Talk at INCITE-ing Transformation in Social Research


On Sat­urday (12 Oct) I presen­ted a short paper reflect­ing on INCITE’s achieve­ments over the last 10 or so years at INCITE-ing Trans­form­a­tion in Social Research


Ref­er­en­cing her New Media’s Inter­me­di­ar­ies art­icle, I want to glimpse back to reflect on how Nina Wake­ford posi­tioned INCITE and made sense of it against a back drop of cul­tur­al the­ory, sci­ence and tech­no­logy stud­ies, CSCW and soci­ology

.. And, in doing this, I also want to peer for­ward, to con­sider what troubles there might be ahead, and what pro­duct­ive pos­sib­il­it­ies we might ima­gine for ourselves. (more…)

Short note on Solove’s Nothing to Hide’


Some early thoughts on data and pri­vacy, think­ing with Solove’s Noth­ing to Hide:

Early on in his 2011 book, Noth­ing to Hide, Daniel Solove makes a pro­voc­at­ive claim. He writes:

Leg­al and policy solu­tions focus too much on the prob­lems under the Orwellian meta­phor — those of sur­veil­lance — and aren’t adequately address­ing the Kafkaesque prob­lems — those of inform­a­tion pro­cessing” p.26

Solove’s point here is that much of the leg­al wranglings and policy mak­ing sur­round­ing pri­vacy are based on the premise that people have some­thing to hide. Thus the aims have, by and large, been tied to secur­ing pro­tec­tions against sur­veil­lance — oper­at­ing with­in the rub­ric of an Orwellian meta­phor”.

The broad­er argu­ment Solove makes is that this treat­ment of pri­vacy is miss­ing the pro­ver­bi­al trick.  As a concept, pri­vacy doesn’t simply entail people want­ing to hide things. For starters, accord­ing to Solove, “[m]any people don’t care about con­ceal­ing the hotels they stay at, the cars they own, or the kind of bever­ages they drink.” p.25 “[M]uch of the data gathered in com­puter data­bases isn’t par­tic­u­larly sens­it­ive, such as one’s race, birth date, gender, address, or mar­it­al status.” P.25

It isn’t so much the gath­er­ing of inform­a­tion that mat­ters, Solove con­tends. It’s what agen­cies like gov­ern­ments are doing with it — the inform­a­tion pro­cessing” — that counts. The allu­sion is to a Kafkaesque world in which the rela­tions between agen­cies and indi­vidu­als are man­aged and con­trolled through the ana­lys­is of inform­a­tion or data. The power, so to speak, is held by those who can both access the data and sub­ject it to soph­ist­ic­ated ana­lys­is. I take this use of inform­a­tion pro­cessing to be ana­log­ous to big data ana­lyt­ics and cer­tainly most of the examples Solve refers to sup­port this.

I don’t know what Solove’s sources are for sug­gest­ing most people” don’t care about the con­tent of the inform­a­tion being gathered about them (this recent Guard­i­an art­icle appears to con­firm this). I do get his broad­er point though. Cer­tainly, it’s lim­it­ing to see pri­vacy as exclus­ively based on the premise that people have some­thing to hide. Moreover, the pos­sib­il­it­ies big data ana­lyt­ics open up for dis­cov­er­ing some pretty per­son­al things about people do seem daunt­ing, if per­haps over-hyped.

Yet, without want­ing to dis­count Solove’s argu­ment, I want to pro­pose a dif­fer­ent way of think­ing about this issue of inform­a­tion pro­cessing. Seen from the ground up, we might also start to ask what people them­selves want to say through their data and using ana­lyt­ics. When Solove writes about most people” I think we need to begin think­ing about what this actu­al means and if there are ways of mak­ing claims like this action­able. So, a counter to the noth­ing to hide argu­ment” could be that most people — giv­en the know­ledge and tools — have some­thing to say”. That is they may want to have some say over how their inform­a­tion is dis­trib­uted, aggreg­ated, ana­lysed and inter­preted and, ulti­mately, how it is pro­duct­ively put to work. This cer­tainly won’t solve the mul­tiple prob­lems sur­round­ing pri­vacy, but it may at least redis­trib­ute the power and, in the pro­cess, give people some new ways of express­ing them­selves.

