harwood on Wed, 6 Jul 2011 12:07:31 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> Power, Governance and Data conduct a naked love dance

Seeing as Open data has come up on the list I thought it might be useful
to widen out the debate a little and make a little room between
open-data, transparency and the machine that propel them.  - Recently
YoHa of which I'm apart investigated  Open Data with Bristol City
Council, UK. We asked the public some simple questions. 

Can the machinery of government be open?
How transparent is this to the General Public?
Who is presently empowered by Open Data?
How does surveillance of government change us? 

We did this by converting open data from the councils expenditure into
pneumatic contraptions which we took to the street. Testing peoples aim
with our expenditure filled spud gun, destroying ex-library books with
our open data book stabbing. Polishing floors with our Older people,
Pneumatic Floor Brusher/Polisher and we created a  public expenditure
riding machine and got the Lord Mayor of Bristol to ride it. 

At the same time YoHa with Stephen Fortune picked our way through line
by line, the source code of the queries that went into an open data set
for public expenditure. 

I'll try and post more of the documentation to the project as it emerges
but here are the notes from a lecture given in the Bristol Council
Chamber Rooms.

Database, Expenditure, Power 

Power, Governance and Data have been conducting a naked love dance in
the British Isles since at least the time of the Domesday book, its
rhythms have quickened of late, multiplied and become amplified through
database machines. New abstractions order and compare the civic world,
spawning new technologies of power out of the orgiastic revelry of book

Databases move through us, allowing new forms of power to emerge from
the machineâs ability to push and process large sets of information into
the gaps between knowledge and power. As databases order, compare and
sort they create new views of the information they contain. New
perspectives amplify, speed-up and restructure particular forms of power
as they supersedeothers.A database is however, not a single machine, but
one that carries within its genes the echoes and residues of its former

Amongst the things stuffed into the workings of Bristol City Councilâs
Databases, is the town hall clock that allowed people to be coordinated
into a single machine, it reappears in date-time fields and allows us to
search for what happened when. Rolodex and index cards systems appearas
unique identifiers allowing relationships between the information they
point to. The accountants ledger with its rows and columns arranges the
data across the screen. Thetriangulation of terrain, maps for empire,
reappear as post codes, electoral boundaries and other geographies.

Knowledge machines:

Heaps of exotic dead and near-dead things arrived in the late
18thcentury Bristol dock. Some chained together and stored in caves,
some beaten on and off ships, others stored in boxes and sent up to
London. Iced, electrocuted,stuffed, dried, dissected, pickled organisms
were being measured, prodded and probed, put into categories and placed
into the neatly ordered rows and columns of the species case. 

Databases can also be unfolded back to the emergence of population
management of the early 19thCentury in which public health, small pox
vaccination, food scarcity, census amongst others had created new
technologies of data collection, interpretation and control. 

John Rickman a 1798/99 clerk to the House of Commons, put forward
theCensus Act in 1800,also known as the Population Act,which outlined
systems for the gathering of the intimate knowledge of a country. 

The first census in the UK in 1801 promised to discover, order and
discipline population in a similar way to the specimen case.In revealing
a populationâs components, it created a new kind of knowledge that could
act as a kind of remote control on the elements it defined. How many
people can be press-ganged onto British Navy ships from the Thames
Estuary in Essex without destroying food production for London?What is
the least amount of corn I need to produce to feed the population of
Manchester or Liverpool and avoid social unrest?The trajectory of the
1801 census was to create a machine in which the mechanisms of
governmental power would function fully, creating a state of readiness. 

The mechanisms of recording, ordering and regulating information require
containers to be constructed, boxes that discipline parts by saying what
they can and cannot hold. In this way constructing a container a record
called âstreetâ, calls into question the legitimacy of living in the
sea, or in a forest, or on the moon or, in the case of gypsies,by the
side of the road. The empty container implies the existence of the
object that it is supposed to posses.In the boardrooms of nascent
empire, the containers devised for population were juggled into new
machines to fight wars, famines and plagues, eventually becoming more
important than the objects they were meant to contain. They began to
articulate governmentâs relation to population. 

