Yearly Archives: 2009

Mobs and knights: #amazonfail and the Dubai Literary Festival

Recently I was going on about how instant connnectivity is changing the way events unfold; to add to that there’s this post from net guru Clay Shirkey on the Twitter #amazonfail brouhaha that took place a couple of weeks ago.

For all those who missed it (that includes me as I was on holiday beyond the reach of the internet that weekend)  it started when author and publisher Mark Probst noticed that his book The Filly, had lost its sales data on, and because of that was no longer appearing in book searches. The book contains homosexual characters. A quick check of other gay-themed literature showed that this had happened across the board.

The brilliant – and scary – thing about Twitter is how fast outrage can spread on it. Within hours the net was alive accusing Amazon of purging gay and adult literature. A massive army of digital warriors gathered to defend the cause.

This is how the BBC’s Bill Thompson reported amazonfail:

It emerged that thousands of other books had been similarly delisted, including such radical texts as The Well of Loneliness and John Barrowman’s autobiography, while a little research by interested bloggers found Playboy: The Complete Centerfolds, the Parent’s Guide to Homosexuality and Hitler’s Mein Kampf were all still searchable and proudly displayed.

Two years ago this would have resulted in a collection of angry, interlinked blog postings. A year ago there would have been a Facebook group to join. But this time it was the Twitter microblogging service that led the way, with thousands of tweets linked by the tag ‘amazonfail’.

The timing was perfect. It was a slow news weekend on what is an extended holiday in many parts of the world. Amazon’s ability to respond quickly was limited, while the echo chamber of Twitter, LiveJournal and Facebook meant that the noise of outrage quickly reached a crescendo.

Within a couple of days, an apparently more complex narrative emerged. Clay Shirky takes up the story:

After an enormous number of books relating to lesbian, gay, bi-sexual, and transgendered (LGBT) themes lost their Amazon sales rank, and therefore their visibility in certain Amazon list and search functions, we participated in a public campaign, largely coordinated via the Twitter keyword #amazonfail (a form of labeling called a hashtag) because of a perceived injustice at the hands of that company, an injustice that didn’t actually occur.

This was cock-up, not conspiracy. Apparently. Amazon had been facing complaints because books with adult material turn up in searches for children’s books. By attempting to filter the results, they effectively made anything with a content that’s deemed adult invisible. And that included lots of gay and lesbian books – even classics like The Well of Loneliness.

Shirky’s post is a cautionary, self-flagellating mea culpa. He was one of the outraged. This, he says now, wasn’t homophobia it was stupidity. Stupidity on Amazon’s part for creating an algorithm that would wipe out gay and lesbian literature so thoughtlessly; stupidity on his part as an experienced technology writer, to join hounds chasing Amazon, he confesses.

As a post-script, the blogger Bookkake doesn’t agree with Shirky, and he’s not the only one:

…the issue at the heart of #amazonfail is not – should not be – whether Amazon’s recategorisation was accidental or not, but how LGBT books came to be classified as not suitable for “family” viewing. How Amazon attempted to place them in the category of things of which we shall not speak.

Which is also 100% true. What Amazon’s algorithm did was effectively exaggerate a societal prejudice.  This wasn’t just a technological failure, it was a cultural failure too. Shirky is letting them off the hook too lightly.

But Bookkake also draws the parallel to  the Dubai Literary festival. Back in February Bookkake and several other bloggers had complained about the Dubai Literary Festival banning Geraldine Bedell’s novel The Gulf  Between Us, which also features a gay relationship.

The outrage surrounding this banning led to Margaret Atwood refusing to attend the festival. Only as Atwood later discovered nothing of the sort had happened. The book was never “banned”. As I wrote in the A&E blog back in February, the book was never invited to the Dubai literary festival at all. The whole “banned” story was seeded by a press officer at Penguin and took off on the internet.

I don’t agree with Bookkake that there is a parallel. Yes, Dubai is an institutionally homophobic culture, and yes, the literary festival still ducked confronting that homophobia, but this was outrage manufactured by Penguin, exploiting another evil, Islamophobia. Bookkake and others who expressed their outrage were being manipulated to sell a minor novel. It was a cynical incitement of the mob.

What both stories show is how fantastically easy it is to manufacture outrage in our instant culture, whether justified or not. That can be good – Amazon are now having to prove they don’t discriminate against LGBT literature.

What frightened Clay Shirky is that he became part of a mob. The sheer speed with which events unfolded overtook his rational side. And what should worry anyone is that the idea that the internet naturally favours a liberal, progressive viewpoint is an absurd one. There has been an assumption, from Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs onwards, that the electronically connected mass is greater and more virtuous than the individual. The classic smart mob case was the toppling of President Estrada of the Philippines in 2001 by protestors who self-organised on using mobile phones.

