My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives has now been released by Polity Press. In the book, I draw on feminist new materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture as well as analyses of popular culture and findings from my empirical studies talking to people about their personal data. I argue that personal data are more-than-human phenomena, invested with diverse forms of vitalities, and reveal the significant implications for data futures, politics and ethics. The book is a companion to my previous Polity book The Quantified Self: A Sociology of Self-Tracking.
My new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives is due for publication next month. Below is an edited excerpt from the Introduction chapter, in which I explain my theoretical approach.
The phenomenon of personal digital data poses a challenge at an ontological level. Personal data blur and challenge many of the binary oppositions and cultural boundaries that dominate in contemporary western societies. Personal data are both private and public. They could be considered to be owned by, and part of, the people who have generated them, but these details are also accessed and used by a multitude of other actors and agencies. At a deeper level, personal data challenge the ontological boundaries between the binary oppositions of Self/Other, nature/culture, human/nonhuman, and living/dead. Discussions of how digital data about and for people are incorporated into everyday lives must therefore grapple with the problem of how we conceptualise the idea of ‘the human’ and life’ in relation to the digital data that are generated by and for humans. Because digital data are associated with non-human entities such as digital devices and software, and because they are often viewed as non-material entities, they are often de-humanised and de-materialised in discourses. The oft-used term ‘big data’, for example, tends to portray large digital datasets as de-personalised and anonymous, even though these datasets are often comprised of very intimate and sensitive details about people and their lives. Alternatively, explanations of how people collect and make sense of their own data are often reduced to individualised models of cognition or behavioural psychology, removing the sociocultural, sensory and affective dimensions of how people generate and respond to these details about themselves …
In what follows, I examine the interplay of human and nonhuman affordances associated with digital technologies – devices, software and the digital data they generate – and the agential capacities that are opened up or closed off as these things assemble. I ponder the questions of who benefits from these agential capacities, and in whose interests they operate. Here again, affective forces are central to the engagements of humans with these nonhuman things and the capacities that are generated by their gatherings. I address how human-data assemblages can generate agential capacities that empower and vitalise actors in the assemblage; but can also expose them to vulnerabilities and harms.
This approach recognises the entanglements of personal digital data assemblages with human action, reaction and understanding of the world. Personal digital data assemblages are partly comprised of information about human action, but their materialisations are also the products of human action, and these materialisations can influence future human action. While digital data assemblages are often conceptualised as immaterial, invisible and intangible, I contend that they are things that are generated in and through material devices (smartphones, computers, sensors), stored in material archives (data repositories), materialised in a range of formats that invite human sensory responses and have material effects on human bodies (documenting and having recursive effects on human flesh). The primary analytical focus is understanding what personal data assemblages allow bodies to do, and how they come to matter in people’s lives.
Feminist new materialism also calls into question and problematises how we might define and materialise personal data. While the literatures on datafication and dataveillance tend to assume that personal data are digital artefacts that are primarily materialised in two-dimensional visual formats as the outcomes of humans’ encounters with digital technologies, an emergent body of scholarship in what has been termed ‘posthuman’ or ‘post-qualitative’ inquiry (Lather and St. Pierre 2013; MacLure 2013) contends that data about humans can be any kind of matter, both organic and inorganic. Human flesh, bones, tissue, blood, breath, sweat or tears, human sensory and affective responses and reactions, objects that people use as part of their mundane routines, or artworks and creative writing outputs, for example, are among the materialisations of and participants in human experience that can be viewed and treated analytically as ‘data’ (Koro-Ljungberg et al. 2017; Taylor et al. 2018).
Drawing on this perspective, I argue that examining the multitude of media (loosely defined) that are used to represent personal data, including arts-based and three-dimensional approaches, is one way of working towards a different way of thinking about their onto-ethico-epistemological aspects. Expanding the definition of what materials can be treated as personal data works to highlight the performative, embodied, multisensory, affective and agential dimensions of human-data assemblages. Not only does this perspective acknowledge the more-than-human worlds of personal data, it also highlights the more-than-digital dimensions of these assemblages.
