Metaphors of data – it’s time to redefine how we talk about data

Metaphors are a short-hand way of understanding complex ideas and concepts; they involve experiencing one thing in terms of another. Common metaphors include ‘argument is war’, ‘the tree of life’ and ‘she is a rose’. Mapping complex ideas to a pre-existent one enables us to understand abstract concepts in terms of more familiar ones (Lakoff, 1980). But metaphors do more than help us understand concepts – they have consequences in the ‘real’ world as they re-shape formal domains such as biology and economics, as well as reorganise the corporate competitive landscape. It is interesting to consider then, how popular metaphors shape the way people and organisations think about, understand and work with data.

Most of the metaphors for data, particularly big data, map the concept to the domain of natural resources. A lot has been written about this already, however, in this blog post I try to think about this in terms of developing everyday understandings of data (as opposed to economic ones). In many ways, metaphors inform and shape other materialisations of data, thereby influencing the production and use of digital technologies. 

In talking about data, one of the most common metaphors used is: ‘data is the new oil’. Implicit to this metaphor is the idea that data is a resource with substantial economic value, likening those with ownership of data to wealthy oil barons. Clearly this is problematic as it has led to a major economic shift and new capitalist model based on behavioural surplus outlined in detail in Zuboff’s (2019) surveillance capitalism. However, as Puschmann and Burgess (2014) argue likening data to a natural resource is not only problematic but also inaccurate, as data is not naturally occurring at all, but typically ‘created by users with intentions entirely unrelated to its use as a valued commodity’ (p.1699).

Other metaphors that draw on the natural domain, describe data as a stream, lake or cloud (see: Stark & Hoffman, 2019). In more ominous descriptions, data is depicted as a flood, deluge or a tsunami with the potential to ‘drown us’. As Lupton (2013)explains, there are many benefits in adopting liquid metaphors – particularly for money-making purposes – as they promote ‘an economy of digital data and surveillance in which data are collected constantly and move from site to site in ways that cannot easily themselves be monitored, measured or regulated’ (n.p.). Metaphors of data drawn from the natural domain suggest it is something that can be mined or extracted, which, in turn, supports the capitalist expropriation of data. This has a series of effects, as Mezzadra and Neilson (2017) explain, data extraction ‘reconfigures property relations, working the boundaries of ‘privacy’ while also testing and exploiting the differences, frictions, and connections between heterogeneous jurisdictions (p.194-195).’  

Metaphors directly from the economic domain also circulate, such as ‘data as currency’ (Barratt, 2019)and ‘data as an asset’ (Laney, 2018). Texts drawing on this metaphor typically show how data can be monetized, with instructions on increasing its value at every step in the supply chain. Not only do economic metaphors paper over more critical readings of digital technologies, but framed in this way, data is seen as being incompatible with other forms of knowledge generation. Indeed, it is important to note that the people to whom these economically derived metaphors are most applicable are those who own data or stand to benefit from monetizing it in some way. On the other hand, governments and international organisations like the OECD tend to liken data to a ‘utility’ (Andrews, 2015) or ‘infrastructure’ (Nolin, 2020), such as electricity or water. In this way, a citizen’s access to data becomes a responsibility of the government. This metaphor contributes to the open data movements, while at the same time deprioritising the notion that data should be privately owned and/or commodified.

Although there are many data metaphors, those outlined here tend to be used in particular domains – such as economics, government and academia. But what metaphors exist in everyday life to help people understand such an abstract and complex concept as data? Is it seen as a resource, commodity or utility? These metaphors will shape how people think about data and its role in society, as well as how it can be protected and managed, so are important in developing people’s knowledge of datafication processing. For example, metaphors based on the idea that data is a natural resource or an asset inevitably lead to extraction – treating the home and our personal lives as porous and breaking down the boundary between private and public.

 Another interesting point, is that in all of these metaphors connecting data to oil, clouds, lakes and the like, people do not feature. Personal data is generated through people’s use of digital platforms and devices, yet this very interpersonal and relational dimension to data does not appear in popular metaphors. What are the consequences of this? As Dourish and Mazmanian (2011) argue elements of the world that do not easily fit into popular metaphors, such as emotions, are ‘either reframed or become invisible in public discourse’ (p.7). The language of data should not be be dictated by economists and technology companies. With this in mind, prioritising people and the relational dimensions of data becomes an important political and educational project. 

References:

Andrews, C. (2015). Data-as-a-utility: A new era for the public sector. GovLoop. Retrieved from https://www.govloop.com/resources/data-as-a-utility-a-new-era-for-the-public-sector/

Barratt, J. (2019). Data as currency: What value are you getting? Knowledge@Wharton. Retrieved from https://knowledge.wharton.upenn.edu/article/barrett-data-as-currency/

Lakoff, G., & Johnson, M. (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

Laney, D. (2018). Infonomics: How to Monetize, Manage, and Measure Information as an Asset for Competitive Advantage. London: Routledge.

Lupton, D. (2013). Swimming or drowning in the data ocean? Thoughts on the metaphors of big data. The Sociological Life. Retrieved from https://simplysociology.wordpress.com/2013/10/29/swimming-or-drowning-in-the-data-ocean-thoughts-on-the-metaphors-of-big-data/

Mezzadra, S., & Neilson, B. (2017). On the multiple frontiers of extraction: Excavating contemporary capitalism. Cultural Studies, 31(2-3), 185-204. 

Stark, L., & Hoffman. (2019). Data is the new what? Popular metaphors and professional ethics in emerging data cultures. Journal of Cultural Analytics, 1(1), 1-22. 

Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs.

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