A Big Data Breakup Album

by Monica Torres


Listen on Spotify: Big Data Breakup Album

There’s more data than ever being collected about us — restaurant check-ins on Foursquare, your favorite way to massage kale on Pinterest, where we live on Instagram. It’s not only the volume that defines big data. It’s the kind of impact that this information should have on us. And by “impact,” what I mean, and care about most, is harm. The greatest trick technodevils have ever pulled was convincing us that a default was actually an objective standard. For me, the harm comes in realizing there was never an opt-out choice in these scenarios; only decisions and judgments made about your information without your consent.

This Big Data Breakup album is an attempt to make big data not only seen but heard. Whether we wanted it or not, we’re all in a long-term relationship with clingy big data. These feelings can seem one-sided when you can’t visibly see it reaching for our phones, in our algorithms, and behind NSA doors. The stakes are high enough that the consequences are understood, yet too often big data is only imagined through the lens of being seen: as a cloud, as an all-seeing eye, or as zeroes and ones running across a screen. But watching is only one sense of what big data can do.

These are stories of data surveillance disguised in pop songs. It’s in Jill Scott’s wry, “And you keep saying that I’m free,” to Michael Jackson’s disembodied voice declaring he’s a “slave to the rhythm.” My summaries are liner notes to the themes of fear, hope, and longing that have defined my relationship with big data.

It’s 2015 and we’ve reached the moment when the hero on film touches her mirrored reflection, unsure of what she has become. Decisions keep getting deferred to big data technology because its collective body of knowledge is considered more objective than our own, but our biases, good and bad, are embedded in every frame, swipe, and click. We have yet to make peace with our cyborg bodies, but we can start by repeating the caution our forever alone drones have shown us: a machine is only as honest as the intelligence that guides it.

“I Put a Spell on You” by Screamin’ Jay Hawkins
Digital identity providers like OkCupid are deciding who we should love all in the bid to decide who we should be. And with the terms of agreement we tango to, we agreed to their “cross-platform business-facing, making the world a better place techonolojesus.

“Watching Me” by Jill Scott
Big data is a civil rights issue. More than a decade before we knew that the NSA was watching us, Jill Scott was predicting how numbers would measure the distances between us. Nowadays, interrupter starter devices are turning off your car remotely if you miss a payment.

“The Heart Wants What It Wants” by Selena Gomez
During Citizenfour, the documentary on Edward Snowden’s decision to share NSA surveillance with journalists, there’s a moment after Snowden has let go of the ghost and has gone into hiding in a Hong Kong hotel room. We feel the dissonance of hearing Greenwald tell the world about U.S. Big Brother surveillance while Snowden has a one-man party in his self-imposed prison. As Snowden’s world closes in and he sits idle, Selena Gomez’s music video on the hotel TV are the only words we still hear. There’s some fancy Trent Reznor theme music in this film, but I found this moment of Selena crooning at us to “come and get it” as good as any at getting how terribly ordinary Skynet will be.

The collect-first-analyze-later logic in mass surveillance is an American tradition as old as its democracy. Despite being required to keep their personal information private, the U.S. Census Bureau betrayed Japanese-Americans’ locations for their internment. Racism in America has accrued 250 years of interest, and those who inherit its legacy are digitally rendered undesirable. Excluded from the American promise of property, the victims of redlining are making a case for reparations.

“I’ve Got You Under My Skin” by Frank Sinatra
DIY-science has moved from out of the lab and onto our wrists. Wearable consumer tracking devices are wands promising magic: youth, free health care, and better naps. Yer a Quantified Self, ‘Arry! In this charm school, students happily make it their civic duty to participate in their data collection, no matter how tenuous the cause or how deep the pseudoscience plothole. My favorite tracker, Smart Pipe, takes the search for “outputs” to its logical conclusion when one brave product manager challenges us to reclaim our downstream. It’s all a joke until it’s not.

