algorithmic profiling

amsI’m very happy that our article “Algorithmic Profiling of Job Seekers in Austria: How Austerity Politics Are Made Effective” by Doris Allhutter, Florian Cech, Fabian Fischer, Gabriel Grill and me (from the ITA, TU Wien, University of Michigan) is published now!! :) It’s part of the special issue “Critical Data and Algorithm Studies” in the open access journal Frontiers in Big Data edited by Katja Mayer and Jürgen Pfeffer! Thanks Katja for a speedy review process!! Surprisingly, the article triggered quite some resonance within the academic, but also in the public sphere. Lot’s of journalists etc got interested in this “first scientific study” on “the AMS Algorithm”. Since we’re currently working on an additional study comprising a deeper analysis of our own materials (including our own data inquiry to the AMS), we’re not able to talk much about this paper in public at this specific moment. But new insights will follow by the end of Mai or mid-June at the latest, so keep posted!!! Here’s the project description of the current study funded by the Arbeiterkammer OÖ.

50 internet myths

Today, the Internet Governance Forum started in Berlin. As part of this huge event the edited volume Busted! The Truth About the 50 Most Common Internet Myths will be launched. This wonderful volume – edited by Matthias Kettemann & Stephan Dreyer – is a compilation of common Internet myths and their deconstructions. Here is the link to the whole book: https://internetmythen.de (English and German; including summaries in all five UN languages). Enjoy!!myth

I’ve contributed Myth #19: Search engines provide objective results:

Myth: Search engines deliver objective search results. This is the founding myth of the leading search engine in the Western World: Google. 20 years later this founding myth still exists in Google’s company philosophy. More importantly, however, it resonates in people’s minds. Without knowing how the search engine actually works, many users say that the best websites can be found on top.

Busted: In 1998, the founding year of Google, Sergey Brin and Larry Page described their search engine’s central aim as follows: „The primary goal is to provide high quality search results over a rapidly growing World Wide Web.“ (Brin and Page 1998: 115). Accordingly, the notions “quality” and “search quality” feature over 30 times in their research paper. The authors depict the PageRank algorithm – originally using the number and quality of hyperlinks a website gets, anchor text and proximity to determine the quality of a website and rank it accordingly – as their main competitive advantage. They describe the algorithm as “objective measure” corresponding well to “people’s subjective idea of importance” (Brin and Page 1998: 109). Interestingly, this seems to be the case indeed. Having asked people why they use Google to find online health information in the context of my PhD project, most people answered with saying that Google delivered the best search results, implicitly shaping the search engine as a tool for quality assurance. Without knowing – or even thinking about – how the search engine actually works, Google’s founding myth was reproduced in people’s stories.

But it is a myth. Search engines are no neutral, objective technologies, but rather tightly intertwined with societal norms, values and ideologies; the capitalist ideology most importantly. Over the past decades, Google’s “techno-fundamentalist” ideology of neutral ranking was aligned with and overshadowed by non-objective considerations. New media scholars started to deconstruct the myth of objectivity soon after the search engine’s successful market entry. At first, they challenged the PageRank algorithm by arguing that it would threaten the democratic ideal of the web (#28) by systematically preferring big, well-connected, often commercial websites at the expense of smaller ones. Later they switched over to questioning search engines’ business models based on user-targeted advertising and the commercialization of search engine results and privacy issues these trigger. A major criticism in this body of work concerns the ‘consumer profiling’ conducted by Google – and others like Bing – that enable search engines to adjust advertisements to users’ individual interests. (#21; #22)

Due to the growing amount of user data these companies acquired, the search algorithm and the “organic” search results changed too. Besides hyperlinks other factors were thrown into the measuring of a website’s quality including user profiles and click behaviour most particularly, but also the structure of a website, timeliness, and the amount of keywords and content. Accordingly, new media researchers, but increasingly also journalists, criticized the intensified personalization of search engine results, search engine biases and discrimination. This illustrates that search algorithms are tightly intertwined with the business models their companies rely on. The capitalist ideology is embedded in search engines and “acts through algorithmic logics and computational systems“ (Mager 2014: 32).

Truth: It is important to keep in mind that search engines and their algorithms are no neutral technologies, but rather incorporate societal values and ideologies; the capitalist ideology most importantly. Only then may we come up with forward-looking governance models respecting local regulations and resonating with human rights (especially in Europe, where data protection is enshrined as a fundamental right).

 


Source: Sergey Brin and Lawrence Page, The anatomy of a large-scale hypertextual Web search engine, Computer Networks and ISDN Systems 30: 107- 117 (1998); Astrid Mager, Defining Algorithmic Ideology: Using Ideology Critique to Scrutinize Corporate Search Engines, tripleC 12(1): 28-39 (2014).

body data – data body

Together with Katja Mayer I wrote an article about quantified self, big data and social justice in the health context. The title is “Body data-data body: Tracing ambiguous trajectories of data bodies between empowerment and social control in the context of health” and it has just recently been published by the wonderful open access journal Momentum Quarterly!! Here is the link to the full text (completely free of charge!)! Don’t get irritated by the German title and abstract, the article is in English, no worries! 😉

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Thanks to Leonhard Dobusch and Dennis Tamesberger!! I’m happy to be part of this great Momentum Quarterly editorial team!

