Microvolunteerism’s Agenda at Winter Camp – Day One

Winter Camp

According to their website, Microvolunteerism Project is an initiative of volunteers which aims to facilitate effective distributed volunteer work, captured under the term “crowdsourcing.” According to Wikipedia, crowdsourcing is

the act of taking a task traditionally performed by an employee or contractor, and outsourcing it to an undefined, generally large group of people or community in the form of an open call.

Their website, currently a semantic wiki, brings together not-for-profit projects and volunteers, with the purpose of creating a community that can mutually support each other.

The group of volunteers themselves all physically came together for the first time at Winter Camp, with a busy and well structured agenda of discussion. Several issues were prominent, such as: social infrastructure, models of organization and leadership, inter-organizational collaboration, and technical infrastructure.

Since Microvolunteerism works with individuals in an extra-monetary economy, the issue of what resources and compensation Microvolunteerism can generate for volunteers has come up. A more important challenge than attracting volunteers for the network is maintaining their interest to participate in “microprojects.” The issue of maintaining volunteer involvement has been related to several other issues, ranging from defining a clear organizational identity, to ways of motivating volunteers by making their benefits clear, finding a way to offer feedback for their interventions, or maintaining the possibility for volunteers to make suggestions at any level. The group also admitted social recognition to be a huge factor of reward worth taking into account.

Winter CampWinter Camp

The choice of projects is also considered to be an important issue motivated by recognition. One point of discussion here was to choose those projects that take place in a context which makes successful interventions possible. Although the organization currently supports any type of projects, the possibility of creating a pattern in the choice of projects, finding a niche for projects has also been touched upon.

Another important issue on the group’s agenda this afternoon at Winter Camp has been models of organization and leadership, in terms of opportunities and limits of each model. There has been an oscillation between a well defined and documented organizational identity, which would support advocacy goals of the network and would facilitate inter-organizational relations, and a lower profiling strategy, which would permit the network to maintain flexibility of choices.

In terms of governance, two options have been discussed: centralized, hierarchical, and ad-hoc leadership. The discussion focused around opportunities and challenges of each model. While individuals and organizations take more notice of a stable organization, and a stable organization can facilitate relations with governments because of its well-defined identity, they concluded by opting for a more flexible structure, which combines ad-hoc and centralized management, core and periphery, according to the context of the project. Regarding the issue of “institutionalization” of networks, one of the member’s stand was that institutionalization is inevitable for any group which establishes goals and means to achieve them. In relation to leadership models, a particular concern was their effect on creativity, and how to maintain creativity in hierarchically managed projects.

Winter Camp

Another important issue for discussion was collaboration with other non-governmental organizations. The group considers that there is a deficit of collaboration between NGOs, and envisions networking with other organizations to be an important objective on their future agenda, by means of informal events to start with.

The technical infrastructure is one of Microvolunteerism’s main points of discussion during Winter Camp. Their current platform is a semantic wiki, which the network plans to replace in order to accommodate their evolving objectives, as, for example, to enable a type of sharing of volunteers between several projects by providing a resource, a tool for people who need volunteers. One of the options discussed for technical upgrade was the a platform currently developed by Mediamatic, AnyMeta/ Open-CI.

The most important project which the group is currently involved in is the Visible Difference Video Project, a cross-cutting audiovisual component for a human rights platform. According to Michael, member of the group, the three phases of the project are:

  1. infrastructure – an sms/gps-based environmental and human rights alert network and rapid response capability; video post/production facility; exhibition and discussion space;
  2. training – giving people the skills to use video as an instrument of record in human rights contexts (documenting violations) and as a medium reflection (raising critical awareness and understanding)
  3. production – a series of short advocacy films and a feature documentary. A sensitive issue in this project according to Michael, is reconciling the need to protect sources and work covertly with the desire to make an open collaborative space and a high visibility platform.

Overall, this afternoon session seemed a productive one for Microvolunteerism, a group which started work at Wintercamp with great enthusiasm, also determined by the fact that this is the first time where the entire network is physically present in the same location.