“Video Girl” by FKA Twigs
When all it takes is one ex’s blog post or one troll’s tweet to destroy you, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to look guardedly through my OkCupid messages and my Gchats, wondering which of the foreign bodies living in my streams is going to turn sleeper agent and attack. Too often, technology providers abdicate responsibility to the cyberstalking victims, who are disproportionately women and too often black women, to face alone. More than half of domestic abusers in a Digital Trust study reported they used electronic surveillance to track victims. Meanwhile, FlexiSpy’s mission statement proudly declares its answer to infidelity: “Let’s catch her!”

“I Am A God” by Kanye West (featuring God)
I always imagine Kanye’s synthesized screams in Yeezus as a coda to Neuromancer’s last “laugh that wasn’t laughter.” In my ending for William Gibson’s cyberspace, Kanye is the soundtrack for technogods and their purgatory between unchecked ambition and heavenly promise. But as Lou Reed so smartly noted about Kanye, this braggadocio gets interrupted with a shout: “It’s not like a James Brown scream — it’s a real scream of terror. It makes my hair stand on end. He knows they could turn on him in two seconds.” Uber’s “God view” surveillance and Whisper’s not-so “purely voluntary” geolocation faced their mortal reckoning. But just when you think the song is over, a resurrected voice echoes the final judgment: “Ain’t no way I’m giving up, imma God.”

“Can’t Remember to Forget You” by Shakira (featuring Rihanna)
While Europe champions the right to be forgotten; in the U.S, the incarcerated are using a “Facebook for felons” to gain their right to be remembered.

“Dirty Work” by Steely Dan
A broader concern: what is ethically crowdsourced digital labor? Answers are revealed in its names, the most powerful spells of all. Too often, employees like Amazon’s Mechanical Turk workers get dismissed as human API. In response, Turk workers are organizing against Jeff Bezos to have their labor fairly recognized. Meanwhile, Google’s self-driving software, Chauffeur, symbolizes the dark magic of invisible labor: “Why hire a living person when a learning robot can work quickly, quietly, and without, breaks, demands, or opinions?” And in the twice-as-good-to-get-half-as-far respectability race, Task Rabbit, connecting you to “safe and reliable help,” is codenamed Booker T.

“Strict Machine” by Goldfrapp
“50 Shades of Siri” and “Marrying My Selfie Stick” are Black Mirror episodes I wished existed, so can someone update me when the seminal movie exploring the big data applications of teledildonics gets made? Like Her, but without the sepia-toned indulgence. Until then, “Love and Dildos in the Time of Robots” exists in the creepy/flirty practice of sending your heartbeat to one another.

“Slave To The Rhythm” by Michael Jackson
Data’s existence can haunt you past your grave. Michael Jackson’s posthumous “Xscape” is the second full album in L.A. Reid’s ongoing data experiment to see how many ways you can commodify one b-track ‘hoo’ for profit.

It’s a question not enough of us want to answer: who gains control of our digital legacies after we die? You can appoint a “digital heir” on Gmail or a “legacy contact” on Facebook, but individual choices still won’t stop the moments of programmed Networked Mortality’s guide as an enviable approach on how to talk about the data we’ll outlive without fear.

“I Don’t Wanna Be Learned / I Don’t Wanna Be Tamed” by The Ramones
Children are the future and their learning is precious and profitable. New education technology is mapping, tracking, and storing how students learn, and sharing this information with third parties for their own profit.

Always remember this, Young Consumer Profile. Data is knowledge is power.

In April, The Gates Foundation-funded education nonprofit inBloom bemoaned that they were being misunderstood as a “real missed opportunity,” but the people had spoken and inBloom was shut down. The privacy advocates had linked arms and sung the six-word, four-chord manifesto of truth speaking to power: “I don’t wanna be learned, I don’t wanna be tamed.”

