Data Epistemologies: Surveillance and Uncertainty is the working title of the book in progress; it will brew and gestate over my stay at MIT. I will be posting snippets as I go, starting with the dissertation abstract:
Data Epistemologies studies the changing ways in which ‘knowledge’ is defined, promised, problematised, legitimated vis-à-vis the advent of digital, ‘big’ data surveillance technologies in early twenty-first century America. As part of the period’s fascination with ‘new’ media and ‘big’ data, such technologies intersect ambitious claims to better knowledge with a problematisation of uncertainty. This entanglement, I argue, results in contextual reconfigurations of what ‘counts’ as knowledge and who (or what) is granted authority to produce it – whether it involves proving that indiscriminate domestic surveillance prevents terrorist attacks, to arguing that machinic sensors can know us better than we can ever know ourselves.
The present work focuses on two empirical cases. The first is the ‘Snowden Affair’ (2013-Present): the public controversy unleashed through the leakage of vast quantities of secret material on the electronic surveillance practices of the U.S. government. The second is the ‘Quantified Self’ (2007-Present), a name which describes both an international community of experimenters and the wider industry built up around the use of data-driven surveillance technology for self-tracking every possible aspect of the individual ‘self’. By triangulating media coverage, connoisseur communities, advertising discourse and leaked material, I examine how surveillance technologies were presented for public debate and speculation.
This dissertation is thus a critical diagnosis of the contemporary faith in ‘raw’ data, sensing machines and algorithmic decision-making, and of their public promotion as the next great leap towards objective knowledge. Surveillance is not only a means of totalitarian control or a technology for objective knowledge, but a collective fantasy that seeks to mobilise public support for new epistemic systems. Surveillance, as part of a broader enthusiasm for ‘data-driven’ societies, extends the old modern project whereby the human subject – its habits, its affects, its actions – become the ingredient, the raw material, the object, the target, for the production of truths and judgments about them by things other than themselves.
A brief status report:
Having concluded my dissertation at Penn, I will, from July 2016, be located at MIT as a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow (see here, though I am listed yet). I will be affiliated with the Comparative Media Studies / Writing department as I continue to write about data, technology, new media, surveillance, objectivity, and our twisted desires and fantasies coiled round those ideals.
I will presently be floating the dissertation title and abstract.
This June, I will be at ICA 2016, Fukuoka, Japan; I expect that I will be running into many familiar faces!
I will be presenting two pieces of work. First, I’ve organised a panel called The Quantified / Qualified Self; Alison Hearn, Lee Humphreys, Jessa Lingel and I will be talking about the various ways in which new media’s quantification of the human also entails qualitative shifts in our narratives, habits, perceptions of the ‘self’.
I will also be at the preconference ‘Algorithms, Automation and Politics’, organised by the folks at Political Bots. While political communication and IR scholars are not my usual interlocutors, that’s exactly why this should be interesting (and, in fact, I have no idea what the disciplinary demographic will be like). I’ve put up a version of my abstract over at untimely.co., titled The Metapolitics of Algorithmic Politics.
When politics and the Internet used to be simpler… (you can still check it out at dolekemp96.org)
Last October, I was at Digital Existence: Memory, Meaning, Vulnerability, a conference organised by the group Existential Terrains. This talk indexes some of the themes that I am currently working through in the dissertation project: what counts as ‘knowing’ about surveillance if I am told so much about it, but can almost never experience it, handle it, grasp it? What does it mean for the state to insist that indiscriminate data collection is necessary to know a terrorist threat that it defines fundamentally unknowable? And what about self-tracking devices, which promise a more intimate kind of self-knowledge precisely by having machines pre-empt our own intuitive access to ourselves?
The full talk and slides are available over at untimely.co.
I will be at the University of Milano-Bicocca next week to give a talk on surveillance, self-tracking and the data-driven life. It will overlap significantly with my presentation last week at the Affect Theory conference; I’ll be posting the full text and slides afterwards. Abstract below.
The Data-Driven Life: The Parameters of Knowing in the Online Surveillance Society
‘Information overload’ is an old cliché, but when it was still fresh, it conveyed a broad and fundamental liquidity in the parameters of our experience. What it meant – and felt like – to remember, to know, was changing. Surveillance today is not simply a question of privacy or governmental power, but a practical extension of such liquidity. Surveillance’s fevered dream of total prediction hinges on its ability to subtend human sensibility – with its forgetfulness, bias, and other problems – to reach ‘raw’ and comprehensive data. This data-hunger, shared by states, corporations and individuals alike, betrays a ‘honeymoon objectivity’. The rise of new technologies for knowledge production is being misconstrued as a discovery of pure and unmediated information. The result is a profound shift in what qualifies as knowledge; who, or what, does the knowing; what decisions and actions are legitimated through that knowledge. Surveillance practices and controversies today host a reparametrisation of what ‘knowing’ entails.
