Datafication and democracy: Recalibrating digital information systems to address societal interestsPublished Wed 21 Dec 2016
Digital information systems have come to play a central role in how we organise and imagine collective life in the 21st century. The limits of our world are demarcated by electronic equipment scanning the movements of the clouds and space debris above us and the oceanic currents deep below. Within this comparatively narrow band around the surface of the Earth where life is possible – which geologists call the ‘critical zone’ – ever more activity is registered, connected, facilitated and mediated by digital technologies, resulting in vast reserves of data. In addition to the familiar genres of enumerating people, resources, space and time which have been institutionalised for centuries (through official statistics or accounting practices, for example), the digital infrastructures and devices that surround us proliferate data as a result of their every interaction.
These processes of ‘datafication’ – or ways of seeing and engaging with the world by means of digital data – are not just limited to the neutral representation of phenomena: data can also actively participate in the shaping of the world around us. The very act of generating data can change behaviour, albeit in sometimes unexpected ways and with unintended consequences, as we see, for example, in the dynamics created by league tables and performance metrics, rankings, indexes and indicators. Economic sociologist Donald MacKenzie wrote that financial models are not just like cameras that depict behaviour within markets, they can also act as engines that change them. The same is doubtless true of the quantitative appraisal of life in the workplace, in the classroom, in the home, on the street.
Data not only refers or designates: it can also stage, guide and enact social life in different settings. Historians and sociologists of statistics argue that classificatory practices at public institutions have brought new social categories into existence. Today, computers and algorithms play a role in the grouping and ordering of society. Information brokers propose new ways of classifying society drawing on the automated analysis of large volumes of data from different sources – proposing consumer profiles such as ‘credit crunched: city families’, ‘ethnic second-city strugglers’ and ‘rural and barely making it’. Such emerging forms of ‘data work’ can have huge social, political, economic, environmental and cultural consequences.
BEYOND COMMODIFICATION AND CONTROL
As with the machine age before us, the social repercussions of these processes of datafication can be more than the sum of their immediate material effects. The concerns of comparatively niche subcultures of past decades – of the gamers, gangs and cowboy hackers ‘jacking in’ to multicoloured cities of data depicted in cyberpunk fiction – have spilled out into the mainstream of collective imagination. Reflection on the broader societal implications of datafication has been fuelled by reports of mega-leaks, mass privacy scares, state-sponsored hacks, algorithmic inequality, ubiquitous automation, experimental human–computer interfaces, the silicon super-rich, the gold-dust of data, and the digital mediatisation of everyday life.
The aspirations of tech giants, politicians, policymakers and entrepreneurs find their dark counterparts in the ruminations of artists and activists, novelists and newspaper columnists, TV writers and film-makers. On the one hand, we find concerns about ubiquitous state surveillance and bureaucratic control, running through from the classics of Orwell’s 1984 and Zamyatin’s We to spy thrillers and science fiction films like Enemy of the State and Minority Report. On the other we have depictions of corporate domination and the commodification of all things depicted in works such as Charlie Brooker’s Channel 4 drama series Black Mirror, Dave Eggers’ acclaimed novel The Circle or Adam Curtis’s recent BBC documentary HyperNormalisation.
Beyond these data-driven dystopias of all-consuming marketisation and state control, can we imagine another role for data in collective life? How might it facilitate human flourishing, advance social progress and strengthen democratic political engagement, rather than stifling or undermining these aims? What kinds of rules, policies, politics, mechanisms and mobilisations might be required to support the creation and use of data in the service of other kinds of social, political and economic objectives?
BEYOND OPENNESS AND PRIVACY
The past few decades have seen the rise of two kinds of interventions around our digital information environments, leading to the creation of new rules, norms and practices in many countries around the world. The first is the push for transparency and openness – leading to everything from freedom of information laws to public reporting requirements, from official open data portals to unofficial leaks. Actors from Obama to Wikileaks often share a Promethean-style rhetorical frame: of liberating information that already exists within the public sector or private companies, so that it can be exploited as a kind of resource to enable different kinds of societal value – whether commercial exploitation, new kinds of services, journalism, activism or citizen engagement. The second type of intervention is the push for protecting personal privacy and securing information from either state surveillance or corporate commodification – through legal rules, technical fixes, resistance to platforms, or creation of alternative systems that don’t collect, share or monetise user data.
While these are both vital considerations, any more substantive attempt to enlist processes of datafication into the service of social progress will have to look beyond this dual focus on openness and privacy. A more ambitious politics of data would have to move beyond programmes to make data public or keep data private through various attendant technical, policy and legal systems that facilitate or inhibit the flows of data in society. It would have to cultivate the political imagination and practical capacities to recalibrate digital information systems to be attuned to a broader set of societal interests – interests that may be quite different from the immediate concerns of technology companies, investors, ministers and managers. This would entail opening up spaces for democratic deliberation and social participation around the creation of data and around processes of datafication.
