Save Your Self


This article was published as part of the Steirischer Herbst Festival, September 2015, Graz, Austria. The version published here is the pre-typeset version, licensed with the Free Art License.

Save Your Self

On an ominous Friday the 13th in February this year, Google vice president and Chief Internet Evangelist Vint Cerf warned of a ‘digital Dark Age’. According to Cerf, the digital heritage of the 21st century might very well become inaccessible to future generations. In an interview with BBC journalist Pallab Ghosh, Cerf shares his worries and mentions he is working on a solution to this new problem that, according to him, threatens to eradicate our history. Indeed, we are generating such a vast amount of digital information, the mere thought of having to maintain and keep data retrievable for a decade is daunting, let alone a century. We are drowning in photos, videos, mails, messages, social media streams and feeds. For most of us, staying afloat in this tsunami is hardly possible, never mind processing it into well organized, searchable and future proof formats. We’re living in the Information age, but also in the age of E-mail bankruptcy: complete deletion of an entire inbox out of despair and inability to keep up. We could loose it all. Should we be worried or relieved?

First let’s look at the risks. Is a digital Dark Age really upon us? There are quite a few obstacles to overcome when storing data long term. The main problem is that digital information, immaterial as it may seem, is in need of a physical carrier, and this carrier has a limited lifespan. Even though it feels as if we’ve made incredible technological advances in the past seventy years, we still struggle to find reliable and long lasting carriers. Another obstacle is the planned obsolescence of both hardware and software. To maximize profits the industry has set a rapid pace for updates. Both the machines that host, the software that is used to create and the formats to store the data change, often rendering the old unreadable. Which brings us to the economic factor… storing data is not cheap. It involves more than updating and maintaining hardware. You also have to keep the data retrievable. When it comes to large data sets this requires something pricey: manpower. And how do you save data that is part of an ever changing and dynamic environment such as the Internet? It supposedly never forgets but take for example the data from an online platform, it is highly context dependent and its survival relies solely on the lifespan of the company that is most likely owning the data, and its policies regarding the archiving and publication of its content. This hints towards the legal problems surrounding data storage. Who owns it and therefore has control over it? Most social media platforms for example have no legal obligation towards their users, and have complete ownership over the data users provide them with. And if all this didn’t prove to be enough of a challenge, there is the issue of data proliferation: the shear amount of data we’re trying to save is absolutely phenomenal and ever increasing.

So we risk loosing a lot, what to do? Cerf advises us to entrust our data to the cloud, there the experts can make sure it will survive the ages. But he has a vested interest. He works there. Considering the complexity of the problem at hand, having the cloud solve it for us sounds very appealing. However, the solution that Cerf is working on only addresses obsolescence, making sure the data can still be read. It doesn’t address the problems surrounding who has access to, and who has control over this data. Real clouds don’t have owners, but Cerf’s cloud does. It is owned by a company, owned by shareholders who are not known for their long term vision. Owners determine who has access, what can be accessed and how. End-user license agreements as well as terms of service can be changed, promises to not be evil can be reinterpreted, and companies can be sold to parties more reluctant to make such promises. But even if the cloud would remain open and accessible to all for centuries to come, Cerf’s solution doesn’t address the problem of if, and how, we can actually find something of value in this unfathomable amount of information in the first place.

We are obsessed. People run marathons with a High Definition video camera on their head, 300 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube every minute, and every day 70 million photos are added to Instagram, while 936 million people are actively using Facebook. Wednesday May 27 13:40 CET 3,131,968,586 people were online. We are over 3 billion strong and we’re dedicated to documenting ourselves in ever greater detail. Why?

We have become our own Big Brother. We document ourselves. From simply taking photos of life events to writing status updates on social media platforms or keeping track of how many calories we consume each day. Smart phones and mobile technology make it easy to log a lot in very little time. The Quantified Self, a movement using self tracking in order to improve daily functioning, started out in the seventies with extremely clunky wearable computers and sensors. “Self knowledge through numbers” has moved out of its slightly awkward niche and is now a very commonplace philosophy that is applied in many apps both appealing to users looking to better themselves, and to companies looking for painfully detailed profiles of their target audience. The basic premise these apps are based on is simply a new iteration of good old cybernetic thinking. Norbert Wiener, the father of cybernetics, explained 65 years ago: “that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the new communications machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback”. If you believe this to be true, and as long as you feed enough information into the computer, it will be able to replicate and predict your behavior, give you insights into the way you function and of course, help you be more efficient, and perform better. This philosophy reduces human activity to that which is quantifiable and at the same time raises the value of information to that of solid gold, something worth gathering.