“Stop searching, Start Questioning!”: The Society of the Query, Amsterdam, Nov. 2009

The Society of the Query conference was held in Amsterdam between the 13th and 14th of November 2009. It was organized by the Institute of Network Cultures lead by Geert Lovink. The conference aimed to generate reflection on the role of the search engine in our society, and particularly in our culture. What happens to our knowledge and culture when stored on online platforms and accessed through search engines? The dominant role of one particular search engine, Google, was one of the main themes of the conference, along with potential alternatives to web search and interface design, as well as Internet and search engine art.

One may be skeptical of the potential of such Humanities approaches to influence the course of technological developments. However, theory, critical thinking and art play a significant role in that they generate a cultural flow which could alter the course of technology developments  and potentially lead to a different direction.

The posts in this section are articles which I contributed to The Society of the Query blog.

Matteo Pasquinelli: Are We Renting our Collective Intelligence to Google?

Matteo Pasquinelli’s presentation this morning at the Society of the Query was based on his paper, Google’s PageRank Algorithm: A Diagram of Cognitive Capitalism and the Rentier of the Common Intellect. The paper can be downloaded from his website.

The essay and presentation of the Italian media theorist and critic focused on an alternative direction for research in the field of critical Internet/ Google studies. He proposed a shift of focus from Google’s power and monopoly and the associated critique in Foucauldian fashion developed within fields such as surveillance studies, to the “political economy of the PageRank algorithm.” According to Pasquinelli, the PageRank algorithm is the base of Google’s power and an emblematic and effective diagram for cognitive capitalism.

Society of the Query

Google’s PageRank algorithm determines the value of a website according to the number of inlinks received by a webpage. The algorithm was inspired by the academic publications’ citation system, in which the value of an academic publication is determined by the number of quotations received by the journal’s articles. Pasquinelli takes this algorithm as a starting point in order to introduce into critical studies the notion of “network surplus-value,” a notion inspired by Guatarri’s notion of “machinic surplus value.”

Society of the QueryThe Google PageRank diagram is the most effective diagram of the cognitive economy because it makes visible precisely this aspect characteristic of the cognitive economy, namely network value. Network value adds up to the more established notions of commodity use value and exchange value. Network value refers to the circulation value of a commodity. The pollination metaphor used by the first speaker, Yann Moulier Boutang, is useful in understanding network value. Each one of us as “click workers” contributes to the production and accumulation of network value, which is further being embedded in lucrative activities, such as Google’s advertising model. While in the knowledge economy a particular emphasis is placed on intellectual property, the notion of cognitive rent to which Matteo Pasquinelli draws attention becomes useful here. Google as “rentier of the common intellect” refers to the way in which free content produced with the free labour of individuals browsing the internet is being indexed by Google and used in profit generating activities.  From this perspective Pasquinelli challenges Lessing’s notion of “free culture” in that Google offers a platform and certain services for free, but each one of us contributes to the Google business when performing a search, data which is being fed into the page ranking algorithm. The use of the notion of common intellect or collective intelligence in this context is however debatable, as shown in the discussion session which followed the presentation, because there is only a certain relatively limited segment of individuals – the users which contribute content to the web – , whose linking activity is being fed into the PageRank algorithm. The prominence of the PageRank algorithm as generator of network value has also been questioned, as the algorithm is not the only ranking instrument. As the posting on Henk van Ess’ website shows, human evaluators also participate in page ranking.

What is there to be done about Google’s accumulation of value by means of exploitation of the common intellect? Or to use Pasquinelli’s metaphor, are there alternatives to Google’s parasitizing of the collective production of knowledge? How can this value be re-appropriated? As the speaker suggested, perhaps through voluntary hand made indexing of the web? Or an open page rank algorithm? Or perhaps a trust rank? This question is still open.

Photos by Anne Helmond.

Teresa Numerico on Cybernetics, Search Engines and Resistance

Society of the QueryTeresa Numerico is a lecturer at the University of Rome, where she teaches history and philosophy of computer science and epistemology of new media. Her presentation brought a historical and philosophy of science perspective into the themes of this conference: web search, search engines and the society of the query. She attempted to see search engines today through the lenses of cybernetics. According to her, digital technologies today intertwine the cybernetics concepts of communication and control. Just as cybernetics had to deal with communication and control, so search engines today mediate between cooperation and monopoly.

