Author Archives: Achim Koh

Lessig, Benenson, Mandiberg


In this talk, Lessig argues that copyright laws and policies are outdated in the context of digital culture, causing problems ultimately harming democracy. He proposes legal changes and cultural practices while refusing both copyright extremism and copyright abolitionism.

Writing is “an essentially democratic form of expression; the freedom to take and use freely is built into our assumptions about how we create what we write.” The observation that follows is that digital media has also been democratized, both in one’s access to diverse cultural content and in one’s ability to create content. It is the popular medium of the 21st century, even more so than writing.

But the traditional copyright model that tries to protect works from being copied fails to reflect the aspect of digital media which necessarily involves duplication; this over-restrains amateur freedom of use. Moreover, the war on piracy is not serving its original purpose of protecting the creator’s right, but is really just criminalizing more people.

In order to preserve the positive functions of copyright of providing incentives to the professional creator, while also pursuing the democratic value which is freedom of use, Lessig argues for a law not focusing on whether something has been copied but relying on context to determine whether something is a mere duplication or a creative remix; whether it is a professional act or an amateur act. The law should provide control over professional copies and encourage amateur remix, while there should be detailed negotiations with regards to professional remixes and amateur copying.

Piracy should not be dealt with through ineffective mass criminalization but instead through legal changes that will facilitate compensation in the current state of technology; proposals such as compulsory licenses (government-granted use without permission but involving a set fee) or the voluntary collective license (subscription-based file sharing network) should be incorporated.

Alongside these legal issues, the potential for an internet-driven hybrid economy—where economic value is created from sharing acts of people—should also be harnessed, and it should be done in a just way that minimizes exploitation; his proposal on this matter is the Creative Commons Licenses.

  • What are current challenges in your field that involve copyright and intellectual properties? One thing that comes to mind is the firewall of commercial databases that Micki mentioned.
  • With online stores for video, music and apps seemingly stabilizing as a platform, is piracy still an important issue? What are the things to think about?

On the Fungibility and Necessity of Cultural Freedom

Benenson discusses how non-copyright licensing should be approached with regards to cultural works. Some points:

  • One difference between Creative Commons and its precedents, notably the idea of Free Software and GPL, is that CCL offers more restrictive options of which the choice is up to the author; whereas Free Software puts more emphasis on keeping things open as a principle not only on the author’s side but also all along the distribution process.
  • There has been arguments for extended application of free-software principles to cultural works, which would enforce free use—something that CCL offers selectively.
  • Such “user-generated utopianism” assumes that cultural works, like tools, are fungible.
  • The fungibility of software like kernels and compilers has been crucial in the success of free software movement; this doesn’t necessarily applies to cultural works, where authorship must be valued.
  • While copyright laws must be adjusted into the contemporary context, we don’t need to completely throw them away as they do protect important values for the cultural creation.

As we are increasingly seeing works that exist across the boundaries of software/tool and cultural works, the question of articulating an appropriate mode of licensing becomes more relevant.

  • Benenson’s discussion is relying on the separate categories of software/tools and cultural/creative works. As we increasingly see works that exist across these boundaries, what would be the considerations that come into play when trying to articulate an appropriate mode of licensing these works?
  • While I can agree on Benenson’s argument that universal openness will not necessarily encourage the creation and sharing of works, the claim that “user-generated utopianism challenges us to believe that all cultural objects are effectively fungible” sounds like a hasty reduction of the logic behind Free Software advocates; I would like to hear your thoughts on this.

Giving Things Away Is Hard Work

Mandiberg examines the collaborative effect that open licensing can bring when applied to projects, especially physical designs. This approach to open licensing is summed up as the cycle where “participation breeds creative mutation, and creative mutation leads to better ideas through this collaborative process.” The insight here as I read it is that one should strategically consider both materiality and work process: the project’s functionality in its shared form, modes of collaboration, degree of access depending on skill levels, and methods of production.

The choice to go on Kickstarter for Bright Bikes was interesting, as crowdfunding platforms seem to have established an almost standardized practice of this type of approach.

As I was reading the texts, I also had the chance to get nostalgic about a project I did with some friends a couple years after the time of the articles. Our choice to go with a CC-BY license was partly logistic (putting the time and effort to deal with copyrights just didn’t make sense); but I also remember the optimistic vibe around free culture and the possibilities of internet which was very much a real thing at that time.

