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[BigDataSur] Widening the field of Critical Data Studies: reflections on four years of DATA POWER

Guest Author: Güneş Tavmen

In June 2015, on a Sunday afternoon, I was walking around the centre of Sheffield to buy an outfit to wear while presenting at my first major academic conference. Having forgotten the dress I had prepared at home, I was desperately trying to fix something that would make me look fairly presentable. The conference was the first-ever ‘Data Power’, one of the first academic conferences providing with a space focused on the critical interventions on ‘data’s ever more ubiquitous power’. While it was unclear as to whether this was a one-off conference, together with its successful reception, it has become a biannual conference later on. Besides the usual nerves that every PhD researcher experiences at their first international conference, I was also quite intimidated by the idea that my co-panellist was Rob Kitchin, one of the foremost academics in the smart city research. Having recently finished my first year into PhD studies, I found it daunting to talk about my work in progress next to such high-profile names. Fast forward to September 2019, this time I was strolling the streets of Bremen as I travelled there to attend the third Data Power conference – this time as a fresh doctor who does not get as nervous about what to wear while presenting anymore. Having marked the beginning and the end of my PhD (unfortunately, I couldn’t attend the second Data Power conference in 2017 since I had no travel funding to afford a trip to Canada), I want to briefly reflect on the shifts I have observed between the first conference and the last, since these transformations might also relate to the larger terrain of an emerging field that has become known as “Critical Data Studies”.

The first Data Power conference was an academic celebrity gathering with an exceptionally large number of established scholars across the field giving papers. The range of presentations was wide in disciplinary approach but was narrow in geographical diversity and representation. Many papers were adopting a philosophical point of view presenting ontological discussions on the datafication of, well, everything. ‘Big Data’ seemed to be the hot topic with many papers addressing it, and, was discussed in relation to a wide range of areas from art to finance. There was a high level of expectations and competition in the air as this field was still in the process of establishing itself as a distinct area of enquiry. Probably because of that, I remember being struck by the inflation of neologies offered in the papers across the panels. This was to the level that, it felt like everyone was working hard to mark their territories through these neologies in this newly established field.

To the contrary of the wide range of the topics discussed, there was a significant lack of diversity with a little attendance from the so-called ‘Global South’ – in other words, it was a highly ‘white’ conference both in terms of speakers and subjects discussed. Except for two presenters, all the papers and keynotes were from organisations in Europe, Australia and North America. I too was at the time representing an institution in London (Birkbeck, University of London) and my paper focused on the London case. However, I remember feeling like the odd one out as a participant originally from Turkey. At the end of the conference, I tweeted about this observation, and to my surprise, it was not very well received. Several attendants, who were all white and employed in European institutions, told me that it was not true that the field of critical data studies was not diverse enough. Well, at least, the alleged diversity was not observable at this particular conference.

Fast-forwarding to 2019, the third Data Power conference portrayed a significant acknowledgement of the need to ‘decolonise’ the field. From the selection of keynotes to the range of topics, there was a substantial effort to widen the field in terms of geographical and socio-cultural inclusion. However, this time, the diversity of the range of topics was relatively limited. Activism, algorithmic justice and ethics seemed to have been raised most frequently in the panels -together with high attention to algorithmic practices of public bodies- while many other topics seemed to have disappeared such as politics of quantified self, political economy of data practices, citizen-science and data-driven urbanism to name a few. Besides, the popularity of the label “Big Data” has gone down, replaced by lots of attention to artificial intelligence and machine learning.

