Big Data as Drama
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Big Data as Drama

To comprehend the difference medium makes, this article proposes the following: Because of changes in how we (humans and machines) read and write, we are now characters in a universe of dramas putatively called Big Data. This universe, which comprises endless prequels and sequels, is coproduced transnationally by corporations and states through intertwining databases of actions and unique identifiers. Our roles change constantly because of evolving plotlines determined by actions of others like us (people who like us and who are determined to be like us). As characters, we are never singular, but singular-plural; I am YOU.

As characters, we are not—nor do we have to be—marionettes; also we do not have to accept the current terms of our deployment. Indeed, by acknowledging and engaging the wonderful creepiness of networks, we can displace this series of dramas with another, in which we play with the myriad and constant actions necessary to maintaining networks. To do so, we need a politics and theory of networked actionsas-speech because, in this series our actions—or more precisely, our mainly nonconscious or habitual ones—count more than our words. Constantly captured and compared to others, our moves determine past and future narratives. The goal: to move this drama away from preemption and predictable yet rampant consumption towards political contestation and sustainable habituation.

To help develop such a politics and theory, this article, which revisits themes from my Updating to Remain the Same: Habitual New Media, outlines the rise of this universe and a possible way forward through repetition and publicity.1 Revealing how new media’s democratic promise—universal participation—has become the grounds for its threat—ubiquitous surveillance—this argument highlights the gap between participation and democracy, speech and empowerment. Refusing notions of privacy that reduce it to a form of house arrest, this article emphasizes the public quality of network exchanges and articulates the need for public rights, rather than domesticity. It ends with the work of DREAM activists, who risk everything to occupy public space by repeating and embracing collective actions. [End Page 363]

i. new media: the mass medium to end mass media

New media promised to end mass media by dissolving the mass: by replacing the mass with the new and the YOU, for new media is a function of YOU: N(YOU) media. New media relentlessly emphasizes YOU, from Youtube to Facebook’s constant inquiry: “What’s on your mind?” McLuhan’s (in)famous declaration—that the medium in the electronic age is the mess/age or mass/age—no longer holds: in the digital age, the medium is YOU.

This YOU—this loss of mass identity and embrace of singular yet plural individuality—grounds new media’s alleged revolutionary potential. John Perry Barlow’s legendary “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which coincided with the “Day in Cyberspace” event in 1996, encapsulates this nicely. Addressing “governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel,” he states:

I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. We in cyberspace … are creating a world that all may enter without privilege or prejudice accorded by race, economic power, military force, or station of birth. We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.2

This declaration, which described the Internet as “cyberspace,” a fictional concept coined by William Gibson in 1983, defined it as a free and fearless space in which race/gender/class/sexuality/power did not matter.3 From the perspective of 2015—in the light of Edward Snowden’s revelations and the rise of Big Data—Barlow’s vision seems hopelessly naive; but this vision was naive (perhaps deliberately so) in the mid-1990s. (We have yet to fully grapple with the fact that the Internet, a technology that had existed for decades, became new in the mid- to late 1990s, when it became conflated with...