This essay by Kate Crawford (from Microsoft Research) at the New Inquiry explores the relationship between big data, the anxieties it provokes and normcore (“Having mastered difference, the truly cool attempt to master sameness”). If one accepts her contention that normcore reflects “the dispersed anxiety of a populace that wishes nothing more than to shed its own subjectivity” then the argument comes to seem very important. In the absence of sustained macro-political responses to the Snowden revelations, at least thus far, it’s imperative that we look to the cultural consequences of this sudden awareness of institutionalised digital surveillance.
What does the lived reality of big data feel like?
2014 is the year we learned about Squeaky Dolphin. That’s the Pynchon-worthy code name for a secret program created by British intelligence agency GCHQ to monitor millions of YouTube views and Facebook likes in real time. Of course, this was just one of many en masse data-collection programs exposed in Edward Snowden’s smuggled haul. But the Squeaky Dolphin PowerPoint deck reveals something more specific. It outlines an expansionist program to bring big data together with the more traditional approaches of the social and humanistic sciences: the worlds of small data. GCHQ calls it the Human Science Operations Cell, and it is all about supplementing data analysis with broader sociocultural tools from anthropology, sociology, political science, biology, history, psychology, and economics.