Scepticism on the Filter Bubble

I think most of the thinking around The Filter Bubble comes from people who are not very procedurally literate to begin with. That is to say they are not very adept at understanding the rules that govern interactive systems nor are they well equipped at reconfiguring them to suit their ends. I touch on this because the same tired argument was parroted in this Zeit interview with Miriam Meckel, a leading German communication scientist. It starts off with some very sensible sentiments but then it quickly derails on the topic of algorithms and concludes on several sidelines.

There is a clear need for caution when it comes to algorithms, as has also been expressed by algoworld expert Kevin Slavin in his TED talk ‘How algorithms shape our world’ but there is no need for the undue fear being mongered by Eli Pariser and his pack. Meckel says the following (as also remarked by Basti Hirsch):

Es gäbe keinen kritischen Diskurs mehr, und damit würde unser System auseinanderfallen. Informationen sind der Kitt, der unsere Gesellschaft zusammenhält. In meinem Buch treibe ich diese Idee auf die Spitze: Die Menschheit schafft sich durch die Perfektionierung der Algorithmen selbst ab.

Bei manchen durch Algorithmen betriebenen Werbeangeboten hingegen bekämen Sie diesen Artikel gar nicht erst zu sehen.

While deploring the extremism prevalent in German discourse on the topic of the internet. She herself now takes an extremist and poorly nuanced position herself. The Filter Bubble argument that is currently in vogue (see this treatment by Alexander) is mostly hollow and it creates understanding on the back of fear. I work for the internet and I am sick of hearing this nonsense time and time again.

The Filter Bubble contrasts a previously filtered situation of redacted mainstream media with the new filtered situation of personalized online content and plays off of people’s fears. There are two main differences in the new situation.

The first difference is that the filters personalize content spheres for each person. I don’t think this is all that problematic. Having trained machine learning algorithms myself, I have seen how coarse they turn out no matter what amount of training. Training which is somewhere between a dark art and trying to hit a subjective target somewhere. Algorithmic filters resemble fractal surfaces more than they do smooth bubbles and personalization will never provide a perfectly sealed off environment. This means that as soon as you get into the technical details the whole thing very quickly falls apart.

The second difference is that filters are being applied by algorithms instead of editors now. Both are enigmatic creatures, but judging from the cold reception algorithms get, it seems that the traditional humanities are better equipped to deal with human entities than they are with the algorithmic variety. There is nothing new under the sun. Large scale social segregation and associated detrimental effects also happened using traditional media with people logging into their own newspaper or radio station. One of the most visibly polarized societies right now is the USA where the ‘debate’ between the right and the left is raging on talk radio, 24 hour news networks and, yes, also online. If anything the filters may help by making the groups of like minded people too small and too busy to be harmful to society.

My second problem is that while complaining about the lack of technical literacy in the general populace, her discipline and her research does not come over as very technically literate. She says:

Unser Land ist tendenziell eher technikfeindlich eingestellt.

The interviewer then adds that she draws from literary and philosophical sources. Those are interesting but hardly enough to thoroughly treat a subject. Deep talk about about information technology should draw from philosophy but it should also bring a literacy of the field itself. That means knowledge of its technical workings and affordances, the design practices inherent in the creation of technical artifacts and the procedurality and interaction that is so key to them.

So yes I very much agree that we need to instill a large scale procedural, data and media literacy in people and we may well need to start with the humanities. That may be the only way to fix their relevance problems when it comes to digital things (see also Ian Bogost’s two part essay ‘Beyond the Elbow-patched Playground’ on that).

So with those skills in hand, we could discuss the filter bubble drawing from applied research. One finding I would like to see is a technical assessment of the feasibility of trapping people in filter bubbles and measurements of the amount of information isolation that can be achieved. Another would be to research real life internet users and see if in fact they shut themselves off more from other influences and how far this affects their world views. Only with a praxis firmly based in reality can we talk about this subject in a way that is not gratuitous.

Update: This review of the Filter Bubble by Olga Goriunova in Computational Culture mostly vindicates my argument and I agree that we need more writing, not less to bridge the gap of literacy that stands ahead of us.

Cultural Criticism Without Borders

When I just got into Germany we managed to pin point something I had noticed before. It is striking how conservative people in Germany are when it comes to the internet and especially people who work in cultural positions. Compared to that, the Netherlands of the past five years has gone through a rather tumultuous revolution.

This was prompted a bit by responses are to the new play “Edward II” directed by Ivo van Hove at the Schaubühne here. I am yet to see the play, but I hear it’s pretty good. Judging from the set pictures and the trailer it is one of the more modern pieces at this particular theater. It seems to have been rather poorly received in the papers, which have treated it not really on merit, but with thinly veneered hatchet jobs where critics employed their position to jab at this or that enemy in the German cultural landscape. One particular critic even projected his own frustrations and personal perversions onto the play in a national daily. Germany still seems to be that place where personal gripes are written down and nailed to a door somewhere.

