver as his weapon of choice. While Batou criticizes Togusa for this, Kusanagi reminds viewers that: “if we all reacted the same way we’d be predictable, and there’s always more than one way to view a situation…overspecialize and you breed in weakness. It’s slow death.” (Sterling)

Like Sterling’s hypothetical person who dresses like an Astronaut to perform their daily routine, Togusa embraces the outmodedness of his aesthetic and personal preferences, and this is seen as an advantage by Kusanagi. It’s a form of ‘temporal diversity’ that elevates the film (and its sequel) above the level of your everyday postmodern pastiche.

In Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence, the same team of detectives (minus Major Kusanagi, who has ‘ascended’ by merging with an AI at the cost of losing her individuality, becoming both a part of the network and a network in-and-of herself), investigate a rash of killings perpetrated by sex dolls.

As the plot progresses, both the advances and advantages of the future and the abuses and drawbacks of progress are showcased. Without giving too much away, the mass-copying of human consciousness and a massive submarine parked in international waters are involved. More existentialist banter ensues, this time with a few somewhat ham-fisted shout-outs to 18th century enlightenment thinkers like Descartes.

Speaking of AI, (on a side note) a recent article in New Scientist has presented some disturbing evidence of neural networks demonstrating a nascent ability to encrypt their own data. The Anthropocene was fun while it lasted. Prepare to ascend.

Back to Ghost in the Shell: to sum up and to laud the IP a bit, both films’ visuals are exquisite and both are worth watching (I actually like the sequel a bit better than the first movie, which I expect is blasphemous to admit to hard-core fans of the franchise). The Ghost in the Shell animated series is also worth checking out. At its best, the franchise echoes Sterling’s call for us to become “‘multi-temporal’, rather than multi-cultural” (Sterling) in order to more effectively interrogate how we form the parameters of what we consider ‘problems’ before trying to solve them. In working out the mysteries they encounter, the Major’s team performs this kind of interrogation of the structures that form the networks that entangle them.

Works Cited

Sterling, Bruce. “Atemporality for the Creative Artist.” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 25 Feb. 2010. Web. 14 Nov. 2016.

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Posted on 2016/11/08 by

You’ve Been Steampunk’d: Postmodernism Re-Imagined

Steampunk, a relatively recent genre, is most recognizably understood as a hybrid genre that includes contemporary technology, powered by steam, usually set in either the Victorian era or the Wild West. In his speech “Atemporality for the Creative Artist” Bruce Sterling describes steampunk as a “lost future” which is created by a process of “finding earlier methods of production, pretending that they’d never become defunct, and then adding on to those” (Sterling). The style spans across several genres, such as music, film, literature, jewelry, and, for some, has even become a way of life. It is a style that – as with most things – takes its inspiration from something pre-existing in order to create something new.

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Yet with steampunk the question becomes: do these artists really create something fundamentally new or simply a variation out of that which already was? Though specifically targeting DJs and computer programmers, in the introduction to his book Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World Nicolas Bourriaud describes a set of notions that provide insight into one potential answer to this question:

“More and more artists interpret, reproduce, re-exhibit, or use works made by others or available cultural products […] These artists who insert their own work into that of others contribute to the eradication of the traditional distinction between production and consumption, creation and copy, readymade and original work. The material they manipulate is no longer primary. It is no longer a matter of elaborating a form on the basis of a raw material but working with objects that are already in circulation on the cultural market, which is to say, objects already informed by other objects. Notions of originality (being at the origin of) and even of creation (making something from nothing) are slowly blurred in this new cultural landscape” (1).

Steampunk is a genre that looks both at contemporary technology – in a way that people in the 1800s might have envisioned – it as well as 19th century technology imbued with modern technological capabilities. In both regards, the style is not a creation of an entirely new object, but rather the reinvention and reimagining of already existing objects. As described by Bourriaud, they do not manipulate raw material to form something entirely original, but instead take objects already in circulation and alter or tweak them until they become different objects. By this reasoning, one could argue that steampunk is not “new,” but rather simply a repurposing of old styles.

Image taken from etsy.com

 

However, the distinction here is more complex. Steampunk’s particular type of artistic re-working also spills over into other domains, as different clothing and jewelry styles are merged to form a type of fashion so unique it can no longer simply be termed ‘Victorian’. Yet this renaming adds extra depth to our original question: though this fashion is a combination of various Victorian styles, does the necessity of a new name not then make it something entirely novel? Bourriaud describes the term ‘original’ as “being at the origin of”; is the final result of the re-workings of Victorian era material and styles not the origin of the new genre of steampunk? Granted, raw material is not what gets used, but nevertheless something so different is created that it necessitates a new name, and thus it can be argued that steampunk artists do in fact create something unprecedented.

The genre also embodies the utilitarian aspect of Victorian culture. Artist John Lopez is a bronze sculptor who stumbled upon the idea of using scrap metal as a medium for designing new sculptures. His art embodies the Wild West factor of the steampunk genre. In keeping with steampunk tradition, he “pays respect to the past while also playing with the idea of renewing and reconfiguring familiar imagery into something completely different” (Manning). Lopez’s use of what is essentially trash to create beautiful works of art is a perfect example of Sterling’s notion of the blurred line between “originality” and “creation”. The South Dakotan sculptor is in fact creating something out of nothing, if we are to understand ‘nothing’ as material which has no further intended use. In addition, the steampunk symbol of a pair of goggles also illustrates utilitarianism. Part of the choice to use goggles “may be the result of their portability” as they are easier to carry around than an actual steam-powered piece of technology, but they also “straddle the divide between past and present. They’re comfortingly old-fashioned, but useful for modern steamy activities such as welding the gadgets steampunks love to carry around” (Sullivan). Essentially, steampunks have chosen a symbol that is not only depictive of their mindset as well as useful to have when creating the very objects that make up the genre, but that also re-imagines a way of thinking that evolved long ago with modern-day utilitarian concepts.

Steampunk also allows for political and cultural statements to be made concerning many controversial Victorian-era issues. For example, when interviewed for an article in The Guardian, steampunk music artist Robert Brown declares “The injustice and poverty in the Victorian era were horrific. That’s the great thing about this – Victorian women were repressed, but steampunk women are the opposite of that” (Sullivan). Centuries later, steampunk allows for a way of “reimagining an imperfect past” (Sullivan). Therefore, not only is the genre taking material forms from the era and reworking them, they are also taking intangible Victorian concepts and doing the same. Yet steampunk also protests contemporary issues as well, such as the loss of individuality in a world that is growing increasingly similar and technologically-based. This is where the ‘punk’ aspect of steampunk comes from, as those who adhere to the style defy convention and declare their individuality. However, it is important to keep in mind that steampunks draw their inspiration from the past while using material from today in order to fashion the objects of their rebellion. Are they then creating a new form of rebellion or simply re-imagining rebellion in a different way? Nevertheless, the style is a combination of cultural and political protests from both the 1800s as well as today, which essentially forms a kind of steampunk politics.

The steampunk genre is yet another instance where new material is created by drawing inspiration from old. Yet, steampunk is unique as well in that obtaining inspiration from the past is necessary in order for an object to qualify as steampunk. Ultimately, it is a new form of art that Sterling describes in his speech as “pre-distressed antique futurity”, wherein he urges those of us who want to create to “Refuse the awe of the future. Refuse reverence of the past” stating that if they are “really the same thing, [we] need to approach them from the same perspective” (Sterling). Steampunk does just this – it looks at the past through the lens of the future, imagining what the technology of today would look like in the days of the past. It combines the awe of the future and the reverence of the past to create objects that erase the generational divide – something that is rather original indeed.

 

Works Cited

Bourriaud, Nicolas. Culture as Screenplay: How Art Reprograms the World”. Has & Sternberg, 2005. PDF.

Manning, Jake. “Artist transforms old farm equipment into incredible animal sculptures like none you’ve seen”. Shareably.net. http://shareably.net/john-lopez-scrap-metal-sculptures/ . Accessed 6 November 2016

Sterling, Bruce. “Atemporality for the Creative Artist” Wired.com Conde Nast Digital, 25 Feb. 2010. Web. 6 Nov. 2016

Sullivan, Caroline. “Tonight I’m gonna party like it’s 1899”. (October 17, 2008) London: Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/music/2008/oct/17/popandrock2 Accessed 6 November 2016.

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Posted on 2016/11/08 by

Game of Clones: Copying, Authorship, and Ownership of the World’s Most Pirated TV Show

Game of Thrones is the most pirated television show in the world, with up to 1.5 million copies being downloaded on a single day. Additionally, the book series, A Song of Ice and Fire, has sold more than 58 million copies, and Archive of Our Own returns more than 150 000 unique fanfics of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire. It might just be one of the most reproduced narratives of our times. What does this massive amount of copying do to the ideas of authorship, ownership, and appropriation?

It is hard to look at Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire as a single story, so it is also a little difficult to determine authorship. Does it belong to author George R.R. Martin, who created the world of Westeros and The Seven Kingdoms? Or does the narrative belong to the HBO adaptation’s show-runners Dan Weiss and David Benioff, who have taken the narrative beyond the books, and will most likely write the ending to the story? Or does it belong to the legions of fanfic and fan-theory writers, who have been filling in missing details and theorising about untold plot points while (not-so-patiently) waiting for the “official” series to continue?  All of these participants have “authored” elements of the Seven Kingdoms in some way, and claimed different versions of the story. This lines up with Marcus Boon’s definition of “appropriation”: the act of claiming the right to use, make or own something that someone else claims in the same way.” (Boon 205) Martin, Weiss, Benioff, and all the story’s fans claim parts of the story. But does claiming mean ownership? Do the fans own this story?

