Conversations about Data

Data affects most aspects of contemporary life. Whilst data is not new, the proliferation of digital information that came first with computers, then the internet, and then ubiquitous computing, has transformed the question of what data is and how it affects people’s lives. Bits of digital information that are stored on servers and circulate as electrical pulses through wires are not just numbers or code but crucially, carry with them markers of identity, practice, preference, desire and meaning. Data matters so much then because it both confirms and potentially changes who we, as humans, are.

However most discussions of data gloss over this human side of data . Those who are enthralled by what data can do often fetishise it, giving it an agency all of its own as if code and numbers were able to float, circulate and aggregate freely without infrastructure, ownership, firewalls, or regulations.  When data fails to achieve its intended effects, these processes, technologies and ideas get blamed for polluting data and limiting an ideal of what it should be.

On the other hand, those who are committed to describing the richness of human experience have often seen data as a reduction, abstraction, and thin form of description compared to the depth that is possible through more literary forms of writing. Most anthropologists have avoided the study of data, but that is changing. A number of anthropologists with diverse empirical concerns –  banking,  finance,  gambling, bodies, health, environment, energy, outer-space – are now exploring how to do an anthropology of data that is both committed to describing the richness and complexity of social life whilst also recognising the important role that digital data traces are playing in the formation of this experience.

My main research has focused on how to do an ethnography of climate change and energy in the UK. This is a field replete with data – from scientific data on climate models to home energy data to the data that makes possible the national grid. As I have delved deeper into this data, I have come to ask myself, how might it be possible to bring this data into ethnographic analysis? What light could this shed on energy and climate change as simultaneously cultural and material proesses? What methodological developments would such at attention to this kind of data demand? What kinds of questions should we be asking and what kinds of people should we be asking those questions to? And ultimately what difference might data-ethnography make to our understanding of these complex social/material processes?


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