At Museums: Invasion of the Podcasts

At Museums: Invasion of the Podcasts

NY Times, May 19, 2006

PITY the early adapters to the museum audio tour.

In 1958 the National Gallery of Art in Washington embedded transmitters under its floorboards and handed out radio receivers so the electronically inclined could listen to something called LecTour, a recorded guide to the museum’s masterpieces. But the signal sometimes sounded as if as was arriving from Tibet, and unless you caught a lecture at the beginning, you had to wait for it to start over. The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s version, introduced in 1963, was more tractable but a lot heavier. Patrons rented a tape player about the size of a loaf of bread, carried around with a leather shoulder strap.

Over the years the technology improved, and audio tours became ubiquitous. But they are now being upended around the world by something eminently more portable, accessible and flexible: podcasting, the wildly popular practice of posting recordings online, so they can be heard through a computer or downloaded to tiny mobile devices like iPods and other MP3 players. In the spring of 2005, when a professor and a group of students at Marymount Manhattan College made waves by creating their own, unauthorized MP3 audio tour for the Museum of Modern Art, few art institutions were even exploring the idea of podcasting as an alternative to official audio tours, created by companies like Acoustiguide and Antenna Audio.

But in the short time since then, museum podcasts — both do-it-yourself versions and those created by museums themselves — have taken off, changing the look and feel of audio tours at places ranging from the venerable, like the Met and the Victoria and Albert, to the virtually unknown, like the Studebaker National Museum in South Bend, Ind., and the Burlingame Museum of Pez Memorabilia near San Francisco. (“As far as we know,” intones the museum’s co-founder, Gary Doss, on his thoroughly homemade podcast, “this is the only place in the world to see every Pez.”)

The podcasts are making countless hours of recorded information — like curators’ comments, interviews with artists and scholars, and even interviews with the subjects of some artwork — widely available to people who have never visited, and may never visit, the museums that are making the recordings. If, for example, you do not manage to make it to the Met to see Kara Walker’s show “After the Deluge,” you can still hear her talk about it while sitting on the subway or walking down the street.

Smaller museums like Mr. Doss’s are also using the medium as kind of low-budget radio station — findable through iTunes or Internet podcast directories — to publicize themselves and tell their story in a direct, personal, sometimes quirky way. If, for example, you were not able to make it to the Panhandle-Plains Historical Museum in Canyon, Tex., to see its recent show “Sharp Horns, Soft Seats: The Art of Horned Furniture,” you can go to the museum’s Web site,, and listen to the exhibition’s podcast to get a pretty good feel for the museum and for the frontier chic of bison-horn coat racks.

“There are a lot of places out there that are trying to use this as a new way of communicating who they are, and you can communicate differently than you can online, on a static page,” said Robin Dowden, the director of new media initiatives at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, which in addition to podcasting also allows patrons to use their cellphones to listen to exhibition information (as does the Brooklyn Museum for its William Wegman show now on view; patrons dial a number that is provided at the exhibition and then use the phone’s keypad to navigate the tour).

At the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, which began producing podcasts last September, the idea almost from the beginning, said Peter Samis, the museum’s associate curator of interpretation, was not just to create a new kind of audio tour but also to free the audio tour from the confines of the museum.

“We made a conscious decision that this was going to be a kind of audio art zine,” Mr. Samis said. “And we weren’t going to draw any hard and fast boundaries about whether you listened to it in the museum or during your commute.” The museum offers a $2 discount on admission to anyone showing an MP3 player with the museum’s podcasts on it; it is also sponsoring a contest in which amateurs are invited to submit their own podcasts, the best of which will be featured alongside the museum’s.

The museum’s monthly recordings, called “Artcasts,” do feel less like audio tours than like slightly cerebral radio shows you might catch while driving to work. They can run longer than half an hour and in the last few months have featured William Kentridge, the South African artist, talking about one of his works on view; interviews with patrons looking at Chuck Close self-portraits (“It’s amazing how many different ways you can do the same thing,” one viewer said); a cellist performing music inspired by the art of Bruce Conner; and even a breathy reading by J T Leroy, the waifish writer who later turned out to be the creation of a San Francisco woman named Laura Albert.

