The IBM Data Baby, Or: When Data Rules The World

  • Within Pop-Up City circles, one could consider me the critical reviewer, grumbling in the background, pointing at the more ethical dimension of some of the things posted here (see my article on the suburbs of New York). Equally so in this case. Whereas the main writers of this blog usually emphasize the ‘interesting’, ‘futuristic’ or even ‘funny’ aspects of certain phenomena, I would like to talk about the political elements involved in some new ‘global developments’, as the authors put it. When I was tipped off about an advert by IBM, a similar state of mind (read: political agenda) struck me as needed to be expressed along with it. The so-called ‘data baby’ is a good example of one of these, at first sight merely ‘aesthetic’ and ‘useful’ images, that produce a discourse of its own.

    The IBM Data Baby (‘Data Analysis and Predictions for Smarter Healthcare Decisions’) is one of the most recent developments in the field of Augmented Reality — a visualized layer of data that appears ‘on top of’ real objects or events, in this case a new born baby. In the IBM advert this visualized data seems to evoke exactly the response I mentioned earlier; it looks nice (aesthetics) and it is apparently very efficient (usefulness). But moreover, this reaction is precisely what IBM hopes to provoke, on the one hand the aesthetization of the image, which arguably leads to a less critical attitude towards it and on the other the emphasis on efficiency, which becomes clear in the corresponding voice-over: “On a smarter planet, analyze the data and you can predict what will happen faster”. Smarter, faster and calculating the future seem to be the key words of contemporary technological innovations. However, there are some implications which this advert overlooks (or deliberately leaves out) and these implications connect to a wider theoretical framework.

    First of all, whenever the human body is no longer interpreted in terms of spiritual or theological entities like the ‘soul’ or the ‘spirit’, the human becomes posthuman, or, in the words of biotech professor dr. Eugene Thacker: “This first step of ‘encoding’ the biological into the informatic is one of the defining moments in the posthuman, allowing the necessity of material instantiation to give way to the mutability of computer code”. In other words, the human is not a stable, spiritual being anymore but becomes flexible, consisting of data, genetic material or DNA which can be read, analyzed and (thus?) completely understood. This has a couple of consequences, one of which is addressed by communication expert dr. Mark Andrejevic: “The advent of the cyborg may coincide with that of the fully monitored body”. Beside the fact that this fully monitored body seems to be an important figure of our times (you only need to think of the body scanners at airports) it isn’t as innocent as it seems.

    One of the effects of this accumulation and storage of data with the coinciding view of the human is the increasing manipulability of the (human) body. But what kind of manipulability, one might ask, and to what ends? Interestingly (and maybe also shockingly) enough, this is made quite obvious when, with a couple more mouse clicks, you stumble upon IBM’s, let’s call it ‘justification’, for their data baby: ‘Why Data Matters: Extracting Insights, Making Better Decisions’. In this infomercial (see video above) we get to know IBM and their motives a little bit better. Julia Grace: “How do you collect and tailor information so as that you can consume it quickly and efficiently and work smarter”, and Jai Menon: “We’ve got examples of working with companies where we were able to reduce by 50 percent the churn in their customer base by looking at these kinds of analytics”.

    So just in case you’ve missed my point; they’re in it for the money! Predictably, the key words here are ‘consumption’, ‘efficiently’, ‘work’, quickly’, ‘companies’, ‘customer’, et cetera. The fact that data will secure a better ‘service’ to the customer and provide him or her with a more suited product signals a specific (and I might add, capitalist) strategy aimed at consumption and profit. It will doubtlessly work ‘better’ since it is indeed tailored to our wishes and characteristics. But before you repudiate or buy into this consumerist data fantasy, recall the title of the IBM commercial: if data is really the way to make better ‘healthcare decisions’ and ‘detect diseases earlier’, how do we know that this data won’t also be used to sell us too expensive or untrustworthy health insurances and medicines?

    IBM’s data baby is analyzed, manipulated and commodified from birth onwards. If we let this trend continue, the next step could be analyzing male sperm and female eggs, so that we’ll know beforehand what brand of diapers or baby food we should buy for our unborn kids. And this is a development I wouldn’t want to applaud.