Data is often thought of as immaterial – devoid of physical properties and without a tangible form. Imagined as immaterial, data is thought to be more responsive, adaptable and mutable and therefore ready to fulfil the demands of a datafied system, whether that system be in a school, business or home (Beer, 2019; Law & Mol, 2001). There is good reason for this logic. Greater mutability means fewer limitations to how data can be ‘put to work’. At the same time, seeing data as inherently mutable means it comes to be understood according to its function, rather than its physical properties or the methods of production
More recently, a body of scholarly work has stressed the importance of understanding data as material. Afterall, even for non-specialists, data is only ever encountered in some kind of material form. In fact, data is continuously materialised across the datafication process – from the material production of the digital datum through to its representational form. Exploring the processes of materialisation enables us to critically examine the ‘historical particularities, cultural specificities, and political consequences’ (Dourish & Mazmanian, 2011, p.4) of data. Just as materialist approaches to philosophy emphasise the role of matter in all social phenomena, exploring the materiality of data enables the experiential, embodied and affective consequences of data to be critically examined.
In this project, I intend to focus on how data is materialised through the various phases of datafication, as this is entwined with the ways we can reimagine its representation, interpretation and use. As one example, I might investigate how social media interactions could be represented differently rather than through metrics. This requires understanding the physical properties of the personal data being collected and thinking through its purpose and representational form. Dourish and Mazmanian’s (2011) conceptualisation of the materiality of information is a helpful way to begin this critical examination. They identify and describe five ways in which digital information is materialized, including: the cultural materiality of digital goods; the transformative materiality of digital networks; the material conditions of production; the material consequences of information metaphors and the materiality of information representation. Applying Dourish and Mazmanian’s (2011) conceptualisation encourages us to see the many ways that data can be materialized, hence I refer to data materialities in the plural.
Knowing the various stages at which data is materialized can sharpen our understanding of the socially and culturally situated nature of data. As an example of this, Bates, Lin and Goodale (2016) use their ‘data journeys’ methodology to show how the materiality of data is shaped by a range of socio-cultural factors, such as funding, regulation and even the personal priorities of those who curate datasets. There is an important critical dimension to this in that it can reveal labour and decision-making that are often hidden in data science processes. As D’Ignazio and Klein (2020) point out ’tracing data back to its material conditions and contexts reveals the ‘quality and character of the work and the people who make it’ (p.201). Not only does an investigation of the material form of data tell us how data is produced, understood and used, but also how people might transform it to make new meanings and interpretations.
So, where does the description of data as inherently mutable lead us? First, it encourages us to see data in the abstract. While this discursive construction might promote the utility of digital data, it makes it difficult to develop data literacies as there is no stable object or text to critique. However, as Matthew Kirschenbaum (2011) points out, data is not as flexible as we have been led to think. This is particularly the case when it comes to commercial uses of digital data, which often captures and closes off digital data from public use. Drawing on Thibodeauu’s tripartite model of digital objects, Kirschenbaum (2011) points out that while digital data might appear stable and unquestionable at a conceptual or representational level, it may be a compound, complex object as far as its physical properties and the ways these are recognized within digital systems. Yet the potential for the physical forms of data to emerge are often foreclosed by commercial technology companies. Kirschenbaum argues that critical theorisations of new media have tended to focus on the conceptual level, with little attention to the physical forms of data and the emergent qualities it holds.
With this in mind, to materialise data we need to investigate the dynamic interplay between the physical form of data and the nascent and evolving qualities it holds. Importantly, there needs to be greater attention to how the physical forms of data facilitate and create particular meanings, as well as identifying the opportunities for individuals, particularly non-specialists, to imagine and craft new meanings and interpretations. Guiding this project then are key questions to do with what data materializations are thought to be true and helpful, as well as which are not and why. As Dourish (2016) reminds us: ‘The essence of the digital is that it is a representational system. It encodes or denotes something else. What does it mean, then, to argue for this representational system as itself having material properties?’ (p.31).
Beer, D. (2019). The Data Gaze: Capitalism, Power and Perception. London and New York: Sage Publishing.
D’Ignazio, C., & Klein, L. (2020). Data Feminism. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Dourish, P. (2016). Rematerializing the platform: Emulation and the digital–material. In S. Pink, E. Ardevol, & D. Lanzeni (Eds.), Digital Materialities: Design and Anthropology (pp. 29-45). London: Bloomsbury.
Dourish, P., & Mazmanian, M. (2011). Media as material: Information representations as material foundations for organizational practice. Paper presented at the Third International Symposium on Process Organization Studies, Corfu, Greece.
Kirschenbaum, M. (2011). Mechanism: New Media and the Forensic Imagination. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.
Law J and Mol A (2001) Situating technoscience: An inquiry into spatialities. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 19(5): 609–621.