Canadian Journal of CommunicationVol 44 (2019) 311–313 ©2019 Canadian Journal of Communication Corporation http://doi.org/10.22230/cjc.2019v44n3e3675
Chris Russill, Carleton University
In April of this year, the Earth was saved. Not saved in the sense of an apocalypse avoided, saved in a library … of sorts.
The Earth was backed up on a nickel disk, placed on a SpaceX rocket, and crashed into our newest data repository: the moon. Described popularly as a library or archive by the tech press, this record of life on Earth transforms our natural satellite into a storage medium and extends the politics of data to the cosmos. While the extraction of what counts as representative of life on Earth raises interesting questions, the unintended crash of the lunar vehicle and probable fragmentation of the archive is the most telling aspect of the scheme. In this fantasy of exiting Earth, human government is routinely figured as an improperly executed, or “crashing,” program. Yet, having lost their library, the Arch Mission Foundation called a government agency, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), to locate it for them.
The Lunar Library is intended to survive five-billion years, but as the trope of “backing up” the Earth suggests, it is less an archive awaiting alien archaeologists (although they will learn that Wikipedia counts as an official source in this library) than a dataset for rebooting earthly civilization. Data transcends, outlives, and may ultimately reconstitute earthly life? One imagines the project’s founders bandying about ideas of civilizational de-extinction, an Anthropocene park, perhaps. (This idea of archive as dormant zoo is not entirely fanciful, as the Lunar Library was encoded with micro creatures called tardigrades, lying in dormancy, awaiting resurrection.)
This silly blend of utopianism and catastrophe is evocative of the political moment. Data extracted from life, unhinged from scale, and dispersed through the cosmos suggests that technological progress survives by exiting what its proponents have participated in destroying; the desire to “exit” technologically, as Sarah Sharma (2017) insightfully diagnoses, is best understood as an expression of pain under contemporary capitalism, not a viable future. In this respect, ensuring that data survive the annihilation of planetary inhabitability is a gesture of political exhaustion, substituting redemptive visions of a technically evolved intelligence for analyses of the structures of power conflating life and data.
While scholars have not scaled critique to the cosmos yet, the scope and intensity of research into data and power has shifted rapidly in recent years. Civilizational accounts of data revolution, data capitalism, data colonialism, data war, et cetera, have proliferated and are circulating widely. Importantly, these approaches incorporate political categories into their ontologies to engage the epistemology, institutional models, and contemporary techniques of data extraction, storage, and processing. In refusing the technological displacement of politics in theorizing societal relations, there has been a grafting of older analytical frameworks and ideas about social change onto theories of data. The logics of enclosure, labour, accumulation, discrimination, and colonialism, to name a few, are used to contextualize the significance of data in ways suggesting its historical or epochal significance.
In this issue, “Data Power,” the Canadian Journal of Communication publishes work that adopts a different approach. Tracey Lauriault and Merlyna Lim developed the theme, and the articles are drawn from presentations to the 2017 Data Power conference they organized. By multiplying the various intersections of data and power, these pieces invite us to expand the conceptual vocabularies, institutional models, and geographical sites addressed by scholars, and provide ample evidence that the lived consequences of data are irrevocably mediated by questions of marginalization and inequality. In addition, the contributing scholars query the implicit models of political agency and space put into global circulation by wide-angle theories of domination, and they find significance in the situational interventions of those living in the Middle East, Central Africa, Latin America, and North America. This special section is a gentle provocation to grand-scale theories of surveillance, stacks, and software, and it reminds us to ask, “whose experience matters?” when framing theories and political interventions.
In addition, this issue contains articles making inventive use of federal data, national collections, and popular networks in studies of journalism, sexuality, documentaries, and gaming. Sabrina Wilkinson and Dwayne Winseck bring Statistics Canada labour data to bear on debates regarding the demise of Canadian journalism, suggesting that talk of crisis and calamity gives us a misleading picture of how shifting relationships of regulation and capitalism transform media industries. Gilles Tassé examines National Film Board documentaries to interrogate the modalities and senses of connection that are afforded by online circulation with respect to conceptions of public space, a concern too often falling off the agenda in network and infrastructural analysis. Marie-Eve Lang investigates the nature of internet searches and sexuality by bringing interview and blog analysis to bear on a subject often reduced to quickly compiled quantitative indicators. Finally, Sean Willett and Mél Hogan examine how an infrastructure is more than a technical substrate or seemingly inert matter for media distribution by emphasizing its malleability and manipulation during gameplay by online gamers. By extending the relational and materialist approach to media infrastructure introduced by Lisa Parks, Willett, and Hogan bring together questions of politics and cheating in illuminating ways.
Finally, this issue features a conversation with Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, conducted by Anne Pasek, Rena Bivens, and Mél Hogan. Of the interesting things to emerge from the discussion—in addition to the openness to a variety of epistemological, methodological, and political possibilities found in Chun and her brilliant interlocutors—is the significance that careful reading, historical analyses, and philosophies of difference hold for Chun’s approach. The question of how discrimination and data constitute a shared historical arc requires attention to algorithms, machine learning, and the machinations of the tech industry—but also reading, critical reflection, and the arts of historical contextualization. By undertaking an extended mediation on the research, publication, and uptake of Paul Lazarsfeld and Robert Merton’s classic study of the methodological issues related to homophily, Chun demonstrates the value of reading widely, historically, and inventively when engaging questions of racism, segregation, and the computational modelling of the future. In this respect, and at other points in the interview, Chun brings together strands of conversations on gender, race, and technology long carried forward by feminists in Canada (often in the pages of this journal).
The interview raises questions that emerge repeatedly, if obliquely, throughout this issue, namely, what is the relationship of communication and data, and does a communicative understanding of difference and relationality remain central to the constitution of social life, or has the the ontology of data subsumed communication in a substantive way? If subsumed, communication appears as little more than a passing concern or fashionable moment, perhaps even a “disrupted” industry, and its animating questions can be left to the post-singularity aliens when they get around to opening the Lunar Library. Yet, communication, as a word, is unruly, contested, and “a registry of modern longings”; its abandonment would be less about the end of a terminology or canon and more about shifting to an institutional and cultural situation less friendly to relational ontologies, political economies, philosophies of difference, and historical and critical analyses of all stripes conducted in any location, not to mention less welcoming to the kind of intellectual wanderers that have often migrated to this place. This issue asks the reader to consider these questions, and to understand them as questions of discrimination, power, and empire.
Sharma, Sarah. (2017). Exit and the extensions of man. Transmediale. URL: https://transmediale.de/content/exit-and-the-extensions-of-man [July 15, 2019].