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date: 03 December 2022

Digital Posthuman Autobiographyfree

Digital Posthuman Autobiographyfree

  • Laurie McNeillLaurie McNeillThe University of British Columbia

Summary

Since the 2010s, auto/biography studies have engaged in productive explorations of its intersections with theories of posthumanism. In unsettling concepts of the human, the agential speaking subject seen as central to autobiographical acts, posthumanism challenges core concerns of auto/biography (and humanism), including identity, agency, ethics, and relationality, and traditional expectations of auto/biographical narrative as focused on a (human) life, often singular and exceptional, chronicling a narrative of progress over time—the figure and product of the liberal humanist subject that posthumanism and autobiography studies have both critiqued. In its place, the posthuman autobiographical subject holds distributed, relativized agency as a member of a network through which it is co-constituted, a network that includes humans and non-humans in unhierarchized relations. Posthuman theories of autobiography examine how such webs of relation might shift understanding of the production and reception of an autobiographer and text.

In digital posthuman autobiography, the auto/biographer is working in multimodal ways, across platforms, shaping and shaped by the affordances of these sites, continually in the process of becoming through dynamic engagement and interaction with the rest of the network. The human-machinic interface of such digital texts and spaces illustrates the rethinking required to account for the relational, networked subjectivity and texts that are evolving within digital platforms and practices. The role of algorithms and datafication—the process through which experiences, knowledge, and lives are turned into data—as corporate, non-consensual co-authors of online auto/biographical texts particularly raises questions about the limits and agency of the human and the auto/biographical, with software not only coaxing, coercing, and coaching certain kinds of self-representation, but also, through the aggregating process of big data, creating its own versions of subjects for its own purposes. Data portraits, data mining, and data doubles are representations based on auto/biographical source texts, but not ones the original subject or their communities have imagined for themselves. However, the affordances and collaborations created by participation in the digital web also foster a networked agency through which individuals-in-relation can testify to and document experience in collective ways, working within and beyond the norms imagined by the corporate and machinic. The potential for posthuman testimony and the proliferation of autobiographical moments or “small data” suggest the potential of digital autobiographical practices to articulate what it means to be a human-in-relation, to be alive in a network.

Subjects

  • Fiction
  • Literary Theory

Posthuman Auto/Biography

Since 2010, auto/biography studies have engaged in productive explorations of its intersections with posthumanism, a framework that, on the face of it, seems wholly antithetical to the production and study of life narratives.1 Posthumanism, in its focus on theorizing humans in interaction with the machines, animals, and ecosystems in which they exist (and in which each shapes and is shaped by these others-in-relation), has decentered the human subject in ways that seem particularly destabilizing to auto/biography theory and practice that has been framed through largely humanist conceptions of lives (and who has them), autonomy, authorship, and self-representation. If “we are not that ‘auto’ of autobiography that humanism gives to itself,” as posthumanist Cary Wolfe argues, if not only non-human but non-sentient entities—“things”—have agency, testify, and shape humans with whom they are “entangled,” we might see the centuries of practices of representing all or parts of a life as under threat.2 As Stefan Herbrechter observes, “Every component of the term ‘auto-bio-graphy’ is being challenged afresh by posthumanism,” with the expansion and displacing of what “life” means, what forms of inscription are involved, and what the limits and identity of an “auto” might be.3 In unsettling concepts of the human, posthumanism challenges core concerns of auto/biography (and humanism), including identity, agency, ethics, and relationality, and traditional expectations of auto/biographical narrative as focused on a (human) life, often singular and exceptional, chronicling a narrative of progress over time—the figure and product of the liberal humanist subject that posthumanism seeks to dismantle.4

In her introduction to the foundational special issue of the journal Biography, “(Post)Human Lives” (published in 2012), Gillian Whitlock acknowledges that popular and critical assumptions about auto/biography have reflected deep investments in the idea of the human as sovereign subject. While auto/biography studies has also long challenged the liberal human subject and its history, a “fantasy of embodiment” ignorant of “gendered, racialized, and sexed identities,” among other significant omissions, Whitlock observes that this humanist framing has supported dominant understandings of what being human means, and which humans matter.5 In its insistent rethinking of the limits of the human, she argues, posthumanism extends the critical work already well-established in auto/biography theory of articulating human subjects—and the “limits of the human”—in perpetual process of becoming, involving social, biological, and technological processes.6 Such critique is neither new nor exclusive to posthumanism, as Herbrechter, Whitlock, Sidonie Smith, and Andy Mousley, in their contributions to “(Post)Human Lives,” note.7 Smith and Watson trace the interventions of “second-wave critics” in the 1970s and 1980s as the field reoriented from investments in Enlightenment models of subjectivity and attendant understandings of truth and experience as universal and essentialist.8 The poststructuralist turn in auto/biography studies, for example, in the arguments of Paul de and Michael Sprinker, intersected with the work of feminist auto/biography (e.g., Smith’s), to redefine traditionally humanist theoretical positions in this field on core concepts including authenticity and agency, and reconceptualizing the self, as Dennis Schep notes, as constructed, plural, and embodied.9 Thus, these tenets of posthuman thought are not wholly novel to auto/biography scholars, but as Suzanne Bost observes this theoretical framework remains a productive repositioning of critical perspective: “having been schooled for so long in Humanism,” she writes, “we are not used to listening to all of the voices in an ecosystem,” and “non Humanist” methodologies can therefore be particularly generative for thinking differently about auto/biographical texts as both individual and collective accounts.10

