Data as multi-dimensional and cultural artefacts. Their impact on the contemporary society

August 4, 2020
Editorial Open Society
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Many of the changes that mark contemporary societies have increasingly been linked to the ways by which computing and communication technologies have and continue to become integrated into the lives of people and the operations of organizations and institutions. The spectrum of these changes is broad and hard to inspect or pin down. Yet, it is characteristic of many of the developments that have been going on for some time now to restructure the relationship between the patterns of everyday living and the world of economic organizations and institutions. Increasingly, much of what occurs in the daily and domestic lives of people is linked to the commercial pursuits of economic organizations or the operations of other institutions (political, communal or governmental). These observations may seem as straightforward and unproblematic yet the developments they refer to challenge the separation of work, family and institutions as a defining principle of the societies we call modern and, essentially, seek to rewrite the rules tying individuals to society (what is often called the social contract). The widespread concerns of privacy and surveillance are indicative of these changes and the prospects or threats they posit for the modern social contract. However, the overwhelming part of the prevailing discourses on privacy and surveillance is defensive by its nature, seeking to restrain or regulate the data flows that link the lives of people to economic and political institutions rather than analyse the immanent forces that remake and restructure their interaction.

It is important to uphold that economic organizations and institutions are linked to people through the use of digital devices and technologies and, critically, by means of the data footprint which the use of such devices and technologies generates. Google has built its empire on the data produced by the search habits of people in the search engine it made freely available on the web. Similarly, Facebook erected its economic and social power on the data generated on its platform by the interaction, preferences and communication habits of people that choose the platform as an important outlet of their doings. The same largely applies for most of the technology giants that mark our time but also a great deal of many other small or medium-sized organizations that make up the economic fabric of most contemporary economies and societies. It also vital to realize that the data that are produced by each one of these organizations, small or big, seldom remain confined with their own bounds. Through the development of standards and other technological solutions, they are exchangeable and portable across websites, organizations and platforms, and are reused, mixed and recombined to advance the goods and services that underpin the current digital economy. It is unlikely that these changes will abate and too optimistic to believe that it may possible to effectively tether them through legal initiatives and regulations.

Cast in this light, it might be easier to ascertain that data have grown to become a pervasive resource but also a central medium, the backbone, as it were, though which people are linked to economic organizations and institutions. These developments may seem as of relatively recent origin yet they have a long lineage in our societies and the establishment of economic organizations and institutions, analysed in considerable debate by such prominent scholars as Alfred Chandler, James Beniger, Herbert Simon or Shoshana Zuboff in her seminal work “In the Age of Smart Machine”. Data and information have been key resources and media through which organizations have instrumented their operations in modern times. They have been systematically used to control the outcomes of these organizations in the form of accounting and financial reports and other metrics that ensure the comparability of their performance across time and space, structure communication and assist decision making. The digital revolution has driven on these longstanding developments and both enlarged the scope and deepened the functional involvement of data in organizations and institutions. Digital technologies and data have also brought about the emergence of platforms, a new but pervasive organizational form. Platforms are the key organizations through which data are generated, procured, exchanged and used as the basis of developing new goods and services, calibrating and optimizing operations and, as it currently happens, as the principal means for training algorithms and reprogramming machines and their learning.

Placed in such broader historical purview, data emerge as multi-dimensional cultural artefacts and widespread forces of far-reaching economic and institutional change. The significance of data and their constitution as multi-dimensional cultural artefacts suggest that their impact extends far beyond what is often claimed by contemporary data science and the technical discourses of big data, data mining and analytics.

 

For more on the topic of this article see Cristina Alaimo and Jannis Kallinikos.

 

The author

Jannis Kallinikos is Full Professor at Luiss.


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