Institute of Social Anthropology

Prof. Dr. Schäuble, Michaela

Big Data Lives. Anthropological Perspectives on Tech-Imaginaries and Human Transformations

Projektleitung: Prof. Dr. Michaela Schäuble

Projektmitarbeitende: Dr. Darcy Alexandra, Lucien Schönenberg, Sophie Wagner 

Laufzeit 01.09.2019 bis 31.08.2023

How individuals and societies aim to live in the future is channelled through and inextricably linked to the use of technology. Today, artificial intelligence (AI) and Big Data technologies are key elements in popular narratives about the future of mankind. What these developing technologies promise is enticing, as well as frightening. Public debates about AI and its effects on civilization tend to be heated. Famous figureheads conjure up distant, contrasting futures where we are either at the mercy of selfish machines, or have managed, with their help, to banish illness and war, and end all the world’s problems. Rather than argue for either side in this debate, our research project endeavours to understand the effects of human engagements with AI and Big Data technologies that acquire and manage personal data on behalf of states, intelligence agencies and commercial corporations.

The mining, storing, analysing and selling of meta data by corporate firms, state authorities or intelligence organisations, combine to form the backbone of ‘biopolitics’ – the attempt to rationalise the government of populations – that considers life itself as an object and subject of concern. In order to do so most effectively in an ever more digitalised world, surveillance and dataveillance – the tracking of online data for unstated pre-set purposes – are being rendered as normal forms of social monitoring. We will investigate the widely shared belief that Big Data systems and algorithmic decision making instil objectivity and rationality in the realms of irrational human existence. These narratives and imaginaries impact on norm-making processes, and enable the implementation of new technological infrastructures. 

This research project brings together three geographically diverse, ethnographic case studies. Each study explores the on-going implementations of technological infrastructures to provide insight into technology-driven, societal transformation as it happens: the implementation of China’s Social Credit System (SCS) on a national scale in 2020 (sub-project A by Lucien Schönenberg); a landscape ethnography that examines the “Virtual Border” – comprised of surveillance cameras, sensors, radar systems, and Integrated Fixed Towers (IFTs) – between the USA and Mexico (sub-project B by Darcy Alexandra); and sensor enabled, wearable technology in the context of a booming, digitalised healthcare system in Austria (sub-project C by Sophie Wagner). All three projects deal with initiatives that promote “better/safer futures”. Aiming to instil moral behaviour, inventing security threats that demand counteraction, or claiming to develop research while pushing a growing market and a country’s status as ‘ideal for business’ all produce troubling impacts on the freedom and privacy of individuals and radically alter notions of transparency, responsibility and trust. They bear witness to the ways in which Big Data based technologies add unprecedented degrees of complexity to the management of individual lives. For example, the mechanisms through which societal control is exercised, are increasingly veiled, and individuals are often left devoid of knowledge about who owns their data and what will be done with it. Simultaneously, however, the responsibility for the policing of behaviour is often transferred from political and economic institutions to individuals and commercial corporations.

Rather than imagining the future as an uncertain and distant cosmos, we propose to explore the ways that humanity is already and continuously shaping these entangled processes of gradual change. We ask about the ways in which individuals circumvent and subvert surveillance technologies. We ask how the participants’ capacity to act according to their own desires, hopes and fears is defined by knowledge of the technological infrastructures they move through, as well as by existing narratives surrounding developments in technology-driven change. We acknowledge that the existence of Big Data based technologies has the potential to radically alter individual perception and subjectivity, and that it might be productive to rethink the human/technology dichotomy. Therefore, this research project investigates the relational existence of technologies and social phenomena. Our aim is to add a specific, human-centred approach to the discourse about AI and Big Data, and contribute to the dynamic understanding of human ontologies.