Blight and Mirrors

— Apr 2014

The Greeks knew a thing or two about obsession.

A couple of people I know are at the Data Drama conference this weekend — the host, Liam Young, describes it as a discussion about “the spatial possibilities and consequences of big data and the network”. Ingrid, in particular, has been tweeting up a stream that I suggest following, because I’m just going to riff off of her below.

(These aren’t new ideas nor even better descriptions of existing ones, they just haven’t coalesced for me until now.)

Half the obsession with data (the civic, internet-of-things, quantified-self kind) is the promises of capital-t truth — that the only obstacles are of political will and the right algorithms to extract it.

It doesn’t surprise me that Athena became the patron saint of judges, diplomats, strategists, and planners, recasting her over and over for claims to enlightenment.

But it did surprise me that many writers consider Athena and Medusa to be polar opposites. It’s this tension, that you can’t look directly at the thing, only by proxy of the mirrored shield, that seems especially relevant when talking about digesting raw information into decision-making.

Because calling it a mirror is problematic. It makes data passive, merely an instrument of the laws of physics. This is what the NSA was arguing at its core. But data collection and storage is neither neutral nor something that just happens. Someone decided it’s worth the investment to build a data center.

In the 1950s and 60s, urban blight started being used in conjunction with urban renewal. In hindsight, we can see through the veneer of impartiality in the ways planners identified blight. Robert Moses weaponized his measurements to demolish neighborhoods and disenfranchise the poor, his data did nothing to stop him when his freeways and bypasses made problems worse.

There are numerous issues I have with Jane Jacobs, but her greatest accomplishment was in separating blight from poverty.

Seeing Like A State is helpful as a crash course to understanding the many ways to centralize power. But the central concept of legibility in the book, I find myself using less and less. Legibility works when you talk about things you control and own. You use it for handwriting. When it comes to people, the word you want is representation.

And when you don’t have it, when there isn’t consent, that is surveillance.

I won’t pretend that representation equates to some enlightened state of democracy. (Not to mention that the Athenians’ idea of democracy excluded vast swaths of their society.) But it does sum up these issues I see being raised about who owns this data, who has access to it, and how one can change it.

Because it should not take legal action to challenge being mistakenly added to a no-fly list. And when it takes nine years of pre-trial motions and you’re not allowed to attend the trial, something is horribly, systematically wrong.

Because corporations should not be able to share your information, whether it’s to the government or to third-party advertisers, without first providing you extensive details.

We must stop equating being on private property with waiving all rights to representation and personhood. When you rent an apartment, you gain certain protections against eviction and the invasion of privacy. Your landlord gains certain protections against you endangering others and the building.

It’s long past time we start asking the same for our data.

That’s why I suspect the discussion of how the network (and our data on it) gets represented is important. The cloud is light and diffuse, it’s available to all. It makes claims to access and ownership that are patently false.

If we sublimate away the cloud, we can have far more useful (and interesting!) metaphors. Water is more real in many ways, it has a far richer set of associations: it can be bottled and sold, can be contaminated upstream, it’s part of a larger water table. There are places more prone to drought or flood, it can be dammed and irrigated. It can be hidden.

It’s useful to talk about this stuff in a fanciful way, if only because it distances us. We must travel for perspective, to understand the absurdity of it all.

This is water.

This is water.