Hacking the Academy

By Joss Winn and Mike Neary

Did you notice anything strange about the ongoing ‘phone hacking’ scandal involving the News of the World? There are no hackers involved. This is the latest example of hacking’s troubled history with the mainstream media, which confuses the “playful cleverness” of expert computer programmers with the malicious meddling of computer crackers and criminal journalists. With the repeated confusion of Hackers with Crackers and old Hacks, the rich and fruitful history of the true Hackers is diminished and a thriving intellectual culture focused on problem solving, self-directed learning and the free exchange of knowledge is undermined.

Much has been written about hackers and hacking, but rarely is it contextualised as part of the scholarly tradition. Yet careful reading of the history of hacking reveals that it is very much a part of the work and values of universities and that the ‘hacker ethic’ is shared, in part at least, by most academics working today.

We can trace the history of hacking back to MIT University in the early 1960s and greater access to shared computers. At the core of hacking is the academic practice of ‘peer review’: the opportunity for academics to closely examine, modify and use other people’s work. Hackers extended this through the creation of legal licenses that allow the copyright holder of software to grant anyone the ability to use, modify and re-distribute their work providing the modified version is licensed under the same terms. The great MIT hacker, Richard Stallman called this hack ‘Copyleft’ and his General Public License (GPL) has become the most popular open source software license in use today. In 2001, Stanford Law Professor, Lawrence Lessig founded Creative Commons, an organisation that borrowed much from these ‘free software’ licenses to create a set of similar licenses for other types of creative works. The activity of hackers have provided academics and their institutions with the legal basis upon which to overcome the traditional restrictions of copyright and permit the public use, modification and redistribution of research articles, research data and teaching materials.

Out of this novel reconfiguration of property rights, hackers have collaboratively developed the basic infrastructure of the Internet; not only a technological achievement but, for some, a progressive political project based on the common values of autonomy in choosing one’s work, an enthusiasm for problem-solving that borders on play, a reverence of peer-review, expertise as the basis of meritocracy, and the defence of access to information.

This ‘hacker ethic’ can similarly be seen among academics today who fight for Open Access to peer-reviewed articles and those teachers who form the growing Open Educational Resources movement, dedicated to providing teaching and learning materials for free, worldwide public use. Not surprisingly, both the Open Access and Open Education movements owe much to Stallman and other pioneering hackers who developed the GPL and similar ‘open source’ licenses. Unquestionably, the history of Open Access and Open Education is deeply indebted to the culture of hacking, yet we should not forget that the history of hacking is deeply rooted in the culture of the university.

At the University of Lincoln, the values of hacking are embedded within Student as Producer, an institution-wide project for curriculum development where students are regarded as part of the academic project of the university. We are keen to reclaim and reconnect the values of openness and collaboration that hackers are well regarded for with the values of the academy and are doing so by bringing students into the research project of the university itself. At Lincoln, undergraduate student hackers have been working on real research and development projects with university staff and contributing to the development of a culture of openness and innovation.

To further recognise this and encourage collaboration with student developers in the design of university life, we have been working with the DevCSI project at the University of Bath to organise DevXS, a free national student developer conference to be held at the University of Lincoln in November 2011.

We are expecting 150 undergraduates from across the country will attend DevXS to develop prototype open source web applications using open data provided by the University of Lincoln and other universities working on an anticipated data.ac.uk initiative. DevXS is intended to be a disruptive learning experience, a pedagogical intervention for students who want to hack and build useful things that enrich academic life. Students from across the UK and beyond are invited to compete against each other and the clock to create new web applications in a unique student developer ‘hackathon’. Working in teams, they will be provided with high-speed Internet, refreshments and tools to play with. They will break only to eat, sleep and take in encouragement from more experienced hackers. Prizes will be awarded for the most imaginative and useful new applications. Promising prototypes could ultimately be refined into fully-fledged services.

It is the latest example of how the University of Lincoln has embraced the different themes of openness, such as open source, open data, open education and open access, and we are mindful that this contributes towards a greater strategic priority of re-configuring the nature of teaching and learning in higher education and encouraging students to become part of the academic project of the University and collaborators with academics in the production of knowledge and meaning.

