channel surfing through humanity

I spent an unreal amount of time last night flipping through ChatRoulette. I was bored and avoiding a paper, and everyone had been talking about this thing which was going to corrupt the youths or something. So I fired it up and off I went.

And wow.

ChatRoulette embodies a great deal of what I love about the internet.

Here are some things that happened to me in the few hours I spent on ChatRoulette last night:

-I made two friends (a chef in Milwaukee and an engineer in Brussels)
-Someone sang me a song
-Someone drew me a picture
-A longstanding debate was settled (whether or not eating hair was cannibalism) with the help of a cute girl and her mustachioed posse in Minneapolis
-An engineer introduced to me all his desk toys, and I introduced him to mine
-A group of education grad students in the Netherlands and I compared book collections
-I met a paralyzed boy in New York who typed, rather speedily, with a long stick affixed to a head brace

And there were lots more little random encounters, tiny conversations that didn’t go far. I love the randomness of it. I love the tiny glimpses of people flickering through my screen, and that I’m traveling through theirs too, skipping around the world like a stone on the surface a river. The whole thing just seems so damn magical. I’m here and I’m also there, and then I’m yet another there again. It’s a potent, raw example of the internet’s ability to simply connect people. Click Play, and suddenly you are staring at someone on the other side of the planet. What are you going to talk about?

danah boyd has an excellent blog about ChatRoulette and the “moral panic” it’s engendering. Highly recommended reading on this topic. She points out that as it exists now, ChatRoulette is too transgressive to be around for very long. I wonder what it will turn into, and I hope the raw connective power it embodies will not be dissipated in the name of some hyper-protective moral code.

I’m waving my little flag in support of the randomness of humanity.

addendum: There’s a new exhibit near the Mollusk Section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where I spend most of my Thursdays. It’s on population explosions, human and otherwise. The numbers are literally incomprehensible. It’s all you can do to stare at the world population counter on the wall, ticking up a few individuals every second, and not be terrified or reduced to gibbery jelly on the floor. The internet was supposed to allow us to reach out from where we are and touch the sheer masses of people and cultures and information that are out there. As it stands now, though, huge swathes of the internet are instead narcissistic echo chambers of white, Western tech/thought. While I’m not going to argue that ChatRoulette is the solution to the domination of Western culture on the net, it is refreshing in that it just doesn’t care. It rudely kicks you out of your comfort zone and intrudes you into someone else’s life and it doesn’t matter who or where that person is. If they’re on the site, they’re fair game. It’s a hint of those roiling, unpredictable masses of everything outside the front door.

I say often that the internet is fundamentally a conversation, and you’re either interested in the content of the conversation (ie: IP law) or who is involved (ie: security). The content potential has, for me, just gotten a lot more interesting.

Helene Hegemann

A week ago, the New York Times ran an article about the curious case of Helene Hegemann, a seventeen-year-old author whose first book, Axolotl Roadkill, landed at number five on Der Spiegal’s best-seller list and was a finalist for the Leipzig Book Fair fiction prize, which comes with a $20,000 prize purse.

It’s now been revealed that sections of Axolotl Roadkill were copied from other published sources, most notable a novel, Strobo,” by Airen. But (dramatic twist!), it appears that the judges panel for the Leipzig Book Fair had been informed of the plagiarism charges before Hegemann’s book was selected as a finalist and decided they didn’t matter.

When these accusations surfaced in the press, Hegemann did not duck, but acknowledged that copying had taken place. However, she claimed she didn’t see the problem, after all, she was “mixing” the work of others, not copying it, “putting it in a different context,” and “[t]here’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.”

Hegemann’s defense leaves a bad taste in my mouth. On the one hand, she claims the shield of remix and appropriative culture, while with the other she waives away the responsibility of the remixer to acknowledge original sources by claiming ignorance of citation practices. For me, this case is troubling but clear cut. Sources must be cited OR MUST BE OTHERWISE OBVIOUS (as in the case of an image of Mickey Mouse or a corporate logo). Especially if you are pulling verbatim text from an identifiable author, you must cite. To not cite is not to remix, but to attempt to pass off another’s work as your own, which *is* intellectual theft. (and for the purposes of this blog, I am talking only about verbatim copying, which is alleged, and substantiated in this case. We can talk about stuff like hyper-referentiality later.)