  • I am curious of what Benenson’s response would be to the quote relating to Lady Ada—”this is a success: the practice has become so pervasive that the origins are no longer important.” Do Fried’s contributions count as fungible tools, or do they fall into some middle grounds?


Fred Benenson, “On the Fungibility and Necessity of Cultural Freedom”; Lawrence Lessig, “REMIX: How Creativity Is Being Strangled by the Law”; and Michael Mandiberg, “Giving Things Away is Hard Work: Three Creative Commons Case Studies” in Mandiberg, The Social Media Reader, Part V: Law.


Cohen on Data Mining


Cohen argues that computational methods for analyzing, manipulating and retrieving data from large corpuses will provide new tools for academic research, including the humanities. He provides two examples, projects he worked on. Syllabus Finder, a document classification tool for aggregating and searching course syllabi, finds and collects documents that show similar patterns in their use of words. It also allows to differentiate documents that have similar keywords by analyzing the use of other words. Another example he provides is H-Bot, a question answering tool that takes in queries in natural language (instead of code), transforms the query using predetermined rules and conducts a web search before outputting the answer the tool decides is relevant.

Lessons that Cohen learned while building these tools:

  • APIs are good
    • they offer the possibilities for combining various resources (which facilitates the use of less rigorous but more accessible corpuses)
    • third-party development can lead to unexpected and positive results
  • open resources are better than restricted ones (access makes up for quality)
  • large quantity can make up for quality

Just in case: an API is a way of making easy the process of using our software get data (instead of doing it manually) from another software (usually on another computer, like a web server). The following is one of the more concise and less technical-details-oriented explanations I found online: https://www.quora.com/What-is-an-API

Also, I feel that The Lexicon of DH workshop slides provide a good overview of the coming week’s theme.

So indeed, the use of APIs has become more common outside of the IT field since 2006. New York Public LibraryCooper-Hewitt Museum and the New York Times, among many others, provide APIs that allow the access on their digital collection through software. MOMA provides their collection data on Github.

The technology used for document searching and question answering, the two examples that Cohen provides, have developed into something arguably more reliable, faster and easier to use. For example, we don’t even need to build a tool in order to be able to ask some questions in natural language:

We'll remember you, H-Bot.

Relating back to the discussion of previous weeks, what do you think is the impacts or implications that the increase of digital collections and APIs, along with developments in data collecting and analyzing technologies, have on teaching? (or on more broader aspects of life and research) How does this fit together with more traditional modes of teaching, like textbooks?

Another question I have relates to the fact that both examples mentioned in the article are no longer functioning. The latest update on Syllabus Finder that I could find explains that a system change in the Google search API effectively deprecated the tool; it also provides a download link to the database of syllabi—but only a small part of it. H-Bot is online, but sadly doesn’t seem able to answer me:

Oh, H-Bot.

I can easily imagine the difficulties of maintaining such a digital project. I am also under the impression that the eventual outdating is the fate of many digital projects. They require a different type of effort than, say, putting out journal articles. Maintenance requires manpower, manpower requires funds— I also have the ambivalent feeling that it may not be necessarily a bad thing that some projects finish their life cycle, while it would be great if those projects were archived somehow (in a functioning state). I guess I feel more personally involved since I will probably build something or another during my time here— I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter.

Some more or less related links:

As We May Think

Quick note:
The tech terminology at first confused me, and if you are like me the following list might help you. Please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong:

  • Photocells are light sensors. Advanced versions of these are in your smartphone and digital cameras, behind the lens.
  • Thermionic tubes = vacuum tubes. Incandescent light bulbs are a type of these. Along with relays, these were among the essential components of an electric circuit until transistors became popular.
  • Cathode ray tubes = CRT (old fat screens)

The article was published in a time where the industrialization we discussed regarding last week’s readings is quite in its adult phase; “the humble typewriter, or the movie camera, or the automobile” are, rather than new innovations, things that “perform reliably.” In a war-winning United States, not without the help of mobilized scientists, Bush proposes a vision of using technology to deal with the problem of ever-increasing human knowledge that “extended far beyond our present ability to make real use of the record.” He is anticipating computers to be used in the information age, Thomas P. Hughes (2005) describes (p. 97). His picture of the “memex”, which is essentially a microfilm browser with editing and sharing functions, seems a bit different from what computers actually became- but it was 1945, and digital computing was not really a thing. What is impressive is his insights on how information should be dealt with.

