Written by Ellen Simpson.
Datafication is the trend of turning aspects of our day-to-day lives into information with value to governmental and commercial entities as technology advances. It is the process by which we all become characters in our own digital minority report, generalized by the digital life that people with similar characteristics and interests to ourselves lead, rather than our actual lived experiences. After the leaks by Edward Snowden, the concept of digital citizenship shifted, causing people to re-examine how agency existed within digital spaces where this information was consciously given away in a digital environment that encouraged the free release of such data. This transformative development in society, Denick argued, indicates data can predict how we can be categorized, boiling our personhood down to a series of attributes that can be fed into algorithms and interpreted by others.
But this process is uneven. These systems cannot understand the complexity of the lived human experience, nor the ep and flow of society. There is bias in how this is data is collected and utilized, and the processes can further discriminate, not to mention exclude entire communities. Denick cited this ProPublica Report as an example of machine algorithmic actions informed by big data have bias against black offenders in the United States. Digital rights research, according to Denick, needs to focus on the study of lived experience and that of the “data double” of a person. Data systems cannot account for that difference, as data tends to flatten, decontextualize, and assume that human nature and behaviour are predictable.
The politics of social justice, Denick argued, comes into the conversation when we look at the distances between lived experience and abstracted data. Data governance needs to be understood at a policy level, however this is increasingly challenging, as practitioners often do not understand the technologies used to aggregate such data, preventing conversations about effective policies. This power shift is larger than just a simple shift in the amount of data that’s being collected, but rather one that Denick urges needs a qualitative change in our understanding of these power dynamics.
We need to think beyond the techno-legal solutionism and find a way to have social justice inform a more system critique of the current system as a whole. Activists, Denick pointed out, do not see data as a point of political engagement. There is a disconnect between social justice and digital rights activists; but data is a social issue. Datafiction is a distancing and dehumanizing element. “We need to accept that there are certain areas in our lives that can’t be decided by data.” Denick said in answer to one a question about what a possible future could look like. Admitting that the data systems we have in place might not lead to a better answer than what a human might provide is a good first step in this process, she added. Transparency is another. This is the politics of trying to know the future, as data subjects, we need to be able to hold those who use and gather big data accountable.
Denick’s talk drew an audience from the Politics, History, Business, Geography and Information Security departments here at Royal Holloway. You can follow the discussion on Twitter under the hashtag #RethinkingPoliticsData.
The next Rethinking Politics in Data Times talk is on Thursday 23 November. The NewPolCom unit will be collaborating with our colleagues in the Centre for Politics in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East (AMME) to invite Maria Repnikova to discuss China as a media player.