In this book, I take up calls by Barad (in Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012) and Braidotti (2018) for a critical posthuman studies that incorporates an affirmative ethics. For Braidotti (2018), the mutable and distributed nature of human agency offers a politics that is able to challenge current fears and preoccupations. Cartographies of power relations and their associated entitlements, agencies and capacities can provide detailed ways of thinking through and with political practices and subjectivities. They help to think differently about figurations of human action, belief and practice, their implications, boundaries and limitations, and how new modes of being and acting can be configured and political change effected.
Central to my argument is that in the face of the continuing de-personalisation and de-humanisation of details about people’s bodies and lives that have been rendered into digital data, a new onto-ethico-epistemological position should be developed that reinvests human-data assemblages with different meanings and reconceptualises what we mean by ‘personal data’ – and indeed, how we think about and treat our ‘data selves’. In so doing, we can begin to think more seriously and deeply about what is at stake when human-data assemblages are de-personalised and de-humanised. If these new ways of thinking are taken up, they have significant that go to the core of selfhood, social relations and embodiment as they are enacted in more-than-human worlds.
In making my argument in the pages of this book, I seek to engage in what Barad (2007) refers to as ‘diffractive methodology’, which attempts to work with different bodies of research and theory to generate new insights. As she notes, it is the diffractive patterns of resonances and dissonances that make entanglements of matter and meaning visible. For Barad, diffractive thinking goes beyond critique to ethical engagements, involving reading insights through one another: ‘Diffractive readings bring inventive provocations; they are good to think with’ (Barad in Dolphijn and Van der Tuin 2012: 50). In the spirit of a diffractive approach, this book’s content is intentionally interdisciplinary and eclectic. While I work principally with feminist new materialism theory, relevant perspectives offered from scholarship in the anthropology of material culture, digital sociology, media studies, internet studies, cultural studies, information studies, archival studies, human-computer interaction studies, education, archaeology and cultural geography are also included.
Chapter 2 provides an overview of these perspectives and begins to explore how they might be taken up to theorise the more-than-human worlds of human-data assemblages. In Chapter 3, I address the ways in which personal data as a phenomenon is materialised in words, images and three-dimensional representations, including provocations and interventions from design- and arts-based approaches that offer alternative ways of thinking about personal data. In Chapters 4 and 5, I draw on empirical material from several research projects I have conducted since 2015 to provide insights into how people conceptualise and live their personal data (details of these projects are provided in the Appendix.) Chapter 4 discusses how people enact and make sense of their personal data and identifies the relational connections, affective forces and agential capacities generated by doing data. Chapter 5 reviews the ways in which the tension between the sharing ethos of participatory digital media and the dystopian imaginaries that circulate concerning the ‘internet knowing too much’ about people are dealt with in everyday data concepts and practices. In the Final Thoughts section, I present my vision for how a new ethics of caring about and living with our data selves might be developed.
In June 2019, I took part in an ‘in conversation’ event at King’s College London, organised by the Social Science & Urban Public Health Institute. The conversation was transcribed and published on the Institute’s website. They have kindly given permission for me to repost the content here. Thank you to Benjamin Henckel and Shayda Kashef for their work on this event and the post.
On 13th June 2019 the Social Science & Urban Public Health Institute (SUPHI) at King’s College London hosted a special in-conversation event with Professor Deborah Lupton. During the event Professor Lupton discussed her forthcoming book Data Selves, and reflected on the role that digital technologies are playing in the urban public health landscape.
Below is an edited version of the transcript from the event. Special thanks to sponsor, PLuS Alliance.
By Benjamin Hanckel and Shayda Kashef
What is digital health and where do you see the field at now?
