Decolonizing Tech

Further thoughts from Todd McComb...

The obvious prompt for this page is completing the Practical listening series with Section 10, Decolonizing technology in March 2020 (a couple of weeks before quarantine rules descended here, as it happens).

I'm also retiring the old bibliography from that series, the page for which also served as something of a chronology for my non-review writing. Presumably that chronology will now come to be in this space. However, I'm also not intending more long productions, and so want to focus on shorter entries instead as more manageable in terms of exertion & time commitments.

I think I'll keep this introduction brief, though, and so get to some specific further thoughts....

Todd M. McComb <mccomb@medieval.org>
12 September 2020

In considering this new project, and in particular, what prompts me to make an entry, I feel compelled to note that I come into it with no particular plan: I mean, the overall goal is to contribute some thoughts toward decolonizing tech — the meaning of which will emerge over the course of the discussion — but I'm not undertaking this series from an outline or sketched outcomes. (I do have a series of topics already noted for possible discussion, but no order, and I doubt that the first 20 entries here are going to end up matching my approximately 20 bullet points very closely. Things will change. I do intend to elaborate some specific notes from Decolonizing technology at some point, though....) In that sense, there's always "too much" material, but part of the intent here is to be able to respond to current topics. And I want to do that in a manageable format, both for myself & for readers. So I'm not intending to litter this page with citations or links either, but I'll often have a specific source as trigger for an entry.... (I suppose much of this paragraph is just to assuage my own ego, since I've carefully planned my prior theoretical writings, and will feel more exposed like this. Maybe that's an improvement, but there's consequently always going to be a sense of "But what about...?" remaining here. And an answer might not come soon.) And it'll probably take a while to get to some obvious questions too, since I do need to recall aspects of prior frameworks....

So to recap something of the analytic (or, reductively, rubric) that I elaborated in (the relatively elaborate) PL10, the sense of "decolonizing tech" here is deliberately ambiguous between the internals of "tech" as an industry, and a/the (hypothetical) use of technology in (broad) decolonizing projects per se (i.e. with "decolonizing" figured as an adjective applied to tech): In this, the latter is obviously the larger goal, or at least is directed toward that larger goal, but the former can have a role too. (Some say it accomplishes the more general goal directly, but that's liberal fantasy. A more diverse set of collaborators doesn't change the economic system by itself, although obviously it does blur the contours of exploitation, the boundaries between haves & have nots....) I've also elaborated a sort of three-headed analytic on ownership-control-authority: These topics have been treated somewhat differently in different texts, but in much of this specific space, they coincide in the corporate "persons" of the tech monopolies & their main driver, greed. (It's worth noting that greed can & is suspended for matters of ownership & control in the tech industry, though. Profit taking can come later....) I've also interrogated technology specifically around the body, whether as extending or disciplining the body (with the important caveat that extension can simultaneously yield discipline), and via various notions of speed: Under neoliberalism, hoarding per se comes to be about speed, about outpacing (i.e. about "discovery" per Basic Mechanics), not only outpacing "competitors" (& establishing monopolies, the corporate dream scenario, increasingly attainable per reduced regulation), but the law. And whereas I discussed the way that law (as a technology, mind you) tends to lag, an aspect of this intertwining that I failed to discuss was the violence of law per se (although I did name it as a colonizing technology).... As it happens, Judith Butler's new book The Force of Non-Violence only appeared as I was completing that essay, and I put off reading it until recently — thinking it might involve layers of minutia, as sometimes in Butler: But no, this is a rather clear rethinking of the meaning of non-violence, and should be accessible to a more general reader. (Despite the many citations, Butler explains the ideas she uses. Although, I'd already read almost everything cited, so maybe I'm in no position to judge that....) And part of that rethinking is to take up Walter Benjamin, and the basic thesis that law — as prohibition — inherently invokes violence. (The history of law per se is one of Benjamin's arguments.) When I wrote