The materiality of school data

Social studies of digital data will often start from the position that data is a ‘material object’ (Dourish and Mazmanian 2012). In this sense, data is not approached simply in an abstract, ephemeral manner but as a socio-material ‘thing’. This emphasis on the socio-materiality of digital data therefore recognises that every piece of school data is a result of social organisation as well as technical processes. Any piece of ‘data’ therefore derives from networks of people, technologies and physical objects, all of which are entangled in social practices, interactions, language and other forms of representation. This prompts social scientists to describe data in terms of as ‘entities’ and ‘artefacts’ – i.e. as things that result from the interactions between people, places and technologies.

In a literal sense, the materiality of digital data is manifest in physical forms. For example, it is possible (at least, under particular laboratory conditions) to ‘see’ pulses of light transmitted through a fibre optic wire, or magnetic atoms stored on a thin film of ferromagnetic material in a computer’s hard drive. It is also possible to detectthe modulation of electromagnetic waves through a ‘wireless’ connection. Far more obvious is the mass of wires, cables, routers, sockets, antennae and other ‘infrastructure’ that physically carry data around schools and beyond. Less immediately (at least for those of us not living in such places), the materiality of data infrastructures also extend to data storage centres, undersea cables, electricity plants and rare mineral mines that the global data economy depends upon to function. As Mark Carrigan (2020) puts it, despite talk of the cloud and other virtual spaces, “it’s easy to forget how brutishly physical these processes are”.

Besides these physical forms, it is important to also consider the ways in which the materiality of data is evident in the social practices that give rise to data production, and the subsequent ways that “cultural values materialise in the form data take” (Bates et al. 2016). One example of this is the frequent encoding of ‘gender’ along binary lines of ‘M/F’ as opposed to ‘M/F/Other’. In each instance, a distinctly different set of socio-cultural values ‘gains substance’ in the materiality of the data that is subsequently generated.

Focusing on the social practices around digital data also draws attention to the socio-material conditions of the production and consumption of data. For example, the production of digital data in schools might sometimes still involve paper-based records, registers and roll-calls being ‘written-up’ by hand, and inputted into computer databases at a later date. Similarly, teachers’ use of data often involves scrappily printed-out pages of tables and charts, or perhaps a laboriously constructed ‘data wall’ in a tucked-away corridor. Schools can often appear to be places where data is performed more often than it is processed.

It is also useful to think of the material consequences of digital data. This includes the ways in which the spatial arrangements of schools are altered and adjusted to accommodate the physical aspects of data infrastructure. Alternatively, this includes thinking through how digital data is associated with practical consequences and instantiations. For example, the scheduling of classes might be guided by analysis of the previous year’s room occupancy data, while an automated window-blind will be opened and closed by changes in metrological data.

Thinking about digital data in these terms is a useful way of making sense of how data is ‘done’ in schools, and with what outcomes. In particular, these materialities should prompt us to consider how digital data is entwined with the (re)configuration of power relations. As Tara Fenwick reasons, sociomaterial approaches “can afford important understandings: about how subjectivities are produced in work, how knowledge circulates and sediments into formations of power, and how practices are configured and re‐configured”. Identifying these sociomaterialities of digital data within each of our case study schools (and then mapping the connections between various elements) can also be a useful means of identifying possibilities “for counter‐configurations and alternative identities” (Fenwick 2010). In all these ways, then, the sociomateriality of digital data should give us much to work with!