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JOHNSON. Nathan R. & Meredith A. Johnson

Fall 2020, 50.5, pages: 368-382

Precarious Data: Affect, Infrastructure, and Public Education


This essay contributes to scholarship on precarity and rhetoric by exploring how participatory epideictic rhetorics, data, and infrastructure contribute to precarity. We concentrate on how shared data practices (i.e., systems for archiving, storing, distributing, and communicating information) produce and sustain human/material vulnerabilities for users, developers, and systems with observational research of VirtualLearners, a business that created, aggregated, and sold data (i.e., videos, texts, and games) to educators. We argue that VirtualLearners’s glitching online ratings system and its associated data nurtured user precarity by encouraging barriers to education, the basis of economic and social mobility. In this essay, we expose VirtualLearners’s backstage computational techniques and tactics that transformed the rhetorical capacities made available to students and teachers. As part of this study, we introduce the concept of affective data technologies to explain how publics are encouraged to become invested in data practices that can make them complicit in their own precarity.



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