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Why OpenStreetMap is in Serious Trouble

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tante
15 hours ago
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In-Depth analysis of the problems OpenStreetMap needs to address to stay relevant.

This is crucial: There needs to be open and free geo data.
Oldenburg/Germany
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Redemption of the digital builders

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The redemption story is one of the most popular and pervasive narrative tropes. From religious texts such as the conversion of the Apostle Paul to modern media such as for example Star Wars’ Darth Vader finding his way back to the light. Redemption is satisfying because it reifies, crystalizes the idea that there is meaning and good in the world that will – in the end – win.

Redemption stories are by definition very much tied to a real or fictional person’s life and experiences. While there are many stories of one individual’s redemption standing for the redemption of a larger group of people (for example in many German movies playing in the years 1933-1945 with Nazis finding their humanity as a collective cultural push towards detaching one’s own personal or family history from the knowledge of one’s ancestors’ crimes and evil) the focus of each story stays on the one person. The one shift of perspective or position.

When it comes to the digital sphere, Germany is really not on the global map. While a few startups might have moved to Berlin Germany itself has this tendency to do its own thing, to be happy with itself. A large part of that comes from Germans loving to write and speak and talk German basically separating themselves and their discourses from the rest of the world. But lately I’ve been seeing a pattern in international digital or digital-adjacent spaces that Germany has been perfecting for years now. I call it the fallen tech-optimist.

In the 1990ies and the early 2000s Germany had its own share of Internet preachers. People claiming that the Internet would change everything (that prediction does hold some water at least in western societies though not as predicted) and that the digital future would be great. These people – usually men – went on TV shows explaining the Internet or blogs or whatever. The term “disruption” wasn’t as popular back then, but that was the basic narrative. And it did have some value especially in a society as conservative and change-averse as Germany.

But after a few years nobody needed the Internet-explainer figures anymore. Invitations to talk shows started drying up and the message could no longer be “everything will be fine soon” because a) the Internet was already there and most people were using it so it was no longer a future narrative but everyday life and b) issues started becoming very visible. Issues like online harassment, stalking, right wing extremists organizing, people getting their money stolen by scammers etc. The position needed to change and the German conservative media (with the FAZ leading the way) pushed the “fallen tech-optimist” hard.

It started with Evgeny Morozov who had made the shift from Internet-positivist to conservative pundit very early, and continued with Sascha Lobo who had earlier led the German pro-Internet crowd claiming his Internet-optimism having been a “mistake”. The whole thing culminated with the Frankfurt Book Fair giving its Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to Jaron Lanier for his condemnation of the Internet and the digital in general as kind of a declaration of war against the Internet and the digital sphere.

The redemption of Internet positivists to its harshest critics was very useful to conservative media: It provided a very simple but credible narrative underlining what they had been pushing and hoping for for years: That the Internet was bad and should go away. And if it couldn’t go away it should at least be changed in a way to stop the riffraff from just publishing stuff.

A very similar movement can be seen in a lot of media around the world currently. People who used to work at Google, Facebook, Apple or wherever now publicly atone for the errors in their ways by writing at the Guardian or the New York times or by creating new projects to deal with the problems within our digital spheres. Problems such as “fake news” or “algorithms” or “AI” or “something something attention”. And it provides a very interesting intersection of different biases and social norms and structures of power that’s worth having a closer look at.

Mainstream media is asking the technologists who created something they perceive to be a problem to on the one hand apologize and on the other hand tell people how to fix it. What’s really happening here?

First we have a media landscape under great economic stress pushing hard against many things that are effectively threatening their own position of power. Whether you believe that so-called “fake news” is a problem or not it seems to be quite obvious that “fake news” is mostly the stuff not provided by established, old media properties. “Fake news” is a convenient shorthand for these other media platforms eating our lunch. And don’t get me wrong – there are many platforms pushing all kinds of the intellectual equivalent of toxic waste into the Internet and its readers’ brains – but we’ve also dealt with the rainbow press for decades if not longer. The digital debate here seems to be – at least partially – a proxy war against the competition.

Secondly we have a mainstream frustrated by certain issues and problems associated with digital platforms and/or the Internet. Frustrated because there seem to be no easy or to be honest any real solutions in sight. The apologies and stories of redemption do serve as a form of public sacrifice, as a way to have someone declaring their “guilt” and taking “responsibility”. But for this to work it’s essential to have people with the right tags associated beg for all our forgiveness. The mainstream needs for example the inventor of the Like button to atone for his sins of making Donald Trump president. As ridiculous as that sentence sounds and is.

