“Critical Zones” featured in New York Times “Best Art Books of 2020”

Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel on MIT Press (to which I contributed a chapter on the “Datafication of Forests”) has been featured on the New York Times’s list of “Best Art Books of 2020”. ✨ 📖 🌱

‘CRITICAL ZONES: THE SCIENCE AND POLITICS OF LANDING ON EARTH’ Edited by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel (MIT/ZKM Center for Art and Media, Karlsruhe). Climate change should furnish to art what Galileo delivered to theology: a definitive rupture of where we think we stand. The giant catalog for this German exhibition unites philosophers, scientists, historians and artists (from Caspar David Friedrich to Sarah Sze) to re-anchor art inside a constantly transforming ecosystem. The old “Blue Marble” won’t cut it; we need new methods of depicting Earth and its landscapes that account for our codependency with all species. After all, as the editors write, aesthetics is “what renders one sensitive to the existence of other ways of life.”

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New Book: “Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access” (MIT Press, 2020)

MIT Press have recently published a new book on Reassembling Scholarly Communications: Histories, Infrastructures, and Global Politics of Open Access edited by Martin Eve and myself.

The book aims to provide a “critical inquiry into the politics, practices, and infrastructures of open access and the reconfiguration of scholarly communication in digital societies”.

My chapter, “Infrastructural Experiments and the Politics of Open Access” examines how scholarly communication infrastructures may be taken as both an object of research and a site of experimentation to explore questions of who has access, what counts, what matters, and how relations are organised.

The chapters in the book are also available as a set of open access PDFs to coincide with Open Access Week. The whole book is available as a single PDF here. Following is an overview of the table of contents with links to full texts of corresponding chapters.

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Twelve Challenges for Critical Data Practice

As we’re in the final stages of editorial for the Data Journalism Handbook (forthcoming on Amsterdam University Press) Liliana Bounegru and I are curious to hear from those who have read and/or used the online beta of the book.

In particular we’re curious to learn about any projects or activities which were prompted by the “Twelve Challenges for Critical Data Practice” (copied below) as we finalise the book’s introduction. If you’re used or incorporated these into any data journalism projects or research, we’d love to hear from you. 📖 📝 ✨

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Online launch of “Critical Zones” exhibition at ZKM

This weekend sees the online launch of “Critical Zones – Observatories for Earthly Politics” at ZKM Center for Art and Media in Germany, co-curated by Bruno Latour, Peter Weibel, Martin Guinard and Bettina Korintenberg.

I’ve contributed a chapter on “The Datafication of Forests? From the Wood Wide Web to the Internet of Trees” to the accompanying book Critical Zones: The Science and Politics of Landing on Earth (forthcoming on MIT Press). You download an open access preprint of my chapter here and the final version here. Here’s the abstract:

How can data and networked digital technologies be used to cultivate collective sensibilities towards the presence of trees? How can the datafication of forests build on or depart from other ways of relating to trees, whether through mythology, mapping, camping, conservation, literature, logging, painting, planting, film, food, art installations, activist occupations, imperial expansion, indigenous stewardship, botany, birthing, or bathing (shinrin-yoku)? This piece briefly explores some of the emerging practices, infrastructures, and devices that are used to render trees experiencable, sensible, and relatable through digital data.

Bruno Latour and co-curators at the online launch of “Critical Zones”

To mark the opening of the exhibition there is a free virtual opening and streaming festival, including guided tours, interviews, talks, discussions, film screenings and more – with Bruno Latour, Donna Haraway, Peter Weibel, Jennifer Gabrys, Eyal Weizman, Alexandra Arènes, Soheil Hajmirbaba, Marie-Claire Pierret, Jan Zalasiewicz, Bettina Korintenberg, Barbara Kiolbassa, Tim Lenton, Sébastien Dutreuil, Simon Schaffer, Joseph Leo Koerner, Ali Gharib, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Emanuele Coccia, Vinciane Despret, Frédérique Aït-Touati, Adam G. Riess, Bruce Clarke, John Feldman and many others. This includes free online screenings of Donna Haraway: Story Telling for Earthly Survival by Fabrizio Terranova and Symbiotic Earth: How Lynn Margulis Rocked the Boat and Started a Scientific Revolution by John Feldman. You can find the programme here, the livestream here, the digital edition of the exhibition here.

