Besting Baudrillard!

Hi all, and sorry for the delayed posting! Here are some thoughts on data, epistemology, power, and Baudrillard to spice up your Saturday morning.

Reading Hamish Robertson and Joanne Travaglia on the connections between the “data revolution,” which swept 19th-Century Europe as the agencies of a newly centralized and bureaucratized state set out to better understand and control rapidly expanding urban populations, and our own crisis of “big data,” I felt like I had found the response to Baudrillard I had been looking for. What I most appreciate in this piece is the fact that, while certainly critical of the ideological functions of contemporary big data discourses, Robertson and Travaglia resist the urge to simply jettison the phenomenon altogether, excising it from the province – even the possibility – of meaning. Rather, taking a more historiographic approach than Baudriallard (whose main historical reference seems to be his own now-revised opinions on the meaningful/less-ness of mediated images), they give themselves space to sit for a moment with the weird politicalities of big data, thinking carefully about 1) what ‘big data’ actually represents or allows us to access, and 2) the specific institutional formations (the disciplin-ification of the contemporary university, the sponsorship of the state, etc.) that helped it to take shape.

Where Baudrillard was emphatic in his belief that representational technologies like opinion polling represent absolutely nothing – that they are properly the objects of simulation, rather than of meaning; objects that narrow the field of agency and resistance to ironic subversion and mocking laughter – Robertson and Travaglia rightly note that, even if big data do not represent what we think they do, they nonetheless represent something, and this something is certainly something worthy of our consideration: “That a census or a social survey is a snapshot of the way our societies are regulated is rarely remarked on and instead emphasis is given to the presumed objectivity of the categories and their data. This is the ideology of the small data era in action – the claim that it is science and not society that we are seeing through such instruments.” In other words, even if the referent of population data is not the population itself, we are still dealing with reference and meaning; we are glimpsing not a population in its totality, but the various ways in which that population is defined, managed, and governed.

For those of us concerned with the contentious social and cultural topographies of data – say, those of us in this class – this is something I don’t think we can afford to overlook. Our data collection activities might not, in the end, tell us that much about the objects we want to study, but they do offer an important opportunity to glimpse the ways in which we as researchers imagine our objects, or more precisely, how we imagine them to be accessible and available within the parameters of academic knowledge production; to reflect on how we attempt to locate ourselves within (and potentially without) the conditions of our scholarly formation. These are questions of epistemology, about knowability. Quite appropriate, then, that Robertson and Travaglia seek appeal to Luciano Floridi: “Floridi writing on the philosophy of big data, has said quite specifically that the real big data problem we face today is less one of the quantity or quality of data or even technical skills but rather one of epistemology.” If, as Robertson and Travaglia note, “a great deal of social data is coercive in nature” – or at least ensconced within the particular ways of knowing we inherit from 19th-Century European social science, and thus intimately bound up with the pathologization, governance, and in many cases eradication of certain populations – I think it behooves us to aspire to more than Baudriallard’s mocking laughter when confronted with the massive and admittedly overheated discourse of big data. We need to find where our data sets touch the world, and consider what that touching might tell us about the politics of knowing, even and especially when it “fails” to represent the world.

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Besting Baudrillard!

Power dynamics, Religious Structures, and Ethical Considerations

Our readings this week had me thinking less about my current project for this course, but instead focusing on my future research project (that I hope to be starting this summer) that will be focusing on social network analysis of scholars and institutions in the Muslim world, from modern times to all the way back hundreds of years if possible.

The point of this is to focus on the power relations of religious discourse, as Castells project is to focus on the power relations between corporate entities, political forces, and of course the counter-power he mentions in the later parts of his article.  Many of his issues seem to be obvious to us, for we are at large a part of a well educated group that has its lifted our blinders to the façade of media.  Statements like this (although perhaps in 2006 when he was writing things were a bit different) should be relatively straightforward to a generally liberal Jon Stewart loving audience:

“Yet, the main issue is not the shaping of the minds by explicit messages in the media, but the absence of a given content in the media.  What does not exist in the media does not exist in the public mind, even if it could have a fragmented presence in individual minds.” (241)

He uses points like this to go into a more nuanced argument, bring in the broad stroking of our brush against all political entities for being two-faced, hypocritical, and in bed with the corporations they claim to be defending us from:

“generalized mudslinging, citizens end up putting all politicians in the same bag, as they distrust electoral promises, parties, and political leaders. (244)

When it comes to religious discourse however, these points create a much different rift in society, that until now has not produced a fruitful or at the very least easily visible counter-power to the current Islamic-powers at be in the world of Islamic knowledge.  People can easily disengage entirely form the religious world if they choose.  American Muslims can cease to identify as Muslims (sort-of) and ignore the religious powers.  They don’t have to matter if an individual doesn’t want them to matter.

This creates a different kind of fragmentation in the Muslim community, one in which large portions choose to just disengage.  The reason for this is that the current “mainstream” or normative power structures in the Muslim world do what Castells remarks about Fox News or El Mundo, they simply do not provide certain information.  And if the alternative scholarship, opinions, or peoples who oppose the mainstream practice poke their heads up in the global discourse, they can easily attack them.

“If credibility, trust, and character become critical issues in deciding the political outcome, the destruction of credibility and character assassination become the most potent political weapons.” (243)

Perhaps waiting for the counter-power to rise up in the Muslim community is a fruitless endeavor.  There are progressives in the Muslim community, and there are hard line conservatives who take the prescriptive brand of Islam to the umpteenth degree.  The hardliners have found their outlet and power in often violent ways (not always, but these fundamentalist movements around the world are of course the most visible).  The progressives on the other hand, have had much less success in creating an alternative counter-power.  But perhaps the medium is the key.

“True, the medium, even a medium as revolutionary as this one, does not determine the content and effect of its messages. But it makes possible the unlimited diversity and the largely autonomous origin of most of the communication flows that construct, and reconstruct every second the global and local production of meaning in the public mind.” (248)

I’m not sure I like how Castells glosses over the medium’s influence on effecting the message, but he seems to be somewhat positive in the new medias potential.

As for my future social network analysis project, I have a lot of considerations to keep in mind.  I need to be careful of falling into similar (albeit on a much smaller scale) ethical issues that google does as mentioned in Siva Vaidhyantathan’s article.  I will be collecting data, sometimes covering sensitive information on supposedly public platforms like twitter and the such, but many of the contemporary participants in the religious discourse may not be fully aware of how their tweets, posts, and so on will be analyzed by someone like me.  Taking part in a project like this, something I believe is actually important and is fuelled by the activist mentality in me, and the place (and stakes and investment) I have in a certain community, I really need to figure out how I can avoid becoming like a corporate entity.  I need to keep treating real people like people and not just “nodes” in a network.

Power dynamics, Religious Structures, and Ethical Considerations