What happens when we think of data “not only as accumulation of cultural material” but also as something that “lives and operates within a culture by its actions” (Borggreen and Gade 2013)? This is a question that motivates my work in both the history of data and quantification and cultural analysis of contemporary data cultures. Over the last 300 years we’ve seen the institutionalization of forms, metrics, and, most recently, digital work across much of the dominant American culture. As more of our everyday activities, decisions, and interpersonal interactions are being conducted digitally, our media technologies are also engaging users in highly personal and affective experiences. At the same time, the interfaces and media of quantified and digital techno-cultures promote minimalistic, one-size-fits-all experiences that seek to erase the interface and create the illusion of non-mediated engagement. Rather than reflect the emotional and political resonances of our quantified and digital engagements back to us, most of our media try to design away difference.
In order to think through my own organization of both an engaged and critical approach to questions of quantification, data production and use, and their histories, I’ve been drawing on the figure of the matrix—a supporting or enclosing structure first associated with the womb and now also linked with a tabular mathematics. It is a powerful, generative, embodied, and resistant spirit to invoke.
Matrix figures appear not only in sciences of the female body and mathematics, but also as forms or molds in manufacturing; as interconnecting social, political, or computational networks; and as biological substrates. The matrix in many organics-based definitions is the media in which something is generated or developed. The matrix is thus a generative form.
As a figure for interpretive and justice-oriented work, Vivian M. May notes the matrix is also one of the foundational ideas in intersectional practice and theory: “intersectionality is about matrix thinking” (2015, 21). Grounded in matrix logic, intersectional work focuses on simultaneous and “enmeshed multiplicities,” including, but not limited to, those of race and gender. The matrix logic of intersectional feminism “considers how inequalities intermingle” and emphasizes the linkages between “the structural and experiential, and the material and discursive” (23). It also entails a commitment to “resistant forms of knowing” and “eradicating epistemological, material, and structural inequality”—two commitments I have learned from feminists of color in particular (21).
A matrix method then is a potent way of understanding and critiquing binary logics and simple, progressive narratives. Using the matrix as an organizing heuristic helps me to bring together what can seem to be disparate strands of my work, including a long-standing interest in historical relationships between number and word as commemorative and poetic technologies, work in digital archives and collections, and feminist approaches to science and technology. It is also a way to take a more pedagogical heuristic—MEALS, an acronym that Elizabeth Losh and I teach with in order to focus attention on the ways that technology is always material, embodied, affective, involves labor, and is situated—into domains where the languages of science and mathematics resonate strongly (Wernimont and Losh 2016, 35–47). Finally, the figure of the matrix offers representation of the notion of “carework” that is currently resonating with so many feminist digital scholars and artists today. As Lauren Klein noted in her “The Carework and Codework of the Digital Humanities,” carework is “the subset of feminized, reproductive labor, which is undertaken out of a sense of compassion with, or responsibility for others, rather than with a goal of monetary gain” (Klein 2017).
Some of this work has been individual, like my forthcoming book Numbered Lives: A History of the Media of Measure (MIT Press). But much more of it is collaborative and collective; it is in this context that the enmeshed multiplicities of media, time, nation, community, and discipline become particularly apparent and a matrix method indispensable.
In October 2015, Jessica Rajko (a professor in Dance and Arts, Media, and Engineering) and I founded The Human Security Collaboratory (https://www.hscollab.org/) to create opportunities for arts- and humanities-driven research in human security and digital privacy. A number of interactive performances have emerged from this work and we have been particularly interested in ways that sound, touch, and experiential events can help people to understand how data flows in twenty-first-century Anglo American cultures. In creating haptic and sonic experiences of data for our various Vibrant Lives installations (Living Net, dataPLAY, and the VL sculptures) we are intervening in the sense articulated by Linda Tuhiwai Smith: “the process of being proactive and of becoming involved as an interested worker for change” (2012, 148). In early installations, this work has operated at the level of individual “data shed” or the constant streams of data we share as we use mobile devices in the United States. Our intervention is one that aims to return to individuals a tactile and memorable experience of the data that was harvested silently and invisibly, tracking the most mundane of our daily activities. As we have worked on subsequent iterations, we are also working toward interventions in the deep inequality in digital cultures as well as pushing at the (academic) institutional structures that have obscured a long history of entanglement between data, computational practices, bodies, and feminized arts practices.
