About 5,000 private surveillance cameras around the United States are available online because the owners connected them to the internet, but never changed the login and password. These cameras were set up to guard various spaces that are or were once considered precious to the owners of the cameras. Since then, the owners may or may not have forgotten about the cameras, and because the owners did not change the factory settings, anyone on the internet can observe moments when the subjects in view think that no one is watching them.
dark green of neither earth nor sky at MAK center, Los Angeles by Karlis Bergs and Lucy Kerr
Purpose(ful)(less) Data By Roopa Vasudevan
In their influential 2012 essay “Critical Questions for Big Data”, danah boyd and Kate Crawford outline six provocations that they believe should be carefully considered by proponents of Big Data collection and analysis. Their penultimate declaration reads: “Just because it is accessible does not make it ethical”. boyd and Crawford go on to argue that “[j]ust because content is publicly accessible does not mean that it was meant to be consumed by anyone”. Much in the way that we do not just intrude on others’ conversations willy-nilly when we are out in the world, boyd and Crawford maintain that we need to be discerning in our uses of data; to think about why and for what purpose it is truly necessary for us to have it.
Access, intent, and collection for the sake of collection—these impulses underlie the rise of what Shoshana Zuboff has famously termed “surveillance capitalism”: the commodification of our information and identities to satiate the profit-driven, capitalist machine. Your information is constantly collected and used, the argument goes, to the point that there does not even need to be a reason to do so anymore. Zuboff, along with other scholars and thinkers critically examining the effects of data and technology on society, argues that the drive to collect data, regardless of whether or not there is a purpose for it, underpins and shapes the way that technology has evolved over time, and ultimately motivates the development of unjust, biased, and discriminatory systems. Categorizing, flattening, and sorting becomes easier when we are reduced to aggregate clicks, likes and form fields, but the whole can never simply be the sum of its parts. These processes destroy the ineffable and unquantifiable aspects of our human experiences, and heighten and reinforce binaries, boundaries and divisions that serve to highlight and over-emphasize the ways in which those experiences differ.
Drawing from a saying by scholar Geoffrey Bowker, Lisa Gitelman and Virginia Jackson argued in 2013 that “raw data is an oxymoron”, that data are always produced out of specific historical contexts and motivations. In light of Zuboff’s claims, that rings even more true now than it did then. We are in an age, as Zuboff says, where private life is now primarily considered “raw material”, the star to which economic development has hitched its wagon. Data is collected by corporations and institutions with clear motives and interests in obtaining it, and no one is exempt from the powerful, panoptic gaze of the technological machine. If we leave the trails, the argument goes, sooner or later they will be followed, mined for their value, and sold to the highest bidder.
But in tandem with the digital data trails that are used to track and surveil our everyday movements are the digital data trails that exist, without ever being noticed or followed. For every data source that is mined, manipulated, or used for intentions for which it wasn’t necessarily created, is another that lies dormant, that is being freely offered, but that is not being actively used. What happens to those “trails not taken” (to paraphrase Robert Frost)? If data is collected but never analyzed or deployed in service of any kind of goal, was it ever really collected at all?
In 2011, engineers Andrew Wong and James Thompson created Astronaut.io: a website streaming YouTube videos with zero accumulated views, and with nondescript titles like DSC 1234 and IMG 4321. Soundtracked to a recording of Claude Debussy’s tranquil “Clair de Lune”, the viewer is presented with an array of videotaped vignettes, some deeply personal: sporting matches, wedding videos, documentation of friends and family, shaky self-recorded video testimonials. Wong and Thompson preface the experience by telling the viewer that “…you are an Astronaut. You are floating in inner space 100 miles above the surface of Earth. You peer through your window and this is what you see. You are people watching. These are fleeting moments.” Their website, it follows, is a way of digitally experiencing the lives of others, of taking a peek into the videos that are important to someone, somewhere, out there—glimpsing into the common humanity residing within us all.
Likening this experience to “people watching”, to catching fleeting glances of interactions on the street or overhearing niche conversations, is an interesting parallel, and is in line with arguments made to view the Internet as the digital equivalent to a town square or public street, in which anyone can be seen and heard anytime regardless of their intent. Like an astronaut floating in space, we are removed from the immediacy of the day to day implications of what we are observing; we feel detached, objective, employing what Donna Haraway has called “the god trick of seeing everywhere from nowhere”. But there’s also another angle to this, one which is inexorably tied to the technological medium in which these voyeuristic journeys are taking place. Someone, somewhere, made the decision not only to record these videos—in itself a choice tied to technological advancement and the capacity to record and store video and image—but to place them on YouTube, a public repository of video data owned by one of the world’s largest and most powerful corporations.