The field of Critical Data Studies has undoubtedly gained huge traction within the space of four years. While Data Power is the only comprehensive and periodic conference to be solely dedicated to Critical Data Studies (at least to my knowledge), there are now many ad-hoc specialised events being organised that deal with a focus on an aspect of data studies (e.g. feminist approaches, fake news and disinformation, data visualisation etc). Arguably, one might say that this might be the reason for the narrowing down of the range of topics, but I think it is not enough to explain the situation at the third Data Power conference. The heavy presence of papers auditing a wealth of public data practices, and the lesser discussion on what makes data practices so prominent in the first place, made me feel like we have given up on asking ontological questions. An overwhelming focus on how to make these systems more ethical and just with a lack of contestation of the domination of these systems through raising philosophical questions may indeed result in auxiliary proposals that help sustain these systems. To be clear, by no means I deny the importance of discussions on ethics and justice, but I believe that there is a strong need also for more genealogical excavations into how and why these systems are in place, as well as questions regarding ‘at what expense’ they perpetuate (e.g. environmental effects, precarious labour practices, political economy perspective and so on) at this conference. Locating data practices within a broader context would thus also inform discussions on ethics and justice.

Let me finish by underlining that these are my humble observations, and of course, they are partial since I did not have the chance to listen to all the presentations. Whatever is expecting us in the next Data Power conference in 2021, I hope that there will be a diverse group of attendees and a solid critical approach, which might help tackle the atrocities our world is facing today. I also hope that it will be in a country where I will not need to go through the horrific process of visa application—which is another, often overlooked dimension to consider when we discuss ‘data power’.

About Güneş Tavmen

Güneş Tavmen is ESRC postdoctoral fellow at the Department of Digital Humanities, King’s College London. She earned her PhD from Birkbeck, University of London; her research focuses on the (open) data-driven initiatives, practices and discourses in the context of smart city making in London.

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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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New additions to the team

Starting in November, we would like to welcome three additions to the DATACTIVE team. We will have Sander van Haperen, Zhen Ye and Tomás Dodds Rohas (left-to-right) each joining us for a couple of months to strengthen the team making the most out of our final year of research.

Please find the individual profiles below (and on our team page).

Sander van Haperen is postdoc fellow at DATACTIVE. He studies the development of social movements, with a particular interest in leadership, governance, and digital networks. His research advances computational methods, drawing on social media, complexity, and network analysis, as well as qualitative inquiry.

Zhen Ye is a student assistant at DATACTIVE. She is currently enrolled in Media Studies as a Research Master student at the University of Amsterdam. Her research interests focuses on (gendered) digital labour on social media platforms.

Tomás Dodds Rojas is a PhD researcher at the Institute of Cultural Anthropology and Development Sociology at Leiden University. His research is concerned with how newsmakers are appropriating digital technologies and how these innovations are transforming the infrastructure, temporality and form of the newsmaking process.

Camp 3

[BigDataSur] On the Coloniality of Data Relations: Revisiting Data Colonialism as Research Paradigm (2/2)

Author Monika Halkort

In this twofold blogpost (2/2), guest author Monika Halkort complicates the notion of ‘data colonialism’ as employed in The Cost of Connection by Nick Couldry & Ulises Mejias (2019a), drawing on a case study of early datafication practices in historical Palestine. This blogpost is the last out of two: the first contextualizes ‘the colonial’ in data colonialism, the second draws on the casestudy to argue for the need to reimagine data agency in times of data colonialism. Read the first post here.

In the previous blogpost I argued for historically situated study of data colonialism to highlight the intersectionality of its effects. In my work on data relations in the historical experience of Palestinians I draw on modern property, census practices and map making rationalities to achieve that. These examples demonstrate the profound ontological violence involved in projecting the bi-polar structure of European Cartesian thinking upon non-European people and places.

The Ottoman government had never conducted a comprehensive land survey up until the arrival of colonial explorers in the mid 19th century. The census, the cadaster and maps in this sense can be understood as the first wave of datafication in the history of Palestinians. Taken together they provided the key political technologies for dispossessing commonly held grazing grounds and agricultural resources, paving the way for the subsequent transfer of land to Zionist settlers long before the foundation of the state of Israel (Halkort, 2016; 2019). The combined impact of calculating, measuring and reclassifying social and spatial identities and relations systematically disaggregated shared ownership and use rights into exclusivist title deeds and data units, which facilitated the radical reterritorialization of spaces and bodies on the basis of abstract universals – race, class, colonial citizenship and religion – and rendered the lived and embodied topology of social contracts and obligations unintelligible and hence obsolete. As McRae (1993, p. 345) writes, the new techniques of surveying land reconstructed rights as something that could be clearly and objectively measured and determined, in a manner which precluded competing, loosely held customary claims.

