Notes on Media


Just another weblog. Lasse Bo Timmermann.

Internet Politics

Who Google is according to Google
Google’s announcement to no longer support the state imposed filtering of the Chinese version of their search engine has created quite a buzz recently. Despite many tech bloggers, who are celebrating Google’s step as a heroic act for freedom and human rights, there are some more serious thoughts around as well. An interesting article on the issue, titled The Google Republic has been published by Die Zeit. They point to the fact that Google’s step can be seen as an example of companies applying pressure on nation-states to enforce their goals. This step that can be very well related to the activities undertaken by United Fruit Company (Chiquita) to achieve their goals in Central America and lead to the term Banana Republics – therefore The Google Republic. Siva Vaidhyanathan’s argument is even more forthright in that he writes that Google governs the Internet, just because no state is willing to take that role. He further states that

[o]ne could read this showdown (as I do) as a classic international power conflict between a major traditional state and a new, virtual state: the Googlenet.

Thus, the step Google took is probably more than just clever PR or the heroic support of the human rights. It more seems as if it is the first move towards a new kind of politics. The rise of Google to the status of a quasi-state, pointed to in the Zeit article, indicates a potential development. Although their view of the nation-state as transparent and acting solely for the good of its people is rather romantic, it still is and important hint that we have to ask ourselves how desirable this trend is. A deeper implication might be a conflict between the models of a traditional state and the virtual state of Google. A redefinition of the traditional model provides great chances to change things for the better, but also bears specific dangers. A positive result of the recent announcement could thus be a more intensive debate about the future of politics with the Internet.

Filed under: Censorship, China, Google, Internet, Politics

Digital Archives

If one looks at the Internet and its increasing use as an environment of communication, social interaction and writing an often heard claim is that whatever is put on the Internet will be there forever. The Internet does not forget. The usual assumption is that with storing all our e-mails, having facebook profiles, twitter and weblogs the history of persons or institutions will soon be available in machine readable formats, ready to be recalled at any moment and in a detail never seen before. Stefan Heidenreich describes this in a recent episode of the medienradio podcast as a point in time where we will ascend from a ‘dark era’. Heidenreich’s argument is that 20 Years from now we will be able to look back in time on the basis of our digital biographies to a certain point between 2000 and 2005 at which our history is obscured or dark simply because there is no data. I got a similar idea from a recent lecture of my digital methods seminar. The digital methods intiative is researching, among other things, the history ob websites with the Internet archive. While this kind of research has its own limitations (e.g. with websites extensivle using JavaScript or Flash) the research posibilities seem to increase with growing archives. The above approaches and common ideas about the Internet as an archive thus generally expect an increasing availability of data. The issues of studying history with the Internet rather lies in privacy issues than somewhere else. A recent post by Manuel Lima on the visual complexity blog, however, provides a striking viewpoint on this topic. He refers to an article by Robert Lee Hotz in which he argues that

“Scientists who collaborate via email, Google, YouTube, Flickr and Facebook are leaving fewer paper trails, while the information technologies that do document their accomplishments can be incomprehensible to other researchers and historians trying to read them.”

Lima writes that the more channels we are using to communicate the smaller the trails we are leaving behind get. New platforms, networks and formats come along daily. The important question is to what extend we will be able to access the data we collect in lets say 20 or 200 years from now. Paper trails have been a pretty save form of archiving even for thousands of years – although time consuming. Opposed to that, the data stored on floppy disks requires a significant effort to be restored only 15 years from the time in which it was the dominant storage media for data. So, will we still use e-mail in 50 years? Will facebook be around in 10 years? The larger question is whether the predictions of a future in which all our memories a available with the click on a button are right. Are we at the verge of entering a time of almost infinite recollection, as Stefan Heidenreich puts it, or rather facing a memoryless generation of what Manuel Lima calls the dark digital age?