As auto/biography theory has turned its attention to concepts of the posthuman, these conversations have been significantly informed by Donna Haraway, and in particular by her concept of the cyborg and her attention to the webs of relations—human, geological, machinic—that must be rethought. Though, as Alexis Harley notes, Haraway does not position herself as a posthumanist, her interdisciplinary work has generated critical attention to how auto/biography studies might account for these interrelations and interfaces, leading to various approaches to posthuman auto/biography in the field.11 Framing her own posthumanist approaches through those of Haraway, Cynthia Huff argues that Haraway teaches auto/biography studies to theorize humans in relation to other species and agents. Haraway’s cyborg, Huff observes, consists of human and machine and animal in “a material web,” requiring us to “think beyond the human when we consider subjectivity.”12 Huff explains that posthumanism isn’t just about “The Human”—singular, autonomous, at the top of food chain—but the human in interaction, in an “interweb” with animal and machine, “the relational” and “the material.”13 Therefore, posthuman auto/biography demonstrates “interrelationality and interconnection . . . within a space where many beings . . . continually affect each other,” rather than, as auto/biography studies has traditionally proposed, a singular life, truly told.14 Focusing on different aspects of interspecies relations, Margaretta Jolly takes up Haraway’s concepts of kin and companion species to read her primatologist mother’s conservation diaries that document the daily lives of ring-tailed lemurs of Madagascar and the increasing challenges they face, as posthuman autobiography. In this analysis, Jolly adopts Haraway’s concept of the Chthulucene—“an earthly time when human and nonhuman must develop new ways of imagining life” —to examine the place of life narrative in articulating the interrelatedness of humans, animals, and ecosystems in the context of climate crisis and species loss.15 Alison Jolly’s diaries, she argues, “move from celebrating the agency and spirit of humanism to embody posthuman interdependency and ethics,” and “respond to environmental crisis by trying to recognize the worlds of other species without simply extending human models of personhood, yet acknowledging where biology underlies relationships.”16 Suzanne Bost turns to Haraway to imagine, in auto/biographical texts, “interspecies networks that decenter the human,” but, importantly, do so “without sacrificing politics or embodied experience to theory.”17 Bost suggests that posthumanism “highlights the webs of relation that mediate experience, agency, and life itself,” allowing scholars of life narrative to “rethink the human through its relations with other-than-human agencies and ecologies.”18

While new materialist theorist Karen Barad—also building on Haraway—argues that “[e]xistence is not an individual affair,” and that “individuals emerge through and as part of their entangled intra-relating,” auto/biography studies’ theories of relationality have also explored the ways that individual lives are inextricably linked to the lives of others.19 Posthumanism can extend those frameworks to account for relations with non-human as well as human agents, and posthuman theories of autobiography can examine how such webs of relation might shift understanding of the production and reception of an autobiographer and text. Eamonn Connor posits that, in posthuman testimony, the “‘I’ is no longer singular or exclusively human,” but part of “an assemblage of human and nonhuman beings” that “emerges from inside a community of beings that are entangled.”20 The posthuman auto/biographical subject is collective, co-constructed, networked, and dynamic, an entity continually in the process of becoming through dynamic engagement and interaction with the rest of the network. Studies of posthuman auto/biography consider the interconnectedness of human and non-human in extending theoretical concerns about embodiment, the relational, (self-)representation, and identity.

As a methodological approach for auto/biography studies, Whitlock argues, posthumanism extends “new materialisms” to productively question a traditional binary of life and objects, what Jane Bennet imagines in seeking the “‘testimony of things.’”21 In this critical negotiation of the meaning and place of “the human”—humanist, posthuman, or somewhere on that spectrum—posthuman auto/biography studies engenders a dialogue about being human that accounts for the human-in-relation to entities, systems, and agents. Such an approach acknowledges the technological and cultural apparatuses through which texts circulate and reach publics, and that can constitute or in some cases deny humanity. For example, Whitlock among others takes up a posthumanist lens to analyze new testimonial forms and to trouble the production and reception of human rights testimony, considering what exploring the “limits of the human” and, here, the “posthuman,” mean for subjects who have been denied humanity in traditional humanist frameworks.22 This is not to suggest that “posthumanism” is a panacea for the omissions and biases of humanism. Rosi Braidotti cautions that “hardline posthumanist” thought can be “anti-social justice,” and argues instead for an “affirmative” posthumanist ethics that accounts for the body and how it is politicized.23 As Bost cogently notes, posthumanism itself continues to center Western and colonial ontologies, and auto/biography studies is one site to mobilize such critiques.24 Theories of posthuman autobiography remain mindful of the ways that autobiography and posthumanism remain themselves entangled in networks that bear the imprints of human agents who created them.

