In January I was kindly invited to give a lecture on my habilitation project “Algorithmic Imaginaries“. This talk was part of the lecture series “Aspects of the Digital Transformation” at the The Centre for Informatics and Society (CIS) of the Faculty of Informatics. Thanks a lot to Florian Cech and Hilda Tellioglu for the warm welcome including fine wine and bread! Thanks also to the audience who triggered really interesting discussions! You can find the video on the C!S website if you want to watch it (in English):
Suchmaschinen in Europa – europäische Suchmaschinen?
Suchmaschinen sind gesellschaftspolitischen Entwicklungen unterworfen. Doch welche Rolle spielt Europa dabei?
Enjoy reading the the full text here (in German)!
If you want to learn more about all the great members of the Young Academy, check out the summer series portraits of new YA members. Mine is titled “Kleine Davids gegen Google Goliath“. It’s a fine compilation of interdisciplinary research my young colleagues are doing.
I’m so (so so so) happy that my project “Algorithmic imaginaries. Visions and values in the shaping of search engines” will finally come true! After a really long application process the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) decided to fund this awesome habilitation project! You’ll find the abstract below; more information will follow once the project has started (November 2016 since I’m still on maternity leave). For all of you who have projects under review (or rejected already): don’t give up! It’s a nerv-wrecking process, but if you finally manage to succeed, it’s all worth it!!! (Of course, in times like these peer review has become some sort of strage academic lottery, which does not make the practice any better..)
Visions and values in the shaping of search engines
Search engines like Google are developed in the US-American context, but are used around the globe. Their business models are based on user-targeted advertising. They collect user data, turn it into user profiles, and sell them to advertising clients. Since the NSA affair practices of user profiling are critically discussed; especially in European contexts with diverse data protection laws, historically shaped notions of privacy, and very different tax systems. The ongoing reform of the EU data protection legislation is an important arena where tensions between global search engines and European policy visions and values can be observed. Besides, European search engines emerge that aim to provide users with alternative styles of search. Some are explicitly developed as a European competitor to US-based search engines (Quaero or Independent Web Index). Others are developed in Europe, but draw on other value-systems to distinguish themselves from big search engines, such as respecting users’ privacy (e.g. Ixquick), protecting the environment (e.g. Ecosia), or creating a non-commercial search engine owned by the public (e.g. YaCy).
This poses important questions: What motivations, value-systems, and visions guide the development of European search engines? How are these imaginations translated into sociotechnical design practices? What power struggles, negotiations, and compromises may be observed? How do place and cultural context matter in the design process? Researchers in Science and Technology Studies (STS) investigated the politics of search engines, the relevance of algorithms, and internet governance. What is missing is an in-depth analysis of the shaping of search engines in specific cultural contexts and the role shared value systems and visions play in it. Rooted in the discipline of STS the suggested habilitation project will fill in this gap by investigating design practices of European search projects using a case-study approach (qualitative interviews, workshops, ethnographic observations).
Results from this analysis will be compared to and cross-analyzed with results from my past research on capitalist ideologies driving global search engines like Google and my present research on visions and values guiding European search engine governance. This overall analysis will result in a typology of algorithmic imaginaries, which describes visions and values in the development and governance of search engines in global, European, and local contexts. It will show how search technologies and society co-emerge in specific economic, political, and cultural settings. The primary focus on European contexts is a particular strength of the project since tensions between global search engines and European governance structures and search projects are growing, but have not been systematically studied yet, both in the field of STS and internet research.
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..
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!
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!
photo credits: society of the query (Martin Risseeuw)
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).
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!
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.
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).