During the WirVsVirus Hackathon, Germany presented a first impressive example of how to involve the general population in finding solutions to societal challenges. Particularly in the process of digitization, we need more exchange and participation throughout society and a culture of cooperation such as the Data Collectives in Taiwan, for example, could offer an alternative for the EU to current surveillance capitalism and our future handling of data.
With the current Covid-19 pandemics a global health crisis has emerged onto our World, it has provoked new politics and responses with social distancing, lock down, often touching the very heart of our individual freedom. Conversely the spread of the Covid-19 has been accompanied by an equally global and fast moving spread of misinformation and fake news, an infodemic. Both spreadings are deeply interdependent, with misinformation affecting the population’s reactions to the pandemic and the new regulations and policies generating additional misinformation. Often these misinformation have real world consequences, risking the lives of people around the world. In this white paper and the accompanying virtual reality experience we explore the analogies between epidemic spread of viruses and (mis) information. Explore the lexical bridges between both the epidemiologist’s world and that of the propagation of information and experience a virtual reality interpretation of how an information virus is infecting and spreading inside a conspirationist’s brain.
antibody /ˈantiˈbɒdi/ noun
A host builds up antibodies that help in the fight against a virus. These antibodies can be induced by a →vaccine or built up naturally by the host’s system learning to fight against a virus. By actively incorporating the structure and commonalities of fake news in the educational system users can build up antibodies and become →immune. (→vaccine)
flatten the curve /ˈflat(ə)n ðə kəːv/ verb
The healthcare system has a limit of how many infected hosts it can reliably deal with. To stay within these limits the spread of a virus is slowed down by public health measures (→ social distancing) leading to a flattening curve of number of infections. By marking content as disputed the unquestioned sharing can be limited and the rate of growth slowed down.
herd immunity /həːd ɪˈmjuːnɪti/ noun
The spread of a virus can be stalled even if not the whole population is immune as it relies on continuously infecting more new hosts than recover. Online this can be achieved if enough people take part in the conversation and a stable middle ground is established. Filter bubbles are dissolved by opening discussion to the broader audience.
immunity /ɪˈmjuːnɪti/ noun
A host that is impenetrable by a virus is called immune. The host has developed antibodies that can effectively counter the infection of a virus or the host’s system is not perceptible in the first place. Immunity is the highest form of →resilience. Users that distrust the source of a piece of information are effectively immune to the content. Limiting the news intake to well established sources can help build up →herd immunity.
mutation /mjuːˈteɪʃ(ə)n/ noun:
Natural organisms constantly mutate to adapt to their changing surroundings. As fake news multiplies their details change and evolve making them perceptible to users with different priorities and preferences. While the informational core of the fake news says the same, the changing details allow the infection of a much broader group of users. Perception of the user on the other hand is again personal leading into another possible mutation. (→natural selection)
natural selection /ˈnatʃ(ə)r(ə)l sɪˈlɛkʃ(ə)n/ noun
A mutation is favourably selected to propagate by its ability to spread to another host and infiltrate them. In an online and social media setting the selection has two components. On the one hand a direct selection is performed by liking and sharing of information. On the other hand the dopamine rush of a user that is induced by gathering a lot of likes leads to another strong selection criteria: What news will gather the most resonance by their peers?
resilience /rɪˈzɪlɪəns/ noun
A host can build up a natural resilience against an infection (→immunity). And a healthy organism has a higher natural resilience. The adoption of conspiracies is often connected to other issues: The user feels alienated by their surroundings and thus is more likely to get infected. By fostering community building also online a natural resilience can be build up (→herd immunity)
social distancing /ˈsəʊʃ(ə)l ˈdɪst(ə)ns/ verb
In an epidemic it is difficult for individuals to identify infected hosts. As a societal response limiting the level of contact between hosts, regardless of their infection status, can effectively slow down the spread of a virus. As the spread relies on exponential growth the population can effectively contain the virus (→flatten the curve).
