In response to users who complain about the use of their data online, many technology companies shrug: “If you don’t like it, you can just opt out.” But how realistic is this? Can anyone truly opt out, and yet maintain an active digital lifestyle? And what happens if you do? Vertesi reports here on a series of personal experiments aimed at opting out of data detection and evading storage and platforms associated with the personal data economy, conducted over the past six years. These enact what Geof Bowker calls an “infrastructural inversion” to reveal the assumptions about how, where, and why data travels, and what is required to avoid participation. Through experiments that range from mundane in inconvenient to ridiculous and even dangerous, Vertesi presents implications for privacy, security, and the construction of tools to support what she calls “digital homesteading.” The fact that most people stay on these platforms despite their discontent reveals that opting out is much more difficult – and sometimes much more technically demanding – than it seems.
Janet Vertesi specializes in the sociology of science, knowledge, and technology. She has spent the past seven years studying several NASA spacecraft teams as an ethnographer. Her book, Seeing like a Rover: Images and Interaction on the Mars Exploration Rover Mission (Chicago, 2014) draws on over two years of ethnographic immersion with the Mars Exploration Rover mission to show how scientists and engineers use digital images to conduct scientific research on another planet. She is currently working on followup study of the NASA-ESA Cassini mission to Saturn focusing on the role of sociotechnical organization in research, data-sharing, and decision-making on robotic spacecraft teams. Vertesi is also interested in the digital sociology: whether studying computational systems in social life, shifting sociological methods online, or applying sociological insights to build new technologies. She holds a master’s degree from Cambridge and a Ph.D. from Cornell, has received several grants from the National Science Foundation, and was awarded the Hacker-Mullins prize for best graduate student paper from the American Sociological Association, Science, Knowledge and Technology section in 2007.
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