In this talk, I will address two specific cases: the state surveillance of the Snowden Affair, and the self-surveillance of the Quantified Self (QS) movement. I draw on interviews, ethnographic observation and archival research that is part of a larger, ongoing project.
- I know we are being watched, Snowden told us so – but I don’t see it, and I don’t feel it. A vast surveillance program withdraws into the recesses of technological systems, denying our capacity to know and experience it. Conventional forms of proof or risk probabilities elude both arguments for and against it. This situation provokes two major patterns of ‘knowing’. First, subjunctivity leverages the recessive unknowability surrounding surveillance as if it were in some way true and certain, producing hypothetical, provisionary bases for real, enduring actions and beliefs. Statistical measures of danger become mathematically negligible, yet affectively overwhelming. Second, interpassivity projects others (human and nonhuman) who believe and experience what we cannot ourselves in our stead. Even if the world of surveillance and terror is not real in my back yard, these interpellated others help make it ‘real enough’. Technology’s recession thus provokes an existential dilemma; how do I ‘know’? What is it supposed to feel like to ‘know’?
- We cannot stand guard over our judgments without machines to keep us steady. If our knowledge of our own bodies, habits and affects were previously left to unreliable memories and gut feeling, QS promises a data-driven existence where you truly “come into contact with yourself” – through persistent, often wearable, self-surveillance. The Delphic maxim know thyself is applied to a very different existential condition, where my lived relationship with technology becomes the authoritative site for an abstracted relationship with my own body. Yet QSers also acknowledge that data is always incomplete, raising new uncertainties and requiring the intervention of subjective judgment. Here, it is technology’s protrusion which forces the question: how will you ‘know’ yourself through a digitality that subtends your memory and intention?
Presence, or the sense of being-there and being-with in the new media society
Open access @First Monday.
This essay argues that the ways in which we come to feel connectivity and intimacy are often inconsistent with and irreducible to traditional markers like physical proximity, the human face or the synchronicity of message transmission. It identifies this non-objective and affective property as presence: conventionalised ways of intuiting sociability and publicness. The new media society is a specific situation where such habits of being affected are socially and historically parametrised. The essay provides two case studies. First: how do we derive a diffuse, indirect, intuitive sense of communicative participation — and yet also manage to convince ourselves of anonymity online? The second describes surveillance and data-mining as a kind of alienation: I am told my personal data is being exploited, but I do not quite ‘feel’ it. Surveillance practices increasingly withdraw from everyday experience, yet this withdrawal actually contributes to its strong presence.
Subjunctive and Interpassive ‘Knowing’ in the Surveillance Society
Open access @Media and Communication.
The Snowden affair marked not a switch from ignorance to informed enlightenment, but a problematisation of knowing as a condition. What does it mean to know of a surveillance apparatus that recedes from your sensory experience at every turn? How do we mobilise that knowledge for opinion and action when its benefits and harms are only articulable in terms of future-forwarded “as if”s? If the extent, legality and efficacy of surveillance is allegedly proven in secrecy, what kind of knowledge can we be said to “possess”? This essay characterises such knowing as “world-building”. We cobble together facts, claims, hypotheticals into a set of often speculative and deferred foundations for thought, opinion, feeling, action. Surveillance technology’s recession from everyday life accentuates this process. Based on close analysis of the public mediated discourse on the Snowden affair, I offer two common patterns of such world-building or knowing. They are (1)subjunctivity, the conceit of “I cannot know, but I must act as if it is true”; (2) interpassivity, which says “I don’t believe it/I am not affected, but someone else is (in my stead)”.
While this site hosts my CV, publications and the like, I had originally planned for more creative output. Untimely. will act as a sister site, hosting such material. I’ve fiddled with it for a while, but now it is essentially feature complete, and August / September will see (re)upload of material at a good pace.
Among other things, I have been posting excerpts of my reading notes on Foucault, Merleau-Ponty, Weber, and more. Enough folks have found these marginally useful that I hope the amorphous digital mob will find them equally marginally useful. Untimely will host these reading notes, as well as more typically bloglike commentary and short analytical pieces on continental philosophy, critical theory, surveillance and new media, etc.
The official blurb:
Untimely. is an anachronistic archive. Most straightforwardly, it offers reading notes on works of philosophy and critical theory – useful for teaching, individual reading, and quotation hunting. It also comments on things and events, plucked from all sorts of times. The ‘Stazi problem’ in Eastern Germany and the Snowden Affair. Kafka’s Das Urteil and the age of Bushisms. Online filter bubbles. The Dreyfus Affair…