Bringing together these two fields has highlighted the expansive potential of posthuman autobiography and its equally unsettling effects, how this approach is not about the disappearance or erasure of the human subject—and therefore the “I” of the autobiographical text—but rather an acknowledgement of the various relations through which human subjects are constituted. Bost captures this productive tension, acknowledging that “Opening the net of what goes into a human life leads to messy, multidirectional stories.”25 The deliberately multidirectional narratives and subjects—in webs of relation—that develop through and with the software and hardware of the internet have been particularly productive sites to think through the dynamic, contested, and emerging limits and opportunities of the posthuman autobiography.

The Digital Posthuman

The advent of the World Wide Web, and later, Web 2.0 and participatory cultures, has been closely tracked in autobiography studies in considering the intersection of new media and self-representation. In participatory culture, individuals share and create materials at the urging of platforms, in response to ongoing feedback from those platforms and other users on them, with contributions in the form and style established by the site and influenced by participants.26 The Biography volumes Online Lives, published in 2003, and Online Lives 2.0, published in 2015, and the collection Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (published 2014) explored questions of audience, agency, and authorship that seemed to destabilize (again) the traditional subject of autobiographical forms, while considering the “opening up” through new genres, such as blogs, homepages, YouTube videos, and social networking sites.27 Rethinking concepts of self, subjectivity, and self-expression as fundamentally altered by online forms and platforms as automedia—“the enactment of a life story in a new media environment”—has prompted auto/biography studies to attend to the platform, its architecture, its participants, and its paratexts, all as significant to the making and the maker.28 The digital auto/biographer is working in multimodal ways, across platforms, shaping and shaped by the affordances of these sites, continually in the process of becoming through dynamic engagement and interaction with the rest of the network.

Digital texts and spaces therefore provide rich territory to theorize human-machine interfaces as instances of posthuman auto/biography, and account for the relational, networked subjectivity and texts that that are evolving within digital platforms and practices, reflecting the collapse of historic constructions of the boundaries between the public and private and self and other. As Rob Gallagher notes, “Digital media are fostering new understandings of personhood,” requiring, similarly, critical approaches to new forms of self-representation that emerge from networked subjects.29 Reading the digital subjects co-created by and in networks (both human and machinic), on and across platforms, engages what Sidonie Smith terms the “posthuman imaginary,” the “effects of human-machine-ensemble exchanges that structure everyday life in developed and developing countries.”30 The digital posthuman subject is continually in process, an “assemblage” of conscious and unconscious engagements with other human and non-human agents; it is at once still individual (the recognizable subject of traditional auto/biography) and collective, “singular yet plural,” an I-in-relation.31 Posthuman auto/biography recognizes both the constraints and affordances of networked lives.

Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson’s rendering of the “coaxers, coaches, and coercers” of auto/biographical acts has been useful for scholars mapping the push-pull of power, agency, and authority in online life narratives.32 Smith and Watson observe the institutional and social forces that invite or compel individuals to share personal information that constitutes them as subjects in each particular instance, for example, filling out a health questionnaire at a doctor’s office or writing a personal profile as part of an application for membership in an organization, or, more tacitly, delivering versions of a story of immigration that aligns with cultural expectations of model minorities.33 Online, platforms extend these forms of solicitation to shape participant engagement, retain users, and gather data about them. Embedded in a platform’s interface, design, and algorithms, digital coaxers, coaches, and coercers create the conditions for the production of certain kinds of subjects and stories in ways that raise questions about auto/biographical agency.

Algorithms and Agency

Algorithms have emerged as a key co-author of online posthuman auto/biography, with software guiding, coaxing, analyzing, and profiting from the contributions of participants. Analyses of mega-platform Facebook’s early and formative use of the “Profile” to generate particular kinds of not only user interactions but users themselves illustrate the highly normative and corporatized ways individuals are being read and produced by algorithms. This collaboration raises questions for auto/biographical production, and in particular, what agency the “Facebooked” subject, in Laurie McNeill’s terms, might have.34 Like McNeill, Haefner sees the social media platform as directing not only online but offline lives, with the use of “predictive affective algorithms” that are shaping “the life behind the profile,” a change from earlier practices when it was other (human) participants, rather than the platform, providing such influential feedback.35 These predictive actions, Haefner argues, challenge “the premise” of autobiography, “that there is a human subjectivity creating a self-representation,” as well as the apparently core autobiographical element of authenticity, a quality he notes that both autobiography theorists and predictive personality algorithms value.36 Media theorist Wendy Hui-Kyong Chun sees “algorithmic authenticity,” the way that “users are validated and authenticated by network algorithms,” as central to Web 2.0 participatory norms and practices. She argues that media systems “have operationalized authenticity—the imperative to ‘be true to oneself’—in order to provoke predictable responses to their prompts”: users are algorithmically “urged,” she suggests, to appear to “make their outer and inner selves coincide,” language that echoes traditional humanistic expectations of autobiographical subjects.37 Rob Cover argues that the profile and its categories falsely imply participants’ choice and agency while obscuring how they constitute pre-formed and normative “tools for performative coherence.”38 This algorithmically constituted coherence has widespread implications for shaping digital subjectivities, as Robert Simanowski’s discussion of “frictionless sharing,” Lukasz Szulc’s observation of “mega-platforming,” and Alison Hearn’s discussion of “verification” each illustrate: participants are encouraged to create fewer profiles that are then used across more platforms, reducing their opportunities for play, variety, and agency, while vastly increasing the data that can be “mined” and “sold.”39

