Dominic Smith: I was hoping to have a chat with you about your experiences of open source, your initial experiences, your current experience and where you stand on it.
Michael Mandiberg: I learned to code by looking at source code on web sites. My initial experience with any kind of programming was by default open source. I was doing graphics before so I've been using Photoshop since version 2.5.1. But when talking about code I learned to code largely by looking at other peoples code. I am going to give a presentation at Berkeley in two weeks at the Takeovers and Makeovers conference which is about intellectual property, artists and appropriation.
I'm going to frame my talk through my realization that I was making Open Source work without realising it. I did this project called AfterSherrieLevine.com. Sherrie Levine photographed Walker Evans’ work and called it her own work. The funny thing is, it was a form of commons enclosure. Although I didn't have the words "commons enclosure" at the time to describe it, these are the words I would use now. She had a legal case with the Walker Evans estate and ended up shutting things down. I wouldn't have called it Open Source at the time, but that's what I did when I scanned the works out of the same edition of the book and put them up online as hi-res images and certificates of authenticity which you print and sign yourself.
During the last year I have been doing a lot of design-related projects. I've been working on a reflective bicycle and on lampshades. I have found it really interesting because everyone wants to buy these lampshades, but no one wants to make them. I made an instructable but no one has really done it, people want to buy them, people want the easy way out. We released the instructable with a Creative Commons Attribution (CC-BY) license. Basically, all we want is to say 'Made in the Eyebeam R&D lab', that's all we want. We made a video and blog posts, and sent it out into the world. It’s got 30,000 - 40,000 views - maybe more - I haven't checked. The video explicitly says, 'this is just a video to get it out into the hands of someone who will actually manufacture the lampshades, we are giving it away, make money off us.' But we are having to work very hard to give something away. It's a very strange thing; and this is part of what the talk I'm going to be giving in 2 weeks is about, it’s this notion of having to work hard to give something away. Unless you turn yourself into a business your idea stays as a sort of prototype. Cutting these things [lampshade parts] out on a laser cutter is time-consuming, tedious and totally inefficient. It is great for prototyping but the lampshades need to be die cut. They need to be die cut on a scale of 10,000 at a time and the costs will drop by an order of magnitude. I don't want to do that, I don't even know how to do that. Certainly whether I want to or not, I don't have the skills, I don't know how to get into the distribution channels. But someone must - Ikea, Walmart, Target, Urban Outfitters, whatever. I realise that finding those people is really hard and there might be a little bit of trepidation like, 'Do we have the rights to do this?'
I'm in the process of finishing a design textbook called Digital Foundations with Xtine Burrough. The book is a mash-up of the Bauhaus basic course and the Adobe Creative Suite. So we're taking about all these exercises and principles that form the cornerstone of visual education and design in arts education in the 20th Century to teach 21st Century tools. No one has done this, no one has even considered the way that the colour picker in Photoshop is derived entirely from Josef Albers’ colour theory exercises, and the idea that you can teach both at the same time is super powerful.
We spent (by "we" I mean me and my co-author Xtine Burrough) nine months negotiating the contract because we wanted a Creative Commons license. We got the first Creative Commons license out of Peachpit and New Riders. It is being published by AIGA Design Press. That was a huge accomplishment, it was about trying to explain to these businesses how Creative Commons is not a threat to them, in fact it’s a benefit. So we went through a whole lot of explaining, constantly reassuring and giving them case studies. I need to write a ‘How to’ because we're one of the first people to do this in an adversarial context, even the other people listed as being major Creative Commons authors in this kind of context, in fact, only have Creative Commons license on their online version, which is their manuscript.
One of the central ways we were able to convince them was by showing our partnership with FLOSS Manuals and Adam Hyde. Adam and I have been talking for six or seven months about translating the book into Gimp, Inkscape and the other key Open Source apps. There are these core ideas and it is about separating the ideas and the exercises from the button pushing. So via the Creative Commons license we were able to say, 'Look, we have an immediate partner who wants to expand this idea', and I have to spin it to them in words they understand, i.e. build a brand, win mind share then market share, all this marketing stuff, that's what they understood. We were able to do it. So we are going to start once we finish the actual, real book which I am crazily working on right now. Adam, Xtine and I are going to start figuring out how to translate the book into the Open Source applications, and then (because Floss Manuals is heavily translation based) it will then be translated into Farsi, etc.
DS: So how did the publishers react to the idea that it would be translated for free into different languages? Did they see it as an added value?