Filed under: Digital Methods, Future, Internet, Memory, University

Alternative Search

Society of the Query FlyerVisiting the Society of the Query Conference I had the chance to listen to many interesting talks on the impact of search engines (not only Google) on our lives. The two sessions on alternative search recalled Alexander Galloway’s call for the creation of alternative algorithms to my mind. In Mary Joyce’s blog I found a nice entry on Power & the Network that points out the relevance of such an endeavor. She writes that

“[…] the challenge for people who want to encourage more effective digital activism is to figure out which content will both assist activists in creating effective campaigns and which can be disseminated most effectively online.”

One way to do so and also to account for her second request, namely to provide people with

[…] digital content that not only inspires and directs citizens to act, but also tells them how to act[,]

could be in the creation of the algorithms mentioned above. It would hence not only be the content, as Joayce writes, but also about the techniques of dissemination. Rather than merely adapting to the protocols and pathways provided by the Web one should also open the eyes for alternatives. The Society of the Query conference provided some interesting hints in this direction. Particularly interesting to me were the misspelling generator that can for instance be used to temporarily circumvent censorship and the anxiety monitor, which provides a tool to visually compare the connotations of different keywords towards diverse cultural backgrounds. While these examples fall more in the first category and are dealing with using the available tools to provide alternatives to the default search options, the approach presented by Daniel von der Velden was different. His main argument for alternative search is that the interesting challenges to main stream assumptions are found at the periphery of the usual search results. The problem with thos results is that they

“[…] are often not directly connected to the statement and exist isolated as isolated worlds away from the powerful, reigning opinion. Metahaven wants to develop a search engine that connects these different spheres, to provide different points of views on particular issues and be able to put emphasis on the marginal forces.

To achieve these goals Metahaven strives to create maps that reveal the networks of power and provide a better overview on where the information can be found and how it is distributed. Through this they want to open up the black-boxes of cloud-computing and current search engines. Even though Metahaven attempts to provide a truly alternative search and wants to provide a greater visibility of alternate accounts something from Joyce’s requests seems to remain open. It is certainly not enough to provide the people with the information. Alternative algorithms also have to show their users how to act, the next step so to say. This is what will be one of the great challenges for alternative search in the future.

Filed under: Activism, Algorithms, Amsterdam, Conference, Engines, Internet, Politics

Of Phones and Food

I already stumbled upon the number of 4.1 billion cellphone subscriptions worldwide quite a while ago. My feeling, however, was that the indication for a reduction of the digital divide is flawed by the fact that many of the people in Western countries are subscribed more than once. A remarkable fact, pointed out by Bruce Etling on the Internet & Democracy blog, seems to allude to the opposite. He points to an announcement by the UN which states cell phones will be used to distribute 22$ vouchers among Iraqi refugee families in Syria. This indicates that we have indeed reached a very strange point at which cell phones seem to be more accessible than food as Matthew Cordell points out. For me this significantly questions how important the discussion about a digital divide still is and how telling the numbers of worldwide cell phone subscriptions really are. What is it worth if the whole planet is connected to global communication networks if many still don’t have access to food or water? What does this tell about the potential of the Internet to improve everyday life?

Filed under: Cyberspace, Internet, Mobile, Politics

The Politics of Algorithms

A political critique of search engines never is an easy thing. It is widely accepted that the top results provided by the search engine follow the stance of the mainstream media and that minorities quickly get buried within the back of the results. Similar assumptions are argued extensively, for instance in Matthew Hindmans The Myth of Digital Democracy, but to me their conclusions seem too easy. Mareijn de Vries Hoogerwerff nicely sums up the issues that arise in his blog post Democracy of the Algorithm. He remarks that the search results are created by the links (or votes) of the users and thus reflect the popular accounts for certain issues.

“Seeing the Google search engine as producing information that represents the diverse sets of opinions needed for true democratic debate (if we for the moment assume this is at all possible through media) thus ignores the way the technology operates. It is not so much Google search engine serving a misleading presentation of facts, but more so a misunderstanding of what it is. The search results are returning exactly what could be expected and the service works just fine.”

