The datafied ‘us’

The book pre­pares us to take cog­ni­sance of the po­ten­tial of al­go­rithm, the blender ma­chine that is splic­ing up our in­di­vid­u­al­ity into bits of erasable and rewritable data even as dig­i­tal em­pires in­dulge in in­for­ma­tion em­bez­zle­ment.

FrontLine - - BOOKS IN REVIEW - BY M. SHUAIB MO­HAMED HANEEF

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ATA once meant tab­u­lated or graphed in­for­ma­tion about peo­ple and events ob­tained by plough­ing through a huge vol­ume of math­e­mat­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions. This meaning of data has mor­phed into im­per­cep­ti­ble, ma­chine-breed­ing sta­tis­ti­cal cat­e­gori­sa­tions that gov­ern us and the world. To­day, data about in­di­vid­u­als are where tech com­pa­nies and the state put their money be­cause such data have be­come the lever with which they can con­trol and ma­nip­u­late the ac­tions of in­di­vid­u­als.

Data are free-float­ing and open to con­fis­ca­tion. They are not veils; they are trans­par­ent gate­ways to in­fi­nite fa­cades. The trans­parency of data en­sures that we are be­ing watched, mon­i­tored, gov­erned, fol­lowed, traced, tracked and dis­ci­plined. This is the cen­tral the­sis ad­vanced by the book We Are Data: Al­go­rithms and the Mak­ing of our Dig­i­tal Selves by John Cheney-lip­pold.

The book di­lates on how al­go­rithms make and com­pute us. The com­puted “us” is what al­go­rithms make us out to be, which is a far cry from what we are. Cheney-lip­pold (as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of Dig­i­tal Stud­ies and Amer­i­can Cul­ture, Univer­sity of Michi­gan) has laid out lu­cidly his ar­gu­ments on the ma­ni­a­cal pro­por­tions of in­for­ma­tion em­bez­zle­ment by dig­i­tal em­pires. The book is also a trail­blazer for the new­found in­ter­est in al­go­rithm stud­ies in academia. The book is filled with the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts and draws on the stud­ies of con­tem­po­rary schol­ars and dig­i­tal me­dia philoso­phers. The the­o­ret­i­cal con­cepts have been largely used as an­no­ta­tive, nice-to-know in­for­ma­tion.

Al­though the con­cepts are not a pre­req­ui­site to com­pre­hend the con­tents of the book, the reader will be en­thused to read them be­fore pro­ceed­ing fur­ther. At its core, the book, in its four chap­ters—cat­e­gori­sa­tion, con­trol, sub­jec­tiv­ity and pri­vacy—deals with how al­go­rith­mic logic or­gan­ises and or­ders our lives.

The ev­ery­day life of peo­ple has be­come deeply en­trenched in dig­i­tal net­works as they wade through a host of apps and so­cial me­dia sites. The ex­pan­sive, net­worked ecosys­tem that they are part of holds them hostage to in­vis­i­ble traps. We seem­ingly take com­fort in the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the net­worked world, which at best ex­cites peo­ple with in­for­ma­tion. But, that is the pre­ten­tious sav­ing grace at the su­per­fi­cial level. We Are Data isa scary and grisly ac­count of how hu­man be­ings cease to be in­di­vid­u­als. Not be­cause in­di­vid­u­als cease to ex­ist but be­cause their ubiq­ui­tous and frag­mented pres­ence makes them sus­cep­ti­ble to sur­veil­lance and con­trol be­yond one’s imag­i­na­tion.

Data make us, but we can­not see them. So, what is not seen is what de­ter­mines our life and reg­u­lates and mod­u­lates our self. If Rene Descartes ar­gued “I think, there­fore I am”, the un­see­able data do not nec­es­sar­ily mean that we do not ex­ist. But, as Cheneylip­pold says, data in them­selves do not carry meaning. It is the ag­gre­ga­tion of data de­rived from our en­gage­ment with a wide va­ri­ety of apps and ac­tiv­i­ties that lends it­self to mean­ing­ful in­for­ma­tion that we as hu­man be­ings can­not com­pute.

The first chap­ter is a chill­ing rev­e­la­tion of how al­go­rithms cre­ate cat­e­gories in terms of pro­fil­ing, racial­is­ing and marginal­is­ing us. Our data and the meta­data that al­go­rithms cre­ate by draw­ing in­for­ma­tion about what we do on so­cial me­dia and in the dig­i­tal space give rise to con­struc­tions of gen­der, race, wealth and iden­tity, among other things. But, is

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