Contexting the Digital 

Researching, teaching, or studying the digital often suffers from the fantasy of digital separation.

  • An algorithm is blamed in the popular press for introducing biases rather than the people who decided which algorithms to use, and what data to train it on.
  • Digital research methods often give misleading results. Natural language processing extracts word patterns from the page, it does not provide “meaning.”
  • Online interactions or phenomena are written about as if they can be separated from the offline world.

There has been pushback against the tendency to extract the digital from its social, economic and political context from the very beginning of its analysis. Science and technology studies was founded on the insistence that technologies and societies, people and methods, exist in a relationship of “mutual shaping.”

My own background working in international development with an interest in Asia and a concern with international economic justice, has informed the contexts I use to better understand the digital.

In 2020, I completed an EU-funded Marie Skłodowska Curie grant titled “The Political Economy of Data: Comparing the Asian Giants.”  It aimed to bring out some Global South perspectives on the international struggles between states and large corporations over the value derived from their citizens’ personal data.

Publications from this grant included:

Hicks, Jacqueline (2020) ‘Digital ID Capitalism: How Emerging Economies are Re-Inventing Digital Capitalism’, Contemporary Politics, DOI: 10.1080/13569775.2020.1751377

While most eyes are fixed on the usual suspects, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, a different model of digital capitalism is arriving in the emerging economies of the Global South.

Based on state-generated identity data rather than the data trails left on the internet, this ‘digital ID capitalism’ is touted as a response to the ‘data colonisation’ of US Big Tech, and as a way to develop a home-grown digital economy.

The article describes how the system works in India, explaining how businesses make money from the personal data collected through India’s Aadhaar and India Stack.

Framing this type of economic exploitation of personal data as a capitalist system helps us think ahead to other ways this twenty-first century resource could be governed in the future.

So I then turned to the potential for the collective community ownership of personal data in a “data commons.”

Hicks, Jacqueline (in revision) ‘A Sociology of the Data Commons’

The idea of the communal ownership of personal data is often weighed down by Western conceptions of property rights. My contribution aims to highlight the utility of non-Western practices of communal property. It also suggests routes to research the potential of data commons by focusing on communicative practices, shared narrative and multiple levels of governance in group experiments using existing software.

Leaving behind such future speculation, I moved back to the present with an analysis of the political interests, institutional pathways and ideologies surrounding the governance of personal data in one emerging economy – Indonesia.

Hicks, Jacqueline (2021 forthcoming) ‘A Data Realm for the Global South? Evidence from Indonesia’, Third World Quarterly

The article adapts the North American “information-security complex” for developing countries with their post-colonial economies, self-interested oligarchic elites and hybrid state-commercial data firms, showing tight matrices of domestic political and economic interests around data regulation.

It contrasts with the approach of donors or international policy analysts which tend to present data governance in developing countries as either chaotic or absent.

Previously, I organised an international conference on digital politics in Asia…


Digital Disruption in Asia: Methods and Issues

How are internet technologies assimilated and understood in Asia compared to other parts of the world?

In what ways does the internet challenge or reinforce established political and economic institutions in Asia?

What effect does the everyday use of digital technologies have on the development of language, religion and popular culture in the region?

…and put together an edited volume from some of the conference papers. My introduction to the special issue:

Hicks, Jacqueline, ‘Digital Disruption in Asia: Power, Technology and Society‘, Asiascape: Digital Asia 4 (1), 2017.

“While the conference’s title, “Digital Disruption in Asia”, focused on the impact of digital technologies in Asian societies, what emerged were much more complex stories detailing the different ways the technologies are used in their offline contexts.

This introduction traces these stories, identifying some common elements of digitality that range from constant connectivity, to mobility, speed, and the potential to break down social and even disciplinary boundaries.”

Digital Methods


I worked on a multi-disciplinary project, Elite Network Shifts, which used “digital methods”, like text mining and social network analysis, to find information about political elites from digitised media. It gave me a detailed understanding of what the methods can (and cannot) do, and a renewed appreciation of the difference between humanistic and scientific methods.

Hicks, Jacqueline (2015), ‘Turning digitised newspapers into networks of political elite‘, Asian Journal of Social Science 43: 567-587. Explains what some of the digital methods really entail.
Hicks, Jacqueline (2015) with Vincent Traag & Ridho Reinanda, ‘Old questions, new techniques: A research note on the computational identification of political elites‘, Comparative Sociology 14-3: 386-401. A new digital way to identify a population of political elites.

I presented about how the computational results could be folded into mainstream political analysis at international Asian studies conferences


The Ties that Bind: Indonesian Political Elite Attendance at Wedding Receptions, Association for Asian Studies (AAS), April 2, 2016.
Exploring Press Bias in Indonesia with Computational Techniques, International Convention of Asian Scholars (ICAS), July 8 2015.
Media Representations of Jokowi and Prabowo in the 2014 Election Campaign, European Association for Southeast Asian Studies (EuroSEAS), August 14, 2015.

…while remaining critically engaged with the digital methods community about the significance of context and interpretation:

Tool Criticism for Digital Humanities, Amsterdam, 22 May 2015.
Beyond the Digital Humanities: Final Network Event, Senate House London, 5 May 2015.
A Humanities Voice in Digital Humanities? 12 Feb 2014, eHumanities, Amsterdam.

What does the humanities bring to the digital humanities? Are there any methodological principles from the humanities that can be incorporated into the design of digital tools and environments? What could that look like in practice?

Digital humanities in 2015: notes on the development of a field
Reality bites: reflections on ground-truthing
Disciplining the digital