Sophomore Seminars

Democracy & Data

COMM 18Q

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This course explores the historical entanglement of democracy with data. Modern states and representative governments have always depended on (and often pioneered) new techniques of counting and sorting. The US Census, for example, constructs the population as both an object to be managed, and as a subject—“The People”—amenable to representation. Polls, surveys and crowd estimates seek to measure and articulate public opinion, while elections and referenda harness aggregation to put politicians’ representative claims to the test. Today, emerging uses of “big data”—for mass surveillance, algorithmic decision-making, and to disseminate (mis- or dis-)information—pose fundamental challenges to democratic values like freedom, equality, and accountability.

We begin by historicizing big data and democracy, examining the history of “political arithmetic” practiced by early modern states, and considering the ideal of the democratic “public sphere” that emerged in the eighteenth century. We then turn to the construction of informational persons and the mass public in twentieth-century America (the census, and public opinion polling). The bulk of the course, however, will focus on three contemporary issues: First, big data surveillance by corporations and states for marketing, governance, and security. Second, the use of algorithmic prediction and decision-making, particularly as these practices relate to the construction of identity and the reproduction of inequality. Finally, we will critically assess anxieties about information disorder in today’s digital public sphere (filter bubbles and personalized voter-targeting on Facebook; Russian bots and sock-puppets on Twitter; Youtube’s radicalizing recommendation algorithm).

Literature will be drawn from a range of disciplines: science and technology studies, critical information and media studies, and political theory. Throughout, we will consider how big data and computational technologies might lead us to rethink central concepts in democratic theory, including consent and freedom; property and (self-)ownership; identity and difference; security, privacy, and the commons.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Alexandra Catherine Neame

Lexi Neame is a political theorist and science and technology studies scholar. Her research and teaching interests are in the history of political thought and contemporary democratic theory, with a focus on the politics of science, technology and the environment. She leads an interdisciplinary research project called Arendt on Earth: From the Archimedean Point to the Anthropocene (www.arendtonearth.com), funded by a three-year grant from Humanities Without Walls. During 2017-18 she was a Dissertation Research Fellow at the Center for Humanities and Social Change at the University of California, Santa Barbara. She has taught in Northwestern University’s International Studies program, and at Stanford she teaches Spirit of Democracy, 100,000 Years of War, and Preventing Human Extinction in Thinking Matters.