The session explores how markets, digital technologies and related metrics 'see' and what they fail to see.
Visibility is an inherent part of processes of knowledge formation, connected to ways of seeing and knowing that can be reified, reflected on and used for various purposes. The theme of visibility further intertwines with modern notions of control and governmentality, and associated promises of well-being, the idea being that by making previously unseen aspects of bodies, lives, events or temporalities detectable, we can gain more control over life processes and entities and transform them into possible sources of value.
With the digital economy's classificatory architecture, the ways in which market institutions gather knowledge of their clients, customers, or employees through instruments relying on data traces have multiplied. Individuals and groups are sorted and scored, slotted and matched for the purpose of maximizing profit. The aim of this session is to explore how technologies and related metrics aim to convert previously undetected and unseen processes into traceable and perceptible information. The papers can explore 'seeing' with data and devices in relation to theoretical and empirical research of various kinds. The visibility offered by metrics and figures is regarded as an active process, aim or a profit-making desire rather than a static quality of presence or absence. The guiding questions of the session suggest that in order to engage with the processes of visibility related to data and devices in a more detailed manner, it is essential to understand how technologies and practices of visibility offer (partial) vistas and visualizations to people's lives, professional knowledge, economic or environmental processes.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.
Partial vistas: records, self-monitoring and everyday data practices
We consider everyday tracking practices, focussing on record keeping, charting and visualising. Looking across the range and combinations of records people create and keep, and what they do not record, retain or review, we ask what is being made visible and to whom?
In this presentation we discuss everyday practices of self-monitoring focussing particularly on record keeping, charting and visualising. We draw on a study focussed on 2 cases: blood pressure monitoring and BMI/weight monitoring. Looking across the range and combinations of digital and paper records people create and keep, we ask what is being made visible and to whom? We are interested in the meaning of records made as well as those misplaced, forgotten or discarded, and readings not taken or recorded. We are also interested in practices of sharing in different ways. In our research we find people who keep no records, or make records but do not review them, and instances where people do not record unwanted or disappointing readings. We note also the continued role of paper charts and records even for those who track digitally. In thinking about the 'partial vistas' opened up through everyday tracking practices we extend the notion of 'filtration work' (Nielsen, 2015) to include not only what data is shared with others, but also which data is committed to record at all. Further, in trying to understand instances where numbers are unremarkable, not recorded or reviewed, we pursue the idea that monitoring may provide information to be consumed rather than data to be tracked (Knorr Cetina, 2010). In elaborating what is and is not made visible in the local settings of health monitoring, we offer insights into what might remain inaccessible to companies in the digital economy.
How to think like an accelerometer
With proactive and personalized approaches to occupational health & safety on the horizon, a new class of wearable sensors are enabling worker's movements over the course of a shift, or even a career to become visible. But what does the sensor see? What do we see in the visualized and animated data?
There are increasing efforts to equip workers with wearable sensors. Much attention has centered on efforts to find the 'killer workplace app' for conventional wearables like smart glasses, heads-up displays, and location trackers. But beyond the beauty-pageant case studies of the most successful, high potential return on investment, brand-name devices with which we may be more familiar, smaller start-ups are focusing on developing bespoke and specialized motion sensors, ushering an era of 'proactive' and 'personalized' approaches to occupational health & safety. These sensors observe and record a worker's movements over an entire shift, week, or career, to log wear and tear and warn of potential injuries that most often go unnoticed and unreported. Where workers, employers, ergonomists, and insurance providers were once blind, they can now see.
But what does the sensor see? How do these newly christened 'modest witnesses' measure motion as it occurs in real-time and translate that into a future likelihood of injury? This paper explores these themes through an empirical case study of a Canadian start-up developing a motion-sensing system for monitoring the risk of occupational musculoskeletal injury.
Seeing the self through data
The aim of the paper is to discuss how we theoretically can capture processes of the self in practices of self-tracking. The focus is on the tension between being "in control" and an embodied feeling of being "in contact with oneself".
