by Olga Dovbysh & Paula Rossi
A year ago we introduced a new section in the blog – interviews with young scholars and early career researchers to represent their views and opinions on the scholarly issues in media and communication studies.
Dmitry Muravyov is a social researcher focusing on critical data studies, data activism, STS (science and technology studies), and internet studies. He is also a member of club for internet and society enthusiasts. Muravyov is holding a BA degree in political science from Higher School of Economics (Moscow). In 2019, Dmitry presented his research at Aleksanteri conference in Helsinki.
Why do you study data activism in Russia? What has drawn your attention?
I am interested in this field of critical data studies, and was inspired by the discussions held in the blog called ‘Big data from the south’. Authors of the blog make an attempt to think about how datafication happens in non-western societies. Simply put, datafication is a process of turning the aspects of social reality into data. I seek to explore how different processes around data and datafication occur in Russia. More particularly, my interests revolve around the questions of human agency, how people react to these emerging social processes and act upon them. For instance, let’s consider a tracking app that converts the amount of sugar you eat per day into data. How would you use this app? What relationships would you build with your datafied self, which you come to know from a variety of apps like this? It is also in many domains a political question: what gets datafied and what does not? How does it reflect and shift existing power imbalances? I see this line of research inquiry as the continuation of the previous discussions on quantification in STS and many other disciplines, but at the same time, new questions emerge along with more and more digital data in our lives.
To what extent is Russia different from other ‘non-western societies’? What are the main sources or aspects of these differences (if any)?
I think it is a broad and interesting question that should be thoroughly studied. In particular, there are discrepancies between Russian regions in terms of datafication that one should be attentive to. For instance, in the policy domain, I often read that it is harder for some Russian regional governments to attract IT specialists since they are highly motivated to move to Moscow seeking for more opportunities.
What are the interactions between politics and datafication in Russia?
There are many interactions, since there is a large national program called ‘Digital Economy’ in Russia. The program aims to incorporate digital tools in government work, creating digital infrastructure, and other things. I think these are attempts to catch up with the West and with China because ‘being digital’ is seen as an appealing option to pursue. Nobody wants to lose this ‘digital race’, so everyone is running despite having limited ideas about what the actual finish line is. In my opinion, it is both interesting and extremely important to observe these processes since they are unraveling right in front of our eyes. It gives a possibility to reflect and intervene in certain situations.
What is your current research about?
I study data activists and their initiatives in Russia. I seek to conceptually approach the relationships between data and representation – how we come to know the world through its datafied representation.
What data and what methods do you use in your research?
I conduct interviews with data activists and analyse these utilizing approaches by turning to conceptual resources provided by critical data studies and STS. I also analyze interfaces and affordances of websites and other products data activists create.
What are the main findings of your research?
I’m still in process, what I can talk about are my preliminary findings. We as a society often think of data as neutral, objective and inevitably related to the social issues. Many scholars, journalists, and activists have been working for a long time to combat this widely accepted understanding. I see myself as trying to complement this tradition by looking at data activism in particular.
My main argument is that we need to think about the data activists’ socio-political positions in connection with their data practices, i.e. how they collect, analyze, and present data. For instance, activists’ relations to a particular social issue may affect how they represent it with data or what kind of data will they collect. We should look at this entanglement of data practices and socio-political positions and try to understand how these social and political positions intervene in various data practices.
You run a Telegram channel called ‘Data stories’. It is quite popular and counts over 600 followers. What is the idea behind this channel?
The name of the channel came from my intuition – there is always a story behind any data. Many people speak about technologies nowadays, many books were translated and as I mentioned, in Russia there are ‘Digital economy’ and other programs initiated by state bodies. We speak about data and technology on the governmental level and at different public forums, but at the same time, there is a lack of critical discourse on data-related issues. I thought it would be nice to have a site where these ideas could be discussed. In my blog, I discuss research, art projects, activists’ work, and NGO reports in order to understand how technology and data are social in its production, circulation, and impact. I also discuss how we fix issues that arise during these processes.
I try to make existing research available for Russian-speaking audience by conducting interviews with well-established scholars. I have interviewed Ulises A. Mejias about his work on data colonialism, Catherine D’Ignazio on data feminism and Karina Prunkl on algorithmic ethics.
Running this blog, do you consider yourself as data activism to some extent?
I do not think so, but hope that such ways of engagement will facilitate more critical discussions on data. In academia, there are many extremely interesting discussions available for researchers. At the same time, it is a refreshing experience to go outside academia and think about how your work could be useful to practitioners and to a wider audience.
Do you think data activism, or online activism, will surpass more ‘traditional’ forms of activism, especially in politically repressive environments, or can data activism have a better impact than more traditional forms of activism?
I would guess that it is certainly not going to replace traditional, ‘offline’, forms of activism. It is a very large and long debate on how offline forms connect to online activism. What is going to happen is that these new, technology-assisted, forms of activism are going to complement traditional ones in new ways. Probably we are going to see more hybrid versions of activism. In the history of technological activism, there have been many different forms, such as statactivism, hacktivism, civic technology among others. All of them tied up quite closely with offline action. I would argue that we would see more hybrid forms of activism in the future.