Book Mini-Review: “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron

I just read “Raw Data” is an Oxymoron, a collection of essays curated by Lisa Gitelman.  The book is, fundamentally, about the idea that data is neither neutral nor clean; it has a cultural context that pollutes it from the moment it is created, dressed and shared; so it is always cooked, and always should be subject to discourse, cynicism and critical analysis. Now, nearly every chapter of the book is extremely academic. Extremely. Just to be clear, Chapter 2 is titled “Procrustean Marxism and Subjective Rigor: Early Modern Arithmetic and its Readers.” So, this is neither easy bedtime reading nor a Dentist’s office treat.

But I want to blog specifically to encourage folks to read chapter 7, “Dataveillance and Countervaillance,” excellently and approachably written by Rita Raley.  Raley does an outstanding job explaining just how much information is captured on all of us on the Internet, and just where that information ends up hanging out, waiting for mining, discovery and sales.  She treats Data not as something mined and used, but as something extracted and stored, with ongoing value because, even today, the companies collecting behavioral data on our Internet actions cannot predict all the ways the data will bring them value into the future. So there is a data-amassing speculation ongoing- and that is a somewhat sobering way to look at data collection today- it’s a massive speculative bubble. Raley references the companies that lead this wave: BlueKai, Acxiom, ChoicePoint, DoubleClick (any of these sound familiar? they should). Then Raley goes further, suggesting that our digital identity, amassed through data collection, is coming to define who we are more strongly than our true selves– this is unsettling, and reflects questions that I ask about human identity in Robot Futures. So- read Chapter 7, and then take a moment and imagine parlaying everything Raley says into the physical world: what if all the “signals” of Internet behavior that companies use to mine us spill over into the physical world- into every facial expression and gesture that you make in public? Connect the dots, and our future begins to look like what Raley quotes from Nigel Thrift: the capitalization of almost everything.

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