Do We Exist Outside of Our Data Flows?

In the opening scenes of Peter Pan, Peter has been separated from his shadow, and he breaks into the Darlings’ house in his efforts to get it back. Wendy is awoken by the sound of the chase and finds Peter, having gotten hold of his shadow, trying to reattach it with a bar of soap. Knowing this will not do, Wendy helps Peter to sew his shadow back on with needle and thread. The reunion of Peter with his shadow thrills and consoles him so much that he breaks into (at least in the musical version) the “I’ve Gotta Crow” number.

Data shadows

I was reminded of Peter Pan’s desperate search for his shadow a few weeks back after attending a lecture by Geoff Bowker, a prominent social scientist and scholar of Science and Technology Studies. During the talk, Bowker posited that we as individuals do not exist outside of our “data flows.” To unpack that a bit: our existence is bound up in our technology and our movements are incessantly tracked, analyzed, and commodified by the tech giants of the world: Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon, etc. If you erase all the data points we leave scattered behind us like so many breadcrumbs as we move through our day, are we still there? Perhaps not, he ventured. Since the lecture, I have been thinking that because “big data” is such an integral part of us, such a constant feature of the traces we leave, that perhaps it has become like our shadow: our data shadow. Like Peter, maybe we are lost without it.

Abstract streaks of blurred, colored light.
A visual representation of data flows. Photo Credit: D. Armstrong

Existence outside of data

This was a rather disturbing idea to me — and based on audience questions, to some others in the lecture hall as well.  My intuitive sense is that of course I exist outside of my data flows, detached from my data shadow. I’m signaling my age here, but I did not get an email address or start using the Internet until I was in high school. I didn’t join Facebook until about 10 years ago. Heck, I only joined Twitter in August. Did I not exist before I embedded myself into these webs of social media? Before I started trafficking in the Internet of Things? Not only do I intuitively feel like I exist to myself outside of data flows, I know I exist to my friends and family as well. So maybe it’s true that I don’t exist to Amazon outside of my online purchases or Prime Video streaming, or I don’t exist to Google when I’m not logged into Chrome – but they don’t define me to me or to those I interact with in the physical world.

 Transparency without control

Back to the Bowker lecture…if we accept that we are at least in part defined by our data flows, what are we going to do about it? How do we fight back? (Supposing that, to my dismay, using Google “in cognito” windows falls short.) Part of the way to fight our way out of our data prisons, Bowker argued, was through transparency. If the algorithms companies use to crunch our data and mine our data flows for precious ore — if those can be made public, we will have made one step further towards liberation, towards political action, he argued.

Ok, I get that — maybe transparency is a necessary first step. But it is far from sufficient. Seeing what controls and potentially manipulates you may be a bit empowering, but that bigger agent still has the data, still builds and runs the algorithms. You need skills, training, and access to be able to do anything with or about the algorithm. It’s akin to when you’re on a web page and you know you can browse the source code with a right click and “view source.” But if you don’t know html code and CSS (cascading style sheets) and what not, you can’t really do much to change what you’re looking at or what it does. Right there, me not even being able to list all the things you’d need to know — that’s an example of my ignorance and inability to take control just because something is made visible to me.

Visible genomes

Spoiler: here’s the point in my post where I draw in my dissertation research on consumer genomics, and in particular what people are doing with the “raw” or uninterpreted genetic data. I suspect that what motivates some people in this context is Bowker’s attractive idea that transparency alone is empowering. Just let me see my data – my sequence of A’s, C’s, G’s, T’s – and maybe that will bring me some insight and perhaps even some control over who I am, what diseases I may face later in life, etc.

But to the extent that might happen, I think it’s much more likely that rendering the raw data visible, downloadable, parse-able, may not do much at the individual level. Now granted I work with genetic data in a research context rather than in a clinical or medical context, so that skews my perspective. But the types of data people can currently get from consumer genomic testing, at least, is arguably much more valuable in the aggregate than to the individual who just has his or her data file. It’s analyses that are run on large scale genetic datasets that can teach us more about how human health and disease work, not so much about how DNA variants shape an individual’s trajectory.

I’m not saying transparency, of big data, algorithms, or genomes is bad — as Bowker indicated, it may indeed be a necessary first step. But let’s not get distracted by the allure of just seeing behind the curtain, of peering into Narcissus’ pool of data about ourselves.

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