The algorithm is a bad guide

Algorithms are flawed. And yet they seem to be the best technology companies have to offer. How many products claim to “learn from your behavior”? But what happens when I am the weaker part in this information exchange? There is no way I can know what gems are hidden in the database. So once again the products recommended to me are repetitive or shallow.

So it was great to stumble upon Susanna Leijonhufvud’s Liquid Streaming, a thesis on Spotify and the ways in which streaming music, selected by algorithm not only learns from our experiences, but more interestingly, acts to train us into being musical cyborgs (a la Haraway)

Starting from the human, the human subject can indeed start to act on the service by asking for some particular music. But then, as this music, this particular track, may be a part of a compilation such as an album or a playlist, the smart algorithms of the service, e.g. the machine, will start to generate suggestions of music back to the human subject. Naturally, the human subject can be in charge of the music that is presented to her by, for instance, skipping a tune, while listening on a pre-set playlist or a radio function. Still, the option in the first place is presented through a filtering that the machine has made, a filtering that is originally generated from previously streamed music or analysis of big data, e.g. other networked subject’s streamed music. Added to this description; if an input derives from the subject’s autonomous system, then the analogy of an actor-network is present on yet other layers. The actor-network of the musical cyborg work both within the subject itself, as the subject is not consistent with an identity as an entity, as well as between the subject and the smart musical cicerones.

Leijonhufvud (2018) Liquid Streaming p. 274

We often forget this feedback loop. Since we are trained by the algorithms the level of serendipity and growth is relatively low and we tend to be stuck in a seemingly narrow spiral – especially considering we are supposed to have access to an almost infinite amount of music.

As a newish Spotify user who is musically ignorant, I often find the algorithm to be laughably unhelpful since it does little to expand my horizons and as such is less of a cicerone (knowledgable guide) and more of a frustrated and frustrating gatekeeper.

It would be nice not to have the things I already know recommended to me ad infinitum, but rather show me things I have not seen or heard. Sure I may hate them but at least I may have the chance of expanding my repertoire.

Susanna Leijonhufvud (2018) Liquid Streaming: The Spotify Way To Music, Doctoral Thesis, Luleå University of Technology, (Fulltext here

Peter Langmar's Cultural Sphere and Public Interest

Reading and enjoying Peter Langmar‘s masters thesis Cultural Sphere and Public Interest: Combining Free and Participatory Culture, Cultural Democracy and Critiques of Value Regimes to Rethink Policy, Artistic and Institutional Practices

Here is part of the abstract:

The thesis aims at a holistic and multidisciplinary redefinition of public interest in the cultural sphere, contextualised in the democratic and cosmopolitan era. The thesis reveals various problems and weaknesses of the cultural sphere by combining a wide variety of concepts and discourses such as critiques of: high and mass culture, aesthetics, monopolistic competition, hegemonic value and copyrights regimes. In other words the thesis merges the critiques of the oligopolistic actors, of the hegemonic copyright and value regimes of the cultural sphere.

Peter’s work is theoretically a bit heavy – it even includes a section on future research in the form of a PhD research proposal – but its highly readable and is well worth the time. So far I am most pleased with the ways in which he connects free culture, cultural democracy and participatory culture.

As it’s licensed under Creative Commons BY NC SA I have added it to the texts of interests in my growing open licensed collection of works of interest.

Breaking and Making Bodies and Pots

Åsa M. Larsson archeologist and blogger (Ting & Tankar) has finished her PhD thesis! She will be defending at 1 pm at Friday 18 September (Geijer auditorium, building 6, Humanities Centre, Engelska Parken, Uppsala).

Her work is on osteo-archaeology about the Middle Neolithic B in the Lake Mälaren area, c. 2800-2400 cal BC. Nope, I didn’t get that either! Maybe its because I am a lawyer? Anyway, she has the coolest title: Breaking and Making Bodies and Pots. Material and Ritual Practices in South Sweden in the Third Millennium BC. Aun 40. Department of Archaeology and Ancient History. Uppsala University.

For some reason Swedish archeologists are active bloggers. Wonder why?

Great work Åsa!

On philosophical advice

Not all intelligent sounding advice is actually good advice and most philosophical advice is on the level of a bad sound-bite. Most of it just sounds cool but is totally useless real life applications. The latest strip from Jorge Cham of PhD comics has come online:

What this means in real life thesis writing (if I now may offer some advice…) is not to dig to deeply into “how-to-write-a-phd-or-masters” books since they are filled with obvious advice and keep you busy reading the wrong things. I think that Nike had the right approach with their slogan “Just do it”.

Iceland tomorrow!

Tomorrow I am off to Iceland! This is really cool even though I wish I was staying there for a longer period of time. But it’s cool enough. I fly up tomorrow, have meetings on Tuesday and fly home early on Wednesday. The meetings should be very interesting since I am there to participate in discussions on Tryggvi Björgvinsson‘s thesis, there will be meetings with the Icelandic Society for Digital Freedom. Also I should be able to squeeze in some sightseeing between airports.

