Speculative Relations: Data and Digitalization Work in the Danish Public-Private Tech Sector

Research output: Book / Anthology / Report / Ph.D. thesisPh.D. thesis


The data revolution is here, and society is being fundamentally transformed by digitalization. Or so the story goes. Digital technologies and data may have tangibly changed society, but the revolution has been in hype, hot air, and buzzwords. As Big Tech consolidates and monopolizes, speculation runs rampant on the next big disruption. Denmark is at the forefront of public sector digitalization, and its industries are knowledge-intensive and innovative. Professionals from both the public and private sectors mingle to figure out how to seize the data moment.

This dissertation seeks to study how such speculation on, with, and about data is related to the ongoing work of digitalization in both the private and public sectors of Denmark – which the dissertation names digitalization work. In order to conduct this study, it draws on a range of disparate research traditions including STS, technofeminist studies, e-Government studies, CSCW, Speculative Design, and Critical Data Studies. They enable an interdisciplinary engagement which identifies what the dissertation calls speculative relations between data and digitalization work. It does so by taking a relational and ethnographic approach which ‘follows’ data as a sociomaterial actor, from the collapse of a public-private big data infrastructure project, through a gyre of tech events filled with hype, to an innovation project in a public sector organization. Through its relational approach, the dissertation is able to trace how data is connected through speculation to the actual work of digitalization. Furthermore, by developing a speculative ethnography, the dissertation not only studies but also engages with speculation as an opportunity for different futures. It does so by exploring its own role in speculation on data, through reflexive enrollment in the field and design practices. In its three research papers, the dissertation redescribes and conceptualizes the role played by speculation on data in digitalization work. The papers identify specific speculative relations by developing concepts such as ‘hot air’ and ‘speculative data work,’ and describe how figures such as ‘digital humanists’ are speculated about. Together, these studies describe how speculation on data precedes digitalization work, and pervades the work practices, infrastructures, and relations to labor such work consists of. The papers also explore how these relations can be intervened in through designing alternative infrastructures and developing more situated critiques.

The dissertation thereby contributes original knowledge to the empirical understanding of speculation, data, and how digitalization takes place, and makes a theoretical contribution by bringing research on speculation into contact with research of data, digitalization and work. The dissertation thereby argues for the importance of paying attention to speculation, if we are to understand the actual changes that data and digitalization are causing.
Original languageEnglish
PublisherIT-Universitetet i København
Number of pages202
ISBN (Print)978-87-7949-040-6
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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