Building an embodied approach to data – an interview with Anja Kovacs

/ December 15, 2022
Photo by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

A few months ago, we spoke to Anja Kovacs, a researcher and consultant working on feminism, technology and digital society, a founding partner of Internet Democracy Project and a new research organisation called Feminist Futures. Below you can read a few insights from our conversation on how feminist perspectives can help conceptualise and manage our relationships with data.

Data, surveillance and responsibility

Anja started working on the issues of responsible data back in the early 2010s while immersed in debates around cyber security and surveillance in India. At the time, the dominant narrative perpetuated by the Indian government was that surveillance was used to protect people, and not to restrict and control their behaviours. Internet Democracy Project (IDP), an organisation led by Anja, argued against this framing: according to IDP,  this narrative omits the experiences of those under surveillance. 

One illustrative case is that of the Mission Shakti project from the Indian city of Lucknow. In 2021, with the alleged goal of protecting women from street harassment, the state police in Lucknow deployed facial recognition technology in public spaces to identify facial expressions of women in distress, alerting a local police station if necessary. “There is a fundamental problem with that kind of approach, similar to what often happens in the case of women’s safety online. Our solutions should be about expanding the public space and making it more inclusive, not restricting our behaviour”, says Anja.

Building an embodied approach to data

In their work on digital rights of women and sexual minorities in India, IDP has examined how state oppression of these groups is reproduced and reinforced online. During our conversation, Anja explained how their research confirmed that people’s experiences do not match the conception of personal data as something that miraculously exists outside of us, as it can be mined or extracted without our willful cooperation. 

On the contrary, according to Anja, “the line between our physical and virtual bodies is increasingly becoming irrelevant – so much so, in fact, that maintaining the distinction is becoming harmful”. IDP claims that, in the current digital era, the nature and impact of data and data practices have become embodied. A good example of that is the post-Roe debate in the US, in the fears that personal data can be used to prevent women from getting an abortion. In this case, it is clear the ways in which data is used can be experienced in very physical terms, as a violation of bodily integrity. According to Anja, redefining data as something intrinsically linked to our bodies can help us have a healthier and more productive conversation about today’s datafied society and how it can promote and protect human autonomy, dignity and equality.

The feminist perspective on the issue of digital consent

One issue where the feminist theory lens (and, specifically, feminist applied thinking around sexual consent) really brings out the shortcomings of current debates is digital consent. “Consent should be always considered in the context of power relations. Autonomy is relational and if a power relationship is not such that you have real autonomy, then consent can never be meaningful”. 

Current digital consent practices individualise the burden of responsibility without recognising the unequal power relationships of that contract. “There is no other human right that you can simply sign away by ticking a box” – says Anja. If we can start to think about data and bodies as being interconnected, we can reassess policies, practice and design. To do that, we will need to, in the words of Anja and Tripti Jain, “examine and address power imbalances not only in the laws that govern our consent, but in the design, code and political economy of the data infrastructures that shape our possibilities for consent as well“.

You can follow all Anja’s work here.

If you’d like to read more on the topic, here comes a list of links that Anja Kovacs recommended:

About the contributor

Alicja is a consultant, researcher, and a participation strategist interested in technology, culture, and social change. Her experiences include setting up digital communications and participation strategies for companies, social organizations, and cultural institutions such as the LEGO Foundation, Liminal, Danish Statens Museum for Kunst, New Economy Organisers Network, TechSoup, and an artists run gallery Vi lever på polsk.

See Alicja's Articles

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