Wikimedia and the Free Culture Movement

An essay I wrote for the Wikimedia Foundation fundraising drive was just published on the the foundation’s Why Give blog. The essay, titled Wikimedia and the Free Culture Movement, discusses the movement for free culture, Wikimedia’s central role in it, and the importance of supporting the foundation because, I argue, the immediate success of the free culture movement is intimately tied up in Wikimedia’s efforts.

It is very exciting to see an essay I wrote linked prominently from the top of every page in Wikipedia! It is also exciting to imagine that I might help the Wikimedia foundation at this important time in that organization’s life.

I am giving to two organizations in support of two causes this year: the Wikimedia Foundation in support of free culture and the Free Software Foundation in support of free software. No other two groups are as committed or are doing as much to build a world where knowledge, and the tools we use to use, produce, and communicate it, are and remain free.

Revealing Errors

Groups that campaign for free technology, like the Free Software Foundation and the Electronic Frontier Foundation, tend to be supported primarily by technologists. Both groups have struggled to communicate their messages to non-geeks. I have written an article and helped create a new weblog, both called Revealing Errors, that attempt to address a root cause of this issue in what I hope is both an insightful and entertainingly manner.

Geeks support groups like the FSF and EFF because, as people who understand technology, they understand just how powerful technology is. Geeks know that control of our communication technologies is control over what we can say, who we can say it to, and how and when we can say it. In an increasingly technologically mediated age, control over technology is not only the power to control our actions; it is the power to limit our possible actions. Our freedom to our technology is our freedom, full stop.

This message fails to resonate with non-geeks but it does not fail because non-geeks are happy to hand over their freedom. It fails to resonate simply because the vast majority of people do not understand that technology, and control over it, is powerful enough to impact their freedom. Most people fail to see the power because, quite simply, most people fail to see technology. While we all see the effects of technologies, the technologies themselves are frequently hidden. We see emails but not mail transport agents. We see text messages but not the mobile phone network. Before one can argue that such systems must be free, one must reveal their existence. Technologists are keenly aware of the existence of these systems. To everyone else, they are completely invisible.

Marc Weisner of Xerox PARC cited eyeglasses as an ideal technology because, with spectacles, "you look at the world, not the eyeglasses." When technology works smoothly, its nature and effects are invisible. But technologies do not always work smoothly. A tiny fracture or a smudge on a lens renders glasses quite visible to the wearer indeed. Similarly, people see their MTAs when messages bounce. They see Windows on their ATM or phone when the system crashes. Technological errors are moments when usually invisible technology becomes visible. They are, in this sense, also an educational opportunity.


I have recently published an article in Media/Culture Journal from the University of Melbourne within a special issue called Error. If you are interested in learning more about what I’m trying to do or looking at some examples, please read the article.

With support and ontributions from Aaron Swartz, I have also created a new weblog, Revealing Errors, that reveals errors that reveal technology by posting descriptions of errors with commentary on what the error reveals. I’ve posted a few examples there already and I will be updating it regularly. The goal is to help explain the power and influence of technology in the service of broadening the base of people who can get excited about freedom to technology.

Eventually, I hope to be able to communicate this message to a less technical audience. With that said, I hope that even seasoned technologists will learn things about their technological environment through the analysis and interaction. I hope readers of this blog will subscribe to it and, if possible, comment on and contribute to the project as it moves forward.

Post Deleted

Perhaps my favorite article in Wikipedia, the List of homophonous phrases, was deleted from Wikipedia in mid-August. Those arguing for deletion claimed that it was original research and were, I suppose, correct in that designation. But that doesn’t make me happy to see it go.

I asked an admin to move the list into a temporary home in my userspace until I can find a better home for it. Please help me find one and I’ll redirect.

It’s the latest in several unfortunate deletions I witnessed recently. I created a humorous "undeletionist" barnstar to give to an admin for undeleting some humorous project pages in Wikipedia (which have since been redeleted, but copied first). My barnstar was also deleted.

In retaliation for this all, and in good fun, I proposed the Association of Deletionist Wikipedians for deletion. The {{delete}} tag stuck around for a week until it was deleted under suspicion that it might be a joke. True enough. On the other hand, I have similar suspicions about the subject of the article.

Wikimania 2007

I’m in Taipei this week whole week for Wikimania 2007. I’m here for two days for a retreat of the Wikimedia Foundation board of directors and advisory board. I’m also going to be giving two and a half talks in the conference itself, attending a Debian birthday party, and perhaps giving a talk on Ubuntu at ITRI.

Here are the overviews of my talks at Wikimania:

  • Freedom’s Standard Advanced (2007/08/03 10:30): Mostly a reprise of a couple talks I’ve given recently that make the case for a definition of freedom and for the Free Cultural Works Definition in particular.
  • Supporting Collaboration in Branched Articles (2007/08/05 13:15): I’ll be unveiling my thesis work: a wiki that allows for branching and merging. It is built on distributed revision control concepts and tools (i.e., Bazaar) and includes a text-specific merge/conflict resolution system designed for writers. The tool has important potential for offline wiki work, stable versions, and collaboration among forked articles within and between wikis. Think ikiwiki but with distributed revision control and all the branching and merging that goes along with it. I’ll be posting lots more information and source here in the coming month.
  • Election Committee (2007/08/04 14:30): I’ll be joining the rest of the Wikimedia Election Committee and talking a bit about the last board elections and about how we might handle things like election methods in the next election.

