A co-operative university

The Social Science Centre

In 2011, I helped set up a co-operative for higher education. It began as an idea that my colleague, Mike Neary, and I had been discussing the previous summer, and was partly influenced by the network of social centres that exist across the UK and elsewhere. In May this year, the co-operative had its second AGM and we are currently running a Social Science Imagination course for the second year, two arts-based community projects, as well as regular public talks. You can read more about the Social Science Centre (SSC) in a recent article published in Radical Philosophy. The SSC remains an experiment – on our own terms a successful one – that has allowed its members to not only teach and learn at the level of higher education, but also, reflect on, discuss and critique alternative and utopian forms of higher education. In academia, we might formally describe the SSC as an ‘action research‘ project:

Action research is simply a form of self-reflective enquiry undertaken by participants in social situations in order to improve the rationality and justice of their own practices, their understanding of these practices, and the situations in which the practices are carried out (Carr and Kemmis 1986: 162).

I shall return to this in a moment.

Free software, free society?

Since 2007, I have worked at my local university where I focus on the role of technology in higher education. My work is a mixture of technical, theoretical and historical research, as well as some teaching and supporting staff and students in their use of technology. For many years, I have been interested in and an advocate for free and open source software and consequently, in 2008, I established and continue to run a large WordPress network at the university, too. Despite my advocacy for free and open source software, I am also quite critical of the technological determinism, cyber-utopianism and rampant liberalism that often characterises the discourse in this area. Nevertheless, the practice of collectively producing, owning and controlling the means of production remains a very important objective for me and any criticism I have of the free and open source software movement(s) and free culture movement in general, are so as to develop the purpose and practice of common ownership and collective production, and help defend it from being subsumed by the dominant mode of production i.e. capitalism: a highly productive form of social coercion for the private accumulation of value.

The WordPress network that I maintain at my university appears to be an example of the means of production being collectively produced, owned and controlled. It is used freely by staff and students across the university for publishing and communicating their work and providing services to other people. WordPress is ‘free software’ developed and shared under the General Public License (GPL). It has a large number of people from around the world contributing to the development of the software who mutually recognise the ‘copyleft’ terms and conditions of the license. As such, we can say that it is collectively produced and having installed WordPress at the university without the need for recurrent license agreements, we can say that my university owns the software that we run. The software runs on university servers and a small number of people at the university, including me, control our WordPress installation on behalf of all other users. Using this example of WordPress, we might say that the university reproduces, owns and controls a means of production (i.e., web publishing).

This is the aspiration for many free and open source advocates: to campaign for and promote the use of free and open source software among their friends, family, in public services and in their workplace. Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, campaigns for schools and universities to use free software. I think this is both necessary and good.

However, my aspirations go beyond the installation of free software in my workplace. Through my work and my involvement with the Social Science Centre, I have come to see that freedom in the use, study of, re-use, and distribution of technologies can co-exist with institutional, political and social structures that do not guarantee control over the means of production. In other words, a university might run nothing but free and open source software, but ownership and control over the means of knowledge production can remain unaffected. Committee structures, hierarchies among staff and students, ownership of the university’s capital, sources of funding, and institutional governance, can all function the same regardless of whether free and open source software is in widespread use.  Free software does not necessarily lead to a free society or a free university. It is in this sense, that we can observe that technology does not determine society, but that society shapes technology. The ‘freedoms’ offered by free software are clearly limited (only the wildest techno-utopian would disagree) and as Lawrence Lessig notes in his introduction to Stallman’s book, Free Software, Free Society, free software is as much an attempt to preserve existing freedoms, as it is to extend them: ““Free software” would assure that the world governed by code is as “free” as our tradition that built the world before code.” According to this statement, the free software movement aims to preserve the liberal status quo established before the early 1980s when “free software” emerged.

By contrast, as I’ve noted before, Christopher Kelty’s idea of a ‘recursive public’, appeals to me because it acknowledges that by defending something that we might value, such as free and open source software, we often find ourselves ‘recursively’ campaigning for underlying freedoms, such as open standards, open hardware, etc. and campaigning against that which threatens these objectives such as SOPA and PRISM. In this way, free software may actually, recursively, lead to a free society in that it politicises people who otherwise might not have questioned broader social and political forces. The contingent nature of this is important. Perhaps this is free software’s revolutionary potential. My point is though, that without more fundamental freedoms in society, free software does not offer freedom. Social, political and institutional structures can remain the same.

