Disrecognized Space

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Curation: An essential online performative skill

As the amount of digital information in the world grows, curation of this data becomes increasingly necessary. Digital curation has democratized a previously professional skill, having become a task all online users undertake, and which also forms a central part of identity performance online. While automatic tools are available to assist in this process human intervention is necessary in order to give meaning to curating disparate objects. Lacking awareness of this, machine curation could theoretically limit a person’s online experience and expression. Recognition of curation’s necessity, a reflexive understanding of how it embodies identity across sites and time, and its interactions with digital ecosystems has become an essential online skill in order to create nuanced and critical online selves.

In a digital world the amount of available information grows at a confounding speed. Shirky (2008) comments that information overload has existed since at least the invention of the printing press: the problem of the online world is not the explosion of information, but one of having effective filters. This, however, ignores to an extent the fundamentally different nature of the internet: not only has information increased to a massive extent (Berners-Lee (2014) recently noted websites have passed the one billion mark), but all of it is potentially available at once. Shirky (2014) has, however, elsewhere acknowledged the internet’s blurring of previous cultural rules and the different nature of internet information. This is an order of magnitude different from pre-internet information overload. It is not just a question of too many books to read since digital information covers the whole spectrum of human expression: images, texts, video, music and data (Ray, 2009, p. 358). Shirky (2008) argues that we now need new filters along with new social norms to effectively engage with this digital world. Another word for these filters is curation.

Curation increases the understanding of objects and brings order to information overload. Rosenbaum (2011, p. 2) observes that the result of good curation is “context, meaning and knowledge” leading to a “special aura of knowledge and experience”. Curation is thus an activity that places objects into a meaningful relationship to an audience. Without this “aura” curation devolves into an aggregation without context (Rosenbaum, 2011, p, 4). Curation is the process of shaping knowledge about objects, rather than simply aggregating the objects themselves (Rotman, Procita, Hansen, Parr and Preece, 2012, p. 1093). Curation is essential to bring meaning to digital objects dispersed through the internet.

Curation does not, however, occur in isolation, but within the structures of the internet. Nardi and O’Day (1999, para. 25) conceptualise these structures as information ecologies, localized collections of relationships between people, technological tools, and how those tools are used. They identify a number of factors distinguishing information ecologies: they are local, diverse systems; they are subject to constraints and possibilities and thus ‘evolve’; and they contain keystone species, particularly mediators between systems who are technologically skilled. While their claim that communities (as opposed to ecologies) are homogenous is arguable, the systems concept does bring to the fore the need to recognize the multiconnected relationships that make up ‘local’ internets and their connections to other such ecologies and, especially, the need for skilled human mediators to keep such systems alive and functioning. Their analogy tends towards Actor Network Theory, though their privileging of humans as a ‘keystone species’ can be seen as limiting considering the variety of nodes in the network. Day (2012, p. 62) stresses that both curation and cyberinfrastructure are codependently linked, while Willson (2014, p. 226) observes that though decisions can be delegated to technology, this has political implications. Curation thus operates within the constraints and affordances of information ecologies and cyberinfrastructures when bringing meaning to collections.

Digital curation as a concept is relatively new, and researchers provide varying descriptions of it in different contexts – curating an online museum site is different from curating a social media presence. Much of the literature deals with a straight transfer of traditional institutional curation to an online format, rather than considering the different nature of digital curation. Ray (2012, pp. 604-605) comments that the meaning of curation has been altered by digital media, encompassing traditional curation as well as sites such as Pinterest. She stresses, however, the human role of curation. Most definitions emphasise that digital curation is not just collecting or displaying, but in some way adds value or meaning, often as a process over time (Madrid, 2013, p. 151), something Ray (2099, p. 360) also describes in her definition of digital curation as ongoing, from the creation of an object to a possible future use. This curatorial process inevitably expresses the curator’s identity.

Online curation requires specific skills, and operates differently from institutional curation. Thibodeau (quoted in Day, 2007, p. 107) gives a list of competencies for digital curation as a professional role which recognizes applying new technology to digital sources subject to change over time. Rheingold (2012, pp. 129-130) offers two other lists of curatorial skills: both providing different ways of considering how curators reorder information, add value through methods such as comments or tagging, and disseminate this new information. Indeed, Rheingold (2012, p. 133) sees tagging as a fundamental function for organizing knowledge online. Tagging, and other added metadata, creates an ‘enhanced copy’, increasing the value of the digital object (Marshall, 2011, p. 107). In a digital world, objects can also easily be arranged in multiple categories (Feinberg, 2011, p. 119). Physical objects can only be stored in one location but, as Bush (1996, p. 43) remarked in 1945, the human mind works by associations, it creates links and trails. Digital curation realizes Bush’s vision, allowing multiple co-existing ‘trails’ (or stories) to be laid across digital objects.

Curation is inextricably linked to identity: what is emphasized, what is ignored, what constraints are placed on it, what order it is given, all function as means of performing identity constructions. As Durrant, Frohlich, Sellen and Lyons (2009, p. 1011) note in the context of family photographs, curation mediates self-expression. What we curate, and what we choose to display of this curation, provides knowledge about ourselves, to make us more secure about who we are (Cox, 2009, p. 106). Curation online cannot be performed without also performing identity.

Identity is significant because, in a networked world, curation is no longer a privileged function, but has become democratized (Rosenbaum, 2011, p. 17). Power has shifted from professional editors or librarians: we are all curators online (Flintoff, Mellow and Clark, 2014, para. 2). Online curation is also, increasingly, collaborative (Flintoff, Mellow and Clark, 2014, para. 24). Mihailidis and Cohen (2013, p. 5) describe curation as a way to analytically make metanarrational stories from the internet that can be reflective as well as shared. Curation, they state, is thus a core digital competency. Curation can also engender a sense of responsibility in the story creator by crafting a coherent narrative (Cohen and Mihailidis, 2012, p. 28). These are all ways of expressing identity in digital formats. In a similar manner, Jacobson (2012, p. 2) defines curation as a creative act. Rather than working with scarce objects (which museum curators might) digital curators have a wealth of resources. Online curation is a form of identity creation, a public display, that draws together both self-created objects (such as photographs) and those created by others. Identities are integrated into digital curation.

Digital curation forms a major basis of identity expression. Online curation mediates experiences (including the experience of the self) (Quaan-Haase and Martin, 2013, p. 529). This occurs equally whether curation is performed by a machine or a human (or a human/machine synthesis). Curation (especially, but not only, machine curation) can, however, limit identities online by restricting information. Sutton (2014) alone lists forty-seven curation tools, ranging from online spaces to gather material together, to sites that sort and push information automatically, and whose methods are more opaque. Filtering can be an active seeking of information, or a passive reception of information (Willson, 2014, p. 222). Digital natives, paradoxically, may be at home with new technology but often remain unaware of the role and skills of digital curation (Yakel, Conway, Hedstrom and Wallace, 2011, p. 23). This raises questions of what happens when curation is an automatic or neglected process.

Allowing machines to curate for us is easy, but relinquishes power and control Helmond (2010, p. 5) questions what it means to allow Google or other machine algorithms to shape the audience. Google results are personalised to the user, so that two users searching for the same information can get different results, while Facebook similarly adjusts what different users see (Bozdag, 2013, p. 211). Storify privileges ‘verified’ sources in its search results (Cohen and Mihailidis, 2012, p. 29). Such methods inherently contain the biases of the original human creators of the algorithms, operating through website code (Bozdag, 2013, p. 217), potentially creating a lack of information diversity (Bozdag, 2013, p. 220). Care is required in developing such algorithms if they are not to be limiting (Dandekar, Goel and Lee, 2013, pp. 5795-5796). If the software feeds back what the searcher has consumed from previously restricted offerings this can become self-reinforcing (Helmond, 2010, p. 12). Identity is mediated through this invisible code especially when we remain unaware of it (Helmond, 2010, p. 15). Automatic curation is easy, but can apply ‘blinders’ to what we see (Gibney, 2014, p. 130). Relying solely on algorithms and code thus shifts power to those who hold our data, making us more passive in what we see online (Pariser, 2011, p. 6). New methods of curating digital information come with their own limitations and restrictions which need to be negotiated (Beaulieu, De Rijcke and Van Heur, 2013, p.50). Rather than fully expressing identity, automatic curation can potentially lead to algorithms determining our identities for us. Such delegation makes the audience passive consumers rather than active shapers of information.

Some critics have raised the issue of ‘echo chambers’ as a growing concern onine. While relying on algorithms relinquishes control, even with a human presence the multiple articulations afforded by online curation can, as Danzico (2010, p. 18) cautions, invisibly exclude any unwanted news or information that might challenge the audience’s preconceptions. There are many sites that allow users to collect information that reflects their interests (and, by implication, represent a portrayal of their identities) but this information may or may not be accurate or truthful (Mihailidis and Cohen, 2013, p. 4). The effect of creating such ‘echo chambers’ may be exaggerated, however. Garrett (2009, p. 279) finds that, while people use the internet to reinforce political views, they also engage with challenging information as well, even if only to reinforce their views. Nonetheless, it is a problem that needs recognition in order to avoid it.

Some sites automate the processes of curation while allowing more active choice from the user in making selections, striking a compromise between passive and active curation. Sites such as Storify allow the gathering of objects into personal stories – narratives that reflect the creators (Carrigan, 2012, p. 1). As noted above, however, these sites can still contain implicit, unstated biases even when seeming more open. The nature of the site(s) chosen to host a user’s curation(s) also changes the environment in which it is displayed, through such factors as layout, personalization, social norms, and links to other users (Thurlow and Jaworski, 2011, pp. 223-224). Feinberg (2011, p. 123) urges us to relish this opportunity to utilize different organizational systems than the ones we might otherwise unthinkingly favour. Rather than letting machines alone do the curating, users can create more nuanced selves by actively engaging with their curatorial activities.

Digital curation is a relatively new, and still fluid, concept. It is nonetheless clear that it is a function that everyone online performs whether they are aware of it or not. Curation has transformed from a specialized skill of a few professionals, to a fundamental way we organize and display information online and, by implication, display ourselves. This performative identity function of curation is deeply embedded in our cybernavigations and it is therefore important that users are conscious of this aspect, and develop their curatorial skills so that they become aware of how they simultaneously express and filter their identities online, as well as adding meaning and value to the objects they curate. An essential part of this performative act is negotiating how different tools and sites, and the digital ecosystems they function within, can enhance or limit curatorial possibilities. Such negotiation maximizes opportunities to create nuanced, critical online identities that expand online presences rather than limit them.


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Being human

Once portrayed as ugly, clumsy ape-men, Neanderthals were in fact culturally advanced close relatives of Homo sapiens. And their legacy lives on among us…


Homo sapiens and Homo neanderthalensis skulls. Not so different? (Source: original from Wikimedia)


Knowing where we have come from gives us a better understanding of who we are. The story of human evolution was, until fairly recently, thought of as an almost unbroken progression of gradually improving species until its fulfillment in that paragon of animals, modern humans (Homo sapiens). That narrative has been overthrown by recent fossil discoveries and other research which shows that we are actually just the only surviving hominin species of what is a complicated and multibranched evolutionary tree.

Amongst all these recent advances, the story of our understanding of Neanderthals (Homo neanderthalensis) in particular gives us a clear example of how paleoanthropology has changed the way we view the past, setting us on new shores of ways of looking at ourselves and our future.

Evolving images
First recognized from a discovery in the Neander Valley in Germany in 1856, Neanderthals were initially thought to be brutish, clumsy apemen, and this prejudice persists in the common imagination today when someone is referred to as a “Neanderthal”. Yet our increasing knowledge reveals a far different picture: Neanderthals were a singularly successful, intelligent, and robust species which managed to survive from around 350,000 to 40,000 years ago, in multiple ice age environments, far longer than the span of time that Homo sapiens has existed.


