The places of science in data capitalism and the surveillance society

Helena Machado (Universidade do Minho)

May 5, 2023, 14h00

Keynes Room, Faculty of Economics - UC


“Digital data is the new oil”. This phrase, coined in 2006 by the mathematician Clive Humby, is illustrative of the digital transformation of the last three decades, through which large technological companies (Google, Amazon, Facebook and Apple) massively extract data from their users and analyse them for commercial purposes. By equating digital data with oil, as if it were a “natural” resource, a process of neutralisation occurs that invisibilises the relational, social and political context in which this data is created. This seminar will discuss the main characteristics that this digital transformation has brought to the capitalist system and the modalities of surveillance of the populations' behaviours, with consequences on democracy, the distribution of resources and welfare.

Starting from the specific case of the field of artificial intelligence (AI), the places of science and technology will be approached from a double perspective. On the one hand, laudatory narratives will be presented that emphasize the present and future benefits of AI, while, in a strategy of legitimation, proclaiming the need for “more ethics” and “a pause “in AI development”. On the other hand, the role of critical science and the need for a research agenda on AI for the social sciences will be addressed. Instead of an instrumental ethics, often used by big technology companies and governments, a pragmatic ethics is proposed that allows to envisage scenarios that accommodate the visions, needs and expectations of different social groups, especially the groups most vulnerable to the negative impacts of scientific and technological advances.

Bio note

Helena Machado has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Minho, where she currently holds the position of Full Professor at the Department of Sociology of the Institute of Social Sciences. Her research activity highlights the funding allocated to lead the EXCHANGE project "Geneticistas forenses e a partilha transnacional de informação genética na União Europeia: relações entre ciência e controlo social, cidadania e democracia funded by the European Council (2015-2021). Her research interests intersect a variety of fields, including the social studies of science and technology, social studies of surveillance, critical studies on the use of algorithms and pragmatic ethics. Among the main lines of research, her work problematizing the political processes of reformulating collective problems as security problems and, in particular, the processes of governance through surveillance technologies stand out, topics on which the open conference, entitled: "The places of science in data capitalism and the surveillance society", to be held on May 5, will focus.

Activity within the programme "Governance, Knowledge and Innovation"