Mr. Samis said he and his colleagues were still tinkering with the feel of their podcasts, which they want to sound like an “alterative to the tried and true, you might say hackneyed, canonical audio tour.” The podcasts are made with the help of Antenna Audio, Mr. Samis said, but he decided last year against using one of the company’s voice-over professionals because the man’s voice sounded “too official.” Another of the company’s commentators was chosen, with a very National Public Radio polish to his voice.

“It’s still a little bit more than what we want,” he said. “We’re not looking for Mr. Museum Voice. Not Charlton Heston.”

At the Met, which joined the podcasting revolution last year, Philippe de Montebello — as close to Mr. Museum Voice as anyone will probably come and long the sonorous narrator on the museum’s official Acoustiguide audio tours — can still be heard reading Milton on one podcast for a show of Samuel Palmer’s work now at the museum. But the Met is also beginning to add new kinds of voices for the new format.

For its British fashion exhibition “Anglomania,” the museum somehow recruited John Lydon, better known as Johnny Rotten, the former lead singer of the Sex Pistols, for a snarling disquisition on the decline of the British Empire and the rise of punk.

He ends the podcast with a smacking sound and the signoff: “You’ve been kissed by Johnny Rotten.”

Allegra Burnette, the creative director for digital media at the Museum of Modern Art — which began podcasting and offering all its audio-tour programs for free downloading not long after the Marymount Manhattan College unauthorized tour became widely publicized — said that people had downloaded about 12,000 audio pieces from the museum’s Web site since the program began last summer, including 2,000 downloads in the past month alone.

The pieces — created with the help of Acoustiguide — are also being downloaded from iTunes and other MP3 sites, but numbers from those sites are not available, Ms. Burnette said. (For a brief time last summer, before the podcasting phenomenon exploded, the museum’s downloadable audio tours rose to No. 21 on the iTunes list of the Top 100 podcasts in the world.)

“It seems to be catching on, and people are figuring out where to go to find it,” she said, adding that the museum was also considering a plan that would allow MP3 users to dock their devices at the museum to download programs if they did not do so before coming. It is also beginning to dip into its extensive archives of recorded interviews — there’s one from 1962 with Duchamp — to make podcasts of that material available, in conjunction with WPS1, the Internet radio station of the museum’s affiliate, the P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center in Queens.

“Previously you’d have to go into our archives and ask for these kinds of recordings, which only the most dedicated people would do,” said Kim Mitchell, a spokeswoman for the museum. (Some museums’ Web sites provide archives of podcasts and also include some older recorded material, but others do not.)

While museums around the world are now scrambling to distinguish themselves as podcast innovators, it may have been Mr. Doss, the proprietor of the Pez museum, who can claim the distinction of the first American museum podcast. A former computer-store owner, he learned about the technology early on in 2004 and in his home office in the spring of last year he created a 50-minute podcast tour, lovingly describing the collection of colorful candy dispensers that he and his wife have amassed since 1988 and now display in toothbrush racks in a storefront in Burlingame, Calif.

“People who never would have heard about us are finding us because of the podcast,” Mr. Doss said. “And it’s not even really what you might call the most professional podcast.”

“If you hear a kind of a strange ringing sound in the background while you’re listening to it, it’s not a sound effect,” he added. “It’s my cockatoo. I couldn’t get him to be quiet while I was recording, and finally I just gave up.”

As Chinese Students Go Online, Little Sister Is Watching

New York Times

SHANGHAI, May 8 — To her fellow students, Hu Yingying appears to be a typical undergraduate, plain of dress, quick with a smile and perhaps possessed with a little extra spring in her step, but otherwise decidedly ordinary.

And for Ms. Hu, a sophomore at Shanghai Normal University, coming across as ordinary is just fine, given the parallel life she leads. For several hours each week she repairs to a little-known on-campus office crammed with computers, where she logs in unsuspected by other students to help police her school’s Internet forums.

Once online, following suggestions from professors or older students, she introduces politically correct or innocuous themes for discussion. Recently, she says, she started a discussion of what celebrities make the best role models, a topic suggested by a professor as appropriate.

