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Our current digital culture operates as a reformulation of the akashic records: an anthology comprised of all the epistemology of all phenomenology and experiences, human and otherwise, as well as the genealogy of the cosmos. It is a text that contains the entirety of the data available in the world. It records the vicissitudes of all knowledge; it does not require contestation or critique, for its contents all assuredly possess absolute veracity and incontrovertible factuality. While such a text is a fable of folklore, its premise grows increasingly manifest in digital media technologies and, its corollary, surveillance-capture substructures.

In “Out of File, Out of Mind,” Cornelia Vismann commences her discussion of digital technology (hardware) by recounting the current dominant trope of bureaucracy as it intersects with the “practice of total documentation” in the U.S. and the West more broadly with its modus operandi “to make records and keep files” (97). This practice “leaves not a single spoken word without a written equivalent” (97). The administrative agents who enact these practices “record in order to act, and act only by recording” (97). In the wake of “non-script based” communication technologies – by turns aural, gustatory, olfactory, tactile, and non-semiotic visual – that evade print mediums, such competitive products led to the implementation of “record keeping” with time “as a bureaucratic principle” (97). This “documentary universe of the written word” is an allegorical exemplum of the akashic records with its extensive data logs and because it is often treated, as we shall see, as a source of absolute knowledge (97).

Yet this bureaucratic system with its desired telos of omniscience has not necessarily been the product of a labor of love. The work – laborious, repetitive, pedestrian – is often not accompanied by the motivation present in many other digital modes of social labor in the generation of user-based content, most of which is predicated upon the desegregation of labor from leisure and rendering invisible that dyadic decoupling. Administrators are currently “drowning in files,” which Vismann quite curiously describes as “the monsters they have to do battle with every day” (97).

The consequences of its fruition are more troubling. Given its oft-perceived status of authority, anyone “can be held responsible for something on file, something which, according to who is doing the looking, in retrospect should not have been recorded at all” (97). Such a concern is not alleviated but instead intensified, for example, given recent alterations in the collection of data in certain social media sites, such as Facebook, where one can download the entirety of owns archival “data” on the site (see here). These concerns are particularly pressing given the recent state of flux in changes in its legal contract and privacy policies. Vismann describes the implications of how this veridical absolutism (data as transcendental signifiers) and “confusion between the material and the hermeneutics of law” contravenes the presumption of innocence and voids the burden of proof.  Digital media continually complicate and circumnavigate laws that were legislated far before the conception and extensive dispersal of digital media and their affective receptivity (98). This “documentary power of files” or “their ability, more exactly, to hold someone responsible for his or her action” has reconfigured the statutory identity of citizens within the current legal frameworks that envelop them (98).

In a moment where the Federal Communication’s Commission (FCC) is in the process of exploring the implementation of a nationwide free public WiFi networks, such critiques and raising of concerns are crucial to ensure the many forms democratization and emancipation digital media can inaugurate and to disallow (or at least attempt to curb) its usage for the expansion of the systems of surveillance and control currently in place and in the eradication of our fourth amendment rights to privacy. A petition such as “Tell FCC: Don’t Back Down On Nation-Wide Free WiFi!” exemplifies many of the tensions treatments of the coexistent politics and cultures within digital media apparatuses. Its situation on a digital website, distribution to and publication by various citizens through numerous media (the communication systems of email and social media), and high potential for political action all attest to the ways in which digital media have allowed for the expanded capacity of individuals to produce and consume at unprecedented rates. It has at its purpose the gradual proliferation of U.S. citizens’ availability of and access to digital Internet-based networks of communication and information.It has also devalued monetary compensation for its consumption, instead received at the expense of a temporal cost. Such a project is fueled by the desire to “expand Internet use to the poor, bolster innovation and help create a more vibrant online community”, and hopes to reroute this “carrier-centric” monopoly on the Internet and render it “user-centric”. It does counteract the classist conditions that inhibit individuals to partake in digital modalities of living in (what soon shall be) our resurgent digital economy.  It also does encourage innovation in the realms of economics, politics, culture, and other spheres of production. And it is also true that certain digital technologies do create and curate digital spheres of social communion and community inaccessible elsewhere that defy numerous geographical, historical, ideological and identitarian boundaries. But such rhetoric fails to grasp how these efforts may normalize and incite the usage of digital media without concern for its aftereffects: the already-evident possibility of individual tracking and surveillance, containment and capture, censorship and silencing.

Overall, digital media must renegotiate its management of logged data and reconcile its drastically affective reordering of the ways through which we experience and act in the world. To do so would require a formulation of a digital ethics.