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Worried about big data tracking your life? This public conversation can help.
Find out how corporations are making money from your data.
January 29, 2016

ASU's Human Security Collaboratory hosts conversations about how your personal data is used by corporations

“Big data” sounds like it could be a pretty boring topic, maybe not something you want to bring up during a dinner party. 

But the intrigue builds when you discover that corporations are making money off the data you create while grocery shopping, applying for a home loan or casually strolling through the mall, transforming our everyday activities into "invisible labor" for them. It’s part of the “big data” construct, a virtual representation of your movements, interests and interactions tied to purchases and the use of our many smart devices.

In an effort to inform the public about big data and how it’s used, Arizona State University’s Human Security Collaboratory is hosting a series of “Critical Conversations” about human security research and impact activities. The first of these free, public conversations, “(Un) Corporal Technologies: How Data, Algorithms and Interfaces Rub Up Against the Body,” is from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 1, in room 492 of Interdisciplinary Science and Technology Building 4 (ISTB4), on the Tempe campus.

While new technologies and devices have shaped and redefined our world, not all of it is for the better. The information shed from your devices and personal computer can also be detrimental — it can prevent a person from getting a job, a house or vital medical coverage — all because your data is packaged and sold to corporations who may be using your personal data for very different purposes.

“The legal world has yet to catch up with what our digital tools are doing in our everyday lives in regards to Digital Civil Rights,” said Jacqueline Wernimont, a professor in the Department of English and co-founder of ASU’s recently formed Human Security Collaboratory.

“Everyday technology puts you at risk because the information is shared and sold, and has a much bigger impact than most people realize.”

Launched by the Global Security InitiativeThe Global Security Initiative (GSI) is a university-wide interdisciplinary hub for global security research that focuses on openness, inclusiveness and connections to the global defense, development and diplomacy communities. The initiative addresses emerging global challenges characterized by complex interdependencies and conflicting objectives, where there may not be obvious solutions. GSI also serves as ASU’s primary interface to the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community and ASURE (ASU Research Enterprise), an off-campus research facility., the Human Security Collaboratory is focused on addressing complex problems affecting the security of individuals and communities, with a special emphasis on digital technologies and their uses.

“The idea of big data is a very intangible thing, and many people might not even know what it means,” said Jessica Rajko, a professor in the School of Film, Dance and TheatreThe School of Film, Dance and Theatre is part of the Herberger Institute of Design and the Arts., who, along with Wernimont, is co-director of the collaboratory.

“So how do we start to engage the public to make them not only understand what it means, but also how it can be meaningful for them?”

Last semester, Wernimont and Rajko presented “Vibrant Lives and Data Archives,” a performance installation that demonstrated the concept of personal “data shed” by providing an experience in which the data could be seen, heard and felt.

Data shed refers to the nearly 3.5 million bytes of data produced per person, per day. The data is unique to each person because it is derived from things like smartphone apps or wearable fitness devices that record a person’s behavior and data. It sounds relatively innocuous until Wernimont cites a few examples.

“If you’re at the mall with your iPhone or Android in your pocket with the Bluetooth on, it is possible to track what stores you've visited and for how long,” Wernimont said. “Or, let’s say you’re a recruiter searching for potential employees on a job website and put in certain parameters and lo and behold, there’s nothing but male candidates for the job. Well, that's potentially the result of algorithms that are favoring a certain community and that's illegal. Similarly, we see the phenomenon of reverse redlining, which has leveraged everyday information to target people for subprime loans.”

And that discount card you use at the grocery store that entitles you to some pretty smokin’ deals? Rest assured the corporation who owns the grocer is not only using it to track consumer behavior, but is probably selling the data to others and getting their money back tenfold.

Which is why the collaborative is engaging ASU faculty and researchers with its series of lunchtime conversation.

“What we’re doing is finding as many different ways as possible to meet the average person where they are in terms of knowledge about their data shed,” said Rajko, who said the collaborative will also host lab sessions, host a personal data and wearable-devices charette and present its work at an international retreat.

“These are all creative strategies to understand and address these topics because our goal is to be proactive rather than reactive.”

Human Security Critical Conversations:

• “(Un) Corporal Technologies: How Data, Algorithms and Interfaces Rub Up Against the Body,” 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 1 in ISTB4 492

• “Who Has the Rights? Data Ownership, Invisible Labor, and Agency,” 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 22 in ISTB4 492

• “Healthy Data: Health, Data and Healthy Practices in the Age of the Quantified-Self,” 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. March 21 in ISTB4 492

• “Algorithmic Bias: Subjectivity and Implicit Biases in Algorithm and Tech Design,” 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. April 18 in ISTB4 492

Reporter , ASU Now


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Rhetoric does not have to be negative.
ASU prof: Rhetoric can be used for good.
January 29, 2016

ASU professor says rhetoric does not have to carry a negative connotation

In the age of the 24-hour news cycle, where quick soundbytes and images out of context dominate the online realm, rhetoric rules.

