Some Marginal Notes About The Dark Sides Of Data

By Marek Tuszynski, 18 July 2014

“A peculiar thing have happened to me: I suddenly forgot what comes first - 7 or 8?” Danili Khrams, Sonnet 

I like going to live performances; and I have noticed something that has became the norm nowadays: people waving hundreds of mobile devices in raised hands recording anything, anytime, anywhere.

But even when our hands are down, even when our fingers are idle, the recording goes on. What we record consciously is not that relevant any more.

The reality that matters now is not what we choose to photograph or film, the events we want to preserve for ourselves. Forget that plot, the idea that my life is a narrative that I can write down or film. We are not recording, but are being collected: our lives are being collected.

And in this collection it is the unmemorable moments that actually count. It does not matter what we think we are actually doing when we use all this battery-powered stuff. What matters is what will be made out of it, regardless of what we might have intended.

The system that we are fuelling is a system of sensors trying to divine what we want - our intimate needs and wants - as consumers, as a citizens, as activists, as groups, and as societies.

But who is the collector on the other end? Who is listening to it all? Who wants to know what we want, and why?

So here comes the data. With all the swanky promises, new cultures, new hairstyles and all that. Somehow, the boredom of data collection has became cool-ish; the pain of its analysis has become a lucrative and powerful business model for geeks; for many others a form of hype and fame.

Telling the truth -- in particular to power; in particular to powers that are potentially abusing this power - is the big hope of data, information, evidence. But does it still hold true to say “When one is engaged in some wrongdoing, then another will engage in truth-telling...and this will create a beautiful balance?”

The simplicity of the idea of a desired and expected balance of power and counter-power, is that wrongdoing has the tendency to leave traces. These traces can be picked up and turned into a narrative that would reveal the wrongdoing... and a happy ending would be had by all.

That balance is a myth.

Some people really believe that wrongdoing might not be so clearly caused by anyone. Apparently, wrongdoing might just occur. Sort of just manifest itself magically – ting! - Here I am – zap! - explain me – flash! - Fix me! I'm here, from out of nowhere in the clear blue like a drone. Good examples of wrongdoings people think just appear are: poverty, impunity, the wars in Iraq, the crises in the EU, corruption and so on.

The data driven approach proposes: lets find it – ting!_ figure it out – zap! - analyse, visualise and – flash! - destroy! Really? Maybe it is enough to explain it, to expose it, to lay it down in as easy as possible form to absorb? Are you convinced by this?

Does data have any influence over whether we care, or will act on anything? How much of it needs to be put in front of one's face to have some significant influence on how one perceives things? What's needed to challenge indifference? Those who already care, those who already know – the individuals and organisations that can prove things - are often and unfortunately entangled in the well-established methodologies, frameworks, politics and procedures of pre-digital times.

But these frankly do not work: lawyers cannot fix human rights abuses, scientists cannot fix global warming, whistle-blowers cannot fix secret services and activists cannot fix politics, and nobody really knows how global finances work - regardless of the data they have at hand.

The existing frameworks of counter-powers (the truth-tellers, the provers, the investigators) need to be revisited. How? Perhaps not focusing on the quantity, not even quality (huh!) of evidence, but on the ability to use whatever one knows, whatever little one can get hold of with some freaking efficacy that would not only address reason and understanding, but also challenge the feelings and beliefs that one holds.

And so the emphasis of counter-power has to be very much on the “how” and the “who”. How to be a counter-power when stuck in a game where the opponent has the ultimate right to adjust the rules in real time. Oh, and they also have a supercomputer at hand to calculate our next 7 million moves. Data provides the comfort of playing the game, but will never provide the means to win it.

The ability to influence political narratives turns out to be more like the performing and visual arts - possible for many but mastered and survived by few; where the form beats the content into a pulp (here I am a little bit exaggerating again).

Data might not be as many things as it has been claimed to be, but it remains part of a dream of thinking like a state: thinking big, and acting big - if we could only collect it all; if we knew it all, if we analysed it all – we would then be able to make perfect decisions and keep things under fair control. It might also be the case that thinking like a state has recently been surpassed by thinking like a corporation... or was it just a seamless transfer? Has anyone noticed anything suspicious?

Data does not exist without corporate infrastructure and its “culture”

Okay, so it does exist; but only very little of it. The majority of it is held, processed, replicated, multiplied, cross-compared and analysed by - or goes through a physical grid owned by - corporations and businesses.

It is real-time, real thing, subject to continual change. Wherever we are coming from (world view wise), we fuel it all the time and we teach others to fuel it too. We accept this environment of corporate values and culture because the services we receive are not directly associated with the political price we are paying.

Now that's a very impressive and effective model of control; and one that is twice twisted. First, we accept the illusion that the services we have access to have no monetary cost. Second, we accept the illusion of their neutrality. Or in another words, we have see them as having no political cost.

They are not only tricking us as individuals. Those we might look to, come the day we realise the costs involved, are equally tricked. Institutions, governments, policy-makers, activists are also tricked. The political value of data has been accumulated by actors whose potential political influence is highly questionable: corporations are as good at doing politics as armies are good at delivering peace. What is this political value of data? Maybe our privacy is more political then we've ever thought.

Open Data is a fringe of Data Politics; it is a mirage of politics, a proxy - a very nice one though

The most politically valuable data is not open, and nor is it free. And it never will be. We are indulging ourselves in a rather decadent exchange of high value political data (about our collective experiences and individual wants) for a pathetically low value of service. That's the deal.

It is possible to ask and get it back (“liberate your data”) – but this is only in a silly way, just as a symbolic and meaningless gesture – it is like not having the cake and also not eating it... absurd. The copy of our data that we can request is a mirage, a substitute, a joke. Data we put there remains there, endlessly copied. The corporations give away nothing. The idea of deleting something is a trick, not an actual act. It is like believing that closing your eyes will make you invisible.

Not only will the majority of this data not ever be open, but even if it was, who would be able to process it? Who has the resources to do it? Who would manage it? Who would pay the electricity bill, set up the data farms, pay the geeks' salaries? We are stuck here. Would politicians and policy- makers do anything about it? No they wouldn't, because it is big business that makes tonnes of money and employs lots of people – in particular young, smart, and brilliant people.

Is there a way of inventing or reinventing a system which would give us back the political value of our data? Should we allow it to be left in the hands of corporations and confused politicians ? Are we in any position to negotiate anything, and if not how do we get to one? What is, and who controls, corporate responsibility in the age of data politics?

Data is not new oil, nor is it evidence, nor a golden bullet; maybe sometimes all of it (just a tiny bit)

The contortions that we have undergone in this nexus of new forces around data is extraordinary. What is deeply political – our economic lives, intimate lives, movements, friends, family – we are being told is not political: it's just fuel for great and innovative services. The assumptions we make about what is fair and ethical are being hollowed out: those who care and want to act are either tangled in the pre-digital, or offered this thin gruel of open data. It's the mechanical turk of political action. 

At the same time, many of us carry on as if we haven't learned anything recently. As if Snowden wasn't stuck in Moscow growing his dissident Russian beard; as if Assange hasn't spent two years rattling around an embassy in London. We are persistently sitting quietly in our labs building new tools and platforms, organising festivals of beautiful trouble, promoting openness of everything and hacking the hackable. Yes, nothing has happened and nothing is going to happen. No worries. 

Image taken by Marek in Jaipur, India in 2009 


Marek Tuszynski is the Director of Technology and Programmes at Tactical Technology Collective.

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