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Workshop ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’, Amsterdam, December 4-5

How would datafication look like seen… ‘upside down’? What questions would we ask? What concepts, theories and methods would we embrace or have to devise? These questions are at the core of the two-day research seminar ‘Big Data from the South: Towards a Research Agenda’, scheduled to take place at the University of Amsterdam on December 4-5, 2018. The event is the third gathering of the Big Data from the South Initiative, launched in 2017 by Stefania Milan and Emiliano Treré (Cardiff University). It interrogates ‘Big Data from the South’, moving beyond the Western centrism and ‘digital universalism’ (Say Chan, 2013) of much of the critical scholarship on datafication and digitalization. It allows the Initiative to advance with charting its field of inquiry, including in the conversation practitioners from various corners of the globe and scholars from media studies, development studies, law, globalization studies, philosophy, science and technology studies, critical data studies (and counting).

Watch the event here.

The event is made possible by the generous funding of the Amsterdam Center for Globalization Studies, the Amsterdam Center for European Studies, the Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis, and the European Research Council. With the participation of SPUI25 and Terre Lente.

Rationale

The workshop builds on the work of DATACTIVE and the Data Justice Lab in thinking the relation between data, citizenship and participation, but goes beyond engaging with a much needed debate at the intersection of feminist theory, critical theory, and decolonial thinking, which, ‘thinking in radical exteriority’ (Vallega, 2015, p. x), interrogates the coloniality of power. It intends to contribute also to the ongoing epistemological repositioning of the humanities and the social sciences in light of the raising inequality. We depart from the observation that, ‘while the majority of the world’s population resides outside the West, we continue to frame key debates on democracy and surveillance—and the associated demands for alternative models and practices—by means of Western concerns, contexts, user behavior patterns, and theories’  (Milan and Treré, 2017) . If on the one hand, ‘we need concerted and sustained scholarship on the role and impact of big data on the Global South’ (Arora, 2015, p. 1693), on the other ‘new’ theory and ‘new’ understandings are key, as ‘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’ (Bhambra & De Sousa Santos, 2017, p. 9). Thus, this event will be a stepping stone towards rethinking the sociotechnical dynamics of datafication in light of ‘the historical processes of dispossession, enslavement, appropriation and extraction […] central to the emergence of the modern world’ (Ibid.).

But what South are we referring to? First, our definition of ‘South’ is a flexible and expansive one, inspired to the writings of globalization sociologist Boaventura De Sousa Santos (2014) who is at the forefront of the reflection on the emergence and the urgency of epistemologies from the South against the ‘epistemicide’ of neoliberalism. Including but also going beyond the geographical South and emphasising the plurality of the South(s), our South is a place for and a metaphor of resistance, subversion, and creativity . Secondly, our notion emerges in dialectic interaction with the continuous critical interrogating and situating of our privilege as Western academics vs. the imperative to do ‘nothing about them without them’ (see Milan and Treré, 2017).

Participants (in alphabetical order)

Carla Alvial (NUMIES, Chile), Payal Arora (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Sérgio Barbosa (University of Coimbra), Davide Beraldo (UvA), Enrico Calandro (Research ICT Africa), Bernardo Caycedo (UvA), Fabien Cante (University of Birmingham), Alberto Cossu (UvA), Nick Couldry (LSE), Álvaro Crovo (ISUR, Colombia), Monika Halkort (American University of Lebanon), Becky Kazansky (UvA), Anja Kovacs (The Internet Democracy Project), Merlyna Lim (Carleton University), Joan Lopez (Fundacion Karisma), Aaron Martin (Tilburg University), Silvia Masiero (Loughborough University), Ulises Mejias (SUNY Oswego), Stefania Milan (UvA), Hellen Mukiri-Smith (Tilburg University), Nelli Piattoeva (University of Tampere), Anita Say Chan (Illinois, Urbana-Champagne), Gabriela Sued (Tecnologico de Monterrey), Anna Suman (Tilburg University), Linnet Taylor (Tilburg University), Gunes Tavmen (Birbeck College), Niels ten Oever (UvA), Emiliano Treré (Cardiff University), Guillen Torres (UvA), Etienne von Bertrab (UCL), Norbert Wildermuth (Roskilde University), Kersti Wissenbach (UvA)