The modern look of the play seemed to draw particular ire and especially the liberal use of video projections on the stage (a staple at Toneelgroep Amsterdam). It seems that German theater viewers cannot deal with mixed media and are either confused on where to look or too closed minded to accept projected images alongside the action happening live on the stage. This is one symptom of a lack in media literacy.

Ivory towered gentlemen with a strangle hold on culture may be one extreme, in the Netherlands we suffer from the other. Reviews of works of culture in the papers are oftentimes as thin as the paper they are printed on. Usually they superficially treat a work and tack on a bit of buyer’s advice. It is painfully obvious that they are written by people who have to write twenty such pieces a day lest they are fired. I write video game reviews in Dutch periodical myself, but looking for my piece in the paper one day, I read a review for a movie I’d been to that was so bad, it brought tears to my eyes. Theater reviews have held their own, but they are hit and miss and you’re better off reading only those written by Simon van den Berg.

As I see it a piece in a newspaper treating a work of culture should be some parts of either a review or a critique and probably a bit of both. A review is a brief summary of a piece without giving much away, explaining how it will fulfill the expectations of a prospective audience so they can decide whether to go/buy/use it or not. A critique should be a deep diving treatment of that piece, how it compares to all other works and how it is relevant to society in any subset that the critic deems relevant. Such a critique should contain judicious amounts of post-modern literary theory, internet savvy remix, unit operational analysis and it should bridge clefts of continuity, medium, style and social stratum. Above all both reviews and critiques must be entertaining to read and they must bring something new to the table.

I get to write 80 words or so for the paper and in that little space I try to do the above because we want to further discourse around video games in the Netherlands. As we see it procedural media are busy upending the entire traditional cultural landscape and strict divisions of any kind in culture and art will not be tenable in the future. The institutions are crumbling and that is a good thing. This is unfortunately a radical notion even in the Netherlands, I have no clue how it will hold up in Germany where institutions are even more conservative and society is much more stratified.

In any case we cannot fill the entire newspaper by ourselves, nor should we want to. We can only strive to educate and elucidate by writing and talking about media in this particular way and hope that it catches on. I’m interested to see if my notions are at all true and if the German or Dutch discourse can be inched forward in the coming year with some choice interventions. Help to achieve that or explanations in how I am completely wrong are always welcome.

Working theory for Germany

I have been in Berlin for a couple of hectic days now and I’m trying to come to terms with my surroundings. I have got a new working theory to use for the foreseeable future. Let’s see how well this holds up:

Germany has not quite recovered from their catastrophical experiment with modernism in the ’30s-’40s. This caused them to fall back and get stuck in a sort of classical romanticism. This stuckness has caused them to skip post-modernism and the developments that came after and is the main reason why its cultural velocity is slow. Some individuals have modernized to a greater or lesser extent and the developments of ’68 have had an effect, but the institutional parts of the country remain firmly entrenched in the past.

As I said, I’m new here and this is two days’ worth of rumination thinly sliced. Comments for amending it are very welcome.

Michael LaFond – Berlin Co-Housing

I was at an event organized by ARCAM tonight concerning co-operative housing projects which are already very popular in Berlin but are rapidly expanding to other cities. Amsterdam is busy launching its own initiative and Michael LaFond from Berlin presented their experiences with this way of building.

It was an interesting evening to attend. The slides were poorly visible from the back, but I managed to jot down a large part of the Q&A where most of the action was. It is interesting to see how eager for knowledge the Amsterdam crowd is. It strikes me as odd that building a house yourself would be novel, but given the market as it is, it is. Also: the Dutch with their capacity for trade and organization should be pretty good at this thing. If that will be so, remains to be seen.

Notes first quoted:

Muni of Amsterdam is going to emit a bunch of self building plots

There’s going to be an event this weekend in Houthaven for the first batch of plots.

Michael LaFond, American Architect living and working in Berlin
id22, Institute for Creative Sustainability

started Wohnportal-Berlin

focus on co-housing, community organized housing projects

daz – köpenickerstraße

local innovation, community
baugemeinschaften, hausvereine

emphasizes participation in cooperative and community oriented designs
organize Wohnportal, platform for architects and housing activists to get their project out there

last year: started working with people in other European cities

organizing a tour of the creative sustainability projects around the city

An increased demand even in participation.

1.9M housing units / 3.5M residents
1.82 person/unit
Weak presence of corporations on the market though everybody leases.

