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Everyday Data: a Workshop Report

By Becky Kazansky and Guillen Torres

Intro

On September 15th 2019, DATACTIVE held a one-day workshop following on the heels of the Data Power conference in Bremen, Germany. We were kindly hosted by the Centre for Media, Communication and Information Research (ZeMKIi) of the University of Bremen. Over this day, we sought to create a space to explore and unpack the concept of the ‘everyday’ as it figures into studies of data practices and resistance to datafication. The workshop brought together a small group of interdisciplinary scholars working on issues related to the making and unmaking of datafication, to paraphrase Neal and Murji (2015). Participants came from sociology, anthropology, computer science, media studies, and informatics. Their topics of research include community activism, platform labor, feminist data practices, and the data-resistant practices of states, studying datafication through the respective participation of citizens, governments, corporations, and academia. In this blog post we explain our inspiration for this workshop, and highlight some of the discussions that resulted. We conclude with an invitation for further ideas and contributions. 

 

From data activism to everyday data

Since coming together in 2015, the DATACTIVE research group has been engaged in the empirical study of the ‘politics of data according to civil society’. During the past four years, we have interviewed over 200 civil society actors from all over the world, who ‘reactively’ or ‘proactively’ (see: Milan and Van der Velden, 2016) engage with datafication through a myriad of different projects (Check our output and blogs for some examples!).  Our approach to these data practices was initially guided by the category of data activism, which helped us foreground new types of political activity made possible by the availability of data. We have since observed that the data activist lens holds the potential to draw sharp boundaries between political and non-political engagements with data. Yet, as datafication has continued to become more pervasive, with responses (including tactics of resistance from different parts of society) to it ever more varied, it has become harder to pinpoint what practices qualify as activism per se —  and which ones do not. 

 

In our research we have encountered many ‘data practices’ that sit within an interzone that blurs hard distinctions between the ‘activist’ and the ‘everyday’. Furthermore, the big and small data-related controversies of the past years have made evident that what is regarded as ‘normal’ or ‘ordinary’ shifts with the diffusion of new technologies, forms of knowledge production, and sociopolitical instabilities (Amoore, 2013). Furthermore, we’ve noted that what is considered ‘everyday’ or ‘extraordinary’ fundamentally pivots around the perspective privileged in making this distinction. We have thus grown interested in exploring how the ordinary and everyday should be accounted for in the study of data practices and in our understanding of resistance to the harms of datafication. 

 

Much research on the relation between datafication and people’s agency has focused on highly- skilled proactive data activists (Gutierrez and Milan 2019), or on how human agency is overridden by algorithmic decision-making. Taking a slightly different road, we seek to explore how power asymmetries are constantly reproduced or challenged through people’s engagement with data in everyday life. In our view, investigating how datafication is “made and unmade” in everyday life implies foregrounding practices which may not be immediately recognized as data activism, but still consist of a response that can be understood as political, even if not necessarily classified as such. 

As part of our ongoing interest in locating spaces for human agency within datafication, we DATACTIVE project members have engaged in a number of lively internal discussions about how data activism fits with broader conceptualizations of ‘data practices’ (Fotoupoulo, 2019), emerging notions of ‘data politics’ (Ruppert et al., 2017), and the imperative to study the ‘everyday’ of dataficatication (Kennedy, 2018). With the goal of questioning the notion of the “ordinary” amidst continuous optimization (Gürses, et al, 2018), creeping surveillance (Monahan, 2010) and perpetually looming states of exception (McQuillan, 2015), we decided to organize a workshop to explore the role of the everyday as a locus of agency, resistance and political intervention. 

