Shoshana Zuboff : A Digital Declaration

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Take a piece of paper money from your wallet and stare at it. It’s a piece of paper, noth-ing more. But we have all agreed that you can exchange it for dinner, or shoes, or a col-lege education.  In Searle’s language, the paper has inherited a “status function” based on our “collective intentionality” to imbue it and millions of other things with specific meaning and power.  “Status functions,” and the powers they confer, produce what Searle calls “institutional facts.” These are the glue that holds society together.  We create that glue.

We create these “facts” through a unique way of speaking and acting that Searle calls the “declaration.”  Declarations establish institutional facts where there were none. They do two things.  They describe the world and  they change the world.  A declaration accomplishes this by describing  the world as if the intended change was already the case.  For example, if I say “I apologize,” I make it so by saying it is so. Or, “all humans are created equal.” That is a declaration because it asserts a reality, describing the world as if the desired change were already true.
Just talking about or referring to something— or acting in relation to it— adds to its reality by acknowledging it as something that already exists.  Declarations are fueled by will, imagination, and desire.  Searle demonstrates how all institutional reality, and therefore all of human civilization, is created by such acts of declaration.

What makes declarations successful?  Declarations are successful to the extent that others accept them.  Sometimes this happens through straightforward agreement or through the authority of expertise or politics. Sometimes persuasion is used to achieve acceptance. Sometimes agreement is bought with some kind of quid pro quo. When all else fails, there is the use of force or other means to eliminate any alternatives.  But know too that in many cases people accept new institutional facts simply because they do not understand their meanings or origins. They simply accept that the declarations represent the natural and necessary order of things.


Let’s see if we can use these ideas to understand some things about „big data.” The anal-ysis of massive data sets began as a way to reduce uncertainty by discovering the proba-bilities of future patterns in the behavior of people and systems. Now the focus has quietly shifted to the commercial  monetization of knowledge about current behavior as well as influencing and shaping emerging behavior for future revenue streams. The opportunity is to analyze, predict, and shape, while profiting from each point in the value chain.

There are many sources from which these new flows are generated: sensors, sur-veillance cameras, phones, satellites, street view, corporate and government databases (from banks, credit card, credit rating, and telecom companies) are just a few.

The most significant component is what some call “data exhaust.” This is user-generated data harvested from the haphazard ephemera of everyday life, especially the tiniest details of our online engagements— captured, datafied ( translated into machine-readable code), abstracted, aggregated, packaged, sold, and analyzed. This includes eve-rything from Facebook likes and Google searches to tweets, emails, texts, photos, songs, and videos, location and movement, purchases, every click, misspelled word, every page view, and more.

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