Politics, even school politics, is banned on university bulletin boards like these. Ms. Hu says she and her fellow moderators try to steer what they consider negative conversations in a positive direction with well-placed comments of their own. Anything they deem offensive, she says, they report to the school’s Web master for deletion.

During some heated anti-Japanese demonstrations last year, for example, moderators intervened to cool nationalist passions, encouraging students to mute criticisms of Japan.

Part traffic cop, part informer, part discussion moderator — and all without the knowledge of her fellow students — Ms. Hu is a small part of a huge national effort to sanitize the Internet. For years China has had its Internet police, reportedly as many as 50,000 state agents who troll online, blocking Web sites, erasing commentary and arresting people for what is deemed anti-Communist Party or antisocial speech.

But Ms. Hu, one of 500 students at her university’s newly bolstered, student-run Internet monitoring group, is a cog in a different kind of force, an ostensibly all-volunteer one that the Chinese government is mobilizing to help it manage the monumental task of censoring the Web.

In April that effort was named “Let the Winds of a Civilized Internet Blow,” and it is part of a broader “socialist morality” campaign, known as the Eight Honors and Disgraces, begun by the country’s leadership to reinforce social and political control.

Under the Civilized Internet program, service providers and other companies have been asked to purge their servers of offensive content, which ranges from pornography to anything that smacks of overt political criticism or dissent.

Chinese authorities say that more than two million supposedly “unhealthy” images have already been deleted under this campaign, and more than 600 supposedly “unhealthy” Internet forums shut down.

Critics of the program say the deletions, presented as voluntary acts of corporate civic virtue, are clearly coercive, since no company wants to be singled out as a laggard.

Having started its own ambitious Internet censorship efforts — a “harmful-information defense system,” as the university calls it — long before the government’s latest campaign, Shanghai Normal University is promoting itself within the education establishment as a pioneer.

Although most of its students know nothing of the university’s monitoring efforts, Shanghai Normal has conducted seminars for dozens of Chinese universities and education officials on how to tame the Web.

Nevertheless, school officials were not eager to talk about the program. “Our system is not very mature, and since we’ve just started operating it there’s not much to say about it” said Li Ximeng, deputy director of the school’s propaganda department. “Our system is not open for media, and we don’t want to have it appear in the news or be publicized.”

For her part, Ms. Hu beams with pride over her contribution toward building a “harmonious society.”

“We don’t control things, but we really don’t want bad or wrong things to appear on the Web sites,” she said. “According to our social and educational systems, we should judge what is right and wrong. And as I’m a student cadre, I need to play a pioneer role among other students, to express my opinion, to make stronger my belief in Communism.”

While the national Web censorship campaign all but requires companies to demonstrate their vigilance against what the government deems harmful information, the new censorship drive on college campuses shows greater subtlety and, some would say, greater deviousness.

It is here that the government is facing perhaps its most serious challenge: how to direct and control young people’s thoughts in a world of increasingly free and diverse information. And the answer relies heavily on stealth.

For one thing, interviews with many students at the school’s sprawling and well-manicured campus showed that few knew anything about the student-run monitoring. Even those who had heard of it never imagined that so many students were involved.

“Five hundred members sounds unbelievable,” said a male undergraduate who, fearing official reprisals, asked that he be identified only as Zhu. “It feels very weird to think there are 500 people out there anonymously trying to guide you.”

As they try to steer discussion on bulletin boards, the monitors pose as ordinary undergraduates, in a bid for greater persuasive power.

Even topics that to outsiders would seem devoid of political interest merit intervention. One recent discussion about the reported sale online of a video showing the torture of a cat grew heated. Some urged harsh punishment or even death to the animal abusers, while others said the video should be sold to the Japanese, because of their supposed fondness for perverse material.

At that, several monitors jumped in and began talking about the need to develop China’s legal code to handle such matters.

The monitors do not see themselves as engaging in censorship or exercising control over the speech of others. In interviews with five of the monitors, each initially rejected the idea that they were controlling expression, and occasionally even spoke of the importance of free speech.