The “obvious” answer would be “no”: the story belongs to George R.R. Martin, its original creator. He claims ownership through authoring the narrative – it’s his name on the cover of the books, after all. But not everyone sees it this simply, and many people feel that they have a stake in A Song of Ice and Fire. For example, Martin regularly interacts with and responds to his fans and critics as if he has a responsibility to them, and they often interact with him in a way that suggests they feel that they own the story. Martin’s fans definitely have “the expectation …that they’ll be able to interact with the fictional worlds they adore, and even sway the activities of their creators” (Wershler et al 17).  The fans may not be claiming authorship of Martin’s work, but with this sort of attitude and interaction, they are claiming a sort of ownership over the narrative.

Martin does not always respond favourably to this attitude, but he is often very supportive of and very interested in how invested his fans seem to be in the world he created. This situation reminds me of Benjamin’s description of a movie actor, who “knows that in the end he is confronting the masses. It is they who will control him (Benjamin 33). Martin’s critics and fans are not powerfully “invisible” like Benjamin’s masses: he greets them at conventions, responds to them on forums, and reads fan theories. However, they are influencing Martin’s work. Many fans feel like they are not waiting for Martin’s next instalment, but their next instalment of A Song of Ice and Fire. Martin occasionally caters to this feeling, with apologies about delays in writing, and defences for certain story-line choices. Despite these clear nods to fan influence, and many claims from fans over a certain “ownership” of the story, Martin insists that he is writing the books for himself, to his own standards and at his own pace. When fans clamor for “their” next book, he responds that he will not finish his story until he is done with it.

So, whose story are David Benihoff and Dan Weiss finishing? The two show runners (who are also big fans who “nerd out” about Martin’s story-lines) adapted the first five books of Martin’s series for the first five seasons of the HBO series Game of Thrones. But by the sixth season, they had run out of source material to adapt. Instead of putting the series on hold while waiting for new material from Martin, Benioff and Weiss took over as authors, and wrote their own new material. They had shifted from adapting source material, to possibly becoming source material.

This shift elevated Weiss and Benioff’s status as authors, which in turn strengthened their claims to authorship/ownership of Games of Thrones, and increased the perceived value of their adaptation. As Marcus Boon points out, “the copy is never allowed the myth of essence that is accorded to other things, and that is used to establish their value” (Boon 233). Perhaps it could have been said that it would be impossible to judge the value of Game of Thrones, because it was always a mere copy of A Song of Ice and Fire. Until it wasn’t. Now that it’s no longer “adapting” from Martin’s written work, is Game of Thrones still an adaptation? Or is it an original in its own right? Has the adaptation appropriated the “essence” and value of the original?

Boon would argue that a copy can only establish value “through deception and dissimulation”, which perhaps could be stretched to included Weiss and Benioff’s deviation from the source material (233). Both Weiss/Benihoff and Martin stress that the two stories will now be different, so that the unwritten original won’t be “spoiled” by the TV adaptation. Martin stresses that “some of the spoilers [fans] may encounter in season six may not be spoilers at all … because the show and the books have diverged, and will continue to do so” (Sims Divide).

I think it’s not really easy to say that Martin’s books still hold the title of “original” and Benioff and Weiss are still producing an adaptation. The roles of copier and copied have been switched, which seems to suggest that Benihoff and Weiss are producing the original now, and Martin is producing the copy.

On top of Benihoff and Weiss and Martin copying from each other, there are also fans copying the books and shows. Game of Thrones in particular is notorious for how much it is copied. However, everyone involved in making the show seems to appreciate that “reproduction do[es] not diminish and destroy the original but – quite the contrary- set[s] off and highlight[s] its value” (Assmann 147). Martin, Benioff, Weiss, and even Time-Warner CEO Jeff Bewkes have all spoken favourably about how frequently the show is pirated, as if it is a compliment. Bewkes is quoted as saying “Game of Thrones is the most pirated show in the world. Well, you know, that’s better than an Emmy” (Tassi Game). Upon hearing that Australia illegally downloads the most episodes per capita, Weiss exclaimed, “Yes! I’ll take it!” (Windolf Connections).

Why are Martin, Benioff, Weiss, and Bewkes, not only unworried that people are stealing their work, but actually pleased? They probably realise that “such free “advertising” or publicity may enhance the artist’s reputation and increase the value of his works.”(Landes 4) The insanely high demand for the TV show creates more demand for both the TV show and the books. As more people watch and talk about the show, more people want to watch it. Martin’s book sales increased by a healthy margin after the show premiered, and HBO gets more and more subscribers each year, despite (or because of) the millions of pirates “stealing” their work. They may in fact be “allowing unauthorized copies to circulate as a deliberate distribution strategy” (Wershler et al 17). HBO does send letters informing people that what they are doing is illegal, but there doesn’t seem to be a real effort to enforce their ownership.

The creators and network may also not subscribe to the idea that the pirates are “stealing” their work at all, or that the copying of their work actually damages it. Marcus Boon suggests that (in a Heideggarian point of view) appropriation of a work grants some legitimacy to its “essence”. He writes that “for Heidegger, the process by which thing come to appear to have essences relies on an appropriation … thus, it is appropriation, rather than essence, that is determinative of these things” ( Boon 218). The fact that so many people take and claim this narrative actually gives a legitimacy to the “essence” (or aura) of the story, demonstrating that it has such a universal appeal. If taking, claiming, and appropriating the story gives it its essence, are these “pirates” and consumers fulfilling a type of author function? What is their role in the creation and legitimization of the Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire phenomenon?

George R.R. Martin’s creation has left his control and been adapted both officially and unofficially. Millions of consumers have taken and made copies of the narrative, both officially and unofficially. Thousands more fans have taken the narrative and authored their own versions, mostly unofficially (but with the exception of Weiss and Benioff’s officially sanctioned version). There are a lot of feelings involved when talking about who owns this narrative, and even more questions. Is the narrative larger than the original author? If the “original” begins copying its own adaptation, is it still “the original”? If the authors allow consumers to influence them, and to take and copy their work, are they still really the authors? When fans feel a sense of ownership and entitlement over a work, and the owners respond to this entitlement, are they legitimising this claim of ownership?

 

 

 Works Cited:
Assmann, Aleida, and Jan Assmann. “Air From Other Planets Blowing: the Logic of Authenticity and the Prophet of the Aura.” Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht and Michael Marrinan, eds. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003. 147-57.

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Second version. The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media. Ed. Michael W. Jennings, Brigid Doherty, Thomas Y. Levin. Trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone, Howard Eiland, and Others. Cambridge/London: Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 2008. 19-55.

Boon, Marcus. “Appropriation.” In Praise of Copying. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010. 204-37.

Landes, William M. “Copyright, Borrowed Images and Appropriation Art: An Economic Approach.” _U Chicago Law & Economics, Olin Working Paper_ 113 (2000). 

Sims, David, “ The Growing Divide between Game of Thrones and George R.R. Martin.” The Atlantic. 12 May 2016. Online. 4 November 2016. 

Tassi, Paul. “Game of Thrones sets piracy world record – but does HBO care?” Forbes.com.  15 April 2014. Online. 3 November 2016.

Wershler, Darren, Kalervo Sinervo, Shannon Tien. ”A Network Archaeology of Unauthorized Comic Book Scans.” Amodern 2 (2013). Online. 1 November 2016.

Windolf, Jim. “The Surprising Connections between Game of Thrones and Monty Python”. Vanity Fair. 24 March 2014. Online. 6 November 2016. 

Source: User Jackal's Let's Play of Pokemon Reborn (http://forum.templeofkraden.com/topic/7435312/1/)
Posted on 2016/11/08 by

Copy & Paste & Play: Amateur Games as Appropriation Art

Independent game-making has, despite its relatively short history, seen a significant evolution. “Indie” games, as they are known, are now associated with such popular titles as Minecraft (2011), The Stanley Parable (2013), and Don’t Starve (2013)games that have unquestionably penetrated mainstream consciousness. There is a certain sophistication associated with the Indie genre nowadays, with more and more titles whose end results are often capable of rivaling the sheen of commercial games. Crowdfunding facilitators such as Kickstarter or GoFundMe allow for the possibility of significant financial backing from the general public, changing the economic landscape in which independent games are made, and consequently shifting the characteristics that make up an indie game.

Prior to the popularization of crowdfunding or online distribution platforms like Steam, indie games took on a different form: they existed as games made in Flash, or as text adventures played in an internet browser, or as games cobbled together on  free (or pirated) rudimentary game-making software, such as GameMaker or RPGMaker. These games were often the passion projects of one-man teams, with the prospect of putting them on the market mostly nonexistent. As such, the economic realities in which these games were made differ vastly from the games dominating the indie scene today. These kinds of games – specifically those made with RPGMaker – are the form I intend to explore in this probe, and to use as an argument for their status as appropriation art.

William Landes, in his essay “Copyright, Borrowed Images and Appropriation Art: An Economic Approach” describes ‘appropriation art’ as such:” Appropriation art borrows images from popular culture, advertising, the mass media, other artists and elsewhere, and incorporates them into new works of art. Often, the artist’s technical skills are less important than his conceptual ability to place images in different settings and, thereby, change their meaning. Appropriation art has been commonly described “as getting the hand out of art and putting the brain in.” ” (Landes 2)

While Landes’ discourse does not touch on games as an art form, his definition fits the subset of indie games described above to a tee.

