Big data: the information revolution

Multivac weighs all sorts of known factors, billions of them.
It will protect you. If you are in danger of accident, it will know. If someone plans harm to you, it will know. Multivac will be able to help Earth adjust its economy and its laws for the good of all.

This is Multivac. A giant database that stores all information and puts it at human disposal.

But, of course, it only exists in Isaac Asimov’s fiction. In real life, we only call it “big data”.

The world contains an unimaginably vast amount of digital information which is getting ever vaster ever more rapidly. This makes it possible to do many things that previously could not be done: spot business trends, prevent diseases, combat crime and so on. Managed well, the data can be used to unlock new sources of economic value, provide fresh insights into science and hold governments to account.
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The wonders imagined by fiction have become reality once again. But, as in Asimov’s stories, this dream-come-true is not exempt from trouble. How can such vast amount of data be managed effectively? What implications are there for privacy and security? Does hyperinformation lead to infraknowledge? And ultimately, what would be the consequences of mismanagement?

The government would have collapsed; the economy broken down.
This was the first crisis to be sparked by it—and there will be more.

Now, which of these quotes is taken from fiction and which from reality?

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Big data will be discussed at our breakout session ‘The Changing Nature of Statecraft: The Impact of Big Data‘ on November 8, 1700 to 1830, with Michael ChuiAlex KarpTodd ParkStefaan G. VerhulstLionel Jospin and Mary Robinson.

Quotes about Multivac taken from Issac Asimov’s short stories ‘Franchise’ (1955) and ‘All the troubles in the world’ (1958).

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Comunication, Power and Counterpower in the Network Society

Joignez-vous a L'Espagne ... The Spanish 'indignados' called for a "global revolution" back in May 2011

October 15 saw the first global rally ever. With some 900 cities from across 80 countries participating in some degree, it has been the culmination of a year of spontaneous, massive gatherings, which range from the peaceful Arab Spring, the Spanish indignados and the Occupy Wall Street movement to the more violent London riots and the demonstrations in Greece and Chile.

But what can be seen as an organizational success has been promoted indeed by many actors that don’t even know each other. The truth is, besides being fueled by the negative economic scenario, the emergence of social media and mass self-communication has been absolutely definite in the construction of these movements, suggests Manuel Castells.

Without the means and ways of mass self-communication, the new movements and new forms of insurgent politics could not be conceived. Of course, there is a long history of communication activism, and social movements have not waited for Internet connection in order to struggle for their goals using every available communication medium. Yet, currently the new means of digital communication constitute their most decisive organizational form, in a clear break with the traditional forms of organization of parties, unions and associations of the industrial society, albeit these social actors are now evolving towards the new organizational model built around networked communication. For new social movements, the Internet provides the essential platform for debate, their means of acting on people’s mind, and ultimately serves as their most potent political weapon.
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Is mass self-communication enabling a fairer play between power and counterpower forces? And most importantly, as we asked some weeks ago: will these movements benefit democracy in the long term, or will they become an obstacle to unpopular but necessary measures?

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Citizen engagement will be discussed in our breakout session ‘If We Build It, Will They Come: Why Meaningful Citizen Engagement is Hard’, November 9, 1100 to 1230, with Anas QtieshSean ClearyChat García RamiloSusan PointerHenry SweetbaumKjell Magne Bondevik and Petre Roman.

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Mass self-communication: a dream or a nightmare?

With new technologies redrawing media and society, a deep economic crisis caused by a Wall Street crash, and a democracy that needed to be fought for, the 1930′s scenario was quite similar to today’s. And opinions were as antagonical as today’s.

This is what German political poet and playwright Bertolt Bretch dreamed in 1932:

Radio is one-sided when it should be two. It is purely an apparatus for distribution, for mere sharing out. So here is a positive suggestion: change this apparatus over from distribution to communication. The radio would be the finest possible communication apparatus in public life, a vast network of pipes. That is to say, it would be if it knew how to receive as well as to transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him. On this principle the radio should step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers. Any attempt by the radio to give a truly public character to Public occasions is a step in the right direction.
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But this is what Spanish philosopher José Ortega y Gasset feared in 1930:

There is one fact which, whether for good or ill, is of utmost importance in the public life of Europe at the present moment. This fact is the accession of the masses to complete social power. As the masses, by definition, neither should nor can direct their own personal existence, and still less rule society in general, this fact means that actually Europe is suffering from the greatest crisis that can afflict peoples, nations, and civilisation.
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Are we now facing Bretch’s dream or Ortega y Gasset’s nigthmare?

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Both our opening and closing sessions deal with this topic:

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“Even handcuffed we ARE changing the world w/ seamless technologies”

This is what an arrested Occupy Wall Street protester twitted from the back of a police van on September 24, a week after the movement started.

On that day, 96 others were arrested. Twitter user @PulseofProtest managed to send 22 tweets describing his two-hour long arrest. Along his tweets: “Denied being read our rights”; “activist in tears b/c she just wants to use the bathroom, been in zipties for maybe 2 hours”; “Multiple officers overseeing us: ‘I’d rather just die today, we’re so sorry for you, can’t believe we’re being ordered to do this”.

Is this a legitimate mean of peaceful subversion or a threat to necessary police control? A purest example of citizen journalism or an excess of information that need not to be known by the public?