 

The workshop

We kept the format of the day a bit experimental: rather than requiring participants to produce an original piece for the workshop, we asked them to take their existing work around datafication and reflect upon it through the lens of several exploratory questions:

  • How do every-day acts come to be understood as spaces of political intervention?
  • What are the every-day and banal aspects of “acting on” and “through” data? 
  • How does agency evolve in relation to everyday engagement with data? 
  • Who determines what is considered the “everyday”?
  • What perspectives are privileged to build the ordinary/extraordinary distinction?
  • How does the ordinary change with the diffusion of new technologies and politics?
  • What happens between the extraordinary moments of political mobilisation that we hear about in the media?

Probing these unwieldy questions in our small pocket of space-time surfaced a number of shared concerns, which we briefly highlight below. 

 

Big P politics and the everyday

Subjacent to our interest in the everyday is the distinction between The Political (read in an egregious Carl Schmitt voice) and politics. During the workshop, this found expression in a collective concern about what we, as researchers, may leave out of sight if we only focus on what seems overtly political. One of the initial intuitions guiding the theme of the  workshop was that the distinction between activist and non-activist engagements with data hides a very Political decision that needs to be questioned, and during the discussion this proved to be a key topic. When focusing on everyday experiences of datafication, we, as researchers, are responsible for locating, highlighting and questioning the political consequences of our making (extra)ordinary of data practices. This requires a sensibility towards the context and discourses of the people enacting the practices we study, which means that their status as Political/activist depends more on their own lived experiences and less on our analytical categories. The relevance of people’s everyday lived experiences also means that we need to remain attentive to how race, gender, class and politics influence what practitioners, observers and powerful actors understand as Political or ordinary.

 

Marginalized, minoritized, colonized and exploited, but (re)gaining agency.

Slowly but surely, narratives about datafication in which human agency is missing are being challenged. All workshop presentations reflected around the ever-growing number of ways through which people can and already do gain agency through or in relation to data, overcoming governments or companies who, thanks to their privileged access to technology, have turned datafication into a tool particularly suitable for control, oppression, surveillance and exploitation. The examples of responses to this fatalist narrative of datafication are as diverse as the communities who put them forward. Inspired by Dr Seeta Peña Gangadharan’s keynote days earlier at the Data Power conference, we discussed calls to practice (and recognize) small acts of refusal in situations of data harm — as well as the long history of organizing that informs recent calls to abolish unjust data-driven systems. We looked at feminist data practices putting forward alternative versions of datafication to question privileges and oppression. We discussed contemporary modes of worker resistance to the unethical conditions of surveillance capitalism, as well as the forms of ‘resistance’ that can arise from people participating within oppressive structures themselves. The general feeling of the workshop was that the pervasiveness of datafication is making evident a plethora of other spaces and strategies for claiming agency beyond exceptional moments of collective mobilisation and existing categories of explicitly political action.

 

In all these examples, we notice the presence of actors who might not fit the label of data activists very visibly challenging the unjust consequences of datafication in their everyday lives. This is, however, hardly a new phenomenon. Minoritized, marginalized, colonized and exploited communities have always experienced everyday life as a space of political struggle. Workshop participants reflected on the experiences of people of color, rural dwellers attempting to benefit from the perks of digital citizenship, Latin American feminist activists, and data intermediaries working with marginalized city dwellers, amongst others.  From these reflections originated questions concerning research ethics and positionality: What role does the ‘agency’ of these communities play in making and unmaking datafication? Where does individual agency fit in relation to governance and accountability for data harms? Is it right to analyze the refusal of actors thought of as more ‘powerful’ through the same lens of resistance as marginalized or harmed communities? 

 

Acting on the everyday

Another one of our core interests in organizing the Everyday Data workshop was to reflect around the everyday as a space to foster resistance to the harmful consequences of datafication, and whether we, as academics, should open it up for examination or leave it alone to prevent its cooptation. During the discussion, this concern acquired two forms. The first was related to how to approach the everyday from our positionality as academics, which implies questioning how notions of ‘everyday’ are shaped not just by datafication but by the way ‘ life’ is ordered and categorized — for example, imagining what the everyday would mean without the implicit structuring of capitalist consumption or labor. The second concern was connected to the role that research on these issues may play in relation to advocacy. What do we want to see ‘happen’ with our research findings? How to best support groups seeking just conditions under datafication? These questions are particularly hard when we decide to join the work of the communities we are interested in on their own terms and honoring the specificities of their values and their epistemic contributions, rather than imposing academic frameworks around ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’.