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RPG Maker 2003 at work. The tileset is displayed in a pallet on the left, and the user can select each tile to ‘paint’ the map on the right.

RPGMaker is a series of software created by the groups ASCII and Enterbrain that allows for the relatively easy development of role-playing video games. While the latest iterations of RPGMaker (XP, VX, MV, etc.) are available through distribution services like Steam, earlier versions (RPGMaker 2000, 2003, etc.) were harder to come by legally and were often pirated. The software’s interface is purposefully intuitive, allowing a player to easily craft maps from tilesets, program events through the selection of options from a menu (‘Show Message’, ‘Change Character HP’, ‘Play Sound Effect’, ‘Open Main Menu’, etc), and edit playable characters, enemies, and other resources through an organized database. The software requires little knowledge of coding, though later entries in the series would allow for advanced programming via an internal scripting language, the use of which was entirely optional.

 

The ease of use afforded by the software and the relatively easy accessibility of it (assuming one was comfortable with piracy), meant that there was soon a quiet explosion of RPG Maker games on the internet, populating a preliminary wave of what would be considered the “indie” genre. The RPG Maker games that were released as part of this wave, which I’m going to capriciously place as occurring in the early 2000s, were of a particular nature that was almost inherently appropriative, and were backed by an infrastructure that both enabled and encouraged this appropriation to take place.

In short, the RPG Maker games I’m referring to made egregious use of the resources of other commercial, industry-made games. The reasons for this stem from the claims I’ve made above: creating a game with all-original resources – and by resources I mean graphics, pixel art, tilesets, sprites, animations, sound effects, background music, window skins, fonts, etc. – is simply too tall a task for the one-person hobbyist teams who were creating these games. Games often require whole teams of people to tackle even one of the resources I listed above, in addition to additional software and a whole lot more time. As Landes says:

“These works all have in common what economists call a “public goods aspect” to them. Creating these works involve a good deal of time, money and effort (sometimes called the “cost of expression”). Once created, however, the cost of reproducing the work is so low that additional users can be added at a negligible or even zero cost.” (Landes 4)

As such, it became common practice for members of online game-making communities to ‘rip’ assets (sprites, tilesets, etc.) from pre-existing games, rearrange them in such a way that they are legible to the RPG Maker software, and distribute them online, free of charge, often simply asking for credit. Game makers would then import these resources and use them to craft their own games, resulting in games that were unique chimaeras of familiar imagery taken from other video games. Landes asks us to consider the following case, which I include here as an apt analogy for what was taking place when these kinds of games were created: “Consider first the case of an artist who incorporates a copyrighted photograph from, say, a popular magazine into a unique collage. The artist removes the actual image from the magazine, affixes it to a board and adds other objects, colors and original images. No copy of the photograph is made and the photograph itself may constitute only a small part of the collage” (Landes 12-13).

This shot alone includes resources from Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Final Fantasy Adventure, and Final Fantasy Legend

This shot alone includes resources from Pokémon Red/Blue/Yellow, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, Final Fantasy Adventure, and Final Fantasy Legend

These games were often distributed within insular RPG Maker online communities, never for the purpose of turning a profit and never quite breaching the mainstream, and therefore never quite coming under the scrutiny of the developers whose intellectual property was being blatantly appropriated. One must take into consideration the cross-cultural nature of these games as well: as in the example above, the graphics put to use in Eden Legacy: A Knight of Eden were all ripped from Japanese games, then applied to an English-language, western-produced amateur RPG downloaded by an approximately 1,000 people (as per its download stats on RPGMaker.net); as such, the chances of companies like Square-Enix or Game Freak taking notice – much less taking legal action – were relatively slim.

As Landes puts it, this process inevitably became one of “conceptual ability to place images in different settings and, thereby, change their meaning” (2). The lifting of familiar symbols such as the sprite of the protagonist from the early Pokémon games and using it for the protagonist of a game set in a world of medieval fantasy reconfigures the meaning of the sprite. As a player of RPG Maker games, you are exposed to a unique language communicable only to those with a particular vocabulary – in this case, the reconfiguration of the Pokémon sprite only truly occurs if you have played and are familiar with the Pokémon game from which it originates.  As in the above example, games rarely simply aped a single game’s assets (though those do exist, particularly when the intent is to create a fangame), but instead combined the resources of several to create a unique, if jarringly familiar, pastiche.

Marcus Boon, in his book “In Praise of Copying”, writes of the putting together of a mixtape or iTunes playlist in a way that I think reflects the philosophy of these RPG Maker amalgamations: he notes that the process of making a mixtape is “intimate” and “emotionally charged”, and that “the mixtape maker has available in accessing the variety that is essential to copia, and straight out of a classical rhetoric manual: inventio (the selection of tunes to be played), dispositio (the ordering or sequencing of them), and elocutio (the cuts and edits made, but also the loving care put into the handwritten cover, the decoration of the cassette), all deployed in order to charm the recipient of the tape” (Boon 55). Just like the mixtape-maker, the RPG Maker game designer carefully selects the assets they’re going to copy, rearranges and reorders them in new configurations, and also omits, edits, and personalizes these resources to make a product that is uniquely theirs.

Rips of characters from Final Fantasy IV provided by a user of the Charas Project database

Rips of characters from Final Fantasy IV provided by a user of the Charas Project database

These chimerae were not isolated instances either, as they were supported by an insular infrastructure that facilitated the practice of appropriation. Databases like Charas Project came into existence to archive and distribute user-created ‘rips’of resources, specifically formatted for use in RPG Maker. More broadly, sites like The Spriters Resource compile ripped graphics of games from a multitude of systems for personal use. As Boon puts it, “What appears to be on offer on the Internet, what fuels its imaginal space, is the utopia of an infinite amount of stuff, material or not, all to be had for the sharing, downloading, and enjoying. For free” (Boon 42) – he clarifies subsequently that naturally what appears to be ‘free’ is only being perceived as such, for ‘free’ implies a degree of consent on the part of the original artist, the likes of which are not found on these online databases full of ripped video game assets

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RPG Maker game Final Fantasy Black Moon Prophecy, a fangame of the Final Fantasy series, makes use of assets from Final Fantasy IV, released 25 years ago as of the writing of this probe. The fangame uses a tileset from the game’s town maps, safe zones for the player to recover their strength and restock on items. Black Moon Prophecy, however, edits the tileset and then uses it to map one of the game’s dungeons, Niflheim (Left), a decaying town in which monsters abound. This is another instance of familiar iconography being reconfigured and given new meaning – note the re-use of graphics between Niflheim (Left) and Final Fantasy IV’s town of Baron (Right)

To further illustrate the case for amateur games as appropriation art, I look to a popular fangame currently in circulation: Pokémon Reborn. The game, created in RPG Maker XP by a team of amateur developers, describes itself as such:

“Pokemon Reborn is a Gen 3-styled downloadable game featuring all content through Gen 6. Experience a never-before-seen layer of strategy with the all-original Field Effects, using the terrain to outplay and overwhelm your opponent! Collect, train and battle with all 721 Pokemon available in-game and take on Gym Leaders of all 18 types as you fight to restore Reborn to prosperity!”

Its setting is described as a city wherein “black smog and acidic water garnish the crumbling structures” and “city streets fest like alleys with disaster and crime”. Among its list of features are “Increased Shiny chance”, “Visible IVs/EVs”, and “18 Type Gyms”. While the significance of those features or the grim backdrop painted in that description may be lost on those who have little familiarity with the Pokémon video games, the promise being made is that Reborn offers an experience that’s familiar enough to appeal to fans of Pokémon, but different enough that it acts as a salve to those who believe the official Pokémon games to be lacking.

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Fans of the series have often wanted exactly what Reborn is providing: a Pokémon game that reflects the more mature demographic of its player-base, the ones who might not be so enthused by the colourful, saccharine settings in which the games usually take place. The fangame makes copious use of the official games’ properties – from sound effects to tilesets to the Pokémon themselves – and does a shockingly thorough job of mimicking the games’ mechanics, menus, and gameplay elements, but through graphical edits, brand new level designs, and a unique and original story, reimagines the Pokémon narrative in a way that may appeal to different parts of the Pokémon-playing demographic, all while allowing for an experience that’s sufficiently familiar. Similarly, the game features enhanced difficulty as a response to accusations that the original games are too easy and child-like; the game also offers features such as the ability to play as a character of a non-specific, non-binary gender identity, a feature that few commercial games offer. In this context, we can see appropriation art performing an important and unique function: fulfilling the particular demands made of the original art, to which the original artist(s) have not responded.


 

Notes:

[1] Also up for a similar kind of examination are webcomics, particularly the ‘sprite comics’ that were popular in the early 2000s: Bob and George, 8-Bit Theater, Zelda Comic, etc. These internet-born comics also made use of video game resources, notably the character ‘sprites’ from which they get the title of their genre, and not only reconfigured their symbolic meaning but transported them to an entirely new medium, that of the comic. 8-Bit Theater, for example, reimagined the entire narrative of Final Fantasy, giving voice to previously mute characters and offering a wholly new and innovative interpretation of a familiar world using familiar iconography. Zelda Comic, on the other hand, made use of resources from multiple games, including the titular Legend of Zelda as well as Kid Icarus and Bubble Bobble, creating a unique pastiche wherein several cultural icons could interact with one another.