Schedule 

DAY 1, December 4th
15.00-16.30

@UvA library, Singel 425, room ‘Belle van Zuylen’

Open session: Can Data be Decolonized? Data Relations and the Emerging Social Order of Capitalism, with Nick Couldry (London School of Economics and Political Science) & Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York at Oswego)

This talk (which draws on the author’s forthcoming book from Stanford University Press, The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating it for Capitalism) examines how contemporary practices of data extraction and processing replicate colonial modes of exploitation. Couldry and Mejias present the concept of “data colonialism” as a tool to analyze emerging forms of political control and economic dispossession. To that effect, their analysis engages the disciplines of critical political economy, sociology of media, and postcolonial science and technology studies to trace continuities from colonialism’s historic appropriation of territories and material resources to the datafication of everyday life today. While the modes, intensities, scales and contexts of dispossession have changed, the underlying function remains the same: to acquire resources from which economic value can be extracted. Just as historic colonialism paved the way for industrial capitalism, this phase of colonialism prepares the way for a new economic order. In this context, the authors analyze the ideologies and rationalities through which “data relations” (social relations conducted and organized via data processes) contribute to the capitalization of human life. Their findings hold important implications for how we study the internet, and how we may advocate for the decolonization of data in the future.

Chair: Stefania Milan (DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam)

17.00-19.30 @Terre Lente, Westerstraat 55 Informal research session with light dinner & drinks (for subscribed participants only)
20-21.30 @SPUI25, Spui 25 Public event: Big Data from the South: Decolonization, Resistance and Creativity, Payal Arora (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Nick Couldry (London School of Economics), Merlyna Lim (Carleton University) and Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York, College at Oswego).

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, as well as the limitations, errors and biases that affect the gathering, interpretation and access to information on such a large scale. However, much of this critical scholarship has emerged along a Western axis ideally connecting Silicon Valley, Cambridge, MA and Northern Europe. What does it mean to think datafication from a Southern perspective? This roundtable interrogates the mythology and universalism of datafication and big data, moving beyond the Western centrism and ‘digital universalism’ (Say Chan, 2013) of the critical scholarship on datafication and digitalization. It asks how would datafication look like seen… ‘upside down’? What problems should we address? What questions would we ask? We will explore these questions in conversation with four engaged academics: Payal Arora (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Nick Couldry (London School of Economics), Merlyna Lim (Carleton University), and Ulises A. Mejias (State University of New York, Oswego).

Chair: Stefania Milan (DATACTIVE, University of Amsterdam)
Moderator: Emiliano Treré (Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University)

Drinks will follow!

DAY 2, December 5th @e-lab, UvA Media Studies, Turfdraagsterpad 9 (for subscribed participants only)
10.00-10.15 Welcome by Stefania Milan (coffee & tea in the room!)
10.15-11.00 Setting the scene by Stefania and Emiliano Treré
11.00-11.45 Workgroup slot 1
11.45-12.30 Workgroup slot 2
12.30-13.40 Short presentation by Tecnológico de Monterrey(Mexico)
12.40-13.30 Lunch served in the room (by Terre Lente)
13.30-14.15 Workgroup slot 3
14.15-15.00 Workgroup slot 4
15.00-15.45 Workgroup slot 5
15.45-16.00 Stretching break
16.00-17.00 Plenary session: Reporting back and next steps

Follow the conversation online with the hashtag #BigDataSur

Check out the blog and subscribe to the mailing list!

 

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Davide at the Amsterdam Research Initiative seminar, November 29

On 29 November, Davide will present at the seminar organized for the Communication Science master students by the Amsterdam Research Initiative. The lecture is titled ‘Algorithms Exposed – Research Ethics and Data Activism’. Davide will present DATACTIVE’s spin-off project ALEX, and introduce the students to the debates around algorithmic accountability, data activism and ethics of social media research.

