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3D Printing Doc Print the Legend Shows That Yes, You Will Be Able to Print a Gun

In 2010, The Social Network fictionalized the dramatic building-up and falling-out around Facebook’s founding. Four years later, the documentary Print the Legend, a Netflix original, needs no fictional filter. The filmmakers assume, rightly for the most part, that viewers will be invested in the origin story and power struggles at the start-up MakerBot, one of the first companies to make and sell 3-D printers to the public.

The doc plods at first, too enthralled by the successful start-up’s underdog narrative. Three smart, mildly handsome, and goofy young white men pursue a passion, and it works. Sharply edited and brightly lit, the film is all air and glass and synergy, too aesthetically close to the tech culture it’s depicting for necessary critical distance. Fortunately, that distance begins to emerge from within as ideological differences create rifts among the men of MakerBot. CEO Bre Pettis believes that continuing to make their hardware open-source is against the company’s financial interests, while Zach Hoeken Smith, a founder of MakerBot, is committed to open-sourcing, and leaves because of it.

Pettis, though reluctant to miss out on a hacker’s haphazard glamour in order to act as his company’s head, turns out to be a talented capitalist, but loses friends and support from the tech community. One MakerBot user designs and prints a working gun. Innovation is inextricable from violence. Is it worth killing friendships over? It’s worth noting that Pettis is the only one of MakerBot’s founding members with a page at Wikipedia, speaking of open-source enterprises.

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SWAN SONG

For the sixth season of its annual Stuart Regen Visionaries Series, the New Museum has elected the director Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, The Wrestler, Black Swan) to be its keynote speaker. This honor — which places Aronofsky in conversation with the critic and novelist Lynne Tillman — has previously been given to such noteworthy personalities as the choreographer Bill T. Jones, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. A graduate of Harvard University and the AFI Conservatory, Aronofsky is nothing if not a capable orator, and the drastic arc of his career — from 1998’s micro-budget Pi to this year’s massive, commendably strange Noah — should provide more than enough fodder for a stimulating discussion.

Tue., Sept. 30, 7 p.m., 2014

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We Are Proud to Present…: From Cow Costumes to Genocide

What’s in a name? Well, in the case of Jackie Sibblies Drury’s We Are Proud to Present a Presentation About the Herero of Namibia, Formerly Known as South-West Africa, From the German Sudwestafrika, Between the Years 1884-1915, now playing at Soho Rep: Plenty. Not only is it a title to make the obsessive Twitterer weep, but it also captures the difficulties, embarrassments, and dangers to engaging—theatrically or otherwise—with history, particularly its more fraught passages.

During its colonial period, Namibia witnessed a slaughter in which German incomers executed as many as 80 percent of the native Herero tribespeople. “A German genocide,” one character in We Are Proud describes it, “a rehearsal Holocaust.” A colleague feels moved to contradict him. “It wasn’t a rehearsal,” he says.

The piece takes place in the Soho Rep space emptied of its risers and stripped to bare boards and sound baffling. Here, six actors—three white, three black—led by Quincy Tyler Bernstine, have gathered to create the titular show. After a brief overview, enlivened by a genuinely horrible cow costume and sub-Brechtian mime, the players reconvene around folding tables to nibble rice cakes, read source material, and decide how best to present the terrible history they have chanced on via Wikipedia searches.

In pursuit of this, they improvise, take dance breaks, and read aloud letters from German soldiers—the only documentary evidence, as records of the Herero haven’t survived. Drury and director Eric Ting score some cheap and amusing shots at actorly processes and pretensions, particularly a tendency to use volatile material as an opportunity for personal growth. “I was making the part my own,” says one actor, defending a series of appalling choices.

The script also acts several pertinent questions of documentary drama and of theater more generally: Who has the right to tell which stories? How do you create a truthful narrative in the absence of evidence? Is it right or wrong to stage atrocities at all?

