Tag Archives: Public Discourse

Metropolis – 83 years later and we’re still afraid of machines

Yesterday, I watched Metropolis, one of the most influential German silent films of all times. To be honest, I had hardly ever heard about it until recently, when an almost original version of the 1927 film was discovered in Argentina. Having seen it now, I can now understand why there’s been so much fuzz about it. With its special effects and high production cost, it must have been the equivalent of today’s Hollywood blockbusters. But more importantly, it’s a historical artifact that reflects an aspect of the modern Zeitgeist that is still with us today – the paradox of technology as progress and technology as enslavement. Continue reading

Privacy and innovation – two parts of the same story

The information society has given birth to a popular new German word – “gläserner Mensch”, meaning a human being made of glass or simply “transparent individual”. It encapsulates Germans’ widespread fears that Google, Facebook, the state and others record every bit of information about them. Unfortunately, this disproportionate emphasis on privacy and data protection threatens to suppress innovation. A call for a more balanced discourse. Continue reading

Can Google Wave revitalize online debates?

googlewave

Some days ago, I managed to get access to Google Wave; this highly anticipated, widely praised service that will revolutionize online collaboration and interaction. Well, I’m not that impressed, to be honest. It comes across like an advanced, non-linear chat programme of some sorts, which allows you to post different forms of media content and to write responses to earlier posts. Leaving aside the myth of a collaboration revolution for now, this sort of functionality may be perfect for online debates… Continue reading

Election reporting – Turning bar charts into a multimedia show

Elefantenrunde

It was federal election time in Germany yesterday. Since this blog isn’t primarily about political commentary, I shall refer you here for a more detailed summary of the results, if you’re interested. In a nutshell, Angela Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrat party (CDU) will form a new centre-right alliance with the pro-business Free Democrats Party (FDP). Since this blog is primarily concerned with communication and all its related matters, I took a closer look at how the election night was reported by mainstream and social media. Continue reading

Facebook – an act of the devil?

Archbishop fan group

Will they ever get it? I don’t think so. Since social networking sites like Facebook have become so immensely popular, critics from all corners of society have renewed their claims that the Internet is isolating, alienating, and inevitably leading to the end of healthy community life. The latest in line this morning: Archbishop Vincent Nichols (see BBC article)

His criticism is so old it’s almost too boring to repeat. Facebook leads young people to seek transient relationships, as many of them as possible to boast about them. And when these loose relationships collapse, young people go and commit suicide, according to the Archbishop. Moreover, they forget how to interact face-to-face, loosing their ability to interpret a person’s mood and and body language. In other words, once again the end of society.

Not every friend is a friend

I do not know if the Archbishop has ever signed on to Facebook or if he was thoroughly briefed about it before making his claims. I find it unlikely, as he contradicts both the experience of most Facebook users and the current status quo in terms of academic research on this topic.

I’ve been doing a bit of work on online communication myself over recent weeks. During the interviews I conducted, all interviewees made it very clear that they use Facebook to talk to a few close friends on a regular basis. The rest of the people on their friend list are those who they just met once or were never really that close to. It’s like collecting business cards. You got the person’s details and if at any point in the future you need to contact her, you can.

Critics like the Archbishop should realize that not every contact that’s labeled a “friend” on Facebook is a true friend. In fact, many people I talked to said they started a number of separate friend lists to distinguish between those who they care about and those they aren’t that close to.

Integrate, mix, replace

Many academic an journalistic articles, as well as my interviewees, also suggest that online interaction is very closely integrated with offline interaction. If we only looked at Facebook communication, our social life would indeed be pretty sad. But Facebook is there to supplement everything else that went on before, to mix with it, or in some cases to replace it – but only partially.

Facebook and other social networking sites may even enable relationships to be maintained that were previously lost. Those students I spoke to (in addition to my own experience) all came to the UK from abroad. They say that through social media they find it much easier and cheaper to stay in touch with their friends from high school or their families back home.

Technology, the culprit

Finally, critics like the Archbishop make it sound like social networking sites dropped to the face of the earth as the source of all evil. I see that they make for an excellent culprit. But if we want to lament the decline of community life (which we have some reason to do), we should look somewhere else first. Facebook et al. only reflect and perhaps emphasize social trends that have been ongoing for quite some time, such as individualization, globalization, social exclusion, and some others.