But how more precisely is the cybernetics approach embedded into search engines? According to Teresa Numerico, there are areas in which search engines have a lot in common with the cybernetic approach to machines and creating a cognitive framework, such as: search engines are black boxes in that the ranking process is not transparent, the search function offers output almost automatically to external input, and the ranking algorithm hypothesizes the self-organization within the network.

By offering a strong cognitive framework, search engines are doing the work of the archive, hence her call for an “archaeology of techno-knowledge of search.” Her  notion is influenced by Foucault’s Archaeology of Knowledge. According to Foucault, “The archive is the first law of what can be said. […] But the archive is also that which determines that all these things said do not accumulate endlessly in an amorphous mass […]; but they are grouped together in distinct figures composed together in accordance with specific regularities.” (Foucault, 1969/1989: 145- 148).

Her main questions in relation to this direction of research into search engines were: Who controls the archive and its meanings?, as we have no control on the meaning that comes out this work; Who is defining the web society archive?, and ultimately, what is there to be done? According to Teresa Numerico, the only possible reaction is resistance. She concluded her presentation with a practical list of suggestions for potential actions of resistance which any of us can take: be creative, not communicative, in order to elude the control component of communication, as well as archiving and searching, minimize the number of online tracks that you leave, close internet devices every now and then, make efforts to vary your sources of knowledge by consulting different search engines, and maintain a cross-media orientation in order to verify the trust and authority of one source against others.

Society of the Query

Photos by Anne Helmond.

The Ippolita Collective: Stop Questioning and Start Building!

The Ippolita Collective brought a humorous and refreshing change of perspective into the attempt to search and formulate solutions for one of the issues addressed by the second session of the Society of the Query conference, namely Digital Civil Rights. They proposed to change the “what” style of questioning associated with positions of domination, as in “what is to be done?” into a “how” style of approaching issues in order to avoid surrendering to fear, paranoia or the desire to control and protect every aspect of your interactions with technology. While if you ask yourself the “what” questions you may end up in paranoid positions such as  luddism  or technocracy, if you have the “how” attitude, then you are a curious individual, with a desire to learn and to understand, to share and exchange knowledge with others. You may even be some sort of hacker.

Society of the Query

The “how” attitude, an attitude which will bring you to media literacy, is, as the Ippolita Collective explains, a convivial model. As opposed to the industrial model of productivity, the convivial model implies maintaining autonomy, creativity and personal freedom in interaction with individuals or technology. How would one build up this model of conviviality? The answer, according to the artistic and research group is to build convivial tools! A convivial tool is not something that you can purchase but something that you have to build yourself in order to have it match your own needs. It is something that you enjoy creating, like making your own wiki.

Society of the QueryCan the convivial attitude be applied in approaching our Google/ digital rights/ privacy issues? The Ippolita Collective already has, and the result is a tool named SCookies which you can download for free here. The application takes its slogan, “Share your Cookies!” literally and mixes your cookies with the cookies of other individuals who have installed it, in order to alter your profile and render it unreliable. While it may not be the solution, the SCookies application is emblematic of a style, an attitude of approaching an issue such as digital civil rights.

The Ippolita Collective has recently finished a book on Google, The Dark Side of Google, which you can download for free from their website.

 

Photos by Anne Helmond.

Florian Cramer on “Why Semantic Search is Flawed”

Society of the Query Florian Cramer, head of the Networked Media Master at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, ended the last session of The Society of the Query conference. The Alternative Search 2 session presented a few of the latest web technologies as potential directions for the web and search engine design in the near future: RFDa, which would make the shift to what Steven Pemberton named the web 3.0, and semantic search, as implemented in the Europeana project.

Florian Cramer concluded this series of presentations with a critical and somewhat pessimistic evaluation of the current state of the web and the idea of a semantic web and semantic search, as one of its potential futures. His three main arguments revolved around: “why search is not just web search (and not just Google),” “why semantic search is flawed,” and “why the world wide web is broken.”

The first point expressed his frustration with the narrow understanding of the notions of query and search engine on which the conference focused. As he explains, wikis and social networking sites also include the search engine functionalities.