 

Contribute to the discussion

Following the rich discussion of our workshop, we are looking into ways to grow our brainstorm further. To that end, we invite those interested in reflecting upon the everyday dimension of datafication to write for our blog or propose another contribution. Please get in touch directly with Guillen & Becky. 

 

References and further reading

Amoore, L. (2013). The politics of possibility: Risk and security beyond probability. Durham: Duke University Press.

Datafication and Community Activism Workshop Participants (2019), What We Mean When We Say #AbolishBigData2019. In: Medium. Available at: https://medium.com/@rncrooks/what-we-mean-when-we-say-abolishbigdata2019-d030799ab22e.

D’Ignazio, Catherine. K., Lauren, F. (2020). Data Feminism. S.I.: MIT Press.

Fotopoulou, A. (2019). Understanding citizen data practices from a feminist perspective. Embodiment and the ethics of care. In H. Stephansen & E. Trere (Eds.), Citizen Media and Practice. Oxford: Routledge.

Gutiérrez, M., & Milan, S. (2019). Playing with data and its consequences. First Monday, 24(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v24i1.9554

Gurses, Seda, Rebekah Overdorf, and Ero Balsa. (2018). POTs: The revolution will not be optimized? 11th Hot Topics in Privacy Enhancing Technologies (HotPETs).

Kennedy, H. (n.d.). Living With Data: Aligning Data Studies and Data Activism Through a Focus on Everyday Experiences of Datafication. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, 1, 18–30.

Milan, S., & van der Velden, L. (2018). Reversing Data Politics: An Introduction to the Special Issue. Krisis: Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, 2018(1), 1–3.

Milan, S., & Velden, L. van der. (2016). The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society, 2(2). https://doi.org/10.14361/dcs-2016-0205

Neal, Sarah and Karim Murji. (2015). “Sociologies of everyday life: editors’ introduction to the special issue.” Sociology 49 (5): 811-819.

Ruppert, E., Isin, E., & Bigo, D. (2017). Data politics. Big Data & Society, 4(2), 205395171771774. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951717717749

Photo Credit: Telmo32

 

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Niels at ECREA: Infrastructures and Inequalities: Media industries, digital cultures and politics

The European Communication Research and Education Association (ECREA) organized a workshop about Infrastructures and Inequalities. Here Niels presented his recent work on an experiment to inscribe legal and ethical norms into the Internet routing infrastructure. The conference helped to further concept of infrastructure, that continues to gaining traction in the fields of geography, media studies, anthropology, and science and technology studies.

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Niels at Kyiv Biennial on architecture, protocols, routing, power, and control

The topic of the Kyiv Biennial this year is ‘the Black Cloud’. The title reminiscences the contaminated cloud that traveled over Europe after the Chernobyl disaster and invites us to reflect on the role of technology. At the Kyiv Biennial, the critical media scholar Svitlana Matviyenko organized a two-day symposium with the title ‘communicative militarism‘. Here Niels spoke about the evolution of power and control in the Internet architecture, the political economy that shapes it, and the threats and opportunities that lie ahead. Other speakers at the symposium were Geert Lovink, Clemens Apprich, Svitlana Matviyenko, and Asia BazdyrievaIMG_20191018_201112

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YouTube Algorithm Exposed: DMI Summer School project week 1

