Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Celibate ecstasy meets rock and roll revery

I'll be leading a discussion after a showing of the film "Rock My Religion," by noted American artist Dan Graham.  The movie compares the ecstasies of the Shakers to the reveries of 1950s - 1970s rockers.  Here's the poster.  If you're in New Lebanon in upstate New York the evening of  September 12, drop by!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Name the "Cene" contest -- Enter today!

                       Mammoths marching to protest the vile designation -- "Anthropocene"

As a way to express my bemused astonishment at the narcissistic attempt by techno-enthusiasts to name the current geological epoch "The Anthropocene," I recently suggested what I initially thought to be a sensible alternative, calling this world historic period "The Langdonpocene."  It has a nice ring to it, don't you think, and after all, I am definitely among those in the category "anthropos" identified in the ongoing branding campaign.  So I figure: Why not go all the way?

Unfortunately, there has been stiff resistance to my idea, angry emails and the like.   Some readers find it silly, pretentious and even offensive that I'd propose giving MY name to the dynamics and changes of the planetary eons now unfolding.  Upon further reflection I've decided the critics are right. "Langdonpocene" is just as absurd as "Anthropocene." Clearly, there's a need for further reflection.  

In that light I'm starting a contest:  Name the Cene.  

I invite any and all suggestions for the name that best characterizes the extended period of time that includes a significant slice of the recent past with anticipations of the thousands or millions of years ahead.  You may, if you like, designate the period -- as the "Anthropocene" crowd has done -- after the particular group or club of which you are a member.  In the era of the Internet, of course, many people will probably want to name this epoch after their cat.  I'm open to all proposals. 

Please enter your pitch for a suitable name in the Comments section below.  I'll tabulate the results and update this page occasionally.  We'll see if a firm consensus emerges. 

I'm sure it will be quite a "Cene". 

Monday, July 14, 2014

A Future for Philosophy of Technology - Yes, But On Which Planet?

[This is a talk I gave at the Society for Philosophy and Technology, Lisbon, July 2013.  It has now been published in a Chinese Journal, Engineering Studies, but here's the English version.]

A Future for Philosophy of Technology -- Yes, But On Which Planet?

By:  Langdon Winner
        Thomas Phelan Chair of Humanities and Social Sciences
        Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, New York

It is gratifying to see a once rather obscure topic of inquiry – philosophy of technology – become the diverse and vibrant field of study it is today.  Especially notable are several blends of social science, history and philosophy that scholars are cultivating at present.  Since I am not eager to suggest new pathways for those already at work on these interesting projects, I will simply point to a couple avenues that seem especially interesting and urgent to me.

1. Democracy and security

Within the domain of information technology and its relationship to the future of political society there are a many theoretical and practical questions that are wide open for study and speculation.  During the past several decades a steady flow predictions and practical programs have sought to clarify about the horizons of networked computing, some of them pointing to a new era of democratic participation.   

A common argument holds that inexpensive computing and communication in a variety of novel forms empowers everyday people, enhancing their capacity for self-government.  Over the years I have remained skeptical about claims of this kind.  Since the early 19th century there has been long litany of proclamations in the grand tradition of techno-utopianism about the politically redemptive power of the steam engine, railroads, telegraph, centrally generated electrical power, the automobile, radio, television, and other technologies.  Ideas in this vein often feature an underlying belief in a benevolent technological determinism accompanied by an unwillingness to raise questions about the steps needed to prevent the rise of obnoxious concentrations of economic and political power. 

In recent years, however, I have been encouraged by evidence of depth and substance in writings about the information and networks that suggest a strong possibility that ordinary citizens could actually be empowered by information networks.  Philosophical discussions of the Internet and of social networks now sometime include imaginative, coherent, well-argued, well-documented, and highly persuasive positions about the actual promise that information technologies hold out for community, public participation, democracy and social justice now and in the future.  Some notable advocates for these hopes have clearly moved beyond barefoot technological determinism and dreamy utopianism to specify concretely what the possibilities are and how they might be fully realized.  

A good example is the work of Yochai Benkler.  In  The Wealth of Networks and his more recent book, The Penguin and the Leviathan, Benkler observes that during the past 30 years or so the basic capital requirements of an information economy have shifted.  “The declining price of computation, communication, and storage have …placed the material means of information and cultural production in the hands of a significant fraction of the world’s population.”  Rapidly falling costs of technology support the rise of a “networked information economy” increasingly characterized by “cooperative and coordinate action carried out through radically distributed, nonmarket mechanisms that do not depend on proprietary strategies.”[1]  Benkler builds upon this basic argument to explore a variety of ways in which everyday people are using today’s information networks to rediscover the power of a cooperative economy and to fashion ways to revitalize participative democracy. 

