Jose-Carlos Mariategui on Mon, 28 Apr 2008 13:18:39 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Databasing Life Patterns

Databasing Life Patterns

Jannis Kallinikos and José-Carlos Mariátegui

23 April 2008


Over the last two decades, many of us have felt the gradual and  
expanding involvement of technological information and the internet in  
our lives. However, more often than not, we fail to appreciate the  
subtle and pervasive implications these developments may have for the  
ways we think and behave. The accumulation of information, from the  
growing expansion of the trivial to the serious aspects of life that  
are recorded in databases (e.g. financial, medical or legal records,  
online habits) and the increasing sophistication of computer  
technology converge to confer to data and information a new and  
interesting role in the lives of people and the functioning of  
institutions. Information is not any longer confined within the world  
of computer-based experts. It increasingly infiltrates social life,  
constructs the perception of social events, defines priorities and  
relevancies, and frames the ways we approach and deal with them.

In a recent and provocative book that may bring tears to many  
humanists, the American legal scholar Ian Ayres (1) describes how  
modern technologies of communication and computing are involved in  
constructing relationships and profiles of people by virtue of  
manipulating available data. Such relationships or profiles are  
impossible to conceive and construct, unless one has access to huge  
and constantly updated databases that are possible to run and analyze  
through powerful computers. They derive from the comparison of our  
habits or choices over time and across different life activities that  
usually evade our perception and understanding. Who we are or how we  
act is assumed to lie hidden in the data that records habits,  
transactional patterns and other characteristics of individuals and  
must be brought forward through database analysis and data  
permutations. The profiles constructed range from the analysis of  
people’s online consumption and navigation habits to more complex  
activities that in traditional settings require consultation with  
human experts, such as medical, legal of financial expertise, sports  
coaching, sexual or partner preference mapping and others. Very  
indicative of these trends is the concept of “digital shadow” that  
projects the amount and diversity of data that can be tied to an  
individual but it is not precisely of her or his own making. These are  
data others produce of us (surveillance cameras, airlines, hospitals)  
including the data (traces) our web and online habits leave.

In being able to extract patterns, relationships and causalities that  
often elude human perception, inspection and understanding, database  
analysis seems to be able to crowd out human expertise and other  
traditional modes of human conduct from a variety of fields,  
activities or life patterns. The argument sounds undeniably old. It  
has been heard several times over the last few decades, arousing high  
expectations only to lead to gradual disillusionment. But there are  
reasons to believe that the argument regains actuality and relevance  
these days. This is due to the conditions established by an entire new  
range of technological, organizational and cultural arrangements that  
capture, store, process and circulate data of an immense variety.  
These conditions confer to the argument a credibility that was not  
possible to obtain during the time Dreyfus and others deconstructed  
the technological illusions of artificial intelligence and software  

Ayres opens his book with a symbolic event that ushers us in the new  
age he seeks to describe, that is, the uproar created in the circles  
of wine expertise in US by the Princeton economist Ashenfelter.  
Bordeaux wine quality is known to depend on ripe grapes with high  
juice concentration. Both of these key characteristics are heavily  
influenced by the rainfall and temperature distribution over the year.  
Combining data over weather conditions, Ashenfelter was able to come  
around the high uncertainty of predicting wine quality from tasting  
young wines in the making and predict the quality of wine for the  
years 1989, 1990 in the region of Bordeaux with astonishing accuracy.  
His mathematical vision of wine caused a variety of angry reactions  
from the establishment of commercial interests, rites and activities  
that have centred around wine quality prediction but, if we are to  
believe Ayres, it managed to gain recognition internationally.

