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Fuck the Plastic Medicine Men

A couple of quantum woo sites like Collective Evolution and Spirit Science are now in the business of creating inspirational memes with their branding plastered on it. My unsuspecting friends are spreading their brand like a virus all over Facebook. Personally, I view this as a very bad thing. Conflating motivational ideas with brand identity through social media is kind of fucked up.

I already don’t like the practice of doing this because it gives the impression of sharing nuggets of feel-good wisdom when really it’s just about conversion rates and getting new visitors and followers. It frustrates me to no end.

I dislike sites like CE and SS because the content they produce is inherently ignorant. They will tell people any bullshit that they want to hear in the interest of creating clicks and likes. It’s like reading a scientific journal from a bizarro universe where making shit up is all any scientist needs to get published. Got a brain tumor that’s going to kill you in a few months? No worries, just ingest a ton of cannabis oil, that will totally work! Be sure to use Reiki to balance out your energy levels, and remember that disease and pain are only byproducts of the mind! Be sure to buy special supplements to open your third eye so that you can astral project. Vaccines are the devil, and mermaids are totally real.

These people are just an updated version of the Snake Oil Salesmen of the Old West. They prey on legitimate criticisms of modern living, pharmaceutical corporations, GMO testing, and conflate it with their own special brand of bullshit.

Swipe Left, Swipe Right

Stark naked with a reeling brain, I aimlessly peered into a glowing square in my hand. Two pictures of people lined up side-by-side. My heart was hurting, and I hated myself. I stared into a face, and looked at the sum of her parts. It’s easily the most popular game on any mobile device.

I swiped left, and a person tumbled away to die both in my hard drive and in my heart. Her nose was too small. Her eyes were too wide apart. I couldn’t commit.

Two new pieces of meat showed up for me to inspect. One was an effeminate man who I think might look good in drag, the other a lady with green hair and tattoos.

Deep down, I hoped with every fiber of my being that the rocker girl would swipe me the same way I swiped her. Maybe a deep romance would take hold and give my empty existence meaning. Or maybe we’d meet once to fulfill physical urges. It’s difficult to assume too much so early on.

Maybe she would never talk to me at all. I think so much about sex sometimes that it has somehow served as a crude replacement for actually having it. How are you supposed to be yourself around someone when being around them arouses you and brings out emotional thoughts and feelings?

I swiped right again. The ability to be yourself can become impaired. To succeed at this stage would only mean that I give myself freely to a series of awkward rituals where I’m not sure that I like a person, and I’m not so sure that they like me, either.

I’ve long considered myself to be bad at talking to people I’m attracted to. The idea of something bad happening feels worse than the actual event itself. Panic throws a wrench into everything, and renders a person incapable of doing anything, at least for a while.

This one has kids. Four of them. Swipe left. It’s as if the act of going through this cycle is sparking a small outlet in my pleasure center; the what-ifs tingle across my nervous system in anticipation.

I cry, and bury my head in my hands. It is likely that I will never have sex again. More importantly, it feels like I don’t deserve to be close to anyone at all. In my own mind, I’m the lowest form of trash and everything is charity born out of pity. I am the fattest, stupidest, poorest, most ugly version of myself in all possible worlds. But not really.

I check Tinder. No matches. I check OKCupid, Plenty of Fish, and MeetMe. No messages to speak of. I might get some replies if I sent any, but how do you introduce yourself to a complete stranger based on a few pictures and a tiny blurb? Hi, you’re cute? Anything in the wrong tone sounds creepy or overly generic, and I don’t have the patience to craft paragraphs for rejection slips unless they’re from publishing houses.

But the pond of the area around me has dried up for now. I turn off my phone, and go to bed in frustration. Tomorrow, another day will show itself, and the lure of opportunity will pull me back to the screen once more.

Closing the last chapter

Today, my roommate is moving out, and I am considering a new chapter in my life. 2014 was a hard year for me because I had two roommates in a row that almost never paid rent. One saved his money and skipped town to Denver, the other wasn’t malicious but struggled to find work for 8 months. I had developed close friendships with both of these people, and in both instances, I ended up feeling conflicted about kicking them out, and endured a financial burden that made living month-to-month somewhat difficult.

Living with someone 24/7 can be challenging at times. It can be even more difficult when you harbor negative feelings towards them about a number of things, and it can be most difficult when your anger is punctuated with sadness, despair, and false hope. The worst part was the constant drama and tension at home. Sometimes every word and action can come under scrutiny, and you can feel yourself being measured by them as they’re coming out of your mouth.

