Data is airborne; Data is inborn: The labor of the body in technoecologies
First Monday

Data is airborne; Data is inborn: The labor of the body in technoecologies by Mel Hogan



Abstract
This article presents a feminist argument about the evolution of data storage in relation to the body — from our current state of wirelessness that relies on data centers for processing and containment, to future imaginaries about embedded and embodied storage in our DNA — as technologies of ‘soft surveillance’ that function largely due to a denial of the body tracked and perforated. It begins with an examination of the proliferation of largely invisible wireless communication technology and intersects with a new materialist feminist framework that complicates which bodies come to matter and explores how the body is repositioned in differently labored environments. This article is also an invitation to critically engage with the forces that propel and, in turn, reinforce what counts, persists, and is made visible in pervasive technoecologies, often at the expense of what remains unaccounted for or hidden. It finishes with a provocation about storing data in DNA — the genetic component of all living things — the future inborn counterpart to our current airborne data.

Contents

Electromagnetic soup
Spectres, aliens, pets, and shadows
Shields and memory
Thinking as bodies, as garbage
The template of the body

 


 

Electromagnetic soup

“For the first time in our evolutionary history, we have generated an entire secondary, virtual, densely complex environment — an electromagnetic soup — that essentially overlaps the human nervous system.” — Michael Persinger, Ph.D., neuroscientist, Laurentian University [1]

Where our data ‘lives’ and how it circulates is rarely a question we are confronted with, at least until a feature we rely on malfunctions, a gadget breaks down, or an important signal is interfered or intercepted. When our gadgets recharge and the battery icon lights up, we might for a fleeting moment consider their material ties, though rarely beyond the electricity that runs through walls and wires from its source. In wireless environments, data appears to magically sync up across our devices. The transfer of data itself feels even more mysterious because it generally requires no material connection to any visible tangible thing. This is the contemporary experience of ‘wirelessness’: there are satellites and cell towers and modems and cables, but nothing that connects a device directly or visually — no source, no outlet — to transfer data into and across platforms (Mackenzie, 2008). Data is airborne.

By exploring the coextensive environment of wireless technologies, memory and storage, surveillance, and human bodies — and a kind of ‘electromagnetic soup’ that we are feeding ourselves — we can rethink our wired technoecologies, where connectivity is either imposed (for surveillance) or regarded (and fought for) as a human right. The drive to always be ‘on’ is evident, and an entire material infrastructure is built to support this collective desire.

In effect, electrical energy — and thus our data — travels as signals via public spectrum in the form of long and short wavelengths, which in turn define low and high frequencies. Explained in lay terminology in The citizen’s guide to the airwaves (Snider, 2003), wavelength affects a signal’s “propagation characteristics” [2] which include its ability to either be absorbed or pass through human and non-human objects. The guide explains that long wavelengths (low frequencies) are less susceptible to absorption (and therefore much more valuable to broadcasters). As such, permeability and frequency have an inverse relationship; as the first decreases, the second increases. At the lowest end of the spectrum, signals traverse easily through dense objects (such as mountains and buildings) and are unaffected by wind or rain storms. At the highest end of the spectrum, only line-of-sight signals (such as television or garage door remote controls) have been successfully transmitted and received, a limitation companies are only now beginning to push back on and increase (Barr, 2015) [3].

The proliferation of wireless communication technology in the last 60 years has meant an increase in the carrying capacity of the spectrum, where, for example, 100,000 telephone calls have taken the place of one. This is a ratio that could easily be replicated again, in the next decade, as more data is crammed into a single hertz, accommodating the numerous overlapping conversations streaming down narrow bands of frequencies (Snider, 2003). This proliferation is also likely to require additional sensors and receivers to filter conversations, allowing devices to tune in and out the competition for a desired and necessary focus. More sensors also invariably mean more trackability — adjoining the ability to communicate with the consequence of being geolocated and surveilled — by immersing users in environments dense with radio frequencies (RF) and electromagnetic frequencies (EMF) (Mukherjee, 2017).

Given the relatively recent (2014) ‘Snowden revelations’ about several mass spying initiatives led by the U. S.’s National Security Agency (NSA) and the U. K.’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), invisible transfers of data are revealed (if not confirmed) to also be political apparatuses, as opposed to merely invisible, technical ones. Surveillance, though facilitated by communication technologies, also reveals the extent to which it is the body — the human hand and voice — that carries data and interacts constantly with a device that enables mass tracking and big data regeneration.