Digital health is a short, snappy title to refer to the huge range of digital technologies that are used to apply to health, right through from older technologies such as websites, search engines, online discussion forums, through to things like 3D printing of body parts and apps and all those kinds of digital technologies that are quite new on the scene. So I think digital health for me encompasses that diverse range of ways that certain forms of healthcare and health communication can be digitised. And given that there are more and more of these technologies emerging, there’s never something I have to wonder writing about because there’s always something new on the horizon and it’s really interesting to trace their trajectory and find how older technologies are often forgotten about. Google search is probably the number one most highly used digital health technology because people use it as a form of self-triage, and it’s interesting to me how those older technologies are often forgotten about in the rush and the excitement of the social imaginaries that represent newer technologies, such as apps and wearable devices, which is the brave new world of healthcare. People are often still getting much more value from websites and online discussion forums, for example, than they are getting from health apps.
Putting this in the context of your current work, can you tell us about the Vitalities Lab you set up at the University of New South Wales and how it relates to digital health?
I’ve been building on my previous interest in Foucauldian theory now to incorporate some perspectives from new materialisms and particularly feminist new materialisms and vital materialisms, as there’s an overlap between those two materialisms but they aren’t the same thing. I’ve only been at the University of New South Wales for four months but as part of my appointment I was encouraged to set up a research team. The name Vitalities is meant to denote the kinds of directions and interests that I have at the moment. So to begin with I’ve been writing a lot about ‘lively data’ over the past few years and that means people’s personal data and about the digital data economy and how digital data about people take on value. They are lively because people engage with data about their bodies and themselves in ways that synergistically change their own lives, they may respond to their own data and change aspects of their lives based on what their data are telling them. So that’s the notion of lively data.
Vital materialism gets back to that idea of vitalities as well. So, some of the feminist new materialism scholarship that I’ve been engaging with, particularly the work of Karen Barad, Jane Bennett, Donna Haraway and Rosi Braidotti, talk a lot about capacities and affective forces, and how they are generated through interactions that people have with other humans and with non-human actors. It’s very much this idea that there are capacities that are generated when people come together with other people, with non-humans, which I’m trying to explore in my recent research, of course within particular digital technologies, how people engage with their digital devices but also their data to generate new capacities. So that gets back to that vitality as well, there are these capacities constantly being generated and reformed and reconfigured with and through devices and data.
Can you expand on how ‘vitalities’ might contribute to new ways of thinking about methods and methodological enquiry?
In terms of theoretical methods, there’s a sort of emerging approach to qualitative empirical research, post-qualitative inquiry, that I’ve also found really interesting to work with lately. And there’s a very strong overlap of post-qualitative inquiry with more than human theory, because post-qualitative inquiry sees research as always being a research assemblage, as always being partially emergent and sort of going away from the very positivist approach to qualitative approaches which have dominated a lot of health related qualitative enquiry of late. Every type of research is always a research assemblage: the researcher is always part of the data that they generate. So that’s where post-qualitative research departs from the more positivist approach to qualitative research. It’s interesting how the more than human theory is now being brought into research methods: and that’s what I’m trying to do with the kind of work that I’m doing recently, when I’m writing up my own empirical research and analysing it to bring in post-qualitative perspectives as well as the more than human theory that I’m trying to think with when I’m generating concepts that I’m using to analyse my empirical data. So the empirical data might include traditional forms of data such as interview transcripts, or focus group transcripts, but with post-qualitative methods they often now include arts-based materials, drawings, storyboards that people might have made in workshops. I’ve been experimenting with a method called story completion recently, which involves people finishing stories that we start for them and then inviting them to create the narrative, which is another form of research material that I think can be quite interesting to use as a way of understanding people’s experiences. So that’s been a really new method that I’ve been experimenting with as another way of accessing people’s feelings and experiences in ways that they themselves might find hard to articulate if we’re just asking them in an interview to articulate. Because often they’re such mundane experiences for people that coming at it from a more oblique way or a more sort of creative way can be an interesting way to access those kinds of experiences and fears.
