Big Data Is Not Our Master. Humans create technology. Humans can control it.

Chris Hughes in New Republic: “We’ve known for a long time that big companies can stalk our every digital move and customize our every Web interaction. Our movements are tracked by credit cards, Gmail, and tollbooths, and we haven’t seemed to care all that much.
That is, until this week’s news of government eavesdropping, with the help of these very same big companies—Verizon, Facebook, and Google, among others. For the first time, America is waking up to the realities of what all this information—known in the business as “big data”—enables governments and corporations to do….
We are suddenly wondering, Can the rise of enormous data systems that enable this surveillance be stopped or controlled? Is it possible to turn back the clock?
Technologists see the rise of big data as the inevitable march of history, impossible to prevent or alter. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier’s recent book Big Data is emblematic of this argument: They say that we must cope with the consequences of these changes, but they never really consider the role we play in creating and supporting these technologies themselves….
But these well-meaning technological advocates have forgotten that as a society, we determine our own future and set our own standards, norms, and policy. Talking about technological advancements as if they are pre-ordained science erases the role of human autonomy and decision-making in inventing our own future. Big data is not a Leviathan that must be coped with, but a technological trend that we have made possible and support through social and political policy.”

Great groups: What 15 things do breakthrough genius teams share?

Barking Up The Wrong Tree: “Warren Bennis and Patricia Biederman studied a number of breakthrough great groups to see what made them so successful. They compiled the results into their book, Organizing Genius.
They looked at the Disney’s Animation division, the Manhattan Project (developed the nuclear bomb), Xerox PARC (designed the modern computer interface), the 1992 Clinton campaign (pulled off an enormous victory), Lockheed’s Skunk Works (created the U2 spy plane and the Stealth Bomber), and others.
Highlights from Organizing Genius summarized by Erik Barker can be found here.”

New Book: Digital Methods

9780262018838New book by Richard Rogers, Director of the Foundation (Amsterdam) and the Digital Methods Initiative: “In Digital Methods, Richard Rogers proposes a methodological outlook for social and cultural scholarly research on the Web that seeks to move Internet research beyond the study of online culture. It is not a toolkit for Internet research, or operating instructions for a software package; it deals with broader questions. How can we study social media to learn something about society rather than about social media use? How can hyperlinks reveal not just the value of a Web site but the politics of association? Rogers proposes repurposing Web-native techniques for research into cultural change and societal conditions. We can learn to reapply such “methods of the medium” as crawling and crowd sourcing, PageRank and similar algorithms, tag clouds and other visualizations; we can learn how they handle hits, likes, tags, date stamps, and other Web-native objects. By “thinking along” with devices and the objects they handle, digital research method! s can follow the evolving methods of the medium.
Rogers uses this new methodological outlook to examine the findings of inquiries into 9/11 search results, the recognition of climate change skeptics by climate-change-related Web sites, the events surrounding the Srebrenica massacre according to Dutch, Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian Wikipedias, presidential candidates’ social media “friends,” and the censorship of the Iranian Web. With Digital Methods, Rogers introduces a new vision and method for Internet research and at the same time applies them to the Web’s objects of study, from tiny particles (hyperlinks) to large masses (social media).”

