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How do we proceed to live in a world in which data overwhelms us? At every point we seem to be participating in capture schemes that reduce us to data sets. As consumers, and loyalty card holders, as citizens and voters, as students and subscribers, just scouring the net, or engaging in everyday civic activities, as well as so much more. And even if we unsubscribe, organisations don’t forget us. Our data is kept and a reminder may be sent, asking if we want to rekindle relationships again. If it’s insurmountable now, what’s it going to be like in future?
It wasn’t that long ago that we didn’t have a digital footprint, that we weren’t known by systems in the way that we are now. There was an anonymity to life, where you were mostly only locally known. Now there are analytics of which I’m part of, indeed through this blog even seek to engage with. “Life was simpler then” we lament. And it probably was, but that had its limitations as we know. With all pros come cons though.
In recent weeks I’ve been involved in discussions with groups about data, about how to work with data, about how to analyse and interpret data, and about obligations to maintain, store and use data although this latter part comes solely from me. We are all firm believers it seems in the romantic idea that data is everything, a resource, unharnessed, like energy that once harnessed will illuminate our lives and provide the means for the implementation of greater improvements overall, somehow. This must have been like discussion about what to do with electric light. Everyone was wanting it, everyone would be improved by it, the potential was limitless, and people probably didn’t know what they really had. Data is like that too. And it probably affects our sleep patterns too.
The people that I speak with are sometimes confused about data. After all, it’s a small word, it’s known and not ambiguous or difficult at all. It seems approachable, knowable and usable, both the word itself and the concept that it stands for.
But here’s the thing, sometimes we do not know what constitutes its nature, we do not know the boundedness or plasticity of data, and believe that it’s somehow a thing that will serve us, somehow, if only they can figure out how exactly. As anthropologists we recall our undergraduate lectures on the dangers of reification, of the abstract made somehow real.
Data is the real made into the abstract. Behind the data are the experiences, choices, options, measures, thoughts and actions of people.
And data is not unproblematic. It comes to us loaded with permissions, limitations, missing bits, mistakes, and unknown complexities. It may be old, useless, unusable, not relevant, partial, lost or not allowed to be reused. It may be in a form that can’t be used by other people, or inaccessible or locked up.
And what is data anyway? As an anthropologist I would always ask too, wells what isn’t data? And that has broad implications for how we think about and ‘use’ data as well.
Is data only that information that exists in computer databases? Is data only on paper? Or on tape or in audio visual recordings? Is it only digital, or is this the latest format, on an as yet unknown, and unknowable future capture? What about body parts? Cells, or blood or other body specimens? What about sound recordings? What about the data that isn’t yet captured or recorded in these or similar ways – are we living as embodied data potentials? What about conversations? What about asides? What about lists that are meaningful or those that are meaningless? And what about context?
Is data only data when it’s valued? What determines value? Sometimes it’s only time…
And is there a morality of data collection, storage, analysis, reporting and usage that extends beyond the usual ethical considerations that accounts for the inherent greed associated with its volume, capture, storage and use? Will the philosophy of data be subject to scrutiny by philosophers, scientists, social sciences and the humanities? This already has begun.
Will data be the new money?
When I next meet with my data chat buddies I wonder what our conversations will be about? Will they honour me by sorting out these questions, or will we move straight into working with questions based on assumptions that we’re all just trying to figure out what to do with it all? As if that task will ever end.