No more life stories

I started reading Mark Andrejevic’s Infoglut: How Too Much Information Is Changing the Way We Think and Know. Judging by the introduction, it will assess the consequences of our shifting away from traditional causal, narrative explanations of the everyday world to the various data-management strategies now available.

Because excess information is “pushed” at us rather than something we have to seek out, we are always being reminded that there is more to know than we can assimilate, and that what we know is a partial representation, a construct. It is not “the whole truth.” If this information is about the self, then the resulting construct might be seen as “inauthentic” in its incompleteness. Andrejevic writes:

It is not just that there is more information available, but that this very surfeit has highlighted the incompleteness of any individual account. An era of information overload coincides, in other words, with the reflexive recognition of the constructed and partial nature of representation.

With respect to identity, information overload is another way a describing “context collapse” or the loss of “front stage management” in Goffman’s dramaturgical model of social interaction. Because we now customarily assume that there is more data about everything, which spurs the “reflexive recognition of constructed representation,” we find it harder to accept a person’s story as they are trying to present it, and think it might make more sense or give a “truer” picture to investigate them on Google or Facebook. The ambiance of “big data” makes it hard to escape the “reflexive awareness of its incompleteness” even if we don’t have access to all this data or tools to process it. But we want the tools rather than stories or representations, which have been culturally exposed as outmoded tools.

This has further ramifications for self-knowledge: We default to an assumption that we can’t know everything about ourselves and how we are coming across to people, so developing a personal narrative, a life story, starts to feel like a futile process — ineffective as well as not completable. 

So instead we may turn to data management strategies — algorithms and networked recommendations and predictive analytics — not only to understand the world but to understand ourselves. These are “an attempt to bypass or short-circuit the problem of comprehension and the forms of discursive, narrative representation upon which it relies.” Self-comprehension, coming up with a story that explains why we are who we are and why we’ve done what we’ve done and why we want what we want for the future, has no place in the Big Data weltanschauuung. Instead the desire for that sort of self has become a problem, something we are expected to bypass in favor of something less obviously contrived — something that supposedly can’t be faked, like data. We are in the process of becoming the least trustworthy processors of data about ourselves, even to ourselves. 

If we now avail ourselves of social media’s ability to let us “self-publish,” to ritually expel the contents of self through a public accounting, it may be because we want their big-data tools of self-definition. We don’t want responsibility for our life story; we’d prefer an automatically generated Timeline, and algorithmically generated prompts for what to add to it. We solve the “problem of self” not through self-expression that makes our experience into a coherent narrative, but through an indiscriminate and compulsive data dump of our experience into the available commercial containers, which return to us an “objective” self that is empirically defensible, as well as an exciting and novel object for us to consume as entertainment. We are happily the audience and not the author of our life story.

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