Bridle’s “New Dark Age”: Can Creative Conspiracy Combat Consumptive Computational Conceptualization/Cultivation?

New Dark Age, by James Bridle, provides a lyrical and nearly eschatological argument for greater intellectual engagement with the possibility that computation and contemporary computational thinking is undergirded by “an ever-increasing opacity allied to a concentration of power, and the retreat of that power into ever more narrow domains of experience” (34). Consider the “automation bias,” which, according to Bridle, “ensures that we value automated information more highly than our own experiences, even when it conflicts with other observations” (40). Extrapolating from such a principle, Bridle carries his analysis through various technologically mediated industries and infrastructures: climate change, neural nets, contrails, YouTube algorithms, etc. “We find ourselves living among things designed to dispossess us,” writes Bridle—in characteristic style—during his discussion of procedurally generated “product spam” in online marketplaces (127). Against such forces, that is, against the “elevation of [computational] efficiency above all other objectives” (132), Bridle advocates for a “hermeneutics, or hermetic understanding, of technology that might account for its perceived errors by pointing out that reality is never that simple” (134).

Thus, Bridle’s hermeneutic approach to critical inquiry forms the epistemological basis for this project. Regarding the sadistic corners of children’s YouTube, he writes not only that “to expose children to this content is abuse,” but moreover that itself “the system is complicit in the abuse, and YouTube and Google are complicit in that system” (230). Layers of meaning—of actual meaning, in opposition to disinterested and devalued “data-driven correlation” (147)— reveal themselves not passively, but through a ceaseless and potentially infinite application of thought. Of course, Bridle is unabashed in the association of the hermeneutic and the paranoid. “Conspiracies,” he writes, “literalise the horror we feel lurking unspoken in the world” (194), their resulting theories “bringing into view objects and discourses otherwise ignored” (195), for better or for worse. Riffing on Hofstadter’s famous articulation of the “paranoid style in American politics” (205), Bridle concludes that the “gray zone” of “half-truth” information overflow we have computed into existence around us conjures conspiracy theory as “the dominant narrative and the lingua franca of the times” (214).

“We can neither confirm nor deny,” a.k.a. the “Glomar response,” is a “third category of statement between affirmation and renunciation” cited by Bridle as a refrain of the contemporary problematic (165). In the same spirit, his book is fashioned as a series of disparately unsettling essays, neither wholeheartedly affirmational nor renunciatory—but in their ambiguity made not dissimilar to, and indeed admittedly indebted to (11), collections of Lovecraftian (or perhaps Ligottian) horror stories. A careful scholar, having uncovered a secret connection, is destroyed by the terrible knowledge of the very network unearthed, over and over. Bridle goes on searching “for the traces of hidden systems in the landscape” of South East England (103). That being said, having made myself somewhat familiar with Bridle’s other artistic work, I find myself wondering where something like this book—produced at the intersection of the critical and the aesthetic—touches down in an academic context.

Week 12

I enjoyed reading Nakamura’s writing on the semiconductor assembly, focusing on the cultural aspect of the production behind our digital and tech lives. She demonstrates how the native American women were treated inferiorly as the Fairchild tried to reduce cost. It also ironic that it was the Navajo land first approached giants to improve the overall situation, but with the elephant in the room, there was no much space for the native American to play the dice. It strikes me like the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 19 century where it said Chinese as a race was excluded from entering the United States after working on great projects like the Wild West railway and the Alaskan Highway. The situation echoed, and the cheap, disposable, replaced nature of the native laborers was here for more than decades. However, if I were to describe this whole event as an economic opportunity, I would acknowledge that growth is always painful, especially when the fallen behind needs to catch up with the new trends.

The exploration of the national dualism at different level was nicely done by to examine anatomy what we regarded as granted. I genuinely admire his way of writing, putting time and effort into thinking, and categorizing things based on evidence and experience. I like his definition of culture that it is also a “means of socio-economic production and reproduction as well as of potentially radical transformation” Although I can not entirely agree on the M-I-C-I-M model proposed by him, I can see the transformation from human labor to biochip happen soon in the near future.

Evan Hill’s Silicon Valley Can’t Be Trusted With Our History gained my attention after reading it. Although I cannot entirely agree with the notion that the internet should stay neutral when maintaining specific past events, I still find values from this piece that online archives should be comprehensive and completed. However, why should we establish information value hierarchy to keep some of the content while the end of the day may discard others? We have a right to keep what we want to remember, and as for online platforms such as youtube and google where intelligence was aggregated, it is up to the people to decide what they want to see and what is trending.