Society of the QueryAs far as semantic search is concerned, Cramer usefully pointed out to the difference between folksonomies, the currently used form of semantic tagging, and the universal semantic tagging which a semantic web would require. While folksonomies are “unsystematic, ad-hoc, user-generated and site-specific tagging systems,” (Cramer, 2007), like the tagging systems of Flickr for example, the semantic web would require a structured, universal tagging and classification system which would apply to the entire web. Cramer is skeptical of the possibility to create this unified, ‘objective’, meta-tagging system because classifications, or taxonomies, are not arbitrary but expressions of ideologies, which would call for the discussion of the politics of meta-tagging. While meta-tagging may have its advantages, such as arguably empowering the web users and weakening the position of large web services corporations, although still maintaining the necessity of search engines to aggregate data, it also has several potential weaknesses. The semantic web model must be based on trust in order to prevent some predictable problems, such as massive spamming.

In the concluding section, Cramer expressed his concern that the Internet as a medium for publication and information storage is not sustainable and argued for redundancy in web archiving. However this desire for permanence raises questions about the nature of the medium itself.

Photos by Anne Helmond.

Regulation through augmented urban furniture: the sentient trashcan

In the Too Smart City section of the exhibition The Sentient City which takes place in New York between September 17th and November 7th,  a series of artworks explore potential technological failures of augmented objects. The artworks embed concerns related to the loss of control of human beings in favor of technology, in line with Rich Gold’s witty and humorous critical interrogation into augmented spaces and objects, How smart does your bed have to be, before you are afraid to go to sleep at night? The exhibited pieces of sentient urban furniture, such as technologically augmented trashcans which would throw back at you pieces of trash which don’t match its intended content, are meant to generate reflection about the transformations and effects of living in an intelligent urban environment. Augmented urban furniture, such as the sentient trashcan or the smart bench have the capacity to become agents capable to regulate public behavior and impose sanctions. Public behavior is already regulated through urban design, rationalist and functionalist modern architecture towards passivity, uniformity, non-intervention and observation to replaced the previous ritualized modes of interaction in public space. Should sentient technological applications in public space be used to further regulate public behavior or to foster creativity and influence individual consciousness and public behavior towards imaginative and playful practices?

Interactive Media Artworks for Public Space: Does Art Hold the Potential to Influence Consciousness and Behavior in Relation to Public Spaces?

“Individual bodies moving through urban space gradually became detached from the space in which they moved, and from the people the space contained. As space became devalued through motion, individuals gradually lost a sense of sharing a fate with others […] individuals create something like ghettos in their own bodily experience.” (Sennett, 1994: 323 – 366)”

The Institute of Network Cultures in Amsterdam, founded by Geert Lovink, will be releasing in December 2009 during the fourth Urban Screens conference what I think is the first book dedicated to the Urban Screens  phenomenon, which the institute initiated in 2005 with the conference ‘Discovering the Potential of Outdoor Screens for Urban Society.’ This blogpost summarizes the argument of my essay “Interactive Media Artworks for Public Space: The Potential of Art to Influence Consciousness and Behavior in Relation to Public Spaces,” which will be included in the book.

One of the aims of the Urban Screens project is to bring art into the public space by means of large digital projection screens. It aims to explore the opportunities of employing the growing infrastructure of large digital displays in public space, currently used mainly as a tool to influence consumer behavior through advertising, and expand them by displaying cultural content with the purpose of revitalizing public space.

My essay explores contemporary interactive artistic projects employing urban screens, which respond to a critique of the public space theorized as early as the first half of the twentieth century by sociologists such as Richard Sennett and Georg Simmel, and groups of artists such as the Situationists.

Georg Simmel, analyzing the culture of mundane interaction in modern cities, described the relation between individuals who share urban space as one of civil indifference (the ‘blasé’ attitude). Public behavior was reduced to passivity, nonintervention and observation, which replaced the previous ritualized modes of interaction in public space. In relation to urban spaces, the Situationists criticized the rationalism and functionalism characterizing modern urban architecture and design which were downplaying spontaneous, imaginative and playful practices. Guy Debord in his influential book The Society of the Spectacle theorized the modern society as a ’society of the spectacle,’ to describe the media dominated consumer society driven by commercial culture, advertising and entertainment. In the contemporary society, which Gilles Deleuze dubbed as ‘control society,’ the spectacle has been supplemented by surveillance technology in public urban spaces. Constant surveillance which allows for identification at any time cancels the sense of anonymity in associating with a mass of individuals, thus tempering the unexpected energies that crowding with others may release.

