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Big Data from the South: The beginning of a conversation we must have

by Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré

On July 15, 2017 in Cartagena, Colombia, about fifty between academics and activists got together to imagine how ‘Big Data from the South’ would look like. Organized with little resources and much enthusiasm by the two of us* and preceding the annual IAMCR conference in Cartagena, the one-day event was designed to make the move ‘from media to mediations, from datafication to data activism’, as the title suggested. We thought that this beautiful gem of the Caribe, at the geographical margins of a country that has recently started to invent a peaceful future for itself, would be the most appropriate place to pioneer a much-needed conversation about a series of question that has kept both of us busy over the past few years: How would datafication look like seen… ‘upside down’? What questions would we ask? What concepts, theories, methods would we embrace or have to devise? What do we miss if we stick to the mainstream, Western perspective(s)? In this post, we resume the conversation we prompted in Cartagena—looking forward.

Datafication and its discontents: Beyond the West?
Datafication has dramatically altered the way we understand the world around us. Understanding the so-called ‘big data’ means to explore the profound consequences of the computational turn, its consequences on the mainstream epistemology, ontology and ethics, as well as the limitations, errors and biases that affect the gathering, interpretation and access to information on such a large scale. If scholars of various disciplines have started to critically explore the implications of datafication across the social, cultural and political domains, much of this critical scholarship has emerged along a Western axis ideally connecting Silicon Valley, Cambridge, MA and Northern Europe. We believe something is missing in this conversation.

We already know a lot, though. The emerging, composite field of critical data studies, at the intersection of social sciences and the humanities, calls our attention to the potential inequality, discrimination and exclusion harbored by the mechanisms of big data (Gangadharan 2012; Dalton, Taylor, & Thatcher 2016). It reminds us that big data is not merely a technological issue or the flywheel of knowledge, innovation and change, but a ‘mythology’ that we ought to interrogate and critically engage with (e.g., boyd & Crawford 2012; Mosco 2014; Tufekci 2014; van Dijck, 2014). It tells us that, although tinted with the narratives of positivism and modernization and widely praised for their revolutionary possibilities in terms of, e.g., citizen participation, big data are not without risks and threats, as opaque regimes of population management and control have taken central stage (see Andrejevic 2012; Turow 2012; Beer & Burrows 2013; Gillespie 2014; Elmer, Langlois and Redden 2015). The expansion of data mining practices by both corporations and states gives rise to critical questions about systematic surveillance and privacy invasion (Lyon, 2014; Zuboff 2016; Dencik, Hintz and Cable 2016). Critical questions arise also from the ways in which academia and businesses alike relate to big data and datafication: colleagues have questioned the ‘bigness’ of contemporary approaches to data (Kitchin and Laurialt 2014), and encouraged us to pay attention to bottom-up practices (Couldry & Powell 2014) and forms of everyday critical engagement with data (Kennedy and Hill 2017).

But how does datafication unfold in countries with fragile democracies, flimsy economies, impending poverty? Is our conceptual and methodological toolbox able to capture and to understand the dark developments and the amazing creativity emerging at the periphery of the empire? We call for the discontents of datafication to join forces to jointly address these concerns—and generate more critical questions.

From the South(s), moving beyond ‘data universalism’… and the universalism of social theory
We believe that we need to systemically and systematically engage in a dialogue with traditions, epistemologies and experiences that deconstruct the dominance of Western approaches to datafication that fail to recognize the plurality, the diversity, and the cultural richness of the South(s) (see Herrera, Sierra & Del Valle 2016). Like Anita Say Chan (2013), we, too, feel that too many critical approaches are still relying on a kind of ‘digital universalism’ that tends to assimilate the heterogeneity of diverse contexts and to gloss over differences and cultural specificities. We would like to contribute to the ongoing conversations about the urgency of a ‘Southern Theory’ that ‘questions universalism in the field of social theory’. We join Payal Arora in claiming that ‘we need concerted and sustained scholarship on the role and impact of big data on the Global South’ (2016: 1693)—and we go one step further, enlarging the picture to include all the Souths in the plural that inhabit our increasingly complex universe.

