Towards an emancipatory understanding of widespread datafication

Katrin Fritsch
12 min readFeb 11, 2018

The technological connected society is exposed to a new logic of surveillance capitalism and social inequality — derived from widespread datafication. In this research essay I examine what the best activist response to this logic is. By analysing two installations — Unfit-Bits and Data Production Labour — experienced at The Glass Room in London, I argue that art as an activist response can challenge the cultural understanding of technology and data: it can empower the individual and lead to collective action in a datafied society.

“Interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon art.”
Susan Sontag, Against interpretation, 1966, p. 4

While the technological connected society is sleeping, it is producing capital for monopolistic companies. Wearables are tracking sleep cycles, providing the data gathered for insurance companies. Facebook is monitoring user activity, utilising the patterns found for targeting and advertising purposes. Datafication as “a legitimate means to access, understand and monitor peoples’s behavior” (van Dijck, 2014, p. 198) has crawled into the last corners of human existence: into the body, into the social, into the sleep — and hand in hand with it have capitalism and discrimination. Technological innovations and the craze for big data have finally overthrown borders between work and consumption and between private and public. The individual finds itself permanently communicating, interfacing and engaging with technological devices (Crary, 2014), constantly generating data, working for companies and producing capital. As this essay will argue, society is legitimising the unconscious extraction and discrimination because of social imaginaries and misleading metaphors established on behalf of technology and data. An activist response that challenges this metric, capitalist abuse of the human body and mind is urgently needed. It has to unmask dominant imaginaries and produce counter-metaphors to empower the individual and hence to enable collective action. Therefore, instead of activism that requires technological literacy, this essay will demonstrate that the best activist response is situated in the context of art. Art can question imaginaries, produce counter-metaphors and make issues understandable and accessible for every part of society. By analysing and contextualising two art installations — one challenging datafication of the body, one unmasking datafication of the social — this essay will support the argument made. It will show that art can lead to collective action in a datafied, capitalist society.

When Brautigan wrote All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace in 1968, he was visioning a utopian society freed from all it’s burdens through technology. Brautigan’s poem forms part of a larger social imaginary that envisions a good society with the help of technological innovations (Mansell, 2012). This social imaginary is based upon the assumption, that technology brings truth, objectivity and infallibility (Mansell, 2012). Social imaginaries as “the taken-for-granted notions, images, and visions of those engaged with developments in the information society and how they think about and experience the mediated environment” (Mansell, 2012, p. 6) can therefore be considered as constitutions of discourses around technology and determinations of social practices. With the rise of the internet and the notion of big data, it can be argued, that the social imaginary discussed above played a central role in legitimising datafication of the body and the social. The widespread belief that quantification brings objectiveness (van Dijck, 2014) has enabled a “shift toward a data-driven regime of “truth”” (Crawford, 2014).

Another legitimisation for widespread datafication can be found in the notion of metaphors. Metaphors are often used with emerging innovations, as they can make complicated technologies better understandable by simplifying them and connecting them with other concepts (Lobo & Passig, 2012). Metaphors are powerful tools because they “structure what we perceive, how we get around in the world, and how we relate to other people” (Lakoff, 1981, p. 3). Hence, they define reality and create values in societies (Lakoff, 1981). Metaphors can be used to implicitly frame interests in technological discourses. When Gates suggested that the internet is a tidal wave (in “Gates, Microsoft Jump on ‘Internet Tidal Wave’”, 1995), he contextualised it as an unstoppable, uncontrollable entity like nature. Also, as water is a human right, he promised the internet would be free and could be surfed by anyone. It can be claimed that Gates, utilising nautical metaphors, obscured capitalist purposes on the internet and enhanced misleading ideas of convergence culture: that the internet would be free, accessible and enable a new digital democracy. Simultaneously, the metaphor of the internet as cloud implicitly frames it as a utopian, religious place, localised above the world. It suggests the internet is permanently visible, but not reach- or touchable for society. It makes existence and structure of the internet unquestionable. Technological metaphors can also be seen in a broader sense, as Chun (2011) has examined. In her book Programmed Visions she notes that the terms user or service obscure agency and manipulation in the technological connected society, as they constitute misleading roles. Therefore, like social imaginaries, metaphors determine technological discourses, social practices and perceptions of truth. They can be used to make innovations understandable, but they can also be used to obscure power structures in general and capitalist interests in specific. Hence, it can be claimed that they implicitly enable legitimisation of widespread datafication.

