“The erotic is a measure between the beginnings of our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.
… the erotic is not a question of only what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)
In our contemporary technological societies we are swamped by data. Almost our every action and behaviour is now measured, collated, processed and inscribed as data somewhere by something for someone. Data leaks from us much as our skin sheds dead cells: a digital dust that accumulates all over the online world – often in places we are barely aware of. Such places are frequently private repositories, networks and systems the scope of which we have little perception, let alone access to. This leakage then becomes mixed with other types and forms of data to become something like a viscous film that subsequently pervades and coats the diverse environments we inhabit and, indeed, even fills the very air we breathe through the waves of its electro-magnetic transmissions. As our lives progress it begins to cloy our options and choices, accreting invisibly to whatever options we are offered by automated decision-making systems. It affects our lives in ways we struggle to discern, always with the nagging sense that some traces of what we have done previously have somehow become determinants in how our personal world is being progressively shaped by these external forces.
How can we empower ourselves through a relationship with and to data? Not just to be its subjects, carried along by unfeeling, reductive logics? To be empowered would require us to assume agency, to directly engage in the processes of making meaning from data, not simply accept the outputs of machine determined processes and systems. It would be an opportunity for us to re-define our relationship to data not just on purely functional bases, but in an embodied way, encompassing all that it is to be a sentient, sensual being.
Eroticism is one of humanity’s key modes for experiencing pleasure and satisfaction – not just in terms of sexual gratification – but in terms of the quality of our engagements and experiences with ourselves, each other and the worlds we inhabit. The erotic is a model in which completion and quantity are held in tension with partial revelation, incompleteness and fragments. Rather than a whole panorama of behaviour, the erotic is effected through glimpses, shards of a spectrum. It is a space of creativity and exchange that is playful and transcendent of intention and mere function. It is always a site of negotiation, but not necessarily one of direct transaction between participants – singular or multiple. Humans imbue things with an eroticism through the power of our imaginations. It is fundamentally individual, but can be shared. Participation, though, is only through directly experiencing something as truly erotic, otherwise it is false, a sham.
We are entering an era of climate impacts, pandemics and their consequences, and there is a sense of urgency that we should seek new ways to define ourselves as actors – not simply as subjects or victims. It seems to me that an erotics of data presents us with a powerful means to embrace and become empowered by the revelations that working with data can bring us. Why should we not be stimulated and aroused by data as we are by other forms of recording and communicating things of value? If we can be pleased by the shape and form of things, then why not by the shapes and forms of data? Can they be crafted in ways that allow such potential? Can we embed something irreducibly human at the very heart of how we interact with our systems of computation and analysis? Something that must be felt not just thought about?
How might we clothe ourselves in data, yet also be able to change and put it off much as we change our clothes according to mood, to sense of occasion or just whimsy? Clothes never truly change the reality of who we are, yet they do help us adopt different behaviours, or alter the way in which we might be seen by others. Clothes can be, and have been more formally in earlier historical times, part of how we construct our personal identity, or identities, and how we project those identities to the world around. Yet in our contemporary world, they are not considered to be part of our essential being. Clothes play a powerful role in our concepts of erotics and our erotic behaviours towards each other – signifiers of many states and fluidities, from the protective and safe to zones of connection and invitation. How might we dress ourselves as nimbly, as flexibly in data? For it to be an active material of identity that we choose to enfold us, rather than a filmy detritus that coats us unbidden and which we are barely able to scrub off? How can we make use of the properties of personal data without it necessarily becoming a piece of property, an asset that accumulates and sticks to us, weighs us down and limits our abilities or opportunities?
What certainly exists in the present moment is a veritable deluge of data, both captured, synthesised and modelled. And there are whole sectors of human society who are in the midst of an orgiastic frenzy of analysis and meta-analyses of not just the data itself, but of all the potential inferences that the systems and deployments of “artificial intelligence” can possibly be attuned to generate. It is becoming both a mainstay of our industrial, globalised transactional economy, and part of the infrastructure of how we exist and our identities are constructed and validated.
Could it be possible for us to take pleasure in being metaphorically washed over by this deluge of data, just as we might stand purposefully in a rainstorm, our senses alive to the energy of the elements and the forces of nature? How so? What kind of different relations might need to come into play for such a thing to be possible?
To be empowered is feel yourself able to make demands of others you may have been afraid or unwilling to before. It is to give yourself permission to ask to be treated with equality and equitably. It is to see yourself as an agent of choice, not just one who is acted upon and channelled by the choices of others. It is to define your own measures of value and quality, not simply to accept those of others foist upon us by hierarchies, customs and conventions. In this, the erotic is a powerful expression of how we choose to take pleasure, to measure joy and fulfilment in our lives. It is an intensely personal, individual yardstick by which we can measure the honesty of our own claims to personal agency. For something can only feel erotic to us if we truly experience it. We all know when we are faking.
For these reasons, when confronted by the authoritarian potential of mass data surveillance, by how trammelled our lives and choices could easily become as the data collected and processed about us grows ever more detailed and fine-grained, I suggest that developing an erotics of data could be a fantastically subversive, even undermining, strategy for empowerment and autonomy. Against the backdrop of vast quantities of data being greedily hoovered up by governments and corporations as yet another vector of social control, it offers a glimmer of hope for some freedom. Just as humour punctures and deflates authority, the erotic is outside the pale of polite convention. It is hard to control, hard to police – the more it is repressed, the more pressure builds up and it eventually erupts in unexpected ways and places. Even in submission, there can be an erotics which subverts domination.
Rather than as an asset class, or an object of capital and profit, could we re-cast our concept and perception of data as elements of flow, like molecules of water? Something which makes up our world, is an important element of ourselves to which we contribute and from which we can draw, but which is never entirely personal? What does it take for us to step aside from our habitual practices and deferences to demand a different path? As our societies experience a pause in their frenetic everyday momentum can we reflect on what kind of world we want to re-emerge into? What kinds of relationships to each other, to systems and polities, to states and exceptions do we want? What can and should we demand?
Cooperation is the foundation of human societies, it flourishes on diversity and differences – our desires and appetites whetted by the dynamic between the familiar and the novel, what we are capable of ourselves and what we need others to provide for or to complement us. Power is, ultimately, only wielded through the consent of the governed – however quiet or seemingly unconscious it may be. History is full of eruptions when that consent is withdrawn or simply evaporates.
To demand a new social contract for our data is a threshold we can only pass through by active, intentional choice. A contract that also gives us, the people, a fair say in how our data is generated, collected, stored, processed and used – one in which there could be the potential for an erotics of data to emerge. It is to imagine a very different world to the one we currently inhabit, which has been imagined and crafted to privilege a select few beneficiaries, with the costs distributed across the rest of us and the heaviest burden placed squarely on the living planet and its future. If we choose instead to cooperate with our own desires and imaginations we might engender a radically different future altogether.
“Recognising the power of the erotic within our lives can give us the energy to pursue genuine change within our world, rather than merely settling for a shift of characters in the same weary drama.”
Audre Lorde,”Uses of the Erotic” (1978)
London, April 2020
Listen to Audre Lorde speaking on “Uses of the Erotic” (YouTube)
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