In short, the recent contributions of Yochai Benkler, Lawrence Lessig, Robert McChesney and other thinkers offer detailed, forward looking arguments about possibilities the Net contains along with stern advice about what would involved in struggles to draw upon information technologies to create a more democratic future.   Aware of patterns that might proliferate in a networked society -- centralized, hierarchical, power oriented, ultimately oppressive, corporate structures – writings that defend a more open, more inclusive future have begun to offer alternatives to the well worn intellectual furniture used to buttress the old industrial model.   One such contribution is the deconstruction and reconsideration of the threadbare but still high venerated fictions known as “property” and “property rights,” recently resurfaced as “intellectual property” for faster transit on the information throughways of globalization.  A fruitful alternative, the new writings suggest, is to explore notions and practices of “the commons” in a world that now combines pervasive electronic connections with familiar cultural, economic and political institutions as well as humanity’s complex relationships to nature.  What is the status of things that should rightfully be shared in common?  Why must neoliberal obsessions with “property” and the imaginary of “free markets” dominate policy discussions when there are now robust alternatives?

At the same time, and in stark contrast to work on these hopeful, speculative themes, there have arisen new concerns about ominous patterns of corporate power now commanded by information giants – Google, Facebook, Apple, Microsoft, an others – especially the political character of their relationships to their everyday users.   The configuration of power and authority that characterizes these organizations now is very far from distributed democracy in which ordinary people are the beneficiaries of computer power.  Some Silicon Valley experts who study the new regimes of computer system security argue that the actual, emerging relationship in the era of “cloud computing” amounts to kind of feudalism in which powerless individuals seek shelter in a world of large information corporations that function as lords of the realm.   Ordinary, every computer users have no real power over firms that manage the data about them, but must somehow find ways to trust these companies to behave responsibly.[2]   Of course, the amount of data the large Internet firms have over one’s life and communications, the capacities for surveillance they command, suggests that such trust may not be justified at all    In effect, everyday computer users are reduced to the condition of techno-serfs, powerless participants in the Net who find themselves fully subservient to the new lords of the realm.

The situation is especially egregious in light on the military-security-industrial complex that has expanded so quickly during the years following the terrorist attacks in the U.S.A. of September 11, 2001.   In the spring of 2013 a wave of the stunning reports by Edward Snowden, former employee of the National Security Agency and its corporate contractors, revealed the extensive power of surveillance over US. citizens and elected leaders in the U.S., Europe and elsewhere around the world.  Backdoor channels that Google and other Internet giants have crafted with the N.S.A. make the phone calls, web browsing, email, and other Internet centered activities of everyone (not just suspected terrorists) visible to government authorities with little if any limitation or legal oversight.   Laws that supposedly protect the rights and liberties of citizens are regularly and secretly breached when it suits the purposes of a matrix that now blends government and corporate power. 

Although the relevant questions for philosophers are many and complicated, the basic question comes down to this.   Will the future be characterized by the open informational society imagined by today’s internet visionaries, or the closed, menacing information/security state that fills our newspaper headlines.  What kinds of political order are likely to emerge or ought to be crafted in ever advancing systems of information technology?  What kinds of limits should be strongly installed against insidious threats to our freedom?

The measures that legal scholar Alan Westin urged for privacy protection and recognition of citizen rights at the dawn of “the information society” decades ago were seldom if ever realized in practice.  Alas, his argument that people must insist upon a right to control the information gathered about their lives and activities is an insight that now seems a mere historical relic.

In this light, my suggestion would be that philosophers vigorously renew their speculation and argumentation about the political character of the networked society and the qualities of public life it contains.  Edward Snowden’s reasons for leaking what he’d learned about N.S.A. and corporate information systems are simple yet heart rending.  I don’t want to live in a world where everything that I say, everything I do, everyone I talk to, every expression of creativity or love or friendship is recorded. And that’s not something I’m willing to support, it’s not something I’m willing to build, and it’s not something I’m willing to live under. So I think anyone who opposes that sort of world has an obligation to act in the way they can.”[3]  

2.  Unthinkable changes

As I looked over the program for the Summer 2013 meeting of the Society for Philosophy and Technology I noted with great pleasure the range, diversity and quality of the topics the various scholars would be discussing.   But as I read the titles of papers as well as of some of the abstracts and essays, a gnawing question began to arise:  Upon what planet do today’s philosophers of technology think they  are living?  And in what period of human history do they imagine themselves to be involved? 