In a time in which social credit systems are introduced, insurance companies utilise data of wearables to discriminate individuals and users of social media platforms establish an environment of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2015), an activist response to these circumstances is crucial. It should aim to develop “new rationalities and alternative social imaginaries around datafication to connect system and experience in new ways” (Baack, 2015, p. 8). But by looking at current activist practices — e.g. cyber activism or open source culture — and current research on these movements — e.g. Milan, 2016 ; McCaughey & Ayers, 2003 ; Bruno, Didier & Vitale, 2014 — , it can be argued that activist responses to datafication often demand a high level of technological literacy. Technological literacy as “the ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology” (Technology for All Americans Project & International Technology Education Association, 2003, p. 2) is broadly discussed in contexts of technological education (Ingerman & Collier-Reed, 2010 ; Frank, 2005 ; Rose, 2007) and often considered as lacking in educational curricula. Activist practices can be accused of demanding this technological literacy discussed above: cyber activism requires knowledge of coding language, open source culture often requires a certain community and an understanding of certain inequalities established on behalf of technology.

In a technological connected society in which datafication and the capitalisation of the social and the body affect everyone, an activist response should be understandable and accessible by every single individual of this society — and not only by a technologically literate community. Technological literacy functions as a barrier for activist practices, only enabling an elite of technological savvy people to become active. But big data requires collective action of a broad spectrum of the technological connected society. It affects everyone, so anyone should be able to respond and challenge it.

Recognising social imaginaries and metaphors as constituting parts of the legitimisation of capitalist datafication, allows to explore new forms of activism that don’t necessarily need technological literacy to be accessible. By examining “how big data is constructed in the social imagination” (Powell, 2017, n.p.) other epistemologies and ontologies made on behalf of data can be created and “radical bottom-up data knowledge” (Powell, 2017, n.p.) can be produced. As this essay will illustrate with two concrete examples, the best activist response therefore can be located in the context of art. Art as “a voice of dissent, as a tool for advancing social justice and democracy, as the core of a revolutionary strategy, and as a source of memory and future ways of knowing” (David & McCaughan, 2006, p. 1) is able to unmask dominant social imaginaries and create counter-metaphors. Furthermore, art projects are often installed in space, are tacit and take into account the perspective of the viewer. They can be considered as more open for interpretation, and not necessarily requiring technological literacy in order to make activist responses understandable and doable.

It is important to clarify that art in this notion should neither be defined in terms of aesthetics — beautiful/ugly, valuable/unimportant — nor in terms of disciplines — net art, interactive art, new media art, visual art, robotic art — but in terms of how it is responding to datafication and how it is empowering the individual in a datafied reality. To further illustrate this argument, two art installations in the context of capitalist datafication and discrimination will now be discussed. It will be shown that, by challenging social imaginaries and creating counter-metaphors, they are able to respond and provide “effective voice” (Couldry, 2010, p. 1).

Unfit-bits is an art installation by Tega Brain and Surya Mattu from 2015. The artists irritate Fitbits by fixing them on different objects such as metronomes, drills, swings or bicycles. While the Fitbits are evidentially counting steps and acknowledging human exercise, they are actually moved by other objects. With this installation, Mattu and Brain claim, individuals can finally acquire freedom of technology and exercise.

The belief to know one’s body better through external measurement is at least as old as the weight scale. It envisions the body as a machine, that can be regulated and made more efficient with the help of numbers (Greif, 2017). With the innovation of wearables, this belief has come to a new dimension. Now, it is not only the individual relating to it’s own numbers, but the bodily self-regulation through the aggregation of the data of many individuals (Crawford, Lingel & Karppi, 2015). The measurement of the body is made comparable through large-scale datafication with the help of third party agents. A new norm is established on behalf of big data — and therefore a new form of datafied biopower is set. But self-tracking devices bring further societal problems that need to be addressed by activist practices. As Crawford (2014) has revealed in an article in The Atlantic, Fitbits were used to claim guilt of an individual in front of the law. The use of wearable data was implicitly considered as bringing truth in the courtroom, and can therefore be connected with the notion of a social imaginary which envisions technology as objective and infallible. Further, the quantified self movements have enabled a whole industry such as insurance companies and health care providers to capitalise data of the body (Crawford et al., 2015). Discounts on insurance premiums are based upon wearable data that consider both activity and inactivity — hence, sleep — for capital value purposes. Therefore, they actively discriminate poor or unhealthy people in society by defining what is the norm and what not (Leonard, 2014). Another problem arising with wearables is that users get personalised reports, while being surrounded by a system of mass extraction and analysis (Crawford et al., 2015). Therefore, “only a small fraction of the potential and value of this data is returned to the user” (Crawford et al., 2015, p. 494).

The capitalist datafication and discrimination of the body with the use of wearables is established on behalf of the social imaginary that technology is infallible and objective. This imaginary needs to be unmasked in order to address better directions for a technological connected society (Mansell, 2012). Unfit-bits is able to challenge this social imaginary and to suggest collective action. Mattu and Brain reveal, that technological devices can be manipulated easily and hence, that they are fallible and subjective. They do this by simply positioning the Fitbit in another context and confusing it. Further, they are able to suggest strategies for collective action: if in a datafied society many individuals irritate wearables by re-contextualising them, the norm and hence the discrimination could be erased.