This begs a difficult question about how honest you’re supposed to be about things, and how forward. If you’re too blunt all the time, you come across as having performed outright character assassination. If you’re not confrontational at all, you both experience the social cold of withdrawing into your rooms so heavily that your paths never cross. He’ll start coming and going through his bedroom window, and you’ll be in your room wondering why things seem to be getting worse rather than better. This feeling has underscored both friendships, and it makes me question whether there was something wrong with me, or at least something wrong with them.

I have drowned in an ocean of gossip, and I have been dragged into petty wars of propaganda and ego. Everybody talks about everybody else, and as such everybody just has to get their two cents in about what to do. Give him longer. Kick him out. Be more assertive. Stop being a dick and give him a chance. Quit being a pushover. At the end of the day, it all ends up becoming recommendations coming from uninvolved third parties with their own biases.

I feel numb today. If I could, I would cry over the fact that someone close to me is at this point in our friendship. I had met this person under a mutual appreciation of music, social commentary, and the exchange of personal philosophies. We had shared our happiness and our sadness, and we had jammed together in a first real attempt to start a band.

I just hope that wherever this person goes, that they have the success that they’ve always wanted. I could not provide that here.

Free Software: We Have the Capacity

When discussing the principles of Free Software, it is all too easy to make the mistake of emphasizing one interpretation of Free Software idealism over another. You can frame it two unique ways: “Microsoft is bad” vs “Free Software is great.”

One way of interpreting Free Software is in its inherent denouncement of proprietary code and the collective communities attitudes towards proprietary vendors such as Microsoft, Apple, and Adobe. “Proprietary software is bad, and so are the companies that make it,” it could be said.

Photo Credit: Defective By Design

But there’s a far greater message to be had, and I think it needs to be emphasized to the fullest.

“We have the capacity.”

It’s easy to focus on the negativity of an opposing ideal first. If nothing, the Free Software community is a fairly passionate one, and although internally it doesn’t always agree on everything, overall it’s a welcoming enough space that can encourage new people to become a part of it. A good experience of making things together is kind of what keeps a community going. This includes making decisions and assisting newcomers.

I think a better mindset for Free Software is “we have the capacity” because it focuses on all of the things one can do with it, rather than all of the things its opponents cannot do. It is an important distinction because it is foundational to the very tone and tenor of what Free Software is actually about: having the capacity to make things however you want to. You can study new ideas from existing code, and use that to learn how to do something new.

There are communities filled with volunteers that code together because they love it and care about their projects enough to keep working on them. There is code that can be used for free that anyone can install. You can make 3D printers, robots, desktop and web applications. You can use tools to build other tools, and make programs that create other things, such as art, music, and films.

In the end, Free Software is not just about being an alternative to the status quo. It is about giving empowerment to people, and levelling the economic playing field by offering every bit of it for free. By providing the tools and the knowledge to a person, you can give them the power to help themselves.

The Great Regurgitation

I used to be a fan of remakes. Thinking back now, perhaps it’s something of a guilty pleasure; in a way my younger self would have celebrated some of the recent events surrounding all of the movies and games that have been reinvented. Needless to say, my opinion has taken a turn for the worse. Before I can fully explain myself, let me back up for a moment to provide a clearer picture.

The year was 1992, and at the time, the PC gaming industry was booming. A few of the titans of the day were Sierra On-Line, LucasArts, and Interplay, and at the time, point-and-click adventure games were hot stuff. My mom used to work at a local Babbage’s back then, in an era where bulky game boxes were filled with floppy disks, manuals, and extras. Often, what shipped in game boxes back then would only be included in a so-called “Limited Collector’s Edition” now.

Babbage’s in the Early 90’s.

There was always something wonderful about having the newest Quest for Glory or King’s Quest brought home. For me, personally, Sierra’s adventure titles proved for some formative gaming memories, and largely have inspired how I’ve approached game and plot development myself. Something about these games resonated deep within me.

The Quest for Glory series in particular was incredible. At the time, it was also unique in the fact that you could export your stats and character sheet from one game to be imported into the next.

Part I: The Golden Age of Remakes and Fan Games

I wasn’t alone, either. Many other people were inspired by these games, and in the early 2000’s, many enterprising indie game developers came together in online communities to create fan remakes of properties that Sierra and LucasArts would likely never touch again. Off of the top of my head, in 2002 alone, there were more Sierra fan-games in development than anyone could possibly count.

The Quest for Glory 2 fan remake incorporates the updated graphics and gameplay of some of the later titles in the series. Interestingly enough, the character import/export functionality was carefully reverse-engineered by the remake’s developers. You can now play your hero through the entire series with this game.