A co-operatively owned and governed university

This brings me back to the Social Science Centre and the idea of a ‘co-operative university’.

Thought of as an ‘action research project’, some members, including myself, are looking to take the next step in Lewin’s research cycle.

Lewin's action research steps

While not wishing to disrupt the continuation of the Social Science Centre in Lincoln, some of us are embarking on a second phase of research and action focusing on the idea of a ‘co-operative university’. The SSC is not a university but rather a co-operative model of free, higher education. It is a free association of people who come together to collectively produce knowledge. It is also a political project. We always intended that the SSC remains small and sustainable in recognition of our existing commitments of work and family, etc. However, the ideas and ambitions that our work on the SSC has produced are now more ambitious and have led to discussions among some of us around the idea of a ‘co-operative university’. We spoke with people about this at the ‘Co-operative Education Against the Crisis‘ conference organised with the Co-operative College in May and, as time allows, we have been reading and writing about the idea (e.g. here and here).

We are not the only people considering this. In August, the Times Higher Education magazine published a feature article about co-operative universities, focusing on Mondragon in Spain (and acknowledging the SSC). They ran a leading article about the idea, too. They referenced a field trip by Wright, S. et al (2011), who also visited Mondragon to study the university.

Unfortunately, there does not appear to have been very much written about co-operative universities over the years. Yesterday, I spent some time doing cross-catalogue and Google Scholar searches but it didn’t turn up very much (<< I will publish references I find via that link). There is, of course, a great deal of research into various forms of co-operatives, co-operative governance, co-operative history, education within the co-operative movement, etc. There was a special issue of the Journal for Co-operative Studies (2011, 44:3) which focused on co-operative education, though mostly schooling. A number of articles have been written about co-operative education in the state school system. Most recently, this reflects the growth of co-operative schooling as a real alternative to academy schools in the UK. A number of articles have also been written about ‘co-operative learning’, but do not appear to touch upon co-operative ownership and governance of higher education institutions, which I consider key to the idea of a co-operative university. Pedagogy based on the idea of co-operation is not enough. In my view, a co-operative university must encompass (1) co-operative ownership of the institution’s capital in common; (2) co-operative, flat and fully democratic governance; as well as (3) co-operative practices in research, teaching and learning.

My past work on ‘openness’ in higher education relates directly to collaborative (though not specifically co-operative) practices in research, teaching and learning, but as I have explained above, my interest is now shifting (recursively??) to academic labour and its role in co-operative ownership and governance within higher education. I see this as a direct and natural outcome of my work on the role of technology in higher education as we cannot fully critique and develop the role of technology without understanding the dialectical role of labour. I am certain that this will become more apparent to advocates of open education and open science as we all reflect on the affordances of open technologies and open practices in contrast to the limitations and constraints of existing  institutional and organisational models, themselves expressions of embedded social relations and political economy.

This was my reason for critiquing the work of Egan and Jossa, and, despite my reservations of Jossa in particular, I still regard a focus on co-operative production (i.e. ‘worker co-operatives’), to be the best way to “attack the groundwork” of the present political and economic system that higher education is part of.

If you are also working in this area or are interested in working with us on this project, please do get in touch. Co-operation cannot occur in isolation!

The Open Knowledge Conference 2013

A shorter, edited version of the article below has been published on The Conversation.

Last week, I was one of 900 delegates from 55 countries who travelled to Geneva to attend OKCon, the Open Knowledge conference. We convened at Geneva’s International Conference Centre, co-incidentally located next door to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and just ten minutes walk from the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO).  The theme of this year’s conference (which have been running since 2005) was ‘Open Data. Broad, Deep, Connected’. Open Knowledge Foundation (OKF) co-founder, Dr. Rufus Pollock explained in his opening speech that this is “the century of the open knowledge society” and that the conference aimed to broaden access, deepen commitment to openness and connect people.

