This extract of a longer research discusses, how electronic databases got situated in the midst of the formation of computational capital. It looks at how databases form the infrastructural part of an ongoing media-related and social shift, where subjectivity can no longer be thought as a whole, rather as fragmented, scattered. These partial subjectivities, stored in databases, emerged along fading privacy and the demise of the individual in an indivisible, modernist sense, towards the emergence of the dividual.
Historically electronic database technology can be traced back to the techniques of collecting, sorting, saving and exhibiting information in libraries, museums, company and government files, and similar collections. In media theory the term »database« is in broad use, addressing both electronic databases and any other themed collection. A narrowed definition is: An electronic database is an infrastructure for the structured storage of information.
It is a set of software applications, that – as most infrastructures – does not exist by itself, but consists of different infrastructural stratifications. Most commonly it consists of a query language, usually oriented on natural languages such as English, and able to manipulate sets of information in the domain of mathematical-logical symbols. This query language can be embedded into a higher programming language and in host-systems, which often provide the user interface. A translation and optimization component translates queries into machine code and names of fields and tables into memory addresses and vice versa. Another part of the system is responsible for logging, transactional security, concurrency control and managing user access rights. It addresses memory, often on hard disk and growingly on flash memory devices.
One of the overlooked texts from cultural theory, that can be made productive for media theory was authored by the American professor of media studies Mark Poster, who developed a longer chapter Databases as Discourse, or Electronic Interpellations in his 1995 book The Second Media Age. His arguments can shed light on the bio-politics of the database, and after discussion will be extended by the notions of transactional data production and computational capital.
Poster proposes to refer to Foucault for an understanding of how power is constituted from both action and knowledge. The analytic task should no longer be situated in the act only, but in language, since databases are situated in the symbolic field and are representations of reality. With Foucault he describes that subjectivity is inscribed into human beings through language. Language itself is subjected to the influence of institutions. In a complex interaction, ideology is inscribed into subjectivity by the process of interpellation (Althusser), or hailing.
»The operation of linguistic interpellation requires that the addressee accept its configuration as a subject without direct reflection in order to carry on the conversation or practice at hand. Interpellation may be calibrated by gender, age, ethnicity or class or may exclude any of these groups or parts of them« (Poster 1995, 80). The addressee – supposedly voluntarily – subjects him/herself to the internalized constraint, to accept his/her subject position as ascribed by the institution. However, the subjects’ position is never final, it stays open and up for re-negotiation and such also opens the horizon for resistance and re-orientation.
From this vantage point, Poster describes the database as »discourse of pure writing that directly amplifies the power of its owner/user« (Poster 1995:85). Here he maintains that in difference to spoken language, a database is authorless in that sense, that is has too many authors to be able to identify them. The power is mediated through the ownership of the database by an entity, such as an institution, a company, the military, the library or the university. This institutional mediation enables acts of hailing the subject. He implies further that this dissolving authorship leads to a situation, where nobody can be held responsible for what is collected in databases and how.
We can extend and shift his argument if we add, that databases preconfigure what is recorded and processed in and through databases. In all aspects of this pre-configurations humans are actively involved, administrators, managers, engineers, user interface designers, and politicians. Though there may be too many authors of the information that is filed in a database system, Poster misses that the system itself in all its complexity is authored by an identifiable amount of creators within institutions – potential addressees of political demands.
Another agent in the field of database discourse, another author, is the user. Today with each query on a search engine, with each spatial movement (recorded by smart phones), with each act of consummation, users produce voluntarily and involuntarily data, that is transactional data. On a first glance one may think that this is a phenomenon of the 2000s, namely of Big Data, the promise to record everything. Poster reminds us, that already when credit card payment became a working infrastructure in the 1970s, the recording of (consumer) actions was established on a regular basis.
The term »surveillance« is misleading. Where the Liberal consciousness identifies data collection as an act of control directed towards the individual, the argument to be introduced is, that the recording in majority is not about surveillance, but about the production and extraction of data. The framing of data recording as surveillance is a strong narrative, fitting well into Libertarian ideology, in theory, in pop culture and in politics.
It provides a vulgarized, digestible explanation on an individual, almost narcissist level for the blackboxedness of database systems, or broader spoken, computational infrastructure. Of course surveillance takes place in the form of policing at most different social levels and thus has become a bio-political practice. But it should not be confused with transactional data production and the subsequent algorithmic management of labor.
What we face is a new regime of data production, a documented hailing to and recorded extraction from every participant in the social field. Each action, even the seemingly non-productive, for instance the querying of navigation systems, acts of consumption and payment, the usage of infrastructure such as water from a tap, or reading (from an electronic device) has turned into an act of data production. From the extraction of transactional data, based on human actions, evolved the massive production of epistemic value.
