politics of icts

For all STS people out there! My colleague Doris Allhutter and I are organizing a panel for the STS conference “Critical Issues in Science and Technology Studies” taking place in Graz (Austria) next year (5-6 May 2014). Our session focuses on the “Politics of ICTs” since we think that’s an important issue for STS scholars! Now we’re hoping for interesting papers concerned with tight entanglements between ICTs and politics/ socio-political cultures/ practices/ discourses and identity – that’s where you come into play! 😉

Further details on the abstract, deadline (31 January 2014), conference venue etc. may be found here. That’s our call for papers:

— Special Session 7: The politics of ICTs
(Doris Allhutter & Astrid Mager, Institute of Technology Assessment of the Austrian Academy of Sciences)

Information and communication technologies (ICTs) emerge along with hegemonic discourses, socio-political cultures, everyday practices and identities. Search engines, social media, wikis, open access portals, semantic software, surveillance tools, and code in a wider sense, are created not only by programmers and technical people, but also negotiated in wider society. Policy makers, law, media discourses, economic rationales, cultural practices, computational infrastructures and algorithmic logics are all taking part in the negotiation of ICTs. At the same time, they also create, stabilize and change cultural meaning, socio-political relations and materiality. ICTs and social power relations thus co-emerge.

Our panel welcomes both theoretical and empirical papers on practices of software design, power relations and material dimensions, socio-political implications of ICTs. Topics of interest include but are not limited to:

•          How are ICTs negotiated in design practices and wider socio-political frameworks?
•          What actor-networks, practices and arenas are involved in the creation of ICTs?
•          How are norms, values, and hegemonies inscribed in algorithms, code and software?
•          How are power relations enmeshed in such infrastructural materials?
•          What politics (e.g. gender relations, race biases, commercial dynamics, ideologies) do ICTs carry?
•          How can we investigate the micro-politics of artefacts?
•          What social, political, economic, cultural implications and challenges do ICTs cause?
•          How can we open up, investigate and renegotiate the politics of ICTs?
•          How can we work towards value-sensitive design and responsible innovation in ICTs?

society of the query #2

The society of the query conference (Amsterdam) has sadly come to an end. It was a truly great event! Thanks to Geert Lovink, René König & Miriam Rasch for having made it happen! For all of you who missed the exciting discussions on the Google domination, search beyond borders (China, India etc.), artistic projects, search in context, the dark side of Google, or the filter bubble: there’s quite some material circulating online, e.g. abstracts to all sessions & talks, blog posts of all talks, links to alternative search engines, loads of pictures, and, finally, there should be videos of all talks coming up soon, so stay tuned! & here they are!

I was in the Google domination session btw together with Dirk Lewandowski, Siva Vaidhyanathan, and René König (moderator); talking about big search and its alternatives, which was fun :)

Society of the Query #2

photo credits: society of the query (Martin Risseeuw)

momentum13. technology & regulation

Last week I had the pleasure to take part in the Momentum13 symposium. Momentum is a conference series that aims at bridging the gap between the sciences and politics. Initiated by the EU politician Josef Weidenholzer and Barbara Blaha its main purpose is to integrate critical research, leftwing politics and practical experience to think about issues such as “progress”, the motto of this year’s conference. The 3-day event was organized in tracks focussing on various topics including gender equality, social movements, arts & culture, the future of work and politics, and technology & regulation – the track I moderated together with fukami; partly on a huge terrace by the lake with a decent glass of wine.. thanks for that! :)

In our track we had heated debates on small technical details such as internet ports and exploit regulations and big societal questions relating to privacy, democracy and the future of the internet. But these two aspects, of course, closely relate to one another. Seemingly small technical decisions on the legitimacy or illegitimacy of a particular piece of code have largescale political consequences in terms of IT security and the stability of infrastructure we’re using day by day. And vice versa, broad societal developments and power relations influence the construction of information technology and the way the internet looks today. In a capitalist age for-profit companies like Google, for example, figure as central driving force in terms of technology development. The integration of more and more services in the web browser, for example, results in a black-boxing of technology. The less you understand your tools, the more dependent you are on their creators. Or, as fukami put it: “If you can’t break it, you don’t own it”.