As Arora (2016) and Udupa (2015) reminded us, while the majority of the world’s population resides outside the West, we continue to frame key debates on democracy ad surveillance—and the associated demands for alternative models and practices—by means of Western concerns, contexts, user behavior patterns, and theories. While recognizing the key contributions of many of our amazing colleagues (and forgive us if for the sake of brevity we haven’t included you all), we feel that something is missing in the conversation, and that only a collective effort across disciplines, idioms, and research areas can help us to re-consider big data from the South. Our definition of the South is a flexible and expansive one, inspired to the writings of sociologist Boaventura De Sousa Santos (2007 and 2014) who was probably the first to write about the emergence and the urgency of epistemologies from the South against the ‘epistemicide’ of neoliberalism. Firstly, there is the geographical South, i.e. the people, activities, politics and technologies arising literally at the margins of the world as captured in the Mercator map. Secondly, and most importantly, our South is a place of (and a proxy for) resistance, subversion and creativity. We can find countless Souths also in the Global North, as long as people resist injustice and fight for better life conditions against the impending ‘data capitalism’.

Our reflections on ‘big data from the South’ fit within—and hope to feed—the broader process of epistemological re-positioning of the social sciences. We believe we cannot avoid measuring the sociotechnical dynamics of datafication against ‘the historical processes of dispossession, enslavement, appropriation and extraction […] central to the emergence of the modern world’ (Bhambra and de Sousa Santos 2017: 9), pending the risk of making the same mistakes all over again—and the same is to be said for our disciplinary toolbox. As Bhambra and de Sousa Santos acutely observed, ‘if the injustices of the past continue into the present and are in need of repair (and reparation), that reparative work must also be extended to the disciplinary structure that obscure as much as illuminate the path ahead’ (Ibid.).

What would a Southern theory of big data entail, then?

We take the challenge from Say Chan (2013), who reminded us that there are more and other ways than the mainstream to imagine the relation between technology and people. Here we share with you our growing list of the sine-qua-non conditions for thinking datafication from the South. The list is a work in progress, and comes with an explicit invitation to join us in this exercise.

  • Bring agency to the center of the observation of both bottom-up and top-down mechanisms and practices. Taking inspiration from Barbero (1987), we should focus on resistance and the heterogeneity of practices as they relate to datafication—not solely on data and datafication per se.
  • Decolonize our thinking, situating the post-Snowden dynamics of the data capitalism in the specificities of the South. While many elements will be the same, implementations, understandings and consequences might differ. What we already know should not be taken for granted but critically unraveled.
  • Pay attention to the ‘alternative’: alternative practices, alternative imaginaries, alternative epistemologies, alternative methodologies in relation to the adoption, use, and appropriation of big data. Prepare for the unexpected and the unexplored. To be sure: here alternatives are not necessarily subaltern or better, they are simply distinct.
  • Take infrastructure seriously, unpacking the complex flows (of relationships, data, power, money, and counting) they harbor, generate, shape and promote (thanks Anders Fagerjord for the inspiration to think in flows). Situate notions like the platform in the lived experience of distinct geographies.
  • Connect the critical epistemologies of emerging social worlds with the critical politics of social change (thanks Nick Couldry for sharing his thoughts on this matter in Cartagena—everyone watch out for his new book with Ulisses Mejias on ‘Data, Capitalism, and Decolonizing the Internet’).
  • Be mindful and critical of Western-centric concepts and methods. While they do offer a key point of departure, they cannot be taken by default as the (sole) point of arrival when approaching big data from the South.
  • At the same time, be critical of Southern understandings and practices as well, to avoid falling into the assumption that they are inherently different, alternative, or even better and purer forms of knowledge.
  • Be open to the dialogue, in whatever direction it takes us: North-South, South-South, South-North. In the face of much complexity, we can only advance together, entering in a conversation with different epistemologies and approaches.

