Take Back The Toys

You see they give you toys just to distract.
And then they break your mind, so they can break your back.
Got you in so much debt you can’t pay it back.
And that’s the way that it has been far too long.
— The Hives


@gdonovan: #NSA director @ #hacker conference: “In this room is the talent our nation needs to secure cyberspace” #cyberdominance

GEMA to Preschoolers: Pay Up or Shut Up

GEMA (Germany’s version of the RIAA) is now demanding that preschools pay corporate giants for the right to sing along. They’re not just talking about sharing music files anymore, now they’re policing preschools for making copies of sheet music for sing-along time.

According to Deutsche Welle:

A tightening of copyright rules means kindergartens now have to pay fees to Germany’s music licensing agency, GEMA, to use songs that they reproduce and perform. The organization has begun notifying creches and other daycare facilities that if they reproduce music to be sung or performed, they must pay for a license.

“If a preschool wants to make its own copy of certain music – if the words of a song or the musical score is copied – then they need to buy a license,” GEMA spokesperson Peter Hempel told Deutsche Welle . . .

. . . Fees start at 56 euros ($74) for 500 copies of a song, a rate charged annually, not per child.

If you think this sort of extreme copyright enforcement is unique to Germany, think again. The same sort of thing is happening in the US, in France, and elsewhere.

Eight Takes on Play

From John Dewey‘s Democracy and Education, pp 205-206:

It is important not to confuse the psychological distinction between play and work with the economic distinction. Psychologically, the defining characteristic of play is not amusement nor aimlessness. It is the fact that the aim is thought of as more activity in the same line, without defining continuity of action in reference to results produced. Activities as they grow more complicated gain added meaning by greater attention to specific results achieved. Thus they pass gradually into work. Both are equally free and intrinsically motivated, apart from false economic conditions which tend to make play into idle excitement for the well to do, and work into uncongenial labor for the poor. Work is psychologically simply an activity which consciously includes regard for consequences as a part of itself; it becomes constrained labor when the consequences are outside of the activity as an end to which activity is merely a means. Work which remains permeated with the play attitude is art — in quality if not in conventional designation.

From Erik Erikson‘s Identity: Youth and Crisis, pp 164-165:

It is true, of course, that the adolescent, during the final stage of his identity formation, is apt to suffer more deeply than he ever did before or ever will again from a confusion of roles . . . Much of this apparent confusion thus must be considered social play — the true genetic successor of childhood play. Similarly, the adolescent’s ego development demands and permits playful, if daring, experimentation in fantasy and introspection . . . Whether or not a given adolescent’s newly acquired capacities are drawn back into infantile conflict depends to a significant extent on the quality of the opportunities and rewards available to him in his peer clique as well as on the more formal ways in which society at large invites a transition from social play to work experimentation and from rituals of transit to final commitments, all of which must be based on an implicit mutual contract between the individual and society.

From Cindi Katz‘s Growing Up Global: Economic Restructuring and Children’s Everyday Lives, pp 96:

Each of these phenomena individually and collectively changed the everyday lives of children in Howa, impinging on the relationship between work and play in ways that anticipated and seemed to reinforce the stricter deviations between work and leaser time that characterized industrial capitalism. Under these conditions, work is valorized while play is trivialized as something done only in childhood or in time off from work. But the relationship between work and play is more vibrant and fertile than that, and in Howa its potency was still apparent . . . For one, children’s playful activities, like play almost everywhere, remained a psychological reservoir, an oasis for imagining things and themselves differently, for experimenting with various social and cultural relations, and for exercising what Walter Benjamin (1978a) called the mimetic faculty, where, in the acts of seeing resemblances and creating similarities, the power of making something utterly new lies coiled.

From Kurt Lewin‘s A Dynamic Theory of Personality, pp 105:

The fundamental dynamic property of play is that it has to do with events which belong in one respect to the level of reality, namely, in so far as they are activities to other persons (e.g., as against daydreams). But at the same time play behavior is much less bound by the laws of reality than is nonplay behavior: both the goal setting and the execution are in much greater degree subject to the pleasure of the person . . . The play field is hence a region more or less limited as regards reality which shows even in its content a most immediate relation to the unreality of air castles and wish ideals.

From Jean Piaget‘s Play, Dreams, and Imitation in Childhood, pp 147-150:

[Play] is determined by a certain orientation of the behavior, or by a general “pole” of the activity, each particular action being characterized by its greater or less proximity to the pole and by the kind of equilibrium between the polarized tendencies . . . play is distinguishable by a modification, varying in degree, of the conditions of equilibrium between reality and the ego. We can therefore say that if adapted activity and thought constitute an equilibrium between assimilation and accommodation, play begins as soon as there is predominance of assimilation . . . Since all thought involves assimilation, and ludic assimilation is only distinctive in that it subordinates accommodation instead of being in equilibrium with it, play is to be conceived as being both related to adapted thought by a continuous sequence of intermediaries, and bound up with thought as a whole, of which it is only one pole, more or less differentiated.

