The Change Actor in the Digital Age

by Nishant Shah

September 2015. The digital technologies are technologies of watching and witnessing. As the quasi jocular adaptation of an old philosophical conundrum says, "If a tree falls in a lonely forest, and there is nobody to tweet about it, did it really fall?". Facetious as it might sound, there is a way by which we are living in a world of looking. From the ubiquitous cameras on our cell phones to the drones flying in the sky; from surveillance systems monitoring our information flow to the satellites spying on our bedroom windows, there is a culture of watching and being watched that surrounds us. And this surplus of data which needs to be watched and the proliferation of watchers who watch us, have transformed our lives into spectacles – tiny snatches of decontextualized performances which can be stitched together to larger narratives but are largely just held together through algorithms of distribution, storage, and curation.

So persuasive and seductive are these cultures of visuality and practices of testimony, that the digital turn produces a paradox that I label the spectacle imperative. On the one hand, the digital becomes a way by which we see ourselves, see each other, create selfies to ensure that we are seen, and commit to our social media networks, an ever increasing quantified self, where everything from our deepest desire to the internal mechanisms of our body is visualized. Visualization becomes the default metaphor to explain reality, to describe relationships, to tell stories and retell histories, and the quest is to develop penetrative technologies that intersect, interact and investigate the human condition in visual forms. If the Cartesian enlightenment was about producing the human as a thinking being, the digital enlightenment, enabled by fibre optics, is the production of the human as that which can be seen, not by other human beings but by the digital itself.

ITE Algorithmus 560 .UniBremenITE Algorithm   Source: The University of Bremen

We live in unprecedented times where the data that we produce about ourselves is mediated by digital technologies, and at the same time the only way by which this data can be sorted, stored, sifted and made sense of is through the logics and logistics that the digital offers. We might think, for instance, that social media is about connecting ourselves across geographies and lifestyles, with distributed friends and followers, who engage with things we post and share. However, it is the truth that on a social media network, the only thing that sees us, that listens to us – with an intent that in a human being would have been alarming – is a set of algorithms that listen, watch, and remember more patiently and more persistently than our parents, partners or therapists. The spectacle imperative resides in the fact that we live, for the first time in human history, in a condition where the writer of data and the reader of data are both not human. The human is the object that is seen and the site that is always in sight of these digital devices, platforms, and gadgets which become ubiquitous and invisible at the same time.

The paradox of the spectacle imperative is that these digital devices are so omnipresent and naturally a part of our everyday interactions, that they are transparent devices. We see through them. We encounter them through interfaces of intimacy. They vibrate in our pockets and slide sinuously between our fingers. They touch us, feel us, embrace us, but continue to make themselves transparent. Ironically, even as these devices make themselves transparent, they make themselves opaque. The more our devices become smaller, personalized, portable, and non-intrusive, the more they hide from us the mechanisms of their working and the control that they exercise on our everyday life. The spectacle imperative houses and plays this paradox repeatedly. Onn the one hand, we expose ourselves more and more to the digital, creating spectacles of ourselves to algorithms and code that watches and remembers us; on the other hand, it makes the digital itself invisible, hiding it from sight, and thus also making it impossible to understand what is excluded or discounted as noise in the digital networks of life, labour and language.

The spectacle imperative also produces for us a focus on questions of infrastructure, of historicisation, of production, and of distribution. These questions concentrate on how the Internet can serve as either a catalyst for new theatrical practices or a tool to build infrastructure and reach out to new audiences. Simultaneously, only bodies that can become visible, that can bear the scrutiny of the gaze, can make themselves legible and intelligible to the logics of the digital, are considered to be legitimate actors. Thus, we are stitched into narratives of the DIY hacker, of the self-empowered actor, of the change maker who connects with the digital inter webs and starts producing social and political transformation in their immediate environment. As they get mapped on the information terrain, new geographies and contexts produce more stories of actors who take matters in their own hands and produce new structures of governance, participation and collaboration. While there is no denying this wave of individual actors who are leveraging the power of the Internet in order to experiment and innovate with cultures and modes of being, I still want to argue that these actors, who are many in numbers, are at present very similar in their form.