MM: Yes, I just kept saying you are not going to get someone to buy the Farsi translation rights, and you are not going to get someone to buy the Open Source translation rights. You are losing nothing, and gaining much. For me the goal of this book has been to change the way design education happens at the introductory level. I teach in a classroom when I’m not here at Eyebeam; it's a computer lab, there are fifteen Macintoshes in it. I get a bunch of nineteen year old students who have never been in a drawing classroom, they have never been in a dirty arts classroom. They have never drawn, and if they have, it was in high school, but they don't have those fundamental visual skills. This is true across the country in these design departments and visual communication departments as they have to spend money on computers, and they have to have places to put them - the drawing classrooms get cleaned out, scrubbed down and turned into a computer lab. So we have lost the location in which we would teach visual skills. What we are trying to do is find a way to bring back that 'introduction to visuality' into a computer class. For me the goal in all of this is to make a change, and I have made it clear to the publisher that's our goal and that it is good for them because it builds their brand, and using the words they understand, building a brand as an educational reformer is a positive thing. When you frame it that way, getting into as many languages as possible, they like it. Realistically they do sell the rights to translate it, they will probably sell a Spanish, German, French and Italian version. If the Chinese want to copy it they are just going to copy it, and I think they would be better off by having some sort of control over it by making it part of the license that allows them to do that.
DS: That's your experience of being a leader in that area. Have you got any experience of being lower down on the food chain?
MM: Yes, I've worked a lot with Drupal. There's a number of roles one can play in an Open Source community. One can be a project keeper and be the head architect type person. One can be the architect of one small little area that the community is working on. One can be someone who does small little bits of coding for those groups and one can be an end user. I have been somewhere in between an end user and a maker in several contexts. I tried to put together a template system for Drupal that was focused on artists' projects, it was a great learning experience. But I was running too many projects at once and it didn't end up coming out the way I wanted it to. I think somewhere on Drupal I'm considered a maintainer of a project that is dormant (laughs). I have also submitted bug revisions and code snippets that correct bugs in current code, and all those parts of being a contributing member/user of an Open Source project. It’s all part of it.
DS: In terms of your own work, do you make saleable pieces of work?
MM: I'm making the first saleable piece of work that I've made in ten years as we speak (laughs). I’m making drawings with a laser cutter that are going to be sold as part of the Rhizome Benefit. They're going to offer them as perks if you give a lot of money, $500 or $1000; I’m not sure the exact price. I'm actually interested, and becoming more interested, in physical objects. There are some laser cutter drawings that I've been working on, that are somewhat saleable. Some of them are based on a font that I made - that I obviously have released Open Source - that is an adaptation of another font. I took Zapfino, it's a really decorative Baroque font that has fourteen hundred ligatures, which has variations, for example if A is next to B it looks different than if A is next to C, it's super crazy. Anyhow, I removed all of the counters - the empty space in the middle of letters like “a” and “o” and “d” - so that it could be stencil-friendly. So I've been making lots of that stuff, and all the drawings I'm releasing I'm going to write instructables for them. All the files are available if you want to mess around with them.
DS: So in the development of that work various elements of it are Open Sourced before it comes to the point of final release. Have you any experience of anybody taking up part of that project, enhancing it and getting back to you?
MM: I've had people make modifications.
DS: And have you then taken those on board for your final work?
MM: Sometimes. There's always the situation where someone was like 'Aah this code's buggy here's a patch', so that's one way. Another time someone wants to make a variation of your plug-in and they cite it as the start of where they went. A lot of people just grab chunks of code from it if I've done some things in my plug-ins that aren't so well documented, but I've figured out ways of doing them. And I guess, to come back to that 'After Sherry Levine' example, you can find aftermichaelmandiberg.com, it’s a perfect copy of aftersherrielevine.com (laughs). So there's a whole variety of things.
Right now I'm working with reflective materials for bicycles. I am working with a couple of fashion designers, a designer called Nikolai Rose, we are trying to make a pinstripe fabric and they are going to cut a suit out of it. And I've been in discussions with a designer named Ethan Benton who has been working with retro-reflective materials. It’s a dialogue, we are working together; Ethan and I shared some ideas but decided that we probably should work on our own projects but share ideas. I'm going to be out in San Francisco and I'm going to talk to these other guys that are doing these reflective pants. With bicyclists you have to roll your pant sleeve up, well, the inside of the bottom of the pant is covered in reflective material, so this part becomes super reflective, and they even have these little things that you slip into your pocket which you pull out, so you get little flaps that are reflective. So there is a lot of information sharing that I think is also really important, it's less hierarchical, less like, ‘I'm going to contribute to your project’, or, ‘I took your project and I made something with it’. It’s more two ways and less one way.
DS: Do you think that would have happened if Open Source didn't exist, or do you think that there have been other structures already invented that encourage people to work in a more collaborative fashion?
MM: I think it is because there is a culture that encourages sharing, the culture of the Internet. It’s a reinvigoration of craft culture that is so strong right now. I think that that frames a context where people are like, ‘Sure, come over - let me show you what I'm doing’. I don't think that any of the people that I'm in that dialogue with, would explicitly use the word Open Source. It comes two steps removed and it has as much to do with crafting and hobbyist-ism and knitting and sewing, as it has to do with computer programming, I think all of that gets channelled through the Internet.