Summary of November reading

Surveillance Realism and the Politics of Imagination: Is There No Alternative? – Lisa Dencik – 2018
This article deals with the same themes as the Fisher (2009) from a few sessions ago; essentially whether or not we can actually imagine anything different from the systems we have. Rather than looking at capitalism as a whole, Dencik looks at contemporary surveillance practices.

The idea of social imaginaries is central to this analysis. Dencik positions imaginaries as radical as they have the power to create and disrupt realities. Imaginaries therefore have an emancipatory potential but equally can be constrained. The economy imaginary has been constrained to see capitalism as the inevitable conclusion of economic organisation. Similarly, social imaginaries around surveillance have been constrained to accept the current state of affairs as ‘common sense’. Turrow et al (2015) claimed that consumers have been institutionalised to accept an individualised approach to surveillance. Dencik expands this to apply to society as a whole. Surveillance culture comes from companies cultivating dataism (aided by government (de)regulation): an ideological tool to make current relations between data and users appear to be ‘common sense’ or inevitable. The result is a society in which exchanging (meta)data for access to services has become a necessity, rather than a choice (Harcourt, 2015; Van Dijck, 2014).

It goes over the Snowden leaks and the resultant fallout by the governments and media. While many citizens had concerns around the surveillance detailed in the leaks, this was marginalised through the dataist framing of the surveillance in the media. A few reasonings for citizens eventually accepting this surveillance are given here: young people’ privacy fatigue and general disempowerment (Dencik and Cable, 2017); digital resignation of accepting the status quo and adjusting your actions to it (Draper and Turrow, 2017). Essentially, surveillance realism emerges in which datafication and surveillance are seen as the only response to social issues.

Dencik then gives some methods of resistance to surveillance realism. Practices such as pressure groups; litigation activism; self-imposed individual actions can be somewhat useful but can also individualise issues or make them too niche to appeal to anyone but small groups of experts. A resistance linking datafication and surveillance to dominant economic interests and political agendas is lacking. This is what data justice seeks to do; highlight asymmetries of data power which stem from historical and institutionalised forms of oppression.

Exploring Data Justice: Conceptions, Applications, and Directions – Dencik et al – 2019
This article outlines what data justice actually is, in a more detailed fashion than the article above. Data practices shape the terms and conditions of our participation in society. Examining this datafication of society requires examining and critiquing the power relations bound up within it. Data justice therefore understands data as a social practice and asks how datafication has altered social justice. Data justice is often used to only speak to the issue of how data is used by companies/how user data can be protected. The Data Justice Lab attempts to broaden this to include issues like political mobilisation (Dencik et al, 2016) and debates around citizenship (Hintz et al, 2018). Another concern of the Data Justice Lab is discussing data from the margins, including decentring data discussions away from the Global North.

Data justice has been used to address structural inequalities to articulate new, better principles of governance which address inequalities (Taylor, 2017). It has also been used as a design element in the creation of data infrastructures, enabling counter-imaginaries to ‘common sense’ approaches (Gray, 2018). It goes on to give more examples but the point is that there is a richness and complexity to the topic of data justice. It is not limited to how customer’s data is used for profit. Consequently, it should be expected that data justice (as an analysis of power) is not limited to one field either.

It then goes over the articles from this special issue. Gangadharan and Niklas examine the positioning of data in discussions of data justice within Europe. They point out the need to see inequalities in technology as long-standing ones, as technology is a part of larger institutional systems. Hoffman outlines the limitations of a liberal right-based discourse for data as this tends to position discrimination as isolated instances, rather than examining structural conditions of data. Masiero and Das examine how data is integrated into systems of governance, identifying three forms of data injustice, tied to datafication (legal; design related; and informational) in India’s Aadhaar system. Park and Humphry also examine data and social protection, examining the in-built punitive logic of compliance systems in Centrelink. Kidd examines how data is used for resistance and how data is resisted. They examine how data is central to European imperialism and counter-mapping done by indigenous peoples to create de-colonial imaginaries. Gray analyses Amnesty International’s practice of documenting and responding to abuse using digital technology. Humans and non-humans work collectively here in a form of ‘data witnessing’ but building databases of injustices. Heeks and Shekhar examine data within international development, examining how people in low-income areas are recorded and datafied for policymakers. Vera et al develop and discuss the concept of environmental data justice and how it informs the work of the American body EDGI (formed after Trump’s election).

Big Data from the South(s): Beyond Data Universalism – Milan and Trere – 2019
Datafication acts as a new way of managing people and hits hardest where human rights are most fragile. The political economy of knowledge production has been dominated by the West and devalued knowledges of the Global South (Santos, 2014). This is exacerbated by datafication but does not always map onto traditional North-South binaries. Instead, ‘The Souths’ are treated here as any groups which are subversive, resistant, invisible, etc., not just the geopolitical Global South.

While we have seen many challenges to datafication and critiques of Big Data in the past decade or so, much of this has been rooted in Western democracies. Three problems related to this are raised here: he first is the fundamental ontological questions around what big data from the South means? What is meant by datafication, surveillance, etc?; Secondly, there is the epistemological question of how we get to learn about datafication and its impact?; Thirdly, there is the ethical query around who the researcher is, who they work with, and the context of the world in which they work. Datafication should be understood in relation to historic process of dispossession and extraction to avoid furthering Western-centrism.

Five conceptual operations are put forward here to map Big Data from the South. Firstly, moving beyond data universalism: essentially, digital technology isn’t just transported to the South unchanged (Medina et al, 2014), instead being context specific and contentious, with conflicts arising from companies, governments, communities, etc. Secondly, viewing the South as a plural identity: the South(s) is defined here as ‘a place of (and a proxy for) alterity, resistance, subversion, and creativity’ (Santos, 2014, p325). This means that Souths can exist in the West too. It is not so much about geography as discrimination, injustice, and oppression. Thirdly, using a decolonial (rather than postcolonial) lens: this involves exploring the margins of knowledge; examining material dimensions of knowledge generation; a demand for reparative measures. The new rationality of datafication is seen as an expression of colonial power here. Fourthly, agency should be recentred: many readings of data are techno-centric. Data is viewed as a practice but the materiality of data and its infrastructures remains present. Fifthly, novel data imaginaries should be unleashed: while many contemporary social actors are seen as resigned to surveillance realism, non-mainstream imaginaries still exist. Engaging with these imaginaries can help to offer new realities when combined with on-the-ground action.

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