Digital data increasingly plays a central role in contemporary politics and public life. Citizen voices in the so-called public sphere are mediated by proprietary social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook, and are thus shaped by algorithmic ranking and re-ordering.
But data informs how states act too: since 2013, whistleblower Edward Snowden has offered ample evidence of the connivance of the data industry with intelligence services, to the detriment of citizens’ privacy and political oversight.
Data the new currency
Data has become the new currency for many processes within contemporary democracies—from the fight for electoral consent to the protection of national security, from advertising to the monitoring of citizens. Many aspects of the state and the market today have to do with the ‘data economy’ and its rules (or lack thereof).
In this special issue, we are also interested in ‘data politics’, but we want to shift the focus of the conversation. Big data corporations and intelligence agencies are not the only ones acting on datafication, or the process of turning into monetizable and analyzable data many aspects of life that had never been quantified before, such as people’s emotions and interpersonal connections. Non-governmental organizations, hackers, and activists of all kinds provide a myriad of ‘alternative’ interventions, interpretations, and imaginaries of what data stands for and what can be done with it.
Jonathan Gray starts off this special issue by suggesting how data can be involved in providing horizons of intelligibility and organising social and political life. Helen Kennedy’s contribution advocates for a focus on emotions and everyday lived experiences with data. Lina Dencik puts forward the notion of ‘surveillance realism’ to explore the pervasiveness of contemporary surveillance and the emergence of alternative imaginaries. Stefan Baack investigates how data are used to facilitate civic engagement.
Miren Gutiérrez explores how activists can make use of data infrastructures such as databases, servers, and algorithms. Finally, Leah Horgan and Paul Dourish critically engage with the notion of data activism by looking at everyday data work in a local administration. Further, this issue features an interview with Boris Groys by Thijs Lijster, whose work Über das Neue enjoyed its 25th anniversary last year. Lastly, three book reviews illuminate key aspects of datafication. Patricia de Vries reviews Metahavens’ Black Transparency; Niels van Doorn writes on Platform Capitalism by Nick Srnicek and Jan Overwijk comments on The Entrepeneurial Self by Ulrich Bröckling.