Behind and in front of algorithms: A conversation through the screen

by Elinor Carmi & Martina Mahnke


[Image found here.]

Being on the Internet means searching for information. It means digging into what is simultaneously new and old. It means searching for the known while finding the unknown. Being on the Internet means a constant negotiation with algorithms.

How do we get algorithms to do what we want them to do? Does using algorithms mean tricking “the man” behind? Is “he” trying to help us digging through the graveyard of information or does “he” have other intentions? Why are we using these tools? Is it because we have no other possibilities or because we can’t simply create our own algorithms? If Google wasn’t free would it be that big? What would happen if regulators said that nothing on the Internet can be free anymore? How do we negotiate control in relation to the way Information is presented to us on the Internet?

Two media scholars started a conversation about algorithms and how to make sense of them. This is not an academic article, i.e. – we do not reach the catharsis of a final conclusion. If anything, this chat digs into the hotly debated subject of the mathematical equations that organize the way we receive and interact with information on the Internet. It is an attempt to poke the black box that is our screen, but it is merely the beginning, a chat – no more, no less.

ON FACEBOOK (slightly edited and shortened version)

[22-11-2013 4:04 pm Elinor]

I think there is a confusion with programmers and the ownership of software or applications. Programmers employed by Google or Facebook do not own anything. They are working for a corporation and usually don’t have much power or control over what they produce. In addition, these algorithms are a product of many other actors such as different standardization organisations, the FCC, W3C, OSI etc. Therefore, we have to understand that this issue is actually an amalgamation of many actors who shape algorithms.

[22-11-2013 4:35 pm Martina]

I actually like to put emphasis on the human-algorithm-interaction and understand algorithmic output as the result out of an interaction between the user and the algorithms. Simply said: no user, no algorithm, no output. Further, I think we focus too much on the institutional and structural components. I think it’s important to talk about the individual interaction on the micro-level. Yes, we can just ‘blame’ the algorithm or on an institutional level ‘Google’ but this will always end up in a power fight. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? This will never change anything. Therefore, we have to ask what can we as individual users do? In most research users are understood as being passive and non-influential. Hence, we need to start reflecting on our behavior as a user.

[22-11-2013 5:26 pm Elinor]

Putting the responsibility on the user is exactly what neo-liberalism is all about. The ‘power fight’ you are talking about is exactly what is needed, IMO, and usually silenced and moved to the end user’s ‘fault’. I do agree with you that as users AND citizens we have something to do, but it does not end merely by knowing what algorithms do. Instead of thinking of some users as stupid perhaps we should ask why are programmers so obsessed with user experience?

[22-11-2013 5:30 pm Elinor]

In other words, changing user’s knowledge of their ‘on-line’ behavior is only one step that users can do. But corporations and governments have to be accountable for different products (in this case algorithms) provided to citizens. Not all people have the privilege to have the sufficient literacy of programming languages, especially since these are intentionally designed to be ‘black boxed’. So I disagree with you that it is only the ‘users’ responsibility, since this assumes all users and citizens have same economic and cognitive abilities.

[22-11-2013 5:54 pm Martina]

I would even go further and say we teach our children the wrong subjects … I don’t think we disagree as I haven’t said it’s ‘just’ the user but BOTH – I just focus on the micro level. What we might disagree on is what kind of regulation we want. It seems like I’m more on the programmer’s side, wanting liberation. I don’t want some government to decide, I rather engage in literacy and figure out the ‘black-box’. Why should governmental governance be any better?

CONTINUED ON GOOGLE DOCS (slightly edited and shortened version)

[22-11-2013 Elinor]

Programmers are usually a white male elite that has invented this language, and I hardly think we should automatically adopt what they think is the right and only language to talk and build the Internet. If we are to take the power to decide, then I decide not use this language. Oh, but wait, can I really? I do agree with you that governmental regulation can be problematic but not sure if the current situation is much better.

[25-11-2013 Martina]

I do see two lines of argumentation here. One is a very normative one: What is the ‘right’ thing to do? Who takes on power? How do we regulate? Shouldn’t we just let the people decide? If people think it’s useful and use it, why not … And the other side, number two, we are talking about: cultural interrelations. Yes, mankind is not as free as we might hope, we are bound to our heritage. Therefore, I suggest more literacy skills. Back to: we need to teach our children different subjects.

[28-11-2013 Elinor]

I agree these questions are hard but also believe we have to confront them; otherwise they are answered for us rather than by us. I am not even sure that the question is ‘what is the “right” thing to do’. Perhaps there is no right answer to this, but are we given with options? Do we have access to the decision-making procedures of such algorithms, and if not, can we at least have some kind of transparency in terms of what they actually do? These direct questions have to be answered, mainly because algorithms have a direct influence on our digital (and material) lives: structuring what we see on the Internet, deciding what kind of prices we get on various websites, deciding how we interact with each other, deciding how we interact with other commercial and non-human agents, etc. If such an architectural design of online environment has such far reaching consequences over our lives (decisions, actions, thoughts, feelings) shouldn’t we at least have some kind of idea of what they actually do, how they organize the information we engage with and when they decide to change the equations of such algorithms? THEN, literacy will make sense because we will be confronted with these algorithms and have to understand how they work, not as passive agents, but rather as active ones who can take control over the way their online environment is designed and shaped.

