Dark Matters – Simone Browne

Simone Browne is Associate Professor s at the University of Texas at Austin. Her first book, Dark Matters: On the Surveillance of Blackness. The book focuses on how surveillance is practiced, narrated, and resisted among Blacks/African Americans.

More information on the book can be found here.

Hu through Hugo

At one point during his discussion of a “melancholic” (108) desire for the immortal preservation of digital media Tung-Hui Hu cites Paul Duguid’s quotation of the archdeacon Claude Frollo, a character in Victor Hugo’s 1831 Notre-Dame de Paris (107). The dialogue, as rendered on page 107 in Hu’s A Prehistory of the Cloud is as follows: “‘This will kill that. The book will kill the building… The press will kill the church… printing will kill architecture.’”

Hu’s selection of this literary reference is informative of the lineage of his own preoccupations. Hugo’s novel is quite famously as narrative as it is disquisitive. Entire chapters of the book regard with as much reverie and impart upon with as much pathos the architecture of medieval Paris as any of the tribulations of Quasimodo and Esmeralda. As is evident from Hu’s citation, Hugo’s central assertion is one of media obsolescence. Whereas physical buildings once rendered the zeitgeists of societies across the world into form and structure—legible with a crane of the neck or an echo of the voice—media of mechanical reproduction would hold the power to end, to kill (in Hu’s mortal terms), those older ideological stoneworks which were built principally to withstand the forces of nature and war. For Hugo (or at least his novel’s narrator), the heights of western society’s productive capabilities were the towering spires of Gothic architecture.

The engineering, and more importantly, the handiwork through which Hugo’s edifices were constructed was often anonymous and deadly. That is, we often have little record of bricklayers, in spite of the skill their surviving works make evident. To return to the work in question, it would seem to me that such a relationship between laborer and construct is exactly the opposite of that which Hu describes in his book. Take Hu’s example of the Bangladeshi CAPTCHA solvers. The “slow violence of the information economy” (146), enacted upon human beings, appears, in spite of its shared semblance of anonymity, diametrically opposed to something like the threatened violence of the hopeless and rapid descent to the ground implicit in the labor of medieval stoneworker.

Indeed, as Hu writes, in many respects the very act of labor, not just its laborers, becomes anonymized into invisibility. The invention of the digital “user” reflects the mediation between corporate clouds and individual personages—economic transactions and personal privileges—of a mandate “to continually act” through use itself (50). To be sure, the labor which built the cathedral was done in the service of larger economic and political causes, but also in the service of the eventual worshipper. In the age of networks, Hu implies, this collective distinction evaporates into an individual “paranoia” (11, 147). “Because creating the system of connections is synonymous with exposing or unraveling the system, creating the system is synonymous with the act of pulling it apart” (19).

Where Hu seems to diverge from Hugo’s somewhat Darwinistic approach to media succession, however, is found in Hu’s notion of the the cloud itself. Hu defines “sovereignty of data” as the unique process by which “the cloud grafts control onto an older structure of sovereign power; much as fiber-optic networks are layered or grafted onto older networks” (XVI). Operating as a cloud, Hugo’s print may have, instead of killing it outright, adapted the form of the cathedral to its own use. Yet, inasmuch as the 19th century preservation of medieval Paris is concerned, could such a sovereignty be read as the ironic heart of Hugo’s novel?

