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!!

google & alternative search

A preprint of my Society of the Query #2 article has been published in the ITA manu:scripts series. The article is related to the talk I gave at the SOTQ conference in Amsterdam, November 2013. It’s concerned with the ideology of Google and alternative search engines. A final version of the paper will be published in the Society of the Query Reader edited by René König and Miriam Rasch (Geert Lovink as editor of the Institute of Network Cultures (INC) Reader series; spring 2014). I’d like to thank the conference participants, Georg Aichholzer as editor of the ITA manu:scripts series, and both the reviewers of the INC reader and the ITA manu:scripts for their helpful comments and feedback. That’s the abstract:

Google has been blamed for its de facto monopolistic position on the search engine market, its exploitation of user data, its privacy violations, and, most recently, for possible collaborations with the US-American National Security Agency (NSA). However, blaming Google is not enough, as I suggest in this article. Rather than being ready-made, Google and its ‘algorithmic ideology’ are constantly negotiated in society. Drawing on my previous work I show how the ‘new spirit of capitalism’ gets inscribed in Google’s technical Gestalt by way of social practices. Furthermore, I look at alternative search engines through the lens of ideology. Focusing on search projects like DuckDuckGo, Ecosia, YaCy and Wolfram|Alpha I exemplify that there are multiple ideologies at work. There are search engines that carry democratic values, the green ideology, the belief in the commons, and those that subject themselves to the scientific paradigm. In daily practice, however, the capitalist ideology appears to be hegemonic since 1) most users employ Google rather than alternative search engines, 2) a number of small search projects enter strategic alliances with big, commercial players, and 3) choosing a true alternative would require not only awareness and a certain amount of technical know-how, but also effort and patience on the part of users, as I finally discuss.

That’s the link to the full article. I would love to hear what you think about it!

Pics & press coverage from APA eBusiness event

Last week we had a very lively discussion on new media – search engines and facebook – and privacy (see blog post below). Central questions were how these new online services use personal data to create profit, what privacy violations that involves, and how to meet these challenges with (EU) regulations and strategies of digital self-defense. It was a highly diverse, but really interesting combination of people on the round table including Johannes Juranek (CMS), Helmut Waitzer (Navax), Max Schrems (Initiative “Europa gegen Facebook”) und Markus Deutsch (WKO) and me.

© photo credit: APA-Fotoservice/Rossboth

Check out the fotos & press coverage (e.g. APA Science & futurezone) of the event for more information!

Talk at eBusiness Community Event/ APA

Next week I’ll be giving the “Impulsreferat” at the eBusiness Community Event organized by the Austrian Press Agency (APA). I’m already curious how the Austrian eBusiness community will react to my rather critical reflections on corporate Internet services and their business models. Guess it will be fun!

Here’s the abstract of the evening (from the EBC website) and my “statement” for the presentation and the panel discussion that follows (in German):

Privacy: Wie Daten zur Ware und Währung werden.
In etwa zehn Jahren werden digitalisierte Produkte und Dienstleistungen laut Experten weltweit für ein Viertel der jeweiligen Bruttoinlandsprodukte verantwortlich sein. Dieser Trend führt dazu, dass immer mehr persönliche Daten im Netz herumschwirren.

Auf Unternehmen kommen dadurch große Herausforderungen zu: Sie müssen den Kunden wie auch dem Gesetzgeber nachweisen, dass sie für Sicherheit und Schutz der Privatsphäre sorgen. Schärfere Vorgaben in diesen Bereichen könnten den Entscheidern zusätzlich das Leben erschweren.

Aber auch im Privatleben tauchen neue Fragen auf: Wie viele Identitäten, Accounts und Passwörter hat man eigentlich? Wie wird man künftig damit umgehen? Wie komplex ist es inzwischen, sein digitales Leben im Griff zu haben? Welche Szenarien gibt es für den Datenschutz der Zukunft?

