Punchcards and the data self

When I launch jeremiads against Big Data the societies of control and so on, I tend to overlook that the experience of being “under control” is often desired, is experienced as a positive affect. Even idiomatically, getting oneself under control is seen as a healthy step forward, and getting out of control is dangerous, unpleasant, something we warn our friends about. Part of the genius of online social networks and their profiles is the rebranding of social control as self-control.

Nicholas Carr notes that it was easier to think about resisting the assimilation into Big Data’s cloud of predictive-analytic terror (aka, the System) when punchcards were the popular representation of how we were tracked.

To hold a punchcard with your name printed across the top was to see your being reduced to a series of binary punch holes, a series of inscrutable ones and zeroes. Like draft cards, punchcards served as concrete touchstones for protest…

The machine’s interface—its outward representation of the numeric self—is no longer the cold, bureaucratic punchcard. It’s the avatar, the selfie: the lovingly curated, intangible image of the I. The cloud, and particularly its social-networking mechanism, personalizes depersonalization. It allows us to design our own representation of the numeric self … The apparatus of control wears a new face, and that face is our own.

So being turned into archived data has its rewards — the coherent-seeming, easily adaptable avatar is one of them. If we take the digital representation of ourselves in data as a viable expression of our “true self,” then our true self is easily fixed, changed, polished. This self is delineated through benevolent “self-tracking,” and if it is conducted through corporately administered tools, well, isn’t it thoughtful of those corporations and appmakers to develop them for us?

Thanks to the data collected about us, and the powerful tools being implemented to process it all, we’re not burdened with a self that is hard to access, that is intractably oblique, that stubbornly drives us in opposite directions against our conscious will. We don’t need analysis to get at it, just a Facebook page.

The profile-driven social-media data containers (our contemporary punchcards) resolve the ambivalence and ambiguity and contradiction that plague our self-concept. I argue here that users find this kind of “data self” a reassuring escape from freedom. The selfie avatars and other window dressing are there to reassure us that it’s okay to want to become a punchcard.


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