Big data is all the buzz in business and government. The assumption is that meta-data — data about who communicates with whom, when, where, in which sequences and networks — can generate ever more comprehensive and granular accounts of everyday life and social practices across global space and in real time. For business, the bit trails that we all leave behind become ways of predicting where — to which goods and services — those trails will take us in the future. For government, those same trails bear witness to what friends as well as enemies already did, or may do in the future, as indicated by Edward Snowden’s recent revelations of National Security Agency activities.
The various legal, ethical, and political concerns about the protection of the individual’s privacy from spam and surveillance are evident. However, the emerging digital infrastructure raises a more general and fundamental issue about the rights of citizens in their roles as communicators in the contemporary media environment. …
This article was originally published in Social Research, Vol. 7: No. 3: Fall 2010.
One of the difficulties in discussing the notion that it is the media that limits our idea of politics is that we all have an inherent resistance to believing that our own understanding of the political world is artificially limited. Most of us are willing to talk about political propaganda and the way in which political opinions are manipulated as long as that means somebody else’s opinions. We all prefer to think it happens to other people, not to ourselves.
This is true, first, because it is simply unpleasant to think about oneself being propagandized or being in some way manipulated. But the more substantive reason for this resistance is that the way in which we assess the set of information we receive about the world is very self-reinforcing. There is a certain set of information, a set of sources to which we are subjected or which we seek out, that provides us with information about the world and shapes our political world view…
Unexpected or amusing experiences on the NYC subway are all but infrequent for those who travel every day, in jam-packed trains, from one corner to the other of the city. But, the biggest shock I have had in my three years of using NYC public transit was a few months ago when, jumping onto a train at the last second, I saw the most incredible poster: It was a picture of a crying toddler of color with the words, “Got a good job? I cost thousands of dollars each year.” While I was still recovering from the shock, my eyes fell upon a similar poster of a little Black girl that read, “Honestly Mom… chances are he won’t stay with you. What happens to me?” As I soon found out, these two posters were part of the Teen Pregnancy Prevention campaign organized by the Human Resources Administration of the New York City Department of Social Services and strongly supported and defended by the mayor Bloomberg.
This advertising campaign is a perfect example of the entrenchment of inequalities around class, race, and gender, and on the way they are covered up by a discourse appealing to personal responsibility. Indeed, the message conveyed by the campaign is, firstly, that you need to have money in order to have the right to have a child. If you are poor and nonetheless have a child, you are responsible for his or her future unhappiness, poverty, and social failure. Moreover, poverty is presented as the outcome of teenagers’ individual reproductive choices rather than being presented as the concrete material condition in which they are already living and are compelled to make their choices. Secondly, in the posters there is no mention of social services or of abortion rights. The whole problem of teen pregnancy is reduced to a matter of individual choice, where girls are to be considered responsible for their sexual behavior. As a consequence, the communicative tactics of public shaming is consistently resorted to.