Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The DMCA 10, years on

If you can believe it, today is the 10th anniversary of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. This is the sweeping piece of legislation that, among its many provisions, criminalized the hacking of digital rights management technologies. In the process, it also criminalized activities that were once perfectly legal and commonplace, such as making personal dupes of copyrighted materials you already owned. So thanks for rolling back our hard-fought fair use rights, technology and entertainment lobbies! It's been a great decade.

P.S. If you're searching for a more sympathetic account of the DMCA, you might want to check out this blog post.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Kindle + Oprah = game changer?

Leave it to Oprah Winfrey. She's already changed what people read. Now she's out to change how they read by giving's e-reading device, Kindle, her coveted endorsement.

Oprah's official announcement came today on The Oprah Winfrey Show, although for several days now Amazon has been teasing the big news on its home page.

Amazon has been excruciatingly tight-lipped about who's been buying Kindle and how many units it's managed to sell. The consensus among technology commentators seems to be this: since its debut last November, Kindle has found its way mostly into the hands of older, gadget-savvy early adopters who don't mind dropping $350 on a stand alone mobile e-reading device.

Given how few people I've actually seen with a Kindle, I'd venture to say this is a rather small cadre indeed. Significantly, all but one of the Kindle users I've observed over the last year has been male.

In other words, Winfrey's endorsement could prove to be a real game changer. She has enormous reach among women between the ages of 18 and 54. That, combined with the Oprah Book Club, makes her an extraordinarily influential figure with exactly the population that purchases the most books in the United States.

The real challenge, it seems to me, will be for Winfrey to persuade her audience to part with a large chunk of cash during a major economic downturn. Amazon's decision to offer a $50 "Oprah Winfrey" rebate--about 15% off of Kindle's retail price--will be a major incentive in this regard. (By the way, the rebate also happens to be a smart way for Amazon to move its existing stock of Kindles to make way for generation 2.0.)

The other challenge will be for Winfrey to convince her audience that what makes a book a book are its words and images, and not its physical form. That could prove to be an even harder sell in the long run. As Jeff Gomez has observed in his book Print is Dead, it's hard for many people to shake the image of books as things made of paper, ink, and glue, which they're supposed "to bay windows on autumn days, basking in the warm glow of a fireplace with a cup of chamomile by their side."

The genius of Kindle is to marry e-reading with on-the-go book distribution. Its downfall thus far (beyond the concerns I've raised about its interface and matters of privacy) has been Amazon's apparent inability to connect the device with less gadget-inclined book readers. And in this regard, Oprah's endorsement of Kindle can only help bring e-reading to within eyeshot of the mainstream.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A momentous day in history

Happy birthday, photocopier! You're 70 years old today. For more on the happy occasion, you can check out this story in Wired magazine:

Differences and repetitions indeed!

CFP on "free labor"


Popular Culture Association/
American Culture Association National Conference
April 8-11, 2009
New Orleans, LA, USA

The Communication and Digital Culture Area of the Popular Culture Association is soliciting proposals for panels and individual papers that explore online participatory culture and the problematic concept of "free labor" in a network society.

Corporations are increasingly counting upon the activity of a "participatory consumer" to provide the content for sites that directly or indirectly generate revenue. Twenty five years ago, GNU operating system activist Richard Stallman famously distinguished the "free" in free software as "free as in free speech, not as in free beer." What kind of "free" is the labor of a participatory culture? How does the appropriation of this work by major corporations complicate our understanding of "free labor"?