The play chugs along amusingly enough until plot and performances take a violent turn. Drury doesn’t entirely earn this ending; the slide from Namibia’s racial horrors to our own country’s history of violence against blacks seems insufficiently considered. But the play’s dramaturgy demands an extreme closing, and you can’t fault her and Ting for attempting one.

If the ending really worked, if audiences felt more drawn in by it, it would render the play even more uncomfortable. After all, We Are Proud offers the dark suggestion that to engage too fervently with past cruelties—in whatever form—is to be transformed and tainted by them. By confronting brutality—as playmakers, as spectators—we risk becoming brutal ourselves.

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Alexi Murdoch

With little to promote since 2006’s Time Without Consequence, British-born Scot Alexi Murdoch returns with his wistful, Nick Drake-inspired folk. The intervening years seem a bit hazy—the sometime best-selling artist on hawk-your-own-album site CD Baby contributed a song to Ben Affleck’s 2007 flick Gone Baby Gone, has a cut in Sam Mendes’ upcoming Away We Go, and a track in a Nissan ad (as Wikipedia proudly touts). His official explanation of his absence is that he spent two years in the Himalayas, but there’s no doubt he’ll have much more to explain tonight. With Dawn Landes.

Wed., April 22, 8 p.m., 2009

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BREAKING BARRIERS

To date, Wikipedia can list more than 400 openly gay politicians. But if Wikipedia had existed in 1977 (along with the Internet), the list would consist of only one: Harvey Milk. It was in that year that Milk was elected to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, in which he fought not only for gay rights but for the rights of everyone, from senior citizens to union workers. Tonight, learn more about his inspiring and tragic story (he was assassinated in 1978) as New York Times editor Marcus Mabry moderates the TimesTalk event, The Life and Legacy of Harvey Milk, to promote Gus Van Sant’s latest film Milk, which hits theaters at the end of the month. The panel includes screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, actors James Franco and Emile Hirsch, and the real-life activist that Hirsch portrays in the film, Cleve Jones, who is also the AIDS Memorial Quilt founder.

Mon., Nov. 17, 8:30 p.m., 2008

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DOUBLE TROUBLE

The Wikipedia page for Nick Kroll claims he’s the co-star of ABC’s new comedy Cavemen (based on the GEICO caveman commercials), a contributing writer for MTV’s Human Giant, and a commentator on VH1’s Best Week Ever. John Mulaney, according to Wikipedia, is a principal investor in the 2008 Paris Hilton film The Hottie and the Nottie, turned down an academic scholarship to Oxford, and has been romantically linked to RuPaul, George Michael, and Jessica Simpson. Find out who’s telling the truth tonight when these two comedic talents share the bill at Comix. Expect to see the hilarious duo perform as Alan Alda–loving New York oldsters Gil Faizon and George St. Geegland, who give politically incorrect walking tours of the city. (“There’s the beautiful Time Warner Center,” said Mulaney’s character at a recent show. “A new modern building with towers that seem to whisper, ‘Please fly into me!’ ”) We hope you have a thick skin.

Fri., Aug. 22, 8:30 & 10:45 p.m.; Sat., Aug. 23, 8:30 & 10:45 p.m., 2008

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Web Love

“Fantasizing aside?” says vlogger genius Ze Frank in a recent installment of his daily three-minute webcast The Show (zefrank.com/theshow), answering a viewer’s question as to what exactly motivates this frenetic exercise in freestyle news commentary, political snarl, and raggedly personal hilarity. “A side of what? Bacon? Amanda Congdon likes bacon and she has her own Wikipedia entry. I don’t. I think that answers part of your question.”

It doesn’t, really, but if you don’t need Wikipedia to tell you that Amanda Congdon is the bright-eyed host of mega-trafficked Rocketboom, the daily five-minute exercise in canned news commentary, political niceness, and scripted sort-of-funniness that’s been anointed the future of online video, then you’ve probably wondered the same thing nine out of 10 persons who even give a crap about the future of online video do after an episode or two of Congdon’s shtick: Is this as good as it gets? Ze Frank’s answer to this one, thankfully, is an unequivocal no, delivered five days a week straight from whatever hotel room or bad hair day he’s in.

