Don’t Be Evil

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by current CityLIS student Hilary Jordan. She discusses the biases embedded in search algorithms and the importance of remembering the human factor when discussing how information is processed and disseminated. The original post can be found here.

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On June 27, 2017, The European Commission handed Google a €2.42 billion (£2.1 billion) fine for breaching EU antitrust rules. It was slightly too late for Foundem, a price-comparison website which had consistently been marked ‘spam’ in after an update to Google’s algorithm and pushed to the bottom of its search results. One second it ranked 1st or 3rd, the next in the 70s or 80s. Now Foundem’s website exists as a relic, a record of its long battle with Google.

Incidentally, Google’s own price comparison site “Froogle” was at the top of search results.

Being essentially invisible in Google searches was an existential threat to the company. Most people use Google as gateway and guide to the Internet. But over two years Foundem pursued every conceivable avenue – there was no reasoning with Google.

Google has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing and insisted that algorithms were simply doing their job. They finally relented and “manually whitelisted” Foundem in December 2007.

Whilst in this instance Google were held (somewhat) to account, I believe some of the language used shows a deeper problem we have when we talk about algorithms. Google’s defence was that an update to the algorithm, designed to root out spam websites with little original content, penalised Foundem. But Google is its search algorithm. If it made a mistake, it was Google’s mistake. Whether the act was accidental or malicious, Google cannot somehow disown it.

The same problem crops up whenever we hear about “racist algorithms” in the news. Stories such as facial recognition software identifying a black woman as a gorilla can prompt questions about who’s working on these algorithms and how they’re doing it, but often we fail to probe deeper.

If it is an algorithm that makes mistakes, or an algorithm that collects our data, then often it appears to slide into our lives, ubiquitous and silent. If, though, there is a human on the other end, then we can challenge it. We need to remember the human on the other end, not necessarily so we have specific people to punish, but so that we are active users of the Internet, rather than passive.

Sources:

Pasquale, F. 2015, The black box society: the secret algorithms that control money and information, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Vincent, J. , Google ‘fixed’ its racist algorithm by removing gorillas from its image-labeling tech. Available: <https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/dec/04/racist-facial-recognition-white-coders-black-people-police>

Wilson, N. , Google’s nemesis: Meet The British couple who took on a giant, won… and cost it £2.1 billion. Available: <https://www.wired.co.uk/article/fine-google-competition-eu-shivaun-adam-raff >

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Navigating the ‘exaflood’

Student Perspectives is our series of guest posts written by current CityLIS students.

This post is written by current CityLIS student Jennifer Samura, who discusses how the internet may evolve in the age of the zetabyte. Sarah reflects on key terms such as ‘exaflood’ and ‘mundaneum’ in her discussion of the semantic web. The original post can be found here.

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In 2010 Luciano Floridi remarked that we are coming into the ‘age of the zettabyte’ (Floridi, 2010) as we would have created 1,000 exabytes of digital data. It’s difficult to imagine the scale of this digital information so like most visual learners I turned to pictures to help me out. Cisco created this mammoth infographic to present what the internet would look like in 2015 and it’s astonishing however, it is 2018 and according to Cisco’s information traffic projection we are well into the zettabyte era.

So, with all this information being created what does it mean for LIS?

Well, in week 4 of the Library & Information Science Foundation module we again discussed what a document is (I find myself coming back to this question more than I ever imagined) and the concept of documents vs documentation. As we attempt to define what documents are and our approach to classifying and cataloguing them we turn to document literacy. We must understand how to deal with different types of documents as document forms evolve. How on earth do we deal with tweets; Facebook notifications; ebooks; blog posts; pictures; videos; immersive documents? Since Instagram’s conception there have been an estimated 40 billion photos and videos shared on the social media application (Lister 2018), are all these documents? If they are how could we possibly index and link them on the web?

In this day and age information seeking starts with our 4-6-inch phones, our tablets, computers and laptops. Like Paul Otlet’s Mundaneum there is a central knowledge repository in the web, but like Otlet madly trying to index the world’s documents, we as Information professionals must consider how this ‘exaflood’ of information will be linked together in a meaningful way.

Just over 10 years ago Tim Berners-Less published the Semantic Road Map, a living document that explains the need for a linked web of data that is both machine readable and for human consumption. The concept is simple but highly effective the Wikipedia-like linked pages as a concept is intriguing and the hope is it would lead us to more meaningful results. However, with exabytes of data already on the web how does one go about linking this data?

Tim Berners-Lee describes the ‘expectations of behaviour’ whilst linking data on the web, using URI’s to name things, using HTTP URIs so said things can be looked up, provide useful information using RDF and SPARQL standards and providing links so other information can be discovered (Berners-Lee, 2009). These expectations or ‘rules’ are integral to developing the semantic web and these links are the basis for the web of data. With data on the semantic web providing meaningful links to other related data, navigation for the end users will take on a form already well known with the hypertext web with the added relational data that provides meaningful links. Tim Berners-Lee’s semantic web is one proposed solution for the exaflood of information on the web and how we can deal with it.

