Scott Wark

15 May 2020

The Figurations: Persons In/Out of Data conference was held at Goldsmiths, University of London, in December, 2019. Over two days, it gathered researchers from across the humanities and social sciences to explore how the concept of the “figure” and its cognates—figuration, to figure, to figure out, and so on—might inform the theoretical frameworks and methodological formulations we use to study developing personalisation and data practices.

In the conference’s blurb, we summed up the conference’s interests like this: [t]he intersection between data and person isn’t fixed; it has to be figured. Per its subtitle, the conference was interested in persons, the putative subjects of the processes of personalisation that we study here at People Like You. But it was also interested in the data processing techniques that make persons tractable to processes like personalisation. Our proposition was quite simple: perhaps what these data processing techniques do, in otherwise-distinct domains—perhaps what they have in common—is that they configure and distribute personhood in the data they assemble, as outputs for other operations. Our gambit was that making this proposition the basis of a conference would encourage other scholars, from a range of disciplines, to come and think through it with us. And it did.

Over two days, we hosted four keynote presentations, by AbdouMaliq Simone and Wendy H. K. Chun on the first day and Jane Elliott and John Frow on the second. 45 papers were also delivered by 61 researchers from a wide range of disciplines and places, including the medical humanities, anthropology, sociology, media studies, geography, human-computer interaction, literature, art history, legal studies, and visual cultures.

Each day was punctuated at beginning and end by a keynote presentation. The first day started with Simone’s discussion of how a “we” is—must—be configured in order to continue to inhabit a planet that’s in excess of our experience and understanding. The day was capped off by a presentation by Chun on the discriminatory politics of the machine-learning-based recognition systems that subtend and orchestrate many of our relations with networked technologies. The second day started with a presentation by Jane Elliott on longitudinal research, which used the example of the 1958 British Birth Cohort Study to discuss, with great nuance, what challenges face researchers working on figuring individuals over large time scales or, conversely, using the micro-scale data offered by wearable technologies. Finally, John Frow concluded the conference with a presentation on “data shadows,” which connected questions of surveillance and data processing to the problem of how we might recognise ourselves in their products.

Particular themes emerged over the course of two days, both in these keynotes and in the parallel sessions that they bookended. Many presenters offered compelling conceptualisations of the different ways that persons might be figured, whether as patients or users, data doubles or digital subjects; whether imagined as individuals or as they’re assembled, by data, into collectives. Other presenters focused more on data and how it’s processed, conceptualising abstract processes as figures that configure or constitute persons. Matt Spencer’s presentation, for instance, articulated the configuring influence of trust over the infrastructures that manage data, whilst Emma Garnett unpicked how pollution has to be figured, in order for us to understand it and, so, understand our relationship to it. This variety was stimulating. It also contributed to a sense of coherence in the concept of the figure we’d adopted as a guiding thread.

What emerged from these papers was a sense that the concept of the figure was multiple, but nevertheless helped us get a handle on how data and persons are mutually configured, as, for example, figures of speech, or inter-operable subjects. How it does is different in different contexts, depending on what techniques and technologies are involved and to what ends they’re employed. But the concept of the figure and its cognates help us to apprehend figuration as a process with particular characteristic features. It helps us see what data are and what data do. It captures data by tracking what people do. It makes data commensurable by establishing likenesses. It situates data in contexts that delimit its scope. What emerges are figures of persons constituted in/out of data.

Finally, it also brought home a key point that, for me at least, often tacitly informs the work People Like You does as a team. To study problems that arise from the relationship of persons and data, that are large scale, and that cut across very different domains—in our case, personalisation—we have to adopt interdisciplinary approaches informed by novel methods. Moreover, we need concepts that are fit for purpose. This conference affirmed to us that the figure and figuration is just such a concept. At scale, it can do the kind of conceptual work we need to understand the complex processes that inform how we might understand a person to be.

It’s a few months after the conference, but we’ve still been working with its outcomes. We’re aiming to make available an edited collection of papers by keynotes and presenters from the conference and members of the PLY team. We hope this collection will capture something of the breadth that made the conference successful. But we also hope that it’ll give readers conceptual and methodological tools to do their own figuring.

We’ll have more on this soon. In the meantime, thanks to everyone who presented or attended!

For photos of the conference, check out our gallery.