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International Graduate Centre of Education

Whose data? Problematising the 'gift' of social labour

  • IGCE symposium

Abstract: Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google and Jared Cohen, Founder and Director of Google Ideas, contend that ‘for governments and companies’ the user-generated content that constitutes big data is ‘a gift, enabling them to better respond to citizen and customer concerns, and, within the emergent field of predictive analysis, to predict what the future will hold.’ (Schmidt, 2013 p. 57) Representing the voice of one of the largest aggregators of our social lives as data, Schmidt and Cohen’s claim provides a critical insight into a dominant reading of the phenomenon of big data and its emerging role in the age of digital communications. In this article I want to problematise the idea that our social lives are a ‘gift’ for corporations and states. By contrasting this ‘gift’ thesis with anthropological notions of gift and the ‘value’ of participation in the digital commons, I aim to explore the dimensions intellectual property in the age of ubiquitous digital communications. This, in turn, reveals an underlying phenomenon, the rise of new kinds of labour vulnerability in the digital age, intensifying the extension of the logic of privatisation into our social lives.

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