Monthly Archives: November 2013

Professor Couldry fears the consequences of Big Data


Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Nick Couldry’s lecture on the dangers of Big Data

Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at the LSE, gave a lecture last week about three prevailing myths around the social role of media as a part of the LSE lecture series. He charts these myths starting from the inception mass media to the enthusiasm surrounding Big Data today. These myths have a pivotal role in shaping our view of society as the media consists of ‘institutions with the power over the means of representing shared reality’.

The first myth he calls the ‘myth of the mediated centre’, which emerged with the creation of the mass media with modern nation-states. This myth has two components: (1) first that society has a ‘centre’ from which our values, meaning and knowledge emanate from, and (2) that ‘the media’ gives us privileged access to this ‘centre’, being the pre-eminent source for understanding what is going on in the world.


His notion of the myth of the ‘mediated centre’ is similar to Benedict Anderson’s celebrated thesis that nations are necessarily imagined and enabled with aid of the printing press. What unites both these writers, however, is that this process is not necessarily ‘top-down’ (though it can be) but constitutes a form of understanding that we perpetuate in everyday interactions. He recounts childhood memories in which his mother would ‘participate’ in the televised annual rowing race between Oxford and Cambridge, proudly wearing a pin in support of the latter despite having never had gone to university.


What is noteworthy, is the emergence of the mass media coincided with split between ‘the media’ on the one hand and ‘communications’ on the other. The former represents a centralised form information dispersion whereas the latter often is often more personal in nature; the difference between a newspaper editorial and a telephone call. However, in our current information environment this delineation is blurring as both institutional media and communications are starting to share the same platforms, for instance on Facebook.


This criss-crossing gives rise to the second myth which he calls ‘the myth of us’. This myth, often propagated by vested interests, holds that social networking sites (e.g. Facebook, Google+, etc.) are ‘natural collectivities’ which bypass and challenge centralised media channels. In reality large media companies are also active participants in these platforms. For instance he notes in his article ‘Does the media have a Future’ that the majority of The Sun’s online newspaper’s traffic is derived from social networking sites (Couldry 2009, 444).   

Furthermore, many of these companies are very interested in the information about users’ behaviours. He notes that there are many unwelcome developments with these changes. One of which is that we are mutely accepting authoritarian structures, with the constant need sign in and out of different online services. The second, equally important issue, is that the explosion of user-information has propagated a hubristic belief in the power of large data in understanding and predicting the social world, ‘the Myth of Big Data’.

He decries the fact that individual circumstances have become irrelevant as companies and governments formulate policies based on proxies, that is regularities that predict probable future behaviour. A good example of this is when supermarkets use consumer purchases data to target specific groups for marketing. An infamous case being when the US retailer Target unwittingly exposed a teen pregnancy when they sent coupons for pregnancy products to her home based on her purchase history.

Second, the use of Big Data is subverting some of our deeply held views about the role of journalism as the generator of ‘common knowledge’. For example, the use of Google Analytics is increasingly dictating the type and content of newspaper articles, preventing ‘boring’ yet important topics being brought forth into the public sphere.

Above all, Couldry is worried about the abandonment of  ‘hermeneutic’ (interpretive) methods as more people hop on the Big Data bandwagon. The availability of an abundance data with the ability to make increasingly good predictions about people’s behaviour has led some to challenge the idea one would need specialists who would carefully design hypotheses in order to understand human behaviour, as Chris Anderson did in his famous WIRED article ‘The End of Theory: The Data Deluge Makes the Scientific Method obsolete’.  This challenge is especially acute for academics, like Couldry, as the defining feature of the Social Sciences is that they are interpretive in nature. He fears that with the increasing belief in the superiority in Big Data as a method of social inquiry, less funding will be diverted to traditional Social Sciences.

As a result, he advocates the disenchantment of the ‘Myth of Big Data’ with what he, aptly, calls ‘a hermeneutic of the anti-hermeneutic’. This would entail recovering the idea of a social actor as key unit of analysis as well as embarking on research on what he calls ‘Social analytics’, that is ‘the study of how social actors are using analytics to meet their own ends’. 

Ultimately, as Big Data eschews hermeneutics, it may undermine exploring such concepts as ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ which involve a good deal of interpretation.
 

