My name is Swaeny Nina Kersaan, although I learned to love it, I did not choose it myself.
I neither picked the date or place of my birth or the street name (Zaltbommel, The Netherlands). I did not name the cities I lived in. I had no choice in my sex, ethnicity or nationality. This is a big part of how other people see me, and you too. These external, insignificant and impersonal facts of our identities are imposed on us, but what do they say about our ‘true self’? Yes, we are identified by this data, and we partly identify with this data ourselves. But it is merely a small part of our identity. The issue of identity is an issue of power, influence and control. It is an issue of consuming ourselves and consuming others. Our identity is consumed by (state) institutions, the public, the political, the technological and other mechanisms of social authority too. Some identities are bitter, devoured and promptly spitted out, some cherished, some swallowed whole. “How do we create ourselves in a world in which our identity is predetermined for us? How can we find freedom in a digital environment where the history of our sense of self -our abstract identity- has been written by others?”1 asks Lizzie O’Shea in her book ‘Future Histories, What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology’.
I ask myself the same question frequently. Movements make up another part of identity, but those are difficult to make visible online. Who are you? I am sorry, it is not in my interest to know about your authentic self. I want to discuss the values we internalized; the values of our parents and the dominant cultures that surround us. The many identities we perform; such as a lover, sister, father, or friend. What a Google wants to know; that what you click (with) and who you click (with) too. Let’s not go into finding our true selves, but rather discover what those abstract selves are. “These abstract identities follow us around online, even if they are not attached to our name, like zombies. They are beyond our control. In this light, the absence of a name attached to that identity offers scant protection from anything meaningful.”2 writes O’Shea on those constructed identities.
Identity is never fixed, nor final and you continue to develop throughout your life. It is tempting to identify with digital models or correlate them with ideas, feelings and our own bodies. These digital bodies are different from what we perceive them to be. They are fixed, pre-assembled, rigid and stiff. Digital bodies are models; generic and general. They are one-size-fits-all, but they never really fit. The real-world acts out under their influence. Gender is a model and, as Judith Butler argued, only real in the performative sense. Our movements, acts and gestures solidified into a ‘comfortable’ fixed identity and norm.
When I scroll through the Internet, watch something on TV or pick up a magazine I see people I recognize, and quite often people whom I feel recognized with, or that look somewhat like me. I am so often the centre of the world. A lot of what I see seems to be targeted directly at me, or people like me. White (young) people posing in similar positions, finding themselves in similar places, experiencing similar things in their lives. These affirmations (of whiteness) are barely noticed and unquestionably consumed. We are the status quo.
The status quo is not the same for everyone. What is normal(ized) for me probably isn’t for people of colour. Some stats might count me in but won’t count you. (I started reading ‘Why I’m no longer talking to white people about race’, by Reni Eddo-Lodge. I recommend you read it too.) My norm is consumed, but another “ethnicity becomes spice, seasoning that can liven up the dull dish that is mainstream white culture.”3 Here I quote Gloria Jean Watkins (who’s better known by her pen name bell hooks. bell hooks is an American author, professor, feminist, and social activist and writes about the ‘Other’, the intersectionality of race, capitalism, and gender, and systems of oppression and class domination.) “Masses of young people dissatisfied by U.S. imperialism, unemployment, lack of economic opportunity, afflicted by the postmodern malaise of alienation, no sense of grounding, no redemptive identity, can be manipulated by cultural strategies that offer Otherness as appeasement, particularly through commodification.”4 I can go on about Otherness, as hooks does, and Abjection5, like Julia Kristeva did. This is a difficult subject, so I’ll introduce some statistics first.