“Our job consists of guidance, not control,” said Ji Chenchen, 22, who is majoring in travel industry studies. “Our bulletin board’s character is that of an official Web site, which means that it represents the school. This means that no topics related to politics may appear.”

A classmate, Tang Guochao, agreed. “A bulletin board is like a family, and in a family, I want my room to be clean and well-lighted, without dirty or dangerous things in it.”

In the past, China’s efforts to control the Internet have often foundered in the face of the curiosity and inventiveness of Web surfers, who constantly find ingenious ways to find content that is banned and to discuss controversial topics.

Several students at Shanghai Normal University said they expected the same thing to happen there.

“I don’t think anybody can possibly control any information in the Internet,” said Ji Xiaoyin, 20, a junior studying mechanical design. “If you’re not allowed to talk here you just go to another place to talk, and there are countless places for your opinions. It’s easy to bypass the firewalls, and anybody who spends a little time researching it can figure it out.”

Hoodwinking the censors:Revenge of the nerds

Three computer geeks at the U of T are renowned developers of anti-censorship software, including a program out this month that could allow people to outwit the world’s most repressive regimes
May 7, 2006. 07:16 AM

Looking at them you might not guess it. But deep in a basement room on the University of Toronto campus, three unassuming computer hackers with messy hair and wrinkled T-shirts are working to tear down China’s “Great Firewall,” the most sophisticated Internet censorship system in the world.

They are self-confessed computer “geeks.” They don’t go to the gym much, or see much sunlight. They talk about “routers” and “nodes” and “secure socket layers” like they were saying, “Hello,” or “How are you?”

But the computer smarts of Ron Deibert, Nart Villeneuve, and Michael Hull, combined with their passion for politics and free expression, have led them to develop a highly anticipated software program that allows Internet users inside China and other countries, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia and Burma, to get around repressive censorship and not get caught.

Their innovation is called Psiphon, and it’s being launched at the end of this month.

“It’s enormous,” says Deibert, 41, a nerd-meets-aging-punker kind of guy who directs the Citizen Lab at the U of T’s Munk Centre for International Studies, where the trio work. “If it works the way we hope it does and is distributed worldwide, it will have a huge impact on freedom of speech.”

Others watching Psiphon’s progress agree. “We’ve been trying to circumvent both the firewalls and the censorship surveillance,” says Sharon Hom, executive director of New York-based Human Rights in China. “So it’s something we are very, very interested in.”

Psiphon takes the concept of a third-party computer doing the work yours can’t because of censorship, and protects it by relying on trusted friends and close family, to create a program the creators say is nearly fail-safe.

The program is needed more than ever, as the number of countries that censor or filter the Internet continues to grow. China alone has reportedly spent hundreds of millions of dollars on its Great Firewall, as it’s known outside the country. Thousands of people stand guard on it.

China blocks countless websites, from ones featuring porn to those devoted to Falun Gong, a spiritual movement banned in China. Anything on human rights is off-limits. Same for democracy.

Late last month, the wildly popular website Technorati, which searches the Internet for blogs, or personal Web journals, vanished in China despite the fact that the country has one of the fastest growing blogospheres in the world. A spokesperson for the San Francisco-based Technorati told the Star it wasn’t clear how or why the site was blocked.

So the Citizen Lab taking on powerful censors such as China is a lot like David going into battle with Goliath.

“It’s a huge uphill battle,” Deibert concurs. “The trajectory in terms of global politics is toward greater state control (of the Internet). I see closure everywhere.”

What does Villeneuve, 31, who spawned the idea of Psiphon, think about challenging the likes of China? He puts down his Che Guevara mug and thinks for a moment. He shrugs his shoulders and smirks: “It just seems like the right thing to do.”

The cause of the Citizen Lab is hacktivism. Villeneuve, 31, didn’t invent the term. But he played a key role in defining and shaping it.

Hacktivism is the melding of hacking and social or political activism. Hacktivists have a common enemy, Villeneuve once wrote in The Hacktivist, an online magazine he founded: “the repressive use of laws and technologies by private corporations and governments to increasingly monitor and control the Internet.”