Read more here

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Stefania at the Pathways to impact in the SSH research conference, Vienna, November 28-29

Stefania will contribute to the conference on Pathways to impact in the Social Science and Humanities research conference, taking place in Vienna on November 28-29 in the framework of the Austrian Presidency of the European Union. Stefania serves in the Scientific Committee supporting the organization of the conference. In Vienna she will chair the session “Valuation pathways of SSH – drivers, barriers, successes and failures”. Both days of the conference are streamed live.

 

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Stefania speaks at Falling Walls 2018 in Berlin

DATACTIVE PI Stefania Milan is in Berlin on November 8-9, as an invited speaker at the Falling Wall conference 2018. Falling Walls is an annual science event that coincides with the anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. The one-day scientific conference showcases the research work of international scientists from a wide range of fields. Stefania’s presentation will revolve around the theme of data empowerment. Check out the conference program, and the description. The event is streamed live.

Stefania will also attend the Falling Wall Circle, whose theme this year in “Human genius in the age of Artificial Intelligence”.

Photo by Kaique Rocha from Pexels

Lonneke on Open Sourcing Open Source Intelligence

In late September, I gave a talk in which she considered the connections between Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) and data activism at the ‘DIGITAL CULTURES: Knowledge / Culture / Technology’ conference at Leuphana University Lüneburg. The presentation asked how OSINT might be understood through the prism of ‘data activist epistemologies’ (Milan and Van der Velden 2016).

The starting point for this interrogation is that Open Source Intelligence, despite its name, appears to have little in common with ‘open source’ cultures as we know them, for example through open source technologies. Open Source Intelligence simply means intelligence, for states or businesses, that is gathered from ‘open’ or publicly available sources. The initial question in the paper is, thus, one of terminology: What is really ‘open source’ about OSINT? And how might a critical interrogation of ‘open source’ change the way we think about OSINT? Hence the title of the talk: ‘Open Sourcing Open Source Intelligence’.

As a type of data activism, open source can be described as having its associated ‘epistemic culture’. This is a concept which refers to the diversity in modes of knowledge-making. ‘Epistemic culture’ originally comes from studies into scientific practices, and it directs attention to the ‘specific strategies that generate, validate, and communicate scientific accomplishments’ (Knorr-Cetina and Reichmann 2015, 873). It guides one’s focus toward the complex ‘relationships between experts, organisational formats, and epistemic objects’ (ibid. 873-4).

What we encounter in open source cultures is that knowledge is not legitimated institutionally, but technologically: the (open source) software function as a token of trust. The knowledge is legitimated because the software and the verification model can be reviewed, the methods are shared publicly, many of the findings are publicly shared, public learning is crucial and, ideally, expertise thus becomes distributed.

Open Source Intelligence (OSINT), by contrast, is a practice that seems to belong to – and to be legitimated by – formal and relatively closed institutions such as intelligence agencies. Yet the label can usefully be reclaimed to describe activist projects – such as the Syrian Archive – which seek to put open source tools and principles in the service of a different kind of knowledge-making, one that is genuinely public-oriented and collective. The question thus becomes: What can we learn from the interface between OSINT and open source? What kind of knowledge is being made, how? And how might activist forms of OSINT inform our understanding of data activism broadly speaking?

Stay tuned for the forthcoming paper, which is being co-authored with Jeff Deutch from the Syrian Archive. It will no doubt be enriched by a good discussion with the conference audience.

The abstract for the talk is available through the full conference programme (pp. 215-6).

 

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:

Knorr Cetina, Karin, and Werner Reichmann (2015) Epistemic cultures, in International Encyclopedia of the Social & Behavioral Sciences, ed. James D. Wright. Amsterdam: Elsevier, pp. 873-880.

Milan, Stefania, and Lonneke Van der Velden (2016) The Alternative Epistemologies of Data Activism. Digital Culture & Society 2(2) pp. 57-74.

Photo by Vladislav Reshetnyak from Pexels

26 October: Noortje Marres and DATACTIVE in conversation on the social science scene today

On 26 October, DATACTIVE hosts the philosopher and science studies scholar Noortje Marres to discuss and problematize the role of social science today.  The DATACTIVE team will engage with Marres to discuss chapters of her book Digital Sociology: The Reinvention of Social Research. The exchange is expected to delve into the social sciences from various perspectives derived from team members’ research fields, and will be anchored in the contemporary challenges to digital societies and beyond.