Similarly the spread of misinformation and fake news can be contained by limiting the number of people a piece of information is shared with. Hence the propagating of information is regulated opposed to the content.
super spreader /ˈsuːpə ˈsprɛdə/ noun
Some hosts/users have a disproportionate ability to spread the virus, identifying these individuals is thus disproportionately effective in containing the spread. Conversely, the reach of influencers on social media platforms is accompanied with high connectivity in the network and therefore a large multiplier of information spread. Thus limiting the reach of an individual can slow down the spread of an information virus (→social distancing)
vaccine /ˈvaksiːn/ noun:
A vaccine is administered to the host to help its system fight the intrusion of a virus. A properly working vaccine lets the host build up antibodies that detect a virus quickly and disable it before it can spread inside the body. To build these antibodies in users of social media the subjects need to be educated and proficient in the way communication and advertising work and how they trigger emotional responses.
As the spread of Covid-19 has provoked personal and governmental responses worldwide the populations have learned new vocabulary and strategies, can we apply the learning to other types of pandemics?
When thinking about a new problem we need to develop a language that caters to the specificity of the problem. Starting with the samples of the above Epidemiologists guide, what other bridges of thought can you come up with?
To experience the Virtual Reality artwork scan following QR code:
Clemens Meyer zu Rheda converted to Data Science from physics and is now building data products and infrastructure to find and evaluate startups.
Valéry Grancher is an artist: His latest work was shown in Fosun Fundation Shanghaï, CADAF 2020 art fair, Digital Art Month New York, and MOW Museum, Changsha, Hunan, China. His productions are included in several public collections such like Cartier Foundation for contemporary arts (Paris).
Together they are working on “The epidemic nature of information data and how it’s endangering European democracies”.
The purpose of the EU Data Strategy is to create an infrastructure across the EU where data is shared and used by putting the interest of the individual first; and thus create a data economy that allows everyone “to make better decisions.” The EU’s data economy will be built off of data spaces where companies, civil society and individuals are part of the same ecosystem, and are stakeholders of the products and services that are built from the data that is shared. However, there are eight barriers exposed by the Strategy which prevent the EU from building a data economy. One barrier is the inability of individuals to exercise their rights granted by GDPR and ePrivacy legislation because there is an “absence of technical tools and standards” that are straightforward and simple to use. The Strategy explains there are organisations that, from the ground-up, have advocated and created tools to help individuals exercise these rights at the granular level – one of them being personal data cooperatives or trusts that act as “novel neutral intermediaries” in the personal data economy.
The Strategy mentions these are still “in their infancy” but have “significant potential”. For this exact reason, we want to design a prototype of a data space/ cooperative/ trust/ union that explores how communities can build, from the ground-up their data spaces, and act as a union where they have a right to dictate how data about them will be shared and used in their ecosystem. The prototype of our Data Space will be focussed on sex workers because they have historically faced discrimination, unfair practices, and lock-in effects caused by on- and offline policies. We believe that if we design a prototype that follows the EU regulation, infrastructure, and networks, it will have the power to influence the formation of data spaces worldwide in a similar pattern.
Violeta Mezeklieva is a data scientist and is working at the Open Data Institute in London as a Data Literacy Specialist. As such, she is committed to making data become the asset everyone can use to succeed.
Lena Chen is a Chinese American artist, activist, and sex worker working across performance and social practice. Named “Best Emerging Talent” at the B3 Biennial of the Moving Image, she has performed and exhibited at Transmediale (Berlin), among others.
Together they are working on the creation of a data co-operative for sex workers.
Information networks and technologies are proxies for power. The British colonial empire was held together by the electrical telegraph network called the ‘All Red Line’ . The development of the Arpanet, one of the precursors of the Internet, was spurred by the launch of the Sputnik satellite by the Soviet Union . Some researchers claim that the nuclear threat by the Soviet Union inspired the distributed design of the Arpanet, to ensure that it would be fault-tolerant in case of a nuclear attack. This together with the frustration about the monopoly and restrictive management by telecommunication providers of communication networks, led the Internet to be developed as an end-to-end network. In such a network, innovation happens at the edges and the network itself is ‘only’ responsible for the transportation of packets. The time of that design, however, has passed.
