Tomorrow I’ll be giving a talk at the Human Futures and Intelligent Machines Summit at Virginia Tech.
Check out the program: http://o-culus.com/wp-content/uploads/2018/06/Human-Futures-and-Intelligent-Machines-Agenda1.pdf and a link to the livestream: https://virginiatech.zoom.us/my/tech4humanity
Here’s an excerpt from an essay, in progress, which includes some of the ideas I’ll share in the talk.
As a scholar, I am less interested in the Internet than I am in emerging cultural and ethical problems presented by data at scale. However, Internet studies is an important stage for my research, as data and the Internet are mutually constitutive. Because critical perspectives on data are welcomed within its scope, I am invested in this field.
An important accomplice to my scholarship is queer theory; specifically, the growing movement toward a “queer Internet studies.” I maintain that queer Internet studies can be used to challenge digital positivism, and that queer theory’s treatment of gender identity in particular is a highly useful tool for scrutinizing the epistemic ground of digital positivism. As the name suggests, “queer Internet studies” deploys queer theory and methodologies in its investigations of the Internet. Per the work of one of its founding figures, Michel Foucault, a major function of queer theory is to reveal the lack of determinacy in the emergence of dominant power structures — in other words, to demonstrate that events which have appeared natural or inevitable were as historically contingent as “unnatural” or “queer” phenomena. A queer perspective on the Internet gives traction to research that subverts or “makes strange” given precepts of digital modernity. Thus queer internet studies can significantly decenter digital positivism.
Of course, “queer” is not just a name applied antecedently to outcomes prescribed by Foucault. Historically, queer studies has focused on subjects relating to gender, sexuality, affect, identity, and related topics. Of these, “identity” is among the more difficult to define: whereas there is some consensus that “sexuality” guides specific desires, what identity means in function and principle is a more intractable riddle. In fact, the persistence of this conflict has itself proven to be a rich site for investigation. Gender and sexuality may partially constitute personal identity, but the difficulty of the project of isolating an essence to identity itself has frequently been both a beginning and terminal point for inquiry.
In the digital world, however, “identity” has at least one unambiguous meaning: it refers to the external markers by which expressed online selfhood is confirmed to be the real you. These are the markers that are “stolen” when identity theft occurs: your name, date of birth, social security number and so on. Put together, they form an image of a human being that has financial value across various platforms, which is why identity theft is a lucrative crime. According to this usage, identity is always and only data. But less instrumental conceptions of “identity” are also finding increasingly greater expression in data. With the rise of personal quantification tools and positivist self-reflections produced by our networked habits, selfhood has never before been understood quite so much a function of metric as it is today. Social media theorist Rob Horning paints an unsettling picture of this in his essay “Sick of Myself:”
As more information about ourselves is captured within Big Data systems by phones,
social media platforms, fitness trackers, facial recognition software, and other forms of surveillance, algorithms assign identity markers to us, place us in categories based on correlations to patterns drawn from massive data sets, regardless of whether these correspond to how we think of ourselves. We become, to an extent, what other people do, as their data contributes to how ours is interpreted. The system will infer our identity, according to categories it defines or invents, and use these to shape our environments and further guide our behavior, sharpen the way we have been classified, and make the data about us denser, deeper. As these positivist systems saturate social existence, they nullify the idea that there is something about identity that can’t be captured as data. (Horning, 2017)
Here, Horning points out that the ineffable parts of identity are not only under siege by information, but that the information which assaults human beings on an individual basis is not actually native to each individual. Rather, a great deal of it issues from statistical means: the data-individual is in part an average derived from varyingly-sourced information that is algorithmically grouped and blended into opaque homogeneity. Here, selfhood is understood as a triangulation from demographic factors that apply to humans en masse. The person reflected is not so much themselves as a representative sample, stripped of the quirks and rough edges that would disturb the smoothness of a statistical normal curve.
