Data is power. What does this mean? The following scribbles will be an attempt to shed some light on this question. Now, to do this, we will need to introduce a little bit of French culture, but not in the form of croissants or red wine. Instead, we will be using the notorious Michel Foucault, although it would admittedly be tempting to just stick with the former. This means, that there will be a high concentration of Foucault ahead. So if you’re new to Foucault, you have been warned…
And for those who have already been initiated: Que le spectacle commence!
When reading Foucault to get a grasp of what power is, an immediate problème arises . Foucault does not include a very precise definition of power in any of his works. Granted, both his works “Surveiller et punir” and “Histoire de la sexualité” do try and define what power is, but mainly through talking about what it is not. Power is not something one can own, and is not something anyone has, or that you can obtain as such. This means that, and we advice you to hold on to your berets and baguettes: Power is insubstantial, like a crepé without the grand marnier. To make matters worse in regards to trying to understand what Foucault was talking about: As a researcher you should never try and look for the power as an object, as it is simply not there.
“Ok, hold up, wait a second” you might say. “Power does not exist? No one has power? Sounds like someone dug a little too deep into le omelette du absurdité .” And while this may be true at first glance, and has also been the point of many critiques of Foucault, let’s try to accept this premise and move on to the theoretical plat principal.
Bad Babies and power relations
Power has no substance, but it is still something that shapes reality (And here our language falls short of describing power, since it is not the “object” that the grammatical system suggests – this is a Nietzcshean point that we might consider in relation to the ontology of data some other time) It shapes reality by being connected to knowledge, and vice versa. It is maybe one of Foucault’s most famous points: There is a dialectic relationship between knowledge and power. This means that power relations open up through knowledge, and power relations, in turn, allow for more knowledge production. It is difficult to imagine anyone doing something about genetic deficiencies in unborn children without having any knowledge about genetic deficiencies. And, taking this argument even further, it is difficult to even talk about a deficiency without having a standardised knowledge on what is normal. Thus, the acts that someone can perform as doctors in this case, are shaped by what knowledge we possess. This is a power relation: the available acts that a certain institution, group or individual can perform in a social context or practise. This is the reason no one possesses power as such, no final instance has power, but some people have more power relations open to them than others.
The term knowledge is very broad, but within the theme of this article and the foucauldian terminology, it is mainly interesting to look at knowledge created in institutions. Even more specifically, power relates to the knowledge which is created when people interact with institutions. Now, this process can be very long. From the moment something is registered, to the moment it comes out as “knowledge”, many actors and processes can be involved. The classic foucauldian story of knowledge production of the individual human being is the Catholic confessions, where the sinner confesses both thoughts and feelings to the priest. The mechanics of this type of knowledge production is copied to many institutions in the modern society: your psychologist is your priest and everything from the social worker to the nurse is a medium through which knowledge about you is created.This type of knowledge production is institutionalised and often connected to specific institutions like hospitals or schools. When you have your blood pressure measured at the doctor or are getting graded at an exam, knowledge is time produced at the same. Your numbers are stored in your health-database, and your grades become a part of your diploma. To draw a perspective to the age of digital data (or even Big Data),, this also includes searching for french cuisine on google, or uploading instagram pictures of yourself next to the Eiffel Tower. Here, information about your whereabouts, interests, search patterns, network, connections and so on are the basis of knowledge about you.
Now, if we follow Foucault’s philosophical project, or at least this article’s interpretation of it, performing critical analysis is about exposing power relations and therefore also the different types of knowledges that are created. Why? To set free the human being that has been caught up in the the knowledge-production machinery for too long. This, by the way, does also include the humanistic and social sciences, where knowledge about individuals and groups is being produced in abundance. This problem is a bit too vast and complex to describe in detail here, but for those of you who are still enduring this read, you can check out “L’archéologie du savoir” and/or Les mots et les choses: “Une archéologie des sciences humaines”, where the relation between discourse, knowledge and the idea of the “humanistic subject” are connected.
Foucault in the digital age
Asking “what’s the power of data” in the digital age through Foucault would be: Which knowledge/power relations are opening up through the extensive production and use of data? Let’s avoid a theory-induced stroke for a moment and introduce another example:
You eat at a restaurant twice a week. You’re having French fries. Every time. To prove your free-willed attitude towards food to your health-maniac friends, you post a picture of this on Instagram, and you might even include a selfie in there. You add your location to the picture, and pay the meal with your credit card. Afterwards, you check your Fit Bit to see if your cholesterol levels have risen lately, and walk to the train station, letting the watch keep track of your steps. These are all seemingly unproblematic actions. All this data is, however, collected by various institutions, and can be used to create are more “precise” picture of who you are. In the digital age, everything connected to the internet is also a way of collecting and creating knowledge – knowledge that in turn shapes the social and interactional field of the individual.
When knowledge is produced about your eating habits or whereabouts, new power relations are potentially opened up as well. One problem here is that the process of knowledge production is automatised, and in most cases it happens without people even being aware of it (you can read more about this point in the crypto article HERE). Whereas the confession in the Catholic Church required an active listener and someone confessing actively, the processes of knowledge production of the individual are now much more subtle and seemingly passive . The “distance” between the source of information and the knowledge production institution has now increased tremendously. In the data-age, the source of the information and knowledge is now the digital-self and the online movements of the individual, and not the burdened soul of the sinner.
And finally the desert.
So then, what does it mean that data is power? It means that the intrically intertwined systems of knowledge production in the State or Google or in insurance companies, also shape how these institutions view you, and in turn, shape the reality you are presented with. It has to do with the digital footprints that you leave online, that are made sense of in social and behavioural patterns in many humanistic and social scientific researches. It is the algorithms that shape your Instagram feed on basis of your excessive liking of images from French gourmet restaurants. It is the governmental policies that are based on the knowledge created by everything from your latest NEM-ID access point to the last time your borrowed a book at the library.
What is the goal of conducting and being critical of data analysis? Why be critical of the knowledge that is being produced and the way information is converted into knowledge?
Because it is connected with power relations. Knowledge about the individual is also basis for shaping the individual. As such, being critical of knowledge production might seem like philosophical crème brûlée, a nicety but not a necessity. But if data leads to knowledge, and knowledge leads to power to act upon and define the reality we live in, then we must also treat data as directly connected with power, and be critical of the knowledge we produce and its context. This is an ETHOS of knowledge production to strive for.
/Rasmus, ETHOS Lab intern