Sunday, January 16, 2011

Some of what happened at World's Fair Use Day

(Hi all you coming over from the wikipedia 10th anniversary party page! check the sidebar for links to mixes of mine or my musical philosophy such as it is. below is a recap of an event I was part of in DC last week)

Thursday was World's Fair Use Day, which I celebrated at a symposium thingy in DC, sponsored by Public Knowledge. And wow, it was a truly inspiring and entertaining time. For someone who is pretty cynical about the use &value of policy, that organization made me feel a ray of positivity --mostly for its insightful choice of people to bring into the room, and the free reign they gave to us to express what's important.

It was opened by the acting Register of Copyrights, who gave a basic rundown of some fair use cases that shape the fair use landscape. She also said some very positive things about fair use principles

Lawyers and policy people often overstate the way legal cases shape the actual landscape, maybe because legal cases are what they do all day... But since fair use now partly depends on how technology is designed, and mass-use technology is more susceptible to regulation by law because it is more visible to law, at least fair use that relies on networked technology is probably shaped more by law than it used to be.

Still, it's funny to hear what legal people call "history" since it's usually a history of DOCTRINE, not a real history - they describe a chain of logical argument based on a series of principles that change or refine over time. Contingency, the material world, power, social groups, political and ideological shifts in the culture, culture in general, people in general, doesn't seem to be present in many of these accounts.  This presents a vision of legal change and maybe even social change the suggests change is made by people making arguments in court. Which isn't very convincing to me.

But actually World's Fair Use Day itself shows that everyone in the room, even the Registrar, knows that's not the whole story either - we were all there in that room to tell stories about the material world, about the communities we are part of, about our politics, about culture, and about everyday life and the kinds of power we do or don't have in it. And we heard a lot of stories. (check the schedule here for the full breakdown of participants with links.)

The first panel was on remix and games, and the participants and moderator Josephine Dorado described the gaming landscape (which is much more diverse in terms of purpose and people than you might think), and the various ways they interacted with existing games to play or comment or create art. Almost as valuable as their arguments was the way they so clearly demonstrated the cultures around gaming - they had their own languages, their own jokes, and strong emotional attachments to games as part of their lives. Not in some sad, shut-in kind of way, but in the way that people are attached to fairy tales their parents told them, or a sports team they follow, or any other more broadly-accepted cultural practices.

The amazing Ben Sisto moderated a panel on visual arts which included several artists who engage with the internet in interesting ways. They all talked about their creative processes, which Ben bracketed with some philosophical objections to the premises of copyright law and a casual statement that "western capitalism just doesn't make any sense." (Will there be more on that later in the day? I didn't really wonder.) We got little windows into video game music, into fandom of particular games and overall, how games link together in people's memories and social experiences, which makes people want to literally link the games together with each other or with their own lives.

Aram Sinnreich gave the second keynote, which was partly based on his most recent book, and I was initially suspicious at what seemed like a familiar (history-less and abstract) concept like "mashup culture" or "configurable culture." But he actually engaged with the power issues in a more grounded way than most people who talk about this stuff. It's a pet peeve of mine the way many techies and lawyers appear to have discovered society for the first time now that it appears on the internet, and build grand theories out of behavior they observe online or through people's interaction with technology, without looking to see whether people acted that way before. 

The argument often goes: "before the internet, insert-sweeping-generalization about what social practices predominated in the world (!!!) or the country (!!) or even among artists (!) , based in whatever my personal experience is/whatever books I read in high school before I started studying tech/law/whatever.... and NOW, after the internet, IT'S ALL DIFFERENT." Sounds like someone describing their personal life story if they spent the years before 1999 awkward and unconnected from society and who found it easier to socialize online, so the internet revolutionized their personal ability to connect with people. Nice, but  all of society has not had the same trajectory. Sigh. So anyway a book titled "the rise of configurable culture" sets off all kinds of alarm bells to me (was culture rigid and unchanging before 1999?).

Since every person is part of multiple historical experiences, traditions and pre-existing institution, that should be accounted for in "before the internet." There are even entire fields of scholarship attending to these things! Like: history, sociology, ethnomusicology, art history, etc etc, from which one could start generating a vision of why and how people do what they do.  But I was pleased to see Aram show a lot more depth than most folks I see starting with those kinds of catch-phrases. Actually I was pleased to see an whole Jacques Attali-eesque riff on the relationship between musical culture and the social-economic organization of society!  Overall instead of "then vs. now" he kept leaning towards "certain institutions reflect and shape the power structures in society, and when once changes, it suggests the other is changing" which is wayy more my kind of argument, and made me much more likely to read the book.

Next was the panel I was on, featuring Kevin Driscoll moderating, and Das Racist as well. Man, it was fun. Das Racist did what they do best, which is be exactly who they are -not reducible to abstracts- but in a way that cuts through a lot of the bullshit abstractions that mask racial & economic power and that also lead to bland comfortable music. I tried to just cut in with my own experiences and my research from Jamaica in a similar way (although not as funny because next to those guys I don't even). It was hella lively, and Kevin did a great job of pulling out the randomness and reframing it, or pushing us to be more explicit when the crowd mighta been missing something. I think we kinda kicked ass. I even got one of the bigger spontaneous rounds of applause of the day! (I'll do an edited highlights post later)

Dj /Rupture's keynote took all of that to another level -and included a short dj set as well, speaking with music which I hope people took note of in itself: hey folks - music is in itself a kind of conversation, especially DJing where musical recordings are vocabulary not end products. He began by warming my heart: saying nearly word-for-word exactly the reasons why I love Jungle, when describing how an why he got into this music (in the same club I did, the Loft, at the same time, the early 90s). then he described what DJs do in an irreducibly social and creative way. And then on the subject of property he brought it, all the way back to slavery, and what it means to talk about ownership, and highlighting how much of the time we were talking about black culture and creative practices, or about power that is often racialized. (something that Das Racist and I both talked about - me more from a labor perspective and colonialism perspective, but that /rupture just laid out clear as glass and twice as heavy).

The last panel, on humor and fair use, lightened it up a bit, but not as much as you might expect. I was flagging a bit after the end of the day, but they talked a mile a minute about lolcats, 4chan, corporate reuse of images "from the internet" and lots of other entertaining bits and bobs. Kenyatta Cheese,  already my favorite from the knowyourmeme crew, was unexpectedly (to me, since I don't know his other work) militant not only on tech issues but around broader and more historical claims about race and power. However, overall I wasn't as clear on the definitions of "community" being used by the different folks on the panel. The lolcat/ cheezburger networks, 4chan, and other internet-based ways of participation were mostly discussed (there were lots of talk about DDOS attacks), but at the end I wondered what exactly makes those things communities and how do they relate to already-existing communities? Still, the stories were provocative and their depth of knowledge about law and tech issues was pretty impressive, and they are all funny, funny guys.

Overall, a great range of creative people, a lot of irreverence and deep thought and serious politics and creativity. And then there was ethiopian food, and good conversation till the wee hours. And then I flew back to SF  to dj at the wikipidia 10th anniversary party!

I'm sure more accounts of WFUD will crop up. I am going to do another post on specific highlights from  the day later. You might find your own, if you search the backchannel commentary running on Twitter. I wish I knew how to archive it chronologically. Check #wfud on Twitter or @laripley for my tweets, or search @laripley or djripley for others' responses to my tweets from the event.
What's the best way to archive and organize a cluster of tweets including a hashtag?

there's a video archive of the event up, and somehow it's missing ONLY our panel, as far as I can tell? story of my life.. still you can catch lots of goodness there.

Feel free to post further accounts or links to them in the comments!

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