This, however, causes a couple of questions: Do we all need to learn programming to use the computer? (or how else would we be able to “break it”?) Or isn’t it the role of politics and law to set limits where limits are needed (e.g. data protection and the exploitation of user data by big US-American companies) and to protect us from harmful technology? Or is that an illusion in post 9/11 societies where extensive surveillance has become a central interest not only of companies, but also of nation states around the globe? And what can we do about all that? How can we regulate Google, Facebook, Twitter and other tech companies that increasingly shape our information universe, social relations, and political discourses, as we’ve seen in our track in presentations on Twitter politics and data journalism? What role can technology funding play in regard to the steering of information technology? How can we make legal practices more transparent or measure – and promote – open data strategies; or “open everything”? What kind of copyright is feasible in times of file-sharing platforms and how can data protection be secured in companies aiming at full-scale observation of employees? How can we manage risks? Those types of questions were discussed in our track. However, those are also the types of questions that future decision-making processes in the field of technology and society will be concerned with. Negotiations of the new EU data  protection law, for example, will serve as an interesting test case for future technology development and socio-political agendas. How this negotiation process will end remains to be seen. That both lobbying on parts of internet businesses and the NSA scandal will be crucially influencing the reform process seems to be clear by now. Or, to cite fukami again, “we should thank Snowden” since his leaks have not only shaken up civil society, but EU policymakers too (hopefully!).

Our track discussions were accompanied by good food and great evening events, such as the keynote by Robert Pfaller or the book-reading by Kathrin Passig. Unfortunately, I missed the huge party that took place Saturday night and the Sunday evening matinee. But I’m sure that was fun too! Next year’s conference will be focused on “emancipation”. I highly recommend going there! (and not only because of the scenic location). More information can be found on the Momentum website (including info on the journals Momentum Quarterly and Momentum Policy Paper).

society of the query

I’m happy to announce that the Institute of Network Cultures will be hosting another Society of the Query event in Amsterdam, November 7-8 2013. I’m even happier that they asked me to present some of my search engine work there :)

For those who haven’t heard of the Society of the Query events yet, I recommend their collaborative research blog on search. The blog was originally initiated in the course of various search engine events including Society of the Query 1, Amsterdam 2009, and the Deep Search conferences in Vienna, 2008 & 2010. It was – just recently – re-activated by René König, who was also involved in the conference planning. Thanks René, I hope to see you in Amsterdam!

momentum 13

I’ve been invited to moderate the track “technology and regulation” at the Momentum 13 symposium. I’ve never heard of this conference before, but it seems to be an exciting platform for political discourse concerning societal challenges of all sorts. Its panelists include scientists, policy makers, activists and labor unionists. This year’s topic is “progress” in its broadest sense. The abstract on their website reads like this:

The conference-series “Momentum” is dedicated to the integration of academic knowledge and political practice and invites contributions from researchers, labor unionists, political practitioners and activists. Momentum is interdisciplinary, particularly open to submissions from young scholars and decidedly invites not only academic but also policy-oriented papers. The Momentum conference series has been launched in 2008 and is held in German (although English contributions are also welcome).

The call for papers is open until the 19th of April 2013, the deadline for finalized papers is the 7th September. An overview of the ten thematically distinct tracks (democracy, economy, art, social movements, technology, feminism and more) may be found here. The symposium is led by Barbara Blaha, Josef Weidenholzer and their team. The location Hallstatt is scenic, as these pics show.

Would be fun to see you there!

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.

Ghostery & more

Last week I attended the Unlike Us conference in lovely Amsterdam. The event, aimed at bringing together researchers, activists and artists concerned with Social Media Monopolies and their Alternatives, was covered pretty well by bloggers on site, as you can see here. Instead of repeating their work by blogging about the whole event, I just want to point you to a single tool I learned about: Ghostery.