What defines a fan game, exactly? They can be classified under two distinctive categories:

  1. A remake of an existing title, with the goal of providing updated gameplay, graphics, story, and animation. Many remakes tried to emulate later titles in a series by updating graphics to fit in with a particular graphical style.
  2. An original extension of a story universe. Characters from a popular series could be featured in a completely original story, with new puzzles, quests, plots, graphics, and animations.
Space Quest 0: Replicated is one such example of the latter category. It’s also unique in the fact that instead of updating graphics to look more modern, it actually purposely moved graphics in the opposite direction to give the impression that it was a vintage title.

Many people might wonder why anyone would want to make games based off of something a company had already made, but the answer is obvious. People loved these games for their imaginative story universes, which were rife with character. Many companies such as Sierra and LucasArts went on to abandon these titles and properties, moving on to instead capitalize on first-person shooters and action titles that were rising in popularity in the late 90’s. Loose ends in plots remained untangled, and many titles remained in the prehistoric era of EGA graphics and used an old school text parser for getting the player through the game.

Needless to say, many of the remakes and fan games that actually got finished were great. They were labors of love, and the idea that a group of volunteers could develop entire games together simply out of a passion for the originals was something special. These groups did it all for free, which is something that doesn’t really happen anymore.

Infamous Adventures did a 1:1 graphical remake of Space Quest II, featuring some small modifications to the plot, a different gameplay interface, and vastly improved graphics. The remake looks like it came out in the mid-90’s, rather than the original’s 1987 release.

Part II: Fan games are dead, long live fan games

In fact, the act of creating fan games has steeply declined over the last decade, and for very serious reasons. As Sierra and other game production powerhouses of the 90’s moved on to simply acting as publishing distributors, many of their old properties fell out of public focus. Many of Sierra’s unique properties were handed over to Vivendi Universal, who made a regular habit of harassing fangame projects with Cease and Desist letters.Needless to say, Vivendi never ended up doing anything useful or constructive with the properties, and eventually handed off some of them to Activision, known for their own uninspired regurgitations of big name franchise titles like Call of Duty.

Naturally, the threat of litigation became a large problem for anyone that wanted to develop a fan title as a hobby. Square Enix, in particular, is notorious for shutting down a fan sequel to Chrono Trigger. Anyone that’s ever played the original would know that it’s a hugely underrated game that ended up sitting in the shadows of the wildly overrated and now completely shitty Final Fantasy franchise. It didn’t matter that Square Enix never intended to make another Chrono Trigger game; the fact was that they viewed such fan service as disruptive to their intellectual property rights.

Chrono Trigger: Chrimson Echoes was the sequel that never was. It was hit with a Cease & Desist almost as soon as the game was finished and ready for release.

Many of these independent teams wised up. Development teams such as Anonymous Game Developers Interactive and Infamous Adventures would eventually re-brand as independent for-profit game studios with their own original titles and properties. Both studios raised a decent amount of money through Kickstarter campaigns, and for the first time, these teams of people that originally made games as a passionate hobby are now being compensated for their hard work.

These new titles are exciting in the fact that they’re different enough from their reference material to be fresh takes on the genre. This will be important to remember when we get to Part IV of this article.

Part III: Hollywood kills the remake by overdoing it

In recent years, the very definition of a remake has been dramatically shifted around. What was once a labor of love by people on the internet making something together for free is now largely Hollywood studios attempting to reboot every movie from 20 years ago or more.

Occasionally, a reboot can be accomplished to great success. The 2009 Star Trek reboot, in my opinion, was great. At that point in time, Star Trek had largely stagnated as a property after Enterprise had been pulled off of the air, so an attempt to keep the story going and get people interested in it again kind of makes sense.

The U.S.S Enterprise: Now vs Then

Studios took an old property from the 1960’s and updated it with better special effects, better acting, and a reasonably decent story that purposely illustrated it was set in an alternate universe. Comic book studios do this all the time.

Other times, that is to say, most of the time, a reboot is unnecessary. Occasionally, they’re downright awful.

Case in point. The original Total Recall with Arnold Schwarzenegger was rebooted into an ultra-serious, gritty action film. It didn’t even need a remake.

Starting in 2010, there have been no less than 50 planned remakes in development for movies that didn’t even need a remake. Even titles such as Videodrome, The NeverEnding Story, and American Psycho are being “rebooted”, as Hollywood likes to refer to their brand of regurgitation. In all reality, all of these movies should be left alone, but the bean-counters in Hollywood are sure that by serving customers the same thing over and over again, they’re in to reap a king’s ransom. They just can’t let classics be classics.