The double movement of reterritorialization and enclosure conscripted the population into an ongoing process of self-measuring activity in which the political recognition of aspiring national subjects became ever more dependent on their social separability as property owners, on terms and conditions that were themselves racially marked. It’s in this sense, I conclude, that the accumulative impact of property, census and the map, enabled colonial data infrastructures to function as powerful ontological machines that fundamentally transformed the conditions for articulating and affirming the historical existence and claims of the Palestinian people – not through the use of force, but rather through the “self organizing” principles of the free market competition that brought race, class, religion, property and gender to fold into each other such that they provided a self-generating axes along which shared life unfolds.

Against his backdrop, it becomes possible to see that the violence of dispossession of both modern-colonial and contemporary data regimes, is not reducible to the unfettered capitalization of life without limit, nor to the totalizing structure of social control and ubiquitous surveillance data extraction enrolls. It rather lies in the attempt to enclose the very ‘substance’ of life as central object of political strategy and commodification (Foucault), while successfully concealing how this “substance” is configured alongside binary distinctions – i.e. space and society, data and subjects, nature and politics as the central organizing principle of social and political subjectivities in liberal-capitalist democracies. In other words, what is dispossessed in data relations, are not pre-existing social entities and relations, but rather the very capacity of enacting and sustaining world-building relations that constitute collective life. The violence of data extraction, in this sense, never works on self-enclosed, autonomous bodies or acquired resources but rather through the flexible (re)assemblage of human and non-human entities into transversal arrangements that variously disposition people and things in relation to things of value that help stabilize Cartesian dualisms by foreclosing other ways of being and becoming in the world.

This capacity to affect life not only as it is already given, but its very becoming calls for an uncompromising revision of the techno-political heuristic that currently defines data policy and practice. Such a revision needs to start with a radical re-conception of data agency as the lived and embodied potentiality of materializing relations that implicate data into dynamics of struggle across platforms, operational divisions and scalar domains. Such an idea of data agency is not necessarily empowering, much less confined to human ambitions and concerns. What is gained, however, by rethinking data agency as such a transversal, multi-species arrangement, is that it successfully disrupts the seamless naturalization of data into an ownerless, self-enclosed, and ontologically distinct resource or mere by-product of social activity and relations to make room for acknowledging data as inextricably bound up with the lived and embodied infrastructure of collective life making, and, hence, as inseparable from the ethico-political substance it configures and performs.

 

About Monika Halkort

Monika Halkort is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Social Communication at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Her work traverses the fields of feminist STS, political ecology and post-humanist thinking to unpack the intersectional dynamics of racialization, de-humanisation and enclosure in contemporary data regimes. Her most recent project looks at the new patterns of bio-legitimacy that emerge from the ever denser convergence of social, biological and machine intelligence in environmental sensing and Earth Observation. Taking the Mediterranean sea as her prime example she unpacks how conflicting models of risk and premature death in data recalibrate ‘zones of being’ and ‘non-being’ (Fanon), opening up new platforms of oppression, alienation and ontological displacement that have been characteristic of modern coloniality.

