Seminar Five

The Subversion of Big Data. Cultures, Discourses and Practices of Big Data in Social Movements Contexts


17 & 18 November 2016

Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences, Scuola Normale Superiore, Palazzo Strozzi, Via degli Strozzi 1, Florence



Our 5th SoME Seminar The Subversion of Big Data. Cultures, Discourses and Practices of Big Data in Social Movements Contexts took place at the Institute of Humanities and Social Sciences of the Scuola Normale Superiore in Florence, on the 17th and 18th of November, 2016. The aim of the seminar was to address the concept of big data as a contested terrain of imagination and practice which is understood in different ways by economic and political powers on the one hand and political activists on the other. This seminar focuses on these discursive tensions by exploring activists practices and beliefs about big data. In particular, we aim at deconstructing the concept of big data from an activist perspective and at discussing how social movement actors related to big data. More specifically, we explore big data in three different panels: a) activists’ data cultures and big data b) activists’ discourses on big data; and c) activists’ practices involving big data.

During our two-day event we further expand the SoME seminar series including a critical discussion on big data, informed by thought provoking theoretical reflections and empirically grounded insights on how social movements include big data in their practices, discourses and cultures. Our discussions did not depart from big data as a methodological tool to investigate social movements related processes. Rather, the speakers in the seminar focused on what activist can do with big data and how they understand them, in an ambivalent fashion, as tools for progressive change and devices for surveillance. Here below is a summary of the key issues discussed and the lines of inquiry for future research. We hope that these can be insightful especially to those scholars who are interested in the role of big data for and within social movements and could not attend our seminar.

Datafication, surveillance and activism

The first key issue that emerged during the workshop was the very process of datafication and how we can understand it as an encompassing social process that might change the ways we perceive social reality. Several speakers dealt with this problem, connecting it to the world of social movements, political participation and the very definition of citizenship. Relate to this, Arne Hints opened the floor with a thought provoking talk on the emerging digital conception of citizenship according to which citizens’ agency and civic activities are increasingly mediated by digital technologies today. While this certainly evokes an optimistic view of technology as a tool for liberation, the talk suggests that in datafied society, digital citizens are confronted daily with those who manage and control data, having and unprecedented power on the minds and bodies of digital citizens. There is the need, then, to deconstruct datafication as a powerful social process. Along this line, in her talk Stefania Milan argued that a paradigm shift is on its way as a result of datafication, that radically transform the relationship that we have with the social realities we inhabit: knowledge produced through big data alters the way in which we understand our (social) world. And this, inevitably, also has consequences for social movements that face yet another terrain of contestation related to digital technologies. According to Stefania Milan, there is the rise of a specific type of activism, that she names as data activism and defines as social mobilizations taking a critical stance towards datafication, either reacting to such phenomena or engaging in the proactive production of big data for the needs of social movements. From a different perspective, Lina Dencik asked to what extent the debate on datafication risks to remain within the restricted circles of activism. In her talk, she pointed out that the Snowden revelations were crucial in sparking a debate of datafication and surveillance in the UK, since such processes ceased to be opaque and became a lot more evident among ordinary citizens and activists alike. That said, though, Lina Dencik underlined how non-tech activists did not become fully involved in this debate and considered the need to protect their own privacy as a minor problem to face. In short, datafication and surveillance risk to remain at the margins of the social movement debate and, Lina Dencik argued, there is the urgent need to reframe datafication and surveillance as a social and economic justice issues.