Roberto Unger calls for a high-energy democracy

 

 

Kristofer Jäntti blogs about Roberto Unger’s suggestions for an alternative programme for British Labour

Professor Roberto Unger, the social theorist, the philosopher and politician, gave a lecture entitled ‘The Labour Party and the British Alternative’ at the IPPR offices in London last week. His ideas suggests a new framework for Centre-left Politics in which the narrow call for egalitarian redistribution within the post war institutional arrangement is jettisoned for what he calls ‘deep freedom’ in which ‘societies possess both the institutional and the conceptual means to create novel varieties of political, economic and social pluralism’ (Unger 2013: 97).
A key idea underpinning Professor Unger’s work is the notion that the form that society takes is  a result of human artifice. Therefore, in his lecture, he forcefully argues against what he calls the ‘false view of political realism’ which posits that credible policy alternatives are those which are close to what we already have. As a result, he suggests a comprehensive programme for the Left to orientate their Politics.
His programme calls for sweeping changes to how society operates. In terms of Economic policy he wants Finance to be the servant and not the master of the real economy, and sees small and mid-sized firms as the engines of economic growth. In particular, he would like create an institutional framework that allows these firms to access the knowledge and financial resources they need. One of his suggestion is to create decentralized government-funded financial institutions that act like venture-capitalists, providing much-needed capital to firms.
His economic reforms are accompanied with new legislation to increase the protection of worker’s rights. Above all, instead of the humanization of the current system through the transfer of wealth, he wants to extend the means of the good life to all citizens. He hopes that this measure would help people escape the drudgery of daily life and reach new heights of human existence.
In some respects his suggestions addresses issues as the knowledge gap and the concomitant political apathy. In particular, he wants to reinvigorate democracy with greater devolution of policy-making and institutional arrangement that favours constant experimentation. As a result, he argues that political parties and social movement should have better access to the means of mass communication. Underpinning these ideas is his attempt re-imagine democratic Politics in such a way whereby major change is not contingent on a precipitating crisis, but is an ongoing process. He proclaims that  ‘the aim of Politics should be what Popper aimed in science; to make mistakes as fast as possible’ .
In terms of education policy, he sees that the state should ensure that education is less about ‘encyclopedic learning’ but more about teaching children analytical problem solving in which subjects are explored from different view-points. After this, he argues, the state should abandon current attempts to constantly test and rank schools in the UK.  During the Q&A session he offered the Finnish educational system as an exemplar of a ‘decentralized’ education system in which highly capable teachers are given a lot of freedom to experiment with different ways of teaching.
The feasibility of some of his economic-policy suggestions are outside the sphere of competence of the author of this blog post. His suggestions for educational reform is sensible, though probably needs to be tested on a smaller scale before it will be unleashed nation-wide. Though, recent research from the UK suggests that focusing on the early years of education is one of the best ways to improve education outcome in the worst off.
Professor Unger, the guru of the Left, may contribute to the ideological renewal of the Labour Party. It is evident that his suggestions are the product of an erudite philosopher with an idealised view of human potential. Therefore, it needs to be seen whether this will translate to concrete measures if Labour wins the next election.

Recent trends in media regulation


 
Kristofer Jäntti blogs about the CAMRI/FACE workshop in London

Traditional broadcast media is facing financial challenges from both reduced public funds and the increased importance of the media, as well calls for public guidelines for regulation in the wake of Snowden-gate and the UK phone-hacking scandal. Last week Communications scholars from Finland and the UK held a workshop discussing the future of European public broadcasting as well as the prospects of increased public oversight. These changes have consequences for democratic society.

The financial crisis and the ensuing austerity measures as well as increased digitisation has led to public discussion about the future funding of public broadcasts. In Finland the public broadcaster’s (YLE) future has secured through replacing the tv license fee with a progressive ‘media tax’ levied on on every citizen irrespective of whether they own a television or not . In Greece the state has taken another course of action and to shut down public television and radio altogether, with the hopes of reestablishing it as a more streamlined operation in the futur
Underpinning these discussion is the demise of traditional media consumption. Dr. Marko Ala-Fossi offers a gloomy assessment for the future of terrestrial television. He argues that the increased competition from internet-based media is threatening the position of television as the preeminent mode of electronic mass communication. For example, he notes that recently the ITU World Radio Conference in 2012 decided to allocate the 700Mhz band for mobile broadband in addition to to the initial 800Mhz, to the dismay of European broadcasters who are left with less space for terrestrial and digital television.
In fact, there are worries that the days of terrestrial television broadcasts are numbered with German commercial broadcasters ending their terrestrial channels in 2015. An issue that was raised in the workshop was the question whether we are moving towards a fee-paying model due to constraints on budget to maintain terrestrial infrastructure combined with competition from pay-TV competitors, such as Sky TV. Dr. Ala-Fossi suggests that there is a possibility that with the demise of terrestrial television may result in free-tv disappearing altogether.  In terms of the knowledge gap, as discussed in earlier blog posts, the rise of fee-paying broadcast model may increase the divide between those who can afford to pay satellite channels and those who cannot.
In addition to the possible consequences of the demise of terrestrial television is the question of how to ensure media plurality,especially after Hungary’s controversial introduction of their new media law that is feared to curb freedom of speech. This controversy over state intrusion has, according to Professor Steven Barnett, overshadowed concerns about media concentration in the private sphere. In particular, he notes that the Commission’s policy in this area, until recently, has been to leave plurality concerns to the level of member states themselves. Now there is a European Citizen’s Initiative calling for ensuring media plurality on the EU-level, however the 12, 000 signatures so far is a far cry for the one million required for the Commission to take action.
However, recent policy developments are fostering greater concentration in emerging technologies. Dr. Maria Michalis highlights the fact that EU’s telecommunications policy is undergoing a paradigm shift in which the need for innovation take primacy over other concerns, such as competitive markets and consumer welfare. She argues that this shift is likely to lead to more lenient regulations as well as the temporary toleration for monopolistic market structures in new technologies  in order to create European companies strong enough to challenge the American giants.
Lastly, Dr. Daniel Trottier highlights some unexpected developments in digital media surveillance. He argues that in addition to ‘top-down’ surveillance of social media à la NSA there are also instances of ‘bottom-up’ surveillance whereby citizen vigilantes ‘crowdsource’ information in order to police the web. An example he introduces is the case of a Canadian Facebook group that collected information from other Facebook users in order to identify rioters who took part in the Vancouver riots of 2011 following the defeat of the Vancouver Canucks in the the Stanley Cup. He  notes that some identified suspected rioters lost their jobs and scholarships.
Dr. Trottier’s research shows how top-down and bottom-up surveillance are using the same social media platforms. The Internet no longer offers the anonymity it may once had and there is the risk that citizens may have their personal information used against them, if not at the behest of state authorities, but also enthusiastic by fellow citizens.