of the deliberate entanglement of the tech industry, then, of staying ahead of law (via speed), I wrote — in a sense — about conscious efforts to outpace such legal violence. And I've been in so many places so close to the tech industry for so many decades now, being involved at least peripherally in so many decisions, and then eventually coming increasingly to lose every important battle... until the current situation, with the for-profit sector having achieved not only ascendance, but impunity: So a domain in which commerce was actually explicitly forbidden(!) when I encountered it, has come to be the trashiest of neoliberal paradises.... (I'll come back to more specific aspects of my experience here at some point....) And in fact the neoliberal arguments involved should be linked directly to what Benjamin has to say on the violence of law, as the rhetoric was remarkably similar — but more specifically about the inability of regulatory bodies to understand (the internet or web) & so to act appropriately. (In the minds & rhetoric of greedy techies, of course, this was not a lament about needing better regulations, but rather an argument for why not to attempt it: Can't win, don't try, being a generalized update to Thatcher....) So people were very concerned about exactly this sort of legal violence, a brake on their (eventually profitable) ecstasy, but also long before there were big profits to protect.... And so another emphasis for Butler is on equality, something she claims is inherent to a truly non-violent society. (As I've articulated in so many ways over recent years, hierarchy & rupture are two sides of one coin, so I'll certainly agree, pace what "equality" can mean....) But Benjamin is coming from an anarchist perspective, and so what is anarchy in this context? (This is where the old internet arguments really go off the rails....) Anarchy is a situation where people don't have power over others. That's not to say only formal a priori power, but actual power in practice. (Rather, the latter is to be minimized.) Basically "anarchic" resistance to a centralized tech authority instead led to massive power for some: The "system" failed to correct for power imbalances that were developing — & for many of the players, this was quite intentional. (The people involved basically erected the Hobbesian proto-universe online, despite it never having existed before.... And they did it because it was always their dream world. The rest of the rhetoric was mainly about distraction, just as it is now.) Developing during the era of neoliberal dominance, then, the internet became the ultimate neoliberal wet dream, with its markets & optimizations & ultimately its ability to concentrate wealth ("more efficiently!") — & to bully (i.e. outside formal proscription). So let me turn back to earlier in this historical arc: As technological developments came to exceed legal contexts, they did bring their own de facto laws, their own ways of doing things. And as opposed to Butler, who never seems to move off of law as prohibition (as it's also figured by Benjamin), this is precisely where positive law enters the picture. (Note that Butler has explicitly bemoaned her own inability to discuss the body, and this is where a different such discussion also belonged. I will return to this topic as well, which for some, including Butler, is ultimately psychoanalytic....) There's also the sense of escapism that accompanied internet ecstasy for many, suggesting (again) the positive drives, a generalized sense of excess.... And what is or isn't violent, or relative to what context, seems easily to be spun by rhetoric — & has been for millennia (as interrogated in part by Butler) — such that prohibitions on "violence" (e.g. of protestors) can end up furthering oppression, i.e. systemic violence. (There's a sort of developing topology to these contemporary moments, to evoke Byung-Chul Han, whom Butler doesn't mention, although they do both operate at least partially under a Foucauldian umbrella....) And the virtual world seems to have been made for spin.... So what would "positive" law applied to tech, i.e. as avowal rather than prohibition, look like? Well, it'd look a lot more like religion (specifically, liturgy) — & does often appear that way, including in the mode of neoliberal greed, the presumptive superiority of "the market," etc. And I realize that any talk of religion tends to inflame techies, despite (or because of) how thoroughly religious they tend to act, so I'll need to come back to that thought.... In the meantime, note that basically all of these things are technologies: Indeed, the way that Butler figures & circumscribes non-violence per se, i.e. as suspending & interpolating concepts (e.g. grievability), positions it clearly as a sort of mediation (i.e. as inherently technological). And so I'll let Butler's book conclude my old bibliography, as I jumpstart this new project....

