Sunday, February 01, 2015

Big data meets Serial (sort of): our new podcast

Podcast fans, we know you're mourning the end of Serial season 1. Why not try this new podcast (co-produced by moi and a small team of talented journalists)? It involves science, big data, technology and gripping tales. Some great music too! It's called Wild Ducks. Let me know what you think!

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

A geriatric attack on Italy's bloggers

This article originally ran in a October, 24, 2007 article in Times Online, back when I was a columnist there. Now that it's lost behind a firewall I've resurrected the original, unedited version here.

By Bernhard Warner

By G8 standards, Italy is a strange country to define. To put it simply, it is a nation of octogenarian lawmakers elected by slightly younger voters, 70-year-old pensioners. Everyone else is inconsequential.

The prime minister Romano Prodi is a spry 68, knocking off 71-year-old Silvio Berlusconi in last year’s election. President Giorgio Napolitano, 82, has six more years left on his term; his predecessor was 86 when he called it quits. In the unlikely event Italy declares war, the decision will come from a head of state that was a month shy of 20 when the Germans surrendered in World War II.

This creaky perspective is a necessary introduction to any discussion about Italian politics with outsiders, I find. If the Italian government seems unable to adapt to the modern world, the explanation is quite simple. Your country would operate like this too if your grandparents were in charge.

Recently, Italian lawmakers once again took aim at modern life, introducing an incredibly broad law that would effectively require all bloggers, and even users of social networks, to register with the state. Even a harmless blog about a favourite football squad or a teenager grousing about life’s unfairness would be subject to government oversight, and even taxation -- even if it’s not a commercial web site.

Outside Italy, the legislation has generated sniggers from hardly sympathetic industry observers. Boingboing cleverly reports Italy is proposing a “Ministry of Blogging.” plays it straighter, calling the measure an “anti-blogger” law. 

I understand the lack of alarm in their tone. We’ve been down this road countless times. Panicky government officials, whether they are in Harare, Beijing or Rome (yes, this is the second time it’s been proposed here), pronounce a brand new muzzle for the internet, and clever netizens simply find a way around it. Even that agitated teen probably has a foolproof way of masking his IP address. And besides, it could be easily argued that a Blogger or Typepad blog is hosted on a server well outside the bel paese, making a stupid law virtually unenforceable. And finally this is Italy, a place where plumbers and captains of industry alike are serial tax evaders. Don’t sweat it, amico. Enjoy the sunshine, vino rosso and tagliatelle.

Maybe it is because of all these obvious points that the draft law is already going through some revisions. If it is ratified – and at the moment it looks frighteningly likely – the Ministry of Communications would decide who must register with the state.

This is hardly comforting. The intent of this draft law, as it was written when it breezed through the Council of Ministers on Oct. 12, would be to gag bloggers, who, for those in power, have become a particularly problematic force of late. They are lead by the crusading (some say “populist”) Beppe Grillo, a comedian-turned-activist-turned-blogger. Grillo is one of the best-read commentators on Italian life, both in and, thanks to his English-language blog (, outside of the country. He agitates on behalf of the disenfranchised (code for: Italian youth), campaigning for more transparent government and business.

Grillo believes the law is directed at him. Whether it is or not doesn’t really matter. The law’s impact would turn all bloggers in Italy into potential outlaws. This could be great for their traffic, I realise, but hell on the business aspirations of an Italian web startup, not to mention any tech company that wants to sell its blog publishing software in Italy, or open a social network here. In addition to driving out potential tech jobs, the stifling of free speech also can have a dramatic chilling effect on all forms of free expression, the arts and scholarship.

I am thinking specifically here of my students. I teach an introductory journalism course at John Cabot University in Rome. My students cover the city and university affairs in an online blog-style newspaper called “The MatthewOnline. If this law is to pass, we could not simply move the blog to an offshore server. We’d be one of the few who would be forced to abide by this crazy law.

Each semester, I’d have to get 20 or so students registered with the Ministry of Communications, a bureaucratic nightmare that no doubt would take more than a semester to complete, and would turn a generation of idealistic journalists away from the field forever, perhaps into something more rewarding like the assault rifle lobby. So, instead of teaching aspiring journalists about news reporting by having them do some actual news reporting, we could spend three months doing lead-writing exercises from a textbook.

And so I appeal to Italy’s Communications Minister, Paolo Gentiloni, a former journalist himself, and Ricardo Franco Levi, the lawmaker who conceived of this wrong-headed bill. Is silencing the youth of this country really the best solution to dealing with a few squeaky wheels?

