Notes on Media

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Just another weblog. Lasse Bo Timmermann.

The Internet as the New Green?

In November I already wrote of the possibility to see movements, dealing critically with technology, taking a development similar to the idea of the green in the 1980s. Recently I found a news item quite interesting with respect to this connection. The screenshot above is taken from Spiegel Online, which arguably is the largest online news portal in Germany. It shows people taking part in the largest protest against nuclear power for more than 20 years. What I think is interesting about the article is the connection between the anti-nuclear movement and movements concerned with the Internet. The headline somehow strangely connects the “leakage” of data, dealing with the selection of final storage sites for nuclear waste, with the protest against nuclear power plants. It roughly reads “Confidental Gorleben-Files freely available on the Internet” next to the photograph of two protesters. Whilst the protest and the leakage of confidental files are only loosely connected, the article positions the Internet as some kind of protest space and puts two distinct movements in the same corner. Although the composition of the news item might just be a coincidence I think that it is quite telling regarding the larger discourse of Internet politics and its potential to become the green of the 2010s.

Filed under: Activism, Culture, Media, Politics

The Power of Data

Sample Image of Data Driven Newspaper
An increasing amount of free data sets is becoming available through the Web every day. A talk by Alex Lundry on Chart Wars: The Political Power of Data Visualization shows how important the presentation of a data set is in order to achieve certain goals. While he is mainly concerned with ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of visualization the larger scope is widened in a post by Nat Torkington on Rethinking Open Data in which he points to the fact that most data sets made available by governments are not being used sufficiently for different reasons. He sees the problems in the indifferent goals of the people working with the data and the resulting difficulties for its uses. For future projects Torkington conludes that it is neccesary to

[…] build a tight feedback loop between those who want data and those who can provide it, to create an environment where the data users can support each other, and to make it easier to assess the value created by government-released open data.

It is thus neccessary to embed the open data sets into the existing media environment rather than trying to change the things entirely in a single step. One possible way to engage users with data is the present it aesthetically. Blogs like Information is Beautiful, Information Aesthetics or Databeautiful provide great collection of the possible outcomes of such work. The question, however, remains to which extend they also really serve as feedback loops as they only aim at the aesthetic representation of more or less useful data. The main issue hence seems to be in the possibility to engage with the data and repurpose it for one’s own means. What is therefore needed is the creation of tools that allow ‘real people’, as Nat Torkington writes, to access and use open data. Only if this is achieved, open data can serve the means that potentially make it a great thing. While already announced in April 2009 Google’s public data and its ingreation into search results might provide a first step in this direction. Arguably the visualization of open data within search results provides an example for the integration of such data into a Web environment experienced by most people. While the number of data available like this, as well as the interaction with it remain at a very basic level they appear in a ‘natural’ environment. I think that a further integration of data like this could be the next step in getting people in touch with open data. Thinking this further the data could make it from the browser into augmented reality environments. With augmented reality somehow in-between I finally want to point to a project situated in the offline world. Based on the data from data.gov.uk the newspaper club created the prototype for a data driven newspaper that is aimed at people moving into a new area. It is thought to trigger an active engagement with the publicly available data for one’s local environment.

Despite the promising approaches mentioned above there’s a lot of work to do, as suggested in Nat Torkington’s article. The mere availability of data doesn’t change anything and thus what matters is representation and engagement.

Filed under: Data, Politics, Visualization, Web 2.0

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

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 google.cn.

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