Category Archives: New Media

digital media theory

Q & A on AI

Q: Where does AI begin and where does it end?

A: AI will probably have neither beginning nor end, but will be seamlessly integrated into our daily lives, which could mean that in the future we will no longer speak of “artificial” intelligence at all, but only of “smart” or “dumb”. Either we and everything around us, for example, our houses, our cars, our cities etc. are smart or dumb.

Q: How does AI relate to philosophy?

A: At the moment, philosophy is concerned with AI insofar as it can be compared to human intelligence or consciousness. But it is to be suspected that a useful philosophical theory of AI would have to be a philosophy of information. Being “smart” is about the optimal use of information. Information and not cognition, consciousness, or mind is the correct fundamental concept for a philosophy of AI.

Q: When is AI obligatory and when is it voluntary?

A: Obligation and freedom are terms that refer to individual human beings and their position in society. According to modern Western beliefs, one has duties towards society and towards oneself one is free and independent. AI, in this frame of thinking, is seen as something in society that is a threat to freedom for the individual. But as for all social conditions of human existence, i.e., as for all technologies, one must ask whether one can be truly independent and autonomous. After all, when is electricity, driving a car, making a phone call, using a refrigerator, etc. voluntary or mandatory? If technology is society, and an individual outside of society and completely independent of all technology does not exist, then the whole discussion about freedom is of little use. Am I unfree if the self-driving car decides whether I turn right or left? Am I free if I can decide whether I want to stay dumb instead of becoming smart?

Q: What can the status quo be maintained during permanent development?

A: This question is answered everywhere with the term “sustainability”. When it is said that a business, a technology, a school, or a policy should be sustainable, the aim is to maintain a balance under changing conditions. But it is doubtful whether real development can take place within the program of sustainability. Whatever I define as sustainable at the moment, e.g., the stock of certain trees in a forest, can be destructive and harmful under other conditions, e.g., climate change. Sustainability prioritizes stability and opposes change. To value stability in an uncertain, complex, and rapidly changing world is misguided and doomed to failure. We will have to replaced sustainability as a value with a different value. The best candidate could be something like flexibility, i.e., because we cannot or do not want to keep given conditions stable, we will have to make everything optimally changeable.

Q: Who is mainly responsible for AI development in a household?

A: In complex socio-technical systems, all stakeholders bear responsibility simultaneously and equally. Whether this is a household or a nation, it is the stakeholders, both humans and machines, who contribute to the operations of the network and consequently share responsibility for the network. This question is ethically interesting, since in traditional ethics one must always find a “culprit” when something goes wrong. Since ethics, morals, and the law are only called upon the scene and can only intervene when someone does something voluntarily and knowingly that is immoral or illegal, there needs to be a perpetrator. Without a perpetrator, no one can be held ethically or legally accountable. In complex socio-technical systems, e.g., an automated traffic system with many different actors, there is no perpetrator. For this reason, everyone must take responsibility. Of course, there can and must be role distinctions and specializations, but the principle is that the network is the actor and not any actors in the network. Actors, both human and non-human, can only “do” things within the network and as a network.  

Q: Who is primarily responsible for AI use in a household?

A: Same as above

Q: Who is mainly responsible for AI development in a company?

A: Same as above

Q: Who is primarily responsible for AI use in an enterprise?

A: Same as above

Q: Who is primarily responsible for AI development in a community/city?

A: Same as above

Q: Who is primarily responsible for AI use in a community/city?

A: Same as above

Q: Who is primarily responsible for AI development in a country?

A: Same as above

Q: Who is primarily responsible for AI use in a country?

A: Same as above

Q: Can there even be a global regulation on AI?

