Highlights of Re:publica 15

Few weeks ago, the re:publica 2015 internet culture conference took place here in Berlin. Almost 200 of the talks are available on youtube. I watched several hours of this, here is what I learned from it.

Surveillance Everywhere

Former UK intelligence officer and whistleblower Annie Machon held a eye-opening talk on past and current activities and strategies of the intelligence agencies in several countries. Some intelligence agencies do kill people without giving them the chance to go to court. This is a big threat to the democratic state of law. See also Noam Chomsky's analysis (who was not at the re:publica).

M. C. McGrath from the Transparency Toolkit gave a great talk on what we can find out about secret surveillance programs in our country using open data and free software. He mentions that his organisation has about 27.000 profiles which may likely be connected with surveillance.

Addie Wagenknecht and Jillian York presents some artistic approaches to the surveillance topic in the post-Snowden age.


Consultant Gemma Galdon Clavell gave several interesting examples how projects can fail if possible privacy issues are not adressed earlier and properly. For instance, the netherlands had to implement an opt-out option for energy smart-metering because a story like Anne Frank hidden in a house would not be possible in a smart-metered world.

Wolfie Christl showed in his talk that it may well be possible to predict Big 5 character traits from smartphone metadata or from facebook likes. His talk led me to a browser plugin Disconnect, which allows me to control ad-tracking and social media requests online.

In order to effectively protect privacy, Frank Rieger argues that it is better to regulate how data is used than to regulate how data is collected.

Frederike Kaltheuner and Kave Salamatian point out that Asimov's fictional science called “Psychohistory” lays ground under what circumstances predictions from social media data can work. I added his “Foundation” series to my mental reading list.


My favorite talk was Stephan Porombka's on cuteness (in German). “Cute” in his analysis means something small with no obligations but at the same time heartily. He refers to Adorno's lectures and Walser's letters. I like his talk because his point of view is outside the ubiquitous technical-economical rational perspectives usually applied to explain what goes on in our digital age.

Thomas Andrae from 3M highlights upcoming applications of wearables. He points out that Google glasses – providing context to machines to maintenance teams for example – are a big success in industrial area. Andrae also mentions that sleep tracking software was minutes faster than other methods in predicting earthquakes.

Mostly not directly related to internet culture, Holm Friebe and Mads Pankow present interesting background stories and examples for the behavioural psychology technique called “nudging”.

For what it is worth, I made a simple collection of number of videos vs views. It seems that in 2013, the organization team decided to expand the number of presentations, doubling from about 75 to 150. The views per video hence the interest seem somewhat stable. Would be interesting to look for popular outliers in the videos.

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