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<nettime> Interview with Warren Sack
Trebor Scholz on Tue, 25 Jan 2005 03:36:50 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Interview with Warren Sack

Interview with Warren Sack on New-Media Art Education
by Trebor Scholz

TS: In a recent interview members of kuda (new media center, Novi Sad)
addressed the lack of non-proprietary software in the corporate world.
But nevertheless, kuda strongly opts for open source / free software in
education as:

"The cadre of designers and programmers that relies on proprietary
software to find a job, is no different than the Fordist proletarian
subject but without proletarian consciousness. We can link the ideas
around software to Marx=B9 notions of the necessity for the proletariat
to own the tools it uses= .  As of now, software and hardware tools are
in not in our hands."

There are examples of universities in the U.S. that are in the process
of entirely switching to open source software. How do you see
possibilities fo= r open source in an American academic context?

WS: As implied by Kuda, this is both a question of consciousness-raising
an= d also of functionality.  There are specific marketing and
litigation strategies of disinformation that are actively undermining
the necessary consciousness raising. These strategies of disinformation
are similar to th= e ones big media and big industry have been using for
at least a century: the= y are strategies of "seamlessness."  By this I
mean that powerful interests want you, the consumer and citizen, to
ignore the seams that articulate the parts of computers and networks
together. A perfect example of this, right now (December 2004), is AOL's
current marketing campaign.  AOL assures us, in television ads, that
they can create "a better Internet."  This is willful obfuscation.  The
Internet -- as a net of nets -- is, by definition= , outside of the
control of a single entity: AOL can't change the Internet even if it
wants to. But, what AOL wants people to believe is that AOL is the
Internet. And, from personally experience, I can tell you that many lay
people think this is the case.  When, for example, I've demonstrated to
novice users who have AOL accounts that they can "see the Internet" from
a standard browser that is not the AOL technology, they have been rather
shocked.  To them it is seamless: there is no difference between AOL and
th= e Internet.  This serves AOL's interests because people are then led
to believe that there are no other alternatives. Another good example of
this was Microsoft's -- legal claim of a few years ago -- that their
Windows operating system and the Internet explorer web browser were
inseparable: that one could not be shipped without the other.  (Or,
Microsoft's current run-in with the EC courts contending that its
Windows Media Player is integral to the Windows operating system.)  This
turned out to be technically trival to prove to be false -- the
application and the operatin= g system can be separated -- but the U.S.
Justice Department must have spent = a pretty penny to convince the
judge in charge of the case.  So, my point is this: to propose open
source as an alternative within any given work contex= t requires some
amount of consciousness raising that is being actively worked against by
large concerns that would like the public to believe -- not just that
their products are "better" -- but that no alternatives exists. But,
then there is also the issue of functionality: open source software is
frequently designed and implemented by experts who have little or no
insigh= t into what non-programmers might need or want. Setting up and
maintaining a Linux server, installing an open source database system
like Mysql, using open source alternative's to commercial software
(e.g., Open Office), etc.  can be a hassle even for those of us who are
experts.  In fact i do not hav= e anything against non-open source
software by companies that build solid tools and do not engage in
disinformation campaigns. Unfortunately, it is usually the companies
engaged in disinformation that also build lousy software.  There is a
crafty business rationale for doing this, for making your customers your
alpha testers: the company saves on quality control personnel and also
gets customers to check in with them frequently.  "Staying in touch"
with your customers by having them check in with you every week to patch
the lousy software is unethical, but effective for fostering a relation
of dependence. Any strategy to adapt open source software should take
into account the fact that some commercial software is a nice complement
to open source software.  For example, working with Apple= , Macromedia
and Adobe software is usually a pleasure: they write solid, easy-to-use
software that doesn't need to be patched every second day.  These are
good complements because (1) They do something better than open source.
For example, one could use Gimp to edit digital photos, but Gimp is
ultimately a good but imperfect attempt to mimic Adobe Photoshop.

(2) Such software comes from companies that build on top of open source
software, work in coalitions to establish common, non-proprietary
standards= , and who work hard to provide alternatives -- rather than
fighting for absolute dominance and the elimination of alternatives. One
must also keep in mind that open source is not anti-corporate. When
Richard Stallman's notion of free software gained a wider interest, the
principles and "open source" corporation-friendly moniker was
established to differentiate it from Stallman's more radical idea of
"free software."  IBM and other large companies are now heavily invested
in, develop and critically depend upon open source software. So, my
answer is yes, universities have a lot to gain by moving some of their
business to open source software.  But, I don't think there are good
open source alternatives for all categories of software. Actually it is
good to remember, conversely, that there are non-commercial alternatives
to several crucial categories of open source software, categories that
are the foundations, the very "backbone" of the software layers of
network technologies (e.g., DNS-BIND, OpenSSL, sendmail, and, arguably,
the  Apache web server). So, the commercial vs. open source distinction
is a false dichotomy and the more important criterium to remember when
one does choose to work with commercial software is to ask whether or
not the company producing the software is an ethical company. An
"ethical company" might be an oxymoron in a conventional Marxist's
lexicon, but I think this is a crucial problematic to address if one
hopes to understand our current circumstances of post-industrialization.