Marres is Associate Professor in the Centre for Interdisciplinary Methodologies at the University of Warwick and sits in the advisory board of DATACTIVE. Currently, she is a Visiting Professor in the Centre for Science and Technology Studies at the University of Leiden. Her work is located in the interdisciplinary field of Science, Technology and Society (STS).

Photo by Ngai Man Yan from Pexels

Organization After Social Media: orgnets and alternative socio-technical infrastructures

by Lonneke van der Velden

Last month, I was invited to be a respondent (together with Harriet Bergman) for the launch of Geert Lovink and Ned Rossiter’s latest book, Organization After Social Media. The book is a collection of essays which re-interrogate the concerns and contributions of social movements and counter-cultural collectives in light of a significant contemporary problem: the existence of tech-monopolies such as Google and Facebook.

If social media cannot deliver on their promise to help collectives organize, how then should movements proceed? How to make such movements sustainable? The authors invite us to reflect on these issues through central concept of ‘organized networks’, or ‘orgnets’.

I liked many aspects of the book, but will highlight here two things I found interesting from the perspective of DATACTIVE’s own concerns. The first has to do with a re-evaluation of encryption, and the second with where we search for historical and theoretical lessons to help us organize ‘after social media’.

Re-evaluating encryption?

One thing I read in the book is a re-evaluation of encryption. Encryption is presented, not as an individual intervention, but as an intervention with a potential to allow for the emergence of collective forms. “The trick,” the authors tell us, “is to achieve a form of collective invisibility without having to reconstitute authority” (p. 5).

I think this collective potential of encryption is interesting. Research into activism in the UK after the Snowden revelations (Dencik, Hintz & Cable 2016) showed that digital rights groups tended to operate in a rather specialized space demarcated from issues championed by other groups and organizations. Digital rights organizations speak about privacy and freedom of speech, but hardly touch upon other social issues. And vice versa: organizations that work on, for instance, social justice issues, tend to regard digital rights as a working package for those specific NGOs that are dedicated to privacy. Encryption does not feature as a strategy that is part of their activist work. This has only partly to do with a lack of knowledge. What’s more, activists told the researchers that they want to do things in public, and using encryption is associated with having something to hide. This is a reductive summary of some of the findings by Dencik and others, but the study provides food for thought about how encryption is often precipitated.

What Lovink and Rossiter’s book nicely does is show that this is not the only possible way to conceive of encryption, opening up a different interpretation. Not one that stages privacy or security, which is a discourse about protection, but one that forefronts organized unpredictability, which is a more productive discourse about what encryption has to offer in terms of collective organization. This idea might be more interesting for activist groups; that is, if they are not interested in hiding, they might well want to remain unsuspected and surprising.

Against the background of the analysis that social media and algorithms make people readable and predictable, infrastructures that help organize unpredictability become important. In fact, from the discussion that followed with the authors during the book launch, it turned out that many of the concerns in the book relate to organizing unpredictability: merging the inventive (as exemplified by tactical media) with a wish for sustainability. How to build digital infrastructures that allow for the disruptive qualities that tactical media had in the past?

Some questions remain. Technologies of encryption are not infrastructures that can emerge out of the blue: they in turn need organized networks and communal work to remain up to date. Together with the audience at the book launch, we had an interesting back and forth about whether a notion of ‘community’, and community struggles, was needed.

Realizing organized networks

Another thing we talked about that evening was the tension between organized networks as a concept and as actually-existing practices. As the authors write: “Organized networks are out there. They exist. But they should still be read as a proposal. This is why we emphasize the design element. Please come on board to collectively define what orgnets could be all about.” (p. 16)

Hence, the authors invite anyone who has been part of an organized network, or thinks that he or she had been part of one, or wished that their network had been more organized, to ‘fill in’ their core concept. That means that much is left open in the book to the inventive powers of orgnet-organizers.