Can you expand on how you have engaged with some of these themes in your most recent work, and in particular in your forthcoming book Data Selves?
Data Selves covers what I call ‘living data’ and it gets back to the lively data I was talking about earlier, but also how people live with and through and alongside their personal data. In Data SelvesI’m really trying to expand on feminist new materialism, human data assemblages ideas, and I argue that people’s personal data are often represented in dematerialised and depersonalised ways, such as when we talk about the big data phenomenon, the data tsunami and being overwhelmed by data. And we often forget that not all data that are generated by, for example smart cities or by any other form of data generation, are about non-humans. But a lot of those data are about actual humans, about their lives, about their bodily practices and habits and routines.
With Data Selves, as the title suggests, I wanted to bring in that more than human, non-human aspect and to understand data human assemblages as all human assemblages, and bring in that humanity and re-humanise this core data. And for me that raises a different form of ethics around those data. I’m arguing that we should think of personal data in similar ways, as sort of embodied, human, not fleshy but they’re kind of about our flesh, that sort of ambiguous ontology. So I would argue that we need to think of them in certain ways like we think of other body parts and other body attributes that people donate or give or sell in some situations as very much human remains, and I’m arguing that that’s how we should treat people’s personal data, and that raises questions about the ethics of how other people might use those data and seek to profit from those data.
In the book I draw on a few of my empirical research projects, which do talk about people, about how they engage with and make sense of their data, and I’m arguing that we need to understand people’s engagements with their data as very often infused with affect, vulnerabilities, multi-sensory engagement. So there’s actually a chapter on what I call materialisations of data, when I talk about social imaginaries of data, the very utopian ideas of data as being very productive and generative, and how people themselves can benefit from their own data. So there’s that very positive representation. Then what’s interesting that over the past few years though, when talking about people’s personal data there’s this very dystopian representation of data that privacy no longer exists. So you’ve got really interesting polar representations of how people’s data can be used in both positive and negative ways.
I did a project which I called the Data Personas Project and that built on the design methods approach, personas. I called it their data persona, or a profile of you that’s made about details about you from your online and app related encounters and engagements. And then I asked people to imagine the futures of their data persona, because I think there’s a lot of interesting and intriguing ways we can think about inviting people to imagine futures, rather than having futures imagined for them, on behalf of them by others. I also asked them how similar or different is your data persona from you? Some people did imagine a dystopian idea whereby nothing is private, you know, the internet knows everything about me, but most people said the internet doesn’t know everything about me, it doesn’t know my internal beliefs and feelings, and so on. So I thought that was really interesting because we also get this discourse in media studies in particular and surveillance studies which is very critical of the idea that people think privacy is dead and they’re not concerned about their privacy, you know, the privacy paradox, so yes, people say “I’m worried about my privacy” but they don’t do anything to actually protect their privacy. But that research that I did using the data persona concept kind of shows that people don’t think that their privacy has been completely taken over by the internet.
There is an ongoing debate about data capture for the common good, versus data capture that is perceived as morally questionable. How might we think about these boundaries?
I try to avoid a really normative approach to these kinds of ethical discussions. The context is everything. And people’s contexts are so variable and unique to them, that’s what really comes out when you look at the ways that people engage with digital technologies and digital data. If you look at the Association of Internet Researchers document on ethics around doing research with online materials, it’s really interesting because they argue that you have to look at the context for each research project. There shouldn’t be hard and fast guidelines about how social research is used when we’re talking about using people’s personal data. More recently, human ethics committees have become far more aware of that, as people might be putting their information out there when they go online, so it’s become a more complicated situation now. It’s not as easy to get ethics approval and you do actually have to argue for why and how you’ll get those people’s consent or if you don’t, why not and so on, so it’s become far more complicated. All I would say is that there needs to be these very detailed, lengthy considerations about the context.