Further reading:

  • Graham, Paul. 2004. Hackers and Painters. O’Reilly.
  • Himanen, Pekka. 2001. The Hacker Ethic. Vintage.
  • Jordan, Tim. 2008. Hacking. Polity Press.
  • Levy, Steven. 1984. Hackers. Heroes of the Computer Revolution. Penguin Books.
  • Raymond, Eric. 1996. The New Hacker’s Dictionary. MIT Press.
  • Soderberg, Johan. 2008. Hacking Capitalism. The Free and Open Source Software Movement. Routledge.
  • Thomas, Douglas. 2002. Hacker Culture. University of Minnesota Press.
  • Wark, McKenzie. 2004. A Hacker Manifesto. Harvard University Press.

A version of this post with minor edits was first published in the Guardian

Recovering my past: Amateur and avant-garde film

It occurred to me today that the work I did during my MA in Film Studies and Archiving (University of East Anglia 2001-2) might be of interest to someone of the Interweb. Here it is, retrieved from an almost forgotten folder on my hard drive. Let me know if you find it of any use.

My reason for undertaking the MA derived from my interest in amateur and avant-garde filmmaking. During 1998-2001, I lived in Japan and spent much of my spare time (and money), shooting Super 8mm and 16mm film (mainly landscapes and abstractions) and exhibiting international exchanges of European, North American and Japanese experimental film and video. I’ve never been interested in filmmaking as a career, but thought that working in film preservation and archiving would allow me to make a living out of a love for non-commercial filmmaking. With that in mind, here are the outputs of my MA.

Amateur Filmmaking During World War II

In my first paper for the MA, I discuss the dilemma of amateur filmmaking during war time, based on a study of original books and magazines from the 1930s and 1940s. In the second part of the paper, I draw heavily on my extended interviews with Dick Brandon, a soldier and amateur filmmaker during WWII. The paper lacks any critical theoretical method but offers a useful study of primary sources.

Amateur filmmaking during WWII

Site/Sight: Landscape and the Development of the Tourist’s Gaze in Early Travel Films

In my second paper for the MA, I discuss the development of amateur films within the context of early tourism. Specifically, I examine the broader development of commercial image making since the 18th c. and show how amateur travel films were simultaneously influenced by commercial, popular tourism and and its relationship with landscape painting and photography. I argue that “representationally, they add little to a notion of Englishness rooted in the landscape that wasn’t already well established and I am much more inclined to see them as commercial products which benefited from and contributed towards forms of economic and cultural consumerism.” I try to show how the production of amateur travel films was tied to the production of mass tourism, both of which are based on consumerism and the consumption of the immaterial. The paper draws on critical theory, secondary historical sources and my primary analysis of films held by the East Anglia Film Archive. Looking back at this paper now, I think that with the benefit of peer-review, this paper could be turned into a published journal article.

Site/Sight: Landscape and the Development of the Tourist’s Gaze in Early Travel Films

An Ecology of Images

Our end of year project was to make a short documentary which related in some way to the themes of archiving, preservation, conservation, etc. Some people made nice, straightforward documentaries about a given subject. I had a bunch of 16mm and 8mm footage that I shot during a trip across the USA (2000) and living in Japan (1998-2001) and used that to make a short film about history and memory.

I was heavily influenced by the narrative style of Chris Marker’s film, ‘Sans Soleil’ (my favourite film). The title is from Susan Sontag’s ‘On Photography’. I was reading John Berger’s ‘Ways of Seeing’ at the time, too…

The script is a blend of my own thinking at the time but also paraphrases Marker, Berger and Sontag considerably. The music uses bits and pieces by John Cage.

I was very proud of this when I finished it. Eight years on, I still quite like it.

Preserving the Hand Painted Films of Margaret Tait

In my dissertation, I discuss a small amount of the work of Margaret Tait. The Introduction offers a personal discussion on the profession of Archiving which I revisit in my conclusion. Section One provides a general overview of Margaret Tait’s life and influences. This brief biographical information serves as a background for the more substantial technical discussion in Section Two.

Though I do enjoy Tait’s films and find her work compelling, I should emphasise that I am not concerned with providing a critique of Margaret Tait’s films nor a complete overview of her life and work. I deem that to be a quite different paper and one I am not interested in writing. My main purpose here is to trace the technical developments Tait made in her filmmaking and show how an understanding of her practices can help in the restoration and preservation of her films. I hope this paper also demonstrates that the biographical is inseparable from the technical and for the Archivist, these two approaches to Tait’s work are again inseparable from the ethical and philosophical dimensions of the idea of permanence.

Preserving the Hand Painted Films of Margaret Tait

A co-operatively run ‘Social Science Centre’

UPDATE (01/02/2011): This idea is now developing into an autonomous Social Science Centre. Click here for the website.

