Image: Palladium crystals of the type used to manufacture transistors, with a nod to Jonathan Kemp, reproduced under CC license from Images of elements.com
If we’re positing a role for data as a representational form then we’ll need to continue our descent into data-information labyrinth. I’m going way off track here from debates around big data but I think it’s important to establish a broader conceptual take on data than a purely computational one, i.e. what is the connection of data to the world?
Returning to Luciano Floridi, he formulates a general definition of information (GDI) where it can only exist if certain conditions are met:
1 – Information consists of n data, for n ≥ = 1
2 – The data are well formed syntactically
3 – The well formed data are meaningful
Data as Diaphora
He elaborates this by suggesting that data be understood as a lack of uniformity (for n ≥ =1) ‘in the world’ described as diaphora from the greek meaning difference.
This ‘data in the wild’ is referred to as Dedomena, i.e. phenomena that exist prior to interpretation (“proto epistemic”) and inaccessible without application of methods of abstraction (measurement, observation, formatting). Dedomena are the world in its material, social and ecological entirety; potential data whose presence is empirically observed as a difference between physical states . As ‘external anchors for information’ the measurable difference of Dedomena are capable of expression through higher levels of abstraction, (e.g. numeric and other language symbols) which reconstruct them in forms that enable analysis and comprehension (i.e. 2 and 3 above).
At first glance this framework appears to be a pretty reductive onto-epistemic view of the world that relegates everything in it to a series of potential datums waiting to be discovered by some intrepid data scientist. As an artist employing data even I would find this hard to sign up to.
Elsewhere however Floridi, refers to Bateson’s famous dictum that “the elementary unit of information — is a difference which makes a difference” (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, 1972). Broadly speaking Bateson produces a synthesis of the natural sciences and cybernetics towards discussion of wider ecological issues. He attempts to account for the relationships of organisms to their environment as a signalling processes that can be described as an affective exchange of information between coupled systems. This is interesting in that much of the emphasis in Bateson’s work is on the relational, so we might posit that Dedomena aren’t simple reductions of the world to on/off binary states, that describe anomalies between an entity and a background condition, but descriptions of relationships between things. For Floridi, while dedomena represent discontinuities they are also coupled entities; “data are relata”. I might return to this at a later stage as it connects to what might be described as environmental information, but intuitively it seems important to me in any discussion of data as it emphasises a number of things:
1) It focuses on the relationship of data to the world in a way that emphasises the latters systematic and ecological complexity (“data are relata”).
2) It emphasises the materiality of data (and that’s setting aside the chemical and mineral substrate of the infrastructure that supports digital data production and circulation of which Sean Cubitt is doing interesting work on).
3) Finally in its relational take on data it appears to correlate to the project of big data, as geared toward hugely linked sets of data/information. Again there are important questions here that need asking about the hubris of representation in big data and the relationships between infrastructures and environment.
The next post will unpack how ‘data in the wild’ daisy chain to data/information.
Tom Corby May 20th 2014