DataKnowledgeNarrative: On Data

On Sublime Data

There is a first datum that precedes and informs all data. Data is literally, etymologically a given, plural form of datum, from dare “to give”. Data is what we receive, it is the noumena which we variably and variously discern into phenomena. For a foetus in gestation, data comes through the flesh of the mother. Upon ejection into the world the schizosomatic maternal filter falls away and the infant begins to distinguish the 5 senses and process perceptions. Through perceptions, apperceptions, intuitions, and instincts, phenomena are gradually elaborated through experiential memory.

Perceptions are produced through the senses by activating (stimulating) bio-chemical corporal nano-technologies. Environmental variations are distinguished through such “natural technologies” into sensations. These sensations are then interpreted into meaning, sense, through comparison with previous sensual experience. This is a process of “information”, whereby the noumena “in-forms” subjects through their perceptions.

We are still not yet in the domain of language, barely grasping coalescent concepts. The meaning of sense data is produced pre-linguistically through contextualization with lived experience. This irrefutable subjective continuity is what produces the desire for sharing experience, communication, the congregation of experiences. Screaming into the unknown eventually gives way to the schizo-oblivion we know today as the thin membrane of “me”, assailed on one side by the enclosed obscure noumena of the body and on the other by the illuminated extents of “Nature”. But this membrane is a moebius, as Nature includes the cogito and the obscure nature of the body. Nature, noumena is the unsublimatatble meta-context from which we divine information in the flight from fear and striving for ataraxia.

All data is a kind of abstraction, only an abstraction in as far as the perceiving human body perceives its perceptions individually, ideally, in the Cartesian sense, in a perfect artificial consciousness divorced from its context. This means that all data exist in an anthropomorphic epistemology first, at best one which also integrates anthropic activity within and not without a concept of Nature, which expands beyond anything that any human being or network of human beings can directly sense or comprehend. This is not to say human beings are incapable of intuiting and sharing intuitions they cannot define. The words like “data” fail them but do not occlude the experience. This is the role of poetry, prose, music and the other arts, its called sublimation.

Sublime is Nature rendered into the world of human being. Sublime preserves all of the polyvalent expansiveness of Nature removing only the awful terror and horror that strikes one in the face of the immensity of existence. Through words, drawings, music, we sublimate the inexpressibly diverse and expansive. When data first begins to register as information in awareness it is always already sublime.

Natural Data

Nature matters. Nature is the prime matter. Nature is us and we are Nature. Nobody is outside of Nature, and no technological instrument or artifice is outside of Nature. However, we need to confront at every turn the historical vestiges of a distinction that was made a long time ago between Human Being and Nature which has since become the dichotomy artificial/nature culture/nature or even, more provocatively nature/nurture.

The Greeks did not speak of Nature, they spoke of physics. This is because anthropocentrism was just emerging with the introduction of the alphabet. Domestication had already long begun, convening the forces and affordances of “Nature” to reliably supply the needs of human beings. This is what we call civilisation: the disciplining of Nature for the purposes of regularizing the provision of social needs from Nature. The means by which the affordances of “Nature” are convened for the purposes of civilization is called technology.

When we speak of “Nature” and “Natural affordances” that these have always included the affordances of other human beings. This can be understood principally in two senses.: 1. slaves, women’s indentured labour, prisoners of war and other types of labour often also are assumed and convened by force, disciplined to serve the needs of civilization, 2. once the distinction between anthropos and Nature becomes culturally relevant, it emerges that Nature is not simply without anthropos, in the light, to be ascertained, but also within, in the dark, to be intuited and obeyed. The inner-nature affordance of human beings must be reproduced at the animal level, mainly food and drink, for contributions to civilization to be afforded.

Technical data, digital data

Today, when “data” is discussed, what is referred to is normally “digital data”, i.e. information in discrete numerical quantities. These are a message code through which phenomena are interpreted and transmitted. “Digital data” exist on an infinitesimal scale, the scale of electrons, literally sub-atomic, the scale of magnetic charges and valencies, i.e. on a sub-atomic scale, very far and in an atmosphere very different from the one human beings inhabit.

