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Technologies of Speculation

October 02, 2020
2:00 PM EDT - 3:40 PM EDT
Open To
Organizer: Infoscape Research Lab


What counts as knowledge in the age of big data and smart machines? In the pursuit of ‘better’ knowledge, technology is reshaping what counts as knowledge in its own image. The push for algorithmic certainty sets loose an expansive array of incomplete archives, speculative judgments and simulated futures. All too often, data generates speculation as much as it does information.

The problem is that such speculations are themselves neither neutral nor coincidental. This talk focuses on two episodes from my book, Technologies of Speculation. The first delves into the vast dragnet systems constructed to predict the next terrorist, and how familiar forms of prejudice seep into the data by the back door. In software placeholders like ‘Mohammed Badguy’, the fantasy of pure, objective data collides with older spectres of national purity. The second is a case of what I call ‘control creep’. A new generation of smart machines, promoted as emancipatory technologies for self-knowledge, are increasingly being appropriated by employers, insurers and courts of law, such that more and more of ‘my’ personal truth is colonised in ways I cannot easily understand or contest.

Overall, I argue that the expansion of data-driven surveillance is transmuting what counts as “knowledge” from a human virtue, rooted in experience and context, into a mass of disconnected, raw material that can be manipulated at scale for predictive control. For some, such a surfeit of data can seem an empowering thing, an opportunity to stride boldly towards a posthuman future. For others, to appear correctly in databases can be the unhappy obligation on which their lives depend.