Metadata and the Research Project

In a widely reported quotation, former director of the NSA and CIA General Michael Hayden said in May 2014 that “We kill people based on metadata.” Metadata is increasingly valuable today: it would also seem that it carries not one but multiple forms of value, some of those forms payable in blood.

Information Scientist Jeffrey Pomerantz, in his book Metadata (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2015), argues that until recently, the term “metadata” has typically been used to refer to “[d]ata that was created deliberately; data exhaust, on the contrary, is produced incidentally as a result of doing other things” (126, emphasis mine). That’s an interesting term, “data exhaust,” as perhaps an analogue to the pollution associated with the economic production and consumption of the industrial age. And of course corporations and governments are finding new things to do with this so-called data exhaust (like kill people, for example, or just to chart the social networks of potential insurgents like Paul Revere, as Kieran Healy charmingly demonstrates, or even to advertise Target products to covertly pregnant teenagers until their parents find out, as the anecdote popular a while back noted). It’s got cash value, click-through value, and my Digital Technology and Culture (DTC) students last semester put together some really terrific projects examining the use of cookies and Web advertising and geolocation for ubiquitous monitoring and monetizing.

But that idea of useful information as by-product keeps coming back to me: I wonder if someone has ever tried to copyright the spreading informational ripples they leave in their wakes as they travel through their digital lives, since those ripples would seem to be information in fixed form (they’re recorded and tracked, certainly) created by individual human activity, if not intention. There’s a whole apparatus there that we interact with: as Pomerantz notes, “[i]n the modern era of ubiquitous computing, metadata has become infrastructural, like the electrical grid or the highway system. These pieces of modern infrastructure are indispensible but are also only the tip of the iceberg: when you flick on a lightswitch, for example, you are the end user of a large set of technologies and policies. Individually, these technologies and policies may be minor, and may seem trivial. . . but in the aggregate, they have far-reaching cultural and economic implications. And it’s the same with metadata” (3). So the research paper has as its infrastructure things like the credit hour and plagiarism policies and the Library of Congress Classification system, which composition instructors certainly address as at once central to the research project and also incidental, because the thing many of us want to focus is the agent and the intentional action; the student and the research. Read more