News from the Centre

Montage: KHK/GCR21

Mapping the Future: Big Data Governmentality Demands New Critical Vocabulary in Social Theory

11.05.2017 Under the catchy heading 'Mapping, Mercator and Modernity' a workshop and a public Käte Hamburger Dialogue panel scrutinized current trends in the cartographic business. The impact of the digital became a specific focus. Conceptualized by Senior fellow David Chandler a group of scientists took a closer look on mapping practises in geopolitical and security contexts, but also in public perceptions of borders and mobility.

The 'big data' extraction from aggregated indivudual behaviours on social media platforms enables a mapping of mind activities to a previously unthinkable extent. Mapping therefore turns out to be a contested practise, resulting also in subversive strategies of counter-mapping or a conscious decision towards non-cartographic depictions. Clear antagonisms can be observed in the divergent mapping interests dealing with the refugee situation in the mediterranean. Whereas FRONTEX lobbies for proprietary data expansion and seeks cooperation with statistics providing organisations from neighbouring countries, many volunteer organizations lobby for free data circulation including the option to opt out (Martina Tazzioli, Swansea University).

Control meanwhile reaches new levels of refinement and flexibility.

Claudia Aradau (King's College London) presented research about PredPol*, a predictive policing software that relies on the features of time and space that are recorded for crimes by the police and criminological assumptions about crime/event relatedness. A further development by UCL SpaceTime Lab makes a significant step further. This is no more about documenting the past. Data-driven predictive policing technologies promise to be proactive to anticipate and predict. Hotspots here are abstract locations - with certain features -, which are then overlaid on Google maps to produce ‘real’ hotspots to be policed. In the 'Feature Space' of a big-data network analysis selected features are multi-relational, and do not point to a specific location or time alone. Aradau and co-autor Tobias Blanke therefore recommend instead of gazing at algorythms better to attend to 'how time and space, similarity and difference morph into each other.'

They conclude that 'critical vocabularies of discrimination and exclusion have become increasingly difficult to mobilize against security practices' and demand to 'revisit relationality in social theory and develop critical vocabularies of relationality that grapple with big data governmentality.'

Against this background a critique of Saskia Sassen was uttered. Sassen recently criticized the smart cities concept as 'modernistic' and advocated a more informal framework for city governance. This 'informal framework' will likely be feeded by algorythmic patterns, digital representations of processes that keep the city system running. Similar to the security strategy mentioned above, system interventions in city governance would likely be triggered not by legally defined cases of emergency or failure but quite flexible by digitally generated scenarios and their interpretation. The analogue, we could say, the facts on the ground, are visible only by virtual representation and what is not represented there, would not be considered in the decision making planning process. An undocumented waste management case near Athens was presented as an example for a business fact 'beyond the map' (Yannis Kallianos).

The cognitive vertigo that could be sensed sometimes, stems from the notion that the modernistic positioning of critique outside a system (or map) seems no more possible in the digital world ('The map already contains the obeserver'). When the human brain is externalized into the digital map, as Maros Krivy (University of Cambridge) put it with the Google system in mind, what was the so-called 'critial distance' to an 'object of critique', dissolves.

But as in the historic precedent of the oral vs. the literal culture - one could argue - the whole picture is bigger and encompasses a multitude of ways to organize, map and analyse data and the narratives they evoke as well as express.

Claudia Aradau, Tobias Blanke (2016), Politics of prediction:Security and the time/space of governmentality in the age of big data, European Journal of Social Theory, 1–19. DOI: 10.1177/1368431016667623.