Silent Revolution: The Algorithms and Hyper-modern Knowledge

Mercedes Bunz, Die stille Revolution, Wie Algorithmen Wissen, Arbeit, Öffentlichkeit und Politik verändern, ohne dabei viel Lärm zu machen, Berlin 2012

A short cut and some remarks

Mercedes Bunz, former chief editor of Tagesspiegel online, believes that the digital revolution could have “dramatic consequences” – dramatic as those of the industrial revolution in the 19th Century. In the information society, according to her thesis, algorithms change the professional lives of the middle class today, as the machines changed the lives of workers that time. This “silent revolution” is accentuated through the creation of a new, naturally digital organized, public. Here’s a short cut, and some comments on the general argumentation of Mercedes Bunz.

She argues that, without us even realizing it, digital innovation change the world fundamentally. This seems particularly to be true for the increasingly wide use of algorithms and, one most add, Big Data: Google, for example, has started as a project at an US university and, a short time after, has changed, quietly, the “course of events” in our (media) world. Bunz compares this with the invention of the “spinning jenny” in England, the symbol of a wave of innovation and production pressure that unleashed the industrial revolution unspectacularly. As counterpart for the digital revolution, the author sees Stats Monkey,  a tool that students programmed for the automatic texting of sport reports for local newspapers. The aim of this small project was to produce more and cheap content for local media, which lost in the process of digitalization readers to the net.

Stats Monkey captured and processed information independently, automatically. Is that knowledge? Yes, clearly, the author responds, knowledge consists of “processed information”. Thus, according to the famous French newspaper Le Monde, “the era of robotic journalists has begun”. Bunz predicts that algorithms will not only change workflows in journalism, but in all areas where knowledge is produced and communicated. The “automation of a cultural technique” over which man possessed so far alone, will “fundamentally transform our world”, Bunz says.

The author stresses that algorithms are not artificial intelligence. She uses the term as a metaphor for a cultural or social engineering, respectively. Her main concern is to open a debate on how digitization can be used for the good of people and society. The development should not, as now, run more or less “naturally” or quietly but should be deliberate and active in discussing visions. Because the Internet offers a lot of potential: it multiplies the access to knowledge and can create a space of shared benefit. So, man must not necessarily deliver himself under the excessive demands of the new technology, as many believe, Bunz says.

Her appeal for a conscious design of digital change is important and seems probably to be right: We need to know what expectations we have of or to this change, to be able to contribute our time and talents in a good way. But: the essay shortens some important things a bit too well. In addition to the parallelization of industrial and digital revolution, it seems to me that the concept of knowledge is used in a rather problematic way here. Mercedes Bunz worked with this term quite different recently . In her fascinating essay on the consequences of WikiLeaks to the claim of truth in journalism, she deals with the automatic handling of information with respect to sources.

“Source material” becomes “a special explosive power”, Bunz says, borrowing it from reality, knowledge and the material nature: Sources act as a relic, a testimony to a past reality. They “draw on the strength of authenticity”. That something really is, does not mean, that it is – or must be – true. “This gap of the real” is checked with knowledge. This is the way in which data become facts. In the case of sources, the authenticity of the material is testified. That makes sources to “strong, consistent witnesses”. All this puts them in the vicinity of truth, Bunz describes wonderfully an examiniation, no machine, as sophisticated as  ever, could do.

My main objection relates to the interaction between man and machine in the constitution of experience areas such as journalism. Here a deepening of the argumentation with the help of the actor-network theory as, for instance, Bruno Latour did it in his “new sociology for a new society”, would be extremely exciting. One would like to know more from Mercedes Bunz  about the particular strength of the technical infrastructure to design symbol systems in relation to the reification of man as a carrier of roles such as, for instance, in the Internet. Humans, with their ability to (self-) representation, strongly rely on creating reality (Ian Hacking). It would be very interesting, if an expert of the world of modern digital know how, as is Mercedes Bunz, would explore the chances (and risks) of the deliberate design of a behaviour in the logic of the use of things, an analysis of continuous surpassing of man, espacially in the Internet.


Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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3 thoughts on “Silent Revolution: The Algorithms and Hyper-modern Knowledge

  1. Pingback: Digitization is not research: Theories and practices in the Digital Humanities | We think History

  2. Hello Guido,

    thank you for this really detailed reading of the book (I must say, I feel quite honored). Indeed, your suggestion to use actor network theory is one a lot of my friends share. There is definitely a point there that should be explored.

    Also I like your remark: “Humans, with their ability to (self-) representation, strongly rely on creating reality (Ian Hacking).” Now what does this mean in a world that is more ‘creative’ than every before? Very good point. There is a debate about the ethical dimension of design going on with Peter-Paul Verbeek in the Netherlands, but you are right – we need to discuss this more and get into the details.

    Thank you again for your remarks & all the best,
    mb

    • Dear Mercedes,

      thank you for your comment. I didn’t know Peter-Paul Verbeek and look forward to check his approach. I agree: The “digital revolution” will change a lot of things in the world of knowledge – newspapers, encyclopedias, libraries etc. – and we should discuss this.

      Kind regards,
      Guido

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