Shareveillance: Subjectivity between open and closed data

Clare Birchall in Big Data and Society: “This article attempts to question modes of sharing and watching to rethink political subjectivity beyond that which is enabled and enforced by the current data regime. It identifies and examines a ‘shareveillant’ subjectivity: a form configured by the sharing and watching that subjects have to withstand and enact in the contemporary data assemblage. Looking at government open and closed data as case studies, this article demonstrates how ‘shareveillance’ produces an anti-political role for the public. In describing shareveillance as, after Jacques Rancière, a distribution of the (digital) sensible, this article posits a politico-ethical injunction to cut into the share and flow of data in order to arrange a more enabling assemblage of data and its affects. In order to interrupt shareveillance, this article borrows a concept from Édouard Glissant and his concern with raced otherness to imagine what a ‘right to opacity’ might mean in the digital context. To assert this right is not to endorse the individual subject in her sovereignty and solitude, but rather to imagine a collective political subjectivity and relationality according to the important question of what it means to ‘share well’ beyond the veillant expectations of the state.

Two questions dominate current debates at the intersection of privacy, governance, security, and transparency: How much, and what kind of data should citizens have to share with surveillant states? And: How much data from government departments should states share with citizens? Yet, these issues are rarely expressed in terms of ‘sharing’ in the way that I will be doing in this article. More often, when thought in tandem with the digital, ‘sharing’ is used in reference to either free trials of software (‘shareware’); the practice of peer-to-peer file sharing; platforms that facilitate the pooling, borrowing, swapping, renting, or selling of resources, skills, and assets that have come to be known as the ‘sharing economy’; or the business of linking and liking on social media, which invites us to share our feelings, preferences, thoughts, interests, photographs, articles, and web links. Sharing in the digital context has been framed as a form of exchange, then, but also communication and distribution (see John, 2013; Wittel, 2011).

In order to understand the politics of open and opaque government data practices, which either share with citizens or ask citizens to share, I will extend existing commentaries on the distributive qualities of sharing by drawing on Jacques Rancière’s notion of the ‘distribution of the sensible’ (2004a) – a settlement that determines what is visible, audible, sayable, knowable and what share or role we each have within it. In the process, I articulate ‘sharing’ with ‘veillance’ (veiller ‘to watch’ is from the Latin vigilare, from vigil, ‘watchful’) to turn the focus from prevalent ways of understanding digital sharing towards a form of contemporary subjectivity. What I call ‘shareveillance’ – a state in which we are always already sharing; indeed, in which any relationship with data is only made possible through a conditional idea of sharing – produces an anti-politicised public caught between different data practices.

I will argue that both open and opaque government data initiatives involve, albeit differently pitched, forms of sharing and veillance. Government practices that share data with citizens involve veillance because they call on citizens to monitor and act upon that data – we are envisioned (‘veiled’ and hailed) as auditing and entrepreneurial subjects. Citizens have to monitor the state’s data, that is, or they are expected to innovate with it and make it profitable. Data sharing therefore apportions responsibility without power. It watches citizens watching the state, delimiting the ways in which citizens can engage with that data and, therefore, the scope of the political per se….(More)”.