Using the example of Mendel’s work not reaching potentially significant contemporary readers, Bush defines the problem faced by humans as the inability for the actual use of (scientific) knowledge to keep pace with the speed that its records expand. According to him, three aspects could use some improvement and will do so regarding scientific records: creation of new ones, storage and retrieval.

Instead of trying to guess what the next new technology will be, Bush describes in detail how the current technology could develop and be used for the above goals. Storage will be faster, easier, cheaper and smaller. Note that he emphasizes that “[c]ompression is important … when it comes to costs.” With a little stretch, his idea that smaller size will lead to massive reproduction is in a way analogous to the shrinking space of railway times leading to the access to a much larger geographical space.

Creating new records could also become easier, through such developments as speech recognition and automated input. The automation of repetitive processes that are currently limited to arithmetic equations would extend to higher-level symbolic logics and advanced data analysis. And the access to specific data, which Bush calls selection, also could be much faster if we applied the selection process of, say, the telephone switching system and improved it using electronics. So the storage, input and retrieval of knowledge would all become faster and allow for a much larger quantity.

Then Bush pictures a device, “memex”, that embodies the above improvements along with an additional crucial idea, association. Unlike the current indexing systems, which are mostly alphabetical or numerical categorization, a new system would enable the direct connection of two or more different pieces of information; allowing for the association between thoughts which is how the human mind works, hence the title of the article. His example of the Turkish bow researcher describes knowledge pieces that are interconnectible via a code space separate from the content and allow long-term storage, commenting/editing/creating from the user’s part, browsing, copying and sharing. This idea is viewed as the initial concept of hypertext– one of the main structures of internet (Landow, 2006, p.11)

His “new forms of encyclopedias” filled with “a mesh of associative trails” incredibly seem to be referring to Wikipedia. He expresses the hope that humankind would be able to stand on the shoulder of giants and go beyond its application of control over the environment and war against each other, in order to “grow in the wisdom of race experience.”

The article portrays several ideas that we can associate with current things: the hypertext and links, of course, but also here and there we find mentions of potential Google Glass, Siri and big data analysis. Just before the end of the article, we can also peep at Bush’s version of cyborg future, where information could be transmitted to and from the brain directly using electric signals rather than being translated to sensory phenomena; this sounds like his sci-fi imagination, which he has been suppressing throughout the article, finally going off… But in a sense this also has been realized: not exactly (well, not yet) by connecting wires to the nervous system, but by the vast network of computers and the digitization of all information.

  • It is worth noting his limited use of female words, only associated with certain jobs: stenotypist, typist, “simple key board punches” operators, and (not specified but probably) file clerk. This seems almost like a repeat of something that happened in Marx’s era: as machines enter the labor space, so do women- but not on equal terms. A further interesting point is that as Wendy Chun (2004) points out, computers in early 20C referred to human operators of the machines, mostly young women; “they were also considered to be better, more conscientious computers, presumably because they were better at repetitious, clerical tasks” (p. 33).
  • Bush was administrator for the wartime U.S. military R&D, which I can’t imagine had no influence on his ideas regarding the inefficiently increasing knowledge. The initial version of internet was funded by the U.S. department of defense. The steam engine came out of an industrial need, like a lot of innovations happening in the tech industry today. Although this might be a rough statement, I feel not too much off target by arguing that a lot of initiative regarding technological change comes from either the military or the industry. What are the implications here? How relevant are the sources of technological changes?
  • Are we better off with the internet? I mean, I love the internet. But more globally, what would be the implications? While there are claims that the hypertext as a system that allows for easier participation in creative activities and dissolves the boundaries between author and reader, it “has the potential … to be a democratic or multicentered system” (Landow, 2006, p. 343), last class we also talked about how some corporations are exploiting that type of collaborative and/or voluntary work that the medium enables us to do. Is the capital intercepting the ‘revolutionary potential’ and use it for profit?
  • Are we any wiser? To be more specific, has our ability to process information caught up with the ever-increasing rate of knowledge production? Or are we being disoriented by the influx of information? In the case of the latter, is it a transitional thing, just as the coach travelers were disoriented by the speed of the railway?

Also, this video featuring Douglas Engelbart, who was inspired by Bush, might be interesting to watch alongside the article. It is perhaps most famous for the use of a computer mouse, but it also introduces important features of computers that now seem so natural, including the hypertext.



