In The Data Gaze: Capitalism, Power and Perception, David Beer explores how we are being put under the extractive, analytic and predictive lens of a data gaze that seeks to define our world in increasingly granular detail. Critically probing into the data analytics industry and the imaginary that gives it legitimacy, Beer offers a thoroughly readable take on the structures that are constructing and ordering today’s world, recommends Ignas Kalpokas.
The Data Gaze: Capitalism, Power and Perception. David Beer. SAGE. 2018.
It can by now be taken as a given that ‘data’ or, more precisely, ‘big data’ (often even capitalised to reflect its importance), has come to define today’s society. In fact, as David Beer suggests in this book, we are permanently put under ‘the data gaze’ that extracts, analyses and predicts key variables that are taken to define our world in increasingly granular detail, down to the level of the individual. In this timely and important book, Beer aims to shed light not only on how datafied visibility takes place, but also on how it is seen to act because this imaginary is key to the self-legitimation of the data analytics industry.
Beer essentially proceeds through three major steps. The first recounts the now largely familiar story about data as holder of unprecedented power, promise and agency. Indeed, the preachers of data promise that data on its own can make us ‘better people, healthier, more efficient, better at connecting, interacting and choosing’, along with the potential for ‘shaping who we vote for, our performance levels, our credit worthiness, our desirability as customers, and so on’ (4). It clearly seems that such visions are omnipresent, offering apparently miraculous ‘hacks’ to improve not only anything from individual lifestyles to the national economy or public administration but even the human body itself.
Regardless of whether we partake in the optimistic chorus exalting the virtues of the power of data or are critical or fearful of such potential, the importance accorded to data in this narrative is mind-blowing. Beer even uses the word ‘faith’ to describe the emergent belief that all the answers, solutions and perhaps even the ultimate meaning of life lie in data. Moreover, this faith also seems to be self-reinforcing: the more data is amassed, the more pressure there is to find new things to do and new problems to solve with it. And yet, this glorified vision is as misleading as it is bold: instead of revealing the nature of today’s world, the big data narrative merely serves to ‘distract us from the machinations of power that are at play’ (15). Hence, the key must be seen not in the data itself, but in the data analytics industry.
Image Credit: (Nick Hoffman CC BY 2.0)
As the book’s emphasis is shifted to the interpreters of data who are seen as the real holders of power, it is by no means surprising that the second step taken by Beer is to dissect the predominant vision of data analytics as well as the functions that this vision and the industry serve. This is done through an analysis of the claims made by 34 data analytics companies that embody the ‘powerful new assembly of human and non-human actors’ that bring data to life and enable it to have consequences by helping to integrate data into ‘social, governmental and organisational structures’ (15-16). Beer ultimately uncovers several key characteristics that define the data analytics imaginary as presented by these actors. These include enabling speedy real-time decision-making; accessibility (knowledge being made available even to those without the know-how); revelatory potential, i.e. the ability to produce accurate and often unexpected insights; panoramic scope that stipulates data analytics as all-seeing and omnipotent; prophetic potential, or providing knowledge of events that have not yet happened; and simply being smart (technologically elaborate, often with references to artificial intelligence and machine learning).
Moreover, even the time available for critical reflection on the merits of the preceding claims seems to have (been) shrunk as the data (and, more broadly, social) imaginary is imbued with the recurrent theme that ‘there is a need to act, a kind of urgency to move and a danger to passivity’ (36), and that the only alternative to immediate action is an unavoidable failure to harness the perpetually accelerating world. This imaginary is, according to Beer, not just deliberately constructed to lure customers into buying analytics services; instead, there is a lot of boundary-pushing going on as well. The latter refers to data frontiers, or the limits to what is acceptably collected and analysed. In this way, the function of the data imaginary is demonstrated to be one of reducing resistance to pushing such frontiers ever further, thereby opening up new fields for the analytics industry to occupy.
The third and final step is, then, to conceptualise the nature of the data gaze to which we are all subjected. Here, Beer draws on Michel Foucault’s The Birth of the Clinic. The clinic is seen as ‘the domain of the careful gaze’ (Foucault 2003, xiv) based on evidence and professional observation, one from which amateurishness and randomness had been banished. This emphasis draws attention to several key aspects. One is the infrastructural dimension: as ‘the clinic is the space in which the gaze is able to see’, it becomes evident that significant attention must be paid to ‘the architectural means of observation to afford the visibility required’ (56). Such means involve, perhaps most notably, platforms for the collection and analysis of data, thereby connecting Beer’s argument to the broader debate on ‘platform capitalism’.
The second relevant aspect is the aforementioned professional and dissecting nature of the gaze. Beer demonstrates how this gaze entails the cleaning and sanitation of raw data by tackling its messiness and apparent randomness head-on, piercing through the chaos and producing relevant insights. And, since this is the professional’s gaze, it does not need a pre-existing fixed objective but can be allowed free rein over piles of data in order to diagnose a condition. Precisely such alleged diagnostic qualities of the data gaze are seen as key to its legitimation as both an analytical and ordering tool, allowing actors in the data collection and analysis domain to push the frontiers of acceptability ever further.
The book ends with a look at the imaginaries surrounding the human wielders of the data gaze – the data analysts and data engineers that are, on a representational level at least, collectively tasked with seeing through the clutter, solving problems some of which nobody previously even knew existed and diagnosing the overall societal condition, thereby ‘turning the data imaginary into something tangible’ (122). As such, it is these individuals who are truly endowed with agency, sorting and interpreting the cornucopia of data that is thrown at them, even though automation is creeping into their domain as well. Moreover, as the data gaze is not only surveillant but also self-surveillant, even these active agents cannot escape its scrutiny in the incessant ‘pursuit of the perfect insight and the ever more granular datafied society’, as the data gaze ‘seeks to make everything analysable and surveys its own ability to leave nothing outside its view’ (127). In other words, as Beer demonstrates, there is no outside to the clinically diagnostic data gaze.
Throughout the book, Beer casts his own diagnostic and dissecting gaze over the structures that not only inform but also contribute to ordering today’s world. As there is so much ado about the collection, protection (or lack thereof) and analysis of data in both popular and academic discourse, a book that delves into the heart of the matter and does so without undue dramatisation is particularly welcome – and The Data Gaze ticks all the boxes. Moreover, whereas other discussions of data analytics as well as Foucauldian analyses are frequently inaccessible to those without prior knowledge, Beer has succeeded in composing a thoroughly readable book. In short – highly recommended.
Note: The above was originally published on LSE Review of Books.
Ignas Kalpokas is currently assistant professor at LCC International University and lecturer at Vytautas Magnus University (Lithuania). He received his PhD from the University of Nottingham. Ignas’s research and teaching covers the areas of international relations and international political theory, primarily with respect to sovereignty and globalisation of norms, identity and formation of political communities, the political use of social media, the political impact of digital innovations and information warfare. He is the author of Creativity and Limitation in Political Communities: Spinoza, Schmitt and Ordering (Routledge, 2018). Read more by Ignas Kalpokas.