33 Mind-Boggling Instagram Stats & Facts for 2018 (no date). Available at: https://www.wordstream.com/blog/ws/2017/04/20/instagram-statistics (Accessed: 15 October 2018).

Burkeman, O. (2009) ‘Forty years of the internet: how the world changed for ever’, The Guardian, 23 October. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2009/oct/23/internet-40-history-arpanet (Accessed: 10 October 2018).

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: a very short introduction. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press (Very short introductions, 225).

ibelong2 (no date) What is the Exaflood? Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVnH5D-lWrA (Accessed: 14 October 2018).

Linked Data – Design Issues (no date). Available at: https://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/LinkedData.html (Accessed: 22 October 2018).

Luini, A. (1556) Rising in Noah’s ark. Available at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Aurelio-Luini-Rising-in-the-Ark.jpg (Accessed: 8 November 2018).

Semantic Web roadmap (no date). Available at: https://www.w3.org/DesignIssues/Semantic.html (Accessed: 20 October 2018).

Swanson, B. (2007) ‘The Coming Exaflood’, Wall Street Journal, 20 January. Available at: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB116925820512582318 (Accessed: 14 October 2018).

What Is a Document? | Document Academy (no date). Available at: http://documentacademy.org/?what-is-a-document (Accessed: 15 October 2018).

Whatever Happened to the Semantic Web? (no date). Available at: https://twobithistory.org/2018/05/27/semantic-web.html (Accessed: 15 October 2018).

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CityLIS at BL Labs Symposium 2018

On November 12th, all CityLIS students taking classes on Mondays (i.e. full-time and part-time year 1) will attend the BL Labs Symposium at the British Library.

The concept of data files as documents, which can be subject to the processes of documentation, is familiar to all of us at CityLIS, as part of our engagement with the discipline and practice of library and information science.

To further our understanding of data collections, and how they can be used to advance knowledge and understanding within a variety of disciplines, we are pleased to be working with BL Labs to explore their digital data, to engage with current research, and to imagine new projects and possibilities.

The aim of our class visit is to provide all our students with an opportunity to visit the site of the UK National Library, and to introduce everyone to the new knowledge and creative insight that can be gained from working with digital data/information. Although focused on the BL collections, the day should spark ideas for wider application throughout the information sector. CityLIS students will also experience first hand, attendance at a multidisciplinary, professional symposium, and have the opportunity to meet information professionals, artists and scholars from beyond the CityLIS environment.

Benefits to Students

  • Introduction to our National Library
  • Critical insight into digital data collections in general, and the work of BL Labs in particular
  • Critical understanding of current research projects using digital collections and data, their outputs and impact
  • Practical experience of team work, including academic writing, constructing project proposals, engagement with social media, and literature review (via blogging exercise)
  • Opportunity to network with peers

This exercise works with content included in several CityLIS modules, including INM348 Data, Information, Technologies and Applications, INM304 Digital Libraries and INM356 Research Methods and Communication.

Links

CityLIS: https://www.city.ac.uk/department-library-information-science
CityLIS News: https://blogs.city.ac.uk/citylis/
BL Labs: http://labs.bl.uk/
BL Digital Scholarship Blog: http://britishlibrary.typepad.co.uk/digital-scholarship/

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If you would like to study at CityLIS for a masters degree in either Library Science or Information Science, we offer courses in both: https://www.city.ac.uk/department-library-information-science#unit=courses

Contact our course director Dr Lyn Robinson for further information: lyn@city.ac.uk

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Reflections on Stories of Solitude: Performance, Technology and Digital Overload

Joseph Dunne-Howrie attended the Stories of Solitude conference on 3rd October 2018. He was interested in its interdisciplinary focus and it’s engagement with questions concerning participation in a networked world, intimacy, experiences of the live and the non-live, and speculations on the future development of the internet.

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This event was part of York Mediale, a new UK festival bringing together artists and technologists. Part celebration, part investigation, part space to question the ethical, social, political, economic and personal implications of digital culture, it is an exciting initiative with great significance for Library & Information Science.

The conference featured papers from artists, curators and scholars on the subject of solitude. It proved to be a broad yet subtle and sometimes evasive theme. The anxiety of social media use by iGen has brought the subject into the public arena but is often discussed with very little reference to research to cultural impact.

Debates regarding Facebook’s and Twitter’s effect on the tone of public discourse is all too often expressed with wild optimism by some or moral panic by others; neither position helps us study and investigate what these platforms are ‘doing’ to us and the world we live in.

