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Last week I wrote a comment piece for the Corsham Institute’s Observatory for a Connected Society app asking ‘What can Anthropology tell us about data in the 21st Century?’

You can view it at https://connectedobservatory.org/ along with their other content, or read it here:

What Can Anthropology Tell us about Data in the 21st Century?It is a truth commonly expressed that we live in a world saturated by digital data. Data is no longer just the outcome of scientific research or administrative functions of government but is now created as a bi-product of every person’s interactions with the internet, transport infrastructures, institutions, news media, supermarkets, banks and the built environment. Confronted with this ever-increasing mass of digital data there is both excitement and consternation about how this data should be analysed and what the implications of its use will be for the future of work, knowledge and social relations.

My academic focus is on data and its social implications and I see a crucial role for anthropologists in helping others make sense of this data-saturated landscape. Anthropologists are uniquely equipped to explore the promises and expectations of data and to understand their effects. Far too often, commentaries on the social promise or cultural dangers of data are dominated by technicist accounts that fail to appreciate the way in which digital data, even in its most-posthuman manifestations (e.g. general artificial intelligence or advanced robotics) remains a deeply human endeavour.

When we approach data from the perspective of technical systems we are confronted with what looks like enormous complexity – algorithms working invisibly in the background using things like Bayesian techniques for determining probabilistic relations, gaussian prediction and github repositories of code running to hundreds of pages to produce links and insights that encourage us to buy, click and skim (1). But what if we were to try to understand data from the position of the people that work with it and manage it? What other kinds of understandings of this data landscape would this elicit?

This is what anthropologists are beginning to do. Anthropologists are sometimes criticised for pointing out that things are simply ‘more complex’ than they seem at first sight. But in the case of digital data, I would argue that anthropology offers a way of re-describing data, through an attention to human practices and ideas, so as to make it less complex and more understandable for those who are not steeped in the technical languages of coding, mathematics or computer engineering.

Anthropologists are experts in translation. The classic image of the anthropologist is that of the intrepid explorer visiting far-off cultures to bring back tales of the exotic rendered comprehensible through social analysis. In fact, today you are as likely to find an anthropologist in a science laboratory, a government office, a protest march or a community allotment as you are to find them hanging out in a Papua New Guinean village. But whether doing research in far off places, or in social situations that seem closer to home, anthropologists are always cultural translators, turning the seemingly incomprehensible dimensions of the worlds they study into terms that other anthropologists, and hopefully others who are not anthropologists, can begin to understand.

Being an anthropologist invariably involves learning another language. To do our research we must become competent members of a community learning the terminologies, rituals and practices of the group of people we are studying. This process of gaining intimacy with a community, learning social and linguistic cues and becoming versed in the techniques that are often taken for granted can be an awkward experience, full of surprises and mistakes. Rather than papering over these failures and mistakes, or erasing the aspects of people’s activities that don’t fit preconceived ideas anthropologists use these experiences as a way of interrogating the difference between their own assumptions about the world, and the assumptions of those with whom they are doing research.

This allows anthropologists to unravel and unpack what is often taken for granted. When people say digital technologies will lead to the end of work, the perplexed anthropologist who might understand work as a social contract, will wonder how it can be that such a social contract could be imagined as disappearing. This might entail asking whether work for the person making such a statement is indeed a social contract, and it is that which is disappearing, or whether it is seen as something else which is disappearing, in which case the question becomes, what? With these kinds of questions, we begin to unravel what’s taken for granted in the everyday, allowing us to better understand just what it is that people fear or desire about digital technologies (skills, identity, continuity, community, safety, security?) and where those worries and hopes come from (sense of self, ethical stance, moral interpretation?).

The proliferation of digital data, and the challenges it poses, offers a fertile terrain for this kind of anthropological work. The current enthusiasm for blockchain, machine learning and predictive analytics, raises questions about precisely what it is that is driving this interest and what the effects of this enthusiasm are. In relation to blockchain, media studies scholar Lana Swartz (2) has shown, using precisely the analytic approach described, how interest in blockchain is sustained not only by the technical capacities of the distributed ledger but also operates as what she calls an ‘inventory of desire’. Focusing on what those working with blockchain actually say, rather than on an idealised version of what blockchain is supposed to do, Swartz shows the importance of liberal values of freedom, decentralisation, and privacy that underpin enthusiasm for blockchain, fuelling investment and development in the technology.

