Curling Brooms, Policy, and Provocative Design

The curling world has recently been swept into debate over the role of new brooms. Even outlets such as Yahoo Sports and The Washington Post have reported about it. As a relatively new curler (I started a little over a year ago out of the San Francisco Bay Area Curling Club), and an early scholar studying people’s perceptions of and social effects of new technologies, this struck me as a particularly interesting debate, even if I’ve been watching this from a bit of a distance.

Curling Photo

Curling – it’s that sport played on ice with the rocks and the brooms! (Photo by Peter Miller, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license.)

A quick primer on curling to the best of my ability (World Curling TV also has a great intro video on the sport’s basics for the uninitiated):

In the game, 1 player delivers a rock by pushing it down the ice. 2 other players sweep with brooms to guide the stone down the sheet of ice towards a particular position at the other end. Rocks curl as they travel, moving in an arced path. Sweeping with brooms reduces friction on the ice and makes the arced path straighter. This allows stones to move further and straighter. While sweepers can adjust the path of the rock to some degree, the path the rock takes is predominantly determined by the person delivering the rock. This person must deliver at the correct initial angle and speed, requiring precision and skill.

Old Curling Brooms

These aren’t the (corn) brooms you’re looking for. Unless you’re living in the 1940s.(Photo by Boston Public Library, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license)

The technologies of brooms have changed over time. We’ve moved from classic corn brooms to brooms with horsehair brushes, to synthetic nylon pads (that visually resemble something more akin to a mop or Swiffer). And these pads have improved over time too, with different companies offering specialized designs. For example, the Goldline Norway pad uses a waterproofing layer under the fabric (wet pads are less effective at sweeping), and has small ridges which reduces sweeping friction and help cleans dirt in the rock’s path. The BalancePlus EQ pad reflects more heat back to the ice and are also waterproofed.

Newer Curling Brooms

You’re more likely to find brooms that look like these today. (Photo by Len Adams, used under a CC BY-NC-ND license)

But about a month ago, in early October 2015, a new type of broom pad caused debate and controversy among many in the curling community. Broom pads made by BalancePlus with “directional fabric,” as it has been dubbed, can direct stones in almost zig-zag-like directions with “magical” precision, rather than the normal arced path. This means the precision and skill needed to deliver or throw the rock diminishes greatly. Instead, sweepers can direct the rock almost anywhere they want it to go. While “directional fabric” heads have been available for some time now by other companies, the BalancePlus version took it to a new level, exaggerating the directional qualities available in other companies’ brooms. At the time, there were no formal rules banning the use of these types of brooms. Nor are there many formal rules on equipment players can use in general. There were calls to ban the brooms, many calling them unfair, or not in the spirit of curling. Many top level players signed a statement saying that they would not use the brooms. And on November 6, the World Curling Federation banned the brooms for the Pacific-Asia Curling Championships. Many people speculate more formal rules may be forthcoming, especially given the lead up to the 2018 Winter Olympics.

But one thing in particular really stands out to me. BalancePlus, the manufacturer of these brooms, itself called for companies to stop using directional fabric, calling them bad for the game, and that they “were crafted in order to prove a point about how far curling technology can go and were never going to get to market.” Taking them at their word, it indicates that the design of these heads were deliberately provocative in order to make a point and generate discussion.

Diving into the world of design, this seems similar to Dunne and Raby’s concept of “critical design,” that design can be pushed beyond reinforcing values of consumer culture but instead be used provocatively for cultural critique. The strategy of pushing existing trends to the extreme is one strategy of critical design, also used by BalancePlus.

However, I wouldn’t go as far as calling these brooms as critical design – while intentionally provocative, they don’t go as far as cultural critique. Instead, I would call what they did something more akin to a provocative design intervention, or design provocation, as they do explicitly try to engage in what they see as a potentially troubling trend in curling technologies.

In that sense, BalancePlus’ creation of these brooms with “directional fabric” was a success in provoking and jumpstarting a conversation.

