Monday, October 19, 2009

Bi-Weekly Interview: Mushon Zer-Aviv, Designer, Teacher and Media Activist

Mushon Zer-Aviv is a designer, teacher and media activist from Tel-Aviv. He teaches new media research at New York University and open-source design at Parsons The New School for Design. Mushon's work explores media i n public space and public space in media. He is the co-founder of, an open-source brow ser plug-in for annotating the web. His other ventures include, a foxy design studio, and Kriegspiel, a computer game based on Guy Debord’s Game of War. Mushon is also an honorary resident at Eyebeam, the New York based art and technology center.

Comm Club’s Lynn Burke sat down with Mushon Zer-Aviv so that we could all learn more about him, his work, and open source:

I suppose a good a question to start with is a basic one. So, what exactly is open source?

Open source is a production method for software-based projects. The heart of it is that the information is openly available and collaborated on. When people are sharing their music under creative commons sites, that doesn't make it open source. But if they made a platform that would allow them to collaborate on it, that’s closer to the realm of open source.

Open source platforms seem beneficial to everyone. Do you think it's ever going to catch on?

It has already caught on. Most of the technology we use online is open source. You're already using it. Most website servers are running on Linux and Apache, which are open source technologies.You don't know about it because you don't necessarilyneed to know about it. But, we wouldn't have had the web and the culture that we have today if it wasn't for open source. If you're editing or using Wikipedia, you're directly affected by open source.

What are the similarities and differences between ShiftSpace and Wikipedia?

Wikipedia is has two aspects of open source: 1. It's open sourcing the creation of knowledge by having an interface of collaboration on that knowledge and 2. The software Wikipedia is using is open source software.

What we're doing with ShiftSpace is different because even though it's true that people can come and edit content, we're more interested in people coming in and deciding what interfaces to use on the sites that they're browsing.

It's not about content as much as it is about the interface. Even in the case of Wikipedia, the content is widely constructed through interface. So, we admire the Wikipedia project and the question that it's asking. We're just asking different questions. Even before we question content, we have to question interface.

How is ShiftSpace funded?

First of all you're assuming we are funded. A lot of the development around open source and ShiftSpace is not funded. In the past year we've been introduced to MoMA (The Museum of Modern Art). They were in the process of a site redesign and saw our work. They were looking for some sort of social media vendor and asked us if we could do stuff for their website.

So we looked at our code and saw that we didn't just create a plug-in environment, we also created a social application platform. We can use that technology to create other interfaces, and not necessarily just a plug-in.

That's the kind of business model that we hope to explore. We are still working with MoMA and are on phase two of the interface, which should be live soon. We're just fixing a few more bugs.

What kind of role do you think the internet and digital media has played on art and what kind of role do you think the internet is going to play in the future of traditional art?

I think the questions we are interested in don't really revolve around art; instead, they revolve around the wider perspective of culture. In the case of MoMA, what's interesting is the idea of sharing intellectual property. MoMA is a great museum and we enjoy working with them. On the other hand though, it has a very bureaucratic system. They have a legal department that makes sure every piece of art in the collection has specific licensing. Therefore, there's only so much you can do with an image on the Internet.

For instance, MoMA came to us wanting to have a Facebook feature, which we are now working on. But the issue is that due to licensing, art pieces are only legally allowed to be shown on MoMA’s website. Art pieces are not even allowed to be shown as thumbnails on Facebook, as that would be an infringement of the intellectual property of the artist. When you're putting art (or anything that has strong intellectual property issues) online, you're bound to run into these questions.

Our work, especially when it's focused on social media, is really challenging the way MoMA and other places like it are thinking about what and how things can be shared.

What advice can you give students looking at careers in web design or new media?

Install Firefox. That's the number one tip I can give to anyone looking to do Web stuff. Basically, what's exciting about a lot of web technology is that it is open. Whatever you are looking at on your web browser, you can inspect and learn how to do.

I am teaching a class called Open Source Design at Parsons. At the beginning of the semester I tell my students we are doing to learn HTML, CSS, WordPress, and much more. But the catch is, I'm not going to teach you. And it’s not just that I won't be teaching them, it's that I don't even know it!

We learn it together because we have all of the tools to do so from the web itself. If you have the patience, you can teach yourself all about technology. That is the one truly revolutionary thing about the Web: everyone can learn.

Edited by Sara Saldi


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