How big data challenges social movements

The high level of technological knowledge required to understand, produce and employ big data to enhance activism, risk to create a severe imbalance in the realm of grassroots politics. Also in this sense, then, big data might constitute a fascinating challenge for activists who want to embed them in their daily practices. This is indeed the second key issue that emerged in our seminar, especially when we dealt with concrete examples of big data activists’ use. Sebastian Kubitschko discussed the case of the Chaos Computer Club, one of the world largest and older hackers organizations in the world, founded in 1984 and with about 5500 affiliates today. This example sparked a discussion on the relevance of acting on media technologies and infrastructures, that are a fundamental part of what politics is today and inform surveillance capitalism. While the urge to engage with big data from such a perspective is quite obvious, we must ask who are the political subjects that actually have the resources, expertise and interest to act on these technologies. Many among the speakers talked about how big data might be useful for activists, but at the same time also challenging in terms of the resources they require to be used by social movement actors. Alberto Cossu illustrated how politically engaged artists might act on contemporary data flows generated through big data. Discussing two projects of the Macao collective based in Milan, Alberto Cossu showed how big data can be included into complex media-related political performances to create some noise in the flows of information surrounding contested institutional events, like the Salone del Mobile and the Universal Exposition in Milan. In his talk, Alberto Cossu also underlined that the learning curve might be high for non-tech activists who decide to include big data in their repertoire of action and that time is crucial to develop an empowering and critical use of big data. Elena Pavan examined the value of big data for the production of knowledge in social movements. Moreover, through the example of the platform Map It designed by the transnational feminist collective Take Back the Tech, Elena Pavan engaged with an evaluative deconstruction of data in grassroots political participation: beyond the relevance of big data, it is also important to recognize that the production, visualization and circulation of data on relevant contentious issues requires a big effort to activists. The technical skills and material resources needed to engage with big data in activist circles was also a topic covered during Lonneke van der Velden presentation on the mobile app InformaCam that produces two versions of the same image, a data-poor image without metadata and a data-rich image will all the contextual metadata related to it. While the former allows for anonymity and privacy protection, the latter presents all the information to validate the reality of images in an age of visuals digital manipulation. The point, in this case, is also that big data also change the way in which visuals are used in activism: although very powerful, images alone are not enough to tell a story or prove a fact; the data associated to them are also crucial and new forms of expertise are needed within social movements to embrace this shift.

Media imaginations, movement cultures and big data

Another crucial topic that we discussed during the seminar is the link among activists’ media imaginations, their movement cultures and the way in which they approach – and challenge – big data and their paradigm. Three speakers in particular addressed this theme from different viewpoints. Marco Deseriis discussed big data in relationship with Anonymous. Big data can be conceived as a way of rendering the common and the community as something that can be counted and quantified, leaving no room for ambiguity and instability in the political. Ultimately, indeed, the digital is the capacity to divide things, make distinction among them and reduce social reality to binary oppositions. Anonymous, then, can be read as a process of subjectivation that put into question the way in which big data, and algorithms, operate on social reality in that they are a-subjective, con-dividual and ephemeral. The very existence of Anonymous, and their performances across the world, deeply challenges the capacity of the digital to make distinctions. Stefaan Back spoke of big data with regard to a much more structured form of activism than Anonymous: he introduced us to the world of civic techs and data journalists, two overlapping phenomena that are expanding in recent times. His talk offered an innovative viewpoint on one of the most famous civic tech initiatives in the world: My Society, based in the UK and with almost 10 million users spread in more than 30 countries around the world. While the mission of Civic Tech is to empower citizens to engage with governments in a more direct way, Stefaan Back also showed us the relationship between civic tech practices related to big data and the imagined affordances that substantiate them. It is indeed the way in which we imagine the affordances of structured data – what we can do with them and how – that also orient the practices through which big data are created and used in social movements. Finally, Alessandra Renzi discussed what happens when environmental activists engage in the creation of their own big data to support mobilizations. Alessandra Renzi presented the work of the Coalition of Urban Poors in Jakarta and other Indonesian cities to fight against the construction of infrastructures to sustain the expansions of mega-cities. Through a form of data-activism mixing small and big data about their urban context, activists targeted mainstream media, local administrations and other stakeholders. Through her research, Alessandra Renzi also reflects on the role that big-data might have in participatory action research and, more specifically, for the post-operaist tradition of co-research. Co-researchers working with activists might indeed have an important role in reflecting on the distribution of power also with regard to the affordances of the technologies that are used to produce and construct data.

The empowering potential of investigating datafication

The very process of datafication and its consequences for grassroots politics was one of the key issues touched during our seminar. While throughout the three panels we discussed many cases in which activists embed data – and big data – in their mobilizing activities, it was thanks to our keynote speaker that we reflected more on the methods to approach datafication in a critical way. Mark Coté from Kings College gave an inspiring final lecture in which he deconstructed the notion of datafication and asked how we can investigate datafication so that to empower ourselves and our communities with regard to big data. To answer such question, he presented his project Our Data, Ourselves that involved teen coders in devising apps for smartphones that rendered visible the production of (big) data during the ordinary use of such devices. Mark Cotè reflected with us on this project from a methodological perspective, discussing the techno-cultural methods employed to investigate big data as a powerful way to critically unpack the data materiality and to understand how the socio-technical objects that capture and compile our data – like for instance smartphones – work. In the age of datafication, such techno-cultural methods are key to increase our agency towards big data and to recognize the contextual nature of the socio-technical objects that we use daily in our lives.