References

Braidotti, Rosi. (2016). Posthuman Critical Theory. In D. Banerji, M. R. Paranjape (eds.), Critical Posthumanism and Planetary Futures (pp. 13–32). e-book: Springer India. doi: 10.1007/978-81-322-3637-5
Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. (2019a). The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. (2019b). Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject. Television and New Media, 1 -14.
Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. (2019c). The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from Colonised by Data: https://colonizedbydata.com/
Halkort, M. (forthcoming) ‘Dying in the Technosphere. An intersectional analysis of Migration Crisis Maps’, in Specht, D. Mapping Crisis, London Consortium for Human Rights, University of London, London, UK
Halkort, M. (2019). Decolonizing Data Relations: On the moral economy of Data Sharing in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. Canadian Journal of Communication , 317-329.
Halkort, M. (2016) ‘Liquefying Social Capital. The Bio-politics of Digital Circulation in a Palestinian Refugee Camp’, in Tecnoscienza, Nr. 13, 7(2)
Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On the coloniality of being: contributions to the development of a concept. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), 240-270.
Mbebe, A. (2017). Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
McRae, Andrew. (1993). To know one’s own: Estate surveying and the representation of the land in early modern England. The Huntington Library Quarterly, 56(4), 333–57. doi: 10.2307/3817581
Mignolo, W. (2009). Coloniality: The darker side of modernity. In S. Breitwieser (Hrsg.), Modernologies. Contemporary artists researching modernity and modernism (S. 39 – 49). Barcelona: MACBA.
Quijano, A. (2007). Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), 168-178.

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Stefania in Tel Aviv for the workshop “Algorithmic Knowledge in Culture and in the Media” (October 23-25)

On October 23-25, Stefania will be in Tel Aviv to take part in the international workshop “Algorithmic Knowledge in Culture and in the Media” at the Open University of Israel. The invitation-only workshop is organized by Eran Fisher, Anat Ben-David and Norma Musih. Stefania will present a paper on the ALEX project, DATACTIVE’s spin-off, as an experiment into algorithmic knowledge.

Unpacking the Effects of Personalization Algorithms: Experimental Methodologies and Their Ethical Challenges

Stefania Milan, University of Amsterdam

With social media platforms playing an ever-prominent role in today’s public sphere, concerns have been raised by multiple parties regarding the role of personalization algorithms in shaping people’s perception of the world around them. Personalization algorithms are accused of promoting the so-called ‘filter bubble’ (Pariser 2011) and suspected of intensifying political polarization. What’s more, said algorithms are shielded behind trade secrets, which contributes to their technical undecipherability (Pasquale 2015). Against this backdrop, the ALgorithms EXposed (ALEX) project, has set off trying to unpack the effects of personalization algorithms, experimenting with methodologies, software developments, and collaborations with hackers, nongovernmental organizations, and small enterprises. In this presentation, I will reflect on four aspects of the ALEX project as an experiment into algorithmic knowledge, and namely: i) software development, illustrating the working of the browser extensions facebook.tracking.exposed and youtube.tracking.exposed; ii) experimental collaborations within and beyond academia; iii) methodological challenges, including the use of bots; and iv) ethical challenges, in particular the development of data reuse protocols allowing users to volunteer their data for scientific research while individual safeguarding data sovereignty.

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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

Historical Map

[BigDataSur] On the Coloniality of Data Relations: Revisiting Data Colonialism as Research Paradigm (1/2)

Author Monika Halkort

In this twofold blogpost (1/2), guest author Monika Halkort complicates the notion of ‘data colonialism’ as employed in The Cost of Connection by Nick Couldry & Ulises Mejias (2019a), drawing on a case study of early datafication practices in historical Palestine. This blogpost is one out of two: the first contextualizes ‘the colonial’ in data colonialism, the second draws on the casestudy to argue for the need to reimagine data agency in times of data colonialism.

One of the underlying themes running through the workshop Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda was the question how to characterize our relations with data, focusing specifically on the geo- and bio-politically context of the Souths. Our working group took up the critical task of reviewing the concept of ‘data colonialism’ to discuss whether it provides a productive framework for understanding forms of dispossession, enclosure and violence inhered in contemporary data regimes. Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias (2019a), both participants in the workshop, make precisely this point in their new book “The Cost of Connection” where they argue that the unfettered capture of data from social activities and relations confronts us with a new social order – a new universal regime of appropriation – akin to the extractive logic of historical colonization. (Find Ulises Mejias’ recent blogpost on decolonizing data here.)