This paper will discuss how self trackers think and communicate through data output. The paper takes point of departure in self-tracking among fitness users. More specifically the paper will explores the concrete processes through which given subjects mediate their "potential" self through data practices . The paper furthermore focuses on the role of "data mediators", data coaches and personal trainers that use data visualization to communicate and keep track of their clients.
Many self-trackers focus on data as instrumental at the beginning of their self-tracking seeking a specific goal, for instance to lose weight, running at a certain speed etc. In many cases self-trackers acknowledge that quantification and goal-setting can provide visibility of certain aspect of the self, and by so doing can provide a frame for action. As a consequence however other central aspects of human life are hidden - they become invisible. Seeing and interacting with data consequently becomes a starting point for reflecting upon human value through reflecting on visibility and invisibility in data output. In this context a tension might also emerge between self tracking and bodily experiences - this is articulated as a tension between being "in control" through focusing on data output and an embodied feeling of being "in contact with one-self".
Imagining human-centric data futures: an analysis of the visual conventions of personal finance, health and integrated data management tools
Recently, it has been claimed that humanity is moving towards a presentational mode of discourse. We analyze the visual conventions used in selected life management tools, and suggest that the imaged futures of these visualizations assume a human-centric and individualistic view of the data citizen.
Recently, it has been claimed that humanity at large is moving from a representational mode of discourse toward a presentational one (Firat & Dholakia 2017). Whereas the former emphasized what is or has been observed, the latter emphasizes what is possible. Similarly, Beckert (2016) claims that the dynamics of capitalism is based more on future-oriented, creative imagination than on rational planning or expectation. From a consumer perspective, the methods and material aspects of various life management tools are living, inventive and performative (Beckert 2016). From a producer perspective, "technological projections" are discovery and innovation tools providing "fictive scripts that help motivate actors and mobilize resources to learn whether these scripts will come true" (Beckert 2016). A central part of such projections is formed by figures and visualizations, understood as "efficient and compact tools to co-constitute and anticipate horizontal vertical and temporal interlinkages" (Konrad 2006). Among the visualizations of life management tools, some depict complex interplays between new devices, technical components, apps, ideas, ideologies, skills and competences or "anticipatory assemblages" (Alvial-Palavicino 2011). In this paper, we analyze the visual conventions used in selected personal finance, health and integrative life management tools from the point of view of embedded meanings, syntactic symbols and implied use. Our analysis suggests that the imaged futures of the visualizations assume a) a general view of the human being as taking center stage (i.e., human-centric), and b) a particular individualistic view of the data citizen as control-oriented, suspicious (personal data, privacy), and insatiably hungry for information.
Doing experiments on customer data: customer data as epistemic object
Drawing on fieldwork in a swiss customer loyalty firm, I retrace a process of matching categories and customers. Using the concept of epistemic objects, I describe the ever expanding und contracting view of the customer, and connecting it to the firm's perceived need to experiment.
I will present an ethnographic case study, discussing how a customer loyalty firm tries to affix lifestyle segments to their customers using Natural Language Processing on data from a contest. The firm entered into a cooperation with the local Institute of Technology to get an understanding of their data and their customers. I will trace the different steps from the development of their "experiment", through the annotation of a data set by marketing experts, and to the machine learning procedure. In the process, the at first brittle categorization of their customers assumes a temporary firmness by recruiting different actors and their specific expertise, "beautiful data", and state of the art computational analytics. Being firm, but only temporary, seems to be a necessary shortcoming, allowing for a reclassification of always changing members and for a flexible use of the classification tool, which in itself should become a sellable product.
I argue for the usefulness of Knorr Cetina's notion of epistemic objects to shed light on algorithmic categorization processes: The often and rightly criticized faultiness of profiling technologies must then not be seen as an aberration but as constitutive of the categorization process. The customer profile as an epistemic object has the capacity to "unfold indefinitely". The firm does these "experiments" to reveal what insights their "beautiful data" holds, and thereby expand and change their view of the customers, what they can do with their data, and which data they still need to complete the picture.
The market that fails to see
Across various domains, from health to communication and politics, tracking and measurement is expanding and becoming ever more fine-grained. This paper discusses targeted marketing and ways of 'seeing' in the market-consumer relationship.
