on “Leakiness and creepiness in app space”

I recent­ly had an email exchange with Iri­na Shklovs­ki in which she kind­ly sent me the paper she pre­sent­ed at the CHI con­fer­ence this year. It’s a great paper, with some care­ful­ly thought through insights into the data we pro­duce and (often inad­ver­tent­ly) share when using smart phones. 

Iri­na Shklovs­ki, Scott D. Main­war­ing, Hal­la Hrund Skúladót­tir, and Höskul­dur Borgth­ors­son. 2014. Leak­i­ness and creepi­ness in app space: per­cep­tions of pri­va­cy and mobile app use. In Pro­ceed­ings of the 32nd annu­al ACM con­fer­ence on Human fac­tors in com­put­ing sys­tems (CHI ’14). ACM, New York, NY, USA, 2347–2356. 

The paper got me think­ing about some broad­er (and long-stand­ing) issues I’ve been work­ing through myself relat­ed to the researcher’s agen­tial (and often inad­ver­tent) role in empir­i­cal research. What fol­lows are some slight­ly amend­ed com­ments I’ve shared with Irina.
Leakiness and creepiness in app space
Some­thing that strikes me is that the paper presents a set of exam­ples (dare I say data) about how peo­ple make sense of worlds from, if you will, out­side of them. I won­der to what extent this is dif­fer­ent to how we actu­al­ly use our mobile devices (how we enact these worlds)? So to what extent are the reflec­tions on talk about pri­va­cy, creepi­ness, leek­ages, help­less­ness, etc. insights into how we ratio­nalise what we do as opposed to insights into what we do? I’m not say­ing this (I hope) to make that well-worn argu­ment about peo­ple not doing what they say we do. Nor do I say it to lessen the val­ue of the inter­views and sur­vey results pre­sent­ed. I think it’s impor­tant though to draw atten­tion to the kind of mate­ri­als being exam­ined and what can be sen­si­bly said about them.
Here’s one take on the paper, just to try to illus­trate this point a bit. The the­o­ris­ing from Alt­man and Nis­senbaum sug­gest the pre­sump­tion of some dis­crete (and some­what sta­ble) ideas of inte­ri­or, exte­ri­or, pri­vate, pub­lic, space, etc. etc. Yes, there may be a flu­id­i­ty to how things move between these cat­e­gories (and they may change over time), but nev­er­the­less, the impli­ca­tion is there are for all intents and pur­pos­es a set of sta­ble, applic­a­ble cat­e­gories. My sug­ges­tion isn’t that this is a strong claim, but it does feel like it’s more or less the work­ing assump­tion in the paper.
In being care­ful about the kinds of empir­i­cal mate­ri­als being used, I think there’s a dif­fer­ent way to think about this. I won­der whether per­for­ma­tiv­i­ty might be a use­ful con­cept to work with? Might we say that these things the researchers and the infor­mants col­lec­tive­ly spoke about, e.g. selves, data, devices, third par­ties, pri­va­cy etc. are being drawn togeth­er to enact just these cat­e­gories? What we might be see­ing here is not an indi­ca­tion of how data falls into (or threads across) these cat­e­gories, but how we enact them when we talk about our mobile devices and how we make sense of data in those self same terms. (This is one of the ideas I take from Nel­son Good­man’s “Ways of World­mak­ing” (1978). I love his remark: “The uni­for­mi­ty of nature we mar­vel at or the unre­li­a­bil­i­ty we protest belongs to a world of our own mak­ing.” p.10).
Take this state­ment, for example:

“This is com­plete­ly ridicu­lous, I would not invite peo­ple into my clos­et, this is way out of line. No I don’t find it appro­pri­ate to give up per­son­al infor­ma­tion in exchange for this game and that they don’t need more approval than they appar­ent­ly do.”

What are the cir­cum­stances (dis­cur­sive and mate­r­i­al) that would allow a con­ver­sa­tion to unfold in this way and for things like smart phones to be talked about like clos­ets? More­over, how is it that data on these devices should be under­stood as per­son­al and in some fash­ion belong­ing to the per­son speak­ing? I don’t see any of these things to be giv­en. Rather, I want to ask in what way the assem­blage of inter­view, peo­ple, devices, data, etc. allow for this kind of talk and enact­ment of cat­e­gories like per­son­al, infor­ma­tion, right vs. wrong, etc. (I take this argu­ment direct­ly from Helen Ver­ran’s won­der­ful book, “Sci­ence and an African Log­ic”.
This might seem like an unnec­es­sary the­o­ris­ing, but I think it comes back to the ques­tion of the kind of empir­i­cal mate­ri­als pre­sent­ed in the paper and what can be said about them. From the results, I don’t know whether one can real­ly say peo­ple have sta­ble ideas of val­ues tied to what’s per­son­al and what’s creepy when it comes to infringe­ments on the per­son­al. I do think what can be use­ful­ly asked is ‘How is it that this assem­blage of actors/agents allows us to talk about things like pri­vate, pub­lic, creepi­ness, leek­ages, help­less­ness, etc.?’
Where this becomes con­crete, I think, is when we then ask how might things be dif­fer­ent? So in what oth­er ways might we talk about these things and what are the pos­si­bil­i­ties of using mat­ter (or design) to inter­vene? For instance, how might the data being col­lect­ed be refig­ured (dis­cur­sive­ly and mate­ri­al­ly) as not per­son­al? What would it take in the design of these sys­tems (and their inter­faces) for peo­ple to talk about the data being col­lect­ed as not about them in any inti­mate way, but about some ‘imper­son­al’ aggre­ga­tion of data from a net­work of nodes? For me this offers the begin­nings for think­ing dif­fer­ent­ly about data and what it might enable.

1. Good­man, N. (1978). Ways of world­mak­ing. Hack­ett Publishing.
2. Ver­ran, H. (2001). Sci­ence and an African log­ic. Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press.
Good­man, N. (1978). Ways of world­mak­ing. Hack­ett Publishing.
Ver­ran, H. (2001). Sci­ence and an African log­ic. Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go Press.

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