Tag Archives: data

A Poetics of Data

Lifestreams (2012): description of the data expressed in a 3D printed ‘lifecharm’

Personal data is not only the traces of our actions in the world – contributed, sensed, detected and recorded online, but a yoke that is coming to define each one of us in ways that may often be beyond our ability to directly perceive. In the hands of governments and corporations it has become the means by which individuals, groups and even whole populations can be trammelled, their choices shaped or ‘nudged’ into convenient channels and pathways for ‘better’ governance and exploitation. Our world is increasingly managed by systems that collect, collate and analyse such data, to calculate statistical probabilities based on our past actions and behaviours and to infer what opportunities and permissions will or will not be made available to us.

Such systems both reinforce and are the products of the standardisation of difference and diversity into a manageable homogeneity. The logic of their engineering is to drive forwards an ever deeper vision of ‘efficiency’ into the fabric of our everyday lives – straining out that which doesn’t fit, shaving off the awkward edges. Too often it excises difference and diversity by simply refusing to acknowledge that an individual’s specific context and situation are valid parameters that require nuanced judgement in decision-making. In this way the vulnerable and excluded experience further depredations; injustices and inequality are compounded and amplified. Complexities are crudely simplified and the richness, the colourful tapestry of life is elided into a seamless standard grey weave. For some, such order may be comforting, perhaps even ideal. Yet for many, probably most of us, this is a poor bargain. A zero sum game in which we have much, if not everything, to lose.

To what part of our humanity may we look for an escape from such rigidity and reductive standardisation? For me, the answer is to make a poetics of data that can trigger a phase shift in how we might interact with it. A shift away from the familiar and ordered modes through which we are used to experiencing it on screens, via spreadsheets, tables, graphs, counters, dials or the linear waveforms of measuring devices. Poetry and poetics are time-honoured ways in which people have communicated things that are beyond just measurement – emotions, feelings, beliefs. Things which are at the very limit of description. Things which defy rationality and even reason.

I have been exploring this idea of a data poetics through digital materialisation and manifestation in projects such as Lifestreams (2012) and more recently in the Manifest Data Lab. I’ve written before in detail about the ‘tactile poetry‘ created by expressing data about our bodies into talismans that we can develop a tangible relationship with. Talismans that can act as mnemonics or reflective objects that remind us of aspects of our habits and behaviours which affect our health and wellbeing over and through time – not just in the series of fractured, fragmented moments in which we glance at the digital display on a ‘smart’ phone or watch. Like Proust’s madeleine, or the chink of a teaspoon on a saucer, they help us connect out of the mundane discontinuity of daily life into a place of reverie with ourselves.

I have also likened this approach to working with data as a form of ‘Digital Alchemy‘: treating data as a material with which to encounter the numinous and transform the self. A process that does not seek to break apart into individual bits and atoms the delicately intertwined and mutually influential patterns of matter that constitute Life; but that comes to an appreciation of the essence of the subtle forces that bind matter together. To appreciate the powerful bonds of relationships between elements that, through connection itself, provide sense and meaning to being and becoming.

Poetry – whether in the form of words, music, visual arts, performance, dance – is a portal into spaces that are beyond the sum of their parts. It is always more than the words on the page, the notes in a score, the brush strokes of a painting, the material of a sculpture, the light projected by a film, the movements of dancers. It allows us to communicate and experience feelings – innate things which are inexpressible, incalculable in themselves, yet somehow connect us and give us access to the experiences and feelings of others. A kind of dark energy perhaps, not something we can directly measure, but which is nevertheless real and pervasive. A kind of knowing that remains tacit rather than explicit. Often it resorts to ‘apophasis’ – describing what is not to indicate that which is ineffable or indescribable. Revealing presence through absence… the shape of something monstrously huge through the sublime. An incompleteness that allows us to invest its gaps and lacunae with something of ourself; an invitation to become enmeshed within a whole that is never finished, that expands as others share how they engage with it too.

It is often said that great works are the ones which we can return to, and in each encounter, find something new. Perhaps that newness is actually always already within ourselves – it is we who expand and increase in relation to the work, not the other way round. Perhaps this is why perfection is said to be abhorrent and why craftspeople through the ages have often introduced intentional flaws and irregularities into their work. A deliberate incompletion, preserving a space for the ineffable and unknowable.

