The Pulse of the City

November 11th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

In October 2014, New York University’s Center for Urban Science and Progress (CUSP) unveiled the Urban Observatory, as part of an urban informatics initiative for monitoring, recording, and modeling the actions and nonactions of New York City. Inspired by research methods in observational astronomy, the scientists at CUSP placed an 8 megapixel camera on top of a building in Downtown Brooklyn, which shoots one panoramic, long-distance image of Lower and Midtown Manhattan every 10 seconds. Using the Urban Observatory and a network of similar sensors, the scientists at CUSP are attempting to capture what they call “the pulse of the city,” formulating massive data sets that provide information regarding various domains of everyday life, ranging from energy efficiency to the detection of toxic releases. As urban informatics professionals, they imagine that the collected data will serve as “raw material” for policy making — once they have access to this raw material, the CUSP scientists will be able to model their predictions, and hope to ultimately (somehow) manufacture the steps required to reduce electricity consumption in office buildings, or to generate emergency responses to hazardous substances.
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Governing with Big Data: The Indian Unique Identification Project and Information Determinism

July 15th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The relationship between surveillance, big data and state power has been vociferously debated in both academic and popular press over the past several months (Boellerstoff 2013 and Crawford et al. 2014 among others). But what of instances where states leverage big data without an explicit surveillance focus? What kinds of questions should we be asking when big data appears in a project that doesn’t focus on, say, “security” (which we associate directly with surveillance) but on “welfare” or “development”? In this post, I explore this theme in the context of the ongoing Indian Unique Identification (UID) project (also known as “Aadhaar” or Foundation). The state-backed UID project wants to issue biometric-based identity numbers to all Indian residents, arguing that an ability to uniquely identity individuals is critical to the efficient administration of public welfare schemes. The biometric dataset that the UID is putting together towards its goal is already the largest of its kind in the world.

Speaking of Big Data

EnrolmentAgent

Enrollment agent at an enrollment center in a central Indian state
(Photo credit: Aditya Johri)

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On the Porous Boundaries of Computer Science

June 18th, 2014, by § Leave a Comment

The term “big data” [1] brings up the specter of a new positivism,  as another one in the series of many ideological tropes that have sought to supplant the qualitative and descriptive sciences with numbers and statistics.[2]

But what do scientists think of big data? Last year, in a widely circulated blog post titled “The Big Data Brain Drain: Why Science is in Trouble,” physicist Jake VanderPlas made the argument that the real reason big data is dangerous is because it moves scientists from the academy to corporations. « Read the rest of this entry »

Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data

October 22nd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

In separate incidents in early 2010 two children in Queensland Australia met untimely and violent deaths. In an increasingly common response, relatives, friends and strangers used social media to express grief, angst, solidarity, intimacy, and community, and to remember, mourn and share condolences for the young lives that had been lost. Social media is increasingly used for these kinds of expressions. However, social media is also often used for expressions of hatred, alienation and sociopathy. Within hours, the online commemorations for both children were defaced with abuse of the deceased and the bereaved, with links to pornographic sites, and with images that showed scenes of murder, race-hate and bestiality. Outrage ensued. Virulent condemnation of these so-called ‘RIP-Trolls’ flooded both social and mass media. The Australian Prime Minister commented; the Queensland Police Commissioner promised prosecution; and the Queensland State Premier demanded an apology from Facebook. The RIP-Trolls justified their actions as critique of the vacuous and vicarious expressions of sentiment manifested in ‘click-through grieving’ by strangers; while their adversaries called for respect for the dead, the preservation of the sacred, and emotional care of the friends and family of the deceased (Kohn et al., 2012; Phillips 2011).

Hundreds of millions of people socialize in significant ways using digital media, and each year millions of these people die. As people lead more of their lives online, interactions with the living are increasingly accompanied by encounters with the deceased. These encounters can take at least two forms. First, for many people social media such as Facebook has become a significant part of their social presence in the lives of others. When users of social media die, their digital traces continue and tend to linger on. Through these persistent bodies of data, the dead retain their presence and can continue to play social roles in the lives of those left behind. Secondly, they can be encountered through the emerging, and now wide-spread, practices of digital commemoration. Individuals in increasing numbers are deploying the resources of social networking sites, crowd-sourced informal gatherings, websites, digital video streams, game sites, YouTube clips, Tweets, Flickr collections and the like, to commemorate the deceased, or indeed, to prepare for their own memorialization.

Digital practices associated with ‘death, dying and disposal’ are significant in both personal and public terms but, as the incidents above illustrate, such practices are still evolving and lack established social conventions, and so are also a source of public and personal disquiet, punctuated by occasional outbreaks of moral panic. This confluence of changing digital technologies and the refiguring of contemporary practices and rituals associated with death, dying and disposal is an extraordinarily fertile field for research, and one that should be of immediate interest to many CASTAC readers.

In May of this year Connor Graham, Lanfranco Aceti and I published a dedicated special issue of The Information Society on the ‘Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data’ (see the TOC below).  Through eight single and co-authored contributions, the special issue considers how current, emerging and future rituals and practices associated with death, dying and disposal are being refigured by digital media.

