Cuts

These “cuts” are meant to offer as sense of different threads or cuts through the topics raised during the day’s dialogues. We’ve grouped the topics in different ways to surface broader ideas, questions, reflections, etc. The implication here is that there are multiple ways in which to cut through the topics, multiple, if you will, readings of the day.

 

1. Agency

2. Change

3. Citizen

4. Consumer

5. Experience

6. Futures

7. Global scale

8. Privacy

9. Reframing

10. Social contract

11. Social life

12. Transparency

13. User

 
A new cut can be posted here.
For the time being, we’re vetting any topics that are added (to eliminate spam) so it may take a day or two to see your text on the site.

Data Technologies

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?

 

Categories of ‘use’: Consumer / Citizen / User

Individual actors involved in making and using data were framed as ‘consumers,’ ‘citizens’ and ‘users’. At times we used these terms interchangeably and seemingly without a great deal of thought or reflection. The question of what to do about this difference was aptly raised by Alison Powell in her provocative talk. As Alison made clear, these terms are not neutral – they reflect our own alignments and entanglements with particular areas or fields. Such partial standpoints matter, because the way we frame the actors using ‘data’ does much to shape the debates. For example, describing individuals as consumers results in different kinds of possibilities, than understanding them as citizens. At the same time, a consensus was found amongst a number of participants that these terms are rapidly changing, blending and overlapping. This seemed particularly evident for the category consumer.

 

How do we develop a shared vocabulary for the most basic of agents and entities in these discussions and, at the same time, how do we ensure we understand the role such a vocabulary plays in defining the debates and outcomes?

 

Reframing Categories: Consumers as participants in an emerging data economy

For many, the relationships denoted by the term ‘consumer’ were most salient. There was a sense that the boundaries and meanings of this term were deeply in flux, as a consequence of the development of digital technologies. People using social networks, for example, are participating in social interactions, and at the same time are producing data traces that become products of different kinds (often used in advertising). These are far removed from historical figurations of the roles and remits of consumers and producers. Yet the term consumer also carries with it sets of norms and standards around what constitutes ‘good’ or acceptable relations or interactions with service providers. As Iain Bourne’s talk on privacy highlighted, ‘old certainties’ are being transformed by the character of the Internet.

 

How is the category of consumer being redefined by emerging sociotechnical reconfigurations and how can we productively conceptualise these refigurings as transforming the norms, expectations and rights of consumers, providers, manufacturers, etc.?

Changing notions of privacy

As expected, privacy was a central topic. Several readings were discussed but all figured privacy as a question of agency within relationships. Iain Bourne described a “lost period” of privacy, where it was becoming less and less clear what should be protected, and the mechanisms through which those protections should operate. People are sharing intimate data in and through social interactions online. Regulators have difficulty in quantifying the harms that may arise from these types of interaction. Nevertheless, Iain was clear that data should be subject to purpose limitation, standards and security, and the right to be removed should be in place. Some, such as Nick Pickles and Jacques Bus, argued that existing technological infrastructures are a dramatic threat to privacy. For Nick, the rights of the individual were primary, and practices of data collection must be treated as potentially problematic from the outset. State and private sector organizations are not to be automatically trusted. In the related un-session, Jacqui Taylor used her work to illustrate how the nature and expectations of privacy were changing for younger age groups. It was clear from these discussions that canonical ideas of notice and consent are not especially useful in thinking through these emerging notions of privacy. Iain argued strongly that terms and conditions were not working, and that real-time technologies should themselves be used to allow people to know more about who holds what kinds of data about them.

 

How can we better map out the relations between privacy and data infrastructures and in what ways might we better locate and understand the threats? From this, can we begin to imagine radically new infrastructures?

Transparency and questions of agency

Transparency can be understood as making visible the operation of particular processes and, by extension, offering accountability. It might be a requirement for gaining informed consent. Iain Bourne described the challenges presented in making new data technologies transparent, for example in describing to consumers how behavioural advertising operates. In her provocative talk Alison Powell explored the wider power relations that may lie within notions of transparency and argued that they must always be foregrounded. It is not the extent to which data is ‘out there’ that matters, but the level of control we exercise over it. She asks what can be made visible and by whom? Transparency may give the illusion of agency, yet whilst transparency appears to be central to notions of openness and choice in democratic processes, in practice there are complications.

