By: Tate Smith
This project is motivated by the fact that algorithmic understandings of human-ness increasingly figure life in unforeseen ways. I am equally motivated by the necessity for everyone to understand that their data, and by proxy their digital self, are the guiding force by which invisible hands can drive life towards hyper-capitalist goals through mechanisms that feel innocuous. Our digital footprint represents our personage with greater and greater verisimilitude each day. It is not inconceivable that the collection of data points we call our digital self could soon represent us with such accuracy there is almost no reason to delineate between the two. Author Derrick de Kerckhove writes “In the Internet age, the creation of a digital layer over our personal identity produced a strong impact in the very definition of what a person is and his/her identity, be it personal or collective” (2013). This new found personhood carries with a somber reality--the very fact that our personage is a commodity. You are not you, but a collection of numbers held in a .json file, ready to be traded like oil in an unforgiving market.
Thus this project is a proposition into this speculative future. I queried Facebook to receive the data that they have stored about me; Facebook sends back a semi opaque collection of html files with accompanying text files which say “no data stored.” Obviously that is a lie, and even the html files give off the air that they are not the complete collection of the data that they have on you. Among the many files they send you, one being a complete history of every message you’ve ever sent including with people who have deleted their account, Facebook sends you ads_interest.html. Inside this file is a list of all the data points they consult when they want to “personalize” your ads.
I used this data to create my image. Starting with the idea of a digital self representing our real life counterpart, I took a self-portrait. Then I replaced the pixels of the image with the words from the ads_interests file that Facebook sent me. While the image appears fully black and grainy, it is because the image is made up from roughly 1000 different words.
Ultimately this project explores what it means to be in a world where there are two parts distinct parts of being. As our digital footprint assimilates into representing us more and more accurately it brings to bear ethical concerns: chiefly among them, why is it acceptable to commodify this part of a person? If one takes to heart the idea that these data points can accurately represent us, shouldn’t we act with the same ethical considerations that we give to the real life counterparts?