Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Data Motility: The Materiality of Big Social Data

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Data Motility: The Materiality of Big Social Data

Article excerpt

One invaluable source for reading the code of the 'digital human' is mainstream business media. Ever since enterprise computing spread to desktops in the 1980s, the Californian ideology has imbued neoliberalism with dreams of ever-more profitable information technology, filling pages from the Wall Street Journal to Wired.1 Now, with the rise of mobility, the explosion of data and the proliferation of platforms and apps, such appraisals continue to be breathlessly dispensed. Sometimes, however, there is a critical revelation in the assessments of profitability. Consider this trenchant maxim for understanding social media and big data recently offered by Tim Worstall, a fellow from the Adam Smith Institute: 'It's an old adage that if something is free it must be you that is the thing being sold.'2

I find this statement richly resonant. First, intentionally or otherwise, Worstall encapsulates a radical critique of the conflation of media production and consumption that stretches from Dallas Smythe's 'audience commodity' to Maurizio Lazzarato's 'immaterial labour'.3 Second, and more to the point here, it stands as an affirmation of Foucault's 1975 methodological imperative to look beyond the 'great texts' to the archives of everyday life when looking for the effective discourse of power, as the bourgeoisie said 'precisely what it was doing, what it was going to do, and why ... It stated perfectly what it wanted'.4 I cite Foucault here not merely to bolster a blog post from Forbes.com; rather, it signals the theoretical paradigm fundamental to my analysis. The aforementioned quote marks the first time Foucault described his largely overlooked but vital concept: the dispositif. He developed it to move beyond the myriad limitations of a discursive analysis of power toward a more heterogeneous ensemble which includes the non-discursive. Taking the example of Foucault's disciplinary dispositif, it includes i) the discursive regulations of juridical processes, and ii) the non-discursive materiality of institutions like prisons and the panopticon. One might be tempted to say this marks an incipient 'new materialism' that has largely gone unappreciated in the later Foucauldian analysis of power.

In this article I will present such a new materialist interpretation and will use the dispositif as its conceptual frame. I present the dispositif as positioned on the following theoretical continuum. We can start with Deleuze, who considered the dispositif a conceptual friend and saw it inextricably intertwined with his notion of the assemblage.5 In turn, the assemblage-agencement in French-is the cohering concept in actor-network theory (ANT), which expanded notions of agency to include nonhuman elements, 'prostheses, tools, equipment, technical devices, algorithms, etc'.6 Understanding agency as distributed across human-nonhuman assemblages is a hallmark of new materialism. Such assemblages, as deftly outlined by Dolphijin and van der Tuin, are critical to the development of materialist feminist theory (by, for example, Grosz, Braidotti and Barad, among others) which proffer a nonrepresentational theory of power.7 The key here is the affordance of a dynamic role of desire, which, for materialist feminist theory, could account for a non- essentialist understanding of sexual differing, as opposed to sexual difference. Dolphijin and van der Tuin cite this specific instance to highlight a more general importance for new materialism, underlining it with a key passage from Deleuze: 'it is not the dispositifs of power that assemble [agenceraient], nor would they be constitutive; it is rather the agencements of desire [desiring-assemblages] that would spread throughout the formations of power following one of their dimensions'.8 Such a conceptual orientation makes visible the diffusion of agency and desire/intentionality across a dispositif. If applied to the mediated environment of the digital human, the dispositif brings into focus the dynamic tension between communicative creativity and its capture, marking out the interplay between sociality and capital therein. …

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