Spike Lee’s Oldboy remake: a “reboot” of the classic South Korean film, starring mostly white people!

The worst part is, they’re right. Case in point: everybody’s losing their minds over the fact that Ben Affleck is going to play the new Batman after the advent of the Dark Knight trilogy, but you can bet that just about everybody you know is going to go see it, with the sheepish exclamation of “Hahaha, I’ve got to see how bad this is!”

Meanwhile, studio executives will laugh their way to the bank.

Part IV: Rise of the Carbon Copies

In recent years, a great amount of success has been found in funding the development of indie games through crowd-funding sites such as Kickstarter. This has been some cause for celebration, as many of the people who developed my favorite games in the early 90’s are jumping on the crowdfunding bandwagon to make games after years of being under the radar.

Anyone that’s ever played the Space Quest series can pick up right away that this is a thinly-veiled Roger Wilco, just with a different name and face. It’s so cookie-cutter that it hurts.

However, when you take a look at some of the games these Ex-Sierra developers are crowdfunding, an uncomfortable realization starts stirring in the back of the minds of anyone that’s played their original titles from over 20 years ago. The line between remakes and fan-games are blurred, and we’re left with the awkward realization that the people making these games are in fact regurgitating the same games they made while they were at Sierra.

Precint is a game in development by Jim Walls, the creator of the Police Quest series. Although it is clearly a different property with different characters and gameplay, the impression I get from it is that it’s practically just a Police Quest carbon copy. In other words, it’s more of the same from a guy who’s only ever made games about being a cop.

Although they may be developing these games with the best intentions, the fact still stands: tired old game developers are trying to ride the wave of their fans and bring everyone games they’ve practically already played. More and more, I’ve seen people jumping on this bandwagon, digging up childhood memories with the intention of repackaging and reselling them over and over again.

Al Lowe even tried to do a Leisure Suit Larry carbon copy, before jumping from the project, suing the developers and bringing the world Leisure Suit Larry: Reloaded. In both cases, we’re just seeing more of the same thing over and over again.

In more ways than one, they are no better than the Hollywood studios that trick people into seeing the same movie repeatedly. This isn’t to say that there isn’t a value in remixing something; on the contrary, fan creations are a testament to that in which they take something old and infuse it with something new. Such a mindset is the very backbone of what makes the Creative Commons great. However, the acts of creating carbon copies and reboots aren’t about simply putting spin on something old. They’re desperate cries to remain relevant.

Hey, I get it. Making something new and original is hard. Not every game can be something like Tim Schaefer’s Psychonauts. The act of even making a game or film takes dedication and hard work, but in a world where everything increasingly feels like a copy of a copy of a copy, you’d think that the pursuit of making something new would really stand out, much in the way that wearing a hot pink shirt would stand out in a room full of people wearing business suits.

New DeadSuperHero logo!

It’s been a long time since I last drew the DeadSuperHero logo. In many ways, it is very amateur. I enjoyed the spirit of it a lot; there was something morbidly funny about the scenario of Clark Kent-like figure being felled by a single bullet in a failed attempt to turn into Superman and save the day. It was a tongue-in-cheek idea about the hero losing.

Thank you, old social networks, for keeping this atrocity alive in hi-res.

My new logo embodies a very different kind of idea. I drew inspiration from several different places: the lightning bolt was inspired by Captain Marvel, who transforms by getting struck by a lightning bolt every time he says “Shazam!” He dies in the comic Kingdom Come; he uses the lightning bolt during his transformation to detonate a missile he intercepted, killing himself in the process. The skull style is inspired by the logo of The Grateful Dead, which I’ve always thought was kind of neat.

Yay! Way more stylish! Way more weird!

All in all, I’m extremely happy with this new sense of direction.

Understanding Decentralized Social Networking

The Scope of the Problem

The Internet of this day and age is a social place, and you don’t have to work in IT or even be a geek to understand that. Every day, hundreds of millions of people are interacting with one another on social platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google+, and YouTube. Let’s look at the following statistics:

  • Facebook: Over 1 billion user accounts.
  • YouTube: Over 800 million, over 4 billion hits per day.
  • Twitter: Over 500 million user accounts.
  • Google+: Over 400 million user accounts.

 Granted, these are large social networks that have the resources to scale up to accomodate having so many active users on a day-in, day-out basis, but I believe that this trend is problematic for a number of reasons. 

