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19 COVID Thoughts #12

Updated: Jul 30, 2020

I’ve been thinking about the duality in big data a lot since lockdown. The day it happened myself and Lauren Shannon Jones pitched a new show to Fringe called Deepfake. It was commissioned and slated for Fringe 2020 but last week was postponed until 2021 due to COVID. Through the participation of an audience member and a live metamorphic video filter and audio manipulation algorithms the piece will explore identity, intimacy and truth through the process of creating a live deepfake. It also unpacks some of the ideas around big data and how bodies are converted to data, edited to fit societal ideals; and personalities and desires are reduced to a mineable, monetary substance.

This is the age of machine learning and big data where public and private spheres are ever increasingly permeable. I remember while reading Shoshana Zuboff’s The Age of Surveillance Capitalism her discussion of instrumentarianism. It outlines how governments and corporations use technology and infrastructure to manipulate people in subtle but effective ways. Combining predictive patterns with desired outcomes, it turns people into ‘instruments’ that that can be manipulated in predictable ways to achieve predetermined goals. In order to achieve this, applications and search engines record every aspect of our daily interactions and mine them for the raw data.

While the dangers of big data are have been clear —the Chinese government using the processes to undermine the freedoms of its citizens, Facebook using it to undermine state regulatory processes in order to maximise stakeholder profits, Cambridge Analytica using it to alter the course of elections —during the pandemic we have witnessed some of the benefits —the Irish government use of big data collection and predictive algorithms to more effectively create effective public health policy during the Pandemic.

This week the government, following on from a number of other countries, have created a contact tracing application for phones. It uses Bluetooth to determine whether you’ve been in close contact with someone who’s tested positive for COVID. The app asks for permission to collect and share anonymous data in order to facilitate contact tracing. ‘Contact’ is anyone who has been closer than two metres for more than 15 minutes. That list is compiled using ‘beacons’ that are identified by a string of numbers that change every 10 to 20 minutes. If two phones are in close contact, they exchange their active ID, and that list is stored on the users phones for 14 days. For privacy purposes, the beacons are random and not tied to the user’s identity. The technology has been developed using a method devised by Apple and Google, but the government insists that none of the information in the app will be shared with the tech giants.This technology has clear benefits in the potential to save lives but I wonder what this focus on distance and isolation from people is going to do to us.

Olivia Lang, in a 2015 long read title The Future of Loneliness for the Guardian, wrote about how the internet promised an end to the isolation of loneliness but never delivered. This relationship between the public and the private has been primed for years. She notes then how:

Knowing that the internet was becoming a site of shaming eroded the feeling of safety that had once made it seem such a haven for the lonely.[...] This growing entanglement of the corporate and social, this creeping sense of being tracked by invisible eyes, demands an increasing sophistication about what is said and where. The possibility of virulent judgment and rejection induces precisely the kind of hypervigilance and withdrawal that increases loneliness. With this has come the slowly dawning realisation that our digital traces will long outlive us.”

She recalls a conversation about loneliness with Ryan Trecartin, who saw her belief in solid, separate selves as hopelessly outmoded. She writes of his view, that “everyone [is] perpetually slipping into each other, passing through ceaseless cycles of transformation; no longer separate, but interspersed.”

I think that COVID will challenge this but I don’t know how. It might make us more solid; more aware of ourselves and the space we occupy and who with. Or it might just be another transformation making us more connected, less separate. Or a mixture of both on various local and global scales. Either way, we are not now as we once were.

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