Can we be separated from our data?

When it comes to the relationship between us and our data, one commonly used notion is the ‘data shadow’. The idea is that the data generated as a by-product of our everyday lives form into a kind of shadow that follows us around. We exist, so this vision goes, as an isolated entity that produces a data imprint. We leave an impression in the data structures we are surrounded by, that impression shadows our presence.

A recent TV advert from the data company Experian encouraged the viewer to ‘meet their data self’. The character depicted in the TV advert was replicated by an ‘inseparable’ clone of themselves. The advert encouraged the viewer to acknowledge this clone and to get to know their data self. Indeed, we are often encouraged to get to know ourselves through our data, or to get to know ourselves through these kinds of shadows, clones or reflections of the self. But can we really separate our selves from our data? Is this really a shadow or reflection of a stable self, or are these data more active in these processes of self-making?

Deborah Lupton’s new book Data Selves explains why this type of understanding of the relations between data and selfhood misses something crucial. To be overly reductive for a moment, Lupton’s central premise is that the self does not exist outside of data. In contrast, the idea of a data shadow or a separate data self that follows us around lacks an understanding of how data and selfhood shape each other. The Experian advert suggests that we cannot be separated from our data self, yet the question Lupton’s book poses is if the self is actually produced and shaped by data in the first place. So it is not so much a question of separation as one of the making of the self and how data are implicated in those processes.

Data Selves pushes towards a much more active understanding of the role of data in selfhood. For instance, Lupton argues:

‘that concepts of selfhood, identity and embodiment and how they are enacted with digital technologies as part of everyday life are central to understanding personal data experiences. As the title Data Selves suggests, I take an approach that views people and their data as inextricably entangled in human-data assemblages. These assemblages are configured via interactions of humans with other humans, devices and software, as well as the multitude of other things and spaces they encounter as they move through their lives’

The separation of self and data, like many other binaries, begins to break down. It is the entanglement of ourselves with our data that is the focal point, with an exploration of the experience of data being an important part of the equation. We may live in a vast data assemblage - which mixes human and non-human - but we all have separate and individualised ‘personal data experiences’. The responsiveness of the data assemblage leads to the personalised aspects of these experiences and are also a crucial part of how data enter into processes of self-making.

A key problem that Lupton identifies is that more immaterial or detached views of data mean that they are often ‘dematerialized’. The consequence of this is that it becomes harder to see their material and active presence in social and individual life. The book’s focus is instead upon the ‘engagements’ and ‘relationships’ between the ‘human and non-organic' things that make up the data assemblage. In place dematerialising these relations and engagements, Lupton seeks to see how they are ‘infused with vitalities and vibrancies’. Lupton turns to the term ‘more-than-human’ to do this and to enable the ‘human-data assemblages’ to be ‘viewed as ever-changing forms of lively materialities’. The assemblages themselves shift and change and so do the relations that constitute them. This approach, as it is outlined in Data Selves, also brings out the political dimensions of these shifting assemblages. As Lupton puts it, ‘the question of how we understand and live with our digital data is, at heart, a biopolitical issue’. The use of the term biopolitical of course then brings with it ideas about data exercising power over the physiological and over, as the phrase goes, life itself.

It is this approach to data, seeing it as ‘more-than-human’, that Lupton argues enables us to see aspects of data relations that could otherwise go unnoticed. Lupton explains that a ‘feminist new materialist theoretical approach…can help us become sensitised to the vulnerabilities as well as the beneficial capacities of human-data assemblages, and the associated ethics of care that are integral to how we can best live with our data selves’. This is an approach that sensitises the analysis to the power, ethics and vulnerabilities in our data relations.

Adding some further detail its objectives, Lupton explains that the book seeks ‘to provide some insights into how to conceptualise and understand how people live with, in and through digital data about themselves: how they make sense of and use their data and what they know about who else makes use of this information’. This is an approach concerned with how individuals live with data and how meanings are created through them. It also aims to include the way we develop understandings of the use of our data as well as the way those are are utilised. At the centre of this resides a range of relations between individuals and their data; these data relations set out new types of possibilities and limits. Lupton aims to ‘examine the interplay of human and nonhuman affordances associated with digital technologies - devices, software and the digital data they generate - and the agential capacities that are opened up or closed off as these things assemble’. Clearly this type of agenda is not something to be achieved in a single book, rather Lupton is setting this agenda out.

The type of lively and living approach to data builds on Lupton’s earlier work, but is more directly developed and explored in this book. The data comes to life here. This book draws out and extends some of her earlier lines of argument using a range of empirical projects as a foundation for the theoretical perspectives to get worked through. The result is Lupton’s most theoretical and conceptually orientated book so far. The combination of insights from the various research projects (which are described in an detailed appendix) and the conceptual oversight make for some unique and careful contributions to the kind of theorisation of data that we are seeing across critical data studies.

In Data Selves Lupton uses three particular concepts in advancing the core ideas central to the approach being outlined and therefore central to this agenda for data research: materialising, doing and sharing. There is a chapter on each. The first, ‘materialising data’, perhaps speaks for itself, it is focused on how apparently immaterial data have material implications and outcomes. Lupton’s argument here is that ‘these materialisations have profound implications for how we make, think and feel about data, how we make sense of our data and how human-data assemblages intra-act and are made to matter’. The first area of focus is upon the way that data become material in people’s lives.

The second concept, ‘doing data’, is more concerned with trying to understand the way people relate to their data and the active presence that those data have in shaping experiences. Doing data, Lupton explains, is about the ‘performances, enactments and sense-making work in which people engage as they respond to and incorporate their data into their lives, as they enact their data selves’. The result of this way of doing data within these data assemblages is, according to Lupton, a form of selfhood that is ‘dynamic, responsive and distributed’. This are of focus is concerned with what people do with data and what data does to them.

The third and final concept is that of ‘sharing data’. This chapter explores how sharing feeds into the data that is extracted about people and also how data move through networks and mediate social relations. Indeed, this third concept draws the analysis towards a greater understanding of how data move through the social world and how they are defined by different types of social connections.

The type of agenda setting work conducted in Data Selves is crucial. A range of studies have picked out specific ways that data are shaping everyday and social life, the value of Lupton’s book is in the perspective it offers on those developments. This is a book that aims to provide the reader with a way of seeing the role of data. The book, as Lupton concludes, offers 'a perspective on personal digital data that proposes new metaphors and concepts beyond the archetypal’. New metaphors and concepts are needed, especially as new relations emerge around data that need to be understood.

The core contribution the book makes is in its sustained attempt to understand how ‘people and their data make each other’. The data don’t simply shadow us, they actively constitute us too. This is to move away from seeing data as abstractions and to see them as deeply integrated. The approach being outlined is encapsulated in Lupton’s claim that ‘these data are not inscribed on bodies: they work with and through bodies’. If we are to think in such terms, then it becomes obvious that we cannot simply be separated from our data. These data are too routinely bound up with what we know of the world, how judgments are made, how decisions and tastes form, and how things are ordered and organised. Centrally though, and this will be something to be debated, is the idea that data are now an active part of selfhood and self-making. The question that Lupton’s book poses to us is the extent to which the data assemblages we live among and within are actively shaping our selves.

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