“Invisibility takes many forms, and only the invisible can fully appreciate their predicament. Reading this book made me recall – oddly, perhaps – growing up in the 1980s, when we would cheer every time we saw someone of Indian origin on television. Quick, Mum, look – a brown person like us! We knew that the culture we lived in didn’t necessarily include us, but we were over the moon when it did. The feeling of being overlooked was hardwired into us. We took it for granted because we were minorities. We were the ones who did not count.”6 writes Angela Saini in her review of the book ‘Invisible Women, exposing data bias in a world designed for men’ by Caroline Criado Perez. Statistics have a power of their own. A false statistic or zombie stat is a statistic that just won’t die, partly because it feels -to the norm- naturally, right. When a zombie stat emerges in a zone where data is limited, insufficient or even rare, it is even harder to kill the stat off. The zombie stat will arise everywhere, from newspaper articles, press releases, activist websites, charities and official (political) bodies. The stats may be false, or true.. I don’t know.
The COVID-19 stats are zombie stats. Are you tested? Are you infected? Are you sure? 4,615,146 People are now tested in the UK, on a population of 67,858,826.7 Data is key in a crisis. If we don’t have sufficient data we can’t fully grasp the problem, nor begin to formulate an efficient public policy to address it. “Coronavirus park closures hit BAME and poor Londoners most” reads the headline of the Guardians article from back when Victoria Park in London’s Tower of Hamlets Borough partly re-opened in April. “Ethnic minorities dying of Covid-19 at higher rate, analysis shows” is the headline from an article a couple days later. According to their analysis of the 12,593 patients who died in hospital, from the symptoms of COVID-19 (dated 19 April), 19% were Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME). These groups make up only 15% of the general population in the UK. The lack of transparency and action is risking lives.8 I don’t want to be the one to state the obvious, but it has nothing to do with genetics. Biology doesn’t create minorities, socio-cultural constructs and institutionalized racism do.
Thinking about the term BAME -which is widely used by government departments, public bodies, the media and others when referring to ethnic minority groups-, and similarly, or even worse, the term ‘non-White’.. It is saying other-than, less dominant than, a smaller part or group opposed to the majority. It is excluding. I personally don’t know if I know what it means to be reduced to ‘Other’, but none of the other descriptors on offer really feels right. What is your preferred terminology?
Everyone is the ‘Other’ when he or she is other them him/herself. In a mixed group consisting of (other) people, everyone is the middle point, and otherness becomes the group’s identity. For some communities alienation is the condition of existence, being other-than. Queer, trans, LGBTQ+, for example don’t need a unified form. There are not a lot of mixed groups and when they are formed it is mostly temporary. The group pledges solidarity to each other. Often, it becomes a community which fixes itself on a future designation, a cause. Dismantling institutional racism and braking with policing are such causes. As are liberty, equality, peace and/or resources. The cause establishes the groups’ structure and it establishes what the group sees as the other, whom we repel. “…we are all made vulnerable (Butler 2004; Butler et al. 2016; Fotopolou 2016) by Big Data capitalism, building temporary unions across race, gender, class, ability, sex and sexuality to resist those politics.”9 Kylie Jarrett (author of Feminism, Labour and Digital Media: The Digital Housewife) notes. A community has common agreements, sometimes written but mostly unwritten rules and values. We behave accordingly. From a Reddit community to the protests today, they believe in something. The early internet was like this too, I think, and with it were human (the early programmers, hackers, thinkers, creators) and non-human actors, who believed in free access and liberation. We pledge our solidarity (online). “The histories and present experiences of Palestinian, Irish and African American people are fundamentally different, but they intersect through respective vulnerabilities to colonial imperialism and capitalist necropolitics. In this example we can see alliances being established, not from singularity but in a solidarity based in shared precariousness.”10 to quote Jarrett again. Despite being part of a community -being among our own-, it is hard to be undivided, when we only seem to belong to small groups following individual opportunities. We really do need common causes. We need to talk about privilege and disadvantages. We need to address our own fuck ups too, and we need to ask questions. The platforms may be new, but capitalism and inequality are not. We need to make noise. We must look within ourselves to look at our biases, to look at what we call Other. Biases are the stories we make up about people before we actually know who they are. What are your unconscious automatic assumptions? Are you willing to find out?
