‘Eating’ digital data and our differing data tastes

An interesting post on Deborah Lupton’s blog considering digital data as something we consume. I’m not persuaded by the bulk of the argument, even though it’s thought provoking:

Mol points out that once a foodstuff has been swallowed, the human subject loses control over what happens to the content of the food in her body as the processes of digestion take place. As she notes, the body is busily responding to the food, but the individual herself has no control over this: ‘Her actorship is distributed and her boundaries are neither firm nor fixed’ (Mol, 2008: 40). The eating subject is able to choose what food she decides to eat, but after this point, her body decides how to deal with the components of the food, selecting certain elements and discarding others.

This raises questions about human agency and subjectivity. In the statement ‘I eat an apple’ is the agency in the ‘I’ or in the apple? Humans may grow, harvest and eat apples, but without foodstuffs such as apples, humans would not exist. Furthermore, once the apple is chewed and swallowed, it then becomes part of and absorbed into the eater’s body. It is impossible to determine what is human and what is apple (Mol, 2008: 30) The eating subject, therefore, is semi-permeable, neither completely closed off nor completely open to the world.

Mol then goes on to query at what stage the apple becomes part of her, and whether the category of the human subject might recognise the apple as ‘yet another me, a subject in its own right’ (Mol, 2008: 40). Apples themselves have been shaped by years of cultivation by humans into the forms in which they now exist. In fact they may be viewed as a form of Haraway’s companion species. How then do we draw boundaries around the body/self and the apple? How is the human subject to be defined?


It strikes me that this only works if you hold a ‘subject’ to be something with fixed boundaries and absolute mastery over its inner space. Does anyone actually hold this view? I don’t think even rational choice theorists, surely the strongest advocates of contemporary individualism, would accept such a view. The risk here is of what Andrew Sayer calls a PoMo flip: responding to a problematic position (that may or may not be held by anyone) by flipping to the other extreme while retaining the problematic conceptual structure. This isn’t an obscure matter of ontology because how we conceive of the subject has important consequences for how we make sense of Deborah’s final question:

How are the flavours and tastes of digital data experienced, and what differentiates these flavours and tastes?

This is a fascinating question which I’ve tended to think of as ‘data sensibilities’: how do we develop tastes for different kinds of data? The recent work of Will Davies could be read as, in part, an account of how these tastes changed. We’ve developed a taste for quantitative data about our behaviour that increasingly replaces a taste for qualitative data about our action. Making sense of such changes, let alone the political economy underlying them, necessitates that we identify the variable capacities of the subject to ‘consume’ data, to put it to work in some way, as well as how these tendencies can be influenced by broader social and cultural structures.

Mol’s account is a form of what Margaret Archer calls central conflation: responding to the challenge of analytically unpacking the interface between objectivity and subjectivity by blurring the boundaries between them. Whereas I think Deborah’s question, which seems enormously important to me, necessitates an account of the sequencing of objectivity and subjectivity over time: how we ‘consume’ certain kinds of data, the work to which these are put in our lives and how we change in the process, with effects upon our future data tastes. Here are the questions which such a view would lead to:

  • What types of individual data tastes can we identify?
  • How did these types of individual data tastes come about?
  • What work do these types of individual data tastes do in personal life?
  • How do these types of individual data tastes shape the biographical trajectories of individuals?
  • What are the aggregate effects of these outcomes for social life as a whole?
  • What are the collective effects of these types of individual data tastes i.e. how do they condition social participation and collective action?

Any thoughts much appreciated!

Categories: Digital Sociology, Outflanking Platitudes

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