He is certainly right about the assumption that the role of search engines is misunderstood by many. Currently search engines are not tools to provide us with different realities and tend to filter the unexpected. He concludes that the Western faith in technology, or what he calls information determinism earlier in the post, might have lead to the somehow naiv belief that the information that is returned by the engine accounts for all the available voices. The result of such a perception would be the belief that the sheer availability of information and its universal accessibility could solve complicated social problems. His suggestion, as I understand it, is that we have to learn (again?) to read the distortions caused by the engine, like the Chinese do with the results returned for Tiananmen square on

But to whom will such an awareness be available? Will it be only the well educated or scholarly working? There certainly are reasons for the misunderstanding of what the engines are serving. Instead of accepting the apparent bias of the algorithm we might also look at the creation of alternative algorithms. As Alexander Galloway writes in an article:

“[…] I call for the creation of an experimental school of alternative algorithms modeled around a variety of political and social goods. We need a viable critique of collaborative filtering.”

I believe that technology critical movements can gain a significant political influence over the coming years. The success of the pirate party over Europe has already been compared to the green movement of the 80s by some. Taking Galloway’s call seriously their politics would thus not necessarily be limited to a single topic (the Internet), something they are accused of very often. They would rather stand for a certain way of living; the critical dealing with and the conscious use of alternative algorithms could become something like the new green in 20 or 30 years. ‘Green’ algorithms that admittedly stand for more fairness and require some more work to find the results one is looking for. In return they allow more voices to be heard and are able to surprise me as a user. This might be utopian, but its certainly something to think about.

Filed under: Algorithms, Engines, Internet, Politics

with:public – Google Wave as the New Live?

From static websites, to personal blogs, to status updates on Facebook or Twitter. Reading and working on the Web seems to speed up. Earlier this week I had the chance to have a first look on Google Wave. Without many people using it I can not really say much about its use in everyday life. However, typing ‘with:public’ into the search box reveals some of what wave is able to do. One immediately sees a rush of communication; numerous waves floating across the screen, much faster then they can be read. A stream similar to what one can receive through Twitter, but everything is ‘real-time’. It is not a flow of static messages but the text is still being typed while it flows by. I think it is yet impossible to predict where it will eventually go and what the main purposes of Google Wave will eventually be, but reading Nicholas Carr’s article Is Google Making us Stupid there is an interesting aspect to it with respect to its live character . In the article he is more generally dealing with ideas of how the Internet changes our way of thinking and how it becomes increasingly difficult to stay focused. At one point he argues that,

“[t]he last thing these companies want is to encourage leisurely reading or slow, concentrated thought. It’s in their economic interest to drive us to distraction.”

Could Google Wave thus be perceived as the next step in this process? Yes and No. Paradoxically many people perceive it as a tool of faster, easier and more convenient form of communication, especially if it comes to collaborative work and organization of things. The answer would thus be ‘No’ as forms of communication, hitherto provisionally realized through e-mail, really seem to be able to find a better platform. Also the live aspect of Google Wave certainly has an appealing aspect. But, the distraction seems to sneak in through the backdoor. If everything (in terms of communcation) is always live and thus changeable, replayable and commentable the static seems to fade a bit more. An aspect of also mentioned with respect to Twitter by Jeff Jarvis in his post on The temporary Web in which he states that,

“Twitter is temporary. Streams are fleeting. If the future of the web after the page and the site and SEO is streams – and I believe at least part of it will be – then we risk losing information, ideas, and the permanent points – the permalinks – around which we used to coalesce.”

I do not necessarily share the rather dark prophecy, Carr’s seems to put forward, in all its aspects. The different temporality, however, seems to pose questions for the consistency of out living environment. There certainly is a paradoxically situation in which we keep ever more information about ourselves e.g. in our mailboxes, while on the other hand the streams of data become increasingly temporary.

Filed under: Google, Internet