Data$ein: The Worldview of Tools, Data, and Technology24 Jan 2018 13 mins read (2400 words)
The aim of my thesis project is to demonstrate and provide a narrated interactive guide that reveals the philosophical, phenomenological and existential implications behind the phenomena of data appropriation. The intention of my project is to create an experience that can contribute to the examination of human state of commodification, digitization, monetization, and economization. This interaction attempts to put these processes in a historical context and weave them into a narrative that attempts to tie human usage of tools and technology to its historical precedents. The assessment of this technologic condition provides the dialog necessary to examine, acknowledge and challenge these modes of appropriation, and most importantly, pose a question: ‘how does this technology alter the way I look at the world’?
Keywords: worldview, phenomenology, data, data colonialism, labor
The general theme that informed my project, is based on the interrogation that various philosophers and thinkers have undertaken in grasping the process of rationalization and quantification of not only the human understanding about the world, but of human existence itself. It is process of viewing the universe and everything within it as a subject reducible to mechanical principles consisting of motion and collision of matter, which commenced with Galileo and Hobbes and then subsequently by Descartes and Newton in the 17th and 18th centuries. This way of looking at the world, has not spread through the populations of Europe due to the lack of literacy and the abstinent from the ideas of Enlightenment by the European Church, but it did have a huge influence on the way subsequent thinkers and scientists approached the world. Subsequently these methods would eventually penetrate the sphere of human life, which leads to the state of modernity we find ourselves in. Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition (1958) describes how certain technologies and knowledge disciplines made a direct impact on the human outlook at the world:
The modern astrophysical world view, which began with Galileo, and its challenge to the adequacy of the senses to reveal reality, have left us a universe of whose qualities we know no more than the way they effect our measuring instruments.1
What specifically interested me however, is not the way in which certain scientists and thinkers regarded the world in specific ways during their time, but how these ways of thinking shaped the way individuals act in society, and the way in which a certain world-view is contingent to the advent of new tools and technology. A foundation for any social relation within a society, must rely on some principles that attempt to make sense of the world, which forms the foundation on which social organization is established; it guides individuals to perform actions in accordance to these commonly accepted understandings about the world.
The tools that humans have developed throughout the history of our species, have constantly influenced the way certain world-views are set and imposed on the minds of human cultures and populations. The existential philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty in this way describes how the human mind does not just organize itself based on it own self-determination, but is mostly organized based on the circumstance such as tools, language, culture, and technology 2. To demonstrate the relevance of this thought, it is sufficient to invision two societies that lack a couple tools or technologies in relation to one another, and investigate the differences in their worldview. The difference in the world-views of these two societies would not fail to diverge, but also the opposite may also be true: especially at an age of normalization and globalization of cultural norms, technology and tool usage, language, consumer products, etc.—worldviews can also tend to converge into differences that are more subtle and less distinct. What converges and what diverges in the worldview of societies (both, historically and relatively to other societies), and how technology and tools mediate this process of convergence, is an interesting philosophical and existential question that concerns humanity at large and what I think is worth undertaking.
