The following piece was originally published in Juncture, IPPR’s journal of politics and ideas, on 21st December 2016.
Digital information systems have come to play a central role in how we organise and imagine collective life in the 21st century. The limits of our world are demarcated by electronic equipment scanning the movements of the clouds and space debris above us and the oceanic currents deep below. Within this comparatively narrow band around the surface of the Earth where life is possible – which geologists call the ‘critical zone’ – ever more activity is registered, connected, facilitated and mediated by digital technologies, resulting in vast reserves of data. In addition to the familiar genres of enumerating people, resources, space and time which have been institutionalised for centuries (through official statistics or accounting practices, for example), the digital infrastructures and devices that surround us proliferate data as a result of their every interaction.
These processes of ‘datafication’ – or ways of seeing and engaging with the world by means of digital data – are not just limited to the neutral representation of phenomena: data can also actively participate in the shaping of the world around us. The very act of generating data can change behaviour, albeit in sometimes unexpected ways and with unintended consequences, as we see, for example, in the dynamics created by league tables and performance metrics, rankings, indexes and indicators. Economic sociologist Donald MacKenzie wrote that financial models are not just like cameras that depict behaviour within markets, they can also act as engines that change them. The same is doubtless true of the quantitative appraisal of life in the workplace, in the classroom, in the home, on the street.
Data not only refers or designates: it can also stage, guide and enact social life in different settings. Historians and sociologists of statistics argue that classificatory practices at public institutions have brought new social categories into existence. Today, computers and algorithms play a role in the grouping and ordering of society. Information brokers propose new ways of classifying society drawing on the automated analysis of large volumes of data from different sources – proposing consumer profiles such as ‘credit crunched: city families’, ‘ethnic second-city strugglers’ and ‘rural and barely making it’. Such emerging forms of ‘data work’ can have huge social, political, economic, environmental and cultural consequences.