A post-war legacy

If today we are living through the century of the open knowledge society, we might recognise that the roots of the movement – and it really does feel like a movement – are to be found in the development of 20th century Liberalism as it confronted the totalitarianism of Nazi Fascism and Stalinist Communism. The horrors of World War Two and the paranoia of the Cold War led to intense reflection on the nature of freedom and democracy. In 1945, Karl Popper published his two-volume critique of totalitarianism, The Open Society and its Enemies, two-years after Friedrich Hayek published The Road to Serfdom, a foundational text for neo-liberalism. Elsewhere in the wartime academy, Norbert Wiener and others were developing the discipline of Cybernetics, which analysed society as a system of communication and feedback – an information society. In 1948, Wiener published the landmark book, Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine which would influence the emerging disciplines of Cognitive Science, Artificial Intelligence, Robotics and Computer Science.

A convergence of this history of ideas could be clearly felt at the Open Knowledge Conference in Geneva. The themes of the conference included open government, open development, open culture, open science, open education and open innovation. While increasingly broad in its coverage, there remained a tendency in the workshops and talks to view these avenues of openness through the singular lens of open data and the efficiencies that it promises in all aspects of civic life.  In his speech, Pollock was clear that openness in itself doesn’t change the world, but that without open data, “we’re driving blind” and he identified open data with “empowerment” – enabling people to change the world. In his closing speech, Pollock said that the Open Knowledge Foundation is “pragmatic, not fanatic”, recognising that there are degrees of openness, despite having once co-authored the pivotal ‘Open Definition’.

The ‘logic’ of openness

My reason for attending the conference was to participate in a meeting around scholarly infrastructure, but having attended last year’s Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki, I was also curious about how the Open Knowledge movement is progressing, especially in the areas of open education and open science. In the past few years I have been awarded grants by Jisc to undertake research and development projects which produced Open Educational Resources, Open Data and Open Source Software. You see, once you catch the openness bug, it remains infectious. This has been neatly articulated by Christopher Kelty, who wrote about the ‘recursive public’ of the Internet, which turns freedom of information advocates into activists who find themselves necessarily campaigning for open standards, open infrastructure, open source and so on, so as to protect the thing they cherish.

We can see this in the Open Access movement, having its roots in the Free and Open Source Software movement that emerged out of the Artificial Intelligence labs of the 1970s. Now over a decade old, Open Access has initiated a recursive response within the academy whereby the ‘logic’ of Open Access – free, public access to scholarly research papers enabled by the Internet – increasingly demands that the underlying research data is also made openly accessible so that the research can be reproduced and verified. But it does not stop there: The source code for the software employed during the research, as well as the algorithms and lab notes should be made open, too. And while we’re at it, why not open peer-review? During one workshop I attended on tools for open science, we were shown how some researchers are now writing ‘executable papers’, constructed in such a way that open source software can reproduce and verify the results of the paper and embedded data sources.

Open data by default

The acceptance of Open Access is opening up much more than access to scholarly research publications. With Open Access now embedded in the policies of major research funders around the world, open research data is next on the agenda. In June this year, the G8 Science Ministers published four principles for open scientific data, focusing on openness, access, efficiency and supporting policy. This statement was published concurrently with the G8’s Open Data Charter, a set of principles intended to improve the transparency and responsiveness of governments, increase innovation and improve government efficiency.

The politics of openness

This year’s Open Knowledge Conference had much to celebrate in terms of what has been achieved since the Open Knowledge Foundation was established in 2004. This was underlined by the announcement of a $1.2m grant from the World Bank, which will fund the ‘Open Data Partnership for Development’, a joint project between the World Bank, the OKF and the Open Data Institute.  The announcement highlights the three objectives of the Partnership: “Supporting developing countries to plan, execute and run open data initiatives; increasing the use of open data in developing countries; and growing the evidence-base on the impact of open data for development.” It is worth remembering that the World Bank is itself the product of and advocate of another form of openness: Open markets. It was established as an outcome of the 1944 Breton Woods Conference and along with the International Monetary Fund, intended to promote international development and trade.

Openness has always been a political project with advocates from across the political spectrum. For some it is about power and accountability, for others it is about innovation and efficiency. Choosing pragmatism over fanaticism has been a sound choice so far. However, if Kelty’s analysis is right – and in my experience it is – the recursive ‘logic’ of openness will continue to extend itself to all aspects of public life while the definition of openness will be contested and stretched to ever greater degrees. Here in the academy, it is re-shaping the nature of scientific practice and discovery and before long will contest the way science has been valorised since it was institutionalised over a century ago.

