Data 1.0

Posted on | August 18, 2015 | 2 Comments

For media studies* data is a key term because of the role it plays in orchestrating contemporary power relations through the collecting capacities of knowledge generating machines. In an information economy, data can provide both the record and the source of individual energy, self-enlightenment and collective opposition. Here are some qualities we ascribe to data.

Data are collected insights. They begin with an individual fact – a datum, the Latin singular – and attract further instances to lay the foundation for an argument. Historically, the word has conveyed different meanings, but it has always referred to the tension between truth and persuasion.

The destiny of data is to facilitate narrative. An isolated activity that produces no evidence does not become data. It is rogue, discountable, exceptional. It is a tree falling in the woods. Without a script, data are unemployed actors.

Data gain significance through association. They come together to say something. But to do so, first they must be assembled. This work of crafting association is necessarily rhetorical, since it is never possible to capture all information adequately.

Media technologies capture data. They provide the recording vehicles for activity. Technologies are thus tools for communicating the stories data tell. In media studies, these stories tend to take two forms.

1. Information about individuals, self-assembled: Data capture that is self-nominated, in which people have some say in crafting the narrative.

In the Quantified Self subculture, people choose to adopt tracking technologies such as wearable fitness monitors to record physical activity, heart rate and sleeping patterns. In productivity tools, software developers build platforms that can record device activity so that users have an archive of on-screen practices. In each case, data visualisations and statistical measures are the outputs that operate as points of reflection. This is their rhetorical power: data prompt a process of enlightenment as individuals seek self-knowledge. Data allows us to perfect aspects of a hidden lifeworld not always available to the conscious mind or witnessing eye. Compelling data prompt reform and improvement.

2. Information about individuals, assembled by others: Data capture that is aggregated en-masse for particular purposes, from enhanced civic services to commercial profit, with or without individual consent.

When National Security Agency analyst Edward Snowden acted as a whistleblower to reveal the extent of unacknowledged data surveillance in the United States, individuals responded by claiming new rights to privacy to oppose such widespread monitoring of intimate life. Payment transactions, traffic routes, energy consumption and phone conversations are some of the most well known data sets amassed by external bodies and institutions. This emerging context for popular governance is vexed given that citizens are not always told about or actually understand the ways their data are collected. The most common justifications for the capture of non-identifying behavior is the convenience of predictive services (e.g. Google Maps) or matters of civic patriotism, safety and care (against terrorism, say, or in response to disasters like Hurricane Sandy). Collecting data is the means to secure favorable social ends.

In both instances, data produce actionable knowledge; the difference lies in our awareness of the process. When data are self-assembled, we experience a feeling of control. The notion of freedom we put in practice by choosing to record activities is one that privileges will as the best kind of agency. Conversely, when data are collected without assent, we become subjects in Foucault’s sense. We are agents only insofar as our activities are recorded in the terms of others, for the purview and measure of an external authority. Helen Nissenbaum calls this ‘information asymmetry’: the ethical dilemma that arises when individuals have little chance to influence the terms upon which their information is gathered and used.

In media studies, the data economy is typically understood as operating within these axes, where the morality of tracking behaviour is plotted according to the benefits brought to oneself in relation to or opposed to others. The underlying framework is the idea of pouvoir-savoir, the articulation of power/knowledge that is the grounding principle of Michel Foucault’s early work. In an information economy, it would seem, knowledge is power. Data allow us to craft our own stories and understand ourselves better, just as they enable authorities to abstract the significance of highly personal narratives to impose order and extract profit. But is this the best way to understand data as we continue to advance a marketplace and a polity ruled by large data sets? Is power really secured through knowledge, or do we need another account to fit the times?

Our research develops different metaphors and frameworks to challenge the idea of sovereignty that has dominated ideas of property and personhood – two aspects of identity that US privacy law often conflates. When sovereignty commands the visual and conceptual field, to know something is to own it. By extension, to see data is to reify and ostensibly possess the knowledge on display. This is the scopophilic fantasy that data visualizations often fulfil, and it is one which typically obscures the tools and labor of assembly.

To explain the often unspectacular experiences of data exchange in everyday life, we are attracted to more organic concepts. For example, the notion of data sweat draws attention to a natural phenomenon that happens to all of us that is an emission of meaningful information depending on the context. What media studies can sometimes miss, partly because of the focus on text and format, is the difference that place makes in perception. More recent theorists are beginning to identify the significance of dwelling, habit and transition in understanding our engagement with media environments. For those of us who live life in transit, moving between many places, this is a necessary development. It recognizes that we are always leaving traces of ourselves in the different settings and contexts we encounter.


