We are living in the digital age. Today, technology is accessible and available to almost everybody. Its omnipresence creates the supranational connections that are not limited to any borders, territories, governance or nationalities. This global infrastructure seems accidental and deliberate at the same time. A result of the activity of users who unconsciously contribute to the expansion of such network on a daily basis. As our everyday is being deeply absorbed by technology in its various mobile forms that affects our actions and behaviours, it seems absolutely intentional at once.
The Quantified Self
By entering the digital reality and becoming users, we even seem to transcend our physical instances.
What we do is even more meaningful: we quantify ourselves, we turn into digits, statistics, values and it might eventually bring more comparability to mankind. The daily incorporation of technology into data acquisition is called the Quantified Self. It is a self-description in a specific moment, location and setting. It is powerful and complex information. The way the Quantified Self is communicated is mainly limited to usurpatory proclamation of “self-empowerment,” a way to be healthier, stronger or more efficient. It is because the methods of self-quantification are deployed mostly in the fitness tracking apps or health monitoring devices.
You are just a number. Can you become healthier and happier by logging every snore, step and mood swing?
The Quantified Self does not only provide information on an individual—it is complex systemic data on actions, needs, surroundings, and other factors. It gives an overview of interactions that are unlimited. Yet, the task of the Quantified Self is not to provide all the data, because we might end up “grotesquely-overindividuated” (as written by Benjamin H. Bratton), but rather to reduce systemic complexity.
Data is the only information of consequence.
The avalanche of data created and shared is overwhelming. It is us, no one else, who expand the global data infrastructure.
From 2013 to 2015 there was a 2 year doubling cycle and it almost reached the level of 8 zetabyttes of data. Unintentionally we create a network whose size we can neither imagine nor control. We might be on the edge of a technological abyss. Is data the Frankenstein of the 21st century?
Technology as an apparatus of power and control
Technology has always been a tool to shape states and geopolitics, and to control societies, but it remains in the authority of a state. It serves governments to better operate internal and external affairs. Public relations, lobbying, law, marketing and advertising employ data. It’s a powerful tool. Is it means of discovering the truth or means of deceit? Connected society is today a global political issue.
Estonia has applied modern IT solutions to its governance to facilitate the state’s interaction with citizens. It’s entirely dependent on the state and the rhetoric behind this upgrade is strikingly similar to the one used in the Quantified Self—we read on the website: “Estonia is using advanced technical solutions to create a stronger economy, a better community and a brighter future.” It is about the empowerment not of an individual, but of a state itself.
The Chinese government has been transforming its governance to bring it into the 21st century. It aims to link the ID number of every Chinese citizen to the tax system and possibly in the future with one’s credit history, social security and so on. Eventually, Chinese might become nothing more, than just a number, a series of banking transactions, message threads and GPS location.
The Stack, processing versus understanding
The planetary-scale computation is not a fiction of the near future. We have been living in the quantified realm since the very moment we introduced the modern technologies into our everyday life. It is a fact that we resist to acknowledge. The supranational data network should be regarded as designable platform that is going to change our concept of geopolitics, governance and society. Citizens have been evolving into citizens–users, social units outlined by self-quantification. Benjamin H. Bratton, a media theoretician, singles out six significant layers of the planetary-scale computation that creates a coherent and independent whole. He calls it The Stack and he outlines a new theory for the age of global computation and algorithmic governance. How such infrastructure might decenter the conventional ideas about political-geographic norms?
An accidental megastructure, one that we are building both deliberately and unwittingly and is in turn building us in its own image.
How data infrastructure might change our concepts of geography, politics, economy, identity, territories, borders and governance?
ae.tax explores the near-future reality where data is a new layer, such as air, land, and water. This project investigates the possibility of data becoming basic representation of humans. The global data gathering results in creating the supranational network that is the output of people’s activity. It is the base for the sociopolitical fiction of ae.tax. Harnessing today’s enormous data is a way to prepare for what inevitably comes next: even bigger data.
The platform is a result of the planetary-scale computation. As Bratton puts it, it is a system of subterranean infrastructure, constituted with software, hardware and citizens—users. More importantly, it is not a sovereign platform for states to imply, but an independent machine that absorbs functions of state and work of the governance.
The machine as a state generates new forms of sovereignty instead of employing the traditional models. It contradicts the Westphalian sovereignty that is the principle of international law. It states that each nation state has sovereignty over its territory and domestic affairs, to the exclusion of external powers. It is the rule of non-interference in another country’s domestic affairs. The Westphalian sovereignty serves as a simplified political-cartographic diagram of a state, where both the governance and citizenship are closely linked to specific territory. ae.tax is different. You qualify not because of location, but consciously and unconsciously providing personal data.
One might argue that such platform brings more justice and that digital world offers radical democracy with prevalent equality (as naively suggested almost 20 years ago by John Perry Barlow in A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace).
How the planetary-scale computation and global data infrastructure can redesign our notion of a state?
The project explores and investigates the possible evolution of a state in the era of omnipresent technology. It is a sociopolitical fiction expressed through visual communication. The use of the visual language in the project, resembling commercial corporate identity, is to point out the blurred lines between state and corporation. Governments already make use of social software to “improve” citizens’ life quality.
Is it the future we want?
Algorithmic governance seems not only plausible, but to some extent reasonable as well. It could facilitate the functioning of a state. Yet, we’ve never considered it to be entirely independent and unsupervised. We have been infatuated with the uncritical drive behind technology progress, when it is always assumed to be good and capable of solving any problem. Suddenly, we might have to surrender to machines, platforms, and algorithms. Do we want to become citizens caught in the algorithms which would define our realities and identities?