In recent decades our world has become increasingly data-saturated. Even in the Earth’s remotest corners, data are regularly collected and mobilized to shape lives and landscapes. This state of affairs is partly the result of far-reaching telecommunications networks, affordable sensors, powerful computers, and sophisticated algorithms, but technology is not the whole story. In times of economic and environmental precarity, data promise efficiency, competitiveness, and perhaps even a glimpse of the future. They have become an important commodity for a variety of industries and a critical resource for governments at a variety of scales—whether those governments are seeking to promote economic growth, protect public health, wage war, suppress political dissent, or achieve any of a number of other goals. Scientists, too, have embraced data-intensive modes of research such as machine learning and citizen science, which promise to make the most of limited resources in uncertain times.
Popular and scholarly discussions of data often center on representation, in both the epistemic and political senses of the term—that is, on whether data accurately represent the world, and on who is authorized to speak about them. But our data-saturated moment also raises other questions: about work and community, justice and sovereignty, fears and hopes. Who is exploited in projects of data collection and management, and who reaps the rewards? Under what conditions is data collection empowering, and under what conditions is it a tool of oppression? When do data make people anxious and isolated, and when do data inspire and connect them? Researchers in Department II seek to answer these questions as part of the larger project of understanding the co-constitution of knowledge systems and collective life.
The subject of data also provides an opportunity to examine the material foundations of science and politics. We often think of data as abstractions—numbers floating in the ether, bits flickering in cyberspace—but they are never really immaterial. Data are collected in particular places, with particular instruments, on particular media, through particular infrastructures, by particular people—and the same is true of their transmission, storage, and analysis. All of these particularities shape the role that data play in making communities, organizing labor, structuring politics, and producing knowledge. Researchers in the department therefore seek to understand data in terms of practices that are embodied, material, and situated in specific times and places.