#rpTEN speaker: Kate Crawford and the Anxieties of Big Data

If her life were a collection of data, interpreting the information would be challenging. The Australian Kate Crawford embodies the life of a full spectrum Renaissance man: her writings are published in The Atlantic and The New Inquiry, she's the former lead of an electro band, a composer, lead researcher for Microsoft Research's Social Media Collective and she holds a guest professorship at the MIT Center for Civic Media. Crawford works in the field of social change and media technology and is currently writing a book on the connection between data and power. She's also working on creating the perfect Twitter stream.

Big Data, which has been described as the oil of the 21st Century, contains dangers which need to be addressed. In a recent opinion piece, Crawford writes about how Big Data is rooted in capitalism

“(...)the lived reality of big data is suffused with a kind of surveillant anxiety — the fear that all the data we are shedding every day is too revealing of our intimate selves but may also misrepresent us. Like a fluorescent light in a dark corridor, it can both show too much and not enough. Anxiety has a temporality that is future oriented: it is an expectation emotion, and the expectation is generally of risk, exposure, and failure. British group Plan C in their blistering manifesto 'We Are All Very Anxious' argue that anxiety is the dominant affect of our current phase of capitalism, engendering political hopelessness, insecurity, and social separation.”

Information or disinformation as a driving force – Kate Crawford recently sat down with Trevor Paglen (recently announced as an #rpTEN speaker) and concept artist Jenny Holzer to talk about their work and new approaches in information and communication in today's society. Data can be rendered into art and in the digital sphere the two are inextricably linked. 

This interconnection can also give rise to misinterpretations, which need to be addressed. The Council for Big Data, Ethics and Society, of which Crawford is its vice president, aims to provide critical social and cultural perspectives of Big Data initiatives. The Council brings together researchers from various disciplines, such as anthropology, philosophy, economics and law, to advise on issues of security, privacy, equality and access and thus avoid repeating know mistakes of the past. Many of these have been covered in her numerous academic publications. Through public commentaries, events, white papers and direct best practice standards for data analysis projects, she and her colleagues set up frameworks, for researchers and the wider public, to deal with the social, ethical, legal and political questions thrown up by the Big Data phenomenon.

One of the recent big questions for Crawford is how, in the era of Big Data, can we activate the radical potentials found in our fears of mass surveillance? She's very open about this issue: Your search queries will outlive you! (Twitter) and “divorce your metadata”. We look forward to hearing her speak at #rpTEN and are excited about looking at the interconnections between the re:publica programme and its many previous speakers. 


Photo credit: Kate Crawford