But all those issues around whether people know that you’re accessing their data, to what extent, now there’s the issue now with de-anonymisation too, Because if you know what you’re doing, data harvesters can be really good at de-anonymising data to generate detailed profiles about people.
But even when a decision is made about if it is appropriate to generate these data and what to use people’s data for, because it might improve public health or improve treatment for medical conditions, really strong data privacies and security measures can be leaked or breached or hacked. So you don’t know what the future of those lively data might be, so that’s very difficult.
The event concluded with a brief Q&A session with the audience which covered a range of issues, including:
- An expansion of the debate about data collection, and how we manage data capture within the context of emerging technologies, and
- A discussion about the possibilities for technologies to benefit certain people who are marginalised, such as people with disabilities, with Professor Lupton acknowledging that there is more to do in this area.
I’ve set up a new website for my project ‘Living with Personal Data’. I’ve reblogged this first post from this project here. The project can be followed by going to the Home page and scrolling down to provide your email to subscribe.
The Living with Personal Data project has just kicked off. We have appointed a Postdoctoral Fellow, Dr Ashleigh Watson, to begin working on the project. While we are waiting for our ethics approval, Ashleigh is updating our literature review. In conjunction with the Vitalities Lab led by Deborah Lupton, we are running several pop-up methods workshops in the next few months to experiment with the innovative methods we will be using in our fieldwork, which will include home visits with people living in Sydney, and hands-on workshops with diverse groups of Australians.
I did an interview recently with Rafael Grohmann about my new book Data Selves: More-than-Human Perspectives (out from Polity in October). He has now translated it into Portuguese and published it on his blog DigiLabour: available here.
Below are the original English questions and my written responses.
RG: What does data selves mean in a more-than-human perspective?
DL: A more-than-human perspective acknowledges that humans are always already part of nonhuman relations. Humans and nonhumans come together in assemblages that are constantly changing as humans move through their worlds. From this perspective, digital devices and software assemble with humans, and personal data are generated in and with these enactments. These data assemblages are more-than-human things. People live with and co-evolve with their personal data – they learn from data and data learn from them in a continually changing relationship.
RG: How can feminist materialism theory and the anthropology of material culture help us understand datafication?
DL: In previous work, I have suggested the digital devices can be considered to lively, as can digital data. Building on this approach, I use feminist new materialism and the anthropology of material culture to investigate these dimensions of datafication and dataveillance further. The feminist new materialism scholars I draw on in the Data Selves book are Donna Haraway, Rosi Braidotti, Jane Bennett and Karen Barad. These scholars share an interest in the affective forces, vitality and distributed nature of agencies as they are generated with and through more-than-human assemblages. Scholars in the anthropology of material culture such as Tim Ingold and Elizabeth Hallam have also called attention to the lively agencies of humans and nonhumans when they gather together. They focus on how humans respond to, learn about and make sense of their worlds when engaging in embodied and sensory encounters with nonhumans. Ingold describes this as ‘being alive to the world’.
In developing my theoretical approach in Data Selves, I found these perspectives helpful in thinking through what Barad calls the ‘onto-ethico-epistemological’ dimensions of datafication and dataveillance. These perspectives have not yet been taken up to any great extent in thinking about datafication and dataveillance. This is the project I am pursuing. It allows for a non-normative ethical approach to datafication and dataveillance that acknowledges the constantly emergent and dynamic nature of lively data selves and the embodied, multisensory and affective dimensions of how humans live with and learn from their data.
RG: In your forthcoming book, do you talk about data selves and quantified self in world of work?
DL: I don’t discuss the workplace to any great extent in Data Selves. In in my previous book The Quantified Self there was quite a bit of discussion of self-tracking in the workplace. Data Selves differs from The Quantified Self in including a lot of discussion of my empirical research projects that I have conducted over the past few years – indeed, since writing The Quantified Self – which involves people discussing their self-tracking practices and their understandings and use of personal data. My research participants didn’t talk much about their data practices in the context of the workplace, apart from some references on the part of some people to using productivity tools. Those who were active self-trackers were predominantly tracking their body weight, fitness, food or calorie intake, sleep and finances.