‘Soft surveillance,’ a term coined by Gary T. Marx (2005), explains that contrarily to (‘hard’) interventions that require coercion and threat, a ‘soft’ counterpart to surveillance involves persuasion and pervasiveness, that is, a sense of participating voluntarily, and an understanding that the practice is widespread rather than focused on an individual. In this way, we are in cahoots with the apparatus that labors to surveil us. We find the conveniences outweigh the costs, though these are mostly costs that become consequences not yet fully imagined. Given this complicity, it is worth exploring in more nuanced detail the place of the body in contemporary wirelessness and among the constantly renewed and rapidly obsoleted devices facilitating it and tracking our every impulse and movement. Since the details of global mass surveillance have been publicly evidenced, we can now genuinely worry and attempt to encrypt data and shield our devices. Yet, for many of us, this is still without a full understanding of the implications and entanglements of our habits, proclivities, and networks afforded by the invisible counterparts of a largely saturated wilderness — a new technoecology — we now inhabit (Marvin, 1988).

As mobile phone users, we are reliant on our devices for an increasingly large swath of daily functionalities, from communicating, socializing, navigating, reading, and gaming to logisticating and documenting our own lives. Through these operations, our bodies labor upon memory devices. Much of this is achieved and accessed without having to know much about the underlying infrastructures or technologies on which we depend (Star and Ruhleder, 1996). This is not an uncommon occurrence in terms of our day-to-day relationship to machinery and gadgetry, their engineering, or programmability. Arguably, however, because the devices we use are capable of so many functions, and so rapidly, our lack of understanding about the complexities of wireless communications is expected. In many ways, we entrust our lives to corporations to avoid being overwhelmed with the operational details. We rely on the promise of technology itself to solve the problems it creates, regardless of how ephemeral the concept of data flows may be, or how invisible its trajectories and memory deposits (Kwaymullina, et al., 2012).

A counter-logic to this might be found in feminist new materialism. In Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg manifesto” (1991), the human, nonhuman, culture, and nature are considered always already interconnected. In anticipation of later conceptualization of the Anthropocene, Haraway speaks of attempts by humans and non-humans to dominate one another — and nature — as a set of values for exploring data circulation as more than just a question of science and technology [4]. Feminist ecocritical scholarship and new materialist feminists have anchored themselves anew in this framework that emphasizes the fluidity, transcorporeality, and porosity of human and/in nature, as apparatus, assemblage, or membrane. This framework includes the question of bodies in a technoecology of sorts, increasingly constituted of RF/EMF, as well as other forms of radiation, vibrations, and (sound) waves encountered, though largely without notice or impact.

Since the 1990s, feminist new materialism [5] has helped in understanding the current environment through a transcorporeal frame: substances — the RF/EMF required to make our gadgets speak to cell towers, satellites, servers, and so on — flow in and out of our bodies, and inconspicuously so, for most people. However, for some people, mild to serious disturbances in the body — skin changes and lowered energy levels, in reaction to RF/EMF, become a sign (if not evidence) of coexistent (if not a competing) forces [6]. These bodily manifestations, however, are mere entry points into larger questions of technoecologies and (self)surveillance, whereby our wireless devices simultaneously deny and depend on the physicality of the body in order to surveil it. To borrow a concept from philosopher Nancy Tuana (2008), surveillance operates through a ‘viscous porosity’ of flesh — the individual flesh and the flesh of the world — which serves as a membrane, that in turn serves as the mediator of interaction, of “prejudgments and symbolic imaginaries, habits and embodiments.” [7] While subjective, stories of bodily reactions to RF/EMF become important considerations in the spectrum of intoxicated bodies due to the plethora of devices that damage and unevenly pollute the global landscape (Mukherjee, 2017).

It remains that the body — flesh, skin, and senses — is generally feminized in masculinist techno-utopias, where unsubstantiated ‘feelings’ or subjective sensory experiences are sidelined. Bodily manifestations in reaction to RF/EMF are at best deemed highly subjective, if not dismissed as mere hysterical overreactions. But, as argued by Rahul Mukherjee (2017), the body “affectively resonates with the electromagnetic signals emitted by cell towers, there are visceral bodily reactions to signals, and these affective encounters between humans and cell towers need to be studied,” [8] and, I would add, this at the expense of seeming hysterical. To date, the living body remains underplayed in much of our scholarly attention as well, in favour of studies about materiality, platforms, infrastructure, policy, surveillance, and other new media inquiries [9]. Anti-RF/EMF lobbyists, who critique and challenge the core of ‘progress’ as understood through these particular technological advancements, also inadvertently question the interlinked and underlying medical and pharmacological (etc.) industrial complex and the inherent promise of science and technology more broadly. To bring up the body is too big a threat, especially for the way it is bound to interfere with the rhetoric of ‘innovation’ and ‘progress.’ It means to dismantle the master’s house, if not with his tools, with a self he has too long denied [10].

