algorithmic imaginaries & algorithmic regimes

csm_AlgoVis_LupeWelt_01_13c333205fMy new research project “Algorithmic Imaginaries. Visions & values in the shaping of search engines” is online (on the ITA Website)! :) Thanks to Thomas Bayer for his help!

paintby_blck_ju-sm-150x150Further, the short videos on “Algorithmic Regimes” by Felix Stalder & Konrad Becker (World-Information Institute) are online too! The project is called Painted by Numbers, which is a great name I think! All  videos are focusing on algorithmic logics and culture/ politics/ regulation etc. It’s really a great compilation of people and statements on algorithmic power in contemporary society. The videos will be assembled as video installations in art exhibitions. You can watch all of them here.

digital labor & research under neoliberal conditions

There are two exciting events coming up! (Unfortunately at the same time)

The first one is the digital labor conference in NYC organized by Trebor Scholz and his team. It’s taking place at the New School and critically examines emerging forms of labor in digital environments – ranging from crowdsourced mini tasks for a few cents (e.g. Amazon Mechanical Turk) to mundane forms of labor performed by social media users on a daily basis (e.g. Facebook). Here’s the program. I’m on the panel “search, data flows and vertical extraction” and will be part of the final reflections. I’m pretty sure that’s gonna be a cool conference! :)

The second event is a workshop organized by Helga Köcher and colleagues in Vienna. It aims at bringing together researchers interested in exploring and critically examining the growing economization of research practices and knowledge creation. It’s ambitious (utopian) goal is to create an interdisciplinary scientific advisory board for the European Union. In a first step, however, it wants to interest researchers from various disciplines, discuss implications of the neoliberal paradigm in academia, and (hopefully) develop strategies to overcome the dilemma. More information on the workshop here.

This is my written input to support the project, while physically being in NYC:

Publish or perish
I do research on new media (Google & co) in sociopolitical contexts. Capitalist dynamics are central, but the stabilization of “service-for-profile” business models in social practices (our own behavior) too. Similar dynamics may be observed in present knowledge societies. Contrary to data, publications are accumulated; contrary to capital, CVs, projects and jobs are generated – so the hope. Publish or perish has become a familiar expression. Peer-review publications, impact factors, citation indexes dominate our everyday life; especially at the beginning of the career. That is how one gets socialized in an academic system that prioritizes quantity instead of quality. As a consequence, knowledge production gets structured in smaller and smaller, “project-oriented” portions. Implications go right into the heart of the epistemic core of science, but also of our research life. They create a research reality that provides neither security, nor satisfaction. Short-term contracts and the lack of career perspectives fuel the hunt after publications and mechanisms of self-exploitation. But why don’t we step out of the treadmill of an academic enterprise that discharged knowledge and truth long ago? That makes us to accomplices of a neoliberal system oriented towards economic factors and getting rid of surplus workforce? Because we still believe in this system that promises us prizes and professorships if we work hard enough? But aren’t these hopes inherent in the system; part of a competitive society that rewards the strongest (or the fastest quickly packing their stuff to start a job at the end of the world; without heavy luggage such as family or kids)? And what happens if the system fails and doesn’t provide us with gratification for our efforts? Individual risk? I would call that into question. I hope the workshop will help to explore these questions and socialize the supposedly individual risk to some extent.

I’d love to hear what you think about the increasing economization of both research & researchers!!

it’s the network, stupid

Yesterday I was on a panel discussion on surveillance organized by quintessenz and emergence of projects. It was a lively discussion, which left me with more open questions than answers though. Reinhard Kreissl (sociologist of law and criminology) and Markus Kainz (quintessenz, moderator) easily agreed on the bad guys (usual suspects like the state, government, Google, Billa) and identified civic disobedience as an appropriate way to fight surveillance. Practical examples of such guerilla activities were swopping Billa Vorteilscards or defrauding the population census (by reproducing sheets and feeding them with wrong data). Even though I like the idea of creating a critical mass of disobedient citizens to mess with statistics, I think it’s not that easy anymore in times of digital surveillance. Cheating with sheets of paper and swopping discount cards is easy compared to messing with big data and algorithmic logics. The reasons for that are multiple:

First, digital surveillance is almost seamless. As Markus put it: “We are surveilled not once or twice, but various times”. Combinations of data from cell phones, surveillance cameras, credit cards, and digital tools like search engines and social networks make it hard to escape from your own data body. The data points we leave are simply too many and too heterogeneous. Here, I agree with Manfred Kreissl: “We are leaky containers”.