One of the defenses she offers is that of recontextualization. How could she have been copying when she was placing the material in a new context? However, due to the lack of proper citations, there is no recontextualization actually happening in this case! If the audience cannot recognize what has been borrowed, then they cannot recognize when it has been recontextualized. This argument relies on the recognizability of what is being borrowed, which was not apparent in this case.

And then there is that last quote, “There’s no such thing as originality anyway…”

Hegemann obviously completely misunderstands the arguments made against the cult of complete originality and the canonization of the Inspired Artist. Regardless of the relative quality of her book, she does herself, and the remixing generation she claims to represent, a disservice by denigrating the authors’ she borrowed from, because to not acknowledge them is to cut them out of the creative equation. You have destroyed the social and cultural value of remix if you refuse to involve those creators you have pulled from.

There was a video released a few weeks ago by normative, which examined the art of remix from just this social perspective. The social phenomenon of remix is just as important as the artistic creations it allows to be created. To remove a work of remix from its social web of influences and referents is to deny that it is an act of remix, and instead condemn it to being merely intellectual theft.

The New York Times: Author Says it’s ‘Mixing’
The Independent: Publish and Be Damned

Dennis Loy Johnson: Dern Copyright

New Plan

My new plan is to kidnap a Pittsburgh city bus, paint it black, and drive it around the city like a silent wind, picking up beleaguered citizens stranded at bus stops, and taking them to their far-off destinations in the blink of an eye. And when they try to pay me, I will laugh my booming hero laugh and say, “No no, citizen, tis all in a days work!” And then I’d ride off into the sunset, and the world would rest safely in the knowledge that whenever the Port Authority drops the fucking ball, the BUS THAT ACTUALLY SHOWS UP ON TIME will save the day!

Brought to you by my waiting in the cold cold cold for a bus that eventually showed up forty-five minutes late.

…why do they even *have* schedules?

thanks to flickr user linkzilla for the cc-licensed source image. the original photo is linked above.

Snowpocalypse and Pudding

It snowed Friday night. Big fat flakes like ticker tape, here and everywhere else, it seems. Yesterday was Saturday, so nothing was canceled except for normalcy. People skied down the middle of the street. Dogs jumped in and out of snow banks like ecstatic golden fish. We went out to find Austin’s car, buried up to its headlights in drifts and plowed under. Not going anywhere. We went back inside, made coffee and oatmeal.

About a week ago, someone, we don’t remember who, bought a loaf of good crusty white bread and then forgot about it. It’s been sitting on top of the refrigerator, looking lonely, getting stale. So, because it was a snow day, which are days for making heavy, creamy concoctions that put you in a food coma till spring, I got out the eggs and the milk and the bain marie and made a pudding.

Bread Pudding of the Snowpocalypse

  • Stale bread
  • dried fruit (I used raisins, dried cranberries and apricots)
  • four eggs
  • three cups whole milk
  • 3/4 cup sugar
  • one teaspoon vanilla
  • cinnamon
  • nutmeg
  • pinch of salt

Preheat your oven to 350ish. Butter your baking dish. Tear or slice your bread into one-inch chunks. The JoC says remove the crusts, I say I like them and the crusts stay on. It’s up to you. You should have enough bread to make five lightly packed cups. Dump the bread evenly in your baking dish and scatter your dried fruity bits on top. Fruit is what makes this healthy!
In a bowl whisk together your eggs, milk, sugar, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg and salt. No need to go nuts here, just ensure the ingredients are mixed thoroughly. Pour this mixture over your bread bits and let sit for 30 minutes. Occasionally squish the bread with a spatula so it absorbs the liquid better. Place the baking dish in a water bath and bake for about an hour, until a knife through the heart of the pudding comes out clean (like your conscience).

Serve topped with cream or milk. And small servings! This thing is dense and delicious. A slice, buttered and either pan fried or browned in the toaster oven, makes a fabulous breakfast in the morning.