Since 2009 Berlin offers land to Baugemeinschaften at fixed prices.
The best concept and not the highest bidder wins.
1. Neighborhood and community orientation
2. Architecture and urban design
3. Sustainability and ecology
4. Financing

Change in economy and demography forces Berlin like Amsterdam to look at the concept of building houses yourself.

Baugemeinschaften started in Tübingen and Freiburg

List of examples among which:
* Möckernkiez, public access
* Spreefeld Berlin, secured a road to the land and got the land cheap from the Federal Government, some of the best architects in Berlin
* AH+, outside of the city center, buildings will produce more energy than they consume

Baugemeinschäfte are growing larger to the 100 and more houses per project

Co Housing Cultures book due to be out

Manifestation this weekend with the release of 300 plots.

Initiator of the Vrijburg Project, landscape architect also present.
Vrijburg has failed in collaborating with Nuon to create sustainable energy projects.

Now the questions as much as I could transcribe them:

Q: How do you manage people who want to rent? Or people with unequal incomes.
LaFond: 3 of the projects are affordable housing, some in re-adapting existing buildings. People pay €5-6/m2. There are examples of non-profit cooperations. People that really don’t have any money, can’t live there.

Q: The real-estate market in Amsterdam is rather transparent. Transactions are being done between housing corporations, developers and the city. Can co-housing create more transparency in the housing market? So that fairer pricing of land becomes a possibility?
LaFond: By making the scale of projects smaller that becomes easier. For democracy, the equal distribution of land is very important.

Q: The self-build aspect? Who carries the risk if the plan fails?
LaFond: You can have affordable houses from non-self-organized projects and vice versa. People that do have money: a core group forms and they look for a piece of land with or without an architect, or they apply to a city land auction, with a group facilitator. They identify the concept and organize a Baugemeinschaft. People bring their own money and they need to go to the bank themselves for credit. The ones without money need to get support from a foundation or other organization. The main reason that projects don’t succeed is because they can’t find any affordable land.

Q: How important is the role of the architect?
LaFond: If you want to emphasize the group or community, the focus should be with them. There’s always the combination of the future inhabitants, the architect and the moderator. The most important thing in Berlin is that people adhere more strictly to the division of roles and don’t try to play multiple parts.

Q: Do the architects design the energy systems?
LaFond: Almost always there will somebody extra working on that.

Q: How do people find it?
LaFond: There’s the website. The events where people come together and word of mouth about the project. Some architecture firms have their own waiting lists for people who want to be on the next project.

Q: What’s the role of the moderators?
LaFond: There’s no investor/developer for these projects, that’s why they are more affordable. Btu that’s also why it demands more intensive participation. They need to understand people and organize them. Manage relations. Sometimes have to protect participants from the architects. There are not that many people who can do this and want to do this. Most architects can’t or don’t want to do this. (There seem to be companies specialized in this.)

Bob van der Zande (stad Amsterdam, Zelfbouw) also present.

Q: Is the municipality thinking about social housing in the next 10 years?
Van der Zande: We are hoping that there are so many different houses being planned that the option of social housing will materialize.

LaFond: Some of the co-operative projects will give people the money they invested back but they cannot sell or speculate on the house themselves. This changes the house from a property on the market into something that is there to use. More projects like that are needed to guarantee affordable housing in a city on the long term. If people can make money on their property and there’s nothing to prevent it, it is not odd that they will do so.

Q: How is the other obstacle (that of financing) being tackled?
LaFond: Constructions take some time to develop. Umweltbank and GLS bank are very important for these projects. They make less money from the interest and they have a greater desire to support ecological and social projects. It happens that people can collectively apply for money to get credit so not everybody needs to have the same amout of money. GLS is the best example in Germany. They offer different kinds of Burgschaften, you need to have a combination of money, income, property, or a relative who has money. Now also Kleinburgschaften: 25 people can all risk €3000 to join together and cover the risk. Das Miethäusersyndicat (started in Freiburg) exists to help housing groups to buy their buildings and renovate them. Because they have so many buildings now they can get credit to do more buildings. These structures took 20 some years to develop.
Stiftung Trias and Edith Marien Stiftung don’t like private ownership much. They work to take land away from the market. Community land trusts.

Vrijburg architect: In Amsterdam one bank is interested in these projects: the Rabobank. All the other banks are running away.

A more messy city

We spent last weekend having a veritable blast at the Cognitive Cities conference. It was a great spectacle of familiar faces, a nicely curated program and full frontal confrontations with the city of Berlin.

I cannot stress enough how much I enjoyed Cognitive Cities. It was crammed with beautifully designed views onto the city and a chance to catchup with old friends from all over Europe. The Copenhagen crew were present, Rebooters came back from withdrawal and we could congratulate Your Neighbours and Third Wave with their tremendous success in organizing such a conference.