A: All the questions above reflect our traditional hierarchies and levels of regulation, from household to nation or even the world. What is interesting about socio-technical networks is that they do not follow this hierarchy. They are simultaneously local and global. An AI in a household, for example Alexa, is globally connected and operates because of this global connectivity. If we are going to live in a global network society in the future, then new forms of regulation need to be developed. These new forms of regulation must be able to operate as governance (bottom up and distributed) rather than government, i.e., hierarchical. To develop and implement these new forms of governance is a political task but it is not only political. It is also ethical. For as long as we are guided by values in our laws and rules politics ultimately rest upon what people in a society value. The new values that guide the regulation of a global network society need to be discovered and brought to bear on all the above questions. This is a fitting task for a digital ethics.

Q: Who would develop these regulations?

A: Here again, only all stakeholders in a network can be responsible for setting up regulatory mechanisms and also for control. One could imagine that a governance framework was developed bottom up and that in addition to internal controlling also an external audit would monitor the compliance with the rules. This could be the function of politics in the global network society. There will be no global government, but indeed global governance. The role of government would be to audit the self-organizing governance frameworks of the networks of which society consists.

Q: Should there be an AI driver’s license in the future?

A: The idea of a driver’s license for AI users, like for a car or a computer, assumes that we control the AIs. But what if it is the AIs that are driving us? Would they perhaps have to have a kind of driver’s license certifying their competence for steering humans?

Q: What would the conditions be for that?

A: Whether AIs get a human or social driver’s license that certifies them as socially competent would have to be based on a competence profile of AIs as actors in certain networks. The network constructs the actors, and at the same time is constructed by the actors who integrate into the network. Each network would need to develop the AIs it needs, but also be open to being conditioned as a network by those AIs. This ongoing process is to be understood and realized as governance in the sense described above.

Q: How will society from young to old be sensitized and educated?

A: At the moment, there is much discussion of either “critical thinking” or “media literacy” in this context. Both terms are insufficient and misleading. When critical thinking is mentioned, it is unclear what criticism means. For the most part, it means that one is of the same opinion as those who call for critical thinking. Moreover, it is unclear what is meant by thinking. Critique is everywhere. Everything and everyone is constantly being criticized. But where is the thinking? Again, thinking mostly means thinking like those who say what one should criticize. Since this is different in each case and everyone has their own agenda, the term remains empty and ambiguous. The same is true of the term media literacy. In general, media literacy means knowing how the media select, process and present information, and it also means being aware that this is done not according to criteria of truth-seeking, but criteria of the media business. Knowing this, however, is not a recipe for effectively distinguishing truth from fake news. For that, one needs to know a lot more about how to research for information and how to judge its reliability.

Q: Where do the necessary resources for this come from?

A: There is a tendency to defer the task of education and training to the education system. Schools are supposed to ensure that children grow up with media literacy and the ability to think critically. But how this “training task” is understood and implemented is unclear. Since the school system has largely shown itself to be resistant to criticism in terms of pedagogy and curriculum, and since it still sees certification rather than education as its primary task, the traditional education system cannot be expected to be capable of doing the job that is needed. As in other areas of society, schools will have to transform themselves into networks and learn to deal with information much more flexibly than is the case today. Perhaps schools in their current form will no longer be needed.

Q: Will there ever be effective privacy online?

A: It could also be asked whether there is or could be effective privacy offline. In general, it depends on what one means by privacy. At the moment, privacy or data protection is a code word for the autonomous, rational subject of Western democracy, or in short, the free, sovereign individual. It looks like the digital transformation and the global network society are challenging this assumption. Before talking about privacy, we must therefore answer the answer the question, what is the human being. If the human being is not what Western individualism claims, then privacy can be understood differently. There is much work to be done in this area, as it seems that the humanistic and individualistic ideology of Western industrial society has chosen to fight its last stand against the encroaching global network society over the question of privacy.


