Active Data and its Afterlives

Matthew Fuller

Data is increasingly becoming active, independently of the people, places and processes it exudes from. Artists, designers, hackers, engineers and users work with such lively data as computing increasingly folds itself into non-computational spaces and experiences, and is in turn changed.
In 2003, the den Haag based design group Lust1 completed two pieces of work for the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. Together they formed the Digital Depot one of the best early examples of a museum digitising its collection for public use. One of the two, DataCloud, is a digital environment which users can navigate using a joystick to view pictures of and text about the museum’s entire 117,000-piece collection of design, craft and art objects. The position of the object in the cloud is determined along the following axes: ‘Date of Acquisition’, ‘Date of Manufacture’ and ‘Format of Object’. Getting your hands on this system is a pleasure in many respects, but when the system was first switched on, it also revealed something about what the museum had gotten its hands on. Two items recorded in the database but never before noted or least unacknowledged, suddenly popped up into view, items with a dodgy provenance, secret treasures. What has happened to them since is unrecorded, but that they came into momentary view for the first time since entering the museum is one example of both the active life of data, and systems and devices for coupling data with other ways of reading, sensing, playing and acting upon it.
But the active life of data means one thing when it stays within the systems and events which originate it, something else when it moves on – and in contemporary digital cultures that is just what is happening. The afterlife of data couples events of all scales, from the intimate and personal, to the medical, ecological or institutional to new kinds of timescales. Recorded indiscretions on social networking sites, sensed substances in distributed ecological computing, leaks from slipped governmental discs, behavioural patterns in web-use watched by logging software. Pasts and presents, and hence possible futures, can be flattened out into a record which may trap or shape the people and things that the data tags along with. Contemporarily, ‘Behavioural Advertising’ in which companies such as Google2, BT /Phorm and others track users through websites and target advertising to them based on what they perceive as the categories they belong to is one hotly contested form in which the incidental generation of data by users of a system is harvested by that system for purposes which compromise any possible idea of neutrality or transparency.3
It is the ‘something else’ that is achieved when data moves on that also provides an entry point for hundreds of projects by designers, artists and hackers. Over the last few years, coupling sources of data, the invention of new kinds of sensor or data-receiving device, and new ways for handling, sensing, seeing and doing things with data has resulted in a torrent of projects, prototypes and systems that generate a new understanding of the liveliness, not just of data, but of the worlds that generate it.
Some of this stuff is digital mush – blobs and worms and vertexes that render the obvious only more obvious, high production value database visualisations that render stereotypical framings of the world logarithmically more palpable and cretinously inviting to fall into. However, there are many combinations of the liveliness of data and mechanisms that couple it with other forms of life that avoid the easy traps of either control or stupidity.
Much commercial activity is arranged around the idea of ‘releasing value’ from large datasets, such as those held by government, broadcasters or in libraries and archives, or that is generated daily by weather, financial, mapping or other specialist information organisations. Other mechanisms are arranged round the uses people make of different kinds of data, to extract meaning and value from relations between them, the political, social and aesthetic dimensions of such mechanisms and what works its way through them are crucial vectors of computational and networked digital media as it comes into wider and wider composition with other forms of life. Such systems range from light, flexible, sketchy probes into such dynamics to monolithic information systems predicated on new admixtures of inhibition and compulsive efficiency.4
But these approaches are only a tiny number of those that are possible. A few examples of other kinds of uses include the generation of new politically aware publics around data visualisation devices, particularly around the politics and equipment of energy, the sociologist Noortje Marres suggests a material data-politics that builds itself around informational devices such as smart energy meters and other devices.5
Alongside the generation of new kinds of public, new spatialities are being invented through systems such as ArchOS6 and Pachube.7 Here, the more ephemeral aspects of space come to the fore rather than solid things such as walls and surfaces, and, newly sensible, allow chances to build novel kinds of object such as a single house distributed across multiple locations.8 More importantly, as data about environments and the activities of the objects, organisms and entities that populate them become handleable by novel software, hardware and ideational conjunctions, the production of more ecological, deviant or inventive forms of space hoves into view – even amongst ongoing patterns of information asymmetry that mirror or disrupt other forms of stratification and sorting,
Another welcome tendency is the possibility for the development of sensorial engagements with numerically or formally defined flows of data.9 Powerful information design allows us to recognise a phantom artificial limb syndrome in the making, the ability to have profound experience or process of learning through engagement with material dynamics going on beyond the scale of human perception. This may arise as a means of being able to sense into the maelstrom, wreckage and possibilities of capitalism through a finer understanding of socio-numerical relations and their equally real hallucinatory abstractions or as the development of new forms of networked proprioception, inhabiting synthetic multi-sensorial spaces overlayered into algorithmic urban dynamics or those of art systems. The liveliness of data as it couples with other forms of life prompt possibilities for a sophisticated computational culture that, as much as it runs with the expansive nature of computing in the present day, begins to reshape what is understood as computing as a way of thinking, sensing and doing.

Matthew Fuller is author of ‘Behind the Blip, essays on the culture of software’ and ‘Media Ecologies, materialist energies in art and technoculture’ and, with Usman Haque, of ‘Urban Versioning System v1.0′, amongst other titles and is editor of ‘Software Studies, a lexicon’. He works at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths and is involved in a number of projects in art, experimental software and media.

  1. []
  2. []
  3. []
  4. See, Ross Anderson et al, Database State, Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust, York, March 2009, available from, []
  5. Noortje Marres, ‘Testing powers of engagement. Green living experiments, the ontological turn and the undoability of involvement, forthcoming’ in: ‘What is the empirical?’, special issue edited by Lisa Adkins & Celia Lury, European Journal of Social Theory []
  6. ArchOS []
  7. Pachube, []
  8. See for example, Usman Haque and Adam Somlai Fischer, Scattered House, 2008, []
  9. See for example, some of the arguments in, Anna Munster, Materializing New Media, embodiment in information aesthetics, Dartmouth College Press, Hanover, 2006 []