Florian Cramer on 13 Apr 2001 13:15:23 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] Review of the CODE conference (Cambridge/UK, April 5-6, 2001)

(The following review was commissed by MUTE and will appear in the
forthcoming MUTE issue, see <http://www.metamute.com>. Josephine Berry
has my cordial thanks for editing the text into proper English. The MUTE
people were so kind to let me speak about literature and systems theory
on a panel with Robert Coover and Jeff Noon at Tate Modern. See
<http://www.metamute.com/events/mutetate08042001.htm> for the details.

CODE: Chances and Obstacles in the Digital Ecology

The recent Cambridge conference CODE amounted to more than a
straightforward expansion of its acronym into - in computereze - its
executable "Collaboration and Ownership in the Digital Economy". It
actually got some of its participants collaborating. The most interesting
idea regarding collaboration came as an off-the-cuff remark from
James Boyle, professor of law at Duke University, who compared the
recent interest in open digital code to environmentalism. The first
environmental activists were scattered and without mutual ties, Boyle
said, because the notion of 'the environment' did not yet exist. It had
to be invented before it could be defended.

After two packed days of presentations, it could well be that the
virus will spread and make artists, activists and scholars in digital
culture associate 'IP' with 'Intellectual Property' rather than 'Internet
Protocol', whether they like it or not. Unlike many Free Software/Open
Source events with their occasional glimpses at the cultural implications
of open code, the CODE programme covered the free availability and
proprietary closure of information in the most general terms setting it
into a broad disciplinary framework which included law, literature, music,
anthropology, astronomy and genetics. Free Software has historically
taught people that even digitised images and sounds run on code. But
that this code is speech which can be locked into proprietary schemes
such as patents and shrinkwrap licenses, thereby decreasing freedom of
expression, is perhaps only beginning to dawn on people. John Naughton,
moderator of the panel on "The Future of Knowledge", illustrated this
situation by describing how, in the US at least, it is illegal to wear
T-Shirts or recite haikus containing the few sourcecode words of DeCSS,
a program which breaks the cryptography scheme of DVD movies.

There is little awareness that any piece of digital data, whether an
audio CD, a video game or a computer operating systems is simply a number
and that every new copyrighted digital work reduces the amount of freely
available numbers. While digital data, just like any text, can be parsed
arbitrarily according to a language or data format (the four letters
g-i-f-t, for example, parse as a synonym for 'present' in English, but as
'poison' in German), the copyrighting of digital data implies that there
is only one authoritative interpretation of signs. The zeros and ones of
Microsoft Word are legally considered a Windows program and thus subject
to Microsoft's licensing, although they could just as well be seen as
a piece of concrete poetry when displayed as alphanumeric code or as
music when burned onto an audio CD. The opposite is also true: no-one
can rule out that the text of, say, Shakespeare's Hamlet cannot be parsed
and compiled into a piece of software that infringes somebody's patents.

The legal experts speaking at CODE also explained the enormous expansion
in intellectual property rights in the last few years. While patents are
widely known to conflict with the freedom of research and even with the
freedom to write in programming languages, the conference nevertheless
extended its focus beyond this and made its participants aware of IP
rights as the negative subtext to what was once considered the promiscuous
textuality of the Internet. Still, it was surprising to see speakers with
very diverse academic and professional backgrounds position themselves so
unanimously against the current state of IP rights. In another informal
remark, Volker Grassmuck proposed that we refocus 'information ecology'
from software ergonomics to the politics of knowledge distribution. Does
digital code need its own Greenpeace and World Wildlife Fund?

The conference took its inspiration from Free Software, but didn't bother
going into basics and priming the participants on what Free Software
and Open Source technically are - which was both an advantage and a
disadvantage. General topics were advanced right from the first session
without first clarifying such important issues as the meaning of the
'free' in Free Software. GNU project founder Richard M. Stallman -
who usually explains this as 'free, as in speech' not ' free, as in
beer' - revealed his own questionable conceptions by proposing three
different copyleft schemes for what he categorised as 'functional works',
'opinion pieces' and 'aesthetic works': as if these categories could be
separated, as if they weren't aspects of every artwork, and as if computer
programs didn't have their own politics and aesthetics (GNU Emacs could
be analysed in just the same way Matthew Fuller analysed the aesthetic
ideology of Microsoft Word.)  It was annoying to hear Stallman reduce the
distribution of digital art to 'bands' distributing their 'songs', and
it was equally annoying to hear Glyn Moody call Stallman the Beethoven,
Linus Torvalds the Mozart and Larry Wall - a self-acclaimed postmodernist
and experimental writer in his own right - the Schubert of programming.

To make matters worse, the artists who spoke on the second day of CODE
echoed these aesthetic conservatisms in perfect symmetry. Michael
Century, co-organiser of the conference and Stallman's respondent,
unfortunately didn't have enough time to speak about the notational
complexity of modern art in any detail. He was the only speaker to
address this issue. Otherwise, artists were happy to be 'artists', and
programmers were happy to be 'programmers'. Stallman's separation of the
'functional' and the 'aesthetic' was also implied in Antoine Moireau's
Free Art License <http://www.artlibre.org>, a copyleft for artworks which
failed to illuminate why artists shouldn't simply use the GNU copyleft
proper. This question is begged all the more since the license is based
on the assumption that the artwork in contrast to the codework is, quote,
'fixed'.  While Moireau's project was at least an honest reflection of
Free Software/Open Source, one couldn't help the impression that other
digital artists appropriated the term as a nebulous, buzzword-compatible
analogy.  While there are certainly good reasons for not releasing art as
Free Software, it still might be necessary to speak of digital art and
Free Software in a more practical way. Much if not most of digital art
is locked into proprietary formats like Macromedia Director, QuickTime
and RealVideo.  It is doomed to obscurity as soon as their respective
manufacturers discontinue the software.

On the other hand, the Free Software available obviously doesn't cut it
for many people, artists in particular. The absence of, for example,
desktop publishing software available for GNU/Linux is no coincidence
since the probability of finding programmers among graphic artists
is much lower than the probability of finding programmers among system
operators. This raises many issues for digital code in the commons, issues
the conference speakers seemed, however, to avoid on purpose. While most
of them pretended that it was no longer necessary to use proprietary
software, their computers still ran Windows or the Macintosh OS. It
would have been good to see such contradictions if not resolved then at
least reflected.

Code, Queens College, Cambridge, UK, April 5-6, 2001

Florian Cramer <cantsin@zedat.fu-berlin.de>

GnuPG/PGP public key ID 3D0DACA2 

Nettime-bold mailing list