The expanded presence and impact of data, and arrival of so-called Big Data, has become an accepted, background feature of contemporary life. But while data clearly matters, the question arising now is: just how does data come to ‘matter’? What are the sometimes unseen material infrastructures that bring data into being, into circulation and into action? What are the social and political structures, policies and institutions through which data comes to have effects? And what might it mean to think about data – as suggested by Sarah Pink and others – as ‘broken’: as always already implicated in ordinary processes of maintenance and repair?
Data Materiality – a three-year collaborative project co-sponsored by the Birkbeck Centre for Interdisciplinary Research in Media and Culture, and the Vasari Centre for Art and Technology – seeks to address these questions. By data ‘materiality’ we mean not only the ways in which data crystallises into physical forms and depends on material technical and social infrastructures, but also the related ways in which data comes to matter, in and through practical action, collective imaginaries, or biological conditions. So we are interested in questioning the proliferating network of data centres, fibre-optic cables and server farms that underpin our data usage, but we also wish to explore perhaps less tangible or apparent infrastructures of data – materialities that might include, for instance, digital objects and artefacts, from network protocols to markup languages, as well as the labour and organizational structures putting data to work.
Our key aim in exploring data materiality is to get beyond the idea of data as a raw or unprocessed and, as Lisa Gitelman has suggested, understand the ordinary material conditions under which data is induced and deduced. We wish to ask, in other words, how does data leave its traces on the world? And how does the world leave its traces on data?