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An open letter and open questions about the COVID19 datastore

I’ve co-signed an open letter with some open questions on the COVID19 datastore along with a group of researchers and of civil society organisations.

The letter is copied below. The original version can be found here. Associated coverage and posts can be found at The New Statesman, The Register, Computer Weekly, IT Pro, Hollyrood and the Open Knowledge Foundation. You can also find a related petition from OpenDemocracy here.

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Interview in New Internationalist on air pollution data practices

I was recently interviewed by New Internationalist co-editor Amy Hall for the cover story of its latest edition on air pollution. We spoke about a recent interdisciplinary research project at King’s College London on “Doing Participation with Air Pollution Data” also building on the Public Data Lab’s Save Our Air project. Here’s an excerpt:

Jonathan Gray is lecturer in Critical Infrastructure Studies at King’s College London. He researches the politics of sensor data and its role in activism, including people using their own, lower-cost air-pollution monitors. Although the reliability of such monitors can be questioned, Gray says they are a useful tool for pointing out to authorities where there is a problem, as well as bringing the issue to life for a wider range of people. “Sensing devices can play many different roles in helping to bring the environment into social and political life. This is relevant not just from the point of view of noxious emissions from cars, but also climate change. The massive problem is trying to make a very intangible issue relatable.”

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Book Chapter “The Data Epic: Visualisation Practices for Narrating Life and Death at a Distance” in Data Visualization in Society (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press)

I’ve just had a chapter on “The Data Epic: Visualisation Practices for Narrating Life and Death at a Distance” published in a new book on Data Visualization in Society (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press) edited by Helen Kennedy and Martin Engebretsen.

The book is open access and you can download the whole manuscript as as PDF here and you can find my chapter here.

Here’s the abstract for the book:

Today we are witnessing an increased use of data visualization in society. Across domains such as work, education and the news, various forms of graphs, charts and maps are used to explain, convince and tell stories. In an era in which more and more data are produced and circulated digitally, and digital tools make visualization production increasingly accessible, it is important to study the conditions under which such visual texts are generated, disseminated and thought to be of societal benefit. This book is a contribution to the multi-disciplined and multi-faceted conversation concerning the forms, uses and roles of data visualization in society. Do data visualizations do ‘good’ or ‘bad’? Do they promote understanding and engagement, or do they do ideological work, privileging certain views of the world over others? The contributions in the book engage with these core questions from a range of disciplinary perspectives.

Here’s the abstract and full reference for my chapter:

This chapter proposes the notion of the ‘data epic’, which is examined through two works of ‘cinematic data visualization’: The Fallen of World War II and The Shadow Peace: The Nuclear Threat. These pieces mobilize an aesthetics of distance to narrate life and death at scale, in past and possible global conflicts. While previous studies of quantification emphasize the function of distance in relation to aspirations of objectivity, this chapter explores other narrative and affective capacities of distance in the context of ‘public data culture’. The data epic can thus enrich understanding of how data are rendered meaningful for various publics, as well as the entanglement of data aesthetics and data politics involved in visualization practices for picturing collective life.

Keywords: Data politics; Data aesthetics; Data practices; Sociology of quantification; Distance; Scale.

Gray, J. (2020) “The Data Epic: Visualisation Practices for Narrating Life and Death at a Distance.” In H. Kennedy and M. Engebretsen (eds) Data Visualization in Society. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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New Article: “‘Fake News’ as Infrastructural Uncanny”, New Media & Society

An article by Liliana Bounegru, Tommaso Venturini and I on “‘Fake news’ as infrastructural uncanny” has just been published in New Media & Society. It builds on work that we did as part of the Field Guide to “Fake News” with the Public Data Lab. The article is open access and freely available on the web and in PDF format. The abstract is copied below.