Putting flesh on the bones

Neanderthal skeleton. Isolated in a glass case, devoid of a cultural and social context (Source: SmugMug)
Neanderthals and modern humans both evolved from a common ancestor. Neaderthals were stocky, somewhat shorter than modern humans, with a prominent brow ridge, and a brain capacity slightly larger than humans today. Placed among modern humans, Neanderthals would be unlikely to stand out as dramatically different. Putting flesh on their bones allows us to see these cousins in a more familiar light, rather than the disembodied skeletons put on display in museums.


(Source: YouTube)


Real humans
Recent discoveries have allowed us to form a fuller idea of Neanderthal life, apart from simply reassessing their physical appearance, showing that they had a rich cultural world.


They used fire and stone tools:
Chris Stringer, a palaeoanthropologist at the Natural History Museum in London, says that 20 years ago, he believed that if the Neanderthals made the Châtelperronian ornaments, they were blindly imitating modern humans. “Our interpretation was that they were copying but that they didn’t have the brainpower to give full value” to the objects. He wouldn’t say so now. Two decades of discoveries of sophisticated Neanderthal tools and weapons have made him think that “the gulf was not as great”: that the difference between Neanderthals and ourselves was a matter more of culture than of ability.
Source: Nature


They cared for their disabled, and buried their dead:
It is of course impossible to know exactly what thoughts lay behind this act [of burial]. If the Neanderthals just wanted to dispose of the body, then leaving him out in the open for the carnivores to do their job would have been simple. But instead they dug this pit, worked to remove a large quantity of sediment, and placed the body in it. They spent a long time doing something that was not essential for their life or survival: they just wanted to protect the body of this old man.

Furthermore, the care of his clan and their attentions for him can be seen in the last of his life, as well in death. At the ripe old age of 40-50 years old, the Old Man of La Chapelle (as he is known) suffered from osteoarthritis that left him stooped and bent, had hip problems and had lost almost all his teeth. He probably had trouble moving by himself, and was certainly useless for most group activities. But his group continued to feed him. They cared not only for his body in death, but also in life.

These discoveries confirm the existence of burial among European Neanderthals, and of their cognitive capacity to do so. But more, our findings also sustain the image of a very human group, with empathy for others, behaviour that shrinks still further the distance between them and us.
Source: The Conversation


Neanderthals - National Museum of Natural History - Washington DC - USA
Diorama depicting a Neanderthal burial (Source: Flickr)


They made jewellery, and used feathers as a decorative practice:
This is not the first time scientists have found evidence that Neandertals used feathers. In 2011 a team of Italian researchers reported on cutmarked bird bones from Neandertal levels in Fumane Cave in northern Italy that revealed this practice. But some researchers dismissed the find as an isolated phenomenon. The new findings suggest that feathers were de rigueur for thousands of years not only among Gibraltar’s Neandertals but quite possibly for Neandertals across Eurasia.
Source: Scientific American


Neanderthals quite probably had language. They certainly had the physical ability to speak:
An analysis of a Neanderthal’s fossilised hyoid bone – a horseshoe-shaped structure in the neck – suggests the species had the ability to speak. This has been suspected since the 1989 discovery of a Neanderthal hyoid that looks just like a modern human’s. But now computer modelling of how it works has shown this bone was also used in a very similar way. Writing in journal Plos One, scientists say its study is “highly suggestive” of complex speech in Neanderthals.
Source: BBC News


They also had a spatial awareness capacity:
“This is ongoing work, but the big picture in this study is that we have one more example that Neanderthals used some kind of logic for organizing their living sites,” Riel-Salvatore said. “This is still more evidence that they were more sophisticated than many have given them credit for. If we are going to identify modern human behavior on the basis of organized spatial patterns, then you have to extend it to Neanderthals as well.”
Source: Science Daily


The recent discovery of a 40,000 year old deliberate stone etching (which may or may not be “art”) raises further questions of their cognitive abilities:

“This behaviour was considered exclusive to modern humans and has been used as an argument to distinguish our direct ancestors from ancient man, including Neanderthals.”

The discovery is “a major contribution to the redefinition of our perception of Neanderthal culture”, prehistorian William Rendu, of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, told the Wall Street Journal. “It is new and even stronger evidence of the Neanderthal capacity for developing complex symbolic thought.”
Source: The Guardian


While there is still dispute about what all these discoveries mean, and what copying (if any) occurred between Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, all these traits provide strong evidence that Neanderthals had a complex culture and were capable of symbolic thought. Just like us.


Genetic insights
Perhaps the most dramatic advance in our understanding of Neanderthals has been the sequencing of the Neanderthal genome. The exact places and times that Neanderthals and Homo sapiens co-existed is under dispute, but recent findings put the period around 2,600 to 5,400 years in length. Indeed, throughout human evolution we now know that multiple human species existed at many times, and our current singularity is an anomaly. Non-African modern humans have been found to carry around 1% to 4% Neanderthal genes, the result of interbreeding in the past.


In 2010, Svante Pääbo’s lab announced a draft sequence of the Neanderthal genome. This new study has produced evidence consistent with interbreeding between Neanderthals and anatomically modern Homo sapiens and points to aspects of the human genome that may have changed since the split between humans and Neanderthals.
Source: Smithsonian


This genetic inheritance has dramatically altered not just our view of our ancestors, but ourselves.


“Many traits that distinguish humans from chimps are believed to have evolved more recently than the human–Neanderthal split,” observes biostatistician Katherine S. Pollard of the Gladstone Institutes at the University of California, San Francisco. “A Neanderthal genome is a very important step towards determining the genetic basis for these characteristics that define the modern human species.”
Source: Scientific American


John Hawks, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the US, told BBC News: “They’re us. We’re them.
Source: BBC News


No longer alone
Rather than the exceptionalist view of modern humans as uniquely different and superior creatures, we are now forced to confront more directly and with greater nuance the question of what makes us human. The previous, easy, answers are no longer sufficient.


Roebroeks and his colleague, Dr Paola Villa at the University of Colorado Museum in Boulder, trawled through the archaeological records to look for evidence of modern human superiority that underpinned nearly a dozen theories about the Neanderthals’ demise and found that none of them stood up.

“The explanations make good stories, but the only problem is that there is no archaeology to back them up,” said Roebroeks.

Villa said part of the misunderstanding had arisen because researchers compared Neanderthals with their successors, the modern humans who lived in the Upper Palaeolithic, rather than the humans who lived at the same time. That is like saying people in the 19th century were less intelligent than those in the 21st because they didn’t have laptops and space travel.
Source: The Guardian


Understanding where we came from helps us to understand how we became who we are today as modern humans, as well as what “being human” means. It can help us to navigate the new shores of challenges facing us, such as climate change (which may have been one factor in the demise of Neanderthals) by knowing our limitations and our capabilities. Neanderthals were adept and successful as a species yet, while they became extinct, Homo sapiens flourished. Learning about our past can help us to address the fragility of our own existence, and, perhaps, learn to exist within our own world rather than blindly walking to extinction. We may be the first species to be self-aware that we are overusing resources and destroying our environment, but will we be the first species to do something about it, or will we too become extinct? As we literally encounter new shores due to sea level rise will we be wiser than the Neanderthals?

As a constant reminder of these questions, the Neanderthals have left us a genetic reminder of the time we existed together, of our differences, but also of our many similarities. It is a legacy we are only just beginning to explore.

Remember, you, and that person sitting next to you on the bus, are probably part-Neanderthal. We may not be so different.

A human face: Neanderthal skull with genetic code behind it (Source: original image from Wikimedia, genetic code from The Neandertal Genome)

Art against Empire: William Blake, J M W Turner and the age of revolution

From the mid seventeenth century the revolutionary period in Europe and America saw turbulent political and social changes. These changes were also reflected in, and driven by, the arts, not least in Romanticism’s extolling of the “individual” and insight. One of the earliest such artists was William Blake whose works evince a strongly revolutionary spirit, set against tyranny and enslavement of all kinds. Largely ignored in his lifetime, Blake has since been recognised as sui generis and a profound voice for his age. In contrast, J M W Turner, a generation later than Blake, was much more successful, though he also made political criticisms in his art. Turner’s later works, however, led to a rejection by critics. Both, in different ways, portrayed the influence of the Romantic and revolutionary strands of their world.

Romanticism is a term full of meaning but difficult to pin down, containing two hundred years of interpretations (Craske 1997, 7). It is, perhaps, more appropriate to refer to “romanticisms” instead, recognising that there was no monolithic Romantic movement in all countries and, indeed, many thought the term one of insult (Craske 1997, 10). Day (1996, 6) considers it more relevant to ask how individual Romantics reflected the movement, rather than trying to fit them to one template. It is also helpful to see Romanticism not as a movement for something, but more accurately a revolt against standards (Russell 1961, 651). In this sense, Romantics echoed the revolutionary fervour of the time as deeply political artists (Williams 1958, 48).

Regardless of the difficulty of definitions, Romantic art can be considered broadly as defined by an emphasis on an individual artist’s expression of imagination via a personal vision (Craske 1997, 36). Schlegel stated that a Romantic had to have a “religion of his (sic) own, an original view of the infinite” (Hughes 1987, 90). In Romanticism, art and beauty became terms that relied on the individual’s definitions, rather than a collective understanding (Harris 2003, 64).

It was not just the Romantics who were in revolt: from the late eighteenth century to the mid nineteenth, the French, American and Industrial revolutions were taking place, partly charged by a new concept of individual rights and freedoms espoused in the works of thinkers such as Thomas Paine (Day 1996, 12). The notion of liberty drove these revolutionary thinkers, though it must be noted that there were many such movements, rather than a unified entity (Makdisi 2003b, 59). Agriculture in Britain was also changing, leading to the enclosure of commons, and increasing commercialisation (Stewart 2012, 161).

The Romantic period is considered to extend from the French Revolution in 1789 (or, alternatively, the publication of Lyrical Ballads in 1798) over the next four decades (Day 1996, 2). Artists at this time were unable to escape these historical currents: some, such as William Blake (1757-1827), both celebrated the new age while condemning the social ills it created (Smith 1988, 23). Indeed, Blake’s lifetime was essentially the same as that of the revolutionary period (Williams 1958, 49). Hobsbawn (1962, 255) has suggested that a crude simplification of artists of this period sees them as inspired by the French Revolution, horrified by the Industrial Revolution, and shaped by the changes bourgeois society was bringing to how artists lived and worked.

Blake stands as an early example of a Romantic artist and one who consistently expressed a vision so personal that he was viewed as a madman by contemporaries (Hargraves 2010, 215). Even today Blake’s idiosyncratic religious visions can obscure that his concerns were also always political and social (Day 1996, 95). Blake reacted strongly against Enlightenment ideals of rationalism and the materialism of the Industrial Revolution, expressing instead a divine inspiration (Hargraves 2010, 244). Unlike the general philosophical view of the revolutionary period that freedom should not be imposed by authority but by the self, Blake saw this as the imposition of yet another controlling system. For Blake, as Makdisi observes (2003b, 274), saw freedom as a release to act, not restrain, and as a removal of limits. To Blake, all systems were forms of enslavement, limiting the imagination (Kiralis 1956, 131). His lifelong opposition to tyranny ranged from early association with radical elements, through to his late works concerning a supreme human liberty (Swearingen 1992, 125).

In Blake’s lifetime corn became increasingly scarce, inflation ran rampant, famine frequent, taxes higher, and riots in reaction common (Bronowski 1965, 43). For half of Blake’s lifetime England was at war (Browowski 1965, 14). English economic supremacy was ending, and the old, village, way of life along with it (Bronowski 1965, 44). London’s population grew from 675,000 in 1750 to 2,362,200 in 1850 (Facos 2011, 13). The Industrial Revolution was centred in Britain and, according to Hobsbawm (1962, 26) ranked as one of the most significant events in world history. It brought, however, many deleterious changes, especially to labourers. Blake witnessed the Industrial Revolution turning art into a productive process, a mechanical endeavour no different from the other new production processes being implemented in the factories of the North (Williams 1958, 52). Blake was one of the earliest artists to recognise this upheaval (Hobsbawn 1962, 263). He was an anachronism whose artisanal genius was challenged by the commodification of culture, even as he was forced to work within that milieu to earn a living (Makdisi 2003a, 131). Blake was swept along by these forces, literally so when, in 1780, he took part in the Gordon riots and witnessed the burning of Newgate prison (Wilson 1978, 18).

