Data: The new four-letter word for feminism

31 May 2016

1. Data-fied existence

In datafication, post-modernity meets a Kafkaesque predicament: we are because we are tracked!

From social science to sci-fi movies, a society controlled by algorithmic intelligence has been presented as an inevitability of our shared human condition. This is not without reason. All around us, we see evidence of an explosive growth in the volume, velocity and variety of data production. The affective and cognitive labour of our social interactions online produces invaluable information for capitalism today. And technologies such as radio-frequency identification (RFID) and the Internet of Things ensure a total digital encompassing of the physical. In datafication, post-modernity meets a Kafkaesque predicament: we are because we are tracked!

An all-pervasive data regime is transforming every social institution and activity. Business intelligence is predicated upon big data-based analytics for enhancing efficiencies in assembly-line production, personalisation of services and market segmentation. Access to data of social behaviour is key to monopolistic control over markets. Take the case of Monsanto. In 2013, it acquired the data science company Climate Corp, with the intention of consolidating its market power by monopolising access to valuable data about farm production cycles. From being an agricultural products company, Monsanto has moved into market intelligence, eyeing a USD 20 billion revenue opportunity. Quite obviously, control over data will allow the controversial corporation (which calls itself a "sustainable" agriculture company) to directly influence farm-level decisions, telling customers what to buy. Today, Apple and Google have ventured into automobile manufacturing to capture the emerging business opportunity in personalising the "in-car" connectivity experience of users.

From A for Amazon to Z for Zomato, a whole new alphabet has emerged that reifies a platform society, one in which capitalism is no more an economic system, but the social order. Feminist concerns about social justice and equity are located in this existential crisis – an overwhelming valorisation of data-based decision making that extends and captures all domains, as an omniscience that does not spare even politics. Elections are fought and won on the basis of data-based mind control, and development is a "wicked problem" to be fixed with the unerring foresight of data. From the international development bureaucracy behind the United Nations Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data to the philanthro-capitalists of the Clinton Good Initiative and techno-managers of welfare systems, the new mantra seems to be “(harnessing) the power of data to transform talk into action”.

How must feminism take on the challenge of a datafied world? How should we understand the self and its sociality in this conjuncture, in feminist terms?

2. A feminist reading of the data-scape

So, how must feminism take on the challenge of a datafied world? How should we understand the self and its sociality in this conjuncture, in feminist terms? We engage with these questions in the sections below, looking first at what data-based institutional methods and systems imply for feminist concerns and struggles.

2.1 Social reproduction in neoliberal sociality

As already noted, the expansion of the data economy has been co-terminus with a new model of capitalism – a neo-liberal sociality – in which the immaterial labour of digital users – acts of love and care – are converted into behavioural data sets, expropriated by private profit. “Everything that was once external to economic logic, such as friendship, is brought within it.” Facebook will not only nudge you to wish your mother a happy Mother's Day, but suggest how your love must be expressed, tantalising you with discounts for pink everythings.

By fetishizing affect and thus skirting the question of the reproduction of everyday life, datafied connectivity takes reproductive work "back into the world of mystification.”(Federici)

The rise of the "sharing economy" obfuscates the materiality of Third World labour upon which the edifice of network capitalism stands. Appealing as it does to the virtue of the responsible consumer – who shares taxis and gives up his couch – it represents a paradoxically inter-dependent society of altruistic strangers. Datafied connectivity overlooks the fact that online communication/production depends on economic activities – mining, microchip and rare earth production – that, as presently organised, are extremely destructive, socially and ecologically, throttling women's local ecosystems and exploiting their bodies. By fetishising affect and thus skirting the question of the reproduction of everyday life, it takes reproductive work "back into the world of mystification”, suggesting that reproducing people is just a matter of producing “emotions” and “feelings”.

A critical question for feminism therefore is about affective ties; how a connected, shared co-existence in contemporary conjuncture can allow for meaningful association and inter-subjectivities beyond the logic of capitalism.

2.2 The "epistemic violence" of data-based decision making

An a priori assumption that more data and its fullest use can result in sustainable development characterises the discourse of development today. The unequivocal consensus is that the world we need, is a world of data. The United Nations' launch of the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data in September 2015 exemplifies this thinking. This initiative has brought together over 70 governments, civil society groups, international organisations and expert networks from all corners of the world, to “strengthen data-driven decision making” for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.

