Category Archives: Observations

My piece on James Joyce and the public domain in the Atlantic Wire

Update: The piece has been picked up by Techdirt, where it is being discussed at some length.


I’ve written a short piece for Atlantic Wire celebrating the first Bloomsday since James Joyce entered the public domain. In it, I bemoan the extension of copyright terms.

This weekend I am traveling to a dual celebration, of a great Irish writer and of copyright freedom. For June 16 is Bloomsday, the day in 1904 captured through the eyes of Leopold Bloom by James Joyce in his epic novel Ulysses. Each year in Dublin fans of Joyce gather to celebrate the work in a day of public readings conducted at locations across the city that are featured in the book.

2012 is a special year for these Joyceans. The 71st since Joyce’s death, it marks the first — across the EU at any rate — that his work may be shared freely among them, without needing permission — for public readings, performances, or re-interpretations — from his estate. This is no small matter: since inheriting the estate in 1982, Joyce’s grandson Stephen Joyce has gained a reputation as the most controlling literary executor in history.

Read the rest here.

Marilyn Monroe reads Ulysses

The ethics of drones

I had a short piece published on Comment is Free over the weekend about the various ethical questions raised by the use of drones in military, law enforcement and commercial settings. Here’s a taste:

Philosophers and lawyers, encouraged and occasionally funded by the military-industrial complex, are swarming around the issue. The questions raised are manifold. Do drones lower the threshold of war, encouraging those who deploy them to be more bellicose? Can they or their operators sufficiently discriminate combatants from civilians in order to comply with international law? Are they proportionate, or so horrifically cruel as to qualify, along with anti-personnel landmines and cluster bombs, for prohibition? Does their cybernetic nature make them a biological weapon? What effect does their deployment have on the “hearts and minds” of civilians, or the morale of soldiers? Should we worry that Iran appears to have assumed control of a US drone, having kidnapped it out of the sky? And who is to blame when drones go wrong? The question of responsibility becomes even more central as scholars consider the implications of a future featuring autonomous drones.

You can read the rest here.

Publishing with no shoes on

It was only 3 weeks ago when I tweeted the news that I had submitted the final draft of my book, but it feels like a lifetime has passed between now and then. I guess most writers get to kick back a bit once they’ve made their copy deadline – indeed more than a few tweeps suggested I break out the champers on hearing my news.

Not me. Since handing it in, my book has morphed from the carefully-constructed narrative about the digital counterculture that I spent the last 18 months crafting into a series of squiggles on pages, with varyingly deliquent bottom margins, kerning issues and em-dashes where there should be en-dashes (or is that the other way around?).

Welcome to the world of self-publishing.

Well, actually, “self-publishing” doesn’t quite capture it. Professional charming man Felix Cohen, who worked on openDemocracy’s Fight-back – A Reader on the Winter Protest together with Dan Hancox earlier this year, is doing most of the hard work wrestling the document I drafted into the various formats in which you will eventually read it (html, pdf, Kindle, print). And the super-lovely Damien Morris – the man who, incidentally, gave me my first paid writing gig ever, on the dance music weekly 7 magazine – is the book’s editor. Kathryn Corrick has provided invaluable marketing, as well as general, support. And Christopher Scally, who worked with the Open Rights Group to deliver the image we used on the Freedom Not Fear protest back in 2008, and who is a friend of longstanding from Brighton days, has crafted a fantastic set of illustrations from John Tenniel’s original Alice drawings that, in my mind, make the book.

“Vanity publishing” also doesn’t quite cut it. For a start, I’m not paying any of the people mentioned above: for reasons still mysterious to me, they volunteered their contributions, on more than one occasion without prompt from me. What’s more, not counting labour (which is a ridiculous thing to say, of course, but stick with me for a moment) the upfront costs of publishing your own book are vanishing everyday. Thanks to platforms like Lulu, (our chosen supplier) Lightning Source, and the Amazon Kindle store, the entire process can be set up for less than a half-decent meal out.

The phrase I’ve settled on to describe what we’re doing with Barefoot Into Cyberspace is “flash-publishing”. That’s mainly because of the feedback I got from real publishers when they read the first draft. They liked the writing (“incredibly well-written”, said one, “feels like something that should be in The New Yorker“, said another), but feared that by the time they had been able to put the work through their process, it would already be out of date. One publisher quoted 9-12 months as the average time it took them to produce a book, a timescale driven in part by retailer demands. If I had secured a deal in advance, things would have been different, as the publisher could have planned ahead. But it’s pretty hard to do that if you’re relatively unknown and you’ve never proven you can write a book before.