Ghostery helps you tracking the trackers and gain back control over your privacy. “Ghostery tracks the trackers and gives you a roll-call of the ad networks, behavioral data providers, web publishers, and other companies interested in your activity.” It’s a browser plug-in (for various browsers) that shows you the invisible web – tags, web bugs, pixels and beacons that are included on web pages in order to get an idea of your online behavior – and helps you to block and/ or manage them. Instead of passively running in the background, the app brings them to the foreground, and hence puts you in the active position of handling them. You should really check it out, it’s the best privacy tool I’ve seen in a really long time!!!

Besides, it was very interesting to see Max Schrems talking about Facebook vs. Europe. He’s an Austrian law student, but pretty professional in what he does. I hope he manages to bring Facebook to its knees! Blogpost on his talk here.

Finally, I attended the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) conference “Interdisciplinary Insights on the Social Science of Digital Research”, where I talked about the Performative Character of Digital Methods (see blog post below). It was a great event, which covered a range of digital methods and their ethical implications. I particularly enjoyed seeing Mike Thelwall talking about his network mapping tools since I’ve read about his work for quite some time now.

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.

oxford / #OII in march

I’m happy that my abstract for the Oxford Internet Institute (OII) symposium “Interdisciplinary Insights on the Social Science of Digital Research” got accepted! I’ll be talking about the “the performative character of digital methods”. I’m already looking forward to seeing Malte Ziewitz, Jean-Christophe Plantin, and other exciting Internet researchers again!!!

For those interested, that’s the abstract:

The performative character of digital methods

Scholars following the tradition of the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) have argued that methods do not simply report on a given reality, but rather enact social reality in a certain way (Mol 2002, Law 2004). Methods make “certain (political) arrangements more probable, stronger, more real, whilst eroding others and making them less real.” (Law 2004: 149). Accordingly, it has been shown that research objects are differently performed in different empirical settings rendering them slippery and multiple. This argument becomes particularly striking when thinking of various digital methods performing and depicting web realities in distinct ways, as I will illustrate with my own research. Concretely, I will address the peformative character of digital methods by drawing on an ongoing research project investigating how the biofuel controversy is represented in search engine results compared to classical media; with a particular focus on Sweden (project conducted together with Jenny Eklöf from Umeå Studies in Science, Technology and Environment, Umeå University; data gathered from April 2011-November 2011).

For the purpose of this article, I draw on Google search queries we conducted with a range of different keywords and juxtapose them with hyperlink network visualizations we developed with the software Issuecrawler (from the Govcom.org Foundation, Amsterdam). I will discuss strengths and weaknesses of both methods in terms of understanding how the biofuel issue plays out in search engine results and how link networks contribute to these search results. More fundamentally, I will show how the choice of method shapes the object of study by using concepts from ANT. I will elaborate that observing search results over time enacts the web as a search-engine organized information space and performs search engines as central gatekeepers. Contrary, hyperlink network maps evoke the imagination of the web as a de-centralized information network configured by link connections. Based on this analysis, I will discuss how different digital methods – network visualization tools in particular – bring different aspects of the web to the fore, while hiding others in the background according to the different algorithms they incorporate. Digital methods should thus not be seen as passively representing web reality, but rather as actively shaping the web realities we try to observe. What “ontological politics” (Mol 2008) this implies and what consequences it involves for Internet researchers and the emerging discipline of “digital research” or “e-research” increasingly drawing on (network) visualizations, will be finally discussed.

This research was funded by my HUMlab postdoctoral fellowship (September 2010- February 2012).

References:

Law, John (2004) After Method. Mess in Social Science Research. New York: Routledge.
Mol, Annemarie (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham/ London: Duke University Press.
Mol, Annemarie (2008) Ontological Politics. A Word and Some Questions. Socio-logical Review 46(S): 74-89.