Marche’s essay title hat-tips a vast field of endeavor known as Digital Humanities to which he (and I) probably gives shamefully short shrift. Some of the mandates emanating from this new academic wing are tantalizingly terrifying. Here, Bruno Latour is discussing nothing less than Big Data’s potential for cataloging the ‘inner workings’ of the soul:
“The precise forces that mould our subjectivities and the precise characters that furnish our imaginations are all open to inquiries by the social sciences. It is as if the inner workings of private worlds have been pried open because their inputs and outputs have become thoroughly traceable.”–“Beware, Your Imagination Leaves Digital Traces”, Bruno Latour, Times Higher Education Literary Supplement, April 6, 2007.
Wikileaks’ Julian Assange pointed out recently that the East German secret police employed 10% of the population at one time or another as informants. That sort of high overhead will cripple any enterprise. No wonder the Soviet bloc collapsed. Fortunately the fasco-corporatists have our backs. The genius of Facebook is that it is an emoticon-besotted surveillance apparatus through which friends rat out friends routinely, unwittingly and for free. Hey, if I’m sending my buds to the Gulag, I want beer money to help subsidize my tears.
Big Thinker Jaron Lanier proposes an even starker equivalence in his latest book Who Owns the Future?: “Information is people in disguise, and people ought to be paid for the value they contribute that can be steered or stored on a digital network.” Despite his defense of regular folks, Lanier seems oddly acquiescent to our object status as though we are in fact mere data warehouses, albeit with a propped-open backdoor. Nonetheless Lanier is onto something when he suggests the value-exchange is poorly understood by the average Facebook consumer-supplier.
In a nation of rip-offs, the thief is king, so it pays to study his M.O. Facebook aggressively runs all of its employees, regardless of formal function, through Big Data boot-camps in an effort to “promote a culture in which everyone uses data to test and ultimately roll out new products, design changes, and other improvements.”—from What I Learned at Facebook’s Big Data Boot-Camp; CNN-Money-Fortune, by Michal Lev-Ram, June 13, 2013). The Facebook micro-culture may augur the macro-culture, or is a nation of thieves unsustainable? Clearly Facebook knows the trove over which it presides and the extractive capacity for all nearby hands to just dig in. Good for them. Apply the distributive computing model over a massive pro bono user base, paint a solicitous happy face above the front door and the cost of data collection suddenly vanishes into the ether. Where the East Germans insisted on payment, we give ourselves and our loved ones up without a fight, without a nickel.
Alright, so everyone gets a shovel and we’ll dig ourselves to a collective nirvana. On the other hand (said one equivocating economist to another) might what Big Data pioneer Jeffrey Hammerbacher calls the impending renaissance of the ‘numerical imagination’ yield up the metrics of what poets have insisted on calling since time immemorial, soul? Perhaps there is no ghost in the machine. Perhaps it’s all machine. Perish the thought. Poets notwithstanding, all that glistens on human lips has never been gold anyway. That our fingers excel at capturing every demiurge now with dispatch on one PDA or another does nothing to burnish the archival value of the utterance. Would Zeus have been less cruel, more circumspect in his meting out of punishment, had it also fallen within his purview to store the repetitions of his wrath?
Perhaps human data generation should consist of a finite annual allotment of bytes per year, per capita much like a carbon tax. No doubt Al Gore can invent the apt paradigm. Perhaps we are discovering the darker side of near-universal literacy, you know, that same seven billion souls who can’t wait to share what they had for breakfast on Facebook. Are we being incorrigible elitists even to suggest such things? The carbon analogy is not as facetious as it sounds. In some sense data is an exhalation. Of course there’s money in the quotidian. Facebook makes a fortune monetizing our errant chatter. But is there transformative meaning? Surely we’re not here only to make money (an imaginal exercise itself) only to have them listen to us very closely so that they can take it all back again—echoes of Sisyphus in his green-eyeshade permutation?
