Graziano, Mars & Medak
Learning from #Syllabus
LEARNING FROM #SYLLABUS
VALERIA GRAZIANO, MARCELL MARS, TOMISLAV MEDAK
The syllabus is the manifesto of the 21st century.
—Sean Dockray and Benjamin Forster1
In August 2014, Michael Brown, an 18-year-old boy living in Ferguson, Missouri,
was fatally shot by police officer Darren Wilson. Soon after, as the civil protests denouncing police brutality and institutional racism began to mount across the United
States, Dr. Marcia Chatelain, Associate Professor of History and African American
Studies at Georgetown University, launched an online call urging other academics
and teachers ‘to devote the first day of classes to a conversation about Ferguson’ and ‘to recommend texts, collaborate on conversation starters, and inspire
dialogue about some aspect of the Ferguson crisis.’2 Chatelain did so using the
Also in August 2014, using the hashtag #gamergate, groups of users on 4Chan,
8Chan, Twitter, and Reddit instigated a misogynistic harassment campaign against
game developers Zoë Quinn and Brianna Wu, media critic Anita Sarkeesian, as well as
a number of other female and feminist game producers, journalists, and critics. In the
following weeks, The New Inquiry editors and contributors compiled a reading list and
issued a call for suggestions for their ‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’.3
In June 2015, Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United
States. In the weeks that followed, he became the presumptive Republican nominee,
and The Chronicle of Higher Education introduced the syllabus ‘Trump 101’.4 Historians N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain found ‘Trump 101’ inadequate, ‘a mock college syllabus […] suffer[ing] from a number of egregious omissions and inaccuracies’,
failing to include ‘contributions of scholars of color and address the critical subjects
of Trump’s racism, sexism, and xenophobia’. They assembled ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’.5
Soon after, in response to a video in which Trump engaged in ‘an extremely lewd
conversation about women’ with TV host Billy Bush, Laura Ciolkowski put together a
‘Rape Culture Syllabus’.6
Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office, ‘README.md’, Hyperreadings, 15 February
Marcia Chatelain, ‘Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus’, Dissent Magazine, 28 November 2014,
‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’, The New Inquiry, 2 September 2014, https://thenewinquiry.
‘Trump 101’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 June 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/
N.D.B. Connolly and Keisha N. Blain, ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’, Public Books, 28 June 2016, https://
Laura Ciolkowski, ‘Rape Culture Syllabus’, Public Books, 15 October 2016, https://www.
In April 2016, members of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe established the Sacred Stone
Camp and started the protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline, the construction of
which threatened the only water supply at the Standing Rock Reservation. The protest at the site of the pipeline became the largest gathering of native Americans in
the last 100 years and they earned significant international support for their ReZpect
Our Water campaign. As the struggle between protestors and the armed forces unfolded, a group of Indigenous scholars, activists, and supporters of the struggles of
First Nations people and persons of color, gathered under the name the NYC Stands
for Standing Rock Committee, put together #StandingRockSyllabus.7
The list of online syllabi created in response to political struggles has continued to
grow, and at present includes many more examples:
All Monuments Must Fall Syllabus
Puerto Rico Syllabus (#PRSyllabus)
Syllabus for White People to Educate Themselves
Syllabus: Women and Gender Non-Conforming People Writing about Tech
What To Do Instead of Calling the Police: A Guide, A Syllabus, A Conversation, A
It would be hard to compile a comprehensive list of all the online syllabi that have
been created by social justice movements in the last five years, especially, but not
exclusively, those initiated in North America in the context of feminist and anti-racist
activism. In what is now a widely spread phenomenon, these political struggles use
social networks and resort to the hashtag template ‘#___Syllabus’ to issue calls for
the bottom-up aggregation of resources necessary for political analysis and pedagogy
centering on their concerns. For this reason, we’ll call this phenomenon ‘#Syllabus’.
During the same years that saw the spread of the #Syllabus phenomenon, university
course syllabi have also been transitioning online, often in a top-down process initiated
by academic institutions, which has seen the syllabus become a contested document
in the midst of increasing casualization of teaching labor, expansion of copyright protections, and technology-driven marketization of education.
In what follows, we retrace the development of the online syllabus in both of these
contexts, to investigate the politics enmeshed in this new media object. Our argument
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://
is that, on the one hand, #Syllabus names the problem of contemporary political culture as pedagogical in nature, while, on the other hand, it also exposes academicized
critical pedagogy and intellectuality as insufficiently political in their relation to lived
social reality. Situating our own stakes as both activists and academics in the present
debate, we explore some ways in which the radical politics of #Syllabus could be supported to grow and develop as an articulation of solidarity between amateur librarians
and radical educators.
#Syllabus in Historical Context: Social Movements and Self-Education
When Professor Chatelain launched her call for #FergusonSyllabus, she was mainly
addressing a community of fellow educators:
I knew Ferguson would be a challenge for teachers: When schools opened across
the country, how were they going to talk about what happened? My idea was simple, but has resonated across the country: Reach out to the educators who use
Twitter. Ask them to commit to talking about Ferguson on the first day of classes.
Suggest a book, an article, a film, a song, a piece of artwork, or an assignment that
speaks to some aspect of Ferguson. Use the hashtag: #FergusonSyllabus.8
Her call had a much greater resonance than she had originally anticipated as it reached
beyond the limits of the academic community. #FergusonSyllabus had both a significant impact in shaping the analysis and the response to the shooting of Michael
Brown, and in inspiring the many other #Syllabus calls that soon followed.
The #Syllabus phenomenon comprises different approaches and modes of operating. In some cases, the material is clearly claimed as the creation of a single individual, as in the case of #BlackLivesMatterSyllabus, which is prefaced on the project’s
landing page by a warning to readers that ‘material compiled in this syllabus should
not be duplicated without proper citation and attribution.’9 A very different position on
intellectual property has been embraced by other #Syllabus interventions that have
chosen a more commoning stance. #StandingRockSyllabus, for instance, is introduced as a crowd-sourced process and as a useful ‘tool to access research usually
kept behind paywalls.’10
The different workflows, modes of engagements, and positioning in relation to
intellectual property make #Syllabus readable as symptomatic of the multiplicity
that composes social justice movements. There is something old school—quite
literally—about the idea of calling a list of online resources a ‘syllabus’; a certain
quaintness, evoking thoughts of teachers and homework. This is worthy of investigation especially if contrasted with the attention dedicated to other online cultural
phenomena such as memes or fake news. Could it be that the online syllabus offers
Marcia Chatelain, ‘How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson’, The Atlantic, 25
August 2014, https://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2014/08/how-to-teach-kids-aboutwhats-happening-in-ferguson/379049/.
Frank Leon Roberts, ‘Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest’, 2016, http://
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://
a useful, fresh format precisely for the characteristics that foreground its connections to older pedagogical traditions and techniques, predating digital cultures?
#Syllabus can indeed be analyzed as falling within a long lineage of pedagogical tools
created by social movements to support processes of political subjectivation and the
building of collective consciousness. Activists and militant organizers have time and
again created and used various textual media objects—such as handouts, pamphlets,
cookbooks, readers, or manifestos—to facilitate a shared political analysis and foment
mass political mobilization.
In the context of the US, anti-racist movements have historically placed great emphasis on critical pedagogy and self-education. In 1964, the Council of Federated Organizations (an alliance of civil rights initiatives) and the Student Nonviolent
Coordinating Committee (SNCC), created a network of 41 temporary alternative
schools in Mississippi. Recently, the Freedom Library Project, a campaign born out
of #FergusonSyllabus to finance under-resourced pedagogical initiatives, openly
referenced this as a source of inspiration. The Freedom Summer Project of 1964
brought hundreds of activists, students, and scholars (many of whom were white)
from the north of the country to teach topics and issues that the discriminatory
state schools would not offer to black students. In the words of an SNCC report,
Freedom Schools were established following the belief that ‘education—facts to
use and freedom to use them—is the basis of democracy’,11 a conviction echoed
by the ethos of contemporary #Syllabus initiatives.
