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Friction and Promise in Data Labor

30 November 2023 @ 5:00 pm - 6:30 pm AEDT

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For the past years, we have faced a repeated experience when presenting our work on prisoners training AI. Scholars in the fields of critical data and algorithm studies start nodding, as if they already knew what we were going to say. What else is prison data labor than an effort to harness the prison-industrial complex in the service of the global data extraction machinery?

We do not disagree that data power is at play in prisons. Yet, rather than verifying the exploitative features of prison data labor, the developments in Finland allow posing more specific questions about data labor in relation to processes of datafication. In this talk, I’ll use our experiences to reflect on the way current research on algorithmic systems and AI gravitates toward utopian and dystopian ends, and how we have resisted the urge to follow this trend that treats the society as merely a landing site for technologies. I build on Anna Tsing’s (2015) notion of friction, coined for the purposes of probing how global connections sustain claims of universality by becoming locally reconfigured, to demonstrate that while influential platform companies raise justified concerns about the exploitative aspects of data labor, in the Finnish case we also need to take into consideration other kinds of aims and values. When data labor enters Finnish prisons, its dehumanizing qualities can become sidelined, as the goal is not only to produce data, but to work in an ethically sound manner in the margins of the digitalizing society. I will pay attention to human involvements, anticipations, and institutional imaginaries that are crucial in promoting data-related futures to demonstrate how collaborations and disconnects around data-based automation need to be analyzed critically, yet without ignoring the possibility that they grow more hopeful and optimistic ways forward.


Minna Ruckenstein is a Professor of Emerging Technologies in Society  at the Consumer Society Research Centre, University of Helsinki, Finland. She directs The Datafied Life Collaboratory that studies processes of digitalization/datafication by highlighting emotional, social, political and economic aspects of current and emerging data practices.


Sarah Pink (Chair) is a design and futures anthropologist and documentary filmmaker. She is Professor and founding Director of the Emerging Technologies Research Lab at Monash University, and a CI in the Monash University node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making & Society (ADM+S). She has published numerous academic books, peer-refereed journal articles and book chapters and directed several documentary films.

Haiqing Yu is Professor of Media and Communication and ARC Future Fellow at RMIT University. She is also a Chief Investigator at the ADM+S. Haiqing is a critical media studies scholar with expertise on Chinese digital media, technologies and cultures and their sociopolitical impacts in China, Australia and the Asia Pacific.

Mark Andrejevic is a Chief Investigator at the Monash University node of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision-Making & Society (ADM+S) and Professor of Media Studies in the School of Media, Film, and Journalism at Monash University. His research covers the social, political, and cultural impact of digital media, with a focus on surveillance and popular culture.

This event is held in partnership with the ARC Centre of Excellence for Automated Decision Making + Society (ADM+S), the MOnash Data Futures Institute and the Monash Emerging Technologies Research Lab.


30 November 2023
5:00 pm - 6:30 pm AEDT
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