No, the human race didn’t wait for the Digital Age to dawn so that it could suddenly exhale en masse. What has changed is that we are all now affixed with carbon dioxide monitoring devices, low-cost handheld appliances that record our every hiccup. Our hearts beat. Our data emits. Barely audible, off-hand remarks—veritable verbal tics—that our own spouses have the good sense not to query for clarification are being cataloged by digital devices. Nor am I deaf to the durable idealistic notion that all human musings (nothing less than the murmuring of souls) are inherently valuable, certainly of a higher order than, say, other excretions i.e. perspiration, waste product and the like. Indeed the democratic impulse is offended by the notion that quotidian effusions do not merit attention. This was not always the case.
Umberto Eco in his 1994 essay “The Future of the Book” reminds us that broadly prevalent literacy is a relative blip on the human culture timeline. All the hand-wringing over our TV-besotted age (a phenomenon Eco refers to sardonically as “mass media criticism of mass media”) forgets the profound illiteracy that preceded it for many centuries:
“We can complain that a lot of people spend their day watching TV and never read a book or a newspaper, and this is certainly a social and educational problem, but frequently we forget that the same people, a few centuries ago, were watching at most a few standard images and were totally illiterate.”
Eco delineates further between publishing and communicating. With the advent of handheld devices many of us have migrated unwittingly into the realm of publishing (fossilized entrails) versus ephemeral (sound wave-dissipating) communications. Indeed the NSA has conscripted all of us into the publishing game without so much as a referendum. Police states are funny that way. Every hiccup has a shelf-life. Long live the permanent record.
For the moment, Moore’s Law is still finding cupboard space for our personal effusions. But even that venerable efficiency curve is flashing the fault-lines of fatigue. (Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku predicts its collapse in ten years.) Only Uncle Sam has the real estate and the mindless profligacy to even try and keep abreast of the tsunami. In a recent December 4, 2012 Russia Today interview whistleblower and former NSA crypto-mathematician William Binney suggested well before the Snowden revelations that the NSA is collecting everything from everybody (what a shrewd discerning beast, that Uncle Sam!), thus the need for the 1.5 million square foot, $2 billion data storage facility in Bluffdale, Utah:
“I don’t think they are filtering [the totality of society’s data]. They are just storing it. I think it’s just a matter of selecting when they want it. So, if they want to target you, they would take your attributes, go into that database and pull out all your data.” —from William Binney, “Everyone in U.S. Under Virtual Surveillance”
On one level, the NSA’s strategic plan seems to have stepped out of a French existentialist novel. It collects the data because, well, it and the data are there. Of course part of the plotline involves forgetting that the Constitution is there too—or once was, anyway. For the moment, storage capability and analytics techniques are evolving briskly and the government is flush enough to afford them. The day has arrived when, if the government decides it doesn’t like you, it will simply data-mine you to backstop all the reasons why it doesn’t like you.
Alas profit-making entities do not enjoy the same boundless access to acres of Utah desert and public largesse. Big Brother enjoys scalability whereas profit centers cannot forgo front-end data analytics techniques. Capitalists have to take out the trash because data warehousing is a huge and growing expense. In a perverse twist on the crowding-out effect, the private sector could ultimately contract under the onerous burden of data storage costs (even as the business value of the stored data is known to be de minimus) while the public sector sits smug atop your paramour’s pet name. You call that fair, Mr Orwell?
Studies have shown three-quarters of all data has the retention value of an empty gum wrapper. This is one way of saying the legal profession has zero interest in its liability value (and don’t think for a minute that defense against potential lawsuits isn’t a big part of the anal retention bias). IBM’s Pritchard-Schoch again:
“A large part of the inability to push a delete button is the result of legislation requiring businesses to maintain certain identifiable information to ensure transparency when ostensibly working on behalf of stockholders. In addition, a business of any size being sued, or suing to protect its rights, better be able to produce evidence to prove its case. Court sanctions have been swift and harsh in the evidentiary arena. Attorneys have responded to keep it all. Attorneys are focused on risk. They look in one direction, strictly adhering to the law, torpedoes be damned.”