What is data? Part III: Data as a Relationship

In parts one and two of this series I explored the idea of “data as exhaust” and “data as people.” Here, I will argue that data is neither of those things individually, but is instead a relationship.

There is an old Buddhist story in which an enlightened monk is invited to teach at the court of a powerful king. The monk introduces himself as Nagasena. He clarifies, however, that “Nagasena” is just a construct his fellow monks have grown accustomed to using. The name is not him. There is no him, in fact.

The king is incredulous. Who is wearing those robes, then? Who is living the life of a monk? If someone were to kill Nagasena, would there be no murder? The monk abjures. There is no permanent self to whom any of those things are happening, Nagasena says. The king then gets absurdly specific, asking the monk to whom the hair, nails, teeth, skin, nerves, bones, marrow, kidneys, heart, liver, (and on and on) belong. To each of these the monk replies that they are not Nagasena.

The king is perhaps justifiably frustrated at this point and accuses Nagasena of lying. Surely, Nagasena is not just a sound, the king declares, there is a someone sitting there!

What does it mean to be a person?

I will return to this story later, but for now I want to pause to consider how this conversation might have gone if it occurred in the present day. What if Nagasena had placed a strand of his own hair in front of the king to prove that hair is not a person? The king, looking upon the strand of hair, might agree, as might you and I. That single hair is not Nagasena, nor is all the hair on his head. Hair is not a person. A person is a being with some enigmatic combination of (often debated) characteristics like the ability to reason, to enter into relationships, to love. A strand of hair has none of those characteristics, either individually or collectively.

Yet, what if our modern-day king picked up that hair and gave it to his science advisor? The genetic information in the follicle could tell the king a great deal about the “non-self” called Nagasena. And what if the king had hair samples from all of Nagasena’s monks, all of the people in Nagasena’s hometown, all of the people in Nagasena’s ethnic group? What might the king now know that the Nagasenian people do not? What might the king, with all his power and authority and vast armies, decide to do with that knowledge?

This last question is not as rhetorical as it may appear. The Chinese government is currently using a genetic database to identify Uighur Muslims and force them into “re-education camps” (Wee, 2019). You may not be your hair, but your hair can be used against you. Or, in this case, used as a justification to re-educate you into a different you.

Personal data and the new gold rush

The information contained in a single hair follicle is only a drop in the vast sea of personal data that exists today. The World Economic Forum estimated that there will be around 44 zettabytes of data in 2020, amounting to “40 times more bytes of data [on Earth] than there are stars in the observable universe.”

This data is generated entirely by humans. It flows from our interactions with smartphones, personal fitness devices, web searches, social media profiles, medical records and devices, public records, credit card and banking activity, and even from “smart” televisions and refrigerators.

The sheer volume of data in the digital universe represents what some have hailed as the “next gold rush”. Companies large and small are collecting, buying, and aggregating personal data in huge quantities with the intent of learning and profiting from it.

According to one study, companies in the United States spent $19.2 billion in 2018 alone acquiring consumer data. Global management and consulting firms like Accenture are valuing artificial intelligence technologies in health care at more than $150 billion in the near term. Likewise, McKinsey estimates that artificial intelligence across industries could deliver an economic output of around $13 trillion by 2030.

The ethics of data collection

The mass collection and use of personal data by corporations, academia, and governments has raised a number of ethical concerns. Among them, how to use data for the common good without infringing upon personal privacy, how to detect and avoid bias, and what rights, if any, individuals have over the data being collected about them.

Underlying all of these questions, however, is a more fundamental one: is personal data materially linked to our personhood? I explored this question in part one and part two of this blog series, and concluded that data s neither simply exhaust nor is it exactly a person.

A person is a relationship

I would like to return now to the conversation between Nagasena and the king, as the encounter did not end with the king’s exasperation. Nagasena, fresh off of being called a liar, asked the king to describe what method he used to travel to their present meeting place.

The king said he traveled by chariot. Nagasena asked the king how he knew it was a chariot – was it the wheels, the axle, the seat, the rope? No, the king agreed, a chariot is not simply an axle or wheels or a seat or a rope. Nor, he conceded, was a chariot all of those things laid out in a row. For a chariot to be a chariot it needs all of those pieces working together. Just so, says Nagasena, a person is not simply a name or the component parts of a body, but all of those things arising together.

The lesson may be better translated by way of reversing the argument. At what point in the disassembly of a chariot does it cease being a chariot? Likewise, at what point in the disassembly of a person does it cease being a person? In the era of big data, at what point does the stripping away of data elements – a name, a social security number, a picture, sexual orientation, race, education, etc. – render the data “not you”? And if we start adding pieces of data back in, when does it become you again?

Data as a relationship

What Nagasena was telling the king is that these distinctions are meaningless. You are none of those things individually, you are all of them. The genetic information contained in your hair follicle does not exist separate from you, nor are you separate from your genetic information. They co-arise. Personal data is not independent of the person nor is the person independent of their data.

When Nagasena asserted that there was no permanent, separate self, he was not arguing that he did not exist. He was arguing that since he arose out of the very same conditions that the rest of existence arose, he was not unique or separate. This view of the self has always been radical, but the growing accumulation and study of data may yet show us the truth of it. Consciousness and matter, experience and data, all co-arise.

Thus understood, data is neither exhaust nor people. Data is a relationship. In the act of sharing the details of your activities, your thoughts, or your genome, you enter into a relationship with the person receiving that data. And the persons receiving your data enters into a relationship with you. These relationships also co-arise, as they depend on a giver and a receiver. The ethical weight of the data relationship is at once heavier and more diffuse than other kinds of relationships, because the choices we make with data can have far reaching implications for individuals, societies, and the planet.

Our choices – whether what we choose to share or what we choose to do with what others have shared – co-determine our future.  

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