In conclusion, the direction of media research is to see how policy-makers are to respond to some of the challenged emerging from the changes  in our media landscape. The emerging consensus, so far, is that the EU has not been effective in enacting laws that ensure media plurality in the interest of citizens, despite the European Parliament’s activity in this area.

Mozilla Festival and Archives Without Walls

 

Head of Society Programme Antti Halonen blogs about the recent web making festival in Ravensbourne.
 
The Finnish Institute was privileged to take part in the annual web making feast of Mozilla Festival in late October. 


According to Mark Surman, the chief executive of Mozilla, the event is “where many of Mozilla’s best and most innovative ideas spring to life. It’s where passionate thinkers and inventors come together to learn from one another and engage in a conversation about how the web can do more, and do better”. Exactly the right place for us.

We were fortunate to be named as one of several scrum leaders. Essentially this means being a facilitator of a make, that is a particular task that was hoped to be achieved during the two-day festival. 

 
Our make was to gather ideas and examples of how to enforce a participatory and digital historical culture. Provisionally, we have set our minds on creating a network of partners to start working on a project called Archives Without Walls (AWA). 


In short, the purpose of AWA is to provide a reliable and visually exciting way of building open online archives that provides solutions on how to capture physical contents and human interaction as well as digital audio, video and text – all in the same digital repository. Archiving method would have to enable open reuse and remixing of all contents. 

The overarching purpose of the project parallels the recent challenges that have been laid upon the discipline of History itself. 

 
Archivists and ITC experts respectively have expressed their concerns on the so called Digital Dark Age: a phenomenon where significant amount of important cultural heritage is lost due to rapid digitisation of information and lack of reliable long-term preservation methods. For instance, various organisations changed their internal correspondence into email format during the 1990’s before records management had come up with proper methods for preserving email correspondence. Similarly, what is left of the early days of the web for future historians’ use? While historians have so far relied on a rich source of paper-based documentation, future historians may face a prospect of empty archives. 
 
Social scientists, on other hand, have raised into discussion the topic of the knowledge gap. While the information environment has evolved unprecedentedly in a way which enables much more varied source for information consumption, simultaneously those who are least interested in current affairs can bypass it altogether if they so wish. We need to develop our thinking in terms of how to provide larger portion of the population an access to relevant historical knowledge.


Moreover, historians have pointed out the need to embrace new ways of creating and preserving everyday history. Participatory historical culture aims at both improving historical consciousness and offering citizens a possibility of “tackling their own present concerns and thinking over how to make a better future for themselves”, as Finnish historian Jorma Kalela puts it.

This was the setup but what about the results? 

Discussion arose around the concept of memory. How could different memories be integrated into the digital environment in a remixable and reusable fashion? The number of people who still have vivid memories of the second world war, for instance, is rapidly diminishing, yet amidst the rise of nationalistic right the understanding of the very reasons behind the horrible times of war is as important as ever. How should we find new ways of interpolating this historical knowledge into public discussion?


Another strand of thought focused on the question of preserving events like Mozilla Festival itself. What kind of material will a future historian use when doing research on this year’s event? Arguably, historians today have mostly relied on paper-based documents: letters, diaries, essays etc. However, the essence of Mozilla Festival is not to be found in printed documents, but in demonstrations, ideas and discussions. What kind of challenges does this pose to archivists who will have to make the increasingly difficult appraisal decisions?

Our new programme strand seeks to find some answers to these questions and we are continuously looking for interesting initiatives that promote the fair dispersion of knowledge in the society and try to find novel solutions to preserving our digital cultural heritage. One interesting case of the latter was MozBug, an online tool for archiving events by analysing Twitter behaviour. Something to consider for next year’s OPPI – Helsinki Learning Festival, too?

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