Yale Women's, Gender and Sexuality Studies
Volume 4, Issue 2
spring 2014
Editor, Geetanjali Singh Chanda
Managing Editors, Linda Hase & Craig Canfield
Layout Design, Nick Appleby

The Critical Life of Information

by David Joselit, Distinguished Professor, The Graduate Center, CUNY


“The Critical Life of Information,” an all day conference exploring how the phenomenon of Big Data affects the humanities took place on April 11, 2014.  Organized by Inderpal Grewal, Laura Wexler, and myself, the free-wheeling workshop included four panels focusing respectively on Big Data from the perspective of the Law, Visual and Quantitative Analytics, the Arts, and Governance, each of which included invited speakers as well as three respondents, largely though not exclusively drawn from the Yale faculty.  Big Data has been much in the news lately, but as Wexler stated in her introduction, it is generally understood to belong to three contexts: as a tool in science, an aid to producing consumer profiles (and hence new or intensified markets), and in terms of government surveillance, and its legality.  The discussion we initiated by bringing together an inter-disciplinary group of lawyers, policymakers, technologists, artists, and academics based in the United States, India, and Britain dwelled instead on how the vast—and virtually inconceivable scale of big data challenges what it means to be human.  From efforts in India to build a comprehensive biometric database that promises to revise notions of citizenship in that country (as presented by Malavika Jayaram of the Berkman Center at Harvard) or Nike’s use of biological and sonic feedback information in order to sell their products (as argued by Sumanth Gopinath of the University of Minnesota and Jason Stanyek of Oxford), participants demonstrated how subjectivity is refigured in a wide variety of ways through the techniques of Big Data.  At the end of a long and exhilarating day it was clear that “The Critical Life of Information” had demonstrated how essential the humanities remain in understanding the central challenges of our time, but also how much work we still have to do to assess Big Data ethically and politically.

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