Trajectories of development within prominent schools of thought and in policy deliberations seemed familiar and yet strangely oblivious to some obvious emergencies that have powerfully surfaced in our time and that will surely disrupt the agendas of philosophical and social inquiry in the decades of the 21st century.  Much of philosophical thinking still quietly presupposes and leaves unquestioned basic underlying conditions of that have served as foundations for the rise and continuation of modern industrial societies.  

There now at least two general conditions that philosophers, STS scholars and world societies at large can no longer take for granted, ones that challenge us to ponder the distinct possibility that the advanced technological societies in which we live may soon be forced into paroxysms of drastic change.  One vastly important situation is our long-standing dependence upon the cheap, readily available petroleum that fuels virtually every function of our technological civilization.  Taking my own society as an example, America’s factories, homes, cities, automobiles, trucks, airplanes, and the rest all presuppose the primary condition of their creation, namely a steady supply of oil at roughly $20 a barrel.   That price threshold vanished many years ago, replaced a $100 or more price tag, a point at which the whole interconnected system begins to stall out.  No one likes to talk about it, but since the financial crash of 2008 the U.S.A has been essentially a no growth society.  While there are many reasons for this predicament, the price of petroleum is certainly a key determinant.  There is not much building going on in America, while profuse evidence of deterioration in crucial material and social systems, the nation’s infrastructure for example, is everywhere to be seen.

In my reading of the steady stream of reports on energy, economy and society, the peak in extraction of conventional fossil fuels has already been passed.  While there is now a modest boom in “unconventional” fossil fuels – tar sands, “tight oil” and natural gas from hydraulic fracturation (“fracking”) – the economic and environmental costs of such alternatives are daunting and their long term prospects highly uncertain at best.  Equally important, there are no cheap, easily installed replacements for the petroleum energy resources that have served as the foundation for industrial societies during the past century.  What we see today is a frantic stampede to grab what’s left of fossil fuel resources through deep sea drilling, “fracking” and dead end technologies.  This means that our grossly overpowered civilization faces a period in which it will be forced to power down rather soon and with astonishing rapidity.[4]

It is possible that this transition could offer highly favorable possibilities for human wellbeing – new ways of living more lightly on the earth, new forms of community and human relationships superior ones that have characterized the materialistic consumer society of recent decades.   Will philosophers have a role in exploring those possibilities?  For the time being it appears that although they are not in complete denial about the implications of the end of cheap fossil fuels, the basic perspective of most philosophers of technology remains that of business as usual, the expectation that our way of life will continue to chug along basically unchanged from patterns of the past two century.   

Along with a frank recognition of the many-sided energy crisis ahead, a second, closely related condition demands our attention.  The most fundamental functioning of modern technological societies depends upon the existence of a stable, favorable climate.  As most scholars surely recognize by this time, conditions of climatological stability that have favored the rise of world civilizations for the past 10,000 years or so are now undergoing rapid change caused by the warming of the Earth as a consequence of carbon gases released by human activity.   While estimates vary, the scientific consensus among a wide range of disciplines now points to global warming of 2 to 4 degrees Celsius or more by the end of this century, temperatures that bring monster storms, wicked droughts, floods, melting ice caps, rising seas, and other calamities often lumped together under the comforting term “climate change,” but better identified by English writer George Mombiot’s label, “climate crash.”

The science that supports such findings is truly impressive.  A decade ago, researchers predicted that melting ice in the arctic would shift weather patterns northward on the North American continent.  This would bring far less rain in the western states of the U.S.A. with persistent droughts and burning wild fires throughout the region.   Today that has become the new normal.

During the past two decades both the weight of evidence and intensity of warnings from climate scientists has increased.  As the research group Real Climate announced in 2009: “We feel compelled to note that even a “moderate” warming of 2°C stands a strong chance of provoking drought and storm responses that could challenge civilized society, leading potentially to the conflict and suffering that go with failed states and mass migrations. Global warming of 2°C would leave the Earth warmer than it has been in millions of years, a disruption of climate conditions that have been stable for longer than the history of human agriculture.[5] 

In short, both the impending energy crisis and climate crash will, with a high degree of certainty, produce a lengthy period of disruption within humanity’s most fundamental material, social, cultural, and political patterns.  Many of the institutions, practices, relationships, and beliefs that philosophers and social scientists are busily studying and reporting in their conferences and journals will be placed under severe stress (or worse). 