Even better, Congdon’s heard the message herself—Frank’s charmingly stalkerish love taps having finally got her attention, it seems—and her on-screen shout-outs/shout-ats in response have brought some welcome soap-operatic spice to Rocketboom and well-deserved publicity to The Show (including, at last, Ze Frank’s very own Wikipedia entry). Some might read their public rivalry as a portrait of irreconcilable tensions in the nascent vlogging scene—commercial vs. independent, contrived vs. authentic, Manhattan vs. Brooklyn—but it’s surely not so irreconcilable as that. The two look like they might have hung out with the same crowd in the same prep school, actually, winning points with good looks and wackiness and each so clearly meant for the other that they hated each other’s guts. And me, I’m with the crowd that mostly wonders when they’ll drop the act and get a room.

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Turf Wars

Ah, Wikipedia: No true believer in the democratic promise of the Web can fail to gladden at the very mention of this grand experiment—the universal encyclopedia “anyone can edit”!—or fail to have noticed, by now, what a fucked-up little mockery of that promise it can sometimes be. If you’ve been keeping tabs at all, for instance, it won’t surprise you to learn that disaffected Wikipedia veterans have started a splinter site, wikitruth.info, for airing “censored” Wikipedia articles and witty, excoriating analysis of the petty tyrannies and ugly infighting that thrive behind the scenes there. Nor should it surprise you that Wikipedia’s murky powers-that-be initially forbade any article about Wikitruth, invoking administrative privilege to delete the first such article within minutes of its posting. Hell, real insiders won’t even blink at the official reason for Wikitruth’s exclusion from what aspires to be, per Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales, “the sum of human knowledge”: Not libelous, not inflammatory, not even full of shit, the site was deemed, simply, “not notable.”

For the rest of us, of course, that needs some explaining. Not notable? Wikipedia hosts approximately three jillion full-page articles about local high schools, complete with alma mater lyrics, and it can’t make room for a critical look at its own practices? Perversely enough, though, “notability” has indeed become a byword for Wikipedia’s freelance fact police, who delete at will whatever they think might worsen the site’s smoldering reputation as a trivia dump. In practice, of course, this only aggravates the problem, filtering out any topic that doesn’t rate at least a few hundred Google hits—and consequently weighting the content toward Klingon grammar and other typical Web fodder. Can the Wikipedian hive-mind even recognize these internal contradictions? Will it self-correct in time to save Web democracy from itself? Maybe, but you might want to stay tuned to Wikitruth for the answers.

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Mondo Wikipedia

Last fall, students at the University of South Florida contributed to Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia, by writing entries for numpty, mohoger, japsoc, and gavilan. The definitions they gave were foggy (numpty, “tea from the land of nump”; gavilan, “a species of left-wing American focused solely on doom and gloom”). Their English professor, Alex Duensing, encouraged them to dream up more entries. When members of Wikipedia protested, he argued that his class had a “fundamental right to shape reality.”

Currently the 19th-most-visited web-site in the world, Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) invites anyone, regardless of academic credentials, to write and edit articles. Much has been made of this cavalier attitude toward scholarship—some choose to replace complete entries with phrases like “toilet bowl” or “hi, mom!”—but it’s hard to complain: This is free information. Self-described Wikipediholics spend several hours a day researching, summarizing, and reinventing the meaning of various concepts. “Everyone wants to learn,” says Daniel Mayer, one of the site’s top contributors, with more than 40,000 edits. “It’s not like the Victorian model of education: one person dictating at the head of the classroom. There’s no hierarchy. There’s no teacher.”

Users form groups (the Harmonious Editing Club, Typo Team, Association of Deletionist Wikipedians) to more efficiently argue over definitions. A recent flame over whether or not the “apple pie” entry should include the phrase “as American as mom and apple pie” went on for months. A British user, “Tagish-simon,” accused U.S. contributors of simultaneously colonizing the idea of pie, motherhood, and family. “First Iraq, then Apple Pies. What next?” he wrote. The page had to be blocked, and one person temporarily quit the site. After the dispute died down, someone replaced the old photo with that of a cheesecake.