Exciting new thesis on social networking

Dr Danah Boyd has successfully defended her very interesting PhD Taken Out of Context: American Teen Sociality in Networked Publics (PDF) and of course the text is available online (under CC license). This is from the abstract

While teenagers primarily leverage social network sites to engage in common practices, the properties of these sites configured their practices and teens were forced to contend with the resultant dynamics. Often, in doing so, they reworked the technology for their purposes. As teenagers learned to navigate social network sites, they developed potent strategies for managing the complexities of and social awkwardness incurred by these sites. Their strategies reveal how new forms of social media are incorporated into everyday life, complicating some practices and reinforcing others. New technologies reshape public life, but teens’ engagement also reconfigures the technology itself.

Danah is also a prolific writer and blogger with valuable insights in online life. She is also keen to get feedback about her text as she intends to rework and publish it in other formats- “The more feedback I get now, the better I can make those future document. So, pretty please, with a cherry on top, could you share your reflections, critiques, concerns? I promise I won’t be mad. In fact, the opposite. I would be most delighted!”

Basic tip on essay writing

The new term has begun with new lectures and repeats of some old ones. Last week I gave a repeat performance (well for me at least) of my essay writing lecture. The main point is to get students thinking about their essays in time as well as getting them to understand how to write an essay. Then today I came across this wonderful quote from Antoine de Saint Exupéry the author of, among other books, The Little Prince

The way to get people to build a ship is not to teach them carpentry, assign them tasks, and give them schedules to meet; but to inspire them to long for the infinite immensity of the sea.

The problem with poetic and romantic quotes such as these is that they presents a misleading view of much of the world. All too many essay writers attempt (and many succeed) in writing an essay with no clear idea of what an essay is. You would never think of asking someone who has never seen a house to build you one?

The trick is get students to understand this.

The weird thing of a public thesis defense

The public thesis defense is a strange thing. The author is defined as a PhD student (with a focus on the idea of the student) is in fact the expert on the topic being discussed. It is he or she who has the best grasp of the data and all the reasons why the finished book looks the way it does.

Surrounding the author (for the student is also an author) is the supervisor or supervisors. This wise man or woman (sometimes more than one) has acted as a sounding board and guided the student in the production of the work. It is also the supervisor who eventually decides when the work is ready to be defended.

This is followed by a group of four academics that will act as the opponent and the examination committee. Beyond this group of five or six people the rest of the audience have not read the work in its entirety.

This is not to say that they never have had the opportunity. The thesis in Sweden goes through an arcane rite of nailing (spikning) where the author often still physically nails his thesis in a publically available place at least three weeks before the defense.

But in general the audience – a group of colleagues paying respect, family bursting with pride, friends genuinely happy but often confused by the act, young PhD students eager to learn and the occasional odd man from the street interested in the topic – have not seen the text and a vague idea of the topic.

The audience follows the affair from the outside. The chairman introduces and often explains the importance of the act: it is an initiation an introduction and an acceptance. The student is given then opportunity to correct any minor flaws he or she may have discovered in the weeks leading up to the defense (mainly typos).

The central role of the defense is held by the opponent who begins by describing the work at hand and then leads the following discussion by asking probing questions and discusses the reasoning and arguments behind the book. This is not done to “catch out” the student but rather to understand the book that is being examined. It is through this discussion that the examination committee has the opportunity will have a chance to see the character and ability of the student.

Once the opponent is done the chairman opens the floor to questions from the audience and here rumors and horror stories flow among PhD students of spiteful old academics showing up after having read the public copy and ask impossible questions in order to demolish the student.

When this public phase is closed the examination committee, the chairman, the opponent, the supervisor move to the closed part of the examination process. All of them have the right to speak but only the three-member examination committee has the ability to vote and a majority is needed to pass. This may seem easy but since the closed group all form part of a social network they can in reality not decide as freely as it may seem. Here past, present and future alliances and antagonism may form and shape the discussion at hand.
If the open process takes around two hours the closed process takes anything between one to over six hours (the latter is very uncommon but I know of two occasions).

The public defense swings between the vital to the laughable but it is always an event that is key in the maturing of any academic.  Whiskey and wine are stored in a barrel in an evenly acclimatized subterranean hole to emerge the better for it. The process may not be exciting to watch but the result is worth waiting for.

Technology and Sharing

Take a look at the Jörgen Skågeby’s recent PhD thesis “Gifting Technologies: Ethnographic Studies of End-users and Social Media Sharing” where he has studied the phenomenon of file sharing (to simplify everything a tad!)

In his thesis Jörgen Skågeby has studied the classical questions posed in gift theory: why gifts are given? what gifts are given? To whom are gifts given? How are gifts given? in relation to file sharing.

File sharing was earlier seen as a way for young people to recieve free media however Jörgen thesis argues that there is a growing social interaction developing which replaces the download focused view of file sharing with a focus on sharing. Contrary to popular views Jörgen argues that on the Internet it is clear to see who are friends and who are not – much more so than in the offline world.

from the abstract:

This thesis explores what dimensions that can be used to describe and compare the sociotechnical practice of content contribution in online sharing networks… Gift-giving was used as an applied theoretical framework and the data was analyzed by theory-informed thematic analysis. The results of the analysis recount four interrelated themes: what kind of content is given; to whom is it given; how is it given; and why is it given? … A general methodological contribution is the utilization of sociotechnical conflicts as units of analysis. These conflicts prove helpful in predicting, postulating and researching end-user innovation and conflict coordination. It is suggested that the conflicts also provide potent ways for interaction design and systems development to take end-user concerns and intentions on board.