When you can trust nobody, trust the smart machine

I will be at AOIR in Montreal, 10-13 October to present some newer work as I look beyond the book. Below is one brief summary of ongoing investigations:


 

What is the connection between smart machines, self-tracking, and the ongoing mis/disinformation epidemic? They are part of a broader shift in the social rules of truth and trust. Emerging today is a strange alliance of objectivity, technology and the ‘personal’ – often cast in opposition to the aging bastions of institutional expertise. The fantasy of an empowered individual who ‘knows for themselves’ smuggles in a new set of dependencies on opaque and powerful technologies.

 

1.

On one hand, individuals are encouraged to know more, and to take that knowing into their own hands. Emblematic is the growth of the self-tracking industry: measure your own health and productivity, discover the unique correlations that make you tick, and take control of rationalising and optimising your life. Taglines of ‘n=1’ and ‘small data’ sloganise the vision: the intrepid, tech-savvy individual on an empowering and personal quest to self-knowledge. Implicit here is a revalorisation of the personal and experiential: you have a claim to the truth of your body in ways that the doctor cannot, despite all their learned expertise. This is territory that I go into in some detail in the book.

 

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And so, Calit2’s Larry Smarr builds a giant 3D projection of his own microbiome – which, he claims, helped him diagnose the onset of Crohn’s disease before the doctors could.

 

But what does it mean to take control and know yourself, if this knowing happens through technologies that operate beyond the limits of the human senses? Subsidiary to the wider enthusiasm for big data, smart machines and machine learning, the value proposition of much (not all) of self-tracking tech is predicated on the promise of data-driven objectivity: the idea that the machines will know us better than we know ourselves, and correct the biases and ‘fuzziness’ of human senses, cognition, memory. And this claim to objectivity is predicated on a highly physical relationship: these smart machines live on the wrist, under the bedsheets, sometimes even in the user’s body, embedding their observations, notifications, recommendations, into the lived rhythms of everyday life. What we find is a very particular mixture of the personal and the machinic, the objective and the experiential: know yourself – through machines that know you better than you do.

 

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Jeannine Risley’s Fitbit data is used to help disprove her claims of being raped by an intruder. What is called ‘self-knowledge’ becomes increasingly capable being disassociated from the control and intentions of the ‘self’.

 

2.

Another transformative site for how we know and how we trust is that of political mis/disinformation. While the comparison is neither simple nor obvious, I am exploring the idea that they are animated by a common, broader shift towards a particular alliance of the objective, machinic and ‘personal’. In the political sphere, its current enemies are well-defined: institutional expertise, bureaucratic truthmaking and, in a piece of historical irony, liberalism as the dishonest face of a privileged elite. Here, new information technologies are leveraged towards what van Zoonen labelled ‘i-pistemology’: the embrace of personal and experiential truth in opposition to top-down and expert factmaking.

 

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In such ‘deceptive’ social media postings, we find no comprehensive and consistent message per se, but a more flexible and scattershot method. The aim is not to defeat a rival message in the game of public opinion and truthtelling, but to add noise to the game until it breaks down. It is this general erosion of established rules that allows half-baked, factually incorrect and otherwise suspect information to compete with more official ones.

 

The ongoing ‘fake news’ epidemic of course has roots in post-Cold War geopolitics, and the free speech ideology embedded into social media platforms and their corporate custodians. But it is also an extension of a decades-long decline in public trust of institutions and experts. It is also an unintended consequence of what we thought was the best part about Internet technologies: the ability to give everyone a voice, to break down artificial gatekeepers, and allow more information to reach more people. It is well known how Dylann Roof, who killed nine in the 2015 Charleston massacre, began that path with a simple online search of ‘black on white crime’. The focus here is on what danah boyd identified as a loss of orienting anchors in the age of online misinformation: emerging generations of media users who are taught to assemble their own eclectic mix of truths in a hyper-pluralistic media environment, while also learning a deep distrust of official sources.

 

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2017 saw the March for Science: an earnest defence of evidence-based, objective, institutionalised truth as an indispensable tool for the government of self and others. The underlying sentiment: this isn’t an agenda for a particular kind of truth and trust, this is just reality – and anyway, didn’t we already settle this debate? But the debate over what counts as reality and how we get access to it is never quite settled.

 

3.

These are strange and unsettling combinations: the displacement of trust from institutions to technologies in the guise of the empowered ‘I’, and the related proliferation of alternative forms of truthtelling. My current suspicion is that they express an increasingly unstable set of contradictions in our long-running relationship with the Enlightenment. On one hand, we find the enduring belief in better knowledge, especially through depersonalised and inhuman forms of objectivity, as the ticket to rational and informed human subjects. At the same time, this figure of the individual who knows for themselves – found in Kant’s inaugural call of Sapere aude! – is increasingly subject to both deliberate and structural manipulations by sociotechnical systems. We are pushed to discover our ‘personal truths’ in the wilderness of speculation, relying only on ourselves – which, in practice, often means relying on technologies whose workings escape our power to audit. There is nobody you can trust these days, but the smart machine shall not lead you astray.

 

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Data Epistemologies – Dissertation online

Data Epistemologies: Surveillance and Uncertainty, my dissertation at the University of Pennsylvania, is now online for public access here. It is, in many ways, a working draft for my current book project.

Abstract:

Data Epistemologies studies the changing ways in which ‘knowledge’ is defined, promised, problematised, legitimated vis-á-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.