Sunday, April 5, 2015

Personal Data And The Pixilated Human

            There has been much discussion lately of the accumulation of personal data by Internet companies like Amazon, Facebook and Google. But certainly the invasion of people’s private lives started long before these companies existed.  In the social sciences, people have been doing surveys for a long time, asking people to fill out questionnaires, or interviewing people on the telephone or face-to-face.  And behavioral psychologists have done experiments trying to acquire hard evidence with regard to how people would respond to very specific defined focused circumstances.  What these psychologists have been looking for is scientific evidence in the manner of the hard sciences like physics, chemistry and biology.  Hard rules that could give them an understanding that would allow people to be controlled and manipulated in different situations.  These behavioral psychologists have total contempt for psychodynamic psychologists who built models on more speculative intuitive theories that couldn’t be tested in a more formal scientific way.  For these behavioral psychologists, there were no meaningful truths to be obtained from a more passive observation of people as they freely discuss their feelings and thoughts and live their lives.  Such truths were too fuzzy for them, and these truths were not useful for social engineering.

            Even before the Internet companies, private marketing companies have been doing all kinds of different surveys to discover people’s preferences for different products and services.  There is one company in the United States, Nielsen that attaches a machine to televisions in private homes in order to determine what stations are being watched and at what times.  On the Internet, product preferences based on Internet purchases lead to targeted advertisements being sent to people.

            In the collection of data, we must not leave out the use of government techniques for snooping on telephone calls, e-mails, texts and tweets for purposes of national security.  Sometimes, there is a blending of private and public sources of data, as governments pressure private companies to give up their data in the name of national security.

            Increasingly, there are more and more techniques being used for gathering data without intruding into people’s lives, without making them a part of experiments, and without formally asking them questions in surveys.  So much information can be gleaned from computer and smartphone usage.  But something happens to a person when he gradually is reduced to a bundle or to bundles of data.  Something happens not only in terms of the way he is perceived by the people collecting the data, but also in terms of the way the person perceives himself.

            Collecting data assumes that a person can be reduced to a series of clear cut facts.  The whole point of these defined discrete facts is to eliminate the ambiguity with regard to a person’s life, to perceive a person in a defined job, in defined relationships with defined beliefs, thoughts, hopes, expectations and feelings.  Collecting data converts aspects that are unformed or partly formed, aspects that have fuzzy flowing blendable continual borders, into aspects that are fully formed with defined discrete borders.  A person becomes a series of firm categories: he likes this, he believes that, he wants to be this, he wants to buy that.  He is fully alert, fully conscious, fully congruous with a series of characteristics that are designated about him.

            To the extent that collectors of data act on the definitions that they create of the people under investigation, they act on the knowledge that they gather in order to control their subjects in different ways.  Some collectors, in finding shopping preferences, send advertisements for products that fall into the categories of their subjects’ preferences in order to stimulate purchases.  They want to increase sales by making shopping as frictionless as possible.  Not only is the search for products and services minimized by having them available for purchase on a computer or smartphone screen, but by stimulating only partially formed desires through the promotion of products and services similar to those pursued, the consumer doesn’t even have to go through many mental machinations to formulate his desires for what he might want in the future.  The Internet companies do that for him.  The consumer becomes a bottomless pit that is stuffed with products and services to purchase, much like a goose is stuffed with feed in close quarters in order to make foie gras.  There is certainly a loss in the narrative of the active pursuit of the right product or the right service for the right purpose.

            But the accumulation of data allows an Internet company to think it knows a consumer’s taste.  And by being reduced to these data, it becomes that much more difficult for a consumer to develop new kinds of desires, new tastes based on personal transformation.  It is as if a person can be boxed in by his likes and dislikes. 

In a way it could be said that governments also use their accumulation of data on people in order to box them in.  Governments use their collection of data to find people who might go against the policies that they, the governments, espouse.  Some of these opponents are actually dangerous people that could do real harm to their societies.  Others are peaceful citizens who simply are considering alternative solutions to the problems that the governments are trying to deal with.  Governments that are not democratic frequently perceive the people in the second category to be as threatening to their power as the people in the first category.  Data are used to keep all opponents in line, even people who are simply expressing doubt as to the efficacy of government policies without any really strong adversarial solutions.  Collections of data create strong definition in various aspects of individuals, when often such definition doesn’t really exist in real life.

It is not only that people are boxed in by the uses of data by public and private entities and prevented from easily growing, evolving and transforming in different ways.  By becoming overly defined, by becoming a list of traits and characteristics, a list of desires and beliefs and thoughts and expectations, etc., people become fragmented or, using today’s language, pixilated.  They lose a sense of the coherence of an organic sense of self, a core of who they are at the center of everything.  They become defined discrete data, defined discrete stimuli, bundles of little mental fragments, and lose their connection to the flowing blendable, continual feelings, emotions, ideas and intuitions that bind them together as whole people.

            Today, with our strongly scientific orientation towards knowledge, which correlates with our strong focus on technological innovation, we increasingly see our knowledge of people and things as based only on hard evidence, only on discrete pinpoints of knowledge, only on facts, only on data.  Fuzzy intuitions based on more passive observation, on soft empiricism, just are not taken seriously.  Social sciences like behavioral psychology, sociology and economics try to imitate the hard sciences by developing experiments and statistical studies and try to generate data based on hard numbers.  All this data supposedly helps us to understand and manipulate people in the aggregate, so they can be properly slotted, kept relatively happy and kept relatively trouble-free, so that life in society as a whole can be kept relatively frictionless, free of significant social turmoil and disruption.

            But ultimately, it means treating people as if they were simply social machines, simply robots.  As people see themselves mirrored in the endless streams of data generated by university research groups, by private companies and by government agencies, they experience themselves as bundles of data, as bundles of free-floating figures in a vacuum.  And with fractured pixilated senses of self, they are subject to the kind of manipulation that occurs with machines and robots.  Is this really the kind of life that we humans want to live?


© 2015 Laurence Mesirow




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