Bob Moses, a civil rights movement leader who was the head of the literary skills initiative in Mississippi, recalls the movement’s interest, at the time, in teaching methods
that used the very production of teaching materials as a pedagogical tool:
I had gotten hold of a text and was using it with some adults […] and noticed that
they couldn’t handle it because the pictures weren’t suited to what they knew […]
That got me into thinking about developing something closer to what people were
doing. What I was interested in was the idea of training SNCC workers to develop
material with the people we were working with.12
It is significant that for him the actual use of the materials the group created was much
less important than the process of producing the teaching materials together. This focus
on what could be named as a ‘pedagogy of teaching’, or perhaps more accurately ‘the
pedagogy of preparing teaching materials’, is also a relevant mechanism at play in the
current #Syllabus initiatives, as their crowdsourcing encourages different kinds of people
to contribute what they feel might be relevant resources for the broader movement.
Alongside the crucial import of radical black organizing, another relevant genealogy in
which to place #Syllabus would be the international feminist movement and, in particular, the strategies developed in the 70s campaign Wages for Housework, spearheaded
Daniel Perlstein, ‘Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools’,
History of Education Quarterly 30.3 (Autumn 1990): 302.
Perlstein, ‘Teaching Freedom’: 306.
by Selma James and Silvia Federici. The Wages for Housework campaign drove home
the point that unwaged reproductive labor provides a foundation for capitalist exploitation. They wanted to encourage women to denaturalize and question the accepted
division of labor into remunerated work outside the house and labor of love within
the confines of domesticity, discussing taboo topics such as ‘prostitution as socialized housework’ and ‘forced sterilization’ as issues impacting poor, often racialized,
women. The organizing efforts of Wages for Housework held political pedagogy at their
core. They understood that that pedagogy required:
having literature and other materials available to explain our goals, all written in a
language that women can understand. We also need different types of documents,
some more theoretical, others circulating information about struggles. It is important
that we have documents for women who have never had any political experience.
This is why our priority is to write a popular pamphlet that we can distribute massively and for free—because women have no money.13
The obstacles faced by the Wages for Housework campaign were many, beginning
with the issue of how to reach a dispersed constituency of isolated housewives
and how to keep the revolutionary message at the core of their claims accessible
to different groups. In order to tackle these challenges, the organizers developed
a number of innovative communication tactics and pedagogical tools, including
strategies to gain mainstream media coverage, pamphlets and leaflets translated
into different languages,14 a storefront shop in Brooklyn, and promotional tables at
Freedom Schools and the Wages for Housework campaign are only two amongst
the many examples of the critical pedagogies developed within social movements.
The #Syllabus phenomenon clearly stands in the lineage of this history, yet we should
also highlight its specificity in relation to the contemporary political context in which it
emerged. The #Syllabus acknowledges that since the 70s—and also due to students’
participation in protests and their display of solidarity with other political movements—
subjects such as Marxist critical theory, women studies, gender studies, and African
American studies, together with some of the principles first developed in critical pedagogy, have become integrated into the educational system. The fact that many initiators of #Syllabus initiatives are women and Black academics speaks to this historical
shift as an achievement of that period of struggles. However, the very necessity felt by
these educators to kick-start their #Syllabus campaigns outside the confines of academia simultaneously reveals the difficulties they encounter within the current privatized and exclusionary educational complex.
Silvia Federici and Arlen Austin (eds) The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972-1977:
History, Theory and Documents. New York: Autonomedia, 2017: 37.
Some of the flyers and pamphlets were digitized by MayDay Rooms, ‘a safe haven for historical
material linked to social movements, experimental culture and the radical expression of
marginalised figures and groups’ in London, and can be found in their online archive: ‘Wages
for Housework: Pamphlets – Flyers – Photographs’, MayDay Rooms, http://maydayrooms.org/
#Syllabus as a Media Object
Besides its contextualization within the historical legacy of previous grassroots mobilizations, it is also necessary to discuss #Syllabus as a new media object in its own
right, in order to fully grasp its relevance for the future politics of knowledge production and transmission.
If we were to describe this object, a #Syllabus would be an ordered list of links to
scholarly texts, news reports, and audiovisual media, mostly aggregated through a
participatory and iterative process, and created in response to political events indicative of larger conditions of structural oppression. Still, as we have seen, #Syllabus
as a media object doesn’t follow a strict format. It varies based on the initial vision
of their initiators, political causes, and social composition of the relevant struggle.
Nor does it follow the format of traditional academic syllabi. While a list of learning
resources is at the heart of any syllabus, a boilerplate university syllabus typically
also includes objectives, a timetable, attendance, coursework, examination, and an
outline of the grading system used for the given course. Relieved of these institutional
requirements, the #Syllabus typically includes only a reading list and a hashtag. The
reading list provides resources for understanding what is relevant to the here and
now, while the hashtag provides a way to disseminate across social networks the call
to both collectively edit and teach what is relevant to the here and now. Both the list
and the hashtag are specificities and formal features of the contemporary (internet)
culture and therefore merit further exploration in relation to the social dynamics at
play in #Syllabus initiatives.
The different phases of the internet’s development approached the problem of the
discoverability of relevant information in different ways. In the early days, the Gopher
protocol organized information into a hierarchical file tree. With the rise of World Wide
Web (WWW), Yahoo tried to employ experts to classify and catalog the internet into
a directory of links. That seemed to be a successful approach for a while, but then
Google (founded in 1998) came along and started to use a webgraph of links to rank
the importance of web pages relative to a given search query.
In 2005, Clay Shirky wrote the essay ‘Ontology is Overrated: Categories, Links and
Tags’,15 developed from his earlier talk ‘Folksonomies and Tags: The Rise of User-Developed Classification’. Shirky used Yahoo’s attempt to categorize the WWW to argue
against any attempt to classify a vast heterogenous body of information into a single
hierarchical categorical system. In his words: ‘[Yahoo] missed [...] that, if you’ve got
enough links, you don’t need the hierarchy anymore. There is no shelf. There is no file
system. The links alone are enough.’ Those words resonated with many. By following
simple formatting rules, we, the internet users, whom Time magazine named Person of
the Year in 2006, proved that it is possible to collectively write the largest encyclopedia
ever. But, even beyond that, and as per Shirky’s argument, if enough of us organized
our own snippets of the vast body of the internet, we could replace old canons, hierarchies, and ontologies with folksonomies, social bookmarks, and (hash)tags.
Clay Shirky, ‘Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, 2005, http://shirky.com/writings/
Very few who lived through those times would have thought that only a few years later
most user-driven services would be acquired by a small number of successful companies and then be shut down. Or, that Google would decide not to include the biggest
hashtag-driven platform, Twitter, into its search index and that the search results on
its first page would only come from a handful of usual suspects: media conglomerates, Wikipedia, Facebook, LinkedIn, Amazon, Reddit, Quora. Or, that Twitter would
become the main channel for the racist, misogynist, fascist escapades of the President
of United States.
This internet folk naivety—stoked by an equally enthusiastic, venture-capital-backed
startup culture—was not just naivety. This was also a period of massive experimental
use of these emerging platforms. Therefore, this history would merit to be properly
revisited and researched. In this text, however, we can only hint to this history: to contextualize how the hashtag as a formalization initially emerged, and how with time the
user-driven web lost some of its potential. Nonetheless, hashtags today still succeed in
propagating political mobilizations in the network environment. Some will say that this
propagation is nothing but a reflection of the internet as a propaganda machine, and
there’s no denying that hashtags do serve a propaganda function. However, it equally
matters that hashtags retain the capacity to shape coordination and self-organization,
and they are therefore a reflection of the internet as an organization machine.
As mentioned, #Syllabus as a media object is an ordered list of links to resources.
In the long history of knowledge retrieval systems and attempts to help users find
relevant information from big archives, the list on the internet continues in the tradition of the index card catalog in libraries, of charts in the music industry, or mixtapes
and playlists in popular culture, helping people tell their stories of what is relevant and
what isn’t through an ordered sequence of items. The list (as a format) together with
the hashtag find themselves in the list (pun intended) of the most iconic media objects
of the internet. In the network media environment, being smart in creating new lists
became the way to displace old lists of relevance, the way to dismantle canons, the
way to unlearn. The way to become relevant.
