“Rocking the boat is also a necessity”

Researcher Jutta Haider is one of the people the Swedish government turns to when they want to know more about the future information landscape. This pundit from the Alpine city of Villach answers with concern about democracy.

Jutta Haider. Photo PrivateBirds have filled their nest with hatchlings just outside information researcher Jutta Haider’s study. On our way from the LUX campus reception and up the four flights of stairs to the Department of Arts and Cultural Sciences, she manages to talk hastily about the setup of the Lund University Library and a great deal more that I would have needed to record to correctly relate. She knows a lot about a lot. But whether it’s magpies, crows or some other birds cawing loudly enough outside to make it difficult to hold a conversation in her study she can’t say.

“I know nothing about birds,” she says and firmly closes the window.

No, ornithology doesn’t interest her. Had the matter concerned how search engines affect our attitudes towards birds, however, then it’s more likely that she would’ve spent a great deal of time and effort to find out. Jutta’s calling – and greatest interest – is instead society and, more specifically, the study of what the altered conditions for information brought about by digital culture can entail, should entail and shouldn’t entail. For the past eight years, she’s practised this role here, at Lund University.

“I have a sociomaterial approach to information and how it’s expressed in different activities and in different instances, perhaps…” she says, in an attempt to explain exactly what it is she does.

Popular search terms 

We concretise. At the moment, information about the environment is very much on Jutta’s mind. She’s in the process of finishing an article on how Google’s filter enables certain results and searches and as such creates an image of what eco-friendly living entails.

Waste sorting is a search term that Swedes hold dear. In 2013, it was the third most popular search in the Google Trends category ‘how’: How do you sort waste? The following year, many instead asked why we sort waste.

“Why is there such a great need to google about sorting waste here? And what do people find when they search? There’s a whole network of bureaucracy surrounding waste sorting. A gigantic information complex behind the act of throwing a packet in the right container. It’s an illustrative, quite light-hearted example of how algorithms work and influence. Though maybe not particularly controversial. Unlike the vaccine debate.”

What’s most controversial?

“Right now, I’d say immigration. That’s where you can make most political gains.”

Jutta grew up in Austria and her accent is easily discerned, although she speaks rapid and fluent Swedish. When she writes academic papers in Swedish, however, she always does so together with someone else. Earlier this spring, together with her research colleague Olof Sundin, who is also her husband, she published the report Algoritmer i samhället (Algorithms in Society) on behalf of the Swedish government’s Secretariat for Strategic Development.

Concentration of power

Algorithms are necessary if we’re to find the information we’re looking for in the sea of material. On the other hand, a lack of awareness about how they function – like the lack of alternatives – is a problem, she states. It seems as if the information we are presented with follows some kind of logical order in which the best appears first, but the ranking is actually determined for the most part by people’s cultural values and commercial interests.

“There are increasingly fewer owners behind social media, fewer suppliers of ebooks and fewer scientific publishers governing how scientific papers are communicated. There’s an ongoing concentration of power that society is simply ill prepared to manage.”

Social media follow a similar principle. The news we are presented with is governed to a certain extent by what our friends share and like. Some people say that we ourselves choose which ‘filter bubble’ we want to be a part of. But other factors, which in principle are impossible to decipher, also come into play.

“There are advantages to receiving the news you’re interested in and being able to participate in dialogues that engage you. But if those are the only dialogues that are held then we have a serious problem. It becomes difficult to have dialogues that lead to pluralism rather than polarisation.”

Libraries important

According to Jutta, it’s as though we’re locked into the system and must act from within. She asks how we can offer a noncommercial alternative while needing to use these media and filters to get anywhere or to reach out to anyone. Today, everyone adapts, even libraries and public service, to this filter, this dominant ‘information gatekeeper’.

Contradictory to those who claim that libraries are becoming pointless since everyone can gain access to most information on the internet, she says that the role of the library is increasing in importance in the digital information age.

“It’s there, if anywhere, one ought to have access to a somewhat non-commercial dialogue governed by something other than popularity logic.”

How is the political apparatus responding to this development?

“There are, at least, the beginnings of a dialogue in the shape of ethics committees at EU level and directives aimed at providing some protection. The fact that the Government Offices of Sweden hired us to write about algorithms shows that there’s a desire to understand what is going on and how to handle it. But this was a very late awakening.”

It would require massive globally coordinated efforts to challenge the prevailing concentration of power. But this is unlikely to happen, according to Jutta. This makes increased awareness the better path to follow.

“Today, you’re considered a bit of a tin foil hat wearer if you don’t use Google. Having a critical approach must become more normal.”

This is where Jutta believes that libraries can play a crucial role. Perhaps by understanding how dominant algorithms work and contributing to normalising a critical approach. It’s about finding a balance between on the one hand seeing the exciting aspects of technological development and on the other hand questioning things.

Not all bad

But we also need a more stable social foundation to stand on, says Jutta. An agreed value system that we teach and that we do not question.

“What good is knowing that the antiimmigration debate on the internet is reinforced by Facebook’s visibility norm, which ensures that controversial topics appear high up and so on, if we don’t know in which direction society wants to head? At the moment, society’s norm system is a little shaky. We can criticise this, that and the other, but if we don’t have certain base values that society has agreed upon then it’s easy to stumble into relativism.”

It’s not all bad. Naturally, the internet has also boosted democracy in several ways. One is that everyone can be their own publicist today. At the same time, if no one reads what we write, it’s like talking to a closed, empty room.

“It becomes a bit of a chimera, a nice idea. There are certainly many opportunities to initiate dialogues, meetings and movements that didn’t exist before, but it feels as though they’re becoming fewer in number.”

So how is democracy doing? Is it getting better or worse?

“I’m not Hans Rosling, who knows the truth, but just now things do not seem to be improving. But it involves interaction between many different things; you can’t simply say that it’s the internet’s fault.”

Jutta’s study is small, but she’s happy to at least have a room of her own. Happy that they haven’t followed the trend at so many other workplaces, with open-plan office space and activity-based workstations.

“What would I do with all my books and papers?”

Googles all the time

No, she doesn’t live in a completely digitised world. She reads scientific papers on her tablet and some digital periodicals, but when it comes to books she prefers the real thing. The bookcase houses works such as Open Access and the Humanities by Martin Paul Eve and on the desk is a printout of an article with the thoughtprovoking title “The McDonaldization of Academic Libraries and the Values of Transformational Change.”

Otherwise Jutta, like most other people, is online most hours of the day, but says that her field of study hasn’t affected her internet behaviour to any significant extent.

“Just because you question the system doesn’t mean that you aren’t a part of it. I’m not particularly paranoid. I google all the time.”

Journalist
The original Swedish text was previously published in Biblioteksbladet, a Swedish trade publication for librarians and information scientists.