This year the re:publica conference celebrated its 18th anniversary. Because the conference has received huge media attention over the past 12 years, it’s safe to say that not only digital natives, netizens and nerds are familiar with the term, but also people interested in digital technology in the broadest sense now know that re:publica is a media convention dedicated to digital topics. However, unknown indeed might be the meaning of this year’s motto: POP – which is not to be read as an abbreviation for ‘popular,’ but rather as an acronym for ‘people of power.’ Such a motto clearly set high expectations that the convention would turn political.
In the role of a researcher doing a field stay, I visited re:publica to get insights on how the broader public as well as experts thematize digital topics. My research project here at the Digital Media Lab aims at looking into data critics, so I was particularly interested to see how all these different actors identify digital challenges while at the same time asking questions and presenting possible answers. To me, this does not seem trivial due to the fact that the digital is an inseparable element of social life, narrowly interwoven with human interactions.
In that sense re:publica started with a keynote by danah boyd, who stated that we are in the middle of a war – an epistemological war – that is all about shaping knowledge. Boyd claimed that we do not disagree about facts so much but due to paradigm shifts we disagree about epistemology. In her following line of argument she drew a connection to the accumulation of power (motto!) by a technological but unspecified system that is collecting data. Data that is circulating – so she advocated – needs to be put into reflexive perspective by looking at the ways they are generated through societies and their infrastructures. Data by choice, data by coercion and data by circumstance, she claimed, create different challenges and will most likely be exploited to suppress individuals and populations leaving us with “moral crumple zones,” leading to predictions, new ways of policing, etc. and finally to the banality of control. To substantiate her argument she referenced the history of abuses that is part of the techno-development of societies.
The need for reflecting on epistemological positions and new empirical logics of knowledge generation has been in debate for quite some time. Big data as a disruptive technology shifting the focus from knowledge to data has been widely thematized in scientific research for a few years now and is worth presenting to a broader public. After this first talk I was convinced that re:publica would be a good place to take a look at practices of data-critical actors who try to negotiate, shape and create new perspectives as well as try to raise awareness on data and data logics in the context of societal debates.
The second speaker was Chelsea Manning, who made her first trip to Europe to advocate strongly for intervening into logics of governmental power and claimed citizens’ participation in political processes. She explained how vital it is to foster a culture of whistle-blowing, data critique and anti-surveillance which would work as a corrective to the misuse of accumulated data power. At this point the convention had already reached its first peak of putting themes into a political light. Manning’s demand seemed plain, but (measured by the ovations) convincing: we need a culture of awareness, conscience, ethics and morals, as well as progressive open-minded and vigilant participation in all these processes of digitalization with the willingness to fight harmful institution or practices. All these arguments were aligned on fundamental rights and commonly shared base values.
Quite interestingly, the word ‘hero’ was used a couple of times by the audience, although Manning denied being a leader at all. After such a start it seemed clear that data critics and critics of power asymmetries, processes of digitalization, surveillance, etc. are part of the popular discourse that even circulates within media conventions now. So I was curious to see if there would be some practical translations of the theoretical and discursive demands that had defined the character of re:publica so far. It was quite interesting to see that this sort of communication of critics seems to follow the logic and structure of protest in the form of a claim or even admonition addressing allies to call for an unspecified action while accusing the ‘others’ with very specified points. This reminded me of Niklas Luhmann, who claimed that protest’s goal is to criticize while remaining opposition.
Wendy Chun thematically closed the first day with a talk about cyberspace’s past, present and future. She claimed that hope and the promise of global prosperity – which has always been a promise of the cultures of globalization and networking (both seen as amplifiers to solve the most pressing problems) – are threatened by “hellish echo-chambers, unrelenting surveillance and unprecedented human behavior experiments.” Subsequently, she demanded collaborations of the manifold scientific and non-scientific disciplines to prevent the steering of populations and individuals by the (mis-)use of data and psyche-biasing network/digital tools.
At the end of the day I had two findings: First, the broader public focuses on digitalization and ways of participation in the restructuring of the social by means of infrastructures and data processes. This seems like some sort of formation of a protest movement to me. Second, the public is beginning to conceptualize ways of intervention, thereby overcoming the passive protesters position by not only stating demands but also presenting answers.
The second day offered a deeper insight on how questions of data handling occupies resources of well-established human rights organizations like ICRC, UNHCR, UNRWA and others. All these organizations basically shared the same narrative: human rights are at risk due to a lack of algorithmic accountability as well as the still unsolved questions around infrastructures of trust.
These two days in combination offered me a deeper insight on attempts to translate challenges and perceived threats into answers and solutions. After listening to talks and participating in some of the workshops about algorithmic transparency (mind the semantics!), algorithms of oppression, big data as the only contemporary currency that matters and media logics turning to fake news and filter bubbles, I saw that even experts are still looking for answers.
Two examples: Ranking Digital Rights presented a ranking system for websites as well as data processing services and companies that are using algorithms. But it was clear that a) their ranking system does not rely on the inner logics of the algorithms but more on the information provided that an algorithm is in use – whatever that use looks like, and b) they did not think of the possibility to build infrastructures of certainty around these uncertainties and c) nor did they seem to have thought about building institutionalized ways of structuring the inputs and outputs yet.
UNHCR, another example, holds millions of biometric scans of refugees but does not share them with authorities (who badly want these scans) because it does not know how to release them without endangering the subjects. Such sharing infrastructures would have to be reconfigured into infrastructures of trust beforehand – which would have to happen on three levels at least: within the organization itself, between organizations and between the organization and the refugees. The latter is seen as particularly challenging as every refugee should, according to UNHCR, have the right to access and emend his digital identity in every step in the circulation process. In that regard, UNHCR stated that it does not have a reliable framework to deal with humanitarian (meta-)data generation, collection and circulation yet.
As can be seen by these two examples, challenges are manifold and critics are more discursive rather than focused on presenting material fixes. Being a political convention now, re:publica tries to aid in translating ideas into real-world solutions.