4. The Sharing Assemblage

DEPENDING ON OUR POLITICS, we will be more or less resistant to the sharing of our data in exchange for security; depending on our willingness and time to read the clauses in different privacy policies, we might be more or less cognizant of what it is, exactly, we are sharing with private corporations; depending on how much attention we paid to the details of the Snowden revelations, we will have greater or lesser understanding of the ways in which our communications and movements can be monitored by the state. Regardless of the differentials in knowledge and politics, sharing, I want to argue, has to be understood today not as a conscious and conscientious act but as a key component of contemporary data subjectivity.

Although data is etymologically derived from dare—the Latin for “to give”—it often feels as if data has been taken. This brings to mind Rob Kitchin’s (2014, 2) observation that data might be better referred to as capta (from the Latin capere, “to take”). Kitchin invokes this alternative etymology to drive home the fact that data is never “raw,” transparent, or objective, that it never gives itself over without the intervention of a subjective interpreter or scientist. Data has to be extracted, selected, or “taken.” Whereas Kitchin, then, is thinking about the mediated, “cooked” nature of data, we can also see this tension between giving and taking in terms of subjectivity. Is our relation with data better encapsulated by giving or taking?

I would wager that neither verb quite encompasses the experience of the shareveillant data subject I am referring to. It is not clear that data belongs to us in the first place in order for it then to be given or taken. Rather, we are within a dynamic sharing assemblage: always already sharing, relinquishing data with human or nonhuman agents. I want to identify an ascendant shareveillant subjectivity that is shaped by the play between openness and enclosure. “Shareveillance” is intended to capture the condition of consuming shared data and producing data to be shared in ways that shape a subject who is at once surveillant and surveilled. To phrase it with a slightly different emphasis, the subject of shareveillance is one who simultaneously works with data and on whom the data works.

Sharing prevails as a standard of the system because of the difficulties of unsharing data and the “effort” of safeguarding or rendering data proprietary. To take the first of these, it is clear that the ease and speed of copying digital data mean that data already in circulation cannot be revoked. This has led to some farcical situations in the United Kingdom, in which information freely available on the Internet has been repressed by a super injunction within the regular press. Or consider the move in 2016 by Pink News to publish stories removed from search engines through Google’s right-to-be-forgotten policy in the European Union (EU) that came into operation in 2014 (Duffy 2016). Although these examples pertain to information rather than data per se, the principle of digital reproduction and dissemination is the same. Moreover, in the case of cloud storage, or even backups to hard drives, replication of data is the default. More than one copy of a file often exists on a hard drive, let alone in different storage facilities. It is also pertinent to point out that it makes little sense to talk about an “original” when it comes to digital data, the consequence of which is that data is nonrivalrous and sharing nondepleting. We could also look to the way in which the use and reuse of different data sets for various applications makes it nonsensical to talk about the unsharing of data: once it is the lifeblood of various apps, bringing oxygen to a new economy, it is being shared in multiple directions through various media. We can detect, then, a propensity toward duplication, secretion, circulation, and sharing.

Sharing in commercial contexts is clearly a central part of shareveillant subjectivity. Much has been written about the commodification of users’ browsing habits and metadata in the context of social media, online gaming, and the trend toward quantified self. Indeed, the idea that a user of Facebook, Twitter, Google, and so forth is not the customer but the product is commonplace today. The political economy of commercial dataveillance ensures that the activity of watching (in this case, watching not the state nor the commercial entity itself but the posts, newsfeeds, and products that have been curated by friends or algorithms) is closely aligned with sharing (with linking and liking and, at the same time, with leaving a trail to be shared with brokers and analysts who trade in big data). While I have pointed toward a distribution of the digital sensible that would encompass private and public, national and transnational, entities, in what follows, I want to focus on the ways in which state forms of “open” and “closed” data feed into such a distribution. Compared with the large amount of research on consumer dataveillance and its relationship with forms of subjectivity, relatively little research considers the demands placed on subjects by a condition of sharing in relation to the state. There are some noteworthy exceptions to this, such as Isin and Ruppert’s (2015) Being Digital Citizens, which recognizes that “acts of sharing place unique demands on citizen subjects of cyberspace” (88). Of course, because of the level of collaboration between the state and big tech, revealed and tested by the Snowden revelations, as well as the ways those companies can sometimes challenge, exceed, transcend, or evade nation-state legislation, the distinction between government and commercial data sharing is somewhat artificial. As a consequence, I do make references to the latter in what follows, but I will focus on state practices, because they, too, can tell us much about subjectivity today.