Divergent Realities Across the Digital–Material Divide
This article utilises the example of Australia’s social welfare agency ‘Centrelink’ and its Online Compliance Intervention (OCI) program to illustrate the process of digital translation and digital determinations of material reality. The article explains the digital translation process through the adaptation of various aspects of Charles Sanders Peirce’s philosophy such as the triadic sign model, signification, fallibilism and synechism. Semiotics, or the ‘study of meaning making’, highlights the subjective nature of data analysis. A semiotic approach not only explains the differing realities of digital and material space and the lack of distinction between digital and material phenomena, but also provides further insight into algorithmic determinations of reality and the inherent limitations on our knowledge of digital or material reality. The same data can produce divergent realities within digital space and between the material and digital spaces. The article concludes that the design of algorithms, the nature of their representations and the outcomes they generate lack the complexity and nuance of reality, and disregards social influences on meaning and interpretation. As illustrated by the real-life failure of Centrelink’s OCI, this article warns against interpreting the digital as an accurate rendering of the real.