Jorge Luis Borges’ The Library of Babel, illustrated by Erik Desmazieres.


Technologies of Speculation:

The limits of knowledge in a data-driven society

(NYU Press, 2020, formerly Fabrications)

What counts as knowledge in the age of big data? We – we as that fiction of the collective public, as individual subjects riding the waves of everyday living, cut to finer pieces of information with every measurement – are becoming, like it or not, ‘data-driven’. Fabrications argues that the rapid expansion of data-driven surveillance in early twenty-first century America is part of a wider transformation of collective norms governing what counts as known, probable, certain.

Data turns bodies into facts. It promises to take human intentions, emotions, behaviour, and turn these messy realities into discrete and stable facts. Yet these technologies also give rise to a range of speculative and approximative forms of factmaking. Cultural fantasies about the impersonal objectivity of data helps conceal and perpetuate enduring divisions of human bodies. Whether in the war against terror or the quest for self-improvement, bodies become constantly fragmented into different kinds – the coloured, the abnormal, the unproductive.

A twisted symbiosis of knowledge and uncertainty. The data-driven society promises a clean, impersonal, antiseptic genre of fact, disinfected of human subjectivity and all its errant whims. Yet this technology is itself justified by expanding the horizons of uncertainty and danger. There is the global diffusion of micro-threats in the ‘war on terror’, embodied by the almost random possibility of a ‘lone wolf’ attack; there is the heightened pressure for citizens to optimise their everyday life routines in order to survive fierce economic competition. Even as uncertainty functions as the bogeyman Other to the seductive promises of data-driven knowledge, the latter is often achieved precisely by the political and emotional uses of uncertainty.

Fabrications. A wide panoply of speculative and deferred ways of knowing bloom in this gap between the ambition of machinic objectivity and the uncertainties of complex technological systems, of global terrorist threats, of human bodies and affects. The book tells the story of fabrications – the emerging generation of incomplete archives, speculative facts, simulated futures, that characterise the data-driven society. Who – or what – has the right to declare the truth of who I am? How is that right seized via the fiat of urgent necessity, the promise of progress?