Tag Archives: ethos

For an Erotics of Data

“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 often 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. 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)

People Centric Practices: a field guide

Back in May this year I published a small booklet – A Field Guide for People Centric Practices.

This contains my personal reflections on what a set of principles for working from a people-centric perspective might be. For me, people centric practice implies not just a human centred approach, but one which encompasses the whole context in which we live and work, and impacts on other creatures and lifeforms that are part of such environments – the more-than-human world. It addresses the whole ecologies of which we are part, on upon which we depend for our very existence. People does not have to mean exclusively human – we might consider other species (trees, birds, mammals etc) as peoples, as some indigenous humans have done, since they constitute their own societies and ways of being in the world. All have as much right to life as each other, it is only human hubris which champions our right to own and exploit everything else as paramount.

The booklet brings together, in a simple way, a set of principles and guides for working based on empathy, common sense, trust and agency. It is centred on establishing and following an ethos – through listening and responding, trusting and being trusted; anticipating consequences and reflecting on what you do. It adds into the mix principles for building trust borrowed from Baroness Onora O’Neill’s 2002 Reith Lectures, as well as the Precautionary Principle, Duty of Care and the Nolan Principles of Public Life. It also includes my own personal values: passion, intensity, intimacy, pleasure, obligation, responsibility, culpability.

The booklet is free to download on bookleteer, or read the online version.

Weighing opportunity and intent

As our world plunges into an era of uncertainty and reactive measures against plurality, diversity and tolerance I have been trying to formulate a framework or set of conceptual scales to guide my choices in life and work. How can one weigh out the opportunities that appear? How can intention and action be balanced in a way that respects our essential ethos, whilst acknowledging the constraints and compromises that are necessary to survive in our challenging social, political, economic and cultural order?

What I have realised over the years is that my work has always been about the kinds of human relationships that are forged within it. All my work is collaborative – often crossing disciplines, skills, trades and sectors. What I seek is a quality of experience generated by the energy of a group of people engaged on a collaborative or cooperative enterprise. The outputs (events, tools, artworks, publications, films, media, installations etc) are indeed important – primarily to share the experience with others – but are not the main driver for the work. It is people and the relationships which I develop with them that are my true inspiration and motivation.

In seeking to make judgements about what projects to contribute my energies to, what sorts of opportunities to explore and which kinds of trajectories to pursue, I have begun to identify the essential qualities I want to be present. These are not universal or rigid measures, but rather an attempt to have a simple rule of thumb to gauge whether or not they balance in any given configuration: Passion. Intensity. Intimacy. Pleasure.

Passion
It is important to me to work with people who are passionate and care deeply about what they are doing, why they are doing it and how they go about it. It is the lifeblood of a team’s commitment to a project, practice or idea and without it it there is often no bigger vision or aspiration.

Intensity
I find that the most satisfying work is produced at a high level of intensity. Not constant, but following cycles and rhythms within the natural flow of a project’s development and the broader patterns of life that surround us. The ebb and flow of such work cycles naturally generates as well as consumes energy, much as we find in physical exercise.

Intimacy
I judge the richness of my life not in the material things which surround me but in the nourishment I get from close acquaintance and shared bonds with other people. These connections are vital to feeling that I am part of the world and of various communities. It is through other people that I discover new things, new joys and pleasures; and share the things I value and cherish with others. Working together to define a project, identifying problems or issues to be addressed creates extraordinary opportunities for people to open up and create common feeling across social and cultural divides. Without some degree of intimacy with one’s colleagues we are often mired in isolation and loneliness, even in the midst of others.

Pleasure
What kinds of pleasure will flow from this endeavour: the pleasures of association with old or new colleagues; of new skills acquired; of ideas challenged or evolved; of successful reception of outcomes and outputs; of new directions indicated or taken; of abstract thoughts made manifest and shared? Without some sense of pleasure in and from work it soon degenerates into a self-perpetuating drudgery of obligation to a status quo. For the sake of human spirit I think this is neither sustainable nor resilient in the long term.

As individuals in complex societies, our abilities to effect positive change that counter destructive forces often appear insignificant in the face of such huge systems and overwhelming structures. But exercising informed judgements about what we do and why is surely one of the best and most profound ways we can retain a sense of personal agency against the tide of narrow automated, rule-based decisions increasingly foisted upon us from above. Nurturing a plurality of informed judgements made by ordinary people in their daily lives might offer a powerful corrective to the strictures and conformities now being insisted upon by autocracies of all kinds and natures.