Smart. Networked. Transparent? A public evening on life in the data cloud

I´m part of a small group of researchers who started a public debate series at ITAS in Karlsruhe called technik.kontrovers (“controversial technology”). Our idea is that Technology Assessment should also interact with the general public as our topics have significant societal implications and there is a lot to be learned from each other. After our successful start with an evening on robotics in December 2014, I was happy to contribute as a speaker together with my colleague Reinhard Heil.

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Full house at ITAS´ public evening “Smart. Networked. Transparent? Life in the data cloud”. Photo by Jonas Moosmüller.

Once more our institute´s foyer reached its limits when it was filled with a diverse and very engaged audience on March 18th. There were more than enough controversial topics to discuss under the umbrella of the evening´s title “Smart. Networked. Transparent? Life in the data cloud” (German: “Smart. Vernetzt. Gläsern? Leben in der Datenwolke”): data collection through smartphones, (ab)using web surfing habits for credit scoring, personalizing insurances by analyzing individual driving behavior or health information, to name just a few. Reinhard and I gave an introduction into the wide field of Big Data and the Internet of Things in form of a dialogue with pre-defined roles: I was supposed to play an enthusiastic tech-optimist who can´t wait to try pretty much every app and gadget out there, while Reinhard acted as a slightly paranoid guy trying to keep his data profile as low as possible.

Surprisingly, I did not find it that hard to play my role as a tech-enthusiast. The overwhelming majority of the crowd had a negative outlook on the topics discussed. When the moderators asked them whether Big Data generally might improve their life, around 45 voted “no” whereas only 15 chose “yes”. Granted, our general perspective was rather critical and some of my “pro” arguments could easily be perceived negatively. For example, Minority Report´s vision of personalized advertising probably appears rather nightmarish to some and Larry Page´s claim that the analysis of health data could save 100,000 lives a year indeed could be called “ethical blackmailing” as Reinhard pointed out.

This critical bias was intended. I believe that the optimistic point of view on the developments connected to Big Data does not need much support at the moment. The Silicon Valley and its popular products has more than enough power and influence, many politicians would love to gather evermore data to enable an encompassing surveillance regime, scientists love the new possibilities coming with new data treasures and even the smallest local businesses tend to believe the promises of an dramatically increased efficiency through an automated analysis of production processes etc.

However, when I was confronted with this strong skepticism towards Big Data, I felt pushed to defend the new opportunities connected to this technology – not because it was my pre-defined role but because I actually believe it is important to keep both sides in mind. No doubt, the risks connected to Big Data have to be taken seriously. However, the reactions towards privacy and security threats are too often within diametric extremes: helpless fatalism or paranoid alarmism. Instead, we need a well-informed and balanced debate, wise decision-making with careful and considerate regulation where necessary. I hope our new project Assessing Big Data (ABIDA) will help to build a foundation for this.

Nevertheless, I very much enjoyed our heated debates and I´m looking forward to the next public evening on a completely different topic: The future of eating. By the way, once more the evening was documented artistically with a visual recording by Jens Hahn which looks pretty cool, in my opinion:

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Visual recording artist Jens Hahn in action. Photo by Jonas Moosmüller.

 

 

New project: Assessing Big Data (ABIDA)

I´m excited to be on board of a brand new project: Assessing Big Data (ABIDA). Funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with more than EUR 6 million, we are going to study the societal opportunities and risks of Big Data for a period of four years, together with our partners at the University of Münster and working groups from multiple German universities. Check out KIT´s press release for more information and stay tuned for our upcoming project website.

Evening on the Filter Bubble at Wikimedia Germany

I just came back from a quite interesting evening in Berlin. Wikimedia Germany has invited Saskia Sell and me to discuss about Eli Pariser´s Filter Bubble as part of their series Digitale Kompetenzen (in German). Saskia started by reminding us that information filtering is nothing new as we have always depended on gatekeepers and our own filter mechanisms and individual biases. We both agreed that Pariser´s book is highly techno-deterministic and I also pointed out that first studies on personalization in search engine results do not support his fear of becoming trapped in personalized information bubbles. However, I do believe that a naive use of search engines might get users into bubbles of one-sided information. As an example, I pointed to the research I did with Erik Borra on how 9/11 has been represented at Google over time. We found that the query “9/11” lead mostly to sites representing alternative (“conspiracy”) accounts of the attacks until Google rolled out its Panda update. This change of the algorithm apparently worked in favor for sites representing the “mainstream” version of the event.

