The Dark Side of Internet Freedom

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This book takes up a possible (negative) aspect of digital technology in terms of privacy and democracy.

TO SAVE EVERYTHING, CLICK HERE: The Folly of Technological Solutionism, by Evgeny Morozov

Imagine a world in which humanity—equipped with powerful self-tracking devices—finally conquers obesity, insomnia, and global warming as everyone eats less, sleeps better, and emits more appropriately. The fallibility of human memory is conquered, as the very same tracking devices record and store everything we do. Car keys, faces, factoids: we will never forget them again. No need to feel nostalgic, since that moment is surely stored somewhere in your smartphone—or, more likely, your smart, all-recording glasses—you can stop fantasizing and simply rewind to it directly. Politics is freed from all the sleazy corruption, backroom deals, and inefficient horse trading. Parties are disaggregated and replaced by Groupon-like political campaigns, where users come together—once—to weigh in on issues of direct and immediate relevance to their lives, only to disband shortly afterward. And even those who’ve never bothered to vote in the past are finally provided with the right incentives and so they rush to use their smartphones to “check in” at the voting booth.

Crime is a distant memory, while courts are overstaffed and underworked and prisons are unnecessary. Both physical and virtual environments—walls, pavements, doors, log-in screens—have become “smart.” That is, they have integrated the plethora of data generated by the self-tracking devices and social-networking services so that now they can predict and prevent criminal behavior simply by analyzing their users. Newspapers no longer publish articles that their readers are not interested in; the proliferation of self-tracking combined with social-networking data guarantees that everyone gets to read a highly customized newspaper that yields the highest possible click rate. No story goes unclicked, no headline untweeted; customized, individual articles are generated in the few seconds that pass between the click of a link and the loading of the page in one’s browser.

While there are many in Silicon Valley who subscribe to an “internet-solutionism” ideology and find such a technology-driven utopia enticing, Morozov finds this sort of future terrifying. He argues: “Silicon Valley’s quest to fit us all into a digital straightjacket by promoting efficiency, transparency, certitude and perfection—and, by extension, eliminating their evil twins of friction, opacity, ambiguity, and imperfection—will prove to be prohibitively expensive in the long run.

See more at the Institute for Public Knowledge.

Does this relate to the dystopian techno-future portrayed in the haunting Tom Cruise film Minority Report?

Five Star Existence (film)

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Here is a recent documentary by a Finnish filmmaker which seems quite relevant to the digital living project!

Five Star Existence Sonja Lindén (2011, 84 min)

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With the world at our fingertips, does technology make us freer? Amidst all the hurry and worry of the modern information society, are we happier? These are the core questions of Finnish filmmaker Sonja Lindén’s contemplative look at our wired existence.

Our communication habits have changed drastically in the past 20 years. As the pace of technological innovation accelerates daily, expectations intensify in the workplace, where hectic multi-tasking and 24/7 availability are the norm. Lindén also notes how our relationship to movement has changed; it is now possible to live a life entirely sitting down.

But while the sedentary nature of playing video games results in spine problems for some young people, a computer mouse stuck to the forehead of a disabled woman has given her a new independent life. How does machinery affect our physical, emotional, and mental well-being? How can we rediscover a balance between our natural rhythm and the rapidly escalating demands of modern society?

Beautifully shot and poetically paced, Five Star Existence was selected for International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam’s Competition for Feature-Length Documentary. Lindén’s sensitive, nonjudgmental treatment of these questions creates a heavily thought-provoking cinematic essay on the intertwining of machine and human being.

See the trailer, here.

A New National Pastime

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An article on suggests that the new US pastime is not baseball, not TV, but … multitasking:

No one can take the public’s attention for granted today; first the advent of cable television fragmented viewing patterns, and then came the boundless Internet, followed by the creative forces that provide the content for all those little personal screens. Apple offers around 700,000 separate applications, as does Google. A lot of ways to pass the time, in a nation with a twitching concentration span.

Mapping Digital Media — Finally!

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[Disclaimer: Last year of digital living went by in blur, teaching 4 courses = 160+ students, and, well, getting married. In the works: the book. Catching up begins now.]

I’ve dreamed about this for some years: That in the ever mediatizing and globalizing world, we could study how global we truly are. The original aim of this project was just that, in a micro level. But it is paramount that we understand structural conditions, including market, and policies, and patterns of consumption — let alone important value-laden questions about investigative journalism, the future of public media, and media activism, for instance.