A zombie makes noise and it attracts other zombies. All those sounds these zombies make together keep them in one big horde. The zombie collective is stronger than the individual (zombie). The Hollywood-zombie does not care if its zombie group is like-minded, it only cares for the consumption of non-zombie minds. We do care. We surround ourselves with like-minded people. And when we make noise it is generally only those like-minded who hear us. This is, what I would argue, how we form our zombie collectives. Whenever we make noise on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit or blog sites, or silently google and read news online, we’re placed in echo chambers with people like us. Our zombie communities are formed through proxies and neighbourhood (the people you know, or think they -Google, Facebook or every other on- and offline institution/community- thinks you should know) predictors. They hear our noise and hoard it as factors of correlation. These network-neighbourhoods segregate us, users, into clusters based on similarities. This re-segregation matters, because networks create structures and consequences. People deemed to be like you, like what you like, hate what you hate, consume what you consume (preferably not brains), all captured together.
Our small deviation from the norm -our seemingly authentic things, like not eating brains- is where we correlate. This ‘authenticity’ (your race, age, zip-code, Google search and Facebook like) is correlated with other things; #BlackLivesMatter, Adobe Creative Cloud, GoT, 28 Days Later. Like them or don’t; these correlations are proxies. Stand-ins that enable us to make claims, promises, and future predictions. Conclusions for the present are no longer drawn from the past (if you indeed saw the film, or bought the product) but on the speculative future. The speculative future equals a missing past. There is no need for correct data, or good statistics when it is already calculated. The similarity is said to breed connection. And these connections are segregated through neighbourhoods, because people can’t be neighbors without being alike, right?! “If we thus manage to “love our neighbor”—once considered a difficult ethical task—it is because our neighbors are virtually ourselves.”11 writes Wendy Chun in Queerying Homophily’ for the book Pattern Discrimination (2018). She describes ‘homophily’ as the structure of the network, meaning love like the love of the same as the creator of clusters. We only have a taste for a brain that thinks just like ours. Homophily is the norm while it maintains inequality within superficial equal systems. It does (not only) erases conflict, but it also naturalizes discrimination.
[This paragraph was originally posted as a caption on my Instagram post from the 16th of May combined with a picture of self made face masks]
I started walking different a different route every weekend during lockdown. I live in East London at the time of writing, in the borough ‘Tower of Hamlets’. This borough struggles with poverty and inequality issues. Canary Wharf’s corporate skyscrapers on one site and the Salvation Army in its shadows. The child poverty rate is the highest of all the London boroughs, 57% of children judged to be living in households in poverty, compared to 38% in the typical London borough. I live in between. It is a 50 minutes walk to the Olympic Park, a 52 minutes to the Tower Bridge and 24 minutes to Reuters UK headquarters. I now frequently take routes from the Limehouse Cut canal to the south of the area, Hackney, Ilse of Dogs and St Katharine’s and Wapping. The sight changes much and I love the diversity, even though they’re London’s eighth and sixth most dangerous boroughs. It’s where you can find abundant green spaces and gentrification, the Thames, drugs dealers, pirate ships, goats, free spirits playing music and selling fruit on canal paths, a lót of CCTV; it’s where you can smell the best Bangladeshi dishes coming from all different houses, mini- Monaco’s big boats, smaller boats, people in kayaks and it’s where you’ll hear more languages than anywhere else. A place where you can wander and see fellow citizens; explore it, the unexpected, the other with a possibility of interesting encounters. That’s when I started to realize how soulless the designs of the data mining industry are. We have the need for these peculiar combinations in our cities, just as hard as we have a need for them online; not for more gated communities. An escape from our dull data-driven life.
What if there is no escape possible? What if you don’t see a way out? What if you’re caged or locked in? I know that not everyone is in the position to learn about various privacy tools. I am privileged, but depended too. Why would we use inconvenient tools that seem to be only known and especially designed for tech-savvy people? Why use slow browsers and complicated passwords if you’re a nobody? What difficulties do we have to overcome to reclaim our desirable privacy, if it does not seem worthwhile? Digital privacy and freedom of the self involve anonymity, secrecy ánd autonomy. But I don’t know honestly, and that is why I am writing all of this down.
autonomy[ aw-ton–uh-mee ]
noun, plural au·ton·o·mies.
independence or freedom, as of the will or one’s actions: the autonomy of the individual.
the condition of being autonomous; self-government or the right of self-government: The rebels demanded autonomy from Spain.
a self-governing community.