These new powers opened us up like voltaic piles opened up the corpses
of criminals in the early 19thCentury. Bulging batteries urgently
discharging into us, operating on us and through us till empty. 


Power changes things by changing the conduct of substances through which
it flows or on which it acts. As an example: The UK Customs & Excise
collects billions of pounds in revenue each year in VAT, other taxes and
duties. Such work requires some of us to become rapid data entry clerks,
with white knuckles bending muscles and sinew flicking fingers at a
consistent 9,000 to 12,000 keystrokes an hour. Often the way a power
acts on or operates through a substance is how we notice the changes it
makes.Keystrokes are recorded and analysed, line managers count and
assess average keystroke ceiling rates. If you type hard enough for long
enough, itâll trigger a bonus, bending the flow of power into an extra
cheesecake for the family at Tescoâ its acquisition triggering another
flow in and out of our extended minds and actions. 

Civic Operating System 

If we think about government as a series of tactics, strategies,
techniques, programmes and aspirations of those authorities who wish to
control, influence or improve what we think of and do as a population,
databases inform various modes of thinking, decision making and acting.

A zone of governance, like Bristol City Council, defines itself by the
reach and liability of just such an administration.It draws up
geographical boundaries by defining where it is not. In the UK,
according to the Office of National Statistics, we have many such
overlapping geographies, postal, health, census, UK electoral, European
electoral, super output areas, travel to work areas, registrations
districts, training and enterprises zones amongst them.

This civic machine polices populations by folding many of the 19th
century technologies of power into its server racks, speeding up its
processors, amplifying its forms of truth,justifying itself by setting
up services to compensate for a primal market Darwinism. 

The base layer of this civic operating system, how it knows where it is,
and what day it is, derived from early conquests of space and time.
Victor Popp aligned Town hall clocks are here as well as the mapping
that built empires and won resource wars in the 19th Century. A set of
systematic technologies capable of subdividing time and triangulating
space into equal chunks. Placing snapshots of land, populations and
resources into containers, magnifying them for comparison and
re-assembly to survive the next round of spending cuts, war or plague. 

In this way we can think of a municipal authority as a complex social,
technical, administrative machine powered by the formation of 'truths'
pinned on timely maps. In this instance, civic 'truth' does not
necessarily have to be true for everyone. So long as it's 'true' for
those who take part in the system of its production, regulation,
distribution, circulation and operation of it's authoritative

This form of 'truth' operates on us and through us, something
like the way a doctor has the power to open you up for inspection, place
a camera inside you and tinker with your organs, pull bits off for
biopsies to be inspected by other powers. The doctor derives authority
from all those exams she sat which enables her to manifest the
collective 'truth' manufactured by medical discourse. Receiving back
expert judgements about the samples collected from my colon, she has the
authority to tell government that I do not have to go to work, that I'm
mad, or do or do not deserve a mobility allowance. 

Only certain roles can make truth and those who inhabit them, unlike
data entry clerks, are paid handsomely for doing so. They are initiated
into truth machines, by moving through control systems, check points,
security systems, peer review, promotions. They maintain, house, add to,
update and sort the truth.They initiate others into their fold, protect
them, give them permission to utter the truth and most importantly wheel
the machine out into the public to pronounce its legitimacy. 

Databases are transducers of knowledge and power rapidly moving through
us, separating us, reforming us, folding us up into their parts.Its
relations and queries pick us up, move us around and put us back down
somewhere known yet unfamiliar.

In the basement of Bristol City Council House is one of the aftermaths
of this turning around, a series of vaults without valuables, cash desks
without money and entrances without people. Something happened,
something changed, money became vaporised into digits on a screen, the
public banished to dark corridors of form-filling network protocols,
housing benefit forms stacked to overflow in the always open, discarded
vaults. Value has been redistributed into the knowledge machines of the
clean room, contained in water-cooled computers fed by the decorative
yet protective mock moat running around the front of the building at
college green.