But, I hear the objection raised, all this is mere metaphor. I beg to differ: it is as intrinsic a feature of conscious deliberation and action in the world, as the data manifestations we created for Lifestreams (and will be creating in our work at the Manifest Data Lab) are expressions of data – not representations of it. These are not metaphors of data, but reifications – they are the data, simply expressed in physical forms that we can experience through additional senses to those we generally use with screen-based representations. It is up to us to devise the grammars of sensory engagement that enable us to ‘read’ and make sense of our encounters with them. Some grammars could be shared, others kept private. Perhaps by learning to appreciate the data we generate through our machines in such a way, we could learn additional techniques to appreciate the way that nature encodes ‘data’ in all its organic and inorganic forms – as a living experience of perception, not only through an analytics of extraction and separation.

To create any form of poetry or art is not easy: it is not the direct or unambiguous product of straightforward rules. To paraphrase Walter Benjamin, the energy to create “lies in improvisation. All the decisive blows are struck left-handed” (One Way Street). That is not to say that great craft does not require constant practice and experiment – that programmatic exercises (think of practising musical scales), rituals and habitual activities are not a fundamental part of the making. Many of these are often used to surrender oneself into a fugue state, from which the actual work may emerge. Too often, such states are elusive, fleeting and all that one is left with is the dross of making. But this dross might also become the material of a re-forged piece, worked over again and again, made and re-made until its creator judges that it has reached a state that is sufficient to share.

What do we gain from a poetics of data in addition to it’s more common articulations? A weaving together of harmony and dissonance, rhythm and inconsistency – a way of encompassing adaptation and irregularity within a transcendent whole. A way to enhance our cognitive abilities by challenging us to flex other senses in meaning-making, to enhance our capacities by widening the frames in which we encounter and engage with data.
A poetics of data is about engaging with its qualities, not just its quantities.

London, October 2019

Daemons of the Shadow World

It is my firm belief that my role as an artist is to imagine the unthinkable – to perceive beyond the horizon of the probable and to stretch one’s imagination beyond the limits of the normative everyday. By opening up such vistas it becomes possible to anticipate impacts and consequences of actions and decisions – acquiring uncommon insights into potential futures we may come to inhabit.

Daemons of the Shadow World is a proposal for an artwork that recasts privacy and the role of individual or personal data; that rethinks how data subjects are commodified; that explores what it could be like to unbalance how power is expressed and exercised through data analysis and use.

Almost every aspect of modern life is now measured, sensed, datafied, transmitted, analysed and transacted. Those transactions bloom like flower banks to encompass not just each individual’s data profile and traces, but everything and everyone they are connected to. This quantification and measurement of each interaction – the inferences that are drawn, the biases that result and the effects which ensue – is propelling us towards an ever more normative society. A social and cultural entropy. Each individual is becoming ever more tightly defined, less fluid. We are being reduced to a singular concept of identity, one that assumes repetition is truth, and that predictability is a desirable quality.

But, of course, the history of humanity is also that of diversity, divergence and struggle: especially by those upon whom power is exercised by those who wield it. There are many ways of enforcing conformity through such means as religions and ideologies, conventions and traditions. These have the habit of making people behave in a predictable and controllable manner – consumerism and the digital society is merely another manifestation of this. The inducements offered in our consumer society to accept socially normative concepts of identity are like a feedback mechanism that reinforces itself and entrenches asymmetries of power. In the same way, it discriminates against those for whom fluidity of identity is a necessity – people who are often the most vulnerable in society : anyone who diverges from the norm, whether by virtue of age, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, or status – such as refugees.

Data profiling clearly is having normative effects, reinforcing and entrenching privileges for those who are already best served by society and status quo. What about those for whom no singular identity is possible or desirable? Those whose identities are fluid, in construction or even deconstruction. These are the people most at risk of being excluded, segregated and even criminalised. The subtleties, quirks and nuances that allow us to defy definition are all too easily captured, measured and sorted into data points to be exploited.

Any transparency in data traffic goes only one way – those of us who share our data with the big systems are not privy to how those acquiring it use that data to commodify our behaviours ever further, ever deeper – to trade them with whom they choose, and to extract whatever benefits they desire. We are only just beginning to become aware of how egregious such uses have been – from the manipulation of voting intentions in elections via social media, to ‘nudge’ systems adopted by governments and public agencies, to total digital surveillance by the Five Eyes network of intelligence agencies. Different cultures have markedly different attitudes to ‘privacy’ – as evinced by China’s state-sponsored social credit system (itself perhaps less different from Western commercial data capture, monetisations and behavioural nudges than we might suppose).

