In forensic science, Locard’s exchange principle forms one of its bedrocks. Formulated by Edmond Locard (1877-1966), the principle is pretty direct: anytime a crime gets committed, an “exchange” takes place, with a criminal leaving some sort of physical evidence behind and taking some sort of evidence with him or her. Through circumspect observation and sound reasoning, the detective can follow the evidence to learn something about the crime, hopefully solving it.
Whether it’s a drop of blood, some soot and gravel, or a thread of hair, something gets left behind or taken away that links the participants to the event, evoking a story from the materiality of what took place. We can never move through the world as ghosts, untouched and untouching. We’re always producing data.
This past Friday, helping out with the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project, a networked map about connections in Early Modern Britain, I didn’t recall Locard’s principle, but it holds true. Data of our movements and actions might not always get written down. It might get lost, destroyed, or erased. But we always leave some evidence, some legacy, behind. Now more than ever.
Thus, in our own way, each of us has the potential to become an “information object,” to use the words of Tony Gill et al, “anything that can be addressed and manipulated as a discrete entity by a human being or an information system.”
To use Six Degrees of Francis Bacon as an example, Bacon (or John Dryden, Robert Hooke, and many others for that matter) gets represented as a node in a network, categorized and imbued with metadata so that we can study who he knew, what he did, and what groups he was part of. To evoke Locard, Bacon left his evidence through various exchanges–perhaps a letter or diary entry, perhaps a ticket stub to a lecture. Gradually accrued, studied, and categorized, such evidence of exchange builds. Aggregated with evidence from his contemporaries or near contemporaries on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and data-mined, it becomes this:
Here, Bacon is truly an information object, “addressed and manipulated as a discrete entity by a human being or an information system.”
And here, things get fuzzy. And I can feel my humanist pulse starting to rise with terms like “information object” being used to address one of the Britain and Europe’s most famous natural philosophers.
And this is where Jessica Reyman’s article “User Data and the Social Web” is so important, in that it contextualizes data and metadata in a very real way by showing how we produce data and metadata that companies like Facebook and Amazon use to map us.
In other words, one may often study nodes of 16th Century figures without many qualms. Indeed, such work refines the stories and pathways of long-silent lives. But we may feel less happy with a corporation mapping our own six degrees to sell products.
Online, Locard’s principle is definitely true. We may not always think that we are leaving something behind, though we likely are, and we are almost certainly taking something with us. Many extensions for Firefox address this, like Ghoster, which tracks third-party sites, allowing you to block them. Or Lightbeam, which visualizes the first- and third-party sites that follow you into a network. After a few minutes searching, especially on major sites like Facebook and YouTube, it’s not uncommon to have a Katamari-like wad of people linked by your browsing history.
While this is somewhat creepy in itself, it has deeper implications, as Rayman points out:
“Despite the fact that data is produced by interactions between humans and technology, the terms-terms-of-use policies. . . fail to recognize human agency in the generation of data. The treatment of data as authorless by-product precludes the consideration of data as having creative and intellectual value, as well as the granting of ownership status to users” (526)
In other words, as we produce this data, by posting a status about tea, surfing certain sites, or setting our relationship status to single, Facebook’s algorithms are reading the data and helping to author our spaces. The data, not just stored and compiled, also constructs, tailoring ads, for example. In this way, argues Rayman, we are co-authors to these spaces, creators of content (which is protected), and not just passive, data-generating machines (which isn’t).
Here, then, I wonder what data are. If digital humanities has shown anything regarding data and metadata, it’s this: data are not passive. Data can co-author social media pages and construct social networks from Early Modern Britain. As Keiran Healy humorously argues, some light concept mapping can highlight subversive relations between the Framers–and relations among ourselves. Or, more positively, Taren Samra Graben’s “From Locations to Locatability” argues that data and metadata, when properly organized and used, can construct a network of interactions that map the impact of figures who may slip through the cracks of traditional archive practice. In her case, Cecilia Hennel Hendricks.
But digital humanities is not the only discipline connected to this issue. As Jessica Seddon Wallack and Ramesh Srinivasan write in “Local-Global”:
“Communities and states (we use the term generically to refer to subnational, national, and international governing institutions) represent the realities around them through distinct ontologies, or systems of categories and their interrelations by which groups order and manage information about the people, places, things and events around them” (1).
Communities, on the local level, collect their own data, forming world views and “ontologies,” ways of being and understanding that being. They may not use formal methods, but they are still observing and interpreting. This doesn’t always match up with state data collection and interpretation. And such “mismatched ontologies” can lead to major issues, like ineffective services and reduced community participation. Importantly, then, for data to construct narrative or ontology, it doesn’t need to be digital or digitized. It is always doing it.
This opens a key door for digital humanists. From ticket-stubs buried in purses or crinkled receipts stuffed in the pockets of winter coats, we are always accruing and producing data. This is the small scale. But it also the large scale, with data industries collecting and distributing entire demographics. Much of this, now, is digitized or going digital.
I imagine a certain ethics must develop from this, both in a moral sense and in a more general sense of “ethos.” But first, I think we must settle on a new perception that data isn’t merely a record of our lives. It also constructs our lives.
[Image: “Social Network” by Kevin Dooley]