David Lyon – Surveillance Rules! Who Needs Democracy and Transparency? (21.03.19)

David Lyon – one of the founding scholars from the field of ‘surveillance studies’ – gave an illuminating talk on March 21st  in Melbourne. Drawing on his latest book, Lyon focused on dataism and data-driven surveillance – much of which is of relevance to our own work on schools data. These series of points and reflections stood out:

>> Lyon was keen to stress that his argument is not in opposition to data analytics per se. As he argued, we cannot reject data analytics wholesale. Data analytics do play an important role in many areas of life. For example, those of us in need of diagnosis and treatment should welcome many aspects of data-driven healthcare. However, we can (and should) reject the over-reach and mission-creep of data-driven technologies and techniques. Data has a time and place … but not at all times and all places.

>> Datafication is very much about our experiences of datafication (rather than the technicalities of datafication).

>> When asked about their view on data-driven society, most people are not that interested in talking about data ‘privacy’. However, they are very interested in talking about data in terms of ‘fairness’. This suggests that we need to focus more closely on issues of fairness, justice and equity.

>> Most aspects of society are now deeply transparent to a small number of powerful actors that are themselves deeply non-transparent to society.

>> Lyon stressed the point that we are all active participants in the data-driven society. In this sense, we all ‘do’ data, as well as data being ‘done to’ us. For example, we are all developing data-driven imaginaries and practices that are compliant with corporate and managerial goals. We have all become surveillers of others through engaging with school data. Yet Lyon stressed that our data cultures do not have to ‘ape’ the forms and logics that being handed down to use by the likes of Google and Facebook. Instead, we can look toward what Raymond Williams described as ‘residual’ cultural forms and ‘emergent’ cultural forms. To ignore these alternate forms is to acquiesce to the dominant model.

>> Pinning our hopes on more transparent forms of datafication is a mistake. The notion of ‘transparency’ is very much contestable – take, for example, a Foucauldian notion of transparency which certainly does not portray transparency in an empowering light.

>> Lyon argues that we cannot talk about transparency without seriously engaging in matters of trust (which, ultimately, any meaningful notion of transparency is rooted in). Here Lyon draws on the writing of Georg Simmel on the topic of ‘general trust’. Simmel argued that an over-reliance on external facts rather than actually knowing someone is not a substantial basis from which to live. Instead, we need to foster a degree of faith in the other. For Simmel, sociality depends on mutual trust and a faith in ‘the other’. Our facts about ‘the other’ should come from personally knowing them, rather than from simply knowing their profiles and metadata. In this sense, any debate about data and society needs to move beyond the ‘staging-posts’ of data transparency and accountability, and instead hone in on the fundamental issues of trust, relationships, the common good and the conditions required for human flourishing. Crucially, any notion of trust must encompass the initial phases of data collection, collation and curation. It is not good enough to focus on the more obvious phases of data analytics and data use. We need trust to be implicit in the whole process of datafication

>> Finally … Lyon is very keen that we all read Dave Eggers ‘The Circle’. He sees this as the contemporary equivalent to Orwell’s 1984 – suggesting that “surveillance studies rips up its copy of 1984”, and turns instead to Eggers’ work as the touchstone for the contemporary surveillance age.