Can data be neutral? //This Side of Reality

I very much enjoyed being part of the live podcast This Side of Reality in October, but was too busy to update the blog. Tanya (DR TANYA KANT, Lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies, University of Sussex), Chris (CHRIS MIDDLETON, Journalist / Author / Robotics Expert / MusicianandCJ had all interesting insights to share, and it was great to be on the panel for this episode (episode 3: Can Data be Neutral?). We discussed various matters around data and discrimination and I also had a chance to present the Critical Data Literacy project.
You can now listen to the edited podcast (and of course share if you’d like) on iTunesTotallyRadio and SoundCloud.

Brighton Digital Festival explores the unexpected realities of digital culture in a new live podcast. Hosted by CJ Thorpe at 68 Middle Street. Broadcast live from the event on TotallyRadio DAB and totallyradio.com.

12 Oct – Episode 3: Can Data Be Neutral?

We think of data as science – indisputable collection of facts.

With machine learning taking over important aspects of our lives, we need to ask: can data ever be neutral? Are we running risks of automating existing biases and prejudice into our digital future?

From big data being used to determine employability, insurance, and criminal convictions, to personalised search results and newsfeeds stifling learning and democracy – we talk about the politics and ethics of data and machine learning.

 

 

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Real Social Analytics in BJS

1280px-social-mediaOur article in the British Journal of Sociology is (early) online . This article argues against the assumption that agency and reflexivity disappear in an age of ‘algorithmic power’ (Lash 2007). Following the suggestions of Beer (2009), it proposes that, far from disappearing, new forms of agency and reflexivity around the embedding in everyday practice of not only algorithms but also analytics more broadly are emerging, as social actors continue to pursue their social ends but mediated through digital interfaces: this is the consequence of many social actors now needing their digital presence, regardless of whether they want this, to be measured and counted. The article proposes ‘social analytics’ as a new topic for sociology: the sociological study of social actors’ uses of analytics not for the sake of measurement itself (or to make profit from measurement) but in order to fulfil better their social ends through an enhancement of their digital presence. The article places social analytics in the context of earlier debates about categorization, algorithmic power, and self-presentation online, and describes in detail a case study with a UK community organization which generated the social analytics approach. The article concludes with reflections on the implications of this approach for further sociological fieldwork in a digital world.

 
Cite: Couldry, N., Fotopoulou, A. and Dickens, L. (2016), Real social analytics: A contribution towards a phenomenology of a digital world. The British Journal of Sociology. doi: 10.1111/1468-4446.12183

 

Autumn 2014 update!

There has been so much going on during the last few months and so little time to update the blog! After coming back from the States (my activities there are summarised in this report:  AFotopoulou_Nemode End of Placement052014 –Tracking biodata: Ownership & sharing, research placement output, RCUK Digital Economy NEMODE), I’ve been busy writing up a bunch of articles. My research in San Francisco was only partly about the Quantified Self (there is plenty of ethnographic research being done by anthropologists at the moment, such as Dawn Nafus), and it has resulted in a rather sociological approach to the phenomenon – which got published recently in Open Democracy. Here I raise some questions about the political potential of formations that engage with data policy in some way or another (such as the Quantified Self), and propose that this experimental engagement (a bit geeky, technical, but at the same time involving storytelling and meeting offline) might signify a new type of public, what I heuristically call ‘smart publics’. Of course this idea, and a theorisation of ‘smart publics’, is developed more clearly in an academic article (forthcoming, watch this space!).

At this point, priority for me has taken writing about cultural understandings of data sharing, and the underlying discourses that circulate in the media, particularly in fiction. I have been exploring how circulating ideas of ‘data utopia’ (a utopia of data abundance and a particular vision of democracy) informs user practices. I happily completed a draft of the article, with a working title ‘All these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data’ and due for submission any time now, during a three-day writing retreat at Forrest Hills, in Lancaster, organised by the Department of Sociology. Of course I’ve been testing these ideas since February this year, first in an invited talk at the Center for Cultural Studies, University of California, Santa Cruz, and then at Crossroads 2014,  the Cultural Studies Conference, in July in Finland, in a panel on Permeable Boundaries: Bodies in Science, Medicine, and Culture.

Joining the Department of Sociology in Lancaster University, on September 1st, has of course been absolutely thrilling – it’s a top department and a great fit for my work – especially because of the Centre for Science Studies and the Gender & Women’s Studies Centre (with current directors Imogen Tyler & Celia Roberts, and former directors Jackie Stacey, Sara Ahmed, Celia Lury, Bev Skeggs, Gail Lewis, Lynne Pearce, Anne-Marie Fortier, Vicky Singleton and Maureen McNeil). I have now the opportunity to complete my monograph ‘Feminist activism and new media: digital and networked by default?’, which will be published by Palgrave MacMillan in 2016. This is based on my PhD thesis but will include some new research and a refined theoretical framework. I pose a question in the subtitle, which many people have found intriguing – and I explain why I pose the question in the article Digital and Networked by default? Women’s organisations and the social imaginary of networked feminism, coming out any day now in New Media & Society. (So watch this space too!)

July also brought about the publication of the special issue on Queer feminist media praxis, which I co-edited with Alex Juhasz and Kate O’Riordan in  Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, No.5. And the launch of  SusNet – the CCN+ funded network which brings together feminist cultural production, art and activist practices and enables exchanges between different researchers, activists, artists and aims to contribute to knowledge exchanges across these areas and beyond.

 

So a lot of research activity and productive interactions this Autumn – but I’m also looking forward to teaching Media and Cultural Studies courses. This term I’m teaching the 101 course in Media and Cultural Studies with Adam Fish, and Critical Cultural Theory with Debra Ferreday. Good stuff!

 

‘All these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data’ tomorrow at UCSC

‘All these emotions, all these yearnings, all these data’: platform openess, data sharing and visions democracy’,

at Center for Cultural Studies, UC Santa Cruz, 5th February 2014

ABSTRACT

Digital culture has long focussed on the quality of content, which constitutes users and producers decisively different from platform owners who manage data quantity, metadata and behavioural profiling. But what happens when users and communities become interested in all these data, and become reflexive of their own practices? What kinds of knowledges are produced when they produce and share new types of data? This paper observes the emerging mediascape of wearable sensors and mobile technologies through utopian and dystopian narratives, and makes special mention to the Quantified Self culture; that is lay people who engage voluntarily in a range of practices of self-monitoring, data collection and analysis. Moving beyond the Panopticon model and questioning the notion of empowerment, the paper suggests that analysing user practices in specific locations can help us understand how the changing role of data in everyday life is symptomatic of shifts in the relationship between citizens and the state.

* slides to follow

** work leading to this paper has received funding from a) European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007–2013) under the grant EPINET and b) RCUK Digital Economy NEMODE.