Situating this year’s Open Knowledge Conference beside the ITU and WIPO buildings was a logistical coincidence. Yet in many ways, delegates at OKCon have a deep interest in the work of both of these agencies of the United Nations and are challenging them to re-think the way in which the ‘information society’ and the ‘knowledge economy’ achieves some of the ideals of openness that were established in the post-war climate and have yet to be fulfilled.

Making sense of things: A PhD by Published Work

At this time of year we have our annual appraisals, which involves looking back on what personal and professional objectives I set myself for last year. One of those ambitions was to work towards submitting a ‘PhD by Published Work’ in 2014. In that respect, I think I’ve failed to really complete anything substantial. In the last 12 months, I have spent most of my time running JISC-funded projects 1 and, related to that, trying to develop the LNCD group here at Lincoln. It is good work, and I enjoy it, but unlike most academics who receive funding for research and/or development, I am not that interested in writing papers about the work I do day-to-day. Technology related projects, such as those funded by JISC, produce lots of academic, peer-reviewed papers, but it has never occurred to me to write about this side of my work in a systematic way. Perhaps this was because I joined the university having been an Archivist and Project Manager elsewhere, and outside academia, the accomplishment of the project is itself the objective and writing up papers doesn’t really factor into the work. Also, the projects I run day-to-day, while I enjoy them and think they are of value, don’t provide me with any sense of meaning or purpose in the world, which is the reason why I entered higher education as an undergraduate and post-graduate student. It has never occurred to me that my vocation and my efforts in higher learning, should or would ever coincide until a year or so ago when I was offered a permanent academic contract at Lincoln, rather than the fixed-term, non-academic contracts I had been on. Being ‘an academic’ is quite unique in that it does combine a lifetime of higher learning with a vocation, something I have been slow to put into practice over the last year.

I need to get out of this habitual way of thinking and start to make direct connections with my day-to-day work and my intellectual aspirations, eventually completing a PhD. It is not easy and I would appreciate any advice you might have. Looking over my blog this morning, of the 209 posts I’ve written since April 2008, I have categorised 58 of them being related to what I want to pursue for my PhD. Doing this has allowed me to try to find some sense of coherence to my work, which I will outline here for my own benefit and perhaps even for your interest.

The first period of those posts covers the time I spent thinking and writing about ‘resilient education‘ with Richard Hall. It began with a failed bid to JISC around business continuity within HEIs in the face of an energy crisis. One question that framed our work at this time was, “What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?” Over a number of blogs posts, face-to-face conversations, workshops, a conference paper and, eventually a journal paper, we both felt that the imperative of economic growth and therefore the social relations of capitalism are the root cause of the crises we face in society and therefore in higher education, too. It was through conversations with my colleague Prof. Mike Neary, that I began to shift from viewing this problem as technological, economic and cultural, to one that is fundamentally historical and political. At first, I was drawn to ideas that have circulated for some time among environmentalists and ‘ecological economists’, such as that of a non-growth-based ‘Steady State’ economy and the work of the Transition movement. However, I remained unsatisfied with these liberal solutions to liberal capitalism. 2 Of course, such approaches have some practical merit, but I soon found them intellectually impoverished compared to the approach of critical political economy.

The most challenging, stimulating and useful scholarship I have read over the last couple of years has been by writers in the Marxist tradition of critical political economy: Writers such as Simon Clarke, Moishe Postone, Mark Neocleus, Harry Cleaver, and Mike Neary have provided me with a radically different way of understanding the world and the challenges society and therefore higher education faces. So far, I have attempted to use the methodological tools provided by this critical, scholarly tradition in one book chapter, which I remain dissatisfied with but nevertheless see it has a building block to something more mature. That piece of writing was, if you like, my research output from the ChemistryFM OER project that I ran. As well as my article with Richard Hall, I also co-authored an article with Mike Neary, both of which could be seen as a critique of my work on that OER project.

In terms of scholarly progress, I see now that the article I wrote with Richard Hall was the culmination of a period trying to address the first ‘research question’ of ‘What will Higher Education look like in a 2050 -80% +2c 450ppm world?‘ By the time the article was written (and certainly by the time it was published), we had both moved on and in my book chapter and article with Mike Neary, I was trying to critique the approach that Richard and I had taken in the earlier article, which makes a case for open education as an approach to developing a ‘resilient education’. Today, I do not think that openness as it is commonly understood and practised, will re-produce a more resilient, sustainable higher education as we commonly understand and practise it. There is much more to be said about this and in doing so, I shifted my emphasis to thinking about what openness means and how it is practised inside and outside higher education. One of the earliest and most influential expressions of openness can be found in hacker culture.

