SSC Seminar Series: Molly Sauter (Vanier Scholar & PhD candidate in Communication Studies, McGill University, QC)

Psychotic Ecologies of Images: The Smart City Through the Lens of Sontag

Wednesday, October 31 2018, 12:30 pm to 2:00 pm

Mackintosh Corry Hall D411 


This talk is a philosophical intervention in “big data” and camera-based methodologies as they are deployed in electoral and representative politics and smart city projects in the West. This paper stakes out a phenomenological, critical perspective regarding the claims made by companies like Cambridge Analytica and Sidewalk Labs, and the potential or reasonably foreseeable impacts of those claims and promises on democratic processes. Elish and boyd referred to these claims and promises as “the magic of big data” (Elish and boyd, 2017). This paper argues that the claims made by companies like Cambridge Analytica and Sidewalk Labs regarding the predictive modeling of individuals and populations in the context of Western electoral and representative politics and other governance models can be read as a reflection of how the subjects of these big data analytics projects are viewed by those conducting the research, and the entitlements held by advertisers, tech firms, and researchers who deploy big data analytics and camera-based data collection in support of political campaigns or other political or civic projects. This paper puts the claims of Cambridge Analytica and Sidewalk Labs into dialogue with the critical work of Susan Sontag and phenomenological arguments regarding the necessity of the encounter with the other, particularly claims like Kelly Oliver’s which advocate encounters that surpass or are “beyond recognition” (Oliver, 2001), meaning those encounter which jolt the participants out of habitual mental and social conversion of difference into assimilated familiarity. This talk argues that the use of “big data” in politics strips its targets of subjectivity, turning individuals into ready-to-read “data objects,” and making it easier for those in positions of power to justify aggressive manipulation and invasive inference.

About the speaker:

Molly Sauter is a Vanier Scholar and PhD candidate in Communication Studies at McGill University in Montreal, QC, researching the politics of disruption in networked communication technology. They are the author of The Coming Swarm: DDoS Actions, Hacktivism, and Civil Disobedience on the Internet. They hold a masters degree in Comparative Media Studies from MIT, and have held research fellowships at the Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, and New America.

Everyone welcome!