Society Must Be Defragmented: Data Shadows and Computational Life

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2022

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Abstract

It is difficult to remember and perhaps harder to imagine that, once upon a time, a person with no prior experience could build a webpage in a couple of afternoons. Today, due to increasing interactivity and dynamism, building out things on the web is the domain of professionals and committed enthusiasts. As people who make use of the internet, we are distanced from a technology that supposedly democratized truth while we are simultaneously permeated by its fantastic lies. If parsing and arbitrating truth must take place prior to interface, but interface remains intrinsic to everyday life, then a need develops for interpretation before the interaction. It isn’t enough to know what is said, the meaning must be known as well. As more people are more reliant on platforms controlled by distant experts, these same experts become an organic choice for the authority to judge meaning. As with the development of the web, this complex task of arbitration is deferred to machines, even if there are only ever people on the other side of judgment. With this in mind, it is easier to see how power only slightly altered from prior forms emerges in an entirely new and permanently dynamic environment like the internet. This project is an exploration of the rationality behind such power, an apparatus which I am calling datafication. I argue that we can begin to understand datafication by way of comparison between the initial investment in data as utopian extensions of the self during the 80s and 90s and data’s value for data-industries over the first two decades of the 2000s. This trajectory marks the most crucial shift from our early hopes about data to our late frustrations. Initially operationalized through internet users and further leveraged through digital platforms, datafication is, in simple terms, a sum of monetization schemes by tech companies meant to derive profit from data they have accrued as a persistent yet incidental byproduct of their business. I will illustrate this regime of power through subsequent case studies of a period of emergence, of experimentation, and ultimately, mastery. Through case studies of the dot-com bubble, the Boston Marathon Bombing, and the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica Scandal, I look at datafication as the model for power relations from the late 20th century through today and as the business of the internet. These exemplar cases show the ways in which datafication is articulated with everyday life. This project describes the regime of power that functions through datafication in order to locate how it started, why it happened, and the ways in which it continues to function. Crystallizations of key moments make visible important kinds of changes that increase the efficacy of datafication over time. First in the economy, next in policing and the surveillance state, and finally in politics and social operations. Fully rendered, these three facets of datafication will reveal its presence at the very beginning of digitalization, then its emergence from, and eventual operation in excess of, this continuous technological substrate. To clarify the historical change, we need to see digitalization and datafication as bound through time, as a continuous colonization of the space of everyday life. My project argues that the former is the technical infrastructure, while the latter allows the social, political, and technical operationality of a regime of power. The one is always happening with and through the other, but over time one becomes more important, superseding its infrastructure in consequential ways. Regimes of power, in the historical contextualization that I will provide, are exercised and expressed in economic terms, in state surveillance terms, and in political-ideological terms which are often not explicit. The project will thus provide a genealogical account by describing how both digitalization and datafication relate to one another using the three case studies.

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Power, Lucas (2022). Society Must Be Defragmented: Data Shadows and Computational Life. Dissertation, Duke University. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10161/25264.

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