Reframing our relation to our data
We need new frames for rethinking our relation to data! In existing frames, data is inert & detached, remains we leave behind that are meaningless to us (data as “exhaust” or “oil”) but can be captured by corporations and converted to gold.
The importance of finding better frames cannot be overstated. For an especially deep (and disturbing) account of the costs of existing frames to our societies, see https://colonizedbydata.com/ by Nick Couldry and Ulises Mejías. Reframe, or be colonized.
In my opinion, a particularly powerful & expansive new frame for rethinking our relation to data is provided by an esoteric concept called stigmergy (so underrated - if one could buy stock in words, this would be on the top of my list). Originally developed by insect researchers, stigmergy basically means that the trails we leave in our environment are essential drivers of individual and collective intelligence:
Stigmergy applies to humans - it’s not just for ants! Realizing how dependent we humans are on each other’s trails for navigating information invites a complete rethinking of our relation to our data. Data as our digital trails, not digital exhaust!
Data trails are quite literally the extension of our individual and collective cognition - how we come to form beliefs and act intelligently in the world:
Stigmergy highlights the precarity of our current predicament, the brokenness of our collective brain. But it also invites questions from which we can regenerate healthier information environments:
What trails are we leaving, and for whom? What tools are we using to make trails and to discover them. What is the medium/ground (platform?) in which we’re leaving them? Who is profiting from the trails? How will other humans and machines find the trails, and how will they interpret them? How are our trails contributing to the collective?
The answers to these questions are far from straightforward. Merely providing individuals with more control over their data is not enough, as discussed in the excellent Artificial Intelligence and the Purpose of Social Systems by Sebastian Benthall Jake Goldenfein:
Rather, whole new “knowledge ecologies” will have to be built, where data sovereignty is coupled with distributed collective governance, and w/ a plural + interoperable array of tools for leveraging stigmergic trails for prosocial content discovery, human-human connection, and all the other things we need to do to save our world.
Shout out to the Social Sensemaking Scenius where we’re working and playing with these ideas!🌱✨