Personal Data, Meet Silo 

There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to what user data is, and what it can be used for. Most web applications make use of a database to store data and variables; social applications such as Facebook have large databases with exorbitant amounts of user data. Every post you make, every like every private message, every photo, every comment, and every social action you’ve done with Facebook is stored in their database. Played a song on Spotify? It’s in your Timeline somewhere, and that goes into the database, too.

After a while, this data piles up, and anyone with the means to read it can get a pretty good impression of what sort of person you are, what you like, and what you say privately to other people online. This data is then given to advertisers, who then pay to plaster their ads in Facebook’s stream, as well as in the sidebar. This feature is not unique to Facebook; in fact, most of the major social networks out there now have some semblance in which an advertiser pays for a promoted spot that every user can see.

With the rise in the use of context-sensitive data analytics on the social web, these advertisements are becoming more and more custom tailored to an individual person based on the data their social network practically handed out. Our social experience is reading more and more like the ad pages out of a newspaper, and the problem is that it has largely become the norm on the social web. The reality is that you can download all of your personal data out of most social networks, and close your account if you really wanted to. The problem is that there’s really nothing all that useful that you can do with it, unless you feel like cracking it open and reading JSON files. There aren’t really any tools to make use of this data.

Muting a Megaphone 

Another problem unique to networks of the scale of Facebook and YouTube is that they are run by multi-national corporations with a global presence. These companies typically have two underlying goals:

  1. Provide a service or set of services that everyone wants to use.
  2. Make money to fund further development 

These are fine goals to have if you’re a company, but a problem quickly becomes apparent when you think about the scope of these companies. As these networks come to have users from all over the world, the companies behind the network find themselves more and more in the position of maintaining a global presence, forcing them to deal with the governments of various different countries.

This is particularly problematic for activists that want to incite change against oppressive governments. Facebook has a habit of shutting down protest pages and YouTube has a history of pulling down protest videos to censor activists. These aren’t just isolated incidents; they’re the norm, and incidentally, they’re also the most popular platforms for their respective forms of communication. Everybody’s in the same boat, and similarly, everybody can be censored at the request of corrupt governing bodies. Whose interests are really being served here?

Decentralized social is a wildly different approach to social networking: rather than having central sites that millions of people get on, the network is made up of many websites with a much smaller amount of people on it. These multiple sites can be run by anybody: you, your friends, businesses, organizations, activists, and anyone else can set up their own social site and talk to other people seamlessly across the network.

There are several fundamental benefits to this design:

  1. No central authority can censor what you say.
  2. No social network has access to your private data. You have control over who sees what you post, including the social site that you’re on.
  3. Many decentralized social networks are Free Software, meaning you can look at the code and ensure that it’s not spying on you.

So, if I were running my own social site at DeadSuperHero.com, people would be able to follow my social account, see my public posts, like my things, and comment on anything I push out. If I choose to put my followers into a specific category of Contacts (in Diaspora, they’re called Aspects), then I can filter out who gets to see what kinds of posts I make. Maybe I have some colleagues at work that I don’t want to see my photos of a party, or maybe I have a group of local activists that I want to talk to that doesn’t concern anyone else. The point is, decentralized social is about having complete control over who gets to see the things you say and do online. 

One of the other interesting things to think about is customization. You’re running your own social site, so in essence, you’re free to customize how your profile works, and if you’re handy with some code, you can also customize how your social dashboard looks as well. Why constrain yourself to other social networks that make massive changes to how they are used when you can have that extra control over your own site’s functionality? 

An interesting development in decentralized social is the idea of being able to move from host to host, which is empowering for end users. The idea is that a user can pack up all of their social data and move to a different social site, they can. You’re not tied to the site you signed up on, and if you’re on a community-run pod and are unhappy with the person running it, you have the freedom to leave and take your valuables with you. All in all, decentralized social isn’t about “defeating” the existing social networks. It’s all about having control of your entire social experience online.

Thoughts on the emergence of social microcultures

I want to talk about an idea I’ve developed over the last five months of my study. I act as the Diaspora community manager, and being in this position has allowed me to see how a social network grows and changes. The decentralized, distributed nature of the project allowed for multiple community hubs to grow, and more importantly, different cultures emerged on different pods. How?

Looking at the amount of available hosts on podupti.me, you can see that there are about 65 active entries for pods of all kinds of different sizes and styles, give or take the occasional pod that shuts down. It’s important to note of two distinctions when we consider these pods: there is the pod’s own internal community, and there is also a standard network community of users that all share with each other the most (I, for example, have over 1500 contacts on Diaspora at the moment, with a majority of that number being active daily users across many different pods.)