Second, most individuals do not have the knowledge and technical know-how to mess with such complex digital networks. And why should they? Most people, the majority, most probably, is pretty happy with how things are. They get discounts with their Billa card, they get free – and pretty good – online services from Google & co, they have become used to or even grew up with extensive surveillance and advertising so that they don’t care anymore. That does not necessarily mean that people agree with all these data collections, it just shows that people take on a pretty fatalistic attitude in their daily lives. And yes, some people don’t care at all or simply like contemporary consumer culture – just like one of my interviewees, working in human design and engineering, phrased it: “I think the driving force behind this information economy is our, kind of, probably, possibly a little bit unhealthy desire to just keep consuming, and communicating, and producing at such a frenzy rate.” (Mager 2012: 10)

And, finally, even if people are discontent with the current surveillance state, why should it be the responsibility of the individual to fight a system that even politics and regulations seem to face with powerlessness? And how could we even step out of these powerful networks of surveillance? A quote by Scott Lash came to my mind when cycling home from the discussion: “The point that this book has tried to make is that we can no longer step outside of the global communication flows to find a solid fulcrum for critique. There is no more outside. The critique of information is in the information itself.” (Lash 2002: 220). Lash’s Critique of Information may be seen as an explanation for the digitization of political action. Even politics has become a matter of mouse clicks. Signing an online petition, liking a political group, sharing a critical initiative, all that is political engagement these days. The good thing though, and I think that’s something we should not forget, is that also new social movements are emerging from these activities, Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring (whether successful in the end or not), or Uni Brennt have (also) been organized online and have ended on the streets.

So what I’m trying to say, I guess, is that things are more complicated than they seem at first sight. Of course, surveillance states, Google, Billa and other players are spying on us and (ab)using our data and that’s bad. No doubt about that. Blaming them, however, is not enough in my view. Rather, it’s important to understand power relations and dynamics that are stabilizing them. Political decisions, media debates, but also our own behavior that is essentially feeding their power. Only then proper ways out may be found. Ways out that may even be digital. Times have changed since 1968 and so have we.

image © http://commons.wikimedia.org
Lash, Scott (2002) Critique of Information, London: SAGE
Mager, Astrid (2012) Algorithmic Ideology. How capitalist society shapes search engines, Information, Communication & Society, 1-19

become a data dealer

This is a great project! The online game DATA DEALER playfully deals with practices of user profiling, sellout of private data, privacy violations and all the other issues companies like Google, Facebook and other for-profit IT companies raise with their advertising-based business models. In the article Algorithmic Ideology I’ve shwon that the power of search engines (and social media platforms, &&&) is enacted and stabilized in a complex network of actors and social practices. I’ve argued that it’s not enough to blame Google (and other companies) for making profit and having gained a quasi-monopolist position on the internet market. Rather, it’s important to understand how various actors including programmers and business men, but also policy makers, journalists, jurists – and last but not least – users help to stabilize its powerful role by simply using their services and contributing their data to the sophisticated caplitalist accumulation cycle. Accordingly, critically examining and debating business models and practices of Google, Facebook & co is a valuable first step on the long road towards a better understanding of new media services and, ultimately, a change of existing and future practices, products and privacy settings. The reform of the EU data protection law, for example, is a long and winding endevour. Playing, supporting, and sharing DATA DEALER, on the contrary, is a quick move enabling us to think about and raise awareness on the matter. And it is fun too!

If you wanna join the undertaking go to their website, watch their video trailer, install the demo version or donate money. They’ve managed to raise $50 000 via crowdfunding just recently. I’m sure they’ll manage to create an awesome – non-profit (!) – online game! Good luck!!!

net politics convent

Before I took off to Greece (two weeks of internet absence – yay!!!) I participated in a net politics convent of the Austrian civil society organized by the World-Information Institute, Vienna (participants from activist groups, research institutes, arts & culture, technology experts, engaged citizens; supported by servus.at). The primary aim of the gathering was to formulate claims in the context of net neutrality, data protection and privacy rights, open data and open knowledge and, finally, copyright. The claims are directed to Austrian politics. The time is right now since all parties have started campaigning for the elections in fall. Net political issues should be part of their strategy! And there is much to discuss as the vivid debates at the convent have shown! It was not easy, but we finally came up with three straight claims per issue that are summarized below (in German). For more in-depth information on and discussion of these claims go to the convent’s website. If you wanna support our claims, please sign the petition here and share it widely – via Facebook, Twitter or old-fashioned email and word of mouth!

Netzneutralität

  • Gleiches Internet für alle!
  • Das Netz muss öffentlicher Raum sein!
  • Keine Überholspur für Großkonzerne!

Datenschutz und Recht auf Privatsphäre

  • Privacy by Design!
  • Durchsetzungsfähige Behörde für Informationsfreiheit und Datenschutz!
  • Entbündelung von Datenmonopolen!

Offene Daten und Offenes Wissen

  • Transparenzgesetz und Öffnung der Datenbestände des öffentlichen Sektors!
  • Freier Zugang zu wissenschaftlicher Forschung und Produktionen aus öffentlichen Mitteln!
  • Freie Verfügbarkeit von Lehr- und Lern-Unterlagen öffentlicher Einrichtungen!

UrheberInnenrecht

  • Ausweitung der freien Werknutzung (z.B. Remix) bei entsprechender Vergütung!
  • Stärkung der Position der AutorInnen durch UrheberInnenvertragsrecht!
  • Kürzere Schutzdauer, mit Verlängerungsmöglichkeit durch UrheberInnen!

verfassungsklage.at

I just filled in, printed, signed and sent out the online form provided on the website verfassungsklage.at (initiated by AKVorrat & the Austrian Green Party). It should help to topple the data retention law by bringing it to the Austrian constitutional court. This may not necessarily bring down data retention in the whole European Union, but it’s a first step. The more countries resign from the law, the more likely the EU will reconsider this terrible law, which severely intervenes in fundamental rights. If you agree that Austria should follow the countries Germany, Czech Republic, Bulgaria and Romania in bringing down the law, then quickly go to the website and follow the instructions:

unlike us #2 amsterdam

And yet another pretty cool event I’ll attend in March (8-10); without presenting though. It’s the second event of the Unlike Us Network initiated by Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures/HvA, Amsterdam) and Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Limassol). It’s supposed to bring together artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers who work on ‘alternatives in social media’. That’s how the event is described on the network cultures institute website:

Unlike Us 2 will focus on the concept of free exchange and the commercial exploitation of online social relationships which lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism. In addition to speakers addressing this theme a range of alternative social media projects will be showcased. Facebook makes everyone believe There Is No Alternative, but Unlike Us dares to differ. – I’m curious about that!

Confirmed speakers and presenters: David M. Berry (UK), Frederik Zuiderveen Borgesius (NL), Philipp Budka (AT), Thomas Chenesau (FR), Jodi Dean (USA), Carolin Gerlitz (UK), Seda Guerses (TR/BE), Spideralex (ES), Anne Helmond (NL), Eva Illouz (IL), Walter Langelaar (NL), Ganaele Langlois (CA), Carlo v. Loesch/lynx (DE), Caroline Nevejan (NL), Arnold Roosendaal (NL), Eleanor Saitta (USA), Max Schrems (AT), Elijah Sparrow (USA) and James Vasile (USA).

goodtosee #10: unlike us & disobedient data bodies

A new network initiative has been circulated in mailing lists over the past couple of days. It’s called “Unlike Us. Understanding social media monopolies and their alternatives” (Concept: Geert Lovink (Institute of Network Cultures/HvA, Amsterdam) and Korinna Patelis (Cyprus University of Technology, Limassol). Its critical approach to social media definitely deserves a #goodtosee blog post! The central aim of the initiative is to establish a network of artists, designers, scholars, activists and programmers who work on ‘alternatives in social media’. Planned are a series of events, a reader, workshops, online debates, campaigns etc. By pursuing these initiatives Unlike Us intends to both analyze the economic and cultural aspects of dominant social media platforms and to propagate the further development and proliferation of alternative, decentralized social media software, as may be read on its website. In doing so it wants to go beyond the culture of complaint and ask overarching questions about how to tackle fast-emerging monopoly powers:

Without falling into the romantic trap of some harmonious offline life, Unlike Us asks what sort of network architectures could be designed that contribute to ‘the common’, understood as a shared resource and system of collective production that supports new forms of social organizations (such as organized networks) without mining for data to sell. What aesthetic tactics could effectively end the expropriation of subjective and private dimensions that we experience daily in social networks? Why do we ignore networks that refuse the (hyper)growth model and instead seek to strengthen forms of free cooperation? Turning the tables, let’s code and develop other ‘network cultures’ whose protocols are no longer related to the logic of ‘weak ties’. What type of social relations do we want to foster and discover in the 21st century? Imagine dense, diverse networked exchanges between billions of people, outside corporate and state control. Imagine discourses returning subjectivities to their ‘natural’ status as open nodes based on dialogue and an ethics of free exchange.


The kick-off event will take place in Limassol (Cyprus) and focuses on how the facilitation of free exchanges and the commercial exploitation of social relationships, which lie at the heart of contemporary capitalism, belly social media (23 November 2011). For more infos on the kick-off meeting go to this page or subscribe to their mailing list.