RF/EMF and our bodies are in fluid entanglements with boundaries that are increasingly imaginary. By bringing the body to the fore, we can reconsider the utopic vision of the largely and intentionally ‘invisible’ communication apparatuses and infrastructures that co-constitute wireless technologies, Wi-Fi, radio-frequency identification (RFID) technologies, Bluetooth, and RF/EMF, conventionally framed — in manners revealing both a softness and a mystery — as ‘spectres’ (Arnall, 2014), ‘aliens’ (Watts and Winthereik, 2014), ‘pets’ (Dunne and Raby, 2001), ‘digital ghosts,’ and ‘shadows’ (Graham, 2010). By contrast, the move toward embedded technologies attempts to merge bodies with data, as a way of, perhaps, disposing of the evidence. Boundaries are challenged: the separateness of human from machine — the machine is endowed with human features while the human herself remains forever the imperfect machine (Wells, 2015). Embeddedness reveals the body to be machine, insofar as we understand it to be electric and magnetic. The machine, in turn, becomes more pliable, controlled, self-healing, and adaptive [11]. To this end, ‘wearables’ and — in no sleight of the imagination — ‘embeddables’ — are becoming important extensions of our already extended sensory reaches. Together, they hint at the future of data storage and at the reframing of surveillatory powers that it will require.

 

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Spectres, aliens, pets, and shadows

“We are creating a new wilderness, and we have no idea how to envision or survive it, except perhaps through the cybernetic fantasy of separating our minds from our poisoned bodies and sending them aloft to procreate in a new universe. But we live on earth and water, we are not angels yet.” — Jody Berland [12]

By asking “What if you could see Wi-Fi?” artist and researcher Nickolay Lamm, in collaboration with astrobiologist M. Browning Vogel, makes a point about the invisible nature of something that not only exists, but increasingly surrounds and imbues us [13]. To answer their question about seeing Wi-Fi, they generated visual renditions of typical city-based Wi-Fi signals (in their example, Washington D. C. is pictured). The results are colorful intersecting spheres, made to show that a Wi-Fi field can extend 65 to 100 feet in the case of off-the-shelf Wi-Fi routers. Estimating the number of these in place and their overlapping signals, Lamm and Vogel map out images that are at once suffocating and enabling of new possibilities. What these fields demonstrate is the forced coexistence (if not saturation as pollution) of RF/EMF floating around us.

RF/EMF are always everywhere pushing the human body into a new ontological dimension (Well, 2015). The framing of Lamm and Vogel’s project understands nature and objects (such as trees) as mild ‘obstructions’ to wireless signals. To this end, they propose that a signal be augmented by the use of multiple routers placed in different positions to allow the signal to effectively carry through those objects. Strangely, this project imagines an omnipresent signal to render it invisible anew, because it is the breakages and interferences among fields that draw attention to pervasiveness, and it is this pervasiveness that allows seemingly benign trackability and surveillance.

For Lamm and Vogel, the human body is not worth a mention — not as obstruction, target, or conductor of electricity — a familiar oversight within this field of research, including in artistic interventions. Most attempts by media practitioners and artists who visualize Wi-Fi fail to properly account for the body. Luis Hernan, a doctoral researcher at ArchaID, Newcastle University, uses LED lights to make Wi-Fi ‘spectres’ visual through colors and intensities in a project he calls the Digital ethereal [14]. Hernan’s project is stunning. But again, with a focus on simply illustrating Wi-Fi, the project tends to gloss over the ways in which these ‘spectres’ coexist and perforate the bodies they haunt.

Similarly, Timo Arnall — said to have inspired the previous two — critically exposes RF/EMF in relation to the environment and acknowledges the human body as part of a complex network. While his focus is still decidedly in the realm of the technical through an aesthetic rendering of the visualization processes, in Arnall’s Immaterials project: Light painting Wi-Fi, Wi-Fi networks in urban spaces are exposed using long-exposure photographs to ‘light paint’ signals [15]. While the painterly approach certainly raises awareness about the electromagnetic fields we inhabit constantly and to varying intensities, it may confound the way light waves and radio waves travel and potentially carry data. Scientists have recently released details of their ability to ‘twist radio beams’ to send data in a manner previously done with twisted light. The advantage to radio waves, as reported, is in their robustness and ability to cope with obstacles between sender and receiver as well as to remain unaffected by “atmospheric turbulence as optics.” [16] Despite this, and the interest in the physical and biological counterparts shown by Arnall’s interventions and the sciences more broadly, more needs to be done to showcase the complicity and conductivity of humans in the realm of surveillance and self-surveillance that predominates our living technoecologies (Brandom, 2014).

To this end, media scholars may recall the ‘antenna tree’ explored by Lisa Parks in 2010. She presents the “antenna disguised as a tree” used to “soften the severity of the steel tower with botanical plastics,” to make an important point about the ‘symptom’ of hiding technology (of private infrastructure in particular) to naturalize the processes and possibly diminish awareness about network technologies [17]. A more recent example of this is the transceiver equipment for mobile communication mounted atop an artificial palm tree near a venue of the Sochi 2014 Winter Games in Russia (MacKinnon, 2013). The concealment strategies function similarly: weak but clever deviations from effective solutions to appease environmentalists, scholars, and activists concerned with the impact of RF/EMF on the human body, surveillance, and other policies and infrastructural concerns.