The Open Society Foundations have just done the latter. They have engaged scholars and practitioners from all around the world — some 55 in total, including countries such as Italy, Moldova, South Africa, Thailand, the U.S., and many many more — and commissioned country-specific reports to inform academia, activism, decision-making, and “anyone trying to make sense of the current changes” across different media landscapes. The reports have been and are still being published; you can find them here.  Some take-aways about the U.S. and Western Europe to be found here soon!

Networking for Digital Public Media?

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I recently took part in a preconference of the International Communication Association titled The Future of Public Media: Participatory Models and Networks (here’s a Tumblr site, curated by Jessica Clark, that follows up on the discussions of the conference; here’s an account by one of the participants, Marius Dragomir of the Open Society Institute).

The event made me realise how a great deal of digital living is really conditioned by how the media serves public interest — even in the times of micro media and user-generated content. Below some thoughts inspired by the event:

In the past decade, redefinitions of what public media might mean have begun to emerge in a variety of contexts. The RIPE network of scholars and public media practitioners is a pioneering initiative, addressing the need for reinvention of public service broadcasting in the commercializing media landscape, defined by drastic technological changes. Similarly, the U.S.-focused Beyond Broadcast conferences (2006-09), conceived by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, have aimed at bringing together ‘legacy media’ representatives with new media practitioners, to foster innovation and collaboration.

Recently, however, numerous initiatives outside of conventional framework of public media organizations have begun to address concerns at the heart of public service, public interest media. In other words, they deal with, and promote, diversity of access, ownership, content, and participation. Such endeavours could be said to include ‘media reform’ and ‘media justice’ projects and organizations, large and small; some well-known initiatives being the activist/advocacy umbrella organization the Free Press (U.S.), not-for-profit journalism projects from OhMyNews to ProPublica, or the global community/alternative media collective OurMedia. Public media issues are also very much at stake in mapping and research projects, such as the Global Media Policy project, or the Open Society Institute’s state-of-affairs global mapping of digital media landscapes.

Consequently, while the interest to understand and rework public media questions has traditionally happened by and/or with public media organizations, now there is an increasing amount of thinking and innovation at the structural level (industry landscape, policy-making) as well as at the individual, small-scale, grassroots level (a variety of civic groups and collectives, as well as micro-media by individuals).[1] The following figure summarizes the different circuits of stakeholders, from micro to meso and macro levels, in the public media realm. It aims to highlight that these circuits are interrelated, and should be in dialogue: Structural policy questions are setting the stage for possibilities of public media to exits and flourish; community media practices might inform and inspire conventional media organizations; media activism and advocacy may influence policy-making and increase public awareness of issues pertinent to public media.

According to this framework,  to re-envision and re-invent media, for and by the public, means fostering dialogue and collaboration between different levels of stakeholders. And while the ideas of public media for and by the public are being discussed in much broader base of stakeholders than ever before the challenge still remains only how the stakeholders can meet, develop a common language, and truly begin to collaborate in re-envisioning the public media of the future.

What is needed is a multi-stakeholder knowledge-sharing and innovation network for public media that would (1) map out core questions and goals for different stakeholders; (2) discover core competencies and ‘shareables’; (3) narrow down  common interests; and (4) brainstorm for a step-by-step working plan for ‘networking the networks’, for systematizing collaboration in promoting new kind of public media, in its different varieties.

[1] See, Aslama 2010: Re-thinking PSM Audiences: Diversity of Participation for Strategic Considerations. In Lowe, Greg (ed.). The Public in Public Service Media. Gothenburg: Nordicom.

Digital Diversity @ Macro Level

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One of the key aims of the Digital Living project is to combine micro and macro. Mini Portraits feature interesting similarities and differences of how people relate to their digital life. However, both Amelia and I have also worked on (infra)structural issues such as broadband. I’m in the process of coauthoring with Prof. Hannu Nieminen a paper on the (in)famous Finnish case:

In 2009, Finland made history by becoming the world’s first country to create laws guaranteeing broadband access. The Finnish Government had already decided to make a 100 Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015. Then, in October 2009, the Government announced that Finland will be the first country in the world to decree the broadband Internet connection as a Universal Service Obligation (USO): Starting as at July 2010, every person in Finland has had the right to a one-megabit broadband connection.