Blake was one among many loosely aligned religious Dissenters who supported radical beliefs, both religious and political (Day 1996, 17-18). Joseph Johnson, a bookseller, became the centre of meetings of these radical thinkers, among whom Blake was exposed to dissenting ideas (Bronowski 1965, 65). He opposed not just political empires, however, but also denounced all oppressive systems, including slavery and arbitrary moral and ethical codes which literally and metaphorically imprisoned the poor, women and the weak (Day 1996, 25). For Blake, politics and religion were the same thing (Erdman 1982, 207).

Art was a way of expressing revolution. In his annotations to The Laocoön Blake asserted a binary opposition of “Empire against Art” (Erdman 1982, 274). Blake saw art as a social function, and a way of avoiding the slavery of mundane revolutions (Frye 1951, 35). The revolutionary age is directly addressed in many of Blake’s images, though the personal nature of his mythology in his images means that it cannot easily be held down to one interpretation (Bronowski 1965, 30). As Blake wrote: “He who binds to himself a joy/ Does the winged life destroy” (Erdman 1982, 470). Nonetheless, there are clear themes that drive Blake’s art, particularly the struggle against restraint and the urge towards freedom. For Blake this meant overthrowing socio-political restraints as much as self-imposed psychological restraints (Makdisi 2003b, 81-83).

The illuminated books present a combination of text and image which, unlike the mechanical processes used in printing that produced multiple, identical, copies, were works that were hand printed and coloured, so each edition is a unique object. This leads to each work being readable in no one, canonical, way. The object has become unstable, as Makdisi (2003a, 114) points out. Just as society had become unstable, Blake’s art reflected this shifting. Blake created an unparalleled radical art, full of energy, where words and image operate on multiple interacting levels (Frye 1951, 38).

The Songs of Experience (1794) in particular directly addresses the poverty of the London working class. Apart from three years in Felpham, Blake lived all his life in London and knew its ills well (Damon 1973, 244). In London Blake attacks the oppression around him, the word “charter’d” showing how business has enclosed even the streets and the river, commerce reigning supreme, evoking an angry response (Tomlins 2009, 196). Blake shows a child leading an old man who may be Blake’s creator god Urizen, self-crippled by attempting to redeem his failed system of creation by imposing yet another system (Keynes 1970, 150).


Figure 1. William Blake, Songs of Innocence and of Experience, copy L, object 51 (Bentley 46, Erdman 46, Keynes 46) “LONDON”, 1795. Relief etching with watercolour. 11.1 x 6.9cm. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=songsie.l.illbk.51&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

A Divine Image, intended for the Songs of Experience but excluded by Blake and not printed until after his death, expresses his revulsion at the baser aspects of humanity. Los, the poet, forges the sun, beating Imagination into the limiting industrial symbol of iron in a forge (Keynes 1970, 125). The literal image suggests how oppressive forces, such as the French Revolution or industrialisation, also beat and forge individuals into submission (Beaney n.d.).


Figure 2.William Blake, ‘A Divine Image’, from Songs of Innocence and of Experience, shewing the Two Contrary States of the Human Soul, copy BB, 1831-2. Relief etching. 11.1 x 6.9cm. The British Library. Reproduced from The Open University, http://www.open.edu/openlearn/ocw/mod/oucontent/view.php?id=1880&extra=thumbnail_idp2954496 (accessed March 31, 2014).

In the engraving Albion Rose Blake depicts Albion (signifying England) rising above the smoky blackness of the Industrial Revolution in a political and a spiritual gesture while, at his feet, a moth emerges from a chrysalis as a symbol of rebirth (Damon 1973, 13).The engraving bears the inscription (not shown) “Albion rose from where he labourd at the Mill with Slaves”.


Figure 3. William Blake, Albion rose, 1804. Engraving, etching and drypoint. 25 x 19cm. The British Library. Reproduced from The British Museum http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=1354527&partId=1 (accessed March 31, 2014).

The success of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution seemed to herald of the new supremacy of individual rights and freedom (Day 1996, 12). In America (1793-4) Blake presented a prophetic and mythic interpretation of the overturning of British oppression (Day 1996, 21). Damon (1973, 20) describes the publication of America, with Blake’s name prominent on it, as an overtly defiant act, and the poem controversial in light of the growing counter-revolution. In this “prophecy” Blake shows Orc, the spirit of revolution, surrounded by the flames of Hell, as Urizen’s limited vision would see it, but which, in Blake’s eternity, are the unquenchable fires of rebellion spreading through the American colonies (indeed, the licking flames press against “the Colonies” in the fourth line (Erdman 1974, 148).


Figure 4. William Blake, America a Prophecy, copy A, object 12 (Bentley 12, Erdman 10, Keynes 10), 1795. Relief etching with pen and watercolour. 23.5 x 16.9cm. Morgan Library and Museum, New York. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=america.a.illbk.12&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

In another plate from America, Blake writes his most direct celebration of revolutionary freedom from slavery: “For Empire is no more, and now the Lion & Wolf shall cease.” (Erdman 1982, 53). To illustrate this poetic equivalent of the Revolutionary Declaration of Independence, Blake shows a naked youth risen from the grave of slavery (a skull lies by his side) as he gazes into the bright air and new growth surrounds the words (Erdman 1974, 144)


Figure 5. William Blake, America a Prophecy,copy O, object 8 (Bentley 8, Erdman 6, Keynes 6), 1821. Relief etching with pen and watercolour. 23.4 x 16.7cm. Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=america.o.illbk.08&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

The advent of the Terror, however, showed this optimism to be ill founded, and led to a reactionary backlash (Day 1996, 14). Blake’s later writings reflected this disillusionment, and he also turned to a more metaphysical, less overtly political, narrative as radicals in England were subjected to suppression (Ward 2003, 25). In Jerusalem Albion is shown collapsed into himself, asleep or refusing to acknowledge the world, while his body is entangled with a scroll. Albion here is literally fallen from the world of imagination, fallen into himself in despair, caught up in the limiting written word (Erdman 1974, 316). Even in the earlier works, however, Blake should not be seen as reporting history, but rather addressing the concepts that revolution brought (Makdisi 2003b, 10).


Figure 6. William Blake, Jerusalem The Emanation of The Giant Albion, copy E, object 41 (Bentley 41, Erdman 37, Keynes 41), c.1821. Relief etching with pen, watercolour and gold. 22.4 x 16.2cm. Yale Center for British Art, Yale University. Reproduced from The Blake Archive, http://www.blakearchive.org/exist/blake/archive/object.xq?objectid=jerusalem.e.illbk.41&java=no (accessed March 31, 2014).

John Ruskin considered Blake and Turner to be the two geniuses of his century (quoted in Bentley 1975, 83). It is therefore interesting to compare the two, with Blake heralding the Romantic era and Turner achieving fame at its end, with Blake a neglected artist who only found some minor following late in life while Turner achieved fame easily but was shunned in later life, with Blake maintaining the primacy of the line while Turner increasingly painted what Blake would have called in his Public Address the “blots and blurs” of nature painting (Erdman 1982, 575).

One of the outcomes of the revolutionary period was the overthrowing of hierarchical, and unbreakable, models of society. Talent and drive could now lead to advancement (Hobsbawm 1962, 189). J M W Turner (1775-1851), a Londoner like Blake, unlike Blake was a student at the Royal Academy at fourteen, became a Royal Academician in 1802, travelled widely, was famous and rapidly became rich (Knoedler 1914, 9). Yet, he too was rejected and pilloried in old age for his canvasses which redefined the romantic depiction of nature (Knoedler 1914, 10).

Turner often made use of vortices in his paintings, the forces of nature combining and swirling in an echo of the historical changes affecting society (Rodner 1986, 472). The vortex was also an important symbol for Blake and an apt metaphor for the upheavals in society (Damon 1973, 440). As Faris (1989, 310) observes, Turner depicted forces, rather than forms, confounding distinctions, something Blake would have condemned with his emphasis on form. Turner uses geometric shapes, light, and colour itself to create symbols, rather than allegory (Faris 1989, 311). For Blake, allegory was truth.

Turner, unlike Blake, found the changes the Industrial revolution was bringing as impressive, even, arguably, attaining the Romantic ideal of embodying the “sublime” (Harris 2003, 71). Nonetheless, Turner was not uncritical of the changes occurring around him and, while more enthusiastic than Blake, his art is ambivalent in its response (Rodner 1986, 455). In The slave ship, Turner depicts an infamous event of slaves being thrown overboard because the owner could then claim insurance for their loss. Like Blake’s anti-slavery stance, Turner shows human beings reduced, not just to a homogenous working (under)class, but to the very commodities that the industrial age had inaugurated (Boime 1990, 34). The old economic order had been replaced, and Turner’s canvas can be seen as embodying this (Boime 1990, 41). Slavery had ended in 1838, however, and the black hands reaching out from the painting implicitly reach for a white audience, placing the slaves as black victims requiring white assistance (Ward 2007, 49-50).


Figure 7. J M W Turner, The slave ship (slavers throwing overboard the dead and dying – typhon coming on), 1840. Oil on canvas. 138 x 91 cm. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Reproduced from The Athenaeum, http://www.the-athenaeum.org/art/detail.php?ID=20012(accessed March 31, 2014).

In Rain, steam and speed Turner more directly celebrates the industrial revolution, but Boime (1990, 40) sees similarities to The slave ship: the havoc and the perspective, the illumination, focus the gaze. The steam train, like the economic order, heralds an unstoppable transformation.


Figure 8. J M W Turner, Rain steam and speed, the Great Western Railway, c.1884. Oil on canvas. 121.9 x 90.8 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Reproduced from WikiPaintings, http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/william-turner/rain-steam-and-speed-the-great-western-railway (accessed March 31, 2014).

The fighting ‘Temeraire’ became Turner’s most popular picture, but it too remains ambivalent even while it celebrates technological progress as inevitable, “almost prophetic” as Turner’s friend R C Leslie described it (Rodner 1986, 460). Unlike Blake’s resistance to industrialisation, Turner saw it as inevitable though not inherently “good” (Rodner 1986, 461). The steamer is ugly and squat in comparison to the elegance and grandeur of the sailing ship, but it is in charge, and it represents the future (Stewart 2012, 168).


Figure 9. J M W Turner, The fighting ‘Temeraire’, tugged to her last berth to be broken up, c.1839. Oil on canvas. 91 x 122 cm. National Gallery, London, UK. Reproduced from WikiPaintings, http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/william-turner/the-fighting-temeraire-tugged-to-her-last-berth-to-be-broken-up-1839 (accessed March 31, 2014).

Blake wrote in his Descriptive Catalogue that without the “bounding line” all is chaos (Erdman 1982, 550). Elsewhere, however, he also wrote “Without Contraries is no progression” (Erdman 1982, 34). While Blake might have condemned Turner’s chaos, both artists illuminate nature and ideology, and both Contraries add to each other in their meanings. Turner’s works show a tension about an already much changed society, while Blake at the onset of these changes takes a more oppositional viewpoint. Blake spoke (and painted) “the discontent of his time” (Bronowski 1965, 179). Turner, a generation later, commented critically on already well established changes. Both artists reacted to, and were driven by, the cultural, economic and political changes that were altering the world around them and both, in different ways, evinced a Romantic spirit of the artist as individual genius portraying an inner vision, of Art against Empire. This inner vision created highly individual art that not just reflected, but actively addressed and interpreted, the revolutionary age.


Reference list

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Boime, Albert. 1990. “Turner’s Slave Ship: The Victims of Empire.” Turner Studies 10 (1): 34–43.

Bronowski, Jacob. 1865. William Blake and the Age of Revolution. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Craske, Matthew. 1997. Art in Europe 1700-1830. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Damon, S Foster. 1973. A Blake Dictionary. London: Thames and Hudson.

Day, Aidan. 1996. Romanticism. London & New York: Routledge.

