By Gordon Hull
Several months ago, I argued here that big data is going to make a big mess of privacy – primarily because of a distinction between “data,” understood as the effluvia of daily life, generated by such activities as moving around town or making phone calls, and “information,” which implies some sort of meaning. Privacy protects the disclosure of “information,” since this can be an intentional act; big data allows surveillance of areas traditionally considered private without any act of disclosure, since the analytic computers will take care of turning the data into information. My standard talking-point here is a recent study of Facebook likes which determined that all sorts of non-trivial correlations could be deduced from what people “like:”
Individual traits and attributes can be predicted to a high degree of accuracy based on records of users Likes …. For example, the best predictors of high intelligence include “Thunderstorms,” “The Colbert Report,” “Science,” and “Curly Fries,” whereas low intelligence was indicated by “Sephora,” “I Love Being A Mom,” “Harley Davidson,” and “Lady Antebellum.” Good predictors of male homosexuality included “No H8 Campaign,” “Mac Cosmetics,” and “Wicked The Musical,” whereas strong predictors of male heterosexuality included “Wu-Tang Clan,” “Shaq,” and “Being Confused After Waking Up From Naps.”
More ominously, likes provided good evidence of basic personality types, which of course means that they can be considered predictive of future behaviors:
For example, users who liked the “Hello Kitty” brand tended to be high on Openness and low on “Conscientiousness,” “Agreeableness,” and “Emotional Stability.” They were also more likely to have Democratic political views and to be of African-American origin, predominantly Christian, and slightly below average age.
I just finished reading a paper by Katherine Hayles (Literature, Duke) that looks at RFID tags and poses some of the same questions, productively I think. Hayles – whose work is cited by folks like Andy Clark (he cites her How We Became Posthuman in his Natural Born Cyborgs; she cites the Cyborgs book in this paper. I think the paper has interesting implications for the extended mind hypothesis, but that’s material for a separate post) – treats the tags as part of the development of the “internet of things,” and looks at the ontological implications for subjectivity that emerge in literary representations of RFID-like technologies. In her words:
While surveillance issues are primarily epistemological (who knows what about whom), the political stakes of an animate environment involve the changed perceptions of human subjectivity in relation to a world of objects that are no longer passive and inert. In this sense RFID is not confined only to epistemological concerns but extends to ontological issues as well” (48)
I think the epistemological/ontological distinction is useful here – and she later says that the epistemological question is where we can and should discuss privacy – because it gets at some of the same sorts of things I was trying to think about in the data/information distinction: namely, that something more fundamental than disclosure of information is at stake. I think Hayles’ formulation of the question as one that changes how we need to think of human subjectivity is particularly useful; the general direction is “Deleuzian,” as she indicates on the last page.
Here, I want to notice just one part of the argument: RFID tags, on her account, exist as both “devices” and “virtual presences,” negotiating this boundary by transmitting data from the world of things to the world of information. As such (what follows is my extrapolation, not her argument, though I don’t think anything I’m saying here disagrees with her in any fundamental way), they are active participants in what one might call the “informatization” of subjectivity: treating subjectivity as primarily informatic, as the product of or constituted by information. The first thing to note about this formula is that it is directly biopolitical, insofar as subjectivity is neither Cartesian (as ultimately generated and guaranteed by something other than the interactions of the material world) nor juridical (in the sense that Locke uses in Essay II.27 against Descartes, and in which Foucault means the term), but instead necessarily an emergent property of the interactions of humans and their environment. This informatization of subjectivity presents a special case of a more general informatization of biology (see this book by Eugene Thacker for the way genomics blurs the biology/informatics distinction; and this one by Nikolas Rose for biopolitical implications); as I’ve argued elsewhere, I think it’s the key to understanding biopolitics more generally.
The second implication is that this formulation allows one way to address the question of resistance and how we might work to ensure that RFID tags are part of a better world and not a worse one. As she suggests, resistance in the epistemological register is reasonably well understood (if not all that effective yet!), but ontologically things are more difficult: “Epistemological issues lend themselves to strategy and tactics (from sophisticated counter-surveillance techniques to brute force methods like smashing RFID tags with a hammer or frying them in a microwave), but how do we understand the ontological effects of animate environments” (49-50). Her reading of Phillip K. Dick’s Ubik convinces her that “capitalism alone … cannot be trusted to bring about salutary results” (65), and she closes by noting that “The idea that meaning and interpretation can occur across and between human and mechanical phyla contributes to an expanded sense of ethics necessary when the contexts for human actions are defined by information-intensive environments and include relational and context-aware technologies such as RFID” (69).
It seems to me that, insofar as RFID chips negotiate the boundary between informatics and objects, and transitions between those, they should be studied as sites for the primitive accumulation of capital. That is, they are places where objects can become subsumed into capitalist market structures, while being dispossessed (following David Harvey's terminology) of whatever value they might have had before. When RFID tags contribute to that process – as when, for example, they are used to produce revenue-generating metadata for large corporations by tracking consumer purchases – is when they ought to be scrutinized most carefully, and their political economy subject to the most careful critique, precisely because it is at these moments that they constitute us as subjects of global capital, or where such constitution needs to be resisted.