The Host Pocket

When you join a pod, you come to come across the post popular content from it first. You’re bound to meet more people on your own pod at first, mainly because content is preferred there in order to introduce you to new people. There are options to follow popular pod-selected community members, and related posts are indexed through hashtags on a stream.

This is the scope that everybody you and your friends on your pod can see, and it is its own contained social community. Every single pod has one, and under my observations, I’d like to offer a statement about what’s happening between these communities.

Every single one of these pods is a community. A self-maintained community of users that have different general trending interests. Different pods have different memes, and different ideas about discourse and community. Out of these different pocket communities, they develop subpockets based on scopes of further related interests. In this way, original art and discourse can develop in a memetic sense. Community characters develop out of this, and friends grow together.

The Network Pocket

The network pocket overlaps the Host. Everything about your own community can be shared across other pods into a group deviation where everybody is already connected through their own respective pod’s connection.

Think of it like a growing constellation: the network is a cluster of different servers connected to one another, acting as one. This is the power of decentralization, as it allows for users to truly take their data into their own control, and choose who to connect to.

These different admins work together and talk to one another to maintain a consistent network, where these different pockets of culture can overlap simply through the resharing of content. It’s an hodge-podge of different perspectives, jokes, hopes, and ideas.

The network is open for anyone to build on and connect to, and people can talk to the network as a whole with relative ease.

The Theory

“Decentralized social communities that communicate together allow for an opportunity to blur the line between their pod’s own distinctive cultures and subcultures, and the network’s own observations as a whole.”

Boiled down, it can be interpreted as:

“Social pockets exist in different web communities, and the users in their cultures can intermingle with one another by sharing their own experiences and things they enjoy. These lead to the creation of new subcultures and distinct communities in their own right.”

Plain English: people can now build social networking sites of their own using open source software, and each site can communicate with one another pretty seamlessly as if they were part of the same website. These websites can get lots of different people, and these people develop into their own community-run gambit of cultures and ideas.

With decentralization, though, the best ideas a community can provide overlaps. Let’s give an example with a little renaming. Think about it: What if you could set up your own Tumblr and talk to someone on Posterous, with the ability to message each other and follow each other?

Now, let’s say you can do that with any site you want. You can make it look how you want, and everything on it can be yours. Imagine having these different sites with different fandoms and memes and news links, all sharing with one another to overlap different groups of people in different ways.

Ideas can be spread across multiple communities this way, especially if we can assume that creative groups of people tend to hang out and check out each other on social networks regularly. (DeviantArt, Tumblr, Can.vas, Flickr, are all great examples of fairly vibrant user communities, and fit to be comparable to Diaspora and other decentralized social networks.)

I think there’s a lot of merit in trying to figure out how best to make these different sites talk to one another.

Boxing Out: The Value of Free Software in an Appified World

Whether you’d like to admit it or not, the technology industry is undergoing a rapid paradigm shift from traditional desktop computing to mobile platforms that are growing increasingly restrictive. The embrace of an appified mobile web has made for a lucrative business model for numerous startups, but these platforms are, by design, problematic in regards to user freedom and privacy.

Before I get to my main point, I would like to highlight three different parables about the problems we already are facing with innovation in technology. While you could make the argument that software patents are really what’s holding these things together, and you would be right, I feel that it’s really much more problematic than that. Please note that I’m not saying that these services and organizations in and of themselves are evil. What I’m getting at is how some of their practices and policies are holding back innovation.

The Boxed-In Web

We all know a thing or two about walled gardens. Regardless of what type of app development you’re doing, we can agree that open platforms have a lot more potential for third parties. Just look at how developers are getting excited about AppNet, just because they’re providing a more open API to play with, which is at odds with what Twitter is doing.

Twitter’s restriction on an API seems to be a growing trend, as many people are beginning to flock away from great third-party clients due to less and less flexibility being supported. Perfectly good clients have gotten their API tokens revoked, so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise. However, AppNet and Twitter are technically both contributing to the same problem: they are centralized services, and while an open API is great, it doesn’t exactly do much of anything for the Open Web, aside from having a new app to integrate with.

However, the real problem comes from the popularity of leveraging Facebook as a platform. Facebook, in comparison to Twitter, is actually stupidly easy to integrate with a web application, and does so at several different levels. Want a picture thumbnail to be the one Facebook catches when you share a link? Just give part of your article an OpenGraph Image tag, and a method to pass the uploaded image as the value.

