Association has become a central aspect of surveillance and a key practice of making information matter. It is critical to any kind of profiling that we experience on an everyday basis. To associate is to join, to make a connection ‘in an interest, object, employment or purpose’ (Harper, nd). One of the most widespread ways of analysing information is indeed to make a connection between different datasets. In her work on data derivatives Louise Amoore speaks of an ‘ontology of association’ (2011: 27). This means that associating data is not just a knowledge practice, but it describes a specific way in which data materialize and come to exist together. The most common approach of associating different datasets with each other follow a Boolean logic (Kitchin, 2016), named after the mathematician George Boole. We know them as if-then rules, that is: when if is true, then is executed. By means of if-then instructions disaggregated data are associated ‘to derive a lively and alert new form of data derivative – a flag, map or score that will go on to live and act in the world’ (Amoore, 2011: 27). The aim of associative practices is to connect different sets of information and to derive patterns from them (Kaufmann, Egbert, and Leese, 2019). What is more, such patterns, again, are likely to be associated with actions that matter to society. Whether a pattern is considered meaningful and actionable depends on many aspects, not least those involved in associating.
Association is a classic analytic practice, which is also used to process analogue information. With the rise of digital information, however, association has shifted in terms of reach and quality.
Hacker Kate90r13 summarizes the upsurge of associative information practices. He observes powerful routines in analysing, revealing, and disclosing insights based on digital information and in engineering these insights into new products and socio-technical procedures. Kate90r13 is not the only one who watches these developments with a growing unease. Self-critical journalism problematizes our role as consumers in this development as our clicks, swipes, and likes are analysed by those with the privileged overview (New Scientist, 2018). The vocabulary of the ‘frightful five’ (referring to Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Microsoft; coined by Manjoo 2017) or worries about China’s ‘digital authoritarianism’ (Erixon and Lee-Makiyama, 2011) were early indicators of a rising awareness about the consequences of sharing information online. By today, countless reports, citizen and legal initiatives as well as entire research programs address how public and commercial actors practice the collecting, storing, curating, and processing of information. Policies for opting out of digital services (Burgess, 2018), personal choices of ‘un-facebooking’ (Evans, 2014) and ‘digital detox’ (Syvertsen, 2020), as well as ‘non-participation’ (Casemajor et al, 2015) are attempts to answer these trends. Yet, not everyone agrees with such radical reactions: "Pulling the plug is not an option”, says hacker jE2EE. He prefers to engage critically with the rise of association without abandoning the Internet as such. An opt-out of online services is almost impossible as it produces social, financial and utility costs that are hard to afford (Brunton and Nissenbaum, 2011, 2016; Morozov, 2017).
What ethos informs engagement, and what possibilities for activity are realized in making? What material effects play out in informationalization? What matters?
When we theorize and study different information practices one thing becomes clear: in this dance of information, infrastructures, tools, and ourselves, it makes a difference what matter gains liveliness and how. What information is generated, how matter matures, decomposes and re-emerges, and at what point it stops being a possibility (Steyerl, 2013) creates effects for everyone involved. Ethics is central to the ensemble of this ‘spiral dance’ (Haraway, 1991: 181). Or to put it differently: what matters is ultimately an ethical concern. Ethics is present making: it implies the act of doing something consciously. It involves the ethicality of making something of consequence, contributing to something that matters. As a result of that, ethics is also present in matter. It is embodied in the very materiality that emerges and exhibits agency. In our case, the ethicality of materials can refer to what kind of information appears and how a tool performs normativity, values, and sometimes very concrete understandings of the world. This ethicality is not merely about morality and responsibilities, but about co-creative values and ‘ethical forces that operate like analytic frames for ongoing experiments with intensities that need to be enacted collectively’ (Braidotti, 2019: 158). This book’s argument is thus also relevant to ethical considerations: the ethics of making matter are performed in collective, embodied material practices that acknowledge passing (Braidotti, 2019), and transience, but also make anew.
Making information matter is a ‘spiral dance’ (Haraway, 1991: 181). It is an ongoing process involving many lives that make, break, and remake what matters in this world. As researchers, we are part of this dance. The central concern is thus no longer that information, tools, infrastructures, and our own selves matter, but how. This is why the next chapters provide analyses of four different practices that are maybe not all equally prevalent in societies today, but equally relevant. All of them are enacted in the larger arena of surveillance, capture, and control, which is where information matters centrally.
The first one, association, is a defining information practice in today’s societies. Often, but not always, association is practiced in digital, information-heavy environments where algorithms and other forms of analyses are used to identify connections, relationships, and patterns. In most cases, association is used for capture and control and it has potentially become the most prevalent form of governance in densely digitized environments. That is why it is all the more important to render associative practices more accessible by tracing each step, each turn at which information comes to matter. There is awareness about associative practices and how much they influence us. Their formative powers are recognized and discomfort about being subjected to them, or participating in their making is increasingly expressed. Critical voices from mainstream public discourses include those of Eli Pariser (The Filter Bubble, 2011), Yuval Harari (Homo Deus, 2017), Shoshana Zuboff (The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, 2019), and Farhad Manjoo (journalist, The New York Times), to name a few. What mainstream discourses do not (yet) do sufficiently is to acknowledge alternative ways of making information matter – whether these are spectacular or everyday activities.
Nothing about data is a given. Data, from Latin “datum”, translates into a “thing given”. We need to reconsider this given-ness of data. If anything, data are given to us by something or someone. Data are given into an emergent situation. They are not fixed, pre-existing entities. This book, however, is not just about data. The vernacular use of data refers to digital or analogue datasets that are generated, collected, assembled, and used for creating facts. I employ the term information instead, because it includes data, but refers to more overarching notions of communication and knowledge and their imbrication with processes of shaping and giving form. Giving form is a material process. Indeed, the etymology of matter, going back to the word “mater” meaning “origin, source, mother”, adds to this book’s understanding of information. Not only is information given to us by someone or something (mother), but it is material. What is more, giving form and shaping indicate processes of being in-formation.