While I wrote this, I was wondering about the Archbishops motifs to voice his criticism about social networking sites. Does he think that those who no longer go to church are now surfing the web instead? Does he find it hard to compete for the attention of young people? Does he hope they would come to his church if Facebook was outlawed?

As a side note, I find it worth mentioning that Mr. Nichols has a Facebook fan group with 222 members. Not sure whether he knows about this or how he feels about it.

Manuel Castells at LSE – Mass Self-Communication

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

Manuel Castells (Flickr user uscpublicdiplomacy)

What do the MP expenses scandal and the protests in Iran have in common? Both of them reflect how communication power can change the world – or rather, change the way we see it – says Manuel Castells.

I had the opportunity to listen to most of Manuel Castells’ public lecture at the LSE tonight. Manuel Castells has recently been the most influential scholar on the subject of communication and technology, announcing the arrival of the “network society” (one of his strengths is finding sticky labels for what he studies, as tonight’s lecture proved again).

Here’s his argument in a nutshell.

For the masses, by the masses

Power is one of the most important topics in any society, as we might all agree. For Castells, one of the most important powers is to “control human minds” and to shape meanings.

The media immediately come to mind as probably the most powerful institution to shape the way we see the world. And we need to understand that the media are mainly big business, says Castells. Globalized, decentralized, but actually highly concentrated business.

And then we got “mass self-communication” nowadays (one of those new sticky labels you should watch out for). Horizontal, many-to-many forms of communication such as Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, you name them.

As you can imagine, big media and mass self-communication don’t just peacefully coexist. They interact – somehow, sometimes, somewhere. Castells left it at that during his lecture.

Scandal politics

So far, Castells didn’t really say anything new (although he once again managed to present these points more clearly than you will find them anywhere). The real question was, how does mass self-communication change the distribution of communication power?

To answer this, he first went on to criticize big media for their focus on scandals when reporting politics. In fact, he argues that the media are running a “scandal industry” based on leaked, remixed, half-true information and semi-legal but definitely unethical investigation methods (see phone tapping case in today’s papers). Politicians must play along because they see undermining the opponent’s character as the only reliable political weapon.

Interestingly, there is no conclusive evidence, says Castells, that discrediting your political opponent always pays off. To the contrary, in several cases, it had a negative effect.

More importantly, scandal politics cause massive damage for the entire political system by undermining it’s legitimacy. That is why the vast majority of people around the world believes that democracy is failing and that they are not governed by “the people” (always an exception: Scandinavia). And when mistrust in the political system is met by mistrust in the economic system, we’re in big trouble.

The way out

So too much communication power in the hands of big media is really bad. But can mass self-communication make a difference?

Castells believes it can and it already does. His arguments are pretty well-known though, I must say. The services and technologies facilitating mass self-communication are much harder to control from top down, offer a much wider spectrum of opinion and information, by-pass any corporate or editorial control, and feature close to no entry costs. In other words, mass self-communication is autonomous.

This has already made a huge difference in politics, argues Castells. The success of social movements over the last 15 years would not have been possible without mass self-communication.When these movements go online, they form “instant political communities of practice” (another of those sticky labels).

For example, we don’t know much more about climate change than we did some 30 years ago. However, the Internet has spread the word so that 85% of the world population has now joined the global environmental movement. Another case in point would be the protests in Iran.

Early exit

Unfortunately, I had to leave at this point. Until then, Castells had argued that mass self-communication offers an alternative way through which we can see the world and make sense of it – outside any big media with all its scandals.

I had two major problems with his argument up until this point. (Maybe they were mentioned in the Q&A session?)

First, I really question the autonomy of mass self-communication. It has to rely on services which cost billions a year and which are operated by equally big business (News Corp. owns MySpace, etc.). There’s a lot to say about concentration and commercialization on the internet.

Second, I don’t quite see why mass self-communication should be any less susceptible to scandals. In fact, doesn’t it allow them to spread even fast, even more uncontrollably, possibly even more unethical?

