The Database of Self

by Rob Horning

1 October 2008

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Bearing all of this in mind, it would seem diligent to regard technology’s encroachments into our private lives with circumspection and skepticism. Because information technology makes so much of our private lives public and because it flattens our experience into a universal code of ones and zeros that threatens to annihilate our sense of its uniqueness, it’s natural and prudent to be ambivalent about IT and the dislocating change it incurs.

But The Numerati, a collection of profiles of mathematician data miners by frequent BusinessWeek contributor Stephen Baker, offers mostly token displays of such ambivalence. The book—whose chapters explore how digitized data about us can be used to make us the target for ads and political appeals, how it can be used to better surveil us at work and capture terrorists (or at least casino cheaters), how it can expose our health issues, and how it can predict the fate of our relationships—is not really for skeptics, though it does take some pains not to cheerlead. The book affords a comprehensive look at the ways in which the digitization of culture has inspired the thorough digitization of human behavior, recognizing both the potential benefits and the detriments.

cover art


Stephen Baker

(Houghton Mifflin)

But Baker tends to regard invasive business practices as inevitable, the inescapable result of increased competition. Companies need to spy on their own customers, the logic goes, in order to know what they will want just in time to provide it to them, maximizing whatever logistical competitive advantage can thereby be derived. “Retailers simply cannot afford to keep herding us blindly through stores and malls, flashing discounts on Pampers to widowers in wheelchairs,” Baker warns in a typical passage. If you are not primarily worried about what companies can or can’t “afford”, the values implicit in the book can become bothersome.

Not all readers will celebrate when a company learns to shed its “barnacle” customers—i.e., the ones that try to keep companies to their word and make them deliver on their promises. Some might not be excited by the news that shopping carts can persuade people to buy more at the supermarket than they otherwise would have. Some won’t cheer the notion that computers can figure out who we vote for based on contextual clues, opening them up to a new slew of fundraising appeals (and possible discrimination).

Baker registers how dehumanizing and awful the world of surveillance and forced digitalization of our lives could turn out to be, but generally the instincts of the business journalist take over, and he tends to present corporate management’s side as the final word—our inevitable fate that we may as well start loving since we are powerless to alter it.

Think of the endless rows of workers threading together electronic cables in a Mexican assembly plant or the thousands of soldiers rushing into machine-gun fire at Verdun—even the blissed out crowd pushing through the turnstiles at a Grateful Dead concert. From management’s point of view, all of us in these scenarios might as well be nameless and faceless. Turning us into simple numbers was what happened in the industrial age. That was yesterday’s story.

The phrase yesterday’s story is enough to tip us off to Baker’s teleological impulses, while his elision of management’s point of view with that destiny, with the end of the story, with the point of view that shapes the story, is characteristic of the book as a whole. It is our fate to become numbers in the eyes of the powers that be, because it suits those powers that we be organized in that much-more-manageable fashion. But Baker would have us believe that history itself is responsible, not the institutions and those who profit by them.

A more fundamental problem lies with Baker’s account of the nature of the data about us. “When it comes to producing data,” he declares, “we are prolific.” This seems an innocuous enough statement, but it’s totally backward. Our behavior is simply our behavior; to us it is lived experience, memory, sense stimuli. It need not compute. So we don’t “produce” the data used to pigeonhole us so much as the technology used by us (or on us) collects our lived experience and transforms it into that data that institutions (corporations, the state) crave.

Technology works to have us reconceive ourselves as numbers, as the sum of datapoints, and then presents its manipulations of that data as the means for our personal extension, even though we are now limited to the field it has defined. “Once they have a bead on our data, they can decode our desires,” Baker notes, but it seems more appropriate to say that they encode it, trapping it in the mediated digital world. Amazon, for example, usefully tells us what we might want based on our behavior, and then buying the books it has suggested begins to seem a way of completing ourselves. The data—the preexisting categories, the defaults, the automated processes incumbent in the systems that capture information—has started to produce us.

The most obvious example of this is social networks, or the even more totalizing Second Life. These data-harvesting applications hope to encourage us to conduct our social lives in their petri dishes and behave in preconditioned ways that service providers can measure and exploit, attaching ads and recommendations to social exchanges that in the real world would transpire with unencumbered spontaneity, with no commercial subtext.

Online, though, our behavior—now transformed into marketing data—suddenly works, to those we “network” with, like a sales pitch—a means to some other end rather than being autonomous. Our actions seems less real until they are posted and shared and processed to our maximum advantage with regard to the impression we would like to create or the number of page views we would like to garner. We can automate our social life or refashion our identities thanks to the tools the social networks provide, but the thrill of lived experience vanishes to a degree, becoming more and more a matter of adjustments on the spreadsheet of self.

Once we have accepted the notion that we are inevitably no more than our data, it’s just a short leap to claim that “the only folks who can make sense of the data we create are crack mathematicians.” In other words, don’t try to understand yourself; you need a math genius to tell you who you are and what you’re meant to do. Statisticians are better managers of our datasets than we are, and they are better able to manipulate our data to see what it will yield—to see what our true possibilities are. Apparently, our own account of our hopes and dreams and intentions is irrelevant to the degree that it is not conditioned by what the math geniuses have calculated and made permissible. Once we are data, we are inscrutable to ourselves.

Not only does our reduction to data make us strangers to ourselves, but Baker goes so far as to opine that in the future, we will be “happy to pay for the privilege of remaining, to some degree or other, in the dark” about the selves that can be constructed from our data. He has in mind the idea that we won’t want to know disconcerting probabilities that we will contract diseases, but plausibly we might wish to opt out of the whole range of knowledge that can be produced about us. When we begin to be overtargeted, we will need filters to discover our authentic reflection in the efforts to persuade us. We will want liberation from the self left behind by the trail we’ve blazed through commercial culture, as that identity is merely the one that shopping permits us to have. Our more integral self will fight that commercially derived one for the social space in which to manifest itself. But the hegemony of consumerism will require us to “pay for that privilege” of being able to conceive an authentic self independent of our data stream.

What can we do to thwart our being converted to data? Baker suggests a can’t-beat-em-join-em approach, urging us to make spreadsheets of our achievements to demonstrate our worth. As digital data hounds become more thoroughly intrusive, we can probably count on the advent of services that would throw out false scents in our name, creating fake data trails to muddy the image of ourselves therein, to obscure our health concerns from insurance companies who would like to have that information in order to exclude us, and to mask our shopping proclivities to ensure that we don’t suffer price discrimination. Just as credit-score doctors learned how to game FICO, a counter-Numerati is sure to emerge to try and thwart their efforts to define us. Short of that, it will increasingly be to our benefit to conduct ourselves anonymously if we want to preserve any sense of self at all.

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