From the Playgroup UK Ltd‘s Role of Play in Engaging the Youth Market:

From Article 31 of the U.N.‘s Convention on the Rights of the Child:

  1. States Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts.
  2. States Parties shall respect and promote the right of the child to participate fully in cultural and artistic life and shall encourage the provision of appropriate and equal opportunities for cultural, artistic, recreational and leisure activity.

From Lev Vygotsky‘s Mind and Society, pp 102-104:

Though the play-development relationship can be compared to the instruction-development relationship, play provides a much wider background for changes in needs and consciousness . . . For the school child, play becomes a more limited form of activity, predominantly of the athletic type, which fills a specific role in the school child’s development but lacks the significance of play for the preschooler. At school age play does not die away but permeates the attitude towards reality. It has its own inner continuation in school instruction and work (compulsory activity based on rules). It is the essence of play that a new relation is created between the field of meaning and the visual field – that is, between situations in thought and real situations.

piracy as creative practice?

ars technica has an interesting summary/critique of a working paper, titled “File-Sharing and Copyright” by Felix Oberholzer-Gee and Koleman Strumpf. Since the genesis and intent of most copyright law is to stimulate creativity — not to protect authors and publishers — Oberholzer-Gee & Strumpf argue that while file-sharing might be harming the music business (“might” being the keyword) it does not appear to be stifling the production of new music content. All of which begs the question: if copyright law is meant to stimulate creativity (not to protect the business interests of authors/publishers) and if sharing music — at a minimum — isn’t stifling creativity, then why aren’t we updating our copyright laws to protect this increasingly common and important creative practice? The working paper can be downloaded here, and the ars technica summary/critique can be found here.

Cookie Monsters published in CYE

Cindi Katz and I just published an article in a special issue of Children, Youth and Environments that focuses on Children and Technological Environments. CYE is an open access journal so you can read our article for free through their website (FYI – they ask you to create an account before providing access to the articles).

Here’s the article’s abstract:

Cookie Monsters: Seeing Young People’s Hacking as Creative Practice

This paper examines the benefits and obstacles to young people’s open-ended and unrestricted access to technological environments.  While children and youth are frequently seen as threatened or threatening in this realm, their playful engagements suggest that they are self-possessed social actors, able to negotiate most of its challenges effectively. Whether it is proprietary software, the business practices of some technology providers, or the separation of play, work, and learning in most classrooms, the spatial-temporality of young people’s access to and use of technology is often configured to restrict their freedom of choice and behavior.  We focus on these issues through the lens of technological interactions known as “hacking,” wherein people playfully engage computer technologies for the intrinsic pleasure of seeing what they can do.  We argue for an approach to technology that welcomes rather than constrains young people’s explorations, suggesting that it will not only help them to better understand and manage their technological environments, but also foster their critical capacities and creativity.

Keywords: children, youth, Internet, cyberspace, security, hacking

And here is some background on the Children and Technological Environments special issue:

Children, Youth and Environments has just published a special issue on “Children and Technological Environments.” It features a substantive introduction by the guest editors, Nathan G. Freier and Peter H. Kahn, Jr., and 14 high-quality, peer-reviewed articles on such topics as interactive humanoid robots, digital libraries, virtual natural environments, video and online games, hacking, assistive technologies for children with learning disabilities, and learning by doing with shareable interfaces. The authors include leading researchers from the U.S., Britain and Japan.

goodbye learning, hello workforce training

Some sad news regarding the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project:

Microsoft has joined forces with the developers of the “$100 laptop” to make Windows available on the machines.

According to Wired, Microsoft has had their sights on emerging markets in developing countries for a while now and have viewed low-cost children’s laptops as ideal vehicles for distribution. Until recently OLPC has resisted integrating Windows into their XO Children’s Machine, insisting that free and open-source software was central to their constructionist learning philosophy and necessary to give “children the opportunity to use their laptops on their own terms” (for more background see here, here and here). Sugar, the Linux based operating system designed for the XO Children’s Machine, has been described by OLPC as the “core” of their laptop’s interface and to the sharing and learning affordances of the machine.

olpc's blue screen of death

Yet, according to OLPC, it now appears that Windows XP will be bundled with the XO. This decision has apparently been motivated by countries, such as Egypt and Columbia, demanding that the computers carry Windows before they agree to buy in to the program. Their reasoning seems to be that they aren’t interested in machines for learning and sharing, they want machines that will train a generation of children for a future tech-based workforce. Not learning how to think — learning how to USE Excel, PowerPoint, Word, etc…

Nicholas Negroponte (founder and chairman of OLPC) claims that a dual-boot option, similar to Apple’s, which allows the child to choose between Windows and Sugar is in the works — yet Ivan Krstić, the former top security architect for OLPC argues otherwise:

The whole “we’re investing into Sugar, it’ll just run on Windows” gambit is sheer nonsense. Nicholas knows quite well that Sugar won’t magically become better simply by virtue of running on Windows rather than Linux. In reality, Nicholas wants to ship plain XP desktops. He’s told me so. That he might possibly fund a Sugar effort to the side and pay lip service to the notion of its “availability” as an option to purchasing countries is at best a tepid effort to avert a PR disaster.

