Trondheim talks and travel

A few weeks backs I visited the small town of Trondheim for the first time to deliver a keynote at the biannual Norwegian media conference. I talked about algorithms from a media aesthetic perspective, how they make certain things visible, are mythologized and visualized as part of popular discourse and how they are widely and variably imaged as part of people’s perceptions and awareness of them.

Last week I was in Lisbon for the biannual ECREA conference, where I presented a paper on Twitter bots. The aim was to think through what it would mean to move beyond the Turing test as an evaluative framework for understanding and interpreting social media bots. I’ll give the same talk next week as part of an interdisciplinary seminar at the Centre for Communication and Computing, University of Copenhagen.

Update

A year has passed since moving to Copenhagen, a new semester has just started, and I’m finally getting settled into my new apartment (after 5 temporary homes in one year). Although this semester is already swamped with teaching (Communication theory, Philosophy of Science and Master thesis seminars), I’ve had some time to do some writing during the spring (in between moving houses of course). Back in April I also organized a seminar on ‘Critical perspectives on social media research and methods‘ with a great lineup of speakers. Another spring highlight was the great conference on Social Media and the Transformation of Public Space organized by José van Dijck and Thomas Poell in Amsterdam, where I co-organized a panel and participated in another.

Since my last update here, I’ve published 3 essays and written som others that are still in the pipline (hopefully more on this soon). In June my article on Horse e_books, the infamous Twitter bot, was published as part of a special issue on Persona in M/C Journals. The two other essays are in Norwegian (sorry, no translations), and part of two different books.

The first book chapter is on the relationship between algorithms and freedom. It’s part a book that examines different perspectives on freedom on the occasion of Norway’s 200 year anniversary, which came out in May. In the chapter I challenge the idea that algorithms dimish freedom by filtering content on the Web, a view that is quite common these days. Instead, I argue that blaming the algorithm  prevents us from perhaps taking some of the responsibility for our own actions on the Web. In a world increasingly mediated by machine learning algorithm, the concept of freedom needs to be revisited. Algorithms are not static things, where one person or compnay behind determines what content users get to see. Users are already actively taking part in their own world-making. The implications of this mutual entanglement for an understanding of freedom is what I explore in this chapter.

The second book chaper is part of a book examining the role of surveillance after the Norwegian terror attacks in 2011. The book Fra terror til overvåking is edited by some of my former colleagues at the University of Oslo (Liv Hausken, Sara Rundgren and Trine Haagensen). The book has many interesting contributions and perspectives, including a chapter by the Director for itelligence analysis at the Norwegian Police Security Service. My chapter entiteled ‘The unruly web: surveillance in contemporary media culture’ discusses the role of surveillance in and through social media, with reference made to the Boston Marathon Bombings among other things.

New publication on the politics of the Twitter API

My article “Objects of intense feeling: The case of the Twitter API“, has just been published online in Computational Culture: a journal of software studies.

Abstract

Despite the proliferation of social media research in the past decade, surprisingly little has been said about the role of application programming interfaces (APIs) – the protocological objects enabling the ‘regimes of sharing’ characteristic of these media platforms. APIs are used, but seldom critically scrutinized as such. Developing a software studies approach, this article engages with the ways in which the stuff of software – in this case APIs – can be said to allow for, encourage, or block certain kinds of actions and relations. Exploring the particular case of the Twitter APIs, and drawing on qualitative interviews with members of its third-party developer ecosystem, this article asks how APIs form and hold relations together and how we may understand the coordinative work that these protocols do. Seeing APIs as reminiscent of what Michel Serres’ terms the quasi-object, the notion that objects act as catalysts for various social relations and actions, provides an interpretative framework for investigating the organizing potentials of protocological objects. The argument is made that the Twitter APIs constitute objects of intense feeling – highly meaningful entities that are invested with various forms of contestation and identification, desires and disappointments. The Twitter APIs do not merely give rise to new collectives, enlisting different actors to engage in different types of work. The APIs also regulate the playing field of what can happen where and when, what can be built technically, and policy-wise, by constituting an infrastructure for innovation and sharing.

