Abstract Data?

The arguments about ‘abstract art’ (compared with ‘real’ art) rage on.  But could we soon be having similar debates about data?  Or has it already happened?

(The first part of this post is deliberately written from the point of view of an analytic treatment of art.  If you’re going to scream, ‘No, you can’t reduce it to that!’, then it’s not aimed at you – but ‘sorry’, anyway.)

‘Abstract art’, sometimes ‘modern art’, divides people.  To some, it’s the pinnacle of human achievement, the height of our civilisation; setting us spiritually apart from the functional necessity of other species.  To others, it’s a pointless diversion; an excuse for people who can’t read, write or add up to feel worthwhile about themselves and give each other awards and qualifications.

But, whatever it is, it’s easy enough to define, isn’t it?  Er, no.  So we’re probably going to get into trouble with the purists before we start.  Luckily, however, that’s not the main purpose of this post.  The next paragraph might be a huge over-simplification but it will do as a starting point for where we want to go …

Most forms of art have their origins in faithful depictions of the real world.  Drawings and paintings looked like their subjects because that was what they were for.  Models were scaled versions of the real thing, etc..  (Yes, OK, we actually started deviating – exaggerating, to begin with – from absolute accuracy, in some cases, thousands of years ago – fertility symbols, etc. – but that just extends the timeline rather than complicates it.)  In one sense or another, reality was originally an essential component.

Then, at some point, we stopped insisting on complete accuracy and ‘abstract’ art became a thing.  Why?

Well, it was probably the confluence of more than one stream, and it wasn’t a linear process in any of them, but these would be the major influences:

  • (Some) People (sometimes) got bored with (some) ‘real’ art.  (Is that enough qualifiers to get away with that sentence? Probably not. But, if that offends you, stop reading now: don’t read the next two!)  More politely, people started to feel the need to look beyond conventional art to something different.  Perhaps humanity just evolved that bit more?  Became more sophisticated?  Perhaps it was an ‘artistic necessity’?
  • There were more people wanting to ‘do’ art than there was (conventional) art to be ‘done’. Either the market was saturated or all the ‘styles’ had been taken and the only way to find something ‘new’ was to step across the ‘real’ line.  ‘Abstract’ art was a necessity from an economic point of view.  (Sadly, in a capitalist environment, you can’t separate anything from the driving economics, no matter how much the ‘free spirit’ in you might like to.)
  • Some people weren’t able to do ‘real’ art.  They couldn’t draw or paint or sculpt, for example, and make it look like anything ‘real’.  They could only operate within the looser (perhaps non-existent) constraints of ‘abstract’ art.  For some, ‘abstract’ art was a necessity from a personal point of view.

In summary then, ‘abstract’ art had to happen through a combination of:

  1. The art demanding it.
  2. The economics demanding it.
  3. Society demanding it.
  4. Individuals demanding it.

And we can probably stop offending the arty people now because we’re done with the simplistic artistic analogy prelude.  What’s all this got to do with data?

Well, as a starting point, we’re told we’re entering a new era of ‘data-driven’ ‘technocapitalism’ and a technocapitalist future has two essential threads:

  1. Data becomes more important than physical materials.  There’s more value (money to be made) in turning data into (useful) information than turning raw materials into commercial products.
  2. While the mundane manufacturing jobs (raw materials into products) will be automated and carried out by robots, humans will focus their creative abilities on finding interesting ways of turning data into information.

(Just note, for now, the parentheses around ‘useful’ in 1.)  In summary, as we lose our boring old jobs to the machines, we become more creative and find interesting new ways to manipulate and commercialise data.

So, in a decade’s time, while the robots package our food and make autonomous cars, ten billion of us will all be selling each other different things to do with each others’ data.

(And there you have the utter stupidity of the technocapitalist model in a single sentence.)

But let’s suppose, just for this post, that it’s possible.  Let’s accept that the future of human activity is the creative use of data.  What’s that going to look like?  And, recognising immediately that we may have already started this process, where have we got to so far?

Well, let’s take a closer look at a particular – and instantly recognisable – example: social media (SM) and related apps …

SM, for some time now, has been trying to do several things to us at once:

  • entertain/inform us, so it can …
    • exploit us directly by selling us things,
    • exploit us semi-directly by diverting us to other sites (to then sell us things),
    • exploit us indirectly by collecting our personal data (to eventually sell us things).

