Wednesday, April 11, 2018


One of the things I admire about Virginia Woolf's writing is her precision in describing uncertainty. The most obvious example is her first published piece, The Mark on the Wall, but I suspect it was an ungoing preoccupation or predisposition in her writing life. It's something you can't do so well in academic work where claims, warrants and certainties are only slightly softened by talking about caveats, limitations or alternative perspectives. No matter how uncertain I feel, the writing I do often sounds certain as I read it again. So here is an arena of uncertainty....when I hear about 'data as the new oil', I get that not sure sort of feeling. Of course the analogy - data as oil - has well-rehearsed shortcomings, but I think it may be in danger of missing the point (although note the same theme of exploiting natural resources is found in 'data-mining' and 'harvesting'). The Cambridge Analytica story seems to me to be more about exploiting and monetising private information than about data itself - that comes later. And this monetising is made possible by the ways in which we leave trails of personal information. The way we overtly make our private lives public on social media couples up with the surreptitious tracking of our online activity and that's how we come to produce data - which some argue is the digital labour that fuels a new sort of capitalism. All this may be the case, but where does that leave the poor knowledge worker who is now continually required to update his or her academic profile, to maintain a healthy score on Research Gate, accumulate impressive ratings on Google Scholar and use Twitter to generate impact? I suspect that sort of performativity may be beginning to eclipse the actual contribution made, although I hope not. But that's not the source of my uncertainty. No, it's more about who benefits from such activity as institutions, colleagues and publishers all encourage us to market ourselves. Does our labour just become someone else's data, and someone else's profit? Or is it genuinely a good idea, a more open gesture to draw things to people's attention? Well if that's the case, then I'm encouraging you to look at our piece on reading for pleasure in the digital age, and the paper that's had a longer gestation period - literacy as event. Which leads me on to a whole string of other uncertainties, but you'd have to be Virginia Woolf to get into all those.