The purpose of my paper was to assess the potential of the contemporary interactive media artworks to influence human consciousness and behavior in public space, mainly in reference to this modernist critique of urban space, by means of hermeneutical analysis.

In order to comparatively reflect upon the urban space critique which the interactive media artworks for public space incorporate, the type of individual engagement which their activate, and the interventions which they aim to accomplish, I grouped the artworks into two categories, namely installations which use the body as interface and installations which mark up the public space with text. While the first category, which includes artworks such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Body Movies, Pulse Park (Pulse Front), and Under Scan, intertwines performance art and media art by experimenting with augmented reality and involving the human body in a multisensory way, the second category is reproducing or engaging social media, the most recent phase of Internet culture, in public space. This second category includes artworks such as Jason Lewis’ CitySpeak, Stefhan Caddick’s StoryBoard, and Johannes Gees’ HelloWorld. I used concepts such as Myron Krueger’s ‘responsive environments,’ (Krueger, 2003 (1977): 379) David Rockeby’s ‘transforming mirrors,’ and Mark Hansen’s ‘disembodied embodiment,’ (Hansen, 2006: 91-94), which describe aspects of interactive media in artistic environments, in order to analyze the potential of Lozano-Hemmer’s relational architecture to influence human consciousness and behavior in public space. I argued that the transformation operated in the bodily representation of the self by his pieces – the gap created between the participant’s actions and the transformed representation of his actions -, creates an opening, a space of amplified consciousness of one’s body in relation to other beings, thus challenging us to think differently of ourselves in relation to that world. Potentially this sets the conditions for increasing the participant’s awareness of him/herself in relation to others in the public space in an engaging way, like in a community, which is what is important for Lozano-Hemmer: “people meeting and sharing an experience, […] coming together, […] coming together in the flesh.” By creating a temporary artificial zone of experimentation with the sense of engagement, connection, agency and empathy, Lozano-Hemmer’s relational architecture artworks create a state of consciousness, of awareness of the relational potential in public space, in order to overcome the routinization and passivity which define public behavior now.

In relation to the installations’ potential for activating reflection, Lozano-Hemmer states: “People who are participating are in fact reflecting.” However equaling agency with reflection is arguable. As Kristine Stiles and Edward Shanken explain, the quality of reflection or the extent to which the desired reflection is triggered, depends on the meaningfulness of the agency activated by the artwork. In their view agency is meaningful when it “sets empathy in motion toward responsible interaction and constructive change.” (Stiles & Shanken, forthcoming: 93) In projects such as Pulse Park, where physical interaction and feedback are very limited, the meaning of the artwork rests in the artist’s conceptual decisions more than in the participant’s agency, thus making questionable my description of this project as interactive media artwork.

The second category of artworks inscribes digital displays in urban space with text by means of mobile phones or the Internet as way of stimulating alternative models of inhabiting and acting in public urban space. The two identified categories of artworks differ both formally – in the way they involve individuals -, and in terms of intended effects. While the first category, by using the body (as shadow, video, or image) as interface, involves the individual in a more sensorial way and aims to explore the relational potential of public space by way of a community or an even more profound ‘communion in the flesh,’ the second category permits a different kind of individual input – textual message -, and is more directed towards challenging the disproportionate relation between individuals and other types of ‘voices’ which usually dominate public space, such as commercially driven discourses. They aim to reconfigure the public urban space by offering its inhabitants a legitimate tool to re-appropriate it by way of hypertrophy of personal and intimate expression in public space. By opposing the privatization of public space and its domination by commercial discourses with a communication tool open to public participation, they put forth democratic understandings of public space, if we are to consider Claude Lefort’s consideration of public space as guaranteeing democracy when it belongs to no one (Lefort, 2006 (1988):71).

