Big Data and The Phantom Public Revisited: The Infomediary and 'Knowing Publics'

Posted: 16 May 2019

See all articles by Jonathan A. Obar

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: May 13, 2019


If Walter Lippmann had lived to witness the rise of Big Data, and had written The Phantom Public (1927) to address the self-governance challenges we face, perhaps the third chapter, “Agents and Bystanders”, might have discussed the need for infomediation as a potential answer to the privacy self-management challenges posed by Big Data.

Continuing the discussion presented in Big Data and the Phantom Public: Walter Lippmann and the Fallacy of Data Privacy Self-Management (Obar, 2015) through more of a repurposing of Lippmann, I argue that to achieve agency in the Big Data context, individuals need assistance. From the moment of supposed consent, to the moment of data use for eligibility, and everything in-between, all hours, every day, at an increasing pace, in our direct interactions with internet carriers and platforms, and our unknown connections with hidden data managers and brokers, across and within all parts of a global economy – we are alone. In the Big Data context, the failures of the notice and choice privacy model are many, but this particular failure, the fact that we are concurrently at the center of an omnipresent data deluge and marginalized by a digital desolation, stands above all other Big Data challenges and must be addressed if we are ever to realize any semblance of digital privacy and reputation deliverables.

I argue that perhaps one answer to having been abandoned amidst this “swarming confusion of problems” (Lippmann, 1927) is the infomediary. When the government requires us to file our taxes every year, many address the information asymmetry of the tax code, the challenge of interpreting our own financial data, the complexity of the tax return system, and the individual demand for a positive outcome, with an advantageous division of labour – i.e. the accountant or accounting software. When the legal system compels us to defend ourselves, many address the information asymmetry of the law, the challenge of interpreting our own legal scenario, the complexity of developing and presenting a case, and the individual demand for a positive outcome, with an advantageous principal-agent relationship – i.e. the for or non-profit legal counsel. The self-governance challenge before us presented by Big Data presents similar information asymmetries that result in deliverables like “the biggest lie on the internet” (Obar and Oeldorf-Hirsch, 2018) where notice manifestations fail to deliver consent; similar challenges of finding, unlocking and understanding what Pasquale (2015) describes as black boxes filled with data sets, algorithms and data-driven decisions; similar complexities associated with underdeveloped systems for facilitating oversight; and similar individual demands for positive outcomes. Through a repurposing of Lippmann’s call for a difficult-yet-delivering delegation, this papers asserts that with the aim of achieving individual agency through “more reflexive and active (knowing) publics” (Kennedy and Moss, 2015), the infomediary, or the representative data manager, may help ensure the Big Data subject is thrown a life preserver.

Keywords: privacy, Big Data, consent, infomediary, Walter Lippmann, surveillance, agency

Suggested Citation

Obar, Jonathan A., Big Data and The Phantom Public Revisited: The Infomediary and 'Knowing Publics' (May 13, 2019). Available at SSRN:

Jonathan A. Obar (Contact Author)

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

Register to save articles to
your library


Paper statistics

Abstract Views
PlumX Metrics