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The Irreducible Strangeness of Being In the Age of Big Data

dphilosopherJan 13, 2020, 4:22:33 PM
...geometries that are themselves constitutive of subjectivity. But, I would argue that much of what actually characterizes everyday life — the creative moments arising out of artful improvisation on the spur of the moment — will still continue to be opaque to systematic surveillance: there will still be ‘strangeness in the commonplace’. It is these performative moments of narrative dissonance that we should be concentrating on. It may therefore... (Nigel Thrift, Non-Representational Theory: Space, Politics, Affect (Routledge, New York, 2007), p.87, my emphasis).

As the minutia of our everyday lives is captured and fed to machines -- used to train algorithms to learn even more about us, and sold as predictive of our future behaviors -- the fact remains that humans are, to some degree, unpredictable. Even if that degree is small, and made smaller by behavioral modification campaigns, the unpredictability at the heart of our humanness cannot be completely done away with, no matter how much data is amassed.  

Take randomness, an analog of unpredictability that is perhaps easier to understand because of its mathematicity. Anyone who has played computer games requiring a machine algorithm to generate a random number (like the roll of a die in Monopoly, or the turn of a card in online poker) knows that it doesn’t actually feel random. This is because machines can only simulate randomness, but this "randomness" doesn't feel random to us. 

In the same way, I don’t believe machines can predict our unpredictability. It’s a bit like trying to disprove a negative — it’s not logically possible. However, it is easier for external interests to influence our future actions if they can convince us, before hand, that they already know what this will be. I think the danger of big data collection and AI is not that machines will get smarter than humans, but that humans become more and more machine-like. 

Our very strength, our human adaptability, is used against us. We may come to feel like we don't own our own selves -- our histories, intentions, or past or future actions. But the other side of this malleability is our irreducible unpredictability. The two go together and cannot be pulled apart. So double down on your own personal sense of the random and unexpected, and keep switching it up.

When you start to feel overwhelmed by the seeming inevitability of algorithmic domination, remember that they are after your behavior patterns, which is not all of you (at least, not yet). Try as they might, they cannot touch who you really are, in an existential, futural sense. 

Even when they tell you that they know you better than you can know yourself because they remember perfectly what you were doing a year ago, or ten years ago, know that they don't remember or imagine it like you do. Remembering is a narrative and creative process that enlists non-linear modes of temporality. Zeros and ones cannot touch this you. 

They may ‘know’ and capture traces of data that you have left behind in the wake of your existence, but only you -- fabulously, singular you -- can embody that experience.


Cover photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash