What remains? The way we save ourselves

by Marloes de Valk

When it was announced that the Library contained all books, the first reaction was unbounded joy. All men felt themselves the possessors of an intact and secret treasure.1

Never before in history have we been able to record ourselves in such great detail. A couple of photo albums and a box with old letters have turned into a continuous stream of descriptions of our lives through an ever expanding amount of photos and messages on social media as well as on our mobile devices. On those devices there is a plethora of apps available that try to generate meaning out of personal data. “Self knowledge through numbers”2, the Quantified Self. What started in the nineties in the livecast scene with Steve Mann’s Wearable Wireless Webcam and the Jennicam, a 24/7 recording and broadcasting of the life of Jennifer Ringley by Jennifer Ringley, has now become a lifestyle for the masses. Where does this need to record and document ourselves come from? It seems as if we’re suffering from an existential fear, that if we don’t save as much of ourselves as possible, all this precious information revealing truths about us, giving meaning to our existence, will be lost. Can we, by becoming our own Big Brother, reach a deeper understanding of ourselves, become better people, as suggested by the Quantified Self movement?

Our hunger for information started with the shift in meaning of the word information itself3. Information used to mean nothing more than a short statement of fact, such as a number, date or place. Nothing so special you would name an age or type of economy after. In the 1950s this changed with the advent of cybernetics, the study of feedback in self-regulating closed systems, where information was seen as the means to control a system, any system, be it mechanical, physical, biological, cognitive or social. Wiener, a mathematician and father of this then new field of research, stated “To live effectively, is to live with adequate information. Thus, communication and control belong to the essence of man’s inner life, even as they belong to his life in society”4, and only ten years later, in 1958, Artificial Intelligence researchers Simon and Newell wrote “the programmed computer and human problem solver are both species belonging to the genus ‘Information Processing System’”5 skyrocketing the value of both information and computers to a mythical height, implying both are able to bring us closer to the secret of human consciousness. In the seventies it was granted an even more powerful status, that of commodity. AT&T said it best: “Like it or not, information has finally surpassed material goods as our basic resource”6. Bon apetit.

So here we are, more than half a century later, generating a deluge of digital information, the new gold. In fear of a digital dark age we cling to it while leaking it out of every port of our computer. How do we protect the object of our passion from being lost to the mists of time? We make back-ups and pray the Cloud will protect us, for we believe to risk more than losing our family pictures, we believe we could lose the chance to better understand ourselves, our society, even life itself.

Is this fear grounded? Besides the question of whether there is anything of value to be found, is it hard to save digital data truly long term? We face quite a few obstacles. The main problem is that data, even though it has a very immaterial ring to it, needs a physical carrier, and this carrier has a limited lifespan. Even though it feels as if we’ve made incredible technological advances in the past seventy years, we still struggle to find reliable carriers. Another obstacle is obsolescence, both when it comes to hard- and software. To maximize profits the industry has set a rapid pace for updates. Both the machines that host, the software that is used to create and the formats to save the data are replaced. Which brings us to the economic factor … storing data is not cheap. It involves more than updating and maintaining hardware, you also have to keep the data retrievable, and when it comes to large data sets this requires two pricey things: manpower and considerable amounts of electricity.

How do you save data that is part of an ever changing and dynamic environment such as the Internet? It supposedly never forgets, but take for example the data on a social media platform: it is highly context dependent and its survival relies solely on the lifespan of the company owning the data and on its policies regarding the archiving and publication of its content. This hints towards the legal problems surrounding data storage. Who owns it and therefore has control over it? Most social media platforms, for example, have no legal obligation towards their users, and have complete ownership of the data users provide them with. And if it didn’t prove to be enough of a challenge to overcome all these obstacles, there is the issue of data proliferation: the shear amount of data we’re trying to save is absolutely phenomenal and ever increasing.

