The Database of Self

by Rob Horning

1 October 2008

Technology's ability to digitize everything threatens to reduce curiosity to trivia collecting and our sense of self to TK.
Image (partial) found at 
cover art


Stephen Baker

(Houghton Mifflin)

The advance of digital technology further and further into the nooks and crannies of our lives is based on an elementary trade-off. It supplies us with a great deal of convenience: It lets us communicate with one another wherever and whenever we want to. It provides us with instantaneous access to and limitless storage of media, everything from personal photos to films to most of the history of recorded music on a terabyte hard drive. It’s capable of building in a level of redundancy in our lives, preserving what we might otherwise forget and protecting us from oversights—if you lose tickets to an event, chances are the barcode on them can be canceled and new tickets issued to you. And if your credit card number is stolen, the bank may very well recognize suspicious purchases and notify you.

But in exchange for all this convenience, we sacrifice privacy and spontaneity. We permit all our public actions to be cataloged and processed, and we make ourselves completely and instantly accessible not just to our friends and family, but to marketers who seek to guide our behavior in contexts that they can detect and analyze perhaps even before we have a chance to, and also to the state, which may seek to stifle dissent before it has the opportunity to assemble and gather force. By allowing ourselves to be tracked and recorded and analyzed, we become willing parties to our own reification, to our assimilation into the giant digital data machine.

Obviously there is pleasure in this, not only in the way commercial interests take great pains to tailor the world for us, but also in the thrill of losing ourselves, of ceding responsibility. As the various entities processing our data coalesce, it will seem as though an all-powerful deity-like entity feeds us what it thinks we need to know to be happy in whatever situation we end up in. In short, we have an easier time navigating the world as we experience it because it has been preformatted by the institutions that surround us. Unfortunately our interests are more or less tangential to these institutions, whose primary concern is their own survival and growth.

Technology threatens to render our wishes irrelevant even as it pretends to cater to them—that is, it serves our needs as long as they are boiled down to the need for convenience, to consume faster and with maximum indiscriminateness.  I feel this acutely when I find myself spending more time tagging and arranging my music files than I spend listening to my music. Part of that is a cognitive illusion, but a telling one—I’m listening to music the entire time I’m doing the iTunes bookkeeping work, but I’m concentrating on the data, not on the intricacies, harmonies, melodies, and hooks of the music. It barely breaks through, usually only when what’s playing is so irritating, I have to skip it.

What’s more, because of the general cultural push to digitize everything, I could conceivably work things so that I never again listen to a song I’ve already heard before. Not that anyone would do this, but the fact that it’s even possible confronts us with a entire new kind of pressure:  to justify our contentment with what we have in the face of all we can get, most of the time for free. Our impatience with what we know intensifies when we know we can experience something new with little effort.

As a result, we start to face a time crunch. Knowing all that’s out there waiting for us, we start to try to consume faster, and one way of accomplishing that is to consume information about goods rather than allow goods to facilitate sensuous experiences. To authorize our moving on to the next thing, we need to satisfy ourselves that we are done with what we have. Processing it as data does just that.

Through my eagerness to process more and more stuff, I’ve ended up amassing an embarrassingly thorough knowledge of the surface details of pop culture—who wrote what and who sang what and who played on whose record and when this show was canceled or had this or that guest star or whatever. Worse, I tend to invest far too much significance in brandishing this knowledge in conversation as some kind of accomplishment, as if life were a big game of Jeopardy. This useless depot of detail is what a show like Family Guy tries to reward me for having accumulated. Getting to laugh at the show is a sort of booby prize.

Philosopher Theodor Adorno seemed to anticipate these problems with information, of the trap set for us of substituting clerical data processing for thought and experience in “The Schema of Mass Culture”, whose title alone suggests its pertinence to wholesale cultural digitization.

About culture, Adorno was something of a pessimist. He argued that mass culture, a reflection and paradigmatic example of monopoly capitalism, served to nullify the radical potential in art, debasing its forms and methods while acclimating audiences to mediocrity, alienation, hopelessness, and a paucity of imagination. It works to form individuals into a mass, integrating them into the manufactured culture, snuffing out alternative and potentially seditious ways for people to interact with one another while facilitating an ersatz goodwill for the existing order. “As far as mass culture is concerned, reification is no metaphor: It makes the human beings that it reproduces resemble things even where their teeth do not represent toothpaste and their careworn wrinkles do not evoke cosmetics.” The contours of our consciousness are produced by our culture, and advertisements reflect those dimensions while fostering their reproduction. 

Adorno argues that art, in being manufactured for the masses, is reduced to the data about itself, in order to undermine art’s subversive potential: “The sensuous moment of art transforms itself under the eyes of mass culture into the measurement, comparison and assessment of physical phenomena.” As all of culture is being systemized during its digital conversion, it is becoming, at a key level, essentially the same, so much metadata to be tabulated in databases and organized on hard drives.

The underlying sameness of the medium for culture reveals the truth about the phantasmal differences in form and genre. As Adorno puts it, in his inimitable way, “the technicized forms of modern consciousness…transform culture into a total lie, but this untruth confesses the truth about the socio-economic base with which it has now become identical.” This means that we consumers can enact the same self-referential decoding process—figuring out which formulas and genres it is referencing, tabulating the attendant trivia—and this reinforces the same lesson of eternal sameness, in our best of all possible worlds.