DATACTIVE participated in the first week of the Digital Methods Initiative summer school 2019 with a data sprint related to the side project ALEX. DATACTIVE’s insiders Davide and Jeroen, together with research associate and ALEX’s software developer Claudio Agosti, pitched a project aimed at exploring the logic of YouTube’s recommendation algorithm, using the ALEX-related browser extension youtube.tracking.exposed. ytTREX allows you to produce copies of the set of recommended videos, with the main purpose to investigate the logic of personalization and tracking behind the algorithm. During the week, together with a number of highly motivated students and researchers, we engaged in collective reflection, experiments and analysis, fueled by Brexit talks, Gangnam Style beats, and the secret life of octopuses. Our main findings (previewed below, and detailed later in a wiki report) pertain look into which factors (language settings, browsing behavior, previous views, domain of videos, etc.) help trigger the highest level of personalization in the recommended results.

 

Algorithm exposed_ investigasting Youtube – slides

 

 

 

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Stefania at the Summer School on Methods for the Study of Political Participation and Mobilization, Florence

On June 4, Stefania gives a lecture on ethical issues in social movement and political participation research at the Summer School on Methods for the Study of Political Participation and Mobilization, in Florence, Italy.

The school is organised by the ECPR Standing Group on Participation and Mobilization and the Dipartimento di Scienze Politico-Sociali at the Scuola Normale Superiore.

 

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fbTREX reaction to Facebook collaboration

Research associate Claudio Agosti argues the need for independent critical research in a reaction to the news that Facebook is opening its door to scholars for academic research. The statement on the EU19 tracking exposed project website portrays why academic research should not be delimited by corporate conditions for research only;  we should engage in independent critical research to platforms that important for our online public democratic spaces.

Claudio on Twitter: “Last week Facebook announced would share some data with some researchers: don’t be fooled, it is not a gift.”

Read the full statement here

facebook.tracking.exposed allows re-purposing social media data for critical research goals. It is currently employed in a use-case for analyzing the European Elections 2019. Claudio Agosti is DATACTIVE research associate, and fbTREX is hosted by DATACTIVE / ALEX as a form of data activism in-practice.

Technologische soevereiniteit vol2

Constructing Technological Sovereignty

By Lonneke van der Velden, DATACTIVE   

A couple of weeks, ago a part of the DATACTIVE team attended the book launch of the Dutch translation of ‘Technological Sovereignty’ at the Hackerspace TechInc in Amsterdam. The main talk at the book launch was given by one of the authors of the book, Spideralex, a feminist researcher on ICT for the public good. In her talk, Spideralex introduced the notion of technological sovereignty as being inspired by some reflections by Margarita Padilla, a feminist thinker and programmer. Padilla’s claim is that we ‘lost’ technological sovereignty: people are increasingly dependent on (digital) technologies, and even the seemingly active use of these tools is passive, because the people do not control the resources. Control is mainly delegated to big corporations. In response to this, increasingly, perceived loss, Spideralex and others went on a conceptual and practical journey to find, redefine, and reclaim technological sovereignty.

Conceptually, they situated the notion of technological sovereignty in relation to other notions of sovereignty, such as, sovereignty in relation to land or territory, in relation to the body, and in relation to food. Especially the latter form and the existing cooperatives enacting food sovereignty in Catalonia have been inspirational for the authors to rethink the relation between technology, labor, fair production and distribution.

She referred to La Via Campesina, an international peasant’s movement, in which this notion is defined as follows:

‘Food sovereignty is the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems. It puts those who produce, distribute and consume food at the heart of food systems and policies rather than the demands of markets and corporations. It defends the interests and inclusion of the next generation’ (Via Campesina, cited in “For Free Information and Open Internet” 2014, p.166).

Along similar lines, Spideralex explained that technologies should not only be of tactical use; they should become a domain that is produced and controlled by the people, and dedicated to social change.

Practically, a whole range of examples passed by. Such as a local alternative WIFI community network Guifi and feminist servers (run by feminists and dedicated to host websites supporting feminist issues). Sophie Toupin, a researcher from McGill University joining the talk, discussed a historical example of ‘project Vula’, an encrypted communication system used in the liberation struggle during the Apartheid regime (see Toupin 2016). Spideralex also addressed artisan techniques and reevaluated them as methods being learned within, and owned by, small communities.

Finally she spoke about Calafou, an ‘eco-industrial postcapitalist colony’ in Spain just outside of Barcelona. In the ruins of an old industrial workers colony, the Calafou collective built their own post-capitalist society. They live together as a community, and they organise festivals and events. There is a hacklab, they work on free libraries, trans-hack feminism, and they run a biolab in which they measure and target pollution, especially metals in the environment.

The discussion afterwards was very interesting. People discussed to what extent the notions of sovereignty and autonomy differed, and the localization of the term: in some places people might be more inclined to use sovereignty to describe their own practices than in other places. The situatedness of the understanding of the term also matters, of course, to the extent we can use it as an analytical concept. From a perspective on data activism, it is interesting to see how activists coin and develop conceptual notions to deal with the challenges of our time, in tandem with practical work; hence, to see ‘concept production’ in network cultures (Lovink and Rossiter 2012) in the making.

Information about the book

The book is available in multiple languages: https://sobtec.gitbooks.io/sobtec2/. It was translated into Dutch by Kel, Ivom, Winston, Ptrc, Lara, Kwadro, and is downloadable here . This volume 2 is a follow up to a first volume that was produced in 2014 and is available in French, Spanish, Catalan and Italian (also available in the git repo). Half of the articles were also translated to English in For Free Information and Open Internet: Independent journalists, community media and hacktivists take action.

The event was hosted by TechInc. More information about the event here.

 

 

Lonneke van der Velden is postdoctoral researcher with DATACTIVE and a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with internet surveillance and activism. She is part of the editorial board of Krisis, Journal for Contemporary Philosophy, and is on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.   

 

References

“For Free Information and Open Internet: Independent journalists, community media and hacktivists take action” (2014). Ritmo, The Passerelle Collection, no. 11. https://www.coredem.info/IMG/pdf/pass11_an-2.pdf

Lovink, Geert and Ned Rossiter (2011). “In Praise of Concept Production: Formats, Schools and Non-Representational Media Studies. https://nedrossiter.org/?p=242

Spideralex (Ed). Technologische Soevereiniteit, Vol. 2, 2019. https://sobtec.gitbooks.io/sobtec2/nl/

Toupin, Sophie (2016). “Gesturing Towards ‘Anti-Colonial Hacking’ and Its Infrastructure’, The Journal of Peer Production (9).

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HTTP workshop hosted by DATACTIVE

This week, the fourth HTTP Workshop is taking place in Amsterdam, hosted by DATACTIVE in the University of Amsterdam. This event gathers people who work on and use the Web’s protocol to talk about how it’s working, what needs improving and where it might go in the future. As such, it’s an open, frank round table of people who work on Web browsers, servers, proxies, content management systems, and CDNs, along with those who use it to deploy Web sites big and small, as well as use HTTP for things like APIs.

This is different from a standards body, where normative decisions about the design of the Internet and Web are made; rather, it’s an informal discussion that’s designed to gather input from and inform those who don’t have time or money to go to multiple standards meetings.

Although many topics are likely to be discussed, one of the primary things we always focus on is security and privacy. In the past, we’ve explored how to improve adoption of HTTPS after the Snowden revelations. This time, current topics are likely to include even stronger measures against network attackers and observers, such as Encrypted SNI, DNS-over-HTTP (DoH), and anti-traffic analysis measures.

We’re also scheduled to talk about the continued deployment of HTTP/2 and its implications, along with the upcoming HTTP/3, and a large number of blue-sky proposals to evolve the protocol. We’ll also examine how we can grow to be more diverse and inclusive. It’s usually an exciting event and we’re looking forward to the discussion, as well as our time in Amsterdam.

For more information about the HTTP Workshop, see https://httpworkshop.github.io/
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