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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Interview @ Gas Gallery

I spoke with Ceci Moss at Gas, a mobile art gallery that roams Los Angeles and the web, about different forms of self-tracking: the technological promises and economic precarities, moral injunctions and everyday habits… found here.

An excerpt:

We have to ask not only ‘is this really empowering or not’, but also ‘what is it about our society that makes us feel like we need to empower ourselves in this way?’ In the same way, we have to ask what kind of new labours, new troubles, new responsibilities, new guilts, that these empowering activities bring to our doorstep. From an economic perspective, if you are someone who has to constantly sell one’s productivity to the market, the ‘empowerment’ of self-tracking and self-care becomes a necessary labour for one’s survival. The injunction to ‘care for yourself’ is a truncated version of ‘you’ve got to care for yourself to stay afloat, because nobody will do it for you.’

The interview is part of their ongoing exhibition:

take care | June 9–July 20, 2018

Featuring: Hayley Barker, Darya Diamond, Ian James, Young Joon Kwak, C. Lavender, Sarah Manuwal, Saewon Oh, Amanda Vincelli, and SoftCells presents: Jules Gimbrone

How do radical ambitions of “self-care” persist or depart from capitalist society’s preoccupation with wellness and the industry surrounding it, particularly when filtered through technological advances? How can we imagine personal wellness that complicates or diverges from capitalist and consumerist tendencies? Taking its name from the common valediction, which is both an expression of familiarity and an instruction of caution, take care, is a group exhibition that considers the many tensions surrounding the possibilities of self-care.

 

Lecture @ Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts

I will be at the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, San Francisco, on 20 March 2018 to discuss data, bodies and intimacy, as part of their year-long program on the work of Seth Price. More information here.

 

Data, or, Bodies into Facts

Data never stops accumulating. There is always more of it. Data covers everything and everyone, like skin, and yet different people have different levels of access to it,so it’s never quite fair to call it “objective” or even “truthful.

Entire industries are built around storing data, and then protecting,  organizing, verifying, optimizing, and distributing itFrom there, even the most banal pieces of data work to penetrate the most intimate corners of our lives.

For Sunha Hong, the promise of data is the promise to turn bodies into factsemotions, behavior, and every messy amorphous human reality can be distilled into the discrete, clean cuts of calculable information. We track our exercise, our sexual lives, our relationships, our happiness, in the hope of selfknowledge achieved through machines wrought in the hands of others. Data promises a certain kind of intimacy, but everything about our lived experience constantly violates this serene aesthetic wherein bodies are sanitized, purified, and disinfected into objective and neutral facts. This is the pushpull between the raw and the mediated.

Whether it be by looking at surveillance,algorithmic, or selftracking technologies,Hong’s work points to the question of how human individuals become the ingredient for the production of truths and judgments about them by things other than themselves.

 

Update: He gives a talk.

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Presentation @ 4S

I will be at 4S [Society for Social Studies of Science], Boston this week in the ‘Surveillance and Security’ panel: Thursday 31 August, 4.00pm, Sheraton Boston Flr 3 Kent.

Recessive Objects: Surveillance and the (Dis)appearance of fact

Recessive objects are things which promise to extend our knowledge, but thereby publicise the very uncertainty threatening that knowing. These archives, statistical figures, black boxes mobilise our enduring faith in nonhuman objectivity and technological progress, imposing a sense of calculability and predictability. Yet far from extinguishing uncertainty, they provide material presence of the absent, secret, unknowable – especially the widening gap between human and machinic sensibility. Recessive objects address longstanding questions about the social production of what counts as objective fact, and what kind of virtues are invested into ‘new’ technologies. They emphasise the practical junctures where public imagination, material artefacts and the operational logic of new technologies intersect.