Datum: Donnerstag, 26. Juli 2012
Ort: Haus der Musik, Seilerstätte 30, 1010 Wien
Happy Hour: ab 18:30 Uhr
Podiumsdiskussion: 19:30 – 21:00 Uhr, Vortragssaal, Dachgeschoß

Bitte um Anmeldung unter ebc@apa.at

Statement:
Globale Internetriesen wie Google, Facebook und co. spielen eine zentrale Rolle in gegenwärtigen online Praktiken von UserInnen. Gleichzeitig haben diese Akteure neue Geschäftsmodelle geschaffen, deren Grundlage zielgruppenspezifische Werbung; und damit Userdaten und deren Verarbeitung und wirtschaftliche Ausbeutung darstellen. Kommerzielle Internettechnologien können damit als Spiegel unseres kapitalistischen Wirtschaftssystems betrachtet werden. Diese Informationsökonomie hat drastische gesellschaftspolitische Auswirkungen, insbesondere auf historisch gewachsene und kulturell bedingte Bereiche wie Privatsphäre, Datenschutz und Identität. Globale Wirtschaft und lokale Gesellschaftspolitik stehen hier in einem interessanten Spannungsverhältnis. Welche Maßnahmen hier greifen können – von digitaler Selbstverteidigung, Privacy by Design, bis hin zu neuer Gesetzgebung – müssen wir lokal, EU-weit und global diskutieren, wenn wir die Kontrolle über unsere Daten in Zukunft nicht völlig an „den Markt“ abgeben wollen.

Come along if you’re in town!

4th ICTs and Society-Conference 2012 or “marx is back”

Last week I attended an excellent conference in Uppsala/ Sweden organized by Christian Fuchs and colleagues. The conference was concerned with “Critique, Democracy, and Philosophy in 21st Century Information Society” (all conference abstracts could be found online) or “Marx is Back”, as the opening panel suggested. Accordingly, numerous scholars from various disciplines – old and young – discussed Marx, Marcuse, and many other thinkers in the tradition of Critical Theory in the context of new media and Internet technologies. In fact, developing critical theories of social media was the main purpose of the gathering.

Contrary to other Internet-related and social media events, this conference was hence saturated with philosophy, theory and critical thinking. Theoretical papers were mixed up with empirical studies scrutinizing corporate Internet services including big players like Google, Facebook and co., but also alternative technologies such as Diaspora, Crabgrass and others. Issues discussed ranged from user exploitation, commodification of social relations, free labour, knowledge workers, crowdsourcing of surveillance, privacy, data protection, ideologies, capitalist modes of production, creation of surplus value in the digital age, pratices of resistance, revolution, social movements, ethics 2.0, circuits of struggle, the commons, participation, and the long march towards a sustainable, democratic information society.

The line-up of keynote speakers was impressive! I particularly enjoyed the following lectures: by Vincent Mosco, who posed the central question whether knowledge workers will unite and suggested to focus on strategies and tactics for activism. By Graham Murdock, who talked about the privatization of the commons and the promotional enclosure of everyday life. By Charles Ess, who analyzed privacy and collective property in the context of Western and Eastern developments. By Christian Fuchs, who underlined – once again – that Marxian thinking is crucial in contemporary informational capitalism and hence advised Castells and Jenkins to read Marx in order to develop more critical concepts. By Trebor Scholz, who talked about the Internet as playground and factory and pictured us, the users, as “renting the product of our own labour” and demanded hybrid (public/ private) solutions for the future. By Mark Andrejevic, who made us think about the “big data divide”, predictive analytics, and the question who has access to big data (corporations) and who has not (e.g. researchers). By Andrew Feenberg, who conceptualized the Internet as a site of struggle between the consumption model and the community model and suggested (following Marcuse) to “enter the institutions and contest them from within” – whether that would also include entering corporations and contesting them from within remained open though. For the keynote talks I didn’t mention – because I missed and/ or treated them shabbily see Christian Fuchs’ comprehensive article on the tripleC website (Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society).

