Off the Record

Social networks track our world but not relationships.

Written by Nishant Shah | New Delhi | Published: April 7, 2013 9:58 pm

Social networks track our world but not relationships.

We live in a world where things happen. And yet,with the presence of digital objects,the things that happen have increased in intensity and volume. Never before have we lived in a world that is so seen,documented,archived and forgotten. Early Enlightenment philosophers had wondered,if a tree falls in loneliness and there is nobody there to see it,does the tree really fall? In the world of instant documentation,chances are that if the tree falls,there is somebody there to tweet it.

We live in a spectacular world. That is not to say that it is the best or worst of all possible. I want to ponder on the fact that we create spectacles of things that were otherwise swept under the carpet. Every little detail of our myriad and mundane life is potentially spectacular. From medical technologies that can decipher our chemical DNA to the mobile phone that Instagrams the food we eat and things that we see,we are surrounded by spectacles of everyday life. Pictures,tweets,blogs,geolocation services,status updates,likes,shares — the texture of living has never been this richly and overwhelmingly documented.

However,the data and information that constitutes the recognition of our life,have increased to such a scale that we have overturned the course of human history writing. We identify ourselves as a species that is able to document,store and relay information from one passing generation to another. So much so that we have invested a vast amount of our energies in creating museums,writing histories,building archives,and obsessively collecting facts and fictions of our origins,from the big bang to flying reptiles.

But big data has made us reach a point where we are trying to manage,filter the onslaught of data. We have,for the first time,created information that is no longer intelligible to the human eye or brain. From machines that can verify god particles to artificial intelligence which can identify patterns every day we have replaced the human being from its central position as consumer,producer and subject of data.

These are conditions of living in information societies that are producing,archiving and reorganising information for these information ecosystems. The multiple information streams remind us of the multitude and diversity of human life which cannot be reduced to a generalising theory of similarity. The rise of big data brings to focus the promise of the World Wide Web — a reminder that there are alternatives to the mainstream and that there are unheard,contradictory voices that deserve to be heard. Yet,even as the burgeoning information society explodes on our devices,there is another anxiety which we need to encounter. If the world of information,which was once supposed to be the alternative,becomes the central and dominant mode of viewing the world,what does it hide?

Take friendship,for instance.You can quantify how many friends exist on your social networks. Algorithms can work out complex proximity principles and determine who your closer connections are.

Data mining tools are able to figure out the similarities and likelihood of enduring conversations in your social sphere. But these are all human actions which can be captured by the network and the big data realities. They may be able to give us new information about what friends do and how often,but there is still almost no way of figuring out,which friend might call you in the middle of the night.

Friendship,like many other things,is not made of spectacles. It does not produce information sets which can be mapped and represented as information. Friendship cannot be reduced to pictures of being together or dramatic stories of survival and togetherness. More often than not,true friendships are made of things that do not happen. Or things,if they happen,cannot be put in a tweet,captured on Instagram or shared on Tumblr.

As we take these social networked realities as ‘real’ realities,it might be worth asking what is being missed out,what remains unheard and unrepresented in these information streams. Because if you love somebody and there is nobody to know it,report it,record it and convert it into a spectacle,does it make your love any less special? Any less intense? Any less true?

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