‘Fake news’ as infrastructural uncanny

Jonathan Gray, Liliana Bounegru, Tommaso Venturini

In this article, we examine how the social disturbance precipitated by ‘fake news’ can be viewed as a kind of infrastructural uncanny. We suggest that the threat of problematic and viral junk news can raise existential questions about the routine circulation, engagement and monetisation of content through the Web and social media. Prompted by the unsettling effects associated with the ‘fake news’ scandal, we propose methodological tactics for exploring (1) the link economy and the ranking of content, (2) the like economy and the metrification of engagement and (3) the tracker economy and the commodification of attention. Rather than focusing on the misleading content of junk news, such tactics surface the infrastructural conditions of their circulation, enabling public interventions and experiments to interrogate, challenge and change their role in reconfiguring relations between different aspects of social, cultural, economic and political life.

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New piece: “Is “another internet possible”? Inside Labour’s digital infrastructure plans” in Open Democracy

The following piece is cross-posted from OpenDemocracy, where it was published on 4th December 2019.

“The Physical Internet” visualisation from DensityDesign Lab undertaken by Beatrice Bazzan, Allegra Colombo, Martina Giordano, Gianluca Misto, Ludovica Piro, Irina Stojsic

The Labour Party’s recently launched manifesto and associated proposals contain the seeds of an egalitarian, progressive vision of the role that digital, data and knowledge infrastructures might play in contemporary life. While their proposals on broadband, tax, data, patents, platforms, AI and digital rights have largely been reported and evaluated separately, together they serve as a reminder that “another internet is possible”.

The past few years have seen a series of critiques of the exploitative capacities of digital technologies, such as “platform capitalism”, “surveillance capitalism” and “data colonialism”. Large technology companies such as the “big four” (Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple) proliferate devices and interfaces which gather data for advertising and targeting, facilitated by aggressive tax avoidance in countries where they operate.

Online platforms such as Uber and Deliveroo promote exploitative and precarious “gig” work. The algorithms, tracking ecosystems and personalisation mechanisms of search and social media companies contribute to the commodification of public life, the polarisation of political debate, as well as new forms of discrimination and inequality. As new media scholar Richard Rogers frames the recent turn in public discourse, “instead of emancipatory, the web became authoritarian, with Shirky’s web supplanted by Morozov’s”.

In response to these developments, Labour have committed to taxing multinational corporations (“including tech giants”) in proportion to their economic activities by closing loopholes and changing rules which currently enable avoidance at a massive scale ($100 billion in avoidance for just six firms over the past decade, according to one recent report). The manifesto also proposes a new “Charter of Digital Rights” which would challenge algorithmic injustice, surveillance and support user rights for access and ownership to their data.

In addition to this agenda of redistribution, regulation and rights, Labour’s manifesto also contains proposals around alternative arrangements for the ownership, governance and control of digital and data infrastructures. Most prominent are the “free full-fibre broadband for all” proposals through the creation of a new “British Broadband” public service building on the successes of publicly owned networks around the world.

As internet studies and science and technology studies researchers have argued for many decades, digital infrastructures are not just neutral vehicles, but embody different kinds of values, politics and relations. Prioritising public access over private profits, publicly owned broadband networks challenge the long-standing assumption that “corporations necessarily provide connectivity”. British Broadband could commit to lowering environmental impacts by repurposing existing fibre, rather than laying new cables.

Taken together, Labour’s proposals for British Broadband and the Charter of Digital Rights suggest the possibility of changing not only the means but also the meaning of connectivity. With a shift from broadband as commercial service to broadband as a public commons comes the promise of reconfiguring relations between digital infrastructures and their users – for example, figuring the latter as networked citizens with expertise to offer rather than surveilled consumers from whom value can be extracted through transactional data.

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Book chapter: “What a difference a dataset makes? Data journalism and/as data activism”, Data in Society, (Policy Press, 2019)

A book chapter on  “What a difference a dataset makes? Data journalism and/as data activism” co-authored with Liliana Bounegru has just been published in a new book Data in Society: Challenging Statistics in an Age of Globalisation on Policy Press.

The preprint is available here and an excerpt from the introduction and full reference are copied below.

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