But in the abstraction a lot of the reality was lost, I’m afraid. We are all of course striving to make our ghost boxes better but design cannot be a sterile, clean handed affair. Kars writes a fuller more balanced recounting of the conference, but my feelings are the same.

Urban computing at its finest

Walking around in the real cognitive city of Berlin and seeing the street kids in Neukölln and the party-goers in Berghain, I feel they are not within the myopic view of our design chique clique nor we in theirs. The street is a very messy and creative affair and it must not be disconnected from our digital cognition of it. At least not if we want to have any relevance and create real meaning for a significant number of people.

Ideas how to do this in quality and at scale are forthcoming, but like everything it should of course start with awareness.

Game Over

Ein Berliner

Net een dag terug uit Berlijn na een weekend van straf rijden, drinken en programmeren.

Elke keer weer in Berlijn, maakt me blij. De mensen lijken er redelijk onbevangen, de wijken zijn er ondertussen bekend en de taal gaat me elke keer weer makkelijker af.

Helaas geen tijd gehad om sommige tips op te volgen of om sushi te eten, maar dat is dan weer voor een volgende keer, want die komt er zeker. In de tussentijd volgen hier in de komend dagen wat foto’s.

Berliner Existenz

Na in Berlijn aangekomen te zijn, heb ik:

  • Turks gegeten (meermalen)
  • Heerlijke Libaneze kibbe gegeten (eindelijk weer)
  • Currywurst gegeten (eerste van velen)
  • Met bier over straat gelopen (vaak zat)
  • Hardgelopen en geklommen (een beetje)
  • Werewolf gespeeld (iets te weinig)
  • Prenzlauerberg ‘s nachts verkend (meermalen)
  • In akelig hippe Wohnzimmer gelegen (eenmalig)
  • €80 kwijtgeraakt (één keer teveel)
  • Jeff Wall‘s foto’s gezien in het Guggenheim (smaakt naar meer)

Wat ik nog wil doen voor zaterdag:

  • Capoeira spelen
  • Live optreden bijwonen
  • Rondhangen op de Weihnachtsmarkt
  • Door het holocaust monument lopen
  • King Faad de hand schudden


NS Internationaal

Ik ga eind deze maand naar Berlijn om Eelke te bezoeken en acte de présence te geven op de Web 2.0 Expo en Barcamp Berlin. Nu dacht ik dat het wel leuk zou zijn om met de trein te gaan. Ik heb pas ook een Railplus Kaart bij mijn kortingskaart gekocht. Daar zou ik iets aan moeten hebben.

Voor Berlijn staan overal advertenties van de NS dat retourkaartjes €58 kosten. Als je op de site zo’n kaartje probeert te boeken, lijkt het erop dat ze beschikbaar zijn. Ga je alleen een stap verder dan krijg je een ontzettend vage foutmelding. Het lijkt erop dat alle kaartjes van €29 via de site niet te boeken te zijn.

Ik heb toen het nummer dat op de foutmelding stond gebeld. Na ruim tien minuten wilde ik de NS niet nog meer geld opleveren en heb ik maar opgehangen.

Na het werk maar naar de Internationaal balie op Schiphol gelopen om daar te vragen hoe het nou zit. Het schijnt dat er per trein maar een handjevol stoelen zijn die je voor die €29 kunt boeken. Omdat er zo weinig zijn, zijn deze plaatsen meestal al maanden van tevoren weg. De rest van de 2e klas gaat voor de normale prijs. De NS denkt dus dat je door de reclame gaat proberen te boeken voor €29 en als je dan wordt geconfronteerd met een prijs die 2-3 keer zo duur is dan je had gedacht, dat je dan toch een kaartje koopt en je niet genaaid voelt.

Er schijnt nog een andere kortingsregeling te zijn dat als je met drie mensen reist dat je voor €100 een enkeltje Berlijn kunt krijgen voor zijn drieën. Deze is online natuurlijk nergens te vinden.
De vrouw achter de balie zag dat ik afgeknapt was maar vertelde me dat ze de regels niet verzonnen had. Ze voerde ze daarentegen wel uit. Mensen die bij de NS werken zitten in de rare positie dat ze extreem slecht beleid waar ze zelf weinig invloed op hebben moeten proberen uit te voeren en  goedpraten. Dat is hét recept voor ongelukkige werknemers. Werknemers van de NS hebben best veel invloed maar dan moeten ze die wel pakken.
Zij zijn degenen die de kaartjes controleren. Als ze dat niet meer doen, lijkt het erop dat de NS in korte tijd failliet is en rijp voor renationalisatie.

Dit alles overwegende en met de grotesk dure treinprijzen is het in je eentje al goedkoper om met de auto naar Berlijn te gaan laat staan als je met een paar mensen gaat.