The Academic Syllabus Migrates Online
#Syllabus interventions are a challenge issued by political struggles to educators as
they expose a fundamental contradiction in the operations of academia. While critical pedagogies of yesteryear’s social movements have become integrated into the
education system, the radical lessons that these pedagogies teach students don’t
easily reconcile with their experience: professional practice courses, the rethoric of
employability and compulsory internships, where what they learn is merely instrumental, leaves them wondering how on earth they are to apply their Marxism or feminism
to their everyday lives?
Cognitive dissonance is at the basis of degrees in the liberal arts. And to make things
worse, the marketization of higher education, the growing fees and the privatization
of research has placed universities in a position where they increasingly struggle to
provide institutional space for critical interventions in social reality. As universities become more dependent on the ‘customer satisfaction’ of their students for survival, they
steer away from heated political topics or from supporting faculty members who might
decide to engage with them. Borrowing the words of Stefano Harney and Fred Moten,
‘policy posits curriculum against study’,16 creating the paradoxical situation wherein
today’s universities are places in which it is possible to do almost everything except
study. What Harney and Moten propose instead is the re-appropriation of the diffuse
capacity of knowledge generation that stems from the collective processes of selforganization and commoning. As Moten puts it: ‘When I think about the way we use the
term ‘study,’ I think we are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other
people.’17 And it is this practice of sharing a common repertoire—what Moten and
Harney call ‘rehearsal’18—that is crucially constitutive of a crowdsourced #Syllabus.
This contradiction and the tensions it brings to contemporary neoliberal academia can
be symptomatically observed in the recent evolution of the traditional academic syllabus. As a double consequence of (some) critical pedagogies becoming incorporated
into the teaching process and universities striving to reduce their liability risks, academic syllabi have become increasingly complex and extensive documents. They are
now understood as both a ‘social contract’ between the teachers and their students,
and ‘terms of service’19 between the institution providing educational services and the
students increasingly framed as sovereign consumers making choices in the market of
educational services. The growing official import of the syllabus has had the effect that
educators have started to reflect on how the syllabus translates the power dynamics
into their classroom. For instance, the critical pedagogue Adam Heidebrink-Bruno has
demanded that the syllabus be re-conceived as a manifesto20—a document making
these concerns explicit. And indeed, many academics have started to experiment with
the form and purpose of the syllabus, opening it up to a process of co-conceptualization with their students, or proposing ‘the other syllabus’21 to disrupt asymmetries.
At the same time, universities are unsurprisingly moving their syllabi online. A migration
that can be read as indicative of three larger structural shifts in academia.
First, the push to make syllabi available online, initiated in the US, reinforces the differential effects of reputation economy. It is the Ivy League universities and their professorial star system that can harness the syllabus to advertise the originality of their
scholarship, while the underfunded public universities and junior academics are burdened with teaching the required essentials. This practice is tied up with the replication
in academia of the different valorization between what is considered to be the labor of
production (research) and that of social reproduction (teaching). The low esteem (and
corresponding lower rewards and remuneration) for the kinds of intellectual labors that
can be considered labors of care—editing journals, reviewing papers or marking, for
instance—fits perfectly well with the gendered legacies of the academic institution.
Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York:
Autonomedia, 2013, p. 81.
17 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, p. 110.
18 Harney and Moten, The Undercommons, p. 110.
19 Angela Jenks, ‘It’s In The Syllabus’, Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, 30 June 2016,
20 Adam Heidebrink-Bruno, ‘Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture’,
Hybrid Pedagogy, 28 August 2014, http://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-criticalapproach-classroom-culture/.
21 Lucy E. Bailey, ‘The “Other” Syllabus: Rendering Teaching Politics Visible in the Graduate
Pedagogy Seminar’, Feminist Teacher 20.2 (2010): 139–56.
Second, with the withdrawal of resources to pay precarious and casualized academics during their ‘prep’ time (that is, the time in which they can develop new
course material, including assembling new lists of references, updating their courses as well as the methodologies through which they might deliver these), syllabi
now assume an ambivalent role between the tendencies for collectivization and
individualization of insecurity. The reading lists contained in syllabi are not covered
by copyrights; they are like playlists or recipes, which historically had the effect of
encouraging educators to exchange lesson plans and make their course outlines
freely available as a valuable knowledge common. Yet, in the current climate where
universities compete against each other, the authorial function is being extended
to these materials too. Recently, US universities have been leading a trend towards
the interpretation of the syllabus as copyrightable material, an interpretation that
opened up, as would be expected, a number of debates over who is a syllabus’
rightful owner, whether the academics themselves or their employers. If the latter interpretation were to prevail, this would enable universities to easily replace
academics while retaining their contributions to the pedagogical offer. The fruits of
a teacher’s labor could thus be turned into instruments of their own deskilling and
casualization: why would universities pay someone to write a course when they can
recycle someone else’s syllabus and get a PhD student or a precarious post doc to
teach the same class at a fraction of the price?
This tendency to introduce a logic of property therefore spurs competitive individualism and erasure of contributions from others. Thus, crowdsourcing the syllabus
in the context of growing precarization of labor risks remaining a partial process,
as it might heighten the anxieties of those educators who do not enjoy the security
of a stable job and who are therefore the most susceptible to the false promises of
copyright enforcement and authorship understood as a competitive, small entrepreneurial activity. However, when inserted in the context of live, broader political
struggles, the opening up of the syllabus could and should be an encouragement
to go in the opposite direction, providing a ground to legitimize the collective nature
of the educational process and to make all academic resources available without
copyright restrictions, while devising ways to secure the proper attribution and the
just remuneration of everyone’s labor.
The introduction of the logic of property is hard to challenge as it is furthered by commercial academic publishers. Oligopolists, such as Elsevier, are not only notorious for
using copyright protections to extract usurious profits from the mostly free labor of
those who write, peer review, and edit academic journals,22 but they are now developing all sorts of metadata, metrics, and workflow systems that are increasingly becoming central for teaching and research. In addition to their publishing business, Elsevier
has expanded its ‘research intelligence’ offering, which now encompasses a whole
range of digital services, including the Scopus citation database; Mendeley reference
manager; the research performance analytics tools SciVal and Research Metrics; the
centralized research management system Pure; the institutional repository and pub-
22 Vincent Larivière, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon, ‘The Oligopoly of Academic
Publishers in the Digital Era’, PLoS ONE 10.6 (10 June 2015),https://journals.plos.org/plosone/
lishing platform Bepress; and, last but not least, grant discovery and funding flow tools
Funding Institutional and Elsevier Funding Solutions. Given how central digital services
are becoming in today’s universities, whoever owns these platforms is the university.
Third, the migration online of the academic syllabus falls into larger efforts by universities to ‘disrupt’ the educational system through digital technologies. The introduction
of virtual learning environments has led to lesson plans, slides, notes, and syllabi becoming items to be deposited with the institution. The doors of public higher education are being opened to commercial qualification providers by means of the rise in
metrics-based management, digital platforming of university services, and transformation of students into consumers empowered to make ‘real-time’ decisions on how to
spend their student debt.23 Such neoliberalization masquerading behind digitization
is nowhere more evident than in the hype that was generated around Massive Open
Online Courses (MOOCs), exactly at the height of the last economic crisis.
MOOCs developed gradually from the Massachusetts Institute of Techology’s (MIT) initial experiments with opening up its teaching materials to the public through the OpenCourseWare project in 2001. By 2011, MOOCs were saluted as a full-on democratization of access to ‘Ivy-League-caliber education [for] the world’s poor.’24 And yet, their
promise quickly deflated following extremely low completion rates (as low as 5%).25
Believing that in fifty years there will be no more than 10 institutions globally delivering
higher education,26 by the end of 2013 Sebastian Thrun (Google’s celebrated roboticist
who in 2012 founded the for-profit MOOC platform Udacity), had to admit that Udacity
offered a ‘lousy product’ that proved to be a total failure with ‘students from difficult
neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in
their lives.’27 Critic Aaron Bady has thus rightfully argued that:
[MOOCs] demonstrate what the technology is not good at: accreditation and mass
education. The MOOC rewards self-directed learners who have the resources and
privilege that allow them to pursue learning for its own sake [...] MOOCs are also a
really poor way to make educational resources available to underserved and underprivileged communities, which has been the historical mission of public education.28
Indeed, the ‘historical mission of public education’ was always and remains to this
day highly contested terrain—the very idea of a public good being under attack by
dominant managerial techniques that try to redefine it, driving what Randy Martin
23 Ben Williamson, ‘Number Crunching: Transforming Higher Education into “Performance Data”’,
Medium, 16 August 2018, https://medium.com/ussbriefs/number-crunching-transforming-highereducation-into-performance-data-9c23debc4cf7.
