The structuring role of data technologies was ever present throughout the day. In the ‘data tales’ section, many participants described illuminating everyday encounters with technologies that were complex or problematic in some way. Marc van Lieshout explained how he had recently received notice of a speeding fine through the post. Disputing and eventually cancelling this ticket was a labour intensive process that involved various calls and letters to the issuing authorities. The agents that he spoke with understood and described the functions and capabilities of the system in very different ways during each call. Marc was alarmed that no human input had been involved in the process of issuing the fine, and additionally that the burden of proof for disputing the fine was now assigned to him personally. This anecdote raised some important questions about the agential role of data systems. Large and complex socio-technical systems structure and order societal relations in mundane yet profound ways. Marc’s story was about the relationship between state authorities and citizen, and the ways in which these have become shaped through computation.
Alison Powell’s story of migrating to the UK asked more explicitly about the kinds of procedures that are in place to deal with the errors and inconsistencies that large systems inevitably encounter or entail. In both examples these are not simply pragmatic questions around customer service, but are rather lived experiences of negotiating the (often highly symmetrical) power relations played out in data technologies. Breakdowns, faults and mistakes are not exceptional facets of life with data systems, but are mundane dimensions of use. Rather than understanding problems as arising from a move from idealised designs of what a system ‘should’ do, to the ‘messy’ and uncertain realities of implementation, we might instead understand how systems objectify. Carolyn Nguyen remarked in her summing up that ‘humanness decreases when human beings are quantified’.
Perhaps missing from our Dialogue Day were more profound understandings of the way in which systems operate computationally? How might we, as policymakers, civil society advocates and researchers come to understand the technological and social in tandem? Does research on ‘data’ systems demand an inter-disciplinary approach? How might innovative data technologies facilitate and enable alternative approaches to policy?