A Necessary Disenchantment

Myth, Agency and Injustice in the Digital Age

Click here to view the lecture

On 21st November 2013, Professor Nick Couldry, Professor of Media, Communications and Social Theory at LSE, gave his inaugural public lecture after rejoining the Department of Media and Communications at LSE. This formed part of the activities celebrating the 10th anniversary of that department. Mike Savage, head of the Department of Sociology at LSE, acted as chair.

In his lecture, Professor Couldry analysed three key evolving ideas –or myths, as he called them- about how individuals collect information and share knowledge, as well as the uses that can be given to the information produced by people and their interactions, all of which have grown to underpin the understanding of knowledge and society. These ideas are the myth of the mediated centre, the myth of us, and the myth of big data.

Calling these different processes “myths” enables us to see an underlying pattern in how, as societies, we make sense of organizing things around assumptions that certain types of information, expertise and knowledge are more valuable than others, and offer us a privileged view on the reality of social life’, he explained. ‘I say ‘we’ because these myths are not merely an elite production: we are all, potentially, involved in producing these myths through our everyday actions’.

According to Professor Couldry, each of these myths has a distinct domain, effect and set of beneficiaries:

  • The myth of the mediated centre refers to the apparent need to turn to centralised media institutions for the information on what is happening in our society. Its domain is the organisation of both everyday life and our resources around large media institutions. Its effect is to make sense of inclusive media-based social collectivities; and some of its beneficiaries are the media institutions themselves as well as governments or advertisers trying to reach whole populations. This myth still exists today, and makes sense of the organisation of our lives around the content flows of media organisations. In addition, it tells us that society has a centre of value, knowledge and meaning, and that the media has a privileged role in giving us access to that supposed centre.
  • The myth of us points out the fact that social networking platforms allegedly enable a society to come together spontaneously and naturally. Its domain is our activities and social interactions as registered by social media platforms; its effect is the belief that these platforms are the location where nowadays we all come together; and the beneficiaries are the platform owners, but also the governments and marketers that still want to be in touch with individuals through this medium. Some of the most important moments of people getting together seem to happen in platforms whose economic value is grounded on promoting an idea of naturalcollectivity. However, these collectivities do not happen to exist until these platforms start attracting individuals to use them.
  • Finally, the myth of big data sustains that all the output that we as individuals create, offers a new route to understanding society, and that everything must therefore be ‘datafied’, that is to say, it must be harnessed to the production of ‘data’. Its domain is everything, all the data that we generate when we live and interact; its effect is to reinforce the belief that such data provides a new route for social knowledge; and the beneficiaries are the data mining and data analysis industries, as well as businesses and states, which are rethinking their models on the assumption that they can potentially gather data about everything.

‘Each such myth, by rationalizing a certain perspective on how we come to know the social, obscures our possibilities for imagining, describing and enacting the social otherwise’, he argued. ‘And each myth, to be unpacked, requires its own distinctive type of interpretation or hermeneutic, which is where the special power of the myth of big data emerges, because it challenges the very idea that the social is something we can interpret at all’.

As Professor Couldry observed, the politics of measurement promoted by advocates of big data are changing the way in which all types of institutions claim how things are. However, these claims are grounded on ambiguity. On one hand, advocates hold that big data will enrich human comprehension, given that, if everything is turned into data, analysts will be able to find the hidden order of social dynamics at all level. On the other, when the moral consequences of actually acting on the basis of big data appear problematic, these advocates sustain that big data only provides probabilities and not actualities.  

This myth bypasses earlier ideas of social interrelation, splitting up the groups once referred to as populations, as well as fracturing the space and stretching the time of discourse, aggregating fragments of a series of different moments into patterns. The result is that all the ways of talking about the social world could potentially be replaced with mere data strings. Moreover, given that hermeneutics and the exchange of signs are the basis of social life, installing the myth of big data into our working practices to generate and attribute knowledge, risks unravelling the social itself.  

According to Professor Couldry, alternative accounts are needed to bring to the forefront why knowledge about people matters and why the social matters. In addition, given that this may have consequences for issues of agency and justice, the right response would not be evading the challenges posed by new forms of interconnection and information generation. Instead, those challenges must be faced in creative ways, taking care to hold on to richer accounts of agency and knowledge, as well to the sense of possible democratic agency and possible justice.

‘Unless we reject this myth, we risk building a social landscape peopled by what the 19th century Russian novelist Nikolai Gogol called ‘dead souls’: human entities that have financial value […]but that are not alive, not at least in the sense we know human beings to be alive’, he warned. ‘And yet this transformation may not seem peculiar to us, because we have become accustomed to giving accounts of ourselves in such a data-saturated ways on social networking sites and elsewhere’.