Autonomy is a Western world value (or atleast the way it’s commonly perceived), I learned from Pius Mosima on a STRP12 festival livestream “Scenario #8 – Being Emotional The right to be unhappy” on the 28th of May 2020. “There are salient African values that can contribute to answering these questions, enrich our discourse about the challenge of anthropocentrism and help us realign with nature, technology, objects and intelligent systems.” his essay on their website reads. Pius Mosima is a philosopher from Cameroon. He deals with African and intercultural philosophy, globalization, traditions, politics and management, civil society, gender studies, culture, and identity. He now researches what the (Western) world can learn from African wisdoms.13 Mosima spoke about the interconnectedness of the African community. How to walk as a team. We, in the Western world overvalue the mind, as we think of it as the center. Traditional African values center the body, that moves together, that dances; the collective. We are what we are through other people. Cogito, ergo sum, “I think, therefore I am” by René Descartes is fundamentally flawed. I am in the eyes of the other, therefore I must exist.
But we are not our digital subjects, or algorithmically matched versions of ourselves (which I’ll address in a later post “Consuming the other”). We are not our data traces, channeled into abstract identification-able assumptions and mindless predictions. “It needs to drive a stake through the heart of these zombie digital doppelgangers”14 Lizzie O’Shea writes that a better way to understand what we mean when we talk about privacy, then, is to see it as a right to self-determination. Self-determination is about self-governance, or determining one’s own destiny.”15 She takes examples of colonialism and postcolonial struggles; Algeria, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the Democratic Republic of Congo (among others), where lots of social movements struggled for recognition unbound from the colonizer. They often found themselves weighted down by postcolonial systems, searching for way to empower people outside of the European ideals and hierarchies that had legitimized colonialism. Just as we need to search for ways to empower people -the collective and thus ourselves- outside of the information collected, stored and used by the technology we use. We have the right to know what is known about us. We should have the right to meet our digital zombie, regain control over it and the option to kill it.
1 Lizzie O’Shea, Future Histories, What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology (London, New York: Verso, 2019) Chapter 9. We need digital self-determination, not just privacy p. 181
2 Lizzie O’Shea, Future Histories, What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology (London, New York: Verso, 2019) Chapter 2. An internet built around consumption is a bad place p. 30
3 bell hooks, Eating the Other: Desire and Resistance In Black Looks: Race and Representa-tion (Boston: South End Press, 1992) p. 21–39
5 Julia Kristeva, Powers of horror, an essay about abjection, translated by Leon S Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press: 1982)
6 Angela Saini, Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez – review, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/mar/11/invisible-women-exposing-data-bias-by-caroline-criado-perez-review 11 Mar 2019
7 https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/ viewed on 3rd of June 2020
8 Caelainn Barr, Niko Kommenda, Niamh McIntyre and Antonio Voce, Ethnic minorities dying of Covid-19 at higher rate, analysis shows https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/22/racial-inequality-in-britain-found-a-risk-factor-for-covid-19#maincontent 22 Apr 2020, Last modified on 1 May 2020
9 Kylie Jarrett, Through the Reproductive Lens: Labour and Struggle at the Intersection of Culture and Economy. In: Chandler, D. and Fuchs, C. (eds.) Digital Objects, Digital Subjects: Interdisciplinary Perspectives on Capitalism, Labour and Politics in the Age of Big Data. Pp. 103–116. (London: University of Westminster Press, 2019) DOI: https://doi.org/10.16997/book29.h. License: CC‐BY‐NC‐ND 4.0
11 Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, Queerying Homophily in Pattern Discrimination (Lüneburg, Germany: Meson Press & Minneapolis, USA: University of Minnesota Press, 2018) in collaboration with the Institute of the Humanities and Global Cultures.
14 Lizzie O’Shea, What Ada Lovelace, Tom Paine, and the Paris Commune Can Teach Us About Digital Technology (London, New York: Verso, 2019) Chapter 9. We need digital self-determination, not just privacy p. 186