One of the aims of our research project is to inform, educate and agitate for change in the ways that school communities ‘do’ data. One important aspect of this is building people’s capacity to recognise and respond to the problematic ways that data is currently being ‘done’ to them. Of course, it is possible that most students, staff and parents might notwant to change very much at all. After all, even users who are fully aware of what Facebook, Spotify and Amazon do with their personal data continue to log-on to these platforms on a daily basis. Such acquiescence is even more likely in the case of school systems and platforms. After all, schools are places where people are not usually given free rein in what they opt to do (and not do).
One issue that we will undoubtedly face throughout the project is people’s apparent indifference, disinterest and/or inertia to change their data practices. At first glance, this threatens to undermine the raison d’etre for our research investigations. Perhaps digital data in schools is not something that people see as a problematic issue in their lives after all? Perhaps this is not an issue where most people are prepared to change their minds?!
It is therefore worth reflecting a little on this apparent conundrum. Here, we can turn to Hintz et al. (2019) who point to two interesting explanations for some participants’ likely indifference to actively engaging with the ways in which data is done in schools.
First is the idea of ‘digital resignation’ to having one’s personal data exacted and then being subjected to targeted advertising and other marketing. This was first floated by Draper and Turow at the 2017 ‘Data Power’ conference in Ottawa. As Draper and Turow put it:
“By digital resignation we mean the condition created when people desire to control the information and data digital entities such as online marketers have about them, but feel unable to exercise that control” (p.65).
This offers a more nuanced reading than the idea of individuals seemingly appearing apathetic, passive and uninterested in acting in terms of the generation, collation and use of their personal data.Draper and Turow contend that is not that people do not care. Rather it is people feel unable to act, and instead perceive that they have limited social leverage in relation to negotiating how they engage with data infrastructures. In short, the explanation here is that people soon become of the mind that there is little or no“possibility of circumvention or resistance to mass data collection” (Hintz et al.2019, p.117).
This idea has some relevance to the case of school data, yet needs to be used with caution. Clearly, Turow and Draper are concerned with the specific case of personal data being used by advertisers and commercial third parties. Here, it could be argued that there is a direct financial benefit for an individual giving consent for the reuse of their data. It might also be that individuals have an awareness of the types of consequences of giving their consent (i.e. making a connection with the targeted advertisements that one subsequently sees in side-bars and news feeds). The collection and reuse of personal data through school systems is clearly different to this.
Furthermore, the notion of ‘resignation’ infers a sense of hopelessness that perhaps downplays the spirit in which people engage with these platforms and systems. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to describe individuals as more ‘compelled’ than ‘resigned’ in their acquiescence of these systems. Data infrastructures – by definition – are constructed on a scale that defies any attempt by individuals to challenge or manipulate the required terms of service. It is not that people are passively giving up on the possibility of doing things differently, but that absolutely no viable alternatives are available. This is especially the case in schools – where students are compelled to engage with official platforms and systems all the time.
Alternatively, then Hintz and colleagues also point to the cognate idea of ‘surveillance realism’. This does not infer that people have become realistic about the most sensible or valid course of action. Rather, it infers that people have “come to see surveillance as a ‘realism’ in the sense of being an inevitable social order” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.120). This sense of inevitability was certainly evident in the aftermath of the Snowden revelations about the NSA data tracking program. In this sense, data infrastructures can be perceived as ubiquitous and so deeply embedded in everyday social, political and cultural participation that it makes little sense even attempting to imagine how they might be challenged in practical terms.
This idea of ‘realism’ is a more useful concept to apply to the school context. It certainly highlights the fact that continuing to use platforms and systems regardless of the personal data consequences is not simply a choice or decision on the part of the individual user. Neither can people be criticized as passive agents who simply fail to act. Rather, these responses are manufactured into the design, development and marketing of digital infrastructures. As Hintz et al. (2019, p.119) put it, acquiescence to mass data collection “has been actively manufactured through a number of different practices, such as obfuscation in privacy agreements between users and platforms or simply by making services inaccessible if personal data is not shared” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.119).
In this sense, perhaps a better (and more hopeful) description of what is taking place is data ‘normalisation’rather than ‘resignation’ per se. As Lovink & Rossiter (2015) argue, one of the defining features of the postdigital era is the normalising of data infrastructures so they appear beyond question. Commentators who have theorised the postdigital condition (such as David Berry, Hito Steyerl and Florian Cramer) all suggest that digital technology has moved on from being a noticeably disruptive force in everyday life, to now being a thoroughly unremarkable presence. For example, ‘the internet’ is no longer an interface that one can ‘log on’ and ‘log off’ from, but is now simply an ‘environment’ (Steyerl, 2013, p.6) in which we exist. The point of the postdigital turn is social science accounts is therefore to make the digital visible again, so that technological infrastructure does not just recede into the background unquestioned but can be examined, critiqued and perhaps resisted. And in many respects, this is what the DataSmart Schools project seeks to do – to make the digital visible so stakeholders can consider what is at stake. This may or may not result in change, but either way it speaks back to the idea that we (and hopefully our participants) are simply ‘resigned’ to data.
Whether we are referring to data resignation, realism or normalisation, these are clearly an unsatisfactory state of affairs from the point of view of social justice and/or ‘data for good’. Living in a society where proprietary reuse of data is normalised, places undue pressure on individuals to assume responsibility for negotiating data-related “risks and vulnerabilities” (Hintz et al. 2019, p.117). As such,these conditions raise serious questions of how individuals might be best supported to resist these conditions and work toward creating alternatives?So, how might we work together to break out of these normalisations? How can we support people in actually imagining alternative digital environments and alternative organisations of society. How do we begin to convert our feelings of resignation into desires for resistance?
Draper, N., & Turow, J. (2017). Toward a sociology of digital resignation. Paper presented at the Data Power conference, Ottawa, Canada.
Hintz, A., Dencik, L., & Wahl-Jorgensen, K. (2019). Digital Citizenship in a Datafied Society. Cambridge, UK: Polity Press.
Lovink, G., & Rossiter, N. (2015). Network cultures and the architectured of decision. In L. Dencik & O. Leistert (Eds.), Critical Perspectives on Social Media and Protest: Between Control and Emancipation(pp. 219-232). London: Rowman & Littlefield.
Steyerl, H. (2013). Too much world: Is the internet dead? e-flux, 49 (November).