Possible topics include:
  • Wikipedia and the Academy
  • Gift Economies Online
  • Free/Libre Open Source Software
  • Intellectual Property
  • Warez Subcultures
  • "Immaterial" Labor
  • Convergence & Consumer/Producers
  • DIY Media
  • Marx & the Digital Economy
  • Fan Culture Appropriation
Submit a 250 word maximum proposal (hard copy or electronic) to:

Mark Nunes, Chair
Department of English, Technical Communication, and Media Arts
Southern Polytechnic State University
Marietta, GA 30060-2896

Deadline for Submissions: November 30, 2008

Note: Communication and Digital Culture is a themed area. Submissions off-theme should be submitted to:

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Thank you, wise crowd (plus some news)

First, let me acknowledge all of the good folks who've written in to provide feedback on my paper about Amazon's Kindle e-reading device and what I'm calling "the labor of reading." Your contributions (i.e., your labor!) certainly will help to sharpen my presentation, which I'll be delivering later this week at the American Studies convention in Albuquerque, NM. Thank you, wise crowd!

I'm also writing to share a bit of good news: the piece got a mention on the Los Angeles Times blog, Jacket Copy. You can read the complete article by clicking here. I'm just thrilled, needless to say. Who would have thought this little old conference paper would get national media attention?

Once the dust has settled from my trip, I'll be sure to post the final, definitive version of the Kindle paper to the D&R Wiki. Thanks again for now, and let me know what you think about the article on the Times blog.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Calling on the wisdom of crowds

I just finished what's admittedly a pretty drafty draft of the paper I'll be presenting at next week's American Studies Association (ASA) convention in Albuquerque, NM. The piece is called "Kindle: The New Book Mobile or, The Labor of Reading in an Age of Ubiquitous Bookselling." It's my first academic meditation on's Kindle e-reading device, which was released last year to much fanfare among technophiles...and equally as much dread among bibliophiles.

You may recall that I've blogged three times about Kindle here on D&R--last November, June, and August. Now I'm asking for your help. I've posted the working draft of my ASA/Kindle paper to the Differences & Repetitions Wiki, which you can find by clicking here. I feel as though the argument is proceeding more or less in the right direction, but at the same time your feedback would help me to tighten up the paper overall.

The Kindle page on D&RW is set up to accept comments only rather actual changes to the text--this in contrast to my paper on Deleuze and communication from last year, which was (and remains!) a more open and collaborative authorial undertaking. In any case, I'd value any input you may have. Anonymous comments are welcome, too.

Monday, October 06, 2008


Adam Curtis is my favorite documentary filmmaker--and one of my favorite filmmakers, period. I was introduced to his work a few years ago by my good friends Elaine Vautier and Timothy Roscoe. My thinking hasn't been the same since.

Last December I blogged about his 2002 feature, The Century of the Self. This weekend I had the good fortune of discovering his most recent production, The Trap, which aired on the BBC in 2007 but of course never made its way to the United States. I've embedded some video, below, for those of you who'd like a peek at the first 10 minutes or so. You can watch the entire documentary in delicious snack-size portions on YouTube.

If I had to describe Curtis' work as a whole, I'd say he's an intellectual historian who happens to work in the documentary genre (which is to take nothing away from his skills as a documentarian). He has an uncanny knack for bringing complex ideas and systems of thought to life.

In The Trap, for example, Curtis demonstrates how game theory, anti-psychiatry, existentialism, Isaiah Berlin's "two concepts of freedom," and more converged and connected with one another to produce the highly circumscribed notion of "freedom" prevalent in the West today.

What Curtis' work also then shows is just how much ideas can and do matter. This is at once encouraging and frightening.

Many critics have suggested that anti-intellectualism now runs rampant in the United States and elsewhere. In an age of punditry, game shows like Are You Smarter Than a Fifth Grader?, Vice-Presidential debates in which "avoiding nuance" is a clarion call, etc., they claim that people no longer possess a tolerance for complex, long-form ideas.

Curtis' work blows that bit of doxa wide-open. His productions chronicle how, time and again, government officials, corporate CEOs, policy makers, management consultants, and others not only listen to and are guided by "esoteric" theories, but also how they find ways to translate those ideas into everyday practices and products.

And this, I suppose, is the rub: you can never know how bodies of thought--even well-intentioned ones--will get taken up and deployed, let alone by whom.