on data activism assumes, we suggest, various figurations of the ‘(digital) citizen’. Drawing on conceptualisations of political subjectivity in recent cultural and political theory, this section teases out three approaches to digital citizenship.
2.1 Individual Political Subjectivity: ‘I am a citizen, I am a political subject!’
Classic liberal conceptions
of political subjectivity in (late) modernity posit the citizen as a sovereign, rational, autonomous and self-determined individual (Mack & Gaus, 2004, p. 116; Rawls, 1996, p. 306). One or more nation states confer ‘citizenship’ on individuals, endowing them with civil, political and social rights. This ‘thin’ conception of citizenship, as Saward (2006, p. 403) puts it in his entry in The Oxford Handbook of Political Theory, circulates around one ‘key specific space’ (Saward, 2006, p. 403), the polling booth, which largely discounts activism as part of citizenship. Approaches including deliberative democratic theory have challenged this conception, extending it to forums of “talk, dialogue, reasoning together, becoming informed together, and making decisions” (Saward, 2006, p. 404). This view reads citizenship as not simply ‘given’ (at birth, or later through formal legal applications), but also ‘enacted’, and resonates in an understanding of ‘the virtue of active citizen participation in community affairs’ (Saward), and in the idea of democratic discourse through identifiable, ”public contestation” (Schaal & Heidenreich, 2006, p. 122). This enacting is key to understanding political subjectivity in democracies, as citizens exhibit political agency and seek to gain an enlightened understanding of political issues, and act as individuals to exercise control over their polity through political representation (Isin & Ruppert, 2015).
Current discussions of digital citizenship frequently adopt a similar approach to political subjectivity, with ‘digital citizens’ seen as sovereign, relatively autonomous individuals who achieve citizenship through their practices, including
“using technology to make [their] community better; [e]ngaging respectfully online with people who have different beliefs […] [u]sing technology to make [their] voice heard […] and to shape public policy”, and ”[d]etermining the validity of online sources of information” (ISTE, 2019). This digital citizen has the ‘skills’ to ”find, evaluate, and share information responsibly, engage in constructive conversation with others from diverse backgrounds, and […] ensure their online participation is safe, ethical, and legal” (Gleason & von Gillern, 2018, p. 200). In this context, “[d]igital citizenship can be described as the norms of appropriate, responsible behavior with regard to technology use” (Ribble & Bailey, 2007, p. 10). This perspective conceives of political subjects as rational individuals who enact their digital citizenship, and thus their political agency, by behaving responsibly, inclusively and ethically in digital spaces.
Similarly, some recent approaches to data activism emphasise the possibilities for individual political agency that emerge through data assemblages; they include the promotion of a critical consciousness, grassroots data literacy and a critical imagination for creating alternative ways of engaging with data that fall outwith their elite or capitalist exploitation (Gutiérrez & Milan, 2017). This work, often drawing on phenomenology, aims to engage with individuals’ perceptions, experiences and reflections of the datafied world (Couldry & Powell, 2014; Kennedy, 2018; Sander, 2020). While vitally important for identifying how datafication is not only enforced top-down on technology users, but is made and unmade in everyday data-based interactions, this research also suggests—sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly—an understanding of the political subject as a relatively autonomous, reflective, deliberative, intentional individual, operating within representative democracy. Although this approach reflects on communities, alliances and collaboration as part of data activism, its analytical interest lies in the sense-making, critical orientation and actions of the individual living with data.
2.2 Collective Political Subjectivity: ‘We are here, we are loud, we take up space as a political subject!’
Alongside this subject-centred emphasis
, an alternative understanding of data activism emerges in other approaches that explicitly conceptualise the political subject as a contingent, relational performativity that comes into being through the collective presence of voices and bodies in public spaces. In illuminating this conception, we draw on post-foundational writing that sees the subject as emerging from (constituted, but not limited by) situated, embodied, normative sociality.
Two key thinkers in this regard are Jacques Rancière (2001, 2013) and Judith Butler (1993, 2015). Their approaches offer us two central ideas for understanding data activism today. The first of these is the ‘distribution of the sensible’, which describes the “system of self-evident facts of sense perception” that enables something to be seen and heard, thought or said, made or transformed (Rancière, 2013, p. 7). The distribution of the sensible thus enables or forecloses perception, communication and action, consequently shaping the potential of (data) activism as framed in democracy: “Politics revolves around what is seen and what can be said about it, around who has the ability to see and the talent to speak, around the properties of spaces and the possibilities of time” (Rancière, 2013, p. 8). In this view, the political participation offered to the demos within representative democracy appears contained, domesticated, tamed; its primary function is to include and exclude, to ‘police’, in the sense of keeping people in their place (Rancière, 1999, p. 28f.). A core objective of data activism would thus be to ‘redistribute’ the sensible, i.e. to change what and who is visible or invisible, audible or inaudible, and hence who has a ‘part’ in politics (Rancière, 1999, p. 9).
A second central idea is the role of bodies in activism, and how data activism relates not only to voice but also to physical presence. Butler refers to “Bodies in Alliance”, doing street politics ‘between’ themselves (Butler, 2015, p. 77). In this understanding, activist practices primarily operate on the level of the “performativity of the body” (Butler, 2015, p. 83). Contesting suggestions that protest has migrated online, Butler
writes: “Although some may wager that the exercise of rights now takes place quite at the expense of bodies on the street, that twitter [sic] and other virtual technologies have led to a disembodiment of the public sphere, I disagree” (2011, n.p.).
