Me­dia fu­ture looks grim, prof warns

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ARTS & LIFE -

READ­ING this high­brow polemic about mod­ern me­dia can feel a bit like hang­ing out with the Ghost of Christ­mas Yet to Come.

Much of In­fog­lut, pub­lished by a small U.K-based aca­demic press, points omi­nously to a fu­ture al­most as un­de­sir­able as the one that spirit showed Scrooge. And the take­away mes­sage is sim­i­lar, too: to break from this dis­mal path re­quires wak­ing up and learn­ing to ex­pe­ri­ence the world anew.

Author Mark An­dreje­vic, a me­dia scholar at the Univer­sity of Queens­land in Aus­tralia who’s penned two other books on our in­ter­ac­tion with emerg­ing tech­nolo­gies, bases his dreary fore­cast on a bad mix of our so­ci­ety’s well-in­grained savvy skep­ti­cism, the widely rec­og­nized fail­ure of “ob­jec­tiv­ity” to de­liver un­bi­ased goods, a shift to lo­cat­ing truth in the “gut” rather than the “mind” and the tsunami of data be­ing vac­u­umed up, sorted and stored.

An­dreje­vic con­tends that forces like th­ese leave us, as a so­ci­ety, feel­ing in­creas­ingly de­pen­dent on the se­duc­tive cer­tainty of data min­ing, neu­ro­science and pre­dic­tive an­a­lyt­ics. For­mu­las and instinct prom­ise to “think” for us, to make sense of, and to un­cover pat­terns the con­scious hu­man mind isn’t equipped to do when sub­merged in a glut of me­di­ated in­for­ma­tion.

In an eerie ex­am­ple of tech­nol­ogy’s tri­umph over in­tu­ition, An­dreje­vic re­counts how re­tail gi­ant Tar­get got so good at min­ing its data to iden­tify newly preg­nant women that a fa­ther com­plained about ads for ma­ter­nity wear and cribs be­ing tar­geted at his teenage daugh­ter, only to find out she was ac­tu­ally ex­pect­ing.

He pro­vides an iconic case of gut instinct by­pass­ing facts in U.S. pres­i­dent Ge­orge W. Bush’s claim to have peered into the eye of Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin and got­ten “a sense of his soul.”

While An­dreje­vic is right­fully crit­i­cal of such al­go­rith­mic strate­gies and bi­o­log­i­cal short­cuts to deal with the data wel­ter, he also keenly draws our at­ten­tion to po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions of so-called “post-com­pre­hen­sive” knowl­edge.

When only a few — whether they be big busi­nesses or gov­ern­ments — have the means to build the phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture to store “Big Data,” to de­velop the al­go­rithms, and to define the cat­e­gories for sift­ing, the cir­cum- stances are ripe for abuse in both con­struct­ing truths and act­ing upon them.

Rec­og­niz­ing this ma­te­rial im­bal­ance and the larger so­cial struc­tures it le­git­imizes and re­in­forces is a good start­ing point, he sug­gests, for a thoughtful pub­lic con­ver­sa­tion.

Here we can hear echoes of is­sues stirred up by Amer­i­can whistle­blower Ed­ward Snow­den and his re­cent re­lease of some of the U.S. National Se­cu­rity Agency’s on­line sur­veil­lance prac­tices.

In fact, In­fog­lut does sin­gle out the NSA as a model player in the lop­sided Big Data game, not­ing the agency on a daily ba­sis in 2010 in­ter­cepted and stored 1.7 bil­lion emails, phone calls and other types of com­mu­ni­ca­tion.

In­fog­lut’s re­sponse to this of­ten sub­tle and in­cre­men­tal, but im­mense and dif­fuse, so­cial re­or­ga­ni­za­tion is to raise aware­ness and call for ac­tion, to have us de­mand greater con­trol over per­sonal data and to re­think how it ought to be used. An­dreje­vic is no Lud­dite: he’s a Big Data-era rev­o­lu­tion­ary im­plor­ing us to get our heads out of “the cloud.”

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