[Check out my earlier blog posts about it here and here.]

I will present our outlook (including an indepth interview with 2 key policy-makers) in a wonderful international expert workshop in New York in May, called ‘Digital Diversity: Serving the Public Interest in the  Age of Broadband’.

I love the pragmatist Finnish honesty:

In a small country of horrible [geographical] conditions we need to turn the reality and necessity into a virtue a bit faster than others.

-Maaret Suomi, Ministerial Adviser, Ministry of Transport and Communications of Finland, on the ‘Broadband for Everyone’ programme

Analog / Digital overlaps

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A few weeks ago I visited Minna at her apartment in preparation for our first New York interview. I had just been describing how much I liked being able to order books online (digital technology enhancing my ability to find and read the “old media” of books), when a book from was delivered to her door.

The book, Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept With Her iPhone) Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale),  fit the conversation perfectly:

Nuances of Participation

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A recent article in Newsweek, titled Take This Blog and Shove It! presents some interesting numbers on digital (non-)participation. For example:

“While professional bloggers are “a rising class,” according to Technorati, hobbyists are in retreat, and about 95 percent of blogs are launched and quickly abandoned. A recent Pew study found that blogging has withered as a pastime, with the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who identify themselves as bloggers declining by half between 2006 and 2009. A shift to Twitter—or microblogging, as it’s called—partly accounts for these numbers. But while Twitter carries more than 50 million tweets per day, its army of keystrokers may not be as large as it seems. As many as 90 percent of tweets come from 10 percent of users, according to a 2009 Harvard study. The others are primarily “lurkers”—people who don’t contribute but track the postings of others. Between 60 and 70 percent of people who sign up for the 140-character platform quit within a month, according to a recent Nielsen report.”

The article refreshingly indicates that digital participation is not as widespread or as monolithic as it is often portrayed to be: many people do not participate, users who do participate do so differently than one another, and participation changes over time.


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A great article in the NYT today about a handful of scholars thinking about effects of heavy duty technology use — in the wilderness. Neuroscientists, not us clever comm researchers… But made me reflect my thoughts about effects.

A couple of years ago, I was part of a team conducting an overview report of current communication research in the US for a Finnish foundation (HSF). Although I had spend some time in the US, and knew a bit about the academic context, the prominence of the so called effects research (as in: effects of mass media, often researched in laboratory settings) took me by total surprise. That kind of research, to my understanding, is quite marginal in Europe (disclaimer: maybe I’ve just never explored the field in Europe, but at least seldom encountered such research in conferences, journals…)

When I asked my fab Fordham students, of the course Media & Society, what they think would be the most acute research need, they almost unanimously mentioned the necessity to study how youth that grow up as heavy users of media will be affected mentally, socially, emotionally… Will their digital living as adults be something completely different than of adults of today?

This discourse of effects, as important as it is, still makes me a little vary; only because often the premises are a little skewed (see David Gauntlett‘s funny ‘10 things wrong about the effects model‘); for me, especially because they tend to emphasise the negative and perhaps thus circulate unnecessary slogans and fears…

A Scale of Value in Participation


Some more about reading interesting books… Clay Shirky of NYU carries the… mmm… suspicious title ‘internet guru’. I’m not familiar with his previous acclaimed book Here Comes Everybody but know many people appreciated the text. Just finished his new one,  Cognitive Surplus, Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. The biggest takeaway for me was his scale of participation, and the value related it,  in/through digital media/networks, from personal to communal to public to civic.

Again, I see this as a possible way of organising ideas or even findings (maybe, maybe :-). It also speaks to me, as I’ve been thinking of modalities of participation; as in the level of the individual (which is what Shirky breaks down in his scale), the level of media institutions, and the level of media policy-making (see, e.g., my chapter in RIPE@2009).

So here’s his scale in a nutshell:

– Personal: participants and benefactors of participation are individuals, get personal benefit (e.g., that others comment their uploads).

– Communal: Collaboration creates communal value, but within that particular community, e.g.

– Public: like communal but very open to ‘outsiders’ and ‘newcomers’ , results also available to those who are not members

– Civic: Like public, but the explicit goal is to improve society. These are the kind of groups Aufderheide & Clark talk about, see the previous post.

What do you think — does this scale of participatory values work in real life?

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