From Weak Ties to Organized Networks: Winter Camp 09

Winter Camp 09 was an event which took place between 3 and 7 March 2009 in Amsterdam. Organized by the Institute of Network Cultures, the event offered twelve networks for four days the space to develop and analyze their identity and practices.

How does the “will to network” manifest in today’s society where the number of network technologies is continuously growing? How do networked interactions influence culture? What happens when networks become driving forces? How can networks maintain their critical edge while aiming for professional status? These and other questions motivated the organization of the event which resulted in the publication From Weak Ties to Organnized Networks: Ideas, Reports, Critiques, which can be downloaded for free from the Institute of Network Cultures website.

The posts in this section are articles which I contributed to the Winter Camp blog.

Upgrade! Decision Making in a Distributed Network

Winter Camp

In the previous two days, after having discussed their identity, mission, core values, and crises, the sixteen members of Upgrade! gathered this morning with several issues on their agenda, which have not yet been touched upon this week at Winter Camp: collaborative tools and managing collaborative tools, lists and managing lists, and the decision making process. The discussion about potential models of network organization was combined with discussing the upcoming event organized with the assistance of Upgrade! International in Sao Paolo.

Upgrade! defines itself as a decentralized, non-hierarchical network of currently thirty local nodes, which started in 1999 in New York City. It seems to me rather that the network has a distributed structure, considering that all the locally defined nodes are equal and autonomous. The network structure fundamentally defines the decision making process. While the network maintained a quite democratic mode of organization and decision making so far, this model has its weaknesses as well. Not all the members felt motivated to contribute in the decision making process by voting at the right time. A potential solution that has been discussed during the group meeting today was voting versus mandate, or a combination of the two, according to the various circumstances. In situations which require higher effectiveness over a short period of time, the democratic procedure would be ‘sacrificed’ in order to meet deadlines and objectives, and the decision power would be delegated to a smaller representative group. As a matter a fact, working in smaller groups has proven to be an effective method to reach results also during work at Winter Camp.

Winter Camp

A vulnerable point with which the network seems to be confronting at this moment is the decision making process, reason for which changing the currently used collaborative tools: mailing list, wiki, website, has been considered. There seemed to be an oscillation between working in a democratic manner, and giving people clear responsibilities and mandates to work on.

An important value for a distributed network like Upgrade! is transparency. Introducing a wiki as communication platform is a way to achieve transparency and avoid isolation of the local nodes.

The growing number of group members might also turn into a vulnerability of the network unless the mode of organization is adapted. An important point of discussion of Upgrade! at Winter Camp was precisely how the growth of the network should be approached and how membership should be defined. Since the network does not impose constraints of activity on its nodes, each of the nodes has the freedom to be active or passive. The nodes may be inactive until an activity of local interest determines the engagement of the node and consequently the network’s support. The weakness of this approach is that it is difficult to distinguish between temporarily idle nodes and ‘retired’ nodes, therefore it is difficult for the network to have an account of who it can count on.

The local nodes are connected in an online global network that meets twice a year. The question arose of how to activate the nodes and make them more efficient without imposing constraints on them. The network does not seem to have a set of predefined norms to regulate the interaction between nodes. The conditions of participation in local events are established ad hoc and depend on the circumstances of each event and the needs of the local host, as it had been evident from the discussion regarding the organization of their upcoming event in Sao Paolo.

The group also noticed a difference of involvement between generations of nodes. The old nodes seemed to be more involved and dedicated than the new ones. This situation may be connected with the fact that an important value on which the foundation of the network was based, and which guided their relations was friendship. Now that the network is growing and more nodes are being attached, the strategy of accepting new members might change from friendship to more formal criteria.

Genderchangers: Discussing Identity Issues in the Winter Camp Framework

According to their website the Genderchangers network initiated in 1999 and was inspired by the ASCII hacklab in Amsterdam. Genderchangers defines itself as a network for women, technology and freedom of information. They initially started with knowledge-sharing courses for women by women and because of the enthusiastic response to these initial workshops and courses the Genderchangers started to organize an annual international event, the Eclectic Tech Carnival in 2002.

The group has gathered at Winter Camp 2009 with a series of practical objectives in mind: writing a manifesto, coming up with a slogan and a list of requirements for improving the Genderchangers website.

The first session of Genderchangers at Wintercamp comprised of a brainstorm session. The group initiated a discussion about redefining their identity, which would further be used as a resource for establishing a slogan and a framework for the network’s manifesto. In trying to answer the questions: Who are we?, Who or what are we representing?, the group came up with a series of key defining concepts for their motivations and activity. Under the theme “women, technology and freedom,” the outcome of the brainstorming was included in the following categories:

  • Why: “motivation”, “fun”, “creative”, “lonely”, “disconnected”, “curious”, “satisfaction”, “cool”, “isolated”, “not intimidated;”
  • Who: “gender minorities”, “female only;”
  • What: “open source”, “no competition”, “skills sharing”, “free software;”
  • How: “informal”, “ad-hoc”, “self-evident”, “hands on”, “no competition”, “catalyst”, “learn by explaining”, “group learning”;
  • Objectives: “camaraderie”, “confident”, “benefits”, “openness”, “support”, “networking”, “losing fear”, “breaking barriers”, “networking.”

While discussing the potential futures of the network, several issues concerning past and present challenges of the group came up. The network encountered several challenges during their activity. A feeling of disconnection in-between workshops and other events where they usually meet has sometimes been experienced, which is why the group values face-to-face meetings in order to stay connected. Workshops are a great opportunity for group members to come together, although their number is currently limited by a shortage of resources, such as the fact that they do not have a space of their own. The group started as a hands-on group so physical meetings are crucial for this type of activity.

The session opened up questions about potential directions that the network may take in the future. In assessing the current situation and thinking about the future, there are certain values that the network wants to preserve, and which are encapsulated in the theme: “women, technology and freedom”. Genderchangers also wants to make a point about working with free and open source software, a value which they want to preserve.

The network’s target group was also an important point of discussion at Winter Camp. The group envisions its role as opening doors to women’s curiosity about technological issues, creating a space where women do not feel intimidated to work with technology, and offering knowledge for women who are interested in technology. The network wishes to be a catalyst and stir the interest of women in understanding how technology functions. The group also discussed as a potential goal expanding their female audience beyond the culturally initiated.

In discussing the future development of the network, the group seems to be facing a tension between maintaining their status quo and continuing to enjoy what they currently do, and expanding their activity.

The first work session of Genderchangers at Winter Camp was successful in opening up points for further discussion, regarding the identity of the group primarily, and potential audiences secondarily.

Photos by Anne Helmond.

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.

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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?