an archive of Steve Anderson's dossier and blog 2005-2014

New Beginnings

Zemeckis Media Lab


It is not without ambivalence that I symbolically draw to a close this decade-long chapter in my personal-academic history by declaring this to be my final post that will appear on Technohistory.net. I started “blogging” as we learned to call it, in 2005 when I was a newly appointed Assistant Professor in the Interactive Media division of the USC School of Cinema-Television. Although a decade does not seem very long in institutional years, all of those names have now changed. Interactive Media added “& Games” to its title and “Cinema-TV” became the more inclusive “Cinematic Arts.” At the time of my appointment, I had already been at USC for ten years, first as a graduate student in the Film, Literature & Culture PhD program, then as a post-doc at the Institute for Multimedia Literacy and Annenberg Center for Communication. FLIC (as we called it) and the Annenberg Center are both long gone and the IML persists in name only, having morphed into the school’s division of Media Arts + Practice.

This blog initially served as an extension of my teaching efforts in Interactive Media and the IML. The online culture of IMD was incredibly vibrant then, and I still remember the trepidation with which I committed individual posts to my personal blog space. Scott Fisher’s community blog architecture allowed posts to appear both on an individual’s page as well as on the central blog for the division, creating an extraordinarily dynamic sense of shared discourse and communal dialogue. Remarkably, this also served as the division’s only public web presence, providing a real-time glimpse of the research, projects and interests of students and faculty that was visible in its raw state to funders and prospective students alike. I used to close my eyes before hitting the “Publish” button, knowing my words and images would appear not only on the web but also on the 16-screen, 270 degree surround projection space of the Zemeckis Media Lab, where most graduate courses and division meetings took place. Both the community blog and Fisher’s experimental research-pedagogy space are no more. Of course the division still has a website and lots of projectors (and even more game consoles!), but the ZML, which was dismantled when the division moved to its new home on the main USC campus, continues to symbolize for me a particular moment in my intellectual and professional life as well as the life of the division. There is still occasional talk of resurrecting the ZML in our new building, of convincing some industry benefactor to fund the hanging of dozens of projectors or gigantic plasma screens around the room, but I remain ambivalent about this prospect. Some things are best consigned to the safety of memory when their moment has passed.

This blog’s domain, “technohistory,” is also tied to my nearly decade-long book and media project, Technologies of History. I remain quite proud of this project and its interconnections with the numerous projects – some that have been allowed to fade; others that are more vibrant than ever – documented here. But this, too, has been replaced by my current project Technologies of Cinema and, along with it, a new – albeit derivative – domain, “technocinema.” Whereas Technohistory evolved into an essentially promotional and presentational space, Technocinema was conceived as a public extension of my research in three modes: text scholarship, video essays and interactive archives. For this project, I now have the extreme good fortune of a year-long fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, which is allowing me to pursue these three strands without much interruption. I had initially thought of maintaining Technohistory as a more personal space for reflection, as well as the professional archive it has become (though I confess to having lost the will to continually repair the broken image links that plague earlier posts). But all things considered, it’s time, I think, instead, to declare a new beginning. In the words of Sartre’s Garcin, “Well well, let’s get on with it…”

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Why I Gave Money to Lawrence Lessig’s MAYDAY SuperPAC (and probably will again)


The convention these days, after giving money to an online fundraising campaign, is to declare the contribution to your social networks via an automatically generated message that says something like, “I just supported Lawrence Lessig’s MAYDAY Citizens’ SuperPAC and so should you.” People who know me know that I’m a cheapskate and I don’t like giving money away. I also feel ambivalent about the generic tone of those messages and the immodesty of announcing one’s generosity, none of which seems conducive to getting others to donate. So I wrote this instead.

I have not always agreed with Lawrence Lessig. Only a decade ago his all-too-often-repeated assertion that “fair use is the right to hire a lawyer” was actively damaging to the cause of fair use advocacy. His support instead for licensing via Creative Commons, while brilliant and necessary, did nothing for those who wanted to exercise their rights to appropriate, remix and critique commercial media. As much as I respect the middle ground carved by Creative Commons, we should make no mistake: it is the opposite of fair use. While CC licenses offer an alternative, primarily for independent artists who want more nuance in distributing their work, it leaves copyright law and wide swaths of permission culture intact.

It was not until his 2008 book Remix that Lessig attenuated his disdain for fair use in order to position remix as a kind of fundamental democratic right. But the damage had been done; well-funded lobbying campaigns by the MPAA, RIAA and others have left fair use haunted by fears of litigation, even among those who are doing precisely what the doctrine is meant to protect. Lessig’s change of heart on fair use came as a revelation and a validation. He also advocated making a distinction between fair use and “free use,” with the former reserved for commercial uses and the latter to enjoy a litigation-free zone for amateur and non-commercial makers. But that kind of legislative change could only be made by rational lawmakers who are not controlled by moneyed interests. In any case, it was shortly before the Remix book appeared that Lessig announced he would no longer focus on copyright issues in order to turn his attention to political corruption in Congress.

I confess to feeling abandoned by Lessig’s shift of focus at the very moment when fair use seemed at last to be gaining ground. Pat Aufderheide and Peter Jaszi of American University’s Center for Social Media — now the Center for Media & Social Impact — had published their first two game-changing Codes of Best Practices in Fair Use, and I had just launched my own fair use advocacy network, Critical Commons (so named in homage to Lessig’s Creative Commons organization). But the fight was far from over.