Technological infrastructures are an exception: the book is quite prescriptive in this regard, arguing for example that servers should not be centralized, and that we should prevent the emergence of tech-giants and develop alternative protocols and new spaces for action.

I could not help but wonder about the other kinds of prescription that are not so present in the book. Might we also offer prescriptive accounts in respect to things social movements experience over and over again, such as burnouts, internal strife, sexual harassment, and all things that hinder the sustainability of networks? And shouldn’t we reach out for documentation from, say, social movement studies or feminist histories, in addition to media theory? I am thinking about these in echo of Kersti’s and others’ discussion around community and critical community studies.

All in all, given that the focus of Lovink and Rossiter’s book is on forms of organization ‘after social media’, the choice of focusing on (alternative) socio-technical infrastructures is as understandable as it is valuable in itself. Indeed, it is an issue our research group cares about a lot; we hope to contribute to some of the causes laid out in the book.

The book can be ordered here and is also freely available online in pdf.

 

Lonneke van der Velden is a lecturer at the department of media studies at the University of Amsterdam. Her research deals with conceptualizations of internet surveillance and internet activism. She is also on the Board of Directors of Bits of Freedom.   

 

Dencik, Lina, Arne Hintz, and Jonathan Cable. 2016. “Towards Data Justice? The Ambiguity of Anti-Surveillance Resistance in Political Activism.” Big Data & Society 3 (2): 1–12. https://doi.org/10.1177/2053951716679678.

Rossiter, Ned, and Geert Lovink. Organization after Social Media. Minor Compositions, 2018.

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Stefania at the AoIR 2018 conference, Montreal

DATACTIVE PI Stefania Milan has taken part in the annual conference of the Association of Internet Researchers, in Montreal (Canada), October 10-13. This year’s conference theme was “Transnational materialities”. Among others, she presented a work in progress, co-authored with Miren Gutierrez (Universidad de Deusto), on the social consequences of engagement with data and data infrastructure. On October 14th, she has taken part in the academic Festschrift to celebrate the career of Prof. Marc Raboy. The event, entitled Networking Global Communication in and Beyond the Age of Social Media, took place at McGill University.

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NEW article out: “Everyday acts of authoritarianism in the liberal West”, International Journal of Communication

DATACTIVE is happy to announce the publication of the article “Through a Glass, Darkly”: Everyday Acts of Authoritarianism in the Liberal West, co-Arne Hintz (Data Justice Lab, Cardiff University) and Stefania Milan, in the International Journal of Communication. The essay is part of a Special Section on “Authoritarian Practices in the Digital Age”, edited by Marlies Glasius and Marcus Michaelsen, University of Amsterdam. The Special Section brings together nine papers that extend our understanding of the relationship between contemporary forms of authoritarianism and digital communication technologies. The contributions investigate Internet control and censorship, surveillance, and disinformation, presenting insights from China, Russia and Central Asia, Iran, Pakistan, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Western Europe. The articles are available in open-access. The abstract of Through a Glass, Darkly is below.

“Through a Glass, Darkly”: Everyday Acts of Authoritarianism in the Liberal West

Institutional practices undermining citizen agency and infringing on individual freedoms are typically associated with authoritarian countries. However, they are also proliferating in Western democracies. This article redefines data-based surveillance as a “Western” authoritarian and illiberal practice in the digital realm, resulting from state–industry collaboration and alienated from accountability mechanisms. Straddling critical data studies and surveillance studies, the article explores these dynamics of surveillance in the West by focusing on two dimensions: the institutionalization of governmental practices in law and the societal normalization of surveillance in popular cultural practices. It thus investigates the renegotiation of the boundaries of state power along two axes—top down and bottom up. It connects the notions of “authoritarian and illiberal practices” and “surveillance cultures,” asking how the former are produced, negotiated, and legitimized and reviewing their consequences for citizens and civil society. Based on empirical data from two projects exploring the interplay between citizenship and surveillance, the article argues that acts of authoritarianism in the West are institutionalized at the intersection of top-down governmental practices and bottom-up popular reactions.

Keywords: authoritarian practices, surveillance, surveillance cultures, liberal democracy, Internet freedoms