“Tip the Scale” by The Roots (featuring Dice Raw)
The fear is that robots will takeover, but I’ve always been more scared of the steel triggers within our own faulty hearts. If the pilots of Air France Flight 447 had listened to their plane, they would have landed, but advances in automation have made planes so safe that pilots only get battle-tested too late. Earl Wiener, an aviation engineer, was warning about automation’s effects on human behavior long before anyone wanted to listen: “Whenever you solve a problem, you usually create one. You can only hope that the one you created is less critical than the one you eliminated.”

It’s tempting to believe in technology promising to hold us accountable to ourselves. After the cop who killed Michael Brown was not indicted, police body cameras on every cop were the only policy change requested by the Brown family. Four months later, the officer who shot and killed Antonio Martin had access to a dashboard and body camera that went unused. The citizens who filmed Eric Garner and Walter Scott’s fatal encounters with police show us the power in taking the lens of surveillance and returning its gaze, a reminder that the streets are watching too.

But videos don’t speak for themselves — we do, and in the hands of bureaucracies, councils/cops/prosecutors hitting quotas and all their economically amoral handshakes, I worry that a tool legislated to be a shield will be just one more blade. I keep returning to this chilling insight about the hidden costs to police body cameras: “Police-worn body cams do not face the police. They face members of the community — everyday people doing everyday things.” What drives the heart of this issue for me is hearing #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, first-hand narratives, and all the voiced outrage of knowing whom the gun will always point at first.

“Strawberry Fields Forever” by La Santa Cecilia
I keep returning to science fiction metaphors because the best of it recognizes that for every technology adopted by the masses, there will be a group of people it leaves behind. Here, your online activity affects your offline behaviors. Here, colonialism is recognized as relevant. In Alex Rivera’s Sleep Dealer, Memo, a Mexican worker at Cybracero, gets nodes installed in his arms and back that remotely power American technology, giving the U.S. what they always wanted: “all the work, without the workers.”

When I went to Lake Atitlán, Guatemala this year, these paintings of workplace surveillance from the school of Arte Naif were sold in every stand. In the painting that made me still, a group of coffee harvesters are watched from above as their bent bodies pick coffee beans. One of the workers was staring back at me, but her upturned face was made blank. No eyes, no ears, and no mouth. Just bent heads and reaching arms. Here were all my fears of erasure realized. I took a picture, taking its data as my own, until something in me itched and I deleted it. In “The Semplica-Girl Diaries,” George Saunders imagined a future of middle-class Americans buying immigrants and stringing them up in their lawns, like a string of fairy lights twinkling a party. The women let themselves become human ornaments because they are in debt, and because there is no stronger American fable than this: you cannot own people but you can buy them. The process doesn’t kill the immigrants in Saunders’ story, but the spectacle was never just about the killing, it was also about the humiliation of the display.

In Lake Atitlán, a tourist haggled until he could buy the workers for $25. He told me they were going to hang in his living room.

Deep Cuts for this album, or what seemed too obvious, seemed too subtle, or matched the tone but didn’t match a story: “Obsessed” by Mariah Carey, “The Dummy Song” by Louis Armstrong, “Always on My Mind” by Elvis Presley, “Metamorphosis” by Hilary Duff, “Men in Blue,” by Prince Paul, “You’re a Jerk” by New Boyz, “We Can’t Stop” by Miley Cyrus, “Hocus Pocus” by Focus, “Haunted” by Beyoncé, “School’s Out” by Alice Cooper, “Feds Watching” by 2 Chainz and Pharrell, “Fuck Tha Police” by N.W.A., “Do You Know Where Your Children Are?” by Michael Jackson, “Somebody’s Watching Me” by Rockwell, “9 to 5” by Dolly Parton, “The Past Is A Grotesque Animal” by Of Montreal, “Early” by Run The Jewels (featuring Boots), “Young Forever” by Jay-Z, Mr. Hudson, “Is There Anybody Out There?” by Laura Mvula

Monica Torres is a .gif-emoting cyborg in the machine.