From the perspective of understanding online auto/biographical acts, these concerns about the algorithms as structuring and directing human subjects align with those raised by internet and digital theorists about algorithmic overreach. Lisa Nakamura noted that Web 2.0 was built on the algorithmic coding of identity, and, as Ann Werner points out, this foundation remains in place for contemporary social media platforms though “less visibl[y].”40 Safiya Umoja Noble’s 2018 book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism underscores the point that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is never “neutral,” built as it is by humans and thus reflecting the biases—and, more specifically, the racism and misogyny—of those designers. Examining Google’s search engines and how their algorithmic results profoundly influence the ideas and values of society, as well as how users understand themselves in that society, Noble flags how “Google’s algorithmic conceptualizations of a variety of people and ideas” are perceived as simply information, the “credible, accurate information that is depoliticized and neutral.” Yet her analysis illustrates how the design of these search engines instead reproduces norms about “default identities that are protected on the Internet,” meaning that “some users . . . have more agency,” while women, particularly women of color, do not.41 Jon Cheney-Lippold’s 2017 examination of “how algorithms assemble, and control, our datafied selves and our algorithmic futures” and create our “algorithmic identities” similarly raises concerns about the power these algorithmic co-authors wield and how users’ data both is shaped by algorithms and then feeds back into them, creating “constitutive material for interpretative, structuring, and ultimately modulatory classifications.”42 That power, he argues, is “often proprietary,” and, as Noble also notes, blackboxed (i.e., not transparent in its design or what it produces).43 Haefner concludes that predictive personality algorithms’ prompting or coercing of participants “leads to a kind of internal colonization where capitalist and political ideologies play significant roles.”44 Sharing Cheney-Lippold’s and Haefner’s pessimism, Chun reads this collaboration as illustrating, once again, “how users have become characters in a drama called ‘big data.’”45

The secret and exclusionary corporate practices that shape algorithms and content moderation reproduce mechanisms that prevent some subjects from (fully) participating in online auto/biography. Stefan Herbrechter’s caution is worth heeding here: “It is thus worth remembering that digital new media as well as sites and social networks like Facebook do not automatically lead to ‘empowered’ forms of autobiography.”46 A 2020 investigation by The Intercept, for example, revealed video-sharing app TikTok’s moderation rules that “suppress posts created by users deemed too ugly, poor, or disabled for the platform” by removing such content from the “For You” page on which users are presented with videos selected for them “based on secret criteria.” Instructed to weed out users with “flaws both congenital and inevitable” (such as having “‘too many wrinkles’”) and videos shot in “shabby and dilapidated” settings, TikTok’s moderators were to mete out “algorithmic punishment for unattractive and impoverished users” in order to attract and retain new users.47 A 2021 investigation of Facebook by the Wall Street Journal, based on information shared by whistleblower Frances Haugen, similarly captures how the platform algorithmically prioritized divisive content to shore up falling rates of user-generated content and participation.48 The internal documents Haugen leaked revealed how the company publicly claimed to adapt their machinic and human moderation to limit false information and create “meaningful social interaction” while instead foregrounding the kind of inflammatory content that engendered more response.49 In both cases, the machine learning—prompted by the humans who designed it—promotes particular kinds of subjects and stories that gain traction and influence the possibilities and subjectivities that contributors imagine for themselves and others, invisibly coaching, coaxing, and coercing the production of normative subjects. The additional revelation in the WSJ series that Facebook’s own internal research clearly indicated that Instagram’s algorithmically curated “Explore” page promoted body images that were harming teen girls on the platform—information the company failed to act on in order not to jeopardize profits—highlights the legitimate concerns about the effects of these algorithmic co-authors on users of these sites, and the ways that traditional humanistic concepts of agency may not extend to the posthuman autobiographical subject.50

Networked Agency

Agents in the network do, of course, continue to act, make choices, and represent themselves, at the same time they are being written or read by other agents in the network. Posthuman understandings of agency—as “distributed,” “entangled” “intra-action,” or non-hierarchical as in Actor-Network Theory (ANT)—theorize a relativized framework in which the human subject is only one node in a network, and in collaboration with that network.51 The human is thus not uniquely agential, but also not powerless: it acts and is acted upon, through and with other agents. For auto/biographical subjects, agency is mediated, collaboratively held, and co-produced, but also possible through participation in networked forms of self-inscription, as digital auto/biography scholars have explored. Anna Poletti argues that issues of consent, agency, and privacy need nuanced consideration, beyond a binary of power and powerlessness; their case studies illustrate the intrusive ways subjects are read, shaped, and created, and how individuals work within such systems for their own purposes, and even resistance.52 Aimée Morrison’s work examines the interface of people, platform, hardware, and software on social media spaces, and she sees in this collaboration both constraints and opportunities for users, ways they can “game” the corporate and normative systems designed to shape them and their experience.53 Significantly, Morrison argues that, within these programmed platforms, users are making choices—they are “purposive”—in their digital self-representation.54 Acknowledging the limitations inherent in the “coaxed affordances” of Facebook and similar sites, she also points out that participants enjoy their participation, and that enjoyment is rarely acknowledged or theorized in moral panics about algorithmic interference. “If nothing else,” she notes, “we might ask how such a compelling alignment between a commercial imperative toward ever greater data collection and the popular desire to self-narrate has come about.”55 Suzanne Bost’s argument is helpful in capturing this dynamic of the posthumanist agency of the individual-in-relation. She writes: “An agent does not simply rattle the web with her individual movements but actually participates—along with other human and other-than-human agencies— in the materialization of the web,” acknowledging the user as co-constructor of these spaces, not simply product.56