Finally, thirdly, media asks the people who created the problems in the first place and who usually made a lot of money doing it for solutions of how to fix things. And this is where the whole thing turns into a really funky rollercoaster. Because the people who build the software systems (and implicitly structured the sociotechnical systems we live in) did not suddenly change their mindset or approach – they are still engineers or technologists. So they’ll use the same (mental) tools and approaches to solve the next problem(s). More software, different software to fix what software messed up. Terms such as “algorithmic accountability” are being thrown around without ever asking why we as a digitalized society keep asking engineers and programmers to solve social or political problems.

The digital builder redemption story serves as a valve, as a way to let out some anger about a changing and possible worse world while at the same time reenforcing the power structures that have led to the world we have right now.

Recent years have seen a push towards more and more STEM and engineering in every part of our lives. Because it makes sense: Engineering is characterized by standardized metrics as basis for analysis and development. “If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Improve It”. Things that you cannot measure need to be put into metrics before they get thrown out as “soft” or “pointless”. You need to obey the engineering MO if you want access to mindshare and in the end money.

But if we are really honest: The issues within digital spaces often don’t need people able to play 16 dimensional chess to solve. Especially women and female lead organizations have been coming up with concrete suggestion upon suggestion for improving digital spaces when it comes to harassment and the protection of people in digital social contexts. Many other new challenges such as people posting naked pictures of people against their will are already handled by existing laws and there are already – again largely created by female lead organizations – numerous suggestions on how to handle these things.

There are obviously still complex issues that need closer analysis. Digital lives lead to new forms of context collapse, transnational conflicts of different laws and legislation as well as massive issues of centralization and aggregation of economic and therefore political power. Be neither of these problems can be solved by just adding some more tech, by getting the next startup or whatever by tech people funded.

We keep seeing people from tech contexts framing political, social or economic problems as tech problems because that’s what they know how to handle. When all you have’s a hammer, all you see is nails. But more often than not “artificial intelligence” or “algorithms” or “data” or not the problem but if at all just the technical expression of the existing systems of power and their actions. Of course we can debate whether Facebook needs to be more transparent about how its newsfeed sorts content for each and every user. But the de facto monopoly of one company with a very specific understanding of how the world is supposed to be and work still stays the same. We’ve just created more things that people as individuals have to take responsibility for without potentially having the skills or just time to do so. Click “OK” if you accept the algorithm.

The public flagellation of tech and tech people while still looking at them for analysis and solutions is an expression of how devoted western cultures have become to the ideas of the universality of STEM. How much of a fetish it has become to put everything into data that can be easily parsed and visualized “data-science” style.

Instead of trying to tech the issues out of tech, this could be the point at which we remember that there are actually people who have devoted their lives towards analyzing issues and situations like the ones we have right now. Sociology and political science and so many other humanities have been dealing with these things for decades. Maybe it would be time to get them to the table, find inter- and transdiciplinary approaches of analyzing digitally driven social systems. Or we could throw more money and attention at a bunch of people who already have way enough of both of those things hoping that this time, they’ll definitely will do better. What was that quote by Einstein about insanity again?

Photo by CreditDebitPro

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tante
5 days ago
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A few thoughts on tech-worker-redemption stories that - in the end - only serve to further cement their problematic dominance in intrinsically political discourses.
Oldenburg/Germany
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Let's talk about usernames

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tante
5 days ago
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"Usernames are almost certainly not the right way to solve the problem they’re often used to solve"

Interesting thouhgts on usernames and how to build auth systems.
Oldenburg/Germany
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Critic’s Notebook: How ‘The Good Place’ Became an Antihero Antidote

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“The Good Place,” with, from left, William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto, Kristen Bell and Jameela Jamil, suggests that becoming good is hard work.

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tante
8 days ago
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Great summary of a few reasons why "The Good Place" is one of the best things on any screen right now.
Oldenburg/Germany
sarcozona
10 days ago
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1 public comment
satadru
12 days ago
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Seriously my favorite show on TV.
New York, NY
sirshannon
12 days ago
it's so good.

Smile

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The post Smile appeared first on The Perry Bible Fellowship.

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tante
8 days ago
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"Smile"
Oldenburg/Germany
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1 public comment
fxer
2 days ago
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Sad Andreas Fault
Bend, Oregon

OBJECTIVITY

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Part of the desire to treat the internet as a separate place, apart from real life, is so that we can see it as made of numbers, clear and exact, rather than the messy politics of people. “Online” is posited as a space that can be seen from outside or above, a realm that can be computed to the requisite decimal place and adjusted through tweaking the equations. It’s a fantasy domain ready-made for the engineering mind-set, where information can be given order and made to function predictably. There is no obscurity or ambiguity, just ones and zeros.

