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Reality regained: An inquiry into the data age

The explosion of data and advances in computing power are radically transforming daily life.

Advances in computing power, methods of computing and machine learning all hugely expand the type of tasks that can be addressed and successfully resolved by machines. At the same time, the unprecedented uptake of lightweight technologies, the diffusion of digital platforms and social media, grant the current online environment a social dimension that was only vaguely present in the early internet. Taken together, these developments establish a cultural context that increasingly quantifies daily pursuits and induces the framing of ordinary life issues in terms of data and whatever relations can be inferred out of the crunching of large data volumes across lay and expert cultures. This is, on many counts, an epochal transformation through which the marks of a digital culture (data and data relations) crowd out the immediate reality of personal experience, experiential knowledge and situated interaction. Even though depersonalization and the diffusion of formal methods of living and knowing have been intrinsic to modernity, the current developments differ in some important respects that are worthy of being observed and analyzed.

Reality Regained: An Inquiry into the Data Age

Massive data generation is the distinctive mark of our age, and data availability is its holy grail. If available, data are assumed to be able to tell us who we are, how markets and organizations work, what friends to choose and what communities to join, what flights may be cheaper today, how to drive to a destination in the urban mazes of modern cities and so forth. This is only a small list of a quickly expanding list of issues that are claimed to be successfully addressed by data crunching. The common assumption underlying these claims is that, if rightly perused, the data that are massively and meticulously captured and stored every day in all walks of life would be able to illuminate personal, social and natural realities and address an impressive array of issues confronting contemporary people and societies.

While many of these issues may appear trivial, their implications are not. Conducting an essential portion of ordinary dealings by relying on solutions or recommendations produced out of available data by machines considerably reframes everyday patterns of living and signifies an important change in longstanding human habits.

An important development over the last decade so coincides with the unprecedented increase in the use of lightweight technologies, such as smart phones and tablets, by large population segments. Every click that lightweight technologies enable people to perform in the multiple online environments to which they hook them is transformed into data. Used skillfully and innovatively by digital platforms and the wider business ecosystem of the internet, this data forms the basis for constructing an entirely new context of behavioral relevance made of relations between data items, which are essentially abstractions.

A second group of developments that distinguish the current internet from earlier contexts of daily life, including the context of the early internet, is associated with the diffusion of social media and the massive migration of people’s daily pursuits to the online platforms of social media. Similar to the diffusion of lightweight technologies with which they are closely connected, social media platforms engineer an online stimuli and action environment (e.g. liking, tagging, sharing) in which each action performed by human users becomes a countable click, and can be used together with the clicks of other users to construct profiles of persons and advertising audiences, or political audiences, out of online communities and groups. New forms of personal and social experience are therefore derived from the data footprint of the engineered social interaction of social media and fed back to people in the form of personalized services, targeted advertising and recommendations.

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These developments are further amplified and reinforced by the internet of things (IoT). Through the IoT, the bulky appearance of things and their obstinate reality are transformed into a mass of computable marks (i.e. data) that are deployed as the basis for developing a range of services to both human users and other machines of the domestic complex. Such services are no more than data relations extracted out of the meticulous recording and datafication of the human use of domestic appliances and utility networks and other mechanical settings that industrial capitalism bequeathed us and which the IoT currently expands.

For perhaps the first time in history, technology in the form of computation is extensively involved in the framing of life issues, as predominantly issues of information and communication possible to address by computational means. The varied impact which data, big data and data analytics may have upon different social fields is a manifestation of wider changes that also require attention and critical analysis. Seen in this light, the tasks and patterns of daily life that have predominantly been shaped by all those qualities and faculties we associate with human experience are subject to change, as computational techniques infiltrate the everyday living habitat. This is an important shift in which the front and backstage (the tacit, unconscious, forgettable, beyond awareness) of human living change position.

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