The Internet as Politicizing Instrument

New Issue of Transformations (Editorial): “This issue of Transformations presents essays responding to Marcus Breen’s recent book Uprising: The Internet’s Unintended Consequences. Breen asks whether the Internet can become a politicising instrument for the new online proletariat – the individualised users isolated by the monitor screen. He asks “if the proletariat can use the Internet, is it freed from the moral and social constraints of the past that were imposed by conventional media and its regulation of the public space?” (32) This question raises further issues. Does this freedom translate into an emancipatory politics where the proletariat is able to pursue its own ends, or does it simply reproduce the power relation between the user-subject and the Internet and those who control and manage it. The articles in this issue respond in various ways to these questions.
Marcus Breen’s own article “The Internet and Privatism: Reconstructing the Monitor Space” makes a case for privatism – the restriction of subjective life to isolated or privatised experience, especially in relation to the computer monitor – as the new modality of meaning making in the Internet era. Using approaches associated with cultural and media studies, the paper traces the way the Internet has influenced the shift in the culture towards values associated with the confluence of ideas around the private, best described by privatism.
Fidele Vlavo’s article investigates the central discourses that have constructed the internet as a democratic and public environment removed from state and corporate control. The aim is to call attention to the issues that have limited the development of the internet as a tool for socio-political empowerment. The paper first retraces the early discursive constructions that insist on representing the internet as a decentralised and open structure. It also questions the role played by the digerati (or cyber elite) in the formulation of contradictory demands for public interests, self-governance, and entrepreneurial rights. Finally, it examines the emergence of two early virtual communities and their attempts to facilitate free speech and self-regulation. In the context of activists advocating freedom of expression and government institutions re-organizing legislation to control the Internet, the examination of these discourses provides a useful starting point for the (re)assessment of the potential of direct online mobilization.
Emit Snake-Being’s article examines the limits of the Internet as a politicising instrument by showing how Internet users are subject to the controls of the search engine algorithm, managed by elite groups whose purpose is to reproduce themselves in terms of neo-liberal capitalism. Invoking recent political events in the Middle East and in London in which a wired proletariat sought to resist and overturn political authorities through Internet communication, Snake-Beings argues that such events are compromised by the fact that they owe their possibility to Internet providers and their commercial imperatives. Snake-Being’s article, as well as most of the other articles in this issue, offers a timely reminder not only of the possibilities, but of the limits of the Internet as a politicising instrument for progressive, emancipatory politics.
Frances Shaw’s paper concerns the way in which the logic of surveillance operates in contested sites in cities where live coverage of demonstrations against capitalism leads to confrontation between demonstrators and police. Through a detailed account of the “Occupy Sydney” demonstration in 2011, Shaw shows how both demonstrators and police engaged in tactics of surveillance and resistance to counter each other’s power and authority. In an age of instant communication and global surveillance, freedom of movement and freedom from surveillance in public spaces is drawn into the logics of power mediated by mobile ‘phones and computer based communication technology.
Karyl Ketchum’s paper offers detailed analysis of two Internet sites to show how the proletarianisation of the Internet is gendered in terms of male interests. Picking up on Breen’s argument that Internet proletarianisation leads to an open system that “supports both anything and anyone,” she argues that, in the domain of online pornography, this new-found freedom turns out to be “the power of computer analytics to harness and hone the shifting meanings of white Western Enlightenment masculinities in new globalising postcolonial contexts, economies and geopolitical struggles.” Furthermore, Ketchum shows how this default to male interests was also at work in American reporting of the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries. The YouTube video posted by a young Egyptian woman, Asmaa Mahfouz, which sparked the revolution in Egypt that eventually overthrew the Mubarak government, was not given due coverage by the Western media, so that “women like Mahfouz all but disappear from Western accounts of the Arab Spring.”
Liden and Giritli Nygren’s paper addresses the challenges to the theories of the political sphere posed by a digital society. It is suggested that this is most evident at the intersection between understandings of technology, performativities, and politics that combines empirical closeness with abstract understandings of socio-political and cultural contexts. The paper exemplifies this by reporting on a study of online citizen dialogue in the making, in this case concerning school planning in a Swedish municipality. Applying these theoretical perspectives to this case provides some key findings. The technological design is regarded as restricting the potential dialogue, as is outlined in different themes where the participants enact varying positions—taxpayers, citizen consumers, or local residents. The political analysis stresses a dialogue that lacks both polemic and public perspectives, and rather is characterized by the expression of different special interests. Together, these perspectives can provide the foundation for the development of applying theories in a digital society.
The Internet and Privatism: Reconstructing the Monitor Space (Marcus Breen)
The Digital Hysterias of Decentralisation, Entrepreneurship and Open Community (Fidele Vlavo)
From Ideology to Algorithm: the Opaque Politics of the Internet (Emit Snake-Beings)
“Walls of Seeing”: Protest Surveillance, Embodied Boundaries, and Counter-Surveillance at Occupy Sydney (Frances Shaw)
Gendered Uprisings: Desire, Revolution, and the Internet’s “Unintended Consequences”(Karyl E. Ketchum)
Analysing the Intersections between Technology, Performativity, and Politics: the Case of Local Citizen Dialogue (Gustav Lidén and Katarina Giritli Nygren)”

If My Data Is an Open Book, Why Can’t I Read It?

Natasha Singer in the New York Times: “Never mind all the hoopla about the presumed benefits of an “open data” society. In our day-to-day lives, many of us are being kept in the data dark.

