“What wins the battle is better understanding power”: Activism, data, and distributed agentic capacities

Authors: Jonathan Cinnamon*, Ryerson University
Topics: Social Geography, Development, Urban Geography
Keywords: data activism, South Africa, digital geographies, agency, power
Session Type: Virtual Paper
Day: 4/8/2021
Start / End Time: 4:40 PM / 5:55 PM
Room: Virtual 37
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Research on activist engagements with data has recently coalesced around the field of ‘data activism’, which covers both resistance to data-driven surveillance and discrimination and proactive use of data to advance grassroots political goals. The latter form of data activism, it is argued, “offers citizens the opportunity to exercise their democratic agency in the age of datafication” (Gutierrez and Milan 2018, 96). However, most work has yet to attend to the nature of power and agency within these data assemblages, focusing instead on speculation that data might advance the political goals of grassroots actors. Against this backdrop, this paper takes a ‘follow the data’ approach to examine the actions and outcomes of data activism initiatives, which represents a partial pivot away from ‘people power’ toward ‘data power’ within urban activist communities. Findings illustrate how data are enrolled to substantiate activist politics, but ultimately, the limited success of data-driven activism initiatives illustrates the weakness and instability of data as objects of grassroots political power. Engaging with new materialist ideas, I make the case for explicit attention to the arrangement of ‘agentic capacities’ within data activism assemblages in order to realize grassroots data power. This analysis provides a way of thinking about data not as an individuated actor capable of grassroots action, but as an important component of a material entanglement of human, technological, and political agencies.

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