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About the project

Big data archives offer themselves as reassuring, neutral and innovative systems for the oversight of today’s information deluge. Yet recent information scandals suggest that big data entail not only big possibilities, but also a considerable range of uncertainties. It is these uncertainties to which Uncertain Archives is addressed. It offers practical analysis of contemporary big data archives through three case studies, which are set in dialogue with the theories that reveal both the risks and the potentials of big data in their present use. In addition to the project’s published outputs setting out the different stakes of this uncertainty, the project draws on live liaison with computer technologists, sociologists, contemporary art practitioners and policy makers to forge a new and theoretically-informed approach both to the technical and to the ethico-political implications of archival uncertainty for the organisation of knowledge today.

Problem statement and research questions

Big data archives offer us a previously unknown sense of security; for one, the huge bodies of information that internet archives contain can augment our human capacities to those of prosthetic gods at the click of a button. Meanwhile the mass collection of data by corporations and agencies of the state promises to make the world’s populations increasingly traceable and, it is hoped, predictable. As the archive moves from a regime of existent truth to one of future anticipation (MacKenzie, 2013), we seem to have garnered command of cultural fluctuations, flu epidemics, criminal acts, environmental disasters and terrorist attacks. Yet, do the digital storage institutions of the present provide a false sense of security? Recent scandals, including the Wikileaks and NSA revelations, have caused experts and observers to question not only the statistical validity of the diagnoses and prognoses conjured from big data, but also the broader implications of their large- scale determination of knowledge.

On the one hand, big data raise questions that are well known to the theoretical regime of the archive as it developed at the height of poststructuralism; the theories of archival structuration and function that were explored by such cultural theorists as Derrida, Foucault, and Deleuze and Guattari in the late twentieth century thus provide a unique entry-point to our investigation of the cultural politics of big data. On the other hand, the new digital forms of the big data archive present urgent, cultural and epistemological challenges in need of contemporary theorization. Therefore, Uncertain Archives adapts these cultural theories of the archive to our present-day digital environment, in order to interrogate the ways in which computational infrastructures, automated reading practices, technological glitches and the performances and exploits of the subjects of the contemporary archive both produce and problematize the uncertain environment of big data storage. Employing aesthetic and communicative-structural analysis, textual critique, qualitative interviews and practice-based artistic experimentation, the project develops a multidisciplinary and theoretically-informed model for understanding the uncertain archives that big data present.

The governing research question of Uncertain Archives is: What are the risks and the potentials of uncertainty in the contemporary archive?

The project offers an approach to uncertainty that examines it both as a risky limitation of the contemporary archive, and a productive practice for the transformation of knowledge and its exploitation. Thus, on one level ,archival uncertainties have proved a source of anxiety both for industrial formations dependent on the validity of predictions (search engines, law enforcement agencies, the marketing industry), and for the citizens who bear the brunt of being categorized on false premises (whether they are pregnant, poor, ill, stateless, or considered a terrorist). The consequences of such uncertainties are set out, for instance, in the just-published White House report on big data (Executive Office of the President, 2014). On a deeper level, however, digital archives also thrive on uncertainty as an engine of creativity and innovation (Esposito, 2012, Parisi, 2013). Uncertainty, if viewed from a certain angle, holds the positive potential to change the way in which information is held and employed. And yet, in a final twist, the conceptualisation of uncertainty as a creative process can find itself in an alliance with political economies in which performances of critique are praised as ventures – as operations that are endogenous to the contemporary (risk) economy (Beckert, 2013) and whose pursuit therefore promotes and strengthens that economy. From this perspective, even the subversions that are available to the contemporary archive appear doubly calculable, at once subject to the agency of the subject performing out of uncertainty, and at the same time co-optable by the regimes of knowledge, which this subject might set out to resist. Mindful of such complications, by the political and cultural environments into which technological uncertainty erupts, Uncertain Archives pursues three sub- questions that together address the larger problem of uncertainty, as both a structuring risk and a subversive potentiality attached to the contemporary, big data archive:

  1. What are the technological and structural forms that make our contemporary archives sites of uncertainty?

  2. How can uncertainty, as a basic archival liability, also become available for creative or subversive exploitation by its subjects?

  3. What are the new hermeneutics, the new habits of knowing and of reading that arise from the contemporary archive’s oscillation between subversion and control?