For this human simulacrum, philosopher Gilles Deleuze coined the term “dividual.” In his essay “Postscript on Societies of Control,” he writes: “the numerical language of control is made of codes that mark access to information, or reject it. We no longer find ourselves dealing with the mass/individual pair. Individuals have become ‘dividuals,’ and masses, samples, data, markets, or ‘banks’” (Deleuze, 1992). None of the data the compose the Deleuzian dividual exist beyond a network that gives them meaning, a network that averages the information of millions to make of each one a picture with least enough structural coherence to render it cogible to others. Here, the question of identity is answered by equivocation and resemblance-making rather than the proclamation of unique character.
By certain accounts of what is meant by the term “queer,” then, the Deleuzian dividual is already not-queer. In her essay “A Declaration of Psychedelic Studies” — which, like this one, sees in queer theory a possible ally to a developing interdisciplinary field — psychedelic researcher Neşe Devenot interprets a formulation promoted by queer theorist David Halperin to reflect queerness as defined by deviance:
Unlike gay identity, which, though deliberately proclaimed in an act of affirmation, is nonetheless rooted in the positive fact of homosexual object-choice, queer identity need not be grounded in any positive truth or in any stable reality. As the very word implies, “queer” does not name some natural kind or refer to some determinate object; it acquires its meaning from its oppositional relation to the norm. Queer is by definition whatever is at odds with the normal, the legitimate, the dominant. There is nothing in particular to which it necessarily refers. It is an identity without an essence. “Queer,” then, demarcates not a positivity but a positionality vis-à-vis the normative…it describes a horizon of possibility whose precise extent and heterogeneous scope cannot in principle be delimited in advance. (Devenot, 2012)
If “queer” demarcates a positionality as opposed to a positivity, it is always beyond the reach of the reifying operations of data production. Horning’s “Sick of Myself” draws attention to the economic logic that underscores these procedures: the ineffable self as ever-more occluded by data is a product of the capitalist injunction to transform all phenomena into profit. This process begins with reification, or the concrete representation of a transcendent or ineffable entity. Reification may distort or misrepresent its subject, but in this case, faithful representation is beside the point: if an entity cannot take form and shape — if it demonstrates no positive core or essence — it cannot be mobilized as a vehicle for capital. As such, capitalism has no need to acknowledge it.
Following this, if there is indeed an aspect of identity that cannot be expressed in data, drawing attention to this is not in the interest of the largest financial stakeholders of the Web. Amazon, Alphabet, Facebook, Netflix, and similar companies depend on a constant stream of user engagement, out which is derived more potentially profitable information about them. A positivist perspective suggests that this picture is capable of wholly encapsulating its subject, or at least every profitable angle of it. This representable self is the data-self, the self as a function of algorithmic reconstruction. Because the data-self, the dividual, is a useful figure for intervening in data positivism, in/dividual identity is the main conceptual lens through which I mobilize queer Internet studies against digital positivism. This is not to imply that queer identity is the only intellectual antidote to digital positivism. But it is productive for this insofar as identity is both a foundation of Internet business models and a primary concern for queer theory.
Christian Fuchs, Vincent Mosco, Rob Horning and a growing number of like-minded contemporary thinkers question the assumption that more information leads to more truth. This is a bold line of reasoning, and it is necessary to foreground it in Internet studies. Internet research that is founded on the same precepts by which Internet stakeholders conduct business can only hope to make a small amount of room for surface-level cultural and social analyses. In his essay “From digital positivism and administrative big data analytics towards critical digital and social media research!” — exclamation point included in the original title — Fuchs offers a clarion call to scholars who would hope for something more:
We need a paradigm shift from administrative digital positivist big data analytics towards critical social media research. Critical social media research combines critical social media theory, critical digital methods and critical-realist social media research ethics. Challenging big data analytics as the mainstream of digital media studies requires us to think about theoretical (ontological), methodological (epistemological) and ethical dimensions of an alternative paradigm. (Fuchs, 2017)
As he notes, this critical turn must unfold on many fronts, furnishing dynamic opportunities for reflection, inquiry, and transgression. Such scholarship can reveal the current state of the Internet for its precise lack of inevitability, for the fact that Web infrastructure has been appropriated to serve normative ends, and that this was not determined in advance but rather a function of the capitalist telos.