Digital – a doubled-edged sword

Digital- a double-edged sword powerpoint presentation

Digital: A double-edged sword
Graeme Arnott’s presentation in Glasgow

The title of my talk today is ‘Digital: A double-edged sword’. I’m grateful to the Working Group for the Assemblies for Democracy Scotland for providing the opportunity to give this talk and to Penny Cole for suggesting the talk’s title, which some of you will no doubt recognise as a Gramscian conception of literacy. Gramsci considered literacy to be a double-edged sword in that it can be used for the purpose of social empowerment and for the reproduction of repression and domination. And that raises the question about how we, as democrats, handle this sword in a digital age, and particularly with regard to the governmental release of data in digital form. The talk is in two parts but it would be simplistic to think that the double-edge of the sword is some sort of binary between good bits of digital (open data) and bad bits of digital (CCTV, for example). The double-edged sword is a much more complicated weapon than it might initially appear to be.

Open Knowledge is, as its name suggests, an organisation very much concerned with the openness of knowledge, and ‘knowledge’ in this context might mean educational resources, it might mean images from galleries and museums the kind of which we see on Wikipedia, it might mean the scientific research being shared amongst that community and so on. The first half of this talk is about open data, and in particular, open governmental data.

I need to unpack that a little but feel free to holler if I lapse into geekery, although it’s possibly better to be honest and say, when I lapse too far into geekery.

[Slide 2 – 7] What is Open Government data?

Let’s start with answering the question, what is data? Well to some extent everything is, or can be considered as, data; the date and location of this assembly, the number of people in the room, your respective ages, your gender, your home postcode, the amount of money you spent travelling here, the route you travelled, the time you arrived, etc etc etc.

Luciano Floridi, who we’ll come back to later, identifies five types of data, and although we don’t have to elaborate on them here, the slide gives a short example of each type.

‘Open data’ is defined by Open Knowledge as data that people are free to use, re-use and redistribute — without any legal, technological or social restriction.

There is always, and particularly in Glasgow, an issue with the ‘technological or social restriction’ part of that definition. There is a very real digital divide in the city which in many ways is a social or economic divide, and which tends to focus on infrastructure and thereafter digital literacy. All I can do, in this lightning talk is acknowledge that it is there, and it is an important issue.

In terms of data literacy, that divide is considerably wider, and the democratic consequence of that divide is what I want to shed some light upon.

So, in terms of legality, here are a number of licenses that make whichever kind of data that has been released, legal, and some of you might be familiar with the suite of licenses that Creative Commons provide and which you may well have seen on blog posts or the like. Government and government departments can use other licenses such as the Open Government licence,

One feature to note here is that there is a quality system in place. And that might not be all that surprising for something that likes to value processes. Just like hotels, open data has a five star system ranging, for example, from data released on a pdf which gets one star – a sort of a grudging acknowledgement that the data has been released but tbh it’s no much use to me, to linked data which gets five stars. The important feature of this grading system is that open data gets more stars the more readable it is by a computer and, consequently, the less readable it becomes to humans. Our ordinary, everyday use of literacy reaches a limit. Open data is not meant to be read by humans; at its best it is meant to be crunched by computers.

Open Knowledge on their website state that ‘in a digital age, data is a key resource for social and commercial activities. In a well-functioning, democratic society citizens need to know what their government is doing. To do that, they must be able freely to access government data and information’…

And that, in a nutshell, allows us to see that open governmental data is open data released by a government or a government department or a governmental agency that is free to use, re-use and redistribute. What they release is, as you might expect of varying quality and can therefore be rated with the appropriate number of stars in terms of how well data is integrated into the web.

Rather than just sticking all this open data on their website (which is what my local authority does with its one star material) good governmental practice uses an open data portal; a specific online place through which all this wonderful open data can be accessed. And again, there is a quality rating available for these portals which echoes the five-star system of the data itself.

[Slide 8]

So, what does all this mean for democracy, and for us as democrats?

Well, firstly I don’t think that another world is possible simply by reducing everything to a problem that is solveable by open data or the ‘experimental methods of science’ as The Geek Manifesto puts it. I’m not envisioning here some sort of ‘liberal communist’ collective that works cooperatively with government. Liberal communism isn’t any sort of solution to capitalism; it’s just, for some, a desireable update. I’m not trying to redeem representational democracy either. But I do think there is an argument for saying that open data provides data literate protagonists from communities with the opportunity to participatorily engage with the government in a way that protagonists who aren’t data literate cannot.