Similar analyses have been done on algorithms and the imaginaries that sustain them. Susanne Thompson and colleagues have recently gone so far as to suggest that algorithms might be usefully understood as ‘fetish’ objects. As they make clear, within anthropology, fetishes are understood not as ‘indices of false thinking’ but rather as ‘material objects that stabilise ongoing social relations because people invest them with [an] effect [of simultaneous belief and disbelief]’. Algorithms, they show, gain part of their power from their ability to both confirm people’s understanding of how the world should be, and to produce awe and wonder when they actually work.

This combination of belief in, and disbelief of, technology is perhaps most clearly evident in forms of data analysis that are oriented to the replication or improvement of human-like abilities. Machine learning, artificial intelligence and humanoid robots all entail a fetish-like form of engagement. Developers of intelligent machines draw explicitly on ideas about abilities that are derived from particular understandings of human being such as cognitive and rational capacities, haptic interaction, environmental awareness and logical deduction. When aspects of these qualities become replicated in computational machines, there is often a certain disbelief, awe and wonder expressed at the spectacle of a machine acting like a human.

The interest in finding ways of making machines act like humans have a long historical precedent which helps remind us that not everything about advanced data technologies in necessarily new. Current dreams of automation can be traced back to intricate automata made by Viennese clockmakers in the 17th century, through to Wolfgang Von Kempelen’s chess playing Mechanical Turk which turned out to be what Steven Shapin has insightfully described as device in which a human, pretended to be a machine that was pretending to be human (3). It is no coincidence that Amazon’s mechanical turk rests on a similar idea, whereby human beings stand in for machines that themselves are meant to replace humans.

For anthropologists, one of the most fascinating things about digital data is that the work to manage and manipulate it uncovers taken for granted ideas about human capacities. As well as being based on ideas about human capacities, computational machines are also shaping what we expect it means to be a human. Industrial manufacturing led to people becoming reimagined as units of productive labour. Now algorithms are leading to a rethinking of identity as a composition of experiences and preferences, and the gig-economy is making people rethink themselves not as units of labour but as marketable commodities in a shifting and unstable landscape of work. Whilst futurist predictions about digital data often worry about how computers are set to replace human beings, anthropological studies show how what makes us human is already being shaped by digital data and the machines that analyse it. The question is not whether robots or artificial intelligence will replace human beings but which kind of human they will replace, and with what implications.

In a report, published by the Royal Society and the British Academy last year, a call was made to ensure the governance of data puts human flourishing at its core. For anthropologists this is crucial, not just because it brings human beings into discussions about the benefits and dangers of digital technologies, but also because it allows us to talk about how digital technologies are framing what is valuable – about data, about machines but also, crucially, about what it is to be human in the world today.

Footnotes:

  1. Adrian Mackenzie, 2017 ‘Infrastructures in Name Only: Identifying effects of Depth and Scale’ in Penny Harvey, Casper Bruun Jensen and Atsuro Morita (Eds) Infrastructures and Social Complexity
  2. Lana Swartz. 2017. “Blockchain Dreams: Imagining techno-economic alternatives after Bitcoin.” Another Economy is Possible, edited by Manuel Castells. Polity Press.
  3. Mechanical Marvels, Clockwork Dreams, BBC 4 documentary, Simon Schaffer, “Enlightened Automata” in The Sciences in Enlightened Europe, edited by William Clark, Jan Golinski, and Schaffer (Chicago University Press, 1999)

 

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I am leading a research group at the moment called SLOM:Lab (Social life of Methods Lab). This is a blog post I wrote for the SLOM:Lab.org website last  November.

Writing this post two days after Donald Trump’s election as US President, and in the wake of the UK’s vote to leave the EU, questions about the relationship between methods and politics seem more important than ever. In this post I outline a new project I am working on that will entail research in a social space in which ‘Brexit’ is a live topic – the coastal estuarial landscape of the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy that crosses the boundary between The Wirral which voted ‘remain’ and North Wales that voted ‘leave’. However I chose this as a research site long before Brexit, identifying it initially for the way in which it constituted a rather different set of political relations not between leavers and remainers but between economy and environment. My hope for the project going forward is that by focusing not on Brexit per se, but, as originally intended on the place of data practices in navigating relations between economy and environment, we might be in a position to provide some different languages for talking about contemporary politics and some alternative methods for engaging relations that no longer neatly divide along class, race or left/right political lines.

