Towards critical big data studies in and on China

We have just organized a workshop on Big data in China with a number of interesting presentations.  Scholars at the event discussed official policies, regulations, and specific projects (for example the social credit system and efforts to create smart cities) as well as public perceptions of big data, and its different connotations in China where big data is more dressed as a technological advancement and concerns about surveillance and invasion of privacy are not as openly articulated as in the West. I have briefly discussed some of these issues and concerns in earlier blog posts in 2014, 2015, and 2016.

At the event we raised the idea of developing a critical research agenda on big data, surveillance and privacy in the context of China. We are inspired by scholars such as danah boyd and Katie Crawford, see for example their article “Critical questions for Big Data: provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon,” Information, Communication & Society, 2012, 15 (5),  662-79., and Deborah Lupton, who has a chapter on critical sociology and big data in her book Digital Sociology (London: Routledge, 2015), and who also explore this topic further in a blog post with additional readings suggestions on critical data studies. The Social Media Collective provides another useful reading list on what they call Critical Algorithm Studies.

How is big data applied in China, by whom (governments and companies), and with what consequences for different individuals? There are obvious ethical and political implications of big data and they differ between different societies. It is obvious, as pointed out by Deborah Lupton, that big data is a ‘sociocultural artefact’, and that the production and use of big data reflect and involve specific political, social and cultural processes.

There are much basic work to be done in order for us to get a picture of the situation in China, and in order to start our analysis, including:

  • Mapping relevant research in China (including institutions, scholars and disciplines involved, publications in the field, as well as translations of Western works);
  • Mapping the official discourse on the topic and changes over time;
  • Mapping the myths and metaphors that are used and surround big data in China (and possible differences from the West);
  • Mapping government and company collaboration (and administrative vs commercial interest in big data);
  • Mapping media reports on the topic;
  • Mapping public perceptions on big data and related concepts;
  • Mapping the intersection of big data studies, surveillance studies, and privacy studies and their different (?) configurations and focus compared with other countries;
  • Mapping critical voices (if any);
  • Mapping whether and how big data discourse, research, debates, reports etc address concerns about surveillance and privacy.


October 9, 2016

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