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Category Archives: Mike’s section

“…individuals are at risk of being targeted for being suspected ‘extremists’ or for being suspected of being ‘opposed to our constitutional legal order’, even if they have not (yet) committed any criminal (let alone terrorist) offence… Freedom is being given up without gaining security.'”

Immediately when I read this quote by Thomas Hammarberg within the Rouvroy essay on “Governmentality in an Age of Autonomic Computing”, I thought off the certain piece of information Glenn Greenwald revealed in the film we watched, “CitizenFour”. He claimed the US government had 1.2 million people on their “watch list”. That is a rather large number and I am confident that many of those, who are on the watch list, have yet to commit a crime (false positives). Still, they are constantly monitored, unbeknownst to them, and their freedom is essentially stripped from them. To make matters worse, that “watch list” certainly does not contain all of the real terrorists (false negatives) out there. Therefore, our freedom is being taken away as security still does not improve.

Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier’s examination of the emergence and power of big data poses, as they argue, questions and problems for the dominance of theory in understanding the world. While I was initially skeptical that big data could provide much insight, they provide compelling examples as to how strong correlations found using expansive and interlinked datasets can reveal new phenomena and disprove causal relationships. However, as a student at a liberal arts university who is not studying computer science or statistics and is immersed in theories proposed by academics; I am interested in how theory and the problematic notion that “the body doesn’t lie” is central to the way that big data is currently used. It appears that many of the examples of big data use are relatively immediate: the onset of the flu, a pregnancy, what someone will buy next. While these questions are interesting for the multinational corporation which seeks to maximize profits every second, they are less useful for those interested in longer periods of time. Such longer periods of time have been tackled in recent years by digital historians using the longue duree approach, who by using massive text archives are able to examine long term trends in ideas, thought, and movements through following terms through time. Such analyses are intensely dependent on theory, not because the relationships are necessarily produced by theory, but rather because the search is informed by theory and the results are typically only interesting or useful to the historian with a theoretical interpretation. I am curious as to how future analytical tools, if developed for history or other ways of understanding longer durations of time, could use this kind of approach to understand the massive amount of data produced through the internet as a hsitorical phenomenon. For example, how might what people search during a flu epidemic change over a period of 20 years (say if a study was done in 2025), and what does that say about changing or static popular conceptions of disease? In what instances do people stop buying from a company due to labor abuses (which tend to be constant throughout a company’s history, whether they be Walmart or Amazon or Apple), and what does that say about forms of resistance to labor exploitation that may be most fruitful?

Both Terranova and Dyer-Witherford reveal how objects supposedly outside of the purview of capitalism–whether they be the high-tech gift economy or World of Warcraft–are still firmly situated within capitalism and racialized forms of exploitation. In World of Warcraft, the exploitation of Chinese workers for the benefit of the American players comes with similar exploitation and racism. “Chinese” gold farmers ruining “our” (American’s) game appears very similar to complaints about China “stealing” American jobs or producing shoddy parts. Terranova, from a different perspective, examines how free labor is essential to the late capitalist cultural economy, rather than a fundamental challenge to capitalism. For both, the dichotomy between what is play and labor, what is capitalist and what is freely given, are not rigidly separated but fully intertwined. Dyer-Witherford’s examination of gold farming and the strive towards a perfect game that is outside of the market economy is antithetical to the intensely capitalist nature of World of Warcraft – gold, consumption, and material goods are essential to the game structure; seen from this light it appears nearly impossible to separate the game market from the real one, even if Blizzard was able to block bots. Terranova concludes by saying that her analysis is not intended to be a strategy for social action, but rather a recognition of how capitalism “mutates”, rather than simply takes actions and is responded to. In what can different forms of play and labor–perhaps not world of warcraft but games that make fun of capitalist entities, perhaps labor that builds community rather than potentially useful products–mutate far enough to be considered resistance?

“…society will need to shed some of its obsession for causality in exchange for simple correlations: not know why by only what.” (cukier 7)

I was struck in the Cukier reading by the shortcomings of what’s known as “big data.” However impressive & massive Big Data is, it doesn’t seem big enough to grasp the conceptual— to get at the larger— even larger than the “big” of “big data”— structural reasons that cause the correlations data can recognize.

In section, though, I was prompted to think whether the conceptual and structural were big enough. What does it mean that the field of critical theory tries to reclaim power from apparatuses such as media and technology, like we are discussing in this class? Does this dismantling, or reclamation, not follow a logic of reparation? Does it not suggest that there is some sort of concrete amount of power that can be returned to those who have been disenfranchised from it, after which the power will be “equitably” or “justly” distributed? Who can decide how much that is, and to whom it belongs? Isn’t it true that there is a way in which that power, once taken away from some people, can never be returned to them?

Thanks for a wonderful course!

A central tenet of Mayer-Schonberger’s and Cukier’s discussion of Big Data is the shift it allows in understanding phenomenon in the world from “small-data” explanations of causation to “big-data” explanations using correlations. This is a shift from “why” to “what.” Part of the argument the authors put forth about this shift is that it is promising for the way we go about conducting studies and identifying complex or interesting phenomenon in that by freeing us from questions of causation, which bog us down in specifics which may be ultimately irrelevant, hugely vast data sets allow us to rely on correlation of phenomena with a degree of confidence previously unattainable, giving rise to increasingly complex and nuanced observations. Big data’s impact is profound in that it has the potential to radically alter how we approach empirical inquiry.