During this period (the last year or so), I have been interested in hackers, hacking and how student hackers can re-produce the university. One of the reasons I made this shift was because in my work day-to-day, I was managing JISC-funded technology projects and, influenced by Mike Neary’s work on Student as Producer, I was employing students and recent graduates to work with me on these R&D projects. During the course of this work, I was also appealing to university management to support a more formal collaboration among different departments at the university, which focused on the role of students in re-producing the university through their work on technology projects. The result of those committee papers and discussions was LNCD.  Working closely with student hackers and more closely with the university developer community in general, I began to think about the history and practise of hacking. This work is on-going as I sketch out ideas on this blog. I began with a simple proposal that we should understand hacking as an academic practice, or rather as a development of the academic tradition. I developed this a little further in a short article for the Guardian, which reflected on hacking, Student as Producer and a student hacker conference that we organised at Lincoln with the DevCSI project, called DevXS.

The JISC projects, LNCD, the reflections on hacking and the DevXS conference were then written up in a case study commissioned by JISC on ‘institutional approaches to openness‘. The case study was called ‘Hacking the University’ and a similar version of it, along with an additional section by my colleague Dean Lockwood, will be published in a book next month.

As I continued in this vein, I began to think about hacking as both learning and as labour and tried to articulate this in a couple of blog posts about learning a craft and the university as a hackerspace. At that time, I thought that one intervention that I might make at Lincoln in trying to get students to challenge and re-produce ‘the university’ as an idea as well as a living institution, was to develop a course based on the model of hackerspaces and examine the work of hackers pedagogically in terms of a craft. I was also thinking about how funders like JISC could support this approach, too. This led me to look at popular models of funding, such as the ‘angel investment’ of Y-Combinator, which I am beginning to tie back into the history of hacking and the origins of venture capital in US universities. My two most recent posts in this area (here and here) have been sketches for an article I intend to write on the role of universities in the development of hacker culture. It’s only once I have examined and critiqued this aspect of hacker culture history that I feel I can move on to more substantive and specific questions relating to hacking, openness and freedom, and the relationship between students, universities and venture capital in producing a new form of vocationalism within higher education.

This is likely to form the major part of my PhD by publication but despite writing long reflections on this blog, it does not amount to anything that I can readily submit for the PhD. I have also neglected to apply any methodological critique to my recent writing about hackers and hacking and need to return to the central categories of Marx: e.g. value, fetishism, class struggle, alienation, each of which I see as central to the re-production of the work of hackers and hacking and therefore the role of the university.

I also feel that I am currently a long way from reconciling the projects that I do day-to-day and the critique of political economy that I have started. Last week, for example, I had a conference paper proposal accepted on an evaluation of CKAN for research data management. On the face of it, this paper would normally be a fairly straightforward critical appraisal of a piece of software and for the conference that is what I intend to write. But I know that I should take the opportunity to develop the paper into something more intellectually substantive and incorporate it into a negative critique of openness, open data and university research culture. Whatever I end up writing, I am going to ensure that from hereon, my time is spent bringing my writing together into a coherent PhD submission in two or three years time.

Finally, if you are interested, here is the section of university guidance that deals with ‘PhD by Published Work’ (PDF). There are a number of things I have to do between now and my submission, not least keep writing, but also seek clarification around the meaning of ‘a substantial contribution to the academic endeavour of the University’. Co-authored outputs are permissible, but I need to be much clearer on what the Faculty Research Degrees Board expect to be included. At the moment, I am assuming that only my book chapter on OER is submissible as part of the PhD. Not only that, but it is the only piece of writing that approaches the standard of intellectual work that I think I would want to submit. Of course, I could be persuaded otherwise… Nevertheless, I think I need to have four more pieces published in order to submit the PhD, as well as writing a a 5-10,000 word commentary. Expect updates on this blog as I work towards this and thanks for any advice you can offer.

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

Amateur and avant-garde film

It occurred to me 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.

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.