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.
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
Price: Rs.995 Pages: 336