Thursday, July 03, 2014

An interview with Jon Rafman, digital artist

This article first appeared in ContemporArt in January, 2013, in Italian. I have dug up the original draft, in English, and reposted it here following my interview with Rafman in November, 2012. I'm posting it here after getting a note that his latest exhibition opened at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis. Hoping it comes to Rome, too!

It may be one of the most ambitious corporate projects of the Internet era: mapping the entire planet street-by-street, alley-by-alley. This has been the goal at Google since 2007 when it launched Google Street View for select cities in the United States. Today, a fleet of Street View cars equipped with a boom-like camera circle the globe capturing a 360-degree street-level perspective of even the streets you’d never dare venture down. Their exploration will feed one of the most heavily used mobile apps on the planet: Google Maps. When the Street View drivers are finished circumnavigating the world, they will start all over again, driving around the entire planet, photographing as they go, street-by-street, alley-by-alley.

It’s debatable whether Google will ever make a dime off such a time-consuming venture. No matter. It’s become a public good -- it keeps us from getting lost. It is also the inspiration for one of the digital art world’s best-traveled exhibitions in recent years: Jon Rafman’s “9-Eyes,” which rolled into Rome’s MACRO Testaccio this Fall after an extended stint at London’s Saatchi Gallery.

To be sure, Rafman’s 9-Eyes is as determined an effort as Google Street View. Fascinated by the idea Google would attempt to photograph and index every shop, house, and apartment block on the planet (and all the characters who live on the street below), Rafman started his own exploration, retracing their route. Clicking through the world of Street View for hours and days on end, he went in search of the fascinating amid mundane shots of street life.

What he found has startled gallery-goers for more than two years. One screen-grab image (pictured above) he pulled from Street View shows a toddler who was abandoned outside a Gucci shop in Taipei crawling with determination and purpose, destination unknown. Another is a scene of sheer panic: neighbors rushing to the scene of a fire in a residential neighborhood in St. Catherine, Ontario. And then there is the oddly poignant,, like one shot that would move even the most  hard-to-impress Roman: a completely desolate Altare della Patria save for a lone gladiator holding his helmet as if pondering his next battle.

ContemporArt spoke to the 30-year-old Rafman last month via Skype to discuss his inspiration behind the project and what he thought of the future of digital art. He was back in his hometown, Montreal. For a change. “I lived in Rome all summer. I did at residency at the MACRO, and became friends with the curators. That’s how 9-Eyes came to Rome. It was a last-minute addition,” he explained.

There are only a few of Rafman’s prints at the MACRO. Luckily for those of us in Italy, they are many of the ones that have been discussed, debated and dissected on Internet discussion forums. The reception to 9 Eyes has been as intense on Reddit, the popular online discussion forum favored by the Net’s cognoscenti, as it has in leading art publications and in down-market London tabloids who were obsessed with the voyeuristic element of it. “The tabloids treated the exhibition more like a sensational human interest story, while the more sophisticated publications treated it on a much more enlightened level,” he said, touching on the implications of what this means for the future of digital as an art form.

Rafman seemed genuinely impressed by the level of discourse from all sides. “I didn’t realize how much of a nerve this was to going to hit when I started the project. I knew, to myself, that there was something really special here, but I do have to say I’m surprised by the level of interest, and how varied it’s been.”

Rafman got the idea for 9 Eyes in 2008 at the height of his interest in the movement that had him previously exploring, for example, some of the more fetishistic parts of Second Life, a virtual world where users adopt super-sexual avatars and fantastic digital personae to represent themselves. “It was almost a space that was more real than the real world because it exhibited its own artificiality,” he said of the experience there.

Second Life may be passé today, but the compulsive “Internet surf culture” that dominated this world is alive and well in what Rafman tried to achieve with 9 Eyes -- a reference to the 9 camera lenses mounted to the top of the Google Street View car.

“And it’s snowballed from there,” he said.2008, that’s a long time in Internet years.”

9 Eyes has been now shown across Europe, North America and Asia. It’s turned Rafman into a global traveler, enabling him to see in person the same streets of far-away cities that he had first explored from his desk in Google Street View. This is something truly unique to our shrunken Web 2.0 world, he says. “When you go to a place for the first time after you’ve already visited it, it creates a completely different aura to that place.”

