The Dataists 👾

Later in Infocracy, Han writes,

To the dataist ear, this passionate commitment to freedom and democracy will sound like a ghostly voice from an already bygone era. From the dataist perspective, the idea of the human being as defined by individual autonomy and freedom, by the ‘will to will’, will eventually appear as merely a short historical interlude. Dataists would agree with Foucault when he invokes the death of the human being in The Order of Things: ‘As the archaeology of our thought easily shows, man is an invention of recent date. And one perhaps nearing its end….then one can certainly wager that man would be erased, like a face drawn in the sand at the edge of the sea.’ The sea whose waves are erasing the face in the sand is today a boundless sea of data, in which the human being dissolves into an insignificant data set. (43)

—Byung-Chul Han, Infocracy (2022)

No outdoor walk this evening because SE Michigan, including Ypsilanti, is observing an Air Quality Alert, which I understand to be a small time toxic airborne event—serious enough to stay indoors and take a pass on the daggered-eyeballs effect, but also just a sign of the dry, dusty, particulate-breezed moment. Ah, springtime. So instead I read another chapter of Infocracy, “Data Rationality,” which according to Han counterposes a discourse-driven “communicative rationality,” where argumentation, claims backed with evidence, and compromise toward consensus-ish assent puts gusto in democracy’s sails. In an era of data rationality, information outstrips deliberative discourse; people no matter how mightily they strive to pay attention and process events are left in the dust, overwhelmed and scattered in the haze of information overload. Bleak1Bleak is my characterization of a mood, which, like all moods, fluctuates. but discerning, Han takes this idea on a brief tour with stops at Habermas, public-sphere hopeful, then dataists Rousseau and Alex Pentland of MIT.

I suppose, based on this, that rhetoricians are now and shall remain as outsiders to rising programs in data science (e.g., Data and Decisions); the data is extra-sensically vast, and the decisions are wrought in human-machine ratios more mechanistic than neuronal, more computational than synaptic, more algorithmic than fleshly. What a grand (and routinely fuckered) time we had while the beach drawing lasted, now-insignificant data set! So, what’re you gonna do now, democracy? What are the suitable responses, and do those responses have any chance of reaching anyone who can listen, engage in dialogue, make any difference? Get it together?! I don’t mean make a difference in an Army Corps of Engineers “protect the beach face” sort of way. Reading this chapter, I’m left puzzling generatively with a sense of no really, what becomes of this? If any juice remained in the democratizing efforts of writing programs, or critical literacies, or rhetorical education, are there variations on beach-drawn faces farther up or down the disappearing coastline? Or are the dataist-guided paths reduced to two: homo economicus (good capitalist progeny go for jobs 🤑) or homo inanis (bear witness to giddyup speed obsolescence 🫥).


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    Bleak is my characterization of a mood, which, like all moods, fluctuates.

Dataism 📖

Macbook selfie not to be mistaken for iPhone selfie.

The dataism of the information regime has totalitarian characteristics. Its aim is total knowledge, but the total knowledge of dataism is achieved not through ideological narration but through algorithmic operations. The aim of dataism is to compute all there is and all there will be. Big data does not recount. Recounting gives way to algorithmic counting. The information regime replaces all that is narrative with the numerical. However intelligent they may be, algorithms are not as effective as ideological narratives at excluding the possibility of the experience of contingency. (9)

—Byung-Chul Han, Infocracy (2022)

Reading back through the underlines I drew while spending time with Infocracy earlier in the week, this sprang pause because of the better-at and worse-at comparison between “ideological narratives” and “algorithmic counting.” If this holds onto a place on the reading schedule for this fall’s Rhetoric in Digital Environments, we may want to sift around for examples of these narratives and this counting. For this class, the examples should stand apart, distinguishable as oil and water, rather than sending us into the haze of a database-narrative emulsion. Some (if not all) of Infocracy will fill in as what followed from the database-vs-narrative (enemies, according to Manovich; symbionts, according to Hayles) debates of the aughts. While resisting a horse race model to explain numbers and stories quant-qual contention over the past two decades and probably longer, we will puzzle out this suggestion that algorithms “are not as effective,” and are, therefore, more forgiving toward “the possibility of the experience of contingency.” I think this means that ideological narratives seal out contingency with a higher rhetorical thread count, a failsafe weed barrier covering the front beds, a reliable fitted sheet that keeps any-all spilt Sunday morning coffee from seeping through.