But here’s another example. Last year  ethnic violence was stoked up in Kenya for deliberately cynical reasons, leaving 1,000 dead and 300,000 more displaced. That too was a smart mob, organised through mobile phones. The mob also destroys.

Image: Hung Drawn & Quartered II (Treeson), 2005, (detail), by Matthew Day Jackson from the Saatchi Gallery’s USA Today.

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LDI Show is Going Green in 2009

With a goal of saving 190 trees in 2009, LDI is focused on eliminating unnecessary paper usage and encouraging exhibitors to do the same. The steps the trade show is taking to accomplish this include a two phase process. First, the show is slowly phasing out the use of paper VIP invitations to the show floor in favor of electronic invites for exhibitor prospects or clients. “This year, we want to encourage you to use the handy and effective online guest electronic guest pass invite,” says group show director Sharon Morabito. “This will be available to all exhibiting companies in June, and full details will be sent to every exhibiting company.”

via LDI Show is Going Green in 2009.

Bring on the electric cars?

Last week in New York the sculptor Seth Kinmont unveiled the first of three electric cars, bodywork made from wood. For three days he invited people to ride around the block in his new hand-built horseless carriage. Beautiful, huh?

I mention this because a) it forms a tenuous artistic link to the following story, and b) Kinmont’s work underlines the quixotic nature of electric transport.

The latest voyagers on this quixotic journey are Jeff Hoon and Peter Mandelson. Today they will announce a £250m scheme to kickstart the UK’s electric car infrastructure.  You might think they’re unlikely travellers on this road, given the fact that this are the pair who were most vocal about the impracticality the green movement’s objections to Heathrow expansion.

But no, Geoff Hoon in particular has retooled himself as the champion of green in this morning’s Guardian.

Hoon said yesterday that decarbonising road transport had a big role in helping the UK meet its targets of reducing CO2 emissions by 26% by 2020 and 80% by 2050. “Something like 35% of all our carbon emissions are caused by domestic transport,” he said. “Of that, 58% of the emissions are caused by motor cars.”

The implication is that electric cars will help cut that figure. And they might, but… Big but.

As a recent report commissioned by the Campaign for Better Transport suggests, if everyone in the UK moved to electric cars we’d need four times as much capacity in our electricty generation than we have at present, and even the government’s recently unveiled plans for nuclear generation aren’t enough to plug that gap.

Even a modest rise in electric car use doesn’t automatically reduce CO2 emissions – it just shifts emissions from the exhaust pipe to the power station. For those who use their cars only for short urban journeys, the CO2 reduction can be significant, but for average car use the figures are much less clear cut.

A few weeks ago the government let it be known that they were considering a scheme to encourage people to buy greener cars by offering an incentive for people to scrap their old ones. In reality, this was an attempt to boost the UK’s failing manufacturing sector, not a green scheme; given the embedded carbon costs of manufacturing, scrapping working cars in favour of newly built ones is about the least green strategy of all. That embedded energy calculation is the same for electric cars too.

This initiative is the start of Gordon Brown’s much touted green recovery plan; for a cabinet who have dismissed green concerns as impractical, they’re going to have to work extremly hard to demonstrate that this really is a practical scheme, not just another sop to industry.

Hat tip to Bad At Sports for the Seth Kinmont story.

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Museum 2.0

From Nina Simon at Museum 2.0

This is the reason that many museums and cultural organizations decided they needed websites in the late 1990s and early 2000s. We recognized that people were increasingly turning to the Web as a source of information–for content knowledge but also for trip planning. I believe that the primary reason most museums started their websites is about planning visits. Marketing departments realized that a large percentage of people were using online search engines to find interesting things to do, and they wanted to be there.

Now, things are changing again. Whereas the Web of the 2000s was dominated by search, we are entering a time when more and more people are using social media as their gateway to the Web. Ask a college student what her homepage is, and you are likely to see Facebook, not Google, pop up on her screen. The worldwide market reach of social networks and other “member community sites” (as Nielsen research deems them) is growing rapidly, and it seems likely that Facebook and other social networking sites will continue to attract older, more mainstream audiences.

This means that more and more people are “entering” the Web via social context. Last week, Susie Wilkening wrote a blog post expressing that Facebook has replaced her newspaper as the go-to place for relevant news in her life. It’s not hard to imagine a near future where Facebook (and sites like it) also replace a lot of the ways we use atomized search. This already happens for me with professional research. When I’m looking for a resource on something, my first stop is Twitter, where I can send my research question to my professional network. Then I use Google to track down the references they mention. People often ask me how I find out about interesting projects going on at different museums. I’m not constantly googling “visitor co-created exhibits” and searching blind. I find out about these things in my social networks–via blogs, professional communities, Twitter, and socially-selected content feeds, which contextualize and direct me towards information of interest.