But rather than dismissing the ‘spectacle’ of commodities and their reification of social relationships, they can also be seen as supplementing a culture of ‘spectacle’ and entertainment with more participatory models of generating spectacular ‘representations,’ if we are to consider Guy Debord’s critique of the society of the spectacle, or Jean Baudrillard’s critique of the media (Baudrillard, 2003 (1972): 277-288). In a public space which is already overexposed to media and information, what difference does an installation using the same means and platforms as the types of discourse that it tries to dispute bring? Debord would certainly judge them as supplementing a culture of ‘spectacle’ and entertainment, which is also how the press and the public often perceive them. Baudrillard would argue that reversibility of the positions of producer and consumer do not guarantee reciprocity of exchange. Turning everyone into a producer will not lead to emancipation or empowerment, because the issue at fault is not who transmits information but the transmitter-message-receiver model of communication itself which excludes what Baudrillard nostalgically values as ‘genuine’ exchange and interaction.

The interactive media art installations of the 1990s and 2000s which are of interest to the Urban Screens project reappropriate parts of the Situationist theory. They support the Situationist critique of modern urban space, although with less politicized and more aestheticized artistic practices. In order to oppose the privatization, rationalization, and functionalism of public space which results in a loss of the unpredictable, spontaneous and creative side of urban life, they aim to inject temporary artistic zones of creative human interaction into the public space by means of large digital displays, digital media, and sometimes surveillance technology, mobile technology and the Internet.

Although responding to social issues by means of collective urban experiments the contemporary artworks do not hold the political density and expansiveness of the Situationist agenda and the potential to empower individuals which the Situationists envisioned with the idealism specific to Modernity. The Situationists envisioned the constructed situation, in its maximum stage of maturity, as ‘lived by its constructors.’ (Debord, 1996 (1957): 706) The collective production by its participants, or ‘livers’ to use Debord’s notion, was the measure of success of constructed situations, although in practice this stage was never achieved.

The contemporary art installations do not aim to achieve empowerment in this sense because the participant is not meant to be the producer of the artistic ‘tool.’ The technological tool is exclusively the creation of the artist and his team who thereby guide the interactive possibilities and meaningfulness of the artwork. However, technological mediated interaction in artistic environments affords other empowering opportunities and achievements. The use of digital media, large digital displays, surveillance technology, and in some cases mobile technology and the Internet in order to mediate or disseminate human interaction may be seen as producing an aesthetization of human relations and thus mask and weaken the meaningfulness of their direct experience by their spectacular representation, overwhelming the senses and inviting for contemplation. However, technologically mediated interaction in an augmented environment which transforms the individual image in the act of reflection, as in the case of Lozano-Hemmer’s installations, affords – in the opening created by the participant’s actions and their distorted representation – opportunities for amplified consciousness of the self in relation to other beings in an intense sensorial, engaging way which goes beyond community and enables a more primary, more deep sense of human communion, a collective genesis afforded through technological mediation, in Mark Hansen’s terms.

 

Quoted works:

Baudrillard, Jean. “Requiem for the Media” (1972). Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003. pp. 277-288 Debord, Guy. “Report on the Construction of Situations and on the International Situationist Tendency’s Conditions of Organization and Action” (1957). In Kristine Stiles and Peter Selz, eds. Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art. University of California Press, 1996 Hansen, Mark. Bodies in Code: Interfaces with Digital Media. London: Routledge, 2006 Krueger, Myron. “Responsive Environments.” (1977) Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort, eds. The New Media Reader. MIT Press, 2003. pp. 377-390 Lefort, Claude. Democracy and Political Theory, trans. David Macey (Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, 1988). In Wendy Chun. Control and Freedom: Power and Paranoia in the age of Fiber Optics. MIT Press, 2006 Senett, Richard. Flesh and Stone: The Body and the City in Western Civilization. New York: Norton, 1994 Stiles, Kristine and Edward A. Shanken. “Missing in Action: Agency and Meaning in Interactive Art.” Forthcoming in Margot Lovejoy, Christiane Paul, Victoria Vesna, eds.. Context Providers: Context and Meaning in Digital Art. University of Minnesota Press