Harwood on the 'Steam Powered Census'

04 Apr 2011 | 392 words | politics democracy

Over the last couple of month i have completely lost my ability to follow the exchanges on the nettime-l, and i have come close to unsubscribing for a couple of times. Fortunately i have not had the guts to do so yet and have forced myself every now-and-then to scan through the subject lines of 100s of posts before dragging them to the trash. During my last scan-and-trash operation i have come across a intriguing essay titled ‘Stream Powered Census‘ by my old friend Graham Harwood.

In his essay Harwood examines the contemporary open (government) data movement in it’s historical context: the emerging bureaucratic apparatus and the census data that enables its mechanisms of ordering and control. Through this lens Harwood provides us with a much needed critical perspective on the contemporary perception of ‘open data’ as a panacea for the effects of the crisis:

The government’s radical pension reforms of last year were based on the current life expectancy figures of 77.4years for men and 81.6years for women. This statistic sent thousands of analysts scurrying off during lunch hour. Flurries of emails later revealed that people in Kensington and Chelsea’s life expectancy for females is 85.8 years, almost nine and a half years more than Glasgow’s 76.4:therefore the question was,who was living longer and who would pay.

Due to historical and social formations too numerous to mention here, the gap between the wider public’s perception of data and the social experience it attempts to model, creates a form of indifference toward the expectations of this kind of narrative. A partial remedy for this

indifference might be found in making data more vital through taking a more critical view of transparency. This would require seeing it, not so much in technical terms – the protocols of the enlightened yet unequal participants of the governed and government – but more in terms of the data itself having some kind of agency.

Such a perspective can be imagined through a critical reading in which we are able to see what decisions the data has informed and evidenced and how that data has been collected, for what purpose and by whom. Taking this thread a little further it would also be illuminating to see in which positions the data places the subject of its records, and where too it places the user of the data.