 

Jacqui Taylor posits a positive case for ‘data’ and digital technologies, arguing that they have facilitated an incredible rise in the civil society, and precipitated unprecedented civil action globally. As she sees it, transparency may not be the correct word to describe these happenings, but that it can stand as a placeholder. However, how are we think of transparency and citizenship in cases such as Wikileaks and Anonymous? Here transparency does not stand in as a simple proxy for democracy. For instance, Anonymous are making transparent processes that those involved in governance would rather remain opaque. In doing so they are revealing information, but at the same time they are revealing nothing about themselves. Civic responsibilities to accountability (and transparency) seem to be something actors can forgo for some perceived greater good. Gillian Youngs turns this argument around. Using the case of Edward Snowden, she illustrates how a transparency that threatens actors such as the state can result in the deprivation of civic rights. Hers is a case for citizenship as a highly specific and embodied relation with the State.

 

In what ways have the increasing prevalence of digital technologies and the use of data troubled notions of transparency? Do the new forms of civic participation afforded by data and these new technologies demand a better account of transparency, one that recognises for the specificity of each case whilst upholding general principles?

Beyond Regulation

What happens in places where states are not currently able to regulate the developing use of ‘data’? How do the policies and frameworks instituted by actors in the UK, US and EU also impact upon these places? Linnet Taylor’s reading of data in wider global frames surfaces questions such as these, but also invites a re-examination of how regulatory authority is exercised both within and across borders. Iain Bourne voiced a recognition of the different frameworks in place globally, but at the same time made a case that there is much agreement around the basic principles of data protection. In places where newer technologies are leapfrogging older technological infrastructures (most notably mobile telephony), regulation is evolving differently and without the legacy of older systems. There is a risk that in supplying services to populations the social contract will be negotiated between citizens and corporations, relatively unmediated by the state. A result might be two systems in the same area but with different emphases: one that recognises conceptions of rights and privacy as solid and enforceable and a more flexible system with the private sector that values the local convenience, or the need for a transactional system over privacy.

 

In light of the innovations in data technology, is there a way to tease out the basic principles for concepts like data protection, openness, etc. but at the same time allow regulation to evolve around these and other local specificities? What tensions are surfaced when unregulated (often prohibited) transactions and forms of participation take on legitimacy and openly compete with regulated systems? Are there ways to work productively with these tensions?

Phenomenology of Data

Monika Büscher’s ‘data tale’, about the availability of medical information to first responders evokes concerns about as she phrases it ‘the phenomenology of data’. What does it mean for emergency response personnel to act on the basis of injured people’s data in a very fleeting, ephemeral and pressurized moment, as opposed to drawing on a set of practices and principles? Ewa Luger and Cecily Morrison both highlighted the ways in which we are increasingly expecting people to experience and curate their own data – from personal data about our bodies to aspects of our domestic and social life. But what options do we have to manage our data in situations like Monika’s and to what extent is there a role for personalisation?

 

How are the lived experiences we are having with data shaping experiences of selfhood and sociality? What options are open to us for (re-)negotiating such things about ourselves when data is materialised in our phenomenal experiences?

Performing the social through data: how can things be otherwise?

In her data tale, Liz Coll explained how happy her sister was that a Facebook movie automatically generated about her life was not at all representative. The idea of being ‘known’ by companies through data is an interesting if not troubling possibility and clearly Liz’s sister took some glee in Facebook failing to really know her. In his un-session reporting back, Colin Strong highlighted how crude some data analytics currently are, yet, as his research indicates, there are moments when we can find the insights from data uncanny, provoking a sense of unease because they are a bit too close to what we know about ourselves. These conversations surface some distinctive ideas of what it is to be known as an individual. We find there to be different practices of ‘knowing’ at work that rely on vastly different sources of information and logics of reasoning. Deducing personal characteristics about people through the analysis of social data such as Facebook ‘likes’ feels to many of us like a very peculiar way of ‘knowing’ people. We’re seeing data ‘perform the social’ in a very different way to social experiences we are familiar with.