In turn, there are various approaches to this exploitation:

  • Enticing us to visit other webpages (‘clickbait’)
  • Linking apps and sites together to ‘share’ data
  • Allowing third parties access to our SM data in return for ‘services’

And this last one is particularly interesting; not least because we might legitimately ask, ‘Why on earth would we let that happen?’

Well, we often do it because a particular app promises to do something interesting with our data … and we let it!

  • What was your most Tweeted word in December?
  • Who’s your closest Facebook friend?
  • Who were you in a past life?

And it doesn’t take much thought to realise that, as daft as all of these might collectively be, they’re subtly different:

  • What was your most Tweeted word in December? … It’s likely that this is going to be the result of ‘real’ data analysis; we’d know if it was completely wrong.
  • Who’s your closest Facebook friend? … A simple algorithm could look at published relationships or count interactions; anything more complicated could be a more sophisticated algorithm or it could just be made up.
  • Who were you in a past life? … Complete nonsense.  Either based on an entirely ludicrous heuristic or simply randomised.  (Made up.)

Welcome to the world of ‘Abstract Data’.  We might have some reason to use the first app; the second is either doubtful or obvious; the third is plainly useless … but we still do it!

So, for how much longer?

In the early days, it might be fair to say that these ‘services’ tended towards the real.  In return for your SM data, the predator had to offer something genuinely useful – real; otherwise they probably wouldn’t get it.  Quite often, there were a few simple questions to answer to build some sort of profile.  The ‘algorithm’ might or might not take any notice, of course, but there appeared to be some limited credibility.

But those days seem long gone.  (And so, on the whole, have the questions.  Did the need for immediate gratification became too urgent to answer them or could the fake programmers just not be bothered to write them – or both?)


A random scanning of Facebook timelines currently offers the following:

  • What were you in your past lives?
  • What’s the ‘message of your heart’?
  • 5 things you should do in 2017
  • What Hogwarts house do you belong to?
  • What’s your ‘untold story’?
  • Why will 2017 be a new beginning for you?
  • What does the crystal ball reveal about your true soulmate?
  • What’s your 70s song?
  • What will change for you in 2017?
  • etc.

… none of which have much reality to them: ‘abstract’ all the way.

So, why are we ‘falling for this’?  In fact, of course, we’re not.  We know it’s nonsense but we still do it.  ‘Real’ data has evolved into ‘abstract’ data in the same way that ‘real’ art evolved into ‘abstract’ art.  So, is it for the same (adapted) reasons?

  1. The data demanded it.
  2. The economics demanded it.
  3. Society demanded it.
  4. Individuals demanded it.

Well, yes, there’s actually a strong argument for all of these:

  1. The data demanded it.  There’s only so many ‘real’ things you can do to someone’s data!
  2. The economics demanded it.  When you run out of ‘real’ things to sell, you have start selling people things they don’t need! (But might still enjoy, even if they don’t really believe it? ‘Luxury’ data?)
  3. Society demanded it.  Is the ‘abstract’ data actually more interesting than the ‘real’ data’?  (You can certainly say more ambitious things if you just make it up!)
  4. Individuals demanded it.  It’s a lot easier to make things up (randomise it) than process it for real (with a proper algorithm)!  So, more people can do it.

And this last one may be particularly important if that’s what more and more people have to do in future – programmers and non-programmers alike!

So don’t expect ‘abstract data’ to disappear any time soon: get used to lots more of it!

But the really depressing thing is that, in microcosm form, this might actually be the way we all start to look in ‘post truth’ technocapitalism.  As the robots take our physical jobs, and we have to become more ‘creative’, how’s that really going to work?  In a world, that hasn’t changed politically or economically: where ‘real’ things only ever happen for profit, we still won’t be building hospitals, or schools; or feeding the starving, or curing diseases.  We might just be buying and selling bucketfuls of useless data to each other!

Or it just might not work at all …

About Vic Grout

Futurist/Futurologist. Socialist. Vegan. Doomsayer. Professor of Computing Futures. Author of 'CONSCIOUS' https://vicgrout.net/the-book/ View all posts by Vic Grout

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