Of course, Facebook has gone even further into integrating with the rest of the web. See, Timeline wasn’t just a redesign of a user’s profile: it’s a semantic web application in which API data is passed from one service back to Facebook. All a developer has to do is create an OG:action (played a song), apply it to some nouns (song_name, song_artist), and an originating service to come from (SoundDerp) and essentially, Timeline can tell everyone that “Sean is listening to Kids With Guns by Gorillaz on SoundDerp“, and it all plays into Facebook’s Timeline ecosystem. Apps leverage actions, and Facebook just to get to leverage a little bit more about you. Even as a basic authentication platform, it hooks into hundreds of thousands of sites out there. Ever seen a site with a “Log In With Facebook” button? At some level, it’s a social web app.

Facebook provides a compelling reason for developers to stay on its own platform. The tools are, compared to what some other services offer, stupidly easy to use. And therein lies the problem: because Facebook offers such an easy route for developers to go, it’s an enticing platform to get sucked into. Apps across the web have to conform to Facebook’s own developer guidelines, at least where usage of the Facebook API is concerned. Who would want to develop for an alternative, unless it were for pushing forward a web that isn’t tied to a central social power structure?

Because of the reliance that third-party developers and content distributors have on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, we are increasingly finding ourselves in an appified web that crawls through user data at least one way or another. Relying on one central site essentially steers Facebook into an authority position.

Think about it: Facebook already abuses its permission by censoring links from the web, and it has to conform to handing over your user data to the authorities of your local government. It might as well be one big spy network disguised as an opiate for the masses.

This Little App

I think it’s a sad statement about society when you have to jailbreak your phone platform to truly get the functionality you need out of your own phone. One need only look at how Apple rules over the App store with an iron fist to gain an understanding of what a locked-down ecosystem means. Sure, you can make your app about anything, as long as it doesn’t work around carrier contracts, provide too much comparable functionality to the default included app, isn’t too expensive, only makes use of Apple’s official tools, has a less-than-stellar interface, or a dozen other restrictions.

Just look at how this trend is further being carried out in guidelines for the Mac App Store. It’s literally an instance in which the sale of applications that greatly enhance the functionality of the operating system is restricted. And sure, you can distribute your app without the Mac App store, but would a developer starting out get an opportunity for even 10% of the exposure that the Mac App Store provides? It’s an app ecosystem where, once again, innovation is hampered by playing by one company’s rules, at the risk of that developer losing a portion of their sales and income if they develop outside of Apple’s restrictions. Sure, it’s not a behavior for all Mac apps by default at the moment, but with the culture Apple has put together with App distribution, it might as well be. Free Software apps have been historically rejected frpm Apple’s distribution channels.

One of the best things to come out of the creation of iOS is not the vanilla stock experience itself, but the alternative App Store, Cydia. It’s a hacker/developer playground in which special applications can be released and even sold, without the overbearing rules handed down from Cupertino. You can modify iOS is a number of amazing ways using Cydia, and to a certain extent, run a device the way you want to run it. You want to tether your phone? Go for it. How about not being tied into iTunes for adding new music for your device? Or changing how your phone looks beyond a wallpaper? The sad thing is, you shouldn’t have to hack away so heavily at your mobile OS, and as more developers shift over to purely being on the Mac App Store, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to think that something similar could happen to the Mac desktop.

A Little Less Aliyun

Don’t just think that because Google’s the main opposition to Apple that it doesn’t get away with the same thing from time to time. Google tends to hold a strangely firm grip over its supposedly open developer ecosystem from time to time as well. Just take a look at the recent hubbub about Alibaba’s AliyunOS, a fork of Android.

Here’s the short version: Alibaba is a company that forked Android with their own interface, UI, and services, and they were going to launch a device in China using Acer as the hardware provider. Acer is part of the not-as-open-as-youd-think Open Handset Alliance, which is like an old boy’s club for big Android manufacturers that want to prevent Android’s fragmentation in the name of unity. Because of Acer’s involvement with the OHA, Google can effectively kill any adoption of Alibaba’s forked OS by forcing Acer to drop it. It doesn’t matter if it’s a better handset system; if Alibaba doesn’t find a non-OHA manufacturer or doesn’t go the route of being like MIUI and run on jailbroken devices, it’s not going to find a market to thrive in. Once again, innovation is strangled in the name of “following rules”.

What lessons can we draw from these seemingly unrelated examples? Let’s connect the dots: each problem highlights how different platforms have roped in developers to be dependent on a very overbearing set of rules and guidelines, each of which can affect a developer’s income, based purely on these regulations. People couldn’t ship or build the products they wanted to without bending over backwards for different restrictions. Google’s recent issue with AliyunOS raises the question of how open Android really is as a user-facing platform, considering the vast amount of influence it has over the Open Handset Alliance. In each case, deviating from the central authority can knock an entire product off of the market.

