Welcome to the shitshow

by | 27 May 2022

‘Next time you go to the bathroom, there’s a reasonable chance the person in the cubicle next to you is scrolling through Instagram’, reported HuffPost in 2017.  Equally, Wired describe a very near future, in which ‘sensors might be embedded in your toilet bowl. They are connected to an IP enabled WiFi device (much like a Nest thermostat) on the back of the toilet. You might use batteries or it could be hardwired into the house wiring for power. It can connect to an app on your tablet, SmartPhone or laptop/desktop as part of your Personal Health Management System (PHMS) which may be set to relay certain data to your doctors office.’  Both stories remind us that data is a daily excretion composed of body with environment (personal with non-personal data).  This article follows up on themes discussed at the Technologies of the Object panel at the Law, Technology, and the Human conference, hosted by the University of Kent Law School in April 2022.   

Like sludge (refined sewage), data excretions provoke, what I refer to here as, hygiene processes to manage storage, cleansing, and refinement, and increasingly realise value (Hope, 2016).  As a result, like Donna Haraway’s compost heaps, data servers radiate more heat as the storage of petabytes of personal data “piles-up” (see also, Franklin, 2017).  As a seemingly unargumentative source of value, personal data has become the chief commercial and informatic industrial raw material of the last forty years.  An asset class par excellence, personal data proliferation due to rapidly increasing levels of computer use (including, notably, mobile devices) has been a boon in recent years for domestic and international data brokage.  I want to continue the discussion I started in Data: New Trajectories in Law (Herian, 2021) on data metaphors that help explain and situate personal data and the data subject socially, politically, economically, and legally. 

Today, tending to the growing hot heaps of data involves an expanding complex of systems, networks, frameworks, rules, mechanisms, policies, and ideologies of governance and governmentality, both on- and offline.  Spanning commercial and non-commercial sectors, the hot heaps of data excite, enthral, occupy, and burden private and public bodies and individuals (i.e., data subjects) simultaneously ignorant and interpolated in vertical and horizontal domains of organization.  Despite legislative and regulatory interventions, notably but not only Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), it is not always clear where boundaries of authority and responsibility lie regarding the giving and receiving of personal data or its subsequent conveyance, use, and exploitation.  Therefore, we might rightfully and, on terms I rely on here, also accurately call the situation data subjects find themselves in today as a shitshow. 

My previous interest in rethinking data was to understand data autonomy as data which excuses, alludes, or exceeds human need, demand, desire.  Data without need of a subject, and, we might argue, therefore utterly without use, value, or purpose where it cannot register either in human perception or via the tools and technologies built to enhance human perception.  Data models do not want messiness (the shit) or inefficiency, only simple and logical input/output risk defiant certainties concerning population types and cohorts.  Hence, corresponding data rhetoric and narratives able to explain to individuals, organizations, and economies more broadly, the incontestable value of data are of paramount interest and concern.   

Rhetoric of techno hygiene

Your data is shit: this expression contains many ways of understanding humanity’s relationship with petabytes of data produced in the present technological moment.  For instance, your data is shit because you, as an individual, provide little or no value to medical science despite the constant streams of data produced by your wearable tech; your data is shit because you, as an entrepreneur, cannot leverage insights for maximum commercial benefit from the app you built and the data it captures; your data is shit because you, as a corporation, have failed to see profitable returns for shareholders on a series of advertising campaigns for your latest product.  These interpretations speak to data’s value rooted squarely in a discourse of innovation and progress.  More than that, however, we must understand data narratives as a product of neoliberal stakeholders and the markets they aim to birth (or leverage) at every opportunity. Shit data is seemingly of little use or obvious profit, yet commercial and non-commercial stakeholders routinely gather and keep it, often with a feverish endeavour. 

Techno-hygienists today surveil and collate humanity’s mass digital excretions and extrusions, capturing them more pervasively and with ever greater levels of sensitivity, machinic power and sophistication.  Treatment and processing of informatic ordure along with techniques of purification, filters out value.  This is important because, as Cox, McLean, and Berardi (2012) explain, ‘like the tradition of examining feces to determine the health of the organism [a practice given additional urgency during the Covid 19 pandemic], the health of the economy can be judged by the way it manages its waste.’ (p.75)

Describing the hygienic revolution undertaken over several centuries across Western capitalist societies, Dominique Laporte considers the perception of the hygienist as a hero when it was ‘no longer enough to eliminate and separate shit into solid and liquid components, to flush and disinfect it.  [S]hit’, Laporte argues, had ‘to become profitable’ (2002, pp.118-119).  The hygienists achieved this end, the realising of value from shit, with heroic endeavour. 

Today, we find this continuing rhetoric of hygiene enables markets around technologies for and techniques of data self-care, prompting unending rituals, practices, and performances of data hygiene that construe every individual a hero worthy of endowment and reward when they manage data effectively, efficiently, and profitably.  Importantly, information capitalism increasingly promotes a role or perhaps even an ethical duty for consumers, as data subjects, to take control (and ownership) of “their” data, to “get their shit together” so to speak and monetize it whenever and wherever possible, notably by submitting to tailormade advertising.   