That said, we would like to encourage our colleagues to embrace more explicitly a political economy perspective, which can help us to take a critical look at the multiple forms of domination that reproduce and perpetuate inequality, discrimination and injustice at all levels. We also advocate for historical approaches able to trace the current unfolding of datafication back to its roots in colonial practices, when applicable (see Arora 2016). We suggest engaging with feminist critiques and ideas around the decolonization of technology. Finally, we like to think of this type of inquiry as inherently ‘engaged’: while adopting the gold standards of solid scientific research, ‘engaged research’ might take sides and, most importantly, is designed to make a difference to the communities we come close to (Milan 2010). Such an approach goes hand in hand with the promotion of critical literacy, whereby even academics look for ways of making information accessible by means of translation into understandable and actionable material, in view of bringing more people to fight for their digital rights.

One example of approaching big data from the South
To make our call more concrete, we offer the example of our own work as one of the many possible ways of turning ‘upside down’ what we know about datafication. Emiliano has been studying the algorithmic manufacturing of consent and the hindering of online dissidence; his work outlines how creative and innovative forms of algorithmic resistance are being forged in Latin America and beyond (Treré 2016). Stefania and her team have been looking at how grassroots data activism (Milan & Gutierrez 2015; Milan 2017), new data epistemologies (Milan and van der Velden 2016) and practices of resistance to massive data collection emerge in the fringe of the ‘surveillance capitalism’ , including for example in the Amazon region (Gutierrez and Milan 2017). But we need to collectively—with you, that is—make a leap forward and rethink also theory, beyond case studies and contingent examples. We are not alone in this effort as many giants can lend us their shoulders. To name but one who inspired our event in Cartagena: almost thirty years ago, the Spanish-Colombian comunicologist Jesús Martín-Barbero urged us to move ‘from media to mediations’, that is, from functionalist media-centered analyses to the exploration of everyday practices of media appropriation through which social actors enact resistance to domination and hegemony (1987). The powerful move he triggered was inherently political: it meant refocusing our gaze from media institutions towards the people and their heterogeneous cultures, looking at how communication was shaped in bars, gyms, markets, squares, families, and the like. Following Barbero, our work has been oriented to making the move from datafication to data activism, examining the diverse ways through which citizens and the organized civil society in the South(s) engage in bottom-up data practices for social change and resist a datafication process that increases oppression and inequality.

Much more remains to be done, and many conversations to be had. Together with Anita Say Chan, we are launching ‘Big Data from the South’, a network of scholars and practitioners interested in bringing this multidisciplinary and multi-language dialogue forward. Join us!

Join the mailing list
Read the call for ‘Big Data from the South’ (Cartagena, 15 July 2017)
Check out the dedicated blog. Stay tuned: we have even commissioned a logo! We plan to start soon publishing guest posts on the topic, in any language people might want to write them. We are looking for your your ideas and provocations: to contribute please shoot an email to TrereE@cardiff.ac.uk and s.milan@uva.nl.

About the authors (and situating white privilege)
Interdisciplinary scholars constantly moving between the study of society and its tech imaginations and tactics, movement, change and contrast have been at the core of our scholarship and of our identity. Southern Europeans migrated North on account of the ethernal malaise of the Italian research system, we like to see ourselves as engaged scholars and to muddle the waters between disciplines and methods. Stefania is Associate Professor of New Media and Digital Cultures at the University of Amsterdam affiliated also with the University of Oslo, and the Principal Investigator of the DATACTIVE project. Emiliano is Lecturer in the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University where he is also a member of the Data Justice Lab, and a Research Fellow at the COSMOS Center for Social Movement Studies (Italy). Previously, he was an Associate Professor at the Autonomous University of Querétaro, Mexico. Both of us have conducted research and worked in various capacities in a number of Southern contexts. While we write from a privileged observation point, various Souths have crossed our professional and personal lives, instilling curiosity, imposing challenges and occasional suffering, and forcing us to ask ourselves critical questions. We don’t have many answers. Rather, we want this blog post to be the start of a conversation and of an open, collaborative network where different Souths can dialogue, learn and enrich each other.

*The event was made possible by the funding of DATACTIVE/European Research Council and by the generous engagement of Guillén Torres (DATACTIVE) and Fundación Karisma (Bogotá). We also wish to thank for the hospitality the local organizing committee of IAMCR (and Amparo Cadavid from UNIMINUTO in particular).