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Mayor Bloomberg on Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street

American Autumn? ... Occupy Wall Steet

One one hand, sympathy for some of its demands. On the other, criticism with the disruption it is causing in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg talks about the Occupy Wall Street movement.

Mr. Bloomberg has become increasingly critical of the Wall Street protests, even while repeatedly defending the right of people to demonstrate. On Friday, he described the Wall Street protesters as not productive and as “trying to destroy the jobs of working people in this city.”
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Mr. Bloomberg will be talking at Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy on November 8, at 2:30pm.

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How do you think digital technologies are impacting democracy?

From the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, 2011 seems a year of change. But the outcome is still blurred. Are we witnessing a radical change in the structure of our societies, or will everything come out of the fog as it came in, with the addition of yet another mean of communication?

This is what we are going to be analyzing in Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy. How big data, citizen journalism or bidirectional communications are affecting government, society and democracy. How the Industrial Age is giving way to the Informational Age. How citizenship is on a one-way highway towards e-citizenship.

Let us know your thoughts: how do you think digital technologies are impacting democracy? Share it with our speakers and former Presidents and Prime Ministers on

See you on the net!

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New media: A tool for social change?

The rise of new forms of media is one of the major objects of study of the Frankfurt School. In their opinion, new media can give true power to the people, enabling a change in the social balance of power that can benefit the underprivileged.

But, of course, the Frankfurt School was saying this some 80 years ago. And their “new media” was cinema, radio and photography. As we know, they were soon to be disenchanted, as these media turned out to be means of heavy political propaganda in their home country, Germany, and of “vacuous entertainment for the masses” in their host land, the United States.

But their story clearly resembles common thoughts about our time’s new media. Indeed, it seems inevitable to talk about the revolutionary potential of each new media technology, at least in the sense of favoring some form of social change. But usually the communicative potential of a media is not the social use that it organically adopts.

Knowing this, professors Bruce A. Williams and Michael X. Delli Carpini were cautious in their outlook of the potential of new media in this article from 2004:

Optimistically, we believe that the erosion of elite gatekeeping and the emergence of multiple axes of information provide new opportunities for citizens to challenge elite control of political issues. Pessimistically, we are skeptical of the abilities of ordinary citizens to make use of these opportunities and suspicious of the degree to which even multiple axes of power are still shaped by more fundamental structures of economic and political power.
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In view of the experience of the Frankfurt School, should we be cautious on our assessment of our new media, despite of the recent events?

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The future of journalism

When a new leap in media technology comes forward, many tend to think it will mean the end of all previous media. Radio, cinema, TV – all were going to kill their immediate predecessor. But they ultimately didn’t: each found a niche, an area of expertise, which the others could not fill.

It happened again with the internet. Indeed, it seemed much more revolutionary, with readily on-demand information, its convergence of different types of media and its interactive capabilities. Many believed it would mean an end to the printed word, but we are now luckily realizing that it won’t. But then, what is the role of journalism in a world where every citizen has the means to report directly what they see?

Bill Keller, Executive Editor of The New York Times until last month, talks about old and new media in this interview with our media partner El País.

There is a difference between what Wikipedia and The New York Times say: people go to Wikipedia knowing what they want; but they go to The New York Times, BBC or El País not knowing what they want to know. They come to see what intelligent and well educated people has to tell them about what happened, what matters and what does it mean. Noone has the time to do this by themselves; they pay us for our criteria.
Read more (in Spanish)…

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Digital technologies for disaster response

The kick-off of Digital Humanitarianism ... Crisis mapping

From sharing knowledge to financing a project collaboratively, we are witnessing the birth of what is probably the most powerful use of the Internet: crowdsourcing. That is: anonymous, mass cooperative working.

On the many relevant areas it can be used, one of the most important in terms of humanitarism is crisis mapping. From any net-connected device, individuals can submit information to a centralized, geographically ordered computer system, and thus power effective early warning for rapid response to complex humanitarian emergencies, may them be political, social or environmental.

Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy‘s speaker Patrick Meier‘s work has been vital in the development of crisis mapping. He worked on one of its key tests: the response to 2010′s earthquake in Haiti.

Taken individually, these bits of data might not be terribly useful. The goal is that by aggregating the incidents in a visual format, people and organizations using the site will be able to see patterns of destruction, to determine where services should be concentrated. A red dot on the map, for example, signifies that looting is happening near a town called Pétionville; another shows that Hotel Villa Creole has become a site of medical triage.
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Networked politics and the media: a difficult relationship?

The relationship between traditional media and net-fueled movements is often not easy. The corporate nature of news organizations often clashes with its informational side, and as sociologists Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert K. Merton pointed out, in mass media “he who pays the piper generally calls the tune”.

Is this also the case of The New York Times? After its article “As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe“, Digital Technologies for 21st Century Democracy‘s speaker Micah L. Sifry points out how the newspaper is a little bit late on reporting about net-based activism.

This article could have also been written in 2003 or 2007-8. For argument’s sake, the Times’ story on the rise of the “second superpower,” (“A New Power in the Streets,” February 17, 2003) which focused on the massive wave of international protests against the impending invasion of Iraq, which were loosely coordinated by net-based activists, was the story in 2003, except the Times stopped covering democratic protests after that as its editors and top writers fell in lockstep in support of the Iraq War.
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