Data – Information – Knowledge

Who doesn’t know the classic distinction between data, information, and knowledge? And who hasn’t seen at least one version of the famous pyramid with data on the bottom, information making up the next level and knowledge making up the layer above that with the peak consisting of wisdom? There are several assumptions and implication of this model of data, information, and knowledge: First, it is assumed that they are qualitatively and quantitively different. Data, for example, is different from information and there is more data than information just as there is more information than knowledge with wisdom being the rarest sort of knowledge. Second, it is assumed that they are hierarchically interdependent, that is, you cannot have information without data or knowledge without information, but you could have data without information and information without knowledge. Third, the hierarchy implies a value judgement, that is, data is not as valuable as information and information is not as valuable as knowledge, and of course, wisdom is the most valuable of all. Finally, the hierarchy also implies a kind of temporal or ontological priority. Since information depends on data, data must come first, and since knowledge depends on information, information comes before knowledge, at least temporally. This means that first we have data, then we somehow construct information out of data, and then we can go on to construct knowledge out of information. Data is something like the raw material out of which is constructed information and information is the raw material out of which knowledge is constructed. There is nothing in the model that implies how this construction process works. The model itself does not tell us where data comes from or how exactly information is constructed out of data or knowledge out of information. In order to answer these questions, we are left to speculation.

There is of course a kind of consensus among interpreters that there are also different kinds of construction. In short, these may be termed “transcription,” “cognition,” and “praxis.” Data are said to be constructed by means of some kind of transcription, that is, something is preserved, fixed in some material form, in some medium, whether it be sound, text, or pictures. Today, data is above all transcribed into bits and bytes, that is, into digital media, which, as the dominant media in today’s world, also determine what is usually meant by the term “data.” Data are just bits and bytes, 1s and 0s, electronically fixed upon some memory medium. Information is usually thought to be constructed out of data. When the otherwise meaningless bits and bytes are combined into signs in a language and are given meaning, then data becomes information. This is above all a cognitive process. Somebody makes “sense” of the images or marks on paper or the bits and bytes on the chip via a cognitive process of “reading.” This is information. But it is not yet knowledge. Knowledge is what information becomes when it used practically to solve some specific problem. The practical use of information in problem-solving activities is called “praxis.” It is in praxis that mere information, for example, mere theory or mere textbook knowledge, becomes situated in a particular context in the real world. It is through praxis that we know what information is good for, what it can do, how it can be used in complex situations. Knowledge is knowing by doing. This separates the apprentice from the master, the inexperienced from the experienced. It is the experienced master who alone can be said to possess knowledge.

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Fake News or the Gamification of Politics

Let’s begin by admitting that news has always been fake. There is no media product that is not filtered, framed, and formatted. Filtered means that always some information is selected and other information overlooked. Framed means that the information selected out of all possible information is put into some kind of interpretive frame that describes what is going on. The frame decides whether we are dealing with an accident, an act of terrorism, a prank, or an advertising campaign. Formatted means that selected and framed information is always presented in a certain way, as image, text, video, audio, etc., all of which have their own rules of production, distribution, and consumption. These three “F”s create a gap between what “really” happened and what the media tell us happened. This is a fact. It remains a fact even when professional journalists are replaced by citizen journalists who upload their spontaneous and accidental photos, videos, and comments onto platforms like YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc. So what do we do about it? Up until the advent of “post-truth” politics and “fake news” – formerly known as propaganda – there was apparently no pressing need to do anything about it. The experts, authorities, gatekeepers, and institutions of knowledge and truth were solidly in place and functioned quite well. We could tell the difference between the New York Times and Gawker and there really was a difference to tell. Although we knew that the media didn’t give us the truth, at least what we got was good enough to make reasonable decisions and get along with our neighbors. This is no longer the case.

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Is There Such a Thing as “Informational Privacy”?

The concept of “information” is not very informative. This is because there are so many different meanings to the word. Almost every scientific discipline has their own definition, from physics and chemistry to biology, informatics, mathematics, philosophy, and even sociology, which has long been talking about an “information society.” So what does “information” mean? What is information? Obviously, we need to decide, that is, to filter out much of what can be discussed about the topic and select those meanings of the term that are useful for our purpose, namely, attempting to understand what is meant by informational privacy.

