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).

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!

ICTs and power relations

Together with my ITA colleagues Doris Allhutter and Stefan Strauss I put together a panel for the “THE INFORMATION SOCIETY AT THE CROSSROADS” conference that will take place in  Vienna next year (3-7 June). The title of our panel is ICTs and power relations. Present dilemmas & future perspectives. The deadline is 27th of February.

I hope to see you there! Here’s the abstract:

The increasing presence of ICTs in a multitude of societal contexts alters the relation between social, political, technical, legal, economic arenas. As cross-sectional technologies, ICTs enter and link different societal domains often entailing a number of tensions and controversies, e.g. due to conflicting interests, hegemonic discourses, socio-political cultures and practices. Novel forms of interactions are accompanied by increasing complexity, diversity and overlaps between public and private spheres. The capacity of ICTs as a political tool is multidimensional: it can boost civil society participation (e.g. the Arab Spring) as well as amplify mass surveillance and privacy intrusion (e.g. revealed by Snowden).

This panel is interested in the manifold interplay between societal power structures and ICTs. In line with the umbrella issue “at the crossroads” particular focus lies on contributions that present controversies, dilemmas, and imaginary futures that open up paths towards socio-technical alternatives.

Target groups

The panel embraces different scientific disciplines and welcomes theoretical as well as empirical contributions bridging different perspectives (e.g. computing and philosophy, technology assessment and science and technology studies, social, political, economic and techno science).

Subjects and scope

Topics of interest thus include but are not limited to:

  • Values in design and responsible technology innovation
  • Socio-technical alternatives (e.g. peer production, commons, free software, etc.)
  • ICT-related political participation, activism and policy making
  • Norms, standards and hegemonies in ICT infrastructures, software, algorithms and code
  • ICT commercialization and ideologies
  • ICT at the intersection of global, European and local contexts
  • Co-emergence of ICTs with gender, sex, age, class, race, dis/ability (social sorting, standardization, etc.)
  • Emerging privacy and security challenges (privacy-by-design, encryption, EU data protection reform, etc.)
  • Technical and regulatory oversight and limits of surveillance technologies and practices

Important Dates

Submission deadline: 27 February 2015
Notification of acceptance: 20 March 2015

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?

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).

suma awards 2011

Check out the SuMa Awards 2011 by the SuMa-eV. The SuMa-eV is a society with the central goal to assure free access to knowledge. In their doing they particularly focus on search engines, that have become central access points to the web and digital knowledge. Their central aim is to work towards a landscape of free, heterogeneous, and non-monopolistic search engines. More concretely, their goal is to raise awareness and information/ digital skills in the public and policy realm, but also to develop alternative technologies.

In addition to these activities they anually award works dealing with search engines or the future of digital knowledge in a more broader sense. That’s how they describe their call:

Our aim is to focus attention on search engines’ role in providing access to online information. The awards address all members of society: artists, scientists, journalists, parents, teachers – everyone who has something to say about the way search engines shape their information environment is welcome to send in contributions.

Our goal is to encourage public debate about the importance of our information environment for the future development of society. We want to spur innovative approaches to all aspects of search engines, not merely to the technical characteristics.

We welcome contributions in any format: text (scientific, journalistic, legal, literary, etc.), audio, video, multimedia, code, or any manner of artistic expression. They may take any style or mood, whether it be analytical, provocative, descriptive, or other. For inspiration, take a look at last year’s winners or at our project gallery. Anyone may take part – simply send your project description to: info@suma-ev.de.