MarkZuckerberg 560 Facebook Colonising Gouvernance? Mark Zuckerberg, Founder & CEO of Facebook at the Social Media Week 2015 in Copenhagen | Denmark © SMWCPH16

Or in other words, I am suggesting that in the world of big data and the quantified self, where the dominant aesthetic of the Internet is visual, with network snapshots, infographics, and personalized dashboards becoming the prominent interfaces, what we have is a huge scale but very little diversity in the kind of people who get counted and can be presented or visualized as the change actors of contemporary times. Looking at intentions of post-colonial theories, interventions of feminism in science and technology studies, and the impulses of cultural theories of infrastructure and logistics might help us understand that this is not a new phenomenon. And, in fact, one of the problems that the digital turn posits is that despite the newness that it embodies and promises, it seems to continue on tropes of discrimination, making invisible bodies that cannot be presented as spectacular bodies, as bodies worthy of the spectators as well as eligible for becoming spectacles.

The Heathen Without History

In 1835, Thomas Babington Macaulay, whose name can only be explained by the speculation that his parents did not love him enough, in a document titled Minutes on Education argued that "that a single shelf of a good European library was worth the whole native literature of India and Arabia". For Macaulay the native heathen was marked as a subject who has a past, but no history, and hence needs to be educated in English to become the middleware for smooth administration. Macaulay's children, as they are derisively called in India, became the first instance of a modern spectator that was produced by the bastardised technocracy of colonised governance uniting with the codes and codexes of knowledge making. It draws to our attention that the spectator has a much closer relationship with the politics of governance and exclusion than with the processes of literacy and interpretation.

Thomas Babington Macaulay 280 um1850 gemeinfreiCodes of Domination: Thomas Babington Macaulay um 1855Because instead of importing the books of the great literates from England to India, and teaching them to read and write and appreciate literature, Macaulay introduced two forms in the formal education structures of India – the ledger and the Indian penal code. The surveyors, the accountants, who were keeping count of the wealth and the resources of the British East India Company. The accounting system was not only meant to codify the domination of the British Empire but also to get the heathen counted. The ledger made us intelligible as those who could count and be counted.

What is also present in the construction of the actor of digital technologies, is Macaulay’s commitment to train the Indian native to become a pucca sahib, a true honourable British man. And in the interest of this transformation, Macaulay produced the Indian Penal Code that obsessively sought to regulate the orgiastic practices of the native. He formulated the Unnatural Sexual Acts Law, which criminalised all sexual acts except for those penal-vaginal intercourses that were intended for procreation. It also introduced a series of guidelines on how to curb the homoerotic excesses of the Indian native. One of whichwas to create boundaries in closed spaces, not allowing for the unclean male bodies to touch each other, thus succumbing to the temptation of the flesh. These boundaries became the blue-print of how much space must be maintained between two men in a close working environment, so that they can concentrate on their work, restrain their libidinal desires, and resist the urge to break into song, dance, and sodomy.

Because it was only once the native was taught to count and be counted, to compute and be computed, and once the native was trained to understand the penal implications of his penile desires, that the native could understand the value of literature and the power of poetrythat invited him to wander lonely as a cloud and chance upon a host of daffodils. In order for the native to become an actor and a part of an audience, capable of the acts of reading and interpretation, a massive infrastructure of accounting and policing had to come into being.

This is what I call the dark side of infrastructure. We delude ourselves if we insist that the infrastructure, either for the cultural space of theatre or the diffused space of the Internet, is not only subject to policing but polices the boundaries of the normative and the desired. Anybody who wants to think of either of these two spaces as transgressive, as provocative, as pushing for change, is going to face massive resistance from different powers that wield control and regulate who gets to be active and who gets to be activated in the networked societies that we live in.

Stalker Dolphins

In our imagination of information actors, we presume that the actor is not only human but a particular kind of human – a human who is bothable to receive our information and decode that information. The forms, formats, and tropes of our information production and distribution are severely limited and formulaic because they do not pay attention to the fact that the recipient of information is constructed. The change actor in information societies is taken for granted, and instead of thinking of it as a privilege which is afforded to a few, all the efforts are towards upscaling, mainstreaming, and sustaining the current information packages instead of thinking about how to include new actors into the fold of the information network. For example, the focus of our digital information expansion is on diversity, but it often gets replaced by scale. We often begin with the idea of getting different kinds of users, but end up celebrating having a large number of the same kinds of users. The minute we imagine an actor that is not just a variation on the imagined actor type but a distinctively different actor, we realise the limitation and the possibilities of our current informational forms.

And this trope of a diverse user is perhaps best illustrated through the history of cybernetics and the story of a stalker dolphin. In the 1950s, John C. Lilly was already spending precious research budgets with NASA, trying to imagine what it would mean for human beings to talk to extra-terrestrial life forms. Lilly, for all his fantasies, was postulating a real problem – while we have developed sophisticated information tools to talk between human beings, and modes of translation to talk between human beings who do not share the same language, we haven't really done much work in talking to things that are not human. In his attempt to break the inter-species barrier, he built a 'Dolphinarium' on the US Virgin Islands. It was a house that was flooded with water. Lilly invited Margaret Howe, an animal behavior scientist, to live over land and waterwith a Bottle-nose dolphin called Peter. The hypothesis of the experiment was that dolphins could be taught to identify, mimic and learn human language, and the methodology was for Howe to develop an affective, personal and loving relationship with Peter.

