Sunday, October 27, 2013

4S Annual Meeting - a "surveillance review"

It's been a couple weeks now since the 2013 edition of the 4S Annual Meeting took place in San Diego. Time for a quick guest author's review! The event has been the largest conference organized by the Society for Social Studies of Science so far, assembling over 1.200 attendees in the "Town and Country Resort and Convention Center", and providing the convenient possibility to relax by the pool under palm trees between the sessions.

4S Annual Meeting 2013
One of the main conference themes, as could be expected, evolved around the notion of Big Data and algorithms - so why not connect those discussions to the surveillance studies? Torin Monahan and Anders Albrechtslund put in some great effort and organized a double-panel on "Surveillance and the Mediation of Big Data", featuring a total of 10 presentations that covered a broad range from privacy and data protection, the construction of (future) knowledge, gamification and online dating, to the economic dimension of analytics. I chipped in with a piece on profiling (see the full program here).

Despite the diversity of the analyses, a common skeptical attitude towards the ever more opaque dimension of data collection and processing and its application in both governmental and economic contexts prevailed. Not really a surprise here, keeping in mind the early disciplinary warnings of the likes of David Lyon and Gary Marx, but an interesting distinction to other panels on algorithms nonetheless, which at times appeared more excited about possibilities emerging from ongoing transformations in knowledge discovery or subjectivity.

At the same time, however, it became quite clear during both sessions that there is a need for more detailed empirical insight into Big Data practices in order to understand the potential impacts of recent developments on surveillance. Torin, in his co-authored paper with Priscilla Regan on Data Fusion Centers in the US, has provided a hint at possible future directions for surveillance studies research in the realm of Big Data analytics. More is certainly to be expected, with more and more people digging into the construction of algorithms and reverse engineering.

Let's see what 2014 brings - Buenos Aires is on the agenda!

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