Sub-theme 11: [SWG] Organizing in the Age of Digitalization and Datafication: Surveillance, Transparency and Power
Call for Papers
The ubiquity of digital computing and the corresponding datafication of everyday life increasingly shape contemporary organization.
Digitalization and datafication do not simply code a reality ‘out there’. They rather transform, indeed engineer, everyday
life along paths that deliver data useful for organizations (Alaimo & Kallinikos, 2017). How do processes of digitalization
and datafication condition organizational transformations and create new political and societal contexts? As daily whereabouts
become digitized and digital technologies, data and algorithms make their way into core processes in organizational settings,
we need to address a variety of questions about the workings and power effects of technologies, including how they allow us
to control and circulate information and affects, condition cognition, produce knowledge and manage organizational affairs.
This sub-theme sets out to explore how such different forms of knowledge and new processes of calculation and circulation
emerge and intersect as a result of digitalization and datafication, and how these forms and processes shape organization.
Contemporary capitalism is diagnosed to rely upon data as a specific kind of raw material to be gathered, extracted and commercialized (Srnicek, 2017). Data however is never raw but always ‘cooked with care’ (Gitelman, 2013). What Thrift (2011) has called the ‘security-entertainment complex’ denotes shared practices of information targeting, intelligence gathering and paranoiac vigilance as well as shared research practices and software codes, all of its based on the ubiquity and availability of data. This means that organizational processes are transformed from within and shaped by large-scale forces such as the emergence of ‘surveillance capitalism’ (Zuboff, 2015) and ‘data capitalism’ (Myers West, 2017). Also, ‘algorithmic governance’ – as a form of governance that heavily relies on algorithms to order, assess and direct human and machine action – emerges both in knowledge management, for example at Wikipedia (Jemielniak, 2014), and in the way labour is algorithmically managed, for example on platforms such as Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (Irani, 2015) or Uber (Rosemblat & Stark, 2016). In broader terms, we thus see the possible emergence of an ‘internet-industrial complex’ (Flyverbom et al., 2017).
These developments repose the organizational questions of surveillance, transparency and power (Beyes et al., 2019; Flyverbom et al., 2016). Many discussions about digital transformations revolve around hopes for more accountable and transparent processes or fears about dehumanized and controlling surveillance practices. Digitalization and datafication are predicated on novel ways of producing, exposing, hiding and circulating information, and gives rise to both visible and invisible forms of action, work and societal developments. According to media theorist Wendy Chun, the conflation of computing power with transparency is contradicted by what computation does, namely generating rather than representing data and information, texts, and images. “The computer – the most nonvisual and nontransparent device – has paradoxically fostered ‘visual culture’ and ‘transparency’” (Chun, 2004, p. 27).
The “trick” of the digital era, we might say, is to claim that it offers transparency, an infrastructure of open exchange and deliberation, while all the while feeding off and producing secrecy (Beyes & Pias, 2018). For instance, while remaining intransparent themselves, both the behemoths of platform capitalism and state bureaucracies collect and evaluate the traces left behind by digital users. These data-crumbles feed the creation of new kind of data services and infiltrate organizational practices that have been so far the domain of expert knowledge and the target of ethical procedures. Higher education, insurance and policing for instance, increasingly rely on algorithms, or ‘weapons of math destruction’ as Cathy O’Neil calls them, to make important decisions (O’Neil 2016).
Activists, in turn, have been experimenting with media-technically enabled tactics of intransparency and secrecy in order to make it possible for user-based representations of identity to escape into anonymity or into subject positions that are fluctuating and temporary (Galloway, 2011; Brunton & Nissenbaum, 2015). The figure of the whistleblower here becomes central to questions of surveillance, freedom and media both in more general terms, e.g. when it comes to movements such as Anonymous (Coleman, 2014), and specifically in organizational settings (Bachmann et al., 2017).
