A post-humanist critique of Rockwell and Berendt's all too Humanist essay, in the vein of Donna Haraway’s “Keeping with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Cthulucene” (2016) and Patricia MacCormack’s “Posthuman Ethics” (2012).
Geoffrey Rockwell and Bettina Berendt's (2017) article calls for
ethical consideration around big data and digital archive, asking
us to re-consider whether
information wants to be free. In
outlining how digital archives and algorithms structure potential
the other whose testimony has been
digitized, Rockwell and Berendt highlight how data practices change
the relationship between research and researched. They make a
provocative and important argument: datafication and open access
should, in certain cases, be resisted. They champion the careful
curation of data rather than large-scale collection of
dirty data, pointing to the ways in which these data are used
to construct knowledge about and fundamentally limit the agency of
the research subject by controlling the narratives told about them.
Rockwell and Berendt, drawing on Aboriginal Knowledge (AK)
frameworks, amongst others, argue that some knowledge is just not
meant to be openly shared: information is not an inherent good, and
access to information must be earned instead. This approach was
prompted, in part, by their own work scraping #gamergate Twitter
feeds and the ways in which these data could be used to speak for
real time, without their consent.
From our vantage point, Rockwell and Berendt's renewed call for
an ethics of datafication is a timely one, as we are mired in media
reports related to social media surveillance, electoral tampering,
fake news and
micro-targeting on one side. Thanks,
Facebook. On the other side, academics fight for the right to
collect and access big data in order to reveal how gender and
racial discrimination are embedded in the algorithms that structure
everything from online real estate listings, to loan interest
rates, to job postings (American Civil Liberties Union 2018). As
surveillance studies scholars, we deeply appreciate how Rockwell
and Berendt take a novel approach: they turn to a discussion of
Freedom of Information (FOI), Freedom of Expression (FOE), Free and
Open Source software, and Access to Information. In doing so, they
unpack the assumptions commonly held by librarians, digital
humanists and academics in general, to show that accumulation and
datafication is not an inherent good. This is coupled with a
healthy skepticism surrounding techno-utopic big data claims.
sharing economy rhetorics aside, it is
quite evident that datafication does not benefit all equally, but
favors those who already hold power, increasing the gap between
'haves' and 'have nots' (Srnicek 2016), and, following Virginia
Eubanks (2018), automating inequality.
One of Rockwell and Berendt's key points is that
the act of
digitizing and mounting digital archives can silence others who
have some claim to the culture digitized: data speak for others
without their consent (and often without their knowledge). In this
way data are placed on equal ground as testimony, as narrative.
Therefore, an ethics of datafication should be rooted in a
relationship of care for the other that generated these data, and
the infrastructures of digital archives should be constructed in a
way that might limit access to data or the stories that might be
told through them. In some cases, an ethical practice on the part
of digital humanists might be to avoid datafication entirely. In
response to this line of argument, we'd like to offer a few
provocations of our own. The notion that digitization may expose
private or even sacred narratives to those outside of culture-bound
communities presumes a narrative quality to digital information
that it does not inherently possess. In order words, we regard
narrative as a human construct rooted in interpretive hermeneutics
that must enter into a co-productive relationship with digital
information in order for narrative to emerge as its avatar. As
such, narrative may emerge from any data set¬-whether complete or
incomplete-and present an interpretive conclusion. This introduces
new ethical questions regarding the production of informed
narrative versus those that might be misleading or predicated on
incomplete information. Thus, our first counterpoint to Rockwell
and Berendt's article is rooted in the pragmatics of
datafication in an era of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff
1. Archives and Infrastructure: The Epistemological Consequences of Declining Datafication.
Although nearly every living person in the developed world is
subject to the forces of information extraction and, as a
corollary, to datification, these processes are not collective
efforts. While the early internet promised a democratic new
territory for users to explore, exchange information, and interact
across a diverse range of small, independent sites and locals, the
internet-as we know it today-has matured beyond its promising
beginnings, mutating into something altogether different (Tufekci
2016). Indeed, as the internet shed its democratic origins (if they
ever truly existed), network traffic became increasingly
concentrated around several key sites or platforms that now command
the lion's share of bandwidth allocation and surveillant capacity.
As such, the ability to extract, parse, and make sense of user data
is largely concentrated in the hands of a few powerful information
brokers who have a vested interest in
engineering the public
and making these more tractable, empirical non-human constructs
speak (Tufekci 2014). Indeed, even national programs
directed at the surveillance of online data for the maintenance of
international intellectual property rights, state governance, and
for national security purposes rely heavily on these brokers to
guarantee a continuous stream of information (See: Lyon 2015).
In the face of such practices, an ethical stance that actively limits datification and/or the recombination of data to tell new narratives inevitably demands careful, considered, and costly construction of data infrastructures on the part of researchers. Yet Rockwell and Berendt's curated data edifices, while ethical and respectful to the generators of said data, would be vastly overshadowed by competing corporate infrastructures, which are built with no such restrictions. If the public sector, including academia, fails to keep pace with digitization and information extraction efforts, this ultimately increases the asymmetrical imbalance between private sector and corporate information brokers and the general public. The narratives that data tell will be predominantly constructed by corporate actors, with material interests. And so, while an ethics of datafication is important, it must also be accompanied by efforts to regulate and make more transparent that corporate data practices operating in parallel to scholarly archives.