The current fascination with data metrics and analytics can be read optimistically as an interest in technology’s role in helping us tell new kinds of stories. This is the last gasp of what has been called ‘participatory media.’ When communication technologies and people are equally mobile, we are no longer observing discrete bodies interacting with static media entities so much elaborating a hybrid relationship of collaboration. The media studies to come will need to explain our engagement with data and their capturing devices as an accommodation, a co-habitation, a shared breath, mutual dwelling.

*Given some recent writing, I am contributing to a new media studies keywords collection. My term is ‘data’. I’m writing it with my colleague Dawn Nafus, who has her own book coming out on the topic. By way of motivation, I thought I’d share some ideas in process. This is the first draft, yet to benefit from Dawn’s input, and it shows – for some reason everything I write lately is using a script metaphor. I suppose that is the humanities training coming through. But it might also be a sign that I am always searching for words…

Typewriter, telephone, transistor

Posted on | July 6, 2015 | No Comments

Here’s a write up of my paper from the recent Terms of Media conference at Leuphana University. This is a draft heading for Judy Wajcman and Nigel Dodd’s forthcoming collection, The Sociology of Speed: Digital, Organizational and Social Temporalities. And since it is material coming out of my own book, Counterproductive, all feedback at this stage is very welcome. Abstract below.

How do employers encourage productivity in knowledge workers? How do we measure outputs and accomplishment in a world of immaterial labor? Inspired by Kittler’s (1999) Gramophone, Film, Typewriter, this article traces a series of management innovations over the past century that cumulatively determined the speed and character of labor. In the shift from shop floor to social factory, productivity moved from an external imposition to a performance of individual will – a lifestyle choice for responsible professionals. The personalization of productivity completes a process of professional subjectification that sutures aspiration and athleticism to competitive ends. It turns the workplace into a sporting field that promises to reward champions.

Airport flash ethnography guide

Posted on | April 23, 2015 | No Comments

If you are in transit over the next few weeks, help out our research project by sending some notes from the departure lounge! Below is a set of prompts to think with as you wait for your next connection. We would be so grateful to have your input for our archive. We are especially interested in differences across cultures. How is device power experienced locally?



(e.g. gate area, food court, corridor, private lounge, etc.)




(e.g. Flight on time? Delayed? How long have people been in this space?)

(e.g. Cramped? Empty? In-between?)


(e.g. Free for anyone? Fee Based? Watch advertisements?)

WHERE ARE POWER OUTLETS LOCATED? (e.g. Part of the seating? On support poles in the middle of the space? Along the walls?)



– Are people staying with the device/s being charged?

– Are they charging multiple devices?

– Are there social interactions taking place around charging?

– Anything meaningful you notice about the chargers: age, gender, demographic details?

– How long are they charging for?

– Are they using the device while charging?

Power out

Posted on | April 19, 2015 | 1 Comment

When do you charge your mobile device, tablet and/or laptop? Do you have a ritual, or do you only do it when the power runs out? Are there places that you prefer to charge? Where? Why?

Are you the kind of person who is always battling a red battery signal and dwindling percentages? Do you carry a charger with you? Since when? Are there times when you are more or less anxious about power? How does it feel?

These are some of the questions we’re asking in a new project on charging practices and power use. We’re interested both in the nitty-gritty of charging habits (when, where, for how long, using what) and broader questions about power infrastructure. For example: Who allows access to power, on what terms? Do users have a right to power in a world that is increasingly dependent on mobile devices? Who should provide that service: a state or commercial entity? Does it depend on the cultural context? Is access to power one of the new demands we should make of a ‘smart’ city?

This work involves in-context research around transit zones – airports, hotels, train stations and the like. If you do any amount of regular travel you probably harbor an ambient awareness of where power sources are likely to be found in a bar, which airlines have charging sockets in their seats, and whether or not there is a chance to stay longer than the time of your laptop battery in a cafe.

These are the stories we’re collecting over the next few months. I’m writing this in the hope that you’ll share yours! And: next time you are waiting somewhere in transit and you see people charging, send me a photo of the setting. I’m keen to get a broad visual landscape for the sorts of international audiences this study needs to address.

The sockets pictured below are from a bar amidst the stunningly tablet-centric layout at JFK Terminal 2. There’s a lot more to say about this, and when it comes to the ramifications for e-waste and obsolescence, others will do it better than me. Almost every available surface in the terminal contains an iPad at the center, beckoning customers to order a lottery ticket or a glass of wine and – in the requisite air travel parlance – ‘relax’. But how exactly one relaxes when a screen is constantly flickering in your face telling you to do so is beyond comprehension.