Emma Maguire and Sonali Pahwa similarly challenge a dominant narrative in which participants are only dupes of corporate platforms seeking to profit from their big data. Each argues that the process of auto/biographical representation engendered through the human-machine interface has particular potential for the stories and subjects who have been treated as “second-class” and therefore have lacked access to public space and public voices.57 In her analysis of digital texts produced by girls, including in zines, vlogs, and selfies, and the strategies of autoassemblage they use to create “girl selfhoods,” Maguire characterizes these forms of self-representation as “automedial.” Drawing on and extending Rak’s influential work with this concept, Maguire explains that automedia as practice and methodology “foregrounds the conditions, contexts, tools, and processes of mediation of auto/biographical selves,” and signifies “what it means to portray ‘real’ life and ‘real’ selves through media.”58 In other words, digital platforms and software not only provide new avenues for self-representation, but also fundamentally alter what those selves are and how they are expressed. For the girls she examines, automediality captures how these producers negotiate the normative affordances of “digital networks of production and consumption in which they circulate,” not least the cultural constructs of girlhood that deny them value.59 Pahwa’s work with YouTube make-up tutorials in Saudi Arabia examines another instance in which a young woman takes up highly contested (and surveilled) public space by leaning into the affordances of a gendered and therefore “under the radar” genre.60 Building on Barad and McNeill, Pahwa sees that posthumanist concepts of the “entanglement between humans and digital systems” allow more nuanced portraits of user agency.61 In her analysis of Juju, a young female Saudi vlogger who has built her own channel, Pahwa identifies a savvy capacity to leverage algorithms and platform norms to produce authenticity and authority in culturally appropriate ways, enacting “strategic translation of the beauty vlog genre” to give her a “public voice.”62 Juju’s adaptive performances of YouTube memes, such as “What’s in My Handbag?,” in which the vlogger both shares and holds back content—including her face—typically found in these videos, or “Daddy Does Makeup,” in which Juju substitutes her father for the typical “Boyfriend” of the meme for a more culturally sanctioned version, both demonstrate “layered performances of individuation and authentication” and “how digital networks could be manipulated against maximum visibility.”63 Co-opting Western cultural practices, genres, and sites to navigate state surveillance of gender (and class) by working with the affordances of YouTube for her own purposes, Juju and her digital “entanglements” change those affordances through making “media apparatuses . . . visible,” in ways that suggest a significant degree of what Jane Bennett calls “distributed agency.”64 While these mediations may change the scope of human agency, it does not necessarily terminate it and may in fact enhance or augment it in unexpected ways.

The online mapping project Queering the Map likewise suggests the interventionist and agential potential of posthumanist digital co-productions.65 Developed by Lucas LaRochelle in 2017, Queering the Map uses Google Map software to establish a “counter-mapping platform” that aims to create a collaboratively produced “living archive” of LGBTQ2IA+ experiences from around the world. Users upload anonymous, brief descriptions of a space they identify on a pink world map, tagging with the familiar red pin of Google. From supportive statements to (short) personal stories, these testimonies literally put on the map the places, buildings, and moments that constitute the varied, various experiences of LGBTQ2IA+ subjects. With pins in multiple languages (and translations provided on the site’s Facebook page), and from countries where being queer is illegal and from communities or households where it remains dangerous or alienating, the map’s global and dynamic archive employs wayfinding software that often exemplifies digital technologies of surveillance and tracking to instead produce counter-testimony that is at once individual and collective.66 Queering the Map illustrates the capacity of what May Friedman and Silvia Schultermandl call “quick media”—digital sites where users upload “self-generated content.” Through their participation in these collaborative enterprises, contributors find and create kinship and identity.67 Here, the entangled relations of humans and software generate a networked community in response to corporate and legal frameworks of these platforms as well as offline communities, an ongoing negotiation of individual, collective, and technological interests.68