The resulting conversation raised concerns about not only “directional fabric” but the sport of curling more generally. In particular, three ways people talked about the brooms stand out:

  1. The Future of the Sport. Many people note the traction that the sport has gained in the Winter Olympics, particularly with the addition of a new curling event in 2018, Mixed Doubles. The sports’ popularity has also been growing in the US in recent years. Part of this is done by cultivating an image of skilled athleticism in curling – both in the throwing and sweeping of rocks. The ability to easily control rocks through sweeping with directional fabrics diminishes the amount of athleticism needed for both throwing and sweeping. These concerns endanger curling’s growing reputation among a broader outside audience that may already be quick to question curling’s status as a sport.
  2. Fairness is also appealed to in a couple of ways. On one hand, there is an argument about the fairness of skill development. Elite curlers put in years of work to improve their delivery, and these new brooms threaten to make that type of expertise unnecessary. Second, it is about the fairness of games. A team playing with directional fabric against a team without those types of brooms is at a significant advantage: they can make shots that the other team is physically unable to make. The (somewhat heated) response by Hardline Curling, another manufacturer of curling equipment who was already making brooms with something similar to directional fabric, wrote that their brooms are “fair” because anyone can buy them, and it’s not against the curling rules. That is technically true. Curling rules (http://www.worldcurling.org/rules-and-regulations-downloads) on equipment are quite slim, having less than 2 pages on equipment circa October 2015. The main rule is just that “No player shall cause damage to the ice surface by means of equipment…” (And yes, in curling, we take the quality of the ice surface quite seriously). Some people argue that directional fabrics ruin the ice surface, although that is contested as well. However, when people argue that directional fabrics aren’t “fair,” they’re usually not appealing to a technical definition or official rule in regards to fairness, but are appealing toward a different idea of fairness, which brings us to point three…
  3. The Spirit of Curling. Curling prides itself on being a moral and ethical sport. The rulebook is relatively slim. At the non-elite level games are self-called. There are no referees, and players are expected to call their own penalties. It’s a friendly and close knit community. Fairness in this sense goes beyond the rulebook, rather to the social norms of the game and the social norms of the curling community. And in many ways, these social norms are what draw people to curling.

The conversation resulting from the broom contoversy reveals a pretty neat intertwining of technology (brooms), regulation (curling regulations), and norms (the spirit of curling). This is not a pure technical issue about brooms, but a debate that combines the technical issues of the brooms, current and possible future curling rules and regulations, and the norms among the curling community. Technologies, regulations, and norms are not separate entities, but deeply intertwined. And as seen, changes to one can provoke or push on the others. This similar to Jackson, Gillespie, and Payette’s Policy Knot, which looks at the ways design, policy, and practice are intertwined.

Thus, while the “directional fabric” brooms may seem like a scary thing at first, when we think of it as an intentionally provocative and noncommercial design, it becomes pretty cool and does some good work for us. It has highlighted a potentially troubling developing in broom technology and jumpstarted a conversation about how to mitigate these potential problems before they become widespread. In an age where law and policy are often perceived to be “behind” technology development, more design provocations and conceptual designs can be good for starting these types of conversations early on, and for having nuanced discussions. Law and policy aren’t always the things to be “fixed” or changed (though sometimes they should be). Other times however, we may look at ways to change technologies or social norms as ways to regulate in the face of new developments.

Provocative designs can help us anticipate and speculate the ways in which technologies, policies, norms, and people might interact (and react) in the future. And that’s definitely something we don’t want to just sweep away.

DQ: Distributed Trolling, Crime, or Activism?

It may be easy to think of large distributed online groups like 4chan and Anonymous as groups of troublemakers, ruled by a mob mentality. However, Gabriella Coleman’s “Anonymous: From Lulz to Collective Action” provides a more complicated history and study of these groups, noting that they do have social organization and social norms. But what do these groups, along with WikiLeaks, represent in our society? Are they merely fringe groups? Troublemakers? Online cyber-bullies and mobs? Freedom fighters? Political activists? Perhaps because of their distributed nature and wide range of activities, there is some of all of these.

This is a question Vanessa Gringoriadis mentions in  “4chan’s Chaos Theory”, saying:

This is an argument we’re likely to keep having over the next few years: Are Anonymous cyber-vandals or vigorous grassroots protesters? On one hand, Web sites are property, and taking them down is stealing, in a way.

How should we view these groups both as a society, and through the law? Perhaps DDoS attacks are akin to protesting in front of a business, blocking access by amassing hundreds of protesters. How should the law look at these efforts? Has the law caught up to what the internet affords – perhaps our categories of cyber-terrorism and cyber-crime do not fully cover the range of marginal internet activities, and we need “less criminal” classifications for these actions.