[30-11-2013 Martina]

This I think is interesting: “Do we have access to the decision making procedures of such algorithms”?. What I read out of this question is the understanding that algorithms are ‘decision making procedures’. What does that actually mean? Starting very naive: Let’s assume you drive a car and you reach a conjunction, you have 3 possible ways to go and you need to choose one option. The decision that follows is bind to certain conditions. Maybe you’d like to go the fasted way or you’d like to go the most beautiful way. This may or may not influence your choice, however, you need to select. Therefore, making a decision means to select something. You need to go this way and not the other, meaning you leave one road behind. After a while you reach another crossroad and the same scenario occurs. You need to select again, and once again you leave something behind. Problematic at this scenario is that you can only do either or. This seems to account for the algorithms as underlying structure of algorithmic media as well. The final news we see seem to have been selected over others, leaving the impression that we’ll not be able to see them. From a user’s perspective it seems kind of random. Why so? Because we look at the content. We just relate to content ask ourselves why do we see this and not that. The underlying processes of algorithmic media, however, track user’s behavior. User’s behavior is quantified. Here’s a quote out of my interview material:

“And it worked in a way that we know that we gave you a list, ordered from 1 to 10. But you read, actually you clicked on item number 3 first. We inferred that you prefer the content of number 3 to number 1 and 2. And that gives us this next time, if we get any content that is very similar to one and two and content that is similar to 3, then we can assume that because you preferred it last time, you might prefer it this time and we’ll put it first. But if now again you choose the third item, then it switches back. That’s why it keeps sort of (u) what’s going on. If I give you old news at the top and it’s not interesting to you anymore, you gonna read the Johnny Depp item, then we know ok, she prefers that always and it’s always before other stuff. That’s how the only idea works behind it …”

So one could argue that the decision is actually made by the user and where she clicks. In this way it makes sense, if programmers say:

“We don’t filter out. We only sort it.”
“Filtering is not very clever. I mean it’s like if you have information overload and you just drop sources so you didn’t really solve the problem (…) yeah, you solve the problem but not very wise. You just give up on information.”

“It doesn’t make decisions. It gives rank for things. So it’s like mathematical formula. You give the number inside and the formula gives you a rank.”

Maybe it’s important to think about decision. What does it mean for whom in which situation. I think it’s just too simple to say ‘algorithms decide’.

[Elinor Carmi 11-12-2013]

I will divide my answer according to yours :)

- First, your allegory is good but somewhat misleading, because it is true that there must be some kind of decision making but in a way algorithms do not cater for one person (who drives the car), we are talking about huge amounts of people, different backgrounds, different literacy capacities etc. This means that each decision making taken here is so much more crucial because it touches so many people and their digital lives. Therefore, I see this as a design that should be transparent and clear, rather than opaque and vague as it is today. These decisions, categories, standards and options are not neutral and ‘obvious’ paths to be taken, but rather, they are influenced by corporate decisions that are guided by profit and thus should be under much higher scrutiny and supervision. As I’ve mentioned before, programmers do not operate by their own free will, they get job tasks from people who aim to have a specific user experience that will bring profit in the most frictionless way possible.

- I am not sure that as users we only think about the content, I think, but again I have no data or thorough research to back this – that beyond the content that we see, we also care about user experience. And this unfolds also the kinds of expression tools given to us: How can I present myself on Facebook? Which privacy settings can I adjust to filter different circles in my life and so on and so forth (I think PEW research center just published something about youth being super conscious about their settings, because they want to hide information from their parents). These are very important and I think people notice that as well. The fact that I have to identify myself with my real name, my offline identity if you like, already signals a very well planned strategy that suits third party companies rather than users, which, of course, were not asked about any of Facebook’s design changes.

- Filtering and organising information in a specific way is extremely important, and shows that these programmers want to do this job FOR the users, rather than they would do so themselves. It sort of resembles these special stands in supermarkets and even in book stores of specific products, which are given a more central space because the corporation that make them paid more money to have better visibility. Are these the products the users think are more important? Would they choose them if they weren’t so ‘highlighted’? These are important questions, especially since we are talking about different forms of information, some very crucial. Therefore, it is not so much like a mathematical formula since there is an internal bias within them from the beginning, so the process is extremely tilted towards corporations that have the resources to make certain forms of information more visible than others. And this has far reaching consequences on the way we think and understand the world.


Concluding through the screen

Google, Facebook, Netflix, Amazon, Spotify and other tech companies are a big part of our (digital) lives. They are here to stay, at least for now, and they rely on algorithms. They shape us and we shape them. They are a complex; interrelating the social and the technical. Many actors are involved, corporations, regulators and most importantly – the users. Influencing the mass as well as the individual. We are very much in the beginning of understanding what algorithms do and how they influence us. And we are even more at the beginning to understand how to deal with them. Is the call for transparency sufficient? Does it even lead us to where we want to go? Is technology really empowering us or is it time to step back? What does empowerment even mean? And how can we find a way for multiple voices/needs/literacy/ to have equal access to the main channels of knowledge production?