The deadline is 30 June 2011. The prize is worth approx. 3000 EUR & the award ceremony will take place in Berlin, 28 September 2011. More infos on their website or my blogpost “my phd gets a suma award“.

goodtosee #3: african (media) art & online projects

I just came back from a truly amazing travel through South Africa and Mozambique (see also fotos below). Even though my talk at the Witwatersrand University did not work out in the end (be aware: an African YES should not necessarily be taken at face value..) I stumbled across a range of interesting people and projects. Travelling with Machfeld – Sabine Maier and Michael Mastrototaro – and their experiences and friends helped in this respect:

Marcus Neustetter and Stephen Hobbs showed us the newly emerging district “Arts on Main” in Johannesburg. It’s a lively area with a gallery, the Goethe institute, restaurants and a hotel, where each room has been designed by a different artist reflecting different time periods.

Further, we visited the “Bag Factory” where Machfeld used to work as part of their artist in residence program (check out the Bag Factory’s website if you’re an artist interested in staying at Joburg for a while!). That’s how they present themselves:

“One of Joburg’s leading visual arts organizations, the Bag Factory has been alive and kicking since 1991, when the space was set up to provide studios for artists – mainly black artists, who at that stage, had very little access to networks and resources in order to build their careers.”

One of these black artists is the photographer Raymond Marlowe, who just recently had his solo exhibition “Narciso Road, Eldorado Park” telling stories from life in Soweto, one of the biggest Townships of Johannesburg. I’m still very happy that Raymond took us to his house and showed us around in his home town!!

Machfeld in Raymond’s garden & Township shopping:

Travelling to the amazing beaches in Mozambique we stopped by in Maputo to visit the Austrian musician and photographer Werner Puntigam. While Maputo itself seems to be pretty fucked up we had a great time and met some cool young artists. Especially Joao Paulo Queha made a huge impression on me: As part of the artists’ collective Nucleo de Arte he makes beautiful sculptures out of weapons.

Since the end of Mozambique’s sixteen-year civil war, more than 72,000 weapons and explosives have been collected from the country’s landscape. During the past few years, the artists’ collective Nucleo de Arte turned machine guns, landmines and hand weapons into beautiful sculptures, sometimes fragile and elegant, sometimes big and robust such as the “tree of life” on the right side (photo credits: Nucleo de Arte & Inspiring Cities).

Finally, I would like to refer to a really nice ICT project in Zimbabwe: Tonga.Online. On their website you could read that “the project derives its domain name, Mulonga (meaning River), from the local Tonga language.

The name reflects the history and needs of the Tonga people. On one level, the Zambezi River, also known as Mulonga, has become a symbol that tells a modern story of the development of massive but unshared technology – the construction of Kariba Dam on Tonga homeland. Mulonga constantly revokes memories of how the Tonga people were displaced, nearly 50 years ago, to make way for the building of this dam. On another level, the constant flow of the Zambezi is a symbol of continuity which, today, represents the needs of the Tonga people both to communicate amongst themselves and with others, and to preserve and develop their rich cultural heritage. The Tonga.Online Project seeks to establish and expand communication infrastructure with and amongst the Tonga by joining them with modern information and communication technology (ICT).”

Travelling through the countryside in Mozambique made me understand why projects such as Tonga.Online are really important. While some parts of Africa – especially big cities such as Joburg and Maputo are well connected – other parts of Africa are still widely offline (having trouble to keep up the electricity in supermarkets and to fulfill the basic needs of its poor population).

internet research 11.0 / AoIR Gothenburg/ #ir11

I just returned from Gothenburg, where I had a really good time at the AoIR conference (21-23 October). Although feeling a little exhausted, I still try to summarize some interesting ideas I took home from “the South”. This, of course, is not meant to be a full review of the conference, since 6 parallel sessions are hard to attend simultaneously (even to follow all of them on the twitter channel was overwhelming). Contrary, I just want to selectively discuss inspiring talks and thoughts, probably strongly biased by my interest in search engines and knowledge production, as well as my affiliation to HUMlab.