Wong and Thompson frame their project as simply skimming the surface of humanity, an activity available to the curious viewer and which will have no impact on the videos’ creators. In reality, it feels wrong sometimes to watch these videos, as though you are intruding into home movies that you were not invited to experience. And yet in others, you feel like you are finally giving someone the audience that they crave, that your view is finally legitimating the existence of this video (and, arguably, of this human existence) in the world. Simply acknowledging the presence of these videos—themselves simply data files filled with thousands of images spliced together—validates in some cases, intrudes in others, but always makes us wonder why we are the first person to be experiencing these moments, and what gives us permission to do so. The act of placing something on the Internet, in a way that is fully accessible to the public, does not cohere with the overwhelmingly private feeling of watching something that, according to the numerical metrics to which we increasingly value, no one else has experienced. Like overhearing someone confess to something monumental in public, we are torn between wanting to listen in and learn as much as we can, or recoil in horror, feeling like we have crossed a line somehow.
What is the purpose of the decision to place something online, but not take that final step of contextualizing and sharing it? What happens when the creator of the data forgets that they created it? If, as Gitelman and Jackson argue, all data is created and saved for a purpose, what is necessary to render our view of that data as suddenly purposeless? When does our data start to lose its connection and relevance to our lives? It can be argued that our data, like much of our lives, cannot stand up to the ravages of time; what we thought was important years, weeks or even hours ago loses meaning as we drift further and further away from the point of its initial collection and cataloguing. But even though we do not consider it as a physical presence in our lives, our data has less in common with the ephemerality of memory and more with the junk building up inside our drawers and closets, which we once thought would be important to us forever but is now just taking up space. Our data continues to have a concrete presence in the world, thriving in what we think of as a disembodied and immaterial “cloud”, but in actuality taking up space on very real servers in what Tung-Hui Hu calls “data bunkers”: militarized, fortified structures built to survive disaster. It will always be there, and stay accessible, even when it does not appear to be.
Lurking underneath all of this, then, is the biggest question of all: can true purposelessness ever really be achieved? Even if the data becomes meaningless to our lives, relegated off to a corner of the Internet at which we will never look, there is always a chance that someone will stumble on to it and make meaning out of it themselves. Meaning which we never intended—and which may run counter to our own best interests—but meaning nonetheless. As the saying goes, one person’s trash is another’s treasure; so, too, one person’s purposeless data becomes purposeful to someone else.
We are not far off from an existence in which all of the information we ever collect and forget in our lives floats out into the ether. Like the debris that humans have ejected into space since we first started venturing into its void, so too we eject data for which we do not have a purpose, leaving it to orbit the planet until someone encounters it next. And, in another view, the data become the astronauts, taking pieces of us with it but never the full complexity of our whole lives. We become mere anecdotes, surface level observations, while the rest of our existences are pushed further and further beneath the surface.
 boyd, d. & Crawford, K. (2012). Critical Questions for Big Data: Provocations for a cultural, technological, and scholarly phenomenon. Information, Communication & Society, 15(5), 662-679.
 Zuboff, S. (2019). The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York, NY: PublicAffairs.
 Gitelman, L. & Jackson, V. (2013). Introduction. In Gitelman, L. (Ed)., Raw Data is an Oxymoron, pp. 1-14. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
 Haraway, D.J. (1991). Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective. In Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (pp. 183-201). London: Free Association Books.
 Hu, T.H. (2016). A Prehistory of the Cloud. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Against the dark doorway I see you
materialize out of darkness
You think you hear voices before you
reach the other door in front of you
Tilting a little down the hill, as the house does,
a breeze draws through the hall all the time, upslanting.
A feather dropped near the front door will rise and brush along the ceiling,
slanting backward, until it reaches the down-turning current at the back door:
so with my voices. As you enter the hall, I may
sound as though I am speaking out of the air about your head.
From above I see you hurrying around
hoping that if you put on more of us
you could be magnificent.
But we have not fully grown on to you
and our organs still give you much trouble at times.
Which means that I might become
something you did not intend for me.
That frightens you because
I can survive for very long
and though we have a big appetite,
We don’t need much food
and we don’t sleep.
Though I protect you
You could realize that you also
suffer what I put you through.
And if we went beyond this relationship
Everything could be dismantled
- We, now becoming Your auxiliary organs,
Could together be Recreated, distributed, and circulated
falling into the hands of someone who
does not deserve us,
And eventually becoming something that will
exceed everyone’s imaginations.
For now, though, You begin to empty yourself for sleep.
Forgetting about me, you lay down looking up,
The tall buzzards hang in soaring circles,
the clouds giving them the illusion of retrograde.
In a few hours the moonlight will be on you and it will be still.
On me the moonlight will move, dappling up and down.
And before you are emptied for sleep, what are you?
You don’t know what I am,
you don’t know if I am or not.
The rain begins to fall,
then eventually pour, on a road inside of
the perimeters You mapped for me
and outside of the perimeters You mapped for Yourself.
A runnel of yellow neither water nor earth swirls,
curving with the yellow road neither of earth nor water,
down the hill dissolving into a streaming mass of dark
green neither of earth nor sky.
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