Erdman, David. 1974. The Illuminated Blake. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

———, ed. 1982. The Complete Poetry & Prose of William Blake. New York: Anchor Doubleday.

Faris, Wendy. 1989. “The ‘Dehumanization’ of the Arts”: J. M. W. Turner, Joseph Conrad and the Advent of Modernism.” Comparative Literature 41 (4): 305–326. ProQuest.

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Hargraves, Matthew. 2010. Varieties of Romantic Experience: British, Danish, Dutch, French, and German Drawings from the Collection of Charles Ryskamp. New Haven, Conn: Yale Center for British Art.

Harris, Roy. 2003. The Necessity of Artspeak: The Language of the Arts in the Western Tradition. London: Continuum.

Hobsbawm, Eric. 1962. The Age of Revolution: 1789-1848. New York: Vintage Books.

Hughes, Robert. 1991. Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists. London: Harvill-Harper Collins.

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Kiralis, Karl. 1956. “The Theme and Structure of William Blake’s Jerusalem.” ELH 23 (2): 127–143. Jstor.

Makdisi, Saree. 2003a. “The Political Aesthetic of Blake’s Images.” In The Cambridge Companion to William Blake, edited by Morris Eaves, 110–131. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

———. 2003b. William Blake and the Impossible History of the 1790s. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Rodner, William. 1986. “Humanity and Nature in the Steamboat Paintings of J.M.W. Turner.” Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies 18 (3): 455–474. Jstor.

Russell, Bertrand. 1961. History of Western Philosophy. London: George Allen and Unwin.

Smith, Bernard. 1988. The Death of the Artist as Hero:  Essays in History and Culture. Melbourne: Oxford University Press.

Stewart, Suzanne. 2012. “Roads, Rivers, Railways and Pedestrian Rambles: The Space and Place of Travel in William Wordsworth’s Poems and J. M. W. Turner’s Paintings.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts: An Interdisciplinary Journal 34 (2): 159–184. T and F Online. doi:10.1080/08905495.2012.672296.

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Ward, Abigail. 2007. “‘Words Are All I Have Left of My  Eyes’: Blinded by the Past in  J. M. W. Turner’s Slavers Throwing  Overboard the Dead and Dying  and David Dabydeen’s ‘Turner’.” The Journal of Commonwealth Literature 42 (1): 47–58. doi:10.1177/0021989407075728.

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Joseph Wright of Derby: Illuminating the question of the Enlightenment

The Enlightenment describes a period during the eighteenth century when a series of revolutions occurred in scientific and philosophical thinking, leading to a movement promoting the supremacy of individual freedom and reason. This movement was reflected by intellectuals throughout Europe including in the arts, and prominently in the paintings of Joseph Wright of Derby whose canvasses portray a subtle, but not unequivocal, conversation regarding the way the world had become newly illuminated, both literally and metaphorically, and which pose questions that demand the viewer consider the ethical implications of the changes the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution were bringing.

“The Enlightenment” is an overarching term that becomes less clear the more closely it is interrogated, and even more so in modern examinations of the concept. Van den Eeden (2011) notes that Tzvetan Todorov identifies three formative ideas: autonomy, human-centred actions, and universality. Yet, even in the eighteenth century, the Enlightenment was a concept with multiple meanings rather than universality (Outram 2013, 1). The Enlightenment is more helpfully considered as a series of ideas and debates that interlock, though not without often contesting each other (Outram 2013, 3). While examining changing interpretations of the Enlightenment, Outram (2013, 4) notes that Peter Gay saw it as an application of reason, inimical to religion, and seeking to change society through freedom and progress. She also notes that many modern philosophers argue that the Enlightenment is not closed, but is still very much a concept that is being worked out in the present (Outram 2013, 7).

Kant (1784) famously declared “Sapere aude! Have courage to use your own reason!- that is the motto of enlightenment” arguing that religion in particular prevented this from occurring. Foucault (1984, 5) notes that Kant offers a useful general definition of the Enlightenment as “the moment when humanity is going to put its own reason to use, without subjecting itself to any authority” though Foucault cautions that there are both legitimate and illegitimate uses of reason. Bristow (2010) describes, somewhat more dogmatically, that the Enlightenment was a period from the mid seventeenth to the end of the eighteenth century, a period of collapsing presuppositions about society and humanity, and a period of multiple revolutions in science, philosophy, society and politics which “culminates” (sic) in the French Revolution. For the postmodernists, the Enlightenment is portrayed as one of many non-universal Grand Narratives which gain meaning only from being temporally and culturally situated (Barker 2008, 195).

Sir Isaac Newton was one of the most prominent scientists of the Enlightenment and whose experimental procedure epitomised its ideals. He deliberately excluded extraneous ideas, stating: “it is not the Business of Experimental Philosophy to teach the Causes of things any further than they can be proved by Experiments” (quoted in Smith 2001, 327). While famous for his Laws of Motion, Newton first conducted experiments into optics which, quite literally, split apart the longstanding belief that white light was a homogenous subject (Gross 1988, 1-2). Bronowski (1973, 127-128) eloquently imagines this new understanding of colour scattering like Newton’s spectrum across London and through the arts, with a vibrant sense of colour imbuing everything. Light and optics infuse the Enlightenment (not just the word itself): Barker (2008, 188) states that the Enlightenment thought reason could “illuminate the world”. The Enlightenment and Opticks are inextricably entwined: how the world was seen had altered.

Enlightenment philosophers believed that humanity could be improved, if not even perfected, through rational processes and this belief also permeated the arts at the time (Craske 1997, 91-92). Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) was well placed to embody the Enlightenment and its concepts as an amateur scientist and Freemason (Craske 1997, 210). While he studied in London, and earned a living as a portraitist, Wright is best known today for his images of the Industrial Revolution (which was occurring close to him in the north of England), and scientific experiments (Wright was a member of the scientific Lunar Society) (Davies et al 2011, 802). As well as images of the changes the Industrial Revolution was making to the towns around him, such as paintings of industrial forges and blacksmith’s shops, Wright also visited Vesuvius in 1774, resulting in over thirty images of the volcano erupting – geology was also making major changes to knowledge during the Enlightenment, causing people to question the veracity of Biblical aging of the earth (Kemp 1998, 645). All of these images demonstrate his fascination, and facility, with light (and shadow) as the fire of the volcano echoes the eruption of scientific thought and rationalism.


Figure 1. Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius from Portici, c.1774-1776. Oil on canvas, 101cm x 127cm. Huntington Library, Pasadena, CA. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Joseph_Wright_of_Derby_-_Vesuvius_from_Portici.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

Light, of course, is fundamental to seeing (Arnheim 1974, 303) while the use of shadows or dark gradients can effectively strengthen the effect of illumination (Arnheim 1974, 307). Arnheim (1974, 325) further suggests that having the light source inside a picture creates a self-contained world – “Nothing exists beyond the corners to which the rays reach.” Wright was not the first artist to paint candle light images, but his paintings of scientific experiments encapsulate the new light of understanding, embodying the Enlightenment ideal of rationally explaining and presenting the universe, while also replacing Renaissance chiaroscuro with a scientifically based lighting. This is particularly evident in three famous paintings.

The Alchemyst, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, discovers Phosphorus, and Prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers (1771, reworked 1795) depicts a sage kneeling in wonder at the explosion of light his experiment has produced, overpowering, in the shadows, two assistants feebly lit by lamplight, and the moon palely seen high above. Over the jetting phosphorus lie the alchemist’s ancient papers, piled haphazardly, and apparently about to go up in flames as the old ignorance is about to be consumed by modern scientific wonders. Craske (1997, 211) also sees Masonic symbolism in the painting, noting the Freemason’s motto “Lux e Tenebris” (Light out of Darkness) and this new light, a light of apparently endless knowledge and supreme freedom, illuminates Wright’s major paintings (Craske 1997, 213). While Craske links this to contemporary light shows this mundane explanation hides the symbolism of Wright’s illumination, signifying a Newtonian overthrowing of the old understanding: Newton’s Opticks command the viewer’s eye in Wright’s canvasses to look anew, proclaiming the ideals of the Enlightenment.

Figure 2: Joseph Wright of Derby, The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher’s Stone, Discovers Phosphorus, and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the Ancient Chymical Astrologers, exhibited 1771, reworked and dated 1795. Oil on canvas, 127cm x 101.6cm. Derby Art Gallery, Derby, UK. Reproduced from Olga’s Gallery, http://www.abcgallery.com/W/wright/wright42.html (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

Wright repeatedly portrayed the problem of light and the “science of representation” (Honour 1968, 98). Yet Wright equally portrayed the representation of science. In An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) Wright presents a complex play of lines formed by the illumination and shadows, and the people’s bodies and limbs, that seems to spiral out from the air pump (which is the focus of the picture, rather than the dying bird), through the young girls and the scientist, and dissipating into the onlookers, just as scientific discoveries were flowing through society. The youngest girl could equally be looking at the bird, or following the line of the finger of the man comforting her, which points up, signifying the ascent of knowledge. The older girl, however, provides a salutary commentary on the experiment, hiding her face from the death, asserting that experiment also impacts on feeling (Honour 1968, 98). Knowledge and science, Wright seems to be urging, must be tempered with human feeling to prevent a dehumanisation of society (Smith 1988, 21).

Baudot (2012, 5) notes that the air pump depicted is around a century old: Wright does not intend to show a recent discovery, but rather to prompt the viewer to consider the nature of experiment and science. What is significant are the contrasting responses to the experiment (and, hence, the Enlightenment itself) shown in the viewers’ reactions (Baudot 2012, 19). Wright also prompts us to consider the relationship of Enlightenment discoveries to religion, picturing the bird in a manner similar to representations of the Holy Spirit as a dove in religious painting (Baudot 2012, 21). For example, the Holy Spirit in Piero della Francesca’s The Baptism of Christ is echoed in Wright’s bird (though Wright’s is a cockatoo). Siegfried (1999, 46) observes how these ethical questions Wright asks are articulated through the women (and girls) in his paintings. These questions are extended to the viewer who is obliged to interpret and provide meaning to the image: “the viewer is situated in a web of competing expectations” as Helmers (2001, 73) puts it.

Figure 3: Joseph Wright of Derby, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, 1768. Oil on canvas, 183cm X 244cm. The National Gallery, London. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:An_Experiment_on_a_Bird_in_an_Air_Pump_by_Joseph_Wright_of_Derby,_1768.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

Figure 4: Piero della Francesca, The Baptism of Christ, 1450s. Tempera on panel, 167cm × 116cm. National Gallery, London. (detail). Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Piero,_battesimo_di_cristo_04.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

In the earlier A Philosopher Giving that Lecture on the Orrery, in which a Lamp is put in the place of the Sun (ca. 1763-1765) Wright also depicts a scientific demonstration to a group of onlookers that also includes two children, though the composition here is calmer and more contained. Here the ellipses of the orrery are echoed in the larger ellipse formed by the onlookers (Kleiner 2009 759). The children here are not critics of the scene, but rather are located within the lines of the orrery itself, as if their heads were planets to be measured and defined. The orrery, Fara (2007, 4) states, was the Enlightenment equivalent of the DNA helix today, a symbol of science itself, thus Wright shows Science encompassing and echoing nature and the world within his canvas. Furthermore, the Sun is replaced by artificial light, symbol of the Industrial Revolution and the Enlightenment’s belief in rational(ising) thought. Here too, the viewer is posed unanswered questions. As Helmers observed with The Air Pump, this painting provokes the viewer in pondering the implications of the Enlightenment, its purposes and aims, and what its outcomes might be, counterpointing the human condition and the cosmos (Duro 2010, 670). Wright’s paintings of scientific demonstrations represent transformative moments when instability and disequilibrium impact on society, not always for the better (Duro 2010, 674).


Figure 5: Joseph Wright, A Philosopher Giving a Lecture on the Orrery, in which a lamp is put in place of the Sun, 1766. Oil on canvas, 147.3cm X 203.2cm. Derby Museums and Art Gallery, Derby. Reproduced from Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Wright_of_Derby,_The_Orrery.jpg (accessed Mar 10, 2014).