Ayres’s key claim is about the significance of database analytics that  
offer an inspection of life states and opportunities that transcends  
human expertise deriving from intuition, observation, and acquaintance  
with reality. Simplifying a little, we may say that the issue is no  
longer whether machines can map human intelligence but rather the  
variety of things than can be accomplished by drawing on the wide  
availability of standardized data, organized in huge and often  
interoperable databases that are possible to crunch by powerful  
processors. He amasses persuasive examples from a large variety of  
fields (e.g. baseball and sport coaching, chess, car stealing, e- 
dating, finance) that demonstrate the superiority of “database  
analysis” over “observational expertise”. We find the type of claims  
people like Ayers make challenging and, crucially, timely. Avoid  
confronting such arguments amounts to turning one’s back to reality.  
On the other hand, we do not share with Ayres and his likes the  
optimism that “super crunchers”, as he calls number crunching  
supported by huge databases and ample computer processing capacity,  
will invariably lead to better decisions and even less so to a better  
society. Better is an ethical not a cognitive term and while in some  
cases ethics and cognition may go hand in hand, in many others may  
not. Let’s have a quick look over some of the issues the databasing of  
life patterns is bound to give rise.

The issue whether machines are nowadays (given the construction of  
huge databases and powerful processing capacity) better able than  
humans in analyzing and predicting reality may be a misplaced one. In  
a world dominated by technological information, which is interoperable  
and granular, human agents qua cognitive decision makers are already  
in a disadvantaged position, in the same way that a pedestrian or  
cyclist cannot compete with automobiles in highways. But cognition, no  
matter how important, is only part of what defines human agency and  
humanity. Most importantly, the mediation of reality through databases  
follows principles that are predicated on just one  (important but  
slim) form of cognition that gives premium to classification and  
standardization of data and events. Data are not recorded in databases  
haphazardly. Rather, they need to conform to the categories of the  
database and be in forms that are compatible with the underlying  
mechanics of computerized data processing. Classification and  
standardization thus presuppose the direct or indirect operation of a  
conceptual, logically constructed scaffold on which categories are  
crafted and make sense. The diffusion of databases implies that such a  
logically constructed scaffold gains significance at the expense of  
other implicit and associative ways of perceiving and framing life  
events. What is recorded in databases must pass through the bottleneck  
of the conceptual scaffold on which the database is crafted and the  
standardized forms of data or information that the technological  
system admits. Information that does not fit the categories of the  
database and the prevailing data standardization will most probably  
fail to be perceived or deliberately ignored or distorted.

The artefact of the database descends from millennia old information  
recording techniques such as list and tables, and other non-verbal  
forms of writing. Geoffrey Bowker has recently claimed that “databases  
are not a product of the computer revolution”, as most people may  
think; “if anything the computer revolution is a product of the drive  
to database”. The non-verbal cognitive organization of the database  
contrasts with traditional strategies of narration and the importance  
narrative has assumed in making sense of reality, including its  
contribution to constructing life trajectories and personal  
identities. Or, as Manovich has suggested, the database reverses the  
order of the classical elements of narrative (i.e. the plot and the  
description), squeezing narration and storytelling and hugely  
prioritizing description. Logical connections of database elements  
take command and constitute modern forms of life as derivatives of  
database associations. Structuralists and post-structuralists will of  
course claim that this has always been the case and that the database  
just makes evident the logical (cognitive polarities, differences)  
operations that underlie human thinking and cognition. Be this as it  
may, the distinction does have a merit and it is important to uphold.  
Databases formalize these differences, standardize their inscription  
forms and vastly increase the permutations (as Levi-Strauss may have  
said) of the recorded elements.

Brief as this commentary is, it suggests a series of complex trade- 
offs between the positive and negative attributes of recent  
technological developments. The issue is not to question the  
achievements or prospects of database analytics but rather to mark its  
territory and dissect the hidden assumptions on which its superiority  
is predicated. In considering what falls systematically outside the  
principles of database construction and algorithmic reasoning, we may  
at least obtain a better view of what is gained and lost when  
technological information becomes the key vehicle for understanding  
and acting upon, and, ultimately, constructing reality. On the other  
hand, it is important to recognize, as we have pointed out in a  
previous Telos article ( 
), that the salience the database and its cognitive derivatives  
currently assume are supported by a huge and powerful institutional  
machinery that by design or implication gives priority to logic over  
other forms of conducting one’s life. Perhaps, next generation Paris  
or London restaurants and wine bistros will score and price wines  
according to database analytics. We need Louis to sing for us “what a  
wonderful world”…

1. Ian Ayres, Super Crunchers: How Anything Can Be Predicted, London:  
John Murray, 2007.

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