To dramatize their theories and speculations, philosophers sometimes talk about “ruptures” in historical thinking that their inquiries seek to describe.  Well, if you have a taste for rupture, there are a great number of them on the near horizon.  They present us with a wide range of challenging questions of which I can only mention a few. 

What kind of world will be or should be created in response to the extraordinary conditions humanity will confront?

What kinds of people and relationships will this world contain?

What will its basic institutions and technologies be?   What will become of the ideology of limitless expansion and techno-triumphalism that has characterized the longings of our political and economic elites in recent decades?

During the decades ahead philosophies of technology must somehow come to terms with extreme, ultimately physical ruptures for which we are now utterly unprepared.  Once again, as Cold War intellectuals advised, we must begin “thinking about the unthinkable.”  Unlike the situation presented by the specter of the atomic bomb, however, the world changing forces we must think about today are not possibilities buried in covert weapons silos, but realities already fully apparent to anyone who cares to notice.


[1]   Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006) p. 3.

[2]  Bruce Schneier, “You Have No Control Over Security on the Feudal Internet,” Harvard Business Review, June 6, 2013 []

[3]   Edward Snowden, full transcript of interview conducted by Glenn Greenwald and Laura Poitras, in the website “Mondoweis”  []

[4]    A good survey of the situation in energy can be found in the work of Richard Heinberg, especially his books The End of Growth: Adapting to Our New Economic Reality (Gabriola Island, BC Canada, 2011) and Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future (Santa Rosa, CA: Post Carbon Institute, 2013).

[5]  “Hit the brakes Hard,” editorial in the website “Real Climate: Climate science from climate scientists,” April 29, 2009  [

Saturday, June 07, 2014

Free Libre Open Knowledge -- FLOK Society research plan

For all those interested in the vision and research plans of the Free Libre Open Knowledge Society discussed at the summit on "Buen Conocer" in Quito this past May, here is a link to the FLOK Society's current research plan and its detailed, ambitious proposals for social, economic and political change.  I'm still digesting and pondering all of this.  It brings out the hopeful utopian in me.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Buen Conocer Summit of the FLOK Society in Quito

Session of the Free Libre Open Knowledge summit in Quito

I've just returned from the best conference I've ever attended. It was the "summit' of the Free Libre Open Knowledge FLOKSociety held in Quito, Ecuador. In recent times I've followed the free software, open source, open knowledge, open culture, new commons movement and its leading advocates. What happened in Quito was phenomenal: a gathering of activists, academics, pubic policy types, writers, hackivists, indigenous people, visionaries, etc. -- all mapping plans to take the "open knowledge" and the "new commons" approach into education, agriculture, new industrial production, public affairs, and other spheres of contemporary life.  Under the general label of "Buen Conocer," the event and the year of extensive research projects that preceded it were supported by the government of Ecuador. The next step is an attempt to realize at least parts of the vision mapped at the summit within that nation's public policies, perhaps becoming a model for other countries as well as they seek alternatives to the toxic forms of capitalism and old fashioned socialism that earlier centuries have left behind. 

There was a enormous amount of good energy and lively debate.   Unlike the dreary scholarly gatherings I sometimes attend, there was very little show boating and trade show self-promotion that academic conferences usually feature.  People seemed committed to making good ideas come to life in down-to-earth practical ways.

This site on the Resilience web page provides a good introduction and links for anybody interested. 

Here in Spanish, is the summit's site.  I was primarily involved in the "Open Data and Open Government" table ("mesa," shown below), skillfully moderated by Enrique Rojas, one of fourteen "mesas" where the issues were hammered out.  

I'll have more to say about this later as I ponder what I heard, saw and felt about it all, and as the results of the gathering emerge.  Evidently, this June will be a month in which the central organizers and researchers edit and publish the summits findings and recommendations.  The only newspaper reporter from the U.S. or Europe covering the scene was a fellow from The Guardian.  I spoke with him at length.  We'll see what he has to say about the deliberations. 

Monday, June 02, 2014

Video of my talk: Thinking Outside the Box IS the New Box

                                 The "god terms" of world societies have an "inherent potency"
                                                                                          - Richard M. Weaver

At the request of a group of Rensselaer students last May I delivered a Ted-ish "TALK" in a new series of short lectures by the university's faculty.  My topic was "Thinking Outside the Box IS the New Box."  You'll see that I poke fun at one of the untouchable sacred cows of our era. 