Deibert and Villeneuve found hacktivism in different ways. As a teenager from Vancouver’s east side — the “wrong side of the tracks,” he says — Deibert listened to local punk groups like DOA and watched private eye shows like The Rockford Files. In university, he attended nuclear weapons protests and demanded American warships not pass through the city’s harbour.

He also had a fascination with taking things apart. From amplifiers to motorcycles, it was a compulsion that, upon reflection, seems a lot like hacking to him now.

“Hacking is an important philosophy we need to recover in our society,” says Deibert, now the father of four young children, “because so many systems of control are embedded in technology, most of which we’re unaware of.

“The more we take the screws off and understand how things work, the more we’ll have citizens in control of their lives and the technological society they live in.”

He went to the University of British Columbia and was fascinated by information technology and how it changed world politics. He wrote a book on the subject. He encourages the questioning of authority, of breaking rules for the greater good. He’s proud his students call him the “Hacker Prof.”

The Citizen Lab was born in 2000 out of the Hacker Prof’s need for a space to do cutting-edge work on activism and information technology. But lately it has turned its eye toward censorship. Along with Harvard and Cambridge universities, it takes part in a group called the OpenNet Initiative, or ONI, which calls attention to Internet filtering around the world.

Harvard researches legal aspects of Internet censorship. Cambridge organizes activists in censored countries to do research. Toronto, meanwhile, performs the technical research. It has developed the critical software the group uses to investigate censorship. And of course, it has developed Psiphon.

None of it would have existed without Deibert’s first moves, says fellow Canadian Rafal Rohozinski, director of the Cambridge unit. “He managed to convince a fairly conservative university to look at this and realize this kind of thing really matters,” he says.

The Citizen Lab uses the techniques of spies to secretly deploy software it developed that automatically checks for censored websites inside various countries. Sometimes the lab performs tests remotely, taking control of unprotected computers inside the censoring country without permission. This poses an ethical controversy, but Deibert says it’s for the greater good: “We don’t worry about that too much.”

The Lab even has “black boxes,” mini-sized computers that can be “planted” discreetly inside these countries to run the tests. “This kind of research is illegal in almost every country we do it in,” he adds.

The Lab can also decipher how the repressive countries filter digital information, and which technology they use. It has demonstrated that Iran compels its Internet service providers to do so. China, however, blocks mainly at its borders, where the Internet enters the country, using sophisticated routers. When someone requests a banned site, the request does not get past the gateway. China also requires Internet providers, cybercafés, and websites to filter.

‘If it works the way

we hope it does …

it will have a huge

impact on freedom

of speech’


Director, Citizen Lab, U of T

How does the filtering actually work? Last week, Villeneuve ran some tests to find out how Technorati was being blocked, and it turns out, he says, China is not just filtering out the URL itself,, but the keyword, “technorati,” which will capture any other sites also carrying it.

Even though others are working on anti-filtering software, Deibert and Villeneuve are now known as the foremost experts worldwide. Villeneuve has written a guide for Reporters Without Borders on getting around censorship. In February, he testified before the U.S. congress on China’s system. Says Hom: “They’re watching the watchers.”

Villeneuve, who wears shorts and flip-flops to work, comes from the same neighbourhood in East Vancouver as Deibert, but his anti-establishment streak didn’t come until after high school.

While working at a print shop, he started reading Karl Marx and Noam Chomsky, and when his roommate got a computer, he started roaming around hacker chat rooms. He found out how to extend the hours of their dial-up Internet for free.

He became a fervent anti-globalization activist, and got his first taste of tear gas in 1999 at the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. He started writing about the growing world of hacktivism.

Eventually he went back to college and then transferred to the U of T. There, he took one of Deibert’s classes and wrote a paper on censorship in China. Deibert asked him to join the Citizen Lab. Now, he says, he’s a “programming geek.”

His values still colour his work. “We have a global system that doesn’t value that this technology is being used to undermine people’s human rights, and that’s not a valid concern for the WTO to restrict the flow of trade.”