A common theme (one of many) running through all the contributions to this special issue is a concern with, not so much the immorality or resurrection of the dead, but the persistence of the dead in social life that is enabled through social media. If, in the Victorian era the dominant trope for representing and talking about the dead was one of solemn rest and peaceful sleep (Hallam and Hockey 2001), then the dead no longer slumber. Rather, they are becoming a decidedly more boisterous, lively (if you’ll excuse the pun) and continuing presence in people’s lives through ongoing engagement in social media that does not readily forget.

In this vein, Alexandra Sherlock in her contribution to the special issue discusses the ‘symbolic immortality’ of popular media figures who have died yet continue to have a social presence in lives of everyday people and suggests that new digital media offers ironic possibilities for the re-enchantment of contemporary society.

Grant David Bollmer examines contemporary discussions of the effects and possibilities of ‘information remainders’ that persist after death and shows how they are constructed in this discourse as both an ‘authentic duplication of identity’ and a ‘threat to personal identity that must be managed’.

Jed Brubaker and his co-authors examine the use of Facebook as a site for public mourning to take place and argue that rather than disrupting public mourning Facebook is used in ways that lead to its temporal, spatial and social expansion.

Similarly, Scott Church examines the practices and rituals associated with internet memorials, or ‘digital gavescapes’. He discusses an interesting mode of engagement often found on these sites: people directly and publicly addressing the dead in the second person. He suggests these public performances can strengthen communal experiences even though people are not directly addressing each other with their digital utterances.

Jessa Lingel looks at the online, public debates that have surrounded Facebook’s policies for the pages of people who have died. From these rancorous discussions she argues that ‘in the context of online grief, Facebook pages become a contested site of ownership, meaning making, and social ties.’ (p.194) She concludes that the norms and protocols associated with online grief remain unsettled and evolving with significant implications for individual and collective identities and rituals.

On a more speculative note, Denisa Kera examines recent posthumanist experimentation in the fields of art and design that poses significant questions for our notions of burial and disposal, memorialization and archiving, mortality and immortality.

Bill Bainbridge’s contribution is a provocative account of his experiences with creating what he calls ancestor veneration avatars. Using MMORPGs and Virtual Worlds he has created characters that represent and are used to enact aspects of the lived lives, as well as the hopes and dreams, of long dead members of his family.

And finally, in our introduction to the special issues we discuss the refiguring of the rituals and practices associated with grieving and memorialization. We examine how notions of personhood are extended over time and space and thus transformed through the circulation, repetition and re-contextualization of bodies and associated data through new media with implications for future forms of remembrance.

Contributions to the special issue, Death, Afterlife and Immortality of Bodies and Data, of the Information Society (29/3) include:

“Introduction to the Special Issue on the Death, Afterlife, and Immortality of Bodies and Data” Connor Graham, Martin Gibbs and Lanfranco Aceti

“Millions Now Living Will Never Die: Cultural Anxieties About the Afterlife of Information” Grant David Bollmer

“Beyond the Grave: Facebook as a Site for the Expansion of Death and Mourning” Jed R. Brubaker, Gillian R. Hayes & Paul Dourish

“Larger Than Life: Digital Resurrection and the Re-Enchantment of Society” Alexandra Sherlock

“Designing for Death and Apocalypse: Theodicy of Networks and Uncanny Archives” Denisa Kera

“Digital Gravescapes: Digital Memorializing on Facebook” Scott H. Church

“The Digital Remains: Social Media and Practices of Online Grief” Jessa Lingel

“Perspectives on Virtual Veneration” William Sims Bainbridge

References

Hallam, E. and Hockey J. (2001) Death, Memory and Material Culture. Oxford: Berg.

Kohn, T., Gibbs, M., Arnold, M., and Nansen. B. (2012) Facebook and the Other: Administering to and Caring for the Dead Online, in Hage, G (Ed.), Responsibility. Melbourne: University of Melbourne Press, 128-141.

Phillips, W. (2011) LOLing at Tragedy: Facebook Trolls, Memorial Pages and Resistance to Grief Online, First Monday [Online], 16(12) (28 November)

Update on Big Data and Ethnography, Ethnography of Documents

September 16th, 2013, by § 1 Comment

Readers of the CASTC blog may recall my posting earlier in the year regarding Big Data. I offer the following comments as an update on my previous comments and in hopes of contributing further to the discussion of this topic.

My first comment is that the topic continues to be of considerable interest. Doubtless some of this follows from the fact that capacities to provide/make sense of Big Data are now an important part of corporate advertising, if not necessarily delivery of substantive benefits. Also, under more acceptable guises of things like “Data Science,” academic programs like mine in Informatics at Indiana University are moving feverishly to try to take advantage, of both the hype and any potentially real benefits. That despite the change in term, the actual concern in my view remains about quantity is revealed by the academic efforts underway to decide just what “big” implies, e.g., at least hundreds or tens of thousands?

I also think there remain issues here for ethnographers. One is clearly the claim of Big Data advocates that their tools for getting and analyzing digital data allow better (even “scientific”) study of complex social phenomena that, in some cases, we ethnographers have claimed. These include things having to do with senses of identity or motivation. In addition to finding ourselves in competition with Big Data-ers, I also think there may well be uses of Big Data tools that can usefully contribute to ethnographic work.

Out of both these motivations, Kalpana Shankar (University College Dublin, School of Information and Library Studies) and I organized a workshop on Ethnography and Big Data as part of the Social Informatics program of the Department of Information Science and Engineering at the University of Trento, Italy. In addition to clarifying the range of issues involved, the workshop also identified a number of additional relevant resources. Preparatory readings for workshop, presentation slides, and links to the additional readings are still available at: http://disi.unitn.it/~dandrea/workshop/

At the same site are posted similar materials for another workshop Kalpana and I organized. This one was on the ethnography of documents, a growing issue in my ethnography of Information teaching, both in Indiana and Trento. The topic is one about which we have proposed to write an article for the upcoming 4th Edition of the Science and Technology Studies Handbook. I of course would like to hear from CASTC members interested in either of these issues.

dhakken@indiana.edu

EPIC 2013 Preview

August 12th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

The Ethnographic Praxis in Industry Conference is being held 15-18 September in London. EPIC is an important international conference for sharing insight on current and future practices of ethnography in industry.

Next month’s conference promises to be very exciting and productive. The program boasts a wide variety of topics, including a number of papers that will quite likely be of interest to CASTAC and STS practitioners and scholars. Many of the themes in the program, such as big data, MOOCs, and energy have been hot topics for The CASTAC Blog in recent months.

IS DATA THE NEW OIL?
Several papers at EPIC will be discussing “Big Data,” which is a topic that is heating up and is germane for anthropological theory and practice. Big Data, which has been discussed in a prior post by David Hakken, has been designated as a new asset class akin to oil and has consequently sparked a kind of “gold rush.” Papers on this subject are tackling this seemingly unchecked, and at times unreflective, stampede over exactly what kind of “data” is being collected. Researchers will explore whether whatever-it-is that is being collected can be called “data,” given the term’s disparate connotations. (Does anyone want to have a go at what to call these large-scale information streams?)

The discussion will quite likely be quite interesting because it promises to dive into the epistemological, methodological, and practical boundaries over what this term constitutes. It will discuss what role ethnography will play, not just in terms of data collection, but investigating what data really means in everyday contexts. Abby Margolis’s paper, in particular, reminds us that the “fundamental role of innovation” starts with “the person,” which of course is a particular strength of ethnography. Her paper plans to address common misconceptions about personal data, and will offer principles to “bring a human-centered, small data perspective to life.”

TRANSFORMING ENERGY INTO PERSONAL POWER
The struggle over energy, which was recently discussed in a fascinating post by Phillip Vannini, surfaces again in several ways at the EPIC conference. Researchers presenting on Private Energy Users and Smart Grid Design will explore the new relationship between energy providers and users. Despite the intention to create a more bidirectional relationship between companies and customers, familiar unidirectional patterns are continually repeated. Researchers will be proposing a model that reframes the relationship between energy companies and private end users. These themes suggest that people can derive a sense of personal power through shaping the design and delivery of their energy. According to researchers, providing energy is not about a delivering a resource, but rather aims to solve particular problems, including meeting human needs for “comfort, light, food, cleaning, and entertainment.” Using an anthropological lens, it is contended, will provide a deeper understanding of the interrelationship between supply and use of energy products and services.

MORE ON MOOCS
EPIC participants will be discussing research on student perceptions of MOOCs, a theme which echoes concerns of many CASTAC readers and academics. A CASTAC series exploring MOOCs from a student’s perspective found that they may not be serving the college-age constituents that were originally (and fearfully) envisioned by MOOC promoters and concerned scholars. It will be interesting to hear the results of an ethnography of MOOCs that seriously challenges their effectiveness and pedagogical sustainability.

TECHNO|THEORY DEATHMATCH
In addition to traditional panels, thought-provoking PechaKucha style provocations, salons, and town halls, the conference is also holding a TechnoTheory DeathMatch! The organizers tell us to “think Bruno Latour meets Fight Club.” Revamping dynamics of theory and practice, this novel approach will be a round-robin type of tournament in which participants represent leading theorists and duke it out to arrive at winning insights.

In addition to the examples noted above, EPIC will be discussing many other interesting topics, including complexity, mobile technologies, clinical trials, healthcare, and emerging markets in information and communication technologies in rural China and India. More details about the conference program can be found on the EPIC Conference Program website.

Rethinking Scale in Social Media: An Ethnographic Perspective

July 23rd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Scale has been a recent buzzword in discussions of social and digital media, as our editor Patricia G. Lange traced out in her January retrospective post. From MOOCs to Big Data, emerging communication technologies are making possible (and visible) large-scale interactions that have been attracting attention from many quarters, including anthropology. I want to revisit this conversation by discussing further what scale means in the context of networked media, especially social and mobile technologies.

Is scale the new global?

On the cusp of the new millennium in the late 1990s, there was a lot of buzz over the global reach of the Internet, linked to broader interest in how new communication technologies were entwined with globalizing processes. The World Wide Web itself was envisioned as spanning the globe, while globalism infected the popular imagination. Nearly twenty years on, the Internet has yet to bring about global equality or democracy, though it is playing a central role in many protest movements and political upheavals.

Part of the challenge for anthropologists and others studying networked and digital communications lies in grappling with the changes new technologies make possible, even as we recognize that technology never solely determines events in one direction. Social media, in the sense of networked communication platforms that articulate social ties and depend on user-created content, have certainly fostered new forms of mass protest and organization (as Victoria Barassi recently chronicled). But at the same time, technologies often become popular because they operate according to—and reproduce—existing cultural norms.

In my work, I look specifically at how social and mobile technologies are transforming everyday experiences of space and place. Though scale can refer to the size or scope of digital communications, it can also mean the geographic or spatial level of social relations, connections, and interactions. The global stands out as one such scale, as does the local or the national. Many cultural geographers have argued, however, that geographic scales are socially produced means of organizing social space, such as national borders, international trade agreements, or urban infrastructure (see for example Brenner 1998, 2001; Marston 2000; Massey 1993; and many others). The way scales are organized, moreover, reflects the circulation of capital and its unequal distribution of power.

Digital media, such as the Internet, are sometimes described as allowing place-less interactions and connections, with the Internet creating its own spaces (e.g. chat rooms or virtual worlds). Rethinking geographic scales as culturally constructed calls attention to how both the “local” and the “global” entail different kinds of place-making practices (but which often happen in the same physical places, as Doreen Massey has pointed out). As the debate shifts away from questions of local versus global (or the ungainly neologism “glocal”), perhaps the concept of scale, and scalemaking, is more helpful in understanding space and place online.

Ethnography of scale making

Binaries such as local/global can of course be useful, but can also distract from other distinctions, such as other kinds of place and place-making. In my work in Berlin, for example, I found that small groups of friends used social media to connect and interact with friends and contacts at multiple geographic levels. This included local friendships that took place in central districts of Berlin, regional ties to friends and family, especially to rural regions in eastern Germany, national reading publics consuming the same news media online, and transnational or translocal communities of music fans. Translocal connections in this sense took place across multiple locales, comprising a music scene that existed simultaneously in different places without necessarily being transnational.

Thinking about scale draws attention to how these levels themselves—local, regional, national, transnational—are constructed and reordered through everyday practice. Users, for example, moved through multiple publics and audiences online, often by employing language practices such as code switching. Among the circles of friends I studied, users often posted in English to address an audience envisioned as global or cosmopolitan. Using English also located events in Berlin in transnational cultural circuits, while German was often reserved for discussing topics German-speakers viewed as relevant to other co-nationalists, such as national German news stories. Switching between English and standard German made it possible to move between co-nationalists and transnational audiences in the same online spaces. Social media like Facebook further facilitated bringing together relationships at multiple scales, including local friendships, regional German ties, and transnational networks, generating new scales in the process. The globalness of online communications may therefore owe not to global or transnational connections but to a multiplicity of place-making activities.

Along with geographic binaries like local/global, social and mobile media are further complicating distinctions between online and offline. Numerous anthropologists have challenged the utility of this division, arguing that Internet media are already socially embedded, that is, the product of existing social relations, and can constitute real social spaces (e.g. Miller and Slater 2000:6). Tom Boellstorff (2008) has contended that virtual worlds like Second Life are no more or less culturally constructed than offline “real” worlds. From this perspective, “face-to-face” or “real life” communication is as mediated as computer-mediated interactions (through, for example, language, gesture, sartorial style, and other forms of embodied habitus).

Whose social media?

Social and mobile media, however, are more ubiquitous and integrated into daily practice than many earlier Internet platforms. Though many experience the Internet as a separate space of communication, those I studied described digital communications as “continuous” rather than discrete, such as chatting over instant messenger on and off throughout the day. Scholars of social media are finding it more helpful to analyze diverse communication practices on Facebook, Twitter, or mobile phones, for example, in terms of “connection strategies” users employ in different contexts (Ellison et al. 2011; Subrahmanyam 2008). Users I studied, for example, simultaneously interacted with close friends on Facebook while connecting to friends-of-friends with shared music interests or to new acquaintances met at events in Berlin. Most users also reserved some technologies for a smaller circle of friends and family, especially instant and text messaging, Skype, and email (as well as voice calls). The question then becomes not whether people are interacting online or offline, but how they are using different platforms and with whom. How do social and mobile media shape ways of making sense of space and place as interactions and relationships take place across multiple technologies?

