Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Human Barrens: Data and Scale



Data is a type of information that is devoid of sensual, narrative, or experiential qualities. In our (scientific) culture, it is privileged above empirical and embodied forms of knowing.

When it is said: "We live in the age of information" it could equally be said: we live in an age without senses or stories.

We live in the age of the Human Barrens.

There is a forgotten ethics that I will call awareness. Awareness stems from tactile, layered, complex, sensual observation of reality. It is closely related to living, although many people might live with little awareness - especially if they fulfill there innate curiousity through data. Data is the equivalent of empty calories - mass-produced starches and sugars with little nutritive value which nevertheless enable the satisfaction of hungers.

Both empty calories and data stem emerge from the replacement of life with mass-produced simulacra.

In the case of empty calories, real food made from living organisms-- fruits, meat, leaves etc.-- are replaced by manufactured food-- basically factory-produced reductionist compounds-- like high-fructose corn syrup, "flavorings", or refined wheat flour.

In the case of data, real experiences-- tracking an animal, growing a food plant, travel, even fighting-- are being supplanted by "information". Often, the information comes packaged with sensory triggers such as one might encounter in the real world, like vivid colors or sounds. But these are just engaging simulacra, copies brought to life by technology, zombie artifacts of mechanical mimesis.

Why are some aspects of life being replaced with simulacra? The first reason is scale.

The scale of human population of the Earth necessitates structures of social organization that rely heavily on simulacra. Reality is simply to expensive, too time-consuming, too resources intensive-- whether one is talking about subsistence, or education, or even health care.

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Here's a simple story through which to model the effects of scale on information:

Let's say you have a year. You live in a hundred-acre natural area, and your goal is to produce a flora describing all of the plants in your hundred acres of forest and field.

For a year you wander, observe. You feel the cats-tongue scratchiness of elm leaves. You taste the sweet huckleberries and note the satisfying crunch of the large seeds in each berry. You also taste the sweet blueberries, but they are a little more tart, and the seeds are too small to crunch. Sometimes your eyes can't discern the difference between a young black birch and a young black cherry. You learn to rub your fingernail across the smooth bark of a twig. Your nose tells you: wintergreen is black birch, bitter almond is black cherry.

At the end of the year you produce a highly subjective flora, brimming with stories and sensual experiences. You and the land have been drawn close by the thread of a thousand connections.

You have awareness, and the information you have learned has ethical content. It is moral.

Now, here is a counter-story. Let's say you have a year...

You are charged with creating a flora for the entire state you live in. You begin by considering pre-existing models of organization. What methodology for presenting plant species is the most efficient? What ties in best to existing sources of information?

Then, you spend a lot of time in herbaria. You pore over the work of others. The "miracle" of the internet allows you quick access to colleagues, and incredible amounts of data. You store, sort, process, organize, categorize, and present.

At the end of the year, you have a highly objective flora, covering your entire state. It becomes a key reference. It sells many more copies than the book about the hundred acres would. You are universally acknowledged to be a "real expert".

You have exerted control over data. Your knowledge has no particular moral or ethical content.

The stories above are intended to demonstrate that scale drives modes of inquiry, that the same individual operating at similar endeavors but at different scales can end up with a very different kind of information -- and a different sensual and ethical capacity as well.

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Data is quickly accessible, easily organized into hierarchies, rapidly processed. It is targeted, efficient, and often effective at producing an impressive result. It is a wonderful commodity when operating at a large scale.

We have become far more advanced at conducting data than ever before. But, just because we can look up the weather in Bangkok or Guadalajara does not mean we can feel it. Just because we can look up vast lodes of scientific data about life on Earth doesn't mean we know it, can tell stories about it, or are living it.

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