Privitization of the Personal: Business of Paradata, Culture of Bytes

(First, a bit of context: I’m an information professional who works mostly with and around metadata, but sometimes has an errand or two to run in the paradata. And, you know, sociology and anthropology of knowledge is what I want to do for PhD.)

So, Paradata.

Wait, what?

Paradata. Originated from survey methodology where meaning is “Data captured throughout the entire survey
lifecycle that are a result of the administrative process of collecting the product data” , but lately turned into “data that exists in a zone between metadata and not metadata. At the same time, in many cases it’s data that’s so flawed, so imperfect that it actually tells us more than compliant, well-structured metadata does.

In my daily work, it’s “when was the item accessed by end user” and “for how long”, i.e., information about the the relationship between the data and the end user, not “when item was created” and “what was the end result of query”, i.e., information about the data itself – metadata (yes, one can argue that “what was the end result of the query” is related to end user’s behavior, but from my perspective, I’m looking at it from the data’s point of view in itself, not users’ view. I want to make sure the data is coded right into the system, but I can’t be responsible for the ways in which it is searched for. In other words, if someone’s looking for a cat video by typing “what is a lightbulb” into her search engine and gets an explanation about lightbulbs, then she’s in the right place from my point of view). Read the links above for further (interesting!) information, explanation, and a bit of funnies.

Why does this matter? Why Should I, Not An Information Professional, care?

Because we’re all culture consumers, like it or not. We are in the market, and we are the market.
Let us handle the market aspect first. Remember the long tail? Well, use and potential abuse of paradata is what happened when long tail met business. For analytical reasons only, and after a certain class I took this year, the concept of paradata made me think of the way industry uses this information about its end users’ actions, and how it relates to the way we consume culture and participate online.* It’s more, so much more than “other readers who read this were also interested in…”. It’s tracking the highlights you made in your e-reader. It is finding what the most popular section is to be used for future goals. It’s Pandora, and the box it came with had other things in it (thanks for the link, T.!).

Here we get into the cultural aspect. Cashable paradata is why I was listening to Chava Alberstein in between breaks from Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade when I first started to write this post over a month ago. It’s the reason for Instagram, for SongPop, for every goddamn commercial application out there. It’s cashing the attention span of internet users by giving them fragments of “culture” as a product/customized solution, and it changed not only the way in which we consume culture, but also the way in which we produce it. That is because paradata will only give you part of the picture and the experience – but most of the actual profit, in cash.

The embrace of paradata as a legit business culture has consequences. I’m not the one to say if they’re good or bad – that’s for history and society (that means, for you, readers) to decide. But it’s breaking the process that is culture to nothing but a cashable bottom line. It’s turning culture into a race, a business, and like an Ouroboros, using our behavior to in order to motivate and accelerate it.

I wrote here, about another matter that

Trust and confidence are illusions, just as law and norm are. They break, change, and people get hurt in the process. It’s inevitable. It’s a part of life. In one of the groups the question rose: should we dive into that breach of confidence to reconstruct the trust, or should we continue and develop other means of trust by work? Since I don’t tend to see trust as a linear/binary process I was in favor of the later process (though I don’t think they inherently contradict each other).

I have trust in the artists I’m a fan of, but I can hardly say the same for the system that makes me nothing more than a “culture fragment addict” with the attention span of two paragraphs, a three minutes song and a new dress. “Owning” them doesn’t make me a better, more educated or intellectual person. Processing them into my life can. And processing takes time, care, thought, luck, criticism, coincidence, and more than anything, attention. The process in which culture, not business, makes one a whole person can’t be broken into the sections one highlighted in her e-reader or that the newspaper did. It’s business in the mirage of culture.

I see more and more of my friends who prefer to “quit the race” (and/or have a breakdown to realize the race is broken), and return consuming the old fashioned and “whole” way: slow down, don’t go to every event/look at any picture/listen to every song, and sit with a book. These friends are sensitive, super-smart, work too hard, so they’re brilliant indicators for me to understand something’s changing. And I also know this: if things will continue to accelerate at their current geometric pace, I’ll be having a breakdown of my own quite soon.

Mark Sorrell wrote recently that control is nothing without power. I think that’s exactly what paradata, a world of endless applications to run your life by/with and songs for 0.99$ are trying to conceal: that we don’t have, as consumers, a lot of power over the culture we’re consuming or the ways it’s being consumed. There are thousands of applications to sell or give one control, or the illusion of it. I am hardly sure it gave anyone power. Something you can hold and be built from to live your life in a better way, or grow as a person. An album you can return to. Not the next application, but the next creation.

Let us be clear: I’m NOT saying that SongPop killed culture. I know it might look like it, especially if you skimmed so far because we’re all used to skim by now because they’re too many interesting things out there to try, read, hear, smell, taste, touch. I’m saying that commercial use of paradata changed and is changing the way we consume, participate and distribute culture. I’m not sure if it changes the way in which we create culture – you’ll have to ask artists that question.

* If you just went “huh?”, you clearly never met me and my academic interests, or my foamy fandoms.


Also. I’m an idiot. In this post I said I don’t know what is it that makes Dulli’s performance to something that touches and affects me so much. Ever since I re-read Bob Gendron’s Gentlemen’s book. Here I wrote (password will be given to those who’ll ask for it) that

Proximity to borderlines (in the double, triple and whatnot meaning of the word) challenges me […] that’s one of the advantages I have as an anthropologist: I sense most of the social and vaguely abstracted borderlines long before I crash into them. There is a long list of fragile borders I’m not too keen to cross. Those are mostly borders of personal space and emotions. And then there are the lines between backstage and the stage, band and audience […]
Knowing-your-borderline is there not only because what anthropology or my own not-so-inner control freak have taught me. It’s there because with my apophenic sight, there are endless borders I cross, attend and regulate daily, from academia to my jobs and volunteering. It leaves very little room to attend the borders of emotion, of attire, of the heart.

Enter Twilight Singers.

I’m not the only one who’s transcending the borderlines (not to mention this half-fan-review-half-blogpost hybrid, which belongs to none). I guess I only felt free to do so because someone started it first; the band. In the covers, the performance, the content of the songs. The way that the covers are tailored masterfully into the band’s songs. I ain’t blind, I’m just responding.

And here’s what Gendron wrote about the Afghan Whigs, (from the preface):

It’s about boundaries – between North and South, black and white, rock and soul, personal and private.

As someone who was trained in the post-structural tradition, I can only relate by resonate.

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