Open Knowledge write on their website that ‘by opening up data, citizens are enabled to be much more directly informed and involved in decision-making’. So let’s say that the Scottish government releases five star open data, on a freely accessible five star open data portal, so does a Scottish government agency, and so too does Glasgow City Council. How good can it get? All this wonderful five star open data on freely accessible five star open data portals available to all to freely access, and freely make use of.

And it’s that last bit that, I think, is important for us today, ‘to make use of’. Because what happens if you don’t know how to use it? What happens if you don’t have the required literacies to make use of it? The quality of open data is measured by its machine readability not its value to the community, and not its usage by the community. An open data portal can get its five stars even if nobody from the community that the data concerns knows what to do with the data. In other words, open data privileges processes before people, no actually more than that, open data privileges processes irrespective of people.

[Slide 9]

This can hopefully be illustrated using Luciano Floridi’s simple formula for a definition of ‘information ‘.

Information = data + meaning

And, if we take Floridi’s formula as our starting point, we can see very clearly that data, by itself is not synonymous with ‘information’, and that meaning needs to be added.

Let’s say we exchange ‘democracy” for ‘information’ and meaning for ‘critical analysis’

democracy = data + critical analysis

but if we do a little bit of transposition, the same formula now reads

democracy – critical analysis = data

(read that ‘minus sign’ as meaning ‘without’)

In other words, ‘open data’ , by itself neither provides more transparent governance, nor does it provide participatory governance. A file containing rows and columns of numbers or coordinates or whatever, sitting on a open governmental portal, cannot do that by itself. Open data, sitting on a governmental portal, is by itself meaningless.

That does not mean that the governmental release of ‘open data’ is meaningless but transparency isn’t just about access, it is also about, as Open Knowledge put it in full geek speak, creating a full “read/write” society’. I think there will be very few of us here today that do not think that open access to government data is vital for democracy. So, it isn’t ‘open’ just because it has been released, licensed, of sufficient quality on a well designed portal. Those things only make ‘open’ a possibility. What matters is the ‘meaning’ bit. Releasing open data isn’t meaningless, but communities and protagonists without the literacy capacity to give meaning to that data just means that the data sits on the portal meaninglessly. The form that that meaning, or analysis takes is dependent on the ability to read the data; or in other words being data literate enough.

Let me bring this section to a swift conclusion.

It’s now that we find ourselves faced with handling the sharpest edge of Gramsci’s double-edged sword. If, the public, communities, ordinary people don’t have the data literacy skills needed to make use of open data then I struggle to see how there is any democratic transparency in that process. Without data literacy, ‘open data’ is the very obverse of transparency and rather than the release of open data being an example of transparency I’d go so far as to say that the very opposite has been achieved: that when the public aren’t sufficiently literate to make a critical analysis of data that a liberal representative government releases then that government achieves an apotheosis of obfuscation, an obfuscation that is profoundly, and one might even argue deliberately, undemocratic; an obfuscation that is designed to keep people in their unknowing place. Without literacy the data might just as well be sealed off, closed down, unreleased. In those terms open data becomes the tool for the purpose of social empowerment and for the reproduction of repression and domination.

And the Gramscian solution is that we get literate, data literate, critically data literate. And I’ll come back to that at the end.


[Slide 10]

In the morning before the first Assembly that we held in Glasgow, I was sitting in a cafe having a coffee, doodling a democracy mind map, and tucked away in one of the corners, I had two lines attached to a government node with the word information written between them, and that started me thinking about the flow of data into and out of government. That’s how this whole talk got started.

If we think of what we’ve been talking of as data flowing out of government then this part will briefly touch upon data going into government.

I say briefly, not simply because of the time I’ve got left for this talk but, because there’s so much that we could talk about that we could take a day discussing digital on its own.

[Slide 11]

When I pitched this talk to the working group for Assemblies for Democracy Scotland I had in mind talking about the breadcrumb trail that Floridi calls derivative data and the identities that can be constructed using those breadcrumbs. Identities of ourselves that we might not even know exist.

But that was before the Real of a Tory majority and so we could talk about Theresa May-trix’s Snoopers charter, And put that in a Scottish context with regard to the article in The Scotsman that Police Scotland have snooped on 50 emails a day, (

But finally what I thought I’d actually try to do was to bring the topic closer to home and to direct our focus on data that goes directly into government. I think it can be argued that this is not data that we necessarily give or volunteer but it is a situation where our actions generate data that the government are setting out to directly collect – and so I’m going to talk for the last few minutes about CCTV and in particular the installation of NICE smart cameras and software as part of Glasgow City council’s future city programme.