[2] It’s worth noting that these indie games are not only economic to make, but also to play. As these games cannot legally be distributed with a pricetag, and yet offer content hefty enough to rival commercial games (Reborn boasts over 48 hours of gameplay, and has yet to be completed), gamers can enjoy these games without shelling out the money that is required to purchase the game as well as the console on which the game plays. This is especially true of Pokémon games: the official games allow for only one save file per cartridge, hampering replayability as, assuming the player does not want to lose their data, they are required to buy an additional cartridge to replay the game. Reborn circumvents that, as save files can be exported and imported, and its very existence as a free-to-play game makes it a suitable remedy for the Pokémon fan who’s itching to play again but is unable or unwilling to pay for another cartridge.

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Posted on 2016/11/06 by

Avatar: The Last Airbender: Bending Boundaries between Appreciation, Appropriation, and Adaptation

Between 2005 and 2008, American-based television network Nickelodeon aired what would become one of the most lauded and commercially successful children’s shows of its time, Avatar: The Last Airbender. At its best, Avatar presents stirring storylines that grapple with the complexities of human relationships in meaningful ways, offering the audience narratives that confront racism (“Book 1-3”), misogyny (“The Warriors of Kyoshi,” “The Waterbending Master,” “The Painted Lady”), classism (“The Swamp”),  and ableism (“The Blind Bandit”), while foregrounding redemption (“The Western Air Temple”), forgiveness (“The Southern Raiders”), and the importance of social support systems (“Sozin’s Comet: Part1-4”).  Grounding its moral message primarily in the tenets of Buddhism and Hinduism, Avatar encourages children to become peaceful adults who work together to avoid perpetuating erasure or violence against other cultures.

Yet the American television show’s homage to and reliance on eastern and indigenous culture—in everything from its visual aesthetics to the cultural makeup of its invented nations—threatens to push the series into the realm of cultural appropriation. The fraught relationship between North American and Asian culture embedded in the makeup of the show is further complicated when considering the ramifications of M. Night Shyamalan’s film adaptation, The Last Airbender, in which the three protagonists are effectively whitewashed. This probe considers a number of nuances between cultural appropriation and appreciation in an attempt to underscore the fluidity between these categories and interrogate whether culture can be owned—and, if so, by whom.

Book 1: Appropriation

Avatar: The Last Airbender is set in a fictional Asian-inspired world divided into four nations based on the elements of the dominant natural-philosophical theory in Chinese Buddhist literature: the Water Tribes, Earth Kingdom, Fire Nation, and Air Nomads. Populating this world are people who can manipulate the elements of the nation they are born into through a process called “bending,” which is visually stylized after the martial arts T’ai Chi, Hung Gar, Northern Shaolin, and Ba Gua in each respective nation. The story follows a twelve year old boy named Aang—the last surviving airbender after the Fire Nation committed mass genocide against the Air Nomads—who also happens to be the Avatar, a being of heightened spiritual ability whose role is to master all four elements and bring balance to the world. Accompanying him on his adventure are siblings Katara and Sokka, whose dress, hunting practices, and villages in the South Pole borrow heavily from Polynesian and Native American cultures.

 

Avatar’s visual style is heavily indebted to Japanese anime and the work of artists and studios such as Miyazaki, Gainax, and Shinichiro Watanabe, setting it apart from other cartoons airing on Nickelodeon. The show’s broader eastern aesthetic is equally deliberate. In an interview on Nickelodeon, creators Michael Danter DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko describe the process of creating Avatar as the following:

[W]e wanted to create a mythology that was based on Eastern culture, rather than Western culture. […] we were inspired by Asian mythology, as well as Kung Fu, Yoga, and Eastern Philosophy. […]  We read a lot about Buddhism, Daoism, and Chinese history. We also have several consultants who work for the show—a cultural consultant that reviews all the scripts; a Kung Fu consultant who helps choreograph all the bending moves so that they are accurate to the style on which they are based; and a Chinese calligrapher who does all the signs and posters in the show.

DiMartino and Konietzko vacillate between appreciation and appropriation of Asian culture and, at times, even seem suspicious of their own positionality relative to their creation. On the one hand, they engage with the people whose cultures they borrow from in order to build trust and ensure their work is as authentic as possible. As Marcus Boon argues in In Praise of Copying, “copying […] is connected to love” (234), and the creators of Avatar claim they are “just trying to pay homage.” On the other hand, DiMartino and Konietzko do more than pay homage when they appropriate spiritually significant terms: “We chose the word ‘Avatar’ because it is an ancient Hindu word meaning ‘a temporary manifestation of a continuing entity.’” Hindu, Buddhist, Daoist, and Shinto spiritual influences converge and become the religious doctrine of the Avatar world, ignoring the fact that these religions have historically served as a source of social and political divisions between groups.

In “From Appropriation to Subversion,” Peter Kulchyski argues that “[a]ppropriation involves the practice on the part of dominant social groups of deploying cultural texts produced by dominated social groups for their own (elite) interests” (614). Following that definition, Avatar can be considered appropriation par excellence, a franchise that engages both in cultural voyeurism and cultural appropriation in order to create a show that appeals to the exoticization and fetishization of dominated social groups.

“Since ‘culture’ can be characterized as one of the most useful intellectual tools of the twentieth century—slowly coming to replace the nineteenth century concept of ‘race’ as a way of differentiating peoples—it has come to be taken for granted and, to an extraordinary extent, vacated of focus or precision.” (Kulchyski 605)

It is this lack of focus that facilitates appropriation in the name of homage; two American creators cherry pick from various Asian and Indigenous cultures to create a melting pot that blends aspects of real-world nations and erects distinct—if not wholly artificial—boundaries within the cartoon environment. As a result, Avatar presents an ancient world comprised of elements an American is likely to associate with Asia or Indigenous groups—martial arts, Buddhist and Hindu spirituality, food preparation and consumption practices, Chinese calligraphy, etc.—decontextualized from any explicit, specific history or culture. Avatar’s world, no matter how well researched, becomes flattened into a generic representation of Asian-ness, and it is this very flattening that eludes appropriation. With the boundaries so blurred, what can we even argue has been appropriated from individual cultures?

Book 2: Adaptation

When Paramount announced a live action film trilogy adaptation of the much beloved series, fans’ excitement was short lived after it became clear that the movie would whitewash the series. The Last Airbender’s four starring roles were initially all to go to white actors, but, when pop singer Jesse McCartney backed out of the role of villain Zuko due to scheduling conflicts and was replaced by Dev Patel, a whole new issue of representation came to light. In casting a South Asian actor as the villain, The Last Airbender problematically connects darker skin to the corruption of the Fire Nation. Although Avatar is by no means a perfect representation of Asian cultures, The Last Airbender strips the series of its detailed research and replaces complex race relations between the four nations with a world in which the villains are marginalized bodies in opposition to homogenous white heroes.

In an interview with TIME Magazine, Shyamalan takes full ownership of the whitewashing of The Last Airbender, saying, “I could have cast anybody I wanted to. You’re talking to one of the only Asian filmmakers in the world who has complete control.” Shyamalan’s case is that, given his status as Indian-American, casting exclusively white actors to play the heroes of his film cannot possibly be racist because he himself is of South-Asian descent. This defence raises important questions of appropriation: namely, can one appropriate when one comes from an often-appropriated community themselves?

Evolving out of a letter writing campaign on LiveJournal called “Aang Ain’t White,” which protested the movie’s casting decisions came Racebending.com.  Informed by the theories articulated in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, racebending also makes a clever pun on the abilities of inhabitants of the Avatar world to bend the elements. Whereas Butler’s theory of gender bending refers to the celebratory practice of performing gender against biological sex and cultural expectations, racebending replaces marginalized bodies with white bodies, restricting rather than broadening possibilities.  As well, “‘racebending’ can be seen as more than simply changing the race of a character: it is changing the race of characters of color to white for reasons of marketability” (Lopez, qtd. in Gilliland 2.4). Not merely a symptom of neglect or cultural naivety, racebending is a deliberate, strategic erasure of people of color in order to increase capital.

Aang, Katara, Sokka, and Zuko in the animated series, their actors, and their voice actors. Only Zuko, the villain, is consistently represented as a person of color.

 

But how can one claim the erasure of identity when, to a great extent, the characters in The Last Airbender have always been white? While they are visually depicted as Inuit and East-Asian and drawn in an anime style, Aang, Katara, and Sokka were created by two white men and voiced by white people. Indeed the villain-turned-antihero Zuko is the only one of the four to have been voiced by an Asian-American in the original series.  The fact that boycotters of The Last Airbender were a) by and large not Asian or of Asian descent and b) seldom considered the fact that the majority of the original voice actors were also Caucasian suggests that perhaps fans are more attached to the idea of Indigenous- and Asian-ness the American creators present in Avatar than with the individual cultures themselves. After all, the show attempts to provide a model for doing Eastern cultural appropriation right. Fan outcry that The Last Airbender is “ruining” Avatar directs the gaze instead towards the endemic problem in Hollywood where Asian actors, writers, and directors are replaced with white actors, writers, and directors who presume to tell their stories. In my previous probe on appropriation of Coast-Salish cultural objects, I briefly addressed the ways in which dominant culture insists on enforcing their own understanding of what aspects of a given marginalized culture is authentic. In this case, Avatar and the resulting resistance to the casting of The Last Airbender use authenticity as a way to legitimize the cultural appropriation inherent in the original television series.

