In The Beginning… there was just raw data

Two weeks into DITA, I have many more questions than I have answers, which is a good place to start. I’ve also realised that what I believed I was coming onto this Masters to learn and write about is already changing in shape and form. I had, for instance, only ever considered the issues of information ethics, big data, privacy and surveillance capitalism, from an activist point of view – but it is becoming rapidly clear to me that you cannot break the rules until you know the rules. This is where DITA excites me – the chance to learn how and why we are at the stage we are at in society, what has contributed to it, and how we can change it. We have little to no control over what happens to our data: how our patterns, thinking and consumer choices are dictated by which boxes we do or do not tick online; what we are shown and how we consume based on what we have looked at and consumed before; which privacy statements we choose to agree to without reading; the frightening degree to which big data lacks transparency; the fact that nobody is actually in charge of any of it therefore there is no accountability whatsoever; which groups within our communities are excluded from an increasingly ‘smart’ society; and what all of this means for the ways in which we use information and data to uphold – or undermine – democracy.

I am interested in the ways in which algorithms on social networking sites contribute to polarised thinking and ‘information bubbles’, which we discussed in week 1 in class, and how targeted advertising based on a users profile can sway political opinion and, in a very real and concrete sense, change voting habits and reinforce held beliefs with information that has been designed to support an opinion, rather than ‘true’ information. David Beer discusses this in his piece Data and Political Change, in which he asserts that due to information overload, 21st century societies need information in a more immediate, bitesized manner , mostly because there is so much of it that it would be impossible to access and absorb it all. And the social media algorithms know this, as do the architects of the targeted advertising that exploit these algorithms without us even knowing about it.

I am also keen to learn more about the philosophy of truth in a digital world. What is ‘true’ information – who decides it, how do we reference information to cite its sources, and how do we make more sources of ‘truth’ available to the average layman who does not have access to, or the desire to plough through, journals and think pieces that are written for academics – how do we make the world of big data more accountable and transparent, more accessible to everyone – not just those who write about these issues?

Smart cities are a concern to me for many reasons, as one of my areas of interest is marginalised and disaffected communities. What happens to these groups in a society where they do not have access to the money, resources and networks needed in order to plug into and access the virtual world – in order to lead and manage their lives in accordance with big data principles – and what if we remove the ability for them to engage in society based purely on what they can and cannot afford and access? Homeless and poorer populations in particular are already suffering, as we see from the Universal Credit rollout across Britain, and the affect this is having on individuals and families who do not have the skills or technology required to administer their online account – the only way of submitting and maintaining a Universal Credit claim. Additionally, if a person has no fixed address, how can they still access the library membership needed in order to use the computers within – and that’s if they are even technologically literate? I see a furthering of the divide between mainstream society and these groups if we do not tackle these issues with great urgency.

It has always been my understanding that the rise of big data is a result of capitalism – how to track what we do, when we do it, why we do it, and what/where we need to spend in order to be able to do it – with the ultimate question being: how can we make them buy more of it? Part of my professional background is in market research firms, and I have spent a regrettably large amount of time taking minutes at meetings where twelve or more executives around a table – all on six figure salaries – discuss how to make people buy more of a particular product regardless of whether they actually need it or not. How to get into their thinking, their fears, their insecurities. So to read an argument by Evgeny Morozov on how big data has its origins in the 1970’s socialist leadership in Chile astounded me – is it possible that big data originated from a sincere desire to help, rather than control, the people?

Part of my professional background was also in charities working on issues of freedom of speech and information in closed societies – therefore, this is another of my areas of interest. China has been a long discussed and observed closed society with regards to internet access and surveillance of its population, with Russia soon following suit if they are able to disconnect from the global internet in the way that they allegedly desire to, as discussed and read about in week 2 and this article by Charlotte Jee in the MIT Technology Review.

I have a passion for environmental justice too, which for me is caught up inextricably in questions of democracy, autonomy, and an ecologically sustainable future for humans on earth . It is all very well having technology that can do everything for us, and thirty five devices each, but unless we still have an earth on which to use all these gadgets it is all in vain. The materials we use to make these devices is mined from the earth, usually in countries that cannot afford to fight the processes and powers that decimate their natural environment, which furthers colonialism and consumes energy at an alarming rate. The environmental costs of running server banks is also worrying, as outlined by Shannon Mattern in her piece Extract and Preserve, on LibraryStack.

I wrote this blog with some anxiety, thinking I must have already had some huge, world-changing insight to reveal in order to justify publishing my thoughts on this (or any) subject – but I realise now that it is absolutely fine to write about my questions instead. What is more important, is that I find DITA exciting and thought provoking, and my magic whiteboard wall mindmap is already covered in thought trails and connections. That is good enough for now. Anyway, if I already knew all the answers, that would be ten grand unwisely spent.

