The politics of technology, big data and code – an interview with Stefania Milan

Stefania Milan has recently obtainedStefania_Milan an ERC grant for her project on data activism and assumed a new position in the Media Studies Department of the University of Amsterdam. We took the opportunity to speak to Stefania about the politics of media technologies, her research interests and the new opportunities for researchers to study culture and communication through digital methods.

What field of research are you currently most interested in?
I have always been fascinated by what people do with technology – in particular the interplay between digital technology and political dissent. After spending many years in the field with radical internet activists, I am now captivated by how people engage with massive data collection. I am also exploring the dynamics of ‘cloud protesting’ – a notion that I have brought forward to understand how organized collective action changes in interaction with social media and mobile devices. Finally, I am interested in cyberspace governance, and in particular in the role of civil society in the management of the global internet and in the realm of cybersecurity. These three strands of research might appear completely disconnected from each other, but they are deeply linked and even inform each other. Technology permeates the daily life of people. It empowers the many in fostering social change, but also shapes and somehow restricts people’s options and possibilities. The way technology is governed ends up determining what people might be able to do (or prevented from doing) in the near future. But one cannot effectively engage in governance work if disconnected from the grassroots – hence my work with and about hackers and radical internet activists.

Can you name some authors, concepts or theories that you regard as important for researching digital culture?
I believe in interdisciplinary thinking, so I like to play around with different disciplines. For my work on the politics of big data, I am now reading from surveillance studies, science and technology studies as well as security studies. But I am re-reading some of what I consider the ‘classics’: Alberto Melucci for social movement studies, for example, can help us illuminate social media-mediated interactions, although his last texts date back to the end of the 1990s. I enjoyed recently re-reading ‘Change of State‘ by Sandra Braman, for she has the grand vision that can help us understand the role of information as a constitutive force in contemporary society. I believe we need ‘grand theories’ to be able to grasp epochal changes and complex dynamics beyond case studies.

What methods, software, or tools do you use in your research?
I am a fan of qualitative research because of the depth of the data. It might be time consuming and not exactly cost-efficient, but when it comes to investigating digital cultures I think it has no rivals. In the last few years I have played around with quantitative methods and data mining as well as with programming languages like Python. So I am now an advocate of mixed methods approaches, as not all research questions can be approached qualitatively. After joining the Digital Methods Initiative at the Department of Media Studies of the University of Amsterdam, I am familiarizing myself with the many tools that DMI has created to study society through the web. In the near future, I intend to invest in the creation of dedicated computational methods. The idea is to leverage algorithm-based methods to explore a social phenomenon that is rooted in algorithms.

What is the most interesting question at the moment concerning the role of digital technologies in interaction and communication?
There are probably two ways of answering this million-dollar question. On the one hand, examining how the everyday technology that we hold in our pockets and so much rely upon empowers, shapes and restricts human action is an extremely fascinating set of questions. This is what I try to capture with my work on data activism/data epistemologies, cloud protesting and cyberspace governance. On the other hand, society calls for engaged research able to intersect and illuminate the pressing challenges of our times. If I had more time, more resources and many lives, I would enlarge my research agenda to focus on three challenges in particular: migration and the tragedy of the death in the Mediterranean and at the many other physical (and metaphysical) borders humans and states have created over time; surveillance and the blanket monitoring of our whereabouts, and the likely dramatic effects this will have on democratic participation and the quality of life more in general (I do study it in parts with my work on data activism); and climate change, which will eventually kill us all, or at best dramatically reduce our quality of life and freedom of movement. These three big realms intersect in many ways with digital technologies, for good or for bad.

You have recently received an ERC grant for a project on data activism. What exactly do you understand by this and why is it important to investigate data activism now?
By data activism I indicate a set of relatively new social practices rooted on data and technology. It is grounded on the awareness that citizens increasingly have a critical perspective on the role of information in modern societies. It emerges out of other activism sub-cultures, but overcomes their elitist character to involve ordinary citizens as well. I am interested in the politics of big data as well as the politics of code, where politics is not just intended as ‘political use’, but as ‘critical approaches’ to both. Algorithms are increasingly mediating our life, facilitating it, opening new domains for human action, but also jeopardizing some of our freedoms and rights. I am looking at how people make sense of these changes, engage with or resist them; how the emerging ‘big data epistemologies’ shape our ways of understanding the world; how software and data shake up the power dynamics of globalization and development. But data activism is not just interesting from the empirical and theoretical point of view. I think studying massive data collection today is also a moral imperative after the revelations of Edward Snowden.

You can follow Stefania on Twitter: @annliffey

Interview by Anne Mollen.

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