Privacy, as commonly defined in Western industrial societies, is itself a relatively modern concept – most likely emerging in Europe in the context of the reformation and counter-reformation period. Its roots are bound together with the rise of mercantilism and the equally modern concept of the individual. It found early articulation in the shifts in domestic architecture from the 1500s on – the creation of private spaces (such as rooms) in shared households, especially where there was a need to worship in secret as religious conformity began to fracture between Protestantism and Catholicism. It also found articulation in the commonplace books where a newly literate populace began to record their internal, private thoughts, interests and reflections. This individual subjectivity reaches a critical mass in Descartes’ formulation of the self as a discrete entity separate from all else.

It should, however, be no surprise that now, in an age of near total surveillance, privacy is on the verge of a complete reconfiguration. It is, coincidentally, happening alongside the realisation that western industrial capitalism is also facing its own zero-sum game in which not just humanity, but all life teeters on an edge. Unbridled consumption of finite resources, leading to rampant ecocide and mass extinction, presents a distinct trajectory that humans, our cultures, societies and civilisations, cannot sidestep.

To safeguard individuals and their personal data, privacy has for sometime been proposed as a human right that should be inalienable. But what if an alternative, perhaps even complementary, strategy could be to turn the tools of data analysis against those who seek to define us and measure us as singular commodities by synthesising a plurality, a multiplicity of identities – camouflage of a kind? What if privacy is re-thought as a condition not a commodity – a dynamic sequence of states that we flow through rather than a static position to cling on? How do, and have, other cultures navigated the duality of individuals within communities and shared spaces? What might we learn from cultures which do not privilege the sense of individuality as ours does?

MyLoki – a daemon for digital dazzle

This project is a thought experiment exploring how it might be possible to devise ‘autonomous agents’ (daemons) that synthesise and propagate additional data – using neural networks and employing techniques such as ‘generative adversarial networks’ – to mask our data traces and transactions across systems. In effect creating a ‘data dissensus’ in the accuracy of our individual ‘shadow profiles’, undermining their statistical value through massive duplication and generation of duplicitous activities that resemble our actions but, in effect, create multiplicities of possible identities. Overwhelm the algorithms of oppression with too many statistically similar variables that confound their ability to ‘predict’ and shape our behaviours.

Instead of referring to “Artificial Intelligence” and anthropomorphising it with qualities it is far from having, let’s call such software a “Model for Partial Statistical Probability”. How could we devise and use such programs to act as software agents – daemons – for each of us, to dazzle the data harvesters with a blizzard of statistically probable profiles, endlessly generated to camouflage the data traces of our actions and behaviours in the digital world? Whereby each  would become a portal to an infinite number of selves, all bifurcating in myriad ways – perhaps by just a hair’s breadth – each one polluting the value of our data trail by injecting just enough uncertainty to render the value of the data as junk. A Trickster, like the Norse god Loki, working on our behalves to frustrate the will of the corporates, political parties, special interest groups and governments that seek to use personal data to commodify us and profit by our, often unwitting, collusion.

What could the features of such agents be? What limitations might need to be placed on their use? How might we need to re-think our entire digital economy – not to see data as a commodity, but as condition?

I invoke Loki and the figure of the Trickster, precisely because they are ambiguous – causing mayhem but bringing luck and fortune. Sometimes misfortune. Uncertain. Are they not the type of gods we might want to align ourselves with against the patrician, all seeing, all knowing Olympian Algorithmic gods of our datafied society? Or perhaps like a kind of Orphic mystery wherein the exuberance of multiple data selves being propagated into the shadow digital world allows us a moment of escape from being subjectified and commodified ad nauseam?

A Conceptual Projection

Since it is unlikely to built (from a technical standpoint) and could possibly present unknown dangers if released (from an ethical perspective) – this thought experiment requires some kind of conceptual prototype. It might take the form of a set of ‘blueprints’ for the conditions under which a MyLoki daemon might be activated and operate; or a diagram of the actions and possible consequences for what could happen when individual’s data become pluralities; not just duplicitous but multiplicitous.

And this is the next part – with such a set of blueprints, I would need to devise a forum or space in which I can invite a group of people with knowledges and skills from a range of disciplines and sectors to come together and explore the ramifications of such an idea. What theoretical frameworks could emerge from such an unreasonable, improbable and irrational possibility?

By proposing something, that is as lateral and excessive a conceit for resolving the conundrum of privacy and personal data as the Judgement of Solomon was for determining the maternity of a disputed child, I hope to explore things which might indeed be truly unthinkable in our current situation. If we can think beyond the bounds of reason and the horizon of the probable, what uncommon insights mights emerge that we cannot fathom now?

Giles Lane
London, October 2019

(Originally developed with the support of the Open Data Institute‘s Data as Culture Copy That theme, December 2018)