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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 9 - 10, February 25 & March 4, 2023

Review of Goldstein & Nost eds., The Nature of Data: Infrastructures, Environments, Politics

Saturday 25 February 2023


Reviewed by Anne-Lise Boyer (University of Arizona)

The Nature of Data: Infrastructures, Environments, Politics

by Jenny Goldstein, Eric Nost, eds.

Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press
2022. ix + 328 pp.
(cloth), ISBN 978-1-4962-1715-8;
(paper), ISBN 978-1-4962-3250-2

At a time when the apparent dematerialization of economies, the hypertrophy of the digital sphere, the predominance of social networks, and the advancement of artificial intelligence value the immaterial, it is worth remembering that, more than ever, this so-called fourth revolution is made possible by the implementation of material infrastructures. This unprecedented production of information relies on a network of satellites, data centers, and fiber optic cables, among other things, whose material footprint can transform local socio-ecological dynamics.

To be sure, the multiplication of devices and sensors with the capacity to monitor the evolution of Planet Earth suggests promising possibilities for better environmental governance. With a profusion of multisite, multiscale information, with varying temporal depths and degrees of precision, it should become increasingly easy to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to interactions between human activities and the environment.

At the same time, the output of these multifaceted connections, so-called big data—that is, extremely large data sets that require computational analysis—is often presented as neutral. Data production and circulation, however, cannot escape the relations of power across society (e.g., emerging countries, conservationists, local communities, public actors such as states but also private companies and high-tech start-ups), as uneven capabilities (and possibilities) remain regarding the (in)visibility of the information and its applications.

More specifically, The Nature of Data: Infrastructures, Environments, Politics draws from a critical political approach to discuss the enthusiastic narrative that considers the acceleration of environmental data collection as a revolutionary and emancipatory path to conservation and environmental justice. The editors, Jenny Goldstein and Eric Nost, have gathered a collection of essays that lay the foundations for what they call a political ecology of data. The research presented in this book comes from researchers working in various fields such as geography, anthropology, sociology, environmental sciences, information sciences, and data science. The methods deployed are mostly qualitative, notably ethnographic, but some scholars also utilize critical approaches to Geographic Information Systems (GIS). The case studies presented take us all around the world—from the US Pacific Northwest to the Falklands Islands (Malvinas), from Chicago’s inner city to Belize, Zimbabwe, and the forests in Southeast Asia—with the common goal of understanding how new data technologies shape access to and control over the environment.

Following a classical introduction presenting a synthetic state of the art on the emerging field of the political ecology of data and the different contributions, the book is structured in three sections. The first part, entitled “Sensors, Servers, and Structures,” focuses on the material aspects of data accumulation, production, and circulation—that is, hard infrastructures—to highlight the socio-environmental consequences of a wired world. Chapter 1, by Graham Pickren, insists on how the current information-based economy requires energy- and capital-intensive infrastructures. Focusing on the reconversion of old economy buildings (e.g., large-scale bakeries, Sears stores) into data centers for high-frequency trading in Chicago especially, we learn how data contributes to the production of space and potential uneven urban development. In chapter 2, Luis F. Alvarez León examines the evolution of the economic and geopolitical stakes around the launch of satellites that observe the Earth. He highlights three relevant points: the rising presence of commercial satellites; the growing role of emerging countries such as China, India, Egypt, and Kenya; but also a path dependency on historical patterns of power and knowledge inherited from colonization and the Cold War. Chapter 3, by Karen Bakker and Max Ritts, questions the exponential growth of environmental data and how it can be processed and analyzed, and by whom. It stresses the need to pay attention to ethical, security, and quality issues and calls for the implementation of a code of conduct for justice and transparency. In chapter 4, Anthony Levenda and Zbigniew Grabowski raise the issue of data colonialism. They take as an example the modern techno-scientific management of the Columbia River Basin in the Pacific Northwest that has completely erased Indigenous knowledge and data.