The parallel sessions were yet not less interesting! (Again, the list won’t be complete since I didn’t attend all of them.) I liked the “Antagonistic Lives of Knowledge Workers” and its discussions on knowledge struggles on web 2.0 platforms  (Brian Loader), affective labour and self-promotion of young academics on Twitter, Blogs & Facebook (Mike Frangos) and Romanian journalism in a digital era (Romina-Gabriela Surugiu). “Surveillance 2.0” featuring an excellent talk on the ideological packaging of ICTs (Heidi Herzogenrath-Amelung and Pinelopi Troullinou), empirical case studies on social media use & privacy in Austria (Verena Kreilinger and Thomas Allmer) and, last but not least, a presentation on theorizing social media policing mentioning amazing – and truly frightning – cases of crowdsourcing surveillance such as the Internet Eyes in the UK (Daniel Trottier). Finally, my own panel “Commodification and Ideology” was really cool; covering, among other issues, time conflicts and global capitalism (Wayne Hope), corporate social (ir)responsibility and its problems (Marisol Sandoval), and the alienated labour of academic publishing (Wilhem Peekhaus). Moreover, I got great feed-back and food for thought after my own presentation on algorithmic ideology including comments on hierarchical features of Žižek’s theory and the need for democratic algorithms and alternative (net) politics – Christian Fuchs would call it Communism, I suppose.

Accordingly, at the conference dinner the Internationale was played and everyone stood up to it. A truly amazing conference, as I said. Thanks to everyone – Christian, Marisol, … – who made this event happen!!! I’ll be there for the next one (assuming there is another ICTs & society conference since there were other events in the past; see once again Christian’s review)! Finally, it was great meeting Ramon Rodriguez-Amat and Katharine Sarikakis from the Communication Studies department in Vienna (let’s unite indeed!!!) & it was fun hanging out with Mike in Stockholm.

“Black Box Suchmaschine” Video Archive

Yesterday we had a great event at the Museumsquartier in Vienna: our “Themenabend Black Box Suchmaschine” (see program below). For those who missed the event and can’t wait to watch it online (or parts of it 😉 ) we archived the video stream here:

Thanks to Axel Kittenberger for the technical support & the stream! & everyone, who participated and made this evening a great contribution to the politics of search, modes of ordering knowledge, privacy and regulation (which triggered a heated debate, as you can see towards the end of the video)..

Finally, René König presented the newly formed network Re:Search – a mailinglist established in co-operation with the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam (Geert Lovink). Subscribing to the list is only the first step, further activities will follow – Blog posts on the Society of the Query Blog, events, a publication hopefully! So stay tuned 😉

“Algorithmic Ideology” accepted by Information, Communication & Society

My article “Algorithmic Ideology. How capitalist society shapes search engines” got accepted by the peer-reviewed journal Information, Communication & Society. It’s gonna be published in the special issue of the OII conference: A decade in Internet Time. Thanks to the editor of the special issue Brian Loader for the (rather quick), but effective review process.

Here’s the abstract:

Algorithmic Ideology. How capitalist society shapes search engines

This article investigates how the new spirit of capitalism gets inscribed in the fabric of search algorithms by way of social practices. Drawing on the tradition of the social construction of technology (SCOT) and 17 qualitative expert interviews it discusses how search engines and their revenue models are negotiated and stabilized in a network of actors and interests, website providers and users first and foremost. It further shows how corporate search engines and their capitalist ideology are solidified in a socio-political context characterized by a techno-euphoric climate of innovation and a politics of privatization. This analysis provides a valuable contribution to contemporary search engine critique mainly focusing on search engines’ business models and societal implications. It shows that a shift of perspective is needed from impacts search engines have on society towards social practices and power relations involved in the construction of search engines to renegotiate search engines and their algorithmic ideology in the future.

