The theme of the 2019 PSL was Data & Power.
In our readings, seminars and final 'experiment', we took on the critical issue of how the production, tracking, mining, manipulation, sorting and categorization of data through algorithmic procedures has emerged as an increasingly dominant mode of political regulation, capitalist exploitation, identity formation, cultural expression and knowledge generation. Usually housed in monumental and imposing physical edifices, the archive as a locus of political power -- whether that of the ‘archon’-magistrate of antiquity, discussed by Derrida, or the modern bureaucratic state -- projects authority, exclusivity and control. By contrast, the digital database, the archive’s successor mode of information storage and classification, much like social media platforms, appears to promise a neutral, automated, objective and democratizing alternative, free of gender-, class- and race-bias and national identity politics. As opposed to the guardedness and limited, monitored access of the archive, the keywords of database culture are ‘open access’, ‘participation’, ‘sharing’ and ‘mobility’. Certainly, this false innocence has been exposed many a time, with the scandal around the data mining/analysis and political consulting company Cambridge Analytica a glaring recent example, while the arrest of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is ample evidence of the disruptive power of the hacker figure in our contemporary dataified context.
Yet, precisely how the new modes and mechanisms of power related to the production and control of data are imbricated in the contemporary biopolitics and necropolitics of neoliberal capitalism and the neocolonial condition is much more challenging to explain. In our opinion, trying to understand how these processes work across a wide range of spheres, from science to social media and art, from state, military and legal procedures to financial services and healthcare, represents one of the most pressing issues for critical cultural theory and social analysis. We have noticed though that the tendency on the part of small data ‘artisans’ like ethnographers (and allied researchers and critics devoted to qualitative research and close readings of cultural politics) is to avoid these technical and technological matters, demonize them, rather than untangle them. The premise of this year’s lab, thus, was two-fold: both to explore the essential contribution of cultural and social analysis to the study of our contemporary data-driven societies, rigorously historicizing, contextualizing, politicizing and bringing the body into the discussion, while at the same time demystifying concepts such as algorithm, database, virality, platform, etc. for students of cultural theory.