The Algorithmic Self

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“The quantified self… asks each of us to treat ourselves as though we were computational objects, subject to a printout of our ever more knowledgeable states… the algorithmic self to what it can track as data points in a time series.” – Sherry Turkle, Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age

Have we become input ::::|:::: output machines processing and redirecting and transmitting information as we attempt to conduct our daily interactions via networked media? Are we traffic controllers or desktop clerks fervently attempting to prevent our inboxes from overflowing uncontrollably? Have we become mobile hospital workstations monitoring our physiology from minute to minute, tracking our mortality by counting the breaths we have left to breathe? Are we the unwitting conservators of our online identities stored on vast cloud-based servers? Is the result of the management of our digital lives producing nothing more than the spellbinding flow of continuous data?

More and more our selves and lives are reduced to algorithms: whether it be our choice of reading on Amazon; the friends we engage with most often on Facebook; the ads that appear on our digital New York Times; or the spam that invades our email inbox. Our identity permeates the virtual space of the network through Web cookies, social media profiles, online purchases, and even our proximity in the physical world. We readily give up our data, we are eager to be tracked, we revel in establishing a commanding online presence by constantly generating social media updates, likes, retweets, shares, and favorites. All of this participatory activity to bolster our sense of algorithmic self esteem, to become a truly pervasive algorithm that invades and penetrates the vast reaches of the net like a self-made virus.

The algorithmic self leaves data trails that stretch far and wide: but to what end? What are we becoming? Who do we want to be? Are we in fact becoming mere computational objects in the matrix of a giant brain-like global information system that threatens to reduce the self to free marketing data for Facebook or Amazon or Google? Or are we simply entertaining ourselves with our data, like so many computer games racking up points, hits, killings, and awards. The regularity of impulses of the flow of information is a seductive thing, it stimulates the mind, it occupies us, it prevents the LULL from setting in, those moments of boredom, the mind wandering, flights of imagination that just might scare us to death.

The algorithmic self is a busy, busy machine: counting, tracking, re-directing, channeling, and generating information in the ever-present-present of Now. It needs to be constantly fed, otherwise, if you’re not looking, it just might ::::| stop.