In this episode, I speak with Sun-ha Hong, a scholar based at Simon Fraser University, author of the 2020 book, Technologies of Speculation: The limits of knowledge in a data-driven society. His work challenges claims that we should simply listen to what ‘the data’ tells us, questioning whether it really has the capacity to reveal hidden truths about how humans interact. Hong’s work fits within the framing of this series, given his emphasis on the considerable imperfections present in data and the way it is used, along with the dangers that come from taking it as objective truth about how the world really ‘is’. Rather, he points to a much more tawdry but intuitively plausible state of affairs, whereby imperfect humans produce imperfect technologies. More often than not, the data used is limited and flawed, which in turn, produces limited and flawed models, and distorted depictions of the world. Yet claims to objectivity and truth encourage these problematic representations to be taken as measures and indicators of how the world really is, and should be. The result is a warped feedback loop, of the kind Adam Curtis is so fond to identify, in which reality is forced to fit with a faulty and fictionalised image. As Hong writes, ‘in the gaps between the fantastic promises of technology and its imperfect applications, between the reams of machine-churned knowledge and the human (in)ability to grasp it, grows a host of emergent, speculative practices that depend on the twisted symbiosis of knowledge and uncertainty.’
One of the powerful ideas that comes through this conversation - and Hong’s writing - is that the vision of the future provided by Silicon Valley is actually rather conservative and banal, displaying an inability to think in genuinely creative and different ways. The future proposed ends up looking like a somewhat fancier and optimised version of the present, and we are left wondering what happened to all the fantastic promises of things being radically different. As David Graeber reflected, ‘it seemed unlikely that I’d live to see all the things I was reading about in science fiction, but it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t see any of them.’ Instead of flying cars, we have algorithms that suggest more things for us to buy.
Byung-Chul Han is another thinker that has questioned whether all of this data being compiled and put to work can actually provide value: ‘we hover in a strange realm of meaninglessness, and we throw ourselves into hyperactivity and hypercommunication. Can all this data actually enable us to better understand ourselves?’ This is a vital question to reflect on, one Hong considers in his work, and forms an important aspect of our exchange.
This conversation has been cross-posted on the ‘Imperfect world’ podcast feed. It was produced with support by a grant from the Toshiba International Foundation. Previous episodes: IW01, IW02, IW03, IW04, IW05.