The hoarding of information about ourselves in an attempt to improve our performance is only the tip of the iceberg. It doesn’t explain the obsessive dedication with which we, even post-Snowden, share intimate details about ourselves to an often not too clearly defined group of others. What possesses us? Social media tap into a really basic human need: connecting with others. So we connect, at first perhaps because of peer pressure, not joining the move to a new communication medium brings the risk of partial social exclusion. But there’s more to it. Social media connections are a way to feel less alone, but in a controlled and edited way. In Together Alone, Sherry Turkle describes how this allows us to present an ideal version of ourselves and have the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. That’s the kind of appeal that can develop into a real addiction. Why we buy into this illusion is beautifully described by Reeves and Nass. In the Media Equation they show how people import social meanings into every encounter with the computer, how for our brains interactions with computers are identical to real social relationships. Our brains, they conclude, haven’t evolved fast enough to assimilate twentieth-century technology, never mind twenty-first. We don’t feel that we’re interacting with algorithms tuned to specific business models, we are simply being social.

Still we haven’t touched the heart of our deep connection to our data: our sense of self. In Requiem for a Species, Clive Hamilton describes how our individual sense of self has become bound up with how we consume, how our desires to buy products grow out of the need to find and express a sense of self. But here is the catch: since it is impossible to find an authentic identity in products, there is a constant dissatisfaction leading to more spending, the perfect formula for economic growth. The resulting over-consumption has led to strange things: from home organizers who help us feel less oppressed by our belongings, to shopping now perceived as leisure. Advertisement has married consumption to self-completion, and the Internet is the promised land where the seekers can express, and search for, their authentic self. Thus, the more information you broadcast about yourself the better the advertisement companies can provide you with a mirror of this ideal self, a much needed confirmation while at the same time a trigger to consume more. We are hyper-consumers, our houses are bursting at the seems, our data bodies morbidly obese. Metaphors like the Cloud promise infinite liposuction, delegating the storage of our excesses to what seems like outer space not unlike our attics and self-storage boxes hide the excesses of our material consumerism. What are we so hungry to save? What do we want to transmit to the future? What are the big ideas of our time and where can they be found?

In the end, we can only speculate on what might prove valuable in the future. Next generations alone will be able to tell what our legacy will be. From the perspective of a hot and ice-less planet, no longer facing disasters but living them, our Cloud might tell a different story than we’d imagine. Our connected and information hungry lifestyles are leaving behind more than the noise we generate while socializing with the technology we surround ourselves with. The fluffy and spotless white cloud metaphor doesn’t suggest it, but our seemingly immaterial legacy has a dark side. It requires massive data centers filled with energy hungry and heat producing servers. Each and every storage device in each and every server rack in need of replacement when it starts to falter. Every thing we use to connect to it will be replaced because of a desire for the latest model, or because it was built to break fast to keep sales going. The toxic e-waste resulting from this cycle of extreme consumerism is far from being processed in a sustainable way. It’s not easy to notice the dirtier sides of digital information, they are all so neatly hidden. We are exporting most of those to the less privileged parts of the world, where labor is cheap, and where there is limited regulatory oversight into health, safety and environmental impact. The export of e-waste has resulted in extreme pollution with serious negative impact on the health of locals in for instance Ghana and China. Now that regulations are getting more strict, and because we’re running out of certain metals and mining them becomes increasingly costly, have we begun to recycle a tiny amount of old hardware in the developed world, perhaps slightly diminishing pollution elsewhere but keeping the economic inequality intact. And then there’s the production of our gadgets, in need of mining for rare earth minerals, leading to environmental disasters such as the black toxic sludge lake in Baotou, China. The factories that produce our tech, such as the ones owned by the Taiwanese Foxconn, provide their workers with tiny wages and very poor working conditions.

Cerf is warning us that we could loose everything. Should we be worried or relieved?