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The Railway Journey

I immediately thought of this video:

In the first four chapters of The Railway Journey, Schivelbusch describes the introduction of the railway in the industrializing 19th century Western Europe and its development into an independent system, along with characteristics of the new perception that the railway traveler experienced. While the book is abundant with fascinating accounts from circa 19th century, I tried to keep this posting concise.

The development of railway is described as a process of redefining the relationship between human and nature. Steam power replaced animal power, being more cost-efficient, controllable, durable and powerful. This artificial energy, operating independently from natural constraints and enabling faster journeys, created its own spatiality- expressed as the “shrinking” of the natural world. The notion of space and time as was possible using the traditional transportation technology was no longer valid. The absence of sensory perception of such traditional traveling aspects as animal exhaustion was experienced as non-natural. Railroads also required flattening of the terrain, resulting in deeper contrast from the nature.

With the help of legislations allowing monopoly the railway grew into an independent and precise system, or machine ensemble, that fully functions only as a whole, including routes, vehicles and communication facilities. The system incorporated ever more outlying areas; the decrease in space (technically travel time) also meant that space expanded.
As accessibility increased, the context of original locality was lost, both for products from outlaying regions and the regions themselves. “Devaluation … by their exploitation for mass tourism”, or loss of aura. The connected regions were also given standardized time, another loss of isolated identity.

As for the passenger, faster speed led to detachment from immediacy and the details of proximity, which was characteristic of coach travels. A new mode of perception, the depthless panoramic one, appeared instead. This distant macro-vision mediated through the apparatus(train) paved the way for the reading of books, which are “imaginary landscapes”, to become a standard activity.

This book made a good pair with Benjamin’s article, as it portrays the industrial change that eventually resulted in the conditions upon which Benjamin discusses the new technology of film, from whom Schivelbusch borrows some part of framework for analysis. The analogy between buying tickets to ride a train and go to a theater was another interesting point, considering the similar traits of panoramic perception and film, respectively described by Schivelbusch and Benjamin.

  • (See first question under Benjamin)
  • De Quincey’s quote (p. 12) describes a form of technological obfuscation that was introduced to transportation: whereas the animal power was closely senseable, the engines were hidden from the passenger. This sort of obfuscation, or abstraction, seems to be something that often accompanies technological change, in transportation, manufacturing and other areas. While it might open up a new mode of perception for us, it also might interfere with our agency as users. Not only users, as a matter of fact: the train’s driver is more of “an operator of a machine” rather than a “captain on dry land.” (p. 30) What reasons do we have to advocate such obfuscating traits of technology?
  • Not a question, but I was pleased to finally read about a time in history when people actually communicated with each other instead of looking into smartphones. It was before trains.


Schivelbusch, Wolfgang. The Railway Journey. Urizen Books, 1979.


The Work of Art in the Age of its Mechanical Reproduction

In this essay Benjamin describes the changes in the definition and function of art, along with its mode of production and reception that were brought along with the development of reproduction technologies, including photography. He also argues for a politicized art as a reply to the “aestheticizing of politics, as practiced by Fascism” that he quite sinisterly describes in the Epilogue.

Art in the past served a cult value, which is based on its uniqueness given by rituals. Aura is a term used to describe this function; this authority that is given by a work’s presence in time and space is abolished by technical reproduction, although backward movement still exists. As cult value no longer is valid, art can serve exhibition value; in place of rituals that were previously the social function of art, are now politics.

Film, the art form of which the existence is based on mechanical reproduction, has revolutionary potential; its actor’s non-linear performance and indirect encounter with the audience creates a somewhat objective perspective, that of a critic. While acknowledging the possibility of counterrevolutionary movement such as the cult of movie stars as set up by the movie-making capitalists, Benjamin further elaborates on film’s revolutionary potential as an optic tool that extends our perception and a medium that can easily engage the mass, allowing distraction instead of contemplation.

  • The grounds on which film can be considered revolutionary is not because it served an active role in the Communist propaganda (as the Epilogue portrays a counter-example, “the violation of an apparatus which is pressed into the production of ritual values”), but rather because it provided a new possibility of perceiving the world. Is this frame of analysis valid? If so, what would be the revolutionary medium/technology/place/etc of the current time? What type of reality does the new perception reveal?
  • Chapter X, which mentions the fading distinction between writer and reader before applying that relationship to the film, can be read as a stress on the importance of media literacy, or accessibility. But retrospectively, I have mixed feelings on whether literacy is progress, or an agent of change. What is your take on this, especially relating to your area of interest?


Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.