Amsterdam & Vienna: two cities – two summer schools – some reflections

I’ve attended two summer schools in the last three weeks and it was fun. Both the digital methods summer school (Amsterdam) and the Marie Jahoda summer school of sociology (Vienna) were highly inspiring events with great participants! The differences were striking though. And reflected the spirit of two different cities and two different academic cultures.

photo credit left: Marieke van Dijk — right: Monica Titton

The purpose of the digital methods event was to learn how to conduct Internet research by following the medium and its natively digital objects. If you want to investigate search engine results, use and learn from Google and its way of functioning, for example. Employ and build on search query data instead of creating artificial user search experiments was one of the messages. How to investigate and theorized “big data” was thus one central issue debated, in Richard Rogers´talk most importantly. What implications the use – and dependency on – algorithms and commercial tools such as Google or Facebook triggers was another interesting aspect raised by Noortje Marres. Besides theoretical discussions – such as the “salon” on Bruno Latour and David Berry moderated by Mark Tuters – we were motivated to work on actual projects. The main part of the summer school was organized around research investigating issues/ controversies in search engine results, on social networking platforms, Wikileaks and other “web spheres”. Here are some maps we developed on the biofuel controversy in Google results in different European countries:

People were thus gathered around computers and tried to make use and sense of the great variety of methods created by the DMI (digital methods initiative) team, but also the network visualization tool Gephi, that Bernhard Rieder presented, and the text coding software DiscoverText developed by Stu Shulman. Thanks to all of you for the great tools and advice!!!

It might be a coincidence that the highly digital summer school took place in Amsterdam – a city concerned with open government data, participatory architecture and urbanity & technology. But it might also reflect the tight entanglement of urban vibes and academic cultures. In Vienna the cultural heritage is central. The first district with its beautiful architecture preserves the empire of the last century. Accordingly, the Viennese summer school took place in a “festive room” mirroring the old charme and elegancy of the University. Paper and pencil instead of hashtag and wiki. The summer school was organized around lectures and presentations instead of laptops and projects. Even though I only participated three days out of six I saw great talks on markets and organizations in the tradition of German intellectual circles. Sophie Mützel talked about the sociology of markets and Frank Hillebrandt elaborated on culture and economy, for example. Further, I learned a lot about economic sociology in a number of great PhD projects from Austrian and German graduate students. That made me realize how interdiscplinary my own work got over the last years, where I was strolling from sociology, science and technology studies, Internet research to digital humanities. I was thus very happy that I got truly great feed-back on my search engine project and reading tipps from the summer school crowd, and especially Sighard Neckel (e.g. “the new spirit of capitalism” by Boltanski and Chiapello, “global complexity” by Urry or “market devices” by Callon, Millo and Muniesa). I do really hope that our paths will cross again in the future!

If you want to learn more about the Viennese summer school I recommend listening to the Ö1 broadcast “Dimensionen” on 26 July 2011, 19h05 (web radio here). Further, I really hope you get to see the “Erschießt Sie – eine Finanzkrisenoper“, which is a theatrical performance of interview material on brokers & the economic crisis based on the book “Strukturierte Verantwortungslosigkeit. Berichte aus der Bankenwelt” (Claudia Honegger, Sighard Neckel und Chantal Magnin). It is a clever and hilarious piece of work!

(photo credit: Summer School)

Digital methods summer school, Amsterdam: 27 June – 8 July 2011

I just arranged my trip to Amsterdam to attend the 5th Digital Methods Summer School organized by Richard Rogers and colleagues. The questions that will be addressed this year are the following (according to the summer school website):

In the 2011 Digital Methods Summer School we will pay homage to cyberspace, in the opening, by presenting thought on a particular strand of media coverage about WikiLeaks, where cybergurus and cyberwar experts reappear on the scene. Just as importantly, we will ask, how to make use of the leaks, and their containers, for research purposes? From data-driven journalism to bespoke cablegate engines, does WikiLeaks spawn an online ecology of tools, visualizations and other substantive practices and outputs? Is such an ecology typical for data platforms? For comparative purposes, we will introduce and study the tool and visualization universes of Twitter as well as Wikipedia, both of which are examples of data-rich media. We would like to learn from platform media analytics and apply it to other data-rich media, so as to further develop tools for cultural diagnostics. One challenge is the question of device effects. For example, when comparing the Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian Wikipedia entries for the Srebrenica Massacre, does Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” policies overdetermine the content, perhaps neutralize it, or can one read culturally distinctive views on the events?

Another strand of study is networked content, which is thought of as online content held together, maintained or even co-authored by software and bots. The interplay of search engines and content interests us this year, not just because Wikipedia articles are routinely at the top of Google results. (The relationship between Google and Wikipedia remains understudied.) But there is also content seemingly authored for engines first and readers only second, as in the case of “demand media.” We would like to study efforts that seek to fill in engine results with content, reopening the question of engine epistemology. Presentations will include work on engine log analysis. Apart from (Google) flu trends, are log analyses able to identify and geo-locate cultural and political preference?

More infos on the summer school and some sort of online tutorial on the methods and visualization tools used – such as the Issuecrawler identifying and visualizing link networks – may be found on the Digital Methods Initiative Website or on the Website of the Foundation.

I’m especially interested in the second cluster of questions since I’ll further pursue my research on search engines and their information political implications while being at the summer school. Concretely, I’ll investigate how the controversy around biofuels plays out in search engine results, a project I’m working on together with Jenny Eklöf from the Umeå Studies in Science, Technology and Environment. In this project we basically aim to analyze how search engines structure and stage the controversy, what actors succeed in occupying one of the “top ten seats” and what their positions on the issue are, and what conclusions may be drawn in terms of search engine politics and the commercialization of information. In addition, I’d like to compare search engine results with other web spheres such as Google news, blogs, and social networking sites and their way of ordering, filtering and hierarchizing information on biofuels making use of all the fancy “digital methods” and tools.

I’m already looking forward to the summer school and to work with Richard and his wonderful team again! Not to speak of lovely Amsterdam..