In another view, could the protest work of Anonymous be seen as the antithesis to “slacktivism?” They do have very different routes – “slacktivism” based in mainstream open social media, and Anonymous in anonymous action, amongst a smaller set of actors. Perhaps this mirrors traditional activism, which is generally carried out by a smaller set of actors relative to the entire population.

The question we come back to is what do these groups represent, and how can we explain them? Coleman’s brief history of Anonymous points to the fact that an “unruly mob” definition does not really describe them. At the same time,  Felix Stadler  seems to posit that they create an online public sphere, but their numbers compared to all internet users are relatively small, and they tend to skew male. Another question to ask are what ideals are they promoting, especially in their support of Middle East revolutions – they seem to be based in a Western-dominant view that access to more information creates a freer, more democratic society, which may not always be true, such as in examples of Chinese youth having access to Western information, which they use in Chinese nationalistic arguments.

Perhaps for further academic study into these groups, online ethnographic research may be appropriate.

Essay Resource: Lawrence Lessig: Laws that choke creativity

Another TED Talk (I’ve been watching a bunch for a different course).  We already encountered Lessig earlier, and now he discusses user generated content, which is relevant to fandoms and remix cultures.

There’s some history of the music industry and early broadcast, with the ASCAP creating a legal cartel, and BMI using music in the public domain and “remixing” it.

Lessig argues that the 20th century has been mostly a read-only culture, and that the internet, through user generated content, remix culture, and amateur culture (which is not necessarily low quality, but done out of love, not for money), will lead to a read-write culture (which we may have had a long time ago). The importance is that the technology and tools of creativity are now open to everyone with computer and internet access.

Lessig looks at the law and how it has not come along with common sense ideas – that they presume that remix is theft, because remix is a copy, and a copy is theft. Here, he looks at the extremism on both sides – taking down every remix that uses copyrighted material, or trying to give up copyright and ignore it altogether.

Lessig argues for a path somewhere in between. However, he says that government have failed.  He looks to a private solution, and the role of competition. He argues that content creators need to promote their work as being more open (allowing artists the choice of how their music is used), and that read-write culture enabling companies have to embrace it, creating a system of competition between free and not-free content.

Again, Lessig probably has a large body of work and writings on which to draw from that will be relevant to the discussion of fandoms and remix cultures.

http://www.ted.com/talks/larry_lessig_says_the_law_is_strangling_creativity.html

Essay Resource: Charles Leadbeater: The Era of Open Innovation

This is a TED talk by Charles Leadbeater, who discusses open innovation, talking about how the users are producers, as opposed to traditional organizations. The traditional model is of special people and special places (closed) who make content for passive consumers. Now, in a more open organizational form, the consumers also make content. Traditionally, there were limits to consumer interaction, like in newspapers, they could write in a letter or have a comment. But bloggers today don’t want to be journalists necessarily, but be engaged in a conversation. This shows how different actors have different views about the role of who and what participants are, and what their goals are.  This has implications about copyright, digital rights. Perhaps Leadbeater has further literature to investigate also.

 

http://www.ted.com/talks/charles_leadbeater_on_innovation.html

RB: The Historical Relationship Between Star Trek Fan Films and Paramount

In doing some initial research work for my essay on fan culture and copyright, I have looked into the relationship between Star Trek fans who create their own fan films, and how CBS or Paramount (the copyright holders to Star Trek) have reacted.

It seems this has changed over time – perhaps due to the profitability of Star Trek – it seems that the copyright holders were more strict about allowing fan productions in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, when previous Star Trek movies (before the JJ Abrams 2009 “reboot”) were being released and the Voyager and Enterprise series were still online. However, there may also be a relationship over time with a greater prevalence of online fan films, as well as interactions that led to changes and mutual understandings about not profiting from fan films.

According to a 1997 Wired Magazine article, in 1996, at the same time as the buildup to the release of the film Star Trek: First Contact

“Viacom Inc. sent a barrage of cease-and-desist letters to webmasters of Star Trek fan sites carrying copyrighted film clips, sounds, and insignias. Under threat of legal action, many Trekkers shut down”

While at this time, Lucasfilm had a policy regarding fan content of Star Wars fanfiction – that they are not for commercial gain, and protect the “image” of the characters, Viacom did not respond to requests for clarification of their policy at that time.