The Enlightenment was a series of narratives prominent during the eighteenth century predicated upon freedom and reason, and turning against religion, which still resonate today. A major Enlightenment figure was Isaac Newton who, through his revolutionary Opticks, changed how light was understood. Joseph Wright, in his turn, reflected the shifting values the Enlightenment brought to his world, both on the surface of his canvasses and in their deeper implications. In images of scientific endeavours and demonstrations Wright showed the new fascination with such discoveries but he also used the new light of Newton to provoke questions about the shadowing of ethics and meaning, to ask “What is a human response to these changes?” and to place these new marvels in a social context. His light channels and clarifies the new world of Newton’s vision by way of its social implications, creating a moment when society both depicts and questions itself.


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Fara, Patricia. 2007. “Lunar Philosophers.” Endeavour 31 (1): 4–6. ScienceDirect. doi:10.1016/j.endeavour.2007.01.007.
Foucault, Michel. 1984. “What Is Enlightenment?” In The Foucault Reader, edited by P Rabinow, 32–50. New York: Pantheon Books. http://www.college.columbia.edu/core/sites/core/files/text/Michel%20Foucault%20What%20is%20Enlightenment.pdf.
Gross, Alan G. 1988. “On the Shoulders of Giants: Seventeenth‐century Optics as an Argument Field.” Quarterly Journal of Speech 74 (1): 1–17. T and F Online.
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Kleiner, Fred S. 2009. Gardner’s Art through the Ages: A Global History. 13th ed. Thomson Wadsworth.
Newton, Isaac. 1715. “An Account of the Book Entitled Commercium Epistolicum Collini & Aliorum.” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society 29: 173–224.
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Contesting the corporations: Online piracy, theft, and control

Online piracy is frequently portrayed as a form of theft in the popular media and by industry groups, yet it is really a form of intellectual property (copyright) violation. Portraying piracy as theft, however, creates a narrative that skews piracy as a moral and social violation. This essay discusses the differing legal and popular narratives of theft and how these apply to online piracy. While corporations have taken a defensive legal reaction to piracy, the social and cultural aspects of piracy provide more relevant understanding of piracy and why individuals engage in it. As the theft narrative continues to be promulgated, it is argued that pirates can actually be considered ideal neoliberal practitioners while those corporations which embrace new technology and the distributive means of the internet actually gain rather than lose income.

Piracy of intellectual property has long been an issue but especially since the ready availability of home copying technology, such as cassettes, rising to prominence following the advent of digital technologies. Napster (Jones, 2011, p. 441), particularly, set an ongoing pattern of industry bodies being caught unawares, and responding with a race to shut down sites and prosecute offenders.

Lawrence Lessig is one of the most prominent voices arguing against the increasing restrictions imposed on intellectual property, pointing out that the internet is a technology that lacks “respect” for copyright: any material is equally faithfully copied and forwarded, regardless of what it is (Lessig, 2004, p. 18). Where analogue technologies produced degraded copies at each recopying, digital technologies promise a perfect copy each time. Major copyright holders and corporations (usually one and the same) see this as a threat to their income. This conflict has dramatically been described as a “war” and offenders as “terrorists” (Lessig, 2008) as cultural, political and economic norms are redefined and restabilised between the new “remix” culture and old centralized models.

Music piracy illustrates this point of conflict in determining the new norms of copyright and sharing online, as Condry (2004, p. 344) comments: it is a cultural problem that is being attacked as an economic issue by reactionary reinforcements of old business models. Yar (2005, p. 681) suggests that, at the same time that demand for consumer goods is increasing dramatically across many new global markets, copyright owners are pricing their products beyond the financial reach of many in these new markets. Indeed, pirates, in Condry’s discussions with his students (2004, p. 356) turn the language of “theft” back on to the music companies and their perceived lack of ethics. Condry concludes (2004, p. 358) that music piracy is not perceived as theft by his students, but is seen as part of encompassing fan subcultures. The people most likely to “steal” music are precisely those who are most engaged with the product. Condry points out (2004, p. 347) that the urge to make music (and, presumably, to listen and share it) dates back six millennia. Jones (2011, p. 446) addresses music piracy from different perspectives, including the audience, noting how the internet amplifies the socially connective and personally defining uses of music. Surveying the literature, Sassower (2013, p. 54) observes that copyright is a contested space, centring on the tension between global capitalism and resistance. Indeed, one of the defining characteristics of the postmodernist condition is destabilization (Sassower, 2013, p. 3). Unlike the portrayal of pirates by corporations, Condry confirms (2004, p. 348) that a function of music is cultural bonding through sharing it. Pirates, rather than rejecting capitalism by stealing, can actually be seen as strict adherents of capitalism, seeking the most amount of product for the least payment (Condry, 2004, p. 348) in a strict application of Thatcherite neoliberal market strategies (Yoder, 2012, p. 383).

Piracy is portrayed, especially by those with vested commercial interests, as “theft” yet it is only theft in a very loose sense. Lessig (2004, pp. 83-84) discusses how copyright is a kind of property that has commercial value and can be stolen, yet it is not like ordinary property since it can be appropriated without the original being lost by its owner. While the advertisements on DVDs shame us by claiming “You wouldn’t steal a car” (haxorcat, 2007), how many of us might do so if we could still leave the original car behind, safe and unchanged, with its owner? Ironically, the music accompanying that advertisement was used without permission (Whitehouse, 2012).

Theft as a legal crime is defined by laws which differ from jurisdiction to jurisdiction (Yar, 2005, p. 678). US law is only one of these, but much of the corporate pressure to stop piracy comes from there so it is worthwhile to consider the concept of theft under US law. Green (2002, p. 208) explains that theft actually includes three concepts that must be met: unlawful taking, movable property and an intention to deprive the rightful owner of this property. Property was initially a very limited concept, but this has been expanded over time to include increasingly less “real” objects (Green, 2002, p. 210). The current definition is unclear, and often decided by case law, but Green (2002, p. 211) suggests that “anything that is part of one person’s wealth and that another person can appropriate” is a working definition. He suggests that it is more important to consider, rather than “property”, what rights are protected: where intellectual property is concerned, these rights are “thin” or less strong, especially since they can be cancelled out by concepts such as fair use (Green, 2002, p. 215). Green concludes (in the context of plagiarism, but the principles are the same for piracy) that the three tests of “theft” can be met, though often only with difficulty in terms of the third condition (Green, 2002, p. 228). He finds that “theft” has a certain moral and expressive meaning that is not well-suited to intellectual property and the violations to which it is subject (Green, 2002, p. 241).

O’Sullivan (2008) notes Hegel’s description of property as just as much a metaphysical concept (“whether one’s will has possessed the external object”) as a physical description. She goes on to observe that concepts such as copyright, intellectual ownership and authors’ rights are, at a fundamental level, not about physical objects as much as investments, and it is this capitalist notion that drives and underpins much of the piracy debate. This is an important point, since the anti-piracy campaign is not so much about protecting works or creators’ rights (or even creators’ income) as about restricting access to product in order to maintain and preserve the profitableness of income streams.

Regardless of the emotive language used in anti-piracy campaigns, prosecutions against internet piracy are conducted under copyright law, not property theft laws, as Yar (2005, p. 678) and the list of cases given by Smith (1997, p. 3) evidence, and this is the clearest indication that corporations and prosecutors recognize that piracy, even though it may be a crime, is not, by definition “theft” but a particular breach of intellectual property rights. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) demonstrates this dichotomy between language and law at its website, where it describes how piracy is a copyright crime yet the same page states unequivocally that, if you upload pirated copies of material “without the permission of the copyright holder, you’re stealing” (RIAA, 2013).

Framing copyright violations as “piracy” and “theft” automatically leads to legal sanctions being used as a tool to stem these breaches as industry bodies pursue legal action rather than innovation (Jones, 2011, p. 441). Whether such an approach is effective is contested: such a blunt instrument appears to have little discernible impact on the problem. A number of countries have imposed laws applying graduated penalties to illegal downloaders, such as France’s “Hadopi” legislation. When Koster (2012, p. 329) investigated the effectiveness of this law he found the situation was partially obscured by other changes in streaming and downloading, but concluded that the law achieved only modest gains, if any.

Yar (2005, p. 684) urges a nuanced approach to understanding piracy, including acknowledging that “piracy” represents a conjunction of many factors among which are social, economic and technological narratives. The discourse of “criminals” and “pirates” emanating from corporations is just one among many self-interested representations of this conjunction, portraying it as a symbolically amoral action (Yar, 2005, p. 687). Organisations such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and RIAA continue to frame piracy as a property issue, as recently evidenced by curriculum materials for primary school children in California which explicitly describe copyright violations as “stealing” (Kravets, 2013) while ignoring legitimate uses of such material.

Such claims by industry groups are nothing new. Lessig notes that they go back at least as far as the popularization of piano rolls. Each new technology has been represented as a threat to existing market shares: cassette tapes and video recorders, in particular, have been met with the same claims of destroying industries as the internet is subject to today (Lessig, 2004, p. 60). Lessig does not condone piracy, but he notes the exaggerated nature of such industry claims and, especially, how new technologies do not usually result in obliterating creativity but, rather, realign it with the new technologies.

In 1996 Johnson and Post noted the conflict that exists between territorial laws and the lack of such territorial borders online. It is a place that transcends and violates such borders and, while cyberspace can no longer be considered a totally separate space from the offline world since it is now inextricably linked to so many activities, it still offers a widely disseminated, cross-border medium that subverts traditional legislative powers. The internet itself was created to enable free transmission of data, and the enclosures that copyright represent could not be imposed on it (Castells, 2001, p. 168). Nonetheless, corporations have, if anything, only grown more steadfast in their refusal to negotiate with new cultural norms online, and resorted to frequent legal actions to attempt to maintain their dominant power, as Bowrey and Rimmer (2002) describe. This conservative approach, they note, is usually portrayed as a binary opposition. Of the oppositions they enumerate, that between centralization (control by a few global corporations) and decentralization (the underlying nature of the internet) and, by extension, that between the Status Quo and New Economy, are particularly pertinent to the piracy debate.

Whether piracy is actually an economic harm (and hence a form of “theft” of income) is problematic (Yoder, 2012, p. 382). Studies (often from industry bodies) can indicate massive losses, usually based on the untenable assumption that every illegal download is a lost sale, while others clearly show that, at least for certain populations, such downloads increase sales (Cox, 2013) — most importantly when the economic constraints of downloaders are factored into corporate business models – or that piracy has no statistical significance on sales (Oberholzer-Gee & Strumpf, 2007, p. 38). There is also evidence that piracy is decreasing as companies utilize the internet to enable the profitability of their products, most notably through streaming services such as Netflix and Spotify, rather than a reactionary appeal to legislation and criminal prosecutions. Page (2013, p. 23) finds (in relation to torrented files in the Netherlands) that access through Spotify reduces piracy. While the accuracy of figures is disputable, similar trends have been found globally in other studies, such as those conducted by NPD Group (Graham, 2013), Ipsos (Andy, 2013) and the London School of Economics (Cammaerts, Mansell & Meng, 2013, pp. 7-10). Other approaches include the recent prominence of Kickstarter, as demonstrated by Aaron Dunn’s campaign to crowdfund a complete recording of Chopin’s music, allowing him to make the recordings freely available (Cotner, 2013). Piracy can also have a similar effect for films (Han, 2013) by creating a word-of-mouth campaign advertising them, though this does not extend to blockbuster films (which are already heavily advertised). Clearly, if providers can offer easy access at a small cost, many people who previously resorted to piracy will choose not to do so. Significantly, RIAA figures for 2012 show, despite claims of burgeoning piracy, a steady revenue stream (Friedlander, 2013, p. 3). In this cases piracy, rather than “theft” is actually “profit”.