Krstić goes on to write that this realization that learning was never part of the OLPC mission (i.e. the mission is about laptop distribution) is precisely what lead him to resign from the project. Krstić concludes his post, in part, by stating:

OLPC can’t claim to be preoccupied with learning and not with training children to be office computer drones, while at the same time being coerced by hollow office drone rhetoric to deploy the computers with office drone software.

Although disagreeing with a number of key points made in a recent post by Richard Stallman (founder of the free software movement), Krstić and Stallman appear to agree on what is at stake here. As Stallman puts it, this is about “whether the XO is an influence for freedom or an influence for subjection.” Indeed, close attention to the built pedagogy of the XO Children’s Machine is needed. As the XO shifts from an entirely free and open-source machine (with the exception of a proprietary firmware program for wifi access) designed for the promotion of open learning and sharing in the social and structural environments of developing countries — to one that increasingly adopts proprietary software for the vocational training of a future workforce — the lessons being taught are of great importance. Lets be clear, its not a mistake that the mesh networking capability of the XO, which allows the computers to talk to one another and share data, is not currently supported by Windows XP. And I don’t expect that problem will be “fixed” anytime soon. If it is ever “fixed,” the sharing component will be tightly controlled and heavily regulated.

In a previous post about the XO, I praised its mesh networking capability as a way to generate autonomous communication networks which might help afford a new media space for citizen power. Of course, such autonomous digital communication poses a threat to intellectual property enforcement and thus a threat to Microsoft’s entire business model. If information and communication flows freely in developing countries (aka “new markets”) it makes it more difficult to start charging one day. Immersing children, early on, in proprietary environments where information circulation is tightly controlled and intellectual property rights are strictly enforced, helps to socialize a generation that will continue to play by the old rules rather than one that will challenge them by imagining new rules. In fact, “play” is exactly what is being co-opted here. Children’s play in technological environments (in this case, the XO) is being shaped to socially reproduce certain behaviors for future work in an informational economy. Of course children are not passive recipients, they are actors in this equation. What they do in these proprietary environments and how they may (or may not) reclaim play for creative and innovative purposes is worth watching.

we are the ones we’ve been waiting for…

From Chopra & Dexter’s Decoding Liberation: The Promise of Free and Open Source Software, p173:

Jacques Ellul imagined an iron cage constructed of technology (Ellul 1967), but never the possibility that the cage could be unlocked by its prisoners. We began with a historical note on hacking: the significance of hacking should now be clear. Hackers set out to discover the workings of technical systems but found themselves doing much more. In the cyborg society, investigating a technical system is not idle tinkering: it uncovers the roots of power. A hacker is a public investigator, a gadfly, a muckraker, a public conscience: the guilty hide while the hacker lays bare. Foucault despaired of the immanence of opaque power, but free software creates a moment in which to make the exertion of power transparent. The technical is political: to free software is to free our selves. [emphasis added]

dangerous tools

This screen shot is from Parents. The Anti-Drug. What I like most about this web site is the way it both ‘teaches’ parents what text messaging is AND it explains how this new technology can be a drug-enabling-tool for teens – our war on drugs hard at work. There are no statistics to support this of course, nor is there an official statement that text messaging is a drug-enabling-tool for teens, the web site just erroneously suggests that “texting can also be a tool that teens prefer to use when sharing information about where to meet up when they don’t want to be overheard” alongside a ‘testimonial’ from ‘Amy’ stating “My cell phone was the most important tool for me to get drugs.”

Remember, its called e-monitoring not surveillance…


child’s play in the NCLB era

I Just read through the Center on Education Policy’s “Choices, Changes, and Challenges: Curriculum and Instruction in the NCLB Era” report. The report examines the effect that the No Child Left Behind act has had on curriculum and instructional time in public education in the 5 years since it was enacted. Unfortunately, the affect hasn’t been good – as one could imagine, there has been a large decrease in time spent on subjects/activities that are not the focus of federal oversight (i.e. social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and/or recess) and an increase in time spent on those that are (i.e. English language arts & Math).

According to the report:

To accommodate this increased time in ELA and math, 44% of districts reported cutting time from one or more other subjects or activities (social studies, science, art and music, physical education, lunch and/or recess) at the elementary level. Again, the decreases reported by these districts were relatively large, adding up to a total of 141 minutes per week across all of these subjects, on average, or nearly 30 minutes per day. These decreases represent an average reduction of 31% in the total instructional time devoted to these subjects since 2001-02.

The report also indicates that the average number of minutes-per-week devoted to art/music, physical education and lunch/recess combined (among the school districts surveyed) was 490. Thats 13 minutes less than the total minutes-per-week devoted to English language arts alone (503 minutes-per-week). This is a large reduction in the amount of time dedicated to creative play during the school day. As the developmental psychologist Lev Vygotsky (1978) has noted, the role of play in development is an important one. Play, according to Vygotsky, creates a zone of proximal development which allows the child to act “above his daily behavior.” Through play, children can rework and act-out the social practices which they encounter in everyday life – particularly in school-life. What kind of learning can take place in an environment where children are only given the opportunity to receive information and spit it back out through testing? Its good to know that our lawmakers are hard at work reauthorizing this piece of legislation…