The Cloud: Infrastructure and Power

Tung Hui-Hu speaks of the cloud across “two interrelated stories” in A Prehistory of the Cloud. The first tells the story of the cloud as infrastructure, growing out of older networks such as railroad tracks, sewer lines, and television circuits. The second story is one about the politics of digital culture.  These two stories are situated within other important claims that Hui-Hu makes: “the cloud is both an idea and a physical and material object,” the cloud is inherently political, and the cloud is a cultural phenomenon. He also notes that the cloud, as an idea, “has exceeded its technological platform and become a potent metaphor for the way contemporary society organizes and understands itself.” These relationships between the physical and the digital, the technological and the political, the social and the cultural, and the real and the virtual all contribute to the development of the cloud and how it operates with its users and society. The notions of space and power become particularly critical to Hui-Hu’s telling of the history of the cloud. Like other forms of infrastructure, physical space is being configured and reconfigured. This reconfiguration also affects the organization of contemporary power. (4)  This also informs how we understand the ways in which the cloud engages larger structures of power: sovereign societies, (Foucault’s) disciplinary societies, and (Deleuze’s) control societies. The deployment and development of the cloud both allows for the continued reinforcement of power and also resistance to it. Here I would like to discuss Hui-Hu’s discussion of targeted marketing and its relationship to military targeting, “…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.” (111) Through this example we see the opportunities for targeting and the “slow violence” that the cloud itself enacts.
There are connections here to Gitelman’s call for a more social and cultural understanding of the history of media. Both also speak to the influence of materiality. There are also connections to Raymond Williams discussions of society and technology. Since we at talking about the relationships between technology and society and power, I ask: If power structures drive the growth and development of the cloud and the Internet, how can the user interrupt this system when their agency is limited and their existence is being “targeted”?

The Cloud as carceral and panopticon.

 

In A Prehistory of the Cloud, the author Tung-Hui Hu constructs a strong argument for the popular cultural fantasy of the Digital Cloud as a re-emergence of sovereign power along with self imposed control systems in what Hu terms the sovereignty of data.  Hu compares his theory to the work of Michel Foucault who wrote about the evolution of society away from sovereign systems to a culture of incarceration where all aspects of society would involve punitive systems of control and observation designed to create an easily manipulated population.  Foucault described a system where societal institutions become its tools for training and controlling the population using the same methods it uses to isolate and re-educate its undesirables. Hu riffs on this idea by showing that the cloud, like Foucault’s carceral and panopticon imposes its own form of re-education and control in the way it requires participation from it’s users while isolating them from each other.

Hu constructs his argument through a form of media studies/archaeology based on the idea that new media is built upon the same structures as the media it replaces.  For example fiber optic cable lines are laid under the old railroad right of ways and therefore had some of the same networking issues and bottlenecks which transcontinental train systems and phone lines experienced as they were constructed.  The advent of transcontinental media networks was heavily influenced by the paranoia of the military industrial complex during the period in which digital networks were starting to emerge, creating a type of networking mania imbued with elements of paranoia and ideas of “otherness”.  This fundamental sickness inherent to the idea of “connect and control” carries forward into the artifacts of early computer time sharing methods which began to brand the individual as the “user” who is connected to the computer but also responsible for the work it provides. Hu argues that with the cloud, the cycle comes full circle and the user has become the service in that she feeds it as much or more than it works for her.  Why else would it be provided for free at the same time it supposedly provides more “freeness”?

On the foundation of the cloud as an extension of previous media designed for the military industrial complex, Hu begins to flesh out how this amorphous opaque system of controls imposes paranoia and melancholia (particular feelings of sadness or loss) on each user.  Hu’s media archaeology explores disparate ideas like the digital genome project and bunkers from world war II by trying to compare the misguided idea of a physical bunker as protection for digital data and the actual physical and psychological affordances of a bunker. For Hu, a bunker imposes the metaphorical idea of threat on the user.  This reinforces the other aspects of control imposed by the cloud. Eventually this metaphorical idea of threat and control manifests itself in a real world resurgence of sovereign power Hu calls “the sovereignty of data”. Hu ties the relatively new concept of “war as big data” and “hacktivism” together as opposite sides of a battle for control.  However, Hu argues that the hacktivists only reinforce the sovereignty of data by using the same methods imposed by using the cloud. Hu neatly ties the two together in his observations of surveillance and sousveillance compared to the cinematic concept of “the gaze”. Hu writes, “The problem, as I see it, is this:  a gaze often confirms and reciprocates.  When we gaze at a control society in hopes of exposing its structure, our gaze ends up acknowledging its right to power.”  … “Maintaining the voyeuristic distance between watcher and watched is to acknowledge the lack of reciprocity in the gaze, and that, more generally, there is a void in the apparatus of representation that cannot be filled by software tools, more data, or better algorithms.”