In short, the term information already summarizes this book’s basic argument: Information is not a standalone. It is given to us by humans and things. It actively changes and is changed in processes of making, shaping, and giving form. Information is material and it matters.
Information matters to us. Whether recorded, recoded or unregistered – information co-shapes our present and our becoming.
This book advances new views on information and surveillance practices. Starting with a methodology for studying the liveliness of information, Kaufmann provides four empirical examples of making information matter: association, conversion, secrecy and speculation. In so doing, she presents an original and comprehensive argument about the materiality of information and invites us to investigate, and to reflect about what matters.
This is a go-to text for scholars and professionals working in the fields of surveillance, data studies and the digitization of specific societal sectors.
Information is not always out there, waiting to be accessed, collected, processed, and revealed. We may be under the impression that information matters because it is made seen, associated and known. After all, the word information describes an act of informing, communicating, and instructing. On closer inspection one may find that most practices of making information matter, however, are exercised and known by few, even if the actual practice may affect many. Thus, information matters not only when it is accessed and explored for patterns, or when it is converted in order to question association. Information matters, too, when it resists being known, when it is shared among few or when it remains inaccessible.
One engagement with information is to actively keep it from being out in the open, to make it known to select people only. Secrecy is a practice of making information matter. However, secrecy is not the opposite of making information seen or known. The relationship between secrecy and seeing, knowing or watching is not a dialectical one. Secrecy is more about how information is seen, known, accessed, and watched, by whom, and how that matters. Georg Simmel argued that the interplay of knowing and not knowing matters as it shapes social relations. Not only ‘knowledge of each other’ (1906: 444) is a socializing force, but secrecy and concealment disrupt and vitalize socializing forces (Simmel, 1906: 448). Or as Susanne Krasmann puts it: ‘In an imagined world without secrets, there would be no curiosity or confidentiality, no sincerity or trust, and no political possibility of thinking otherwise’ (2019: 690).
What will happen to the Internet in the future? ‘I will answer very simply that the Internet will disappear’, is what then-Google Chairman Eric Schmidt famously answered at the World Economic Forum 2015 (Schmidt in Szalai, 2015: online). Two years earlier, filmmaker, artist, and writer Hito Steyerl asked ‘Is the internet dead?’ (2013: online). Eric Schmidt and Hito Steyerl could not be more different in the ways in which they engage with questions concerning the presence of the Internet. While Schmidt envisions a seamless transition to a trans-societist condition via ‘devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense’ (Schmidt in Szalai, 2015: online), Steyerl asks whether that kind of Internet actually ‘stopped being a possibility’ (2013: online), because it is left to those who commercialize and racialize instead of forming potentials. While the Internet and more general processes of digitization should not be confused, these discourses about the future of the Internet also illustrate how digital information matters and may come to matter.
Hito Steyerl is one of many artists who calls attention to the ethics and politics of the Internet. Since the early 2000s many post-Internet art projects emerged, but only some of them take a stance on what it means to make online or digital information matter through art. Furthermore, not all who create artistic content through, with or in relation to the Internet consider themselves part of the post-Internet art community.
How do we get to know this ever-changing world, a world that we are ourselves part of? Our research is much dependent on methods that capture the dynamics of becoming and the ways in which we are implicated in them. One methodological premise of this book is thus that ‘knowing must be reconnected with being’ (Ingold, 2011: 75). This is what Karen Barad captures in the term onto-epistem-ology: ‘we know because “we” are of the world’ (2003: 329, emphasis and quotation marks in original). Or as Maurice Merleau-Ponty would put it: we and the phenomena we study sit in the same folds (2003; Coole, 2010). There is mutuality: by doing research, we are part of making the world and the world makes us. This means that knowing the world is also a process of knowing ourselves and our influence. Accordingly, a good methodological attitude may be to allow for all elements in this complex, lively hive – including ourselves – to astonish us (Ingold, 2011; Chapter 2). While such a sense of wonder is a great vantage point for getting to know the world, we also depend on methods that enable us to grasp materializations. Grasping is the empirical, practical and material process of understanding through contact. A method of grasping takes distance from the more abstract ‘analytic’ that researchers inherited from the Cartesian split between mind and matter. This split implicates that analytics are based on the logic of the machine, the component parts of which are identified and manipulated by humans.
Making Information Matter advances three ontological arguments: first, information is not virtual, but material, and it matters. It influences routines, values, politics, and how other matter comes into being. Second, information is in-formation. It changes and becomes lively as it travels across sites and co-creates phenomena. Third, the lively character of information, its materiality and agency is dependent on processes of making. Tools, infrastructures, protocols, ideas, and people are part of making information matter. You are making information matter. In societies where the influence of information is no longer put into question it is crucial to be aware of these dynamics. Only when we navigate the how and why of making information matter can we identify the openings for our own agency.
I spend this chapter explaining the theoretical groundwork for the book’s argument. A combination of different sets of theories is needed to develop the ontology of Making Information Matter. Hence, reading this chapter demands more of your investment than reading any of the chapters that follow. You can choose to read chapters as standalone contributions. Familiarizing yourself with the book’s analytic base, however, can help you to appreciate the actuality and impact of the argument and provides you with the basis for the methodology, practices and ethics discussed in Chapters 3–8. This chapter argues that making, information, and matter are intertwined and that they can also be used as a set of resources for future studies. Hence, this theorization is also a vantage point or a roadmap for reading the book as a successive text: the parts on method and empirics show how the theory is doable, and the final chapter leads us to the ethos of making matter.