Big Data and/as Posthuman Auto/biography

The capacity for autobiographical agency in the participatory practices of networked cultures is most in tension with the omnipresence of big data, the datafication practices through which each individual “I” commingles with other users in a composite, aggregate collectivity. Aggregation suggests an extreme version of the I-in-relation, one that erases the granularity and singularity of the individual altogether, uninterested in (and, typically, legally required to disavow) the particulars of the subject who is providing this data—though, as Chun notes, much identifying demographic information does in fact remain.69 For the purposes of “companies, governments, and researchers,” Cheney-Lippold contends, data is only meaningful when it is aggregated, not discrete.70 “Big data,” Julie Rak notes, “does not work with” or at the level of “individual ‘lives.’”71 How can a posthuman understanding of digital spaces and forms of autobiographical inscription account for the process in which autobiographical acts are not only mediated, but taken over by other agents in the network, for their own purposes? Big data has a symbiotic and “parasitic” relationship to online lives, coaxing and coercing the daily and abundant production of autobiography that users create about and for themselves.72 Anna Poletti (2020) argues that, in big data, “we no longer craft the story of our lives, but multiple narratives are suggested by the data points that accumulate from our activities. The ‘story’ that results is largely assembled by algorithms or humans seeking patterns” to meet the “informational needs” of interested entities. “This is a posthuman form of life-inscription,” Poletti argues, one in which “texts are generated by humans and machines.”73 Yet it does create a “story,” in a sense, about the individuals whose data has been extracted. Notably, this is a story in which those contributors are read back through the material they have shared either explicitly, through content they create and upload, or incidentally, through the tracking and scraping of the information they generate through the course of ordinary digital practices. This is a unidirectional rather than networked process since, as Lukasz Szulc observes, users are unable to opt out of sharing such content but it is never shared with them.74 Even the data participants voluntarily gather about themselves, through fitness trackers and other apparatuses and practices of self-tracking in formal or informal versions of self-tracking or the “Quantified Self,” is coaxed by and fed into collective servers.75 This “data portrait,” users’ “data double,” is both by and about the individual, capturing both the network and the individual user, what Chun calls the “molecular and the molar.”76

Users are being read, interpreted, and accounted for at a generalized level—the molar—in a version that is relentlessly networked and without individuality or agency for the particular subject—the molecular. Arguably, the form of “posthuman life-inscription” that big data produces is biography, rather than auto/biography, portraits, and not self-portraits: an assemblage that, Poletti notes, is “not fixed—and not a representation—because it is constantly categorized and recategorized by the algorithms and institutional protocols that read it in search of specific understandings of who the user or subject is in relation to preestablished categories.”77 Rob Gallagher argues that “contemporary definitions of life-writing must encompass the generation of metadata via practices like tagging and titling—forms of writing addressed as much to search algorithms as they are human readers.”78 Smith and Watson see online “paratexts”—various materials that produce and surround a text and shape its reception, including links, ads, and “algorithmically generated” recommendations—as another intrusion into “the autobiographical project of the user/author.” Continually re-reading and re-selling that user, these paratexts, “in symbiotic relationships with sites” and “Big Data,” produce and circulate an interpretation of the user, alongside of but not always in concert with that user’s own self-representation.79 Representation is therefore a core concept of autobiography that shifts in a posthuman framework. The data portrait is a representation of a self but not an instance of self-representation. The algorithms operate as a kind of unauthorized biographer, though in a sense the self has authorized them by opting in and sharing personal information, agreeing to the terms of use.

At the same time, the autobiographical subject continues to create and engage in ways that are not entirely contained by their reading (only) as data. While Cheney-Lippold is rightly cautious that “the pictures of ourselves that algorithms paint can replace other versions of ourselves,” the multiplicity of versions suggests a capacity to exceed being overwritten entirely.80 Poletti argues that the assembled points of data about the user become “the thing that can be handled and consulted, developed and managed, while the subject themself remain outside the systems of control,” since the “zoë . . . exceeds, by definition, their purview.”81 The data double, and the algorithms and technologies that produce it, are predictive, but not prescriptive: the data double sketches a “possible future, rather than fate.”82 Poletti’s analysis of Ai WeiWei’s use of selfies with migrants, shared on Instagram and in the #SafePassage gallery exhibit, demonstrates how Ai, the subject of state surveillance in China, strategically mobilizes “a degraded aesthetic form negatively associated with the role of networked digital technologies in propagating discourses of celebrity and narcissism,” to speak back to the categorizations that the state would impose on him and on the migrants, so that they are read as suspect, objects for surveillance.83 In collecting his own set of images—individual data points—Ai creates an alternative data bank that is then shared through digital platforms on which the selfie—and perhaps non-dominant subjects—will be read by the network with arguably less hostility, framed through participation in a shared genre and practice that foregrounds the agency of the subject.84

Ai’s selfies can further be read as a posthuman form of witness, one demanding “recognition . . . requiring an ethical response.”85 This is not the recognition of “algorithmic authenticity” that Chun sees as coaxing and operationalizing norms to create recurring patterns that validate some subjects and experiences; it disrupts those readings by calling attention to such aggregated interpretations.86 Posthuman testimony, witnessing “from within the assemblage,” involves the material conditions of its (co-)production.87 Whitlock’s examination of migrants’ cellphone footage of their voyages to Australia and Alice Cati and Maria Francesca Piredda’s discussion of two web archive projects that capture migrants’ testimony from Italy similarly suggest the complex interplay of agents in networks—as well as the unequal power dynamics at work—in the production and reception of posthuman testimony.88 These subjects’ assemblage of individual and collective stories, designed by and for the technological, cultural, and human agents that enable their circulation, spotlight both the individual—the molecular, the traditional site of auto/biographical subjects—and the collective—the molar, the level of big data—in ways that speak back to the cultural and technological apparatuses that would produce depersonalized, dehumanized, versions rather than “scenes of encounter.”89