Over the summer I have been doing some pilot research towards a research collaboration with Damian O’Doherty (Manchester Business School) and Marco Ferrari (Folder Visual Research Agency). We are interested in exploring how a combination of ethnographic research, data analysis and information design might be deployed to provide insights into what constitutes liveable landscapes under conditions of environmental and economic strain.

We have found it highly productive to situate this question in relation to a specific field site – the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy, that straddles North West England and North East Wales.

This tidal estuary, like many similar estuarial locations in the UK and beyond, is a place where questions about future liveability cast trajectories of economic development out into wild territories of rising sea levels, animal subjectivities and ethno-geological histories. Projections of economic futures to inform infrastructure development here sweep out across a wilderness of mudflats and marshland. As they do so they become caught in the wilds of industrial nature with all the agentive complexity that the landscape contains. Here in the Dee Estuary / Aber Dyfrdwy spectres of financial accumulation and energy extraction rub up against the materiality of particulate sedimentation: sandbanks, mudflats and dunes that have emerged out of a process of non-human accretion in a slower temporal register to the hyperactive circulations and accumulations of financial capital. Natures intertwine with economic models to produce foraging economies, tourisms of beauty and dreams of conservation but also a landscape of extraction, contamination and transportation. The estuary brings together and entangles economy and environment in ways that trouble the central dualisms that are normally deployed in the description of what might constitute a liveable life. Our project is thus not only an inquiry into the question of who gets to define liveability (economists or conservationists, policymakers or local residents), but also a study of how liveable and unliveable lives emerge out of situated relations of material and informational entanglement.

In the spirit of SLOM:Lab and an acknowledgement that methods make worlds, one of the things we are trying to do in this project is not only to describe but also to participate in the practice of producing this liveability.  Central to this project is an attempt to find languages or concepts that can help us move beyond a dialectical view of environment and economy – where we remain locked in a back and forth between texture and numbers, nature and culture, abstraction and thick description. We start from the position that it is it insufficient to see environment as the basis of economy, or the economy as determinant of environment and we are committed to exploring modes of description and analysis that elicit alternative relational trajectories that require different modes of representation and different practices of participation.

Our research is in part a project of working out how to participate in the question of liveability by producing our own interventions that cross cut the kinds of divides that are constantly produced in the question sustainable livelihoods. We intend to do this by conducting an ethnographic project which takes as its starting point not community, nor place in any straightforward sense, but rather the implications and potential of practices/methods of data-modelling around which the estuary is being composed. Part of this project is understanding the data practices that are already at play and making these more visible. Another part of the project is bringing alternative data practices to bear on this estuarial space.

On the one hand then we intend to study data practices that inhere in things like the “bird-food model”. Taking this model as what I have recently taken to calling ‘an ethnographic probe’ and tracing the relations that become made and compromised by such models our aim is to ask questions about how different worlds get made, brought together and held apart. What understanding of livelihood comes to the fore when we begin to describe the involvement of ex-fishermen and their wives in both data collection and the maintenance of buoy-based monitors?

 

What story can we tell of sustainable living when we consider how the number of oystercatchers attracted to the estuary is held in tension with migrations of labourers from South Wales who come to the estuary to fish for local cockles, displacing the labour of fishermen from the local area? How do data tables, digital sensors, and website that grid and connect information interplay with the movement of vessels, salmon and sediment in the estuary? How might this be described, visualised and made newly present in the estuary itself?

Conceiving of data relations not as the simple imposition of one logic on another but rather as an instance of worlds in composition we have also been led to ask what role counter or alternative data practices might play in composing the estuary anew both for us and for those who live there. How as ethnographers might we produce our own ‘ethnographic probes’. Working with Marco Ferrari of Folder, a design/art /data architecture research agency, one of the aims of the project is to develop a mode of data-ethnography where the participatory mode of ethnography is brought together in the design of equipment that can elicit alternative relations, descriptions and modes of engagement between anthropological researchers and the worlds we research. In this tidal estuary might we find ways of measuring and mapping tidal flows and economic movements, for example, in ways that illuminate the interplay between tides and different kinds of lives? Who would we need to talk to and work with to do this? What effects might it have?

We are at the stage of reading and assembling examples of those who have begun this work before us. I see this very much as a continuation of the work of SLOM:Lab, a project that is explicit about taking methods not just as descriptions but as ways of world making. I hope that by being bold and experimental in devising different methods, this project will take the question of the social life of methods forward into explicitly political conversation about what world we live in and how we might participate effectively in its reconstitution.

Further information about the research project can be found here