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Berlin Symposium 2011

Inaugural symposium of the Institute for Internet and Society, Berlin, 25-28 Oct. 2011.

The Role of the Humanities in Technological Development

The third day at the Berlin Symposium starts with a brief keynote by Damon Horowitz from Google, who outlines some further research challenges for the new Institute for Internet and Society. He begins by considering the auto-complete function of Web forms (as in Google search) – this is a simple indication of how data is gathered about usage patterns in pursuit of greater systems efficiency: it can be beneficial, but also a sign of humans losing agency to the system.

Second, the social media status update: a simple way of starting a conversation, of sharing information, of spreading ourselves; but where do such updates go? Who are the intended, or actual recipients? What are the consequences? Once we’ve tasted the pleasure of communicating more widely this way, it’s difficult to restrain ourselves from using this functionality – but do we understand the full implications of doing so?

New Public Spheres, and the Law

Finally, Karl-Heinz Ladeur responds to Wolfgang’s talk at the Berlin Symposium by also highlighting the fragmentation of the public sphere: first, on the one hand, there was a vision of a homogeneous political public organised in concentric circles, whose deliberative processes are facilitated by a supposedly neutral media; on the other hand, there was a view of a cultural public which integrates the imagined nation state with the society of individuals.

But through the gradual transformation of the media, a more active media role came to greater prominence; media were no longer seen as neutral, but as actors in their own right, and the notion of an entertainment public arose. Audiovisual media played an immediate role in the reproduction of everyday life in its fragmentation, and in the presentation of possible social norms – reality TV is the culmination of this process.

Juridical Approaches to New Forms of Publicness

The next speaker in this session at the Berlin Symposium is the Hans-Bredow-Institut’s Wolfgang Schulz, whose focus is on the impact of social media in changing the public sphere. Social media combine two key aspects: they articulate the social graph (providing social networking functionalities), and they lower the barriers for user-generated content (providing communicative and content sharing functionalities).

Uses of social media are governed by various rules: legally protected interests include copyright, personal data, communication transparency, protection of the private sphere, protection of minors, prohibition of hate speech, etc.; governance, though, takes place through technological means (software design and code), crowd-originated social norms, and other processes.

Robotic Journalism?

In response to Chris W. Anderson’s talk at the Berlin Symposium, Lorenz Matzat now discusses the question of ‘robot journalism’ and its impact on newsroom jobs. There is a substantial increase in the amount of data being collected (and to some extent, made available) by all sorts of devices; these data would also be valuable for journalistic purposes, of course.

Understanding Algorithmic Journalism

The afternoon session at the Berlin Symposium, on intermediaries in public communication, begins with Chris W. Anderson’s presentation on data journalism (he’s not the ‘long tail’ guy, by the way). He begins by describing journalism as a media form that’s meant to bring the public together – to assemble the reading public. In a sense, Google, and data algorithms, similarly bring the public together – and intermediaries emerge in this process.

Algorithms are predetermined sets of instructions for solving a specific problem in a limited number of steps; one of the best known algorithms of recent years is Google’s PageRank algorithm, of course. They are hybrid entities, cyborgs, both human and machinic: they combine both human intentionality and social structure, and technological affordances. In other words, they’re part of the social world, not machines impacting on it from the outside – but they’re also not determined entirely by social and societal forces, but retain technological qualities.

Understanding Flows of Information and Power in Open Data

I’m chairing the next workshop at the Berlin Symposium, which features a paper by Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Zarino Zappia. Zarino starts us off by highlighting the Obama administration’s statement that government should be transparent, participative, and collaborative – and a number of open data sites by governments and non-government have now been set up.

But where is the research into how this material has been used, by whom, why, and with what results? Will such re-routing of information flows bring about a democratic renaissance, or will we see the rise of intermediaries who wield new forms of power? To address some of these issues, Zarino and Viktor have begun to map the new field.