What science can do and what we need to do is to develop a language that enables us to understand the complex interrelations beyond the pure mathematics on one side, and modern hyperboles of mystic algorithms on the other. Stay tuned!

What is science?


Even though we’re quite some time back now, one question is still stuck in my head. A question that has been raised during the last day of the summer school, namely what is science/what is a scientist? Klaus Tochtermann one of the last keynote speakers defined science by profession. This made me think. Especially when it’s so hard nowadays to get a full-time job in science, is this still a working definition? Isn’t this way of thinking a little outdated? Especially if you keep in mind that you have to pay for a PhD in some countries, which means not everybody can just be educated as a scientist.

I don’t have a final answer myself, but especially during these last days writing my PhD I’m thinking very much about, what science is and what scientists do (and if I should pursue the ‘science path’).

I’ve googled around a little and found many definitions. For example this one by Claude Bernard (1813-1878): “A modern poet has characterized the personality of art and the impersonality of science as follows: Art is I; Science is We.” Or this one by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834): “Poetry is not the proper antithesis to prose, but to science. (…) The proper and immediate object of science is the acquirement, or communication, of truth; the proper and immediate object of poetry is the communication of immediate pleasure.” Or this one by Matt Ridley (1999): “The fuel on which science runs is ignorance. Science is like a hungry furnace that must be fed logs from the forests of ignorance that surround us. In the process, the clearing that we call knowledge expands, but the more it expands, the longer its perimeter and the more ignorance comes into view. (…) A true scientist is bored by knowledge; it is the assault on ignorance that motivates him – the mysteries that previous discoveries have revealed. The forest is more interesting than the clearing.” Or this funny one: “A carpenter, a school teacher, and scientist were traveling by train through Scotland when they saw a black sheep through the window of the train. “Aha,” said the carpenter with a smile, “I see that Scottish sheep are black.” “Hmm,” said the school teacher, “You mean that some Scottish sheep are black.” “No,” said the scientist glumly, “All we know is that there is at least one sheep in Scotland, and that at least one side of that one sheep is black.”

So what is science? Am I any wiser now? I’ll be honest with you: No I’m not. And this has exactly been my problem with science for a long time. As I’ve understood the idea is that we close research gaps and that we built up a body of knowledge. And to do so we define and re-define. We fight over concepts, wording and arguments. We try to be the best and the most cited one. We try to be convincing and sometime we raise our voices in order to be heard. So is this what science is all about?

I still don’t know. But I know that science has all these amazing opportunities. Like the summer school with all these smart and bright people who never stop asking questions, even thought we might not reach a conclusion sometimes. And maybe this is what science is all about: Taking the time to think. And to finally find our own answer. And every answer may be valid.

Digitization – a Prediction of the Future III (The Summer School)

Part III is the last one of the guest post series from Sven Guckes website text, for now. While part I focused on a summery of the summer school event and part II brought up some thoughts about ‘digitization’, this post will discuss the issue of Creative Commons. It’s basically the essence of the workshop, he moderated on September 29th 2013, back at the summer school. If you are interested on more information about the workshop’s issues and discussion you can have a look here.

== (CC) ==

here's a summary of my talk/workshop on
creative commons license in a few words:

the "creative commons" license
tries to fill the gap between
"all rights reserved" (copyright) and
"it's all free" (eg copyleft and free software).

creators would like to share their works as "data" 
as freely as possible - however, they would like
to impose some demands on these things:
eg  attribution of creator, commercial application,
and restriction to license of derivative works.
(in short: creator, money, derivative works)

so these are the possible choices for this license:

  cc-by       = Attribution    (Commercial)
  cc-by-nd    = Attribution    (Commercial)  No Derivatives
  cc-by-sa    = Attribution    (Commercial)  Share Alike
  cc-by-nc    = Attribution Non-Commercial
  cc-by-nc-nd = Attribution Non-Commercial   No Derivatives
  cc-by-nc-sa = Attribution Non-Commercial   Share Alike

choose wisely - but do make a chocie before publishing!

Digitization – a Prediction of the Future II (Digitization)

As promised this is the second part of the guest post series of Sven Guckes which started here. Besides a lot more things he can be described as hacktivist. Thank you again, Sven, vor allowing me to publish parts of your text from your website

This time I chose a part which focusses on thoughts about digitization.

== Digitization ==

what has been dreamed of since the 18th century -
it is here now: the world of zeros and ones.
finally, we can do so many things with data.
but before it is data, the things we deal with
must be digitized.  so more problems - so little time.