Oh, and as it hap­pens, this ques­tion of how to enable people to have some sort of say and con­trol over what gets done with their inform­a­tion is one of the motiv­a­tions for the new pro­ject we’re ramp­ing up in my group at Microsoft Research.

* A thank you to Jessa Lin­gel for point­ing me to the first quote above from Solove.

Announcing Tenison Road launch

Finally pos­ted some fly­ers to announce the launch of the big data pro­ject we’ll run for a year. We hope to work with the res­id­ents and pro­pri­et­ors on Ten­ison Road in Cam­bridge to bet­ter under­stand how big data mat­ters and what people on the street want it to be. This is a pro­ject that is aim­ing to get at the inter­ming­lings of data and loc­al­ity, and to inter­vene in the entan­gle­ments in pro­duct­ive ways. That’s the hope! ... Fin­gers crossed.

Changes to FoI Act


Some sig­ni­fic­ant changes to the UK’s Free­dom of Inform­a­tion Act were enacted yes­ter­day that give people to right to request and, crit­ic­ally, reuse data. It’s prob­ably easy to over­look the implic­a­tions of this. The way I see it, every­one (includ­ing com­mer­cial bod­ies) now have the right to access FoI reg­u­lated data and (re-)use it for ana­lys­is, ana­lyt­ics, build­ing apps, etc. Wheth­er that’s good or bad, it seems pretty pro­found to me. See a sum­mary of the changes here on the Inform­a­tion Commissioner’s Office blog.

Short note on Objects, Infrastructure and Vocation’


Infra­struc­ture and Voca­tion: Field, Call­ing and Com­pu­ta­tion in Eco­logy

A bril­liant CHI paper by Steven Jack­son and Sarah Bar­brow. How many papers presen­ted at CHI cite St. Augustine of Hippo and, to boot, suc­ceed in draw­ing out rel­ev­ant reflec­tions on sci­entif­ic mod­el­ling tools in eco­logy. See­ing eco­logy through the lens of both infra­struc­ture and the voca­tion­al call­ing’ provides a pro­duct­ive view onto what eco­lo­gists do and how their prac­tices are chan­ging. Jack­son and Bar­brow illus­trate this nicely by writ­ing of the chan­ging notion of the field’ for eco­lo­gists. I see a strong par­al­lel here between eco­logy and bio­logy. Bio­logy is a field very much in trans­ition and the changes have much to do with the mater­i­al encoun­ters in bio­lo­gic­al work — with for example the chan­ging nature of bio­lo­gists’ work at the bench’ and with exper­i­ment­al appar­at­us. The turn to machines, com­pu­ta­tion and algorithms is not only reshap­ing the prac­tices but also refig­ur­ing what bio­lo­gists know and how they see their phe­nom­ena (some­thing we also tried to get across in At the inter­face of bio­logy and com­pu­ta­tion at CHI). A sim­il­ar con­clu­sion is being drawn out in this papers as it cap­tures the entangled rela­tions between the tools, prac­tices and ways of know­ing in eco­logy.

On always already


The phrase always already” is, in the main, attrib­uted to the post­struc­tur­al­ist philo­soph­er Jaques Der­rida. It has, how­ever, come to be a trope for the new mater­i­al­ists and it is in this usage that I mod­estly take it on. Spe­cific­ally, my guid­ing sources are from the fem­in­ist tech­nos­cience schol­ars Donna Har­away and Kar­en Barad, both of whom make heavy use of the phrase to trouble the bin­ar­ies abound in sci­ence and tech­no­logy (subject-object, mind-matter, inside-outside, past-present, etc.).

For some back ground read­ing see The New Mater­i­al­ist Always Already”: On an A-Human Human­it­ies.