CfP – NM&S special issue

This is the CfP for the special issue in New Media & Society I guest-edit together with Christian Katzenbach: “We are on a mission”. Exploring the role of future imaginaries in the making and governing of digital technology. All relevant information can be found here:

cfpWe’re already looking forward to your submissions!

internet governance as joint effort

Out now: my article “Internet governance as joint effort: (Re)ordering search engines at the intersection of global and local cultures” has just been published by New Media & Society. Or at least in its online first version! I’m very happy about it!! & welcome every feedback or commentary. Here’s the preprint version, if you don’t have access to the journal (or you just send me an email for the original version). yipiiiiehhhh :)

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STS graz & SOTQ reader

This week I spent two sunny days in Graz to attend the STS conference “Critical Issues in Science and Technology Studies”. Doris Allhutter and I organized a panel on the “politics of ICTs”, which turned out to be really interesting! Great presentations, great topics, great participants. Also, we discovered quite a number of overlapping issues and shared interests, which is not always the case with regard to conference panels. I particularly liked the presentations on the material/ technological dimension of ideology and gender relations, sociotechnical/ digital work practices and cultural specificities, and questions on power relations in design practices of ICTs. Anne Dippel struggling with computer problems while talking about bugs in the CERN software and how they affect physicists’ work practices was just one highlight of our panel 😉 I still hope Doris and I will manage to put together a special issue on the fascinating co-emergence of social and digital cultures.

The second highlight of the week was the arrival of the Society of the Query Reader (eds René König & Miriam Rasch; Institute of Network Cultures (INC) reader #9). It’s great to see my contribution on big search and its alternatives in such a nicely designed book. Didn’t the conference designers even get an award for the beautiful flyers, badges and stuff? Anyway, the reader is a wonderful compilation of essays on corporate search engines and alternative styles of search. If interested, you can order or download the book for free (!) more information here..

defining algorithmic ideology

This was an awesome publication process! I submitted the article in 2012, just before Liam was born. Assuming the review process would take forever, as it usually does, I thought submitting the paper before giving birth is very clever. Unexpectedly the reviews were back even before the child arrived. However, as I was pretty busy since then I resubmitted the paper only one week ago. What happened then was really amazing. I sent back the article on February 11, 5.05pm. I got the letter of acceptance from the editor, Christian Fuchs, at 10.57pm. The paper was edited, layouted and published the next day, February 12, 12.02am. This is very exceptional!!! And very satisfying too :) There is nothing more tiring than time periods of months and years between the date of acceptance and the date of publication. So I really like to thank Christian for this speedy handling of my paper! & I highly recommend publishing in his journal TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique!!! (Besides, what other journal recommends listening to a “non-commercial indie rock-online radio station” on its homepage?)..

Here’s the abstract and link to my article “Defining Algorithmic Ideology: Using Ideology Critique to Scrutinize Corporate Search Engines”:

This article conceptualizes “algorithmic ideology” as a valuable tool to understand and critique corporate search engines in the context of wider socio-political developments. Drawing on critical theory it shows how capitalist value-systems manifest in search technology, how they spread through algorithmic logics and how they are stabilized in society. Following philosophers like Althusser, Marx and Gramsci it elaborates how content providers and users contribute to Google’s capital accumulation cycle and exploitation schemes that come along with it. In line with contemporary mass media and neoliberal politics they appear to be fostering capitalism and its “commodity fetishism” (Marx). It further reveals that the capitalist hegemony has to be constantly negotiated and renewed. This dynamic notion of ideology opens up the view for moments of struggle and counter-actions. “Organic intellectuals” (Gramsci) can play a central role in challenging powerful actors like Google and their algorithmic ideology. To pave the way towards more democratic information technology, however, requires more than single organic intellectuals. Additional obstacles need to be conquered, as I finally discuss.

momentum quarterly

I’m on the editorial board of “Momentum Quarterly – Journal for Societal Progress” now! MQ is a bilingual and peer-reviewed open access journal publishing both scientific and more practical articles at the intersection of science and politics. So if you have a paper that fits this profile send it along, I’d be happy to send it out for review! For more information on the journal and previous issues please go to the MQ website. Thanks to Leonhard Dobusch and his co-editors for their trust!

The journal is closely related to the Momentum Symposium taking place in scenic Hallstatt every year. The next conference is concerned with the topic emancipation and will take place from 16-19 October 2014. Hope to see you there!

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!