Digitization comprises a lot of fields, and
will be here to stay as many professions.
it will create a log of jobs and blah blah blah..
when will pupils at school learn about all this?

this affects a lot of people.. and not
only when they do a PhD at university,
accessing books at the library.

the access to data online will be as common
as reading books has been all the time.
access and bandwidth will facilitate this.
let's make it as open as possible to everyone!

all things non-ditized will require digitization
so we can distribute the info and make
them accessible to everyone out there.
understand digitization to aid others.

digitization has naturally become a key role
in finding solutions to our world problems.

so.. digitize!

50 Shades of Digitalization

men women
A few months ago I met my friend Jiga, an Israeli female electronic artist who played in punk bands as a bass player, before she joined Jino in 1997 to form Analog Pussy, a psychedelic Trance group; they also relocated to Germany and formed a music label. Currently Jiga has a different electronic band – Madlick – which combines metal, punk and electronics. Our meeting gradually became a conversation about the absence of female electronic artists. In that conversation she described her own experience in the electronic dance scene; Jiga argued that when talking about music with electronic artists (mostly men) she noticed that their discourse, terminology and topics focused around the technical side: which plug-ins to use, the sophistication of one computer over another and which new technological gadgets they have bought. She said that she always felt like an outsider in these conversations, because for her these issues didn’t matter that much. Her interests lied in the kind of emotions and feelings the tracks were led by and consequently generated in the audience. I also recognized, from my experience as a radio broadcaster and a journalist (of Electronic Dance Music Cultures), that indeed, the main topics of attention and discussion were focused on technology. These were highly emphasized by all the electronic artists I have interviewed throughout the last decade, 97% of them were men.


This long intro is meant to serve as an allegory to my gendered experience at the Dresden Technische Universitate summer school. It points to the main question (at least from my point of view) that was raised throughout the week- Can digitalization be a facilitator to introducing multiple voices/narratives/options/versions? Watching some of the presentations at the summer school, it seemed to me that this guiding question, as important as it is, takes for granted the production processes, power relations, the rationale and the standards/categories of digitalization, especially when it comes to the Internet. Much of the discussions took for granted the tools that digitalization offer without questioning who designed these tools and for which purposes. If we take Jiga’s case as an example, we can think of the way in which, in fact, there are other options to talk about electronic music, but these are usually disregarded as unprofessional and unimportant/irrelevant. At the moment the technological musical discourse, which has been constructed by men, is being preserved and presented as the only possible way, the better way of course.


In one of the panels, which consisted of only white privileged men, I intervened and talked about the book 50 Shades of Grey, as an example of several new options that have been opened to women thanks to the Internet – bypassing gatekeepers of taste (publishing houses) which did not deem the book to be ‘good’ enough or high ‘quality’ enough, bypassing tradition ways of reaching audiences (distribution by publishing houses), and last but definitely not least – discovering a new market for erotic literature made for women and written by a woman. Putting aside the fact that this is a book that encourages heterosexual conservative relations and of course the emergence of yet another market for capitalistic exploitation, it nevertheless provides an interesting case for the way digitalization can, in fact, empower different sections of society that have been silenced for too much time (women of course are only one example, there are also disabled people, poor people and people who are not white). Keeping that in mind it is still important to note that media technologies, since their very inception, were predominantly produced, financed and managed by white privileged men. It would, therefore, be naïve to think that the Internet, which has been developed and shaped by military and commercial aspirations (as with many other media technologies), is built in a neutral and objective sphere. As Carolyn Marvin has shown in her seminal book When Old Technologies Were New (1988), media technologies have always been a reflection their inventors notions – maintaining the control and superiority of the white, English speaking, privileged man. Marvin analyses electrical journals of the 19th century and shows, for example that when it came to the use of the telephone “[t]alkative women and their frivolous electrical conversations about inconsequential personal subjects were contrasted with the efficient, task-oriented, worldly talk of business and professional men” (Marvin, 1988: 23). However, these technologies, as the Internet itself, were always introduced as revolutionary, a-political, or responsible for annihilating politics:

The introduction of electricity was seen to have no political consequences, no winners or losers of power, or winners called to account for abuses of power, since politics would exist no more. The ominous meaning of the term ‘revolutionary’ was thus neatly transformed and appropriated (Marvin, 1988: 206).


Thus, it is important for us as social science researchers to go back and question the mechanism we use, to reveal the standardization processes that made the different options available to us become invisible and taken for granted, the procedures that made it a naturalized truth as Michel Foucault would have argued. It is exactly these options that have included and excluded certain groups in society since the inception of media technologies. This indicates that the current discourse is only one way to talk about digitalization, that has managed to transform and appear as the only way. As the internet enfolds previous media technologies, such as electricity, the electric light, books, radio, television etc. there is no reason to assume that the forces that have produced these devices, will all of a sudden disappear and create a clean slate where everyone has the same EQUAL starting point. As Klaus Tochtermann argued in the closing panel about the necessity to ‘play the game’, one might argue – Yes, sure let’s all play, but who’s game is it anyway? After all, the game’s rules and design were conceived by men; therefore, it is somewhat hard for anyone who is not part of, or agrees with that group to take part in the game as naturally and conveniently. Or in other words – No, I will not play the game! My motto is – Rules are meant to be broken.