Data colonialism, in their view, combines the predatory extractive practices of the past with the abstract quantification methods of contemporary computing. This would ensure a seemingly natural conversion of daily life converges into streams of data that can be appropriated for value, based on the premise of generating new insights from data that would otherwise be considered to be noise. Thus, while data colonialism may not forcefully annex or dispossess land, people or territories in the way historical colonialism did, it nonetheless relies on the same self-legitimizing, utilitarian logic that objectified nature and the environment as raw materials, that are ‘just out there’, only waiting to be extracted, monetized or mined (2019b, p. 4). It’s this shift from the appropriation of natural to social resources that, for Couldry and Mejias, characterizes the colonial moment of contemporary data capitalism (2019b, p. 10). It ushers in a new regime of dispossession and enclosure that leaves no part of human life, no layer of experience, that is not extractable for economic value (2019b, p. 3; 2019c). This produces the social for capital under the pretext of advancing scientific knowledge, rationalizing management or personalizing marketing and services (2019c).

Couldry and Mejias emphasis on the expansion of dispossession from natural to social resources begs for a closer examination, for it implies an inherent split between the social and the natural as ontologically distinct categories of social existence, that may end up reifying the very structures of coloniality they seek to confront. Or, to put it differently, there is a need to better situate data within ontologies of the social if we are to fully understand who or what is dispossessed in data and in the name of whom or what. Such a self-reflexive task only becomes meaningful if conducted in historically and geographically specific contexts, to avoid losing sight of the differential effects that distinguish the beneficiaries of historical forms of colonialism from those who continue to struggle against its impact and consequence. Such a situated analysis also helps to emphasize the intersectionality of violence of dispossession and displacement in data relations and to draw a clear distinction between settler colonialism and other modes of colonisation, both of which are the main focus of my own research (2019 forthcoming, 2019, 2016).

Colonialism, after all, is not a fixed, universal structure, much less a coherent vector of power or rule. Colonialism operates through multiple forms of domination – military, economic, religious, cultural and onto-epistemic – each with its own legitimation narratives and tactics, rhetorical maneuvers and trajectories. What unites them into a shared set of characteristics, in my view, are the ways they contributed to the projection of modern, European knowledge onto the rest of the planet, such that other ways of knowing and being in the world were delegitimated and disavowed.

Modern European knowledge, as decolonial theory remind us, was firmly grounded in Cartesian dualisms that divided the world into two separate independent realms – body and mind, thinking and non-thinking substance – from which a whole range of other binaries i.e.: nature and society, subjects and objects of knowledge, human and non-human could be inferred (Braidotti, 2016; Maldonado-Torres, 2007; Mbebe, 2017; Quijano, 2007). Taken together they provided the normative horizon for managing social and spatial relations throughout the modern colonial period and that laid out the central parameters around which ethico-political subjectivities could be forged.

In part two: early Palestinian datafication practices demonstrate the violence of Cartesian thinking as a case of reimagining data agency. Read it here.

 

About Monika Halkort

Monika Halkort is Assistant Professor of Digital Media and Social Communication at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. Her work traverses the fields of feminist STS, political ecology and post-humanist thinking to unpack the intersectional dynamics of racialization, de-humanisation and enclosure in contemporary data regimes. Her most recent project looks at the new patterns of bio-legitimacy that emerge from the ever denser convergence of social, biological and machine intelligence in environmental sensing and Earth Observation. Taking the Mediterranean sea as her prime example she unpacks how conflicting models of risk and premature death in data recalibrate ‘zones of being’ and ‘non-being’ (Fanon), opening up new platforms of oppression, alienation and ontological displacement that have been characteristic of modern coloniality.