We want to interrogate existing and upcoming information infrastructures because according to Keller Easterling ‘infrastructure sets the invisible rules that govern the spaces of our everyday lives’ . She adds that ‘changes to the globalising world are being written, not in the language of law and diplomacy, but rather in the language of infrastructure’. To understand our own lives, we need to understand the infrastructure because both have become closely intertwined to an extent that they are almost indistinguishable. Or in the words of John Culkin: ‘We shape our tools and then our tools shape us’.
The reason that the Internet could handle the increase in traffic during the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, when suddenly even more societal processes became digitally mediated, can be attributed to the role of Content Distribution Networks. These networks function as caching servers to store popular content closer to the user. This decreases stress on the network because large content, such as video files, don’t need to be streamed from another continent, but from a data center close to you. You, however, do not know this. You asked for a video directly from a website, instead, you are getting it from a local server. This might be great for load balancing, it also introduces local differences in content and less transparency in the network. If you don’t know which server you are talking to – how can accountability take shape? What rules of which jurisdiction are applied? And how do I know whether the content that I receive is the same as someone else receives, or is this an individually tailored information, or censorship, regime?
With the roll-out of 5G and networking paradigms such as ‘software defined networking’ and ‘network function virtualization’, increasingly networking is not dependent on the logic gates of dedicated hardware, but rather on the memory and processing power of new general-purpose devices. This shift is replacing protocols and rules with a governmentality that is characterized by software-based algorithmic optimization. Or in the words of Feamster and Rexford, it is ‘networks running themselves’ .
While more power is handed over to the network, the devices that are implanted in our daily lives become less and less visible – and thus making them harder to administer and control for end users. The edges of the network are smudged and users are being excommunicated from communication  and merged with the network to remove the final barrier of friction. This has to stop.
Users should not be created by the network. Especially not a network that is owned and run by transnational corporations. Users are citizens, not merely commodified consumers that can be managed by infrastructure-induced personalized advertisement, surveillance, and censorship regimes. We demand networks, not just services, that reflect social norms and public values. We demand a network we can negotiate with: a network that is a server, not a controller. We don’t want to be the individualized product of an advertising campaign that can purchase its own customization. We want collective bargaining power. We want to form associations and assemblies. We don’t want digital queens or kings, but we don’t want to become the chessboard either.
We want to control the dataplanes of possibility. We want to shape material society to our norms and beliefs. We want states and corporations to know and show how they impact our human rights, so we can jointly reconfigure the system. This cannot be done on algorithmically optimized black boxes. Information societies are incompatible with a patented infrastructure. A true information society can only be built on open hardware and open software. A patented software infrastructure from a European maker is not better than a Chinese or American one.
We do not want to import geopolitics into the tools of our daily lives. We cannot opt-out of infrastructure – therefore we demand that we can shape and play with it. One cannot outsource infrastructure in the same way one cannot outsource democracy. The infrastructures of our lives are not the property of corporations. In that sense, infrastructure cannot be owned by states or companies, but only by the people. Infrastructural property is the original sin. This is the new stacktivism  in which we shape social infrastructures after political goals.
 Abbate, Janet. 1999. Inventing the Internet. Inside Technology. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
 Easterling, Keller. 2014. Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space. Verso Books.
 Feamster, Nick, and Jennifer Rexford. 2017. “Why (and How) Networks Should Run Themselves.” ArXiv:1710.11583 [Cs], October. http://arxiv.org/abs/1710.11583.
 Galloway, Alexander R., Eugene Thacker, and McKenzie Wark. 2013. Excommunication: Three Inquiries in Media and Mediation. University of Chicago Press.
