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 🫥).


  • 1
    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.

Maths of the Everyday

Number of tow truck drivers I kidded with about the snow on Monday morning: 1
Number of blocked shots I hope to tally at this evening’s weekly pick-up game: 8
Number of WC consultations earlier today that had me wishing our table had a
dish ‘o mints on it: 1
Number of students who probably thought it was me who needed a mint: Same
Hour of the day Is. decided everyone in the house should start their Tuesday,
Deepvember 18: <6 a.m.
In epoch
format: 1226988000
Students missing from this morning’s class: 3
Number of meetings I’ve attended this week: 2
Number of those meetings where pizza, sodas, and salad were provided: 1
Number of people on campus who today asked me about being on the job market and
how that’s going: 7
Number of points scored by Team Charmin in the Fantasy Football Week Eleven
match-up: 80
Coincidentally, the number of minutes I strode on the elliptical machine in the
last two days: 80
Of the eleven emails currently in my inbox, the number with "writing" in
the subject line: 4
Number of class sessions remaining this semester: 4
Number of two-hour consulting sessions remaining in the semester: 6
# of times I can type "number" in a single entry before I get lazy and resort to
the symbol: 12
# of minutes until I’m supposed to start rustling up some foodstuff for dinner: -5

Grand total: 1,226,988,211

The Steep Approach

I finished up Iain Banks’

The Steep Approach to Garbadale
a couple of days ago. Took me
about a week, and it felt like a faster-than-usual read, though it’s not like I
spend all that much time reading fiction for the sport of it (at least not these
days). Faster than expected, a surprisingly engaging novel, a story well
told–exactly as promised in the approbative cover matter.

The upshot: Alban Wopuld deals with a hiatus from the family circle,
resurfacing at the behest of a cousin who recruits him to stir up dissent among
family members in favor of approving the sale of their rights to a popular game,
Empire!. Alban re-emerges as an influential presence in the family, all
the while coping with two formative events from earlier in his life (and, in
different degrees, these events are at the root of his alienation): his
mother’s suicide and a cousinly love affair.

This little summary doesn’t ruin it. And I fully intend to be getting
along with other novels by Banks just as soon as…one of these days. I only had
time for this one because I am purposefully neglecting the diss for a couple of
weeks while on a back-to-back conferences jag (seriously, it must appear that I
have been shitting around for a couple of weeks now; lazing through some books
about maps, etc.). Anyhow, by this point, I sure I have done enough to pique
your interest in The Steep Approach that I should give a little bit more,
so, then, two passages from dog-eared pages:

Also, third, she tried to quantify how hopelessly, uselessly,
pathetically weak she felt. It took a long time–she was a
mathematician, after all, not a poet, so images were not normally her strong
suit–but eventually she decided on one. It involved a banana. Specifically,
the long stringy bits you find between the skin and flesh of a banana. She
felt so weak you could have tied her up with those stringy bits of banana
and she wouldn’t have been able to struggle free. That was how weak she
felt. (220)

This comes as VG–Alban’s other love interest–remembers swimming near
a reef when the disastrous tsunami welled up from the Indian Ocean in ’04.

Continue reading →