The Emptiness of Data as a New Religion

network-effect

The Internet has overtaken many of our lives in ways that were impossible to imagine a mere two decades ago. Many of us have some kind of online “presence,” be it through a social media file, or as data recorded through our Google searches. There is so much data out there that we now have so-called Big Data, data scientists and a new array of tools to mine, quantify, analyze, tweak and “monetize” this neverending flood of information coming from this virtual dimension. It seems so real, like another nascent consciousness. But is it? Artist and data scientist Jonathan Harris’ recent project, The Network Effect, presents an intense, psychological window into the life of the Internet, through keywords and a stream of real information, sound and images sourced from the Net that assaults the senses. The idea was to show the “emptiness of data” and its limitations, as the artist explains in this interview with PSFK:

Jonathan Harris: Data is good at describing the superficial qualities of the ways things are currently. However, it is really limited. Many of the important and illuminating dimensions of human experience cannot be quantified or measured.

The trap of data is that when we start to see our whole reality through the lens of data, almost as a new kind of religion, then we suddenly see our reality as devoid. Things like mystery, magic, wonder, the ineffable, intuition, embodied experience and feeling something in your stomach, all those human mortalities are beyond the reach of data. The danger of believing in data completely is that you’re starting to marginalize those wonderful human capacities. And I think those capacities have gotten less attention lately because of the our current obsession with it.

Human consciousness is truly the last frontier. Like our natural environment, our mental environment is something worthy of preservation, of care, of reverence. More than that, eco-psychology views that the two are inextricably linked: our inner, psychic landscape and outer landscapes are permeable continuities closely linked to ‘exterior’ nature. As Harris points out, our mental attention is a precious commodity — actually, it is our life — and it is something not to give away so freely.

PSFK: Network Effect creates this intense experience for people to reflect upon the Internet’s psychological effect on us. What do you think leads to the current social media reality we are facing?

Jonathan Harris: We have the current social media reality largely because of the realization by a small number of companies, the realization of the preciousness of human attention, the idea that human attention is finite natural resource, the realization of a lot of money can be make by monopolizing a finite natural resource, which is the same logic that leads to the creation of the early fortunes of Robber Barons in the early 1900s, the same as the oil monopoly. Because they realize the value first, they’re able to hold it and monopolize the market before other people realize the value of that market. And huge fortunes are made that way. [..]

My hope with projects like is to be a small component of the awakening — how precious their attention really is and in fact that’s all they have and in fact it is the same as their life. Attention is life. And to give away your life mindlessly so that money can be made out of it is a great tragedy. It’s unnecessarily a tragedy. It requires nothing else but individual wakening. It doesn’t need anything more than that. Everybody has that capacity.

There’s no doubt we all have to wake up from this collective, virtual stupefaction. Here’s an exercise: take a mindful moment to close the eyes, focus on the ebb and flow of your breath, the deep mystery of just being — nothing to do, nowhere to go, just the fullness of the present moment. Keep that mindful experience in memory, and contrast that with a visit to The Network Effect. What is real, and what is not?

It’s hard to say. Then again, maybe it isn’t. Data is certainly powerful, as we’ve seen and experienced with the enormous changes this age of information that brought into our lives. But data is not everything, and it is not power — we are power. And we would do well not to forget that truth.

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