The belief that efficiency comes at the expense of human interaction is just one of the design principles taken for granted in this vision, in which fulfilling shopping involves nothing more than a credit card and a ‘complimentary’ iPad. In the airport, like other domains of mass governance in the US, what would be most helpful is if you could simply stay in your seat and consume. More concerning: the future of work implied by this architecture is that hospitality employees will soon join knowledge workers in suffering the fate of a job that is not much more than creative device attendance and maintenance.

CocktailFree to charge

Slack and synchronicity

Posted on | March 22, 2015 | No Comments

The current market valuation of enterprise software start-up #slack is prompting some much needed discussion of effective communication channels in the workplace and email in particular. A few of my close colleagues* recently debated the value of the service in terms of both ephemerality – the serendipity of useful, chance engagements with colleagues that email cumulatively broke – and flow. Slack succeeds by letting users stay ‘in the moment’ on the job without accruing excessive information baggage to wade through after the day is done.

In this sense, Slack marks a turning point for understanding the social dynamics of the digitally mediated workplace. The popular aspiration to transcend the inbox, or the idea that one might ‘catch up’ on email could only ever fail: there is simply too much of it to begin with, and too few acknowledgements of its effects on others.

What I find missing in discussions so far is an explanation of how, in the wake of social media, the design deliverable has changed to favour a collective experience of synchronicity. The productivity imperative in tech and management thinking failed to acknowledge that flow is subjective and personal. It places the individual above the group, celebrating heroic solo performances of uninterrupted creativity. This is because flow’s original theoretical premises were based on varieties of athleticism – whether in the excessive regimes of the subject-in-training or the excusable asociality and egotism of the artist-genius. Flow aligned with the foundational move in scientific management which was to erase solidarity with the gang.

The point about Slack is that it makes groups feel together, practically and psychologically: it makes them aware of their time as a collective, and it performs that coherence through its design. The company’s claim to make people feel less busy is about re-engineering the competitive individualism of the workplace to embrace social ends: it promotes an atmosphere of collegiality.

One reason knowledge workers feel busy is because their schedules aren’t in synch; they work across multiple times and locations. Getting ‘in touch’ with distributed others requires significant logistical overhead. People become frustrated with enterprise software not because it lacks functionality, then; it lacks intelligence about timing. It also lacks a model of collective accomplishment or wellbeing beyond maximizing the assets of the firm.

When we are looking at the most valuable companies right now, I wonder how many of them are delivering some kind of access to services and resources that firms once provided, just at a more convenient time or location for the user. This is what I mean by consumer-led enterprise innovation. The fact that today’s workers have little obvious rationale to remain loyal to an employer makes it entirely sensible that they want technologies that are ambivalent about institutions. Slack is a platform for the adhoc professional who needs access to information and a support network on demand.

*This post is inspired by a characteristically complex, humorous and extensive email thread between Peter Levin, ken anderson, Richard Beckwith and Tony Salvador, all of whom regularly stretch the creative possibilities of Outlook. It also benefits from ideas long championed by Maria Bezaitis (on collectives) and Margie Morris (on attunement).

The future of work and enterprise

Posted on | March 4, 2015 | No Comments

Much of the buzz around new work patterns made possible by the ‘gig’ economy of Uber and Task Rabbit suggests that consumers are beginning to act like companies when it comes to managing their careers and employment. Since the great recession, a significant upswing in part time and independent contract work reflects a convergence of factors enabling users to work when and how they want with mobile technology and cloud-based services. These workers are vital to what’s called the jobless recovery: individuals take on the burden of providing resources they once enjoyed through secure employment with a firm.

Partly this is about choice: BYOD growth in large organizations reflects a similar desire among workers to take responsibility for their own productivity. Younger workers also enjoy the freedom of working on their own terms and technology allows them to do it. Dropbox, Gmail, Skype and Evernote are just some of the tools available for self-motivated individuals to get their work done from any location.

The rise of the personal enterprise – where individuals negotiate with work suppliers to sell their services and make a living – is a major challenge to business models that differentiate between business (enterprise) and consumer sales. There is a third category emerging between the two thanks to consumer-led enterprise innovation.