In 1489 Fra Luca Pacioli published a chapter called Particularis de Computis et Scripturis that prominently discussed techniques of double entry book keeping. To the merchant’s note-taking a specific succession of actions, an algorithm, was applied, which ensured that each transaction was recorded twice. Any amount which was recorded in a specific account as debit had to be simultaneously laid down in another account as credit. The double recording of one and the same transaction created a new epistemic relation, a relation between a periodical logic of entry and exit and a topical logic of goods and capital. Receipt-based recording evoked a paper-trace basis of trust and enabled a growing capital borrowing (Lauwers und Willekens 1994; Fischer 2000).
Transactional recordings using double-entry bookkeeping thus helped to establish a complex and de-personalized commercial practice. This new transparency blended in with a larger trend of de-personalization of capital in the early renaissance age, or like the economist Rob A. Bryer notes: »double-entry bookkeeping emerged, as capital became socialized, in response to a collective demand from investors for the frequent calculation of the rate of return on capital as the basis for sharing profits« (Bryer 1993, 114f.).
What we witness from now an is the steady algorithmic production of data (in relation to profit and property) to generate knowledge, which provides the individual merchant with an advantage against his competitors and which allows unrelated capital donors to invest in a trade.
Given the impact of transactional data on economical processes from the 14th century on, the current expansion of transactional recording appears in a different light. What currently is perceived as excessive increase of data collection (or as surveillance), is in fact the expansion of the production of a specific kind of data, of transactional data. We witness the early traces of another incarnation of the capitalist economy.
Which new semantic relations get established? How does surplus data change the political, social and economic spheres? How does it change culture? How does this new epistemic quality change social mediation and media?
Implosion of the private
Until recently the differentiation between private and public sphere was structured in a specific way. This distinction is best illustrated through the pre-modern village, where everybody knows everybody and all personal actions are known and public. In modernity, the city began to function differently: it enabled anonymity, a feature enjoyed by its liberal citizenship.
In contrast, the contemporary city, pervaded by mobile phone networks, wireless internet access points (able to track all mobile devices that move through their footprint), satellite based navigational information and networked card payment methods tears this promise of individual freedom apart: »Individual actions now leave trails of digitized information which are regularly accumulated in computer databases …« (Poster 1995:65).
Each interaction, especially acts of consumption and of spatial movement produce transactional data that is recorded. And there is no conspiracy to it – the expansion of producing transactional data is a necessity for businesses under the current economic system.
This recording of the formerly ignored, creates a new modus of transgression of subjectivity, which can now be combined with the individual hailing (mostly through advertisement), as soon as a person got identified either through meta-data or by login. »No event, no action, no communication – or non-communication – which wouldn’t be potentially transactionally relevant« (Engemann 2014, 377).
Modernity’s urban anonymity thus implodes into McLuhans’ global village, where every action is known. Village being the operative word – with a slight twist: the information about individual actions does not any more circulate across garden railings or the regular’s table at the local pub and gets eventually forgotten. It now circulates in global machinic networks. The information never fades, but is recorded forever in databases. It is not out in the open, but privatized to be eventually used in the capitalist valuation process.
»Databases are discourse, in the first instance, because they effect a constitution of the subject. They are a form of writing, of inscribing symbolic traces, that extends the basic principle of writing as différance, as making different and as distancing, differing, putting off to what must be its ultimate realization« (Poster 1995, 80). Since hailings may be adapted by gender, race, ethnicity, class or other categories, database technology is absolutely suited for inscribing the différence and since databases belong to an institution, organization or corporation, their discourse is able to amplify the power of its owner.
The resulting discursive construction of subjectivity »inscribes positionalities of subjects according to its [the databases’] rules of formation« (Poster 1995, 87). Subject constitution in database systems operates in a way, that it »refutes the hegemonic principle of the subject as centered, rational and autonomous« (ibid.) – to me the major point in Posters text. »For now, through the database alone, the subject has been multiplied and decentered, capable of being acted upon by computers at many social locations without the least awareness by the individual concerned yet just as surely as if the individual were present somehow inside the computer.« (ibid.)
This means in turn, that every single database applies a different mode of hailing to the individual it references to, thus constructing a scattered multiplicity of parts of the individual. Neither the owner nor the individual know, which part of subjectivity is saved in a particular database. Therefore it emerges as a decentralized, fragmented, potentially always combinable bio-power, that concerns the subject. And this bio-power is driven by computational capital – the control over resources of computation and transactional data.
The fact, that our bodies are always connected over networks to databases calls for another politics of the body; a body that no longer can hide from the public eye in some private mansion and that no longer leaves production by attending a place called »leisure time«.
Manuela Ott and Gerald Raunig have recently proposed to use the term dividual for better grasping the scattered, fragmented individualities of the information age (Raunig 2015; Ott 2015). The discursive power of database systems lies in their ability to interconnect pieces of information, put them in relation to each other and constantly re-arrange this epistemic arrangement according to a query. Querying thus becomes a dividual practice itself.
Computational Capital means the disposition about data and computing infrastructure. It aims at generating value in a specific form that is translatable into economical capital. Akin to the medieval merchants’ double entry bookkeeping practice, computational capitals makes use of an epistemological practice – the recording of transactional data and the acting upon the information generated from that data.
