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Coding @ CUNY: WordPress, BuddyPress, Commons & Responsibility

Boone Georges short post on why he codes for CUNY talks about the thrills of building something useful, the WordPress/BuddyPress/MediaWiki matrix that is the Academic Commons — especially in contrast to the crappiness of Blackboard and the responsibility Georges feels to the student population he knows is using Blackboard [Bb] when they could be sharing on the Commons.

In describing the cost [in dollars as well as time due to information lock-in] that Bb tolls on the CUNY system, Georges says, “Blackboard is a parasite on public education, which is a public trust, maybe the most important equalizer a state can provide for its citizens.” And the first question I will motivate with is this: Is there a special responsibility to stewardship one has when employed by a public university? Are there more moral reasons not to waste NYC’s ostensibly working class’s money than the larger undergraduate student fees at NYU or Columbia?

I ask this because I believe the rhetoric of money-saving may not always be the most effective. If one is working at a private engagement, Georges suggests that rules regarding expenditure and waste apply differently than at a mission-driven organization like a nonprofit or school. We can argue, as Georges also does, that there are reasons of effectiveness, shared-input, collaboration, and ease of use that could just as easily drive the argument for using a Commons as opposed to proprietary system.

For Georges, these reasons also include the “vulnerable populations” who “are controlled through proprietary software. Examples abound: Facebook, Apple, Google.” That is, groups of people who are using software because they are what is first encountered, easiest, popular, have some kind of existing stronghold or sketchy shareholder payoff up the pipeline.  I think of these digitally vulnerable populations as populations who have not, do not, can not, or will not learn to use softwares or platforms that are not immediately present to them. For an example, in a collective I organize with, I am gently trying to move away everyone from Google Docs. In a recent listserv conversation, I suggested that Google Docs was buggy and challenging to use on some, older [read MY] computers and was thus perhaps an issue of class and accessibility and maybe we as a collective should not use it. Someone replied with the suggestion that folks “just get google chrome because it makes google docs work.” Here is an example of the economic argument failing.

Now, envision my eye and fingers twitching as I tried to remain gentle and reply that actually folks should use whichever browser they already prefer — and that by the way I recommend Firefox with tracking/mining-killer add-ons TACO, AdBlock Plus, and Add-Art — because data mining and unclear amounts of data control means that G-docs is not really “free,” and that if Google decided to start charging us all tomorrow, how many organizations would be taken down and do we want ours to go with it!?!? And that is what I was really trying to say about GoogleDocs in the first place. Eye twitch.

This argument for vulnerability in the face of software paternalism is another one I prefer to an economic argument. Do you think that’s off the mark? Can you come up with a better argument, given our readings this week?

Posted in Motivations.

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6 Responses

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  1. ria banerjee says

    On a slight tangent, do you all remember when the *Internet* (with capital I) was this awesome, exciting thing immune to the kind of fear of corporatisation that is increasingly in the news all the time? I remember, fondly, my naive youthful days when I thought of my time online as completely fantastic–being able to talk to loads of friends at the same time without my mother knowing that I wasn’t “doing homework” (on ICQ, no less, remember that folks?)! Writing lo-o-o-ong emails to my friends abroad, which were essentially the e-equivalent of the 16-page letters we used to send each other. Talking, with abandon, about anything–political, religious or otherwise–without wondering which parts of my text would trigger keyword checks from the police or whoever these giant lurking figures are? With the SOPA stuff on one hand, the police tracking Muslim campus groups with impunity on the other, and a third handful made up of Facebook and the newly-evil Google, I’ve been in a mild panic all week this week. It seems increasingly that my time on the internet (divested of its capital letter by now) is a struggle between me and “Them” to keep my essentially worthless private information private. I know I’m romanticising those early days of dial-up, but I just wish the BlackBoards of the world would get off our backs, cut us some breaks, etc., ya know?

    “Soylent Green is People!!!” Argh.

  2. Naomi Barrettara says

    ooohhh this topic is something that causes me eye-twitches all the time! And I think that part of the problem (the “problem” being a combination of all kinds of things already mentioned – vulnerable populations, proprietary control, legacy problems/the illusion of trust, large successful companies slowly amalgamating control of content and services, etc..) is two fold 1) lack of knowledge/lack of a comprehensive understanding about HOW the internet works, and 2) marketing new technologies and new ideas prey on this lack of understanding to shift social norms regarding computers, software, and product use to their favour.

    One of my biggest annoyance’s of late is the whole rhetoric of “cloud” computing. That everything will just “exist in the cloud, and life will be so easy”. Because that rhetoric – which I think is propagated by tech companies marketing their products/software so they can make money – is hugely deceptive. There is no “cloud” where all of our data magically lives, there is no cloud that is naturally there and will always be there, and data that is stored “online” doesn’t actually live “in the clouds”. The “cloud” is the tech companies servers – physical computer boxes that google, or apple (or whatever “cloud” you subscribe to) own and control and can shut down – as Hadassah pointed out – at any moment. And even though some companies are less evil than others, they are still in the business of making money – which is why they mine your data, so they can target you with appropriate advertizing, and it is also why we should be realistic about the fact that our “data” we entrusted them with can be taken down, and lost, at any moment. But there is a lack of understanding about what “cloud” computing really is, and the implications that it really has for users. Part it stems from the fact that people generally don’t understand how the internet fundementally works, and how services (like google docs), actually work, so it is difficult for them conceptualize how storing data “in the cloud” could be problematic. And since tech companies are in the business of making money, they will take advantage of the fact that people don’t really understand, by offering a product that does REALLY powerful and awesome things – and users are so into the powerful things the product does, that they may not even realize how much control they are really giving up to use those services.

