Recovering critique in an age of datafication

Notes on Couldry, N. (2020). Recovering critique in an age of datafication. New Media & Society22(7), 1135-1151

This thought provoking paper reflects on how “the now utterly banal embedding of digital interfaces of many sorts into our working and resting lives, and the emergence across those platforms of new forms of power” has become an object of widespread concern within social life. He suggests this is “a major intellectual, indeed civic, battle about datafication and its implications for
‘society’” raising the question of the contribution which the social sciences are able to make to it:

If a major intellectual, indeed civic, battle about datafication and its implications for ‘society’ is under way, how well-placed are the social sciences to wage this battle? Do we have the tools to get in view what is problematic about datafication for social life? Do we have a clear enough idea any more of what should count as critique, and on what empirical and normative resources it depends? Academic critique can play an important role in civil society’s response to this incipient datafication of the social world. But, if it is to do so, its toolkit, dominated as it currently is by perspectives derived from Actor Network Theory (ANT) and science and technology studies (STS), must be supplemented by critical resources from earlier social theory. At a time when the very fabric of our shared world is being reconstructed, the possibility of social critique needs to be recovered; highlighting that need is the goal of this article

The distinction between concern and critique was offered by Latour to make sense of the limitations of critical perspective which invoke a distance from social facts in order to discredit them. Instead he calls for an approach which enables gathering and the drawing out of connections. Couldry suggests the ontology endorsed by Latour limits the usefulness of such an approach, even as it enables a recognition of sociotechnical complexity which it is important that we retain i.e. “how many varied combinations of persons, actions and resources come to have the stability we call ‘social’”. He tries to draw attention, referring to the work of Ruth Leys, to “the wider costs for critique that can flow from abandoning any positive account of the embodied agency of the reflexive human subject”. It is nonetheless near hegemonic within fields such as critical data studies. He identifies a few forms of complexity which it is essential critiques of datafication retain:

  • What the “prioritization of automated large-scale data collection over, for example, other inputs to social knowledge” means for how we come to know the social and public world.
  • “[T]he challenge to older forms of expertise and judgement that are not respected by the new datafied model of social knowledge”
  • The loss of human interpretation as an epistemological foundation for social processes driven by the ubiquity of automated systems. The decline of the expectation that human interpretation should be part of these processes. It’s important we recognise the complex entanglements which constitute the datafied world but we need to evaluate those “entanglements (and their outcomes) from the perspective of human goals, the goals that orient human life”.

There is as he puts it “an apparent aloofness from normative positions” within ANT that gets in the way of critiquing these developments. Furthermore, a distaste for the notion of the ‘social’ itself gets in the way of analysing these broader implications. He endorses Latour’s attempt to “radically free up our descriptive language so that we appreciate fully the actual plurality of the world” particularly given the descriptive gains it enabled in accounting for the complex socio-technical structures which constitute datafication, but he’s sceptical whether “ANT/STS have the tools to explain and evaluate the forces through which that new order is being constructed”:

Remembering the old distinction between administrative and critical research, could it be that the endless urge to oppose reductionism traps us in a hunt for ever more intricate descriptive languages to map the patterns of contemporary power that misses the larger picture? Could the resulting ‘descriptivism’ lose sight of the critical question: how is the overall order of social life being reconfigured to promote particular corporate and governmental interests on the basis of new and radical forms of reduction – the reduction of human life to configurations from which profit through data can be maximally extracted?

He argues that we need approaches to complexity which also address questions of ‘value’. This means we are able to assess the outcomes of complex processes in terms of the social orders they give rise to, from the perspective of “concerns of human beings in the social world”. This means rejecting “ANT/STS’s relative disinterest in the distinctive position of human agents within the assemblages it uncovers” in order to foreground them in what I’ve come to think of agent-orientated ontology. It means not letting an admirable caution about container concepts like ‘society’ not give rise to a generalised refusal to consider questions of wider social outcomes beyond what can be empirically traced out in a given setting. It means recognising the stabilising force of categorisation as a contribution to social order rather than a particular element in a more localised chain of interactions. It means recovering questions of political economy in the macro-sociological tradition:

The assemblages of today’s digital platforms may have emerged in part independently, under pressure of varying business models and patterns of innovation, doing their work through countless detailed affordances. But it is simply not plausible to believe that their social significance can be explained without any discussion of wider economic forces, indeed of capitalism itself. Capitalism is not something ANT tends to address – unsurprisingly, since capitalism is not a social form
that can be understood by considering its every detail bit by bit. The whole point of Marx’s social theory, by contrast, was to argue that, while capitalism certainly derived from contingent starting-points, whose influence gradually, and not inevitably, spread across the social terrain, the emergent force of capitalism represents a totalizing social order. Similarly, we can today interpret datafication in terms of norms of behaviour, rules of law and pervasive ‘trajector[ies] of naturalization’ (Bowker and Star, 1999: 299), which make datafication ever harder to resist and may well, therefore, be generating a new social order

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