24 Max Chafkin, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course’,
FastCompany, 14 November 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastianthrun-uphill-climb/.
25 ‘The Rise (and Fall?) Of the MOOC’, Oxbridge Essays, 14 November 2017, https://www.
26 Steven Leckart, ‘The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever’,
Wired, 20 March 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_aiclass/.
27 Chafkin, ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun’.
28 Aaron Bady, ‘The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform’, Liberal Education 99.4 (Fall 2013),
aptly called the ‘financialization of daily life.’29 The failure of MOOCs finally points to a
broader question, also impacting the vicissitudes of #Syllabus: Where will actual study
practices find refuge in the social, once the social is made directly productive for capital at all times? Where will study actually ‘take place’, in the literal sense of the phrase,
claiming the resources that it needs for co-creation in terms of time, labor, and love?
Learning from #Syllabus
What have we learned from the #Syllabus phenomenon?
The syllabus is the manifesto of 21st century.
Political struggles against structural discrimination, oppression, and violence in the
present are continuing the legacy of critical pedagogies of earlier social movements
that coupled the process of political subjectivation with that of collective education.
By creating effective pedagogical tools, movements have brought educators and students into the fold of their struggles. In the context of our new network environment,
political struggles have produced a new media object: #Syllabus, a crowdsourced list
of resources—historic and present—relevant to a cause. By doing so, these struggles
adapt, resist, and live in and against the networks dominated by techno-capital, with
all of the difficulties and contradictions that entails.
What have we learned from the academic syllabus migrating online?
In the contemporary university, critical pedagogy is clashing head-on with the digitization of higher education. Education that should empower and research that should
emancipate are increasingly left out in the cold due to the data-driven marketization
of academia, short-cutting the goals of teaching and research to satisfy the fluctuating demands of labor market and financial speculation. Resistance against the capture of data, research workflows, and scholarship by means of digitization is a key
struggle for the future of mass intellectuality beyond exclusions of class, disability,
gender, and race.
What have we learned from #Syllabus as a media object?
As old formats transform into new media objects, the digital network environment defines the conditions in which these new media objects try to adjust, resist, and live. A
right intuition can intervene and change the landscape—not necessarily for the good,
particularly if the imperatives of capital accumulation and social control prevail. We
thus need to re-appropriate the process of production and distribution of #Syllabus
as a media object in its totality. We need to build tools to collectively control the workflows that are becoming the infrastructures on top of which we collaboratively produce
knowledge that is vital for us to adjust, resist, and live. In order to successfully intervene in the world, every aspect of production and distribution of these new media objects becomes relevant. Every single aspect counts. The order of items in a list counts.
The timestamp of every version of the list counts. The name of every contributor to
29 Randy Martin, Financialization Of Daily Life, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
every version of the list counts. Furthermore, the workflow to keep track of all of these
aspects is another complex media object—a software tool of its own—with its own order and its own versions. It is a recursive process of creating an autonomous ecology.
#Syllabus can be conceived as a recursive process of versioning lists, pointing to textual, audiovisual, or other resources. With all of the linked resources publicly accessible to all; with all versions of the lists editable by all; with all of the edits attributable to
their contributors; with all versions, all linked resources, all attributions preservable by
all, just such an autonomous ecology can be made for #Syllabus. In fact, Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office have already proposed such a methodology in
their Hyperreadings, a forkable readme.md plaintext document on GitHub. They write:
A text that by its nature points to other texts, the syllabus is already a relational
document acknowledging its own position within a living field of knowledge. It is
decidedly not self-contained, however it often circulates as if it were.
If a syllabus circulated as a HyperReadings document, then it could point directly to the texts and other media that it aggregates. But just as easily as it circulates, a HyperReadings syllabus could be forked into new versions: the syllabus
is changed because there is a new essay out, or because of a political disagreement, or because following the syllabus produced new suggestions. These forks
become a family tree where one can follow branches and trace epistemological
It is in line with this vision, which we share with the HyperReadings crew, and in line
with our analysis, that we, as amateur librarians, activists, and educators, make our
promise beyond the limits of this text.
The workflow that we are bootstrapping here will keep in mind every aspect of the media object syllabus (order, timestamp, contributor, version changes), allowing diversity
via forking and branching, and making sure that every reference listed in a syllabus
will find its reference in a catalog which will lead to the actual material, in digital form,
needed for the syllabus.
Against the enclosures of copyright, we will continue building shadow libraries and
archives of struggles, providing access to resources needed for the collective processes of education.
Against the corporate platforming of workflows and metadata, we will work with social
movements, political initiatives, educators, and researchers to aggregate, annotate,
version, and preserve lists of resources.
Against the extractivism of academia, we will take care of the material conditions that
are needed for such collective thinking to take place, both on- and offline.
30 Sean Dockray, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office, ‘README.md’, Hyperreadings, 15 February
Bady, Aaron. ‘The MOOC Moment and the End of Reform’, Liberal Education 99.4 (Fall 2013), https://
Bailey, Lucy E. ‘The “Other” Syllabus: Rendering Teaching Politics Visible in the Graduate Pedagogy
Seminar’, Feminist Teacher 20.2 (2010): 139–56.
Chafkin, Max. ‘Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun, Godfather Of Free Online Education, Changes Course’,
FastCompany, 14 November 2013, https://www.fastcompany.com/3021473/udacity-sebastianthrun-uphill-climb/.
Chatelain, Marcia. ‘How to Teach Kids About What’s Happening in Ferguson’, The Atlantic, 25 August
_____. ‘Teaching the #FergusonSyllabus’, Dissent Magazine, 28 November 2014, https://www.dissentmagazine.org/blog/teaching-ferguson-syllabus/.
Ciolkowski, Laura. ‘Rape Culture Syllabus’, Public Books, 15 October 2016, https://www.publicbooks.
Connolly, N.D.B. and Keisha N. Blain. ‘Trump Syllabus 2.0’, Public Books, 28 June 2016, https://www.
Dockray, Sean, Benjamin Forster, and Public Office. ‘README.md’, HyperReadings, 15 February 2018,
Federici, Silvia, and Arlen Austin (eds) The New York Wages for Housework Committee 1972-1977: History, Theory, Documents, New York: Autonomedia, 2017.
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, New York:
Heidebrink-Bruno, Adam. ‘Syllabus as Manifesto: A Critical Approach to Classroom Culture’, Hybrid
Pedagogy, 28 August 2014, http://hybridpedagogy.org/syllabus-manifesto-critical-approach-classroom-culture/.
Jenks, Angela. ‘It’s In The Syllabus’, Teaching Tools, Cultural Anthropology website, 30 June 2016,
Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon, ‘The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era’, PLoS ONE 10.6 (10 June 2015), https://journals.plos.org/plosone/
Leckart, Steven. ‘The Stanford Education Experiment Could Change Higher Learning Forever’, Wired,
20 March 2012, https://www.wired.com/2012/03/ff_aiclass/.
Martin, Randy. Financialization Of Daily Life, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002.
Perlstein, Daniel. ‘Teaching Freedom: SNCC and the Creation of the Mississippi Freedom Schools’,
History of Education Quarterly 30.3 (Autumn 1990).
Roberts, Frank Leon. ‘Black Lives Matter: Race, Resistance, and Populist Protest’, 2016, http://www.
‘#StandingRockSyllabus’, NYC Stands with Standing Rock, 11 October 2016, https://nycstandswithstandingrock.wordpress.com/standingrocksyllabus/.
Shirky, Clay. ‘Ontology Is Overrated: Categories, Links, and Tags’, 2005, http://shirky.com/writings/
‘The Rise (and Fall?) Of the MOOC’, Oxbridge Essays, 14 November 2017, https://www.oxbridgeessays.