Here’s the link to the preprint version (only minor revisions in the final version). Please make sure you cite the journal article, which is online now!!! :) Thx!

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).

& uppsala in may

I just got an email that the abstract for my talk “Defining Algorithmic Ideology: Using ideology theories to understand and critique corporate search engines” has been accepted for presentation at the Critical Social Media/Information Society Conference in Uppsala. The keynote speaker line-up is impressive including Vincent Mosco, Andrew Feenberg, Charles Ess, Christian Fuchs, Trebor Scholz, Ursula Huws talking about “Virtual Work and the Cybertariat”, and many more… I’m sure it’s gonna be an exciting event & I’m glad that I’ll be part of it! :) Also, going back to Sweden in spring will be great! – I hope to see Mike Frangos there too!!! Anyone else? Just drop me a line..

& that’s how I’ll use critical theory to define Algorithmic Ideology:

Corporate Internet technologies like Google, Facebook and co. have been described as mirroring the “Californian Ideology”. Google, in particular, has been interpreted as a paradigmatic example of a company deeply rooted in the economic culture of Silicon Valley with a strong belief in information technology and the free market. While the concept of the Californian ideology helps to understand this newly arising techno-fundamental business culture, it fails to critique corporate search engines and their capitalist ideology. Big, universal search engines should not merely be seen as technical solutions for societal problems, as they often are – most importantly by Google itself – but rather as incorporating a “new spirit of capitalism” (Boltanski and Chiapello 2007) and exploitation schemes that come along with it. Previously, I coined the term “algorithmic ideology” to show how the new capitalist spirit gets inscribed in search engines by way of social practices.

In this paper I aim to define the term algorithmic ideology. Drawing on critical theory I argue that ideology could be a valuable tool to understand and critique the commercial dimension of search algorithms and their power in contemporary society. Following Althusser (1971), for example, I exemplify how the capitalist ideology gets materialized in corporate search engines and algorithmic business models. Through their algorithms corporations like Google exert their power, indoctrinate users, and create desire. By providing their services for free (and collecting user data instead) they extend their hegemony (Gramsci 1971) by attracting and integrating users in their “capital accumulation cycle” (Marx 1867, see also Fuchs 2011). In turn, user communities may be seen as (unconsciously) practicing and stabilizing the capitalist ideology by incorporating search services in their daily online routines and turning to Google & co. for advertising and consumer purposes. This way the “culture industry” (Horkheimer and Adorno 1969) and its ideological superstructure are inscribed in, transformed, and spread through supposedly neutral search algorithms.

This analysis points out how ideology theories could be used to develop a notion of algorithmic ideology encompassing materiality, institutions, and practices anchoring and reproducing contemporary capitalism. Instead of a mere belief in technology and global business, algorithmic ideology should function as an analytical framework to analyze and critique corporate search engines and the social order they perpetuate. Only when understanding how present-day search engines further global capitalism resistance and strategies for achieving alternative algorithms for a mores sustainable and democratic information society could be developed in the future. Whether a “radical repoliticization of the economy” (Žižek 1999) may be a first step into this direction and what role the state could/ should play in this undertaking will be finally discussed.

——————————-//

This research is carried out as part of the project “Glocal Search. Search technology at the intersection of global capitalism and local socio-political cultures”, funded by the Jubiläumsfonds of the Oesterreichische Nationalbank (OeNB).

Althusser, L. (1971) Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses, in: Lenin and Philosophy and other Essays.
Boltanski, L. and E. Chiapello (2007) The new spirit of capitalism.
Fuchs, C. (2011) A contribution to the critique of the political economy of Google, Fast Capitalism 8(1).
Gramsci, A. (1971) Selections from the Prison Notebooks.
Horkheimer, M. and T. Adorno (1969) Dialektik der Aufklärung.
Marx, K. (1867) Capital: Volume I.
Žižek, S. (1999) The Ticklish Subject.