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<nettime> Marek Tuszynski: Some Marginal Notes About The Dark Sides Of D
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<nettime> Marek Tuszynski: Some Marginal Notes About The Dark Sides Of Data

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Some Marginal Notes About The Dark Sides Of Data
By Marek Tuszynski, 18 July 2014

"A peculiar thing have happened to me: I suddenly forgot what comes 
first - 7 or 8?" -- Danili Khrams, Sonnet

I like going to live performances; and I have noticed something that has
became the norm nowadays: people waving hundreds of mobile devices in
raised hands recording anything, anytime, anywhere.

But even when our hands are down, even when our fingers are idle, the
recording goes on. What we record consciously is not that relevant any

The reality that matters now is not what we choose to photograph or film,
the events we want to preserve for ourselves. Forget that plot, the idea
that my life is a narrative that I can write down or film. We are not
recording, but are being collected: our lives are being collected.

And in this collection it is the unmemorable moments that actually count.
It does not matter what we think we are actually doing when we use all
this battery-powered stuff. What matters is what will be made out of it,
regardless of what we might have intended.

The system that we are fuelling is a system of sensors trying to divine
what we want - our intimate needs and wants - as consumers, as a citizens,
as activists, as groups, and as societies.

But who is the collector on the other end? Who is listening to it all? Who
wants to know what we want, and why?

So here comes the data. With all the swanky promises, new cultures, new
hairstyles and all that. Somehow, the boredom of data collection has
became cool-ish; the pain of its analysis has become a lucrative and
powerful business model for geeks; for many others a form of hype and

Telling the truth -- in particular to power; in particular to powers that
are potentially abusing this power - is the big hope of data, information,
evidence. But does it still hold true to say "When one is engaged in some
wrongdoing, then another will engage in truth-telling...and this will
create a beautiful balance?"

The simplicity of the idea of a desired and expected balance of power and
counter-power, is that wrongdoing has the tendency to leave traces. These
traces can be picked up and turned into a narrative that would reveal the
wrongdoing... and a happy ending would be had by all.

That balance is a myth.

Some people really believe that wrongdoing might not be so clearly caused
by anyone. Apparently, wrongdoing might just occur. Sort of just manifest
itself magically -- ting! - Here I am -- zap! - explain me -- flash! - Fix
me! I'm here, from out of nowhere in the clear blue like a drone. Good
examples of wrongdoings people think just appear are: poverty, impunity,
the wars in Iraq, the crises in the EU, corruption and so on.

The data driven approach proposes: lets find it -- ting!_ figure it out --
zap! - analyse, visualise and -- flash! - destroy! Really? Maybe it is
enough to explain it, to expose it, to lay it down in as easy as possible
form to absorb? Are you convinced by this?

Does data have any influence over whether we care, or will act on
anything? How much of it needs to be put in front of one's face to have
some significant influence on how one perceives things? What's needed to
challenge indifference? Those who already care, those who already know --
the individuals and organisations that can prove things - are often and
unfortunately entangled in the well-established methodologies, frameworks,
politics and procedures of pre-digital times.

But these frankly do not work: lawyers cannot fix human rights abuses,
scientists cannot fix global warming, whistle-blowers cannot fix secret
services and activists cannot fix politics, and nobody really knows how
global finances work - regardless of the data they have at hand.

The existing frameworks of counter-powers (the truth-tellers, the provers,
the investigators) need to be revisited. How? Perhaps not focusing on the
quantity, not even quality (huh!) of evidence, but on the ability to use
whatever one knows, whatever little one can get hold of with some freaking
efficacy that would not only address reason and understanding, but also
challenge the feelings and beliefs that one holds.

And so the emphasis of counter-power has to be very much on the "how" and
the "who". How to be a counter-power when stuck in a game where the
opponent has the ultimate right to adjust the rules in real time. Oh, and
they also have a supercomputer at hand to calculate our next 7 million
moves. Data provides the comfort of playing the game, but will never
provide the means to win it.

