Reflections on the OVC

By now I’m something of a conference veteran, or, to be more precise, a repeat flâneur at a variety of conferences. Usually I’m presenting at these gatherings, but rarely do I feel like a true member of the community of academics, lawyers, technologists, or administrators that I happen to be among. This could be ascribed to GenX-itis — life in a post-boom interdisciplinary landscape that carries one everywhere and nowhere — or perhaps more simply to a personal gravitation to the margins.

So the first surprise about the recent Open Video Conference was how inclusive it felt, how it swept one up (one used to being a party of one) into a collective vision of the future. This was a healthy conference, due to a very specific rallying point — open video — and a greatly heterogeneous crowd well-nigh forced to bump up against different populations. And so the OVC overstuffed into NYU law classrooms programmers of various types of expertise and roguery, filmmakers with various types of produced work, genial lawyers, political activists, software evangelists, corporate and public media reps, educators, archivists… the “full stack,” as one friend put it, of expertise at pretty much every level of reinventing the way video acts on the web. And a concern rooted in very granular details of code seemed tangibly connected to the way we all will live.

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An introduction to OVC

I can’t resist opposing this sense of inclusiveness and vitality to the MLAs I’ve attended, in which extravagant claims for the reinvention of subjectivity or sexuality or post-colonial discourse, say, clash against the most trenchant resistance to actual change. Humanists are nothing if not self-conscious, and the ironies of securing or justifying a tenured career by espousing the critical ‘trouble’ of the moment are oft felt. But MLA sessions addressing the dramatic changes in the way we are actually communicating and transmitting culture — the media revolution happening on our watch — were quirky and underattended (at least before I gave up on them circa 2004), and likely to devolve into older academics warning acolytes not to risk their careers in digital pursuits.

But back to the OVC in 2009. Others will publish some good summaries of sessions and events — I’m starting to see a few now (for example, Scott Macaulay’s blog posts on Filmmaker) — so I’ll keep here to the level of broad and subjective generalizations.

It smelled like teen spirit. Let me hasten to say, I mean that in a positive way, deriving from my experience in a public high school that gathered up a range of different classes, maturities, predilections, abilities, perspectives — drew us all up into something like genuine and still-forming enthusiasm. And so it would be easy for anyone who attended OVC to correlate speakers to various high school stereotypes: the genial hippie, the homecoming queen, the class clown, the truant, the rebel, the exchange students, the dropout, the goths, the a.v. geeks, the musicians, the art students, the nerds, the student government types…. Like high school, the conference made me feel like the future was right around the corner, momentous decisions were just ahead, and sudden and budding capacities were going to change the world. Who wouldn’t want to really feel this again, and at a conference no less?

Ray Blumenthal drawings of OVC speakers
Ray Blumenthal drawings of OVC speakers

Openness means simplification. It is touching and generous of hard core programming geeks to craft advances that inexorably shift arcane wizardry into the practical and even mundane. Thus on the immediate horizon we’re getting HTML 5 that simply incorporates a video tag, Ogg containers that free video content from restrictive plugins or presentation frames, a Wikipedia that offers easy browser-based video editing. We’re seeing entities like the Internet Archive offering to store and stream personal video without restriction, providing a range of transcoding, taking on what amounts to API service. We’re seeing advances in time-based metadata and accessibility features that make relevant pieces of video easier to find, reference, and recontextualize. We’re getting CC licensing clarifying subsequent use of content. All these efforts to simplify away impediments bolster an active, democratic engagement in heretofore complex and specialized processes, in what until now has been owned and manipulated by the very few.

A preview of new video functionality in Firefox 3.5

Openness can trigger honesty. At OVC I saw how an ethical imperative to be open goes beyond releasing code for the world to see, involves more than offering source content up for unconceptualized future use. I appreciated, through long tail examples like Earth-Touch and BoingBoingTV, that open video offers resistance to over-produced, bogus dramatization, and other commercial attempts to sweeten the pot for paying audiences. Earth-Touch’s HD yet relatively spare videos of actual animals in the field (like these suckling seals), put side by side with Disney’s over-soundtracked, hyper-narrated, dramatically manipulated presentation of (say) thrashing whales, made me feel afresh how corrosive the corn-syrup of ratings bait can be.