“The fact that I am producing data and companies are collecting it to monetize it, if I can’t get a copy myself, I do consider it unfair,” says Latanya Sweeney, the director of the Data Privacy Lab at Harvard, where she is a professor of government and technology….

In fact, a few companies are challenging the norm of corporate data hoarding by actually sharing some information with the customers who generate it — and offering tools to put it to use. It’s a small but provocative trend in the United States, where only a handful of industries, like health care and credit, are required by federal law to provide people with access to their records.

Last year, San Diego Gas and Electric, a utility, introduced an online energy management program in which customers can view their electricity use in monthly, daily or hourly increments. There is even a practical benefit: customers can earn credits by reducing energy consumption during peak hours….

The Art of Data Visualization (video)

PBS Off Book: “Humans have a powerful capacity to process visual information, skills that date far back in our evolutionary lineage. And since the advent of science, we have employed intricate visual strategies to communicate data, often utilizing design principles that draw on these basic cognitive skills. In a modern world where we have far more data than we can process, the practice of data visualization has gained even more importance. From scientific visualization to pop infographics, designers are increasingly tasked with incorporating data into the media experience. Data has emerged as such a critical part of modern life that it has entered into the realm of art, where data-driven visual experiences challenge viewers to find personal meaning from a sea of information, a task that is increasingly present in every aspect of our information-infused lives.”

Technologies Of Choice?

New MIT book by Dorothea Kleine:  “Information and communication technologies (ICTs)–especially the Internet and the mobile phone–have changed the lives of people all over the world. These changes affect not just the affluent populations of income-rich countries but also disadvantaged people in both global North and South, who may use free Internet access in telecenters and public libraries, chat in cybercafes with distant family members, and receive information by text message or email on their mobile phones. Drawing on Amartya Sen’s capabilities approach to development–which shifts the focus from economic growth to a more holistic, freedom-based idea of human development–Dorothea Kleine in Technologies of Choice? examines the relationship between ICTs, choice, and development.
Kleine proposes a conceptual framework, the Choice Framework, that can be used to analyze the role of technologies in development processes. She applies the Choice Framework to a case study of microentrepreneurs in a rural community in Chile. Kleine combines ethnographic research at the local level with interviews with national policy makers, to contrast the high ambitions of Chile’s pioneering ICT policies with the country’s complex social and economic realities. She examines three key policies of Chile’s groundbreaking Agenda Digital: public access, digital literacy, and an online procurement system. The policy lesson we can learn from Chile’s experience, Kleine concludes, is the necessity of measuring ICT policies against a people-centered understanding of development that has individual and collective choice at its heart.”

The open parliament in the age of the internet

Worldbank’s Tiago Peixoto reviewing Cristiano Faria’s book on Open Parliaments : “There are many reasons to read Cristiano’s piece, one of them being the scarcity of literature dealing with the usage of ICT by the legislative branch. I was honoured to be invited to write the preface to this book, in which I list a few other reasons why I think this book is very worthwhile reading. I have reproduced the preface below, with the addition of some hyperlinks.
Towards the end of the 18th Century, not long after the French Revolution, engineer Claude Chappe invented the optical telegraph. Also known as the Napoleonic Telegraph, this technological innovation enabled the transmission of messages over great distances at unprecedented speeds for its time. This novelty did not go unnoticed by the intellectuals of the period: the possibility of establishing a telegraph network that could connect individuals at high speed and lowered costs was seen as a unique opportunity for direct democracy to flourish.
The difficulties associated with direct democracy, so eloquently expressed by Rousseau just a few years earlier, no longer seemed relevant: simply opening the code used by the telegraph operators would suffice for a whirlpool of ideas to flow between citizens and government, bringing a new era of participatory decision-making. Events, however, took a different turn, and as time went by the enthusiasm for a democratic renewal faded away.
In the course of the centuries that followed, similar stories abounded. The emergence of each new ICT gave rise to a period of enthusiasm surrounding a renewal in politics and government, only to be followed by bitter disillusionment. While the causes of these historical experiences are multiple, it is safe to say that the failure of these technologies to deliver their much-heralded potential is underscored by a lack of understanding of the role of political institutions. These institutions are, inexorably, sources of obstacles and challenges that go beyond the reach of technological solutions.
Indeed, one could argue that despite the historical evidence, even today a certain amount of ingenuity permeates the majority of academic works in the domain of electronic democracy and open government, overestimating technological innovation and neglecting the role of institutions, actors, and their respective strategies.
Not falling prey to the techno-determinist temptation but rather carrying out an analysis grounded in institutions, organizational processes and actors’ strategies, is one of the many strengths of Cristiano Faria’s work…”

