Category Archives: German talk

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.


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:


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



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: