My notes on Andrejevic, M., Hearn, A., & Kennedy, H. (2015). Cultural studies of data mining: Introduction, European Journal of Cultural Studies 18(4-5), 379-394

In this introduction to an important special issue, Mark Andrejevic, Alison Hearn and Helen Kennedy that the ubiquity of data infrastructure in everyday life means that “we cannot afford to limit our thinking about data analysis technologies by approaching them solely as communication media” and offer a list of questions which we need to address:

what kinds of data are gathered, constructed and sold; how these processes are designed and implemented; to what ends data are deployed; who gets access to them; how their analysis is regulated (boyd and Crawford, 2012) and what, if any, possibilities for agency and better accountability data mining and analytics open up. (pg 380)

This creates a problem for cultural studies because data mining challenges established forms of representation, “promising to discern patterns that are so complex that they are beyond the reach of human perception, and in some cases of any meaningful explanation or interpretation”. It is not “not only a highly technical practice, it also tends to be non-transparent in its applications, which are generally privately owned and controlled”. It poses an ontological challenge to cultural studies, as well as epistemological and methodological ones. In the absence of access to the products of data mining, the authors suggest cultural studies is left theorising their effects.

If we approach data analysis technologies as communicative media, we miss a “shift away from interpretive approaches and meaning-making practices towards the project of arranging and sorting people (and things) in time and space” (pg 381). Data mining isn’t undertaken to understand the communication taking place, as much as to “arrange and sort people and their interactions”. They suggest that recent developments in social theory mirror this changing reality (pg 381-382):

Perhaps not coincidentally, recent forms of social and cultural theory mirror develop- ments in big data analytics; new materialism, object-oriented ontology, post-humanism and new medium theory – all of which are coming to play an important role in digital media studies – de-centre the human and her attendant political and cultural concerns in favour of a ‘flat’ ontology wherein humans are but one node, and perhaps not the most  important, in complex networks of interactions and assemblages. Thus, analysis of the circulation of affects and effects rather than of meanings, content or representations, con- nected as they are to human-centred forms of meaning-making, has become a dominant trope in some influential current approaches to media. Such analyses tend to fashion themselves as anti-discursive in their rejection of a focus on representation and cognition and their turn towards bodies and things in their materiality (rather than their significa- tion).

They make the compelling argument that to “remain within the horizon of interpretation, explanation and narrative” can be a “strategic critical resource in the face of theoretical tendencies that reproduce the correlational logic of the database by focusing on patterns and effects rather than on interpretations or explanations” (pg 382). The promise of these new approaches to correct an excessively discursive focus risks an “over-correction” and a “view from nowhere” in which “the goal of comprehensiveness (the inclusion of all components of an endless network of inter-relations) tends towards a politically inert process of specification in which structures of power and influence dissipate into networks and assemblages” (pg 383). Pushing beyond human concerns too easily leads to ever more specific analyses which collapse the substance of interactions into their effects, leaving us with “no way of generating a dynamics of contestation and argument in a flat ontology of ever proliferating relations or objects” (pg 384).

This is not a claim that there is nothing beyond culture, but rather a reminder that invoking this beyond is intrinsically cultural and a call for “an interrogation of the embrace of a post-cultural imaginary within contemporary media theory” (pg 384). This imaginary often obscures the political economy of data infrastructure, compounding the existing tendency for the ‘virtual’ character of digital phenomenon to distract from their socio-economic materiality; for all their opacity, complexity and power they are just another phase in the technological development of human civilisation (pg 385). When we recognise this in becomes easier to reject the “celebratory presentism” and remember that “technological forms, and the rhetorics and analytic practices that accompany them, do not come from nowhere – they have histories, which shape and condition them, and inevitably bear the marks of the cultural, social and political conditions surrounding their production and implementation” (pg 385). They end this wonderful paper with a call to action which I’d like to explore in the digital public sociology book I’m writing with Lambros Fatsis (pg 393):

We need to develop new methodologies and new intellectual and critical competencies to tackle the embedded assumptions buried in the code and their political and cultural implications. Our ability to accomplish these things will require more than isolated scholarly effort; collaborative, politically engaged activist sensibilities will no doubt be required in order to push past the privatized digital enclosures and open up access to the algorithms, analytics, distributive regimes and infrastructural monopolies that are increasingly coming to condition the contours and substance of our daily lives.

This really resonates with my recent speculative thinking on techno-fascism. From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 3646:

At its most dystopian, the resulting information landscape is one in which those with access to the database can derive practical, if probabilistic (“post- comprehension”), knowledge about how best to influence populations while members of these population are left with an outmoded set of critical tools that, in practice, can be pitted against one another’s worldview, but which have little purchase on the forms of knowledge turned back upon them by database- driven apparatuses of influence. In somewhat more concrete terms, this dystopia would be one in which political parties, for example, might use giant databases to exert influence in the affective register (by determining which appeals result in triggering desired voting behavior), overleaping the tangle of “reality- based” policy analysis, verification, and so on. This asymmetry would free up politicians to engage in “infoglut” strategies in the discursive register (promulgating reports that contradict themselves endlessly, pitting “expert” analysts against one another in an indeterminate struggle that does little more than fill air time, or perhaps reinforce preconceptions) while simultaneously developing new strategies for influence in the affective register. Fact- checkers would continue to struggle to hold politicians accountable based on detailed investigations of their claims, arguments, and evidence, while politicians would use data- mining algorithms to develop impulse- or anxiety- triggering messages with defined probabilities of success

From InfoGlut, by Mark Andrejevic, loc 1384:

One start- up sentiment mining application, for example, claims to “understand how the web feels ” via a “vibology meter.” 56 This version of prosopopoeia – attributing an imagined and unified voice to a dispersed and invisible aggregate that cannot speak for itself – enacts the fetishistic disavowal of contemporary capitalism, according to Slavoj Zizek: the simultaneous dismissal of the ability to comprehend or represent a totality and its reassertion as an autonomous, anonymous imaginary entity. For example, when “the people speak” through aggregate voting results that allegedly provide a candidate with a “strong mandate,” this combined sentiment may not reflect that of any particular individual or group (since widespread weak support combined with significant strong opposition might result in the apparent mandate). As Zizek puts it, “no one is personally responsible for it, all just feel the need to accommodate themselves to it. And the same goes for capitalism as such.” 57 The logic of aggregation is distinct from that of collectivity – the former seeks to create an imagined consensus out of an overview that makes up for what it lacks in depth, comprehension, and meaning with breadth, speed, and predictive power.

This is a really important point I’d like to incorporate into my analysis of fragile movements. As durable collectives, capable of articulating collective concerns and formulating collective projects to pursue them, become more difficult to generate and sustain, do we see a corresponding increase in prosopopoeia: a fetishistic faux-collectively that stands in as a purely affective substitute for meaningful collectivity?

An interesting snippet in Infoglut, by Mark Andrejevic, Loc 1404 describes how sentiment analysis is being deployed to deal with ‘detractors’:

The goal is not to describe but to affect and effect – to stimulate word of mouth, to promote engagement and, in some cases, to thwart it. One sentiment analysis company, for example, promises, “Real- time tracking of ‘Detractors’ to minimize the impact and velocity of negative word- of- mouth.”  The press release does not indicate how such detractors are dealt with. Presumably the company has ways of drowning them out or pre- empting critique.

This is potent stuff for my semi-serious design fiction (ish) project on techno-fascism. Detractors of a powerful brand might merely be ‘drowned out’ at present. But can we imagine other fates that might one day befall them?