It’s been an interesting few days since I read- and loved- the first draft of my ghost-written fictional memoir. Based on data profiles collected by, or with the help of, various professionals in the fields of data mining, digital privacy, text analysis and cyber security, the writer has also done his own research into my online life and written it into a pretty dark, sci-fi inflected narrative.
It shifts between his writing, whole sections lifted from my blogs, artist’s interviews and projects like #winning (a kind of covert-but-public autobiography thru the medium of prize competitions) plus quotations I’ve posted on my tumblr, to create a weirdly accurate account of one version of my data self.
Its effect on me was unexpectedly intense, like reading my own obituary. My hands were shaking in excitement borne of recognition but also fear, like ‘oh fuck- this person, who I don’t know, has understood something about me… and I’m not sure it’s entirely flattering’. A bit like doing a personality test only to discover you don’t like its assessments and then doing it all over again with different answers. Except I’m not doing it again, and I think it’s great.
Speaking of pointless personality tests, Facebook is currently an orgy of quizzes allowing you to nail your character to some daft metric. While this is just ‘harmless fun’ (and a bit of data collection on FB’s part) it echoes a broader cultural interest in profile analytics of all stripes, many of which, like Wolfram Alpha, SocialBro, Sprout Social and SP-index, I used in the data collection phase of this project.
They satisfy a desire to know yourself through your data, to have it reveal the patterns that you weren’t even aware of (like who your top Facebook commenter or ‘social insiders’ are, or your Twitter wordcloud or demographics) and through that, to deduce certain things about your life (she’s not really my friend! or- in my case- I say thanks too much).
Self-knowledge through numbers also happens to be the slogan of the Quantified Self movement, for whom seemingly random bits of data can add up to a meaningful portrait, allowing you to change niggling character flaws; I think apps geared towards data capture are examples of what Steven Poole calls ‘self-help technologies’. However, apart from apps/ devices (Nike Fuel band etc) hooked up to biometric data like heart rate, the QS ethos depends on the user entering the info themselves, which in my experience means cheating, lying or forgetting…and then feeling guilty about it (hello Mindful Eating app). In contrast, digital footprints and social media data accumulated over years capture both self-conscious and un-self-observed (not a word) behaviours, including things written, clicked and liked without much premeditation- not to mention stuff you were too inebriated to even remember doing.
they don’t think much of you…
The increased use of data profiles also taps into the social aspect of all personality tests- it’s not just how you see you, but how they see you compared to an average that’s fascinating: how you come across to others, compared to others. Wanting to know what others ‘really’ think of us beyond surface social codes of civility, or wanting to work out one’s place in the social pecking order is obviously nothing new. But, in an increasingly technologically augmented world this anxiety intersects with the knowledge of being observed by both human and non-human ‘others’ who may be scanning our data and behaviours without contextual info to justify it. (e.g. coincidentally using a string of trigger words in your emails and being arrested- even if this technically can’t happen, following NSA revelations it’s already part of the popular imagination). Data profiles tap into a desire to discover our algorithmic identity, bringing to mind Boris Groys’ notion of performing to an algorithmic gaze. But they may also acclimatise us to the concept of ubiquitous, ambient surveillance, encouraging us to accept that since it’s already happening, we might as well find out for ourselves what it is ‘they’ see.
nobody cares very much
All this ruminating tells me that I really do feel exposed- kind of rare for me- which is probably why I had a minor meltdown after reading it. When I bumped into the writer over the weekend I realised how vulnerable I felt, like he knew things about me that other people- strangers- weren’t supposed to know… why the fuck had I entrusted this dude with ‘representing’ me? This is just being paranoid, since almost all this ‘stuff’ is out there already, but usually nobody gives enuf of a shit to piece it together, to draw out the threads linking offhand tweets, Facebook comments and tumblr posts. Not even your bestest buddies know, follow or care about ALL your online activity; there’s always one arena that they’re not plugged into, or less frequently interact with.
all this will be over one day
And no matter how prolifically you post, stuff normally just gets lost in the flow without coalescing into any sort of coherent object, in the way a text, especially once published, does. Kenneth Goldsmith’s Printing out the Internet project comes to mind here, and its resemblance to, as Orit Gat points out, new services like My Social Book (basically a book of your Facebook life) which, despite their chirpy rhetoric, foreground concerns raised when corporations are entrusted with our personal archives.
As she says, “The internet is constantly shifting; will your memories—in the form of writing, images, or anything else—survive the demise of the sites that host them?” Printing out a freeze-frame of your Facebook life for posterity means you’ll have something to show your grandkids when these platforms are but a distant memory. Which sounds cute, but as she points out these services feed off anxieties about the future of our data selves without encouraging users to question the ways this info is being stored and monetized, and by whom, right now.
templates are so average
So, I’m similarly committing a moment of my digital footprint and archive to actual print. But instead of using some shitty off-the-peg service, aggregating the data off Facebook or Instagram into a generic template, with this project I’m going one ‘better’: instead of getting an algorithm to ‘read’ me, I got a real life person! How’s that for a bespoke, customized service?
But, unlike these services and cheesy Facebook videos which focus entirely on our greatest hits of affective affirmation, this real person hasn’t painted an amazingly sympathetic view of me; which is partly what makes it effective as a text (spoiler alert, it’s not terribly negative either). [also, this on Transitioning in the Digital Age by Jessica Lachenal, why not everyone wants to Look Back over their archive- especially not publicly] And obvs it’s really tempting to edit, although I don’t want to control the narrative too much, or try to manipulate the content (like, why didn’t he put more stuff about meditation in? why does he pick up on stories about my mum, but not my dad?) or do vanity editing.
i eat my tail
Of course even what I’m writing now has this function, since I’m framing the project and discussing my expectations to a public and thereby preempting the book’s reception in some way. And this public obviously includes him, since he is probably, given the nature of the project, going to read this too; so, I could start surreptitiously pruning my posts and tweets, trying to influence the remainder of the text and wresting the story back under my control. Or I guess I’ll just have a conversation with him- after all, this is my book…isn’t it?! Our talk at the book launch is going to be fun, I can tell.
Before I fall into what Katherine Hayles calls the infinite regress of reflexivity, a quote from her amazing book, How We Became Posthuman to end: “once the observer is made a part of the picture, cracks in the frame radiate outward until the perspectives that controlled context are fractured as irretrievably as a safety-glass windshield hit by a large rock.”
Wish me luck.