When talking about gender in this context (and others) it is easy to slide into claims about what constitutes a ‘male’ discourse and what constitutes a ‘female’ discourse – which for many feels like we are boxed into the old notions of specific characteristics associated with a specific gender (A wonderful post about gender roles of female rock-pop artists can be found in Amanda Palmer’s letter to Sinead O’connor’s following the latter’s reaction to Miley Cyrus’ notorious MTV performance). Flagging gender problems, they might argue, seems to miss the point of trying to liberate us from falling into the trap of the traditional gender roles. However, as a society we have not been given the opportunity to see or experience our culture and society being made and managed by women. Heck, even the language and terminology we use has been colonized by men (e.g. – In Hebrew the default gender in language is the male one), and therefore we are, unfortunately, easily sucked into these divisions. Therefore, talking about media technologies from an a-political (and I consider politics to be a much broader concept, which is not restricted to the ghetto of government issues) standpoint is a privileged comfort zone usually preserved by those who are positioned at the top of the social hierarchy (as I’ve previously shown in my criticism to Evgeny Morozov’s ‘newly discovered’ phenomenon – solutionism). It is only after women and other excluded voices in society have equal access and mobility to the top of social and cultural structures AND be able to influence and shape them as they see fit – that we can start talking in a discourse that does not assign specific attributions to each gender. That awesome moment when we can actually judge people by who they really are rather than their birth-given sensibilities. Until that moment happens, and I honestly hope it will, we are just reinforcing the dominant (male) discourse while assuming that inequalities based on gender, race, class, and disabled people have vanished – they haven’t (even in more advanced Western countries such as Germany).

boys fix girls need

In conclusion, as I argued in one of my interventions in the male-fest panel about the digitalization’s impact, where I was asked how the internet would look if women were to invent it, I repeat my answer – full of emotions and colours. And lots and lots of pink!

Digitization – a Prediction of the Future I (The Summer School)

I am happy to present to you the first part of a new guest post, this time from Sven Guckes. Besides a lot more things he can be described as hacktivist. As participant of the summer school he wrote a quite detailed summary about this event on his website. He allowed me to publish his text here, too. If you are a fan of pure and simple layouts, his site will make you happy for sure.

== Misc ==
accomodation, travel, weather.

this is a summer school - so it is still
summer in germany, right?  well.. WRONG!

the temperatures range between
13C/55F and 0C/32F at night. eek!

so dont forget to bring a sweater and a coat
and extra underpants and a scarf and gloves.
alright.. prepare for WINTER!

accomodation for me was both in
a hotel and at friends' places.

visiting friends is almost always a part
of my travels to events. that's always great.
staying with them also gives the possibility
for some "nerding" at the computers on the net.
always great fun.. and usually
ends with a lack of sleep..

the hotel is very near the main station,
so it is easy to reach. just a walk away.

the room had a double bed (space! :-)
with super-white sheets and a nice
view onto the main station's roof.

there were four sockets labeled with
"DSL" (hey!), ISDN (wot?), and Modem (wtf??).
as it turns out, they're all dead.
there supposedly is wifi - for 5euros
per *half* hour. thanks - but, no, thanks.

most hostels will give you wifi for free.
no wonder they have no money
to buy a real hotel, right?

and the bottle of water cost 4,50 euros. o_O
maybe i should have crossed over the 30m
to the McD and bought myself a happy meal. ;)

others were staying at the guest house...
how was that?
== Languages ==
EN, de

the main language is definitely English.
however, as it takes part in Germany,
there are many german words involved.
but i also heard Italian, Spanish,
and Hebrew - and Saxonian. ;-)

okay.. the real language is *pidgin* english.
expect everyone to apply the intonation and
pronunciation from his/her mother tongue
as well adding some made-up
grammar and spelling, too.

then again, this is no course on english.
and everyone is fine to forgive
the mistakes of others.
so dont worry if your
english is not perfect.
join the school, anyway! :)
== Locations ==

the site of the event is a part of the
technical university of dresden,
in the south of the main station,
within the part of Räcknitz, more
specifically in nöthnitzerstrasse.

on the first day we met at the
military history museum which
is definitely special in itself.
we got a fast tour of the museum.
i didnt know i'd be interested that much,
but i found it really interesting after all.

for all the other days there has been
three main buildings we changed between:
the computer science department
and the Max Plank Institute (MPI)
in nöthnitzerstrasse - 
(about 300m away from each other),
and the refectory at mommsenstrasse
(two blocks away from the CS department).

the entry hall at the CS department contains
some art in the form of green slinky blobs.
i'd call them "spaghetti", but, hey..
at least there's something to talk about
once you enter this rather technical building.

at the CS department we obtained access to the wifi
with a user+pass - distinct from each other.
at the MPI there was exactly *one*
user+pass for all participants.
== Extras ==
tour at museum, tour of the town. blogger meetup.

