The Politics of Digital Life



In September 2015 King’s College London hosted a meeting of Ego-Media’s international network, bringing together academics from around the world who share our interest in how digital media are reshaping understandings of identity and modes of representing the self. The meeting was punctuated by a series of thematic discussions offering participants a chance to debate some key issues in digital culture and contemporary life-writing. Themed around the politics of digital life, the first of these discussions raised questions over surveillance and the dissemination of personal data, asked where power resides online and interrogated notions of freedom and agency when applied to the Internet. You can also hear audio from our Time and Space Online and Routine Quantification: Habit, Affect and Health discussions.

00:00 – Max Saunders introduces the session.

00:53 – Paul Arthur proposes the web has evolved from anarchy to surveilled space over the past decade. He notes that When Biography‘s Online Lives volume was published in 2003 the web was still an anarchic place, allowing a lot of freedom in how to express one’s self and even permitting users to pretend to be someone else. The recently published Online Lives 2.0 witnesses some different preoccupations: games, big data, aggregation, mediation, “the overwhelming archive” and distant reading. These reflect how the online world has progressed since only 10 years ago.

10:03 – Claire Larsonneur argues that instead of viewing data as information maybe we could view it as money, citing examples like trading our personal data for access to “free” Wi-Fi in airports and cafés.

11:29 – Julia Watson argues the 18th century concept of the ‘transparent self’ finds an echo in the digital era. Holding that surveillance can’t be seen simply as government agencies spying on individuals, she notes that individuals often gladly give their data online and suggests aspects of the neoliberal model governing Internet use could be critiqued as evidence of a “long hangover” of the enlightenment.

12:46 – Craig Howes draws attention to the difference between the price and the value of data.

13:44 – Amanda Lagerkvist observes that digital life is both personalized and beyond our control. She highlights the need to discuss the agencies involved and our roles as complicit interpassive users, compelled to act.

14:44 – Sanghamitra Sadhu raises the question of future biographies and how to track online exchanges.

15:43 – Alfred Hornung argues for the value of “freedom” online. He notes that there are many moments in which we pass out knowledge without knowing it – as with health data useful to insurance companies. He notes too that social media facilitate the dissemination of comments people might normally not publically utter – offering, perhaps, too much freedom.

17:45 – Rebecca Roach raises the phenomenon of ‘tethered data’ as a way to address the agency of the mediatized subject

18:57 – Eveline Kilian questions whether the model of individual agency is still relevant in the digital age. Evoking Foucault’s theorisation of fields of power, she asks whether notions of individual agency apply when individuals might not even know where data goes.

20:27 – Julie Rak discusses different models of privacy and agency on She observes that digital societies seem to have reanimated discussions about agency which had seemed finished after 1990s poststructuralism. Noting privacy was originally conceptualized as a wall built to stop information from coming over, she also asks how this might inform current debates around migration.

22:18 – Craig Howes foregrounds the tension between different models of the value of knowledge and those who contribute to it. He argues that while the internet is often thought to be atomizing, it is also a strong creator of communities. For him, sites like should prompt us to think about the commodification of data and communal involvement in creating academic knowledge.

27:09 – Alfred Hornung argues the web affords agency without bodily impact. Returning to McLuhan’s understanding of technology in terms of “the extension of (wo)man” he asks how we should think about the role of the body in the digital age. Are we a constitution of chemical elements, are we a biological reservoir of entities? What is the difference between an online and offline friend?

29:13 – Rob Gallagher suggest we might need new modes of metaphorising data. Noting that personal data can be monetized only by those with the capacity to collect and aggregate it,  he observes that some legal scholars have already proposed that data should be understood along the same lines as combustible chemicals: inert in small quantities but potentially dangerous when stored en masse.

30:21 – Leena Kurvet-Käosaar raises the relevance of these issues for real-life institutions, outside of research. How can museums or archives participate in online activities? How can we present personal history online? Can we predict how such data can come together in potentially useful but also harmful ways? This is not just a research question but also a practical question in the context of such institutions.

31:51 – Sidonie Smith notes the danger of using “freedom” in an unqualified way. She warns that without historicizing this concept we may lapse into nostalgia for symbols that don’t mean the same thing for all people at all points in time.

33:21 – Margaretta Jolly discusses the advantages and disadvantages of coroporate versus government control. Faced with the prospect of government surveillance and corporate data mining, she asks whether we might have these oppose each other or work together. Instances like Airbnb mobilizing people to share homes in the wake of a disaster and Uber offering free rides – but only after they were shamed for charging extra – suggest users may have at least some power over corporations.

36:45 – Leigh Gilmore asks whether we are using the right vocabulary, or whether newer terms might be useful. Voicing reservations about the rhetoric of “freedom” and “agency,” she notes that discourses of “interruption,” “disruption” or “intensification” may better reflect the way, for example, that digital media intensify everyday life and effects in a maner that isn’t necessarily positive or negative.

38:34 – Paul Arthur seconds the call for new critical vocabularies.

39:08 – Amanda Lagerkvist recommends  José van Dijk’s work on “data-ism as religion”

30:00 – Clare Brant asks whether we might learn from the ways in which conventional politics is going digital. Calling for attention not just to the politics of digital life, but also to the life of digital politics she points to examples like Snowden, WikiLeaks, and the success of Jeremy’s Corbyn’s Labour leadership campaign in engaging with individuals online, suggesting that we are perhaps seeing a democratization through fragmentization, which then becomes an aggregation.

41:21 – Paul Arthur concludes the session.



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Prior to joining the Ego Media team, Rob worked as a postdoctoral fellow at Concordia University’s Technoculture, Art and Games... read more about: Robert Gallagher