Book 3: Appreciation

Avatar and The Last Airbender do not exist solely on a screen, but are part of a larger system of cultural production. As Frederic Jameson notes, “What has happened is that aesthetic production today has become integrated into commodity production generally” (qtd in Kulchyski 610). Between Avatar and its spiritual successor, The Legend of Korra, the franchise has built an immense commodity culture, consisting of comic books, video games, Lego, jewelry, clothing, and cosplay, raising questions about appropriation grounded in fans’ reactionary behaviors. For instance, is wearing orange robes appropriative if it is accompanied by blue arrow tattoos as a direct homage to an American cartoon at a comic book convention? Is it appropriative to write fanfic grounded in Asian history and mythology in order to engage in world-building in the Avatar universe?

To conclude this probe, I want to address Marcus Boon’s comment that, although today’s prevalent appropriation does not obey the laws of cultural exchange, “this doesn’t mean it’s used solely by the privileged or powerful on the marginalized and powerless, since it’s also employed by the marginalized and powerless” (231). Two weeks ago, Nigerian illustrator and comic book artist Marcus Williams released images from his Avatar fan-fiction, Avatar: The Legend of Abioye. Set one hundred years after Korra, the adaptation reimagines the characters as Nigerian, and encourages us to think about the effects of yet another type of racebending: is it appropriative for one dominated culture to depict themselves in the space of another? Or is Williams reclaiming Avatar for the marginalized after Hollywood’s instatement of white hegemony? By setting his story a century later, Williams refrains from appropriating and erasing the characters who are clearly stylized as Asian and Indigenous and tactfully allows his new Yoruba benders Iya, Ikenna, and Ballogun to (co)exist in the Avatar universe. As fanfiction, Avatar: The Legend of Abioye arguably presents a true attempt at appreciation without appropriation.

Works Cited

Avatar: The Last Airbender.  Written by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, directed by Lauren MacMullan, Nickelodeon Animation, 2005-2008.

Boon, Marcus. “Copying as Appropriation.” In Praise of Copying. Harvard University Press, 2010, pp. 204-37.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge, 1990.

“Everything you ever wanted to know about Avatar: The Last Airbender answered by the creators, Mike & Bryan!” Nicksplat.com  Nickelodeon, 12 Oct. 2005.http://web.archive.org/web/20071217111256/http:/www.nicksplat.com/Whatsup/200510/12000135.html. Accessed 4 Nov 2016.

Gilliland, Elizabeth. “Racebending Fandoms and Digital Futurism.” Transformative Works and Cultures, vol 22, 2016, http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/702/651. Accessed 4 Nov 2016.

Konietzko, Bryan, & Michael Danter DiMartino. Avatar, the Last Airbender: The art of the animated series. Dark Horse Comics, 2010.

Kulchyski, Peter. “From Appropriation to Subversion: Aboriginal Cultural Production in the Age of Postmodernism.” American Indian Quarterly, vol. 21, no. 4, 1997, pp. 605-620. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1185715. Accessed 10 Oct 2016.

The Last Airbender. Directed by M. Night Shyamalan, performances by Noah Ringer, Nicola Peltz, Jackson Rathbone, and Dev Patel, Nickelodeon Movies and Paramount Pictures, 2010.

Shyamalan, M. Night. “10 Questions for M. Night Shayamalan.” TIME Magazine, 12 July 2010. http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2001008,00.html. Accessed 4 Nov 2016.

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Posted on 2016/10/31 by

Bot Buccaneers or Non-Human Privateers: Thoughts on Writing Algorithms

This probe was written by a human, and as such, its text is invariably subject to the shortcomings and excesses of its author, to the digressive effluent of his human idioms and emotions. If this text survives long enough to be assimilated by a writing algorithm, then this introduction will likely be excised, its content deemed superfluous by a more discerning editorial eye.

There are, as of 2016, several independent services specializing in the use of algorithms that can be ‘commissioned’ to write texts on virtually any subject. Prices and turnover times vary, but the principle is the same: the algorithm does the research, the writing, the editing, and the typesetting, and from there a .PDF can be generated and printed by a print-on-demand service.

Such entities, or more accurately such assemblages, have the potential to outcompete not only digital ‘pirates’ but any and all digital producers and curators of knowledge. Such prospects stir up age-old anxieties about the impending obsolescence of humanity in the face of our increasingly efficient artificial progeny. In his book Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates, Adrian Johns points out that

  • so serious has the prospect of piracy become for [industries] that in the United States the Digital Millenium Copyright Act has even outlawed the promulgation of algorithms that might be used to disable or circumvent copy-protected devices. A graduate student coming to Nevada to present a technical paper can be arrested, not for pirating anything himself, but for divulging principles that might allow others to do so. (Johns 3)

What kinds of algorithms might be defined by the broad language of such legislation? What is meant by ‘circumvent’ here? When considering the explosion of writing algorithms in the past 5-10 years, and their increased use by journalistic entities and businesses alike, it is imperative to consider not only their effect on the ‘business’ and ‘creative’ sides of writing and everything in-between, but also the effect of such legislation on the ways in which such algorithms are used.

Even the most rudimentary of these types of algorithms act as hyper-curators, hyper-authors, and hyper-nodes within information networks. They are able to commune with and collate, on an unprecedented level, the information they manage. These algorithms do not need to fret over funding and their only basic needs are electricity and an internet connection; the prospect of competition with such an entity would make even the most stringently ascetic grad student twitch with jealous fear.

Already, a storm of hard questions threatens to sink this probe as it shoves off. How and where do algorithms that manage and produce texts fit into debates about copying, copyright legislation, authorship, and piracy? What will happen as such programs are deployed to produce academic papers? What would the peer-review process of such works be? Is the author of a species of algorithms (assuming such people continue to be credited with the works their creations produce) qualified to teach a course on something that they have never researched or written about themselves? Some such questions seem to flirt with absurdity, but they beg to be asked and addressed nonetheless.

Addressing the above set of questions in turn necessitates answering a whole other series of queries about how such algorithms operate. Research is even more painfully scant here, if not absent altogether: to what extent could such algorithms be labelled ‘pirates’ if they plunder as many sources as they have access to (including GOA databases such as Sci-Hub) and then paraphrase and/or cite the information that they use from such sources to assemble ‘new’ texts?

The behaviour of these bots is also somewhat shrouded in the complexity of the code that makes them up, the content of their ‘DNA’, so-to-speak. This bears in-depth discussion. How do these algorithms determine whether the texts they are using as grist for the mill of their process are in the public domain or are subject to terms of fair dealing? What criteria or formulae, embedded in the effective ‘bodies’ of these algorithms, determine how or to what extent a source passage should be paraphrased?

Finally, how good are these algorithms at writing ‘creative’ works, compared to more explanatory, analytical, or summatory texts, and how do they fit into the networks they plunder for material? How do they and their creators function as authors and curators?

Balazs Bodó asks an oddly naïve question in his article “Pirates in the Library – an Inquiry into the Guerilla Access Movement”. He wonders why, circa mid-2016, “scholarly publication is affected [by GOA archives] and fiction is not?” (Bodó 4) It seems remarkable that Bodo failed to acknowledge the prevalence of textual piracy of all kinds, as well as the piracy of comics, manga, and graphic novels (the latter, studied by Darren Wershler, Kalervo Sinervo, Shannon Tien, will come up again later on).

I remember finding and downloading, in the late 2000’s, a massive archive of literature and fiction of all kinds, several dozen gigabytes in size and containing hundreds of thousands of e-books, .pdfs, .CBRs, etc. The torrent took a few days to download. Unfortunately, I lost the books years later when one of my backup drives crashed, reinforcing Wershler, Sinervo, and Tien’s argument that digital archiving is extremely unstable, and an ‘ecosystem’ model is preferable as a perspective for viewing this way of managing information (Sinervo et. al.).

If this ‘ecosystem’ model holds true (it certainly chimes with Hall’s ideas of ‘articulation’, and also with the concept of ANT theory), then where do writing algorithms fit into the information ‘food chain’ of this ecosystem? Are they predators, prey, or scavengers? Do they function as any or all of the three depending upon their use case, or do they represent a new kind of organism entirely?

Journalistic responses to the proliferation of writing bots touch on some of the waves of questions that crashed on our decks earlier, while raising various anxieties having to do with ideas of authorship, legitimacy, and piracy. In a Wired article, for example, Mark Allen Miller chronicles the evolution of the company Narrative Science, and its algorithmic writing engine, Quill.

Quill began as the pet project of founder Kristian Hammond in conjunction with Roger Schank. At MIT, the two created a piece of software that could write journalistic pieces following sports games, which became Quill. However, like other algorithmic writing engines, Quill still requires user-generated examples of text in order to produce new texts. As Miller notes, “news stories, particularly about subjects like sports or finance, hew to a pretty predictable formula, and so it’s a relatively simple matter for the meta-writers to create a framework for the articles.” (Miller)

The Quill website comes across as very ‘corporate’, not unlike the shining, smile-ridden façade of a fictional company from a dystopic sci-fi novel. On the other hand, the website of Business scholar Phillip M. Parker’s company ICON Group International resembles a bare-bones version of Amazon. There is even a wish list creation option. While Parker points out that writing a given algorithm can take years depending upon the bot’s intended task, once written, said algorithms can generate texts in about 15 minutes. Browsing through the texts already available on the ICON site, one finds prices ranging from typical textbook fare to nearly a thousand dollars for more lengthy and extensive compilations.

