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.”