These questions enable us on the one hand to examine digital archives as the latest instalment of a long archival negotiation: a negotiation between technology and its human subjects (or objects), between security and uncertainty, and ultimately between power and knowledge, that is imminent to the structure of any archive of society, On the other hand, the questions reflect the way in which digital storage resources transform the view of the archive as it was developed in cultural theory in the latter part of the twentieth century. The development of digital archive technology changes the structure of the contemporary archive; it changes how it can be conceived culturally, and it shifts the temporality of the archive – and thereby its ultimate use: from the home of historical posterity to a multi-locational site of dynamic futurity, where control is rendered more precarious by its very technological structures, even as the scope of big data archives grows.

The ambition for the project’s outcome is twofold; first, its theoretical regime will develop a new, and newly critical, theory of the archive that is informed by cultural philosophy of the late twentieth century, but which updates these intellectual currents for the age of digitization through cultural and technological case studies of big data. Secondly, we plan to set this much-needed, critical and historically-contextualized perspective on the stakes of big data into action. Offering new readings of some of the latest empirical material on the uncertainties inherent in big data archives, our research will inform the stake-holders of the contemporary archive with whom we liaise: these are the computer technologists, sociologists, contemporary art practitioners and policy makers to whom our project addresses itself and with whom we will liaise through regular publications and workshops at which our research questions will be presented and developed.


Uncertain Archives approaches big data as computational, large-scale, flexible and accelerating archives that organise themselves around dynamic and often invisible algorithmic infrastructures (cf. Beer 2009; Röhle 2010; Bowker 2010; Gillespie 2011; Esposito, 2012; Fuller & Goffey 2012a; Fuller & Goffey 2012b; Steiner 2012; Barocas, Hood & Ziewitz 2013; Kerr & Earle 2013; Parisi 2013; Gillespie 2014). As experts in the cultural politics of security technology we are able to set out the theoretical frameworks, the cultural imaginaries and the hermeneutic modes in which these archival infrastructures can be conceptualised by their human subjects.

As Derrida traced, the arkheion was the authoritative home of ancient documents of the law (Derrida 1998). But across disciplinary vernaculars, the term ‘archive’ now refers to more than only legal-bureaucratic institutions, to take in epistemological concepts, technologies of temporality, online infrastructures, and cultural-aesthetic practices. At the very latest, the poststructuralist critique of the archival document, of its capacity to produce truth, offer evidence, police experience, categorize subjects’ identities or exhibit an aura of authenticity, destroyed the authority of these archives as reliable repositories. Derrida’s arkheion-home turned out to be haunted by a ‘death drive’ of repetitive collection made meaningless – if not dangerous – by its own internal structures (Derrida 1998). Foucault and Arlette Farge found, meanwhile, that the prison archives of the Bastille were destabilised by a latent, an-archival energy in pre-Revolutionary France (cf. Farge and Foucault 1982). The risks built into the modern archive were viewed by Deleuze and Guattari as opening up pathways for their favoured subversive mode of ‘deterritorialisation’ (Deleuze and Guattari, 2013). Yet these thinkers also displayed a concern with certain ‘black holes’, markers of insecurity into which the cultures contained in the modern archive risk falling (ibid). The digitization of the contemporary archive has made such a deconstruction of the archive, which sets its operations ‘of unification, of identification, of classification’ (Derrida 1998) against the limits of its inhabitant risks, into a material reality.

The uncertain archival orders that cultural theorists identified in the late twentieth century are radically increased by the development of big data archives ,Though no rigorous definition of big data yet exists, issues of size, scaleability, relationality, convergence, extensionality and innovation emerge regularly in the first readings of this phenomenon which promises at once to produce responses to an uncertain, indeed dangerous world, and to facilitate unprecedented innovatory possibilities (cf. Boyd and Crawford, 2012; Kitchin, 2013; Mayer-Schönberger and Cukier, 2013). As these first investigations have shown, the uncertainty that besets the big data archives of our time in fact consists of a range of ambiguities, including economic risk, technological error, artistic innovation – ambiguities that are more or less tolerated as inherent to late modernity’s techno- political constellations (cf. Bauman 2007; Latour 2007). It is against this backdrop that Uncertain Archives situates its empirical case studies.