Day 1: In the first session I attended I found the talk by David Kurt Herold on “China’s internet users as the glue that keeps society working” most amazing. Davin Herold showed that Chinese use the web to help each other against crimes and abuse in cases where legal or social institutions failed. He discussed “human flesh search engines” indicating that users put information on criminals online and let others track down and punish these people with the help of the web (pretty frightening when thinking of the possibility that innocents may become victims of these “online punishment” strategies). During this excellent talk I realized that there is so much media coverage on China and Internet censorship, but little is known about the actual use of the web by its Chines users.

After that I attended a panel on the Internet of affect. The basic idea of this panel was to discuss emotions internet researchers have when investigating and using the web. Surprisingly emotions such as fear and anger were high on the agenda. Sally Wyatt, however, suggested boredom and coined internet use as a form of “domestic labor” – most particularly in regard to online health information, which I find an interesting thought. After that a long discussion evolved around the “economy of attention”. In this context I asked myself whether the desire for attention is something inside of us, or whether it’s – at least partly – triggered by the technology providing a network of surveillance services when thinking of Google analytics, but also the like and comment functions on facebook & co.


Photo credit: Wrote; on ir11 Flickr stream

After lunch I most particularly appreciated Christian T. Callisen’s talk about the history of social networks. He discussed the “Republic of Letters”, a virtual community way before the Internet. In the 17th century intellectuals both from Europe and the US exchanged letters to transcend national boundaries and establish a metaphysical republic. I think this is a brilliant historical case study, that shows that we can learn a lot from history when trying to understand present-day virtual communities and social networks. In the evening of the first day we all went to the reception in the beautiful “Börsen” building, where I had a really interesting conversation about Google books and copyrights issues. After that we ended up in the pub “Bishops Arms”, which showed me that Bishops Arms in Umeå is by far not the only one in Sweden. Hm.

Day 2: The next morning I attended the session “Unlikely players and playing”, where my HUMlab colleagues Emma Ewadotter and Calle Engquvist were presenting their work on the power of gamers or the “artist as an activist”. They elaborated that users of the game “Planet Calypso” had a hard time to accept equipment for free, which Calle gave away as an art intervention. Particularly in respect to violent games such as “Left 4 Dead”, which was presented by Staffan Lennart Björk, I started wondering why users have a hard time to accept gifts, while they don’t seem to have problems with wildly shooting and kicking. – what a funny age we’re living in.

In the afternoon I enjoyed the panel “Google this. How knowledge and power work in a culture of search”. Ken Hillis, Michael Petit and Kylie Jarrett have put together a really interesting panel on the power of Google. Kylie Jarrett drew on Bourdieu to discuss the symbolic capital or “meta-capital” of Google, that allows it to define what can be used as capital in many arenas. Michael Petit discussed that McLuhan’s notion of “the medium is the message” may be seen as particularly applying to search technology, since users create their own results. In many cases search could no longer be seen as a means to an end, but has become an end in itself. Ken Hillis was finally talking about the metaphysical assumptions that underlie Google and search practices in a more general sense. He argues that Google has the influence to shape how people think in terms of making everything searchable, which well-corresponds to our need of efficiency and speed, I guess. He further showed the quite amusing website “The Church of Google” elaborating why Google may be considered as God.

Considering all these issues discussed in the panel I’m already looking forward to the book on “Google and the culture of search” Hillis and Petit are currently working on, stay tuned!

Day 3: I started with the panel on virtual worlds organized by my HUMlab colleagues Jim Barrett, Mats Deutschmann, Jenna Ng, and Stefan Gelfgren. Mats was talking about second life as a learning environment, that has the potential to break down hierarchies between teacher and student and trigger “communities of practice” instead. Jim was talking about aboriginal narratives and how second life could help to teach and learn Sami language, which has different terms for the same object depending on the position of the object in space (if I got it correctly). Stefen was finally talking about Christian churches in second life and that they trigger pretty traditional praying practices. “A lot of praying 2.0 going on in Second life”, as Stefan put it. Unfortunately I missed Jenna’s talk, sorry for that!