Kapital instead of Image/Labor

While I enjoyed the various summaries of the effect of market economies entering the digital age, they don’t change very much in the insight on the how the structures of capitalism work to solidify capital. The Navajo piece is an early crucial unique example of the beginnings of techno-colonialism not abroad, but in an American context. Though the author rightly points out that a reservation from a legal standpoint is already a country within a country. The Buzzfeed article is most helpful in that it describes various attempts to document the controlled ethereality of data, in an activist mode. It details ways archival interventions are valuable to help keep alive public memory of contested uprisings in the Middle East. Jonathan Beller’s piece is theoretically impressive, yet provides no alternatives, but the promise of post-statest blockchain sensorium. I need more pragmatic examples like the ones initiated by the Arab Spring demonstrators and those trying to document war crimes in Syria. There’s also a bit missing in the economic underpinning that Beller ignores in this techno-examination of image/labor. I’ve been reading Thomas Piketty currently and not as penance for not taking economics as undergraduate. His central thesis in Capital in the Twenty-First Century is that wealth inequality (his main focus), close to Beller’s stance on capitalisms undemocratic principles, is a historical trend that started before the beginning of the industrial revolution way into the 18th century. The origins help one understand how capital, not labor, solidifies these market realities. The haves and have-nots are not an accident, but rather an integral feature of capitalism. In Piketty’s opinion this status quo, getting worse in the 21st century, can be reversed only through state intervention or in my opinion through revolutionizing what we consider as state actors. Beller’s solutions are more pessimistic, but just as iffy. Piketty is a little more confident in the powers of democracy to institute a reversal on the accumulation of capital. But he does offer a very pragmatic solution, an intra-global tax on wealth. Beller intends to describe how the stakes have fundamentally changed yet are amorphous and nebulous. I believe the digital wave might not have changed labor all that much. I think with every example of techno-determinism, some interventions can remedy or “detourn” the primacy of the image. It depends if anyone is listening or can listen. It would be helpful for Beller to examine capital instead of labor. That’s what Marx would have done.

(disem)Power, Control, and (exploit) Labor

Nakamura calls on Donna Haraway’s foundational cyberfeminist essay, “A Cyborg Manifesto,” asserting that,

Haraway draws our attention to the irony that some must labor invisibly for others of us to feel, if not actually be, free and empowered through technology use: technoscience is, indeed, an integrated circuit, one that both separates and connects laborers and users, and while both genders benefit from cheap computers, it is the flexible labor of women of color, either outsourced or insourced, that made and continue to make this possible.

Additionally, “electronics assembly work became both gendered and identified with specific racialized qualities.” She speaks to this through the case of Fairchild Semiconductor plant on the Navajo reservation in Shiprock. The plant employed Navajo women to produce integrated circuits. Nakamura conducts a close reading of Fairchild marketing material to demonstrate how they made “the visual argument that Indian rugs are merely a different material iteration of the same pattern or aesthetic tradition found within the integrated circuit.” This claim “depicted electronics manufacture as a high-tech version of blanket weaving performed by willing and skillful indigenous women.” There are two important goals of this depictions, according to Nakamura. First, it permitted the “incursion of factories into Indian reservations to be seen as a continuation of rather than a break from “traditional” Indian activities,” and second, “it pioneered the blurring of the line between wage labor and creative-cultural labor.” This strategy becomes the “first iterations of an exceptionally effective argument to justify digital labor exploitation by depicting it as an outlet for the expression of cultural and racial identity.” Here we start to get a sense of why it is important for us to look inside digital culture, look “back in time to the roots of the computing industry and the specific material production practices that positioned race and gender as commodities in electronics factories.”

Beller situates digital media within a critique of capitalism and its relationship to democracy — “it as axiomatic that capitalism and democracy are structurally contradictory — “capitalist democracy” and “democratic capitalism” are in fact oxymorons,” Beller declares. Within this context of capitalism, culture is no longer just a medium of politics. It is “a means of socio-economic production and reproduction as well as of potentially radical transformation.” Cultures as a means of production becomes the new situation. Information flows from users to capital in “a pattern that can be described by the sequence Image-Code-Financialization.” Consequently, “value extraction, instead of taking place only during wage labor as it was purported to do under industrial capital, can take place anywhere in a network in which oscillations between image and code occur.” Connecting to the work of Azoulay, Beller extends this position with the following quote:

In short, in her (Azoulay) work, images along with the praxes and discourses they engender, become the worksites of culture and struggle, rather than things necessarily and in many ways unconsciously consumed in accord with conventions and habits complicit with state violence.

Hill engages these notions of power and control from a different perspective. For Hill, the internet is “an ocean of eyewitness testimony” but these testimonies are vanishing, their very existence under corporate control.  “While we create almost everything on the internet, we control almost none of it.” The consequent of this dynamic is that,

Information ephemerality, and our lack of a model for noncorporate control of digital information, has been a blessing for governments looking to rewrite history and a curse for those trying to document the truth in environments where it is being contested every day.