DEMOCRACY AND EXPERTISE
To be sure, democratic experimentation in this direction surfaces some hard questions. Not least regarding the relation between aspirations for democratic engagement and public participation on the one hand, and the expert scientific, technical, legal and economic knowledge that can be implicated in the making of data on the other. Where and how might we redraw lines between democratic political life and the technical details of expert knowledge production? Public institutions around the world are still reeling from and adjusting to the consequences of social mobilisations and populist insurgencies of varying stripes. We don’t have to look far to consider the difficulties, uncertainties and complexities that issue from mass movements of people who – as it has been alleged – ‘have had enough of experts’ or otherwise wish to challenge or augment received forms of knowledge about their issues.
Policymakers and public institutions argue that populist groups lack the expert knowledge and resources to effectively understand and institutionally advance their causes. Social movements and insurgent political groups counter that public institutions have been captured by forms of expertise that are premised on assumptions that they reject. The knowledge and resource requirements for participating in expert consultation processes can be prohibitively high. Standards and systems underpinning the production of data can depend on enormous amounts of social and political work. This raises questions not only about asymmetries of resources and capacities to participate in processes whereby data is made, but also about the production of expert knowledge upon which data depends. Large institutions and companies have not only money and personnel, but epistemological traditions of scientific and technical expertise on their side in order to create data that is attuned to their prerogatives.
These questions were raised in a series of encounters between the philosopher John Dewey and the journalist Walter Lippmann in the first part of the 20th century. They both sought to interrogate the composition of democratic political life in the US, and to theorise how democratic ideals could keep pace with increasingly complex settings and scenarios that required a high degree of specialised and technical knowledge (Lippmann emphasised the vast gulf between the ‘pictures in our heads’ and the ‘world outside’). They both sought to effect a shift from thinking about ‘the public’ in the abstract (which Lippmann characterised as an ‘abstraction’ and a ‘mere phantom’), to looking at how particular ‘publics’ are organised around particular issues and concerns.
Each proposed a different response to this situation. Dewey favoured mass educational programmes to cultivate the broader societal capacities (beyond ‘officials, administrators and directors of industry’) required for democratic ideals to keep up with advanced technological societies. Lippmann focused on a re-evaluation of the role of expertise in democratic societies and the development and resourcing of commensurate institutional forms. However, they also shared a lot of common ground with respect to their analyses. The Lippmann–Dewey debates have played an important role in the social study of science and technology, thanks to an influential re-reading by sociologist Noortje Marres – who uses their work as inspiration for the study of ‘social-technical arrangements that facilitate public involvement’. Their work can also inform reflection about processes of datafication in democratic societies.
DATA CONTROVERSIES AND DATA LITERACIES
How can we reimagine the politics of data beyond commodification and control, beyond openness and privacy? For a start we can look at how different actors have sought to contest and reshape different aspects of digital information systems beyond liberating data and safeguarding privacy. This entails looking at how the creation of data has itself ‘become an issue’ for different people and groups, and how they have attempted to change it. For example, environmental campaigners in Beijing or resident associations in Pennsylvania have questioned official processes of pollution and air quality data collection – from the sensitivity of monitoring equipment to where it is located – and have started collecting their own data. Anti-corruption, anti-poverty and tax justice campaigners have contested the scope, legal definitions and economic thresholds used in company reporting standards, undertaking work to reform official company registers and to design and build their own. Networks of journalists have developed public data infrastructures to track police killings and migrant deaths.
From climate change to economic reforms, gender equality to human rights, when we zoom in on how issues are rendered into data, we can find people hard at work – often in the background, behind the scenes in consultation processes or through targeted lobbying efforts – to shift boundaries, change thresholds, add or remove database fields, redirect instruments, standardise identifiers and expand monitoring practices. Just as the sociologist Bruno Latour suggests that researchers can ‘feed’ off scientific and technological controversies, so we might study ‘data controversies’ in order to understand and theorise social and political interventions to reshape processes of datafication. This in turn can furnish us with new vocabularies of ‘data speak’ and new repertoires of ‘data work’ to ensure that different publics have the required literacies and capacities to align these processes with their interests.
How might we extend Dewey’s proposition of democratic education to include the capacities to understand and intervene around processes of datafication? On the one hand we might analyse data controversies and civil society interventions around the creation and collection of data in order to – as Max Weber puts it – make explicitly conscious the means that have demonstrated their value in practice. On the other hand, public institutions and policymakers will need to think about participatory design processes and public engagement mechanisms to facilitate the assembly of publics who are able not only to make use of data as a resource, but who are also able to reshape the processes of its creation – as well as to reflect on the emerging forms of politics, genres of sociality and modes of experience that datafication gives rise to.
Jonathan Gray is Prize Fellow at the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath, where he is currently writing a book on Data Worlds and exploring the use of digital methods in social and political research. More about him can be found at jonathangray.org, and he is on Twitter at @jwyg.
This article appears in edition 23.3 of Juncture, IPPR's quarterly journal of politics and ideas, published by Wiley.