[iDC] Interview with Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Sat Apr 2 18:49:35 EST 2005

Copyleft and Tenure: Towards a Network Model

Interview with Joline Blais and Jon Ippolito

(adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0

Trebor Scholz: The academic legitimization of the wide variety of new media
research practices is a widely discussed topic. From the collaborating media
artist to the media critic who publishes online, content sharing does not
always further tenure processes. More often than not, the notion of open
access is at odds with the business logic of the university. Can debates
about tenure, for example, lead to the development of models that have value
also outside of academe?

Jon Ippolito: Tenure, like copyright, has lost sight of its original
purpose. There is a parallel between the problem that the university has in
adapting to the digital world and the problems that copyright has in
adapting to that same world. In both cases an initially very helpful idea
has been corrupted into a paradigm of scarcity that keeps knowledge products
in a small circle of a particular subculture. Currently, the tenure review
process does not account for collaborations, as you point out. Knowledge is
increasingly locked away, attached to money. In the case of tenure the gold
standard is contributing to academic journals, each of which may cost a
university $ 10,000 annually in subscription fees. This makes a sizable
number of subscriptions to such magazines only possible for the Harvard's
and MIT's, and often leaves professors at other schools unable to assign
students their own texts because their library cannot afford them.

Yet the instruments of tenure and copyright can be used, perhaps, as a way
to re-think these concepts. Copyleft/GNU licenses enforce a more democratic
system. How can tenure be used in a similar way? A new initiative we are
working on, the Maine Intellectual Commons, is exploring this question. One
of our University of Maine colleagues, Harlan Onsrud, has recommended
re-writing the tenure review criteria to favor open access publications over
pay-for-access journals. The original idea of peer-review was great, but it
has been corrupted by small hegemonic groups who have a pre-set investment
in older intellectual paradigms. They often have an exclusive stranglehold
on a field. If we broaden the notion of "peer" to what it means in the realm
of peer-to-peer networks like Gnutella or bitTorrent, suddenly the term
connotes inclusion rather than exclusion.


Prioritizing open access publications is a hard thing to push through a
university, however, because of all the bureaucratic hoops you have to
negotiate, from the administration to the faculty senate to the unions. So
Harlan suggested the short-term goal of simply re-writing the forms on which
people submit their tenure applications. The top slots would be filled with
open access categories. This would essentially not change the criteria but
would make professors think twice when they realize that they do not have
anything in these first four slots for open access books or articles. This
is one half-way measure that functions in a similar way to copyleft, which
is a half-way measure in adapting to the problem of copyright.


Joline Blais: My question in relation to tenure process is that of
responsibility. Whom am I responsible to? Am I responsible to the local
community or to a global network of researchers in my field? Do the people
who live in my community have anything to contribute to my research? This
semester I invited members of the local Native American community who live
just a few miles from the university to take part in the class without
paying tuition. They asked questions, they raised local questions (i.e. in
relation to a river-reclamation project to clean up one of our rivers). That
became part of the course material.

Also related to questions of tenure is the concern with hierarchies. We try
to move tenure away from hierarchies to networks. I was taken by a recent
essay by Alex Galloway, "Global Networks and the Effect on Culture," in
which he says that one should not really attack a system directly as it is
very hard to bring it down. What he recommends is a routing around strategy,
just like in the Internet.  Between server and client a packet of
information finds the way of least resistance, sometimes also breaking up
the information. Alex suggests to route around a system or structure so that
the particular system or structure becomes irrelevant. We think of this
routing around also as a model for the tenure review processes in the way
that more people get involved and find ways to become successful using
different strategies.

JI: Galloway's essay came up during a week-long battle Joline and I have
been fighting over whether community networks are ultimately empowering.

JB: Jon is of the opinion that networks are deeply empowering but Alex's
final comment is that the Powers That Be are now onto the value of networks
and work themselves in network structures.

JI: Well, Joline is right, we have to find ways to prevent structures from
being co-opted. Tenure was originally created to go beyond narrow networks
of people who know each other so as to allow outspoken people to be
protected in some way and benefit society as a whole.

Copyright was also originally meant for underdogs who wanted a way of
protecting their own works and yet have those things contribute to a vibrant
public domain. But now dead-tree monographs pale by comparison to Google
hits as a measure of influence, while a treasure trove of music and movies
are locked out of public reach because their creators have ceded their
rights to EMI or Disney.

TS: Some of my European colleagues perceive the American tenure system as
"slavery." But the German academic system of the "master class" in which
god-like professors descend down to their students looks as tragic to me.
How can you envision a system that triggers creativity?

JI: I am in strong favor of hacking systems like tenure to promote the free
circulation of ideas and protect the blasphemers. Academia was conceived
with that goal in mind.

JB: When UC-Boulder professor Ward Churchill criticized the US after 9/11,
Republican Bill Owens, governor of Colorado, had to call for Churchill's
resignation. Note the language: he had to "call for his resignation" because
there was no easy way to fire him. Regardless of what you think of Churchill
or his views, I consider it important to build structures of dissent, and in
its original form tenure was one of them.