Now a video of my remarks has been released by Rensselaer along with the other lectures offered that afternoon. 

An illustrated transcription and Soundcloud recording of my presentation was prepared by RPI graduate students in the Department of Science and Technology Studies: Dan Lyles, Ben Brucato and Taylor Dotson.  Many thanks guys!                                                             

(No more Aspen for me.)

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Mysteries of "intellectual" property revealed

                                               Mario Savio arrested in an attempt to speak at a
                                               campus colloquium on The Free Speech Movement,
                                               U.C. Berkeley, fall 1964

The plot thickens on the shutdown of my lecture on the "Qatsi" films of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass and the influence of Jacques Ellul upon their themes, a little talk scheduled for the conference of the Jacques Ellul Society at Carleton University this July.

The messages from the university spokespersons have gotten increasingly stern, schooling me on the fine points of intellectual property practice in Canada nowadays.  Below in total anonymity once again are the latest messages to me with other identifying information deleted as well.   None of the writers has asked for confidentiality on the content of the messages and their names will not be part of anything I write about this debacle.  Actually, they are all very fine people and I don't blame them for what's happened.

  % % % % % % % % % %

[message from pseudonym "Fred" mentioned in previous post]

Dear .... If you read the law it is designed for creators...not just writers. Below is what the university has to say. Also, your interpretation of the writing situation isn't quite correct. Canadian copyright includes provisions concerning moral rights which aren’t concerned with lost revenue...but the right of a creator to have some control over where the creator’s work is used. As I understand it, this is one difference between Canada and the US. I demand that all my authors who use another author's work [quotes etc.] get permissions. What is interesting are the few cases where they are refused permission to use the work even if they are willing to pay. This typically occurs when one poet uses a small bit of another's work as an epigraph.  I’m sorry that this is upsetting to folks. This may be an issue of free speech, or it may be an issue of a creator’s right to have control of his/her work. If the person who wants to use the work knows the creator, as in this case, then there shouldn’t be any problem since the creator will give permission, no doubt. Moral rights may seem silly, but I know that many of my poets wouldn’t like to see bits of their poems on porn sites…even if the site host would pay. ....   Perhaps your suggestion is best, [name]... to just shift responsibility to you. This would require that the conference rather than [university unit X] be the host for the talk. Hopefully, my obviously absurd affronts and incompetence [in asking a simple question] won’t prevent Langdon from attending. .... Sorry about all the difficulties.

[message from another campus person the email writers consulted]
Hi ...
Generally guest speakers are responsible for clearing the copyright of what they present. I can give you some general information about copyright.   One of the questions here would be the length of the film clips, and to ensure that no digital locks were broken in creating the clips.

% % %%% %%

From Langdon:

Well, there you have it, folks.  Under the circumstances, I WON'T be going to Ottawa to give my talk. A lawyer friend and expert in the wiles of IP has now warned me about the troubles I might be getting into.  What interests me now is less the outcome of the current dispute, but something I've been wondering about for a long while, namely, the meaning of the beguiling term "intellectual property."

At this point it appears that at the national level there are legislators writing laws, bureaucrats crafting regulations, both probably responding to large corporations and trade associations that make sure their demands become part of a nation’s legal framework.  I imagine that at the university level there are lawyers who oversee which activities and resources are permissible on campus, advising academic departments and research units about the complicated conditions that now inform and constrain their inquiries.  At the end of the chain, I suspect, are timorous faculty required to observe the increasingly complex rituals of compliance that now comprise the center of academic life.  Hence, professors dutifully advise students to probe the key questions in sciences, the humanities and social sciences of the 21st century -- questions about the liabilities, law suits, insurance policies, restraining orders, and career threatening hazards their research entails.

An imaginary dialog:

“Do I dare to eat a peach?”

“Great question, Professor Winner.  Of course you’ll have to check the extensive legal implications and entanglements entailed in peach consumption or, for that matter, even talking publicly about peaches. And oh, by the way, wasn’t that  “peach” line you just used taken from T.S. Eliot?   His property management firm has been up in arms recently, challenging our proposed “Waste Management Systems” logo as an infringement of their global “Wasteland” trademark.  They may lodge a complaint. So it’s probably wise to delete that “peach” reference altogether. It might be prudent to change your question to:  Do I have the requisite authorizations to taste a small portion of an avocado without obtaining permission from the avocado producers?  That might work, for a little while longer maybe."

