Data’s Dominion

Jonathan Wang '10, English 65, The Cyborg Self, Brown University (Spring 2006)

Haraway posits that in a world increasingly reliant on communications technologies, information will be the key to “unhindered instrumental power.” Rule over information grants the user the capability of “disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange,” of the world around us. Scientific knowledge has advanced far enough that many phenomena can be coerced out of the physical world with the right bit of information, and the latest technologies and ideas require a steady stream of information in order to operate at all.

Furthermore, communications sciences and modern biologies are constructed by a common move - the translation of the world into a problem of coding, a search for a common language in which all resistance to instrumental control disappears and all heterogeneity can be submitted to disassembly, reassembly, investment, and exchange.

In communications sciences, the translation of the world into a problem in coding can be illustrated by looking at cybernetic (feedback-controlled) systems theories applied to telephone technology, computer design, weapons deployment, or data base construction and maintenance. In each case, solution to the key questions rests on a theory of language and control; the key operation is determining the rates, directions, and probabilities of flow of a quantity called information. The world is subdivided by boundaries differentially permeable to information. Information is just that kind of quantifiable element (unit, basis of unity) which allows universal translation, and so unhindered instrumental power (called effective communication). The biggest threat to such power is interruption of communication. Any system breakdown is a function of stress. The fundamentals of this technology can be condensed into a metaphor C3I, command-control-communication-intelligence, the military’s symbol for its operations theory.

In modern biologies, the translation of the world into a problem in coding can be illustrated by molecular genetics, ecology, sociobiological evolutionary theory, and immunobiology. The organism has been translated into problems of genetic coding and read-out. . . .[164]

Mathematics rules as the processes of nature and society are broken down into numbers, simulations, statistics, and signals. Control over the flow of information, as well as an accumulation of the knowledge, leads to an unimaginable level of supremacy over technology and people. When understanding of the world is capable of breaking everything down into specific, defined problems of coding and command, having the right information can make or break any dream, any hypothesis or desire. However, as Haraway points out, this reliance on great power and information leads to a significant vulnerability; the machine that runs a company requires information just as much as it requires electrical energy to run. Clever users are capable of ruining whole people and companies by restricting or manipulating the flow of information into vital machinery, such as the case of ghost hacking in the animated science fiction film Ghost in the Shell. A breach in communication causes great harm as the technology required for life or freedom become inert, useless; failures to communicate pose the greatest threat to the physical power granted by technology, and thus represent the greatest influence possible in any being.

The influence of information is taken to the next step, beyond the possibilities of electric technology, when one considers the DNA system of all living creatures. Haraway acknowledges that “the organism has been translated into problems of genetic coding,” and even slight errors in the informational structure of the DNA of a person can cause incredibly damaging and far-reaching ailments. The study of eugenics, evolution, and ecology are biological examples where the breaking down of the natural world into numbers, statistics, probabilities, and constraints leads to a capability to ruin or restore the environment, to rescue or wreck a species, to develop or destroy health. Not only is the technology that humans build commanded by information, but also the very world in which they live similarly exhibit a love of numbers and figures. The very idea of beauty and proportion submit to simple numbers in nature, an idealistic aesthetic that humans in science fiction feebly attempt to replicate through technology. Manipulation of information leads not only to control over human technology and the phenomena of nature, but also to the secrets of beauty; all are part of a grand, overruling formula. The conceptual, ethereal idea of information proves to be the very foundation, the very key to the physical realm.

Even more dangerous than the sudden cut off of information is progress with insufficient data. Continuing with a process while unknowns abound equals disaster, as is shown in the science fiction film Blade Runner. Dr. Tyrell and JF Sebastian are capable of influencing the information of genetics and biology to create replicants, but are not knowledgeable enough about the truth of emotions and violence to survive murder by their creations’ hands. When all factors, possibilities, and information are not considered, large holes in a plan threaten to destroy any devices or desires directed by humans. Information only helps in its utter completion.


1. The idea of beauty in paintings can be broken down into definite formulae, if one believes the golden ratio or the methods of perspective drawing. Is artistic beauty truly subject to these predefined laws, or can it be wrested from a more random assortment of information?

2. God is credited with omniscience and omnipotence. If all the world is a function of information, is His omnipotence a product of his omniscience, as He is so knowledgeable of this world so as to manipulate it to His will? Are humans, or even the AI of science fiction, capable of achieving this complete information about the world, of solving the coding problem of reality? Is perfect knowledge perfect power?

3. The study of thermodynamics in science is a function of statistics and probability, where averages are taken to fill in for missing information, while the idea of sentient free will reduces the influence of information to a game of chance when considering the actions of people. Does information have an equally powerful grip on the outcomes of both the natural, physical world and the cultural, societal humanity?

4. Full knowledge of how everything works and has been implies that everything can be predicted. With the proper information, could the real world be manipulated as in a lucid dream? Once human knowledge reaches its pinnacle, can the details of the future be discovered, and, thus, destiny controlled? Can information be completely influential when there seems to be a break in knowledge, and does historical information’s powerful grasp imply determinism?


Donna Haraway, "A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century," in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York; Routledge, 1991. pp.149-181.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self

Last modified 17 November 2006