We have outsourced our memories to the internet and the corporations that control/own it (or the platforms/applications within which we store them). We must reclaim our digital memories. Ultimately, Hill makes a call for us to reclaim control of evidence, history and our collective memory.

All three articles discuss the disempowerment and subjugation that the internet and computing has supported. For Nakamura it is in the exploitative material production practices that positioned race and gender as commodities. For Beller, it manifests in the financialization of culture through the image-code dynamic. Hill, sees it in the control of information and the collective memory by corporations who have shown a tendency to actively support censorship of “historical archives,” erasing our memories, especially of contentious moments of turmoil or conflict. We can also reflect on Tung Hui-Hu, who we read earlier this semester, who asserted that “the same algorithms that make the cloud usable are the ones that define a “user” as that ever-growing stream of data to be analyzed and targeted.”

Hill describes more open archives as a way to repel against these systems of disempowerment and control. What are other ways we can resist? What are ways we can be inclusive and rebalance the risk-reward dynamic that has reinforced the exploitation of labor and targeted certain groups of people?

Capital Control and Image Making.

In ‘Indigenous Circuits’, Lisa Nakamura offers a counter narrative to the historical narrative of capitalistic global outsourcing.  Nakamura uses media archaeology sourced from the Fairchild Semiconductor’s ‘insourcing’ project at Navajo Indian reservations in New Mexico to illustrate the case that the exploitation of women of color and indigenous cultures started well before the beginning of global outsourcing in the 1960s.  Nakamura’s argument is a familiar one, similar to Marx in his discussion of traditional craft labor versus the Industrial markets of the 19th century; Nakamura illustrates Fairchild used indigenous pride and cultural heritage as a way of marketing the work at the Shiprock facility in order to keep their wages low and exploit their lack of employment options.  Key to Nakamura’s arguments are the images used in Fairchild’s marketing brochures, which use gender and racial stereotypes to create a connection between traditional rug weaving and microchip manufacturing.

The rhetorical image methods discussed by Nakamura are picked up and discussed with zeal in Jonathan Beller’s ‘Informatic Labor in the Age of Computational Capital’.  Beller’s piece reads much like a Marxian manifesto and lays the line down at the second sentence when he says, “I take it as axiomatic that capitalism and democracy are structurally contradictory- “capitalist democracy’ and ‘democratic capitalism’ are in fact oxymorons.”  To make his point like Nakamura, Beller relies on Marxian theory to illustrate how traditional capitalist “money-commodity-money” economy has become the ‘programmable image’ or “money-image-computation-image-money” economy. His point it well made with several examples that fully illustrate the idea of attention based economy including, financial derivatives, bitcurrency and computer vision technologies.  The crux of his argument is that images as a commodity representation for information, status, work, politics and culture have become the fundamental driver for capitalism and humans are the processors who take images process and reprogram them to further grow money in the economy. After reading through his essay, I’m tempted to say ‘duh’, but I did enjoy his arguments for ways to resist the pictorial wheel of capitalism.  Beller discusses modes of of resistance ranging from face camouflage[p11], employ counter surveillance photography from Google [p16], and Ariella Azoulay’s reconceptualization of the ontology of photography as a ‘political ontology’ or a distributed social relation [p8]. I also enjoyed his mention of Hito Steyerl’s concept of “the poor image” as a metaphor for the under represented worker (though he did not elaborate, I read the article) [p11].

Azoulay’s social contract serves as a nice lead in to ‘Silicon Valley can’t be trusted with our history’, by Evan Hill.  Hill discusses the way the neo liberal social platforms have co-opted our own image creation and storage as a method for control.  Similar to Beller’s argument, Hill argues for individual under represented groups to create their own form of archive and take back control of the image in order to counter the flow of information from the other side.  His argument serves as one more example of resistance to Beller’s “democratic capitalism” and the programmable image economy.

For discussion, I’m interested in discussing other methods for co-opting image making and archiving as a way of resisting fascism and neo liberalism.  Does anyone know of particularly strong methods for programming images to resist control structures on the internet and social media?