Digital economy's classificatory mechanisms, backed by algorithmic techniques and large volumes of data, suggest a new kind of intertwining of market institutions and consumers. "Markets have learned to 'see' in a new way, and are teaching us to see ourselves in that way, too", as Fourcade and Healy observe (2017, 10).
Based on empirical material discussing everyday notions of algorithms, targeted advertisement is typically perceived as superior to non-targeted advertisement, but it still tends to irritate social media users. Advertisements mimic past behavior, thereby generating unpleasant experiences of people being surveilled and stalked. Interviewees also complain that the ads are not predicting their needs, but operate on a too mechanical manner, relying on age-gender-location-based categories. Classification schemes become visible as crude sorting mechanisms: young women are informed about dating sites and pregnancy tests, and women over forty are targeted with anti-wrinkle cream ads.
The paper argues that the "new intimacy of surveillance" (Berson 2015, 40) that guides marketing practices is more likely to please when the marketing efforts do not stand out, but they anticipate new needs, desires and plans before they have fully formed. People feel that they are not simply being sorted out, but ads feel relevant to them. Meaningful encounters with marketing generate feelings of joy and pleasure and occasionally actual purchasing decisions, suggesting that people like to be seen by the market. The paper ends by reflecting what this kind of seeing suggests in terms of market agents, consumers and critical research.
New transparency, new opacity
Enterprise resource planning software (ERP) has become a standard in large and medium-sized organizations. While these packages are mainly framed as tools for increasing transparency, they can also be used to hide and conceal certain actions - at least by those who know how.
This paper emerges from my ongoing research on the software company SAP and its widely adopted product, enterprise resource planning software (ERP). Software of this kind and especially those packages offered by SAP have become the standard means of coordination in large and medium-sized companies as well as increasingly in the public sector. One of the central arguments for introducing these complex and costly systems is the increase of transparency that they are said to bring about. ERP systems are framed as tools for creating new kinds of visibilities and for giving access to previously hidden actions and correlations. However, while this may well be true, ERP systems can also be regarded as involving a new kind of opacity. Due to their intricate, multilayered architecture and the high level of tech versatility that running and maintaining them implies, ERP systems can turn into means for hiding certain activities. In my contribution to the panel, I would like to flesh out these two tendencies of transparency and opacity. While the former is very present when it comes to digital devices of data gathering and data aggregation, the latter - the idea that these devices can also serve obfuscation - is less often discussed. The topic is of course related to questions of power: Whose actions are made transparent and who is able to hide their doing in some dark corner of the software? What are the battles fought over being watched and controlled vs. being invisible and autonomous?
Have you seen this dog? Rendering more-than-human publics legible in urban settings
Using the case study of Calgary, Alberta, this presentation explores how local governments can mobilise databases digital technologies to make dogs visible - and therefore legible and in the reach of public action - in urban settings.
With this presentation, we seek to interrogate the way municipal governments use digitally-enabled databases to 'see' pets, and more specifically canine populations, by unfolding the case study of Calgary in the Canadian province of Alberta. James C. Scott convincingly documented how modernist governmental projects engaged in the process of making populations 'legible', which entailed imposing standardised administrative categories on individuals, thus bringing them within the scope of state visibility - a phenomenon discussed, at the municipal level, by Mariana Valverde (2011). Local councils increasingly extend this movement to pets and their people by referencing, localising, and sometimes intervening with dogs. This process is enabled by the construction of databases that are fed by (1) the statutory registration of pets and their owners (i.e., 'licensing'); (2) the systematic filing of incidents involving pets, by municipal employees and by emergency healthcare services in severe cases.
The City of Calgary has an international reputation for pet-related policies, and 'the Calgary model' relies extensively on databases. Drawing upon in-depth interviews and participant observation, we document how municipal officials collect, sort and use data pertaining to dogs. Meanwhile, we find that non-official streams of data, in the form of information relayed on social media (e.g., 'lost dogs' postings), are increasingly affecting public action. We analyse how these alternative 'visions' challenge and interact with public views on dogs.
This panel is closed to new paper proposals.