Invisible enemies in a datafied society

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The nuances of digital data transformation

The historical significance of this pandemic rests not just in the severity of the accompanying disease or the high rate of infection (fueled by superspreaders) but in the data being generated about and around the virus. This is the significance of the quantified or datafied society: seemingly everything is measured and monitored.

One of the implications of doing so is that some things that were previously invisible become notable. Objects, patterns, and dynamics that we could previously ignore are now screaming for attention. This pandemic is not just about a virus and its impact upon society, but also the growing role of data, and the assumptions or biases that come with it.

COVID-19 is the first global pandemic to emerge on such a wide scale and to such grave effect in an advanced phase of so-called “datafied society”. We find ourselves at a turning point in our understanding of what it means to live in an era dominated by digital data transformation in nearly every field of human activity. A situation as extreme as the one we are experiencing in these weeks of variably strict lockdown, inevitably exposes the nuances of this phenomenon, from its most beneficial to its most potentially disturbing aspects.

Marshall McLuhan wrote about this as part of his concept of a tetrad or “law of media”. That with each new media or technology it would have four effects: obsolescence, retrieval, reversal, and enhancement. In the context of a datafied society, these dynamics would be active, but the disruption of the pandemic has given us the necessary critical distance to fully see and understand them.

There are at least four areas in which the COVID-19 pandemic is functioning as an accelerator of potentially dangerous dynamics which until now have been barely visible. This article focuses in on the case of Italy, which has been particularly affected by these dynamics, partially thanks to poor digital literacy among its citizens. Similar dynamics, however, are at play in most countries heavily affected by the pandemic, including low-income states, we argue.

Beyond any form of technological or epidemiological cause and effect, four distinct tendencies have emerged. They are “unquestioning positivism”, “information disorder”, “digital vigilantism” and the “normalisation of surveillance”. These four enemies are rendered artificially invisible by the human drama of the pandemic, but they cause almost as much collective harm as the virus itself.

That we are discussing them suggests that they’re not invisible per se, but rather not receiving the attention and focus that they merit. Let’s go briefly go through each one.

The unquestioning positivism is the obsession with numbers. The extent to which we abdicate human common sense and instead numb ourselves out with statistics.

Nevertheless, numbers and data are at the core of the virus narrative. However, it is a narrative that is not very accurate, often decontextualized, and all the more angst-inducing for it. The result is an unquestioning positivism that tends to ignore context and does not explain why or how it should be dealt with. Decisions which involve entire countries are taken and justified on the basis of figures based on data that is not necessarily accurate.

Do we take for granted that we’re months into this pandemic and we still don’t have accurate testing or overall infection numbers? We’ve certainly made progress, as most people now have access to testing, but that doesn’t mean that all infected people are being tested.

Perhaps this is the irony of the perceived datafied society. That just because we are awash in data we falsely assume that everything is in the record, when the data remains a sample of the larger whole. We think that everything is measured and accurate but it remains a guess, albeit a more accurate guess.

No surprise that the second dynamic or “enemy” is the information disorder or infodemic that is just as widespread and infectious as the virus itself. Nature abhors a vacuum and therefore the spaces left empty by incomplete data or a lack of transparency are filled by speculation, rumour, and spin.

The renaissance of conspiracy theory becomes ammunition in larger culture wars that fuel and justify digital vigilantism. It’s not just about the Karens or Covidiots, but the breakdown in trust and the failure of institutional controls.

This phenomenon is typical of historical moments in which the constituted order is at risk or perceived as such, so the appearance and diffusion of vigilantism in the Coronavirus emergency seems inevitable. The digital vigilantism of Covid-19 is however, particularly dangerous. First and foremost, this need to hate whoever leave the house is exclusionary and contributes to creating social stigma. It targets individuals on the basis of exclusively observable criteria which are insufficient to distinguish between those who are breaking the rules and those who have legitimate reason to do so (for example, those who are on their way to or from work). This creation of “public enemies” leads to psychological damage, from feelings of alienation to a desire for reprisals, which could last well beyond the duration of the Corona crisis. It can justify similarly transgressive behaviour, based on the logic that “if everybody else is doing it, I can do it too”. Secondly, digital vigilantism contributes to dividing the community, with serious and enduring consequences in terms of societal division between supposed good and bad guys, between the deserving and the undeserving. It undermines the message of a strongly united community, capable of confronting the emergency in a rational way, precisely in the moment it is most vital to accept that individual sacrifices are crucial for the collective effort.

Finally the fourth invisible enemy that this paper cites is the erosion of privacy and the normalization of surveillance. Once again it strikes me that this is not invisible at all, nor was it before the pandemic, but clearly our bias is that we’re hip to these issues and have been for some time.

It is helpful however to group these four dynamics together, as if they’re the four horsemen of the digitally induced apocalypse.

So what does this paper offer as an antidote? While acknowledging that the issues are broad and that the landscape is complex, they return to the tried and tested call for literacy:

Data literacy is central to this process. This kind of literacy needs to take into consideration the question of citizenship in the era of Big Data and Artificial Intelligence. It has to develop the citizens’ capacity to make informed choices regarding the limits of individual and collective online activities, including the complex considerations related to the protection of personal data. It has to help us to distinguish between sources of information and to disentangle the personalised content algorithms that invalidate our capacity to freely make use of the internet. The challenge is open but particularly urgent, considering that Italy is a straggler in terms of digital literacy at the lower end of the of the 34 OEDC countries (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) rankings. Recent ODEC research revealed that only 36 percent of Italians are able to “make a complex and diversified use of the internet”, which creates a fertile terrain for the four enemies that we have identified above.

While I don’t think they’re wrong, I don’t entirely agree either. Literacy is important, but it is not the answer, nor is it sufficient on it’s own. The educated love to believe that education is the answer to everything, but I’m not sure everyone sees it that way.

Literacy is not necessarily critical thinking. Similarly literacy is also not obedience. It’s not unreasonable to believe that increased literacy and “training” will only further normalize surveillance, encourage digital vigilantism, foster greater information disorder, and reinforce the worship of data and stats.

Ironically one of the primary concepts this paper argues for is nuance, and that is what is often lost in discussions of literacy. Either literacy is an enabler, in that it opens up access to knowledge, or literacy is just one aspect of a larger tool set that enables participation in a digital society.

However literacy on its own is not power, nor agency, nor rights. It does not prevent you from being censored on YouTube, or sanctioned on Facebook, or suppressed on Twitter.

Rather the larger issue is governance in a datafied society, which includes literacy, but also agency and participation. The ability to change the rules and to change the rulers.

In this context the enemies of a datafied society are not invisible, but they’re also not accountable. Making them so is an important first step.

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