This leads to the question, how the hailing with and through databases and their inscribed algorithms that represent human preconceptions interacts with questions of class, gender and ethnicity? Since interpellations can be adapted to gender, ethnicity, class or other categories, database technology is best suited for inscribing différance, and since databases belong to an institution their discourse is able to amplify the power of its owner.
Symbol processing computing machines do not understand meaning. They use algorithms to ascribe meaning and present the outcome to humans, or to machinic entities for further processing. Ranking algorithms and sentiment analysis reach back to the late 1950s attempts of creating computer based information systems.
It is an inherit quality of such algorithms that they weight informational objects, because this is how meaning is ascribed. Bias is systemic to this approach. Everything that has been split off in the process of formalizing information for database inclusion, is not existent and not relevant to the databases contents. This leads to the exclusion of any information that could level out bias in the contained data body.
Regarding the dividual this means that whoever writes the query, looks for a mathematical formulation of deriving différence from a given and limited data set. Since the goal of any query is a result that can lead to an appellation, it is in the nature of querying to formulate it according to a différence – which can be family status, age, sexual interests, credit score and in turn affects political categories as e.g. gender, ethnicity, and class.
Historically the term class has been applied in manifold ways: First, to describe people according to their economical role and abilities in relation to society at a particular historical period. Second, to acknowledge them as sharing a common structural quality. Third, by developing or appropriating a term (Begriff) that allows identification and self-identification.
This term at some point has provided members of the class with the terminological ability to reflect their own situation and act upon it, whatever the outcome has been. A term for the in/dividuals subjected to the regime of data production based on their subjectivity has not yet emerged. Computational capital, if further being developed as a notion for describing the emergence of contemporary social relations, has the potential to address the appropriation of value through transactional data and the unequal distribution of the generated value.
Demystifying databases means, to interpreted them as institutional or organizational tools of hailing, addressing, and agency. Databases and algorithms are not first and foremost technology, they rather represent human ideas about potential (inter)actions. Databases amplify institutional power, since they are able to address the dividual on an individual level, and they do so based on the transactional recordings of former acts of the addressee. A critique of database systems – understood as a set of agency praxes – does not begin with the demand for privacy. It begins with addressing the query and its institutional context, which represents the shaping of an informatory request as a dividual practice.
firstname.lastname@example.org, December 2017
 Framework is the Ph.D. research at Bauhaus University Weimar about »The form of the database.«, which deals with the emergence of the relational database model in the United States and Western Europe compared to East Germany and the Eastern Block, 1950–1990.
 Information is data brought into formation – on a form, a table, a punchcard, or the hard disk. (Krajewski 2007, 2011)
 Already in 1995, Mark Poster recognized the importance of transactional data. »Increasingly economic transactions automatically enter databases and do so with the customer’s assistance. Credit card sales are of course good examples.« (Poster 1995, 86)
 Leisure time today has turned into an intensified period of transactional data production when using any kind of electronic networked devices for entertainment media consumption (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Youtube, Pornhub, Tinder, Netflix) and other recreation that involves acts which can be electronically recorded.
 Information age is a misleading insofar that it implicates that we have left the industrial age behind us, as if it was over and no longer relevant. Partly we can ascribe this ignorance to academic fashion, that prefers the new over the known. This ignorance and the being tired of vulgar-Marxism’s ownership-of-productive-means rhetoric may have led to today’s situation, where information age is discussed as if no industry existed anymore and nothing was produced anymore. Foxcon’s workers can tell differently (Duhigg und Barboza 2012).
 The notion here is developed in a similar way to Pierre Bourdieu’s social and cultural capital, which builds on Marx’s notion of capital (Bourdieu 1983; Heinrich 1999). To denote capital related to the economic sphere, and differentiate it from cultural, social and aesthetic capital, the notion »economic capital« is used along Bourdieu, but as reconstructed by Michael Heinrich and Moishe Postone. (Heinrich 1999; Postone 2003)
 An shallow look into institutional settings and the distribution of power in tech companies can suggest, how bias is productive discourse. Most of these companies are structured along a predominantly male subjectivity, based in the value set of engineering. It may be more than just speculation, that this leads to inclusions and exclusions on a subconscious level, which in turn reflect on the base of the accumulated data.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1983. „Ökonomisches Kapital, kulturelles Kapital, soziales Kapital.“ In Soziale Ungleichheiten., herausgegeben von Reinhardt Kreckel, Sonderband 2:S. 183–198. Soziale Welt. Göttingen.
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Duhigg, Charles, und David Barboza. 2012. „Apple’s iPad and the Human Costs for Workers in China“. The New York Times, 25. Januar 2012. https://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/business/ieconomy-apples-ipad-and-the-human-costs-for-workers-in-china.html.
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Fischer, Michael J. 2000. „Luca Pacioli on business profits“. Journal of Business Ethics 25 (4):299–312.
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———. 2011. Paper machines – about cards & catalogs, 1548-1929. History and foundations of information science. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.
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Ott, Michaela. 2015. Dividuationen: Theorien der Teilhabe. Berlin: b_books.
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