Data Humanization, Epistemology, and Mystification

On Lightbeam and The Circle

Video: ReForm | Data Becomes Art in Immersive Visualizations

            This 12-minute video about the emergence of “data humanization” and data art was clarifying for me in terms of understanding Lightbeam and The Circle. Terms that stuck out to me were “anxiety” and “intimacy;” From our discussion in class, a main takeaway from the Lightbeam experiment was the disquieting lack of control we have over where our data goes, even with the comforting anonymity and freedom of using the internet. The aestheticized terms that this video utilizes were illuminating for my literarily-oriented brain—Kate Crawford even calls to mind both the sublime and the uncanny, claiming that a dimension of data art is creating “something once familiar becoming strange.” With data humanization projects—like Lightbeam, PastPerfect, and the art featured in the video—attempting to ground the technical into the human, the emotional, the tangible, I’m left questioning what kinds of cultural values this impulse (to humanize data, and to data-fy humans) prioritizes. I think that in Transmission there was a focus on speed, lightness, modernity, and money as being the motivation, but thinking comparatively, I don’t think I would say the same for The Circle. Instead, I’d offer that The Circle is more thematically and symbolically concerned with representation, totality, social conditioning, perfection, and of course, transparency.

            Attached to this anxiety of transparency is, I think, the question of epistemology—the nature of knowledge, or how we know what we know. With Lightbeam, self-doxxing, and the anxiety that came with performing these investigations, my recurring thought was, what am I supposed to do with this information?  What has it taught me? I think that this applies to (to make a generalization) the cultural obsession with self-evaluation and data in general, whether through exercises like these, through online surveys, through follower-counting, Tinder match-message-meeting ratios, ad infinitum. In these masochistic practices, there is a fixation with omniscience and with pattern-seeking, but an anxiety over the inability (or at least, limited ability) to do anything about the numbers we confront. Despite the anxiety that this power deficit creates, people like Mae still compulsively participate in data culture, collection, and production. Data humanization, as an aesthetic project, seems to perform a deconstructionist or post-structural (I can’t decide which) mystification of data, complicating and questioning the supposed revelations and truths of statistics rather than, to evoke Derrida, privileging them.

image: from Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec’s data humanization project, Dear Data (2016)

Leela & Biocommunism as a denial of precariat alienation

With his (fifth) designation of the Marx’s ‘global worker’ as ‘precarious in its conditions, with a chronic insecurity underpinned by capital’s access to a transconinental reserve army of the unemployed, a surplus population whose task it is to survive in a state of readiness for work,’ Dyers-Witheford evokes Guy Standing’s theory of the precariat, the perpetually insecure class of laborers who possess the least amount of econmic, social, and political capital. Arjun most certainly can be prescribed with the “precariat” label, especially as Kunzru emphasizes the motif of mobility both “sublime” and, as Arjun experiences, “other,” a kind of forced, nomadic, oppressive mobility that affords him no room for comfort or rest. Dyers-Witheford later states that digital products “depend on the incessant repositing of cheap degraded labour,” and this phenomenon can be seen in Transmission when Arjun is terminated from his position at Virugenix, disposable, inessential, and ultimately replaceable.

In protest of his dismissal, Arjun then embarks on (an iteration of) what Dyers-Witheford calls “the capture of the strange planet,” an “intensification of tendencies to socialization implicit in the new forces of production and destruction — something we might call a biocomunism.” Creating the Leela virus, Arjun puts forth this “production and destruction,” anarchically and indiscriminately taking down technological corporations while also producing a demand for his unique digital labor. With this act of creating the virus, Arjun attempts to deny precariousness and regain control of his Dyers-Withefordian ‘species-becoming,’ his socio-economical-historical designation.

When watching Pickup on South Street with particular attention to possible Neuromancer connections/comparisons, the notion of conventional plot denouement remained in my mind. So much of Neuromancer revolves around the question of whether it is possible to return to an equilibrium, where every person, place, and thing is where it ought to be, and where it came from in the first place. Case’s ultimate objective is to be “happy” the way he once was, whether through Molly, Linda, drugs, or hacking, and in the epilogue, he seems to have achieved a balance that allows him to live comfortably with himself. Neuromancer and Wintermute achieve singularity, with Case explaining, “Wintermute had won, had meshed somehow with Neuromancer and become something else, something that had spoken to them from the platinum head, explaining that it had altered the Turing records, erasing all evidence of their crime” (268). Even Linda, who had been murdered in Chiba City, has her own shot at happiness in an alternate reality where she and Case remain a couple. All appears to be right with the world.

While the ending remains somewhat ambiguous in Pickup on South Street, there still is an implication that Skip has renounced his days as a pick-pocketing thug, and that he and Candy will begin anew. Alternatively, Skip and Candy could join forces as both lovers and partners-in-crime–the film’s final lines leave this unclear. In either case, Skip turns his back on his initial ideologies: being a loner, being distrustful (of “commies” like Candy, especially), and doing the thing that he is skilled at—pickpocketing. With this, and with Pickup on South Street’s sentimental ending (which is perhaps in line with the Noir genre), the suspiciously harmonious ending of Neuromancer made some contextual sense, given its other paradigmatic homages to noir, but still, it feels as though the high stakes of the novel become undermined by the conveniently benign convergence of Wintermute and Neuromancer, and the fate of Case, Linda, and Molly.

Cyber-hybridity (Cybridity)

“Two particular sorts of tropes inform the narrative’s manipulation of technology.  The first is an SF topos, a pattern of tropological displacement common since Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (1818): a neat reversal of the natural/artificial opposition.  In Neuromancer all natural/artificial images are reversed from their conventional priority: techne now precedes physis” Neil Easterbrook, “The Arc of Our Destruction: Reversal and Erasure in Cyberpunk.” SFStudies Vol. 19 (1992).


Molly’s next body modification.


I think that in Neuromancer, Gibson incorporates more hybridity than Easterbrook gives him credit for. In class, we made the distinction between the “meat” and the “tofu,” the organic and the manipulated, the raw and the cooked, citing various examples from the text paying particular attention to bodies in Neuromancer. In doing so, we found that Gibson does not merely reverse the natural/artificial as Easterbrook posits, but instead hybridizes them, illustrating a blurring of these boundaries that takes place in the advent of immersive, invasive technology. For example, with regards to Case’s dependence on the matrix to feel whole and human, Gibson is not posing total reversal of conventions about techne and physis, but rather he illustrates a kind of synthesis (or even mutation), rather than a precedence. In Neuromancer, the natural and artificial hybridize, which perhaps offers more dangerous and intricate complications about how/if we can recover or return from this mutated state.


The New New Frontier

“The lights shined like a neon show,
Inserted deep felt a warmer glow,
No place to stop, no place to go,
No time to lose, had to keep on going,
I guessed they died some time ago.”

Joy Division, Interzone

When Gibson coins and uses the phrase “console cowboy” to describe Case in his glory days as a hacker, he naturally begs a comparison to our notions of the American old west. Evoking images of the Lone Ranger and Clint Eastwood, Gibson paints his protagonist as a kind of noble outlaw, a troubled loner who explores a foreign terrain under his own terms while existing on the fringes of society. To this end, Neuromancer’s portrayal of the hacker follows the archetype that we began to flesh out in class: Case is nomadic, solitary, anti-social, morally questionable, a kind of anti-hero for the digital age. Even in his descriptions of performing “the hack,” Gibson evokes the hacker-work ethic outlined in The Hacker Ethic—at the opening of chapter 3, with addressing the reader in second person, Neuromancer reflects Hinanmen’s characterization of hacking as a joyous, playful, challenging enterprise:  “Your map is about to go nova. Cool it down. Up your scale. Each pixel a million megabytes. At a hundred million mega-bytes per second, you begin to make out certain blocks in midtown Manhattan, outlines of hundred-year-old industrial parks ringing the old core Atlanta” (43). Gibson portrays hacking as something exalting, to the point where true hackers like Case find life somewhat challenging, even meaningless, without it.

With characterizing hackers as a kind of cowboy for the modern day, Gibson implicitly and simultaneously characterizes cyberspace, or “the matrix,” as the new new frontier. In contrast to  BAMA (The Sprawl) and Chiba City, two high-tech, fast-paced, gritty metropolitan environments that are heavily “colonized” and saturated with humanity, the matrix remains enigmatic with much to be explored and, perhaps, exploited. Wark describes the hacker as alway seeing “a surplus of possibility expressed in what is actual, the surplus of the virtual.” In Neuromancer, this infinite possibility and suspicion with representation of “the real” manifests in Case and co.’s confrontations with the enigmatic matrix.The hacker in Gibson’s novel seems, so far, fairly archetypal next to comparable figures like Edward Snowden, Mr. Robot’s Elliot Anderson, and Lisbeth Salander. His portrayal of the hacking frontier, however, poses challenging questions about their world, and about the possibility that cyberspace is the last true beacon of possibility and freedom in a hyper-advanced, hyper-optimized world.