But I wasn’t going to put Barefoot into a box and forget about it. I wanted to get this book out there for me, yes, but also for the intelligent, insightful and lovely people who gave me their time to be interviewed for it. I’ve really enjoyed the freedom flash-publishing this book has offered me, and working closely with some of my favourite people to deliver it has been a joy so far. But that doesn’t mean that next time, I don’t want a publishing deal. It’s not just that I want to take writing books from a spare-time to a full-time activity, although that’s part of it. And it’s not just that being so closely-involved in the process this time around has shown me how much dedication and skill need to go into making a book from people other than its author, although that’s a big part of it too. It’s also that publishing your own work can sometimes make you feel a bit more dorky and self-conscious than even having someone else want to publish it for you probably feels like.

Speaking about this to a coder friend, I found him surprisingly supportive. Code, unlike a book like Barefoot, generally meets a specific need. What’s more, although you can quickly tell whether code is good or not based on whether it runs and how buggy it is, judging the quality of the book you’ve just written is harder. So whereas shoving your code up on SourceForge is a good way of sharing it with people, shoving your book up on the web might not be. But we’ll see.

The book is launching on 28th July, and I fully intend to man up between now and then. In fact, this will probably be the last time you hear me saying anything other than either “read my book”, “buy my book” or “my book is great” for the next two months at least. And I’m fully prepared to walk across the hot coals of critical derision that publishing your own book might be seen to deserve, because I do think that what I’ve written is worth reading.

Yesterday was another landmark in the publishing process – Felix submitted the final book files to Lightning Source. What’s left to do (apart from needless panicking, which I’ve pretty much got covered) is to get the word out. Here I’m not unlike most authors with publishing companies behind them, in that the bulk of the work will be down to me. Please help me by spreading the word. And remember that, even though I look pretty confident walking into this scary, smart party wearing no shoes, inside I’m freaking out.

Which way to techno-utopia? Event at the Free Word Centre next week

picture of signpostBe it nostalgia, futurology, or just the desire to escape our home and seek our fortunes in foreign lands, human beings have a tendency to see happiness anywhere but where they are. But which way is techno-utopia: backwards, forwards, or sidewards? The trash culture of globalised mass-production may make us hamper for an age when the gadgets beginning to invade our home were made (in Britain) to last a lifetime, or it may make us hungry for a virtual world devoid of material detritus. What is certain is that a society’s approach to technology will be driven by the ideologies of the moment.

Next Monday I’m chairing an event where I hope to explore visions of techno-utopia from three distinct angles. On stage will be Gia Milinovich, Angela Saini and Ken Hollings.

Gia is a presenter, writer and blogger, specializing mainly in new media and film. She has worked in a technical capacity on major blockbusters including The X-Files, Indiana Jones and 28 Weeks Later, and she advised on and appeared in the 2009 BBC programme Electric Dreams. I’m hoping that what she’ll bring to the discussion is insight into the modern fetishisation of vintage technology and, more generally, technology’s depiction on the big screen.

Ken is known to this blog, and talks very engagingly about the visions of technology, its power and potential, that pervaded the 20th century during the Cold War. I’m looking forward to seeing him again after our radio show together last year.

Angela is an old acquaintance from my openDemocracy days, and has her first book out this year, Geek Nation (subtitle “How Indian Science is Taking Over the World”). I’m hoping to get some insight from her about the founding myths that inform the Indian tech scene.

If you’d like to come, tickets cost £5 and you can buy them from the Free Word Centre website. The Free Word Centre itself is on Farringdon Road in London, opposite the building that used to house the Guardian newspaper. The event is being put on by Little Atoms. I look forward to seeing you there!

Photo credits: Peter Nijenhuis@Flickr

Why I signed the Wikileaks NDA

Posted today on New Statesman:

I confess I didn’t think too hard before I signed a non-disclosure agreement with WikiLeaks in October 2010. It helped that I wasn’t planning on doing anything to undermine the organisation’s operations, that the penalty mentioned for doing so was a mere £100,000 – and not the £12m detailed in the document released by the New Statesman last week – and that, unlike last week’s document, there was no clause gagging me from speaking about Wikileaks’s own operations. I skim-read the document, noted how badly drafted it was, saw it was to expire a fortnight or so later, and took my chances.

As a result, I got something I have taken to regarding as a quaint souvenir from the heady days of information anarchism, embellished with the signature of the world’s most wanted man. I’m not particularly proud of this attitude, especially as I ended up doing almost no work for the organisation in exchange for my trinket.

