Student Perspectives: Why Big Data and Democracy?

The Student Perspectives category collects posts written by current CityLIS students.

Here, Emilio Sensale explores the connections between the digital revolution and democractic political systems and the impact of big data on people’s ability to exercise their own judgement without technological interference. This post was originally published on Emilio’s blog You can follow Emilio on Twitter @EmilioSensale.

I never really liked the phrase ‘Digital Era’ used to define the times we are living in. The main reason is because all the focus is on the technologies; please don’t get me wrong, I’m not technophobic or a nostalgic of the ‘good old times’ when all the devices, including the Internet, mobile phones, etc., were still only a futuristic idea, but what worries me is the dehumanizing connotation that such technology carries. However, the implication that this era is characterised by the predominance of digital content is not far from reality even though we should always remember that behind all that there’s human craft and intervention. In fact, with my first post I’d like to explain the reasons why I choose the title Big-Data and Democracy for my blog, so in order to fulfill this task I think that a good start might be finding a definition for both Democracy and Big-Data.

The former derives from the greek word dēmokratiā – dēmos ‘people’ and kratos ‘rule’ – and Wikipedia defines it as ‘a form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislation’. I think that the stress should be on the words ‘authority’ and ‘choose’. As for Big-Data, Wikipedia defines it as ‘a field that treats ways to analyze, systematically extract information, or otherwise deal with data sets’. I’d like to focus on the processes of analysis, extraction and use of personal data, furthermore I believe that it is important to consider the concept of ‘consent’. None of these definitions are meant to be exhaustive, it’s just an attempt to create a framework of ideas that I’d like to explore and discuss.

When I think about the constant flow of data that IT companies collect and store form our online interactions I cannot help myself wondering about how much control we are allowing them to have on our decisions, especially when it come to primary needs – or not – and choices that will have any sort of influence on our lives. How many of those needs and ideas are really ‘real’? How thin is the line between violating privacy and legitemately profiting from data? Is it ethically acceptable and if positive to what extent? Are we aware of what that click on the ‘allow all cookies’ button does? What are we really agreeing to? To what extent are we all really well informed about our decisions, also how reliable are the most common sources of information – e.g. Wikipedia? My aim here is not to give a comprehensive answer to all these questions but to keep looking for different angles, unleash my curiosity, explore further a reality that it’s often taken for granted and discuss changes that are considered inevitable. Most of these subjects have already been analyzed and many debates have been raised in different fields of study including, AIE, Sociology, Psychology, Anthropology, Philosophy, etc.; in fact, an extensive across-the-board approach seems to be the most viable one, even though I’m aware that the risk of losing track of the main topics is quite high.

With that said, I’d like to go back to some words highlighted in the second paragraph: authority and choice. If we consider these two ideas in the context of a democratic system I believe that any interaction between them leads us to two more concepts such as power and delegation. In fact, what we do as members of a democratic society is choose – delegating authority through our vote – who will exercise legislative, administrative and judicial powers. What is paramount to make a choice is the creatioin of opinions, hence all the tools that we use to help us with this task should be reliable, transparent and accessible. Fact checking may be helpful in many situations but it may not be enough if we don’t keep in mind the importance of understanding and interpreting data – or information – in general. So if we go back to the definition of Big-Data it might be easier to understand what are my concerns regarding the influence that a specific usage of tools such as profiling and data mining can have on the process of creating opinions.

There are no answers in this blog, in fact, my purpose is to discuss, analyze and confront opinions with people who may have similar – or not necessarily similar – concerns.

About Joseph Dunne-Howrie

I am artist in residence in the MA/MSc Library and Information Science department at City, University of London and module year coordinator for MA/MFA Performative Writing/Vade Mecum at Rose Bruford College of Theatre and Performance.My research interests include intermediality, live performance in digital culture, participatory and immersive theatre, performance documentation, archives, and performative writing.
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