‘Eating’ digital data

Update: I have now published a journal article that brings this blog with the previous one and expands the argument – it can be found here.

My previous post drew on Donna Haraway’s concept of companion species to theorise the ways in which we engage with our personal digital data assemblages. The work of Annemarie Mol offers an additional conceptual framework within which to understand digital data practices at a more detailed level, while still retaining the companion species perspective.

Mol has developed a framework that incorporates elements of enquiry that can be mapped onto the topic of digital data practices. These include the following: understanding language/discourse and its context and effects; tracing the development and use of objects of knowledge as they become objects-in-practice; acknowledging the dynamic nature of processes and the ‘endless tinkering’ that is involved in processes; incorporating awareness of the topologies or sites and spaces in which phenomena are generated and used; and finally, directing attention at the lived experiences or engagements in which practices and objects are understood and employed (see also Mol, 2002, 2008; Mol and Law, 2004).

If this approach is applied to digital data practices and their configurations, then focusing attention on the language that is employed to describe digital data, viewing digital data as objects that have both discursive and material effects and that constantly changing, recognising the process of tinkering (experimenting, adapting) that occur in relation to digital data and the spaces in which these processes take place are all important to developing an understanding of the ontology of digital data and our relationship with them.

Mol’s (2002) concept of ‘the body multiple’ in medicine has resonances with the Haraway’s cyborg ontology. This concept recognises that the human body is comprised of many different practices, sites and knowledges. While the body itself is not fragmented or multiple, the phenomena that make sense of it and represent it do so in many different ways so that the body is lived and experienced in different modes. So too the digital data assemblages that are configured by human users’ interactions with digital technologies are different versions of people’s identities and bodies that have material effects on their ways of living and conceptualising themselves. Part of the work of people’s data practices is negotiating the multiple bodies and selves that these digital data assemblages represent and configure.

Mol’s writings on human subjectivity also have implications for understanding data practices and interpretations. In her essay entitled ‘I eat an apple’, Mol points out that once a foodstuff has been swallowed, the human subject loses control over what happens to the content of the food in her body as the processes of digestion take place. As she notes, the body is busily responding to the food, but the individual herself has no control over this: ‘Her actorship is distributed and her boundaries are neither firm nor fixed’ (Mol, 2008: 40). The eating subject is able to choose what food she decides to eat, but after this point, her body decides how to deal with the components of the food, selecting certain elements and discarding others.

This raises questions about human agency and subjectivity. In the statement ‘I eat an apple’ is the agency in the ‘I’ or in the apple? Humans may grow, harvest and eat apples, but without foodstuffs such as apples, humans would not exist. Furthermore, once the apple is chewed and swallowed, it then becomes part of and absorbed into the eater’s body. It is impossible to determine what is human and what is apple (Mol, 2008: 30) The eating subject, therefore, is semi-permeable, neither completely closed off nor completely open to the world.

Mol then goes on to query at what stage the apple becomes part of her, and whether the category of the human subject might recognise the apple as ‘yet another me, a subject in its own right’ (Mol, 2008: 40). Apples themselves have been shaped by years of cultivation by humans into the forms in which they now exist. In fact they may be viewed as a form of Haraway’s companion species. How then do we draw boundaries around the body/self and the apple? How is the human subject to be defined?

To extend Mol’s analogy, the human subject may be conceptualised as both data-ingesting and data-emitting in an endless cycle of generating data, bringing the data into the self, generating yet more data. Data are absorbed into the body/self and then become new data that flow out of the body/self into the digital data economy. The data-eating/emitting subject, therefore, is not closed off but is open to taking in and letting out digital data. These data become part of the human subject but, as data assemblages also represent the individual in multiple ways that have different meanings based on their contexts and uses. Just as eating an apple has many meanings, depending on the social, cultural, political, historical and geographical contexts in which this act takes place, generating and responding to digital data about oneself are highly contingent acts. If digital data are never ‘raw’ but rather are always ‘cooked’ (that is, always understood and experienced via social and cultural processes), and may indeed be ‘rotted’ or spoilt in some way (Boellstorff, 2013), can we also understand them as ‘eaten’ and ‘digested’?

Haraway and Mol both emphasise the politics of technocultures. Haraway’s cyborg theorising was developed to explain her socialist feminist principles. In all of her work she emphasises the importance of paying attention as critical scholars to the exacerbation of socioeconomic disadvantage and inequalities that may be outcomes of these relationships. Mol similarly notes the political nature of technologies. In her ‘I eat an apple’ essay, for example, she comments about her distaste for Granny Smith apples, once imported from Chile and therefore associated in her mind with repressive political regimes. As she notes, while she may eat this type of apple and while it may nourish her body as other apples do, she is unable to gain sensory pleasure from it.

Data science writings on big data often fail to acknowledge the political dimensions of digital data. They do not see how data are always already ‘cooked’, or how their flavour or digestibility are influenced by their context. Just as ‘eating apples is variously situated’ (Mol, 2008: 29) in history, geography, culture, social relations and politics, resulting in different flavours and pleasures, so too eating data is contextual. Like Haraway’s cyborg figuration (see her interview with Gane, 2006), the digital data assemblage may be viewed both as a product of global enterprise and capitalism and as representing possibilities for radical creative and political possibilities.

Using Mol’s concepts of the eating subject, we might wonder: What happens when we ingest/absorb digital data about ourselves? Do we recognise some data as ‘food’ (appropriate for such ingestion) and others as ‘non-food’ (not appropriate in some way for our use)? Are some data simply indigestible (our bodies/selves do not recognise them as us and cannot incorporate them)? How are the flavours and tastes of digital data experienced, and what differentiates these flavours and tastes?

References

Boellstorff, T. (2013) Making big data, in theory. First Monday, 18 (10). <http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/4869/3750&gt;, accessed 8 October 2013.

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

Mol, A. (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Mol, A. (2008) I eat an apple. On theorizing subjectivities. Subjectivity, 22, 28-37.

Mol, A. & Law, J. (2004) Embodied action, enacted bodies: the example of hypoglycaemia. Body & Society, 10, 43-62.