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SENSING meets DW ReCo: An interview with Anja Breljak and Vanessa Oberin on sensitive media, alarming digital trends, and the politics of innovation

Anja Anja Breljak Vanessa Vanessa Oberin

Good news, everyone! We were recently joined by two new interns: Anja Breljak and Vanessa Oberin. They are both PhD candidates at the Research Group SENSING and will support us
well into 2020. This interview (conducted by Alex Plaum) will tell you a little bit about Anja’s and Vanessa’s expertise, their interests, and ongoing project work at DW Innovation.

Anja and Vanessa, can you please introduce yourselves? What is your academic background? Which topics are you interested in?

Vanessa: My background is in art history, English literature and culture as well as media studies. In 2018, I completed my master’s degree at the University of Potsdam with a thesis on the sense of touch. I was looking at historic as well as current attempts of integrating touch into media experiences, starting from Aldous Huxley’s Feelies (a fictional cinema for all senses) and ending with today’s industry of haptic suits and teledildos. In my opinion, the common denominator of these devices is an underlying promise that one day the mediated thing will be a good as the real one. I’m not so much interested in whether this will actually be possible, but keen to find out where such narratives come from and what they can tell us about societies. My PhD research is in some way a continuation of that, as I’m still interested in the interplay of technology, sensory experience and what Sara Ahmed calls “the cultural politics of emotion.”

Anja: I have an interdisciplinary background. In my bachelor’s I studied philosophy and economics, and later, during my master’s in philosophy, I also did some computer science. Alongside my studies I was working at the Faculty of Law at Humboldt University and at the Institute of Political Science in Dresden, where I was part of a research project on constitutional theory. And I’ve worked as a journalist for some time as well. In all these fields, I felt compelled to think about transformation processes and change: What happens when something new is introduced? What makes it different from what’s there? Why is it needed in the first place? How does it change perspectives on what’s going on? How does it affect power balances and options for action – and for whom? Asking these questions with regard to technological innovation, economic concepts or new media landscapes can lead to some pretty ambivalent outcomes. With my PhD project I’ve shifted my thinking towards media studies, where I can finally combine these questions with my various interests.

What does the Research Group SENSING do exactly – and what are your doctorates about?

Anja: Sensing is a four-year graduate program, based at the Brandenburg Centre for Media Studies (ZeM) and funded by the Volkswagen Foundation. We are seven PhD students, one postdoc and seven professors from three universities in Potsdam investigating what we call “the knowledge of sensitive media”. With this notion we try to grasp the shifts that come with the ubiquitous implementation of sensor technologies in everyday life. We’re talking about smartphones, wearables, the so-called “Internet of Things”. Or everything which wouldn’t be possible without sensor technologies of some sort. Our work also questions the opportunities and ambivalences of using sensor technologies; technologies that allow immediate or immersive experiences, the tracking of body parameters of users or patients (i.e. eye movement, facial expression, skin conductivity) or the monitoring of climate and climate change. All in all, our aim is to better understand what sensitive media do with human feeling or sensing and vice versa.

Vanessa: Compared to usual dissertation processes in the humanities, this program is special as it allows us to spend one of the four years with different “practice partners”, like DW. We’ve called it “internship” here for lack of a better word, but in fact it’s a kind of field research in which we start out by observing how sensing technologies are thought of in an applied context, in order to broaden our theoretical perspective.

My PhD project takes its starting point in the rhetoric surrounding the discourse on VR-technology, which is commonly believed to allow us to “step in the shoes of someone else.” Chris Milk famously called it “the ultimate empathy machine.” But of course, these claims aren’t new, and I’m interested in how media technologies of the past have also been conceptualized as conveyors of the “how it feels” of a certain experience.

At DW, my focus is on ethical aspects of immersive journalism: Should it be the goal of journalism to create empathy in its readers? Does immersive content perhaps even lure journalists into choosing location and sensation over contextualization? What does all that mean for the ways in which we validate truths?

Anja: In my PhD project I explore the means and instruments digital technologies offer (or promise to offer) for tracking, analyzing and producing feelings, emotion or affect. Facial emotion recognition is a case in point: These programs promise a computability of something happening very fast and in many nuances and subtleties. So many in fact, that usually even the users themselves can’t name them. These and similar technologies are used not only to inform the creation of new content, but also for the development of new media technologies. My project is questioning the economics of this tendency and the social and political effects (and affects) that it brings about. That’s why I also try to widen the perspective on the affective dynamics new (social) media and other technologies bring to everyday life and politics in general. My aim at DW is to follow up on this second, wider perspective: How do we produce and discuss public spaces in digital media? What’s a broadcaster’s perspective on this? What tools are being called for, and what kind of data do they need?

Which projects have you been working on here at DW Innovation? What are your key insights regarding media innovation so far?

Anja: I started my field research at DW in November, so everything is still pretty new and overwhelming. So far I’ve been involved in the EU’s H2020 ICT “Next Generation Media” proposals. This is super exciting for my research project since it gives me the opportunity to directly observe the creation and conceptualization of new media tools and platforms.
I get to observe what people call a trend, what they see as new and innovative, and what imaginaries are invoked.