I discuss two recessive objects featuring centrally in America’s recent encounters with surveillance technologies: (1) the Snowden Files, an indefinite archive of state secrets leaking profusely since 2013; (2) the latest generation of self-tracking devices. What does it mean to know about a vast state surveillance system, even as it operates almost entirely removed from individuals’ sensory experience? How can the public make its judgment when proof of surveillance’s efficacy is itself classified? What kind of ‘self-knowledge’ is it when we learn about our bodies through machines that track us in ways our senses cannot follow – and claim to ‘know you better than you know yourself?

Lecture @ Copenhagen Business School

I was recently at Copenhagen Business School, courtesy of Mikkel Flyverbom, to discuss the book-in progress. An earlier version of the talk, given at MIT, is online in podcast form here.

An excerpt from my notes:

“So we have two episodes, two ongoing episodes. On one hand, you have the state and its technological system, designed for bulk collection of massive scales, and energised by the moral and political injunction towards ‘national security’ – and all of this leaked through Edward Snowden. On the other hand, you have the popularisation of self-tracking devices, a fresh addition to the growing forms of constant care and management required of the employable and productive subject, Silicon Valley being its epicentre.

These are part of a wider penumbra of practices: algorithmic predictions, powered by Bayesian inference and artificial neural nets, corporate data-mining under the moniker of ‘big’ data… now, by no means are they the same thing, or governed by some central force that perpetuates them. But as they pop up around every street corner, there are certain tendencies that start to characterise ‘data-driven’ as a mode of thinking and decision-making.

The tendency I focus on here is the effort to render things known, predictable, calculable – and how pursuing that hunger entails, in fact, many close encounters uncertainty and the unknown.

Here surveillance is not reducible to questions of security and privacy. It is a scene for ongoing conflicts over what counts as knowledge, who or what gets the authority to declare what you are, what we consider ‘good enough’ evidence to watch people, to change our diet, to arrest them. What we’re seeing is a renewed effort at valorising a certain project of objective knowledge, of factual certainty, of capturing the viscera of life into bits, of producing the right number that tells us what to do.”

 

 

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.

Data’s Intimacy

New piece at the open source Communication+1, titled ‘Data’s Intimacy: Machinic Sensibility and the Quantified Self’. This is the first of, I think, two or three pieces on self-tracking that will be rolling out over the next couple of years.

expereal

expereal, a mood visualisation service (now possibly defunct)

 

Abstract

Today, machines observe, record, sense the world – not just for us, but sometimes instead of us (in our stead), and even indifferently to us humans. And yet, we remain human. Correlationism may not be up to a comprehensive ontology, but the ways in which we encounter, and struggle to make some kind of sense of, machinic sensibility matters. The nature of that encounter is not instrumentality, or even McLuhanian extension, but a full-blown ‘relationship’ where the terms by which machines ‘experience’ the world, and communicate with each other, parametrises the conditions for our own experience. This essay will play out one such relationship currently in the making: the boom in self-tracking technologies, and the attendant promise of data’s intimacy.

This essay proceeds in three sections, all of which draw on a larger research project into self-tracking and contemporary data epistemologies. It thus leverages observations from close reading of self-tracking’s publicisation in the mass media between 2007 and 2016; analysis of over fifty self-tracking products, some of it through self-experimentation; and interviews and ethnographic observation, primarily of the ‘Quantified Self’ connoisseur community. The first section examines the dominant public presentations of self-tracking in early twenty-first century discourse. This discourse embraces a vision of automated and intimate self-surveillance, which is then promised to deliver superior control and objective knowledge over the self. Next, I link these promises to the recent theoretical turns towards the agency of objects and the autonomous sensory capacities of new media to consider the implications of such theories – and the technological shifts they address – for the phenomenology of the new media subject. Finally, I return to self-tracking discourse to consider its own idealisation of such a subject – what I call ‘data-sense’. I conclude by calling for a more explicit public and intellectual debate around the relationships we forge with new technologies, and the consequences they have for who – and what – is given which kinds of authority to speak the truth of the ‘self’.

[Talk] U. Milano-Bicocca

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.

  1. 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’?
  1. 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?