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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