The ability to influence political narratives turns out to be more like
the performing and visual arts - possible for many but mastered and
survived by few; where the form beats the content into a pulp (here I am a
little bit exaggerating again).

Data might not be as many things as it has been claimed to be, but it
remains part of a dream of thinking like a state: thinking big, and acting
big - if we could only collect it all; if we knew it all, if we analysed
it all -- we would then be able to make perfect decisions and keep things
under fair control. It might also be the case that thinking like a state
has recently been surpassed by thinking like a corporation... or was it
just a seamless transfer? Has anyone noticed anything suspicious?

Data does not exist without corporate infrastructure and its "culture"

Okay, so it does exist; but only very little of it. The majority of it is
held, processed, replicated, multiplied, cross-compared and analysed by -
or goes through a physical grid owned by - corporations and businesses.

It is real-time, real thing, subject to continual change. Wherever we are
coming from (world view wise), we fuel it all the time and we teach others
to fuel it too. We accept this environment of corporate values and culture
because the services we receive are not directly associated with the
political price we are paying.

Now that's a very impressive and effective model of control; and one that
is twice twisted. First, we accept the illusion that the services we have
access to have no monetary cost. Second, we accept the illusion of their
neutrality. Or in another words, we have see them as having no political

They are not only tricking us as individuals. Those we might look to, come
the day we realise the costs involved, are equally tricked. Institutions,
governments, policy-makers, activists are also tricked. The political
value of data has been accumulated by actors whose potential political
influence is highly questionable: corporations are as good at doing
politics as armies are good at delivering peace. What is this political
value of data? Maybe our privacy is more political then we've ever

Open Data is a fringe of Data Politics; it is a mirage of politics, a
proxy - a very nice one though

The most politically valuable data is not open, and nor is it free. And it
never will be. We are indulging ourselves in a rather decadent exchange of
high value political data (about our collective experiences and individual
wants) for a pathetically low value of service. That's the deal.

It is possible to ask and get it back ("liberate your data") -- but this is
only in a silly way, just as a symbolic and meaningless gesture -- it is
like not having the cake and also not eating it... absurd. The copy of our
data that we can request is a mirage, a substitute, a joke. Data we put
there remains there, endlessly copied. The corporations give away nothing.
The idea of deleting something is a trick, not an actual act. It is like
believing that closing your eyes will make you invisible.

Not only will the majority of this data not ever be open, but even if it
was, who would be able to process it? Who has the resources to do it? Who
would manage it? Who would pay the electricity bill, set up the data
farms, pay the geeks' salaries? We are stuck here. Would politicians and
policy- makers do anything about it? No they wouldn't, because it is big
business that makes tonnes of money and employs lots of people -- in
particular young, smart, and brilliant people.

Is there a way of inventing or reinventing a system which would give us
back the political value of our data? Should we allow it to be left in the
hands of corporations and confused politicians ? Are we in any position to
negotiate anything, and if not how do we get to one? What is, and who
controls, corporate responsibility in the age of data politics?

Data is not new oil, nor is it evidence, nor a golden bullet; maybe
sometimes all of it (just a tiny bit)

The contortions that we have undergone in this nexus of new forces around
data is extraordinary. What is deeply political -- our economic lives,
intimate lives, movements, friends, family -- we are being told is not
political: it's just fuel for great and innovative services. The
assumptions we make about what is fair and ethical are being hollowed out:
those who care and want to act are either tangled in the pre-digital, or
offered this thin gruel of open data. It's the mechanical turk of
political action.

At the same time, many of us carry on as if we haven't learned anything
recently. As if Snowden wasn't stuck in Moscow growing his dissident
Russian beard; as if Assange hasn't spent two years rattling around an
embassy in London. We are persistently sitting quietly in our labs
building new tools and platforms, organising festivals of beautiful
trouble, promoting openness of everything and hacking the hackable. Yes,
nothing has happened and nothing is going to happen. No worries.

. . . . . . . . . . . . .

Marek Tuszynski is the Director of Technology and Programmes at Tactical
Technology Collective.

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