Critical Data Studies: A Dialog on Data and Space
12 Pages Posted: 12 Apr 2016
Date Written: April 8, 2016
Questions of data and algorithmic analysis saturated the conference at which Dalton and Thatcher first called for a Critical Data Studies (Dalton and Thatcher, 2014a). Soon thereafter, Taylor published a response to their original call (Dalton and Thatcher, 2014b) that focused on the spatial nature of data and the need to critically contextualize it (Taylor, 2015a). This was one of multiple beginnings of Critical Data Studies, as it will always be three words cobbled together imperfectly signifying diverse sets of work around data’s recursive relationship to society (c.f. Graham 2014; Kitchin 2014, and elsewhere). We highlight that moment not to claim the concept, but to contextualize the focus of this co-interview. When Taylor published their response to Dalton and Thatcher, she focused on the specifically spatial nature of much data, not only in the content of said data, but also in the need to contextualize from where it originates and is put to use. Data varies across space in a variety of ways: from those included or excluded to those who access said data for analysis, manipulation and (re)presentation.
Critical Data Studies calls attention to subject formation within these data regimes, for a critical examination of where the interpellation of the individual emerges in algorithmic culture (Striphas, 2015) and, through that, where the cracks and seams, the spaces for resistance and alternatives, might be found. When you append “critical” to a field of study, you run the risk of both offending other researchers, who rightly point out that all research is broadly critical and of bifurcating those who use critical theory from those who engage in rigorous empirical research. Kate Crawford recently observed that the meaning of Critical Data Studies is as political as the data it engages (Crawford, 2015). To extend that, it must remain contestable in order to contest the creation, commodification, analysis, and application of data. Ultimately, Critical Data Studies must make space for the recursive dialogue between the deeply theoretical and the robustly empiric and, in so doing, avoid the hubris of pseudopositivism and technological determinism, in favor of the nuanced and contingent.
This is a dialogue between Dalton, Thatcher, and Taylor on the spatial nature of data with respect to Critical Data Studies. It highlights the historical variability of the processes of data production and accumulation and how this, in turn, has resulted in the uneven development of data. We ask both what is missing and what must be brought to the analysis of data in order to respond to the existence of particular dataspheres governed by the kinds of technology available in different locations. In form, Dalton and Thatcher ask the first question and Taylor responds before asking the second, alternating from there. As such, this dialog has many entry and exit points and is not meant as a definitive statement of what Critical Data Studies is or who can speak for it. Rather, we choose to live in the unresolved tensions between researcher and subject, technology and society, space and time (Haraway, 1991), and we encourage our readers to do the same.
Keywords: Critical Data Studies, space, 'big data', uneven development of data, data divide, data double
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