While the fake palm trees used in Russia camouflaged the unsightly hardware of the equipment, they overtly failed to match the environment of the place, where pine or maple would have made more sense in terms of actual disguise (Khrennikov, 2014). Aestheticizing the problem of technology with ‘nature,’ as per the antenna tree, palm tree transceiver, or colourful light spectrums, demonstrates a plurality of confusions about what constitutes the future, and progress, as a movement forward in time disconnected from space and the environment. But, looking to the environment in these ways also foretells a desire to store data in the most basic component parts of nature, and possibly also to reduce the gap between data transmissions and its storage.

As technologies develop, steeped in ideals of surveillance and control, so too does their camouflage. For example, drones designed and disguised as birds and insects show just how quickly our urge to conceal technology, as nature and/or natural, occurs. As part of the hidden infrastructures, these animal-mimicking drones are formed as counter-mnemonic devices and as quiet intruders in an increasingly networked and pro-surveillance wilderness (Lennard, 2013). To this effect, perhaps, drones will come to provide the best evidence of our “signal-saturated sky” by drawing from what Mark Andrejevic and Kelly Gates call “a sea of electromagnetically encoded data that can be captured, processed, refined, and perhaps put to use.” [18] Drones — maybe more so than most technologies — render measurable the data from the electromagnetic soup through which our bodies wade and wander.

 

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Shields and memory

Shields, wearables, and embeddables that ‘protect’ the body against RF/EMF exposure are coming to market. These products are simultaneously responding to the threats of wireless technology and reinstating the body as itself electric and magnetic. Clothing lines, phone cases, and Wi-Fi blocking wallpaper or paint are all readily available to shield RF/EMF, in one direction or the other. By blocking out RF/EMF, however, shielded devices risk becoming evermore accepted, if not embedded, into our everyday motions, thus enabling self-monitoring and mass surveillance. This is not a new problem. The progression and domestication of various espionage and tracking tools have demonstrated throughout history a cultural adaptation of devices that first (seem to) serve their users but eventually covertly spy on them. The opposite is just as true. Espionage tactics and tools grew from passive to active through their ability to integrate memory processes into the technologies used. Most of these devices emerged from, and were immersed in, ideologies of colonialism and war, discovered and developed alongside radiotelegraphy, radio waves, radar, radio broadcast, and later, the Internet.

From the Soviet Union in 1945, a vibrating diaphragm that allowed for covert listening by reflecting radio frequencies became a precursor to the RFID because of its passive reception of external waves (ISECOM, 2008). It took almost 20 years for a radio transponder with memory capacity to be developed, and another 10 years for the first patent to be granted for the RFID technology, as we more commonly use it today (Walton, 1983). RFID would ultimately combine broadcast and radar technologies, allowing for signals to be tracked and mapped as moving targets. In the 1990s, the U. S. saw a rapid implementation of RFIDs to various ends — as well as similar projects, such as key fobs and other ‘security’ devices that simultaneously track, unlock, and identify their users. This same techno-cultural approach would then apply to our communications technologies, a means by which companies could track the whereabouts of their products, but also trace and tail consumers, through data linkability (Appelbaum, 2012). The progression is notable in the growing potential of networked memory as both storage and retrieval technologies.

The Internet, developed largely as a military technology in response to the perceived threats of the Cold War, is often falsely espoused as being ‘nuclear-proof’ because of its ever-changing and ultimately anarchic model, where packets bounce from node to node with equal authority. But, post-apocalyptical Internet fantasies aside, memory is both antithetical and inherent to the Internet, where files exist in various temporalities, replicated and duplicated, cached and copied, and made redundant ad nauseam [19]. As Berland wrote of bacteria and other pathogens, technologies of surveillance are “hoarders of memory” that adapt to survive: “they replicate that memory as they multiply in new bodies.” [20] Similarly, how data are linked and tracked makes it increasingly difficult to disentangle ourselves from the Web, or to digitally disappear. As revealed in the last few years, and particularly by debates over the ‘right to be forgotten’ and by NSA whistleblowers Snowden and William Binney, even when our communication devices are turned off, the data they generate continue to make sense of their users by way of amalgamation over multiple domains, and by being inherently ‘tapable’ and trackable devices (Greenwald, 2014; Duverger, 2015).

Surveillance-meets-fashion in Zoltan Csaki’s branding of ‘1984’ Stealth fashion for the under-surveillance society — wearables that function as shields, blocking off connectivity to allow users to transport their devices (phones) without being hacked or tracked [21]. Conversely, to shield bodies from devices, and in effect protecting bodies from RF/EMF exposure, is the work of Joseph Guidry’s Cloaq apparel (as well as numerous similar products appearing online) [22]. As such, shields from RF/EMF are not necessarily of the same political orientation as those protecting the gadgets from hacks or spying. However, together they evidence the ‘designed’ nature of politics and their political commitments. And, regardless of the political stance adopted by product designers, an acknowledgment of invisible signals is present through either surveillance shields or body shields — whether for deflecting, ingesting, or recasting.