RG: In the last year, many books on the same subject have been published, such as David Beer, Shoshana Zuboff, Taina Bucher, Tarleton Gillespie, José van Dijck and Thomas Poell. What is the difference of your book, in theoretical and conceptual terms?
DL: My book differs in several ways: 1) in using more-than-human theory to analyse datafication and dataveillance; 2) in discussing findings from my own empirical research into self-tracking and people’s understandings and practices related to their personal data; and 3) including a greater focus on the multisensory dimensions of data materialisations and sense-making, including how artists and critical designers have sought represent personal data or critique datafication and dataveillance in novel ways.
RG: After a few years since your book Digital Sociology, for you, what is the future research agenda of digital sociology?
DL: I have become increasingly interested in more-than-human theory since writing Digital Sociology and also in postqualitative research as well as innovative methods for social inquiry, including experimenting with design- and arts-based methods. Taking these perspectives and methods into new directions for me constitutes the future agenda of digital sociology.
AoIR Preconference Workshop: Re/imagining Personal Data
- Tuesday 1 October 2019, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
- 9.30 am-12.30 pm (followed by catered lunch)
Organisers: Deborah Lupton (UNSW Sydney), Larissa Hjorth (RMIT) and Annette Markham (Aarhus University)
Overview: This half-day workshop involves a selection of hands-on arts- and design-based activities to invite participants to re/imagine personal digital data. Participants will be able to experiment with innovative methods of eliciting creative and more-than-representational responses to personal data and generating speculative imaginaries about the futures of data. These methods can be used for teaching purposes or research projects.
We will be using these activities to explore and respond to these key questions:
- What do personal data do?
- How best can we use them?
- What is our relationship with our personal data?
- Which data do we want to keep and protect and which do we want to discard or forget?
- What are our affective and sensory engagements with these data?
- What are the futures of personal data?
Participants at all levels of research experience are invited to attend, including postgraduate students and people working outside the university sector.
Registration and lunch are free, but places are strictly limited.
Please contact Deborah Lupton, Faculty of Arts & Social Sciences, UNSW Sydney (email@example.com ) as soon as possible with an email noting that you’d like to register to secure your place.
Please note that this workshop follows the Data Futures conference, 30 September 2019, also to be held at UNSW Sydney (details here), and precedes the Association of Internet Researchers Conference taking place in Brisbane (details here).
Photo credit: “I Love Data” She Wept. Bixtentro, Flickr. CC BY 2.0
This year marks the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Mary Shelley’s classic Gothic novel Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. This novel has become a cultural icon, largely due to the figure of the creature, the strange monster cobbled together from stolen body parts and reanimated by the scientist Dr Victor Frankenstein. Dr Frankenstein is obsessed with creating life from non-living matter. He eventually creates a humanoid creature which resembles a human in many aspects, although it is much larger and has an unearthly appearance that marks it as clearly not-human. Frankenstein is repulsed by the creature, which escapes his laboratory. The creature, for its part, finds its own appearance hideous, and experiences rejection from the people it encounters because it looks so strange and frightening. Eventually the creature turns murderous, wanting to wreak vengeance on its creator for its lonely and disturbed existence.
The story of Frankenstein’s creature and its creator is a dark moral tale, in which Shelley vividly speculates on the ways in which humans’ ambitions to tinker with nature can go badly wrong. A central theme in this moral tale is the figure of the creature itself, in its eerie, almost-human-like appearance and sensibility. The creature has human feelings and emotions, needs and desires, but it looks too strange and monstrous to be able to be accepted by humans, and its rage and despair eventually overwhelms it.