Although Rockwell and Berendt question and problematize the potential of big data to advance human knowledge, its true ability to generate valid insight need not be placed into question here. If the archives and analytical toolkits that constitute big data are possessed, produced, and manipulated by only private or government agencies, there can be no independent verification or public inquiry into any inference that they might make. As such, any increase in the asymmetry of the possession of digital information translates directly to an asymmetry in the ability to make unverifiable truth claims-providing, in essence, an epistemic carte blanche to corporate or state actors. We consider this potential for corporate or state epistemic hegemony to be a major cause for concern in the formulation of Rockwell and Berendt's ethical position.
More directly, in addressing Rockwell and Berendt's concerns
that secret indigenous mythologies or histories might be
made-through the process of digitization-available to audiences
outside of those to whom they rightfully belong, we counter that
such digitization is already occurring with or without the blessing
of public sector actors, academics, or private citizens, and is
traded, popularized, erased, commodified, or otherwise adapted for
the purposes of either monetization or government profiling. An
ethical stance rooted in
declining datafication thus could
generate further inequalities rather than resolve them.
2. Whose Story Do Data Tell? Privacy, Privilege and Posthuman Ethics
Our second provocation is that the ontological perspective from
which Rockwell and Berendt develop their ethical critique relies on
a humanistic framework that the processes of informatization and
digital surveillance actively cannibalize (and may have already
undone to a significant degree). The emergence of big data, mass
digitization, digital surveillance, information extraction, and the
rise of the so-called
internet of things have prompted an
entire posthuman literature that sought (and seeks) to de-centre
the human figure from its privileged position in political
ontology. As such, we find an ethics rooted in a humanistic
framework to be potentially anachronistic. Here, we argue against a
humanistic ethics of digitization along two axes. The first applies
pressure to the notion of a digital privacy as a human right. Like
all rights, digital privacy is unevenly administrated and accessed.
Privacy is made manifest by neither law nor sentiment; it must be
enacted, protected, and enforced. In the case of digital privacy,
the ability for one to control whom they share information with and
how it is used, is deeply stratified.
For those individuals who find themselves under an increased
level of digital surveillance or information extraction, the
ability to withdraw from the production of archive is limited.
Police records, social assistance records, immigration forms,
health records, etc.-themselves crosscut by, and prone to,
reproducing, histories of racism, classism, cissexism, and
homophobia- will continue to be entered into the archival record.
Indeed, it is true that certain factions may be able to avoid
surveillance, information extraction, and the digitization of their
life's story, and yet we see this kind of digital or surveillant
abstinence as coming packaged alongside a difficult ethical
problem: it creates a situation wherein the positive aspects of
abstaining from datafication are bestowed upon those privileged
enough to escape continuous legal, medical, epidemiological,
financial, and moralizing government surveillance, and are able to
contend with-or even benefit from-an archive composed of materials
that reflect and recapitulate unjust, discriminatory premises and
practices. Taken alongside the way that powerful data brokers might
increase their stranglehold on big data archives and the algorithms
through which they are made to
speak truth, such a prospect
should frighten us.
While Rockwell and Berendt actively resist framing data in agential terms (e.g. critiquing the idea that information wants anything, let alone to be free), they frame data as indexical - linking them to individualized narratives (e.g. datafication is an appropriation of voice). In this move, Rockwell and Berendt risk over-simplifying what data are. Our point here is this: our corpus of data only rarely point back to human actors, and even more rarely do they capture authorial or spoken intent. For the most part, the stories data tell are not about us, and thus an ethical approach to datafication that is rooted in a humanistic framework may be obsolete already.
A posthuman world is also one that is post-anthropocentric.
Although much environmentalist and ecological literature has sought
to de-privilege the human animal as the sole beneficiary of our
planetary resources, only recently have they intersected with
discussion centred around digitization and big data. In Benjamin
The Stack: On Software and Sovereignty (2016),
Bratton conceives of an
accidental megastructure of both
organic and inorganic components drawn together through the
omnipresence of machine interfaces, universal addressing systems,
software, hardware, and various sensory machines. In the
Stack, Bratton draws little distinction between the human
and non-human, deeming them both
user inside the
technological apparatus that has engulfed not only the surface, but
the geological strata of our earth.
If we focus only on those ethical concerns that arise from a
humanistic vantage point, we ignore an equally provocative and
prudent ethics that seeks to protect the unhuman and to give it
voice in a moral calculus. It is in the vein of Donna Haraway's
recent writing in
Keeping with the Trouble: Making Kin in the
Cthulucene (2016) and Patricia MacCormack's
Ethics (2012) that we render these critiques. To privilege the
human need for privacy in these posthuman times is to deny adequate
consideration to the ways in which our data-even our compromising
data-may contribute to the healing of our damaged planet. Moreover,
data gathered from internet-connected non-human sources (already
outnumbering human sources of data), must also skew our
understanding of the ethics of digitization. For the first time,
our oceans, rocks, minerals, flora, and fauna, may be able to enter
their own histories and narratives into the archive. While
digitization may indeed pose ethical problems for humans, the
broader ethical questions that circumambulate digitization and
information extraction writ large reach far deeper and
much farther out than those that elect (rather arbitrarily)
humanist principles as their central dogma.
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Judge Allows ACLU Case
Challenging Law Preventing Studies on 'Big Data' Discrimination to
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Wants to Be Free, Or Does It?: The Ethics of Datafication.
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