Minutes from November meeting

Discussions of articles from the Cardiff Data Justice Lab (Dencik et al, 2019; Milan & Treré, 2019; and Dencik, 2018):

  • The Dencik articles fit well with themes from previous weeks (helped by the 2018 article directly addressing Mark Fisher’s work we look at in September). These two Denick articles didn’t necessarily cover much new ground but they did consolidate themes we’ve explored previously.
  • The Milan and Treré article (on Big Data from the South) was more contentious. The themes raised in the article were largely agreeable but it was felt that the article ultimately amounted to academic posturing, rather than doing any real exploration of the themes raised. It is not difficult to agree that the (Global) North tends to dominate discourses around data but equally it is not particularly insightful to repeat this. 
  • The contrast to this critique was that in the North, we have hit a bit of a conceptual brick wall when it comes to digital imaginaries. Looking at approaches from the South can be refreshing, as a result. Even when this point was raised, it was agreed that previous readings (Indigenous Data Sovereignty and Data Feminism) did a better job of giving potentially new digital imaginaries while showing these imaginaries in practice. 
  • The point was raised that (while there are obviously differences between the North and South), it is worth recognising that datafication is so effective as a process because it is able to act as a (global) Leviathan. Data practices in the South may differ from those in the North but this doesn’t mean they will be treated differently by datafication processes. Again, the point was raised that practical examples of data practices from the South would help and that previous readings were pointed to as doing this more effectively.
  • The question was raised of who these readings could appeal to (in particular, the Milan and Treré article). Generally, learning about datafication can be useful as an introduction to other issues which are problematic. This could be useful for computer scientists, for example, as framing these systematic issues through data may make the issues more legible for them. This does somewhat render datafication just another point within intersectionality. Part of the problem with the Milan and Treré article was that it didn’t actually appear to be written for computer scientists. Data Feminism, in contrast, was (and was vocal about saying so) which made it feel much more useful.
  • One of the big absences in these articles (but again particularly Milan and Treré as they dealt with the South) was China. China operates using a much different model form the North, a model which involves much more government intervention. This Dataist State is different from Surveillance Capitalism so would have been interesting to see discussed as power is ultimately still structured in relation to Capital. 
  • Some other useful readings around the topic of data in practice were brought up: The Minefield’s recent podcast on Aboriginal political philosophy and political liberalism; Alex Hern’s article for The Guardian on QAnon; Ajana’s Governing Through Biometrics; Postill’s The Rise of Nerd Politics; and Benjamin’s Race After Technology
  • Robbie had technical issues with the call but sent through notes on the readings which I have pasted below:
  • I thought the readings this week had a good commonality to them. The Exploring Data Justice paper seemed to set up a general terrain quite well, with questions about the different kinds of harms and problems that we might find in data, and giving something of a roll call of different scholars that might be contributing to these questions into the future. It might be worthwhile for us to follow up on the Australian scholars here – Sora Park and Justine Humphry. The case of Robodebt is pretty interesting, and I’d struggled to find literature on this in the past.
  • The Big Data from the Global South article was really really good, I thought, at least for an introductory article. I liked the way that it set out the challenges about how to even think with the idea of the Global South, and the way that it connected it to a political goal. I think recognising the role as metaphor connects to the debates about whether the use of slavery is or is not a metaphor in other postocolonial scholarship; what does the value of metaphor hold in these contexts, and what damage does it do? 
  • Probably the ‘big question’ for me coming out of this was the sort of anthropological inversion, which is to question the origins of the idea of big data. While I’ve read pieces about the ‘rise of big data’, it’s precisely this ‘rise’ that I want to know more about. Not the technical side, but what the logic of mapping the world that went from a phenomenon that understands isolated databases, to some sort of idea that it can all be collectively understood in some way. I feel like it connects to the neoliberal discourses as more than just a “hey it’s neoliberalism” moment, more so about the way that the market was supposed to be an information regulating machine where certain quantities of knowable-ness and unknowable-ness were assumed for the system to operate ethically. 
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