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The data economy consolidates social milieu

Personalisation on the internet leads, above all, to us being reflected to ourselves in digital worlds. In an interview, Associate Professor Dr. Jörg Scheffer explains how digitalisation can consolidate existing social conditions, thus massively curtailing opportunities for advancement. 

A new world with unlimited access possibilities and comprehensive equal opportunities – these were the ideas associated with the internet by the digital avant-garde of the nineties. Dr. Scheffer, in your new study Digital verbunden – sozial getrennt (Digitally connected - socially disconnected), however, you show that the gap between rich and poor has possibly been widened by digitalisation.

Jörg Scheffer Exactly. Even if now, in these pandemic times, digitalisation ensures participation in society, and even though there is much to be said for the fact that digitalisation offers a great opportunity to educate oneself across all milieus, I take the opposite view based on my research where I have discovered that the more we rely on digitalisation in an uncritical manner, the greater the danger that social inequality will perpetuate itself and that rich and poor will ultimately drift even further apart. To understand this better, we need to take a look at what the levers of social advancement are. Crucial here is the question of to what extent individuals can access upwardly mobile resources in their lives and how these access options differ across society. There is a widespread consensus that school education plays an important role in this context. However, beyond that: Who am I dealing with? What social contacts do I have in everyday life? What do I learn from others? Can I build social networks which might be helpful for me later on? What kind of behaviour am I exhibiting? What is my taste or what are my preferences and can I use these to connect to other milieus? The sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu, would speak here of social and cultural capital which unequally pre-structures the chances of progression. It is about how I arrive where, and how and where I get ahead. The spatial dimension plays a significant role here, too. For me as a geographer, it makes this topic incredibly interesting.  

PD Dr. Jörg Scheffer im Portrait. Er hat sehr kurze Haare, lächelt freundlich und trägt ein blaues Sakko.

Associate Professor Dr. Jörg Scheffer is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geoinformatics and Geography at the University of Passau. His research interests include digital geographies, cultural theory, urban and social geography, popular culture and spatial representation, geographic information systems and new media.

To what extent does space play a role here?

Scheffer We associate very different living conditions and opportunities with the spatial dimensions. Polarisingly described, some live on the outskirts of the city on a large housing estate, whilst others reside in an affluent inner-city neighbourhood. Differing opportunity structures go hand-in-hand with these various locations. Whilst the privileged sections of the population benefit from upwardly-mobile resources in their environment, i.e. they have access to helpful contacts and stimuli and are directly confronted with advantageous role patterns, modes of expression and trends, this access is only available to the ‘disadvantaged’ milieus to a very limited extent. The residential environment, the accessible schools, the leisure facilities used, or the nearby supply facilities are spaces for the appropriation of resources relevant to advancement – spaces that can be reached, used and perceive by city dwellers in very different ways, however. Thus, if I do not have the appropriate or sufficient funds, education, taste, style, etc., I am excluded from many situations and remain relegated to my own milieu.

But is it not precisely here that the internet can be the window to ‘another’ world?

Scheffer This is a good and also obvious argument, because digitalisation basically promises that I can ‘skip’ spaces, that I can actually deal intensively with codes and ways-of-life that are foreign to my milieu and, moreover, that I can gain access. It appears initially, that the many social hurdles of real space do not exist in cyberspace – in the digital sphere. It seems as if one only has to refer to these resources in order to empower the individual in the process of social progression.

The rapidly developing data economy consolidates and reproduces that which is already in us.

PD Dr. Jörg Scheffer, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geoinformatics and Geography at the University of Passau

This is, however, only at the first glance, as cyberspace indeed also demands a fee. As is well-known, this fee is not, or rather rarely, monetary. In fact, a new currency is taking the place of conventional payment, our data. It is this we hand over every day for almost everything we do in the digital sphere, but partly also in real space. Conveniently, we all have this data in bulk, so that even the less educated milieus are not, at least initially, at a disadvantage. What is crucial, however, is how this data is used, and what consequences this has for the individual. Here we come to a newer point in research. How does the data economy work, and how does the valorisation of the personal fall back on consumers? Problematically, we again encounter restrictions which are socially quite unequal and burden the socially and financially-weak, educationally-deprived sections of the population more than the others.

In what way? Can you be more specific?

Scheffer The more accurate and in-depth the information collected about us, the more valuable it becomes. Personal data is increasingly becoming a guarantor of business success. With it, companies can plan better, assess risks, and precisely target production and marketing to the respective customer. Behaviour can be predicted more and more. The accuracy of fit of data, which is also continuously being increased by merging different data sets, has sparked a new data economy. It also includes numerous data merchants who can fulfil a wide range of requests for companies on a large scale. Social circumstances, payment behaviour, creditworthiness, leisure habits, consumer preferences – all these are no longer secrets for data traders. In the cycle of the data economy, we are finally confronted again with our data, because this data would be worthless if it was not actually monetised. Irrespective of whether it is insurance, credit conditions or shopping offers, they all function data-based in that they reach you in a particularly precise way. However, these exact feeds ultimately mean that each and every individual is increasingly confronted with him or herself. Dating agencies have long relied heavily on social criteria, but even educational offers, social contacts and information that are fed to me are personalised.

What we perceive or enjoy as a gain in relevance is actually a creeping self-reflection.

PD Dr. Jörg Scheffer, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Geoinformatics and Geography at the University of Passau

What we perceive or enjoy as a gain in relevance is actually a creeping self-reflection. We are dealing with a personalised allocation system which offers us what suits us with increasing precision. Conversely, it systematically excludes what is foreign and instructive, and it is this finding which is extremely significant for the issue of social advancement opportunities: the rapidly developing data economy consolidates and reproduces that which is already in us. It picks us up from ourselves whilst, at the same time, leaving us where we already are. For the acquisition of the resources described above, the digital measurement and the valorisation of the ‘data gold’ based on it massively compromises individual options.