The “confessional data selfies” posted to the Reddit thread r/DataIsBeautiful and that Brady Robards, Ben Lyall, and Claire Moran examine also demonstrate the distributed agency of the autobiographical subject in conversation with how they are produced by the network.90 Data selfies, Robards, Lyall, and Moran explain, “are representations of one’s ‘self’, typically presented as a visualisation of quantitative data,” whether using the visualization provided by an app (such as from a fitness tracker) or done manually (for example, populating a spreadsheet).91 They argue that contributors to the Reddit thread are creating confessional data selfies, representations that “invite analysis, elicit personal story-telling, and open one’s life up to others,” and, in turn, prompt revelations by forum readers in response.92 Their study suggests that this form of the “selfie” is aligned with traditional functions of self-improvement through self-tracking, and, as a cultural practice, apparently redeemed through this purpose and its content, visualizing data, rather than faces: significantly, the majority of producers are men and, they note, not subject to the same dismissive scrutiny as are producers of photo selfies.93 The initial data selfie is itself an instance of posthuman life-inscription, with the individual in dialogue with what Cheney Lippold calls the “datafied self.” The publication of this selfie on the discussion forum then engenders collective auto/biographical moments, “inviting others to probe for narrative,” through comments, questions, and the contribution of their own self-reflections.94 Here, the individual-in-relation with other Redditors, and with the software through which they track and visualize their own data, reflects a posthuman auto/biographical act that is not (or no longer exclusively) in the service of corporations or organizations that would profit from that information.95

These practices that take and talk back to big data, to surveillance, to the data double, illustrate the kind of mediated “cultural practices that utilize self-life-inscription in order to make lived experience consequential” that Poletti sees as disruptive to these power hierarchies.96 While big data relentlessly focuses on the collective, at the expense of the individual that fuels big data, the individual producer does persist, continuing to create and share the kinds of granular, personalized, individual texts that—from a datafication perspective—are inconsequential. The actions of representing selves and experiences, the choice to document elements of one’s own life because one thinks they do matter, suggest the potential of digital autobiographical practices to articulate what it means to be a human-in-relation, to be alive in a network.

Disaggregated Subjects

The relentless and daily production, consumption, and engagement with the personal content that millions of individuals willingly share online highlights how enmeshed participatory network cultures are with auto/biographical practices and impulses. Responding to the “compelling imperative” that Morrison observes or the cultural and rhetorical exigence that McNeill argues drives Web 2.0’s “auto/biographical turn,” participants clearly find value in the actions of documenting the personal and the daily alongside other members of a network who are similarly recording for themselves and others.97 Elisabeth Rodrigues notes that such “documentary impulses” pre-date the internet, and traces the individual acts of “data collection” that take place in diaries, for example.98 In digital forms, this collection is not just imaginatively but literally communal and public, reinforced, even coached, through the models for and invitations to participate in such a process. Unlike the high-level information that is scraped for the purposes of big data, this is data of a different order and for different purposes: “small” data that affirms the identity and experiences of the individual, attached to specific names, faces, bodies, and lives. Not just data points, the disaggregated posthuman subjects are writing, filming, and posting themselves into being-in-relation, affirming their individual and ordinary lives as part of a group in conditions created by social media platforms. The capacity and appetite to document “the little things that make lives,” in Donna Haraway’s phrase, in the course of life, illustrates the flexibility in the network, the space for individual agents to take up its tools in ways that work against the systematic erasure and anonymity of aggregation, to recover without necessarily privileging the individual subject.99 At this disaggregated level, the posthuman autobiographical subject embodies the possibilities to create selves continually in the process of becoming through dynamic engagement and interaction with the rest of the network, collaborating with the non-human and human elements of the network in producing these texts.

As a term and practice, “small data” not only contrasts with “big data” but also captures both the typically quotidian content and the short-form record that many platforms and practices of Web 2.0 coax in the interests of generating constant flows of new content. This is the terrain of social media’s “small stories,” as Georgopoulos and Page explore, with the concision of “auto/tweetographies,” the selfie, or TikTok videos.100 Serial, dynamic, and collaborative, such texts often illustrate automedial inscriptions of living online, recording “the products, processes, and traces of life,” a posthuman autobiographical act of “becoming together” through “interrelationality and interconnection and within a space where many beings . . . continually affect each other.”101 Small data is the space of auto/biographical moments, the stuff of life too small to be meaningful enough for aggregation or conventional narrative but meaningful in its assertion of a being in the world. Beyond corporate or datafied interests, they suggest the space of excess that Poletti sees the zoë inhabiting. Posthuman auto/biography helps account for the urgency, pleasure, and community that these digital assertions of the I-in-relation represent, in which the individual is recovered, disaggregated, but always in relation to and co-production with the collective.