The second part of the book, “Civic Science and Community-Driven Data,” is a reflective section where researchers and practitioners present diverse citizen-science projects and collaborative experimentations on data production. They discuss promises and obstacles for data to lead to more transparent decision-making and more equitable environments. This section is the most dense, with six chapters. In chapter 5, Jennifer Gabrys and Helen Pritchard introduce the notion of “just good enough data” produced by do-it-yourself and low-tech monitoring tools. Based on the experience of communities facing the impacts of fracking in Pennsylvania, the authors call for “just good enough data” as a potentially creative and political citizen-sensing data that complements and challenges standardized expert data and is amenable to regulatory processes. In chapter 6, M. V. Eitzel et al. report on a collaborative modeling experience in Zimbabwe. This chapter includes feedback from practitioners, as the goal of the project was to decolonize knowledge production, notably through participatory mapping and the inclusion of Indigenous groups. Chapter 7, by Irus Braverman, traces the evolution of coral reef citizen science since the 1990s. It focuses on its new actors, notably coral gardeners, or aquarists, who have been able to learn more than biologists by growing their small reefs at home. In chapter 8, Noor Johnson, Colleen Strawhacker, and Peter Pulsifer take us to the Arctic and list various initiatives that aim to involve local communities in the production of data in an Indigenous context where place names and oral histories are of great importance. This chapter echoes chapter 4 to highlight how technocratic environmental management alters and limits Indigenous knowledge systems. In chapter 9, with a critical GIS approach, Patrick Gallagher follows a remote-sensing analyst in Belize on a ground-truthing field trip. The research reveals a paradox: by conducting verifications on site (i.e., ground-truthing), analysts recognize the limitations of GIS while at the same time legitimizing and reinforcing its technical claims. Chapter 10, by Dawn Walker et al., revisits certain concerns that the ascension of climate-change denier Donald Trump to the US presidency has caused in conservationist circles, which have organized to archive environmental data. In particular, it describes the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative and the work of the Data Rescue and Data Together groups. It discusses the problem posed by state-owned data if the government is authoritarian (i.e., surveillance, erasure) on one hand, and, on the other hand, problems posed by private ownership of data.

The final section, “Governing Data, Infrastructuring Land and Resources,” examines infrastructures as manifestations of social and technological processes. It explores how different kinds of data infrastructures (with a focus on soft infrastructures this time, i.e., institutions, education, and culture) are being negotiated and enabled by states, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the private sector. In chapter 11, Madeleine Fairbairn and Zenia Kish analyze the exportation of the digital revolution to farmers in the global South. They show the risks associated with the (over)production of top-down data on traditional farms, especially if they are associated with a neocolonial discourse about the deficit (e.g., of technology, knowledge, or adaptability). Here too, the authors insist on the importance of community-led initiatives to collect and share data to avoid uneven development. Chapter 12, by Hilary O. Faxon and Jenny Goldstein, looks at environmental crime surveillance in Southeast Asia to show how the proliferation of digital data can influence resource access, use, and control. In chapter 13, James J. A. Blair focuses on the complex case of penguin science in the Falklands Islands (Malvinas), south of Argentina. Indeed, data on penguin migration patterns is widely manipulated by governments, but also by extractive industries (i.e., oil companies) to legitimize exploration works. Chapter 14, by Corrine Armistead, takes up the case study of the Columbia River Basin studied in chapter 4. This time, the purpose of the research is to show the ethical issues raised by the mapping of the hydropower potential of rivers in the US Northwest. It suggests the choice of a graph database for data visualization and highlights the importance of broadening narratives of socio-ecological values surrounding the basin. The last chapter echoes chapter 9 as we follow how analysts do GIS and in what material and institutional conditions. This time, located in Indonesia, the case study outlines the difficulties a GIS technician faces under economic and political pressures from decision-makers. Cyndi Lin discusses the various techniques used to map Indonesian forests and how they correspond to different hierarchies of expertise.

Finally, Rebecca Lave, E. Nost, and J. Goldstein propose a conclusion structured around three stimulating points. The first one, “What is the nature of data?” effectively answers the question raised at the beginning of the book: data is “a hybrid offspring of technology and social practices” (p. 304) that is “material, governed and practiced” (p. 303). The second one, “What does data do today?” sums up the multiple tensions between the path-dependent, politically and environmentally damaging, or revolutionary and emancipatory aspects of data collection and circulation. The third question, “What might data do in the future?” invites researchers to continue the analysis of the tensions that cross the use of big data, between surveillance and extractive practices but also along the lines of transparency, collaboration, and overall better environmental governance toward a broader program of environmental justice. Indeed, the richness of the political ecology of data comes from the fact that it fully embraces the double-edged aspect of big data (i.e., it creates oppressive, but also potentially emancipatory relations) to critically analyze it and to propose better practices.

In sum, this book is a necessary piece to lay the groundwork for a political ecology of data and urge more research in this direction. A political ecology of data pays special attention to the materiality of data and its ecological footprint. It also aims at highlighting how the unreflective use of data can recapitulate uneven colonial relationships between groups of people, but also between people and their environment. Finally, a political ecology of data champions transparent, fair, and ethical data infrastructures to serve better environmental governance. While passages in this book are very descriptive, listing initiatives or detailing data collection devices, the conclusions of all the chapters always provide very interesting food for thought, which researchers will no doubt draw from in the creation of new programs. It is therefore a welcome integration of digital social sciences, political ecology, critical GIS, and science and technology studies, and as such which will be of interest to scholars across these fields, but also to conservation practitioners. This collection of essays might also be useful as a methodological text for advanced graduate students.

[This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License]

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