Clay Shirky, a technology and new-media professor at NYU, describes the site as a mix of political philosophies—”a creamy communist exterior with a crispy libertarian center.” Wikipedia forces an uncomfortable issue for academics, he says. “Where does authority come from? Brands? Institutions? It’s not so clear. And it never has been. That’s why the site is so threatening.”

Traditional scholars feel jeopardized by a population of nerds they hardly knew existed. In 2004, Robert McHenry, the former editor in chief of Encyclopaedia Britannica, wrote an essay for Tech Central Station
comparing Wikipedia to a public restroom: You never know who’s been using the facilities. “If this were a private enterprise, like a multiplayer game, that’d be fine,” he tells the Voice. “It’s like, ‘Let’s play the encyclopedia game, kids!’ But to take the product of this game and call it an encyclopedia—that’s where the deception comes in. The project is anti-educational, anti-science, and anti–everything that I think is a value.”

Last year, the contributor with the most articles featured on the site’s homepage was 17-year-old user “Lord Emsworth,” still in high school. He wrote long, detailed entries on British nobility. Users addressed him as “your lordship.” “You don’t really need credentials to look at a book and take out the information,”
says Matt Wolf Binder, a 15-year-old from Seattle who’s earned many Wikipedia peer awards, called Barnstars, including the Random Acts of Kindness Barnstar, the General Awesomeness Barnstar, the Working Man’s Barnstar, and the Lots of Barnstars Barnstar. “If someone researches a topic, it doesn’t matter if Harvard certifies them.”

In many cases, winning disputes is just a matter of having good friends. People gang up on each other to argue their points. When a top contributor (user name “Essjay”) recently despaired over a deletion, he decided to quit the encyclopedia for good. (He’s now back.) “He couldn’t take crying over what was happening to the people he cared so much about,” Essjay explained (in the third person) on his user page. More than 50 people posted notes online, begging him to stay. “You are who you are regardless of what happens on Wikipedia,” one reader reminded him. Another was more frantic: “Is there something else going on in your life making you depressed? Please, please, see a doctor.”

The site, which has more daily visitors than The
New York Times
and USA Today sites combined, is as much an encyclopedia as a social outlet. Wikipedia has many rules, but they’re all highly breakable. (One essay states: “Ignore all rules.”) This philosophy, which some describe as the site’s “essence,” doesn’t always inspire goodwill. In September, John Seigenthaler Sr., former editor and publisher of the Tennessean newspaper, discovered that his Wikipedia bio claimed he’d had a hand in the assassinations of John and Robert Kennedy. The fiction had remained online for more than four months, uncorrected. Jimmy Wales, the founder of the site, acknowledged that the entry was “disgusting” and announced a new rule: Users can no longer contribute without first formally registering. (This has apparently done little to stop vandalism: A few weeks ago, someone rewrote the “Jimmy Wales” entry and said he’d been assassinated—by Seigenthaler’s wife.)

Wikipedia works on the premise that articles will steadily improve over time, in a sort of Darwinian process of natural selection. But users, who now have the power to change history—at least until someone catches them—aren’t always aiming for the larger good. Last year, former MTV host Adam Curry edited the “podcasting” entry to give himself more credit for the technology’s creation. He deleted other important figures in the field and inserted helpful phrases like “Thanks to Adam Curry . . . ”

Even Wales has rewritten his own biography, altering sentences about the role of his former employee Larry Sanger. On four occasions he changed the phrase “Wales and Sanger set up Wikipedia” to “Wales set up Wikipedia.” Fellow users barely questioned his decision to contribute. The culture of the encyclopedia is simple: If you see a problem, change it. If other people think you’re wrong, no big deal— they’ll change it. Nothing is permanent. One frequent user, Fang Aili, didn’t understand why Seigenthaler made such a fuss when he could have just taken out the libelous information himself. “Umm . . . Why didn’t he just press the ‘Edit’ button, for god’s sake? THAT’S WHAT IT’S THERE FOR. Jesus Christ.”

