Last week, I was in Washington, D.C. to present our work at the annual conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science. Here is a link to our abstract. The session we were in was organized by Catelijne Koopmans, National University of Singapore, under the title “Data Riches: The Practices and Politics of Exploiting Digital Data Sets’. There were lovely papers by Simon N. Williams, Cardiff University (on the democratic use of digital data in electronic public engagement), Catelijne herself (on how in practices of data handling notions of ‘riches’ are maintained, illustrated via the case of visual analytics), Corinna Bath, Humboldt University Berlin (on gendered orders of knowledge in the semantic web), and Martin Hand & Ashley Scarlett, Queens University (on epistemic and ethical performativity of images in web-based photo-sharing practices). One of the session participants, Denisa Kera, wasn’t able to attend the conference, so unfortunately we had to do without her presentation on data realism of visualizations and application mashups.
Lane DeNicola was kind enough to act as session discussant. Lane works as a lecturer at a newly developed program in digital anthropology at UCL. He did a great job of tying some of the themes together that surfaced in our respective presentations. For our Network Realism project, the digitization processes Lane mentioned as a distinct point of intersection was indeed interesting. He gave the example of the British museum, where a high resolution scanner is used to make 3d visualizations of parts of the collection. These are not only used in the museum, but also for digital repatriation, where the vizualizations are offered for use by indigeneous people. As Lane argued, the process also raises the question of what exactly is left in the artifact itself that the BM wants to hold on to. Lane also raised the issue of the interface, what it does to data when it is presented in visual form, and how that relates to the interpretative power of the human. In addition, he noted that the terminology of data mining presupposes the ‘riches’ we refer to in our session title, while obscuring the interpretative process, and who controls production.
After the session, some of us talked further on how to pursue ethnographic work via networked interactions with our informants, and we discussed possible ways to stay in touch on the topic. There is of course much more to discuss and many more avenues to explore, as there were indeed interesting intersections between several of the presentations. This post is meant as a step in that direction, and as an invitation to all readers to share their thoughts with us.