In timely fashion, FACT’s forthcoming exhibition The New Observatory explores issues of measurement, prediction and sensing the world today. Sam Skinner, co-curator of the exhibition, considers our contemporary relationship to data through the prisms of inequality, media, and surveillance.

“Use the bloody data!”

These words were spoken by Hetan Shah, the Director of the Royal Statistical Society, at the Open Data Institute Summit in 2016. He was referring to how the world is awash with data (in particular, socio-economic data) that provides powerful means to understand and address issues such inequality, but somehow it gets lost in the mix. The daily clash of ideology, ego, and posturing that defines so much political discourse is bound in a kind of wilful blindness. It is almost as if some people benefit from it, as if there were a 1% and their coterie, in whose interest it was to continue to pursue policies regardless of the data. Oh…

Due out this month is Danny Dorling’s new book The Equality Effect, which describes how, in more equal countries, human beings are generally happier and healthier, there is less crime, more creativity and higher educational attainment. Furthermore, sustaining very high rates of inequality is also becoming increasingly expensive. He argues that the evidence is now so overwhelming that it should be changing politics and society all over the world.

Discussion of inequality has often been obscured by complicated statistics, like the Gini coefficient and the Theil entropy index, attempting to reduce entire income distributions to a single number. But recently, renowned French economist Thomas Piketty – in his bestselling book Capital In The Twenty-First Century – shifted the focus towards analysing shares of overall income and wealth amassed by the top 10% and 1%. Piketty shows that, as a general rule, wealth grows faster than economic output, meaning that, in an economy where the rate of return on capital outperforms the rate of growth, inherited wealth always grows faster than earned wealth. Or to put it another way: old money makes more money than new money.

“We don’t need the data to know what’s going on; we see it as we go about our everyday lives”

As to how to use this “bloody data”, Piketty suggests a 15% tax on capital, 80% tax on high incomes, enforced transparency for all bank transactions, and overt use of inflation to redistribute wealth downwards.

Are your eyes beginning to glaze over? Are you experiencing that strange effect of data = drowsy? After all, we don’t need the data to know what’s going on; we see it as we go about our everyday lives, we just bloody know! (Bloody-minded!?… how bloody dare you!)

I’m not a data-solutionist, and don’t view a data-centric approach as having all the answers; but, data is being powerfully put to work by the alt-right, the old right, and the 1%, and we ignore it at our peril. Try spending a bit of time on alt-right social media and see the amount of hateful and distorted statistics percolating through their networks.

Equally concerning is the strategic use of data profiling for political campaigning, by Cambridge Analytica in elections in the US and UK, as investigated superbly by Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer recently. Scooping up masses of data from people’s Facebook profiles in a highly-sophisticated means to influence voters through targeted ads, the company boasts on its website that it has 5,000 separate pieces of data on 220 million American voters. Andy Wigmore, Leave.EU’s Communications Director who collaborated with Cambridge Analytica, stated that using data in this way “tells you all sorts of things about that individual and how to convince them with what sort of advert. And you knew there would also be other people in their network who liked what they liked, so you could spread. And then you follow them. The computer never stops learning and it never stops monitoring.” American political strategist Gerry Gunster explained his game plan at the launch of launch of Leave.EU: “The one thing that I know is data… Numbers do not lie. I’m going to follow the data”; and Arron Banks, Leave.EU’s founder, went so far as to say that “A.I. won it for Leave”.

Cheek by jowl with this, the government recently passed the Investigatory Powers Bill, which includes use of “bulk personal datasets” comprising a “majority of individuals” (that’s you and me) and enshrines in law that everyone’s internet history data are now stored for 12 months, amongst many other draconian laws. ‘Done nothing wrong, nothing to worry about,’ goes the argument, conveniently ignoring the fact that mass surveillance disempowers us all on a fundamental level. Good old printed matter, like Bido Lito!, that you pick up without leaving a trace seems a little more attractive, right?


So, what is to be done beyond disappearing off the radar? As Florian Cramer noted in a recent talk at FACT that mapped the alt-right, it’s a movement that lacks strong intellectual foundations. The alt-right must be attacked with empirical precision and creative verve, using both data and media literacy, that is both clear and complex, promoting social justice, ecology, equality, and critiquing surveillance. Simultaneously, be aware of how data may be distorted and be unafraid to use similar tools, but to different ends. As many thousands across the earth chanted as they went on the March For Science on 22nd April 2017: “What do we want? Evidence-based conclusions! When do we want them? Now!”

The New Observatory exhibition at FACT includes powerful works that engage with the above issues, but it also explores the fundamentals of measurement, the construction of data, and the materiality of its inscription. How data is always an invention to some degree, ascribing a value to the phenomena of the world: that, in turn, goes back out into the world, to have its own effect, and be measured again.


The New Observatory opens on 22nd June. Find out more here.

Lead image: Stanza, The Reader, 2015. Image courtesy the artist