‘Some shit is incontestably good,’ Laporte claims,

Not just because it has been purified, but because it is that which purifies.  It purifies because it is spirit and soul – a volatilization of the flesh that retains an attachment to the body from which it has been severed.  Shit never stops being a fragment of God. (2002, p.111)

Questions of the extent of the retention of data from the ‘body form which has been severed’ underpin much of the developing contemporary regulatory and legislative emphasis on privacy, data, and consumer rights and protections.  But these legal interventions have not stopped the flow.  There is no sign of data constipation among global populations.  Quite the opposite.  The known global internet population continues to grow year on year to over 4.5 billion in 2020 and streams of data flowing into what Julie Cohen (2019) calls the biopolitical public domain intensifies.  YouTube boasts the addition of 500 hours of new content per minute, WhatsApp over 42 million messages in the same timeframe, to name just two predominate sites of normative data practice and performance today.  Also, legal frameworks, or regulatory reluctance to interfere with innovation, ultimately support intensification of data flows.  ‘The data flows extracted from people play an increasingly important role as raw material in the political economy of informational capitalism’, argues Cohen (2019, p.48).  Continuing,

Personal data processing has become the newest form of bioprospecting, as entities of all sizes – including most notably both platforms and businesses known as data brokers – compete to discover new patterns and extract their marketplace value.  Understood as processes of resource extraction, the activities of collecting and processing personal data require an enabling legal construct. (Cohen, 2019, p.48 and p.64)

Producing data/shit

As the amount of shit produced by internet users increases, the so-called “market for eyeballs” thrives, underscored by internet platform business models reliant on capturing and extending user attention and engagement on behalf of advertisers.  These models are far from ephemeral.  Instead, each relies on high levels of data input, through-flow, and storage to prevent loss and maximise benefit for businesses over the medium and long term.  ‘For the hygienists’, Laporte suggests,

Shit was the site of irredeemable, even incommensurable loss, which they were obstinately bent on denying.  They were caught in a tenacious thwarting of loss that sustained their delirious claim to matter, their heroic compulsion to retain.  Their discourse, although synchronous with capitalism, is not the discourse of capitalism, but its symptom. (2002, p.124) 

Again, despite constraints created by the likes of GDPR in Europe and California’s Consumer Privacy Act (CCPA), the compulsion for internet users to engage with platforms and open themselves to being sourced (as sources of data) remains strong.  Platforms are the products of contemporary hygienists, designed to give users clear (if not always hospitable) social interfaces.  As increasingly indispensable points of intermediation, platforms attract huge numbers of users and, as a result, harvest tremendous amounts of data

All data is shit and to produce, as Laporte says, ‘is literally to shit’ (2002, p.131).  Even as global data storage tries but largely cannot keep pace with global data production, the sheer throughput of data filtered by increasingly rapid forms of machine learning and automation, means quicker data flush-times, which encompass rules in GDPR and the CCPA on data erasure, deletion, otherwise known as the ‘right to be forgotten’, do not correspond to lower expectations of the commercial value of data.   

‘The Global StorageSphere installed base of storage capacity reached 6.7ZB in 2020, and is steadily growing but at a slower annual growth rate than that of the Global DataSphere, meaning we are saving less of the data we create each year,’ says John Rydning, research vice president, IDC’s Global DataSphere. ‘Organizations should consider preparing now to store more data as they seek to achieve digital transformation milestones and improve business metrics by accelerating innovative data analytics initiatives.’

Conclusion

Data as a by- or waste product, spin-off, or data exhaust, and so-called “dark data” are all influential ideas and metaphors that help to account for use and, more importantly, the expectation of value in today’s data rich environments.  Overall, these categories describe an excess, what cultivation, extraction, and exploitation of “useful” data for value seems to miss but will always reclaim in the end.  They are, under different names, descriptions of shit data and it is now becoming difficult to imagine economies in which it does not keep flowing faster and freer than ever. Creation of the Digital Markets Unit (DMU) by the UK government to promote competition alongside its National Data Strategy, as well as the Data Reform Bill, means not only encouraging personal production of even greater levels of data (within ‘ecosystems’ governed by smarter privacy and protection mechanisms, of course), but that it will be more profitable than ever for those able to capture and use it.  Those for whom the shitshow is now the only game in town.  

Dr Robert Herian is Associate Professor of Law, University of Exeter researching and teaching law, data, technology, critical theory, and property

References

Cohen, J.E. (2019) Between Truth and Power: The Legal Constructions of Informational Capitalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Cox, G., McLean, A., and Berardi, F. (2012) Speaking Code: Coding as Aesthetic and Political Expression. Cambridge: MIT Press

Franklin, S. (2017) ‘Staying with the Manifesto: An Interview with Donna Haraway’, Theory, Culture & Society, 34(4), pp. 49–63

Haraway, D. (2016) Staying with the Trouble. Making Kin in the Chtulucene. Durham: Duke University Press

Herian, R. (2021) Data: New Trajectories in Law. Abingdon: Routledge

Hope, K. (2016) ‘The Firms Turning Poo into Profit’. BBC News, November 16. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-37981485

Laporte, D. (2002) History of Shit. Cambridge: MIT Press

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