Details on Debian’s birthday party are online too which will have talks, food, beer, and more.

As always, get in contact if you want to meet up or just find me at the conference.


Just a couple years ago, music and technology companies would advertise their DRM schemes. While these technologies only served to prevent users of computers and consumer electronics devices from doing things, the media and technologies companies tried to spin it positively. Think of all the wonderful media that the music, film, and publishing industries will be willing to distribute to you at the click of a button, they said. All they asked for in return is the keys to your computer and the legal right to attack and sue you if you try to take control.

As everyone who purchased iTunes music and made the mistake of buying a non-Apple DAP incapable of reading Apple DRMed music knows, DRM is a bad deal for consumers. Users are always better off with an unencumbered media file. In all the excitement over major label content, some consumers didn’t see this immediately.

With time though, the inconvenience of a computer that does the Apple and the RIAA wants over what you want hit home. This, combined with activist projects like the FSF’s Defective By Design, have turned the tide. The DRM label that used to be a badge of honor is now a stigma that smart companies are going out of their way to avoid.

This past weekend, I saw this flier from Calabash Music in the crepe store across the street:

/copyrighteous/images/calabash_drm_table.jpg /copyrighteous/images/calabash_music_flyer.jpg

The store served a general, non-technical audience. DRM-FREE, it turns out, is a good way to sell music. Not just to geeks but to any consumer who has been stymied unfairly by DRM or knows someone who has. That, it turns out, is a whole lot people. Consumers know what DRM is and they know don’t like it.

As consumers learn more about DRM, they want to avoid it. Seeing this, the companies that produce DRM are looking for ways to escape. The Apple/EMI deal seems to be an attempt to protect market share that the use of DRM is threatening. Others, like HBO’s Bob Zitter, are disingenuously attempting to escape the stigma of DRM by simply rebranding the technology.

Of course, DRM suffers from a much more fundemental problem than bad branding. The problem with DRM is that consumers don’t like what it does and are only sometimes willing to suffer through it when not given the choice. Increasingly often, as with in the example of the flier I found, consumers have a choice. Things don’t look good for DRM. For DRM opponents, the self-defeating nature of the technology is our greatest ally.

Visions of Free Culture

At the Free Culture National Conference a few weeks ago, Kevin Driscoll initiated a project that I feel is hugely important: he’s prompted the free culture community to state and share their vision.

While I’ve talked a lot about definitions in the past, I probably should have been talking about goals or vision. Kevin has created an important opportunity for all free culture stakeholders to step back and imagine what the world will look like when we win. By doing so, we end up defining a set of implicit goals for our social movement and can then set to work on the hard part: figuring out how we get there.

With thanks to Eben Moglen for much of the inspiration, here’s mine:

People remembered that there is no scarcity in information goods except where they have created it. As evidence grew of the positive effects of free culture and the toll of information ownership, our communities decided that we were not well served by limits on the flow and development of knowledge.

Accordingly, the gatekeepers and tax collectors for culture have withered away and were dismantled. We — the consumers, creators, and re-creators — have offered new, more ethical business models, have engaged in new methods of distribution, and have produced creative goods.

Today, access to information is a simple matter of connecting someone to a network and a community: a technical problem that we know how to solve. Nobody pays for the "right" to hear music, read a book, watch a movie, or use a piece of software. Nobody is forced to choose between being a bad neighbor or friend and breaking copyright law. No artist, musician, or author sells a million copies of anything and no artist, musician, or author has a day job.

Now it’s your turn. Eben Moglen tell us to not stop until we’re free. Let’s paint a picture of what that free world looks like. Most importantly, let’s challenge ourselves to find ways to make it possible.


Last November, I used a Venn diagram to complain about (and explain) the fact that there while there were several RFID blocking wallets for sale, they were all made of leather. Many people, who like me prefered to eschew leather wallets, left comments, blogged, and emailed me in strong agreement.

Mike Aiello, the proprietor of DFIRWEAR, found my blog. He emailed me not longer after my post to tell me that he had started looking into vegan materials to make a wallet that would fit my needs! Today, a vegan RFID-blocking wallet made it onto his site and is now available to be ordered!

It’s very exciting to see that what started out as a mild and humorous expression of dissatisfaction could quickly culminate in the creation of a new product.

Mika and I each just ordered one. If you care about your privacy, you should too!

Wikimedia Foundation Advisory Board

A few days ago, the Wikimedia Foundation announced the creation of an advisory board of which I am thrilled to be a member. I’m honored to be on a board among many folks whose work has provided and example and inspiration for me and helped bring me, and my own work and activism, to where it is today.

But most of all, I’m thrilled to be able to help Wikimedia Foundation. I’ve been reasonably convinced that WMF’s projects, Wikipedia being most notable among them, are the single most important and exciting project in the world that I was not already involved in in some official capacity.