"But this is just one small example of something much bigger: the systematic attempt to turn all human lives and relations into inputs for the generation of profit. Human experience, potentially every layer and aspect of it, is becoming the target of profitable extraction. We call this condition colonization by data, and it is a key dimension of how capitalism itself is evolving today."
Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias, The Costs of Connection
In Cool Memories, the French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard shares several Nietzsche-style aphorisms that probe the disillusioned side of reality in all its silences and brutalities. One probe in particular might haunt the way we think about conversations regarding the dangers of big data, social media presence, and digital identity.
Baudrillard says it is not enough to die, we must learn to disappear. In this statement, he anticipates what sociologists of media culture, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias, recognize about the dangers of big data in their book, The Costs of Connection: How Data is Colonizing Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism.
"Colonialism is about appropriation; whereas historical colonialism appropriated land, resources, and bodies, today’s new colonialism appropriates human life through extracting value from data."
The Costs of Connection, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias
What haunts people is not that data convey information but that the information data conveys is growing increasingly more important than the bodies, actions, and emotions the data represents.
Simple economics teaches us that there is a trade off taking place. As the information increases in value, the human element decreases.
Baudrillard’s ideas on hyperreality are important here: hyperreality is an exploration of our contemporary cultural moment that regards the representation as more real than the real.
The data extracted from our lives, then, comes to re-present us in ways that constitute living. Similarly, the value extracted from data, according to Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejias, is not just about information but life – and what represents life.
If humans choose to live uncolonized, they choose life disconnected – in Baudrillard’s terms, they choose disappearance. This disappearance is a kind of death, though, because we forfeit connection – forfeit the touch.
Couldry and Mejias suggest another path is possible, though what that looks like is uncertain.
"...we can see the road of data colonialism marked out ahead across the social landscape that data relations are steadily hollowing out. But the concept of the paranodal helps us grasp that there is also a space on the side of that road5—an unmarked space that is not yet a path (or anything), headed nowhere in particular except, we can imagine, away from data colonialism. This side-space is where we must start to affirm a new direction of travel based on a different rationality and based on different possibilities for order and security, for solidarity and human organization. A space in which we feel no reason to bind ourselves into relations that achieve only what capitalism wants (stable processes of data extraction). A space in which we can recover the idea that human beings might know themselves and choose the relations that organize their lives without delegating this choice and that knowledge to an algorithm."
The Costs of Connection, Nick Couldry and Ulises A. Mejias
How do we imagine or invent a space that might celebrate connectivity without exploitation?
Recent scholarship suggests we approach big data with Walter Benjamin’s aura in mind. If we apprehend data while recognizing that we cannot be mechanically reproduced no matter how exquisite the algorithm, then we might retain some semblance of humanity.
This is precisely Baudrillard’s point, though: the shadows on the cave wall are all we have. So what are we going to do with them?
I wonder if the dangers of big data indicate a more nuanced cultural trend – one that is so synonymous with a capitalist mindset we can barely separate the two. Perhaps it is our very practice of apprehending information that we ought to question?
Is it possible that big data danger and its capitalist consequences might be a result of how we read? In Poetics of Relation (1990), Edouard Glissant, offers an ethic of the gift economy that reverses the take and seize attitude of intellectual work.
"Another word complex, the verbal phrase: donner-avec, relays the concept of understanding into the world of Relation, translating, contesting, then reconstituting its elements in a new order. The French word for understanding, comprendre, like its English cognate, is formed on the basis of the Latin word, conprehendere, "to seize," which is formed from the roots: con- (with) and prendere (to take). Glissant contrasts this form of understanding - appropriative, almost rapacious-with the understanding upon which Relation must be based: donner-avec. Donner (to give) is meant as a generosity of perception. (In French donner can mean "to look out toward.") There is also the possible sense of yielding, as a tree might "give" in a storm in order to remain standing. Avec both reflects back on the com- of comprehendre and defines the underlying principle of Relation. Gives-on-and-with is unwieldy, but unfamiliar tools are always awkward." Betsy Wing
The question we are left with is a hard one: how might we navigate phenomena in a way that promotes the generosity of perception – even if that phenomena comes in the form of extracted digital information about our everyday choices?
I suspect the principle of association that Glissant practices might celebrate an abundance of associations in the same way Greg Ulmer’s notion of electracy does for the MyStory.
The problem, then, is not in connection. The problem is in how we read the data with intent to take every drop of information possible instead of an ethic of giving.
When we colonize the data, we capitalize on the information extracted from daily lives in order to exploit the buying power of the very same people. We are so overwhelmingly obsessed with taking every drop of blood from the tree of life that we are blind to the reality that the tree has nothing left to give.
My hope is that we might eventually apprehend data as beautiful, but in order for data to be beautiful, the humans informing the narrative of that data must live – and live life abundantly.
I imagine people reading our data and text messages and other traces of behaviors generations from now the same way we read correspondence between writers and geek out over receipts from their daily lives.
Jean Baudrillard says the event is all we have and the interpretation to follow. We have the option to read the data as events in a way that reinforces our culture’s capitalist and colonial mindset or we can choose a more beautiful path that keeps others in mind. If we choose the latter, we need what Leonardo DaVinci calls sapare vadere – eyes to see. This is the gift of the artist and the poet, and with a little effort, this will be the gift of the reader.