Routinely, we talk about how algorithms decide how information or expression is presented to our screens. Sometimes it can seem as though the algorithms are impartial. It’s as if the screen world can be ordered by the neutral working of numbers rather than deriving from the choices of specific people or groups with their own viewpoints, politics, and goals. As many have pointed out, algorithms encode the biases of those who program them, and amplify the biases inherent in whatever the data sets they draw on.

But a pretense of algorithmic objectivity is necessary to sell social products and communication tools — as not of life but solutions to life and its irrationalities and unpredictability. The data-driven view from above gives communication an order and a hierarchy: Each person has follower counts, each utterance or image its own score, and all of these are used to organize feeds of people and news into whatever shape is desired. All while insisting that shape — an explicitly gamified sociality — is natural, and the scoring mechanism is neutral and not itself a capitalistic engine to produce more of a certain kind of communication.

The appeal to objectivity is always profitable. It promises authority and legitimacy, two valuable commodities that are the subject of endless social competition. The market itself is presented as an objective arbiter, a social algorithm that fairly computes value, while effacing all the asymmetries and imbalances and historical injustices that feed into it.

Objectivity is an elusive and valuable product because what constitutes knowledge itself is always in flux. Modernity is defined by there being more to know than you can ever learn, and the fact that there is no final say on what is true. What you think is right and true has a lot to do with who you are and where you’re from. No matter how many facts you gather, there are still more you’ve missed; and no matter how you concatenate those inadequately gathered facts, there are other ways to assemble and interpret them that can be argued for. And then there is the subjective bias in which facts you choose and which problems you seek to solve with them.

The discipline of sociology was founded in the 19th century on the premise of creating a “social physics” filled with “social facts” that could describe the movements of humans on earth the way astronomical physics can chart the planets in the sky. This resulted in sweeping grand narratives that claimed to speak for all people in all places at all times from a supposed disinterested point of view — as if sociologists were not at the very least interested in establishing the usefulness of their discipline, and at times much worse. (Among sociology’s earliest fruits was the eugenics movement.)

However, this kind of objectivity is always impossible, and always demonstrably so in hindsight. Law-like explanations of sociality have never emerged. In their place came thinking about how these grand narratives are dangerous in their arrogance: “neutrality” really meant white, male, Western, able-bodied, and other privileged and contingent perspectives rewritten as “objective” views from nowhere. A growing literature under a variety of banners — including standpoint epistemology, poststructuralism, postmodernism, critical race theory, queer theory, intersectional feminism — has argued persuasively for an appreciation for smaller and more local descriptions of reality, grounded in an understanding that any view of the social world is from your own, particular perspective. Sandra Harding calls this collective awareness of standpoint a “strong objectivity” as opposed to the weaker objectivity of pretending standpoint doesn’t matter.

The engineering, management, and general understanding of new social platforms keep the inherently conservative and obfuscating dream of weak objectivity alive, despite its track record as a longstanding and regressive scam, a systematic perpetuation of past injustices and manufactured inequalities.

This week, we are publishing three essays on this misuse of objectivity.

First, Linda Besner writes about how charities like the Red Cross are presented as neutral, uncomplicated conduits where money is placed in one side and human plight is reduced on the other. However, the recognition and reduction of suffering never lacks bias. Charity is never as uncomplicated as sending a charitable text.

Next, Mila Samdub describes the SimCity games as modeling the mentality of modeling reality, inviting us to adopt a remote and oversimplifying view that reduces the infinite complexities of lived experience from the ground. Yet if we can blend that abstract systems-level view with the granular experiential view it tries to efface, it could help us imagine new and different cities we might inhabit.

Finally, Anna Reser and Leila McNeill show how large-scale proposals for fixing the climate often conceptualize the earth from a distance, as a united, comprehensible whole — what Donna Haraway has called “the god trick.” Feminist climate science is far better prepared than a faux-neutral science to describe the immeasurable and unpredictable set of lived consequences caused by a changing environment.

Bias is not a problem that should be solved by resolving perspectives into one master “god view.” Eliminating “bias” means invalidating points of view, nullifying entire lives of lived experience. Rather than try to eliminate “bias” in the name of expediency, rather than homogenize experience into a uniform consistency, we must recognize that just as digitalization yields tractable representations of big data, it entails even greater losses if we insist on seeing society through only those lenses.

Featuring:

“Helping Hand,” by Linda Besner

“Model Citizens,” by Mila Samdub

“Playing With Marbles,” by Anna Reser and Leila McNeill 


Thank you for your consideration. Visit us next week for Real Life’s next installment, TEAMS, featuring YouTube troupes, boot camp, and automatons to call your own.

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tante
12 days ago
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"The appeal to objectivity is always profitable. It promises authority and legitimacy, two valuable commodities that are the subject of endless social competition."
Oldenburg/Germany
sarcozona
10 days ago
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