Transparency is thus heightened and restricted at one and the same time; new forms of secrecy and surveillance emerge and the management of visibilities becomes a key organizational concern. Organizations can be exposed to secret cabals like hackers or spy networks, and yet shrouded from open systems such as representative democracy, and the private is turned into public when information leaks or individuals are tracked and profiled.
The rise of the digital being woven invisibly into the organizational shapes how we work, think, and act. We seek empirical and conceptual papers exploring the knots of surveillance, transparency and power that characterize organizing in the age of digitalization and datafication. This sub-theme’s matters of concern include, but are not limited to:
The datafication of everyday life and rise of new data services
Organizational forms and effects of transparency in the digital age
Algorithmic governance and accountability in organizations
Datafied forms and processes of secrecy in organizations
The management of what is visible and invisible
The organizing and the organizational effects of surveillance
Predictive organizing and affective modulation through digital media
Whistleblowing, anonymity, obfuscation and other forms of activist organizing
- Alaimo, C., & Kallinikos, J. (2017): “Computing the everyday: Social media as data platforms.” The Information Society, 33 (4), 175–191.
- Bachmann, G., Knecht ,M., & Wittel, A. (2017): “The Social Productivity of Anonymity.” ephemera: theory & politics in organization, 17 (2), 241–258.
- Beyes, T., Conrad, L., & Martin, R. (2019): Organization. In Search of Media Series. Minneapolis: Minnesota University Press, forthcoming.
- Beyes, T., & Pias, C. (2018): “Secrecy, Transparency and Non-Knowledge.” In: A. Bernard, M. Koch & M. Leeker (eds.): Non-Knowledge and Digital Cultures. Lüneburg: meson press, 39–52.
- Brunton, F., & Nissenbaum, H. (2015): Obfuscation. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Chun, W.H.K. (2004): “On Software, or the Persistence of Visual Knowledge.” Grey Room, 18, 26–51.
- Coleman, G. (2015): Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy. The Many Faces of Anonymous. London: Verso.
- Flyverbom, M., Leonardi, P., Stohl, M., & Stohl, C. (2016): “The Management of Visibilities in the Digital Age. Introduction to special section.” International Journal of Communication, 10, 98–109.
- Flyverbom, M., Deibert, R., & Matten, D. (2017): “The Governance of Digital Technology, Big Data,
and the Internet: New Roles and Responsibilities for Business.” Business & Society, first published online on
August 26, 2017:
- Galloway, A. (2011): “Black Box, Black Bloc.” In: B. Noys (ed.): Communization and its Discontents. Contestation, Critique, and Contemporary Struggles. Brooklyn: Minor Compositions/Autonomedia, 237–249.
- Gitelman, L. (ed.) (2013): Raw Data Is an Oxymoron. Cambridge: MIT Press.
- Irani, L. (2015): “Difference and Dependence among Digital Workers: The Case of Amazon Mechanical Turk.” South Atlantic Quarterly, 114 (1), 225–234.
- Jemielniak, D. (2014): Common Knowledge? An Ethnography of Wikipedia. Stanford: Stanford University Press.
- Myers West, S. (2017): “Data Capitalism: Redefining the Logics of Surveillance and Privacy.” Business & Society, first published online on July 5, 2017, https://doi.org/10.1177/0007650317718185
- O’Neil, C. (2016): Weapons of Math Destruction. How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy. London: Penguin Books.
- Rosenblat, A., & Stark, L. (2016): “Algorithmic Labor and Information Asymmetries: A Case Study of Uber’s Drivers.” International Journal of Communication, 10, 3758–3784.
- Srnicek, N. (2017): Platform Capitalism. Cambridge, UK: Polity.
- Thrift, N. (2011): “Lifeworld Inc – And What to Do about.” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 29 (1), 5–26.
- Zuboff, S. (2015): “Big other: surveillance capitalism and the prospects of an information civilization.” Journal of Information Technology, 30, 75–89.