In an election year, this is especially so. And with the Iowa Caucus starting Monday, the political rhetoric around the 2016 presidential election is only going to grow.

To the general popular, “rhetoric” is seen as a negative entity; the kind of sentiment built on ignorance or passionate reaction — again, the kind of thing that flourishes in a viral news world. But Elenore Long, a professor in Arizona State University’s Department of English in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, says that "rhetoric" is more than just the slimy use of language and manipulation. Rhetoric at its best, she says, is the means by which people discover solutions to pressing, shared matters of concern. 

Long, along with English doctoral student Kayla A. Bruce, spoke to ASU Now on the eve of the caucus about the true dynamics of rhetoric, how it can foster understanding and what people should look for in a political candidate.

Women discussing things.
Associate professor Elenore Long discusses the use of rhetoric in accountable and dangerous forms, in her office with doctoral candidate Kayla Bruce, on Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2016. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now

Question: How would you help voters identify what’s productive rhetoric and what’s manipulation?

Long: Productive rhetoric has some features, especially in relation to political discourse, as an approach to language. It doesn’t try to clobber difference or squash someone who might have another opinion or ideas. It’s also about a way of thinking about language in terms of the debate open for public discussion as much as the claims that the talk is driving. Another feature of productive political rhetoric is that it’s attentive to peoples’ experiences with policies and practices that come from public policy.

Rhetoric that’s manipulative tries to hide the means by which it attempts to persuade. It knows that that might feel like spin or manipulation if the audience understands how that argument was produced. Rhetoric that’s not manipulative isn’t afraid to open up the ways in which the argument is working.

Bruce: Most effective rhetoric speaks through action or change whereas manipulative rhetoric sort of speaks over groups and experiences and tries to wash everything into a clean, compact element, as opposed to speaking to the variety of the situation.

Q: When during the election process have you observed moments when the terms of the debate itself has opened up in some interesting and useful ways?

Long: During the election campaign public discourse itself has opened up in interesting ways — tragically, after the San Bernardino massacre. The shootings fostered some political candidates (to present a) discourse about Muslims that was overarching and hateful. Other politicians stepped in to interrogate the accuracy of those kinds of claims to think about the consequences of overstating identity politics and misrepresenting billions of people around the world and many patriotic Muslims in the country itself. Attention to the toxicity of the misuse of language, I think, when politicians have done that work, helped to enrich the dialogue.

One of my favorite instances during this political campaign was when two political reporters from MSNBC traded places. The Democratic reporter covered the Republican party and vice versa, and compared on what they saw and what surprised them. Interestingly, that comparison allowed them to try and find the logic of the two parties. It also opened up talk about what the parties care about and what drives voters.

Bruce: Rhetoric is best and works best as dialogue. The recent news of Donald Trump’s refusal to participate in the Republic GOP debate hosted by FOX News underscores the idea that, how can you be effective if you’re not participating in dialogue? I think that for me demonstrates what rhetoric does.

Q: What are some of the attributes we should we be looking for in a presidential candidate?

Long: I believe one of the most important attributes we should be looking at in a candidate is a stance toward problem solving. Someone who thinks about listening to other people as part of an imaginative team who is attentive to the ways that are important and particular in this moment in time. A recent NPR story covered why people are leery of voting — stalled economic progress, terrorism, demographic changes, immigration. Those are matters that goodwill alone isn’t going to solve, but we need rhetoric to employ new and imaginative ways to create different responses to perplexing issues.

Bruce: Attending to dialogues with different groups that might be overlooked or marginalized, I think, starts to get at the issues that Elenore has outlined.

Q: It appears people no longer debate or enter into a discourse; rather, they shout each other down and continue to make their point.

Long: I believe there is truth in that statement. A lot of the ways that the media and politicians structure press coverage, it can look more like a circus than a debate. What’s really exciting right now about the coverage is that there are various and creative ways that people are joining in the messy work of rhetoric. For example, in Chicago there’s a group of ministers who have gotten together to listen to a group of young men’s experiences about police officers; these ministers have started to theorize what’s been happening in these moments of altercation. Before that, the work would go under the radar. I think smart politicians are able to circle back around to those lively and untidy ways people are listening and learning from each other. Experimentation with town hall meetings and other forums are other ways we are benefitting from creative people who are trying to make word and policy work in their lives.

Bruce: That builds on the concept of rhetorical listening as opposed to persuasion, and is a very useful way of engaging.

Reporter , ASU Now