This approach echoes work being done on the materiality of digital media, in which scholars like Katherine Hayles (2004) advocate a “media-specific analysis” to recognize the materiality of digital and analog encodings alike. Hayles argues that both digital and print texts, for example, exist in materially specific instantiations, but that their materiality differs in ways that affect how they are produced and experienced. In my forthcoming article (Kraemer n.d.) on Facebook friendship in Germany, I take up these questions to investigate how implicitly American interactional norms structure social relations among friend networks at multiple scales in Berlin and Europe. Although German and other European users successfully negotiated gaps between their and Facebook’s construction of friendship, further work needs to address how the “social” of social media represents a culturally (and geographically) specific understanding of social life.

References

Boellstorff, T. 2008. Coming of Age in Second Life: An anthropologist explores the virtually human. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Brenner, N. 1998. Between fixity and motion: accumulation, territorial organization and the historical geography of spatial scales. Environment and Planning D, 16: 459–481. http://www.envplan.com/abstract.cgi?id=d160459

Brenner, N. 2001. The limits to scale? Methodological reflections on scalar structuration. Progress in Human Geography, 25(4): 591–614. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/25/4/591

Ellison, N. B., Steinfield, C. and Lampe, C. 2011. Connection strategies: Social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media and Society, 13(6): 873–892. http://nms.sagepub.com/content/13/6/873

Hayles, N. K. 2004. Print Is Flat, Code Is Deep: The importance of media-specific analysis. Poetics Today, 25(1), 67–90. http://poeticstoday.dukejournals.org/content/25/1/67.abstract

Kraemer, J. (n.d.). Friend or Freund: Social media and transnational connections in Berlin, Special Issue on Transnational HCI. Human-Computer Interaction. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07370024.2013.823821

Marston, S. A. 2000. The social construction of scale. Progress in Human Geography, 24(2): 219–242. http://phg.sagepub.com/content/24/2/219

Massey, D. 1993. “Power geometry and a progressive sense of place.”. In Mapping the futures: Local cultures, global change Edited by: Bird, J., Curtis, B., Putnam, T., Robertson, G. and Tickner, L. 59–69. Routledge.

Miller, D., & Slater, D. 2000. The Internet: an ethnographic approach. Oxford, New York: Berg Publishers.

Subrahmanyam, K., Reich, S. M., Waechter, N. and Espinoza, G. 2008. Online and offline social networks: Use of social networking sites by emerging adults. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 29(6): 420–433. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0193397308000713

 

 

The Quantified Self Movement is not a Kleenex

March 26th, 2013, by § 10 Comments

by Dawn Nafus and Jamie Sherman

The Quantified Self (QS) is a global movement of people who numerically track their bodies.  If you were to read popular press accounts like this, this and this, you could be forgiven for thinking that it was a self-absorbed technical elite who used arsenals of gadgets to enact a kind of self-imposed panopticon, generating data for data’s sake. Articles like this could easily make us believe that this group unquestioningly accepts the authority of numerical data in all circumstances (a myth nicely debunked here). Kanyi Maqubela sees a lack of diversity in “the quantified self.”  On one hand, he is absolutely right to say that developing technologies to get upper middle class people who do yoga and shop at farmers markets to “control their behavior” is a spectacular misrecognition of the actual social problem at hand,[1] and one that can be attributed directly to the design-for-me methodology[2] so rampant in Silicon Valley.  The charge works, however, only if we think about Quantified Self as if it were analogous to Kleenex:[3] a brand name that can be used generically for the latest round of health and fitness gadgets technologies whose social significance (or lack thereof) is self-evident.

The Quantified Self that we have come to know is not a Kleenex. It is a particular social movement with specific social dynamics, people and practices.  Even the most cursory ethnographic examination of actual practices of its members reveals a very different picture.  We have been conducting this research for the past year and a half, alongside many other academics who have also been welcomed into the community. The Quantified Self that we know has very little to do with trying to control other people’s body size or fetishizing technology. Indeed, people who use pen and paper are community leaders alongside professional data analysts.  As a social movement, QS maintains a big tent policy, such that the health care technology companies who do try to control other people’s body sizes also participate. But QS organizes its communities in ways that require people to participate as individuals with personal experiences, not as companies with a demo to sell.  This relentless focus on the self we suspect does have cultural roots in neoliberalism and the practices of responsibilization Giddens identified so long ago, but it also does important cultural work in the context of big data.

An example from our ethnography can illustrate this.  At a recent Quantified Self meeting on the West Coast, discussion turned to “habit formation.” Sean, one of the organizers of the group, was talking about his frustration with tracking apps organized around “streaks.” He felt great to have kept his new “habit” seventy times in a row, but “when your mother gets ill and you miss a week, poof! It’s gone.” He was looking for something that would offer a metric for what he called the “strength” of a habit. He felt that would be much more encouraging for him: after all, the habit does not just go away  because the data does.  Other participants mentioned various kinds of moving averages that would be nice, and the conversation wandered into a debate over whether “habits” was a negative framework to use, and whether “practices” were more constructive.