tour at museum:
wow - this museum is interesting after all!
and i thought it would all be icky stuff.
the tour we got was quick (an hour) - and good.
i was drawn into the exhibition after it..
i almost immediately lost my command of time.
Joachim had to drag me out of it towards
the talks - otherwise i'd missed them.
i'm not into military stuff at all,
but i've taken note of this museum
and will likely visit it again.

tour of the town:
two hours in the chill - and informative all the way.
the guide woman was born in Dresden
and obviously is fond of this town.

bloggers meetup:
Katrin Etzrodt, Lisa Merten..
it's hard to get anything started.
a lot of opinions were given,
and both Katrin and Lisa
took them all in, sorted them,
put them into clear objective.
but now all the bloggers must
give their data to make it happen.
we'll see where this goes.
hopefully, this blog will still be
active for the next summer school.
it could be really helpful to
the following participants.
== Media ==
blog, chat, email, facebook, homepage, pads, pics, twitter, wiki.

good idea to have a blog accompany an event.
just like every other medium. ;-)
thinking about it now, maybe we
should have asked all participants
to write an entry *before* the event:

"please introduce yourself.
what is it you are doing?
have you been here before?
why do you participate at all?
what do you expect of the event?
do you have any open questions?"

the events i normally attend usually have a mailing list
and some chat (mostly IRC and jabber) in the background.
however, this kind of synchronous medium is
usually missing with events on media.  weird.
or has this been replaced by twitter now?
am i getting old?

email has been around since the 1970s.
but it's mostly a 1-to-N communication.
a maillist usually would allow N-to-N communication.
then again, noone seems to have learnt anything
about this at school. as it fails at so many levels.
while i have been using this for 25 years now,
i find that most people cannot make effective use of it.
like other media, i'm sure.

"are you on facebook?" "'course i am!"
funny enough, people who are not on facebook
seem to be weirdos who do not even
own an ID or do not exist at all.
"can you even trust these people?"
at some conferences it seems that way.
then again, on some other conferences
you get an response like
"fuckbook? hand over all of my data
directly to the NSA? are you kidding?"
think about it, media people.

a homepage definitely has become a business card.
got your own domain for it, too? sure.
firstname@lastname.{com,name,org}? yep.
connects you too all other stuff like
blog, social media, and the like? check.

we used textpads for some talks (see list).
the goal was to list a summary of the talk,
list all questions, and some comments and links.
as a textpad also allows chatting to each other,
participants had some fun around it.

some people have taken pics.
while they appear on instagram and twitter,
why - isnt anyone using flickr any more?

by the way, you can find my pics on dropbox+flayvr:

it's a must. don't you get it?
how else can you communicate to others
while you are sitting in a boring talk?
whaddaya mean, email, facebook, chat?

dead. killed by pads.
== Orga ==
catering+lunch. finance. schedule.

there had been several updates on the schedule.
was good to see a preview. thanks for that!

we always had beverages like water, juices (apple+orange), 
and (at MPI) also some coffee. that was great! 
thanks, orga people!

the orga folks also took care about the financial stuff,
like hotel reservations, reimbursments, vouchers for lunch.
as far as i can tell, all this went very smoothly. well done!:)

at lunchtime we went to the refectory for food.
it's just a 5min walk to an adjacent block.
they offer three main dishes, various salads,
and desserts (eg cake, pudding).
(not sure about the offers for vegetarians
and vegans. can somebody comment on that?)

we even received some vouchers for a
main dish, a beverage, and a dessert. yay :)

there is also a cafeteria within the building
which offer beverages, cake, and some snacks.

sitting outside in the sun was oh-kay..
but in the shadow it certainly was chilly.
in the end we sat inside within the
cafeteria for some coffe and club-mate
(you don't know this? check it out!)

the only thing we didn't really do is to
communicate where we would sit to eat.
so we kinda broke up in little groups.
but maybe this is how it must be.
groups over six people usually break
up in smaller communication groups, anyway.

did you know that for every group of six people
there are three who know each other or do NOT
know each other?  why?  well.. ask wikipedia!
== People ==

although the event was organized by the linguist department,
the participants were economists, lawyers, linguists, and
media people. and this one bloke with math+CS (nerd).

people came from quite some countries:
Germany (obviously), Austria (not so obvious),
Switzerland (disguising, too), but also
from Egypt, Italy, Israel, and India. (more?)
== Events ==
keynotes, presentations, talks, workshops.

there were events like talks and workshops,
as well as presentations of PhD projects.
some breaks in between; lunch
in the afternoon (12:30-14:00).

the presentations contained three projects each,
lasting 15min, and up to 10min more for Q&A.

the talk+workshops took place at the CS department,
the keynotes at the MPI.

when you present your Ph.D. thesis,
please, please, puh-leeze -
do not make it look like your
first talk since high school.

things to avoid:
* do not start reading off a paper.
* do not read the complete overview.
* do not look at and read off the slides.
* do not use fillers like "and my claim is"..
* do not give the audience the feeling someone
  told you to do this because you should.
* you are on stage. perform! do not be boring.