About Nina:

And what about me? I do consulting work and research for a variety of museums (and I’m available!). Previously, I curated The Tech Virtual Test Zone at The Tech Museum, designed virtual experiences with the Electric Sheep Company, and worked as the Experience Development Specialist at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C. I live in beautiful Santa Cruz, CA, pursuing museum (and virtual) experience design from the mountains. If you would like to discuss opportunities for collaboration, consulting, or wild projects, contact me.

via Museum 2.0.

Technology, culture, Rodney King, Ian Tomlinson and Damien McBride

Two very modern stories, and one slightly older one:

1) Attempting to grasp the new digital culture, the UK’s Labour party falls foul of it instead when Gordon Brown’s protege Damien McBride is caught plotting to feed bloggers malevolent disinformation.

2) Protestors, long warning of the evils of surveillance culture, suddenly find that surveillance has its uses when horrendous footage of the beating of Ian Tomlinson emerges, to be followed yesterday by more amateur phone video of another police assault on a G20 protestor.

The socio-technological earthquake continues to alter the way our culture unfolds in surprising ways. The omnipresence of continually updated digital representations of our world is altering our relationship to it in ways that are both dangerous and liberating.

Blogger Tomorrow Museum suggested something like this recently, kicking off with Momus’s idea of the 1:1 ratio of experience to writing. For the slightly Eeyore-ish artist/musician Momus, the suggestion that we now turn every act into content – a blog, a Tweet- is something of a worry. For Tomorrow Museum, though, this world in which everyone becomes a witness is a safer place. He cites the filmed beating of Rodney King – the assault that started the LA Riots – as a starting point of this info earthquake.

The paradox is that while Damien McBride’s actions are now witnessed and scrutinised, we’ve also lived through a decade in which around seven million have been killed or died in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Somalia with barely any witness at all.

And having met Rodney King a couple of times while I was working in South Central Los Angeles, I wouldn’t envy anyone who becomes part of the info-maelstrom. The film of Rodney King’s beating became a focal point for civil rights activism, but King himself was not a man who ever asked for the attention, who felt tragically responsible for the deaths that happened in the ensuing riots, and who appeared to be just as much a victim of the all attention he had as of that original police assault.

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Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves – Theater – The Stranger, Seattle’s Only Newspaper

1.Enough with the goddamned Shakespeare already.

2.Tell us something we don’t know

3.Produce dirty, fast, and often.

4.Get them young.

5.Offer child care

6.Fight for real estate

7.Build bars

8.Boors’ night out

9.Expect poverty

10.Drop out of graduate school

via Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves – Theater – The Stranger, Seattle’s Only Newspaper.

Big Orange Recycled Rabbits

The Big Rabbits are made from recycled plastic bottles. After the installation is finished, the prolific and cutting-edge art studio destroys the installation and recycles it into a new animal and another project.

The Big Rabbits recycled art Installation from Cracking Art Group in Italy has been turning heads across Europe. The recycled orange rabbits have been on display in Portofino, Milan, Prague, Paris, Brussels and San Remo.

“The rabbit is the symbol of reproduction and proliferation. A positive message in this time of confusion,” explains Renzo Nucara from the Cracking Art Group. “We made a “Big Rabbit” because, in accordance with our work, the animal becomes the witness of the change of nature and her balance.”

via Big Orange Recycled Rabbits.

Windows of opportunity: artists taking over retail space

Based on that story a couple of weeks ago on the RSA Arts & Ecology website, I have this feature in the current New Statesman:

There’s a hint of tumbleweed blowing down the nation’s high streets. Behind the headline-worthy collapses of Woolworths and MFI are the disappearances of hundreds of smaller shops. By the end of 2009, the analyst Experian predicts, one in six UK shops will have closed down. Not only will the effect on employment be catastrophic, the projected 135,000 vacancies will not be good for the health of town centres – empty shopfronts quickly multiply.

Yet what is grim news for some may prove a bonus for artists.

From the abandoned warehouses of Shoreditch in east London to the empty apartments of Berlin, we know artists gravitate to disused space, and have been successful in transforming it. Can art now drive the regeneration of slack retail space by turning it into a low-cost cultural playground?

In Durham, Carlo Viglianisi and Nick Malyan, an artist and an art fan, both in their early twenties, took over the lease to a disused off-licence in December last year and reopened it as Empty Shop (, a gallery and creative centre where local sixth-form college students can go for media and art classes. “The local response has been fantastic,” says Viglianisi.

They are far from alone. Across the country, artists and would-be gallerists have been having the same idea, seemingly quite spontaneously. This January in Brent, a group of artists formed Wasted Spaces; they are holding their first show in a vacant retail space in Wembley this summer. In Halifax, another group has taken on an empty unit at the Piece Hall and opened Temporary Art Space (, which will run for six months…

See the rest of the feature here.

Photo by Tony Knox.

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