Hotly debated both inside and outside the Citizen Lab is the morality of North American companies that sell their products to regimes like China. Microsoft has removed controversial bloggers from its Chinese blog-hosting service. Google, which was shut down in China 2002, launched a highly censored version of its service there in January. And information provided by Yahoo to authorities has led to the arrest and detainment of at least one person, journalist Shi Tao. Cisco Systems Inc. and Canada’s Nortel Networks Corp.have also been fingered for selling the network equipment used by Chinese Internet police to filter the Web.

The third member of the Psiphon team, 42-year-old Michael Hull, was hired in January to make the program user-friendly. He’s been writing code ever since high school, when he created a simple program on his first computer to graph an object as it approaches the speed of light. Trained in physics, Hull sold his document encryption company in 2003. “Over the years I’ve been building commercial, private software to solve problems for corporations,” Hull says. “So this is nice because it kind of flips it all around. It’s a way to give back while I have a chance.”

More than a few people view the work of the Citizen Lab, and Psiphon, as important. The ONI as a whole receives funding from several major U.S. foundations that promote peace and democracy, including a recent $3 million from the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago. In addition, the Citizen Lab has received money from the New York-based Open Society Institute, which supports human rights projects and whose patron is billionaire George Soros.

And people are keenly awaiting the launch of Psiphon. “It’s a very important contribution,” says former Beijing resident Xiao Qiang, a long-time activist and now head of the China Internet Project at the University of California at Berkeley.

While it won’t be a silver bullet, Qiang says, Psiphon will be a key tool for the relatively small but highly influential group of outspoken journalists, bloggers and activists inside China who dare to access information from the outside in the hope of creating a more open society.

To understand Psiphon, it’s important to first understand the idea of a proxy.

A proxy is a computer server in a free country such as Canada that a user in a censored country can tap into to access censored information and relay it back to the user. For years proxies have been considered a kind of ladder to cyberspace freedom.

The problem is that in order to use a proxy, you have to know about it. This means the proxy’s IP — a set of numbers that is the computer’s actual “address” on the Internet — has to be publicly advertised. This is usually done on websites and through email. So, it’s only a matter of time before the censors also catch wind and cut off access.

Enter Psiphon.

The program effectively turns anyone’s personal computer into a proxy server. Once the software is installed on a computer in, say, Canada, that person creates a contact list of trusted friends or family members in censored countries and sends his or her IP address to them. No advertising needed.

The censored user then connects to the computer running Psiphon and accesses banned content from there, all unbeknownst to the censor.

Deibert says that Canada and its many diasporas, with links to Asia and the Middle East, is a perfect place from which to build these trust networks.

But Psiphon doesn’t stop there. Unlike most Internet traffic, Psiphon data is encrypted and shoots around the world on a network reserved for secure financial transactions, so a censor cannot see what the person is accessing. And a censor wouldn’t be able to tell a Psiphon request from a MasterCard purchase.

Another benefit is that most other proxy-type anti-censor programs have to be installed, so if a user is being watched, evidence is on his computer for the taking. With Psiphon, the censored user installs nothing, so it leaves no trace.

In the unlikely event a computer running Psiphon is uncovered and blocked, future versions of the program will be able to connect to other computers running Psiphon as backup.

“These initiatives are exciting,” says Michael Geist, an expert in law and the Internet at the University of Ottawa. Any ethical qualms in using Psiphon to circumvent the censorship regulations of a foreign country should be put to rest, he says. “There are international instruments that override even sovereign governments, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.”

But there are possible problems for Psiphon, Geist and others warn.

One is that many people in a place like China are not even aware they’re being censored, says Geist. Even if they are, he predicts, few will make the attempt to get around it. Qiang notes that even young urban males, the greatest beneficiaries of China’s economic boom, are reluctant to rock the boat and risk their wealth.

Hom, meanwhile, says that the “trusted networks” philosophy on which Psiphon is based could be problematic, since trust was a concept shattered during the Cultural Revolution, when even family members were convinced to turn each other in.

No one is under any illusion that Psiphon is the final answer. Countries like China will always try to stay ahead in the filtering game. But the Citizen Lab trio are happy to stay hunkered down in their basement without a view of the outside, running on the fuel of hacktivist dreams of a better world.

“We’re making the Internet run the way it’s supposed to,” says Villeneuve with his trademark little-boy smile. “Because people have broken it.