It was invigorating to attend an event where such extreme positons were absent. Doubt and ambivalence are underrated qualities at a time when clicks and likes and shares constitute a significant part of the public conversation.

What follows are some brief descriptions and reflections on a selection of the papers. A full list of the speakers is available on the York Mediale website.

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What does it mean to be alone in a hyper-connected world? The fear of being alone and the manifestation of that fear shapes much of our lives. But there are many different states of alone-ness. ICTs are designed – ostensibly, at least – to bring people closer together without the need for physical proximity. Connectivity is a fundamental part of our lives. This was true before the internet. The roots of globalization that took root in the nineteenth century would have been impossible without effective communication systems. It is said that shorter communicative distance shrinks the world and thus alleviates feelings of isolation by increasing the channels that connect us. Yet pervasive connectivity does not necessarily produce intimacy.

Henrik Ibsen’s astute question, ‘What is the difference in being alone with another and being alone by one’s self?’ captures the struggle to establish true feelings of connection. The study of communication technologies is the study of ourselves.

The difference between loneliness and solitude was a recurrent topic throughout the day. Taking the image of Hamlet’s famous ‘To be or not to be’ soliloquy, Matthew Causey argued solitude is the state where we experience freedom, which electronic communication disrupts. Social media creates a validation feedback loop where feelings of loneliness are only temporarily alleviated with likes and shares. In online spaces, we exist as part of a ‘digital swarm of data subjects’ where our critical agency is comprised of algorithmic calculations. By becoming the subject of communication we turn ourselves into a project and so our relationship with society is altered. We present ourselves as communication nodes that can only exist through online interactivity.

Causey reminded us that solitude is the prerequisite of individuation in modern drama and provides a strategy for differentiation from the herd. Solitude is more than a state of being; it is an event of thinking. But we avoid it in order to remain in service to the technological. Digital culture does not allow us to be forgotten, meaning we can never be truly alone, even when we are away from the screens.

Explicating this theme, Zeena Feldman opened her paper with two quotes. The first from John Steinbeck, ‘All great and precious things are lonely’, sits in stark contrast to Kurt Vonnegut’s imploration for young people to ‘create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured’. Both writers point to the potentialities latent with loneliness and solitude. They are states which exemplify a subject’s uniqueness but can also act as a catalyst for collective action, a state to be overcome.

Feldman’s Quitting Social Media project looked at the possibilities that opened up by disconnecting ourselves from technologically mediated networks. She believes we are living through a ‘digital mediated crisis of solitude’. Communication technologies alter experiences of temporality by privileging short form content. A recent ONS report showed that we check our portable devices every twelve minutes on average; maintaining the feeling of connection requires consistent up keep, which becomes amplified when information comes at us in such small but frequent doses. Participating in social networks is seen as necessary to live and a waste of time; it is necessary but morally suspect. Self-improvement through expansive exercises in interactivity and network growth underpin its societal value.

But the contradiction of today’s digital technology is that we use to also disconnect ourselves from networks. There now exists a digital detox industry. South Korea and China now host internet addiction camps, the principle of which is not unlike drug rehabilitation centres, while apps to help us sleep or exercise or ration social media use continue to grow in popularity. Both technological mediation and non-technological mediation constitute a project of self-valorisation, which is at the heart of digital culture. These activities and values foreground an anxiety about the future by narrowing our attention on our present (perceived) inadequacies, all the while making us fixate on an analogue, idealised past. Using technology to reduce our dependence on technology is not viable, but nevertheless points to a concerted if misguided effort to re-claim solitude as a morally important state of being that is worth preserving.

Natalie Kane gave a moving paper on the history of the chatroom. She described the function of these prototypical social media platforms as ‘negotiating the narrative of ourselves’. Online communication spaces require users to adapt themselves, where ‘everything becomes a difficult feeling to work out’. They can becomes spaces of survival and solace, and provide a means of working out how to express one’s identity through networked dialogue. Kane’s description of social media as a space to practice ‘radical softness’ was an important reminder that expressions of outrage and intolerance are not the only way we can communicate online.

The colonisation of online spaces seeks to homogenize the messiness of human emotion by treating each utterance as an expression of preference, not as a means of reaching out to others known and unknown. But if the purpose of social media can be re-orientated towards the project of deconstructing our emotional selves then technology alone isn’t enough. We need a politics of networked thinking to legitimate the public performance of solitude. This is not a politics that celebrates isolation but recognizes that intimacy and connection are temporary, variegate experiences, not statuses perpetually out of reach.

Causey, M. (2018) ‘Now I Am Alone’ : Dwelling in the Technological

Feldman, Z. (2018) Beyond Time: On Quitting Social Media

Kane, N. (2018) Intimate Objects: In Search of Loneliness Online

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You can follow Joseph on Twitter.

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