Americans must demand more from their broken down public media. Predictably shamed by Canadians actively funding independent video and Norwegians proactively releasing material on peer-to-peer networks, we Yankees (derives from Dutch word for “pirate”, Matt Mason observed) are reduced to handwringing about cultural treasure locked away by rights restrictions, about public broadcasting networks refusing *free* content from desperate filmmakers, by cable fee pittances funding public access tv stations that seem lost in 1982. It takes a Metavid to liberate CSPAN, for crying out loud, from hopeless VHS tape inconsequence. Perhaps PBS, NPR and the like should shift away from membership drives, with their appeals for rather nebulous support, and more to what Alyce Myatt called the “tip jar”: ways of driving direct loyalty to and remuneration for actual programs.

Nev. Senator John Ensign discusses American morality, via Metavid

We haven’t even begun to know what we can do with video. The highlight of the OVC for me was, of course, the education panel, during which CCNMTL released code for VITAL (Video Interactions for Teaching and Learning). During the session, I was struck by how infrastructure, access, and distribution are still dominant topics when people are thinking about educational use of video. These are foundational concerns, but those of us wrestling with how to actually incorporate video meaningfully into curricula — how to make working with video a truly transformative learning experience — have to drive the conversation to the next level: from *access* to *effective use*. Otherwise we can get indifferent and unmotivated broadcasting, subscription services that offer a shopping cart parody of ‘participation’, substitution of awkwardly filmed stagecraft for interpersonal dynamics, false assumptions about expanding the classroom, and a devolvement of educational inquiry into the polarized insufficiencies of passive consumption or blind expression. Video DJs Eclectic Method offered an interesting example of video sampling set to audio beats, and there was no shortage of video artists offering cut-ups and remashes, but much of this active video re-manipulation seems to be paddling around so far in the relatively shallow but fun waters of entertainment and parody.

Rock & Remix from Eclectic Method on Vimeo.

This stuff is dangerous. For the most part, OVC offered a benign and even symbiotic vision of the future. Yochai Benkler set the tone at the opening keynote, cheering the advancement of participatory culture, the rise of a “5th estate” of engaged citizens able to watch and produce and determine their own world like never before. To many this can help out not only our public culture, but also the wheezing dinosaurs (or Murdoch-monsters?) who are looking for better business models, more compelling content, stronger engagement with audience. Matt Mason, author of The Pirate’s Dilemma: How Youth Culture Reinvented Capitalism (pay what you wish!), spoke engagingly of “virtuous circles,” in which merchants canny enough to pirate piracy get ahead. Radiohead was invoked.

But in a surprise move, the failure of Clay Shirky to make it to the conference opened up spot for a mystery final speaker — and he turned out to be a real pirate, Peter Sunde of the controversial bittorrent tracker The Pirate Bay. Patched in from Sweden, swigging some mysterious liquid, and professing indifference to incarceration, Sunde signaled no real politics and no limits. He tweaked media corporations by saying they should actually pay him to distribute their products for free, and announced that the Swedish National Theater would be presenting his recent and upcoming trial by authorities. Presumably they’ll be drawing on some lines he’s fed the press in the wake of a guilty sentence (now on appeal) — rather than pay restitution, “I would rather burn everything I owned.” Another Pirate Bay founder as been quoted as saying, “We chose to treat the trial as a theater play and as such it’s been far better than we ever could have believed.” Or, Sunde again: “This has been ‘Season One’ of The Pirate Bay series, and today’s judgment is just the cliffhanger,” he said. “But thanks Hollywood, you taught us that the good guys win in the end.”

An IOU from Eric Sunde
An IOU from Peter Sunde

By ending the OVC with a reminder of the heedless hijacking that corporations use as justification for locking down content, conference organizers seemed to undercut the compelling arguments that had been made for refined licensing, better business models, better standards, and more responsive and forward-thinking media development. We ended in a rather adolescent nihilism.

At first I thought this was a mistake, but thinking about it further, I decided that this ending was a final and appropriate flourish to an effective conference. It seems open, after all, to acknowledge that there is actual menace in the air — that this medium is being contested across a legal landscape that could, in its inability to keep up with an increasingly frantic dance, freeze up and lay waste to what now seems like unbounded aspiration. None of us is in control, nobody can predict much beyond a rather ruthless shakeup of the way we communicate — along with the need for us all to somehow survive it, possibly shape it, even learn from it together.

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