A new relational technology reconfigured these rooms, rebuilt
partitions, redirected the flow of air, laid cables and constructed new
doors, security systems to conjoin us with information released through
the grant tables of our role based permission structures. 

To conclude this part of the talk I want to share three notable stories
of database's, power, governance. The first is how a critical approach
to open data can save lives or at least find out where they are being
needlessly lost . The second is how a database can reorder peoples
conduct without being implemented and the third he is the machine of
governance through a ingenious dislocation of surveillance renewed
itself after the MP's expenses scandal. 

16 years ago, Professor Brian Jarman joined others in creating The
Hospital Standardised Mortality Ratio which revealed, among other
things, that even when controlled for variations like patients age or
class, English mortality rates differed up to 76 per cent between area
to area. Dr Foster the company he set up has been publishing this
mortality data since 2000. The HSMR is a calculation used to monitor
death rates in a trust and is based on a subset of diagnoses which give
rise to 80% of in-hospital deaths. In 2009 Dr Foster Intelligence
revealed that Basildon and Thurrock University Hospitals NHS Foundation
Trust had a mortality rate a third higher than the national average:
about 350 more people died in a year more than would have been expected,
leading to enquiries that revealed the appalling state of Basildon
Hospital. When databases find a critically responsive audience they
introduce new forces into the technologies of power. 

On a recent trip to Bristol working on âB-Openâ, we were was shown
around the basement of the Cityâs Council House. Large open-plan offices
set in the now vaporised finance area of the council in which people
used to pay their rents and rates. The rooms were as dull as to be
expected in the seat of power but at each entrance to a subsection was a
card reader. We constantly had to bother someone to move from one
regulated area to another. When I asked what was at the core of this
regulation I was told that it was in readiness for the introduction of
ContactPoint a database established by the previous Labour
administration to improve child protection after the Victoria Climbie
child abuse scandal. ContactPoint was to hold the records of over 11
million children in danger in England was scrapped by the new
Conservative and Liberal Democrat government. 

Peoples conduct was being ordered by the potential knowledge/power
relation of non-existent machine. 

In it's attempt to convince us about parting with or not complain to
much about the use of our personal data, government has set up a number
of open data initiatives. A recent high-profile case would be the
publishing of MP's allowances. The website mps allowances.parliament.uk
allows anyone with an internet connection to view all the MP's expenses
in something resembling a software panoptican, an equal gaze over all
the MPâs allowances in which anomalous spending of the bad may be
foregrounded against the normal spending of the good. 

A gaze such as this is normally associated with technologies of power in
which population can be policed for health, crime, security or be
quickly made ready for war as we saw earlier. Governance witnessing the
effectiveness of the gaze as a technology of power, turned it on itself
as an inoculation against the infection carried in by it's parasite
MP's. Governance in this way appeared to martyr itself in a public
atonement for it's infection. In acknowledging and reflecting on it's
own subjugation before the relational machine the government enables
this technology to amplify it's power to create ever larger machines.
Look we did it to ourselves, we are all in this together. The equal gaze
afforded by MP's expenses databases is a set of truths, a register of
moral victories on which to build the next round in the arms race of
technologies of power. 

I have no doubt that the love dance of database's, power, governance
will end up producing a new kind of tyranny, not the exciting cold war
ones, surveillance and secret police. More probably the dull one that
chains rapid data entry clerks to sweaty keyboards, checked for key
presses every minute â awaiting that illusive extra cheese cake from the
vending machine. Whether it will be any better or worse then the
tyrannies that have gone before is hard to tell, but the journey will be
interesting. As databases open us up, operate on us and through us and
append us into their parts. They will disrupt and dislodge much of the
authority we see around us replacing it with forms of power and
authority made possible by their invention. 

Harwood - YoHa

#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime>  is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: http://mx.kein.org/mailman/listinfo/nettime-l
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime@kein.org