Later in the evening, two men, David and Tom, were talking about Tom’s recent purchase of a Jawbone Up—one of many devices that will track movements and infer various things from them, like sleep or exercise. Tom showed us the visualization of his sleep data that appeared to show that he falls asleep quite quickly most nights. That information was encouraging as he had been concerned about his sleep. While he was not entirely certain how the bracelet-style device measured sleep cycles, he conjectured that it must have to do with motion. In any case, he felt like he was more rested just knowing that “in fact” he was sleeping well. The group laughed, and then continued to wonder collectively about just how the thing “decided” what sleep cycle you were in. Discussion turned to other devices that incorporated other indicators like skin temperature, perspiration, heart rate and brainwaves. A certain watch had all the sensors David wanted. He could use it for more than just sleep tracking,  but it had limits.  He knew the watch could track his heart rate, but he wanted to see the variability of his heart rate because he had been curious about the physical expression of moods. The watch only gave a pulse, as if there were no other interpretation of the underlying signals from the heart.

The relationship between “habit formation” and the limitations of devices is significant. On one hand, the habits/practices that most participants sought to instill in themselves generally (though not always) adhered to normative guidelines around health and good citizenship: exercise more, work more effectively, keep moods elevated, etc. On the other hand, these clearly are not passive consumers swallowing blindly the parameters of “what’s good for them.” In many ways they see their activities as a response to big data and big science dictums that make claims about the healthy body from on high. In the face of generalized, anonymous one-size-fits-all prescriptions derived from population studies, they seek to understand what is right for me. What is the optimal bedtime for me? Under what diet regime do I feel my best? What activities (sleep, caffeine, wheat, dairy, and other usual suspects) are particularly correlated with mood or energy in my life?

If people in this movement appear narcissistic on the surface, it is because of their focus on the self.  The insistence on the agency of each person to track, understand, and decide for themselves what is right “for them” does draw on cultural threads of individualism, but they do it in ways that refrain from making assumptions about what is right for others. While the self is the site of internalization of dominant big data visions that do control people in Foucauldian, biopolitical ways,[4] here it is also, at the same time, a means of resistance. QSers self-track in an effort to re-assert dominion over their bodies by taking control of the data that many of us produce simply by being part of a digitally interconnected world.  When participants cycle through multiple devices, it is often not because they fetishize the technology, but because they have a more expansive, emergent notion of the self that does not settle easily into the assumptions built into any single measurement.  They do this using the technical tools available, but critically rather than blindly.  It is not radical to be sure, but a soft resistance, one that draws on and participates in the cultural resources available.

The eagerness with which pundits seize on the Quantified Self as a generic brand, a Kleenex style term to toss around, speaks to the ways that QS practices cohere with current ideologies and practices of self in the mainstream. Yet to stop there, to overlook the particulars of what actual QSers do, how they do it and why, is to miss the social significance of the Quantified Self as a movement. It is not the nerdy devices they enthuse over, nor the sometimes mundane self-transformations they seek to achieve, but the explicitness with which they confront the question of what the cultural dominance of data means for me.  Answering this question requires a critical and questioning point of view.  Within Quantified Self, like snowflakes, no two tissues are alike: now, how do we count that?


[1] Greenhalgh, S. 2012. “Weighty subjects: The biopolitics of the U.S. war on fat.” American Ethnologist, 39:3, pp. 471-487

[2] Oudshoorn, N., Rommes, E., & Stienstra, M. 2004. Configuring the user as everybody: Gender and design cultures in information and communication technologies. Science, Technology & Human Values, 29(1), 30-63

[3] Ken anderson pointed out the Kleenex comparison to us.

[4] Cheney-Lippold, J. 2011. A new algorithmic identity : Soft biopolitics and the modulation of control. Theory, Culture & Society, 28, 164-181.

Call for Papers: “Big Data, Big Questions, or, Accounting for Big Data” [Abstracts DUE October 1, 2012]

January 22nd, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

From Kate Crawford and Mary Gray at Microsoft Research, a call for papers on Big Data:

“Big Data, Big Questions, or, Accounting for Big Data”
International Journal of Communication

Guest Editors:
Kate Crawford
Microsoft Research
University of New South Wales

Mary L. Gray
Microsoft Research
Indiana University

Editor:
Larry Gross
University of Southern California

Previously isolated data sets, from social media and demographic surveys to city maps and urban planning documents, are now routinely interlinked. Combining separate, often disparate, multi-terabyte sets of information reframes our capacity to see into the behaviors of – and relationships between – people, institutions and things. Researchers in fields as varied as computer science, geography, sociology, marketing, biology, economics, among many others, use the term “big data” to capture a wide range of activities revolving around accessing and analyzing these vast quantities of information. What are the implications of big data as a cultural, technological and analytic phenomenon? What are the practices of big data, the underlying assumptions, and ways of modeling the world? Who gets access to it, and what effects does this produce?

This special section will offer a range of critical engagements with the issues surrounding big data and its related models of knowledge. We seek scholarly articles from diverse fields, and a wide range of theoretical and methodological approaches: including media studies, communication, anthropology, digital humanities, computational and social sciences, cultural geography, history, and critical cultural studies.