Data Production Labour is an art installation by Manuel Beltrán, founder of the Institute of Human Obsolescence, from 2017. It invites participants to put their smartphones on a stand and to navigate through their Facebook timelines for two minutes. While they are interacting with the device, two cameras are monitoring and analysing different parameters of hand movements and facial expressions. By doing these simple activities, participants are generating valuable data for Facebook which, mainly for advertisement purposes, is further translated into capital for the company. Hence, the participant is working for Facebook. After the working shift, he/she receives a receipt which states the units of attention, the facial expression and the speed of scrolling made in the process. It reveals that the participant has worked for Facebook by creating data and further capital — and therefore invites him/her to demand payment.

The current process of capitalist datafication rests upon the economic assumption that data produces information which can be translated into innovation, creativity (Mansell, 2012) and hence into competitive advantage (Drucker, 1988). This has brought the technological connected society into a power structure of surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2015), in which a dominant “logic of accumulation” (Zuboff, 2015, p. 75) is operating. Individuals are constantly producing data in everyday practices, without even constructing meaning or obtaining basic consent (Couldy & Powell, 2014). The advertisement industry is especially interested in this data, as it can be used to identify consumers for their brands and further maximise revenue. Hence, data becomes a new currency for users of these platforms in order to be allowed to perform basic social practices such as communication (van Dijck, 2014).

The underlying logic of these capitalist systems is obscured by several metaphors, such as the individual as user. By stating that everyone can utilise their free service, capitalist companies hide the datafication and exploitation of the technological connected society. Like the term platform, user is an important part of the discursive work of social media companies to claim openness, egalitarianism and empowerment of the individual (Gillespie, 2010). It is based upon several ideas of scholars such as Toffler (1980), Jenkins (2008) or Bruns (2008) who assess that new practices in media consumption with the help of the internet allow many-to-many communication, give voice to everyone and therefore constitute a new digital democracy. Social media monopolies build upon these misleading academic frameworks by promising voice, freedom and equality for users.

As Fuchs (2012) has argued, “[t]he concept of exploitation is frequently not explained and clarified in such circumstances” (p. 143). To make datafication and capitalisation of the individual visible and understandable, a counter-metaphor for the term user is urgently needed. The art installation Data Production Labour is able to do so by proposing a counter-metaphor that frames the individual as a worker. Hence, it creates a new understanding of capitalist power structures in a datafied reality. It is accessible, as it is interactive, and provides a narrative for the viewer who is first scrolling through the Facebook timeline and then getting a haptic receipt revealing that this activity was a working shift. Data Production Labour enables collective action, because it frames users as a new entity of workers. Therefore, it creates a collective identity that is not provided in debates around user-generated content in specific and the internet in general. It frames an us against a they in a Mouffeian (2005) understanding of antagonism and consequently allows to ask new questions of agency of social media monopolies in a datafied, capitalist society.

“To make people believe, is to make them act.”
Michel de Certeau, The practice of everyday life, 1984, p. 148

The post-snowden era, in which surveillance capitalism (Zuboff, 2015) and discrimination of individuals on behalf of data still haven’t changed, shows that it needs more than one person to challenge obscured power structures. Datafication is established on behalf of a widespread societal belief in data and technology, as this essay has argued. It is based upon dominant social imaginaries and metaphors that play a central role in precarious ontological an epistemological claims. As van Dijck (2014) has examined, both governmental and economic institutions that extract and capitalise data are built upon a deeply rooted system of trust that legitimises capitalist datafication. This new regime, which Zuboff (2015) terms the Big Other, establishes “illegible mechanisms of extraction and control” (p. 85).

Hence, activist responses need to disrupt this system of “capital-driven imperatives” (Crawford et al., 2015, p. 495) in order to reveal underlying structures of power. But, as this essay has argued, current activist practices challenging these circumstances often require technological literacy in order to be accessible and understandable. Technological literacy functions as a barrier for a broader societal spectrum. But mass extraction of data needs mass action of society. Therefore, as this essay has shown with two examples, the best activist response can be localised in the context of art. Art is able to challenge widespread datafication in a more accessible and understandable way. It can question social imaginaries and establish counter-metaphors. It can expose the fallibility of technology and frame users as workers. It can empower the individual by giving it “effective voice” (Couldry, 2010, p. 1), and not only providing the opportunity to raise voice. Art can awake the sleeping technological connected society by challenging and reshaping a dominant understanding of reality — hence, it can make society act.



Katrin Fritsch

tech, climate + feminism / data + society / prev. co-founder of MOTIF Institute / @KatrinFritsch