Your Data Is Diminishing Your Freedom

Interview by David Marchese: “It’s no secret — even if it hasn’t yet been clearly or widely articulated — that our lives and our data are increasingly intertwined, almost indistinguishable. To be able to function in modern society is to submit to demands for ID numbers, for financial information, for filling out digital fields and drop-down boxes with our demographic details. Such submission, in all senses of the word, can push our lives in very particular and often troubling directions. It’s only recently, though, that I’ve seen someone try to work through the deeper implications of what happens when our data — and the formats it’s required to fit — become an inextricable part of our existence, like a new limb or organ to which we must adapt. ‘‘I don’t want to claim we are only data and nothing but data,’’ says Colin Koopman, chairman of the philosophy department at the University of Oregon and the author of ‘‘How We Became Our Data.’’ ‘‘My claim is you are your data, too.’’ Which at the very least means we should be thinking about this transformation beyond the most obvious data-security concerns. ‘‘We’re strikingly lackadaisical,’’ says Koopman, who is working on a follow-up book, tentatively titled ‘‘Data Equals,’’ ‘‘about how much attention we give to: What are these data showing? What assumptions are built into configuring data in a given way? What inequalities are baked into these data systems? We need to be doing more work on this.’’

Can you explain more what it means to say that we have become our data? Because a natural reaction to that might be, well, no, I’m my mind, I’m my body, I’m not numbers in a database — even if I understand that those numbers in that database have real bearing on my life. The claim that we are data can also be taken as a claim that we live our lives through our data in addition to living our lives through our bodies, through our minds, through whatever else. I like to take a historical perspective on this. If you wind the clock back a couple hundred years or go to certain communities, the pushback wouldn’t be, ‘‘I’m my body,’’ the pushback would be, ‘‘I’m my soul.’’ We have these evolving perceptions of our self. I don’t want to deny anybody that, yeah, you are your soul. My claim is that your data has become something that is increasingly inescapable and certainly inescapable in the sense of being obligatory for your average person living out their life. There’s so much of our lives that are woven through or made possible by various data points that we accumulate around ourselves — and that’s interesting and concerning. It now becomes possible to say: ‘‘These data points are essential to who I am. I need to tend to them, and I feel overwhelmed by them. I feel like it’s being manipulated beyond my control.’’ A lot of people have that relationship to their credit score, for example. It’s both very important to them and very mysterious…(More)”.