The more the film-goer, the hit-song enthusiast, the reader of detective and magazine stories anticipates the outcome, the solution, the structure, and so on, the more his attention is displaced toward the question of how the nugatory result is achieved, to the rebus-like details involved, and in this searching process of displacement the hieroglyphic meaning suddenly reveals itself. It articulates every phenomenon right down to the subtlest nuance according to a simplistic two-term logic of “dos and don’ts,” and by virtue of this reduction of everything alien and unintelligible it overtakes the consumers.

The bounty of entertainment that the Internet and digitization has brought us is what Adorno would call “official culture”—that which is made to be reviewed and talked about by professional commentators and promoted by professional marketers and consumed commercially. With so much to know, so much novelty, it seems as though no one in their right mind could question the benevolence of this plenitude. There’s so much, you’d have to be nuts to not derive some satisfaction from it all. Think of all the stuff you can download!

However, participation in official culture, Adorno argues, becomes a matter of data collecting and the “culture business” then plays out as a contest. Products “require extreme accomplishments that can be precisely measured.” And in the numerical conversion, all the movements of the individual spirit become degraded and tamed and assimilated to the mass-produced cultural products on offer, which ultimately fail to gratify and perpetuate a spiritual hunger while occluding the resources that might have actually sated it. Pleasure becomes “fun”, thought becomes “information”, desire becomes “curiosity”.

But what could be wrong with curiosity? It seems like it should be an unadulterated good, a way of openly engaging with the world. Adorno, in a feat of rhetorical jujitsu, wants to have us believe it means the opposite. Because it is attuned not to anything more substantive than pop-culture trivia, curiosity “refers constantly to what is preformed, to what others already know.” It is not analytical or synthetic; it simply aggregates. “To be informed about something implies an enforced solidarity with what has already been judged.”

Everything worth knowing about, from a social perspective—anything you might talk about with acquaintances, say—has already been endorsed, is already presented as cool even before anyone had that authentic reaction to it. Cultural product is made with “cool” in mind, whereas authentic cool, from an Adornoesque standpoint anyway, must always be a by-product.

At the same time, curiosity suppresses genuine change, supplanting for it ersatz excitement for cynical repetitions—think of the fashion cycle, in which everything changes on the surface but nothing really changes. “Curiosity is the enemy of the new which is not permitted anyway,” Adorno writes. “It lives off the claim that there cannot be anything new and that what presents itself as new is already predisposed to subsumption on the part of the well-informed.” This means attention to surface details, which prompts “a taboo against inaccurate information, a charge that can be invoked against any thought.” Basically this means that in our cultural climate, your thoughts about, say, Eric Clapton’s guitar playing are invalid unless you know what model guitar he was playing and what studio he was recording in at the time. Trivia is used to silence the “inexpert”.

As a result “the curiosity for information cannot be separated from the opinionated mentality of those who know it all,” Adorno argues. Curiosity is “not concerned with what is known but the fact of knowing it, with having, with knowledge as a possession.” Life becomes a collection of data, and “as facts they are arranged in such a way that they can be grasped as quickly and easily as possible”—in a spreadsheet, for example, or a PowerPoint presentation. These media suit facts as opposed to thoughts, and encourage us to groom our data sheets for completeness and clarity rather than insight. “Wrenched from all context, detached from thought, they are made instantly accessible to an infantile grasp. They may never be broadened or transcended”—the metadata fields are unchangeable—“but like favorite dishes they must obey the rule of identity if they are not to be rejected as false or alien.” Works don’t seek to be understood; they only seek to be identified, tagged, labeled accordingly to make them superficially accessible.

What’s missing amid all the tags and labels and metadata fields is the space for a genuine aesthetic experience, a moment of negativity in which an alternative to what exists, what registers as “realistic” can be conceived. Instead, one feels obliged to keep up with official culture so as to not find oneself an outcast. People go along with what is not necessarily because they love pop culture but because “they know or suspect that this is where they are taught the mores they will surely need as their passport in a monopolized life.”

Pop-culture knowledge becomes a prerequisite for certain social opportunities, a way of signaling one’s normality, or one’s go-along-get-along nature. “Today, anyone incapable of talking in the prescribed fashion, that is of effortlessly reproducing the formulas, conventions and judgments of mass culture as if they were his own, is threatened in his very existence, suspected of being an idiot or an intellectual.”

That seems an exaggerated pronouncement, but when it comes up that someone has never knowingly heard a Coldplay or John Mayer song, or hasn’t seen an episode of American Idol I can find myself thinking, Really? Have you been under a rock? Are you lying? Why this makes me suspicious rather than elated for them, I don’t know. Adorno’s view reminds me of when I was a record reviewer and I tried to pretend there was inherent significance in the commercial output of E.L.O. or the Drive-By Truckers. But at the same time as the information about pop culture proliferates, and we all hold one another accountable for mastering it, we become more ignorant about politics and basic facts about how our economy operates.

The reduction of thought to data allows us to consume culture faster, enhance our throughput, and focus on accumulating more. The idea that you would concentrate on one work and explore it deeply, thoroughly, is negated; more and more, it becomes unthinkable, something it wouldn’t occur to anyone to try. “Curiosity” demands we press on fervently, in search of the next novelty.

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