‘TNI Syllabus: Gaming and Feminism’, The New Inquiry, 2 September 2014, https://thenewinquiry.com/
‘Trump 101’, The Chronicle of Higher Education, 19 June 2016, https://www.chronicle.com/article/
‘Wages for Housework: Pamphlets – Flyers – Photographs,’ MayDay Rooms, http://maydayrooms.org/
Williamson, Ben. ‘Number Crunching: Transforming Higher Education into “Performance Data”’,
Medium, 16 August 2018, https://medium.com/ussbriefs/number-crunching-transforming-highereducation-into-performance-data-9c23debc4cf7/.
Sollfrank & Kleiner
Berlin, 20 November 2012
My name is Dmytri Kleiner. I work with Telekommunisten, which is an art
collective based in Berlin that investigates the social relations in bettering
Cornelia Sollfrank: I would like to start with the theory, which I think is
very strong, and which actually informs the practice that you are doing. For
me it's like the background where the practice comes from. And I think the
most important and well-known book or paper you've written is The
Telekommunist Manifesto. This is something that you authored personally,
Dmytri Kleiner. It's not written by the Telekommunisten. And I would like to
ask you what the main ideas and the main principles are that you explain, and
maybe you come up with a few things, and I have some bullet points here, and
then we can discuss.
The book has two sections. The first section is called "Peer-To-Peer Communism
Vs. The Client-Server Capitalist State," and that actually explains – using
the history of the Internet as a sort of a basis – it explains the
relationship between modes of production on one hand, like capitalism and
communism, with network topologies on the other hand, mesh networks and star
networks. [01:39] And it explains why the original design of the Internet,
which was supposed to be a decentralised system where everybody could
communicate with everybody without any kind of mediation, or control or
censorship – why that has been replaced with centralised, privatised
platforms, from an economic basis. [02:00] So that the need for capitalist
capture of user data, and user interaction, in order to allow investors to
recoup profits, is the driving force behind centralisation, and so it explains
C.S.: The framework of these whole interviews is the relation between cultural
production, artistic production in particular, and copyright, as a regulatory
mechanism. In one of your presentations, you mention, or you made the
assumption or the claim, that the fact that copyright is there to protect, or
to foster or enable artistic cultural production is a myth. Could you please
elaborate a bit on that?
Sure. That's the second part of the manifesto. The second part of the
manifesto is called "A Contribution to the Critique of Free Culture." And in
that title I don't mean to be critiquing the practice of free culture, which I
actively support and participate in. [03:13] I am critiquing the theory around
free culture, and particularly as it's found in the Creative Commons
community. [03:20] And this is one of the myths that you often see in that
community: that copyright somehow was created in order to empower artists, but
it's gone wrong somehow, at some point it's got wrong. [03:34] It went in the
wrong direction and now it needs to be corrected. This is a kind of a
plotline, so to speak, in a lot of creative commons oriented community
discussion about copyright. [03:46] But actually, of course, the history of
copyright is the same as the history of labour and capital and markets in
every other field. So just like the kind of Lockean idea of property
attributes the product of the worker's labour to the worker, so that the
capitalist can appropriate it, so it commodifies the products of labour,
copyright was created for exactly the same reasons, at exactly the same time,
as part of exactly the same process, in order to create a commodity form of
knowledge, so that knowledge could play in markets. [04:21] That's why
copyright was invented. That was the social reason why it needed to exist.
Because as industrial capitalism was manifesting, they required a way to
commodify knowledge work in the same way they commodified other kinds of
labour. [04:37] So the artist was only given the authorship of their work in
exactly the same way as the factory worker supposedly owns the product of
their labour. [04:51] Because the artist doesn't have the means of production,
so the artist has to give away that product, and actually legitimizes the
appropriation of the product of labour from the labourer, whether it's a
cultural labourer or a physical labourer.
C.S.: And why do you think that this myth is so persistent? Or, who created
it, and for what reasons?
I think that a lot of kind of liberal criticism sort of starts that way. I
mean, I haven't really researched this, so that's kind of an open question
that you are asking, I don’t really have a specific position. [05:30] But my
impression is always that people that come at things from a liberal critique,
not a critical critique, sort of assume that things were once good and now
they’re bad. That’s kind of a common sort of assumption. [05:42] So instead of
looking at the core structural origin of something, they sort of have an
assumption that at some point this must have served a useful function or it
wouldn’t exist. And so therefore it must have been good and now it’s bad.
[05:57] And also because of the rhetoric, of course, just like the Lockean
rhetoric of property: give the ownership of the product of labour to the
worker. Ideologically speaking, it’s been framed this way since the beginning.
[06:14] But of course, everybody understands that in the market system the
worker is only given the rights to own their labour if they can sell it.
C.S.: Based on this assumption, developed a certain function of the author.
Could you please elaborate on this a bit more? The invention of the individual
The author – in a certain point of history, in line of the development of, you
know, as modern society – capitalist industrial society – began to emerge, so
did with it the author. [06:53] Previous to this, the concept of the author
was not nearly so engrained. So the author hasn't always existed in this
static sense, as unique source of new creativity and new knowledge, creating
work ex nihilo from their imagination. [07:10] Previous to this there was
always a more social understanding of authorship, where authors were in a
continuous cultural dialogue with previous authors, contemporary authors,
later authors. [07:20] And authors would frequently reuse themes, plots,
characters, from other authors. For instance, Goethe’s Faust is a good example
that has been used by authors before and after Goethe, in their own stories.
And just like the Homeric traditions of ancient literature. [07:42] Culture
was always seen to be much about dialogue, where each generation of authors
would contribute to a common creative stock of characters, plots, ideas. But
that, of course, is not conducive to making knowledge into a commodity that
can be sold in the market. [08:00] So as we got into a market-based society,
in order to create this idea of intellectual property, of copyright, creating
something that can be sold on the market, the artist and the author had to
become individuals all of a sudden. [08:16] Because this kind of iterative
social dialogue doesn’t work well in a commodity form, because how do you
properly buy it and sell it?
C.S.: The Next concept I would like to talk about is the anti-copyright. Could
you please explain a little bit what it actually is, and where it comes from?
From the very beginning of copyright many artists and authors rejected it from
ideological grounds, right from the beginning. [08:35] Because, of course,
what was now plagiarism, what was now illegal, and a violation of intellectual
property had been in many cases traditional practices that writers took for
granted forever. [09:09] The ability to reuse characters; the ability to take
plots, themes and ideas from other authors and reuse them. [09:16] So many
artists rejected this idea from the beginning. And this was the idea of
copyright. But, of course, because the dominant system that was emerging – the
market capitalist system – required the commodity form to make a living, this
was always a marginal community. [09:37] So it was radical artists, like the
Situationist International, or artists that had strong political beliefs, the
American folk musicians like Woody Guthrie – another famous example. [09:47]
And all of this people were not only against intellectual property. They were
not only against the commodification of cultural work. They were against the
commodification of work, period. [09:57] There was a proletarian movement.
They were very much against capitalism as well as intellectual property.
Examples of Anti-Copyright
C.S.: Could you give also some examples in the artworld for this
anti-copyright, or in the cultural world?
DK: Well, you know Lautréamont’s famous text, “plagiarism is necessary: it
takes a wrong idea and replaces it with the right idea.” [10:29] And
Lautréamont was a huge influence on a bunch of radical French artists
including, most famously, the Situationist International, who published their
journal with no copyright, denying copyright. [10:44] I guess that Woody
Guthrie has a famous thing that I quote in some article or other, maybe even
in the [Telekommunist] Manifesto, I don’t remember if it made it in – where he
expressly says, he openly supports people performing, copying, modifying his
songs. That was a note that he made in a song book of his. [11:11] And many
others – the whole practice is associated with communises, from Dada to
Neoism. [11:18] Much later, up to the mid-1990s, this was the dominant form.