For those who’ve never heard of these cameras they were developed by an elite technology unit of Israeli military intelligence, Unit 8200, and have been used in Gaza with the aim of disrupting the Palestinian community.

The function of these cameras and their smart software is not to keep the Palestinian or the Israeli communities safe but to disrupt the Palestinian community, to drive wedges between activists, between friends, and between family members; to blackmail a homosexual here, to persuade betrayal on the basis of a sick relative there, and so on, and so on.

This all came to light when there was something of a public rebellion in Unit 8200 last September when an open letter was published in The Guardian, ( The letter was written by forty-three of the unit’s members who refused to serve in activities that had ‘more in common with the intelligence services of oppressive regimes than of a democracy’. And these are to be installed in Glasgow because the level of violence on the streets of Glasgow is clearly similar to that of Gaza – which if you remember was getting shelled by Israeli warships not so long ago – do you not remember something similar happening in Glasgow? – no, neither do I.

Now you could reply with a technological determinist argument; that plastic, glass and electronics cannot by themselves be malignant. But the software of these cameras seems to have human malignancy baked into it with amongst its smart functions being facial, emotion recognition with predictive qualities.

So, why are these particular cameras, cameras that are used ‘ for political persecution and to create divisions within Palestinian society, needed here? Is it because of an increasingly politically educated populace that democratically threatens the city establishment? So what can we expect? A trade unionist blacklisted here – a disabled activist denied a service unless they become a collaborator? The technological extension of Project Fear? We know that fear is no basis for democracy; and as democrats we should resist the politics of fear. The installation of these cameras should be resisted by all democrats in the city.


So where to start, practically, with all this?

[Slides 12 & 13]

I’m not suggesting for a moment that will suit everyone. I’m not suggesting that every activist or everyone in our communities will want to become data literate. I haven’t touched on the digital divide and digital literacy which is present in the equation because at the moment I want to focus on data rather than digital literacy. I’m not suggesting that everyone will have the time to do it. You can’t be out campaigning, chapping people’s door and hacking at the same time. But as governments continue to release data openly, in machine readable form, then we, as democrats, need to have the skills to make use of that data.

In Susanna Clarke’s fantastic novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, the latter sets out a course of study lasting three or four years and “Strange looked a little startled at the mention of three or four years”… but there’s no need to look startled. Let us start with a one day workshop and see where that leads. The proposal is to focus our attention on one area of Glasgow, Govan for example, and find out what data is available on this single area in the different government portals and see what can be done, in one-day, with that data. I’ve spoken to Open Glasgow about the possibility of such a workshop, and further information will be put on the Assemblies for Democracy website and Facebook pages once that is organised. I’ll let you know what they say as soon as they say.

The Scottish Palestinian Solidarity Campaign have committed to a Nae Nice Glasgow campaign which will gather support from across a variety of activist groups, and of course, more importantly, the people of Glasgow. Some early paperwork is available and again more information on this to follow, and I will ask Penny to post on the Assembly Scotland Facebook page and website. The Open Rights Group Scotland are holding a series of events in Scotland to launch ORG’s new Scotland Officer, Pol Clementsmith, who will be heading up our campaigning in Scotland. the aim of the event is to meet and greet Pol, and, for them, to hear our ideas about future Open Rights Group’s campaigns in Glasgow as well of in the rest of Scotland. The Glasgow launch event is in The Old Hairdressers, Renfield Lane in Glasgow on Sunday 28th June, 2-5pm. I will be going along to that launch and raising the issue of these nae nice cameras

So, some final words from David Harvey’s ‘Foreword’ to They Can’t Represent Us!,

They’ve got the money and can buy politics, media and, really, anything they want. We don’t have that. The only thing we have is people. But we have a mass. And the more people that mass in the street, the harder it becomes for them to say, “Your interests are not our interests.”

In mobilising that mass of people we must bear in mind that, for a whole host of socio-political reasons, people have welcomed CCTV cameras. Any organic campaign against NICE cameras and software in Glasgow must have assembly practices at its heart; it must be the very antithesis of the lack of democratic practice that brought this technology to the streets of Glasgow in the first instance.

Thank you very much.

Further Reading and References

Clarke, S. (2004 and 2015) Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, Bloomsbury, London

Lambirth, A. (2011) Literacy on the Left: Reform and Revolution, Continuum, London

Floridi, L. (2010) Information: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press

Sitrin, M. & Azzellini, D. (2014) They Can’t Represent Us, Verso

Žižek, S. (2009) Violence, Profile Books

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