When an Ethnographer met Edward Snowden

Published 18 Oct. 2013 at Freedom to Tinker.

If you talk about ‘metadata’, ‘big data’ and ‘Big Brother’ just as easily as you order a pizza, ethnography and anthropology are probably not your first points of reference. But the outcome of a recent encounter of ethnographer Tom Boellstorff and Edward Snowden (not IRL but IRP), is that tech policy wonks and researchers should be careful with their day to day vocabulary, as concepts carry politics of control and power.

In ‘Making big data, in theory’, ethnographer and anthropologist Tom Boellstorff discusses Edward Snowden’s revelations IRP (In Research Paper). The paper, published on 7 October, is a refreshing 12 page take on the construction of some very dominant concepts in tech policy and research today.

Take the concept of ‘metadata’. In support of intelligence programs disclosed by Snowden, proponents claim that one of the most controversial programs is just about ‘metadata’ – who you call, where you were – not about the content of communications. Historical analysis of the Western misconception of Aristotle’s Metaphysics explains how the Greek prefix meta falsely has come to imply hierarchy in our tech language today. With hierarchy comes classification: ‘it establishes an implicit system of control’. Boellstorff argues that such control creates the power to marginalize the actual implications of the program and conveniently obscure such aspects as scale – crucial to the debate as the extremely large scale of the data collection may reveal highly sensitive information about a person, organization or people, as Ed argued in his testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Such rational arguments make perfect sense: it’s much more revealing to learn that I’ve called my shrink four times a week in the last four years, and four times on Christmas eve, than to know what I’ve actually said in a single conversation. But once you control the conceptualization of ‘metadata’, you influence public debate about the intelligence program. Not unlike most of our concepts,  ‘metadata’ is not a fact, it is made up. Subsequent re-conceptualization (Bruce Schneier: ‘metadata equals surveillance’) might make perfect sense, but becomes extremely hard and you find yourself on the defence.

Or take the concept of ‘big data’, a carefully constructed frame by proponents of systematic surveillance for commercial purposes. The concepts breathes a promise of a crystal ball and a solution for all problems of humankind. While careful theoretical examination of the concept of ‘big data’ is lacking, and in fact the trustworthiness or statistical quality of data analysis is often quite problematic, ‘big data’ has today become institutionalized, part of tech policy lingo and an attractive resource for research funding. Meanwhile, questioning ‘big data’ is to proponents the same as to reject modern life, to reject connecting with friends and, you know, world peace. Yes, we care about your privacy, but we need to solve the problem of aging first. The problem of aging, you mean the natural process that is part of us being humans?

In a ‘big data’ world, Boellstorff argues, ‘surveillance’ should not be understood through the lens of Orwell’s Big Brother or Foucault’s Panopticon. A more nuanced metaphor can be found in Foucault’s analysis of the confession, something Boellstorff in a brilliant part of the paper calls an ‘incitement to disclose’. This reminds of Barry Wellman’s networked individualism [pdf]: reject ‘big data’, and risk to be an outcast of your network – both socially and technically, you’re not part of the same systems if you don’t participate. Boellstorff terms this as a ‘dialectic of surveillance and recognition’, a dynamic that spurs a completely different set of trade-offs for users, than merely rejecting Big Brother or the Panopticon post-Snowden. If one follows Boellstorff, addressing surveillance requires a different set of policy responses than usual pleas for oversight, transparency and accountability of intelligence pratices. It illustrates that the many problems around surveillance should take the entire infrastructure for ‘big data’ into account, rather than only one institution or individual technology — as Joris van Hoboken aptly noted with regard to drones at last weeks Drone Conference in NYC.

Boellstorff mainly aims to raise theoretical questions about the underlying theory of our concepts, and to warn for carelessness when we talk concepts — because of their inherent politics of power and control. His ethnographic and anthropologic view on tech policy should be a source of introspection and inspiration for all involved in tech research and policy. If we really live in a ‘digital age’, research on the use of our concepts, such as the use of ‘privacy’ in various communities of computer scientists [see Claudia Lopez and Seda Gürses, IEEE P&S 2013, pdf], becomes increasingly important to flesh out the underlying incentives for framing the concepts in the way we do, sometimes even without fully realizing it.

‘Making up big data, in theory’ reminds us that concepts like ‘metadata’, ‘big data’ and ‘Big Brother’ that tech researchers and policymakers use on a daily basis are made up, and may be carefully constructed with a certain politics in mind. Beware of those politics — or would you rather notice someone sneaked in a good chunk of chili on your pizza after you’ve take a bite?

Thanks to fellow CITP Fellow Merlyna Lim for pointing me at this paper.

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