This means that if it is not possible to think digitally outside the box, everyone continues to move only in his or her own resonance space. 

Scheffer That is exactly the tendency – that which Eli Pariser already described as the filter bubble eight years ago and which, at that time, essentially related to information, we can now extend to all areas that are relevant for social progression. When it comes to drawing resources from outside the milieu, we quickly realise that this filter bubble is much more comprehensive. Naturally, one still has the freedom to click and access other things, too, but the custom-fit suggestions and feeds have a certain hermetic effect. Even more limiting are influences that reach directly into our real-spatial everyday life. There are exciting interactions between cyberspace and real space: movement data, for example, reveals a great deal about who I am, what I do and to which milieu I belong. There are techniques, such as geo-scoring, which evaluate my address and thus assign me certain creditworthiness values. Based on customer data, supermarket assortments adapt to the surrounding population and apps guide us to partners, special offers or holiday attractions in line with individual preferences. This means that milieu-specific or personalised targeting is increasingly interfering in our everyday lives and does not stop when we switch off the computer.

I find the question of spatiality – digital space vs. real space – interesting. In your considerations, very great impact is attributed to digital space. I could also say, somewhat naively, that I sit at my computer and see this and that and enter my data, but I also move outside of the digital space – or, put the another way; can equality in the digital space prevent me from becoming an education climber in the real space?  

Scheffer Real space and digital space are increasingly becoming registration plates for everyday routines, for what interests me in everyday life and what makes me tick, that which shapes me – both of these are spheres of personalised address and valorisation. Basically, however, this distinction is artificial, because with the smartphone, for example, you can always be in virtual and real space at the same time. Let me illustrate this with the example of role models: In real space, in socially-weak, educationally-deprived milieus, I am often far away from those role models I could emulate. However, I cannot really get to know them in the virtual space either. I can get in touch with many people there, but when it comes to binding relationships, friendships that help me in real life, scientific evaluations show that this is rarely the case.

So, the dynamics you describe basically lead to a further segmentation of society?

Scheffer In the long run, they lead to a consolidation of social conditions. In principle, it is undisputed that social permeability remains very low, especially in Germany, and that educational opportunities correlate with social background. We are increasingly confronted with a drifting apart of rich and poor, as current figures more than clearly show. Furthermore, in recent years, we have seen an increased social sorting in the cities: it is hardly possible for the socially-disadvantaged to live in attractive locations. Ultimately, this also dictates the resources and opportunities available for advancement and this, in turn, is the basis for data collection. The address you give and what you do in this space plays a very big role.

Do the users actually realise this?

Scheffer No, I don’t think so. In our society, it is a big challenge just to communicate that we permanently pay with data, although I actually think this has been widely communicated in the feature pages in recent years. What is decisive is what the collected data increasingly does in and with our everyday lives. Our everyday spaces are insidiously – both online and offline – being interspersed with ‘mirrors’. The past and the biographical become the basis of an economic address, and the leaving of the old biography actually forms the prerequisite for social progression.

How can the described development of increasingly mirrored spaces and social inequality be stopped?   

Scheffer I see two perspectives: one is that digital literacy should be defined more broadly through educational processes. We need even better education about the effects that giving away one’s own data has on everyday social life. Very few people know about the data economy. Another strategy could be to strategically acquire a certain data portfolio, or to strategically feed one’s own portfolio with data. This would also require further education and guidance.    

Both of these scenarios are more on the user side. Does this mean that you do not see any way of stopping the data profiteers by means of regulatory and political decisions?

Scheffer No, I think that one can achieve more by means of legislative procedures. After all, we already have a relatively strict data protection regulation in Europe, a much stronger one than in the USA, for example. However, we see that this regulation does not put a stop to companies’ passion for collecting data. I believe that, in our data-driven economy, it is hardly possible to completely stop this process from the political side. After all, it is an enormous challenge to erase that which has already been collected – data which has long since evaporated in numerous virtual places in a global exploitation system. However, I would still see politics as being responsible, because it is a matter of setting the right educational accents.  

The interview was conducted by Barbara Weinert.


This article first appeared in the online edition of the specialised professional journal, ‘tv diskurs.Verantwortung in audiovisuellen Medien’ on the 28th May 2021.


About the Method: Empirical Research Design.

An insight into the data-economic exploitation practices and their reproductive influence was able to be gained via the portfolios of big data traders. The providers on the German market hold customer profiles, company addresses and email contacts to the quantity of several million each. Numerous additional characteristics on consumer behaviour, socio-demographics, the housing and living situation, the likelihood of switching health insurers, as well as the affinity for bargain shopping, are recorded and can be selected according to interest. From a spatial perspective, and in view of this extensive offer, it was possible to pursue the question of how this data intervenes in the individual’s everyday life and to what extent it can influence the opportunity structure of a city dweller.

The visualisation of user-data from Berlin, Munich and Essen showed, in a cluster form, the different milieus in the urban space with the specific preferences of the residents. It exemplifies how an externally-arranged linkage of groups (e.g. neighbourhood residents with a certain affinity for bargain shopping) with offers and information (e.g. low-priced articles via home shopping) comes about via interest-dependent selection processes. The consumer becomes a multiple target for data buyers based on the recorded characteristics. The more intensively personalised products and services are brought to the neighbourhood residents, the more likely it is that they will organise their daily lives in a self-referential way and stick with the familiar which, in turn, preserves social relations.

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