Rather than outright rejecting the embeddedness of these technologies in our lives, both tactics reinstate the body as a crucial mechanism in data circulation, mobility, memory, and network formation. The tension therefore lies in the necessary denial of the body, to be simultaneously tracked and shielded. Such a denial of the body — at least as discrete or distinct from technology — is being utilized in various attempts to hybridize communication. Arguably, this is a move away from Susan Elizabeth Ryan’s (2014) ‘dress acts,’ where she suggests that the behavior of wearing is bound up with the materiality of garments and devices. Examples include ‘embeddables,’ where the technology (sensors and algorithms) is neither felt nor seen by its wearer or others, but constantly tracked by machines (computers and databases). Leakages and porosity function and penetrate the body more like fumes, noise, and radiation — or, as Max Liboiron (2014) puts it, ‘slow disasters’ and before that, Rob Nixon (2011), with ‘slow violence’. By probing the pace and porosity of the body in relation to RF/EMF, as a technology, we may become better able to understand and critically engage with forces that propel and reinforce what counts, persists, dominates, and is made visible in utopic technoecologies, often at the expense of what remains hidden or unaccounted for.

On the surface, trackability and network formation seem to inform the grid of possibilities for surveillance; but there are several other layers, tucked into the body itself. These layers reflect and resonate with capitalist labor flows; workers in India, Pakistan, Ghana, Nigeria, and China, for example, whose bodies are exposed and in some ways constituents of the minerals and toxins of media, are important registers of this tech economy and its network. The role of international trade agreements, labor regulations and laws, divergent cultural practices, and the global media flows of covert waste management and disposal all become part of the ecologies of surveillance and/as communication [23]. In technoecologies that currently dominate the landscape, the body is dismissed while simultaneously construed as dismantler, target, and transmitter. We are reconstructed in new media imaginaries as unmarked ‘users’ — but we are being used — either as anonymous aggregates feeding into endless pools of big data and algorithms, or as disposable sponges for toxic waste. Bodies are therefore reinforced as the mediating agents between public and private spheres, increasingly surveilled and made coherent in and through the networks they generate (Lovink, 2014).

Of course, not all bodies are assigned the same role in this technoecology: some mine for minerals, some form the armies that control exportation, some design and prototype, some manage or operate transportation, some form lines in shiftwork to assemble or dismantle, some advertise and sell, and some buy and use. These bodies are differently situated and differently privileged in the narrative of technological advancements and of surveillance. The intersection of queer, post-colonial, and disabilities studies is most adept at addressing the ways in which futurity is always already informed by the unmarked neutral body, one that is enhanced by technology, though not controlled by it, but a body that is certainly not made vulnerable or ill as a result.

 

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Thinking as bodies, as garbage

“There is only misery at both ends of the digital technology supply chain.” — Adam Fish (2014, via Twitter)

As numerous media scholars have now noted, technologies deemed obsolete are shipped to developing nations under the guise of reusable goods through international recycling programs, but ultimately they serve to distance the Western world from its compulsory consumption habits (Maxwell and Miller, 2008; Hogan, 2015a). In turn, those who pay the price are found on both ends: first in war-torn countries, in a perpetual quest of precious rare minerals that constitute our communication technologies; and second, by those who are charged with recycling by melting defunct devices in order to salvage those same — and often extremely toxic — elements. The distance and invisibility required to maintain our technoecology does not end there, nor is it particularly new to technological waste, and it is arguably entrenched by the surveillatory powers that be. This is the new techno-wilderness: data circulates invisibly, bound to a hugely wasteful “techno-trash” economy [24]. Surveillance continues into the dumpster.

If we consider that dirt is matter out of place, as Mary Douglas (1966) once proposed, what is ‘dirty’ violates a collective preconceived ideal of order and belonging, proper placement and polish. Matter out of place, however, when thought of as toxic fumes, viruses, secondhand smoke, bacteria in drinking water, or noise pollution, demonstrates rather that as invisible ‘dirt’ permeates the body, little is evoked or provoked directly by such a redirection of matter (Chen, 2011). Instead, we conceive of RF/EMF less as redirected matter and more as an invisible technology that is constitutive — if not natural — of our urban wired and surveilled environments.