Towards Open Statecraft

The second keynote at the Berlin Symposium this morning is by Philipp Müller, who will argue for the idea of ‘open statecraft’ in a networked world. He suggests that our world has become ‘unfiltered’ through the move from mass to networked and social media; the appropriate description for this is not simply many-to-many or few-to-few media, but n-to-n media, where all sorts of power games in pursuit of communicative impact, visibility, and success take place.

There are also some cognitive lags here – we’re missing a framework that allows each of us to work in these worlds, much as we once learnt, slowly and with difficulty, to live in the industrialised and mass media worlds. Historical analogies are 1386 – where lances as a military technology were first used to undermine warfare based on mediaeval knights, and in the process undermined the knighthood system overall; 1518, when Martin Luther became the first blogger, using the new technology of the printing press, and a church door, to initiate some 150 years of governance crisis; and 1927, when Bertolt Brecht pursued ‘radio theory’ and considered the development of audience-driven backchannels to radio as well as theatre plays.

Pushing Back against State and Corporate Internet Surveillance and Censorship

The second day of the Berlin Symposium begins with a keynote by Rebecca MacKinnon, who begins with the story of an arts installation, the Berlin Twitter Wall, which reflected on the fall of the Wall in 1989 through the medium of Twitter. As it happened, though, the hashtag #fotw (fall of the wall) was taken over by Chinese Twitter users, protesting against the continuing censorship in China; this cold war view of state censorship as an ‘information curtain’, and of digital media as the samizdat of the day, continues to permeate today.

But this ‘iron curtain 2.0’ view of the Internet has also been criticised – there are more complicated problems that mere barriers to access, and more complex divisions than those commonly perceived to exist between ‘authoritarian’ and ‘democratic’ countries. We may be succumbing to historicism, even to technological determinism, blinding us to what’s actually going on. Where, in fact, are we going, then?

Further Critical Questions about Crowdsourcing

The second speaker in this (really productive) session on crowdsourcing at the Berlin Symposium is Malte Ziewitz, whose interest is in the application of crowd wisdom to regulatory problems. Crowdsourcing itself isn’t actually all that new – there have been questions about the wisdom or folly of crowds for a very long time already, and ‘the crowd’ has been positioned as a problem (the uninformed mob) as much as as a solution (drawing on folk knowledge and commonsense).

Current thinking on crowd wisdom comes variously from management science, computer science, and economics (painting crowdsourcing as an engineering challenge, focussing on generating ‘useful’ information, and worrying about bias, abuse, and manipulation) and from political science, sociology, and regulation studies (focussing on the solicitation of lay views, concerns over knowledge gaps and expertise in regulatory decision-making, and questions of technology and regulation). These combine into a view of crowd wisdom as a techno-scientific solution to regulatory problems – through terms like ‘wiki government’, ‘infotopia’, ‘peer production’, and ‘civic technologies’.

Understanding Crowdsourcing Processes

The next session at the Berlin Symposium is on crowdsourcing, involving two speakers (there’s also a lot of discussion, which I’m not blogging here.) We begin with Katarina Stanoevska-Slabeva, who begins by introducing the range of related concepts which describe the broad field of crowdsourcing. The Net is diminishing transactional costs for communication, collaboration and coordination; this facilitates collaboration amongst disparate stakeholders and provides more opportunities for individuals to participate. As a result, innovation has been democratised – indeed, users are becoming ever more important as innovators.

Internet-enabled innovation can be used as an umbrella term for these processes; within this field, there are a number of specific formations, however: these include lead user innovation (users taking part in the value creation process on their own account, innovating largely in offline contexts); open innovation (initiated and coordinated by companies and other organisations, both in on- and offline contexts); user innovation communities (enabled and facilitated through Internet platforms and technologies, connecting users and companies); open source communities (as a specific, user-driven form of user innovation communities); and crowdsourcing (similar to user innovation communities spreading across users and companies, and online).


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