Another unique aspect of his work is the thorny issue of ownership. Technically, the images are all Google’s. Rafman just curates the best pieces. Google, he says, has kept its distance from 9 Eyes. The search engine giant does not try to put the brakes on Rafman’s ever evolving artistic treatment of its intellectual property. Rafman, for his part, says he is just paying homage to Google’s adventurous spirit and to the art it creates every day for Street View.

“Never before in human history has anyone tried to photograph the entire world from a human experience,” Rafman remarks. “Not only once, but continuously. That is still inconceivable to me. That is the inspiration for me, the fact that it is an activity that is practically endless. Technically, 9 Eyes will never end.”

Monday, May 27, 2013

Pirates run aground at the polls: The early days of the Pirate Party

This article originally ran in a September, 20, 2006 article in Times Online, back when I was a columnist there. Now that it's lost behind a firewall I've resurrected the original, unedited version here.

By Bernhard Warner
Was it naïve to think a populist movement galvanised by a call of downloads for all! could sweep into political power? This rueful question is on the minds of many young Swedes this week after national elections.

The youth-dominated Piracy Party, founded earlier this year in Sweden before spreading to 16 other countries including Britain, failed in its first trip to the polls on Sunday. A party founded on three basic principles – to reform commercial copyright, eradicate meddlesome patent laws and stop the surveillance of file-sharers – proved to be less popular with the voters than tax cuts and job growth, as promised by the victorious right-leaning Moderate Party.

While the official tally was still unavailable as of press time, the Piracy Party was expected to amass in the area of one percent of the popular vote. They had been hoping for four percent (or roughly 300,000 votes), a tally required to earn seats in Parliament and begin the arduous task of convincing lawmakers of the need to rewrite legislation governing copyright and patents and to strengthen privacy protections for all netizens.

The BitTorrent generation’s most organised push yet for copyright reform, certainly the net’s most popular rallying cry, will now be stalled for at least two more years – until after the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, an election the Piracy Party has in its sights.

“Obviously, we’re not happy we didn’t get more of the vote,” Balder Lingegard, a university student from Gothenburg who serves as the Pirate Party secretary and ran for an MP seat, told me this week after a full day of classes. “But if you think what we’ve accomplished for an organisation with such financial limitations, the mood is still high.”

When we spoke last week, on the eve of the elections, he was upbeat and a bit anxious. The early poll results showed promise, and it dawned on him that if successful, the 22-year-old would have to figure out a way to juggle his quantum physics classes with his Parliamentary obligations. Kids these days!

But instead, as Mr. Lingegard dolefully noted this week, it’s back to the books. He says the party’s primary focus now is to get its 9,500 registered members more involved by organising into regional groups to keep the message alive and tap into the next generation of would-be voters, the 14- to 19-year-olds. Above all, he says, the party needs to clarify its position: that it’s not a bunch of freeloaders, an image that dogged the party throughout the campaign.

“The largest problem we had was the party was not considered a serious party. Most of the people we met considered us to be some kind of joke. Some thought we had no serious platform, that we just wanted stuff for free. We believe that this image is beginning to change,” he says.

The issue winning over the sceptical ones is the spectre of increased surveillance. “No one wants a surveillance nation like you have in Britain” he says.

Alluding to the movement’s appeal overseas, Mr. Lingegard vowed the Piracy Party will remain an active voice in the digital copyright debate. Perhaps the party’s rhetoric is already sinking in. Starting with the campaign, some of the more prominent Swedish political candidates have began to question for the first time publicly whether the criminalisation of file-sharing ought to be addressed. Whether it’s a political stunt on their parts to appeal to young voters remains to be seen.

To be sure, whether the Piracy Party will last to the 2009 European elections is, historically speaking, a long shot. Political parties formed on a narrow set of issues – lest you forget, the Piracy Party proudly takes no stance on such hotly debated issues as foreign policy, the euro, taxation or the environment – often quickly fall out of favour with the populace.

Even in the aftermath of defeat, the party is not calling for any radical changes; crucially, it sees no need in adding to its platform the concerns of let’s call it the analogue world: namely, clean air, job security and the euro. The Party, says Mr. Lingegard, has attracted members who were former anarchists, nationalists and communists. “If we were to appeal more to the general public with these issues, the 9,500 members we have today would leave.”

In my first conversation with Mr. Lingegard in June, I asked him how he would define the party using conventional political labels. Is the Piracy Party centrist, I asked? Right or left? Could it be libertarian or even communist? Certainly, elements of each would appeal to a sharing-is-good, keep-government-out platform. Mr. Lingegard responded there is no –ist that applies to the Piracy Party.

Perhaps that clinched the party’s downfall. To quote one famous –ist, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin: “Politics begin where the masses are, not where there are thousands, but where there are millions. That is where serious politics begin.”

It’s a bitter lesson learned for this young movement. Filesharers of the world, you are still not united.

The Politics of Piracy: the origin of the Pirate Party Movement

This article originally ran in a June 8, 2006 article in Times Online, back when I was a columnist there. Now that it's lost behind a firewall I've resurrected the original, unedited version here.

By Bernhard Warner

If file-sharing BitTorrent fanatics were to form a political party what would it stand for? Would it adhere to a left-leaning platform, prioritising social services? After all, “free” is their mantra. Or, would it take a page from the political right, arguing for smaller government and free market ideals? To be sure, your typical downloader’s biggest enemy is government intervention.

Vast in numbers, highly educated, well connected, downloaders are a political force. And yet it’s highly unlikely any of the major political parties in the West would consider taking them under their wing any time soon. For that reason, some 6,000 Swedes (and counting) have formed their own political party: The Pirate Party.

To be clear, the Pirate Party doesn’t just represent all-you-can-eat downloaders, but downloading is the principal activity this group -- ranging from their teens to late 50s -- seems to have in common. “For a lot of members this is the first political party they’ve ever joined,” says 21-year-old Balder Lingegard, an engineering student from Gothenburg who serves as the Pirate Party secretary and is a Parliamentary candidate in this September’s national election. “For some, they have felt betrayed by the political system for a long time, feeling it did not represent their interests. Others felt as if there was never an important enough issue for them to take a political stand.”
That “important issue” occurred last week in the form of a raid by Swedish police on The PirateBay, a community of over 1 million BitTorrent users who use the popular technology to exchange all manner of files from copyrighted movies, video games and music to open source software. Not surprisingly, Hollywood executives and record labels have been trying to shut down the Pirate Bay for over a year. On May 31, they succeeded – if only briefly.
The uproar from the take-down triggered something of a rarity in the West: political activism among the Xbox Generation. An estimated 1,000 youths took to the streets of Stockholm and Gothenburg on 3 June to protest the raid in rallies hastily organised by The Pirate Party. While the Pirate Party is not affiliated with the Pirate Bay, the party has used the controversy to pick up much-needed support before the national elections three months away. The party tripled membership in under week, putting it at over 6,000, and the publicity from the raid is giving the party, formed in January, much needed exposure.
Now, the party is thinking big. Its goal is nothing short of representation in Parliament, meaning it will have to capture at least four percent of the popular vote in September. It intends to put 140 candidates on the ballot vying for the 349 seats in Parliament. To appeal to the estimated 1.5 million active downloaders in Sweden (a figure, it must be noted, supplied by the Party), the Pirate Party has been fine-tuning its message to the masses.

“We have three basic pillars to our political platform: shared culture, free knowledge and a protected private life,” says Lingegard. That means: 1) suspending copyright protections five years after the creation of a particular work (shared culture), 2) the abolition of patents (free knowledge) and 3) enhanced individual privacy that would seek to eradicate pesky surveillance cameras (protected private life).

The fact that Sweden, a member of the EU and WTO, is governed by international agreements that would make points 1 and 2 nearly impossible promises to fulfil is of little concern to Lingegard. “Sweden is regulated by national treaties, we are aware of that. But still, this is a good place to start,” he says confidently.

But what about foreign policy, for example? Where does the Pirate Party stand on the war in Iraq or the adoption of the euro? “Our standpoint is simple: We take no standpoint on those issues,” he says. Instead, the Pirate Party, if elected, plans to throw all its support behind the top party as long as they, in turn, support the “shared culture, free knowledge and a protected private life” platform of the Pirate Party. In that way, says Lingegard, the Pirate Party will forever escape the convenient labels of left, right or centrist.

But to regard the Pirate Party members, and downloaders in general, as opportunists would perhaps be selling short the movement. Lingegard describes the core Party member as culturally aware, concerned for the future and technologically sophisticated. They bank online, shop online and, of course, share online, which would make them, to use traditional political labels, consumerist and communist chic.

Perhaps this is what Lingegard means when he says the political establishment in Sweden just doesn’t understand this constituency. But name for me an elected official anywhere who understands a voting bloc that, as Lingegard says, is neither “left, nor centre nor right”. (We can certainly disqualify any head of state who thinks it’s called “The Internets”).

We may be searching for years for a familiar –ist that could help define their politics. But, thanks to Pirate Bay, we can rule out one. They are no longer isolationists.