In an interview with Parker published by Readwrite, interviewer Adam Popescu notes that Parker “claims [that] he’s basically applying 19th century Taylorism to the publishing industry,” a somewhat chilling comparison to make despite the evident lack of human abuse in Parker’s system (Popescu). In fact, the term “Digital Taylorism”, aka “New Taylorism”, has already been coined. In the Readwrite interview, Parker describes what his bots do as ‘econometrics’ and credits the field of economics for laying the groundwork for what his bots do (Popescu). Parker further posits that

  • a lot of that process could be reverse engineered and basically characterized by algorithms and be used in an automated fashion. The methodologies are extremely old, just like the methodologies of writing haiku poetry are very old. An Elizabethan sonnet is 14 lines – that is a line of code if you think of it that way. The code is constrained. So all genres, no matter what the genres are, are a form of constrained writing. (Popescu)

Parker makes it clear that the majority of the writing his bots are doing is fairly dry, straightforward, and utilitarian in its applicability. Up-to-date statistical analyses and compendiums of similar information not available all in one text are popular order items, and Parker points out that these texts have short print runs due to the rapid pace at which they become out-of-date (Popescu). Parker’s bots seem to be meeting a demand for texts that required far more human time and drudgery to produce, but the implications of such advanced software for writing in general should not be ignored.

Parker also notes that, for commissioned research endeavours, firms will usually “pass off the editorial analysis to a group of people who do formatting and copy editing and graphic design, who then pass it off to another group of people who do metadata, covers, spines, all that. All we did is reverse engineer that. But the methodology to do that already existed before the books existed.” (Popescu)

It appears that Parker is not immune to the irony of the publicity he has received, or the echoes of copying (also called piracy depending upon how threatening the activity becomes to financially entrenched industries) in the journalistic pieces written in response to his work. Parker wryly observes that

  • there’s been in the last 2 weeks about 10 articles written about what I’ve done and none of them talked to me about it. They’re all copy and pasting from each other. I think it’s very a interesting observation that they’re using a formulaic method to deliver content and put their name on a byline, when in fact they’ve done a formulaic cut-and-paste. (Popescu)

In a brief piece published by Popular Science, Francie Diep points out that Forbes has begun using the software developed by Narrative Science to generate business-related articles, and that the LA Times has reportedly begun using bots developed by one of its own staff (Diep). Algorithmic writers are scuttling into big-name institutions that cater to millions of readers, and almost none of these readers are aware that what they may be reading was not written by a human. Some of these readers might ask, “why does it matter?” Why indeed.

In terms of addressing anxieties about bots replacing human writers, Diep points out that “the biggest argument for robot journalism is that it frees human reporters to do the kind of deeper reporting only people can do…auto-writers are able to accurately process an inhuman amount of data, then present it in a way that humans like to see: in words.” (Diep). Parker’s algorithms even open a Word document on their own and output information, as his video on the subject shows.

David J. Hill, writing for SingularityHub, comments that “parker is not so much an author as a compiler.” (Hill) Questions of authorship and prestige are also brought up by Adrian Johns, who reminds us of pre-modern debates about the authenticity of authorship, debates that are resurging as we begin considering the author function of the algorithm and the algorithm’s programmer. (Johns 495) Antiquated notions of ‘prestige’ re-emerging in the face of copying-framed-as-piracy bear an eerie resemblance to comments about a bot article’s ability to pass itself off as a text written by a human. ‘Sounding human’ is the ‘new prestige’ that developers of writing algorithms have to strive for.

In terms of prestige, algorithms attempting to emulate a ‘human-sounding’ standard tone is a complex notion to approach. What do we mean when we say things like “this reads like it was written by a human”. Is this ‘human’ tone a western one? An English-speaking one? Is it masculine, feminine or androgynous? How is this ‘voice’ inflected? Donna Harroway’s Cyborg Manifesto, and how its arguments can be applied to entities such as Microsoft’s Cortana and the mobile secretary Siri, would be useful in addressing the issue of writing algorithms in more detail. But that’s for another time.

In an article published by the American Journalism Review, Hille ban der Kaa and Emiel Krahmer touch on the issue of credibility, which brings to mind Adrian Johns treatment of the transition from earlier economies of ‘credibility’ to our current economy of information. However, credibility again rears its head when studies such as the one Kaa and Krahmer describe take place around algorithmic writing. The authors reveal that

  • we randomly showed a story to 232 native Dutch speakers (among them 64 journalists) and asked them to evaluate the perceived expertise and trustworthiness of the news writer and the contents of the story. As previously stated, our study found no differences in the perceptions that news consumers held regarding the credibility of machine-written stories versus articles they thought were created by humans. (Kaa & Krahmer)

Beyond questions of authenticity in the age of instant copying, sharing, and pirating of information, it is also imperative to note that Parker’s method of assembling texts via anagrams is patented, and technically if the information in most of the algorithms’ books is openly available and factual in nature, so it could be difficult to argue that the books violate copyright in a ‘piracy’ sense. Alternately, in an article published by Educase Review, Penn State director of educational technology Kyle Bowen frames algorithmic writing assemblages as potential allies of ‘open education’, while also espousing their potential to be used to write textbooks for the academy (Bowen).

However, as the examples of OA entities (sued into oblivion) given by Bodó illustrate, when a company is threatened enough by something that they can label as ‘piracy’, they will do all they can to do so if they have no alternative way of out-pirating the pirate with an equivalent but legitimate alternative (Bodó 15).

Algorithms trawling so much information so rapidly, from the greatest amount and variety of sources they can find, and generating or paraphrasing text to suit a particular project, seems like the framework for an anti-pirate’s nightmare. However, industry has proven time and again, whether it be in the case of the BBC radio pirates of the 1960s, the hacktivists and FOSS advocates of the mid-1980s and 1990s, or their present-day equivalents, that it can and will respond to pirates’ subversive efforts in one of two ways. If industry can’t beat the pirates’ systems with a better service of their own, then they will make allies or privateers of them.

If we ignore the role of algorithms in processes of digital text generation, copying/piracy, distribution, curation, and citation, we run the risk of being blindsided by unforeseen conflicts and complications between such entities and the more antiquated and potentially exploit-ridden portions of the networks they emerged within. As with real-life pirates, the same planks used to build any ship can also be used in the execution rituals of mutinous crewmembers.

Works Cited

Bodó, Balázs, Pirates in the Library – An Inquiry into the Guerilla Open Access Movement (July 6, 2016). Paper prepared for the 8th Annual Workshop of the International Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property, CREATe, University of Glasgow, UK, July 6-8, 2016.. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=2816925

DePaul, Kristi. “Kyle Bowen: Robot Writers, Open Education, and the Future of Edtech.” Educase Review. Educase, 05 Apr. 2016. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Diep, Francie. “Associated Press Will Use Robots To Write Articles.” Popular Science. Bonnier Corporation, 1 July 2014. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Hill, David J. “Patented Book Writing System Creates, Sells Hundreds Of Thousands Of Books On Amazon.” Singularity HUB. Singularity University, 13 Dec. 2012. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Johns, Adrian. Piracy: The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2009. Print.

Kaa, Hille Van Der, and Emiel Krahmer. “Robot Reporters or Human Journalists: Who Do You Trust More?” American Journalism Review. Philip Merrill College of Journalism, 24 Oct. 2014. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Miller, Mark Allen. “Can an Algorithm Write a Better News Story Than a Human Reporter?” Wired.com. Conde Nast Digital, 04 Apr. 2012. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Popescu, Adam. “Why Write Your Own Book When An Algorithm Can Do It For You?” ReadWrite. ReadWrite, 15 Jan. 2013. Web. 31 Oct. 2016.

Wershler, Darren, Kalervo Sinervo, & Sharmon Tien. “A Network Archaeology of Unauthorized Book Scans.” Modern 2 (2013).

lecture-recording
Posted on 2016/10/29 by

Pirates in the Classroom: The Afterlives of a Lecture Recording

Information piracy, whether in popular culture or in academia, is largely an issue of circulation. Unlike its swash-buckling and sea-faring counterpart, the OED describes this form of piracy as “the unauthorized reproduction or use of an invention or work of another, as a book, recording, computer software, intellectual property, etc., esp. as constituting an infringement of patent or copyright; plagiarism; an instance of this.” While the term has readily been used to typify software pirates and hacking collectives of the digital era, I propose to examine the misuse of a pedagogical tool as an example of information piracy; or, a case where copyright law and institutional policy conflict with academic practices.

In 2011, a leaked classroom video from the University of Missouri-Kansas City went viral and caused an uproar among US conservative media outlets when the edited footage appeared to suggest a labor studies professor advocating union violence. The wide circulation of this recording — produced and distributed by the university for registered students in the class — provoked a debate around privacy and the university’s goal of promoting shared knowledge when in response the institution proposed new policy restrictions on lecture recordings. The new policy would require students to obtain written permission from professors and classmates or face academic sanctions:

“unauthorized distribution of such materials is a violation of academic standards and may violate copyright and/or privacy rights.”

Students, professors, and other members of the academic community were swift to protest this restriction on the grounds that its vague phrasing would pose undue constraints on academic practices designed to help students learn. This controversy is emblematic of how discourses of accessibility and innovation surrounding technology in the classroom conflicts with the university’s obligation to respect copyright and data protection legislation.

This incident illustrates the way in which information piracy disputes what Adrian Johns describes as “the proper relation between media, knowledge, and the public” in “Piracy as a Business Force” (46).