But by 2005, things had changed, Star Trek Enterprise was off the air, and there were no more movies or tv shows in the works. Wired Magazine profiled a new fan show, Star Trek New Voyages, that continued the original 60’s series. While these are fan productions, Wired noted that

“Each New Voyages episode is produced with the help of a growing network of Star Trek professionals. The makeup supervisor for the new episode…worked on one of the many Trek TV series…The script is by D. C. Fontana, a story editor for the original Star Trek series…And it will star Walter Koenig, the actor who played navigator Pavel Chekov in the original series”

Perhaps this institutional support had a role. But Paramount also had a clearer policy, as according to Wired:

“Paramount permits Trek-related fan projects, as long as the creators don’t profit from them”

Thus, the show was distributed for free, and has survived by labor and cash donations. In 2005, Variety profiled another Trek fan series, Hidden Frontier, also saying that:

“It’s all volunteer; the only reason Par isn’t shutting them down for copyright violation is that they’re scrupulous about not profiting from the series”

By today, as seen on the “Fan Films” section of a major Star Trek news site, there are numerous fan productions being created today and distributed for free. Thus it seems over the past 10-15 years, an environment has been created that allows the proliferation of these projects – perhaps partly to the role of new media and crowd sourcing, new media and new ways for fan distribution, but also perhaps the ability to tap into professional networks and the creation of an understanding (even if not formally written) between the distribution company and the fans.

DQ: Fandoms and Participation

In Chapter 4 from Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture, amongst the topics discussed by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green, are fandoms, and participatory culture, and the nature of the relationship between the fandom culture and the corporate culture that owns the base material. I’ve seen this personally through watching various fan communities.

Star Trek: Phase II Fan Series

One instance is the vast array of Star Trek fan series, made by fans, taking place within the Star Trek universe. Many are high quality and have high production values, the group above even recreated the bridge set from the Original Series. What is interesting is how the copyright holder, CBS, responded – it has allowed the proliferation of these series, as long as they do not make a profit from it, a sort of indirect approval, though not an engagement. However, stakeholders outside of the corporate sphere, such as some actors who had guest roles, or people involved in writing original stories have contributed their services, playing guest roles in some of the higher profile fan series, or even contributing a script that never made it to screen originally.

The Journey to Hawkthorne Video Game, inspired by an episode of Communtiy

Another example is the “Journey to the Center of Hawkthorne” video game, inspired by an animated episode of Community that was animated ala an early video game. Fans came together to develop the concept into an actual game, as a community. As a lurker on their reddit myself, I’ve been fascinated by the organization and interaction of the community members, and the ways in which they participate. They have systems of participation, with tasks for people with coding skills and those without, and just by playing the versions coming out and finding bugs, people are are consumers are also contributing to the community. Likewise, NBC and Sony, the copyright owners have not stopped the project (which is non profit), but neither have they directly approved it. Though some people involved with the show, like writer Megan Ganz, and several of the actors have mentioned the game and tweeted about it.

The question here, is how should media companies respond? They may be hampered by directly encouraging it for legal reasons, but they should use it in some way. Can this value be counted, even if it cannot be directly harnessed, or counted into ratings? How do and how can media companies take the depth of their fandoms into account when making business decisions?

DQ: Search and Personalization

While reading Stalder and Mayer’s article on “The Second Index,” I realized that in my Information Science classes, when discussing search engines, we’ve learned a lot about how PageRank works, but not how personal information is factored in. Is this because those algorithms are proprietary, or do we just not focus on it due to the course material? Does focusing on PageRank make it easier to sidestep the messier social and privacy implications of factoring in personal information within the context of an engineering or programming class?

The other thing about personalized results is that sometimes I don’t want to see only what I want – the ability to metaphorically “browse the bookshelves” is becoming harder as more personalization occurs. There’s an argument that indivduals’ gain greater perspective, and that society gains a common discourse by having certain things in common. For instance, the original YouTube homepage would show the same featured videos to everyone, but now, when logged in, the homepage videos are highly personalized, and I find that they are often within the same little bubble of topics, and I am not recommended new videos outside my small sphere. Does this have economic implications as well as social and cultural ones? Might I be bored with my small circle of videos without seeing anything new and be tempted to leave the service?