[sea-dp] Reading Response #03

Despite the importance to discuss the internet as a not-public, not-private space, this week’s readings (and similar materials for our other class Applications) made me slightly upset. A lot of these ideas I’ve heard of many times over:  Reed in Digitized Life, and Greenfield in Radical Technologies both talked about how data is ultimately biased. “Objectivity is one of the great inventions of the modern world.” Reed wrote, “…like all ideals, it is never fully attained.” Seeing digital technology as an element of culture, in varying scales with different frameworks, makes it impossible to present information in those mediums as unbiased, neutral facts. Yet strangely, both authors still remain optimistic about data accessibility, even though their arguments provide great contradictions.

Earlier this year, I collaborated with several recent grads and residents of ITP on my first data visualization project on news events during the COVID-19 pandemic. I, alongside former resident Huiyi, did most of the research, data collection and writing. The question of bias and human fallibility emerged immediately, as well as topics regarding bias of our news sources, and I was stuck, finding myself not in the right position to curate content about an event with such nuance and global impact. We acknowledged them all in documentation: how we tried our best to mitigate subjectivity in data collection, our flaws in methodology, as well as our own emotional, cultural and political influence in our editorial decisions. Digitized Life suggested exactly that: acknowledgement of flaws.

I guess this is where my frustration comes from: they would admit the inevitable fallibility of humanity, but would still argue that technology is more or less neutral or merely a tool, and that it’s “we” who have the “Terminator power” to shape and define their impact. They would quote McLuhan on how us and technologies shape each other, but ignore the fact that McLuhan also believes that technology is a powerful, unstoppable, Maelstrom. I wonder who is this “we” that they speak about? How much do they believe in our control in using these “tools”, verses being forced into this trap of consumerism and modernity, as if we really have a choice against it? Even in the New Yorker article about Reddit, Huffman, the founder of Reddit, confessed as well about encountering huge difficulties designing, and defining, a digital space for democracy (or anarchy).

I did find great joy reading Tsing’s chapter on scalability in The Mushroom at the End of the World. Similar to Reed’s idea of human fallibility, Tsing talked about how the Matsutake mushrooms’ symbiosis nature is a resistance to plantation, a model that introduced scalability to businesses and shaped modern capitalism. Maybe the state of slight chaos in complex systems is what we naturally are? Ultimately, the thinking of scalability is erasure; it’s unnatural, biased, and creates an echo chamber, which I think is probably what social media has become once scaled up. I’m not surprised at the techno optimism illustrated in the New Yorker piece at the starting of Facebook, Reddit, Twitter, etc., but, again, even the people with the simplest intention (“I just want to find pretty girls from my school”) seemed to be unable to predict the long term impact of their own doing. So when asked what “we” can do, as “users” that’s been pushed forward in this storm of technological advancement, I don’t know what to say.

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