The university has a staff suggestion scheme that rewards good ideas from staff. I’ve just submitted a proposal to the university for help in setting up a Social Science Centre. This is based loosely on an unsuccessful bid to HEFCE that we made a couple of months ago to develop an ‘academic commons’ of sustainable, co-operatively run centres for higher education, somewhat based on the Social Centre model. Initially, as you’ll see below, we’re proposing that courses are run in existing public spaces, with a view to buying or renting a city-centre property further down the line. Attached to this (preferably on the premises) would be some kind of co-operatively run business (I like the idea of a decent bakery – you can’t buy real bread in Lincoln), which would bring in an income to help cover running costs and act as a way to connect with local residents apart from and beyond the educational provision of the Centre.

Anyway, here’s a brief overview of the idea which we’re keen to develop over the next year. If you’re interested and in Lincoln, then a few of us are meeting In Lincoln at 5pm on the 25th September to discuss the practicalities of this idea further. Members of the Cowley Club and Sumac Centre will be there to talk about their experience setting up their respective Social Centres. Email me for more details.

The proposal is that the university support the development of an independent Social Science Centre in Lincoln. The Social Science Centre will offer credit bearing courses in Sociology, Politics and Philosophy, programmes not currently available as part of the University of Lincoln’s portfolio. A key aspect of the Centre is that students would not pay any tuition fees. The Centre would be community based, utilising already existing public spaces in Lincoln, e.g., libraries, museums, schools, community centres. The Centre will be ran as a co-operative, involving local people in the managing and governance of this provision. The courses will be provided by academic members of the co-operative on a voluntary basis. The role of the university will be to provide accreditation for the programmes and an advisory role in establishing the centre as well as an ongoing supportive input. There will be no direct ongoing costs for which the university will be liable. An important principle for the Centre is that it is sustainable and, for that reason, the number of students will not exceed twenty in any academic year. It is intended that this model of sustainable, co-operatively run centres for higher education will act as a catalyst for the creation of other centres for higher education.

A co-operatively run 'Social Science Centre'

UPDATE (01/02/2011): This idea is now developing into an autonomous Social Science Centre. Click here for the website.

The university has a staff suggestion scheme that rewards good ideas from staff. I’ve just submitted a proposal to the university for help in setting up a Social Science Centre. This is based loosely on an unsuccessful bid to HEFCE that we made a couple of months ago to develop an ‘academic commons’ of sustainable, co-operatively run centres for higher education, somewhat based on the Social Centre model. Initially, as you’ll see below, we’re proposing that courses are run in existing public spaces, with a view to buying or renting a city-centre property further down the line. Attached to this (preferably on the premises) would be some kind of co-operatively run business (I like the idea of a decent bakery – you can’t buy real bread in Lincoln), which would bring in an income to help cover running costs and act as a way to connect with local residents apart from and beyond the educational provision of the Centre.

Anyway, here’s a brief overview of the idea which we’re keen to develop over the next year. If you’re interested and in Lincoln, then a few of us are meeting In Lincoln at 5pm on the 25th September to discuss the practicalities of this idea further. Members of the Cowley Club and Sumac Centre will be there to talk about their experience setting up their respective Social Centres. Email me for more details.

The proposal is that the university support the development of an independent Social Science Centre in Lincoln. The Social Science Centre will offer credit bearing courses in Sociology, Politics and Philosophy, programmes not currently available as part of the University of Lincoln’s portfolio. A key aspect of the Centre is that students would not pay any tuition fees. The Centre would be community based, utilising already existing public spaces in Lincoln, e.g., libraries, museums, schools, community centres. The Centre will be ran as a co-operative, involving local people in the managing and governance of this provision. The courses will be provided by academic members of the co-operative on a voluntary basis. The role of the university will be to provide accreditation for the programmes and an advisory role in establishing the centre as well as an ongoing supportive input. There will be no direct ongoing costs for which the university will be liable. An important principle for the Centre is that it is sustainable and, for that reason, the number of students will not exceed twenty in any academic year. It is intended that this model of sustainable, co-operatively run centres for higher education will act as a catalyst for the creation of other centres for higher education.

Digitising 'Common Sense' (pt.II)

Since writing about my intention to digitise the journal, Common Sense, I’ve received support from former editors, Richard Gunn, Werner Bonefeld, Adrian Wilding and Brian McGrail, who between them have sent me the entire run of 24 issues. Using our library’s book scanning facilities, I’ve managed to scan all issue of the journal much quicker than I originally anticipated.