* speak freely.  speak slowly.  speak UP!
* who are you? what is your background?
* what exactly will you be looking at?
* why is this subject important to *you*?
* why should *we* care about the results?

get us interested, so we will think:
i gotta follow this and see how work on this progresses.
i must follow this person on all social and non-social media,
so i will know about these results before i die!

to be continued …

‘Fetishism’ and other problems of society

After such an intensive summer school, being on the roads (and the sky) again is a great opportunity to reflect what we have actually done. Maybe it is the contradiction between hard materiality such as iron railroad tracks and the digitized issues we have tackled during the summer academy that made me think about “Fetishization” of our digital society.

When Karl Marx talked about “Commodity Fetishism”, he meant that when trying to evaluate commodities’ value we dismiss the social relations determining their establishment. Fetishism alienates the proletariat from their own products and the exploitative essence of capitalism (the human interaction that made the commodity production possible) becomes the ‘natural order of things’.

“As against this, the commodity-form, and the value-relation of the products of labour within which it appears, have absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material relations arising out of this. It is nothing but the definite social relation between men themselves which assumes here, for them, the fantastic form of a relation between things. In order, therefore, to find an analogy we must take flight into the misty realm of religion. There the products of the human brain appear as autonomous figures endowed with a life of their own, which enter into relations both with each other and with the human race. So it is in the world of commodities with the products of men’s hands. I call this the fetishism which attaches itself to the products of labour as soon as they are produced as commodities, and is therefore inseparable from the production of commodities”.

— Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I

(Cited from:

As critical scholars working on digitization and its implication for society, we musttake caution with about the threats of fetishizing digital and media products. The iPad is not an “autonomous figure endowed with a life of its own,” but a product owing its existence to specific social relations – for example, the horrible working conditions in some factories which manufacture ipad’s hardware. Facebook, for another example, is not a neutral platform aimed to enable people’s interaction, but a money oriented corporation that will not defend your personal information if economic interests are involved.

When speaking about “Digitization and its impact on society” it seems that society is a static variable being affected by digitization. However, the digital era is an important issue, but the society and social relations constructing it, is much more important. For me it became clear during the different workshops and keynotes we had, that digitization is only a tool and what important is how different social actors use the digitized tools in order to gain social power.

If acknowledging that society “Must be defended,” using the words of Sartre, we must prevent ourselves from fetishizing digital society. Meaning, we should understand digitization without neglect its social implication. Otherwise, the unjust power relations which already exist in our societies will replicate themselves inside the “neutral” digital environment making social resistance a much harder activity.

To sum up, I will use a sentence tweeted by me just now. Digitization has an important impact on society. However, society has even greater impact on digitization.

What digitization means to a lawyer

Digitization means a totally different thing for journalists, librarians and archivists, hackers, publishers, e-book readers and so on. For a lawyer, especially for a copyright lawyer, digitization means a form of reproduction. The latter activity is historically the number one exclusive economical right of rightsholders. T he Anglo-Saxon „copyright law” directly mirrors this fact. Indeed, the Continental European „author’s right regimes” (the French „droit d’auteur”, the German „Urheberrecht” or „Autorenrecht”, or the Hungarian „szerzői jog”) have guaranteed this economical right since the beginning of the existence of this legal territory.

More precisely, digitization is usually referred to as the multiplication of analogue data carriers that store protected subject matter (not only written/literary works, but others like fine art works or photographs etc.) into digital format. Since most of the creative contents are also available in digital format in our age, digitization generally affects works of the past: works of an age, when and where the multiplication of works was only possible on physical data carriers, like paper, reel tapes, audio or VHS cassettes, photo paper or CDs/DVDs. Due to the constant and rapid development of technology, however, these data carriers are increasingly deteriorated. Nowadays almost nobody uses 78RPM machines, photo reels, VHS or Betamax, and even LPs work as a niche alternative for CDs. Works that were published on any of the above data carrier, however, belong to our cultural heritage that face destruction in the lack of digital preservation.

The Summer School devoted almost a whole day to the discussion of the legal relations of digitization. Prof. Guido Westkamp introduced a comparative approach to the different treatment of several digital copyright issues in countries like the UK (where he works), Germany (where he originates from), Switzerland (another German speaking country) and the European Union (as a regional organization that oversees various aspects of copyright law in order to defend the ultimate goals of the EU: the four freedoms). Richards Gulbis and Péter Mezei added further dimensions to this debate with introducing how two minor EU member states struggle with the phenomenon of digitization related to the preservation of cultural heritage by national, public institutions, like libraries or archives. Sven Guckes, with his loose but still focused workshop introduced a licensing mechanism, the Creative Commons movement that might serve as an alternative to the rigid copyright system. A keynote speach from Alexander White highlighted the antitrust law problematics of the e-book industry. The Amazon case clearly mirrors the fact that the industry is interested in applying a digital world friendly business model to the sale of electronic publications, however, at the same time it confirmed as well, that these models shall not be based upon the „cooperative division” of the market. Finally, the roundtable dicsussion that brought together the lecturers of the day and other specialists and even the representative of the German Pirate Party mirrored how different dimensions the stakeholders might perceive in respect of the effects of the digitalization upon our culture (including journalism, constitutional rights, political liberties etc.).

