Queering big data

images-32Back from Berlin, having met so many good people. After the discussions in the Feminist Big Data plenary and the Bodies session (in AioR 2016), I am sharing here the key points of my intervention. In the paper that I presented in the Bodies panel, I talked about my research on reproductive health and wellbeing apps and cultures of self-tracking. A steady line of inquiry in my current work and in my book, that is coming out in March,  is the reshaping of feminist practices with digital media. I find it necessary to ask what form feminist politics around reproductive rights take with new data practices, and more generally, what might a feminist critique to data collection look like? For me, this use raises some critical social, political and ethical questions around data ownership and power, labour and exploitation. But they also offer the possibility for new modes of engagement with our bodies, our data, and with biomedical knowledge; they also may present new  feminist frontiers and realities.

My provocation during the plenary discussion, as a contribution to what a feminist approach to big data would entail, was about queering big data. First, I brought as an example the QSXX groups (women-identified only Quantified Self meet-ups), to suggest the necessity for situated (digital media) practices in relation to self-tracking and big data – I write about these in my new book on Feminist activism and Digital Networks. I used ‘situated’ borrowing from Donna Haraway’s work on seeing things from an always partial perspective and from the social context where one finds themselves standing in. Why is it necessary and relevant to a feminist big data perspective to look at situated practices like this? Because such spaces and groups may be reflexive of the exclusions they perform and of their own privilege. And because here ‘small data’ approaches and storytelling can be politically productive ways of working with data.

Then I argued that we need to move beyond critiques of masculinist design, and actually queer big data. How? First, queering data, as a critique means resisting the marketing pitch of products and services that reproduce the heterosexual, nuclear family. Second, we need to turn the discourse of risk around, and conceptualise uncertainty and risk in ways that don’t victimise women, but instead, enable political action. And third, we need to challenge the positivist perception that more data will bring about more certainty in the future.

This is an epigrammatic post, and probably only resonates with those already in the audience, but after the wealth of tweets from the two talks, some misconceptions that need clarification, and requests for slides, I thought I’d leave this here, before the more elaborate discussion of the journal article (and the book) come out.

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