For the most part I agree with Hu’s thesis.  He makes many valid points, but in my opinion he misses one key connection between his own ideas and Foucault’s.  Hu seems to argue Foucault’s theory of a control state as well as its mechanisms have been replaced by the “sovereignty of data” and the mechanisms of the paranoid cloud.  I think that we have constructed the cloud as its own carceral system replete with echo chambers and easily observed cells (panopticon) as a way of controlling ourselves and our view of the world.  We have become data in the cloud and using Hu’s argument therefore are sovereign over ourselves, a paradox for sure, but one that explains why the idea of escape from our panopticon is a fantasy.  We have become consumers with no freedom from anything consumable. We consume each other. I mean this metaphorically and figuratively. Hu points out that both lead to real world implications.  Hu explores art projects as a way of “seeing” a possible solutions to the predicament. However, he points out that art itself is within the system and therefore gazes and observes its own collusion.  I would argue that all we have left to try is feeding the system the ideas it feeds us, paranoia and melancholia. The dialectic of control and power seems hinged on belief in something to fear. If the entire system is comprised of data which confirms us as “other”, shouldn’t the system fail?  In other words, if everyone knowingly appears as hacker/terrorist/criminal and we feed the system what it feeds us, over time the meaning of hacker/terrorist/criminal becomes meaningless through obfuscation and the system has no power to control.

The question I’m interested in exploring is whether individuals can ever escape a system of control which pervades all aspects of society.  It seems as though Foucault may offer more insight into solutions than Hu based on my reading of both.

As far as I can tell Hu and Foucault’s theories are the best description of the world we live in today.  I’m interested in hearing what others think and if there are other theories or philosophers with different takes, whose ideas fit the society we see around us.

The Cloud and Connectedness

Tung-Hui Hu book A Prehistory of the Cloud offers a perspective on how the cloud is rooted in how this digital media transformed the virtual space and shaping of connectedness among people and groups. Tung core argument is that the “The cloud also indexes a reemergence of sovereign power within the realm of data.” Proven by showing the disciplinary power and primitive visibility/control society in the cloud which are principles from theorist Foucault. Based on the next sections where Tung-Hui presents the methodology and approach of the digital history looks at how a field is a form of interactive technology. What I found most interesting from the texts was found in chapter 2 during the discussions of globalization and how the internet was useful in creating digital spaces that allowed people to connect. Tung-Hui states, “The loosely organized Occupy Wall Street protests seemed, like the Internet, to be resistant to the hierarchical centralization of ‘the mob,’ even creating, one political scientist claims, a new form of ‘cloud protesting’”( 7). The statement shows that the change in networks was effective in how conversations on the environment in the cloud were evolving.

Last semester, I took a class titled Internet Public Policy that focused on various policies that affected everything from digital platforms to privacy on the cloud. One of the readings was the book by Zeynep Tufekci titled Twitter and Tear Gas which focused on recent social movements like Arab Spring, Occupy Wallstreet, and Black Lives Matter that all used the internet as forms of mobilizing and creating digital spaces. Zeynep argues if new social movements are useful especially in their fluid leadership style, but also connecting and mobilizing individuals to perform. In chapter 2 and 4 of Prehistory of the Cloud the focus shifts to considering the participatory environment that is created by these interactive technologies. In both texts, there is a constant discussion on how the cloud establishes a global connection that allows people from various backgrounds to develop unique spaces to discuss. Both of these texts begin conversations for readers, scholars, and other individuals to consider the different implications that the cloud has on data and privacy. I felt Tung-Hui’s approach of studying digital media regarding the cloud was insightful; he pushes it beyond considering the cultural impact but also causes us to think about how internet policy was another essential part of why the cloud had so much influence on countries and what occurs on the internet.

Some questions that I have begun to think about in Prehistory of the Cloud revolves around the concept of studying cloud and the accuracy in Tung-Hui’s approach:

Is digital hygiene an accurate depiction of understanding how people should approach interacting with the internet?

How is Tung-Hui’s approach different to Gitleman and is one more effective than the other in studying a digital artifact?