Barthes (1972, pp. 111-113) has written of mythic speech as a “second-order semiological system” where the Saussurean signified and signifier have been subsumed into a signifier that itself becomes part of another sign. This forms a kind of speech that Barthes (1972, p. 108) states is a message. The framing of intellectual property breaches as “theft” and “piracy” by corporations is just such a mythologizing of speech: the signified (“piracy”) also now contains the sign “theft”. It is, presumably, intended to evoke a visceral and moral repugnance at such breaches, yet the entertainment industry simultaneously glorifies the swashbuckling (but highly illegal) activities of pirates in films such as the “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise (Samuelson, 2012).

There are a number of more nuanced ways of understanding piracy than simply labeling it “theft”, as Lindgren and Linde (2012, p. 2) point out. One of these ways is as a collective political action enacted in cyberspace as a resistance to the dominant powers of capitalism (Lindgren & Linde, 2012, p. 3) allowing the public to participate in redefining copyright norms directly (Yoder, 2012, p. 386). Rather than traditional political action, such resistance online is diffuse, and forms what Lindgen and Linde (2012, p. 4) term a subpolitical practice – a form of developing political action enabled by online networks – that subverts traditional left/right dichotomies through the numerous communities of pirates and diverse reasons for piracy (Lindgren & Linde, 2012, p. 11). The internet, by its distributed nature, decentralises power and makes it easy for small groups or individuals to resist hegemonic powers (Lindgren & Linde, 2012, p. 16) by reducing the costs of engaging in such action, while making old models of copyright impractical and difficult to enforce (Yoder, 2012, p. 385).

Online piracy is not theft, either in the strictly legal sense of a deprivation of property, nor in the colloquial sense, though it is clear that corporations want to portray piracy as theft in order to construct a morally loaded narrative that presents pirates as unethical, criminal individuals. Piracy is, however, a punishable crime under intellectual property laws, though that approach is clearly less morally loaded, especially in the context of the contestation of copyright laws in an online environment. Financially, it is also arguable that piracy is not theft since, in many cases, piracy and business models that work with the new social norms being negotiated online actually leads to increased income to corporations, rather than a loss. Clearly, the situation regarding copyright, piracy, and applicable business models is a highly contested and shifting space where various groups are jostling for power and control. Most importantly, in a postmodernist, destabilized world, the individual consumer is provided with the tools to balance out the pre-existing power imbalance favouring corporations, and to engage equally in this debate.


Andy. (n.d.). Piracy collapses as legal alternatives do their job. TorrentFreak. Retrieved from http://torrentfreak.com/piracy-collapses-as-legal-alternatives-do-their-job-130716/
Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.). New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Bowrey, K., & Rimmer, M. (2002). Rip, mix, burn: The politics of peer to peer and copyright law. First Monday, 7(8). Retrieved from http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_8/bowrey/index.html
Cammaerts, B., Mansell, R., & Meng, B. (2013). Copyright & creation: A case for promoting inclusive online sharing (No. 9) (p. 18). London: London School of Economics. Retrieved from http://www.lse.ac.uk/media@lse/documents/MPP/LSE-MPP-Policy-Brief-9-Copyright-and-Creation.pdf
Castells, M. (2001). The internet galaxy: Reflections on the internet, business and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Condry, I. (2004). Cultures of music piracy: An ethnographic comparison of the US and Japan. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 7(3), 343–363. doi:10.1177/1367877904046412
Cotner, D. (2013). “Set Chopin free” Kickstarter campaign surpasses its goal. LA Times. Retrieved September 26, 2013, from http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/arts/culture/la-et-cm-set-chopin-free-kickstarter-20130919,0,6162388.story
Cox, J. (n.d.). Online pirates may be willing to pay – if the price is right. The Conversation. Retrieved September 26, 2013, from http://theconversation.com/online-pirates-may-be-willing-to-pay-if-the-price-is-right-18167
Friedlander, J. (2013). News and notes on 2012 RIAA music industry shipment and revenue statistics. RIAA. Retrieved from
Graham, L. (2013). Music file sharing declined significantly in 2012. NPD Group. Retrieved September 27, 2013, from https://www.npd.com/wps/portal/npd/!ut/p/a0/04_Sj9CPykssy0xPLMnMz0vMAfIjC3Kt8jNTrKLM4928TU0tfUOMDf2dLCwMPM2NQoO8vJ09TS3MHMAqzHCqcDfQD07N0y_IdlQEAOk7DSk!/
Green, S. (2002). Plagiarism, norms, and the limits of theft law: Some observations on the use of criminal sanctions in enforcing intellectual property rights. Hastings Law Journal, 54, 167–242.
Han, A. (n.d.). Study suggests online piracy helps smaller films; MPAA begs to differ. Film. Retrieved September 28, 2013, from http://www.slashfilm.com/study-suggests-online-piracy-helps-smaller-films-mpaa-begs-to-differ/
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Jones, S. (2011). Music and the internet. In M. Consalvo & C. Ess (Eds.), The handbook of internet studies (pp. 449–451). Chichester, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.
Koster, A. (2012). Fighting internet piracy: The French experience with the Hadopi law. International Journal of Management & Information Systems, 16(4), 327–330.
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Twitter: A policy primer


pdf_iconTwitter: A policy primer (PDF 586 KB)




NET303 Assignment 2a

The Twitter Terms of Service, Privacy Policy and Rules are around 7,000 words in total, and link to further explanatory documents. This brief overview cannot and does not attempt to address all the issues raised by these documents.
It is not legal advice and should not be taken as such advice.

Your agreement with Twitter
• You agreed to the Terms of Service (TOS) when you signed up. Agreement is automatic (Meeder, Tam, Kelley & Cranor, 2010, p. 2).
• The TOS are only part of your agreement with Twitter. They also refer to separate documents (Twitter, 2012, section 12C) covering:
o Twitter’s privacy policy (Twitter, 2012, section 2)
o Usage rules (Twitter, 2012, section 5)
o As well as a number of other documents (such as rules for developers).
The TOS are fairly lenient towards users. The fact that what you post is immediately available and viewable worldwide by anyone is clearly signposted (Twitter, 2012, section 1). You also keep rights to the content you post (Twitter, 2012, section 5) but note the clarification below.

Problematic Areas
• You agree to the TOS simply by using Twitter, whether you read them or not (Twitter, 2012, para 1).
• You agreed to Twitter using your data (and metadata such as logins, IP addresses, links clicked and so on) in any way it wants to (Twitter, 2012, section 1).
• Anything you post, though, still remains solely your responsibility (Twitter, 2012, section 4).
• You keep the rights to your content but still grant Twitter “a worldwide, non-exclusive, royalty-free license (with the right to sublicense) to use, copy, reproduce, process, adapt, modify, publish, transmit, display and distribute such Content in any and all media or distribution methods (now known or later developed)” (Twitter, 2012, section 5). You, however, remain liable for any such use by Twitter (and related third parties).
• While Twitter can do whatever they want with your content, you may not infringe on their copyright, trade marks, etc (Twitter, 2012, section 7).
• The agreement is subject to the laws of California, USA (Twitter, 2012, section 12B). Any legal action will be brought in that state only. How familiar are you with US and California law?

Why does this matter?
• Your data is there forever, and easily searchable (Lessig, 1998, p. 10).
• Linking separate pieces of information might identify you (Barbaro & Zeller, 2006) or reveal information you want kept private (Jernigan & Mistree, 2009).
• Each piece of information may be small, but the aggregate may be revealing (Humphreys, Gill & Krishamurthy, 2010, p. 11).
• Your details can be revealed through legal means:
o Requests for user information are increasing rapidly (Shih, 2013).
o Over half of data requests to Twitter are at least partially successful (Twitter, 2013a).

What about the privacy policy?
You consent to being tracked via cookies, including on related third party websites, as well as allowing Twitter to store copious ‘log data’ including metadata about how and when and what you access.

At a very basic (but often unstated) level, social media are constrained by
• The underlying code (what it allows, what it doesn’t).
• The terms and conditions imposed by companies, governments and other authorities (what is permitted, what isn’t) (Youmans & York, 2012, p. 316).
Twitter differs from other social media since the default is to make everything as public as possible (Powell, 2011, p. 166). Being on Twitter is like living your life in a glass house (Semitsu, 2011, p. 378).
Knowledge is power.
• Think before you tweet.
• Understand what Twitter is doing with your tweets and the information it collects (and distributes) about you.
• What might be the consequences of your tweet? To you? To others? In the future?
• Twitter retains much of the power in your agreement, while you retain most of the liability.

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Filtering the unfilterable: Why the internet should not be censored

Asking who should be allowed to filter the internet presupposes a number of assumptions: that the internet should be filtered, that the internet can be filtered, and that filtering is accurate and effective. This essay examines the flaws in these assumptions, noting that the internet was designed to circumvent blockages and therefore foils attempts at censorship (this essay equates ‘filtering’ with censorship, though the internet is, of course, technologically a filtering mechanism in the way it routes data packages). While many entities can apply filtering to the internet, dealing with undesirable information is better left to individuals. Problematic information is therefore better dealt with at source, rather than attempting to constrain the medium of the internet.

The internet, as it was originally designed and developed, had the fundamental goal of actively avoiding and correcting for disruptions to its connections. Indeed, one of its design imperatives was to primarily withstand disruptions. It has therefore been said that the internet views attempts at censorship as just one form of network disruption to be corrected for (Gilmore, 2011). Also of prime importance was the original decision to make the internet open and agnostic, such that anyone, if they so desired, could create applications and extensions to it. Since its initial deployment, the internet has not only grown exponentially, but has developed in numerous, often unexpected ways, such that the ‘internet’ is now a loosely applied term. Many would view the World Wide Web as the internet, though it is simply one of a number of protocols that have been created within the framework of the internet (and which, itself, is also subject to this ongoing development and transformation – witness, for example, the changing standards in HTML, the ‘language’ of the Web). Other protocols include older uses such as email, FTP and newsgroups, as well as newer ones such as Peer to Peer sharing.

Asking who should be allowed to filter this network of networks and its multiple applications ignores an underlying assumption as to whether filtering can actually take place on a network designed not to be so affected. While it is not true that the internet was intended to be able to withstand a nuclear war, it was intended to be a decentralized network resistant to interruptions and to reroute around blockages on the network (Leiner et al, 2007). The network as a whole therefore cannot be controlled by a single government or entity (Hogan, 1999, p. 432).

Certainly, there have been attempts to filter parts of the internet by various actors including governments, corporations, and institutions, though these often have adverse side affects such as over- or under-filtering. Brown (2008, p. 5) notes that filtering blacklists of sites via their Internet Protocol addresses are both easy to evade, and prone to blocking thousands of innocent sites for every blocked site. In Australia, ASIC recently blocked 250,000 sites unintentionally when banning a single site (Lawrence, 2013). Brown describes a number of other blocking technologies, but concludes (2008, p8) that these are expensive and imprecise. Villeneuve (2006) also notes the unintended consequences of filtering, both from the inaccuracies of the methods used but also from ‘mission creep’ whereby the initially filtered material is expanded over time for various reasons. Hogan (1999, p. 446) notes a number of issues with Singapore’s internet filtering, and concludes that it would be better to forego some control in return for the benefits of the internet for economic growth. It should also not be forgotten that filtering importantly represents the imposition of a power structure and its implicit assumptions onto the internet, as Bambauer (2008, p. 26) pertinently comments. These values, according to Hogan (1999, p. 432), differ greatly across the world. Filtering is thus not a benign concept, and is increasingly being used in a non-opaque manner: it can be invisible, unaccountable, and can involve ‘soft’ censorship when different users see different information (Burnett & Feamster, 2013, p. 85). . Bambauer (2013, p. 30) enumerates a progression of censorship which has now resulted in the process being undertaken by democratic nations in an increasingly outsourced mode that is opaque and thus less open to criticism.

Filtering is consequently a cat-and-mouse game between (often speedy) circumvention of filtering methods and imposition of new methods (Maitland, Thomas & Tchouakeu, 2012, p. 294). Armstrong and Forde (2003, p. 213) list numerous ways criminals can hide themselves online to avoid filtering, and the same principle applies to anyone else wishing to bypass these controls, from digital pirates to human rights activists. In a study of filtering by the Pakistan government, Nabi (2013, p. 6) found that using Virtual Private Networks or web proxies easily bypassed the censorship. Even in China, the country regularly claimed as the exemplar of filtering, bypassing the controls is a frequent and easy activity (August, 2007). Richet (2013, pp. 37-38) also finds that censorship not only makes the censored material better known and more desirable, but that filters can easily be circumvented by even simple methods such as indirect references and misspelling trigger words.