So from the birth of copyright, up to the mid-1990s, the intellectual property
was being questioned on the radical fringes of artists. [11:34] For me
personally, as an artist, I started to become involved with artists like
Negativland and Plunderpalooza – sorry, Plunderpalooza was an act we did;
Plunderphonics is an album by John Oswald – the newest movements and the
festival of plagiarism. [11:51] This was the area that I personally
experienced in the 1990s, but it has a long history going back to Lautréamont,
if not earlier.
On the Fringe
C.S.: But you already mentioned the term fringe, so this kind of
anti-copyright attitude automatically implied that it could only happen on the
fringe, not in the actual cultural world.
Exactly. It is fundamentally incompatible with capitalism, because it denies
the value-form of culture. [12:22] And without the commodity form, it can’t
make a living, it has nothing to sell in the market. Because it’s not allowed
to sell on the market, it’s necessarily marginal. [12:34] So it’s necessarily
people who support themselves through “non-art” income, by other kinds of
work, or the small percentage of artists that can be supported by cultural
funding or universities, which is, you know, a relatively small group compared
to the proper cultural industries that are supported by copyright licensing.
[12:54] That includes the major movie houses, the major record labels, the
major publishing houses. Which is, you know, in orders of magnitude, a larger
number of artists.
C.S.: So what would you say are the two, three, main characteristics of the
Well, it completely rejects copyright as being legitimate. That’s a complete
denial of copyright. And usually it’s a denial of the existence of a unique
author as well. [13:28] So one of the things that is very characteristic is
the blurring of the distinction between producer and consumer. [13:37] So that
art is considered to be a dialogue, an interactive process where every
producer is also a consumer of art. So everybody is an artist in that sense,
everybody potentially can be. And it’s an ongoing process. [13:52] There’s no
distinction between producer and consumer. It’s just a transient role that one
plays in a process.
C.S.: And in that sense it relates back to the earlier ideas of cultural
Exactly, to the pre-commodity form of culture.
C.S.: Could you please explain what copyleft is, where it comes from.
Copyleft comes out of the software community, the hacker community. It doesn’t
come out of artistic practice per se. And it comes out of the need to share
software. [14:30] Famously, Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation
started this project called GNU (GNU’s Not Unix), which is the, kind of, very
famous and important project. [14:44] And they publish the license called the
GPL, which sort of defined the copyleft idea. And copyleft is a very clever
kind of a hack, as they say in the hacker community. [14:53] What it does is
that it asserts copyright, full copyright, in order to provide a public
license, a free license. And it requires that any derivative work also carries
the same license. That’s what is different about it to anti-copyright. It’s
that, rather than denying copyright outright, copyleft is a copyright license
– it is a copyright – but then the claim is used in order to publicly make the
work available to anybody that wants it under very open terms. [15:28] The key
requirement, the distinctive requirement, is that any derivative work must
also be licenced under the same terms, under the copyleft terms. [15:38] This
is what we call viral, in that it perpetuates license. This is very clever,
because it takes copyright law, and it uses copyright law to create
intellectual property freedom, within a certain context. [15:55] But the
difference is, of course, that we are talking about software. And software,
economically speaking, from the point of view of the way software developers
actually make a living, is very different. [16:11] Because within the
productive cycle – the productive cycle can be said to have two phases,
sometimes called "department one" and "department two" in Marxian language or
in classical political economics. Producer’s goods and consumer’s goods; or
capital’s goods and consumer's goods models. [16:17] The idea is that some
goods are produced not for consumers but for producers. And these goods are
called capital. So they are goods that are used in production. And because
they are used in production, it’s not as important for capitalists to make a
profit on their circulation because they are input to production. [16:47] They
make their profits up stream, by actually using those goods in production, and
then creating goods that can be sold to the masses, circulated to the masses.
[16:56] And so because culture – art and culture – is normally a “department
two” good, consumer’s good, it’s completely, fundamentally incompatible with
capitalism because capitalism requires the capture of profits and the
circulation of consumer’s goods. But because software is largely a “department
one” good, producer’s good, it has no incompatibility with capitalism at all.
[17:18] In fact, capitalists very much like having their capital costs
reduced, because the vast majority of capitalists do not make commercial
software – license it. That’s only a very small class of capitalists. For the
vast majority of capitalists, the availability of free software as an input to
their production is a wonderful thing. [17:39] So this creates a sort of a
paradox, where under capitalism, only capital can be free. And because
software is capital, free software, and the GNU project, the Linux and the
vanilla projects exploded and became huge. [17:39] So, unlike the marginal-by-
necessity anti-copyright, free software became a mass movement, that has a
billion dollar industry, that has conferences all over the world that are
attended by tens of thousands of people. And everybody is for it. It’s this
really great big thing. [18:26] So it’s been rather different than
anti-copyright in term of its place in society. It’s become very prominent, very
successful. But, unfortunately – and I guess this is where we have to go next
– the reason why it is successful is because software is a producer’s good,
not a consumer’s good.
C.S.: So what is your basic criticism of copyleft?
I have no criticism of copyleft, except for the fact that some people think
that the model can be expanded into culture. It can’t be, and that’s the
problem. It's that a lot people from the arts community then kind of came back
to this original idea of questioning copyright through free software. [19:12]
So they maybe had some relationship with the original anti-copyright
tradition, or sometimes not at all. They are fresh out of design school, and
they never had any relationship with the radical tradition of anti-copyright.
And they encounter free software – they are like, yeah, that's great. [19:29]
And the spirit of sharing and cooperation inspires them. And they think that
the model can be taken from free software and applied to art and artists as
well, just like that. [19:41] But of course, there is a problem, because in a
capitalist society there has to be some economic sustainability behind the
practice, and because free culture modelled out of the GPL can’t work, because
the artists can’t make a living that way. [20:02] While capital will fund free
software, because they need free software – it’s a producer’s good, it’s input
to their production – capital has no need for free art. So they have also no
need to finance free art. [20:15] So if they can’t be financed by capital,
that automatically gives them a very marginal role in today’s society. [20:19]
Because that means that it has to be funded by something other than capital.
And those means are – back to the anti-copyright model – those are either non-
art income, meaning you do some other kind of work to self-finance your
artistic production, or the relatively small amount of public cultural
financing that is available – or now we have new things, like crowd funding –
all these kinds of things that create some opportunities. But still
marginally small compared to the size of the capitalist economy. [20:52] So
the only criticism of copyleft is that it is inapplicable to cultural
Copy-left and cultural production
C.S.: Why this principle of free software production, GPL principles, cannot
be applied to cultural production? Just again, to really point this out.
The difference is really the difference between “department one” goods,
producer's goods, and “department two” goods, consumer’s goods. [21:27] It’s
that capitalists, which obviously control the vast majority of investment in
this economy – so the vast majority of money that is spent to allow people to
realise projects of any kind. The source of this money is capital investment.
[21:42] And capital is happy to invest in producer’s goods, even if they are
free. Because they need these goods. So they have no requirement to seek these
goods. [21:53] If you are running a company like Amazon, you are not making
any money selling Linux, you are making money selling web services, books and
other kinds of derivative products. You need free software to run your data
centre, to run your computer. [22:08] So the cost of software to you is a
cost, and so you're happy to have free software and support it. Because it
makes a lot more sense for you to contribute to some project that it’s also
used by five other companies. [22:21] And in the end all of you have this tool
that you can run on your computer, and run your business with, than actually
either buying a license from some company, which can be expensive, inflexible,
and you can't control it, and if it doesn't work the way you want, you cannot
change it. [22:36] So free software has a great utility for producers. That's
why it's a capital good, a producer's good, a "department one" good. [22:45]
But art and culture do not have the same economic role. Capital is not
interested in developing free culture and free art. They don't need it, they
don't do anything with it. And the capitalist that produces art and culture
requires it to have a commodity form, which is what copyright is. [23:00] So
they require a form that they can sell on the market, which requires it to
have the exclusive, non-reproducible commodity form – that copyright was
developed in order to commodify culture. [23:14] So that is why the copyleft
tradition won't work for free culture – because even though free culture and
anti-copyright predates it, it predates it as a radical fringe. And the
radical fringe isn't supported by capital. It's supported, as we said, by
outside income, non-art income, and other kind of things like small cultural
C.S.: In the last ten years we have seen new business models that very much
depend on free content as well. Could you please elaborate on this a bit?
