Why Data Science Needs Feminism

The entanglement of data and power makes feminism a necessity for this growing field.

Photo by Adobe Stock/Artem.

The act of collecting and recording data about people is not new at all. From the registers of the dead that were published by church officials in the early modern era to the counts of Indigenous populations that appeared in colonial accounts of the Americas, data collection has long been employed as a technique of consolidating knowledge about the people whose data are collected, and therefore consolidating power over their lives.  The close relationship between data and power is perhaps most clearly visible in the historical arc that begins with the logs of people captured and placed aboard slave ships, reducing richly lived lives to numbers and names. It passes through the eugenics movement, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which sought to employ data to quantify the superiority of white people over all others. It continues today in the proliferation of biometrics technologies that, as sociologist Simone Browne has shown, are disproportionately deployed to surveil Black bodies.

When Edward Snowden, the former US National Security Agency contractor, leaked his cache of classified documents to the press in 2013, he revealed the degree to which the federal government routinely collects data on its citizens—often with minimal regard to legality or ethics. At the municipal level, too, governments are starting to collect data on everything from traffic movement to facial expressions in the interests of making cities “smarter.” This often translates to reinscribing traditional urban patterns of power such as segregation, the overpolicing of communities of color, and the rationing of ever-scarcer city services.

But the government is not alone in these data-collection efforts; corporations do it too—with profit as their guide. The words and phrases we search for on Google, the times of day we are most active on Facebook, and the number of items we add to our Amazon carts are all tracked and stored as data—data that are then converted into corporate financial gain. The most trivial of everyday actions—searching for a way around traffic, liking a friend’s cat video, or even stepping out of our front doors in the morning—are now hot commodities. This is not because any of these actions are exceptionally interesting (although we do make an exception for Catherine’s cats) but because these tiny actions can be combined with other tiny actions to generate targeted advertisements and personalized recommendations—in other words, to give us more things to click on, like, or buy.

This is the data economy, and corporations, often aided by academic researchers, are currently scrambling to see what behaviors—both online and off—remain to be turned into data and then monetized. Nothing is outside of datafication, as this process is sometimes termed—not your search history, or Catherine’s cats, or the butt that Lauren is currently using to sit in her seat. To wit: Shigeomi Koshimizu, a Tokyo-based professor of engineering, has been designing matrices of sensors that collect data at 360different positions around a rear end while it is comfortably ensconced in a chair. He proposes that people have unique butt signatures, as unique as their fingerprints. In the future, he suggests, our cars could be outfitted with butt-scanners instead of keys or car alarms to identify the driver.data-feminism-cover

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