After that I attended a panel on “Knowledge sharing, collaboration and attribution”. In this session I was primarily interested in (the rise) and fall of “Google Lively” presented by Isto Huvila. He was discussing that a lot of users migrated to second life when Google shut down its own virtual world. After that I felt exhausted and skipped the last session.

Altogether I perceived the quality of most of the presentations as very high (some more theory here and there wouln’t have hurt, but it was fine). Further, the twitter stream was filled with messages at an amazing speed. After having actively contributed on the first day I became a lazy twitterer, just because I realized that I got completely distracted from the actual presentations. Maybe someone can explain to me how to multi-task all that? Anyway, it was fun to follow all these tweets and see which pieces of work drew the most attention. By the way, that makes me think of Nancy Baym’s keynote on Swedish pop culture and online participation discussing how the notions of fan and audience change in the age of the Internet. – Being a heavy twitterer herself, I guess she was the one actually drawing the most attention; rightly as she held a very entertaining talk!

Photo credit for the left one: Jeffrey Keefer; on ir11 Flickr stream

Next year’s AoIR conference is going to be held in Seattle, hope I can get funding to go there!


X3: Buugle – was Google kann können wir schon lange! = a clever and funny – yet disturbing – animation about surveillance/ privacy issues raised by Google and the German federal government. Film made by Alexander Lehmann. (in German)

Filmbeschreibung auf Lehmann’s YouTube Channel: “Deutschland im Jahre 2010. Die Datenkrake „Google” kündigt ihren neuen Dienst „Google Streetview” an. Medien, Bürger und Politiker laufen Sturm. In einem bisher unbekanntem Maß wird die Privatssphäre unbescholtener Bürger durch das Datensammelmonster „Google” verletzt.

Doch haben sie in der Eile ein ganz anderes Projekt völlig aus den Augen verloren. Denn seit einiger Zeit arbeitet die Bundesregierung, ohne viel Aufmerksamkeit zu erregen, an einem eigenen System zum Abbau der lästigen Privatsphäre: Buugle.”

My PhD gets a SuMa Award

It’s official now: My PhD gets awarded by the “SuMa-eV – Verein fuer freien Wissenszugang“!!! :) The SuMa-eV is a society with the central goal to assure free access to knowledge. In their doing they particularly focus on search engines, that have become central access points to the web and digital knowledge. Their ideology basically is to work towards a landscape of free, heterogeneous, and non-monopolistic search engines. More concretely, their goal is to raise awareness and information/ digital skills in the public and policy realm, but also to develop alternative technologies. You can get more information on SuMa technologies including a link to the SuMa blog here (in German, sorry for that).

© SuMa-eV

In addition to these activities they anually award works dealing with the future of digital knowledge. And I’m really happy that I get one of these SuMa Awards this year!!! Besides my PhD “Mediated Knowledge” (download), the OpenGovernment search engine “NewsClub im Bundestag” and the online dictionary “Linguee” are awarded this year. The award ceremony takes place on the 6th of October in Berlin as part of the SuMa-eV conference. I’m really looking forward to this event, especially as it nicely fits to my new project on the social construction of search engines and their information political implications. I suppose it’s a good spot to get to know relevant people in the field and their perspectives on search technologies. I’m particularly looking forward to see Markus Beckedahl from Netzpolitik.org, a platform dedicated to freedom and openness in the digital age, and Lars Reppesgaard, journalist and author of the book “Das Google Imperium”. Futher, proponents from the policy realm and the commercial sector such as Microsoft and maybe Google will be there. Altogether I think it’s a good compilation of different actors and viewpoints to start off a discussion about civil society in the information/ digital age. Besides, there will also be a workshop how to install your own search engine. For more infos on the programme and registration please go to the conference website. Personally, I’m pleased to finally meet the director of SuMa-eV, Wolfgang Sander-Beuermann and Theo Röhle, who just published “Der Google Komplex” – with both of whom I only digitally corresponded so far ;). So I’m really excited about this upcoming event & keep you posted on all that.