Being Data

Tamara Kneese

In 1966, Der Spiegel interviewed Martin Heidegger:

 

SPIEGEL: And what takes the place of philosophy now?

HEIDEGGER: Cybernetics.

 

Even before the mass production of personal computers, Heidegger saw the writing on the wall for the humanities. Today, STEM funding far outpaces institutional investment in philosophy, history, or literature departments. To some, the “digital humanities” offer a salve, promising to bridge scientific and humanistic knowledge, and to make literature departments more practical. To others, digital humanities advocates are in thrall to neoliberal tools, prioritizing scholarship with immediate commercial value.

Either way, one thing is clear: we are in a moment of popular and academic interest in all things digital. This coincides with the near inescapability of computing technologies. Digital objects attract our attention and constantly demand our time and care. Rather than producing physical objects like cars and chairs at factories, vast numbers of laborers now send emails, write blog posts, or peruse social media feeds. Data comprised of text files, binary code, signals, silicon, metal, and particles are the ghostly industrial objects of our time. But these digital objects remain difficult to grasp.

The formidable recent monograph by Yuk Hui, currently a researcher at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, considers how digital objects came into being. Hui adeptly blends his technical training and philosophical knowledge to address a fundamental question: what is the relationship between technological and humanistic concerns?

The digital object is an apparent contradiction in terms. The digital is often assumed to be synonymous with immateriality, and digital objects are potentially ephemeral or rapidly obsolescent. But digital objects are also social: they tend to be programmable, interactive, and malleable. Perhaps the inscrutability of digital objects explains the popularity as scholarly subjects of both highly material things—from shipping containers to remote controls—and the agency of nonhuman entities.

Recent works have analyzed and given concrete form to the symbolic “cloud,” identifying the infrastructures that facilitate networked computing as well as the environmental and political impact of our cloud-based fantasies. All objects, however, contain both immaterial and material elements. For instance, a family heirloom passed from one generation to the next is more than the base materiality of the object itself; an heirloom is imbued with the networks of intimate relationships associated with it, lending it a metaphysical dimension.

Digital objects, like other everyday items, are the product of particular social and historical contingencies. They appear in countless forms, manifesting as visual delights like OkCupid profiles and emoji or as MP3 files. But when we speak of digital objects we are in fact referring to data, or the units of information compiled through our online actions, interactions, and transactions, and the metadata that serve to contextualize this information.

Data visualization by Marcin Ingnac, from <i>Every Day of My Life</i> (2012)

In his work Hui builds on the writings of philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who argues in Technics and Time I (1994) that humans and technology are co-constitutive. (Stiegler contributed an enthusiastic forward to Hui’s book.) On the Existence of Digital Objects also pays direct homage to Gilbert Simondon’s Du mode d’existence des objets techniques (1958), scheduled to appear for the first time in English later this year as On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Simondon and Heidegger had vastly divergent responses to emergent technologies. Simondon believed that technology and culture were inseparable, and that by understanding the essence of machines’ entangled connections with each other and with humans, individuals could find a way through and beyond Marxist alienation. Heidegger famously eschewed modern technology and absconded to a hut in the woods to avoid the distractions of urban life. Hui manages to place these two very different philosophers into a meaningful dialogue with one another through his study of the technical, embodied, and social relationships that produce digital objects and their environment.

For Hui, data become discernible through relationships. On a platform like Facebook, an object “is meaningless if there is not a network that is mediated by the data of the users.” The relationships enmeshed in our data-filled universe are unavoidable. As Hui states in his overtly political “Archivist Manifesto” (2013), we are all archivists, whether we want to be or not, and we rely on Google to provide us with a means of capturing and organizing the data we produce. We also need Google to help us make that data meaningful through its searchability.

A good demonstration of this is MIT’s 2013 metadata project, “Immersion,” which promised “A people-centric view of your email life” by analyzing Gmail accounts to learn more about users’ personal and professional connections. The project then produced a visual map of these clusters of interactions. Immersion’s aim was not to reveal the content of specific emails. Such information is not required to know who someone’s close contacts are or how their identities shift over time. The metadata reveals as much, if not more, than the data itself. Content is therefore subservient to networked relations.

Whether recognized or unseen, networked relations support the production and survival of our digital creations.

The digital, Hui insists, cannot be reduced to code. We cannot dismiss digital objects as mere information because we constantly brush up against their physical effects: “Throughout our everyday life, we continue to interact with objects alongside information, inducing experiences of embodiment, sensation, affection, desire, and so on.” Elsewhere, Hui has called this “relational materialism.” Interdependent relations exist between humans and nonhumans, individuals and ecosystems, as well as between material and immaterial phenomena.

Relational materialism has perhaps been rendered more evident by the digital, but life has always been networked. Despite being philosophically oriented, Hui at times connects data-related practices to anthropological concerns, such as kinship systems and totems. After citing Émile Durkheim and Marcel Mauss, Hui argues that “ontologies are relatively true, because they depend on cultural differences.” His invocation of Mauss, whose The Gift (1925) is the most famous ethnographic investigation of the metaphysical elements of exchanged objects, cannot be accidental.

Data is the plural of datum, a Latin term meaning something given, maybe as a gift. Hui ponders this, asking “If data are the ‘things’ given, then what is it that gives data?” If data is a gift, it also demands reciprocity. A great deal of care work goes into the maintenance of digital objects over time. One recent conference, “The Maintainers,” is part of a wider scholarly conversation committed to bringing awareness to the upkeep of digital infrastructures rather than focusing on a few venerated (mostly cis white male) innovators. Communication and STS scholar Lilly Irani notes how Google’s perks, like its infamous shuttles or elaborate happy hours, are reserved for engineers, whereas scanners, moderators, and others who perform maintenance work are often rendered invisible. In my own research, I consider the long-term emotional labor and care essential to maintaining the digital legacies of dead loved ones. Whether recognized or unseen, networked relations support the production and survival of our digital creations.

Digital objects are thus intrinsically tied to existential matters. In his acknowledgments, Hui reveals his personal reasons for considering existence and being through the lens of the digital: his project changed shape after he was critically ill while writing his dissertation. As Heidegger would say, humans always live in anticipation of death. In the same vein, data reveal themselves in their susceptibility to erasure.

Data are the traces of the digital, existing as their crumbs, flakes, trails, or residues. They are the things left behind, or the digital remains.