Data Metabolism

1 Mar. 2023

Respondent to Marina Otero’s lecture on “Data Mourning” at the Design Academy Eindhoven, 1 March 2023, 19:00-20:30.

Marina’s plea to develop practices of “mourning data” coincides with the broader demystification of digital utopias that were once heralded with the domestication of the Internet in the 90’s. Those were dreams of post-scarcity economics, the equality of socio-political voicing, the decentralization of power, and anonymization of race, class and gender via online personhood, all of which – in hindsight, were seeking some degree of emancipation via the “promise” of dematerialization (a general tendency we could even trace back to the 1971 termination of the Bretton Woods agreement decoupling the US dollar from the material thingliness of Gold, ultimately birthing what today we recognize as financialization). Throughout this period it was also common to speak of “immaterial labour” as G20 nations rapidly shifted from industrial production to service economies riding the wave of this so-called information age, cum tsunami. The promise of the Internet as the great democratizing technology has since faced a series of brutal reality checks: Politically in 2011 with the first social-media enabled mass uprisings manifesting in the Arab Spring and the subsequent centralized crack-down and imprisonment of users by local governments; the increased monopolization of corporate power due to their reliance on network effects in capturing and thus owning data; and Materially in the sheer computational energy, as well as mineral substrates required to not only sustain, but grow platforms that incentivize user engagement for data extraction, in a shift from sheer commodity fetishism to what I like to think of as “service fetishism”. The so-imagined “promise” of immateriality has not only turned out to be an utter delusion, but can now be seen as an existential threat. Today, as we increasingly see an urgent turn towards a materialist picturing of technological interventions, it is worthwhile to sketch a history of such myths to understand the narrative forces underwriting it, and the cosmological stakes of transformation required to justly inhabit a planet in-common.