How humans are bound up with their environments has been assessed on various levels, from the practical to the mythical. Carolyn Marvin, among others, has documented the powers of the body as electric and magnetic. She explains the electrically transformed body in the late 1800s (in England), ranging from (now strange and obscure) medical interventions to sexual enhancements, by way of mild and sometimes self-inflicted electrocution. Martindale (2004) also documents the magic of electricity and the belief that somehow the human was enhanced by it. A trend that started in the 1920s, showing that electricity could influence the behavior of individual cells, was later extrapolated to having curative effects on the body, then altogether dismissed and disproven by modern science, then revived again in the last decade. The idea is that an electric field promotes healing, by influencing the behavior of nearby cells, though ‘the science’ of it remains unknown. To this day, the Pentagon continues to fund research into electroshock therapy and transcranial magnetic stimulation to improve alertness, for military ends (Locke, 2014). The flipside, as also documented by Marvin, was the “electrical phenomena” understood as a “source of bodily distress and disequilibrium” brought on by an environment increasingly saturated with communication technologies [25].

According to John Scanlan, the “creation of garbage is the result of separation — of the desirable from the unwanted” in an attempt to positively reorder our environment to make it conform to an ideal that derives from a certain “economy of values.” [26] As objects become part of landfills they are transformed; they are “ripped apart, atomized, crushed, compacted, and finally covered up with soil or clay,” [27] offering a homogenizing mirror of capitalism by virtue of displacing responsibility and, quite literally, burying the logics of rapid obsolescence. The banality of waste “management” as a problem, as Myra Hird (2014) frames it, moves us toward “terminal capitalism” dominated by apathy, contamination, and saturation [28]. The only “objecting publics” (a concept she borrows from Stengers, 2010) become the landfills themselves — leaking, evolving, morphing, and mutating bacteria [29]. As non-human protesters, however, nature itself is without concern for the uneven socio-ecological and economic conditions and consequences to humans and bodies.

Together these scholars speak to the fraught and most often unproductive divide between body and environment, which enables and often justifies our rapid adoption of newer, more efficient gadgets as extensions of our capacities rather than as extensions of our environments and bodies. For example, the infamous ‘cloud’ (of ‘cloud computing’) may be theoretically limitless in terms of its capacity for storage, but its physical containers cover vast spaces — with server farms in often dislocated geographies. A server farm can occupy the surface of several football fields and demand a lot in terms of natural resources (Cubitt, et al., 2011; Johnson, 2014; Hogan, 2015b). Data centers are out-of-site monstrosities that further enable people — users — to deny the materiality of their habits and the consequences these have on their surroundings. Similarly, cell phone campaigns that lure buyers with offers of new gadgets on a yearly basis (if not shorter cycles) mask the detrimental effects of such marketing, never confronting users with the end place of their once-loved devices. Technological landfill of this kind is the fastest growing garbage we are producing globally; its piles are the most material and the most toxic.

Increasingly, media environments should be scrutinized by scholars at the cellular, genetic, atomic, mineral, and microbiological level. In between digging for minerals and disposing of toxic creations of our own making, a complex technoecology persists. This space is where ‘the cloud’ seems to run itself — though on a life preserver of sorts — with its data constantly refreshed and its machines constantly cooled to ensure the continued pulse of its blinking lights. Satellites float above and cell towers are erected, directing calls and transferring data. New ‘generations’ of gadgets come out as speedy revisions, boasting a more reliable network connection at faster speeds. The user is only asked to recharge and renew her devices, not to engage in its wider implications and entanglements, and never to think of her body as receiver or interceptor of RF/EMF. There is no space to comment on the inconveniences of conveniences and there is no longer time to notice the ill effects of technology on the body. The repercussions of this is that our current understanding of the environment encourages surveillance as a mode of being that is outside the body; there is no way to avoid generating data as we communicate, travel, or document our lives.

 

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The template of the body

“Life, as I have been learning for a decade, is something that gets made.” — Sophia Roosth [30]

With the ongoing and exponential growth of data, the market for digital devices and the material infrastructure that support this ‘datafied’ (i.e., constantly generating data trails) way of living are always expanding. Based on this, it would seem that the world would one day reach an impasse — or be covered entirely in data centers. Globally, we upload and transmit upward of 2.5 quintillion bytes of data per day — a somewhat meaningless figure given its dramatic size [31]. Put differently, every two years we create almost as much data as all previous years put together. This will only increase with the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT), the data for real-time streaming for finances, dating, driving apps, virtual/augmented reality, wearables, gaming, and so on. And the body itself has become a great source for data generation: from facial recognition, ear scanning, heartbeat monitoring, fingerprinting, iris scanning, vein mapping, gait analysis, typing patterns, and voice recognition to DNA identification.

The scale of data we are about to produce is massive and will require a new way to conceive of storage that is both static and dynamic: static archiving for posterity and dynamic storage for transience. As a society, we have already moved from magnetic tape to compact disks (CD) to hard drives (HD), among other types of material support for data storage, and are now experimenting with quartz and DNA. With DNA, storage is using the very fabric of life for sequencing and encoding. Rather than external storage that relies on technologies for decoding, and tremendous energy to maintain, scientists are now experimenting with putting binary data in biological form. The world’s first existing code — the letters assigned to DNA: “ACTG” — is estimated to be able to contain all the world’s data in a two-meter cube’s worth of space: “physically, the DNA carrying all that information is no bigger than a speck of dust.” [32] So long as it is kept in a cold, dark, and dry environment, DNA can be stored forever (Anchordoquy and Molina, 2007). As explained by John Timmer (2012), DNA is an efficient form of storage (on a DNA chip), and “to get the data back out, the researchers just used standard, high-throughput DNA sequencing” [33] — a kind of technology that should always be available, or at least re-creatable, and also always improved upon given that it is for research into the very foundation of life of earth.

