The Ethics of Data.

As part of Thomas Fisher’s exploration of ethics in architecture, he considers the influence of data on humanity (Fisher 2018). While his conclusions offer little consideration regarding architecture as a built object, he highlights the relationship between data and humanity’s relationship with nature. In doing so, though, he misses the importance of culture and human emotion on behaviour, assuming that all organisms operate through rational data processing.

Fisher begins by associating data with how organisms and machines sense the world, before concentrating on data’s role in algorithmically produced science. A possible reading of Fisher’s argument is that two scenarios exist involving data and the future of humanity’s influence on the planet, both involving Noah Yuval Harari’s concept of data-ism. The first is a move from a mindset of humans dominance over nature, to one of reciprocal benefit through understanding, communicating and caring for nature. In this scenario, data offers a common ground between humans, animals and machines to relate to each other and produce reciprocally beneficial outcomes. However, Fisher warns that just as data-ism could tend to equality, it could as quickly create a new hierarchy. For Harari data-ism either brings ecological balance through an extended sense of ethics or transposes a new order onto the world defined by a contribution to data flow. In the latter scenario, Fisher argues humans must resist the reductive world view of data-ism through avoiding technologies of data extraction, to prevent their demise.

Unpacking these two scenarios provides some important considerations regarding data. Initially, Fisher considers data’s influence in situation one, a reshaped ethics that brings the natural world, humans and machines together through a common data register. The ecological ethics of data-ism attempts to bring equality to all via data processing, treating human, machine and natural systems as “data processors”. Organism’s existing as biochemical algorithms is a useful concept, but misleading. It is possible to imagine all forms of life as data processors, but it presumes a singular character of data. Through using Harari’s concept, Fisher places the same assumption onto data through either digital or biochemical processing, without considering the existence of the data itself. The comparison between computers and brains relies on data existing in an equivalent format, but this ignores the difference between analogue and digital data, the former recording continuous change in material while the latter encodes discrete state changes as ones and zeros. or bits. Harari acknowledges this difference in Homo Deus speculating that human consciousness could be due to the material analogue rather than symbolic digital logic (Harari 2016, p228). However, Fisher does not acknowledge this; instead he uses data sensing as a premise to explore equality between all organisms, and the relationship between humanity and its technologies.

On reading Fisher’s argument, I recall the theory of Floridi’s “Infosphere” that posits that the machines humans invent always sit in between a user and an unseen helper, what Floridi refers to as a “prompter” (Floridi 2014). While Floridi’s theory is concerned primarily with the future of technology, he draws out a trend relevant to Fisher’s view of data. Floridi provides a history of technology as an evolution of user and prompter starting as a link between humanity and nature, then between humanity and technology, before a third-order that removes the human “user” and replaces organisms with machines, thus predicting a human removal from technological development. Floridi describes this as humans no longer existing in the loop of innovation but “on the loop”, predicting humans progress from users to beneficiaries (Floridi 2014). Fisher and Floridi speculate on a different ethical relationship resulting from a new understanding of humanity as beneficiaries of technology and nature rather than users. In this move, both Floridi and Fisher introduce data’s influence on humanity through the way technology influences culture, but only Floridi recognises that culture sets the requirements for technology in the first place.

While it is arguable data exits as a constant between material and binary representation, the latter is a purely machine-interpretable version of data; humans cannot register nor semantically interpret digital data. Therefore, while I agree with Fisher, Harari and Floridi that data exists as reality before sensory experience, there is a problem in presuming that life is simply data processing through algorithms. The data processing view cannot consider the influence of culture, which requires as much consideration as nature and technology. While theoretically, nature and technology can interact through data, cultures rely on human interpretation into information, which in turn relies on human-constructed systems of meaning. Culture, understood as the social norms and beliefs negotiated between humans, both respond to and influence our understanding of nature and technology, meaning that any prediction of non-anthropocentric futures must resist the hyper-rational world view that data seduces. From an ethical viewpoint, Fisher misses the role of culture in modulating human understanding of reality through nature and technology.

Tegmark’s theory of artificial intelligence provides a useful set of ideas for thinking about culture and data. In Tegmark’s explanation of life as an evolving process of replication and retention of complexity, he argues three stages of development occur, an initially grown biological, then designed culturally and finally learnt computationally (Tegmark 2017). Similarly to Floridi, Tegmark’s interest lies in the future of intelligent technology, but a point of difference is Tegmark’s discussion of culture’s influence on the industrial revolution and future technology, the human need to retain and pass on information. It is fashionable to think of machines as having independence from humanity and culture in the way dystopian futures predict unchecked technological evolution. Many of these futures ignore the cultural reason technology came to be in the first place. Both architecture and technology respond to culture, in turn helping to reshape it, but architecture and technology cannot come into existence through self-interest, they require assistance from humans.

In the rapid progression of science through algorithmic data analysis, it is easy to presume data as a given and overlook the influence of culture. The digital humanities, however, increasingly recognise data as a captured sample of reality shaped by the technology used. The act of experiencing and measuring the world sets up a circular relationship, one where world view sets a framework for acting, which then perversely produces data to support the world view. Rob Kitchin refers to this framework as a “socio-technical assemblage” of people, institutions, apparatus and beliefs that shape complex systems of data production (Kitchin). Kitchin’s concept is useful to critique Fisher’s argument for a human resistance of data-flow presuming that data-ism exists through the intentions of machines, rather than humans themselves. The perceived threat of superior data analysis and processing by machines would only offer a danger to humanity if it exclusively helped solve machine problems. But as I have argued, technology is ultimately shaped through human needs and solving machine problems should ultimately help humans, machines and nature. Where the real hierarchical imbalance could occur is that humans use the superior analysis they developed, to further benefit themselves at nature’s expense, rather than using it to come closer to nature. Any consideration of data and technology in the future of humanity must include the importance of shaping cultures around social equality across all life or a continued inequality between humans and other organisms. Data’s real effect, therefore, is in shifting or maintaining the human world view, which means that data does not create the future, culture does.

Fisher, Thomas, 2018, The Architecture of Ethics, Routledge Floridi, Luciano, 2014, The Fourth Revolution: How the Infosphere is Reshaping Human Reality, OUP Oxford Harari, Yuval Noah, 2016, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Random House Kitchin, Rob, 2014, The Data Revolution: Big Data, Open Data, Data Infrastructures and Their Consequences, Sage UK Tegmark, Max, 2017, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, Penguin UK