Personal digital data as a companion species

Update: I have now published a journal article that brings this post together with the following post on ‘eating’ digital data – the article can be found here.

While an intense interest in digital data in popular and research cultures is now evident, we still know little about how humans interacting with, making sense of and using the digital data that they generate. Everyday data practices remain under-researched and under-theorised. In attempting to identify and think through some of the ways in which critical digital data scholars may seek to contribute to understandings of data practices, I am developing an argument that rests largely on the work of two scholars in the field of science and technology studies: Donna Haraway and Annemarie Mol. In this post I begin with Haraway, while my next post will discuss Mol.

Haraway’s work has often attempted ‘to find descriptive language that names emergent ontologies’, and I use her ideas here in the spirit of developing new terms and concepts to describe humans’ encounters with digital data. Haraway emphasises that humans cannot be separated from nonhumans conceptually, as we are constantly interacting with other animals and material objects as we go about our daily lives. Her writings on the cyborg have been influential in theory for conceptualising human and computer technological encounters (Haraway, 1991). In this work, Haraway drew attention to the idea that human ontology must be understood as multiple and dynamic rather than fixed and essential, as blurring boundaries between nature and culture, human and nonhuman, Self and Other. She contends that actors, whether human or nonhuman, are never pre-established; rather they emerge through relational encounters (Bhavnani and Haraway, 1994). The cyborg metaphor encapsulates this idea, not solely in relation to human-technology assemblages but to any interaction of humans with nonhumans.

This perspective already provides a basis for thinking through the emergent ontologies that are the digital data assemblages that are configured by humans’ interactions with the software and hardware that generate digital data about them. Haraway’s musings on human and nonhuman animal interactions (Haraway, 2003, 2008, 2015) also have resonance for how we might understand digital data-human assemblages. Haraway uses the term ‘companion species’ to describe the relationships that the human species has not only with other animal species but also with technologies. Humans are companion species with the nonhumans with which they live alongside and engage, each species learning from and influencing the other, co-evolving. Haraway refers to companion species as ‘post-cyborg entities, acknowledging the development of her thinking since her original cyborg exegesis.

This trope of companion species may be taken up to think about the ways in which humans generate, materialise and engage with digital data. Thrift has described the new ‘hybrid beings’ that are comprised of digital data and human flesh. Adopting Haraway’s companion species trope allows for the extension of this idea by acknowledging the liveliness of digital data and the relational nature of our interactions with these data. Haraway has commented in a lecture that she has learnt

through my own inhabiting of the figure of the cyborg about the non-anthropomorphic agency and the liveliness of artifacts. The kind of sociality that joins humans and machines is a sociality that constitutes both, so if there is some kind of liveliness going on here it is both human and non-human. Who humans are ontologically is constituted out of that relationality.

This observation goes to the heart of how we might begin to theorise the liveliness of digital data in the context of our own aliveness/liveliness, highlighting the relationality and sociality that connect them.

Like companion species and their humans, digital data are lively combinations of nature/culture. Digital data are lively in several ways. They are about life itself (details about human’s and other living species), they are constantly generated and regenerated as well as purposed and repurposed as they enter into the digital knowledge economy, they have potential impacts on humans’ and other species’ lives via the assumptions and inferences that they are used to develop and they have consequences for livelihoods in terms of their commercial and other value and effects.

Rather than think of the contemporary digitised human body/self as posthuman (cf. Haraway’s comments on posthumanism in her interview with Gane, 2006), the companion species perspective develops the idea of ‘co-human’ entities. Just as digital data assemblages are comprised of specific information points about people’s lives, and thus learn from people as algorithmic processes manipulate this personal information, people in turn learn from the digital data assemblages of which they are a part. The book choices that Amazon offers the, the ads that are delivered to them on Facebook or Twitter, the returns that are listed from search engine queries or browsing histories, the information that a fitness trackers provides about their heart rate or calories burnt each day are all customised to their digitised behaviours. Perusing these data can provide people with insights about themselves and may structure their future behaviour.

These aspects of digital data assemblages are perhaps becoming even more pronounced as the Internet of Things develops and humans become just one node in a network of smart objects that configure and exchange digital data with each other. Humans move around in data-saturated environments and they are able to wear personalised data-generating devices on their bodies, including not only their smartphones but objects such as sensor-embedded wristbands, clothing or watches. The devices that we carry with us literally are our companions: in the case of smartphones regularly touched, fiddled with and looked at throughout the day. But in distinction from previous technological prostheses, these mobile and wearable devices are also invested with and send out continuous flows of personal information. They have become the repositories of communication with others, geolocation information, personal images, biometric information and more. They also leak these data outwards as they are transmitted to computing cloud servers. All this is happening in real-time and continuously, raising important questions about the security and privacy of the very intimate information that these devices generate, transmit and archive (Tene and Polonetsky, 2013).

The companion species trope recognises the inevitability of our relationship with our digital data assemblages and the importance of learning to live together and to learn from each other. It suggests both the vitality of these assemblages and also the possibility of developing a productive relationship, recognising our mutual dependency. We may begin to think about our digital data assemblages as members of a companion species that have lives of their own that are beyond our complete control. These proliferating digital data companion species, as they are ceaselessly configured and reconfigured, emerge beyond our bodies/selves and into the wild of digital data economies and circulations. They are purposed and repurposed by second and third parties and even more actors beyond our reckoning as they are assembled and reassembled. Yet even as our digital data companion species engage in their own lives, they are still part of us and we remain part of them. We may interact with them or not; we may be allowed access to them or not; we may be totally unaware of them or we may engage in purposeful collection and use of them. They have implications for our lives in a rapidly growing array of contexts, from the international travel we are allowed to undertake to the insurance premiums, job offers or credit we are offered.

If we adopt Haraway’s companion species trope, we might ask the following: What are our affective responses to our digital data companion species? Do we love or hate them, or simply feel indifferent to them? What are the contexts for these responses? How do we live with our digital data companion species? How do they live with us? How do our lives intersect with them? What do they learn from us, and what do we learn from them? What is the nature of their own lives as they move around the digital data economy? How are we influenced by them? How much can we domesticate or discipline them? How do they domesticate or discipline us? How does each species co-evolve?

References

Bhavnani, K.-K. & Haraway, D. (1994) Shifting the subject: a conversation between Kum-Kum Bhavnani and Donna Haraway, 12 April 1993, Santa Cruz, California. Feminism & Psychology, 4, 19-39.

Gane, N. (2006) When we have never been human, what is to be done?: Interview with Donna Haraway. Theory, Culture & Society, 23, 135-58.

Haraway, D. (1991) Simians, Cyborgs and Women: the Reinvention of NatureLondon: Free Association.

Haraway, D. (2003) The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness. Chicago: Prickly Paradigm.

Haraway, D. (2008) When Species Meet. Minneapolis: The University of Minnesota Press.

Tene, O. & Polonetsky, J. (2013) Big data for all: Privacy and user control in the age of analytics. Northwestern Journal of Technology & Intellectual Property, 11, 239-73.

2 thoughts on “Personal digital data as a companion species

  1. Pingback: Digital data and devices as strangers | This Is Not a Sociology Blog

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