How an international network can be effectively filtered by national entities is also problematic. What information or subjects are considered offensive are subject to numerous national jurisdictions, many of which disagree as to what these may be. Klein (2002, p. 194) describes the conflict of international jurisdiction and governance as a mismatch where geographical laws founder in a ‘spaceless’ environment.

Filtering is also often confused with eliminating matter of concern, whereas it is really only addressing the issue of how that matter is accessed. Child pornography, terrorism information, or discussions about democracy have existed, and will continue to exist, regardless of whether sites are blocked on the internet. Certainly, the internet had extended the easy availability of these and many other subjects, but efforts to filter them out usually represent only closing one gate in an endless fence of open gates.

Perhaps the strongest argument against filtering at all is the way the internet rebalances power between authorities and suppressed or dissident voices (Dalegaard Hansen, Thompson, Dueholm Jensen, & Andersen, 2012, p. 9) by allowing equal access to information and a leveling of social groups in cyberspace which may not exist in the offline world. Dalegaard Hansen et al specifically discuss the situation in China, but such power imbalances exist in all societies, and the internet is most powerful when it is unfiltered for precisely this reason.

It is technically possible for a filter to be applied to a part of the internet, just as it is technically possible to attach impartially a device to the internet (whether it be a person, a computer, a sensor, a camera and so on) but that filter can only interact with that portion of the internet it is connected to. The rest of the internet will, as it was agnostically designed, simply ignore the filter. Mueller, Mathiason, and McKnight (2004, p. 8) comment that the internet potentially consists of anything that can communicate or transmit information. This sobering thought indicates the scale of what has to be tackled to effectively filter the entirety of this amorphous and malleable construct. Lessig (1998, p. 5) discusses how regulation occurs on the internet and observes that the codes that construct the internet impose a regulatory architecture. Yet this regulation also limits the very forces that would filter the internet by imposing controls and avoidances.

Who should be allowed to filter the internet? The underlying structure and damage-resilient origin of the internet means that anyone can filter the internet. The same openness, however, also allows anyone else to bypass those filters. While there are legitimate reasons to filter the internet (such as legal statutes) as well as less legitimate (broadly, any suppression of information that is considered ‘harmful’ for political or social reasons), the wider this filtering becomes the less effective and accurate it is. The answer to these conflicts is not a simple one of filtering, but rather of addressing each issue separately to determine the best method (if, indeed, one is actually needed) to deal with them. Filtering seeks to resolve this in a simplistic manner that is counterproductive.

Asking who should filter the internet requires a nuanced answer: numerous authorities, such as governments, organizations, websites, and individual users, claim a legitimate right to do so. While these claims are often valid, filtering itself is an imprecise control that is inaccurate and frequently opaque to democratic criticism. More importantly, filtering is easily subverted or bypassed since the structure of the internet itself allows both anyone to act as a filterer, or as an avoider of filtering. ‘Filtering the internet’ is therefore the wrong concept since it tries to apply a method to the internet that the internet itself avoids. The ‘code’ of the internet denies the enforcement of such a political solution. More effectively, filtering of inappropriate or illegal information should be undertaken both by targeting the producers of such information before it passes to the internet, and societal pressures for the individual to consider the implications of her own internet usage. Rather than the method of transmission, perhaps a closer look is warranted at the message.


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Disciplines and disciplining: Plagiarism in a Postmodern world

Plagiarism is undertaken for diverse reasons, though protecting commercial interests is either absent or of minimal importance in the way the concept is applied in Western societies. This essay discusses the meaning of plagiarism in Western societies as a Modern and Postmodern construct, investigates the reasons people plagiarise, and the reasons why it is punished. It will be shown that plagiarism is a multilayered concept that is culturally encoded as a disciplinary tool. A number of examples are given, as well as two complementary case studies, highlighting this aspect of plagiarism.

Just what plagiarism is, and what position it holds in Western societies, must first be addressed before reasons for it can be answered. Oxford Dictionaries defines plagiarism as “taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own”, relating the word to a Latin derivation meaning a “kidnapper”. The word is first noted, however, only in the early Seventeenth Century, at the rise of the Modern era.

Plagiarism is closely tied up with the concept of copyright as it developed from the Eighteenth Century (Russikof, Fucaloro and Salkauskiene 109), and its underlying assumption that writers’ ideas and words, in contrast to previous generations, now had a tangible economic value which had to be protected. It thus develops from a commercial drive, but, as will be shown, its performance and punishment is undertaken for rather different reasons.

The new individuality and originality of ideas contrasts, however, with the much longer history of writing as an imitative art (Pennycook 206), which continues to remain problematic by its persistence (207). The Modernist notion of the author as privileged being (DeVoss and Rosati 194) is also now under threat by Postmodernist notions of the death of the author (Pennycook 210) and the notion that authorship has become less important on the internet, leading to the assumption that individual ideas can be freely taken and reused (DeVoss and Rosati 196). Spender goes so far as to claim that internet copying and pasting should be seen as the standard way of writing in a post-print medium (qtd in Samson 93). In this changing environment, plagiarism remains a concept primarily identified with maintaining a prescribed normative, Modernist, stance (Pennycook 227).

Plagiarism is far from universally defined or condemned. Von Grunebaum enumerates a huge number of distinctions within Arabic theory regarding plagiarism, a subject that changed and developed across time, but which always had a much finer-grained approach than the modern Western concept. Von Grunebaum relates the Arabic approach to classical Greek concepts, noting that both cultures considered creative works to be held in common (250-51). The points of judgement were not whether copying has occurred, but the quality of that copying.

Asian cultures consider direct quotations a mark of respect for scholarly statements (Russikof, Fucaloro and Salkauskiene 110), and a method of deepening learning (Pennycook 222). In India referencing is not expected at undergraduate study level, and unattributed quoting from textbooks is not considered plagiarism (Handa and Power 71-72). Martin Luther King, Jr did not plagiarise, Johannesen argues, but was following an oral cultural tradition (186). Even in Western cultures plagiarism is a tricky, mutable concept: artistic plagiarism is looked down on, yet artists learn by copying (Mullin 118), and in academic disciplines plagiarism is interpreted differently from faculty to faculty (Haviland and Mullin 16).

In Western societies, plagiarism describes a failure of a normative expectation to provide attribution to ideas (Green 174), though the norm is more enforced in some areas than others – politicians do not attribute their speechwriters but are not censured, for example (190) and journalists are unlikely to suffer if exposed as plagiarists (197). Furthermore, where common knowledge ends and plagiarising begins is ill-defined and reliant on individual interpretations (Chandrasoma, Thompson and Pennycook 181).

Plagiarism can be conceptualised as a means of establishing a person’s “network of power” (Maruca 87), though by what lens this is applied varies depending on what an authority chooses to emphasise: is it an issue of morals, of ethics, of citing correctly, of exhibiting textual knowledge, or an arbitrary social convention (89-90)? All of these can come under the term “plagiarism”.

The exercise of power is seen in Fish’s argument that plagiarism is not a philosophical or moral issue, or even related to whether a text is original or not, but a disciplinary practice, and it is within academic circles that the discipline is most strongly wielded (Martin 36), with Valentine noting that plagiarism is a method of controlling students’ identities (100). Indeed, a search for academic papers on plagiarism shows an overwhelming number dealing with the topic of academic plagiarism, rather than in other fields. Institutional definitions of plagiarism are authoritatively imposed on students, even though, as Ashworth, Bannister and Thorne found, students’ views on what constitutes cheating frequently differs from these (191). Education, of course, is one of the disciplines Foucault examined in the context of producing tractable workers through processes of surveillance and punishment. Plagiarism detection and sanctions are the example par excellence of this control (Zwagerman 686), especially since it imposes requirements on students that fail to correspond to the students’ own motivations. Gu and Brooks confirm that plagiarism is an intertextual activity that includes reader, text, and culture as a meaning-making process (339), but which eliminates the essential trust between educator and student (Zwagerman 703). The “disciplinary mechanism” which imposes hierarchical control is manifest in plagiarism (Foucault 197).

Pennycook provides a number of examples of plagiarism by academic authorities demonstrating that plagiarism is not, apparently, a crime to be eliminated, but a punishment to be meted out (for example, a paragraph forbidding plagiarism in a university handbook was plagiarised by another university) (213). Howard wryly notes the difficulty teachers have in defining plagiarism, while actively engaging in ongoing punishment of the activity (473). Sutherland-Smith and Saltmarsh note the multitude of punitive ways academic institutions attempt to deter plagiarism (2), often with little real effect (6). This becomes a fruitless effort since, by spending hours uncovering and punishing plagiarism in the name of academic integrity, by dividing students into a false binary of plagiarisers and non-plagiarisers (Zwagerman 681), the time spent on academic education is reduced (679).

Language is significant: we do not have a word for those who conform to the ethical dictates imposed on them, but rather identify those who do not comply as “non-plagiarisers”. Plagiarism, while viewed as a “crime” is not generally subject to legal sanctions (Green 241), but is punished through numerous social codes created and enforced, primarily, by professional and academic bodies (199). Plagiarism may, however, still be a rational choice when the punishments are balanced against the benefits to the plagiariser, such that Woessner strikingly demonstrates the disciplinary nature of plagiarism by claiming nothing but “the most aggressive plagiarism sanctions” can ever prevent plagiarism (313). De Ortego y Gasca describes plagiarism as a “modern ‘deadly sin’”, indicating its culturally situated culpability (35), and Valentine reports plagiarism is seen as a form of immorality (91).

The reasons people engage in plagiarism are diverse. Martin observes that those who plagiarise are often at least as capable as those from whom they plagiarise, so an economic imperative is highly unlikely (42). Cowan argues that the overriding ethical imperative is the implicit contract between a writer and a reader (156). The problem here, of course, is that an implicit contract is, ipso facto, not explicitly defined. Only an ill-defined set of expectations and boundaries exists, and transgressions are usually only defined and condemned on a case by case basis.

Ashworth, Bannister and Thorne argue that much research into student plagiarism has been hampered by failing to examine the views of students on the nature(s) of cheating, assuming that these echo how plagiarism is seen by academics (188). Their findings are based on only nineteen interviews but offer various reasons for plagiarism, including lack of understanding, time pressures, that published authors indulge in the practice, and “life is competitive” (194-95). They comment that students simply do not view plagiarism as such an important concept as their tutors, and have a lack of understanding of it (201). Russikof, Fucaloro and Salkauskiene, with a much larger sample size, also found students plagiarised for such mundane reasons as saving time and that it is easier (113), which are broadly similar to those noted by DeVoss and Rosati (195). Zwagerman comments that plagiarism is also a form of resistance that students can employ against the dominant surveillance and assumed guilt that monitoring can impose (696), and rewards the more efficient cheaters who are successful enough not to get discovered (698), again linking to the disciplinary basis of plagiarism.

This disciplinary nature of academic plagiarism can be illustrated by two case studies. While reactions to plagiarism vary from case to case, and it is difficult to make direct comparisons between specific cases, that of Ian McEwan in a non-academic work, and the reaction to it, contrasts strongly with a case of academic plagiarism at RMIT.

Novelist Ian McEwan was accused of plagiarising passages in his novel Atonement. An issue of Critical Quarterly devoted itself to this matter, not to attack but to defend McEwan. While McCrum noted accusations of plagiarism against McEwan dated back to his first novel, he claimed that the most serious crime McEwan could be accused of was only negligence, that it was simply “homage”. McEwan justifies himself by stating he “drew on the scenes she (Lucilla Andrews) described” as a form of inspiration, and that he acknowledged her as a source in the novel. Yet, as Roberts demonstrates through quotations from both authors’ works, McEwan’s book does indeed contain writing that would probably qualify, in an academic context, as plagiarism, and his credit to Andrews is in the ”smallprint of his acknowledgements”. Critical Quarterly also published a response from McEwan’s publisher, Random House, quoting nine major authors supporting McEwan. Their arguments range from varying definitions of plagiarism, to arguing that all writers do the same, or that it is just “factual research”. None of the arguments (including McEwan’s) effectively deny plagiarism, but frame it as a justifiable practice for novelists.

