Life Out of Sequence: Data-Driving Life and Science Studies

John Weaver & Thiago Ranniery (2020)

Cultural Studies ↔ Critical Methodologies, 20(3), pp. 283-291

Abstract. This article focuses on Hallem Stevens’ work Life out of Sequence: A Data-Driven History of Bioinformatics and stresses the important process of data generation and how this process has now become an issue, in some fields, beyond human control. We suggest the best way to approach the proliferation of data is to adopt an onto-epistemic position. We further explore the rise of an algorithmic society and the problem “gaps” created in date generation. We finish the article by exploring the fruitful ways Mark B. N. Hansen’s latest work, Feed Forward, plays in helping researchers understand the proliferation of data generation.

Excerpt. “Alain Desrosières (2009, p. 312) raises a similar question to St. Pierre’s when he asks “what is the purpose of the very act of quantification and whom does it serve?” Like St. Pierre, Desrosières’ question raises the issues of power. To what power structure does data owe its allegiance? Of course, if data are meaningless, as Rosenberg and Bowker suggest, then data owe its loyalty to no one and nothing, but this cannot explain the obvious power plays surrounding the manipulation of data in the name of profits. In fact, Desrosières question may demonstrate that Rosenberg and Bowker’s approaches to data are at best amoral and apolitical. From the beginning of the development of statistics and numerical data, state powers understood the importance of these tools for meaning construction. The word statistics itself refers to state officials who collected information to control and govern the populace (Hacking, 1990). Desrosières (2009) points out that “political unification and statistical unification go hand in hand”(p. 318). From the beginning then, statistics and numerical data were connected to governing powers. “Quantification serves to provide tools for comparisons,” Desrosières (2009) suggests, “to coordinate them by standardizing them, and to control and stimulate players by ranking their performances on normative scales” (p. 312). What areas of the kingdom are more likely to be filled with crime; where should the police force be located; which units in the military are more effective and combat ready; where are the suicide rates higher and why; what government officials are more efficient in carrying out their duties; and which schools are better performing schools to get students ready for the job market? All of these are questions raised by institutions of power, in which each question can be quantified to give a streamlined account of who and what performs best. Data serve state powers to evaluate, judge, condemn, deploy, honor, disgrace, monitor, regulate, and promote its population. Data remind us all that we live in a society as points on graphs, tables, reports, and numerical markings of all kinds. These power configurations highlight the strange human and non-human environments data have constructed and the power players behind the databanks and algorithms hiding in the open.”

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