    Amy posed the question – “I wonder what kind of movement it will take to shift the culture away from and challenge the dominant paradigm of proprietary control” – and I think this will be VERY difficult. But not impossible….but I think it takes a targeted, specific effort to educate people – so that people can learn what we are learning in this class, and gain a better understanding of how everything works, and the pros AND cons of new services and products and kind of computing. But a kind of massive, far reaching educational effort of that kind if extremely hard to do, and very-extremely difficult (if that is even a degree of difficulty?) to do well. We NEED much more conversations happening in much more public, noticeable, far reaching places that talk about what the Google, Apples, and Facebooks really are – and not in a malicious way – but in a “this is fundamental knowledge you need to understand to participate effectively, safely, and with complete awareness in the technological world” kind of way. Because we don’t really want the Googles, Apples, and Facebooks of the world to cease their existence…but we DO want people to be more responsible and aware users and consumers. We have organizations and non-profits that work to build awareness and fund the causes important to society – like poverty, musical education, sports, etc. – we need an organization dedicated to educating people about how technology actually works, and the social implications of different kinds of computing.

  3. Sonia K. González says

    From reading the Boones piece, I came out of the readings “getting” it supporting open source a bit more. I saw lots of parallels between the philosophy of open source and community participation for social justice change. If I could generate a word cloud, community, active, participation, learning, and equal opportunity would be prominently visible. With open source, the lesson we learned in kindergarden about sharing is put into practice. The collaborative effort of working together towards a shared goal, regardless of cread, educational level is valued – everyone has a voice that is important. Of course participating in the kind of open source that Boone is speaking of requires different levels of training/education depending on how involved one wants to get (user vs. developer), but I think the point, that the information to educate oneself is available and largely free

    That said, I am a bit put off by my recent collaborative experience with the wikipedia project. As much as I see the space created for excellent collaborative work being executed, I have found our experience with RHaworth off-putting to a collaborative experience with the outside world. I think this person is just rude and to be honest, I have found interactions with him to discourage future potential work at least on the wiki platform.

  4. Hadassah Damien says

    Amy, there are folks working to raise awareness about these issues — one organization I like a lot is the Center for Media Justice [] a decade-old org based in Oakland, who have a very participatory website.

    I agree that avoidance is often an issue of awareness and regret I didn’t make that more clear: what’s first presented to folks, like IE or AOL or Gmail, is what folks tend to stick with (unless they take an internet class like we all are) and folks who do marketing LOVE that fact.

    And Meiling, I agree that it looks dire. CAE helped drive it home, “the activists are children” [eg hacker youth] and all I can really push back with is their proscription to continue technology education for this very reason — that not many folks know about, understand the implications around, or even encounter non-proprietary, well, anything. Not clothing, not food, and not digital interfaces. Le sigh.

  5. meiling says

    This week’s readings felt not only like a description of the many ways to collaborate but also a call to arms: for open source, liberation from corporate overlording, Electronic Civil Disobedience, yeah! While I am truly sympathetic with the impulse to resist hegemonic platforms, I wish I felt more optimistic about the long term. For example, I heard a speaker who is director of technology for a museum speak last week who, after his talk, said his opinion was Wikipedia’s days are numbered and will inevitably be absorbed into Big Business interests. Google is gobbling up all the books, art and other huge bodies of cultural products. Most people don’t think too much about this as negative or wouldn’t know what to do. At least Blackboard is an easier target, and CUNY has the right combination of activism, skills and funding to create an alternative.
    So–I agree with Amy–in terms of a spectrum of awareness, it would seem fair to guess that our class, for example, is among the more informed of the dangers/pitfalls of proprietary software, yet what fraction of the population shares this awareness?
    The recent uprising over SOPA was encouraging, but the issues underlying how much control vs. freedom exists and how/where people organize and share information are highly complex. Given the patterns of human nature, it is likely only crisis situations i.e. bills in congress, other such threats, will mobilize the populace enough to make a dent in corporately driven interests. Meanwhile, they seem to inevitably grow larger and more threatening.

  6. Amy says

    Thanks for this great post Hadassah — you make really good points about the relationship between “vulnerable populations” and “proprietary control.” Something that kept coming to mind when reading this though, is this question of knowledge and awareness – and whether the extent to which people are “avoiding” using proprietary software is simply about what’s known (ie, promoted, advertised, accessible, available) — and what’s deemed “trusted.” For me, at least, in terms of awareness, I’m only now becoming more comfortable with open-source (both in terms of understanding, and supporting), thanks to the course and our conversations. Even within this post I’m now curious what platform you recommend in place of Google Docs (which I sometimes use, but never really liked) … and I didn’t know about the add-ons, but will definitely install them now. Conversations about what the Googles, Facebooks and Apples really are (and what the alternatives are) aren’t pervasive enough — so I wonder what kind of movement it will take to shift the culture away from and challenge the dominant paradigm of proprietary control.

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