On Friday afternoon, a newly opened Polak building hosted a public lecture and discussion with Professor Evelyn Ruppert from the University of London and Professor Liesbet von Zoonen, Dean of the Graduate School of Social Sciences and the Humanities. This interactive format was a good match for the topic: Big data and the ways we can relate to it as citizens.

Political subjects

The event was kicked off by an introductory lecture from Professor Ruppert. She is a seasoned sociologist researcher and now also an editor of a new Big Data journal. Her aim is to conceptualise digital acts. How are we to understand and use Big Data? On the one hand, we are subjected to and obey its influence. We submit our personal details and contribute to its accumulation. On the other hand, this constitutes new rights for us as citizens. Although Big Data enables openness, sharing and exchange, we might not want to get exposed. However, the EU legislation concerning privacy issues is still far from perfect. That’s why Professor Ruppert calls us to think of how we can enter the arena ourselves with our own subjectivity: “Take space to make it.”

Data double

In her response speech, Professor van Zoonen, gave a new slant to the discussion. She poignantly remarked: “It may not be about taking or making, but simply having or not having the rights.” The academic is also involved in the Urban Big Data Rotterdam project. She is thus aware of all the miniscule details that constitute our data doubles – postcode, transactions and app information. Therefore she claimed that Big Data goes far beyond our control and we become subjects of the logic of data brokers and algorithms. “It is not what we are asked, but what it makes us do”, Professor van Zoonen drew attention to authentication when connecting to Wi-Fi networks. We consent to it without being aware that we implicitly contribute to the data collection.

Take it personally

No matter which specific questions were asked, the discussion that followed the talks inevitably hit Facebook – the bedrock of student’s virtual image. There was a lively exchange on all the virtues and vices of social networks, from social uprisings to employee profiling. As brilliantly put by Professor Ruppet, the bottom line is, “If you want the job in the future, think twice before posting the pictures from yesterday’s party.”