 

Interview with James Bridle

Drone Shadows by James Bridle
Drone Shadows by James Bridle

I interviewed the artist James Bridle, or ‘the New Aesthetic’s commander-in-chief’ (as Vanity Fair calls him), while attending the same conference in Oslo, back in May 2013. Now, the interviewed is published on Furtherfield.org. We talked about drones, surveillance, the power of software, bots, Twitter, and the New Aesthetic. Enjoy!

New Position at the University of Copenhagen

University of Copenhagen KUA2, Arkitema Architects arkitema.dk
University of Copenhagen KUA2, Arkitema Architects arkitema.dk

 

August 1, I started in a new position as assistant professor at the Centre for Communication and Computing, University of Copenhagen. The centre is a joint venture of the the Department of Media, Cognition and Communication, the Centre for Language Technology, the Royal School of Library and Information Science and the Department of Computer Science. I’m really happy to be part of this collaboration between the Faculty of Science and the Faculty of Humanities (almost like they read my trial lecture for the phd defense about interdisciplinary challenges in software studies!). I’ll be teaching the more media studies oriented courses within the centre and continue doing research on the algorithmic condition of everyday life.

AoIR dissertation award 2013!

I’m really happy and honored to have received the AoIR dissertation award 2013!!

Not only does it mean a great deal to me that others think my work is worthwhile and interesting, but I’m also super happy about the fact that this comes from an association that has been nothing but welcoming and encouraging of young media scholars like myself. The past four years I’ve been to three out of the four annual conferences, benefiting greatly from the collegial support and critical feedback that I’ve received there.

For everyone interested, I’ve finally managed to put my diss online (see also writings for a pdf. version). Hopefully see you all in Denver!

Bucher Ph.D.diss

Oslo Lux – Evan Roth

Yesterday I attended Oslo Lux, a one-day conference at the Oslo School of Architecture and Design on the intersections between light, space, technology and art. In a way it is a really marginal event as it emphasizes the role of light, and it does so for the second time (first event took place in 2011). I wasn’t quite sure whether I could justify spending a whole day at an event about light, considering it isn’t a topic that touches my work in any direct way, but the line-up of speakers and media artists represented made curiosity win over. I’m glad I went. It is always inspiring to go to events that at first sight have nothing to do with your own work. More often than not such events turn out to be much more related than initially thought. At the very least, they generate new ideas, which is really all we want as researchers. Here are my notes on the first speaker of the day, along with a challenge: Visit more seemingly unrelated events and see what happens.

First speaker Evan Roth gave an energizing talk about the influence of the open source development model when creating public space art projects. Providing a great overview of his artistic career so far, Evan made sure to relate every piece he talked about to the hacker philosophy underlying his artistic practice. He started off by conceptualizing the notion of “hack” and how it relates to open source. Hack, Evan suggested, should be understood as a general philosophy or way of being that isn’t necessarily about computer code. Hacking is about exposing or adding functionality to a device that it wasn’t originally designed for. It is the cultural and social aspect of hacking that seems to interest Evan more than the code or tech itself. The question is what the hack may help expose about the system it is altering?

I first came across Evan Roth’s work in 2006, through the work he did on Graffiti Research Lab – a project “dedicated to outfitting graffiti – and street-artists with open source technologies for urban communication”. Having researched graffiti culture in Malmö, Sweden, hanging out with the local artists as part of my undergraduate art history thesis, I came pretty close to writing my MA thesis about the intersections between new media and graffiti using Evan’s work as my case study. Thus, I was particularly excited to hear Evan’s thoughts on graffiti as a cultural hack.

My love of graffiti is really a love for the hack (Evan Roth)

It is not the letters that matter as much, as the system it is hacking. The interesting thing about graffiti in Evan’s terms, is the ways in which it takes advantage of a pre-existing system and power relations, exploiting its weaknesses.