Sensors are required in order to generate digital data from phenomena[1]. Common sensors mimic perceptivity of human beings: sound sensors, light and image sensors, vibration and gyroscopic (balance) sensors, et.c. These sensors are constructed to translate changes in a very precise experiential slice of the environment into electronic signals, for example image or light sensors translate electromagnetic radiation from the visual spectrum (wavelengths of 390-700nm). The image sensor’s chemical constitution gives off valency electrons when struck by visible light, sending electronic information down into the device to be sampled.

Sampling is where the electronic information becomes digital. A sampler “samples” (measures) the incoming stream of electronic information, which is not yet digital, according to a clock rate. This is called the sample rate. If the sample rate is 1 time a second, one measurement will be taken from the incoming electronic information stream every second. 1 time/second is also known as 1 Hertz or 1 Hz. Sampling chops up the incoming stream of electronic information from the sensor into discrete measurements, these measurements are stored as numerical values in the memory. This is digital data.

Contemporary computers can only operate with digital data. Since this data exists operationally only in an infinitesimal electronic form, it must be converted to a visible scale for humans to work with it. This means it must be transmuted from encoded values back into the realm of human perception, to the wavelengths of sound or light we can detect. Even words, saved in digital form must be transmuted back into graphic letter forms on a screen or printed. This transmutation not only produces shapes human beings can identify as language codes, but, in the process, it enlarges the data many million times so that it can become visible.

So there is an epistemological schism between the scale in “nature” of the macro-phenomena we can perceive with our “unaided senses” and the scale of the aspects of the phenomena which are registered, recorded and retrieved from the digital realm.  This digital realm is extremely artificial, made up of metals of the highest purity, and alloys and exotic chemical blends of the most precise measure. This realm is the product of global industrial processes which integrate the labour of human beings in various capacities, but rely on the reliable behaviour of machines for the most intricate parts of its construction. Inside the computer processors, the data flows reliably according to chemical principles. The computer is a highly disciplinary down to the material make-up of its smallest circuits. The materials inside the computer have been abstracted from their “Natural” mixts and suspension. A perverse excess of this process which on one hand produces the miraculous functionalities we use every day. Are the poisonous trailings pools at the mine heads where the minerals are extracted and purified.

There is no freedom in the computer, if there were, the computer would not work. [2] Conversely, the lack of freedom of the functioning machine makes human activity appear incomparably more free. This is freedom by contrast, or philosophically negative freedom, not freedom for, but freedom from. The computer is an extreme accomplishment of science, a clockwork artwork which produces freedom.[3]

All data, whether digital or analogue become exemplary in its inadequacy. In other words, a video recording of scavengers at a garbage heap will represent the sounds and sights from a particular angle, or perhaps several angles, but will not convey the smells of the garbage or the temperature or humidity of the air. All data is abstract. Representative data is removed from the lived matrix in which it was recorded. The recorded data then is to stand in for the missing data, ready for the consumer to “fill in” the missing data again when reviewing the recorded data, using intuitions.

McLuhan describes this inadequacy of recorded data as captivating our consciousness through our compulsion to fill in the blanks, the more insufficient the data, the more engrossing the medium. But it is not merely the insufficiency of abstracted data which generates such epistemological richness, it is the fact that such data is abstracted also out of the flux of time, it becomes static, frozen, a talisman. We, as timely beings who must change in time, are confronted with recordings which no longer change quite so much, we have a taste of immortality, of omnipotence. From this paradigmatic abstraction, inscribing the multi-sensorial living world into indelible silent merely visual technical text we have the basis of our scientific method and its emancipatory agenda.

There is then a tension between data as a record and or representation, and that which is abstracted out to become data, which is the whole world – the data. The data is so infinitesimally small by comparison with the whole excised world that it becomes exquisite, a dear trace of a fleeting present past. As we grasp for meaning in the world we hold hard to fragments of data, but these not only tie us to machines, industrial processes and the electricity grid, they also split us out of involvement and into individuality.



[1]  For a discussion of the difference between analog and digital data, please see here.

[2] For a detailed examination of disciplinary rigour in technical instruments, please see here, or read my book.

[3] For an in-depth study of the trade off between disciplinary functional reliability and freedom, please see here.