One of my first insights here concerns the „politics of innovation“. The situation seems to be very similar in media (business), cultural institutions, and academic research: In the last decades or so these fields have been restructured towards new funding methods and more „competitiveness“. Today, institutions and teams apply for money with proposals that pitch projects which don’t exist yet. People invest a lot of time and energy and time in producing a lot of ideas on paper without knowing whether they really can be realized or whether they will be funded. Alarmingly, this funding paradigm is spreading. And it affects the professional existence of individuals and institutions alike.

Vanessa: I started in September and was lucky to join two proposal projects for the EU’s ICT calls ending in November. In one of them we were conceptualizing a tool for the production of immersive content. I was supporting the research process around one of the use cases as well as the “ethics by design” approach of the project. Although I’m convinced that ethics can’t be reduced to a design aspect, it’s been a welcome challenge to have to think constructively. As theorists we’re used to come up with critique – which is important – but it often stops there. At the same time, not all critique can be spinned into an improvement. I think some premises in media innovation need rethinking at the very basis. Like: What would it mean to think of technologies outside of this “more seamless, more immersive, more engaging” paradigm?

What do you consider the most interesting and the most alarming trends in digital media right now?

Anja: From the perspective of my research, I see two important trends in digital media that I’d like to call “responsivity” and “assistivity”. The responsivity trend comprises the need and call for responsive interaction between users and technology/providers. Since digital technologies allow for more and more tracking of all sorts of changes (faces, movement, usage of everyday things, etc.), they also call for personalization, for mobile and individual adjustment and for modes of “natural” or “intuitive” communication. And this again calls for more data on user behavior and better (autonomous) ways of processing it, for it is only with a lot of knowledge of what’s going on and what’s expected/demanded that you can have something like a “responsive medium” (for which the expectations will grow and grow). And with this, we find ourselves in the middle of a “data machine” that brings a lot of problems such as biased algorithms and violations of privacy  – to name just a few.

The assistivity trend points to the fact that a lot of affective labour is becoming part of a technological fix, something Evgeny Morozov has famously called “solutionism”: Inventing robots to help with dementia patients, algorithms for high frequency trading or for reading facial expressions, chatbots to do customer support, wearables and apps to keep track of your fitness and wellbeing because these domains (among others) are in crisis and other solutions seem to be out of reach (which is questionable).

Here, again, we find ourselves in the “data machine”, but also in an overwhelming moment of having the need to observe what this transformation does politically (it becomes part of legal, public and institutional matters), socially (it sneaks into everyday life) and epistemically (it creates a certain mindset), but not having the time and resources to do so at the same pace of change. Nobody will wait for parliament to decide on what needs to be limited or scholars to reflect on what is going on. I, honestly, have no idea how to deal with this dilemma.

Vanessa: I feel this question assumes that developments are either promising or awry and I don’t know if such polarization is very useful. Of most of the “trends” currently circulating – AR/VR, Internet of Things, AI, Blockchain, you name them – I wouldn’t say that I fully grasp their impact, positive or negative. So I can’t make a really solid judgement. Of course, it always depends on how you frame technologies and how you use them, but then again I also wouldn’t say that technologies are inherently neutral. In fact, it may even be harmful to regard them as neutral tools. For example, we’ve seen that machine learning isn’t immune to incorporating human bias, such as gender stereotypes. (Have you noticed that the facial emotion recognition in Anja’s picture interprets her as female when she smiles, but as male when she doesn’t?) Another development that I find alarming is the aforementioned empathy rhetoric surrounding VR. I think we shouldn’t kid ourselves that to empathize with a distant human being is simply a matter of the degree of immersion. Or that our lack of empathy for certain groups of people only needs better technology. On the other hand, I see potential in technologies that operate outside of the “techno-fix” logic as well as technologies whose primary aim isn’t about getting people hooked.

Assuming funding is not an issue, what kind of project would you like to work on for a couple of years — and why?

Vanessa: In a way, the SENSING project already feels like the privilege just described: we are fully funded and have four years for writing our PhDs, and we chose the topics ourselves. But if I was to come up with my own framework for a project, it might be something more experimental, like an artistic research program. There is also a multitude of topics I’d like to expand my research to. One of them is the relation between technology and well-being or healing. I think even the tech industry is slowly realizing the health effects of their inventions, and there’s already a whole “mindful tech” branch, the ideology of which also deserves to be questioned.

Anja: Yes, Vanessa is right, we really are in a comfortable situation: We have funding to pursue a project that is personally important to us, we decide what to investigate and how (as long as it relates to our research goals), and we decide the conditions of our work. This kind of freedom can be pretty frightening too, sometimes, since there’s nobody who’ll set the boundaries for you once your proposal has been accepted…

Anything you’d like to add?

Vanessa: If you like to know more about the work of our research group, you can follow us on Twitter and check out our website! Some of our events at ZeM in Potsdam are also open to the public.

Anja: Thanks for this great opportunity of doing field research with you. And thanks for the interview.

Vanessa and Anja, thanks for your time and support!

Date

Wednesday, December 18th, 2019

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