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“This ambiguity between an epistemological idea (acquiring the data) and an ontological idea (modeling the reality it reflects) is remarkably common in the vocabulary of computing.”

-Philip Agre

 

Epistemology-“the theory of knowledge, especially with regard to its methods, validity, and scope. Epistemology is the investigation of what distinguishes justified belief from opinion.”

-New Oxford American Dictionary

 

Ontology-“the branch of metaphysics dealing with the nature of being”

-New Oxford American Dictionary

 

Agre is suggesting here that the way data is collected, the structure it is a part of, and the metaphor it constructs to depict reality—data’s ‘form’ and ‘function’, in a sense—are completely indistinguishable. This idea is simple, but its implications are profound and lie at the heart of new media itself.

To return to Dr. Chun’s example from the earlier weeks of the semester, while so many of us are skeptical that Snapchat actually deletes the photos we send, nearly all of us use it as if it did. The premise—the idea of being able to take and send photos that will only exist ephemerally and disappear without a trace afterwards—is what matters to us. We cling to this idea, letting it dominate our judgment and guide our actions no matter how faulty it may be. Very similarly, as we discussed in Wednesday’s lecture, we seem to operate under the delusion that everything our devices do is mediated by a definitive action on our own part or made known to us somehow. As we saw firsthand in this week’s lab, this could not be further from the truth. In fact, our devices are rampantly communicating and searching and sending and receiving information (most of which is irrelevant and ignored) without our knowledge, consent, or control. Even out of the parts that are relevant—that we theoretically initiated—all we see is the net result of many active streams of communication that flow continuously to produce the page we desired. Again, our desire for our perception to be our reality makes it so insofar as it drives our behavior (we completely ignore what is actually happening so that we may behave as if the truth consisted purely of what we see).

This taps into a question that has baffled philosophers for centuries: what is the distinction between thinking and being? Descartes famously attempted to solve this in the aphorism “I think, therefore I am”; implying that our consciousness gives rise to our existence because we are only able to perceive and contemplate our existence through our consciousness. In other words, our perceptions create reality before they are created by it. We have seen this relationship explored many times this semester, from Baudrillard’s concept of simulacra and simulations to Jackson’s manipulation of authorship in Patchwork Girl and Stitch Bitch. In my mind, it is this idea that makes new media so unique and so alluring; by its very nature, it is about using and manipulating and the relationship between ourselves, our perceptions, and our reality to force us into new and challenging modes of thought.

Descartes’ aphorism further implies, however, that thinking and being are ultimately fundamentally the same thing; that the way we think and the conclusions we draw define us. When you consider how easy it is to change and manipulate how we think, this thought becomes particularly frightening because that would make it just as easy to change who we are. Epistomology—how we know—and ontology—how we are—are one in the same.

Of course, these terms when used in the “vocabulary of computing”, as Agre puts it, do not necessarily carry this deep and intense philosophical weight. However, these connections are eerily relevant to the use of these words in the context of data, blurring the lines between its content/form (what it ‘knows’) and the way it models the world (the reason it was “captured” in the first place).

 

That, to me, is tantalizingly, irresistibly, wonderfully creepy.