I was very happy about the pretty engaged audience which helped to create lively discussions (partly also on Twitter under #digikompz). One of the key points was that the opaque algorithms which filter our information should become more transparent and that their users need a specific form of literacy to deal with them in a constructive way. Wikimedia Germany´s Digikompz-series is a good step in that direction as it exactly aims at educating the public about the pitfalls of digital communication. There is one more event coming up which I can only recommend. It will be streamed live and can also be watched afterwards. Also our evening on the Filter Bubble can be re-watched here:

New German article: “The anomaly hunters: 9/11 as a test case for the digital public”

9/11 online and the participatory dilemma

Together with Tobias Audersch we just published an article in the German Internet magazine Telepolis. It connects to my previous work on how 9/11 is represented on Google (I presented first results together with Erik Borra at the Society of the Query #2 conference) and how the case is negotiated on Wikipedia´s discussion pages (see my article in Information, Communication & Society). In both cases I was interested in the politics of exclusion, since the September 11 attacks are subject of a heated debate with fundamentally diverging interpretations. This challenges any kind of gatekeeper who has to decide what information is relevant – whether human or algorithmic. We observed that in the light of such controversy, the prevailing mechanism of selecting information takes a rather conservative approach by favoring well-established sources. This can be interpreted as a participatory dilemma: The Internet potentially allows for participation beyond the established knowledge hierarchies but exactly because it is used heavily in that regard, these hierarchies get reproduced even harsher online.

How can we overcome the participatory dilemma?

These observations were criticized especially by the digitally very active so-called 9/11 Truth Movement who believes that the “official” account of the attacks is wrong. Instead, their alternative accounts usually suggest that certain details indicate a complicity of the US government. Naturally, supporters of this perspective are not content with Wikipedia´s and Google´s politics of exclusion. Some of them have also used my work as a proof for an unjust form of censorship within the Wikipedia community. This provoked me to think further and to take a personal stand.

Indeed, I´m not a supporter of the Truth Movement and their accounts. I used to moderate a forum with Tobias Audersch in which we discussed their myriads of arguments in detail. None of them could convince me. However, this became an interesting case for my sociological perspective as it touches many questions discussed in my discipline: How does knowledge get socially constructed? What is the role of experts in a democratic society? How do the new online channels shape society and how does society shape them? One of the most crucial questions resulting from my research and experience with the Truth Movement is how can we overcome the participatory dilemma?

Anomaly hunting – on the methodological issues of the Truth Movement

For more conservative observers, the case is easy: They usually regard supporters of the 9/11 Truth Movement as conspiracy theorists who don´t deserve to be taken seriously. But whether we like it or not, these perspectives have become a “mainstream political reality” as Time-author Lev Grossman has once put it and opinion polls show. Therefore, radical exclusion might not be an adequate answer for democratic societies. More importantly, we may wonder how we can structure online debates in a way that allows for diverging viewpoints. My worry is not the exclusion of absurd theories, my worry is the across-the-board elimination of anything that contradicts conservative mainstream views.

While it is easy to criticize Wikipedia and Google for their gatekeeping policies, we also need to understand their problematic position: They need to find quick and easily accessible answers to complex and controversial questions. The 9/11 Truth Movement has an easier job as their main motto is “ask questions, demand answers”. They have done so by accumulating countless apparent inconsistencies in the “official” version of the event. As Tobias and I argue in the Telepolis-article, this is neither enough nor convincing because one can easily turn this around: In the rare cases in which alternative accounts have actually been spelled out, one can find just as many inconsistencies (if not more) as in what they call the “official story” of 9/11. But usually the movement does not even develop any kind of narrative. Instead they just collect lists of apparent inconsistencies, operating as anomaly hunters, as we argue. However, whether you are a journalist, historian, wikipedian or search engine provider, listing doubts and open questions is not enough. Your task is to provide answers. If the 9/11 Truth Movement wants to be taken seriously, they have to do exactly that. Otherwise, they should not be surprised if they keep getting excluded.

