Sunday, October 14, 2007

Getting the Milk for Free

In his 4S talk yesterday, Fred Turner, the author of From Counterculture to Cyberculture, is now extending his analysis of counterpublics by looking at how Google is channeling user-generated content from Burning Man and benefiting from those who are content to be "paid in cool" in a reputation economy. In "Burning Man at Google: How Art Worlds Help Sustain New Media Industries," Turner argues that even activities aimed to build a "socio-technical commons" during the annual ritual out in an inhospitable desert actually legitimates "collaborative manufacturing processes." I've been a vicarious attendee of Burning Man for many years -- lending camping equipment in advance and admiring dusty polaroid photographs after the event -- but I've never actually gone. I've even attended a "Burning Man Fundraiser" for a drive-in theater. I brought my kids to "Family Night," where they were the only children in attendance. The Amazing Mr Limpet soon turned into footage in which our host was wandering around naked along with the other denizens of the event.

On the same panel, Chris Kelty, an anthropologist who has studied the cultural practices of the open source movement, gave a talk that focused on the discourses surrounding electronic voting machines. "Imagining Neutrality: Recursive publics, free software and electronic voting machines" looks at what he calls the "politics of politics" and advances "an anthropology of deliberation." Kelty also made an interesting distinction between "voting" and "deliberation." Because Kelty describes himself as a scholar "used to questioning the neutrality of science," he not only expresses common concerns about "privacy and participation," but also examines why the "proliferation of tools in everyday life" is not fostering a serious re-examination of the procedural logic of the voting process itself.

As someone fascinated with Condorcet voting and other rich-data voting systems, I was glad to see Kelty give them a plug. (Check out this online results comparison generator or this site for would-be election officials.) Condorcet's argument that simple one-man/one-vote systems tend to generate results in which everyone is dissatisfied is one of my favorites from eighteenth-century information theory.

During the time of "Diary of a Mad Poll-Worker," I did my own behind-the-scenes examination of the processes of electronic voting during the last election, which included the bizarre experience of being an election official at the actual polling place. As the nearby Riverside County registrar's office struggles with what to do now that their Sequoia voting machines have been disallowed (a topic upon which their website is strangely silent), I think these issues need to go beyond the interest limited to Internet paranoia sites and, as Kelty suggests, be turned to participatory decision-making in actual communities.

Kelty's forthcoming book, Two Bits: The Cultural Significance of Free Software and the Internet, from Duke University Press will also be online under a Creative Commons license. More on this later.

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