JI: That is right, in a corporation he would just have been handed a pink
slip--end of discussion. So tenure, like copyright, can be a lever to assert
yourself. In last November's Conference on the Intellectual Commons, Neeru
Paharia described a proposal someone made for a "no military use" Creative
Commons license. We need to be thinking creatively about these kinds of


JB: Yes, but even traditional tenure structures are under assault. A bill to
alter tenure protections has just been submitted to the Maine legislature.
Labeled "An Act to Create an Academic Bill of Rights," it is actually a
prime instance of double speak: The title of the bill is a mask for its
substance which infringes upon academic freedom by subjecting teaching
practices and campus cultural programming to legislative oversight and
private litigation.  Anyone who considers course subject matter
"controversial" and labels legitimate educative practices as
"indoctrination" can seek redress. Opponents have identified this as part of
the culture wars launched by Bush's neo-con cronies.

LD 1194 "An Act to Create an Academic Bills of Rights"
So in my opinion, instead of leveraging existing models, we should pave
routes around them. Together with some UMaine colleagues and students, we
have built a collaborative architecture called The Pool that offers a
democratic trust network independent of the Ivory Tower peer-review system.
So far we have used this beta system primarily to stimulate collaborative
artworks and applications--an Art Pool--but lately it occurred to us that we
could build a Text Pool to do the same for collaborative criticism.


In an academic context the possibility of tracking each individual
contribution to a larger project may be interesting. In a way you can do
this already at lists like <nettime> by searching a conversational thread in
the archive. With the Text Pool you would get a similar, maybe better idea
of the social construction of a text instead of just reading an article that
states one author. Within a text you can just click on parts of it and see
who contributed it-- you see the entire "author-stream."

TS: The site OpenTheory is a German equivalent to this. It takes the idea of
free software to collaborative writing of theory.


JI: Great, I did not know about the OpenTheory site. There is certainly a
burgeoning number of sites that apply a SourceForge-style interface to
everything from cola recipes to missing person cases.


While The Pool includes version tracking like these sites, The Pool is based
on a graphic interface rather than a linear inventory. In the primary
interface, community ratings produce an emergent swarm of projects plotted
according to their levels of approval and recognition.

Another Pool interface is a collaborative network grapher built by one of
our students, Jeremy Knope. As with social network tools, you can graph the
degrees of separation of different people, but in this case you can also see
how they are related through collaborative projects.


When we showed The Pool to Jim Crutchfield at the Santa Fe Institute, a
think tank for chaos theory and complexity science, he thought that this
could be valuable in the research process because you may have no article in
a journal for which you are the lead author but many works for which you
played some role in the creation of other people's intellectual products. By
the time your essay makes it into the New Media Reader, there is
unfortunately no button you can click to list all the people who contributed
to it or critiqued it on <nettime>. I think we really need structures that
allow that kind of version history.

TS: How do you use these projects in an educational setting? How do projects
such as The Art Pool or Text Pool compare to open courseware projects such
as MIT's OpenCourseWare or Rice University's Connexions projects, Harvard's
H2O project, Citeulike, or our Distributed Learning Project? If free access
to art is the concern--well, the Rhizome ArtBase is free on Fridays. The
Rhizome creators emphasized the social task of attracting people to an
online tool over its technical complexity. Opening a room does not mean that
people will come. You have to have a party with free beer for people join
in. That was one of the things I learned from the collaborative work on
Discordia. In addition, would not it be useful to link up the databases of
projects with commonalities such Rhizome's ArtBase, Art Pool, and Neural?


http://discordia.us (archived)

JB: Most of the projects that you mention are about open access: MIT
OpenCourseWare is about access to syllabi. People who are not paying
tuition, who are not taking the courses can go in and get the syllabi. The
same is true of Rhizome (on Fridays)--you can get access to art there. The
Pool is not so much about mere access--it is about the process that brings
people together, not just a one-way portal to get a project or a text. In
the Pool you can review other people's projects and can potentially join
them. The goal of the project is to break students and faculty out of the
model of competitive work and into a kind of collaborative project that
allows people to get individual credit.

JI: The Open Access movement is great. But there is a huge gap between a
professor at MIT who shares his syllabus and that same professor saying, "I
want to start a syllabus--does anybody care to help?" That is a big
difference--the open software movement is a much better model of production.

TS: Yes, MIT's market leadership is reinforced by their open courseware
project whereas a small community college may not benefit as much from being
open. Axel Bruns addressed this in a previous interview.

JB: MIT's openness is set up as one-way contribution. I cannot contribute
resources to a syllabus. I cannot add to their version. Baudrillard
addresses these ideas of reciprocity and interactivity. He claims that the
media "are what always prevents response," and he reminds us that in
'primitive' societies, "power belongs to the one who can give and cannot be
repaid." This "disrupts the exchange to your profit" and I would add, to
your power. That is precisely MIT's model. They can set the canon of

When I was working at New York University, Blackboard was introduced for
online courses. Professors had to put up their syllabi there so that the
university could basically sell them after professors had left the
institution. If my syllabus is online and nobody can contribute then I do
not see much point of using this technology.