New Book: New Technology, Organizational Change and Governance

Book Description (Edited By Emmanuelle Avril and Christine Zumello): “The advent of globalisation and the continued development of new information technology has created an environment in which the one certainty for organisations is that they cannot cling to archaic, centralised and hierarchical models. The increased fluidity and speed of the global environment call for horizontal networked structures, where decisions are achieved through collaborative mechanisms, rather than pyramidal models. New processes have been emerging, in particular the practices of deliberative and participatory governance, with increased stakeholder and citizen inclusion and participation, greater use and reliance on networks of organisations, and efforts to resolve conflict through dialogue. New forms of organizations, networks, coalitions and partnerships, as well as the promises of open sourcing and the collaborative horizontal model point towards a new governance apparatus in which relationship-based patterns can project and protect a human dimension in this digital world. This book will prove invaluable to all those who are interested in participatory governance and organisational change.”

The Big Data Debate: Correlation vs. Causation

Gil Press: “In the first quarter of 2013, the stock of big data has experienced sudden declines followed by sporadic bouts of enthusiasm. The volatility—a new big data “V”—continues and Ted Cuzzillo summed up the recent negative sentiment in “Big data, big hype, big danger” on SmartDataCollective:
“A remarkable thing happened in Big Data last week. One of Big Data’s best friends poked fun at one of its cornerstones: the Three V’s. The well-networked and alert observer Shawn Rogers, vice president of research at Enterprise Management Associates, tweeted his eight V’s: ‘…Vast, Volumes of Vigorously, Verified, Vexingly Variable Verbose yet Valuable Visualized high Velocity Data.’ He was quick to explain to me that this is no comment on Gartner analyst Doug Laney’s three-V definition. Shawn’s just tired of people getting stuck on V’s.”…
Cuzzillo is joined by a growing chorus of critics that challenge some of the breathless pronouncements of big data enthusiasts. Specifically, it looks like the backlash theme-of-the-month is correlation vs. causation, possibly in reaction to the success of Viktor Mayer-Schönberger and Kenneth Cukier’s recent big data book in which they argued for dispensing “with a reliance on causation in favor of correlation”…
In “Steamrolled by Big Data,” The New Yorker’s Gary Marcus declares that “Big Data isn’t nearly the boundless miracle that many people seem to think it is.”…
Matti Keltanen at The Guardian agrees, explaining “Why ‘lean data’ beats big data.” Writes Keltanen: “…the lightest, simplest way to achieve your data analysis goals is the best one…The dirty secret of big data is that no algorithm can tell you what’s significant, or what it means. Data then becomes another problem for you to solve. A lean data approach suggests starting with questions relevant to your business and finding ways to answer them through data, rather than sifting through countless data sets. Furthermore, purely algorithmic extraction of rules from data is prone to creating spurious connections, such as false correlations… today’s big data hype seems more concerned with indiscriminate hoarding than helping businesses make the right decisions.”
In “Data Skepticism,” O’Reilly Radar’s Mike Loukides adds this gem to the discussion: “The idea that there are limitations to data, even very big data, doesn’t contradict Google’s mantra that more data is better than smarter algorithms; it does mean that even when you have unlimited data, you have to be very careful about the conclusions you draw from that data. It is in conflict with the all-too-common idea that, if you have lots and lots of data, correlation is as good as causation.”
Isn’t more-data-is-better the same as correlation-is-as-good-as-causation? Or, in the words of Chris Andersen, “with enough data, the numbers speak for themselves.”
“Can numbers actually speak for themselves?” non-believer Kate Crawford asks in “The Hidden Biases in Big Data” on the Harvard Business Review blog and answers: “Sadly, they can’t. Data and data sets are not objective; they are creations of human design…
And David Brooks in The New York Times, while probing the limits of “the big data revolution,” takes the discussion to yet another level: “One limit is that correlations are actually not all that clear. A zillion things can correlate with each other, depending on how you structure the data and what you compare. To discern meaningful correlations from meaningless ones, you often have to rely on some causal hypothesis about what is leading to what. You wind up back in the land of human theorizing…”