In the months ahead I plan to do a lot more research, thinking and writing on these matters.  For the moment, my simple, perhaps overly naive questions are these:

1. Is the regime of property protection now thoroughly installed in our institutions offensive to academic freedom, scholarly inquiry, political free speech, and open public debate?  Answer:  yes.

2. Does the current regime of property protection buttress the unequal economic and political power of corporations and the wealthy few in world societies while seriously weakening the power of possible critics of the system of Techno-capitalism?  Answer: yes.

3. Were my own rights of academic freedom and political free speech undermined by the property protection measures that now govern “the life of the mind” in Canada?  Answer: yes.

4. Are scholars, scientists and their students now being enlisted as thought  police in today’s property protection rackets?  Answer: yes.

To all of this I would only add that I’m looking forward to celebrating the 50th anniversary of The Free Speech Movement in Berkeley 1964, an event that changed my life and thinking profoundly.  Back then it was pressure of a ham-fisted political kind that challenged free speech and academic integrity on the university campus.  Students and faculty resisted and eventually won.  Today the threats are more subtle, insidious and likely more destructive in the long run.  Alas, the “intellectuals” have become front line troops in the war to defend the citadels of global capital.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Intellectual property? Where the hell are the intellectuals?

                                                  James Cagney in "White Heat" (1949)

Stop Me Before I Lecture Again!

There I was working quietly in my study when suddenly ...

I've been invited to give a talk at conference of the Jacques Ellul Society in Ottawa this July 13-15.   It should be a wonderful event.  I'd planned to give an illustrated lecture, "The 'Qatsi' Films of Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass," focusing upon the three films -- "Koyaanisqatsi," "Powaqqatsi," and "Naqoyqatsi" -- and the influence of Ellul's thinking upon their overall conception.  I've given the talk a couple of times before, using selected segments from DVD copies of the movies.  I offer my interpretation of the images and music, drawing upon key on themes in Ellul's writing.  The film clips are treated as, in effect, "texts" for philosophical discussion. 

Alas, as I was making travel arrangements and checking on the technical details of my talk, a strange cloud gathered over the plans.  Below is the email exchange with names changed (to "Fred" and "Prof. Williams") to protect the two fine Canadian scholars who were unfortunately bearers of bad news from the Carleton University pettifoggers. 

    % % % % % % %  

Hi Langdon,

  Just one further question. The university is very concerned with intellectual property rights. I'm assuming you have permissions to use the clips. In case someone asks, however, could you confirm. Thanks. 

    % % % % %

Dear Fred,

No, and I won't bother to get them.  I take this to be fair use for
scholarly purposes and public discussion.  I've given the talk
informally at conferences and on university campuses with no problem,
simply pulling out the clips from the DVD. The only thing I'm doing
differently here (as opposed the Wheaton College version) is to smooth
the transitions by editing segments into a flow easier to sequence with
my lecture remarks.  But if the bean counters are worried, the lecture
will have to be cancelled.

It that happens, it certainly will make a great story I can tell at a
conference on Free Libre Open Knowledge I'll be attending in Quito next
Best wishes,

                     % % % % % % %

Dear Professor Williams,

Could be lights out.

See Fred's  message … and my response.

Best wishes


         % %%%

Hi Langdon,
I agree with your approach. This is a non-paying audience, and you are using clips to illustrate your points, not to act as a substitute for the films. In fact, your presentation can be expected to attract people to a film by the same film-makers. If I were Godfrey Reggio or Philip Glass I'd be very happy with what you are doing.

A request for permission may be interpreted as a request for permission to go beyond fair use, and if such permission is refused what do you do? If the idea was fair use from the start, why would you have to ask?
I hope this gets resolved quickly and in your (our) favour. The University's Film Studies department must have dealt with this question before and I could ask them about their practice.

Professor Williams

 % % % % % %

Hi all,

I am looking into this. As I understand things, Canadian and US copyright law differ on fair use. When used in Canada, Canadian law applies. I don't want to have to deal with permissions, but the university insists that we are responsible for applying copyright.



  % % % % % %

Dear Fred,

I await the results with baited breath.  Meanwhile the story is already the source of great guffas among those preparing for the Summit on Free Libre Open Knowledge in Quito at which I'll be speaking next week.  Open Culture, Open Knowledge indeed!

Even if cleared for takeoff, I seriously doubt I'll attend the Ottawa conference after this absurd affront.