We’re obsessed. Our data bodies morbidly obese. Metaphors like the cloud promise infinite liposuction, delegating the storage of our excesses to what seems like outer space. It feels as if there is no need to be selective, storage space seems limitless to individuals, we are offered free storage just about everywhere, at no cost. And in the end, most of us trust there will be a technological solution offered to solve the aforementioned issues. Perhaps our indifference is in part influenced by the way we describe technology. Putting your data in the Cloud sounds like a perfect solution, it has beautiful connotations: safe, clean, lightweight, natural. The Cloud metaphor hides the uglier and riskier reality of data centers filled with energy-consuming, heat-producing, maintenance-hungry servers. Other metaphors, such as Data mining and Data streams, compare data to naturally occurring physical resources, seemingly inexhaustible and ready for exploitation in the name of economic growth and private gain. They mask the human aspect of it, the fact that most of it is personal, something we would be more hesitant to have exploited.7 Other metaphors, such as open data and software transparency have strong connotations of trust. If everything is open and transparent, everyone will behave honestly. But the sheer amount of online scams show transparency is no guarantee, hiding in plain sight is easy in an environment where real and fake are indistinguishable. The Cloud, data mining, transparency and openness, these metaphors hide the darker effects of our obsession: the privacy we’ve lost, but also the fact that information is not immaterial, the waste we produce, the electricity that is consumed all have a real impact.

Our connected and information-hungry lifestyles feel as clean as the design of our latest gadget, but that is only because we export many of the dirtier sides of it to the less privileged parts of the world, where labor is cheap and there is limited regulatory oversight into health, safety and environmental impact. Near Baotou in China, for instance, the effects are clearly visible and took the shape of an artificial toxic lake of black sludge, the result of mining to create our tech gadgets.8 China is also home to one of the largest dumps of e-waste in the world, which not coincidentally is also one of the most polluted places on earth: Guiyu. Despite strict regulations, loopholes have been found and illegal dumping of e-waste in countries such as Ghana and China is still happening under the guise of aid or second hand goods. In 2010 as much as 75% of the 8.7 million tons of e-waste generated in the EU could not be accounted for, despite regulations. In the US the figure is said to have been about 80%.9 Only because we’re running out of certain metals and mining them becomes increasingly costly, have we begun to recycle old hardware in the developed world. Initiatives like “Closing The Loop” are buying and recycling old mobile phones from the countries we previously used as a dump. After decades of poisoning, we are back at mining for gold, perhaps diminishing pollution, but keeping the economic inequality intact. From poor working conditions in electronics manufacturing plants and e-waste pollution to energy-hungry server farms and our loss of privacy, the disastrous effects of our lifestyles can be felt on so many levels it hurts to think about it, and that is probably why we don’t.

We consume information at high speed but forget even faster, repeating the same behavior as if the news has been overwritten with Internet memes and enhanced photos of our latest attempt at cooking. The real treasures in this tsunami of data are the ones that give us a chance to see past tomorrow, to see the long term consequences of our choices, the big picture. But all that most of us can still distinguish is noise. Future historians can go in search for the big ideas of our time inside what is left of the machines we’ve build to keep our treasure. They might analyze what is left of the data we’ve produced. One idea of our time will surely remain, our information fetishism.

Marloes de Valk (NL) is a software artist and writer in the post-despair stage of coping with the threat of global warming and being spied on by the devices surrounding her. Surprised by the obsessive dedication with which we, even post-Snowden, share intimate details about ourselves to an often not too clearly defined group of others, astounded by the deafening noise we generate while socializing with the technology around us, she is looking to better understand why.

Research Team "Times of Waste": TIMES OF WASTE
  1. Borges, Jorge Luis: Fictions, Penguin Books, London, 2000. p.69
  2. The Quantified Self is an international collaboration of users and makers of self-tracking tools.
  3. Theodore Roszak, “Information, please”, in The Cult of Information: The Folklore of Computers and the True Art of Thinking, (New York: Pantheon Books, 1986), pp. 3-20.
  4. Wiener, Norbert: The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Houghto Mifflin, Boston, 1950. p.17
  5. Weizenbaum, Joseph: Computer Power and Human Reason, W.H. Freeman, San Francisco, 1976. p.169
  6. AT&T advertisement in Kiplinger’s Personal Finance, October 1985, p.33.
  7. Tim Hwang and Karen Levy, “'The Cloud' and Other Dangerous Metaphors, Contemporary ideas about data and privacy are tied up inextricably with language choices”, The Atlantic, January 20, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2015/01/thecloudandotherdangerousmetaphors/384518.
  8. Tim Maughan, “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust”, BBC Future, April 2, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/future/story/20150402theworstplaceonearth.
  9. Orisakwe, Orish Ebere and Frazzoli, Chiara: Electronic revolution and electronic wasteland: The West/waste Africa experience, 2010. p.45