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Professor Tony Porter’s research into the role of numbers in transnational governance funded by SSHRC

Tony Porter’s research recently funded by SSHRC will explore how numbers increasingly are displacing or complementing words, as with numerical rankings and indices, risk models, algorithms associated with Big Data, numerical tracking technologies such as bar codes or Radio Frequency ID tags (RFID), and digitization more generally.

Sep 21, 2016

Traditionally communications and rules in transnational governance primarily relied on words, such as treaties, threats, ideology, propaganda, commercial contracts, or the articulation of global norms. Tony Porter’s research recently funded by SSHRC will explore how numbers increasingly are displacing or complementing words, as with numerical rankings and indices, risk models, algorithms associated with Big Data, numerical tracking technologies such as bar codes or Radio Frequency ID tags (RFID), and digitization more generally. Numbers can integrate operations at successive levels of abstraction, from counting through data bases, statistical analysis, and higher mathematics, enabling more flexible and precise systems of control than words, especially when they are connected with digital technologies. The research will address the implications of the growing prominence of numbers in transnational governance for accountability, democracy, and the global public interest. This prominence is often seen either as a welcome opportunity to develop policies that are more effective because they are based more on evidence than on politics, or as problematic because the numbers conceal intensified power relations behind their ostensible objectivity, and reinforce biases towards powerful or commercial actors, who may have greater capacity to generate and control numbers-related technologies.

Tony Porter is also a co-applicant on the $2.495 million partnership grant led by Mike Veall, of McMaster’s Department of Economics, which also was funded by SSHRC in the most recent partnership competition. Also involving seven other McMaster faculty co-applicants, and with co-applicants at other universities and the collaboration of many public and private sector partners, including Statistics Canada, this “Productivity, Firms, and Incomes” project aims to make use of new firm-level data to shed light on the perplexing problem of productivity, with a particular focus on Canada. Tony will especially focus on the international aspects of the use of firm-level data for understanding productivity. He is also interested in the pathways that connect findings based on the data to their use by governments and firms to affect productivity and incomes.  

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