In his The Question Concerning Technology (1954), the philosopher Martin Heidegger examines the relationship between humans and technology, and how technology ‘enframes’ the world in a particular manner. Heidegger gives an account of how technology “opens our human existence to the essence of technology”, which translates into our worldview being entirely mediated through the technologies that we use 3; in the same way Arendt demonstrates how the human world-view becomes fully contingent on the way humans measure it through their scientific instruments. For Heidegger, the usage of technology to reveal the world in a particular way, has implications on how nature is regarded—since human experience is entirely mediated through the way technology ‘frames’ the world. Heidegger highlights how human tools and machinery turn all natural resources in the natural world into a ‘standing-reserve’ that awaits to be inputed into a tool or a machine, and outputted as the final product. Since humankind is the bearer of tools, this relation with technology is translated into a certain human relationship with the natural environment:
The earth now reveals itself as a coal mining district, the soil as a mineral deposit. The field that the peasant formerly cultivated and set in order appears differently than it did when to set in order still meant to take care of and to maintain … Air is now set upon to yield nitrogen, the earth to yield ore, ore to yield uranium, for example; uranium is set upon to yield atomic energy, which can be released either for destruction or for peaceful use.4
The implications behind the usage of certain technologies that impose a certain human relations with the world, has also a direct impact on the way the State within these societies accounts humans agents. Michel Foucault was one of the most prominent thinkers and historians who explored this idea. His exposition of mental institutions, penal systems, and systems of gendered oppression, have exemplified the State as an apparatus for keeping masses of human bodies in check. The human becomes an economical agent that can be quantified, optimized, and rationally determined—to which Foucault gives the human a new name, homo economicus. The term5 has become a popular concept in many economic theories that seek to expound on the way humans are portrayed as rational and narrowly self-interested agents whose utility can be maximized through production and consumption. The extents to which technology plays a role in the perpetuation of this system, and the historical roots of these systems of control of entities, was something that I wanted to explore. Giorgio Agamben connects the root of the word economy from the Ancient Greek word Oikonomia which “Signifies the administration of the oikos (the home) and, more generally, management”6. The fact that the modern day management and optimisation of human bodies originated from the management of family life, is a path of development that welcomes an insight into the way tools and technologies aided this transition.
Mathew Wilson in his Quantified Self-City: Quantified Self-City-Nation presentation, is outlines the rising demand of the consumer-electronic sector associated with the vision of smart urbanism. To be part of this system, means to have one’s digital imprints to be directly incorporated into a system that relies on FitBits, sensors, portable devices and other forms of data-tracking devices 7. The whole system relies on the quantification of human activities into something that can be countable and determinable. The products of these activities are various competitive apps such as ‘Nike+ Run Club’ and ‘FitBit’ apps that gather the physical activity of a user and translate it into a score that can be shared with others. This not only alters the nature of how user interact socially, but also the way in which the notions of ‘smart urbanism’ and ‘smart cities’ redefine the human subjects by seamlessly incorporating them into these digital environments.
The incorporation of personal data into the public, political, and social spheres, can be also attributed to the advent of various social ranking systems such as the ones that are being currently experimented in China. United States had such a system in place since at least the 70’s which is known today as Equifax and the bank credit system8. Thatcher defines how the process in which the commoditisation of more and more aspects of everyday life, translates into a social ranking system that accounts humans no more than economic agents awaiting to be inputed in the general economic system9. An important aspect of this process, is a term m referred to as data colonialism. When individuals are dispossessed from the data they generate, this becomes the source of profit of corporations who own the means of gathering, analysing and selling this user data. The wishful promises made by the proponents of ‘big data’, lies in a reality of expropriation and dispossession which urges a need for critical, theoretical understandings of how these practices effect society.
Other examples of accumulation of personal data include services like 23andMe that offer genetic testing to identify the user’s ancestry and genetically caused diseases for less than $100 10. With the advent of technology like genetic testing and sequencing—which would’ve costed millions of US dollars just two decades ago—advanced technology becomes more accessible to those who previously were not able to afford this technology. But there are a few caveats to such statements that positively celebrate the advancement of these technologies. Services like these, deliberately create obfuscating user agreements in which the user data generated under the usage of these services, becomes a property of the company providing the service. Since these services are evaluated based on the value of user capital that they have under their dissposal, it is in their interest to dispossess as much user data from its users. For companies like 23andMe, owning the DNA data of a good portion of a country’s population translates into a capital base that would become extremely valuable in the future of generic sequencing. To whom will 23andMe chose to sell or lease access to their DNA gives no concern for the opinion expressed by the individuals to whom this DNA belongs—their data was dispossessed and signed off once they clicked “I agree” on the user agreement.