At what point did we consider this to be acceptable? We are openly embracing systems that make it difficult for Free Software to thrive. Free Software is important because it’s not just about the cost of the software, it’s a statement that you don’t have to be a part of those self-destructive walled gardens, that you don’t have to sacrifice user privacy, and that you can study how things work at your leisure.

There shouldn’t be so many barriers to using the technology you bought the way you want to. Free Software is a great vehicle for learning how computers work, and much freely available code has evolved greatly over the last twenty years. As we enter into an era with even more apps, even more proprietary social platforms, and even more corporate battles to influence what system a person gets to use, it’s quickly apparent that we need to embrace and cling to Free Software now more than ever before.

We Need to Own Our Own Culture

One of the more interesting debates currently raging on in the Piracy vs. The Recording Industry saga is the discussion of content and ideas as property.

Some groups of people argue that all media should be free, and distributed all over the world-wide-web for any individual to peruse. Other groups argue that even though digital media itself is an intangible concept that cannot be stolen necessarily, a digital file represents intellectual property to the fullest, and those that cut into their profits should still be treated as thieves.

To a degree, both groups bring up interesting points about what it means to “own” content. I’m not sure that it really matters either way, and here’s why.

At the end of the day, those that pirate content are only consuming the content that Big Media wants them to consume. It doesn’t matter what the price of content is necessarily… as long as you’re consuming it, you could argue that you’re still buying into Big Media’s idea of what content should be. You are getting behind and supporting the artists that they want you to support, because ultimately those artists are the ones lining their pockets. It becomes harder for individual artists to affect culture when the big names in media have their pawns propped up on a pedestal. You could make the argument that the individual ripples of independent creativity barely even make a cultural ripple in comparison to the tidal wave that is the music, multimedia, and film industries.

Lawrence Lessig did a great TED talk a while back about the significance and differences between Read/Write Culture and Read-Only culture. In a Read/Write Culture, we’re constantly re-evaluating existing content and finding new ways to reinterpret it.

The documentary series Everything is a Remix takes it a step further by suggesting that this constant re-invention is how culture sustains itself and grows. Without the amount of remixing we already do, culture rapidly loses any sort of relevence at all. You could argue that while there are very few truly original ideas, there are many original interpretations in how an old idea can be executed. To me, that strikes me as the real value of cultural growth. We could even boil it down to the following tenet:

Cultural growth is reinterpretation.

The problem, though, is that Big Content wants to maintain its position by having a stranglehold on creativity by leveraging IP laws. This is a game that I don’t think any individual can personally win against the machine, so why buy into it?

It seems there’s a growing necessity for an alternative community that serves up cultural templates to work from. We need to recycle and recreate work that is conceptually free for everyone to own. It’s imperative that we take back our own culture and establish something for ourselves. Imagine having story universes that could easily be extended by a community of people, with characters that could be re-used without repercussions of Intellectual Property infringements. Imagine a way to collaborate with other artists to present new ideas and perspectives on everything from painted art to comics, film to literature, and music to modify and extend. 

We already have that. It’s the Creative Commons. It exists to empower remix culture and the free exchange of these abstract ideas of content. We need to investigate the community more, explore it, if you will.

Underneath the sea of content creators in this community, there are quite a few gems that need to be shared with people. This movement is gaining more traction than anyone would realize, but mainstream culture doesn’t pay attention to independent entities that hold the rights to their own creations.We need to find a way to actively take remix culture and everything that it stands for to mainstream culture.

View it as an academic exercise of principles. In order to truly take a stand against the media giants, we have to be actively promoting content that could rival that of any corporate-produced placebo product. This culture focuses on making what we make and sharing it because we love it. We’re enticed by the very act of doing it.

And I intend to do exactly that. I’m going to launch an initiative to bring the best Creative Commons and remix culture has to offer, and bring it to the outside community that wouldn’t otherwise know about it. I’m proud to announce my upcoming new website, and DeadSuperHero, Unc. project:

Introducing MixxZine

MixxZine.com is going to be a blog that focuses entirely on Remix culture all throughout the creative commons community. We hand-pick our most favorite Creative Commons content, whether it’s literature, music, art, or film. In that same respect, we’ll share reviews and tutorials on using Free Software to create content yourself and contribute back. We want to get out there and showcase just how awesome the community can be.

I plan on launching in roughly a week.