The novel raises important ethical and ontological questions about what it means to be human, how novel technologies can disturb the definition and meaning of the human, and how scientific innovation can threaten humanity. It demonstrates the affective power of the more-than-human world, when parts of humans come together in new ways to create new forms of human – or almost-human – life.
These days, a range of speculative fiction accounts represent digital technologies as creating monstrous new formations of humanity. Thus, for example, many episodes of the dystopian television series Black Mirror centre on the ways in which people’s digitally monitored and archived data can be used to replicate, manipulate, observe, control or betray them. In the most obvious reference to Frankenstein’s monster, in ‘Be Right Back’ (series 2), a grieving woman uses a digital service that draws on the archive of her dead husband’s online interactions to first talk to a digitised version of him on the phone, then create him in the flesh. Although at first she finds it comforting to have this post-death replicant of her partner with her, she soon finds him disturbing and annoying, as he is not able to properly display the human quirks of the real man she knew and loved. In ‘Arkangel’ (series 4), a child is relentlessly monitored by her anxious mother using a digital device that reveals the girl’s perspective on the world and monitors biometrics such as her heart rate and adrenaline levels. Once the girl reaches adolescence and becomes aware of the privacy-invasion that she is subjected to, she is driven to anger and violence against her mother because of the violation she feels. In ‘Crocodile’ (series 4), a device is used to access memories, again with violent consequences when a woman feels as if she can no longer keep her secrets. In ‘Nosedive’ (series 3), people use their smart devices constantly to rank and rate each other, with the resultant data affecting their life opportunities. ‘Playtest’ (series 3) depicts a computer game-like scenario, when again people’s memories are accessed by a digital device to make the game as frightening as possible by invoking their deepest fears. ‘The Entire History of You’ (series 1), involves a man wracked by jealousy who forces his partner to ‘rewind’ her memories to prove her infidelity, which then destroys their relationship.
All of these Black Mirror episodes (and several others in the series) depict the nightmarish ways in which personal data can be used to monitor, frighten, humiliate and punish people, particularly in imagined scenarios when digital devices can be used to constantly record, preserve and ‘download’ these data. Like Frankenstein’s monster, these personal data are new forms or extensions of human life. More than data doubles or doppelgangers, these personal data have their own liveliness, their own worlds, that exist beyond the purview of the humans who created them. They are constantly changing and moving into new formations. I have elsewhere suggested that we can think of personal digital data as companion species, living with and co-evolving with us.
In their more-than-human presence, personal data assemblages have the potential to evoke the ‘uncanny valley’, or the affective responses from humans to objects they have created that are marked by feelings of eeriness, uncertainty, discomfort, and a sense that something is ‘not quite right’. Humanoid robots are often described as evoking uncanny valley responses, but they can occur in response to other digital as well as non-digital humanoid artefacts, such as masks, dolls, puppets, zombies, human prosthetics, characters in films generated by computer graphic manipulation (sometimes referred to as ‘digital actors’) and avatars in computer games.
The representations of personal data and their consequences in Black Mirror, I would argue, go some way to highlighting the uncanny and potentially uncontrolled, and in some cases, disastrous implications of generating and storing these pieces of information about people. From the ambivalence of the uncanny valley to the monstrosities of data betrayals, the near-future of personal data is imagined in unsettling scenarios.
Photo credit: Flickr image by Robert Couse-Baker, CC By 2.0
For a while now, I have sought out the work of artists and designers who are working on interesting critical projects related to digital data, particularly personal data (as this is one of my main research interests). I have discussed some of this work in several of my publications, including my book on the sociology of the quantified self.
A recent tweet asking the Twitter ‘hive mind’ whose work they knew about generated many more additions (thank you to those who contributed).
Here’s a list that I have subsequently put together – I am sure it is by no means comprehensive, but at least it’s a start!
Photo credit: Fee Plumley: CC By 2.0 (found on Flickr)