However, I want to point out and stress how these observations may pose issues may threaten the deepened perpetuation of oppressive systems, as well as further deny political and social autonomy to individuals who hold historically oppressed identities. The chapter readily admits the shortcomings of big data. By shifting inquiry from why to what, studies still leave room for exploitation of correlations by tricking people in false adherence to observed correlations, as is described in the example of orange used cars. This critique might be extended to think about who benefits from this shift from why to what. If big data is simply employed to describe the system already in place, and these findings are used to proscribe action that perpetuates the existing system, the possibility of social and political change is diminished. Those entities who have most access to this data are also those with most vested interest in preserving the current system. So as big data proliferates, it would seem that a perpetuation of existing systems of oppression are preserved through a new kind of descriptive and proscriptive process.

Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier illuminate in their writings the impact big data will and already has had on our society. They begin their book with an anecdote about Swine Flu (Swine ’09) and demonstrate the ways in which Google was able to pinpoint the areas of infection via big data. I find this power simultaneously comforting and alarming. As evidenced through the story about Google, big data has the ability to provide immense help. Schonberger and Cukier write, “Strikingly, Google’s method does not involve distributing mouth swabs or contacting physicians’ offices. Instead, it is built on “big data.” So, yes, Big Data can do a lot of good. But it can also do a lot of harm. Google’s mass collection of information has, in the view of many, overstepped the bounds of privacy. Advertisements for products that appear on the side of your Google searches are tailored to your individual preferences that Google has amassed based on searches and purchasing history. Thus, where does Google draw the line? When does Big Data become Big Brother?

I really enjoyed the analogy made in the Post Digital piece by Cramer about how post digital could be seen as hybrids of “old” and “new” media. Cramer describes how in an art school, he has seen young artists “choose media for their own particular material aesthetic qualities, regardless of whether these are a result of analog material properties or of digital processing”. The inevitable imperfections within this hybrid are seen as an exploration of the materials. The aesthetic quality of the mixing is what the artists strive for. This he compares to the attitude of a “post-digital hacker taking systems apart and using them in ways which subvert the original intention of the design”. These two examples of hybridism in very different areas show that the world we live in today really is embracing innovation and creativity in a large way- creating new things, while holding on to the old. Outside of the art or digital world, too- for example, how did this hipster movement come about and take hold? People who will bring their typewriter to the park, but check their email on their iPhone. Perhaps there is some innate nostalgia within our society that just can’t let go of our history.

I believe big data embodies the course’s big question: Why does the Internet evoke such contradictory passions?

Whereas it is extremely fascinating and exciting that google searches better predicted the spread of H1N1 than CDC data, it is certainly “wonderfully creepy.” Indeed, much of the same hype and promise surrounds big data as we noticed surrounding cyberspace and hypertext. In some regards, big data is today’s big thing and promise of the future. What big data has accomplished thus far is exciting and incites passion. In Chapter 4, “Now” of Big Data it states, “Data became a raw material of business, a vital economic input, used to create a new form of economic value. In fact, with the right mindset, data can be cleverly reused to become a fountain of innovation and new services. The data can reveal secrets to those with the humility, the willingness, and the tools to listen” (5).

At the same time, big data produces anxiety. The use of data like google searches may feel like a breach of privacy although theoretically, big data has little to do with the individual. However, in a post-Snowden society, it is easy to feel unsafe as your computers leak information and this information is used.

In many ways, from reading excerpts from Mayer-Schongerger and Cukier I do agree the big data revolution may very well “transform how we live, work, and think.”

In the Cramer reading for this week I was really interested in this quote analyzing this resurgance of old media usage; “(Jurgenson, IRL Fetish) characterized this trend as a “current obsession with the analog, the vintage, and the retro”: “Vintage cameras and typewriters dot the apartments of Millennials. […] The ease and speed of the digital photo resists itself, creating a new appreciation for slow film photography.”[^2] (Nordeman), quoting Jurgenson, links this to a renaissance of craft in contemporary art and design which takes its cues from Richard Sennett’s 2008 book _The Craftsman_.[^3]” The Cramer reading and this quote specifically reminded me of the discussion week of class we learned about and discussed the film Superstar and the Steyerl reading on defense of the poor image. The “appreciation for slow film photography” while they do represent the “deliberate choice of renouncing electronic technology”. I believe that the allure of these old media objects is mostly due to the aesthetics. In regards to the meme of the guy with the typewriter at the park, while I recognize that there are other potential reasons he chose to use a typewriter such as the fact that there are way less distractions since a typewriter does not have a bunch of gadgets like a new media laptop, I see the way that he used his typewriter in a public space as more of an accessory of sorts. Also in the vein of the aesthetics of old media usage I am reminded of when Todd Haynes spoke at Ivy Film Festival recently and how he talked about he still prefers to use “handmade film” because it gives the images texture and personality.

I really enjoyed the Cramer article this week, which challenged the analog-digital binary in interesting ways. It’s important that the terms he works with (analog, digital, even post-) are colloquialized and carry different connotations, allowing him to intermingle them and pick them apart.

Though defining these words is relevant in this context, I’ve been noticing that a lot of critical theory relies on looking at origins of words and both denotation and connotation. Though this may be a valuable text-starring exercise and may open up possibilities of words, sometimes it feels as if it’s more of an instinct or trope than a useful way to break open a concept. For example, the literal definition of digital (able to be broken up into distinct units) has important implications on how we construct its opposition to analog (the fact that the central hipster analog example of typewriter is in fact digital in some sense). However, Cramer immediately undermines that by talking about how the vast majority of people (even theorists) use a purely colloquial definition.

I can’t criticize this too harshly as it’s a self-admitted digression from the rest of the text, but it seems prescriptivist to focus so much on denotation at the expense of real usage. I’m wondering why there’s this instinct in critical theory to break apart words for deeper original meaning rather than looking at its common understanding, and whether or not this technique is employed as effectively as it could be. Not to say that examining the language we use isn’t important—and in this text, getting on the same page about definitions and reconciling the contradictions between media forms is central—but what kind of viewpoints are privileged when we turn to this form of legitimizing language?