Sociotechnical Imaginaries of Different Data Futures: An experiment in citizen data

Speaker: Evelyn Ruppert # Goldsmiths, University of London

28th Jan 2019

15:30 - 17:00

CMB Staff Room (6th Floor)

Controversies over Facebook data breaches and election influencing of Cambridge Analytica along with claims about alternative facts make it a challenging situation to present a research experiment that involves designing an app for citizen engagement. In the face of these controversies, a cynical response would be to abandon big data research. However, to do so would be to accept that the current trajectory of data politics is inexorable. It would mean to accept the history of our present as given. This is evident in reactions that data generated by various digital technologies are a threat, menace, risk, or peril or obverse responses that extol their merits and argue that they are at least improving and enhancing our lives and relations and the dangers are a small price to pay.

I want to argue instead that the vulnerable and precarious state of digital technologies provide openings for reimagining relations between states and citizens in the production of knowledge and statistics. Through an account of a design experiment as a mode of critiquing citizen-state data relations, I offer a different sociotechnical imaginary. It is an imaginary about the democratic possibilities of relations to digital technologies. By conceiving of citizen rights beyond the persistent focus on privacy, anonymity and data protection, it considers the possibilities of citizens exercising the right to intervene in the making of data about themselves and the societies of which they are a part. This account draws on four years of collaborative ethnographic research on the making of official statistics conducted along with five postdoctoral and doctoral researchers – Baki Cakici, Francisca Grommé, Stephan Scheel, Ville Takala, and Funda Ustek-Spilda – in a project funded by the ERC, Peopling Europe: How data make a people (ARITHMUS).

Evelyn Rupert is Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London