In 2000, Jimmy Wales, a futures and options trader with a fondness for Ayn Rand,
decided to start an open-content encyclopedia called Nupedia. “I saw it as a kind of social event,” he says, “the equivalent of a sports league—but for geeks.” He hired an acquaintance, Larry Sanger, a philosophy grad student at Ohio State University, to begin recruiting scholars and experts. Unlike what became Wikipedia, Nupedia would have a relatively traditional format, with each entry undergoing a seven-step editorial process. The first article, published in the summer of 2000, took more than four
months to complete. The subject was atonality.

By the end of the year, there were only 24 articles. As a side project, Wales used the wiki, a type of software that allows for constant collaboration, to create a second encyclopedia where people could mess around with the entries before they were formally reviewed. Sanger came up with the term Wikipedia (“a silly name for what was at first a very silly project”), and the site was launched on January 15, 2001,
now referred to by some users as Wikipedia Day. Within a month, the encyclopedia had 1,000 articles. After a year, there were more than 20,000.

Whose idea it was to use the wiki is a point of contention: In a recent essay on slashdot.com, Sanger says he proposed the idea and Wales was initially skeptical. Wales disagrees. The concept, he says, came from another employee, Jeremy Rosenfeld. Confident in his version of the story, Wales went ahead and tweaked the Wikipedia entry for “Larry Sanger” to reflect what he believed was the truth. Sanger was not amused: “Jimmy, I notice that you removed ‘conceived of’ from the description of my relationship to the origin of Wikipedia,” he wrote on a discussion page. “I didn’t conceive of it? It seems to me I did; it was, in a very robust sense, my idea. You remember this, I’m sure.”

From the beginning, Wikipedia has presented the notion that history was up for grabs. The site evolved into its own community before Wales and Sanger had a chance to evaluate how they should govern it. As Sanger describes it in his essay, Wikipedia “began as a good-natured anarchy, a sort of Rousseauian state of digital nature,” but the community soon expanded out of control. Within months, Sanger felt he’d already missed his chance to assert himself as an authority. His biggest mistake, he writes, was failing to recognize that Wikipedia was more than just an encyclopedia: It was its own “polity.” It needed “a representative legislative, a competent and fair judiciary, and an effective executive, all defined in advance by a charter.”

Sanger resigned from the site in March 2002. Funding for his position had run out, and he chose not to continue as a volunteer. The site had become a “boisterous outdoor bazaar,” he says. He had taken on the role of bad cop and he was frustrated with users’ unruliness (Wales was the good cop, removed from logistics yet providing all the money). “I found myself generally despised by the old Wikipedians,” he tells the Voice. “Anyone with authority was bound to be unpopular.”

In a 2004 article published on kuro5hin .org, “Why Wikipedia Must Jettison Its Anti-Elitism,” Sanger (who recently launched his own encyclopedia, Digital Universe) acknowledges that the site is “very cool.” But as a philosophy professor with a specialty in epistemology, he is concerned about the way it is seen in academic circles. The problem, he writes, isn’t that Wikipedia is unreliable. It’s that librarians, teachers, and professors will always perceive it as unreliable. It’s too open to “trolls and fools.”

Ward Cunningham, the man who invented the wiki 10 years ago, says he designed it in reaction to precisely this kind of assumption: the idea, barely thought out, that ordinary people can’t be trusted. “No one has the right answers,” he says. “Honest to God, what is truth? Can you tell me what truth is? If you want infallibility, go see the pope.”

Cunningham uses the term “Web 2.0” to describe what he and many others see as a new phase in the development of the Internet, defined in part by the idea of a collective consciousness. If Web 1.0 was a shopping mall, this second phase is more of an ongoing conversation, he says. Many successful sites are community based, participatory, and free of charge (see MySpace, Craigslist, Flickr, Socialtext, Blogspot, Meetup, Dodgeball). In a widely read blog post, “The Amorality of Web 2.0,” Nick Carr, the former executive editor of the Harvard Business Review, encourages people to acknowledge the trend for what it is: “The Cult of the Amateur.”

