New research will tell us more about what losing data means
Text: Martine Mengers (email@example.com) Photo: CBS
You have most likely tried it. You may have emptied the trash can on your computer only to discover that it contained files that you still need. Or perhaps your iPhone died before you managed to upload the photos of your children to the Cloud. There are many ways to lose data, and it is exactly this everyday perspective on data loss that constitutes the point of departure for Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s new research project, “DALOSS”.
She is Associate Professor at the Department of Management, Society and Communication at Copenhagen Business School, where among other things, she conducts research on politics and ethics in relation to data and machine learning. And she is also one of the recipients of the prestigious annual ERC’s Starting Grant, which the European Research Council awards to top-researchers who have 2-7 years of experience since completing their Ph.D.
Nanna Bonde Thylstrup was awarded a grant amounting to approximately 15 million DKK for her research on what it means to lose data.
For several years now, she has researched so-called big data and questions related to the fact that we produce more and more data. During this process, it became clear that while we have knowledge about the opportunities and challenges the accumulation of data poses to both society in general and individuals, we still know very little in terms of what it means to lose data and how we should even understand data loss.
“When we hear about data loss, it is often in connection with spectacular cases like the one about ‘Deleting Mette’, or like now that Elon Musk bought Twitter and we’re facing a potentially giant loss of data. However, we know very little about the everyday challenges and opportunities embedded in data loss, and that will only become more and more important, the more data we produce and the more demands there are for getting rid of data in the shape of, for example, GDPR,” explains Nanna Bonde Thylstrup.
Thus, the overall purpose of the five-year research project is to find out more about what losing data actually means and which decisions data loss involves.
“Just think about your own everyday life. You probably delete data every day, like when you delete an email or start using a new phone without transferring all the information from the old one. I want to understand this area in everyday terms. What actually happens when we press delete. On the one hand, there is this narrative that the Internet never forgets, while on the other hand, we lose and actively delete data every day. And both scenarios include a sense of security, but also risk.”
Who gets to define when something is a loss?
According to the researcher, a better understanding of what data loss means will also make it easier to understand how we define the importance of something.
“A loss is always normatively defined. Something can be experienced as a great loss to you, but a mere trifle to others, and this is when an interest in social and political aspects come into play. Who actually gets to define when something is a loss? Thus, the point of departure for this project is not that losing data is a problem. The point of departure is getting a better theoretical frame of understanding. What are we actually talking about when we talk about data loss,” elaborates Nanna Bonde Thylstrup, before providing another example:
“Look at cultural institutions. They are highly aware that you cannot keep everything that has ever been produced, and often, is it exactly the selection that generates value. If you just collect stuff, making heads or tails of your collection can eventually become difficult. Then the socio-political question arises: who gets to decide what should be saved and what should be deleted and that is also a question about how we even begin to measure, define and understand when something is of importance.”
The human perspective in digitalisation is important
The inspiration for Nanna Bonde Thylstrup’s project came while she was writing her Ph.D. dissertation. In it, she examined the political aspects of mass digitalisation, particularly in cultural institutions, and she spent much time mapping how, for example, books are transferred from an analogue to a digital format and which processes are involved.
“One of the things I noticed back then was that there was a lot of stuff that was never digitalised. So, how did people make those decisions?” she says, and explains that her general interest in digitalisation dates back even further:
“I have always been interested in how digitalisation changes the way we are in the world. It is not only the technical aspect that is relevant. Digital changes are as much about people and culture. It changes the way we see ourselves and it affects our behaviour, by, for example, providing us with new ways of reading and listening to music.”