TS: How does your writing of media philosophy enter into your teaching?
Which books or essays do you find most helpful in your teaching?

WS: I believe that its important to understand that technologies
incorporat= e frozen -- i.e., reified -- social, economic and political
relations.  For example, if you have DSL in your home, you almost
certainly have more bandwidth coming into your house than you have going
out of your house.  In other words, structured into the network wiring
is the assumption that you are a consumer, not a producer of information
because the engineering has been done to make it easier for you to
download information from the Internet rather than to upload
information.  Information technologies contain many forms of catachresis
(frozen metaphor) that more often than no= t started life as quirky
philosophy projects and are now "frozen", but workin= g as silicon and
gold components.  For example, the 19th century philosopher, George
Boole, had a project (An investigation into the Laws of Thought) to try
to algebraically deduce truths that is now literally printed into the
very foundations of computers: we know these foundations in contemporary
technology as "Boolean Circuits."  I try to teach my students that each
of these frozen decisions could in fact be undone and replaced with
something else. What would result might be an entirely different
technology. This sor= t of investigation/thought experiment is also the
basis for my own research and scholarship: I am interested in
challenging and finding alternatives to the foundations of computer
science and network architectures by locating the presuppositions built
into contemporary, new media technologies.  An example of this kind of
work is the "Translation Map" that Sawad Brooks and I did
(translationmap.walkerart.org) in which we re-read the founding essay of
the field of machine translation, a text written by Warren Weaver in
1949.  Weaver proposes to understand translation as a problem of coding
and decoding.  We show the absurdity of Weaver's proposal -- and the 50
years o= f work in machine translation that has been done based on
Weaver's proposal -= - and we illustrate a possible alternative by
prototyping a network technolog= y for collaborative editing in which
translation is understood to be a form o= f collaborative work between
people, rather than as a de/coding problem to be handled exclusively by
a machine.  To impart this perspective to my students, I like to have
them read original documents from the history of technology (e.g., like
the texts included in Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort's "New Media
Reader" (MITPress)) and also to read work from scienc= e studies and
critical theory that describes technologies as assemblages of
socio-technical relations.  Bruno Latour's book, "Science in Action"  is
on= e thing students in my "Introduction to Digital Media" course are
asked to read.

TS: In a recent interview Ralf Homann, faculty at Bauhaus University,
told me that Walter Gropius demanded an educational practice in the arts
that focused students on economics from very early on-- Gropius thought
of the artist as a polished, perfected craftsman. He claimed that
academies separate art from life, from the "industry." Today, there is
no such thing as "the industry" for which students could be prepared.
It's not like in other areas where a predictable skill set secures a
job. In new media the skill sets are drastically changing and what was
justifiable and useful yesterday may be irrelevant and dated tomorrow.
How do you address this dilemma?

WS:  On the one hand I disagree: I think there are very specific "craft"
skills that are relatively stable and that can be taught to students of
digital media.  For example, programming is a general skill that is
essential to the construction of all digital media. Even if one does not
know a particular programming language, if one knows how to program it
is really not a big challenge to learn another language. On the other
hand, I agree: there is no one industry for which students are being
prepared.  Digital media of today is like writing was to Plato's Athens:
it is a "solvent" being incorporated everywhere and it threatens to
dissolve and rearrange disciplinary boundaries as well as industry
differences.  Every department in the university must today wrangle with
the questions of new media. Some of the oldest departments, e.g.,
departments of classics, have been the most innovative in addressing the
possibilities and problems of ne= w media. A lot of what computers and
networks do in industry and government i= s to automate processes that
had previously been done by hand: forms of production, like bureaucratic
procedures are being automated. Bureaucracy -= - which means literally
"rule by the bureau, or the office" -- is being replaced by
"computercracy" -- rule by computational methods.  Larry Lessig and
other legal scholars have been very articulate in pointing out the legal
ramifications of this kind of transformation.  But, if people don't
think too deeply, computercracy ends up looking a lot like bureaucracy.
For instance, the so-called "desktop metaphor" that structures the
interface most of us use when we operate a computer, is a relatively
direct borrowing from the technology of the office -- files, folders,
trashcans, desks, etc.  So, the crucial challenge is to teach
fundamentals -- that may in fact be "crafts" -- so that graduates can
rethink computerization where ever they find themselves.

about Warren Sack

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