Already, however, DNA is deterministic — from tailoring treatments of diseases to locating ‘criminals’ in a database — the gene becomes both the medium and the message (Kay, 2000; Ledford, 2017). As speculated by Yuval Harari (2017) in Homo deus, this intermingling of humanity and data might come to over-determine the value of humans, relegating the concept of humanity to algorithms and automation/machines that will know more about humans than they can process themselves. The direction of the archive, as embedded with communication and data itself, is one of a massive feedback loop that eradicates the notion of human as embodied, in favour of human as mere and mediocre concept, no longer the dominant processor (brain) on the planet. It will become impossible to disconnect or unplug. There will be no ‘offgrid’ and no space unsaturated by RF/EMF. No bodies, just code: ACTG and exascale supercomputers, as the trace of human existence. But of course, this is the case only when we fail to consider that the body itself already serves as a repository of memory, which is passed down through genetics.

Very recent scientific discoveries further complicate the notion of the body as a template and code — namely CRISPR — a gene editing tool (Hammond, et al., 2016). While editing the genome is not a new concept, the promise of CRISPR is in what it reveals about the foundations of memory storage and its circulation. Nested in the four-letter code of DNA is not only the message but also a kind of recipe that renders the container more or less obsolete. Rather than having to store memory per se, in this conceptual framework you need only have access to the sequence to recreate the memory. Not unlike binary code or language, it is the assemblage of component parts that form a coherent message; however, unlike anything that has come before, it holds the potential to bring back to life that which has become extinct, or is considered permanently disappeared or destroyed (think: woolly mammoth) (Webster and Wheeler, 2017; 2015). For now, CRISPR is directed at interventions within the human sphere — to cure disease and perfect the human (based on historically specific and societal values) — but pondering its wider applications to include the storage of memory more broadly and adjoining its current medical uses with scientists working with DNA as alternative storage could become the future of ‘the future,’ one where time is blended. In this highly probable futuristic scenario, the labor of memory is deeply inborn, and survives for its own sake. The merger of body, data, surveillance apparatus, and memory into the same basic structure (of DNA) will shift all data into the sphere of bioinformation and/as dataism (Kirby, 2014; Lischer-Katz, 2017).

Dataism is the idea that data is more valuable than humans, or, that humans are somewhat useless without data. But something else is also at play, beyond the accumulation, aggregation, and management of data. When we conceive of DNA as storage, we are thinking of it as a (final) technical solution, one that makes rational sense — we can argue persuasively for its density, stability, and value as storage, without necessarily accounting for or confronting the larger implications and meanings embedded in the process. Those implications include the fact that the data center industrial complex is largely built off unequal contributions — from rare earth mining, to manufacturing, to design, to sales, to distribution, to recycling e-waste. We cannot look at those infrastructural disparities without also looking at how those processes devalue certain bodies and uphold other bodies as entitled to the conveniences and momentum afforded by a global culture of data. The logic of the industrial complex is the same prevailing logic guiding the push for DNA: a system that profits from exploiting certain people for the benefit of others. The merger of big data and DNA could become a kind of new eugenics, and not by overtly evil intention, but rather by having large-scale apparatuses reflect back to us what we are (Paglen, 2016; Levin, 2017).

With a growing consumer genomics market, through both the voluntary and compulsory, DNA is a tool and force for mass surveillance. Big data services like 23andMe, Ancestry, Family Tree DNA, and Geno 2.0 (among others) allow you trace your ‘family history’, your ‘ethnic mix’, your ‘predispositions’, while also contributing to the wider discussion of ‘human origins’ and the ‘collective past’. DNA is also widely collected by immigration and criminal justice systems and stored as big data, and, as such, is part of the fabric of our global communications and control infrastructure. However, as astutely summed by Elliot Hosman (2015), “We have to grapple with the realization that server farms aren’t just for phone records: DNA, the code of life, can also be analyzed, synthesized, and applied in innumerable contexts for a range of political and corporate ends.” [34] Of course, just as the technoecology currently in place relies on a highly gendered, racialized, and class-based formation of second-class citizen to uphold the system, DNA only further and more dramatically encodes this into the apparatus. And, just as Google is not a search engine and Facebook is not a social networking platform, but rather big data aggregators funded by advertising, personal genome collection sites are also not exactly the self-discovery tools that they purport to be [35]. Like Google and Facebook, their function is to hoard personal data (Seife, 2013), bringing us back to the notion of our modern-day infrastructure as a technology for surveillance that is then resold to us for our own health and safety.