 

In what ways do data-centric models of the social refigure the individual and social life? What role if any should we play in this and how might we want things to be different?

Privacy and Transparency as Recognition and Concealment

Iain Bourne remarked that ‘society is made by knowing things about each other’. There were discussions of both privacy and transparency that really attempted to understand the nature of these knowings and relations between people. Nicole Dewandre argued that humans need both recognition and concealment. Marc van Lieshout spoke of privacy as a form of agency, an agency to be deployed for wellbeing. Discussions of transparency that followed on from Alison’s talk also read transparency in similar terms. Stefana Broadbent argued that within transparency are forms of concealment, and asked how we might design to guarantee concealment? Her crucial point was that being in public spaces can be about being concealed as much as it might be about being identifiable. For example, it’s common to exploit the anonymity afforded by large public spaces. Thus, the simple dichotomy between public / visible and private / invisible cannot capture the subtleties of interplay between privacy and space. These overlapping discussions of privacy and transparency move away from understanding privacy as a set of formal rights for the individual, and as Nicole described, point us towards a conception where both visibility and concealment necessarily become dimensions of all forms of interaction between entities such as individuals and organisations.

 

Can we unravel the interconnected thinking around privacy, transparency and visibility in order to make some stronger claims about the civic rights and responsibilities of both actors and agencies? 

How to figure participants in an emerging data economy?

The largest of the day’s un-sessions discussed issues of agency in consumer-citizen-user figurations. The central question asked was whether we are in danger of giving victim status to consumers / citizens / users, and whether we can move towards thinking about more active participants in a data economy? Although involving a compounding of all the terms – the emphasis here was primarily focused on what it means to participate in an economy (rather than citizenship or civil society, for example). Yet even within such a framework, we find data-use inviting questions about what other figurings of the consumer we might encounter, beyond that of  participation in passive consumption. Colin Strong observed that relationships between companies and consumers are increasingly driven by data, but that this is not necessarily based on a sophisticated relationship. There is a sense that companies are warehousing data thats value is not yet ascertained. Various discussions of consumer agency were had that aimed to illustrate a reconfiguring of the power relations in interactions with companies. These discussions regularly turned to the emergent ‘sharing economy’. Here it was felt that companies are increasingly managing data flows rather than inventory. This again pushes at the boundaries of the role of consumers, who are also becoming providers. Participants in services such as Airbnb are sharing even more data in these contexts, but they are doing so voluntarily.

 

In the new relations being forged through data technologies, are consumers (or consumer-providers) being empowered? How might we want to frame these emerging but still transactional relationships in what might arguably be considered the broader forms of social and civic life?

Citizen-Consumers?

Alison Powell’s talk troubled contemporary understandings of the ‘user’, ‘consumer’ and ‘citizen’. In her framing, the ‘user’ represents the most generic form of actor. But do we then think of the user as an individual that is subject to a technology? In contrast, a citizen is someone with rights and also responsibilities – rights to freedoms, privacy, etc. but also responsibilities to act in ways that produce a society that is desirable to live in. Alison questioned what relations we are trying to get at through the figurings of the consumer-citizen? How are the notions of citizen and consumer folded together and used to perform and reinforce particular social and economic paradigms? Are ‘data’ technologies defining citizens as generators of data, that get fed back to them as citizen-consumers, instantiating a distinctive idea of the social vis-à-vis production, consumption and economy? In what ways do notions of the ‘common good’ ally with such ideas; who gets to decide what constitutes a ‘good’ and how are ‘data’ technologies playing a role in this?

 
Can we explain, in any coherent and consistent way, the relationships between data and citizens’ rights and responsibilities? If technological developments are placing us in the midst of a renegotiation of the social contract, do notions of the common good and civil society need to be reconsidered as well?

Data Tales

Data tales featured speeding tickets, bird song, personalised adverts, job offer letters and home insurance policies. The stories were demonstrations of how we bring together a range of very diverse traces, substances and processes under the rubric of ‘data’. It is an achievement that this term is used in relatively coherent ways. However, it is also powerful in shaping and motivating the debate.

 

How can we recognize the multiplicity of ‘data’ and ensure that the differences in and between forms of data are kept alive and are put to work as generative tensions in future discussions?