Sunday, February 22, 2009

Documentaries and ethics

We watched "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room" last night. While it was certainly damning, and infuriating to watch these con men smoothly invoking moral rectitude while they stole hundreds of millions of dollars and manufactured the California electricity crisis, I found the film disappointing. Although it showed many people talking about the scams and frauds and the crooks who perpetrated them, it didn't really explain them. Mostly it said, in effect, bad things were going on, it was all about manipulating the stock price, it was a house of cards, the people were sneaks and liars, etc., but never gave clear explanations and descriptions of what they really did and how the frauds really worked. That was left to extrapolation or perhaps assumed background knowledge.

Obviously the filmmakers and their informants knew the subject matter intimately, but they did not translate that knowledge into terms the uninitiated could clearly follow. The feelings of outrage come across, but not the substance that underlay them. As viewers we see a lot of bad people doing bad things but we never really get brought into what those bad things were made up of. You're just supposed to know already, or be content not to understand but let your feelings be plucked regardless. You're left with a sense of anger and a (probably healthy) skepticism at the statements and public posturing of ostensible titans, but not tools with which you might interpret events for yourself, beyond the emotional level.

Michael Moore's films also disappoint for a similar reason. He takes a lot of cheap shots at his targets, making them look bad through filmmaking trickery (this is not to say that I don't agree with his ideas, in large part I do). He's very effective at making people look like crooks and charlatans, but not in enabling viewers to see what is going on for themselves.

Documentary filmmakers have a responsibility to get their subject matter across in ways that help viewers think and understand, not just get angry or condemn. When they fail in this dimension, the films sink down into manipulation. To me that is an ethical lapse that detracts from the effectiveness of the social concerns that such filmmakers undoubtedly possess. The films become more about entertainment -- giving you an emotional experience -- than about giving you tools to develop insight. Not that this is easy to do -- it isn't. But to take the stance of the social documentarian, in my mind, requires taking on this dimension as well.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

The big news

I've been neglecting this blog for a while, so it's fitting that the first post of 2009 should announce the BIG NEWS: Compendium will now be true open source, under the LGPL license. This is something that Simon and I have been working toward for a long time, slowed by the inherent inertia of huge institutions concerned with larger matters. But the stars aligned, good people helped, and the right thing has at last happened. There are a number of people to thank but they probably would not want their names broadcast, so I'll just say that if you read this, you know who you are, and you have my deepest thanks.

I fondly hope that legions of open source aficionados will now build out many of the features and capabilities that Compendium still lacks, unfettered by the chains of our heretofore insufficient source code license. Ye have no excuse, now. The enhancement requests on the support site lie waiting for your perusal. Contact me, or us, if you want to discuss anything.

In smaller news, it's funny that the membership of the Compendium Institute yahoogroup seems unable to break the 1300 barrier. Despite 5-10 new members a week, we've been hovering in the low 1290s for months. Why is this?

I'm looking forward to spending the week after next in a deep dive into the research, which I've only been able to steal a few minutes here and there for since December. Beyond working through the Ames and Rutgers analyses, I've had to let some good publication opportunities lapse because there has simply been no time apart from regular work to devote to them. Not complaining, the work has been absorbing and, within its context, important, but it has left little time for anything else. From time to time I think of connections between my "day" job in software usability and my other life in Knowledge Art, but have not had time to come up with anything profound to say. Perhaps something will occur while sipping Delftian coffee the week after next.