On the Presence of Absence

Sometimes the most profound truths (or at the very least – facts) emerge not from what does exist, but from what does not.

Sometimes the most profound truths (or at the very least – facts) emerge not from what exists, but from what does not. This lies on many layers. As a starting point – consider the very many ways in which we are all tracked, observed, recorded, evaluated and (let’s face it – exploited) by the semi-autonomous mechanisms of commercially-driven economic systems. The commercial dimension of all of this is not new and may be an inevitable light to the accompanying shadow of endemic exploitation across a broad ethical spectrum, but it is for better and for worse a matter of fact that large corporations (as much as anyone else who can get in this game) are farming our identities. Just existing in an information age is to already be a caged battery-hen of data and information production, information and data that we are all more than happy to produce because it is precisely in the generation and consumption of information, symbols and strings of data that we have always self-reflexively defined ourselves and for many thousands of years before computers or the internet arrived.

A spontaneously defensive psychological reflex to all of this is for some individuals to seek to fly below the radar, to “opt-out” and to delete, destroy or obfuscate the digital tendrils and querying tentacles that reach out from (and back into) the essential fact of their presence in the world and which form the vectors and vulnerabilities of exploitation for the roving algorithms and the (now, ascending) juggernaut of distributed Artificial Intelligence. It is an admirable aspiration to attempt to extract one’s self from intrusion and commodification in this way but unless you were born anonymously in some backwater shotgun shack, abandoned at birth and left to fend for yourself and never, ever, registered by any other organic, cognitive, administrative or mechanical perception – it will not actually work and you will spend your life utterly introverted from the facts of the world in ways which so thoroughly still define you by those facts that you are as imprisoned by them as much (or even more) than if you had faced them head-on.

So much for any comprehensive fortress of non-existence as escape from this, the tidal swell, maelstrom and effective “bitstorm” of information (and communications technology) apocalypse. Partial solutions exist but these are of limited effect. There are various methods, for instance, by which application and (generally – mobile) device configuration can drop you off the overt layers of information tracking from major players such as Google or Facebook. To attempt to identify the specific tools or methods here is quite futile as there are many thousands of such specifications freely available online and the context and complexity of an information environment undergoing incessant metamorphosis and logical hyper-inflation is such that any reference or link is rapidly outdated and (often enough, also) invalidated, superseded.

What happens to your digital identity if you do attempt to drop off the radar? It is an interesting, and at first encounter – entirely unexpected, fact that when a person seeks to leave the web of interdependent information systems within which they exist, they become quite literally conspicuous by their absence. There is a now prominent void where once there was a person, or at least, the description and definition or measurement of a person. When you (however contingently) aspire to leave the information environment, there then continues to exist a persistent and self-propagating multi(-information-)dimensional shadow in your wake. All of those places where you manifested extension and presence in social, cognitive and information systems – these still exist and your digital, electronic footprints have left their mark and influence on the unfolding turbulence and emergent complexity of the world.

In an integrated and massively interconnected information environment, these absences can actually be fairly precisely determined and mathematically (i.e. logically) and computationally tracked, measured and evaluated. Companies (and organisations) that possess adequate computational resources are already well-equipped to exploit these facts and it is a thing which is already occurring: if you switch off the overt tracking features in an android device, Google (and anyone else with sufficient resources and interest) will follow you by the shadow cast by the relative informational blind-spot you inhabit. We find ourselves imprisoned and wandering an all-consuming and omnipresent digital information labyrinth devoid of either entry or exit points. The only true absence here is the impossibility of escape.

(Unravelling causal connections and discerning the prefigurative or forensic facts is in many cases a complicated matter of retrospective mathematical and computational probability-shuffling; i.e. it is a difficult problem to solve – not an impossible one. Beyond the implicit limits imposed by thermodynamics and entropy, quite a lot of information can be discerned by running models and simulations of currently-defined, observed or measured information spaces inversely to determine significant, conspicuous absences or attribute unknown causal factors).

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