Methodology and Working Prototypes
The leading reason as to why I decided to focus on a narrative in my project, is for the motivation of feasing reality and fiction together in order to reveal the hidden layers through which the human world view is mediated by tools and technology. One of the influences that helped me to put in context my intention was Layla AbdelRahim who is an anthropologist and an author of Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation (2015).11 In her book AbdelRahim examines how children’s literature mostly presumes a civilised narrative that orders experience by means of segregation, domestication, breeding, and extermination. She examines to what extents and do children stories offer new kinds of possibilities for experiencing the world through more diversity consisting of other creatures and forms of life. In terms of my project, I found AbdelRahim to be exploring children literature and how it presumes a hidden civilised narrative, just as I am motivated to explore tools and technology and how it frames the human world-view in very specific ways.
For the main scene of my final project I decided to create a fictional environment that attempts to combine fiction and non-fiction. Since my aim was to demonstrate how tools and technologies alter human perception about the world, I decided to use scenes from the past which can be grounded historically. For the scene representing the present reality, I decided to use a fictional setting which was partially influenced from a Greek word Deus ex machina - “A convention of Greek tragedy where a seemingly unsolvable problem is resolved by an unexpected intervention of some new event, ability or object. An invention like money, is an example of an invention that not only allowed humans to overcome decaying processes of nature, but also altered the human condition where natural processes no longer interfere with the human processes of accumulating and securing labor power.”12
Arendt, Hannah, and P. R. Baehr. The Portable Hannah Arendt. Penguin Books, 2003.
AbdelRahim, Layla. Children’s Literature, Domestication, and Social Foundation: Narratives of Civilization and Wilderness. Routledge, 2015.
Anderson, Elizabeth. “Beyond Homo Economicus: New Developments in Theories of Social Norms.” Philosophy Public Affairs, vol. 29, no. 2, 2000, pp. 170–200., doi:10.1111/j.1088-4963.2000.00170.x.
Dovey, Max. “Respiratory Mining.” Maxdovey.com, 2017, http://maxdovey.com/?page=performance&id=respiratory-mining
Heidegger, Martin, “The Question Concerning Technology,” Basic Writings Ed. David Farrell Krell (Harper & Row, 1977), 287.
Seife, Charles. “23andMe Is Terrifying, but Not for the Reasons the FDA Thinks.” Scientific American. November 27, 2013. Accessed December 04, 2017. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/23andme-is-terrifying-but-not-for-the-reasons-the-fda-thinks/.
Toadvine, Ted, “Maurice Merleau-Ponty”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2016 Edition) Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2016/entries/merleau-ponty/.
Visnjic, Filip. “HARVEST – Mining Cryptocurrency with Wind to Fund Climate Research.” CreativeApplications.Net, 18 Sept. 2017, www.creativeapplications.net/linux/harvest-mining-cryptocurrency-with-wind-to-fund-climate-research/.
Hvistendahl, Mara. “In China, a Three-Digit Score Could Dictate Your Place in Society.”, Conde Nast, 14 Dec. 2017, www.wired.com/story/age-of-social-credit/.
Mathew Wilson, Matthew Wilson: Quantified Self-City-Nation, 2014 link
Tritch, Teresa. “The United States of Inequality.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 21 June 2016, takingnote.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/06/21/the-united-states-of-inequality/.
Gottlieb, Roger S. An Anthology of Western Marxism: from Lukacs and Gramsci to Socialist-Feminism. Oxford University Press, 1989.
———Habermas, Jurgen, “Technology and Science as Ideology,” pp. 248-275.
Zwolinski, Matt and Wertheimer, Alan, “Exploitation”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2017 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/sum2017/entries/exploitation/.
Hannah Arendt, The Human Condition, p. 261 ↩
Toadvine, 2016. ↩
Heidegger, 1977, p. 287 ↩
Ibid, pp 14-15. ↩
Agamben, Giorgio. What Is An Apparatus?. Stanford University Press. 2007; pp. 8-10. ↩
Mathew, 2014 ↩
Hvistendahl, 2017 ↩
Jim Thatcher, David O’Sullivan, Dillon Mahmoudi; Data colonialism through accumulation by dispossession: New metaphors for daily data, 2016 ↩
Seife, 2013. ↩
AbdelRahim, 2015. ↩