This new brand of techno-solutionism is the latest in a series of acts of “epistemic violence” that the Westphalian development model has unleashed. The bureaucratic projects of development and empowerment seek a brave, new, technical civilisation in which human beings are split into two classes: "social engineers" (read privileged white men) who define problems and the "engineered" who are only acted upon (read subaltern women). The ideology of data, driving policy makers towards this utopia, requires that algorithms determine (and even replace) deliberation and discussion. Citizens are serviced, individually, as clients whose data becomes the basis for governance. Deliberation is managed through technology, with resolute faith in the representativity of Twitter town halls. And women's active citizenship is assumed to be addressed through bridging the gender digital divide. Citizenship itself is thus held to ransom by the “network-data complex” – the powerful alliance between “big-tech companies and their benefactor governments” furthering a neo-liberal capitalist model of development.

Feminism has to challenge the essentialism that data is a priori truth and the universalism that data can represent the entire truth.

In this recasting of society, there is no room for “that dimension of the political which involves transforming private shame into a public claim, private darkness and blindness into public light and visibility.” Participation is tantamount to technological access, mediated as it is by the spectacle of democracy. In this algorithmic order of participation, standpoints of the marginalised and their ethical-political claims, coming out of expressions of dissent, not only become less plausible, they are simply de-legitimised.

Feminist action in this transformation of the public sphere and democracy has to challenge the essentialism that data is a priori truth and the universalism that data can represent the entire truth.

Assuming that data can indeed enable a powerful reconstruction of reality, the process by which it constitutes knowledge for transformative change must be based in deeper ethical-political debates. Unhinged from the complexity of ethics and politics, a world of data – as we are witness to – can end up as an absolutism that endangers the very essence of democracy as feminism would know it.

2.3 Loss of the authentic self

Personalized connectivity is predicated upon an egocentric model of sociality.

Under the “super-panopticon” marking our digital existence, subjects are produced by “grids of surveillance”, that is, the discourse of databases that call upon dispersed and diverse identities – each of which arises in transactions online. Their embodied counterpart may not even be aware of the existence of these data-subjects, and these subjects may not even resemble her. In being and becoming that which she is called upon to be (from "I am" and "I like" to "you are" and "you will like"), both by powerful corporations and the state apparatus, the surveillance subject is disciplined by the fragmentation of her digitalised identities. Just think of Facebook's manipulation of user choice through its news feed algorithm, or the targeted surveillance of the reproductive behaviour of single mothers through welfare regimes. Data-bases, in both instances, nudge remote management of behaviour.

Personalised connectivity is predicated upon an egocentric model of sociality. The greed for data drives individuals to “become locked in themselves, gazing enviously at others.” Self-worth is increasingly about relative popularity – the "likes" one gets on social media, and consequently, the self-policing one must do for greater and greater desirability. As Morozov astutely observes, our voluntary surrender of personal data has nothing to do with public good: “We are too cheap not to use free services subsidized by advertising. Or we want to track our fitness and diet, and then we sell the data.”

The current connectivity paradigm thus highlights an ontological, ethical and political crisis in which individuals are constituted by and as data.

3. Data and democracy

Even though the depths of the ethical, social and political crises of post-modern network society are not fully and commonly understood or debated, there is recognition in some quarters that runaway platform power signals a governance crisis, notably in data governance. Post Snowden, the network-data complex has also been exposed as a fault-line of international political economy and state authoritarianism. Intergovernmental organisations and progressive governments have begun to take due notice of these transgressions, instituting different measures to restrain such violations, predominantly from a right to privacy framework.

In 2013, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 68/167, upholding the inviolability of the right to privacy in online and offline spaces. This was followed up in April 2015 with the appointment of the Special Rapporteur on the right to privacy, who brought attention to the "worse-than Orwellian" situation of pervasive surveillance that we live in. In April 2016, the European Parliament made far-reaching changes to existing privacy regulation, upholding citizens' right to be forgotten and right to data portability, and giving regulators the power to levy heavy fines on corporate actors violating these rules. These steps have been met with mixed reactions in these early times when law and its institutional mechanisms are playing catch-up. Others such as the World Economic Forum have been preoccupied with the question of "good practices" in large data systems that can adequately safeguard privacy – highlighting the importance of distributed storage of data sets, due processes of authorisation for the recombination of data sets, automatic, tamper-proof auditing, and the use of preprogrammed SQL queries/database views that permit only “answers to questions about the data, rather than the data themselves.”

Many of these recommendations, stemming from a liberal standpoint, equate the right to privacy with the understanding that in the lives of all individuals, there is a sphere of “solitude, intimacy and confidentiality” into which the state/other actors must not intrude. This perspective has historically been deployed to challenge state excesses against personal liberties – and in the current context, becomes a powerful basis to challenge state efforts to create massive biometric and welfare surveillance systems.