In particular, we are interested in taking data about our bodies (leg movements, beating hearts, shopping desires) and returning them to bodies, if only in a remediated manner. This can be done with visuals, to be sure, but there are a number of reasons why we’ve chosen not to simply make an infographic of data shed. Historically, visual media such as writing and other modes of graphic representation have been used to create and maintain data records. Similarly, our entire digital infrastructure is built upon visual, abstract, programming languages made up of computational code conventionally represented as alphanumeric symbols. Given the pervasive use of visual media in data creation and collection, the dominance of data visualization as a tool for dissemination comes as no surprise. This form of data representation is pervasive to the point that imagining data outside of a visual context as anything other than “just aesthetic” is rare.New research into the possibilities of data sonification and (more recently) data haptification has seen a dramatic increase over the last two decades. Our ears are very good at making sense of rich, complex, layered content. For example, we can easily pick out individual, familiar instruments within a multi-instrument music composition, hear a friend’s voice in a noisy cafe, and distinguish a honking car horn from other traffic noise. We are also good at processing the movement of sound and touch through space. Touch is a highly complex sensory modality that is not connected to a single bodily organ. In fact, the term “haptic” is often used to refer to several sensory systems, including those that deal with the body’s capacity to experience sensations externally (cutaneous) and internally (proprioceptive, kinesthetic, and vestibular). Research has shown that tactile sensations vary drastically over the body as a whole, due to both the different sensitivities of the types of mechanoreceptors, as well as their varying densities at different regions of the body (Gunther and O’Modhrain 2003). Our ability to feel extends beyond our sensory capabilities to define our emotional and affective experiences, the latter being concerned with the “non-verbal, non-conscious dimensions of experience” (Blackman and Venn 2010). Utilizing both sound and touch together gives us the ability to represent multiple data features simultaneously without overtaxing or over-stimulating people’s sensory systems. Data sonification has led to new discoveries in astronomy (Diaz-Merced et al. 2012) and is employed in air traffic control (Rönnberg, Lundberg, and Löwgren 2016) precisely because the human body can more effectively process some large and complex datasets, especially spatial and temporal data, better in nonvisual forms. Readers can explore our many different sonifications on mobile or desktop at https://soundcloud.com/jacque-wernimont/.
Beyond the epistemic value of not overloading a human with the torrent of their own data shed, there is a deeply political quality to our interventions. As the work of scholars like Jessica M. Johnson, Simone Browne, and Safiya Umoja Noble makes clear, the capture, monetization, and use of data about bodies is reproducing many of the injustices that intersectional black feminisms and decolonizing methodologies have long been working to address. While privileged people (often those with cis-gendered white bodies) can use band technologies to quantify and track athletic performance with little fear of negative outcomes, similar technologies are used to track black and brown bodies in prison and court systems, in migrant surveillance, or in medical settings rife with far more risk. What is leisure knowledge in one sector of American society is state surveillance for many others.
A first step in making visible the politics of activity tracking, health quantification, and mobile information harvesting is to make everyone more aware of the volume of data being gathered, how it changes with different activities on a phone or tablet device, and who is collecting and leveraging that information. Each of our installations thus far has asked people to feel and reflect on the collection of the data they shed all day long. In our most recent installations of the Living Net in both Victoria, BC, and Denver, CO, we’ve paired the collection and vibro-tactile representation of individual and group data shed with voluntary contributions of analog objects and metadata by our audiences. This new iteration on the original concept is designed to foreground the disparity between our largely invisible mobile data, which is highly monetized and actionable, and the tangible dust, refuse, and ephemera that we all trail behind us with little notice or care from ourselves or others. We want people to think about their own affective, epistemological, and political responses to the high value of the massive quantity of digital data and the relative lack of value attached to their analog information and objects.
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