In case this might be seen as censure after the fact, more recently Helene Hegemann was not only accused of plagiarism, but considered for a prestigious literary prize despite this (Kulish 1). One of the judges described the book as not “completely clean” but dismissed this as a concern, while the author claimed “There’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity” (2). After the accusations, sales of the novel increased. In the literary world, claims of plagiarism may be a cause célèbre for a time, but they appear to have no long-lasting damage, and are subject to vigorous defence.

In contrast to this, a case of plagiarism at RMIT (and exam fraud) demonstrates the much more strongly coded disciplinary nature of how these actions are handled within academia. Zobel, while ostensibly dispassionately describing how the plagiarism was discovered and handled, nonetheless uses strongly charged words such as “high stakes”, “cheating” and “policing”. The case involved an external tutor who offered to write assignments for students for a fee, and to sit exams posing as them. Rather than the informal arguments regarding literary plagiarism in the previous example, students suspected of plagiarism were “invited to hearings” (Zobel 3). After zealously trawling through university email logs, previous student assignments, and 5,000 exam papers, some students were “charged”. Zobel comments that some students were thought so “menacing” at these hearings that calling security personnel had been considered (4). As a result of these investigations, four students were expelled (5). Again, in contrast to the previous case study, the media and public reaction to this incident was strongly negative and condemnatory of the university and students (8). It should not go without mention that Zobel describes himself as “discipline coordinator” – a truly ambiguous description in this context, but a revealing one (3).

The point of these case studies is not to claim one approach is right or wrong, but to delineate the vastly differing ways cases of plagiarism are approached and, especially, the specifically disciplinary academic handling of it, with its legalistic terms and Inquisitorial-like investigations, and where every word is subject to the panoptic gaze of machines through services such as Turnitin.com (Green 194-95), as well as the differing “punishments” meted out in each case.

It is clear that “plagiarism” is a catchall term that covers a vast territory of different interpretations and meanings, temporally, geographically, and culturally (Bergmann 130). In its development in the West as part of Modernism, plagiarism had an economic origin based on capitalist notions of ownership, extending into aspects of reputation and authenticity, but its implementation was primarily disciplinary, framing plagiarism as a transgressive crime to be punished, rather than for economic reasons or claims such as credibility or authenticity – all of which are part of the concept but not the primary explanations. This remains the situation, particularly in academic environments, even while the Enlightenment/Modernist narrative of plagiarism now seems seriously under threat and outmoded by a Postmodernist resumption of a situation echoing the pre-Enlightenment model.

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Sutherland-Smith, Wendy, and Sue Saltmarsh. “Plagiarism, Ethics and Education: Where to Now?”. 4th Asia Pacific Conference on Educational Integrity, University of Wollongong NSW Australia, 28–30 September 2009. Unpublished conference proceedings. University of Wollongong NSW Australia, 2009. Web. 29 June 2013.
Valentine, Kathryn. “Plagiarism as Literacy Practice: Recognizing and Rethinking Ethical Binaries.” College Composition and Communication 58.1 (2006): 89–109. Web. 27 June 2013.
Von Grunebaum, Gustave. “The Concept of Plagiarism in Arabic Theory.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 3.4 (1944): 234–253. Web. 1 July 2013.
Woesnner, Matthew. “Beating the House: How Inadequate Penalties for Cheating Make Plagiarism an Excellent Gamble.” PS: Political Science and Politics 37.2 (2004): 313–320. Web. 4 July 2013.
Zobel, Justin. “‘Uni Cheats Racket’: A Case Study in Plagiarism Investigation.” Conferences in Research and Practice in Information Technology. Vol. 30. Dunedin, NZ: Australian Computer Society, Inc, 2004. 1–9. Web. 26 June 2013.
Zwagerman, Sean. “The Scarlet P: Plagiarism, Panopticism, and the Rhetoric of Academic Integrity.” College Composition and Communication 59.4 (2008): 676–710. Web. 2 July 2013.

Book retailing Australia: Rethinking the Models

The internet is a disruptive technology, and one area where this disruption is most noticeable, particularly due to its economic impacts, is retailing. The internet makes it an easy matter to bypass local retailers and order from overseas suppliers and, as internet penetration becomes almost universal in Australia, this becomes more significant for Australian retailers. More recently, for book retailers, the phenomenon of e-books is changing the way books are consumed.

Despite the calls from Gerry Harvey to add GST to overseas purchases (Ramli), it is clear that recourse to traditional methods of controlling retail trade, such as pricing and taxing, would be ineffective, not least because price differentials would still exist. Size, also, is no clear protection against these challenges, as evidenced by the recent collapse of REDGroup’s Borders and Angus & Robertson stores (Crikey). What then are book retailers to do if they are to survive in Australia in this environment? In an analysis at the time, Keane notes that shoppers want price and convenience, but retailers tend to respond with denial of the changing marketplace. Holtzer also notes that Australian retailers have historically resisted change and fallen prey to the short term view in making business decisions (20-21).

While retail book sales in Australia occur in businesses as diverse as newsagents to department stores, the Australian Bureau of Statistics states 78% of sales by value are through specialist bookstores (Canadian Heritage). E-book sales are increasing and, in some genres such as romance and crime it can be up to 50% of sales in Australia (Page).

Clearly, retailers need to be innovative rather than reactive. Page recommends embracing the e-book market, as well as actively offering online ordering. E-books utilise new publishing formats, and actively use the internet for sales and marketing, becoming a network-based economy, rather than a hierarchical one (Hillesund). An Australian retailer that is not online is losing sales, since it appears buyers still prefer purchasing from local suppliers online (Productivity Commission 100).

Li finds that the situation is less dire for specialist retailers as opposed to larger retailers (257). Specialist bookshops offer a number of factors which are missing from online transactions, such as welcoming spaces to sit and read, and specialised knowledge targeted to the local audience.

In addition to this differentiation, local booksellers can also leverage the advantages of online selling by developing a (potentially) worldwide market. While small retailers might be isolated on the internet, cooperative sites can overcome this challenge (Ahlert, Blut and Evanschitzky 307). This can be seen, for example, with Abebooks. Small secondhand retailers can list their stock on this centralised site and, while they are also competing against other sellers, can make their stock list available to a vastly larger number of people than would visit their physical stores.

Retail sellers have always had to adapt to changing circumstances. The technological pressures of the internet, while occurring rapidly, represent both challenges as well as opportunities, especially for smaller, more specialised, retailers. Those who succeed in this environment will be those who actively embrace the technology, and those who are in the forefront of these changes.

Works cited
Ahlert, Dieter, Blut, Markus, and Evanschiztky, Heiner. “Current Status and Future Evolution of Retail Formats.” Ed. Manfred Krafft and Murali K Mantrala. Retailing in the 21st Century. Berlin: Springer, 2006. 289-308 Print.
Canadian Heritage. Appendices: The Book Retail Sectors in Australia, France and Scotland. Candian Heritage. 22 Sep. 2009. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
Crikey. Last Page for Book Buying? Carr, Cunningham, Rosenbloom on REDgroup. Crikey. 18 Feb. 2011. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
Hillesund, Terje. “Will E-books Change the World?” First Monday 6.10 (October 2001). Web. 13 Aug. 2013.
Holtzer, Michael. “Australia’s Retail Challenge.” Inside Retailing Magazine (Feb/Mar 2011). Web. 13 Aug. 2013.
Keane, Bernard. The Threat of the Internet to Retail. Crikey. 27 Jul. 2011. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
Li, Jen. “Choosing the Right Battles: How Independent Bookshops in Sydney, Australia Compete with Chains and Online Retailers.” Australian Geographer 41:2 (2010): 247-262. Taylor & Francis Journals Complete. Web. 14 Aug. 2013.
Page, Jon. The Challenges of Book Retail. Collaboration. n.d. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.
Productivity Commission. Economic Structure and Performance of the Australian Retail Industry. Australian Government Productivity Commission. 9 Dec. 2011. Web. 14 Aug. 2013.
Ramli, David. Gerry Harvey: Retailers Will Perish Unless Online Sales are Equally Taxed. ARN. 4 Jan. 2011. Web. 12 Aug. 2013.

Copyright, technology, and Open Access

Copyright, as originally conceived, has been legally altered in a process that subverts those original aims in favour of corporations and at the expense of artists. This process was possible until the advent of the internet. The internet provides a technological threat to rigidly defined legal constraints and borders. Digital reproduction, aided by the internet, actively subverts the concept of copyright. These technological challenges, however, also provide an opportunity to redefine how the work of individuals should be controlled and disseminated. The concept of Open Access scientific journals is one example of this.

Copyright law varies from country to country, but is broadly, and increasingly, based on US law, where it is intended as a balancing act between a monopoly for creators, and intended to “promote the progress of the sciences and useful arts” (Copyright 101). Changes to extend the duration of copyright have, however, firmly pushed the balance in the direction of the monopolists as Berry notes. Legal changes, Berry also notes, lag technological changes and it is technology that creates a constantly shifting border challenging the law.

Digital technology creates what Ku calls a “digital dilemma” since it simultaneously make it trivial to make perfect digital copies of data, but also enables that same technology to be used to enforce restrictions on access to data (274). It also, however, provides for the possibility of making copyright redundant, since it can directly connect artist and audience, eliminating the concepts of “consumer” and “property” (Ku 323).

Previously, access to scientific journals was usually on a user-pays basis, and subscriptions were often prohibitively expensive. The concept that the internet is free, while certainly wrong in totality and open to debate in particulars, has nonetheless led to a movement to make scientific research freely available as a public good. Governments are now making it a condition of providing grants that the research be published under an open access model, while the number of journals adopting this model continues to increase (Free-for-all). Scholars and researchers usually want their papers published and read as widely as possible, but this conflicts with publishers’ desire to restrict access for economic reasons. This situation was sustainable, if not ideal, until the emergence of the internet offering novel publishing mediums (Willinsky). Open access also is one of the fronts of the democratisation of knowledge that the internet enables (Yiotis 160).

Open access, and the best way to implement it, is still a developing field however, and perhaps the greatest challenge (as in many interfaces between economics and society on the internet) is how to fund it. While traditional journals are funded by subscriptions, advertising and reprints, most open access journals charge the author for publication. Fees averaged $660 in 2011, but could be as high as $3,900, while others operate with grants or government subsidies (Van Noorden).

Digital reproduction and networked communications represent technological challenges to copyright. While traditional sources of power, such as publishers, seem to retreat to increasing legal constraints, society is redefining its own concepts of copyright and freedom of knowledge in a complex and changing conflict of ethics, technology and cultural expectations.

Works cited
Berry, John N, III. The Real Purpose of Copyright. Library Journal, 1 Jul. 2000. Web. 23 Jun. 2013.
Copyright 101. Module 1 Copyright Basics & Requesting Information. Brigham Young University, n.d. Web. 24 Jun. 2013.
Free-for-all. 4 May. 2013. The Economist. Web. 24 Jun. 2013.
Ku, Raymond Shih Ray. “The Creative Destruction of Copyright: Napster and the New Economics of Digital Technology.” The University of Chicago Law Review 69.1 (Winter, 2002): 263-324. Print.
Van Noorden, Richard. “Open Access: The True Cost of Science Publishing”. Nature. 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 23 Jun. 2013.
Willinsky, John. “Copyright Contradictions in Scholarly Publishing.” First Monday 7.11 (4. Nov. 2002). Web. 23 Jun. 2013.
Yiotis, Kristin. “The Open Access Initiative: A New Paradigm for Scholarly Communications.” Information Technology and Libraries Dec, 2005: 157-162. Web. 24 Jun. 2013.