Materialising the implications of data: The Digital Defense Playbook

Recently, I’ve been reviewing critical data education programs paying particular attention to the ways data is materialized as an object of study and analysis. The Digital Defense Playbook from the Our Data Bodies research project in the US has been around for a couple of years now. The goal of the program is to shift who gets to define problems around data collection, data privacy and data security. Their focus is developing data understandings and competencies in all people, but specifically marginalised groups including people of colour, queer, trans, unhoused and previously incarcerated individuals. 

The approach is interesting and innovative for a number of reasons. First, it’s based around story sharing, meaning the lessons begin with the participant’s personal experiences of data, including issues such as profiling and algorithmic decision-making. Given the background of the target audience this can be confronting, and the program warns that some discomfort and conflict may arise. Yet instead of repressing or defusing these emotions and experiences, the authors explain that ‘conflict in itself is healthy and a sign that change may be occurring’ (Lewis, Gangadharan, Saba, & Petty, 2018, p. 13). This reminded me of Megan Boler’s (1999) pedagogies of discomfort, where she argues that to be genuinely transformative to the individual and society, critical reflection involves some degree of discomfort. 

But for the purposes of this blog post, I was particularly interested in the different ways that the Playbook materialises data. Interestingly, the Playbook tends to use analogue materials during the lesson so data is materialised through the individual and what they have with them at the time. In one lesson, for example, participants draw an outline of their bodies on a piece of paper and are asked to consider ‘What types of data exist in your body?’ Participants are encouraged to list what aspects of their body can be datafied. They then draw their body as ‘dismantled by the surveillance state’ (p.42). Drawing how the body is dissected by data would be powerful and affective. It’s a far cry from the clean, crisp spreadsheets of data science. 

In another lesson, participants are asked to take out the cards in their wallets and consider what type of data the card relies on to operate, with social security data, address, health information, marital status, birthdate etc listed as options. The program also includes mapping social networks and electronic selves and creating a profile on your partner. This is some uncomfortable territory for participants to traverse, particularly as its target audience is those whose marginalisation has only intensified through data. However, to instil a sense of power in participants, other lessons ‘Flip the Script’ and encourage participants to develop solutions for the issues they have identified. Here the playbook seeks to promote ‘Power not Paranoia’.

It’s interesting that the playbook’s digital defense is mobilised through non-digital means – through storytelling, pen and paper activities and the power of community. Materialising data, not in its digital form, but through its implications for individuals and communities is affective. In the Digital Defense Playbook, the implications of data are not imagined and predicted as they are in data science, but instead, embodied, experienced and felt. In the wrong hands, data has the power to dismantle, dividuate and dissect. This is quite the antithesis to how data are materialised in data science – yet an important way forward if we want the more negative aspects of datafication to change.

References:

Boler, M. (1999). Feeling Power: Emotions and Education. Abingdon, UK: Routledge.

Lewis, T., Gangadharan, S. P., Saba, M., & Petty, T. (2018). Digital defense playbook: Community power tools for reclaiming data. Detroit: Our Data Bodies. Retrieved from 

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