In search of utopia through data

The runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life. This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine.

By Milan Kundera (1997)

Written by Luuk Blum, lab-assistant @ ETHOS Lab, participant in the ecological community RethinkIT, student in Digital Innovation & Management (ITU), and Social Justice & Climate Activist.

Frustration to reconceptualization

About 7 years ago, hopeful and optimistic, I started to learn as much as I could about data, systems, and digitization. During and after my undergraduate in Psychology I worked as a test Analysist and business consultant at ProRail on various projects that automated the error handling system of railway infrastructure. In the years that followed I read blogs, studied journal articles and eventually started a Master’s in Digital Innovation and Management at the IT University of Copenhagen. Meta-level, my goal was to gain knowledge that I could use to find a place in society, for myself, where I could contribute to the collective good. I imagined reducing tedious work tasks, using data automatization, or creating sustainable lasting products and supply chains with aware of research extraction & social justice. That optimism has been complicated nowadays; I’m an optimist in reality whilst pessimist in the intellect. As I discussed, with ‘experts’, the effectiveness, objectivity, and rationality of data in actual or theorized technological systems I noticed the lack of conversations that could illuminate steps towards a collective good. I experienced this in the educational institutes and companies, public or private, I was a part of; it seemed that the hierarchical, project-based and market inspired structures inhibited the meaningful discussion I searched for. The how of advancement questioned over why? Now 3 years into Master, I have pressing questions:

  • Why is it possible to speak about the effectiveness of technological products that have been unable to accommodate a design that lasts more than a few decades?
  • Why should we accept the objective theories of economic experts that won’t incorporate the scarcity of resources whose exhaustion it had been their mission to predict (Mitchell, 2011)?
  • Why could we call, rationalist, technological systems part of an ideal of civilization responsible for a forecasting error so great that it hinders parents from leaving a better future for their children?
  • As we delegate the faculty of speed to machine and the entangled structures of their creation, why do we lose the pain of a scarcity of resources, wasteful design, and unliveable futures?

Data walking

Inspired by Isabelle Stengers (2018) book Another Science is Possible,  and wanting to be outside with October’s good weather the data walk emerged as an experiment of counter-power, searching for alternative forms of knowledge creation. Alison Powel’s (2018) research fuelled the experiment defining Data Walking as a strategy for research creation and public engagement that breaks down hierarchies of knowledge and creates discussion about data based in a shared experience of observing and moving through space (Read more on ). I liked the idea of bringing people together to discuss data differently. It’s been used to discuss issues of Data and Social Justice in Montreal, Data and Surveillance in Copenhagen, and Data and Commodity Exchange in London.  Briefly, it works like this: after a large group discussion that opens avenues for defining or understanding data, participants take specific observational roles, and take a walk in a local area in a small group. It can inform a process of critical making which interrogates relationships participants observe to then imagine possible reinterpretations or critical futures.

On short notice in late October six participants with ties to ITU as students, faculty, or recent graduates showed up for a lunchtime walk. As hosts of the data walk, Marie Blønd and I had decided to walk next to the IT University of Copenhagen. The nature area of Amager Fælled was the location and inspiration that served our discussions about the different forms data. Over the course of one hour we discussed:

  • The use of quantitative data-gathering methods such as measuring recreational use to argue on issues of construction, preservation, and leisure.
  • Data on it’s history as a military area, execution ground
  • Discussion on conceptualizing humans as separate or included in nature, fuelled by the observation of non-human life around us.

All in all, the walkshop was partly a success due to the positive experiences of all participants. However, the informal structure resulted in discussions staying on a surface level without further outcomes or follow up. For attentive walking to truly bring new understandings of data into being, a more structured approach and a diverse set of participants is needed. goes a long way to inform such a process of critical making, which focusses on how do-it-yourself creative production can act as a form of everyday political and social critique (Powell, 2020). It offers a tangible process to allow forming groups based around affinity with specific themes, offering specific roles, moments to share, reflect, follow up and, consider the outcomes of what has been done. Future data walks are being planned in the Copenhagen area, and we hope to see ETHOS people there.

ETHOS LAB iseeks nspiration from the book ‘Ethnography for a Data Saturated World’ by Hannah Knox & Dawn Nafus (2020) and particularly chapter 9:   

‘[…] examining strategies for public matters of concern in relation to data production, following from and developing from previous efforts at surfacing and valorising situated knowledge in particular urban contexts, and identifying how ‘bottom-up’ data subjectivity could become collaborative and collective through the use of participatory meaning-making processes.’ 

Powell in Knox & Nafus (2020:212)