Data, power and the future society


With the advent of social media, recommender systems, mobile applications, artificial intelligence and other data-driven technologies, many aspects of our everyday life are captured in the form of data and used for various purposes.  

The datafication of society creates significant opportunities as well as challenges. On the one hand, it drives (technological) innovation and gives us detailed insights to tackle a wide array of societal challenges. On the other hand, it affects our privacy and autonomy, and disproportionally gives too much power to tech companies and governments.  

Not only the ways in which data are gathered and analyzed, but also the almost religious belief in data as well as their representation in industry and policy discourses display mechanisms of power play. Data-driven technologies are often perceived as neutral with a natural effect on society (technological determinism) or presented as key in solving societal issues (technological solutionism). The popular phrasing “Algorithms aren’t biased, but society is”, for example presents an instrumentalist philosophy of technology that is ignorant of its social construction and pushes away responsibilities to end-users ( see, Responsibilization).  


It is imec-mict-UGent's mission to empower people in digitizing society. We aim to analyze the complex interrelationship of data, technology and power, and study technological innovations within the social, political and economic systems in which they are embedded.  We seek to identify power asymmetries, mitigate responsabilization, and amplify the voices of (vulnerable) audiences to whom data-driven technologies are targeted. Believing that innovation needs to be ‘inclusive’ (equal participation of stakeholders) and ‘sustainable’ (balance between economy, environment and society), we aim to advise public and private stakeholders on how to develop and introduce new technology in a responsible and trustworthy manner. 

Research pillars 

At imec-mict-UGent, we: 

  1. Examine how data-driven technologies pervade our privacy, erode social norms and create biases in the outcome they produce. 
  2. Reflect critically on the desirability of data-driven technologies and the ways they are used and designed to tackle societal problems. 
  3. Analyze uneven power relationships in media and technology industries, identify conflicts of interests and elaborate on the business models that drive the datafication of society. 
  4. Investigate technological, organizational and institutional adaptations (ecosystems, ethics, values, policy and governance) as well as changes in human behavior, practices and norms. 
  5. Provide social and technical recommendations so to ensure that the development of data-driven technologies meet end-users' norms and ethics.