From airborne to inborn, data is being collected for ends currently unknown, and of course these are to be largely determined, in an ongoing way, by the environmental and political powers that be. What this paper has identified is that there are certain interlocking logics at play that shape the contours of progress — with new materialist feminism asking the important question of just what are we progressing towards, and to whose benefit — by focusing on the labor of infrastructure, memory, and surveillance. End of article

 

About the author

Mél Hogan is an Assistant Professor (Environmental Media) in the Department of Communication, Media and Film at the University of Calgary.
Web: http://melhogan.com/
E-mail: mhogan [dot] ucalgary [dot] ca

 

Notes

1. Editorial note: The hermeneutic value of the passage in this epigraph is beyond question, though it has been widely quoted online without proper citation. A sincere, but ultimately unsuccessful, effort was made to locate its provenance among the vast number of publications attributed to Dr. Persinger.

2. Snider, 2003, p. 3.

3. The spectrum is segmented and bands are allocated and licensed to different services, like radio, telephone and television. On the receiving end, devices have varying capacities to discriminate against competing signals. In order, on the electromagnetic spectrum are: radio waves (overlapping with) microwaves, infrared, visible light, ultraviolet, x-ray, and gamma rays, of which the higher bands can harm human bodies if exposure is repeated.

4. Stengers, 2015, 2010; Oppermann, 2013; Swyngedouw, 2014; Parikka, 2013.

5. Bennett, 2010; Alaimo, 2010, 2008; Barad, 2007; Haraway, 1991; Shildrick, 2015.

6. ‘Electromagnetic hypersensitivity,’ as the condition has been labeled, in itself alludes to an overreaction, experiences of the body rather than imposed onto it. As a sister phenomenon, the so-called ‘nature-deficit disorder’ reinstates the lack of serious attention the body is given, differentiated in this case from its environment.

7. Tuana, 2008, p. 199.

8. Mukherjee, 2017, p. 22.

9. I am primarily in this camp, as a researcher of data centers.

10. In reference to Lorde, 1984, see http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminist-science/ and http://mutablematter.wordpress.com/tag/feminism/, accessed 1 February 2016.

11. Is it no wonder then, that the server center floor that holds the replacement gear is called the pharmacy? Or that we commonly say our gadgets ‘die’ when they no longer ‘turn on’? Or that we give interfaces new ‘skins’? Or that our computers need ‘virus’ protection?

12. Berland, 2005, p. 105.

13. Lamm, 2013, n. pag. The images are on view at http://nickolaylamm.com/art-for-clients/what-if-you-could-see-wifi/.

14. Images are displayed at http://www.digitalethereal.com/.

15. Images available at http://www.elasticspace.com/2013/09/the-immaterials-project.

16. Intel Labs University Research Office and the DARPA InPho, 2014, n. pag.

17. Parks, 2010, n. pag.

18. Andrejevic and Gates, 2014, p. 185.

19. This section emerged from an IM jabber chat with Sarah T. Roberts on 11 January 2015 and also from a comment made on a blog post she wrote (2011) discussing the shift of memory from local to cloud, where the cloud was seen as a mainframe computer with more memory.

20. Berland, 2005, p. 104.

21. See https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/zoltancsaki/1984-stealth-fashion-for-the-under-surveillance-so.

22. See https://www.indiegogo.com/projects/cloaq-apparel-radiation-protection#/.

23. McLaughlin and Johnson, 2007; Gabrys, 2011; Hird, 2013; Salzinger, 2003; Mayer and Cannon, 2015; Parikka, 2013; Noble, 2016.

24. Hogan and Zeffiro, 2014, n. pag.

25. Marvin, 1988, p. 133.

26. Scanlan, 2004, p. 15.

27. Trudel, 2012, n. pag.

28. Hird, 2014, n. pag.

29. Hird, 2014, n. pag.

30. Roosth, 2007, p. 176.

31. StorageNewsletter.com, 2012, n. pag. A quintillion bytes of data could also be notated as a numeral one followed by 18 zeros. This means that 2.5 quintillion bytes is equivalent to 57.5 billion 32 GB iPads.

32. Amos, 2013, n. pag.

33. Timmer, 2012, n. pag.

34. Hosman, 2015, n. pag. Elliot Hosman is Senior Program Associate at the Center for Genetics and Society.

35. One of the founders of 23andMe, Anne Wojcicki, is presently married to Sergei Brin, the founder of Google!

 

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Editorial history

Received 22 January 2018; accepted 7 February 2018.


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This paper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Data is airborne; Data is inborn: The labor of the body in technoecologies
by Mél Hogan.
First Monday, Volume 23, Number 3 - 5 March 2018
http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/8285/6650
doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.5210/fm.v23i3.8285





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