Tiktok’s version of the “vibe” video provides a compelling example of the production and circulation of auto/biographical moments that simply testify to a lived experience through the framework and opportunity afforded by a social network. These videos, identified through hashtags (e.g., “#vibin” and “vibes”), Kyle Chayka reports, feature “an assemblage of image, sound, and movement” in carefully curated scenes that evoke an “ambience” and “atmosphere” that constitute an “aesthetics of everyday life.”102 He distinguishes vibes on this platform from those on Instagram, where branding or sales are the aim; on TikTok, he observes, the producer “is not trying to explain or sell anything—he is simply vibing, and the rest of us are just watching, consuming that state of harmony without expecting anything more from it.” Chayka sees the vibes video posted by Nathan Apodaca, which went viral in 2020 and features Apodaca skateboarding on a sunny evening while lip-synching a Fleetwood Mac song and drinking cranberry juice, as exemplifying the genre. The embrace and perpetuation of this vibes meme suggests the perceived value of immersions in others’ lives, however briefly and superficially, with the multimodality of digital production creating the sense of a shared moment, out of time, one that, in turn, viewers themselves could continue in their own vibes contribution to the collective. Notably, vibes—at least in the current form on TikTok—embrace or perform unproductivity: their subjects are “vibing,” a potential pushback to a neoliberal model of productivity that the digital subject is encouraged to embody.103 Certainly this is a kind of unproductivity only available to those with sufficient economic and cultural privilege—those with the time, space, and freedom for such unstructured moments. Yet such texts do suggest participants, as individuals and communities, are inscribing what it means to be a networked human who matters—one who is consequential, to recall Poletti’s term—through the act of auto/biographical production and reception by posthuman subjects.

Acknowledgment

I owe particular thanks to John Zuern, who provided patient and wise counsel and generative feedback to me throughout the process of writing this article, and throughout the almost two decades we’ve been sharing ideas about “online lives.” I extend my appreciation to Craig Howes for the productive strategic planning session, and, later on, to the peer reviewers of this text for their time and insights. My ideas about posthuman and digital auto/biography have benefited from conversations with colleagues in the International Auto/Biography Association. I am grateful always to be a member of this generous and innovative community.

Links to Digital Materials

Queering the Map is a modified Google map that allows users to create anonymous annotated pins that narrate an experience or experiences in that place as a member of the LGBTQ2IA+ community.104 (Content is moderated before pins are displayed.) Annotations can be in any language. Interactive community is fostered on the Queering the Map Facebook page, which features some of the pins, including translations into English; these posts generate additional, nonmyous commentary and sharing of personal experiences.105

Data is Beautiful” is a Reddit community dedicated to visualizations of data that “effectively convey information.” Not all content is auto/biographical but, as in many threads on Reddit, many users do share and/or elicit personal narrative, and the site is therefore rich with autobiographical moments in and beyond this particular community.106

On the video-sharing platform TikTok users create accounts to upload or view content that is curated for them by the site’s algorithms, or by searching for particular creators or hashtagged content. Videos are short (originally 15 seconds, expanded in 2022 to a maximum of 10 minutes, with a recommended length of 21–24 seconds), and often include music, captions, and effects; video challenges and trends (connected through hashtags) generate social engagement and community participation.107 For example, the viral skateboarding “vibes” video by Nathan Apodaca (420doggface208) has millions of views and likes and hundreds of thousands of comments, and has generated multiple reproductions, including by Fleetwood Mac founder Mick Fleetwood.108

Further Reading

  • Bost, Suzanne. Shared Selves: Latinx Memoir and Ethical Alternatives to Humanism. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019.
  • Cheney-Lippold, Jon. We are Data: Algorithms and the Making of our Digital Selves. New York: NYU Press, 2017.
  • Haefner, Joel. “Modest_Witness in the Wire: Haraway, Predictive Algorithms, and Online Profiling.” Auto/Biography Studies 34, no. 3 (2019): 403–422.
  • Herbrechter, Stefan. “Posthumanism, Subjectivity, Autobiography.” Subjectivity 5, no. 3 (2012): 327–347.
  • Huff, Cynthia. “After Auto, After Bio: Posthumanism and Life Writing.” Auto/Biography Studies 32, no. 2 (2017): 279–282.
  • Huff, Cynthia. “Situating Donna Haraway in the Life-Narrative Web.” Auto/Biography Studies 34, no. 3 (2019): 375–384.
  • McNeill, Laurie. “There is no ‘I’ in Network: Social Media Sites and Posthuman Auto/Biography.” In “(Post)human Lives,” edited by Gillian Whitlock and G. Thomas Couser. Special issue of Biography 35, no. 1 (2012): 65–82.
  • McNeill, Laurie and John Zuern, eds. Online Lives 2.0. Special issue of Biography 38, no. 2 (2015): V-323.
  • Morrison, Aimée. “Facebook and Coaxed Affordances.” In Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online, edited by Anna Poletti and Julie Rak, 112–131. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.
  • Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press, 2018.
  • Poletti, Anna. Stories of the Self: Life Writing after the Book. New York: New York University Press, 2020.
  • Poletti, Anna, and Julie Rak, eds. Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2014.
  • Whitlock, Gillian and G. Thomas Couser, eds. “(Post)Human Lives.” Special issue, Biography 35, no. 1 (2012).

Notes