By the way, I receive a credit in the first of the Qatsi films and have known Reggio for decades.  I'm sure he'll be amused when he hears that I'm unable to describe, interpret and reflect upon his work in a free, public forum.

Best wishes,

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 
Note (May 22, 2014)

I will supply updates on this situation if the anything changes or if sanity breaks out.  This is the best (worst) personal experience I've had with the insidious consequences of "Intellectual Property" regimes for scholarship and public debate.   

May 23, 2004:  Here are the latest points of clarification.  Evidently there is a new "Intellectual Property" law that has some noble purposes but with annoying consequences for the life of the mind.   I have edited the message below from the  pseudonymous "Professor Williams," excluding parts of the message that point to the person's identity. 
  * * * * * * *

Hello all,
The new copyright law in Canada was designed to protect writers, who generally don't get paid well, in contrast to educators who generally get a decent salary. All too often, excerpts from books have been used in courses and the writer, whose chapters would be reproduced, got nothing. The idea was that just because the purpose is education it doesn't mean that the writer should not be compensated.
The situation with Langdon is very different, in the way I described in my last letter. Far from ripping off the movie-makers, he is providing his own valuable content and encouraging his audience to acquaint themselves with their works. Indeed, we are renting "Visitors" for that very purpose.  The movie-makers should be happy. 
The Canadian copyright law is rather complicated, and bean-counters with less of a concern for the overall knowledge exercise will naturally be conservative. Their natural instinct is to rein professors in, since they are concerned with financial risk-reduction and a lawsuit is one of those lose-lose situations (even if you win, you lose with your legal costs). What we, as educators have to do is to look at the larger picture of what the spirit of the law is, and how we can accommodate our work to it without jeopardizing our own mission.
Lawyers and administrators are not likely to be helpful. I suggest just going ahead ..
  * * * * * * * * * *
Langdon's comment: 
Well At this point I think I'll go ahead an give the damn presentation, intellectual property crimes and 
all.  However, it will now begin with the following introduction, offered James Cagney style: 
"Come and get me coppers!  You ain't takin' me alive!  The only way 
I'm gonna stop is when you rip these lecture notes from my cold dead 


Friday, April 11, 2014

Hitler finds out he's not admitted to Design program

Recently, in my class on Design, Culture and Society at Rensselaer, we've been talking about humor and creativity.  I made the classic argument that a joke or comic expression of some kind typically springs forth when two or more seemingly unrelated frames of meaning temporarily collide to produce a laugh or a smile.  The larger point is that creativity in a much broader sense can also happen during collisions of that sort.  I noted that in New York City and elsewhere there are literally boiler rooms where talented people sit around every day engaged in crafting these events, writing and testing dozens of amusing lines for the comedians on late night television shows.  As I understand it, they start with the daily news and start exploring points of connection, an odd variety of mass production.

With these thoughts in mind,  I happened upon a version of the famous Internet gag, the "Hitler finds out" program, one that lets anybody write subtitles for a scene lifted from an old movie about Hitler's last day in his bunker in Berlin.  There are probably thousands of versions of this on YouTube.  So I decided to produce one for the class, "Hitler finds out that he's not been admitted to the Design, Innovation and Society program" at RPI.  I included several in jokes from the semester, for example a reference to the three weeks we spent reading and discussing Jeff Wiltse's wondeful book, Contested Waters, a history of swimming pools in the USA.  The script took all of 20 minutes to write and, alas, includes some typos. (You get what you pay for.)

I showed the clip yesterday with brief introduction that took note of the fact that young Adolf Hitler desperately wanted to become a painter, applying twice to an important school of art in Vienna and twice rejected.  I noted that in some ways his dreams matched their own -- the desire to become a successful designer and artist.  "Looking back on it now, it may have been one of the most calamitous turning points in the 20th century.  Think of all the destruction, suffering and slaughter that might have been prevented if only young Adolf has been admitted to art school."  I then observed that "a little known (very little known) fact is that Hitler applied to a forerunner of the program in which you are studying in at Rensselaer." 

Of course, the humor in all of these "Hitler finds out..." clips stems from the fact that most Americans can't understand a word of the German the actors on the screen are speaking and the fact that watching Hitler rant and rave about matters from our own time, ones  disconnected from World War II, from the Holocaust and other calamities, produces effects that are sometimes funny.

Here's the clip: Hitler finds out he's not admitted to the Design, Innovation and Society program

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Stop the corporate coup at Medialab-Prado!

