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Media future looks grim, prof warns

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READING this highbrow polemic about modern media can feel a bit like hanging out with the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

Much of Infoglut, published by a small U.K-based academic press, points ominously to a future almost as undesirable as the one that spirit showed Scrooge. And the takeaway message is similar, too: to break from this dismal path requires waking up and learning to experience the world anew.

Author Mark Andrejevic, a media scholar at the University of Queensland in Australia who's penned two other books on our interaction with emerging technologies, bases his dreary forecast on a bad mix of our society's well-ingrained savvy skepticism, the widely recognized failure of "objectivity" to deliver unbiased goods, a shift to locating truth in the "gut" rather than the "mind" and the tsunami of data being vacuumed up, sorted and stored.

Andrejevic contends that forces like these leave us, as a society, feeling increasingly dependent on the seductive certainty of data mining, neuroscience and predictive analytics. Formulas and instinct promise to "think" for us, to make sense of, and to uncover patterns the conscious human mind isn't equipped to do when submerged in a glut of mediated information.

In an eerie example of technology's triumph over intuition, Andrejevic recounts how retail giant Target got so good at mining its data to identify newly pregnant women that a father complained about ads for maternity wear and cribs being targeted at his teenage daughter, only to find out she was actually expecting.

He provides an iconic case of gut instinct bypassing facts in U.S. president George W. Bush's claim to have peered into the eye of Russia's Vladimir Putin and gotten "a sense of his soul."

While Andrejevic is rightfully critical of such algorithmic strategies and biological shortcuts to deal with the data welter, he also keenly draws our attention to political implications of so-called "post-comprehensive" knowledge.

When only a few -- whether they be big businesses or governments -- have the means to build the physical infrastructure to store "Big Data," to develop the algorithms, and to define the categories for sifting, the circumstances are ripe for abuse in both constructing truths and acting upon them.

Recognizing this material imbalance and the larger social structures it legitimizes and reinforces is a good starting point, he suggests, for a thoughtful public conversation.

Here we can hear echoes of issues stirred up by American whistleblower Edward Snowden and his recent release of some of the U.S. National Security Agency's online surveillance practices.

In fact, Infoglut does single out the NSA as a model player in the lopsided Big Data game, noting the agency on a daily basis in 2010 intercepted and stored 1.7 billion emails, phone calls and other types of communication.

Infoglut's response to this often subtle and incremental, but immense and diffuse, social reorganization is to raise awareness and call for action, to have us demand greater control over personal data and to rethink how it ought to be used. Andrejevic is no Luddite: he's a Big Data-era revolutionary imploring us to get our heads out of "the cloud."


Greg Di Cresce is a Winnipeg journalist and a student of communication history.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 24, 2013 0

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