The New Circulations of Culture
Trainsition IIII, Richard Hamilton, 1954
by David Beer
It has become an accepted motif of the day, perhaps even a cliché, that data about our lives are captured and harvested in multifarious ways. The rise of powerful new media infrastructures has made this escalation of data harvesting possible. These infrastructures have become the backdrop to everyday life, and are virtually ubiquitous and inescapable in their scope. We live within them.
This is not really news to most: we are fairly aware of the fact that our actions have the potential to generate data. In many ways, data harvesting exists as a purely abstract concept – we know that data about us are being extracted but we are not sure in exactly what form, what they capture or how they are being used – yet it is still seen to be a material reality of everyday life. We even expect to give up some data from time to time.
But why is this? How did it happen? When we think of the data generated about us we often think big, very big in fact. Visions of data harvesting tend to conjure up images of global proportions. We might think about new forms of capitalism, monolithic commercial organisations, about transactions and information, about vast networks or databases, about powerful software and predictive analytics and even about questions of governance and political transparency. These are clearly all very important issues that need attention, but as a result of this focus we often miss the lived realities of by-product data that are to be found within the mundane routines of everyday life.
These everyday experiences clearly relate to broader issues of capitalism and the like, but if we shift our attention to these mundane routines what we begin to realise is how central popular culture actually is in the accumulation and harvesting of data. As popular culture has been remediated by these new digital media platforms, the escalation of by-product data also become a possibility. It is through these ordinary engagements with popular culture that we see vast swathes of data accumulating. As such, the media forms required for data to be harvested have moved to the interior of our everyday lives. It is here, in these cultural engagements, that we find the points of contact between individuals and the wider networks of globalisation and capitalism.
We need to begin to think about the intersections of popular culture and new media in order to begin to understand the impact that the accumulation of data might be having. Though we will not be able to see everything, we need some points of reference in order to develop such a project. In my recent book I argued that we need to try to understand the ‘politics of circulation’ that underpins contemporary culture – that we need to try to understand how data circulate back into culture, transforming the way culture is produced, disseminated and consumed. It is not enough to be aware that data about how our lives accumulate, we also need to understand how data folds-back in to our everyday lives in different ways.
Culture has always had its circulations – of shared symbols, images and trends – but these circulations are now material in form: they are data within a cultural assemblage. We need to understand the underlying politics of these circulations of data, we need to understand how these data are sorted, filtered and directed. This is no easy task for vast unbundled data assemblages that find their way into the variegated everyday practices of a diverse and dispersed set of people. Imagining what is happening in contemporary culture, which we know is fragmented as well as being deeply decentralised, is an almost unfathomable and overwhelming task. Yet there are some focal points that we can adopt to develop a broader understanding of the politics of circulation in the setting of everyday life.
We can think then, of some of the different dimensions that might define the new circulations of culture, beginning with the objects and infrastructure through which culture is enacted. These objects and infrastructures, which together form the cultural assemblage, enable data to accumulate. Once we have a greater understanding of the systems that afford data accumulation we can then move towards understanding the archiving of cultural data.
We might imagine Facebook, YouTube, Last.fm, Flickr, Instagram, Twitter and so on, as vast archives of cultural data. Thinking of these as archives forces us to think about how they are organised, how the content is tagged and classified, who the gatekeepers are and how the content can be searched and retrieved. Using this accumulation and ordering of data as a platform, there are then three ways that we might understand the incorporation of data back into everyday life.
First, we need to generate a greater understanding of how algorithms filter data, and shape cultural encounters. Predictive recommendation systems are a common feature of cultural consumption, but we have little understanding of the algorithms that shape the recommendations these systems make. Nor do we have much of a sense of how these recommendations shape cultural encounters and the formation of tastes and preferences. Second, there is a need to get a greater understanding of the way that people are now playing with data. Playing with data is an increasingly common part of cultural participation. APIs are frequently made available to enable these data playgrounds to operate. Indeed, there is even an emergent culture of visualization with individuals using available data resources to create visualizations. Alongside this, data aggregators allow for real-time insights into cultural trends – allowing us to see what is ‘trending’, ‘buzzing’ or ‘hot’ at that moment. Finally, we also need to think of the way that the body might be implicated by circulations of data. It would be too easy to get carried away with the power of new devices and new software, but we need to give more attention to the ways in which these devices and data circulations are incorporated into bodily routines.
These focal points are intended to enable us to think about the different components in today’s cultural assemblage, and all play a defining part in the politics of circulation. As things stand, culture is being radically transformed by the recursive circulations of digital by-product data, yet we have little understanding of how this is happening or what the consequences might be. My suggestion is that we need to give these issues some attention, not least because our cultural lives are being reworked in ways that we have yet to really acknowledge. There is the potential for the politics of data circulations to be re-crafting the organisation and relations of culture, to be shaping tastes and cultural encounters and to be altering the very nature of culture in our lives. We may well need to revisit some of our existing understandings of culture in light of these transformations. I would suggest that we start with the cultural assemblage, recursive data flows and the politics of circulation.
Cover image Microcosmos: plant cycle, by Richard Hamilton, 195.
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About the Author:
David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His book Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation has recently been published by Palgrave Macmillan. You can also find his blog at here.