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Internet Technologies

The Materiality of Digital Objects

The final plenary speaker in this opening session at AoIR 2012 is Susanna Paasonen, who highlights the question of what the object of Internet research really is. This has often been described in terms of loss – loss of material aspects of research objects – as well as gain – the benefits of disembodiment.

Beyond Toaster Studies: Moving beyond Tech-Centric Internet Research

The first AoIR 2012 plenary begins with Mary L. Gray, whose interest is in moving past technology-centric work in Internet studies. Rather, life is entangled with Internet technologies: the study of media should be used to draw out larger questions, and Internet research needs to be an interdiscipline concerned with boundary work.

Starting AoIR with a Bang: Ignite Talks

And I've arrived at the 2012 Association of Internet Researchers conference – my annual pilgrimage to catch up with the family. We start with a quick burst of Ignite talks, which itself begins with John Carter McKnight. He notes the two fundamental axioms of video games studies: games teach, and games don't teach. The Red Cross has posed the question: Is there a way for first-person shooter games to include a more accuracy representation of international humanitarian law?

Towards Digital Space Analysis

The next speaker at the CCC Symposium is Casper Radil, whose interest is in the analytical construction of Web data. How might we talk about the relationship between server access data and the actual communication processes which take place as users engage with the Websites themselves? Casper's approach is digital space analysis, which is an approach to contextualising the different forms of metadata which are created as users access Web content.

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.

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.


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