Well, that’s the thing. Now we have the kind of Web 2.0/Facebook world.
[24:00] The entire copyright law – the so-called "good copyright" that
protected artists – was all based on the idea of the mechanical copy. And the
mechanical copy made a lot of sense in the printing press era where, if you
had some intellectual property, you could license it through mechanical
copies. So every time it was copied, somebody owed you a royalty. Very simple.
[24:26] But in a Web 2.0 world, where we have YouTube, Facebook, Twitter and
things like that, this doesn't really work very well. Because if you post
something online and then you need to get paid a royalty every time it gets
copied (and it gets copied millions of times), this becomes very impractical.
[24:44] And so this is where the Creative Commons really comes in. Because the
Creative Commons comes in just exactly at this time – as the Internet is kind
of bursting out of its original military and NGO roots, and really hitting the
general public. At the same time free software is something that is becoming
better known, and inspiring more people – so the ideas of questioning
copyright are becoming more prominent. [25:16] So Creative Commons seizes on
this kind of principles approach that anti-copyright and copyleft take. And
again, one of the single most important things about anti-copyright and
copyleft is that in both cases the freedom that they are talking about – the
free culture that they represent – is the freedom of the consumer to become
the producer. It's the denial of the distinction between consumer and
producer. [25:41] So even though the Creative Commons has a lot of different
licenses, including some that are GPL compatible – they're approved for free
cultural work, or whatever it's called – there is one license in particular
that makes up the vast majority of the works in the Creative Commons, one
license in particular which is like the signature license of the Creative
Commons – it's the non-commercial license. And this is obviously... The
utility of that is very clear because, as we said, artists can't make a living
in a copyleft sense. [26:18] In order for artists to make a living in the
capitalist system, they have to be able to negotiate non-free rights with
their publishers. And if they can't do that, they simply can't make a living.
At least, not in the mainstream community. There is a certain small place for
artists to make a living in the alternative and fringe elements of the
artworld. [26:42] But if you are talking about making a movie, a novel, a
record, then you at some point are going to need to negotiate a contract with
the publisher. Which means, you're going to have to be able negotiate non-free
terms. [27:00] So what non-commercial [licensing] does, is that it allows
people to share your stuff, making you more famous, getting more people to
know you – building its value, so to speak. But they can't actually do
anything commercial with it. And if they want to do anything commercial with
it, they have to come back to you and they have to negotiate a non-free
license. [27:19] So this is very practical, because it solves a lot of
problems for artists that want to make work available online in order to get
better known, but still want to eventually, at some point in the future,
negotiate non-free terms with a publishing company. [27:34] But while it's
very practical, it fundamentally violates the idea that copyleft and
anti-copyright set out to challenge – and this is distinction between the producer
and the consumer. Because of this, the consumer cannot become the producer.
And that is the criticism of the Creative Commons. [27:52] That's why I want
to talk about this thing, I often say, a tragedy in three parts. The first
part is a tragedy because it has to remain fringe, because of its complete
incompatibility with the dominant capitalism. [28:04] The second part,
copyleft, is a tragedy because while it works great for software, it can't and
it won't work for art. [28:10] And the third part is a tragedy because it
actually undermines the whole idea and brings the author back to the surface,
back from the dead. But the author kind of remerges as a sort of useful idiot,
because the "some rights reserved" are basically the rights to sell your
intellectual property to the publisher in exactly the same way as the early
industrial factory worker would have sold their labour to the factory.
C.S.: And that creates by no means a commons.
It by no means creative a commons, right. Because a primary function of a
commons is that it would be available for use by others producers, and the
Creative Commons isn't because you don't have any right to create your own
work to make a living from the works in the commons – because of the non-
commercial clause that covers a large percentage of the works there.
Peer Production License
C.S.: But you were thinking of an alternative. What is the alternative?
There is no easy alternative. The fact is that, so long as we have a cultural
industry that is dominated by market capitalism, then the majority of artists
working within it will have to work in that form. We can't arbitrarily, as
artists, simply pretend that the industry as it is doesn't exist. [29:41] But
at the same time we can hope that alternatives will develop – that alternative
ways of producing and sharing cultural works will develop. So that the
copyfarleft license... [29:52] I describe the Creative Commons as
copyjustright. It's not copyright, it's copyjustright – you can tune it, you
can tailor it to your specific interests or needs. But it is still copyright,
just a more fine-tuneable copyright that is better for a Web 2.0 distribution
model. [30:12] The alternative is what I call copyfarleft, which also starts
off with the Creative Commons non-commercial model for the simple reason that,
as we discussed, if you are an actually existing artist in the actually
existing cultural industries of today, you are going to have to make a living,
on the most part, by selling non-free works to publishers, non-free licenses
to publishers. That's simply the way the industry works. [30:37] But in order
not to close the door on another industry developing – a different kind of
industry developing – after denying commercial works blankly (so it has a non-
commercial clause), then it expressly allows commercial usage by non-
capitalist organisations, independent cooperatives, non-profits –
organisations that are not structured around investment capital and wage
labour, and so forth; that are not for-profit organisations that are enriching
private individuals and appropriating value from workers. [31:15] So this
allows you to succeed, at least potentially succeed as a commercial artist in
the commercial world as it is right now. But at the same time it doesn't close
the door on another kind of community from developing, other kind of industry
from developing. [31:35] And we have to understand that we are not going to be
able to get rid of the cultural industries as they exist today, until we have
another set of institutions that can play those same roles. They're not going
to magically vanish, and be magically replaced. [31:52] We have to, at the
same time as those exist, build up new kind of institutions. We have to think
of new ways to produce and share cultural works. And only when we've done
that, will the cultural institutions as they are today potentially go away.
[32:09] So the copyfarleft license tries to bridge that gap by allowing the
commons to grow, but at the same time allowing the commons producers to make a
living as they normally would within the regular cultural industry. [32:25]
Some good examples where you can see something like this – might be clear –
are some of the famous novelists like Wu Ming or Cory Doctorow, people that
have done very well by publishing their works under Creative Commons non-
commercial licenses. [32:42] Wu Ming's books, which are published, I believe,
by Random House or some big publisher, are available under a Creative Commons
non-commercial license. So if you want to download them for personal use, you
can. But if you are Random House, and you want to publish them and put them on
bookstores, and manufacture them in huge supply, you have to negotiate non-
free terms with Wu Ming. And this allows Wu Ming to make a living by licensing
their work to Random House. [33:10] But while it does do that, what it doesn't
do is allow that book to be manufactured any other way. So that means that
this capitalist form of production becomes the only form that you can
commercially produce this book – except for independents, just for their own
personal use. [33:25] Whereas if their book was instead under a copyfarleft
license, what we call the "peer production" licence, then not only could they
continue to work as they do, but also potentially their book could be made
available through other means as well. Like, independent workers cooperatives
could start manufacturing it, selling it and distributing it locally in their
own areas, and make a commercial living out of it. And then perhaps if those
were to actually succeed, then they could grow and start to provide some of
the functions that capitalist institutions do now.
The artworks that we do are more related to the topologies side of the theory
– the relationship between network topologies, communication topologies, and
the social relations embedded in communication systems with the political
economy and economic ideas, and people's relationships to each other. [34:24]
The Miscommunication Technologies series has been going on for a quite a while
now, I guess since 2006 or so. Most of the works were pretty obscure, but the
more recent works are getting more attention and better known. And I guess
that the ones that we're talking about and exhibiting the most are deadSwap,
Thimbl and R15N, and these all attempt to explore some of the ideas.
deadSwap is a file sharing system. It's playing on the kind of
circumventionist technologies that are coming out of the file sharing
community, and this idea that technology can make us be able to evade the
legal and economic structures. So deadSwap wants to question this by creating
a very extreme parody of what it would actually mean to really be private.
[35:40] It is a file sharing system, that in order to be private it only
exists on one USB stick. And this USB stick is hidden in public space, and its
user send text messages to an anonymous SMS gateway in order to tell other
users where they've hidden the stick. When you have the stick you can upload
and download files to it – it's a file sharing system. It has a Wiki and file
space, essentially. Then you hide the stick somewhere, and you text the system
and it forwards your message to the next person that is waiting to share data.
