Datafication – the limits of looking to policy ‘solutions’ (notes on Simanowski 2016)

Roberto Simanowski makes a set of useful points about the limitations of any policy responses to the current excesses of the data economy. As he reasons, politicians will never push for extensive reforms to commercially led data-mining and data-sharing unless they are also in fundamental opposition to contemporary capitalism (an unlikely scenario for most nations). As he argues:

To expect a sustained intervention into such practices by politicians would mean … committing the state to a social-utopian role in terms of educational policy. Instead of paving the way from economic growth, the state would have to begin criticising market-inspired consumer culture as being on the wrong track, replacing it with ‘higher aims’ – exactly the opposite of what can be expected under the conditions of neoliberalism, after the end of social utopias … Perhaps this political engagement should not be wished for at all” (p.48)

Politicians and policymakers are certainly at a disadvantage when it comes to dealing with the societal implications of datafication and the data economy. Clearly, policymakers and politicians lack the technical nous of the technology classes. Moreover, Simanowski  points that nation states are set up to position themselves against other nation states, rather than “against a technology operating globally and virally” (p.12). In this sense, there is perhaps little that can be feasibly achieved through policy other than reinforcing the basic status quo of the emerging data economy. In this sense, Simanowski makes the point that “big data is neither a sociopolitical nor a simply technological problem, but a historical and philosophical one” (p.48).

While this argument might hold true for the market in consumer data, it might be that some policymakers could be persuaded that education (and especially compulsory education) constitutes a special case where the logic of data capitalism should not apply. In this sense, we might still retain a hope that policy act as a viable means of establishing kinder, less egregious conditions of data-driven exploitation in schools. Yet complete reform of how the data economy is coming to bear in schools is unlikely. The most fruitful source of such opposition is perhaps more likely to be found in ‘bottom-up’ actions of local school communities rather than ‘top-down’ interventions.