17 September 2020

I'm not anticipating that entries here will go on tracking bibliographic entries directly for much longer, but I do want to take up a few — perhaps tangential — thoughts from François Bonnet's After Death (which actually appeared in French in 2017, but in English only recently). Bonnet seeks not only to trace the historical contours of presentism, per e.g. last year's Concepts of contemporary history (which would have benefited from Bonnet's perspective), but especially to discuss its effects on the contemporary subject. (In this, his concern with individuation seems to follow Stiegler's, but the latter is not mentioned. The general issue there is the changing boundary or non-boundary between the individual subject & society... & the world in general.) And although the anesthetic (& so amnesiac) qualities of presentism do certainly concern the contemporary musical & artistic space, it's to notions of guaranteed safety that I want to turn next: Indeed, I've already positioned modernity per se as an exercise not only in (global) imperial hoarding, but as an attempt to eliminate risk or "fortune." (Rather, in concentrating the Earth's wealth for a few, modernity reallocated precarity. It should be emphasized, though, that various aspects of this hoarding project are still being praised, including that concentrations of "capital" provided a spur to technological development: Let's not embrace benevolence in assessing such a motivation, though, but rather the cynical business of remaining in control.... So much Western technology is still war technology.) The modern risk abatement project is then reconfigured in the postmodern (or nascent neoimperial) era, in Bonnet's terms, around a broad forgetting of death (i.e. of the historical & finite character of individual human life): Note, crucially, that this presentist forgetting is not the elimination of risk, but rather its forgetting, its reconfiguration into spectral form (i.e. as a vague "cloud," to throw out a current technological metaphor). Of course, such a situation is thrown into further relief by the new risk (& spectacle) of coronavirus. And response to that risk has been largely predictable within this frame: For one, poverty (as correlated or aligned with racism, sexism, etc.) is always a vector for increased exposure, but is so particularly in areas (including where I live) where medical care is rationed according to socioeconomic status. (Any sort of general epidemic is thus, fundamentally, a genocidal tool against the poor — at least in economically hierarchical societies. And coronavirus is certainly being deployed this way....) Following that logic, it's then upper middle class (i.e. the classic Western "bourgeoisie") fears that dictate policy & practice, fears portrayed as truly novel (& thus terrifying) by people who were already largely in denial regarding the risks in their lives (including to others due to their own actions...). The situation also brings condescension, reinforcing class lines & portraying the precarious as themselves dangerous: Another "state of exception" appears, such that fear brings calls for safety, with increasing fascist imposition on its heels (as various long-term fascist policy demands have now been imposed unilaterally & with little resistance), all part of a global race toward the right (a race buoyed by "technologies" such as centrism...). So what we see is a shock, an interruption to a particular regime of denial (& a new danger, but not a reconfiguration of precarity per se), an opportunity to implement more restrictive policies in general (not unlike the 9/11 terror attacks) — & then we'll see the regime of denial reconstitute itself: Many people already seem to be easing their safety concerns, despite no fundamental lessening of virus risk. (Part of this can be figured as a narrowing of uncertainty. Or simply as moving away from ultimately impractical hypercaution.) But that's also because coronavirus risk was never of a different order: It remains to be seen how the totals (& arguments over classification) turn out, but it looks to me now as though e.g. deaths in the US due to virus (& note that the US response has been figured as especially problematic) will be roughly 10% of projected 2020 deaths here (which, I should also note, were already being projected to rise...). The point? Most of the other risks have already been assimilated to regimes of denial. So another important point concerns numbers & calculation per se (as the foregoing already starts to suggest): We've been hearing — again, especially from the most bourgeois elements — that the value of life is incalculable, and hence that coronavirus risk should be figured as basically infinite against other life issues. And I want to highlight this anti-calculation sentiment — which is already fading, and was certainly never ubiquitous — within the very heart of the neoliberal calculation regime: Considering neoliberal apathy toward anything that can't be exchanged — the exchange of images online coming to exemplify this situation for Bonnet, such that calculation need not refer (explicitly) to price, but to data more generally... — such an interruption is critical (to e.g. postmodern conceptions of "event"), even as the regime continues to synchronize images of each of us for marketing & propaganda purposes. That we remain thoroughly calculated (even as notions of "the value of life is incalculable!" ring out now more than ever) is of course also evident within the Western health industry, particularly around concepts of "insurance," but also via medicalization per se.... And (the history of) "medical science" is joined at the hip to Western modernity, including in two basic ways: Modernity forged biologism around labor (itself a technology), i.e. increase population so as to increase production & increase accumulation. (Each additional labor unit, at least in principle, provided additional profit....) Thus, people who could not work needed to be repaired — not for themselves, but so that they could (or would) work again. Moreover, in its quest for concentrated accumulation (or stockpile), modernity generates many new health problems, whether from its labor regime directly, poisonous contaminations, harvesting necessities of life, etc. In other words, although "medical science" is hailed as a great achievement by modernity (even the greatest, in some circles), much is not only devoted to problems caused by modernity itself, but is still oriented according to paradigms of work directed toward wealth accumulation. (And the other major historical paradigm of Western medicine arises not from the labor regime, but from charlatanism aimed at the newly rich. That strand actually has the longer history.... Consequently, in the US anyway, both health & insurance are for-profit industries, the former retaining an incentive to keep people alive but sick....) These labor regime issues would be problematic enough, but returning to the overall topic here, a significant element of discontinuity between the modern & postmodern eras lies within the regime of biologism itself: Human labor is no longer to be maximized, but rather kept to more "manageable" proportions, with the remainder replaced by (different, more obedient) technology (presumably continuing to seek infinite production & profit... & so without much long-term sanity). Moreover, the neoliberal regime emphasizes human competition & even biological legacy... meaning that the specter of genocide (or at least necropolitics, i.e. "competing" on health) is increasingly everywhere. (Per the general analytic here, one must also look into situations of ownership & control, and we've seen the tech monopolies clearly augment both for themselves during this crisis, again as traditional middle class opposition falls quickly in line — i.e. around the "exception" & its cultivated fears. That US politicians might seek to regulate online media or sales now seems to be an even more remote possibility....) And then, although perhaps I've already involved too much at once, a final issue to raise in this entry is that of antisocial (or anti-human) sentiment masquerading as environmentalism: Condescension toward many people's "poor" virus safeguards already has various groups being figured as dangerous per se, and genocidal impulses (to reduce the population in general, and so to further concentrate wealth) will surely be proliferating in upcoming rhetoric, including around environmental concerns. (Tangentially, e.g. friendly virus warnings to "Stay inside!" don't actually make sense in any specific way — unless figured against such an us-them axis & global involution more generally, such "competition" still being the basic premise of neoliberalism....) Figuring the poor as "the problem" (including the global poor) is certainly nothing new, but I very much want to emphasize that a healthy ecology involves everyone & everything. That's a simple truth, at least until ramified, because a healthy ecology also involves death & change: Notions of static immortality are themselves illusory (as most everyone actually already knows, if they bother to remember) & even dangerous. While life is — ultimately, paradigmatically — dynamic & risky.

25 September 2020

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© 2020 Todd M. McComb