Introduction to Special Issue of FirstMonday, edited by Payal Arora and Hallam Stevens: “This special issue looks closely at contemporary data systems in diverse global contexts and through this set of papers, highlights the struggles we face as we negotiate efficiency and innovation with universal human rights and social inclusion. The studies presented in these essays are situated in diverse models of policy-making, governance, and/or activism across borders. Attention to big data governance in western contexts has tended to highlight how data increases state and corporate surveillance of citizens, affecting rights to privacy. By moving beyond Euro-American borders — to places such as Africa, India, China, and Singapore — we show here how data regimes are motivated and understood on very different terms
To establish a kind of baseline, the special issue opens by considering attitudes toward big data in Europe. René König’s essay examines the role of “citizen conferences” in understanding the public’s view of big data in Germany. These “participatory technology assessments” demonstrated that citizens were concerned about the control of big data (should it be under the control of the government or individuals?), about the need for more education about big data technologies, and the need for more government regulation. Participants expressed, in many ways, traditional liberal democratic views and concerns about these technologies centered on individual rights, individual responsibilities, and education. Their proposed solutions too — more education and more government regulation — fit squarely within western liberal democratic traditions.
In contrast to this, Payal Arora’s essay draws us immediately into the vastly different contexts of data governance in India and China. India’s Aadhaar biometric identification system, through tracking its citizens with iris scanning and other measures, promises to root out corruption and provide social services to those most in need. Likewise, China’s emerging “social credit system,” while having immense potential for increasing citizen surveillance, offers ways of increasing social trust and fostering more responsible social behavior online and offline. Although the potential for authoritarian abuses of both systems is high, Arora focuses on how these technologies are locally understood and lived on an everyday basis, which spans from empowering to oppressing their people. From this perspective, the technologies offer modes of “disrupt[ing] systems of inequality and oppression” that should open up new conversations about what democratic participation can and should look like in China and India.
If China and India offer contrasting non-democratic and democratic cases, we turn next to a context that is neither completely western nor completely non-western, neither completely democratic nor completely liberal. Hallam Stevens’ account of government data in Singapore suggests the very different role that data can play in this unique political and social context. Although the island state’s data.gov.sg participates in global discourses of sharing, “open data,” and transparency, much of the data made available by the government is oriented towards the solution of particular economic and social problems. Ultimately, the ways in which data are presented may contribute to entrenching — rather than undermining or transforming — existing forms of governance. The account of data and its meanings that is offered here once again challenges the notion that such data systems can or should be understood in the same ways that similar systems have been understood in the western world.
If systems such as Aadhaar, “social credit,” and data.gov.sg profess to make citizens and governments more visible and legible, Rolien Hoyngexamines what may remain invisible even within highly pervasive data-driven systems. In the world of e-waste, data-driven modes of surveillance and logistics are critical for recycling. But many blind spots remain. Hoyng’s account reminds us that despite the often-supposed all-seeing-ness of big data, we should remain attentive to what escapes the data’s gaze. Here, in midst of datafication, we find “invisibility, uncertainty, and, therewith, uncontrollability.” This points also to the gap between the fantasies of how data-driven systems are supposed to work, and their realization in the world. Such interstices allow individuals — those working with e-waste in Shenzhen or Africa, for example — to find and leverage hidden opportunities. From this perspective, the “blind spots of big data” take on a very different significance.
Big data systems provide opportunities for some, but reduce those for others. Mark Graham and Mohammad Amir Anwar examine what happens when online outsourcing platforms create a “planetary labor market.” Although providing opportunities for many people to make money via their Internet connection, Graham and Anwar’s interviews with workers across sub-Saharan Africa demonstrate how “platform work” alters the balance of power between labor and capital. For many low-wage workers across the globe, the platform- and data-driven planetary labor market means downward pressure on wages, fewer opportunities to collectively organize, less worker agency, and less transparency about the nature of the work itself. Moving beyond bold pronouncements that the “world is flat” and big data as empowering, Graham and Anwar show how data-driven systems of employment can act to reduce opportunities for those residing in the poorest parts of the world. The affordances of data and platforms create a planetary labor market for global capital but tie workers ever-more tightly to their own localities. Once again, the valances of global data systems look very different from this “bottom-up” perspective.
Philippa Metcalfe and Lina Dencik shift this conversation from the global movement of labor to that of people, as they write about the implications of European