Politics and the cloud

In Hu’s the prehistory of the cloud, he illustrates how the relatively new concept of the cloud dates back to many infrastructures that preceded it in the 19 century such as railroad. Acting as a media archeologist, Hu carves out artifacts of the cloud through a careful examination of its origin as a telecommunication network research project and its unavoidable connection with world politics.

One of the central ideas from this book is the sovereignty of data. Hu creates the term describe the political powers that act beyond their traditional terrority boundaries to interfaces the online world. To fully understand such a notion, one must turn to Michel Foucault’s idea about disciplinary power, far less coercive than sovereignty. Foucault argues that power does not exist in a single form, but it is an organic structure that penetrates every aspect of our society. Such power was evolved when the operation of power came to the virtual sphere as users were monitored continuously by companies and government agencies of their online activities. (2010, p 112)

I was also interested in exploring Paul Baren’s diagram of centralized, decentralized and distributed networks. (2010, p 6) In the famous comedy series, “Silicon Valley,” the main character created a distributed file system that foreshadowed the birth of a possible distributed network, enabling a fully connected society and ultimately a democratic world. Not only exist in fiction, but such “connected” society also had its tender shoot sprouted out of the soil since the birth of blockchain cryptocurrency. Certainly, according to Hu, all self-alleged “free” governments would not in favor of such an unregulated, chaotic society where governments can not publish policies, courts can not send people to prison, and national banks cannot attract investment. However, at the same time, Hu also uses much irony to carry out the seemingly “free” move by the U.S government that “double address to both American citizen….supposedly universal values of the digital citizenry with American values( 2010, p 85). After all, Internet freedom, as well as liberalism and all other deemed “universal” values, was created by some certain countries and parties to gain authority. It was unfortunate that people of some countries were misguided by their governments and their news agency due to the limitedness of resources, online and offline, which was almost the opposite characteristic of the cloud. Under such assertion, Hu underlines that Hegemonism that acts behind the assertion that “the world could only have one universal internet and the protocol, and all others are herein” (2010, p 86).

Besides the political arguments of the Internet, Hu introduces an exciting debate about the privacy and public sphere of the cloud. The enforced intimacy of data was transferred through the Internet to the public sphere, the cloud. I would like to understand in modern times, how people should maintain the boundary of privacy and public with more uncertain technologies waiting ahead.

The Cloud, Politics, and the Sovereignty of Data

Tung Hui-Hu’s book, A Prehistory of the Cloud, examines events that take place between the physical and digital worlds to understand the social and political forces have historically contributed to the structure of and societal views about todays cloud and the data it houses. Through a storytelling from low level (beginning chapters) and high level/abstracted components (later chapters) of the clouds emergence and evolution, he paints the picture of historical events and politics rampant in digital culture to illuminate the sovereign power that data now holds over networked societies. Initially, Tung Hui-Hu acknowledges “the cloud” as reliable, ubiquitous, and silently sitting as part of a wider infrastructure. He then flips this common misconception of the cloud by introducing moments in history when the cloud was anything but the things that most people understand it to be. Through exposing the lack of reliability of a cloud that is private, but not silent, he bring to the fore that the iconography of the cloud in its genesis was rooted in its unpredictable nature.

 

True to methods in media archaeology, Tung Hui-Hu contends that to understand the cloud, we can examine the old technologies that are layered underneath it, such as railroad tracks with the same paths as fiber optic cables. Along these lines, he discusses the Truckstop Network/open road driving and its ideas of mobility as influential to how the cloud and cloud based computing formed. Connections between limitations of past technology are shown to exist within the cloud highlighting that viewing the cloud as an inexhaustible construct “allows us to forget the cloud’s limitations”. (66) He references Heidegger’s story of the dam and its seemingly plentiful nature due to ease of access to situate his observations regarding widespread inability to see the infrastructure of systems until they fail to work as expected, when the water no longer comes out of the tap (67). This analogy visualizes the recurring theme of the cloud being mistaken as reliable, fixed, and in abundance. This produces the flawed mental map of cloud computing that society has developed, one that needs to be reimagined with informed ideas not only of what happens with our data between the digital and physical, but also the military influenced paranoia surrounding data which permeates the cloud through concerns of security and extreme preservation (i.e. the Swiss Fort Knox).