The enterprise user provides the basis for any number of business decisions in tech. But the biggest companies today (Uber, Google, Facebook) employ fewer people than previous generations of industry. Those that are employed in enterprise settings are increasingly likely to be temporary or piece workers in a global economy of in-sourcing and outsourcing. If there are fewer ‘jobs’, fewer mid-size companies, and fewer employers then this inevitably affects enterprise business. And when non-standard employment is becoming the standard, we have a distinctly new proposition for thinking about the future of work.

Today more and more workers are acting like enterprises: they have multiple partnerships and vendors to keep happy, they need services to synchronize across platforms and devices and locations, and they need reassurance that the range of activities they perform on the same device will not corrupt their livelihood.

Visiting Grade 2

Posted on | February 26, 2015 | No Comments

These are the questions my niece’s classmates have prepared for my visit to her school on Monday. Any help with the answers is appreciated!

    1. How did you get so smart? Chloe
    2. How long have you been studying Maths and Science? Georgina
    3. Do you enjoy Maths or Science more? Nathalie
    4. Do you do many experiments? Sarah
    5. When did you realise you really enjoyed Science and wanted to do it? Ella
    6. Is Maths hard for you or do you find it easy? Arkie
    7. What is your job? Panayiota
    8. Where do you work? Natalie H
    9. What was the first experiment you remember? Genevieve
    10. Which part of Maths is your favourite and why? Samia
    11. How hard is your work every day? Claudia
    12. Do you work every day? Lara
    13. How long have you had to study to do your job? Emily
    14. Do you have an assistant? Eva
    15. What is the room like that you work in? Abby B
    16. Have you ever met anyone really famous or smart? Abby T
    17. Have any of your experiments ever gone wrong? Matilda
    18. Do you work with many women or do you mostly work alongside men? Bridie
    19. Have you had any apprentices? Lucy C
    20. Can you do your work in Australia or only in America? Caity
    21. Is there anyone who does your job in Tasmania? Taya

Reflections of a McDonalds manager

Posted on | February 21, 2015 | No Comments

…You don’t fire. You would only fire for cause like drugs or stealing. But what happens is he signed up for thirty hours a week and suddenly he’s only scheduled for four. So either he starts being more available or he quits… The only qualification to be able to do the job is to be able physically to do the job… And being there is the main part of being physically able to do the job… It takes a special kind of person to be able to move before he can think. We find people like that and use them till they quit.

Barbara Garson (1989) The Electronic Sweatshop: How computers are transforming the office of the future into the factory of the past, Penguin, New York, p. 33.

Witnessing productivity in early time-motion studies

Posted on | February 20, 2015 | No Comments

My 4S abstract…

A century ago, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth’s time and motion studies created new standards for productivity by grouping together similar tasks in a streamlined workflow. Demonstration videos from the archives provide ‘before and after’ insight on the number of unnecessary motions removed from tasks as varied as bricklaying, card punching, pear washing, soap packing and labeling produce. These silent films are punctuated by a smiling Frank presiding over information slides with vital statistics that declare triumphant efficiency reforms.

The Gilbreths’ introduction of ‘motion’ to time-motion study in the workplace is significant on multiple levels. As a first principle of management theory, and the individualizing address it would only refine, producing a visual record of performance transforms the worker’s conception of his job away from the broader team or work gang towards a consideration of his own individual achievement. This makes work competitive, as individuals try to improve against their own prior records as much as those of their teammates. But just as important: the keeping of records, the performance of productivity for a witnessing eye, coincides with the first mainstream experiences of cinematic vision. Lillian Gilbreth’s The Psychology of Management (1914) makes links between the worker’s desire to have a performance recorded for history and the ambitions of actors hoping to have their artistic performances recorded for posterity on screen. Productivity’s standardizing gaze became a means to match and improve upon a previous version of oneself, and in turn, a way of being recognized. This paper explains how the Gilbreths turned work into a science, labor into information, and the worker into an individual, indeed, an athlete – whose ability to accomplish ever greater productivity becomes a victory to strive for and possess.


On love

Posted on | January 28, 2015 | No Comments

Some people think love is the end of the road, and if you’re lucky enough to find it, you stay there. Other people say it just becomes a cliff you drive off, but most people who’ve been around awhile know it’s just a thing that changes day by day, and depending on how much you fight for it, you get it, or you hold on to it, or you lose it, but sometimes it’s never even there in the first place.

– Colum McCann, Let the Great World Spin

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  • @melgregg

    One of many knockout passages in Temp, by @louishyman - important, deeply historical labor scholarship for our times

    About 2 days ago from Mel's Twitter via Twitter for iPhone

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