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.

Seams in the cyborg

Another excerpt from my forthcoming book Digital Sociology (due to be released on 12 November 2014). From chapter 8: ‘The Digitised Body/Self’.

Such is the extent of our intimate relations with digital technologies that we often respond emotionally to the devices themselves and to the content contained within or created by these devices. The design of digital devices and software interfaces is highly important to users’ responses to them. Devices such as iPhones are often described in highly affective and aestheticised terms: as beautiful playthings, glossy and shiny objects of desire, even as edible or delicious. Advertising for the iPhone and other Apple devices often focus on inspiring child-like wonder at their beauty and magical capabilities (Cannon and Barker 2012).

Affective responses to material objects are integral to their biographical meaning to their owners and their participation in intimate relationships. Writers on material culture and affect have noted the entangling of bodies/selves with physical objects and how artefacts act as extensions or prostheses of the body/self, becoming markers of personhood. Objects become invested with sentimental value by virtue of their association with specific people and places, and thus move from anonymous, mass-produced items to biographically-inscribed artefacts that bear with them personal meanings. Over use and with time, such initially anonymised objects become personalised prosthetics of the self, their purely functional status and monetary value replaced by more personal and sentimental value (Miller 2008, Turkle 2007).

… Bell and Dourish (2011) refer to the mythologies and the mess of ubiquitous computing technologies. By myths they mean the cultural stories, values and meanings that are drawn upon to make sense and represent these technologies. The types of myths surrounding new digital technologies tend to focus on their very novelty, their apparent divergence from what has come before them and their ability to provide solutions to problems. The ‘mess’ of digital technologies inheres in the challenges to myths that suggest that they are infallible, offer an ideal solution to a problem: the ‘practical reality’ of their everyday use (Bell & Dourish, 2011, p. 4). When digital technologies operate as we expect them to, they feel as they are inextricably part of our bodies and selves. Inevitably, however, there are moments when we become aware of our dependence on technologies, or find them annoying or difficult to use, or lose interest in them. Technologies break down, fail to work as expected; infrastructure and government regulations may not support them adequately; users may become bored with using them or their bodies may rebel and develop over-use symptoms. There may be resistances, personal or organised, to their use, and contestations over their meanings and value (Lupton, 1995; Miller & Horst, 2012).

Freund (2004, p. 273) uses the term ‘technological habitus’ to describe the ‘internalised control’ and kinds of consciousness required of individuals to function in technological environments such as those currently offered in contemporary western societies. The human/machine entity, he argues, is not seamless: rather there are disjunctions – or, as he puts it, ‘seams in the cyborg’ – where fleshly body and machine do not intermesh smoothly, and discomfort, stress or disempowerment may result. Sleep patterns, increasing work and commuting time and a decrease in leisure time, for example, can be disrupted by the use of technologies, causing illness, stress and fatigue. Our bodies may begin to alert us that these objects are material in the ways that they affect our embodiment: through eye-strain, hand, neck or back pain or headaches from using the devices too much (Lupton, 1995).

People may feel overwhelmed by the sheer mass of data conveyed by their digital devices and the need to keep up with social network updates. Analyses of social media platforms such as Facebook are beginning to appear that suggest that users may simultaneously recognise their dependence upon social media to maintain their social network but may also resent this dependence and the time that is taken up in engaging with them, even fearing that they may be ‘addicted’ to their use (Davis, 2012). Users may also feel ‘invaded’ by the sheer overload of data that may be generated by membership of social networking sites and the difficulty of switching off mobile devices and taking time out from using them (boyd, 2008).

Technology developers are constantly working on ways to incorporate digital devices into embodiment and everyday life, to render them ever less obtrusive and ever more part of our bodies and selves. As the technical lead and manager of the Google Glass (a wearable device that is worn on the face like spectacles) project contends, ‘bringing technology and computing closer to the body can actually improve communication and attention – allowing technology to get further out of the way’ (Starner, 2013, p. no page numbers given, emphasis in the original). He asserts that by rendering these devices smaller and more easily worn on the body, they recede further into the background rather than dominating users’ attention (as is so overtly the case with the current popular smartphone and tablet computers). Despite these efforts, Glass wearers have been subjected to constant attention from others that is often negative and based on the presumption that the device is too obvious, unstylish and unattractive, or that the people who wear them are wealthy computer nerds who do not respect the privacy of others. They have reported many incidences of angry responses from others when wearing Glass in public, even to the point of people ripping the device off their faces or asking them to leave a venue (Gross, 2014). The design of digital devices, therefore, may incite emotional responses not only in the users themselves but also in onlookers.

Some people find wearable self-tracking devices not fashionable enough, or not water-proof enough, or too clunky or heavy, or not comfortable enough to wear, or find that they get destroyed in the washing machine when the user forgets to remove them from their clothing. One designer (Darmour, 2013) has argued that if these technologies remain too obvious, ‘bolting’ these devices to our bodies will ‘distract, disrupt, and ultimately disengage us from others, ultimately degrading our human experience’. She asserts that instead these objects need to be designed more carefully so that they may be integrated into the ‘fabric of our lives’. Her suggested ways of doing this include making them look more beautiful, like jewellery (broaches, necklaces, bracelets, rings), incorporating them into fashionable garments, making them peripheral and making them meaningful: using colours or vibrations rather than numbers to display data readings from these devices.

References

Bell, G., & Dourish, P. (2011). Divining a Digital Future: Mess and Mythology in Ubiquitous Computing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Cannon, K., & Barker, J. (2012). Hard candy. In P. Snickars & P. Vonderau (Eds.), Moving Data: The iPhone and the Future of Medicine (pp. 73-88). New York: Columbia University Press.

boyd, d. (2008). Facebook’s privacy trainwreck: exposure, invasion, and social convergence. Convergence, 14(1), 13-20.

Darmour, J. (2013). 3 ways to make wearable tech actually wearable. Co.Design. Retrieved from http://www.fastcodesign.com/1672107/3-ways-to-make-wearable-tech-actually-wearable

Davis, J. (2012). Social media and experiential ambivalence. Future Internet, 4(4), 955-970.

Freund, P. (2004). Civilised bodies redux: seams in the cyborg. Social Theory & Health, 2(3), 273-289.

Gross, A. (2014). What’s the problem with Google Glass? Retrieved from http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/currency/2014/03/whats-the-problem-with-google-glass.html

Lupton, D. (1995). The embodied computer/user. Body & Society, 1(3-4), 97-112.

Miller, D. (2008). The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Miller, D., & Horst, H. (2012). The digital and the human: a prospectus for digital anthropology. In H. Horst & D. Miller (Eds.), Digital Anthropology (pp. 3-35). London: Berg.

Starner, T. (2013). Google glass lead: how wearing tech on our bodies actually helps it get out of our way. Wired. Retrieved from http://www.wired.com/opinion/2013/12/the-paradox-of-wearables-close-to-your-body-but-keeping-tech-far-away/

Turkle, S. (2007). Evocative Objects: Things We Think With. Cambridge, Mass: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.