Repeating Mistakes and Big Brother

The reading this week had me thinking of a lot of different things coming up in these news these days and some interviews I’ve listened to related to these issues. with the first piece by Robertson and Travaglia I couldn’t help but think of the election process and the enormous number of polls that are taken and what the data, given to us in almost always unreliable ways without much context, are getting mostly wrong.

“That a census or a social survey is a snapshot of the way our societies are regulated is rarely remarked on and instead emphasis is given to the presumed objectivity of the categories and their data. This is the ideology of the small data era in action – the claim that it is science and not society that we are seeing through such instruments.”

When it comes to the polls about the Republican and Democratic primaries, it seems as though while they are usually fairly reflective of what will happen in a given state’s primary or caucus, they are misleading in the overall understanding of who may or may not be the party’s nominee and how they might do in a general election. I was listening to Nate Silver who started the website 538 (uses data to talk about politics, entertainment, the economy, sports, and pretty much any and everything else) and is well known for his accuracy in predicting nearly all 50 states correctly in the 2008 presidential election, and he mentioned how there is a strange reversal in the state of polls in primaries and generals. One of the main points was about Donald Trump and how his enormous support that makes him the front running candidate in most primaries is far from the case in the general, where you have a much different electorate that doesn’t find his style quite as charming as primary voters.

“We run the risk in the social sciences of perpetuating the ideological victories of the first data revolution as we progress through the second.”

In the other article by van Dijck and Poell, my mind shifted gears a bit to other items in the news— like the whole Apple and FBI dispute. The article provided a number of recent historical events as examples. Like when discussing programmability they mentioned reddit and the Boston Marathon bombing and how Reddit had to change their editorial process because of how many sub-Reddit threads led to the vilification and accusation of innocent people while the search for the suspects was still ongoing. Like they say in the article, platformers and programmers constantly negotiate the terms of social interaction. And so one even leads the social media programmers to change the level of agency on the part of users:

“The second part of the programmability definition, though, relates to human agency: users retain significant agency in the process of steering programmability not only through their own contributions but also because they may resist coded instructions or defy protocols.”

But programmability also made me think of how these platforms “steer” users and how Facebook in particular has been getting a lot of flack for years now about how they use users’ personal data.

“Programmability can hence be defined as the ability of a social media platform to trigger and steer users’ creative or communicative contributions, while users, through their interaction with these coded environments, may in turn influence the flow of communication and information activated by such a platform.”

Ironically, the Apple and FBI case shows another tech company (not directly social media but still) that has had a dubious track record on a number of issues, but here Apple comes out as the champion of privacy and constitutional rights.

Last thought on this week’s readings, this one particular quote really intrigued me:

“The idea that you can tap into people’s unconsciousness or ‘idea formation’ without affecting the processes of opinion making is a basic misconception.”

It seems like in the same mistakes keep happening (like the first article says) in which these companies and the government are so excited about the prospect of datafication of everything, that they end up oversimplifying its use, which is extremely dangerous, and not to sound so intense (and ironically I’ll be oversimplifying a bit here for effect) but isn’t too far off from when oppressive regimes crack down on dissent.

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Repeating Mistakes and Big Brother

In search for the real power

Silva Vaidhyanathan’s “The Googlization of Us: Universal Survailance and Infrastructural Imperialism” serves as a very interesting and powerful counterpoint to Manuel Castells’s “Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society.” There were three very interesting points raised by Vaidhyanathan that somehow were more effective in personifying the new medium “players” than Castells’s article.

The first of these points was how Google, while guaranteeing the privacy of its users by a written privacy policy, “changes its policy often and without warning. So today’s policy – for all its strengths and weaknesses – might not be the policy tomorrow or next year” (580). Therefore, Google not only positions itself as the police over its own policies, but also carefully deprives its “costumers” of any legal power. Castells’s description of communication and information being sources of power in the “battle over the minds of people” (238) suggests Google positions itself as a powerful and flexible moderator/agent in this battle. It seems that Castells’s mass self-communication may have a new “competitor” other than the traditional political powers capable of controlling mass media, a new power that not only gives voice to marginalized “individualists,” but keeps track of these voices to be used by whoever is interested in commercialize them.

A second interesting point described by Vaidhyanathan is the amusingly depersonalized (and tragic) “Star Wars Kid,” who had to quit school after being harassed for having a personal video go viral. I take this as a true personalized example of individuals who are embedded and are major players in the rise of mass self-communication. While I like to believe that Castells’s mass self-communication offers a challenge to traditional powers by individuals who “think local, rooted in their society, and act global, confronting the power where the power holders are, in the global networks of power and in the communication sphere” (249), Vaidhyanathan at the same time focus on politically engaged individuals who may represent an infinitesimal number of the total number of players engaged in making their voices be heard online. It is incontestable that the new medium offers new ways of political mobilizations. It is also unquestionable that individuals who share many of the values broadcasted by mass media strengthened these values through mass self-communication. It is possible that the answer regarding what power benefits more from the new medium will never be known.

Finally, Vaidhyanathan speaks about users’ indifference to Google’s “Streetview omnipresence” (although he admits that individuals from rural areas present more negative views towards surveillance than individuals living in urban areas). He also presents Google’s CEO, Eric Shmidt, argument that states that “people are the same everywhere” and that this is “very disturbing” (593). While Shmidt statement may be untrue and may be made through the prism of his corporation that, after all, is one of the forces behind globalization, it may present a future trend. If that is true, social mobilizations, purported to be aided by the new medium, may not be a force against the traditional political powers, but against a world where social mobilizations themselves become part of a commercialized and global action.

In search for the real power