24 issues with around 2100 pages, 200 articles and 104 authors, over 12 years.

The format of the journal changed twice during the course of its life. Issues 1-9 were photocopies of original typed articles that contributors would send to the editors. The first three issues were stapled along the edge of A4 sheets and proved difficult at times to scan because this method of binding did not leave very much margin when pressing the page flat against the scanner bed. Issues 4-9 were easier because they were stapled in the middle of an A3 sheet and would open nicely for lying flat on the scanner. Issues 7-9 were especially easy because contributors seemed to consistently take notice of the editors’ request to leave wide margins.

Notes for contributors: send articles in clean and reproducible typescript, single-space or space-and-a-half (not double-space). Leave wide margins on both sides, and wide gaps at top and bottom of each page.

Issues 10-24 were published in a more conventional journal format and this left enough room at the margins to achieve a consistently good scan and a single issue could be scanned in about 30 mins, half the time that issues 1-3 took.

The journal was scanned at 300dpi using a Plustek Optibook 3600 scanner to create bitmap files of each page. I then used Adobe Acrobat 7 to OCR and create PDFs. This provided pages that are print quality should you wish to print them out, as well as being fully searchable. I regularly cropped pages from earlier issues with the problematic margins using Acrobat to leave a relatively clean page, although at times, you’ll see that there’s barely any margin at all. Without taking the original issues apart, I don’t think I could have done much better.

I’ve also created a website for the journal, hosted here on the University of Lincoln’s blogging platform, with a mapped domain of http://commonsensejournal.org.uk that costs £5/year. I’ve tried to make the journal easy to navigate and you can browse by issue, author and date of publication. You can also search the table of contents across the entire run of 24 issues. I’ve been playing with Google Custom Search, which should provide a way to search the full text of the journal from the website. This largely depends on when Google decides to index the PDFs 1 though and so I won’t implement this until I know the full text for all issues is indexed.

The original paper copies of the journal will be deposited with either the National Library of Scotland or the British Library, depending on what they currently hold.

Finally, Mike Neary (who introduced me to the journal) and I, intend to write an article which retrospectively discusses the journal and hopefully provides a useful, critical introduction to new readers. Past editors and contributors have offered to help.

Digitising Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists

Last week, I wrote to Werner Bonefeld, seeking a couple of articles that were published in Common Sense. Journal of the Edinburgh Conference of Socialist Economists. This journal is pretty hard to come by these days. Back-issues are limited and relatively few of the articles exist on the web. It was published from 1987 to 1999, over 24 issues of about 100 pages each. As you can see from the image, early issues (one to nine) look more like an A4, photocopied zine than an academic journal, but later issues take the more traditional form and were distributed by AK Press. A few articles were collected and published in 2003.

In my email to Werner, I mentioned that if I could get my hands on whole issues of the journal, I would digitise them for distribution on the web. As an editor of the journal, Werner was grateful and said that copyright was not a problem. I didn’t realised that Werner would send quite so many issues of the journal, but yesterday 15 of the 24 issues of Common Sense arrived in the post, along with a copy of his recent book, Subverting the Present, Imagining the Future.

My plan is to create high quality digital, searchable, versions of every issue of Common Sense over the next few months and offer them to Werner for his website, or I can create a website for them myself. I’ve done a lot of image digitisation over the years but not text. If you have some useful advice for me, please leave a comment here. I’ll also seek advice from the Librarians here, who have experience digitising books.

I have issues 10 to 24 (though not 11) and issue five. To begin my hunt for missing copies, I’ve ordered issues 1,2 & 3 from the British Library’s Interlibrary Loan service. An email this morning told me that the BL don’t have copies of the journal and are hunting them down from other libraries. We’ll see what they come up with. If you have issues 1,2,3,4,6,7,8,9 or eleven, I’d be grateful if you’d get in touch. It would be good to digitise the full set and I’ll return any copies that I’m sent.

Why go to all this trouble?

Well, Common Sense was an important and influential journal “of and for social revolutionary theory and practice, ideas and politics.” In issue 21, reflecting on ten years of Common Sense, the editorial stated that:

Our project is class analysis and we aim to provide a platform for critical debates unfettered by conventional fragmentations of knowledge (either into ‘fields’ of knowledge or ‘types’ of knowledge, e.g. ‘academic’ and ‘non-academic’). This continuity in the concepts of class struggle and social change flies in the face of most interpretations of the last 10 years.

