Data Power Conference

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Panel Session 2d): Resistance, Agency, Activism (Chair: Stuart Shaw)


(How) Do Women Resist the Power of Big Data?

Nancy Thumim, University of Leeds

As scholarly and popular recognition of the uses of the information (including images) we share about ourselves online grows and, simultaneously, the embedded nature of various kinds of self-representation in contemporary digital culture is widely acknowledged, I ask, what does ordinary women's agency look like? Moreover, what would constitute their resistance to the power of big data? The growth of uses for big data and the ubiquity of self-representation in people's lives both take place in a context of continued, structural, inequality between genders and one in which the role played by dominant representations in constructing received understanding of, for example, women, is well-established. In the paper, I argue that in order to answer questions about women's possible resistance, agency and appropriation, we need critical visual analysis of women's self-representation in digital spaces, but also, crucially, we must ask how women themselves understand their own practices of self-representation. That is, we need a better understanding of the (likely diverse) ways in which women talk about and view their own practices of online self-representation. I outline a research project that will ask women about their practices of self-representation and, in the final part of the paper, I consider what critical scholars can ever make of women's own points of view in the face of the overwhelming evidence of the power of those using big data derived from the online activities (and self-representations) of ordinary people.


Exerting Privacy Through Ethical Standards and Shareholder Activism: New Strategies for Resistance

Evan Light, Mobile Media Lab, Concordia University

The spread of digital data through our non-digital lives, and the power invested in this data and its brokers, has created a tiered system of control whereby powerful, generally corporate, actors have the ability to harvest and utilize data concerning the actions of individual citizens. Citizens, through their uses of technology to engage in political, social and economic life, often have little choice than to work with what they have been given, and to trust the providers of their communication tools. Data has become a source of real wealth to the extent that obstacles to its accumulation, such tools for preserving one's digital privacy, have been routinely excluded from the most ubiquitous of communication networks – telephony and the internet. Privacy and security are instead viewed as value-added services rather than fundamental tenants of our communications systems and, thus, the flow of digital data spilling forth from our non-digital lives.

Given the failure of conventional politics to guarantee private citizens a meaningful say in the regulation and operation of these networks, new political forums – within corporations themselves – must be created. This paper presents the Ethical Telecom Futures project which aims to create a set of principles for the ethical operation of telecommunications corporations and an ethical investment vehicle for advocating these principles within them. Drawing from the work of various researchers and NGOs, I propose an ethical standard for telecom that places primacy on the maintenance and facilitation of personal privacy, and transparency and accountability within the corporation.


The big Data Hide and Seek: Theorizing Data Activism

Stefania Milan, University of Tilburg

As massive data collection progressively invades all spheres of contemporary society, citizens grow increasingly aware of the critical role of information as the new fabric of social life. This awareness triggers new forms of civic engagement and political action that I have termed ‘data activism’. Data activism indicates the series of social practices that at different levels, in different forms, and from different points of departure are concerned with a critical approach to big data. Data activists address massive data collection as both a challenge to individual rights, and a novel set of opportunities for social change; they appropriate technological innovation, and software in particular, for political or social change purposes. This (relatively) new empirical phenomenon emerges at the intersection of the social and technological dimensions of human action. It rises from the open-source and hacker movements, but overcomes their elitist character to increasingly involve ordinary users, thus signaling a change in perspective towards massive data collection emerging within civil society. It concerns both individuals and groups, and operates at different territorial levels, from local to transnational.

This theoretical paper explores the notion data activism as a heuristic tool to think politically about big data, and massive data collection in particular. It offers a conceptual map to approach grassroots engagement with data from an interdisciplinary perspective, combining political sociology, science and technology studies, and international relations. Finally, It outlines a typology of data activism, and positions it in the contemporary social movement ecology.


Data Luddism

Dan McQuillan, University of London

The notion of Data Luddism acts as a historically-grounded lens through which to assess both the emergence of data as productive power and the significance of forms of resistance. Data Luddism asks how control, discrimination, and social sorting may lead to a broader reconfiguration of social relationships that parallel in scope and significance the shift from artisan to factory labour. These shifts include a consequential loss of agency by sections of the population and the establishment of unaccountable powers. Drawing on scholarship that reframes Luddism as an enacted critique of socio-technical consequences, I examine contemporary forms. At the same time I explore the absence of popular mobilisation in the face of negative data consequences, to ask - why there are no angry crowds outside Facebook data centers?

Taking machinery as a central figure, Data Luddism anchors the consequences of data power in the materiality of technology. At the same time it motivates a reading of the technology in the light of broader social, economic and political conditions. The era of Luddism was the period of the Napoleonic Wars, an era also marked by harsh austerity, external conflict and apocalyptic social threats. To conclude, I will engage in speculative reading of history to ask what might have been possible if the Luddites had been in a position to hack the technology of their time, as a way to surface the real if not actual potential of a different kind of data power.