I recently received word that one of the world's most positive and influential centers for the confluence of artistic, technical and political ideas is threatened by a corporate takeover of its building and its very mission.  Medialab-Prado in Madrid has long served as a haven for inventors, thinkers, tinkerers, community activists, students, international visitors, and ordinary citizens.  Over the years it has offered countless workshops, conferences, planning sessions, displays of public art, free wheeling debates, and all manner of lively, ground-breaking activity.  Now the city officials who control the building it occupies have hatched a scheme to turn over its space to a huge telecommunications firm and send the Medialab staff and participants to God knows where.

I first got to know the Medialab in the summer of 2010 while I was visiting Spain on a Fulbright Fellowship, studying how the Internet was changing Spanish politics.  The very best help I received  in finding people to interview, documents to read and events to monitor came from key people at Medialab-Prado. A high point was a dialog one evening in which Yochai Benkler, Javier Bustamante and I discussed the substance and significance of Benkler's ideas about the networked economy and networked public life.  Since that summer I've returned frequently and watched Medialab-Prado grow and expanded its reach into a great many of the 21st century's most vital and hopeful spheres of exploration.

At present I'm trying to learn more about what seems to be a diabolical plot to shove Medialab-Prado and its participants into the dark shadows now enveloping much of the global economy.  I want to scream: "STOP THIS!  STOP THIS FOOLISH SCHEME NOW!"  I know it will take much more than that.  Will you lend a hand in investigating, protesting and seeking alternatives to these hideous, unfolding plans?  Let's get BUSY!

Below is the best information I have, a long message from Jose Luis de Vicente forward to me by the noted historian, Antonio Lafuente

 - Langdon Winner

  * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *


Dear Friends, 

Probably many of you have already heard about the serious problems that Medialab Prado is undergoing currently that threatens to stop the activity of the center and maybe, in the mid term, it’s very existence. I know many of you have in the past years taken part in projects and activities there, and have good memories of the institution. Even those of you who have not been there have heard about it and know it’s an interesting, lively place that has made significant contributions to this community. Now it needs as much support from the community as possible to go on. 

What it’s going on?

Less than one year ago, Medialab Prado opened, after 5 year of renovation and 6 million Euro of public investment, a brand new building. A new facility that multiplies the size of the previous space by eight and creates all kind of new opportunities, with much better resources.  While the previous space kept the organization relatively under the radar for many in the city council, the new building is really iconic  and has raised the profile of the organization considerably. 

Recently we have learned that major telecommunications multinacional Telefónica is looking for a building in Madrid to set up its new startup incubator and has expressed interest in the Medialab Prado building. The City Council, always eager to please, has considered the request and has acknowledged in public that they are under negotiations to satisfy this request. The implications for Medialab Prado are, obviously, quite serious. While they insist in theory on keeping their support for the institution, the reality is that:

- they have not made a firm offer of a new space that is already available and in the right conditions to continue the program with no major disruptions
- they have not committed to invest any resource in allocating the center in a new space
- they have not guaranteed that any transfer could be done promptly and without a long transition that could stop the activity in the center for many months

The reality is that Medialab Prado could be stuck in a limbo for a very long period, and any development from the possible eviction onwards is at this point very uncertain. The community of users of Medialab Prado has serious concerns that this could start a process that could end with the death of the institution.

To make things worse, it’s important to notice that the building that Telefónica wants to take over has been renovated with public money and with the specific goal of being a cultural facility. 

How can you help? 

We need to show the City Council in clear terms that Medialab Prado is an important institution that is highly respected and valued internationally. One of the most ironic aspects of this situation is that given the problems they’ve always had to understand what is Medialab Prado -not being a museum, a gallery, or an arts production center- they have never been understood that this is one of the most influential and valued cultural institutions today in Madrid and Spain. 

There’s no one better than you to help us to make them understand how important is protecting and preserving the valuable role that Medialab Prado has played in the last ten years. For this, we are requesting any of this three things:

1. A statement or blog post in your own website explaining why you appreciate and value the role of MLP and showing your concern for how the current situation could threaten it. We will link to it and translate it from the website of support we are currently setting up, that should go live in the next hours.

2. For those of you with affiliations with universities, museums or companies, a signed letter of support with the logo of your organization. If you can send it to me I will get it into the website and also printed to send them all together to the City Council.

3. A short video that we can embed in the website, offering your support. Here are some videos from 1 year ago -before the crisis started- that can be used as a model:

That is all. If you have other suggestions or contributions, please let us know. Thanks for helping us keep Medialab Prado alive.


Jose Luis de Vicente