While recording lectures has been practiced in academia for a variety of reasons since the advent of portable tape recorders, networked digital circulation and the widespread implementation of automated lecture capture technologies have prompted academic policy changes to formalize and regulate the practice. From boilerplate bans on personal recording to be published in syllabi to videos and guidelines educating students and faculty on legal and ethical best-practices, higher education institutions and third-party organisations are invested in regulating the production, use, and circulation of digital recordings. Among institutions which do promote both the use of lecture capturing technologies and personal recordings, two common themes emerge: that recordings are for the personal use of students registered in the course and that recordings must be destroyed after all coursework has been completed.

“Recorded materials made by students must be destroyed before the student graduates, but may be destroyed following the final assessment for the specific course.” (University of Edinburgh guidelines)

These guidelines which restrict the use of lecture recordings demonstrate an institution’s concern with respecting both intellectual property and data protection legislation. The ephemerality clause, mentioned above, serves to ensure that lecture recordings are used only for instruction. While a copyright exemption for purposes of instruction falls under “fair dealing” in Canadian copyright law, the practice carries no such stipulation. In fact, the language comes from the description of an educational exception to copyright infringement. Sections 30.01 and 30.03 of the Canadian Copyright Act stipulate a number of restrictions on the exception for “the telecommunication of lessons”: it is not an infringement of copyright “to communicate a lesson to the public by telecommunication for educational and training purposes, if that public consists only of students who are enrolled in a course of which the lesson forms a part or of other persons acting under the authority of the educational institution” but that the university must “take measures to prevent students from ‘fixing, reproducing or communicating the lesson other than as they may do under this section'” (Murray & Trosow 191-92). In their guide to Canadian copyright and fair dealing, Murray & Trosow point out that these “circular and confusing” restrictions run counter to the academic practices of professors and students: “We think that telling students they must destroy their course materials is simply not an acceptable practice; educators usually hope that students will refer back to materials from courses they have taken” (192). Under the 2012 Copyright Act and a large number of university policies, any circulation of a lecture recording beyond the community of registered students or following the end of the term in which the course was offered is a form of piracy, the unauthorized reproduction and circulation of copyrighted material.

From an article in the Times Higher Education to a Reddit forum, every single discussion of the implementation and evaluation of lecture recording in the classroom focuses on its pedagogical aspects. The availability of lecture recordings allows students to review and understand complex material, while instructors are able to facilitate a more dynamic lecture experience and generate produced-for-digital content. The effectiveness of lecture capturing technologies are measured based on the number of views and downloads, with the average student spending 10-13 minutes playing recordings. Like the academic policies which focus solely on lecture recording as a pedagogical tool, these discussions fail to consider how recordings circulate beyond the classroom.

What are the “afterlives” of lecture recordings? How are captured lectures pirated, and circulated, beyond the classroom?

  • Videos and recordings of captured lectures persist on personal hard drives and on university servers. In some cases, these recordings are made public — to be accessed and downloaded by anyone.
  • Lecture recordings are leaked to media outlets, as in this case from 2010 where a lecture recording in which a professor accused a third of the 600 students in a Strategic Management class at the University of Central Florida of cheating on exams by studying with a publisher’s bank of test questions. The circulation of pirated lectures is most visible when picked up by the media and re-circulated.
  • Lecturers and institutions post captured lectures to video streaming platforms, in the interest of accruing cultural (and economic) capital. While in the case of conferences, special events, or over-large pre-requisite courses, these videos are simulcasts. Others are made available for unlimited viewing. This is also the model used by TED talks and universities which propose massive online courses, like MIT’s OpenCourseWare program.
  • Institutions will also archive recordings of keynote speakers and guest lecturers for future re-broadcast. At UMass Amherst, when a professor in the Department of Theater passed away unexpectedly, a teaching assistant was hired to play his recorded lectures for the remaining weeks of the term.
  • Lecture recordings are referenced and shared by students and faculty on online forums like this Reddit thread and this university FAQ section or on the personal blogs of faculty members.
  • Lecture recordings are also used by faculty for job applications and by departments as an unbiased measure of teaching performance.

Each of these activities violates the terms of personal use and ephemerality under which captured lectures were produced. As these materials circulate, they shift the relationship between academia and the media as third-parties have greater access to the knowledge produced by faculty — a diffusion of cultural capital traditionally held behind economic and institutional barriers. That being said, these “pirated” course materials are not universally accessible as the language and structure of most university courses requires a modicum of disciplinary literacy. To access a wider public, lecture recordings must be edited, translated and pre-digested in formats like the TED talk, three-minute theses, and news articles. For the most part, individuals and institutions circulate captured lectures to accrue cultural capital within and beyond academic communities.

At this juncture, mechanisms of cultural capital intersect with economic capital in the circulation of “pirated” course materials: accrued economic capital enables wealthy higher education institutions to publish and circulate digital materials, which enhances their cultural capital. As in the case of uneven access to academic publishing that Balázs Bodó describes in his article on the Guerilla Open Access movement, the natural and unproblematic discourse promoting freely circulated learning materials distributed by faculty under a public good rationale assumes an institutional equality that does not exist.

While digital recordings pose particular copyright issues that aren’t found in the circulation of lecture notes — as both makers and performers of recordings have intellectual property rights — the circulation of these recordings evokes issues of academic labor: if recording lectures falls under the “work for hire” loophole in US copyright, intellectual property then belongs to the employer (the institution). In an article on the ways lecture recording transforms academic labor, Mark Hayward notes that institutional expectations surrounding the production of lecture recordings affects academic labor in the present, by shifting the relationship between the lecture hall and the media. In the future, he warns, increasingly prevalent practices of lecture recording and circulation could affect long-term hiring decisions as universities invest in technological development in lieu of staff development (1753). With less than 18.6% of PhD holders employed as full-time professors according to a 2015 report by the Conference Board of Canada, that future moment may already be here.

In discussing the “afterlives” of lecture recordings as violations of university guidelines and copyright law, I seek to challenge the progressive and moralistic pedagogical rhetoric that dominates the discourse used by institutions, advocates, and critics. Both policy and evaluations of the technology err in their assumption that lecture recordings function as a uniquely pedagogical tool. At the same time, academic policy and “fair dealing” exemptions do not accurately describe their educational use. What’s at stake when we discuss the circulation of lecture recordings is the relationship between “fair dealing” exemptions and academic practices; the relationship between a knowledge sharing economy and measures that protect privacy and information; and the relationship between media, knowledge, and the public.

Works Cited

Bodó, Balázs. “Pirates in the Library: An Inquiry into the Guerilla Open Access Movement.” New York: Social Science Research Network. SSRN-id2816925.

The Conference Board of Canada. “Inside and Outside the Academy. Valuing and Preparing PhDs for Careers.” Report. November 2015.

Hayward, Mark. “Canned Courses: Lecture Capture, Podcasting and the Transformations of Academic Labor.” Communication Studies Faculty Publications (2011): Paper 9.

Johns, Adrian. “Piracy as a Business Force.” Culture Machine 10 (2009): pp. 44-63.

Murray, Laura & Samuel Trosow. Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide. Rev. second edition. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2013.

piracy, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2016. Web. 28 October 2016.

Wershler, Darren, Kalervo Sinervo, & Sharmon Tien. “A Network Archaeology of Unauthorized Book Scans.” Modern 2 (2013).

 

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-11-41-55-am
Posted on 2016/10/28 by

“This Web Ain’t Big Enough for the Both of Us”: On Web Sheriff and Anti-Piracy as a Business Force

I can still remember the pang of disappointment that accompanied the email. GirlAttorneys – or, in the du jour stylization of the time, GIRLATTORNEYS – a music blog that I had run with a couple of friends for close to a year, had been permanently shutdown by Blogger for one too many DMCA takedown notices. This was around the tail end of (what I have seen music forum obsessives recall anecdotally as) the “golden age” of music blogging, a post-Napster period that saw a perhaps unprecedented sharing of obscure and out of print music via the proliferation of blogspot domains – such as Experimental, Etc., Mutant Sounds, and Ghost-Capital – and the relative ease of use of digital file storage “cyberlocker” services like Megaupload, RapidShare, and MediaFire.

I had written some longform pieces for the site, but, by and large, we acted as other lower-level music blogs did at the time, posting links to recently-leaked and older favourite albums hosted on MediaFire. The DMCA takedowns that were our undoing came in quick succession in May 2010 for The New Pornographers’ Together and LCD Soundsystem’s This Is Happening, both hotly anticipated albums for that quarter in the independent music community, and that I had instantly posted in hopes of luring traffic to the site, and, hopefully, to my other turgid musings on 80s R.E.M.

The entity that served the notices to Blogger and took us down was the aptly named Web Sheriff, a still-functioning private content-policing service headed by longtime intellectual property lawyer John Giacobbi. Web Sheriff specializes in a “unique and successful combination of anti-piracy services, viral marketing and mass traffic re-direction [that] has been proven to dramatically increase sales and drive on-line traffic to official sites and promotions in huge numbers” (“Services”), and, in the years following my specific takedown, increasingly became known for its gentler approach to enforcement[1], aiming to differentiate between various forms of piracy – “ardent fans who can’t wait for an official release; techno-geeks who are out to show they can beat the system; and hard-core music pirates” (Lewis) – and treat them accordingly. Although, I should note, nothing about GirlAttorneys’ takedown felt indicative of a “fan-friendly approach” (Bruno), instead falling more in line with a certain sentiment expressed on the company’s “About Us” page in a (laughably simplistic?) metaphor: “this [garden analogy] is a very accurate analogy and many are the times when we’ve been called in and asked to help transform a ‘netscape’ from weeds to roses … and just as this is possible with real gardens, so too is it possible on the internet” (“About Us”).