According to the classic definition of Alan Westin (Privacy and Freedom 1967), privacy is “the ability to determine for ourselves when, how, and to what extent information about us is communicated to others.” This definition carries with it several important implications. First, privacy is a matter of information. This information must in some way be “about” us, that is, us “personally.” Privacy therefore has to do with a specific kind of information, namely, “personal information,” or as it later became known, “personally identifiable information” (PII). Another important implication of Westin’s understanding of privacy is that it is not the information itself that is most important, but rather the “ability to determine” what information is communicated to others. Privacy therefore does not primarily reside in any particular informational content, for example, information that would somehow describe a person so intimately that he or she would not be able to communicate it without losing privacy. On the contrary, it would seem that privacy resides above all in the freedom to communicate or not to communicate information, whatever it may be. For example, it could be argued that our genome is so personal and intimate that any communication of our genome to others would automatically constitute a violation of privacy. The implication of Westin’s definition, however, is that we could well determine to do so, that is, if we wanted, we could publish our genome on the internet for the world to see and this would not constitute a violation of privacy. If someone else however, for example, our doctor were to do this without our consent, then, of course, this would constitute a violation of privacy. Privacy is therefore a matter of consent, of decision, of freedom and choice and does not reside in any particular information. This means that privacy consists primarily in the will, in the act of deciding to communicate. Only if my free choice about communicating information is infringed upon can we speak of a violation of my privacy. Finally, Westin’s definition assumes that privacy essentially has to do with communication, that is, privacy is the right to communicate or not to communicate. A right to privacy in this sense only makes sense, however, if communication is an option, something we can choose to do or not do. This means that Watzlawick must have been wrong when he stated that “we cannot not communicate.” If human beings are essentially social and human existence is constituted by communication this would make privacy as Westin defines it impossible. Only if information about a person is something that is not necessarily and automatically communicatively constituted and distributed in social space can privacy be possible.

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The Value of Privacy

Perhaps the most important legacy of Foucault and Postmodernism is to have made the business of critique much more difficult and complicated than it was back in the days when all workers wore white hats and all capitalists black. Today one has become wary of seeing any cultural, social, or political value as simply good in itself and worthy of protection, without investigating the extent to which it participates, however unwittingly, in a larger regime of power, inequality, and exploitation. Hegel had long ago pointed out that the master and the slave need each other. Each helps to make the other who he/she is. They work together in order to construct and maintain a certain regime of knowledge and power without which neither of them could exist. Postmodernism, of course, does not share Hegel’s optimism that contradictions will be resolved by progress, or even Marx’s faith in revolution. If critique is still to be possible, then it cannot take the easy route of singling out the bad guys, but must lay bare the many complex interdependencies that together constitute a society in its entirety. That this is a hard lesson to learn is illustrated by the lengthy report of the Committee on Privacy in the Information Age established by the National Research Council Engaging Privacy and Information Technology in a Digital Age (edited by J. Waldo, H. S. Lin, L. I. Millett, 2007).  Admittedly, the Committee does not understand its mission to be the elaboration of critical social theory. Nonetheless, it aims to “raise awareness of the spider web of connectedness among the actions we take, the policies we pass, the expectations we change , the ‘flip side’ of impacts policies have on privacy.” The aim of the Committee is to “paint a big picture that would sketch the contours of the full set of interactions and tradeoffs” and “take into account changes in technology, business, government, and other organizational demand for and supply of personal information…” (20).

The upshot of this ambitious program is that privacy as an undeniable and inalienable personal and social value that demands to be protected by law. This view is echoed on the international level in the Report of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, The Right to Privacy in the Digital Age (2014), which declares that “there is universal recognition of the fundamental importance, and enduring relevance, of the right of privacy and of the need to ensure that it is safeguarded, in law and in practice” (5).  The underlying assumption of both reports is that whatever may be wrong with society, privacy is not part of the problem. It is the solution. A solution that must at all costs be defended against threats arising from the digital transformation of the 21st Century. This raises at least two important questions. What is the value that privacy has for individuals and society? Why has privacy become a central issue in understanding the global network society?

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