Epiphanies – thanks to Shoshana Zuboff
Today is the twelfth day of Christmas, which makes me think of twelve drummers drumming and the Christian Feast of the Epiphany that traditionally celebrates the arrival of the Wise Men from afar. And by the by, it’s also #NollaigNamBan #WomensChristmas in Ireland.
noun, plural e·piph·a·nies.
( initial capital letter ) a Christian festival, observed on January 6, commemorating the manifestation of Christ to the gentiles in the persons of the Magi; Twelfth-day.
an appearance or manifestation, especially of a deity.
a sudden, intuitive perception of or insight into the reality or essential meaning of something, usually initiated by some simple, homely, or commonplace occurrence or experience.
I am not expecting any appearances by a deity today but epiphany also makes me think of the third meaning, the dawning of an idea, in my case often from a combination of reading and reflection on practice.
Epiphany from 1998
During 2018, I have spent quite a lot of time thinking about the work of Shoshana Zuboff. I first came across her book “In the Age of the Smart Machine”, 20 years ago in 1998. It was written in 1988, and based on research that she started in 1978. Reading the book in 1998 was an epiphany for me, and I drew on it in my teaching and thinking about digital technologies. Zuboff’s first gift to me was that technology informates as well as automates: that information technology’s additional dimension of reflexivity (at least partially) reveals events, objects and processes by the information it captures. Zuboff captures the duality of automation and informating:
Informating derives from and builds upon automation. Automation is a necessary but not sufficient condition for informating. It is quite possible to proceed with automation without reference to how it will contribute to the technology’s informating potential. When this occurs, informating is experienced as an unintended consequence of automation. (Zuboff 1988, p11).
The concept of informating served me well in helping students learn about the contextual nature of information technology, usually in the workplace settings that formed the context for Zuboff’s research. Informating was not ethically neutral: it could enable surveillance of workers’ performance, or reveal criminal activity, as in the Harold Shipman case where his tampering with records was revealed. Zuboff also introduced me to the Panopticon and the potential of information technology to enable surveillance. Over the twenty years since I first read Zuboff’s book, information technology has escaped from the workplace, thanks to the Internet. It’s not just our workplace activities that are subject to informating but all of the social, learning, sharing, searching, communicating, gaming and other activities that now have a digital presence.
Epiphany in 2018
Though I had thought about Zuboff’s work often over the years, I revisited it during 2018 in the wake of revelations about Facebook and Cambridge Analytica. I have been concerned about the use of data by social media platforms for many years, even doing some independent research with co-authors , but the scale of the data capture and sharing without informed consent was shocking. Both informating and Zuboff(2015)’s more recent work on Surveillance Capitalism have spoken to me in this year.
Today, I read about epistemic injustice in 2 different places: an article by @taskeeners; and this blog post by @bali_maha. Shortly afterwards, I read Zuboff’s Notes on Field-Research Methodology (Zuboff 1988,p 423)
My little epiphany was that we do need qualitative research based on an explicit epistemology, but more than that, various epistemologies need to be heard and that this may mean a range of research studies to accommodate the range of epistemologies. And for me, that means we need more than just informated data.
Zuboff, S. (1988) In the Age of the Smart Machine. New York: Basic Books.
Zuboff, S. (2015) ‘Big Other: Surveillance Capitalism and the Prospects of an Information Civilization’, Journal of Information Technology. Nature Publishing Group, 30(30), p. 75. doi: 10.1057/jit.2015.5.