The legal perspectives of digitization might have a greater importance to me, since IAAL („I am a lawyer”), but the key reason why I found the summer university incredible fascinating that it brought together different people with different priorities and perspectives. Dimensions that I would never think on on my own.

To be (or) not to be – how to overcome socio-technical dualism

The inspiring talk “Habits of Living: Data, Life and Society in Network Societies” by Nishant Shah made me think – once again – about dualisms. We’re locked to them in our everyday lives, as each element in our language exists in contrast to it’s opposite: black/white, warm/cold, male/female, life/death. For me the reified object of dualism is the now defunct, hence very present, Berlin Wall. The inherent dualism of Germany was and is east and west. With the reunification we gained another dualism: north and south. In order to describe the specifics of the different parts we describe them by their opposites: the north is what the south isn’t and the west is what the east isn’t – and the other way round.

If you were ask to describe yourself, how would you do it? Isn’t it so much easier to talk about who you’re not rather than who you are?

The problem of dualism is the underlying notion of hierarchy. Through a dualistic lens things become separate and inferior, they start to compete with one another. One of my favorite questions to ask is, if someone would rather live by the ocean or by the mountains. Ask yourself! What would you rather? Live by the calm never-ending ocean or the great majestic mountains. And while you gather your arguments think about Lady Justice’s scale and image how you fill up both sides with your arguments. What happens? The scale gets out of balance even though both sides are equally valid.

In media science we’re facing the same issue when talking about today’s media (technology). We’ve learned from STS that technology is never just technical but also social. The media (technology) inherent dichotomy of the technical and the social makes media research viscous and challenging.

In order to overcome the dualistic view Nishant Shah suggested in his talk an ‘opaque metaphor’, first introduced by Wendy Chun. In her view we have converted media (technology) into habits. By us connecting habitually to them without even thinking about them, media (technology) has made itself invisible. And this is why they so often take us by surprise.

Chun as well as Shah is trying is to overcome duality by rethinking, critiquing and challenging current ways of investigating media technology. Rather than juxtaposing the social and the technical against each other, they ask how things are shaped through one another. (Btw. they’ve done so in a Thinkathon – a thinking marathon, love the idea!)

I think this is a very valuable and much-needed approach in social science; however, I would like to propose an alternative, which is also applicable in everyday life: the method of radical acceptance. What I have observed lately is, that we’re trying so hard to overcome the dualism inherent in technology that it manifests itself even stronger. The more we talk about it, the harder it seems to change our way of thinking and the stronger appears the dualism itself. Thus, rather than rethinking our dualistic world, let’s radically accept it as it is – as a dualistic world.

‘Radical Acceptance’ is a method recommended by Tara Brach in order to heal trauma. In order to do so the fist step is to fully experience and accept all sensations that arise in our bodies. The second step is to fully welcome them with an open heart. The underlying assumption is that pain continues to cause pain, until we’ve fully experienced and accepted it. Or, as she cites Rumi, “the cure for the pain is in the pain”.

Even though cyberneticians don’t talk about pain at all, in the end they talk about the same when claiming “only variety can destroy variety”. The Law of Requisite Varity states that two systems can only be stable, when the number of states within the two systems are equal. Applied to our stated problem of duality this means that the outcome of our research needs to have two states as well.

In conclusion, in order overcome a dualistic view, I suggest that we first need to radically accept the two dualistic states and then, second, adjust our way of scientific thinking accordingly. This means, when researching media (technology) we must always look at them from the dualistic sides. By doing so, hopefully, the inherent dualism will slowly disappear – so does the trauma once you’ve accepted and re-experienced it.

About filter bubbles, silent nuns and spam. The first day of presentations.

I had the honor of chairing the first participant presentations today. Since this is a interdisciplinary summer school, there is a wide variety in backgrounds, which exposes everybody to perspectives and topics they would probably not have approached on their own.

The first presentation was given by Ana Jobin, PhD student at the University of Lausanne. She’s looking at the filter bubble, that search engines like Google create, not from the perspective of the user, as it is usually done, but from the perspective of advertisers. Her presentation sparked a lively debate about algorithms and perspectives on filter bubbles.

Michele Infante presented his research on nuns in the last cloistered convent in Naples. He looked at how they are using the internet and what impact it has on life within the convent. As a social scientist he is no stranger to field work, but there are certain challenges when it comes to researching the life of nuns who have sworn a vow of silence.

The last presentation of the day was given by Elinor Carmi, a PhD student at Goldsmiths College, University of London. She talked about spam on modern online platforms, something that is not usually in the focus of research. There was an intense discussion following the presentation. Shannon and Weaver still have that effect on people who talk about communication and communication methods.

The interdisciplinary approach led to lots of interesting and intense discussions, with feedback from different perspectives and angles. It definitely payed off, even just as a participant, but I’m very much looking forward to the discussion on my presentation on Wednesday.