Wikipedia draws its fair share of unstoppable armchair philosophers, but it also attracts people who—out of a sense of humanitarian duty, or boredom—just want to get the job done. The goal is simple: free information for the world. Wales, affectionately referred to as “Jimbo,” compares working for the site to volunteering for the Red Cross. Contributors treat him like a rock star, honoring him on their user pages with various songs and prayers (“Credimus in unum Jimbonem/patrem omnipotentem”). The arguments over his encyclopedia entry are particularly heated. Some worry that his featured picture doesn’t make him look dignified enough: Is his expression ironic? Or just silly? Wales, who never imagined he could attract such a following, says he feels like Tom Sawyer whitewashing Aunt Polly’s fence: He thought he’d have to finish the job alone, but suddenly strangers were doing his work.

Some of the most faithful Wikipedians compare the enterprise to building the ancient pyramids: A vast collection of anonymous people make tiny, negligible contributions (a single clause, a comma deletion), and the result is a cultural monument. People have created their own Wikipedias in Slovene, Finnish, Arabic, Afrikaans, Tatar, and 200 other languages. Two and a half years ago, Wales started a new project, Wikibooks, with the hope of providing a cheaper alternative to textbooks (U.S. college students currently spend $5 billion a year on them). Writers have begun to collaborate on texts in many subjects, including microeconomics, linguistics, Shakespeare, Japanese history, wooing men, and raising chickens. There’s no copyright charge for taking material off the site, but as of now, most of the books are slipshod and incomplete—not ready for classrooms.

Wikipedia will never be finished, so long as its participants are active. Seventeen thousand people contribute regularly. As Shirky puts it, most encyclopedias ask the questions “Who knows? Who has the facts?” Wikipedia asks something different: “Who cares?” With entries that are both impossibly minute (“Musashi Junior & Senior High School”) and transcendent (“Life”), one has to wonder whether Wikipedia will eventually just bloat out of bounds. It’s hard to predict whether it represents a paradigm shift or just an anomaly. The site is constantly changing, propelled by its obsessed community. “We forgive those who vandalize against us,” writes one club, the Really Reformed Church of Wikipedia, on its user page. “Blessed art thou among Wikipedians/and blessed is the fruit of thy keyboard.”

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Factually Speaking

For a reference work whose editorial staff consists, basically, of any dumbass with Internet access and one good typing finger, Wikipedia (wikipedia.org) sure has ambition. “It’s our goal to be as good as Britannica [britannica.com] across the board,” said Jimmy Wales, founder of the openly collaborative online encyclopedia, responding to a recent surge of criticism from educators and other cultural gatekeepers concerned with the increasing popularity of Wikipedia’s intellectual free-for-all. Soon after, the science journal Nature published a report finding that the average Wikipedia article on scientific topics contains no fewer than four factual errors, which might have suggested that the online upstart has a long way to go to catch up with the reigning authority, except that it didn’t: The same report found the Encyclopaedia Britannica only marginally more accurate, with an average error count of three.

The good news, in this case, was also the bad news. Where Wikipedia fans celebrated the findings as proof of the surprisingly high-quality work an amorphous mob of author-editors can produce, others brooded over the revelation that the “gold standard” of encyclopedias is in fact, as one information scientist put it, an “18-carat standard” and not a 24. But the focus on relative quality missed the more relevant point of comparison. Of the 42 Wikipedia and Britannica articles Nature sent to outside experts for review, the only ones that could be corrected—immediately—by those same experts were Wikipedia’s. Whether those corrections were actually made the report doesn’t say, but the implication is clear: Maintaining the gold standard of reference works is everybody’s responsibility now. And if the experts of the world ever want that standard to rise higher than Britannica‘s, they’ll have to stop griping that Wikipedia is broken, get off their individual and institutional asses, and fix it.