Cannibal babies, categorisation and data ethics

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Medieval cannibal

I’m a big fan of bonkers medieval stuff — who isn’t!? So I was truly delighted to find this brilliant procrastination twitter thread from the medievalist Eric Wade about all the time medieval luminary Thomas Aquinas and his pals like St Augustine spent worrying and taxonomising about the key question at the top of everyone’s list: “if our bodies are resurrected in the Last Judgment, what happens if we were eaten?”. Obviously, this made me think about data ethics, and I will tell you why.

According to Wade “[t]hey thought God would just extract the you-matter from the cannibal’s body, and the cannibal would be resurrected using whatever other matter their body was made of. God keeps track of the tiny bits that are you and puts them back together, even if you are eaten or burned up”.

Notwithstanding the fact that ‘you-matter’ is now one of my fave phrases, it doesn’t seem to have much to do with technology and ethics and stuff. But that’s where you're wrong, because old Aquinas wasn’t just some hack. When he identified a problem, he gave it solid thought. And thus, Wade introduces us to the bigger fish which was in need of a-frying. CANNIBAL BABIES! No no, not babies who eat other human flesh, that would be too simple. What happens if two cannibals eat all your you-matter and then proceed to copulate producing a baby cannibal “made entirely out of substance from consumed flesh? How will God resurrect the baby & you if you are made of the SAME MATTER? Will the baby’s substance turn into you?”

Some people were like ‘God’s a lot smarter than us, it’ll be fine, he’ll sort it’. St Augustine said it probably didn’t work like that biologically anyway but even if it did the flesh evaporates into the air so it’s also cool. But then Tom got all hot and bothered about semen eventually concluding “if you are eaten by a cannibal who then has sex with another cannibal & part of your eaten body turns into the semen that makes a cannibal baby, SORRY. You don't get that little bit of yourself back. It belongs to the baby now. God will replace that matter w/new matter.”

So these guys spent ages thinking about mad smutty cannibal porn… but this naturally raises the question of why. Sure, it was pretty probably terrifying yet boring being medieval, but I’m relatively sure there wasn’t really enough actual cannibalisation happening to justify this level of arbitrary rule making about it. Don’t worry, Wade’s got us. It was because it was a conduit for their racist, homophobic values of course! “Thomas Aquinas calls sodomy a bestial vice that he associates with cannibalism. This may be bc sodomy was often associated with non-Christians”.

But so what? They’re all dead now and the world is very different now, judging a medieval culture by today’s standards is a fool’s game. What it gives us is a novel example with enough historical distance to give us a clean(er) perspective on the relationship between cultural context and categorisation. Tom and the gang created a system of categorisation and interpretive rules for cultural/ political forces which they found threatening, reinforcing their doctrine and therefore their control of the world around them. It’s pretty well established that categorisation has the capacity to be a mechanism of control (for good and ill). Many scholars have shown how technologies of biological measurement such as the census, are shaped into tools to produce hierarchy, discipline and control. Further to this, the recursive relationship between classifications and the physical realities they create are often a strong theme (Foucault 1988; Hacking 1990; Rabinow 1996; Bowker and Star 1999; Clarke 2010).

Ian Hacking’s work on the ‘looping effect of human kinds’ (1996) demonstrates how the process of categorising people directly affects how we define and understand ourselves in a social context. Once a phenomenon or attribute is isolated and named, it becomes a category that people associate themselves with. This informs their behaviour and a reflexive relationship begins between social definitions and social realities. Hacking terms this ‘making up people’, a phenomenon he says “changes the space of possibilities for personhood” (Hacking 2006:193). Hacking gives the example of how homosexuality was medically defined in the late 19th century, resulting in the establishment of homosexual and heterosexual as ‘kinds of being’ thus enabling laws to be written which could officially discriminate against it (Hacking 2006:163). That’s not to say these mad medieval machinations made gay people, Jews and Muslims into cannibals, but it would have contributed to the reinforcement of the cultural and political norms of the time.

And so to technology and ethics. Emerging technology and its use is presenting us with all sorts of novel opportunities and problems. Most of these technologies rely on data and that data needs an architecture (aka a categorisation structure) and rules to interpret it (aka algorithms). Being mindful of the consequences of categorisation as we build new technologies using the data we collect about ourselves and the world around us is really hard and really important. Data and information is a public good which can bring huge social and economic benefit when structures and shared in a way which provides balanced equity, we just need to be mindful of how we organise it, as that shaped the knowledge and information we derive from it. Whilst we can learn and inform ourselves through principles, we need to interrogate, equivocate and dare I say it, quibble about these problems right down to the most granular detail.

Written by

Lead Producer BBC R&D and freelance consultant with Wellcome Mental Health team. ex Open Data Institute. Interests in data, design, digital, and anthropology.

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