I would love to hear your comments and maybe some notes on the last few minutes of Castells’s lecture. Thank you!

Dear Mr Anderson…

(Flickr user "The Rusty Projector")

Read why C. Anderson says we should be like dandelions (Flickr user "The Rusty Projector").

The following is copied from a letter I sent to the editor of Wired, Chris Anderson. In his recent article, he argued that computing power is now abundant and that we need to change our business models and mindset accordingly. While I think he’s to some extent right with that, he (and wired.com in general) like to forget about all of those who don’t keep up with the latest innovations and technologies.*

Dear Mr Anderson

let me first say that I am some sort of fan of yours. You are one of the most articulate proponents of the view that technology will radically change business models and markets to empower the customer and satisfy previously unknown demands. Whatever limitations there might be to this view – I was convinced by, and enjoyed reading, many of your arguments.

However, as I came across your latest essay on wired.com – “Tech Is Too Cheap to Meter: It’s Time to Manage for Abundance, Not Scarcity” – I couldn’t help but voice come critique. This is not to refute your argument entirely, but rather to introduce some balancing perspectives.

Not everything about computing power and its use is abundant. And although a lot of things may seem like they are, we must not forget the scarcities. I will just touch upon a few of them here, hoping that these points will find more mentioning in your future work.

Computers in every home?

I personally cannot imagine life without a computing device somewhere near me. Yet, for many people this is still the case. Just to give one example, the General Household Survey 2007 in the UK found that “only” 71% of all households had a home computer (disregarding for now that those without might still be using a public one).

So my first objection to perfect abundance is that we do not “have computers in every home—and in every pocket and car and practically everywhere else”, as you suggest.

One of the reasons why we don’t is still cost. Without being too fussy, long distance calls on cell phones are not entirely free on cell phones, as you suggest. They require a cell phone to begin with and at least some form of contractual agreement with a service carrier. And while most of us have some form of cell phone today, only a small minority enjoys the services of a smart phone. The same goes for sufficient broadband bandwidth to enjoy the the internet to its full potential.

The regular folks

I also had to stop for a second when you said that “we changed the world by finding applications for [computers] that the technologists had never dreamed of” (original emphasis). Who is “we”? Who are those “regular folks [who] found new ways to use computers”?

I believe it is open to debate how many of those with access to computing technology are actively driving the development of new applications. Admittedly, this share seems to be increasing in times of the App Store and open source software development.

But from a more sober point of view, those “regular folks” don’t seem to be that regular after all. It seems that many of us are still trying to catch up with everyday desktop software when your website is already praising the latest cloud computing service. The skills to use these services, or even to become “a filmmaker”, are unevenly distributed.

Paying the bill

To be fair, the points I mentioned so far might be irrelevant to somebody who’s business or publication targets the large share of the population with sufficient access and skills to enjoy a bit of abundance. Inevitably, innovation will always leave some people behind.

But maybe businesses find it difficult as well to fully embrace the abundance narrative. Is it really “artificial scarcity” when a cell phone company restricts the size of my voicemail inbox? Or does voicemail traffic actually drive the fixed cost on their balance sheet?

I wonder how many businesses – especially in their early stages – can afford to go through “a lot of fruitless minima” before they hit the jackpot. Youtube, as the classic example, has spent several years and billions of dollars, only to be loss-making until today. Without subsidies from Google, such a financial record would be the end of any other business.

Scarce filters

Finally, I would like to pick up on a point that you stressed in The Long Tail – the incredible importance of content filters and aggregators. These are crucial to sift through the abundance of web content out there.

The problem with them is obvious: there is only a few of them which control a massive share of the market. A few companies and their websites control the mechanisms and algorithms that help us find what we’re looking for. You may be right that they help us explore the end of the Long Tail, but how they do it is largely unknown.

And so…

As I said before, the points I tried to make do not serve the purpose of rejecting your argument completely. I believe you provide a nice description of some of the transitions that are currently going on.

What I’m getting at is that a lot of stuff related to computing powers is not abundant. As you are responsible for driving and reporting many of the advancements in technology, it is important to keep that in mind.

* For all of you who’ve studying at LSE with me, the arguments of this post will sound pretty familiar. Please comment if you like to add anything.