My first mini shitstorm ­­and the crisis of the comment section

It was an interesting experience for me to publish with Telepolis. Their audience is not only far bigger than that of an average academic article, it is also very different. Numerous articles of some of the German protagonists of the Truth Movement have appeared here and the forum is full of their supporters. Thus, it wasn´t surprising that our article received over 470 comments within a week and the feedback was overwhelmingly negative. However, the majority of the comments didn´t even address our main arguments. Instead, the article apparently has functioned for many as nothing but an initiator to continue old debates. This is disappointing as we hoped to go beyond this point by tackling the roots of the conflict instead of its symptoms. But what I observed was extremely unfruitful discussions which did not lead anywhere. Of course, this is nothing new but rather just another example for the crisis of the comment section. The constantly unproductive discourse in this format has already motivated major news sites like the German Süddeutsche Zeitung to close down their comment sections. This is also another proof of the participatory dilemma: Participation is limited by participation. Needless to say, this is a very unsatisfying development and we need to find new ways to allow for constructive online discourse as also Sascha Dickel has argued.

Relaunch!

After almost 6 years with my old website, I finally found the time and patience to create a new one. I chose WordPress because I wanted a more lively site which is also easier to handle than pure HTTP while giving me a lot of flexibility, too. So far I´m very happy with it. It´s still under construction, so it´s not complete and probably contains some errors here and there. Feedback is very welcome, of course!

I also would like to thank my friend Philipp Randt and his agency Mit Überblick who have been very helpful with my old site. If you ever need some (web) designers I highly recommend these guys!

New book: Society of the Query Reader. Reflections on Web Search

After co-organizing the Society of the Query #2  conference I had the chance to edit a related book with Miriam Rasch as part of the Institute of Network Cultures´ exciting reader series. It´s out now and it´s completely open access!

Read it online, download it or order a copy for free here.

About the book: Looking up something online is one of the most common applications of the web. Whether with a laptop or smartphone, we search the web from wherever we are, at any given moment. ‘Googling’ has become so entwined in our daily routines that we rarely question it. HSociety of the Query coverowever, search engines such as Google or Bing determine what part of the web we get to see, shaping our knowledge and perceptions of the world. But there is a world beyond Google – geographically, culturally, and technologically.

The Society of the Query network was founded in 2009 to delve into the larger societal and cultural consequences that are triggered by search technology. In this Reader, which is published after two conferences held in Amsterdam in 2009 and 2013, twenty authors – new media scholars, historians, computer scientists, and artists – try to answer a number of pressing questions about online search. What are the foundations of web search? What ideologies and assumptions are inscribed in search engine algorithms? What solution can be formulated to deal with Google’s monopoly in the future? Are alternatives to Google even thinkable? What influence does online search have on education practices? How do artists use the abundance of data that search engines provide in their creative work? By bringing researchers together from a variety of relevant disciplines, we aim at opening up new perspectives on the Society of the Query.

“Science and the Beta-Society”: My talk at the Science 2.0 Conference, 26 to 27 March, Hamburg

I was very happy that I was invited to give a talk at the very interesting Science 2.0 Conference in Hamburg. Thanks to the perfect organization, the event was also documented very well with videos of the presentations (find them here). Here´s my talk:

Abstract: We live in a Beta-Society: Software is structuring almost all niches of society, including academia, and more often than not, it is in a permanent beta state. As such, it is never stable nor ready and we – the users – are constantly monitored for its improvement, subjects of an ongoing real-life experiment. At the same time, users and their data have become a commodity and their interactions the foundation of Web 2.0 platforms. Therefore, developers have lowered the interaction barriers as far as possible while hiding the complexity and actual social costs of their platforms and keeping them within their “walled gardens”. Specifically, scholarly communication is increasingly mediated and structured through these services, posing a number of challenges to the academic system: opaque algorithms re-ordering scientific relevance, new forms of peer review and quality management, lay participation and privacy threats to name just a few. The talk will address these issues by focusing on concrete examples of popular Web 2.0 platforms.