TS: This idea of resource sharing and collaborative syllabus creation is
also at the core of the Distributed Learning Project (DLP) on which I work
with Tom Leonhardt. It is in process but it is conceptual beginnings can be
traced. It will hopefully be functional by mid-summer.


Earlier on Jon raised the question of the public domain and asked if
academics still speak to it.

JB: Yes, it is really important to raise the question of what we contribute
to the different kinds of public domains. Today, a person who wants to speak
out needs tenure to protect themselves. But 200 years ago in this area
a person did not need a legal contract to be able to speak their mind. The
Native Americans had their talking circles where everybody was heard
equally. Two weekends ago I attended a similar talking circle among the
Passamaquoddy who are fighting to keep a Liquefied Natural Gas plant from
destroying the last of their land. The model is one of listening deeply,
getting the pulse of the entire community, and then forming a consensus
around which policy decisions are made that makes everyone feel they have
had a part in the decision. Before everybody speaks issues are not even
brought up. A plurality of views is welcome, is invited--this is seen as
helping to expand the base for the formation of consensus.

Native American culture gives us a model for the commons also. We have to go
back to pre-enclosure movements in England and other parts of Europe to get
a memory of what the commons used to be: a grazing field for cattle, a piece
of land that belonged to nobody and anybody where all could gather and hunt.
Yet only a century ago, we still had examples of people who held land in
common in the US. White settlers who wanted to buy land from Native
Americans could not do so because native land held in common needed
consensus by all to be re-appropriated. The Dawe's act of 1887 broke up that
commons land and privatized it, at 40-100 acres per person. And during that
time Native Americans lost about two-thirds of their land because
individuals were bribed, some sold off their land is desperate poverty,
other land was 'left over' and fell into government or private hands.

TS: Naomi Klein also addressed the commons in Windows and Fences-- "... the
commons is being transformed and rearranged-- cut back, privatized,
deregulated-- all in the name of participating and competing in the global
trading system..."

JB: Yes, the point is when you privatize, the community loses its hold on
land, air, water, genetic code and individuals become very vulnerable.
The recent film "The Corporation" by Mark Achbar, Jennifer Abbott & Joel
Bakan looks at the tragic results of privatization.  The results are toxic
environments, global warming, poverty, dependence on governments and
corporations, and fascist political systems. Naomi Klein connects this
privatization to brand labeling in the film. The brand is a vision of
ourselves produced by corporations.


The movement to get back to the commons is something very powerful for
people. When the World Bank and Bechtel tried to privatize water rights in
Cochabamba, Bolivia, people took to the streets demanding access to water as
a public good, and they eventually prevailed. I would like to see that
happen in Maine. The water I used to bottle for free as a child is now
producing $60 million per year for Poland Springs.

How do we create or defend common spaces and public access in our field
and in our world?

TS: There are many initiatives that counter the for-profit takeover online
and off. Reclaim the Streets playfully creates and celebrates temporary
public islands. The virtual city De Digitale Stad (DDS) offered reasonably
priced 'access for all' in the mid-90s.


JI: The purpose of a talking circle is quite different from the net
criticism you find on <nettime> or the art criticism you find on Rhizome. It
is not a philosophical discussion like Code Zebra. It is meant to end in
political action. That's something that may be a little closer to the
blogging community, but bloggers tend to footnote each other rather than
write in a truly collaborative fashion. Internet artist Eryk Salvaggio
recently began the project "What Do We Stand For?" to channel this dispersed
community of activists into collaborative decision-making. He wants to use
the Pool's software toolkit to get people to generate a peer-reviewed policy
statement. I find it very interesting that networks originally designed for
artists or academics can be repurposed for political ends.



Jean Baudrillard, "Requiem for the Media", in The New Media Reader, Noah
Wardrip-Fruon & Nick Montfort Eds. Cambridge: MIT Press. 2003

Nikolai Bezroukov, "Open Source Software Development as a Special Type of
Academic Research"

Jessica Littman, Digital Copyright, Prometheus Books 2001

Alex Galloway,"Global Networks and the Effect on Culture", in Digital
Production in a Digital Age, Annals of the American Academy of Political and
Social Science, Vol 597, Jan 2005.

Naomi Klein, "Fences and Windows: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the
Globalization Debate", Random House October 2002

James F. Moore, Berkman Center for Internet & Society

Still Water for network art & culture

Jon Ippolito is an artist, Guggenheim curator, and co-founder with Joline
Blais of the Still Water program for network art and culture at the
University of Maine where he is an Assistant Professor of New Media.

Fiction writer Joline Blais pioneered the development of the Media Studies
program in SCPD at New York University, and is currently Assistant Professor
of New Media at the University of Maine. She has a background in history and
comparative literature at Harvard and University of Pennsylvania.

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