Possible topics include, but are not limited to:

What is the history (or histories) of big data and its related practices?
What are the epistemological ramifications of big data?
How can computational and social sciences use big data in cross-disciplinary work?
What are the strengths and pitfalls of new hybrids?
What are the ethics of big data use, be it in city management, social media research, or political campaigning?
Who gets access to big data? What are the issues of class, race, gender, sexuality, religion and geography?
What are the labour politics of big data research?

The International Journal of Communication is an open access journal. All accepted articles will be published online. The anticipated publication date for this Special Section is August 2013.

Manuscripts should conform to the IJoC author guidelines

Send your abstract, title of your paper and a list of five potential reviewers with their titles and e-mail addresses by October 1, 2012 to IJOCbigdata@gmail.com.  Your suggested reviewers will help streamline the peer-review process.

If you have any questions, please contact Kate Crawford at kate@microsoft.com or Mary L. Gray at mLg@microsoft.com.

Dealing with Big Data: David Hakken Weighs In

January 15th, 2013, by § Leave a Comment

Although anthropologists have been working with large-scale data sets for quite some time, the term “big data” is currently being used to refer to large, complex sets of data combined from different sources and media that are difficult to wrangle using standard coding schemes or desktop database software. Last year saw a rise in STS approaches that try to grapple with questions of scale in research, and the trend toward data accumulation seems to be continuing unabated. According to IBM, we generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data each day. This means that 90% of the data in the world was created during the last 2 years.

Big data are often drawn and aggregated from a very large variety of sources, both personal and public, and include everything from social media participation to surveillance footage to consumer buying patterns. Big data sets exhibit complex relationships and yield information to entities who may mine highly personal information in a variety of unpredictable and even potentially violative ways.

The rise of such data sets yields many questions for anthropologists and other researchers interested both in using such data and investigating the techno-cultural implications and ethics of how such data is collected, disseminated, and used by unknown others for public and private purposes. Researchers have called this phenomenon the “politics of the algorithm,” and have called for ways to collect and share big data sets as well as to discuss the implications of their existence.

I asked David Hakken to respond to this issue by answering questions about the direction that big data and associated research frameworks are headed. David is currently directing a Social Informatics (SI) Group in the School of Informatics and Computing (SoIC) at Indiana University Bloomington. Explicitly oriented to the field of Science, Technology, and Society studies, David and his group are developing a notion of social robustness, which calls for developers and designers to take responsibility for the creation and implications of techno-cultural objects, devices, software, and systems. The CASTAC Blog is interested in providing a forum to exchange ideas on the subject of Big Data, in an era in which it seems impossible to return to data innocence.

Patricia: How do you define “big data”?

David: I would add three, essentially epistemological, points to your discussion above. The first is to make explicit how “Big Data” are intimately associated with computing; indeed, the notion that they are a separate species of data is connected to the idea that they are generated more or less “automatically,” as traces normally a part of mediation by computing. Such data are “big” in the sense that they are generated at a much higher rate than are those large-scale, purpose-collected sets that you refer to initially.

The second point is the existence of a parallel phenomenon, “Data Science,” which is a term used in computing circles to refer to a preferred response to “Big Data.” Just as we have had large data sets before Big Data, so we have had formal procedures for dealing with any data. The new claim is that Big Data has such unique properties that it demands its own new Data Science. Also part of the claim is that new procedures, interestingly often referred to as “data mining.” will be the ones characteristic of Data Science. (What are interesting to me are the rank empiricist implications of “data mining.”) Every computing school of which I know is in the process of figuring out how to deal with/“capitalize” on the Data Science opportunity.

The third point is the frequently-made claim that the two together, Big Data and Data Science, provide unique opportunities to study human behavior. Such claims become more than annoying for me when it is asserted that the Big Data/Data Sciences uniquenesses are such that those pursuing them need not pay any attention to any previous attempt to understand human behavior, that only they and they alone are capable of placing the study of human behavior on truly “scientific” footing, again because of their unique scale.

Patricia: Do you think that anthropologists and other researchers should use big data, for instance, using large-scale, global information mined from Twitter or Facebook? Do you view this as “covert research”?

David: We should have the same basic concern about these as we would any other sources of data: Were they gathered with the informed consent of those whose activities created the traces in the first place? Many of the social media sites, game hosts, etc., include permission to gather data as one of their terms of service, to which users agree when they access the site. This situation makes it hard to argue that collection of such data are “covert.” Of course, when such agreement has not been given, any gathered data in my view should not be used.

In the experience of my colleagues, the research problem is not so much the ethical one to which you refer so much as its opposite—that the commercial holders of the Big Data will not allow independent researchers access to it. This situation has led some colleagues to “creative” approaches to gathering big data that have caused some serious problems for my University’s Institutional Review Board.

In sum, I would say that there are ethical issues here that I don’t feel I understand well enough to take a firm position. I would in any particular case begin with whether it makes any sense to use these data to answer the research questions being asked.

Patricia: Who “owns” big data, and how can its owners be held accountable for its integrity and ethical use?