And this continues like that, so then that person can share data on it, they
hide it somewhere and send an SMS to the system which then it gets forwarded
to the next person. [36:28] This work serves a few different functions at
once. First, it starts to get people to understand networks and all the basic
components. The participants in the artwork actually play a network node – you
are passing on information as if you are part of a network. So this gets
people to start thinking about how networks work, because they are playing the
network. [36:52] But on the other hand, it also tries to get cross the idea
that the behaviour of the user is much important than the technology, when it
comes to security and privacy. So how difficult it is – the system is very
private – how difficult it is to actually use it, not lose the stick, not to
get discovered. [37:11] It's actually very difficult to actually use. Even
though it seems so simple, normally people lose the USB key within like an
hour or two of starting the system. It doesn't... All the secret agent manuals
that say, be a secret agent spy – isn't easy, and it tries to get this across,
that actually it's not nearly as easy to evade the economic and political
dimensions of our society as it should be. [37:45] Maybe it's better that we
politically fight to avoid having to share information only by hiding USB
sticks in public space, sticking around and acting like spies.
Thimbl is another work, and it is completely online. This work in some ways
has become a signature work for us, even though it doesn't really have any
physical presence. It's a purely conceptual work. [38:15] One of the arguments
that the Manifesto makes is that the Internet was a fully distributed social
media platform – that's what the Internet was, and then it was replaced,
because of capitalism and because of the economic logic of the market, with
centralised communication platforms like Twitter and Facebook. [38:40] And
despite that, within the free software community and the hacker community,
there's the opposite myth, just like the copyright myth. There's this idea
that we are moving towards decentralised software. [38:54] You see people like
Eben Moglen making this point a lot, when he says, now we have Facebook, but
because of FreedomBox, Diaspora and a laundry list of other projects, we're
eventually going to reach a decentralised software. [39:07] But this makes two
assumptions that are incorrect. The first is that we are starting with
centralised media and we are going to decentralised media, which actually is
incorrect. We started with a decentralised social media platform and we moved
to a centralised one. [39:40] And the second thing that is incorrect is that
we can move from a centralised platform to a decentralised platform if we just
create the right technology, so the problem is technological. [39:34] With
Thimbl we wanted to make the point that that wasn't true, that the problem was
actually political. The technological problem is trivial. The computer
sciences have been around forever. The problem is political. [39:43] The
problem is that these systems will not be financed by capital, because capital
requires profit in order to sustain itself. In order to capture profit it
needs to have control of user interaction and user's data. [39:57] To
illustrate this, we created a micro-blogging platform like Twitter, but using
a protocol of the 1970s called Finger. So we've used the protocol that has
been around since the 1970s and made a micro-blogging platform out of it –
fully, totally distributed micro-blogging platform. And then promoted it as if
it was a real thing, with videos and website, and stuff like that. But of
course, there is no way to sign up for it, because it's just a concept.
[40:22] And then there are some scripts that other people wrote that actually
made it to a certain degree real. For us it was just a concept, but then
people actually took it and made working implementations of it, and there are
several working implementations of Thimbl. [40:38] But the point remains that
the problem is not technical, the problem is political. So we came up with
this idea of the economic fiction, or the social fiction. [40:47] Because in
science fiction you often have situations where something that eventually
became a real technology was originally introduced in a fictional context as a
science fiction. [40:59] The reason it's fictional is because science at the
time was not able to create the thing, but as science transcends its
limitations, what was once fictional technology became real technology. So we
have this idea of a social or economic fiction. [41:15] Thimbl is not science
fiction. Technologically speaking it demonstrably works – it's a demonstrably
working concept. The problem is economic. [41:23] For Thimbl to become a
reality, society has to transcend its economic limitations – it's social and
economic limitations in order to find ways to create communication systems
that are not simply funded by the capture of user data and information, which
Thimbl can't do because it is a distributive system. You can't control the
users, you can't know who is using it or what they are doing, because it's
The R15N has elements of both of those things. We wanted to create a system
that was basically drawn a little from deadSwap, but I wanted to take out the
secret agent element of it. Because I was really... [42:08] The first place it
was commissioned to be in was actually in Tel Aviv, in Israel, the [Israeli]
Center for Digital Art. And this kind of spy aesthetic that deadSwap had, I
didn't think it would be an appropriate aesthetic in that context. [42:22] The
idea that of trying to convince young people in a poor area in Tel Aviv to act
like spies and hide USB sticks in public space didn't seem like a good idea.
[42:34] So I wanted to go the other way, and I wanted to really emphasise the
collaboration, and create a kind of system that is pretty much totally
impossible to use, but only if you really cooperate you can make it work.
[42:45] So I took another old approach called the telephone tree. I don't know
if you remember telephone trees. Telephone trees existed for years before the
Internet, when schools and army reserves needed to be quickly dispatched, and
it worked with a very simple tree topology. [43:01] You had a few people that
were the top nodes, that then called the list of two or three people, that
then called the list of two or three people, that then called the list of two
or three people... And the message can be sent through the community very
rapidly through a telephone tree. [43:14] It is often used in Canada for
announcing snow days at school, for instance. If the school was closed, they
would call three parents, who would each call three parents, who would each
call three parents, and so forth. So that all the parents knew that the school
was closed. That's one aspect. [43:30] Another aspect of it is that
telephones, especially mobile phones, are really advertised as a very freedom
enabling kind of a thing. Things that you can go anywhere... [43:41] I don't
know if you remember some of the early telephones ads where there are always
businessmen on the beach. I remember this one where this woman's daughter
wants to make an appointment with her because she only has time for her
colleague appointments, and so it's this whole thing about spending more time
with her daughter – so she takes her daughter to the beach, which she is able
to do because she can still conduct business on her mobile phone. So it's this
freedom kind of a thing. [44:04] But in areas like the Jessi Cohen area in Tel
Aviv where we were working, and other areas where the project has been
exhibited, like Johannesburg – other places like that, the telephone has a
very different role, because it's free to receive phone calls, but it costs
much to make phone calls, in most parts of the world, especially in these poor
areas. [44:25] So the telephone is a very asymmetric power relationship based
on your availability of credit. So rather than being a freedom enabling thing,
it's a control technology. So young people and poor people that carry them
can't actually make any calls, they can't call anybody. They can only receive
calls. [44:40] So it's used as a tedder, a control system from their parents,
their teachers, their employers, so they can know where they are at any time
and say, hey why aren't you at work, or where are you, what are you doing.
It's actually a control technology. [44:54] We wanted to invert that too. So
the way the phone tree system work is that, when you have a message you
initiate a phone call, so you initiate a new tree, the system phones you...
[45:05] And you can initiate a new tree in the modern versions by pushing a
button in the gallery. There's a physical button in the gallery, you push the
button, there's a phone beside it, it rings a random person, you tell them
your message, and then it creates an ad hoc telephone tree. It takes all the
subscribers and arranges them in a tree, just like in the old telephone tree,
and each person calls each person, until your message, in theory, gets through
the community. [45:28] But of course in reality nobody answers their phones,
you get voicemail, and then you get voicemail talking to voicemail. Of course,
voice from the Internet is fake to begin with, so calls fail. So it actually
becomes this really frenetic system where people actually don’t know what's
going on, and the message is constantly lost. [45:44] And of course, you have
all of these missed phone calls, this high pressure of the always-on world.
You are always getting these phone calls, and you're missing phone calls, and
actually nobody ever knows what the message is. So it actually creates this
kind of mass confusion. [46:00] This once again demonstrates that the users –
what we call jokingly in the R15N literature, the diligence of the users, is
so much required for these systems to work. Technologically, the system is
actually more or less hindered. [46:21] But they also serve not only to make
that message, which is a more general message – but also, like in the other
ones, in R15N you are a node in the network. So when you don’t answer a call
you know that a message is dropped. [46:36] So you can image how volatile
information is in networks. When you pass your information through a third
party, you realise that they can drop it, they can change it, they can
introduce their own information. [46:50] And that is true in R15N, but is also
true in Facebook, in Twitter, and in any time you send messages through some
third party. That is one of the messages that is core to the series.