This was DITA blogging exercise no. 1, reflecting on sessions 1 & 2.

18 Comments

  1. This was a brilliant read. You touched on the topics that we’ve covered in the past two weeks and contextualised them really well. I totally agree with feeling like I have way more questions than answers at the moment, but it’s a good driving force (for now).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Mehreen! I think it’s a better start than no start, to have lots of questions, yes – and to be expected as well! See you Fri (you full time?) 🙂

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  2. Hi Sam
    I loved reading your thoughts, questions, connections and musings. Despite our very different backgrounds, I think we are both seeking some angle on ‘truth’, ‘meaning’ and ‘human life’… like you, I am in overwhelm / deluge and am swimming my way through, gradually. Exciting times and tides! Great to connect…

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks so much for commenting, Jo! I would love the answers to those things too haha, we may be searching a while tho I reckon. We will come up for air soon don’t worry! See ya Fri 🙂

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  3. Great post Sam. You speak with great passion for things you care about, I’m glad you are asking these questions, it is questions I myself have been asking and we are only in week two. I understand how all these questions could cause anxiety, having all this knowledge only to create more questions and no answers. Hopefully raising such though provoking questions will force us to look at the question and think more critically rather than trying to fined a definite answer. Bringing awareness to these questions is a good start like you said and I hope by the end of the term we have a better understanding of comes next.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for commenting Heidi! It’s not the questions so much that cause anxiety – it’s the not having answers yet! But I think you’re right actually – it’s not so much the questions, but the learning to think critically, that is really important. I feel like if I search for ‘the answer’ I’ll be at it till my dying day, and frustrated to boot. Look forward to seeing you Fri!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Yes, the modern sense of big data, complete with visualizations, dashboards, and real-time updating, on a national scale all started in Allende’s socialist Chile – albeit overseen by Stafford Beer, about as capitalist a consultant as one would wish.
    You are right to be happy to have lots of questions – Luciano Floridi tells us that the questions are what is important; the real power lies with those who decide the questions, not those who give the answers.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for commenting DB! Yes Beer seems… interesting. What a strange choice Allende made there. And as far as the questions go – if we ask them loudly enough, and often enough, will they eventually get answers? And will those answers be ‘truthful’? And who will be giving the answers – who has that power and can we influence that? I think we’ve been asking that question for centuries, but anyway, God loves a trier, apparently.

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  5. Hi Sam,

    Love your post! Shared the same concern about the smart cities and the transparency of the big data as well…. I am particularly worried about the concern of democracy in a way that smart cities and all those technologies used as a means of controlling people and surveillance (“Small city” news from my city: https://edition.cnn.com/2019/09/09/asia/smart-lamp-hong-kong-hnk-intl/index.html) . And what you mentioned “the rise of big data is a result of capitalism” makes me rethink about the meaning and existence of “big data”.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you so much for commenting Mandy! I will read that piece on Hong Kong now – but just the title is enough to send shivers down my spine. As DB commented on here, the creation of big data as we know it now, actually began in Allende’s socialist Chile (under the leadership of Stafford Beer, who was a massive capitalist, but anyway) – I think what has happened is that it has worked out extremely well for capitalism and is now taken advantage of on a huge scale. But to think that it could have begun from socialist thought… amazes me really. Not what I expected! See you Friday 🙂

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  6. This was a great read, and I feel relieved that I am not the only one who had lots of questions after the first two sessions! Your concerns around information poverty and the potential for further disparity between those who will have access and those that won’t were especially interesting, and has left me with a lot to think about.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Great reflection Sam after the two first weeks of class. I believe that you are right about the data and capitalism because allow the companies to control the people lifes without their noticed it. In addition, the poorest sector of the society will suffer the lack of accessibility to this resources.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your comment Daniela! Yes the poor will suffer first, as usual. See you tomorrow if you’re full time, Mon if not 🙂

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  8. This is such a wonderful reflection on the various issues with data, how it is stored and used. I find it really interesting how you have linked it all together and bought in your own professional experience. As this really highlighted that big companies are using our data to make us spend our money on things we do not necessarily need – and are people even aware this is happening?
    It is also comforting that after a few weeks of study I am not the only one with more questions than answers. I really enjoyed your post and I am looking forward to the next one! – Lauren

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much for this Lauren – yes I’m really interested in how big data and surveillance capitalism underpins the ways our brains and thinking and habits develop – and in finding ways to prove / support my suspicions. No idea how I’ll do that yet! 🙂

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