David: I would say that the working assumption of the researchers with whom I am familiar is either the business whose software gathers the traces or the researcher who is able to get users to use their data gathering tool, rather than the users themselves. I take it as a fair point that such data are different from, say, the personal demographic or credit card data that are arguably owned by the individual with whom they are associated. The dangers of selling or similar commercial use of these latter data are legion and clear; of the former, less clear to me, mostly because I don’t know enough about them.

Patricia: What new insights are yielded by the ability to collect and manipulate multi-terrabyte data sets?

David: This is where I am most skeptical. I can see how data on the moves typically made by players in a massive, multiplayer, online game (MMOG) like World of Warcraft ™ would be of interest to an organization that wants to make money building games, and I can see how an argument could be made that analysis of such data could lead to better games and thus be arguably in the interest of the gamers. When it comes to broader implications, say about typical human behavior in general, however, what can be inferred is much more difficult to say. There remain serious sampling issues however big the data set, since the behaviors whose traces are gathered are in no sense that I can see likely to be randomly representative of the population at large. Equally important is a point made repeatedly by my colleague John Paolillo, that the traces gathered are very difficult to use directly in any meaningful sense; that they have to be substantially “cleaned,” and that the principles of such cleaning are difficult to articulate. Paolillo works on Open Source games, where issues of ownership are less salient that they would be in the proprietary games and other software of more general interest.

Equally important: These behavioral traces are generated by activities executed in response to particular stimulations designed into the software. Such stimuli are most likely not typical of those to which humans respond; this is the essence of a technology. How they can be used to make inferences about human behavior in general is beyond my ken.

Let me illustrate in terms of some of my current research on MMOGs. Via game play ethnography, my co-authors (Shad Gross, Nic True) and I arrived at a tripartite basic typology of game moves: those essentially compelled by the physics engine which rendered the game space/time, those responsive to the specific features designed into the game by its developers, and those likely to be based on some analogy with “real life” imported by the player into the game. As the first two are clearly not “normal,” while the third is, we argue that games could be ranked in terms of the ratio between the third and the first two, such ratio constituting an initial indicator of the extent of familiarity with “real life” that could conceivably be inferred from game behavior. Perhaps more important, the kinds of traces to be gathered from play could be changed to help make measures like this easier to develop.

Patricia: What are the epistemological ramifications of big data? Does its existence change what we mean by “knowledge” about behavior and experience in the social sciences?

David: I have already had a stab at the first question. To be explicit about the second: I don’t think so. There are no fundamental knowledge alterations regarding those computer mediations of common human activity, and we don’t know what kind of knowledge is contained in manipulations of data traces generated in response to abnormal, technology-mediated stimuli.

Patricia: boyd and Crawford (2011) argue that asymmetrical access to data creates a new digital divide. What happens when researchers employed for Facebook or Google obtain access to data that is not available to researchers worldwide?

David: I find their argument technically correct, but, as above, I’m not sure how important its implications are. I am reminded of a to-remain-unnamed NSF program officer who once pointed out to a panel on which I served that NSF was unlikely to be asked to fund the really cutting edge research, as this was likely to be done as a closely guarded, corporate secrete.

Patricia: What new skills will researchers need to collect, parse, and analyze big data?

David: This is interesting. When TAing the PhD data analysis course way back in the 1970s, I argued that to take random strolls through data sets in hopes of stumbling on a statistically significant correlation was bad practice, yet this is in my understanding, the approach in “data mining.” We argue in our game research that ethnography can be used to identify the kinds of questions worth asking and thus give a focus, even foster hypothesis testing, as an alternative to such rampant empiricism. Only when such questions are taken seriously will it be possible to articulate what new skills of data analysis are likely to be needed.

Patricia: How can researchers insure data integrity across such mind-boggling large and diverse sets of information?

David: Difficult question if dealing with proprietary software; as with election software, “trust me” is not enough. This is why I have where possible encouraged study of Open Source Projects, like that of Giacomo Poderi in Trento, Italy. Here, at least, the goals of designers and researchers should be aligned.

Patricia: To some extent, anthropologists and other qualitative researchers have always struggled to have their findings respected among colleagues who work with quantitative samples of large-scale data sets. Qualitative approaches seem especially under fire in an era of Big Data. As we move forward, what is/will be the role and importance of qualitative studies in these areas?

David: As I suggested above, in my experience, much of the Data Science research is epistemologically blind. Ethnography can be used to give it some sight. By and large, however, my Data Science colleagues have not found it necessary to respond positively to my offers of collaboration, nor do I think it likely that either their research communities of funders like the NSF, a big pusher for Data Science, will push them toward collaboration with us any time soon.

Patricia: What does the future hold for dealing with “big data,” and where do we go from here?

David: I think we keep asking our questions and turn to Big Data when we can find reason to think that they can help us answer them. I see no reason to jump on the BD/DS bandwagon any time soon.

On behalf of The CASTAC Blog, please join me in thanking David Hakken for contributing his insights into a challenging new area of social science research!

Patricia G. Lange
Editor-in-Chief
The CASTAC Blog

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