Jaszi and Aufderheide convinced me that the *last* thing we wanted was for Congress to reform copyright law. In such an event, moneyed interests (aka “stakeholders”) would descend on Washington in even greater numbers than usual, ensuring that whatever might get etched into law to clarify and quantify fair use would inevitably be worse than the current situation. Ironically, it is precisely the absence of clarity that opponents of fair use most often bemoan, while others (me included) prefer the elasticity of the current system, specifying not numbers or percentages but reasonable limits based on what is needed in order, simply, to make one’s point. At the end of the day, it’s bad enough to have some Federal courts making such determinations, but Congress — as it currently is — would certainly be worse.

Admittedly, I am a single-issue voter on the subject of fair use and Lessig has not always backed the positions I most strongly support. Even his reformist rhetoric has always conceded the “necessity” of an industry-friendly model for copyright (it’s easy now to forget that the original goal of copyright was to *encourage* creativity). Lessig has also consistently opposed the tactics of copyright opponents who have been pushed by the extremes of “anti-piracy” campaigns to engage in what can rightly be termed electronic civil disobedience. While politicized remix artists, hackers and organizations launched frontal assaults against Hollywood’s most aggressive litigants, Lessig remained unequivocal on the subject: Every time the law is broken, and these prosecutions are justified, he argued, “We lose.” His legal reasoning was impeccable, as always, but I wished for greater solidarity with those who were placing themselves on the front lines of they copyright wars. Surely the history of legal reform in this country validates the actions of individuals who engage in civil disobedience and it is incumbent upon those of us who support the cause from the comfort of our academic appointments to watch their backs when the need arises.

As we learned from the tragic death of Aaron Swartz — which began with a quintessential gesture of electronic civil disobedience — life is too short and the opposition too ruthless not to act when we have the opportunity. Now it is Lessig who is placing himself on the front lines of a daunting struggle against big money in politics. He deserves our respect and support as a public intellectual, a man of action, and a person of integrity — which is not the same as saying we should always agree with him. He is also one of only a handful of people who I can imagine undertaking — to say nothing of winning — a frontal assault on political funding that favors corporations and the super-rich. It is not without irony that he proposes playing by their rules in order to change them — a SuperPAC to end (literally) all SuperPACs.

If we believe, as I do, that the transformation of copyright is a struggle that must be waged on multiple fronts — cultural, technological, legal — then it is not okay to concede the realm of lawmaking to those who can afford to buy influence among legislators. The position I once held — that copyright reform in Congress would inevitably be disastrous — represents an unacceptable concession to the very corruption the MAYDAY PAC aims to address. Lessig’s strategy — playing the game of money in politics in order to *change* the game of money in politics — I now understand to be another way of watching the backs of those who are moving the struggle forward in other arenas.

I just supported Lawrence Lessig’s MAYDAY Citizen’s SuperPAC and so should you. <Make a pledge>

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Public intellectuals and open data


Last week, Tara McPherson and I presented a Scalar workshop in Henry Jenkins’ Public Intellectuals class at USC Annenberg, mapping our own traversals of the academic and non-academic realms going back to the launch of Vectors in 2005. We each agreed to show one Vectors project as a precursor to the hands-on demo of Scalar, which Henry asked his students to use to create their own prototype scholar-activist projects. I chose Trevor Paglen’s Unmarked Planes and Hidden Geographies, an easily overlooked project from 2006 designed by Raegan Kelly and programmed by Craig Dietrich. Paglen’s project was created while he was still a graduate student in Geography at UC Berkeley, devoted to mapping the contours of the military-industrial complex. An offshoot of his dissertation research that would become the books Blank Spots on the Map – The Dark Geography of the Pentagon’s Secret World and Torture Taxi – On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights, Paglen’s project used a combination of reverse surveillance tactics including long-range telephotography and a prescient form of data mining that allowed him to identify the flight paths and schedules of the planes used for black-ops and extraordinary rendition. Even so-called “torture flights” have to be charted by the FAA in order to control air traffic and Paglen’s project cleverly scraped the publicly available FAA flight data, using the absence of standard plane identifiers (tail numbers) as a means to reveal those flights that are supposed to be hidden from public scrutiny. Paglen’s insight in 2006 eerily prefigures current revelations about the utility of metadata as a means of tracking behavior and suggests the need for more instances of reverse surveillance if our democracy is going to survive.

For me, though, the real moment of revelation came as I was pontificating about my own project’s “innovative” commitment to “researching in public.” Tara commented blithely that I was basically doing a Humanities version of the kind of open data research that is increasingly standard practice in the Sciences. The sharing of data sets, now mandated for many publicly funded research projects in the Sciences, indeed closely mirrors my own hopes for the Technologies of Cinema archive – that the collection of media (currently 400+ media clips) that I have been amassing in Critical Commons will be found and used by others to perform parallel or, indeed, divergent projects using this public “data set.” As with their comparatively welcoming attitude toward collaboration and commitment to accelerated publication timelines, it turns out that we in the Humanities can once again learn from our colleagues in the Sciences.

Tara went on to offer a deliberately provocative metaphor for traditional archival research that does not aspire to openness, describing it as “vampiric.” Part of the goal of the ANVC’s development of archive partnerships around Scalar is to transform the relationship between scholars and archives, enabling a more bidirectional mode of interaction. Instead of scholars who make “their” discovery in some dusty corner of the archive, extracting what they need and hoping that no one else finds the same materials before they publish, a long-term goal of Scalar is to allow for two-way linkages between the contents of electronic archives and their treatment in scholarly publications. Instead of sucking archives dry, such a circuit of knowledge production and (re)distribution stands to benefit both archives and researchers of the future. Another way to think about this is the transformation of scholarly work from being its own “content” to serving as “metadata” attached to original sources in the archive. While the Scalar team continues to develop the technical and human infrastructure needed for this transformation, the conceptual architecture of open data and public intellectualism offers an equally important foundation for its recognition within the academy.

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