Interestingly, there is a slight shift in Butler’s take on mediality between this 2011 lecture, ‘Bodies in Alliance and the Politics of the Street’, and the publication of the book which grew from the lecture. In the book, the sentence quoted above on ‘twitter and other virtual technologies’ ends with “I would disagree in part” (Butler, 2015, p. 94). The claim that bodies anchor political events remains, but this shift, as well as other passages, are indicative of the fundamental entanglement between bodies in physical presence and bodies in media. In this reading, then, the political event comes into being, not only between the bodies, but even more so between the bodies in alliance and their mediation (Butler, 2015, p. 92, 94).
Again, the implication for data activism is a focus on increasing the visibility and audibility of those bodies and voices usually excluded from the political (see, for example, Daly et al., 2019; Dencik et al., 2019; Milan & Treré, 2019). When, for instance, the ‘digital citizen’ enacts itself online by witnessing, hacking, and commoning, it uses the ‘performative force’ of legal, written speech acts, such as human rights declarations or national constitutions, to ‘become’ a citizen (Isin & Ruppert, 2015, p. 122f.). The ‘figure of a citizen as yet to come’ thus has a framework for the right to claim rights (Isin and Ruppert, p. 123f.). Or when, for example, lower-income families, traditionally excluded from being seen or heard as political actors, use data to raise their voices about inequality, or to show the extent to which schools discipline African American students more harshly than white students, then data undergirds the performative action of raising allied voices and making bodies present in public spaces (Macgilchrist, 2019, p. 83).
2.3 Obfuscational Political Subjectivity: ‘I am invisible and anonymous, but I still have political agency!’
One way of radically rethinking subjectivity in the context of the digital is by questioning the apparently self-evident link between political subjectivity and the process of being seen or heard. One line of argument, for instance, defines the emergence of a political subject today through enacting a “right to opacity” (Birchall, 2016) and learning to “obfuscate” one’s data traces (Brunton & Nissenbaum, 2015). Anonymity, in this sense, is not a negative practice of hiding or protecting oneself from censure; it is a positive political practice of acting anonymously with the express purpose of creating new forms of political subjectivity. This type of political subject destabilises traditional conceptions of political participation and democracy, in which the subject performs its visibility, raises its voice, and engages in open, transparent public debate (de Lagasnerie, 2017, p. 57f.).
Some anonymous online practices, such as distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, translate the physical sit-in protest into the online sphere. WikiLeaks and Anonymous are examples of how this political subject, acting anonymously, interrupts the dominant political order, which rests on the assumption that democracy is transparent, fair and participatory, yet which reveals itself as deeply implicated in reproducing socio-economic inequalities between those who participate in decision-making and those who do not. Anonymity, in this sense, is a proactive political practice of creating invisibility and, in so doing, of making the invisible visible. Invisibility is not ‘hiding’, it is acting purposefully. De Lagasnerie (2017) observes of WikiLeaks and Anonymous:
By disconnecting the question of politics from the question of the public sphere, anonymity gives rise to a scene on which what one might call nonrelational politics occurs: politics that is affirmative and radically emancipated from all ethical considerations—in other words, perhaps, pure politics. (de Lagasnerie, 2017, p. 75)
De Lagasnerie’s argument is directed against observers who claim that anonymity is a cloak for criminality, rather than a legitimate form of political participation. In his view, anonymity democratises politics by enabling contributions to the flow of knowledge which fall outwith the prohibitions and censorship that limit the enacting of democracy in democratic states today (de Lagasnerie, 2017, p. 65). It enables subjects to speak from the inside and the outside at the same time (as do whistleblowers) and reduces the personal cost of political participation, such as prosecution and job loss. In this way, WikiLeaks, for instance, enables a ‘split subjectification’ by providing the sociotechnical tools to simultaneously act within and against an institution (de Lagasnerie, 2017, p. 103; emphasis in original). Anonymity is, in this sense, a technique for casting off straightforward subjectivation (désasujettissement or ‘desubjugation’ in de Lagasnerie, 2017, p. 72), for disidentifying and disentangling oneself from the institution in which one works, for ‘escaping citizenship’ (de Lagasnerie, 2017, p. 99) as illustrated by ‘Citizen Four’, Edward Snowden.
Active creation of anonymity and invisibility takes place at the grassroots level through, for instance, various encryption mechanisms. These processes have been described as ‘reactive data activism’, i.e. an activism that reacts to the threats posed by data surveillance and mass capture of data (Milan & van der Velden, 2016). Even if de Lagasnerie does not refer to data activist practices, these may also count for him as “practices that are freer and more selective—more and more emancipated from the psychic hold of external and arbitrary constraints” (2017, p. 72). This notion of a freer practice, however, brings de Lagasnerie back to an understanding of political (‘nonrelational’) subjectivity which is strongly intentional and relatively autonomous. His account of anonymity and obfuscation in politics, while aiming to describe a novel political subjectivity, therefore returns us to a notion of individualised political subjects. This said, it does raise the question of the workings of digital data in other, perhaps more collective and contingent, forms of political subjectivity.