I’m really happy to see a more critical approach to social media and will most certainly follow their activities! The questions they pose are highly relevant in an age of monopolist, for-profit internet technologies and go far beyond social media. Similar claims could – and should – be made about search engines, as I discussed in my recent article “Algorithmic Ideology“. The initiative Unlike Us further nicely relates to discussions we had at the Symposium Knowledge Machines between Freedom & Control in Hainburg (see also this blog post), where we arrived at similar questions and the need to think about and work on alternative technologies accountable to “the common” rather than monopolist companies making profit with our content and data. If you feel the urge to articulate your discomfort and complaints about Facebook, Google & co. and their privacy policy & business models you are more than welcome to contribute to the manifesto we created as part of the Hainburg event. It’s titled “Disobedient Data Bodies” and may be found here. Enjoy reading it, sharing it, continuing it, or adding some fancy background image since it’s still a little plain & white for a manifesto, as you can see below 😉 – both German & English texts are welcome!

goodtosee #6: netpolitics in practice

I do really like when netpolitics turns into an actual practice, such as the one I’ve just recently learned about in my firefox browser. It’s called Make Your Mark and encourages people to leave a mark to show “support for a people’s web”.

The project is a collaboration between the non-profit organization Mozilla and Evan Roth, an artist and researcher investigating the intersection between free culture and popular culture. Further, the project is supported by the open net advocate Lawrence Lessig. By making your mark you are indicating that you also believe that (according to their website):

The Web is an integral part of modern life.
It is an educator, a communicator, an entertainer, an inspirer, a collaboration of all our creative efforts.
It sparks movements and enables us to share our ideas, our thoughts, our dreams.

The Web is our creation.
We are all contributors, the ones who use the Web every day.
And all the comments and uploads we make add up to something bigger.
This is why we believe that the Web must remain open and accessible to all.

Mark Up is a celebration of that freedom.
Each person’s mark is an individual expression on a continuous line symbolizing solidarity.
It is a declaration and a chance to show your support for a people’s Web.

So if you identify with that then leave a trace on the web, as I did (maybe an even more creative one 😉 ):

Another really great example of netpolitics in practice is the Firefox add-on: Track me Not. This application was created by Daniel C. Howe, Helen Nissenbaum and Janoss and helps you to protect yourself from surveillance and data-profiling by search engines. It does so by irritating search engines such as Google by creating noise and obfuscation.

Practically, this means that the app sends random search queries to search engines such as “Muddy River uses” – the one that’s displayed in my own browser right now. You see, it’s not only useful, it may also be highly entertaining given the stupid queries it sends 😉 More info and download here. Because using the web and getting exploited by big Internet companies must not necessarily be the same, even though it is often case unfortunately..


goodtosee #4: “take action” digital grassroots initiatives/ Germany

I came across a couple of really interesting grassroots initiatives in the context of net politics recently, which I’d like to share today. In the course of the annual re:publica conference (Berlin, 13-15 April) quite some net initiatives have been launched in Germany. First of all, the Blogger Markus Beckedahl from Netzpolitik.org and others have created the non-profit association “Digital Society”. Its main goal is to launch critical campaigns concerning issues such as data privacy or the widely debated law on Vorratsdatenspeicherung (data retention). If you’re interested in this newly constituted association you might want to watch the interview with Markus Beckedahl on the re:publica channel here (in German):


– Amongst other interviews such as the one with Maxwell Salzberg, the founder of the social networking platform Diaspora (see also blogpost goodtosee #1). Concerning Vorratsdatenspeicherung I also recommend to check out Florian Klenk’s blog post “Bringt dieses Gesetz in Brüssel zu Fall” or the Facebook group “Stop Vorratsdatenspeicherung“.

Moreover, Wolfgang Sander-Beuermann from the “SuMa-eV, Verein für freien Wissenszugang” (see also this blog post) has formulated a proposal against the increasing “dominance of the Internet by global online companies”, as may be read on the SuMa-Ev Website (in German again):

Google im Bereich der Suchmaschinen, Facebook bei den sozialen Netzwerken und Apple im Musikgeschäft sind die Symbole einer zunehmenden Monopolisierung des Internets. Die Idee einer offenen Plattform, einer Agora, auf der sich die Bürgerinnen und Bürger des globalen Dorfes treffen und austauschen können, ist durch die zunehmende Monopolisierung und Segmentierung bedroht. Gerade in Bereich der Suchmaschinen droht hier die Balance zwischen Öffentlichkeit und privaten Unternehmensinteressen außer Tritt zu geraten.

He put forward his suggestion to the newly installed Enquete Commission “Internet and Digital Society” of the German Bundestag. If you would like to support this initiative you can vote for it here:

Finally, the book “Datenfresser. Wie Internetfirmen und Staat sich unsere persönlichen Daten einverleiben und wie wir die Kontrolle darüber zurückerlangen” by Constanze Kurz (Chaos Computer Club) and Frank Rieger may be interesting to read. It treats an increasingly important issue, the collection and commodification of our data by Internet companies, but it also seems to go beyond that by showing us ways to protect ourselves. That’s the impression I got from their website at least.. I guess I’ll order it soon. If you come across similar, or also different initiatives, – please do post them in the comments! I’m sure there is more out there, also beyond the German border hopefully! (What about Austria or Sweden?)