Dondi by Martha Cooper

Evan Roth’s fascination for graffiti has translated into many of his art projects, starting with his grad project Graffiti Analysis developed at Parsons in 2004. Graffiti Analysis is a study into the motion of graffiti, using custom made software for visualizing the unseen motion involved in the creation of a tag. As Evan pointed out, graffiti usually relies on film and photography to document the pieces. But photography books and films about graffiti are most often about the letters, the tags themselves or the subculture involved. Part of his motivation for doing Graffiti Analysis and related projects like Laser Tag, was for people to see it as a performance, showing off the gestural movements and speed that is involved in the making of this art form.

In many ways what unites much of Evan’s art practice is a critical exploration of what he calls “creative disrespect” in public spaces. It is not about disrespect in a rude way, but in the open source and hacker fun way – of “playful cleverness” – another illuminating term that came up in his talk. One of the pieces I enjoyed in terms of playful cleverness was his airport security hack called T.S.A Communication, a project that alters the airport security experience by placing sheets of stainless steel into carry on luggage that will display messages aimed at airport security while going through the x-ray screening process.

Situating his working ethos in Linus Torvald’s notion of “lazy like a fox”, Evan made a point about being pragmatic about processes of making art. Rather than trying to make complicated things, the question he asks is what the smallest amount of effort is with which a statement can be made? In this playful mode, the projects he does as part of the F.A.T Lab are illustrating of the combination between the hacker philosophy and Torvald’s “lazy like a fox” ethos. For example the How to keep motherfu%#s from putting their seats back, a super simple hack on preventing the people in the seat in front of you from putting their seats back. Who hasn’t wished they could do that?

This philosophical merger also translates into more political and urban projects, in terms of empowering people to communicate in public spaces by means of open source technologies. Keeping with the theme of the conference day, Evan pointed out how light in the city often is in the hand of bureaucrats and advertisers to decide. But how do people really communicate in cities? What is the simplest way in which people can communicate with light? For instance by equipping lots of people with LED throwies in order to decorate trams that run through the city.

Eyewriter.org

Empowering people is not just about empowering the collective, as one of my favourite projects by Evan attests to. Eyewriter is an ongoing project that empowers people who are suffering from ALS with creative technologies. It is a low-cost eye-tracking apparatus and custom software that allows graffiti writers and artists with paralysis resulting from Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to draw using only their eyes. Please do check out the video documenting his amazing project!

Making connections visible

Today I got Graph Search, Facebook’s new search functionality, which really takes social media to a whole new level. Inspired by Tom Scott’s disturbing search queries displayed on his tumblr blog, I decided to give it a go myself. Talk about making connections visible. It all comes down to the creativity of the searcher, with a good amount of help from Facebook as you go. The default settings provide some simple and pretty harmless search options, such as searching for friends, or restaurants nearby.

So I tried some of these pretty simple searches. For instance, what kind of music or movies do my friends like? What are the top 5 artists in my network?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This is of course the exciting side of the coin. The nice part, music, books, movies and favorite national parks. This is what Facebook wants you to search for. This is how Facebook depicts the revolutionary potential of Graph search in its promotion videos and talks. But are users really most interested in “People who like Cycling and are from Seattle”?

Perhaps more realistically, as one of the Graph Search team members also suggests, is that it can be used for things like dating and recruiting. But to what extent do we want to be found? By whom, and in what context? Many have been with Facebook for so many years now (7 years this fall for me!!) that we’ve almost forgotten about our early compliance with filling out pre-formatted profile templates. Remember those drop-down menus and standardized options? “Relationship status” and “political views”?

 

I’m pretty sure none of the people showing in my queries above wanted to show up in that context. All of these queries are based on the seemingly innocent personal information that many of Facebook’s users provided as part registering to the site. To help you refine your search, Facebook provides some detailed options. You want to find someone born a specific year, with a specific relationship status, or political or religious view? Facebook makes it easy, there is even an option for letting you choose a specific age range, the youngest being people aged between 18 – 22. Luckily I wasn’t able to search for cohorts younger than 18. By tearing down those last walls that kept people at safe distance, has now made it frighteningly easy to find single females between the age of 18-22 living in Oslo, should you wish to do so.

If you were not concerned about privacy before, this would be a good time to start!