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Below is Part 3 of the essay/feature "Data Culture" from ARCADE's spring 2015 issue. The essay is releasing online in installments. Read Part 1 and Part 2Subscribe to our e-newsletter and follow us on Facebook and Twitter for notice of future posts.—ARCADE

sanctum

James Coupe and Juan Pampin's installation at the Henry Art Gallery, Sanctum (2013–2015), leads viewers to question the effects of constant surveillance and the impact of personal information becoming public. Courtesy of RJ Sánchez | Solstream Studios.

 

From "Data Culture: Part 1: Introduction" and "Part 2: The Quantification of Society":

"Data is on the ascent. In particular, the last decade has seen the dramatic rise of data in society. There is more digital information in the world than ever before, and we create more every day. Along with the exponential increase in computer processing power, the Internet’s explosive growth is fueling this new age of information, making it ever easier to collect and share data. As a result, quantification is infiltrating seemingly all corners of the world. Things that have never been measured before are now being converted into data, including aspects of life as amorphous as our personal relationships.

We are in the midst of a paradigm shift. Data’s rise and the effects of quantification are profoundly impacting our communities and our lives. ...

Four developments in particular characterize our current data-driven climate [big data, data journalism, social media and the Quantified Self]...."

 

Part 3: The Cost of Data

It is hard to recall any other time in history when we have been this infatuated with information and numbers. But with all the ways we capture and access new troves of data, are we becoming more knowledgeable? Or are we just processing more noninformation in search of insights that are increasingly hard to come by? Does data help us connect more with who we are as a society, or is it pulling us further apart?

While we may exuberantly welcome data’s rise for the unprecedented possibilities it brings, our new data-fueled culture is also causing psychological discomfort and societal friction. In many respects, information technology is advancing faster than society can keep up.

INFORMATION ANXIETY

Humans innately pursue knowledge. Curiosity is in our DNA. From our earliest days as children exploring our surroundings, we spend our lives building an understanding of what’s around us. And yet, as we strive to understand, our world is growing increasingly complex, and its complexity is rapidly outpacing our capacity to comprehend it.

In his 1989 book, Information Anxiety, Richard Saul Wurman, founder of the TED conference, wrote: “Information anxiety is produced by the ever-widening gap between what we understand and what we think we should understand.” Today, information overload and information anxiety are realities of contemporary life, due largely to the prevalence of the Internet. Search engines like Google have played the biggest role in connecting us to its seemingly never-ending stream of information, but while Google’s PageRank algorithm is getting better and better at interpreting our queries, the quality of online material we encounter is as varied as ever. With such a sheer volume of information at our fingertips, it’s increasingly difficult to separate signal from noise. As Wurman points out in a Scenario Journal article, “Information Anxiety: Towards Understanding,” information anxiety is based not on too much information but, rather, too much
noninformation, which in turn is leading to increasing friction in our lives.

SOCIAL DISTANCING

Most would agree that social media has had empowering effects for individuals. For many, however, social media also causes or increases anxiety. As journalist Alissa Quart reports in the PBS Frontline episode “From Gen X to Z: Teens and the New Cool,” an attachment to numbers and statistics is producing increasing competition for social media followers and friends, particularly among teenagers. Rivalry based on these new, astronomically high standards of popularity can quickly lead to anxiety as people strive to improve their rankings. Furthermore, Quart asks, in the quest to amp up their numbers of Facebook friends, are teens losing the understanding of what a friend really is?

Studies have also found that social media can actually make us lonelier. In the Atlantic article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” Stephen Marche quotes MIT computer science professor Sherry Turkle: “The ties we form through the Internet are not, in the end, the ties that bind. But they are the ties that preoccupy.” According to Marche, Facebook use is correlated with a rise in narcissism — the flipside of loneliness. In all of our efforts surrounding self-presentation, are we losing the capacity to form meaningful connections with others? 

LOSS OF PRIVACY

Privacy is another area of friction created by the rise of data, growing in importance every day. With its 1.62 billion users, Facebook is becoming increasingly valuable to marketers. Because of the information contained in people’s profiles and the content with which they engage, social media can target specific demographics better than other forms of online advertising. Similarly, as suggested by the 2014 Symantec study “How Safe Is Your Quantified Self?,” businesses, marketers and governments alike would find data from self-tracking quite valuable. 

This raises questions about the privacy of personal information, a growing concern among Americans. As the Whitney Museum of Art’s director of digital media, Sarah Hromack, points out in the frieze article “Safety in Numbers?,” we are increasingly allowing ourselves to be defined by data due to our willingness to disclose personal information online. As a result, personal data can be used as a source of power and control. This is confirmed by the evidence published on WikiLeaks and through classified documents provided to the media in 2013 by former US National Security Agency (NSA) contractor Edward Snowden; among other things, the documents Snowden leaked showed that the NSA was collecting millions of email addresses and searching email content, as well as tracking cell phone usage and locations globally.

As reported by Dominic Rushe in the Gaurdian, Apple CEO Tim Cook warned about the consequences of giving up our privacy at the recent Summit on Cybersecurity and Consumer Protection in Palo Alto:

We still live in a world where all people are not treated equally. Too many people do not feel free to practice their religion or express their opinion or love who they choose. [We live in a] world in which [the protection of] that information can make a difference between life and death. If those of us in positions of responsibility fail to do everything in our power to protect the right of privacy, we risk something far more valuable than money. We risk our way of life.

The loss of privacy is one of the largest threats and sources of friction we face in our increasingly data-driven society.

 

"Data Culture: Part 4: The Art and Impact of Data" will release 2 June 2015.

"The rise of data is disrupting the core of our society, impacting us deeply as both individuals and members of communities. Throughout history, frictions created as societies undergo change have spurred innovative responses in the arts. ..."

 

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Data Culture

Photo: Cole Benson