What a cynical and misleading headline for a blog post, you might be thinking, and you’d be right. But then, isn’t that sort of eye-catching sensationalism the stock-in-trade of the mainstream press? Yes, it is, and that’s the point.

Read the rest here.

Article on phone-hacking for Hackers! newspaper

The second number of Leila Johnston‘s new paper Hackers! went on sale last week. I’ve written an article in it on phone hacking.

Here’s a little taste:

After a while, listening in on A-list celebrity voicemails gets boring. At least I imagine it would if you were a real phone hacker. Hacking someone’s voicemail is so easy even I could do it. Every network has a single number and – at least until recently – an easily-Googleable, default PIN, intended to help richer customers access their voicemails from abroad and poorer ones access their voicemails when their credit runs out. All you need to know is your target’s mobile number and there’s an odds-on chance that in less than five minutes you too can be listening to their Mum reminding them they’re coming for lunch on Sunday.

But while politicians and police agonise about what to do with the UK tabloids’ phone phreaks, the real story of phone hacking is continuing amid markedly less furore. In December 2009 Karsten Nohle announced that the weak cryptography that protects the GSM standard had been cracked…

It is only available on DTF (dead-tree format, or “the original DRM”) so the only way you can finish reading this is if you buy a copy here. I fully suggest you do this, not least because Leila presents my second-favourite podcast, Shift Run Stop, and buying her paper might persuade her to make another episode, but more importantly because it’s got loads of other good stuff in it, including the hacks that stopped Hitler, Helen Keen’s top five rocket scientists, and a rather sweet spelling mistake in my biog which conveys the relieving news that I have now been fully restored from my temporary status as an adjective.

Screenshot of hackers

New essay for openDemocracy: The Freedom Cloud

Today, openDemocracy published my first essay for them in just under four years, and I’m really excited about it. It’s called “The freedom cloud” and it poses the question: what if what we’re witnessing in the Arab world is the end of the web’s liberating promise, and not the beginning?

The essay takes a tour of some of the ideas about the internet’s global development that most got me thinking recently, including Ethan Zuckerman’s observations on hypergiants, and Evgeny Morozov’s take on the need for cyber-pragmatism. It ends up at Eben Moglen’s recent call for a recovery of the net’s original system architecture, through the development of “freedom boxes”, a call that has been echoed by Douglas Rushkoff.

Here’s an excerpt:

Hackers are an inclusive bunch, and usually don’t object to extended use of the term. In their own way the dedicated, self-motivated activists that helped seed Egypt’s revolution are also hackers. This is reflected in the media’s resort to the jargon of the techno-utopian world of the 1990s to describe them: “small pieces loosely joined” in a “network” that is “connected”, whose news and appeals spread “virally” in a way that allows them to act in an “agile” yet “loosely coordinated” way, organising protests that become a “meme” and ultimately even the revolution – a “network effect” itself.

Yet the promiscuity of language is also a trap, in that the web tools of the Arab renaissance are very far from those of the cyber-utopians. Facebook is a hierarchy, not a network. Twitter is a hierarchy, not a network. Gmail is a hierarchy, not a network. Yes, those of us who use these tools are “networked”: we are, as the utopians would say, loosely joined. But we are also fused to the corporate giants that provide and profit from these tools, through whose buzzing servers our intimate or banal exchanges pass.

Read the rest.

It also gets into Wikileaks territory – although, on the advice of oD’s excellent Deputy Editor David Hayes, I’ve cut-and-saved a lot of this material for a subsequent piece. Given the proliferation of comment on Wikileaks since events escalated in December last year, more of the same is probably not too thrilling a proposition for most people. Wikileaks took discourse on net freedoms into what I heard one participant at last year’s Chaos Computer Congress describe as “a different theatre of operations”, and I don’t mind telling you that it freaked the hell out of me. So finding myself in a position where I feel able to write something useful and interesting about it is, personally, a big deal.

There is much more to come. For the last year-and-a-bit I’ve been writing a book which explores the origins and the future of cyber-utopian ideals and which features interviews with Stewart Brand, Rop Gonggrijp, Cory Doctorow, Ethan Zuckerman, Daniel Schmitt and Phil Booth. It also has one of the earliest interviews you’ll read with Julian Assange. Thanks in part to Wikileaks, as I was writing it, the metaphorical ground I was on shifted under me, making what was an exercise in cultural anthropology turn into something more like an adventure story. The book is called Barefoot into Cyberspace, and it will be published in the coming few months.