When the journal switched from A4 to A5 size, in May 1991 with issue ten, the editorial collective reflected on the first few years of the journal.

Common Sense was first produced in Edinburgh in 1987. It offered a direct challenge to the theory production machines of specialised academic journals, and tried to move the articulation of intellectual work beyond the collapsing discipline of the universities. It was organised according to minimalist production and editorial process which received contributions that could be photocopied and stapled together. It was reproduced in small numbers, distributed to friends, and sold at cost price in local bookshops and in a few outposts throughout the world. It maintained three interrelated commitments: to provide an open space wherein discussion could take place without regard to style or to the rigid classification of material into predefined subject areas; to articulate critical positions within the contemporary political climate; and to animate the hidden Scottish passion for general ideas. Within the context of the time, the formative impetus of Common Sense was a desire to juxtapose disparate work and to provide a continuously open space for a general critique of the societies in which we live.

The change in form that occurred with issue ten was a conscious decision to overcome the “restrictive” aspects of the minimalist attitude to production that had governed issues 1 to 9, which were filled with work by ranters, poets, philosophers, theorists, musicians, cartoonists, artists, students, teachers, writers and “whosoever could produce work that could be photocopied.” However, the change in form did not mark a conscious change in content for the journal, and the basic commitment “to pose the question of what the common sense of our age is, to articulate critical positions in the present, and to offer a space for those who have produced work that they feel should be disseminated but that would never be sanctioned by the dubious forces of the intellectual police.” Further in the editorial of issue ten, they write:

The producers of Common Sense remain committed to the journal’s original brief – to offer a venue for open discussion and to juxtapose written work without regard to style and without deferring to the restrictions of university based journals, and they hope to be able to articulate something of the common sense of the new age before us. Common Sense does not have any political programme nor does it wish to define what is political in advance. Nevertheless, we are keen to examine what is this thing called “common sense”, and we hope that you who read the journal will also make contributions whenever you feel the inclination. We feel that there is a certain imperative to think through the changes before us and to articulate new strategies before the issues that arise are hijacked by the Universities to be theories into obscurity, or by Party machines to be practised to death.

Why ‘Common Sense’?

The editorial in issue five, which you can read below, discusses why the journal was named, ‘Common Sense’.

Hopefully, if you’re new to Common Sense, like me, this has whetted your appetite for the journal and you’re looking forward to seeing it in digital form. In the meantime, you might want to read some of the work published elsewhere by members of the collective, such as Werner Bonefeld, John Holloway, Richard Gunn, Richard Noris, Alfred Mendes, Kosmas Psychopedis, Toni Negri, Nick Dyer-Witheford, Massimo De Angelis and Ana Dinerstein. If you were reading Common Sense back in the 1990s, perhaps contributed to it in some way and would like see Common Sense in digital form so that your students can read it on their expensive iPads and share it via underground file sharing networks, please have a dig around for those issues I’m missing and help me get them online.

Cheers.

Common Sense

The journal Common Sense exists as a relay station for the the exchange and dissemination of ideas. It is run on a co-operative and non-profitmaking basis. As a means of maintaining flexibility as to numbers of copies per issue, and of holding costs down, articles are reproduced in their original typescript. Common Sense is non-elitist, since anyone (or any group) with fairly modest financial resources can set up a journal along the same lines. Everything here is informal, and minimalist.

Why, as a title. ‘Common Sense’? In its usual ordinary-language meaning, the term ’common sense’ refers to that which appears obvious beyond question: “But it’s just common sense!”. According to a secondary conventional meaning, ‘common sense’ refers to a sense (a view, an understanding or outlook) which is ‘common’ inasmuch as it is widely agreed upon or shared. Our title draws upon the latter of these meanings, while at the same time qualifying it, and bears only an ironical relation to the first.

In classical thought, and more especially in Scottish eighteenth century philosophy, the term ‘common sense’ carried with it two connotations: (i) ‘common sense’ meant public of shared sense (the Latin ‘sensus comunis‘ being translated as ‘publick sense’ by Francis Hutcheson in 1728). And (ii) ‘comnon sense’ signified that sense, or capacity, which allows us to totalise or synthesise the data supplied by the five senses (sight, touch and so on) of a more familiar kind. (The conventional term ‘sixth sense‘, stripped of its mystical and spiritualistic suggestions, originates from the idea of a ‘common sense’ understood in this latter way). It is in this twofold philosophical sense of ‘common sense’ that our title is intended.

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