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“If You’re Part of the World, You’ll be Part of the Internet”. An Interview with Michael Seemann

The cultural studies researcher Michael Seemann Photo: André KrügerThe cultural studies researcher Michael Seemann Photo: André KrügerLoss of control is the term cultural studies researcher Michael Seemann uses to talk about the uncontrollability of the mountains of web data. But he believes that “filter sovereignty” can help people to categorise everything to meet their individual needs.

The Internet contains avalanches of information that come crashing down on users wherever they click. We are currently seeing examples of gigantic revelations (wikileaks ), spontaneous agreements to topple dictators (North Africa) and open invitations to private parties accidentally sent to all and sundry. What is your view on that?

Many people are afraid of that, but it also offers lots of opportunities. There are unforeseen effects as certainties and expectations come crashing down. It changes the way we interact, do business, love and communicate, both as individuals and in society as whole. We are seeing self-confident citizens demand greater influence on how decisions are taken. We are seeing more communication and networking among all social classes. We are seeing new possibilities for gaining faster, more in-depth and broader information access than ever before. We are seeing new lifestyles and attitudes to life. The possibilities for living, loving, doing business and shaping politics are growing at an incredible pace. That is a good development.

You group these different phenomena together and call them “loss of control”. What do you mean by that?

The Internet contains avalanches of information. Photo: Günay Mutlu © iStockphotoNiklas Luhmann once said: “If you remain silent, you can always talk in the future. But once you have talked about something, you cannot be silent about it anymore.” The uncontrollability of information is not only a characteristic of the digital world. But some circumstances in the digital world have raised these processes to a new level, such as ubiquitous cameras, sensors and measuring equipment. The analogue world is becoming more and more interwoven with the digital world, with examples ranging from mobile telephone cameras, GPS sensors, credit cards, and intelligent electricity counters to traffic control systems. On top of that, the size of storage and performance capacities is constantly growing. And a very important point is that new insights may be gained at any time from data that already exists. The best example is face recognition. Data already available can be reinterpreted. When we produce data today, we don’t know what we have said. It is difficult not to be part of the global network. Basically, if you’re part of the world, you’ll be part of the Internet. You can try to keep out of certain domains, avoid using use certain services. But it is already difficult to go to parties without having your picture taken.

So I shouldn’t put any more photographs of myself on the Internet?

I personally think the Internet would be quite dismal if no-one dared to put their photos online anymore. Face recognition will no doubt give the web and its identities a new impetus towards greater transparency. That may well feel a bit creepy sometimes, but on the whole, it will make the web much more useful. The benefit of being recognised and found will win in the long term. That was already the case when nicknames evolved into real names through Facebook.

It is said that the amount of data now produced in 48 hours is the same as the amount of data produced from the early days of mankind until 2003. Where is that supposed to lead when one considers that the increasing linkability of data can lead to the oddest discoveries?

There are new possibilities for gaining faster, more in-depth and broader information access than ever before.  Photo: nullplus © iStockphotoIt inevitably leads us to a situation like the one described by Jorge Luis Borges in his Library of Babel where people live in a library containing every conceivable written text, every conceivable combination of characters and more books than there are atoms in the universe. Google is already struggling to cope with that. So-called content farms produce texts that can hardly be told apart from human productions – they just do not make proper sense. The idea is to manipulate the rankings in search engine results. In this situation, we are facing the challenge of cutting our way through this huge but also rich jungle of data. And that path will always be an individual one because we all have different interests and social and cultural ties.

You have coined the term “filter sovereignty.” What does it mean?

Filter sovereignty is a new way of understanding “informational self-determination”. We are no longer talking about the sender’s self-determination, but that of responsible recipients. It means the right to configure one’s world view in a self-determined way. Above all, that is a right of defence against censorship. Censorship is manipulated filtering. Destroying data goes in the same direction. It also contains an appeal to all of us to make as much data as possible about ourselves publically accessible because that is of benefit to other peoples’ filter sovereignty.

What is the best way to get through the data jungle?

Everyone has to be clear that anything they do could become public.  Photo: ARENA Creative © iStockphotoI don’t have any specific policy. Everyone has to be clear that anything they do could become public. If you live in constant fear of something about your life becoming public, you will not have a pleasant life. You do not have to trumpet everything out right away or shout it from the rooftops. But you should be mentally prepared for the possibility that it could happen. I believe that we should all take a more relaxed, distanced attitude to ourselves. People who take themselves too seriously will have a hard time coping with the loss of control.

Michael Seemann, who was born in 1977, read Applied Cultural Studies in Lüneburg. Since his graduation, he has been working on a doctoral thesis on philosophical theories relating to archives and since 2005, he has been involved in various Internet projects. He founded twitkrit.de and the Twitterlesung, has organised various events and manages the podcast wir.muessenreden.de. A year ago, he began the CTRL+Verlust blog, first for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, and since September on his own, in which he writes about the loss of control over web data. His blog is at mspr0.de.

Knut Diers
read geography and economics at Giessen, was an editor at the Hannoversche Allgemeine Zeitung for 20 years and is now self-employed in the Buenos Diers Media editorial office. He enjoys writing about the environment, energy and travel.

Translation: Eileen Flügel
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
August 2011

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