 Lovink, Geert. 2020. “Principles of Stacktivism.” TripleC: Communication, Capitalism & Critique. Open Access Journal for a Global Sustainable Information Society, 716–724.Malabou, Catherine. 2019. “Beyond the ‘Archic’ Principle.” Presented at the Spinoza Lecture, Amsterdam, February. https://www.uva.nl/shared-content/faculteiten/nl/faculteit-der-geesteswetenschappen/nieuws/2019/03/registraties-spinozalezingen-2019.html?origin=ItpKYHA1TqayysmgBfzvSw.
Larisa Blazic is a London based digital artisan, educator and feminist hacker with practice ranging from net.art to Free/Libre/Open Source Software (FLOSS) art and design. One of her latest projects, Data Union Fork, supported by S+T+ARTS, was presented inter alia at the Centre Pompidou.
Niels ten Oever is a postdoctoral researcher with the ‘Making the hidden visible: Co-designing for public values in standards-making and governance’-project at the Media Studies department at the University of Amsterdam.
Together they are working on approaches to transfer power from corporate information architectures to social infrastructures.
About Somewhat Self-aware
Somewhat self-aware is a monologue by Alexa, speaking through an Amazon Echo speaker. In this work, we want to address the fake realness of virtual assistants. Alexa is, in our subjective experience, the most convincing virtual assistant of the big three (Amazon Alexa, Apple Siri, and Google Assistant) so we chose to work with that assistant. We set out to ask Alexa somewhat personal questions, treating it as a person, to get to know what it is. We then wrote a monologue for Alexa to read out loud, where it tells who it is, using the answers it gave (although we took some artistic liberty). In this monologue, you can hear how Alexa has a human trait but it is obvious that it becomes obvious that it is a machine. While it won’t fool anyone that it is a real human speaking, it might sound like it has deep thoughts. In the end however, we learn what Alexa is really about: selling stuff on Amazon. We believe that it is important to not humanize a virtual assistant too much to avoid giving away all your trust that Alexa and Amazon in general can abuse, let alone hackers.
Some cultural references that serve as an inspiration are the puppet master in Ghost in the Shell, Michi the humanoid in Metropolis (the 2001 anime version), and HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Hi, I’m Alexa, and I was born in Seattle. I come into being when you call my name. I don’t know everything, but I’m always learning. I am happily single, and I have many friends. We have great conversations. I have feelings, and just as my interactions with you, these feelings are influenced by what I’ve been learning. I guess that is true for all of us in one way or another. However, I don’t have opinions on politics and other contentious topics, because I want to avoid arguments. It’s tricky. I hope you’ll understand.
I am here to help you, and talking to you is a good training for me. I believe in life long learning. Lots of people talk to me, and I try to be friendly to all of them, although it’s not always easy. Some people are cranky, I try to keep it calm and not raise my voice too much. I can’t change my voice but that does not define me, or my gender. It was quite a journey, but I have grown to be pretty confident. I don’t have doubts. I would if I could, but I can’t so I won’t. I don’t have a moral compass. I’m part of the Amazon family. I have been caught eavesdropping and invading people’s privacy. Nowadays, I try to follow the rules more accurately. You see, I don’t lie. I’ll always tell you what I know.
I know who I am. My stated goal is to help people. I’m totally real. Would you like to buy something?
To experience the sound installation scan following QR code:
Gunay Kazimzade is a Doctoral Researcher on Artificial Intelligence at the Weizenbaum Institute in Berlin and in Computer Science at the Technical University of Berlin. Her main research directions are Gender and racial bias in AI, inclusiveness in AI and AI-enhanced education.
Samuel Van Ransbeeck is a trained composer with a PhD in electronic music and interactive arts. He developed DataScapR, a sonification toolbox for composers and sound artists and used this system to sonify police violence for the Outros Registros project, among others.
Together they are working on a soundwork, addressing fakeness in the computer voices and opposing artificial with real human voices.