 

References

Braidotti, Rosi. (2016). Posthuman Critical Theory. In D. Banerji, M. R. Paranjape (eds.), Critical Posthumanism and Planetary Futures (pp. 13–32). e-book: Springer India. doi: 10.1007/978-81-322-3637-5
Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. (2019a). The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Palo Alto: Stanford University Press.
Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. (2019b). Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject. Television and New Media, 1 -14.
Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. (2019c). The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism. Retrieved March 25, 2019, from Colonised by Data: https://colonizedbydata.com/
Halkort, M. (forthcoming) ‘Dying in the Technosphere. An intersectional analysis of Migration Crisis Maps’, in Specht, D. Mapping Crisis, London Consortium for Human Rights, University of London, London, UK
Halkort, M. (2019). Decolonizing Data Relations: On the moral economy of Data Sharing in a Palestinian Refugee Camp. Canadian Journal of Communication , 317-329.
Halkort, M. (2016) ‘Liquefying Social Capital. The Bio-politics of Digital Circulation in a Palestinian Refugee Camp’, in Tecnoscienza, Nr. 13, 7(2)
Maldonado-Torres, N. (2007). On the coloniality of being: contributions to the development of a concept. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), 240-270.
Mbebe, A. (2017). Critique of Black Reason. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
McRae, Andrew. (1993). To know one’s own: Estate surveying and the representation of the land in early modern England. The Huntington Library Quarterly, 56(4), 333–57. doi: 10.2307/3817581
Mignolo, W. (2009). Coloniality: The darker side of modernity. In S. Breitwieser (Hrsg.), Modernologies. Contemporary artists researching modernity and modernism (S. 39 – 49). Barcelona: MACBA.
Quijano, A. (2007). Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality. Cultural Studies, 21(2-3), 168-178.

Schermafdruk van 2019-10-09 14.13.20

Stefania & Niels at workshop governance of free expression @St. Petersburg University

Niels ten Oever and Stefania Milan will be at the A workshop on Governance of Free Expression Online organised by the Centre for German and European Studies at the St. Petersburg State University – Bielefeld University. The workshop will be held at the CGES on October 11-12, 2019.

The workshop invites MA and PhD students as well as established scholars to present their research on topics related to conditions and forms of online communications, including but not limited to internet governance and regulation, online censorship, algorithms, and platforms. Aiming to address this gap, workshop speakers and participants will reflect on the following questions (but not limited to them):

  1. what theories and methods can be employed to study mechanisms that govern online
    expression?
  2. which theoretical and methodological difficulties have to be addressed by researchers?
  3. how institutions represent and construct free expression and censorship online?
  4. what socio-technical configurations enable or stifle free expression on the internet?

Full description of the workshop here,

More information on this event here

 

 

Schermafdruk van 2019-10-09 14.04.03

Stefania @Spui25 The work behind data. A seminar on systems and perspectives

 

Stefania Milan will be one of the speakers at The work behind data. A seminar on systems and perspectives. 
The event takes place October 10th, 13.00-15.00 @Spui25 (1012WX Amterdam)
Tickets are still available, but need reservation

About this event

Data has become central to many aspects of our society. However, the social and technical work that lies behind data is often overlooked. This seminar will explore the challenges and state of the art in working with data from both these vantage points.

This event consists of talks from research leaders in computer science, social science and scholarly communication. With Luc Moreau we will see new research on data provenance and explanation that react to the social calls for greater transparency in algorithmic decision making based on data. Philippe Cudré-Maroux will argue that since data frequently captures interrelated entitles (e.g. social networks and knowledge graphs), we need new machine learning techniques (e.g. representation learning) that can work effectively with graph data. Stefania Milian will present her research on data epistemologies and the politics of data work. Finally, we will explore the challenges faced in working with data in scholarly practice. This multifaceted and interdisciplinary seminar provides a unique view on data work. Moderator: Paul Groth

For more information, see the Spui25 website.