Web Sheriff's signature letterhead. https://torrentfreak.com/images/web-sheriff-mistake.jpg

Web Sheriff’s signature letterhead.
https://torrentfreak.com/images/web-sheriff-mistake.jpg

The somewhat protracted point that I am leading to here is that there is a business of/to anti-piracy, and it is one that frequently isn’t acknowledged in our popular folk conceptualizations of piracy’s political economy. As Ramon Lobato and Julian Thomas argue, in their article, “The Business of Anti-Piracy: New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars,” this is largely a result of the narratives around piracy that we receive – and, at this point, inherit – from industry/trade group anti-piracy rhetoric. As Lobato and Thomas state, “[a] key strategy of content industry groups during their long war on piracy has been to associate copyright infringement with lost revenue for artists, producers, and media businesses” (606), which leads to, in turn, an understanding founded on “the model of a zero-sum economic redistribution between two camps—producers and pirates—with the latter cannibalizing the revenues of the former” (606).

As a now humorous example of this rhetoric at play, consider the Software Publishers Association’s 1992 anti-software-piracy video “Don’t Copy That Floppy.” In the video, MC d/p (short for Disc Protector), a “rapping, human version of DRM” (Crezo), interrupts two children in the process of copying a floppy disc game, and proceeds to lecture them on the computer programming industry’s viability and copyright law before throwing over “to some of the team” – a game designer, programming director, and senior programmer – who further explain the benefits of legally purchasing software while also giving a human face to those whose livelihood is harmed even “if [you] make a copy of this science program just to use at home” (“Don’t Copy That Floppy” 6:17-20). Although this example is dated at this point, it is worth reflecting on how this simplistic formulation still operates in contemporary contexts in ways that prove to be deeply unconstructive when attempting to grasp the intricacies of modern piracy economics.

Adrian Johns, in “Piracy As a Business Force,” urges us to see a through-line between the founding pirate radio broadcasters of 1960s Britain and modern-day bit-torrent piracy. In doing so, Johns proposes a different genealogy, as he says, “[t]he appropriate inspirations become not Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog, but Friedrich Hayek and – especially – Ronald Coase and their assaults on public media” (46). According to Johns’ research, “[Oliver] Smedley’s cohort saw in [pirate radio] the possibility for a thoroughgoing challenge to an entire political and economic system. Their Project Atlanta would begin by undermining information monopolies. Piracy for them was to be first a business force, then a cultural force, and finally a political force” (58). For the pirate broadcasters that Johns studied, then, we can say that piracy had a tremendous generative potential, as he demonstrates through careful examination of Institute of Economic Affairs tracts. Citing the examples of Allen Lane and John Bloom, the IEA tracts convey that, within this libertarian ideological framework, supposed “piratic” activity was conceived of as essentially unwanted innovation that challenges established monopoly interests.

Interestingly, what Lobato and Thomas explore in their work is the generative potential of anti-piracy as a business force:

a generative logic is at work in contemporary IP economies: piracy produces new anti-piracy enterprise, which in turn produces new informal workarounds for pirates, which generate new anti-circumvention responses, and so on. The pattern here is not leakage but dispersal, with commercial opportunities created in both the legal and extralegal spheres, leading to the consolidation of diverse and rapidly expanding lines of business around IP enforcement, policing, research, and technological prevention. (Lobato and Thomas 607 emphasis added)

As a result of this generative logic, in the contemporary digital context, perhaps we could say that MC Disc Protector has been able to incorporate and diversify, graduating from the spatial confines of a 1992 classroom desktop to the anarchic world of the web. Lobato and Thomas go on to examine what they term the “Four Sectors of the Anti-Piracy Industries” (610) – technological prevention, revenue capture, knowledge generation, and policing and enforcement – with the caveat that each industry sector may do work that is used by or that informs another. Each sector sees the problem of piracy differently, may offer different services/products to different markets, and have a different strategic aim. Web Sheriff figures in their typology – falling under the sectors of knowledge generation and policing and enforcement – because, as of 2012, the company was involved in P2P traffic measurement and in generating takedown notices.

Lobado and Thomas' "Four Sectors of the Anti-Piracy Industries 1995–2010" table from "The Business of Anti-Piracy: New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars," p. 610.

Lobato and Thomas’ “Four Sectors of the Anti-Piracy Industries 1995–2010” table from “The Business of Anti-Piracy:
New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars,” p. 610.

They then map a “formal/informal” economic differentiation onto the four sectors of industry, where the creative content industries are a level of largely formal production and distribution, the piratic industries are a level above and are informal, and the anti-piratic enterprises are, again, a level above and are largely formal (616). Intuitively, the (informal) piratic industries are entirely dependent on the formal creative content industries, and, analogously, the (formal) anti-piratic enterprises are entirely dependent on those (informal) piratic industries. Each anti-piratic industry sector has a different “rationale/formalizing strategy” for formalizing these informal piratic activities. For example, the revenue capture sector aims “[t]o create advertising markets from infringing traffic,” while the policing and enforcement sector instead has the objective of “creat[ing] law-abiding citizen-consumers to sustain returns on investment for content producers” (617). Lobato and Thomas’ model, therefore, more accurately reflects the complicated flows of capital in the digital economy in a way that helps us move away from overly reductive models predicated on the “zero-sum economic redistribution between two camps [producers and pirates]” (606). They summarize their approach by emphasizing its primary focus on the form of content/commodity as a basic unit of investigation: “We propose that another way of thinking about the economics of piracy is to begin with certain media products and practices and then track all the different kinds of income-generating activities that open up around them, as they cross back and forth between the formal and informal zones” (617).

What do we take from all of this? Piracy, itself, can be conceived of as a business force, in both the historical sense offered by Johns’ linking it to the IEA, and in terms of its contemporary economics, such as those treated in the Social Science Research Council’s influential Media Piracy in Emerging Economies. In addition, though, as Lobato and Thomas document, anti-piracy has also become a significant economic force with its own disparate sectors and strategic aims, often ones that may diverge from traditional litigation practices into grey areas where “[a]nti-piracy litigation is … not completely congruent with anti-piracy deterrence” (620), such as in their example of the practice of en masse speculative invoicing of “infringement” (618-20). What does this entail for us if we choose to study piracy? How might it influence or complicate research methodologies in ways that cause us to scrutinize information more closely? For example, now that we know that, in addition to industry groups like the Motion Picture Association of America or the Recording Industry Association of America, there may be other private corporate players who have a profit-motive interest in “knowledge generation” as it relates to public discourse around piracy, how do we remain vigilant in our scholarship regarding the information that we gather and use?

As Lobato and Thomas assert in their concluding section, “[r]ather than seeing the piracy wars as a David and Goliath battle between consumers and corporations, as per the liberal copyright reform script, or as the final crisis of informational capitalism, we also need to see them as driven by ad hoc commercial practice” (621). In following Lobato and Thomas I feel that any responsible scholarship on contemporary piracy should take into account this practice and its effects, and I think that, in doing so, we can continue to raise provocative questions about piratic activities and their regulation while remaining grounded in a clearer understanding of the political economy that underlies them.

[1] As a reflection of this approach, Helienne Lindvall makes mention in The Guardian of Web Sheriff opening a thread (that ran to 18 pages) on brainkiller.it, an unofficial fan forum for the electronic producer The Prodigy, back in 2009. Sadly, only a lone page of this thread remains cached on the Wayback Machine, but it still provides a fascinating glimpse of the “Sheriffian” ethos in action. The featured header image for this article is a screenshot of a Web Sheriff post from the thread.

Works Cited

Bruno, Anthony. “New Sheriff In Town: Anti-Piracy Company’s Shifting Tactics Reflect Market’s Pivot From Enforcement To Engagement.” Billboard, 9 July 2011: 8.

Crezo, Adrienne. “‘Don’t Copy That Floppy’: The Best Bad PSA Ever Is a Rap From ’92.” Mental Floss, 2 May 2014. http://mentalfloss.com/article/12561/dont-copy-floppy-best-bad-psa-ever-rap-92. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

Johns, Adrian. “Piracy As A Business Force.” Culture Machine 10 (2009): 44-63.

Lewis, Randy. “Piracy watchdog’s mild bite: Web Sheriff prefers to persuade, not prosecute, music fans.” Los-Angeles Times, 9 June 2011. http://articles.latimes.com/2011/jun/09/entertainment/la-et-web-sheriff-20110609. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

Lobato, Ramon and Julian Thomas. “The Business of Anti-Piracy: New Zones of Enterprise in the Copyright Wars.” International Journal of Communication, 6 (2012): 606-25.

Software & Information Industry Association. “Don’t Copy That Floppy.” YouTube, uploaded by SIIA Anti-Piracy, 2 Apr. 2009, www.youtube.com/watch?v=mkdzy9bWW3E. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

Web Sheriff. “About Us.” Web Sheriff: Creative Protection, 2016. http://www.websheriff.com/about-us/. Accessed 25 Oct. 2016.

—. “Services.” Web Sheriff: Creative Protection, 2016. http://www.websheriff.com/services/. Accessed 25 October 2016.

 

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