Beller, Nakamura, & Hill: Images as Computational Capital

Jonathan Beller begins his essay “Informatic Labor in the Age of Computational Capital” with an axiom: “that capitalism and democracy are structurally contradictory” (1). He goes on to write, furthermore, that in light of the contemporary production and valorization of “computational capital”—a capitalism which “was, in hindsight, itself already a computer”(2)—an underlying “relationship between image and code” becomes one through which “we are programmed by images and we program with images, all the while generating data, that is, modifying code” (4). Beller summarizes the shift from classical capitalism: “commodities are no longer paradigmatically objects with singular points of sale, but rather arrays of images (imaginaries) tethered to computable information and anchored to a distributed material system with multiple points of interface” (4). Thus, “semio-capitalism places the generation of meaning and financialization in the same domain” (9). Images and individuals, profiles and “profiles” (10), and even the disparate processes of “computation, communication, and financial speculation” (16) all converge and merge into vast networks of “‘value capture’” (14).

It is indeed images like these, representative within a network of infrastructural, aesthetic, and human capital, which Lisa Nakamura examines throughout her essay “Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture.” Nakamura, through a reading of Haraway among others, explains how the bodies of women of color working to assemble computer components “become part of digital platforms” themselves (920), racialized into a “visual rhetoric that described their unique aptitude for the work” (921). Expressing a notion which echoes Beller’s, Nakamura writes, “ race and gender are themselves forms of flexible capital” (933), forms which traffic in the valorization of an “appeal to ‘nature’” (928). Nakamura’s analysis of an internal corporate brochure reveals a painfully obvious visual juxtaposition which “negotiates the transition from traditional artisanal cultural work to industrial wage labor” (928) by forcing the association “that Indian rugs are merely a different material iteration of the same pattern or aesthetic tradition found within the integrated circuit” (929). Culture itself becomes hegemonically encoded, in the words of Beller, “as a means of socio-economic production and reproduction” (2).

Nakamura ends her essay with an invocation of Montfort, Bogost, Chun, Galloway, and Hales: “the digital does as well as appears” (937). “To miss the point of what the digital is,” writes Nakamura, is to ignore “software’s procedural codes, its hardware, its infrastructures, its histories, and its racial and gender formations,” that is, what she identifies, through Montfort and Bogost, as the digital “platform” itself (936). And it is an anxiety over platform as such which characterizes Evan Hill’s Buzzfeed piece. “Our access to information,” he writes, “is incredibly broad but shockingly fleeting” with respect, respectively, to human the interrogation of human memory and its opposing corporatization. Is something like Hill’s example of the 858 Archive really the answer to Beller’s concluding question? If no, then “What are the anti-capitalist data-visualizations to which we might affix our energies?” (Beller, 18)

The Rhetoric of Invisible Labor

Nakamura wants to highlight the women of color who have gone forgotten in the digital revolution, but who remain integral parts of the foundation of tech manufacturing. To frame her discussion of the erasure of Navajo women from the digital circuit of Silicon Valley and technology, she references Donna Haraway’s famous critique on technology and the labor of women and people of color, thinking of Haraway’s various calls to action as the discussion unfolds. Haraway’s points about the invisible laboring of brown bodies that takes place before people across the world to experience their own truth and empowerment (amongst other points) allow Nakamura to unearth untold pieces of the narrative surrounding the Shiprock chip manufacturing facility, Silicon Valley and Fairchild, and how these entities rather invaded the Navajo reservation–all the while promoting Shiprock’s existence with a visual and textual rhetoric straight from the minds of the prosperous white male executives who looked to exploit cheap labor. Nakamura delves into the cultural and gendered stereotypes that executives used to justify Navajo women’s primary purpose as laborers within the facility, she focuses on the images in company brochures that paint their own pictures of the lives of these women while situating the idea of chip manufacturing within the Navajo culture as being similar to the intricate weaving that these women practice.

Nakamura’s focus on the imagery and rhetoric that supports the physical exploitation of women of color can be both supported and extended when examining digital labor from Beller’s standpoint. The material system that Beller speaks of in reference to digital commodities especially is one with multiple points and sides, the interfaces that we see and use daily–iPhones, networks, etc. on one side and “labor practices that are effectively forms of enslavement” are on the other–with the latter often being overlooked in popular stories of digital media/technology histories. His discussion of value being not just factory/hand labor based, but also being extended today to include data and information have opened my eyes to computational capital and labor. Thinking of myself as a computational laborer/information and data provider operating within the digital “worksites” that Beller mentions makes me want to throw my technology away all together. Then I consider Hill’s discussion of the archives that the Mosireen collective curated, and feel like there are more revolutionary ways to exercise my own (possibly limited) agency in this digital world. As Hill argues, we can’t trust tech companies, governments, or hardly anyone to properly document or maintain our histories, memories, and data. Things will always be erased and reconfigured to fit with ideals of whomever controls data, its preservation, or the presentation of real life events. We can’t even trust them not to turn our technology usage into an invisible digital laboring effort, or not to exploit marginalized groups of people. I don’t know which way is best to proceed when considering my role in this circuit, but it’s something that i’ll be thinking about actively now.