Knowing Capitalism and Lively Data
Nigel Thrift (2005) developed the concept of ‘knowing capitalism’ to denote a new form of global economy which depends not only on technologies which generate large amounts of digital data, but also on the commodification of that data: a big data economy in which power operates through modes of communication, and
Digital data have become especially valuable as forms of knowledge, especially when they are aggregated into big data sets, and are seen as having huge potential to offer new insights into a range of human behaviours, and to disrupt various industries: from health care to education.
One key change in the age of ‘knowing capitalism’ is that there has been a shift from commodifying workers’ physical labour to profiting from information collected on people’s preferences – which online users willingly give when they create and upload digital content online, download and use geolocation apps, shop online, and like various content.
In this digital age, prosumption is the new norm – people simultaneously consuming and generating online content and In commercial circles, the user of online technologies is ‘the product’, because the information they give off when online is so valuable.
This is why so many applications, such as Facebook, are free to use – because they are really just platforms to harvest valuable data (why charge?)… and the Four big tech companies excercise huge power by virtue of the sheer amount of big data they have already, and continue to collect on their users.
Central to portrayals of the digital data economy is the idea that digital data are lively, mutable, and hybrid. Metaphors of liquidity are very commonly used:
In the digital data economy flows of information are generated and engage in non-linear movement, and according to THrift (2014) new hybrid beings emerge with the mixture of data, objects and bodies….and bodies and identities are fragmented and reassembled through a process of reconfiguration.
Furthermore, digital data and the algorithmic analytics used to interpret them are beginning to have determining effects on people’s lives, influencing their life chances and opportunities.
There is a mobile dimension to how we interact with data too.
Data can become stuck, for example when a company hoards it, or when people do not know how to use it!
Data materialisations constitute an important dimension of knowing capitalism – data is lively, in flux, but it needs to be frozen to be used – in 2D (infographics) or 3D… through printers.
Where 2D data visualisations are concerned, a lot of emphasis is placed on their aesthetic quality, and how the meaning of the data is structured.. And behind this process lies decisions about what to include and what to exclude, and limitations on what can be shown due to software used…. This there are many contingencies framing the way we understand big data in knowing capitalism!
Lupton, Deborah (2017) The Quantified Self, Polity