However, from a feminist standpoint where “personal is political”, privacy considerations in a democracy must pass the test from two ends. Individuals must be seen as having legitimate interests in personal as well as political forms of freedom and equality. Thus, the right to privacy must imply both a common minimum standard of informational, decisional and physical privacy (a room of one's own) vital for a flourishing public-political life as well as a duty for publicity commensurate with social power (given that individuals cannot have much the same needs for privacy). At all times, the larger public interest and the realm of the private must be seen in tandem. It is this view that informs principle Number 11 of APC's Feminist Principles of the Internet: “(We should be) able to access all our personal data and information online, and able to exercise control over them, including knowing who has access to them and under what conditions, and being able to delete them forever. However, this right needs to be balanced against the right to access public information, transparency and accountability.”

There is neither an absolute right to privacy, nor a default 'openness'.

Another way of approaching this discussion on privacy is to acknowledge that privacy and openness are two sides of the same coin. This would help us understand that ideological discourses that exhort the "public"-ness of data (a prime example of which is the report of the UN Data Revolution Group) or the openness of all data (such as the Open Data discourse) are not necessarily antithetical to the idea of privacy. As Vasil Terziev observes in his blog entry on the subject, “People’s motivation behind both privacy and openness stems from the same idea of being in control of your choices... (so) there should not be separation between data protection and openness regulations but rather one framework controlling yet encouraging open information.”

There is neither an absolute right to privacy, nor a default openness. Not all data can be demanded to be put out in the public domain, even if it has been created with public funding. A priori assumptions in this regard may ironically compromise public interest, opening up the private lives of individuals to vested interests. Thus, what data is public and what must remain private should be crucial, context-specific political decisions backed by legal-institutional frameworks.

The work of P2P scholars on the big data commons gives us a handle into imagining the institutional arrangements essential for furthering this vision. As pointed out in the online resource Big Data in Our Hands, the solution may lie in “the creation of an anonymized big data pool as the basis for constructing ... (a) big data commons.”

In the creation of this pool, some key principles would include:

- At the individual level: users no longer readily surrender data
– At the regulatory level: the monopolisation of data can be challenged.
– At the social level: people are able to participate (a) in an existential part of the environment [i.e. creating and sharing data], (b) in political processes (decision making on rules, distribution, etc.), and (c) in economic processes (in which “my” data becomes a potential economic resource which I am able to exploit myself, or I can have it exploited by third parties).

A feminist approach requires that the crisis of subjectivity and sociality in the age of data be re-imagined through a radical practice of community and connectedness.

But what would address the fundamental contradiction of a datafied, fragmented society – the all-pervasive loss of trust? How should we address the marginalisation of women's ways of knowing and an undermining of democratic life in general, as the tyranny of data ideology invades political decision making?

A feminist approach would require that this crisis of subjectivity and sociality be re-imagined through a radical practice of community and connectedness. This starting point is based on the feminist imperative for defining and reclaiming democracy and envisioning an internet-mediated social paradigm that will further social justice and equity. In this radical practice, data will not just be an economic resource, but the basis of a new citizen ontology that challenges the deep patriarchal codes of the informational and legal-institutional architectures underpinning everyday democracy. A data commons for the foreseeable future cannot therefore be based only on the logic of the market. It must correspond to the hope and outrage of the most marginalised women and gender minorities, bringing data to the service of a new civic intelligence that privileges their autonomy and self-determination in all spheres of life. Institutional frameworks commensurate with this imperative must actively promote the conditions that can enable non-commercial applications of connectivity, promoting women's technological and political agency, citizenship and association, and spawning multiple mini-publics, able to govern their own data in the larger public interest.

This is not a romantic ideal; today, experiments in civic life, including the Ugly Indian and Spanish municipalism and the Open Source city movements, do point to possibilities for bottom-up community processes, engaging with questions of self-determination and sovereignty in a globalising world that usurps local control. While such practice implicitly acknowledges that smallness of data and community is as meaningful as bigness, it does leave questions of patriarchy and gender-based power open, to be infused into, and blended with, the struggle for deeper democracy.

The most marginalised of women are slowly beginning to engage with information politics. Feminist tech-activists are bringing new perspectives on code. But these formations must forge connection, to build a local data, information and knowledge movement that makes place for much more than enthusiasm with apps; they need to tackle the conditions of exclusion that alienate women from full citizenship. In this alternative datascape, a modicum of data sovereignty for communities – as mini-publics – to manage their life and livelihoods is non-negotiable. Unfortunately, the ethics of data and the associated institutional mechanisms for data-for-democracy are seldom discussed in international and national debates.

This brings us to the final point: that catalysing and sustaining feminist mini-publics as a potentially disruptive force for democracy and gender justice calls for new imaginaries and governance arrangements to preserve and nurture at least a part of the internet as a social, non-commercial commons. It is only through alternative data practices of multiple mini-publics that hegemonic practices of data and the impunity of its current masters can be challenged.

Artwork "Fragmenta". Details of the artist Micaela Lattanzio here.

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