MargaretHowe PeterDolphin 560 LillyEstateMargaret Howe and Dolphin Peter, 1965  © Lilly Estate

As Howe and Peter lived together, in isolation, spending all their time together in that lab, Peter slowly started getting obsessed with Howe. He started following her, demanding physical contact that can only be described as cuddling, and even sleeping under her bed that was suspended over water. Howe became such an object of affection for Peter that he also refused the company of other female dolphins that were periodically made available to him, and started displaying great physical affection toward Howe. In an attempt to put him at ease, and to reach that threshold where Peter would want to learn the new language, Howe was asked to not only encourage Peter’s stalker moves but to please him – physically and emotionally.

However, by week 5 of this cohabitation, Howe's diary which had begun as a daily account of how she cooked, cleaned and was getting to know Peter, started documenting a new concern. "Peter begins having erections and has them frequently when I play with him" one of her entries reads. Peter had started aggressively stalking and pushing his advances on Howe, so that her feet and legs were covered in minor injuries from his jamming and nibbling. Describing Peter's attempts to 'woo' her, Howe writes, "I stand very still, legs slightly apart, and Peter slides his mouth gently over my shin… Peter is courting me… he has been most persistent and patient… Obviously a sexy business… the mood is very gentle, still and hushed… all movements are slow." She was also scared of where this might lead: "Peter could bite me in two", she wrote. However, unwilling to stop the experiment midway, and also curious about the effects of this intense emotional and physical connection, Howe took matters into her own hands and felt "that the best way of focusing his mind back on his lessons was to relieve his desires herself manually."

The experiment with Howe and Peter has been much critiqued and Lilly's claims that Peter learnt to pronounce words such as 'ball' and 'diamond' because of this new and innovative learning environment are often not taken at face value. While Lilly's claims do not stand up to the measure of scientific and objective truth, and it is dubious whether Howe’s intense inter-species involvement with Peter actually led to the dolphin learning that was hypothesised, there is, in this model, a re-imagination of the learner that is missing from our maps of the actors of information. It is a story of imagining all our current cultural and theatrical practices as flawed, and futile when faced with the idea of a person who does not bear the privileges, affordances, and positions of the imagined actor. The idea of the dolphin as the intended recipient of our communication might offer a completely different form to our visions of change and understanding of what constitutes an intervention. The dolphin, for Lilly, was just a figurehead standing in for an extra-terrestrial encounter in outer space. If we understand the dolphin as that unimaginable change agent who will not be able to make sense of things as they are right now, then we will have to rethink our idea of what constitutes activism. Maybe, like Margaret, we will have to go and pleasure our actors in order to communicate. And our interventions will have to be informed by and travel through these circuits of perversion and paranoia.

von einem der auszog 560 leonoreblievernicht hInterplay of Algorithms and Actors: Bert Neumann's Stage for René Pollesch's Play Von einem der auszog ... Berlin, 2015  © Leonore Blievernicht

Through these two stories from histories of colonization and cybernetics, I have tried to show that we need to shift the focus of our conversations when talking about the actors in our organisations from instrumental relationships about distribution, access, amplification, circulation, etc. I am arguing that there is a more sinister interplay of power and protocol, of algorithms and actors, of networks and performance, that needs to be unpacked in order to think about the political futures and social structures of the entwining of theatre and the Internet. I am proposing that when we concentrate only on the spectacle imperative of change, we forget to look at the larger nexus of technological design, interface intentions, and digital impulses that exclude and discriminate several groups of people who remain invisible in the circuits of change making. I want to conclude by suggesting that when we talk of infrastructure, actions, agents and intentions, we need to move beyond the spectacle imperative that the digital configures us in, and look at bodies, practices and processes that are excluded and kept outside the fold of the change-making ecosystem in order to produce new imaginations that are not arrested by scale and reach, but informed by a commitment to equality, equity and participation.

 

Hier geht es zur deutschen Übersetzung des Textes.

 

 

NishantShah 190Nishant Shah is a professor for culture and aestetics of new media at Leuphana University, Germany, and a co-founder of the Centre for Internet and Society in India. His work is at intersections of digital politics, gender and sexual identities, and cybercultures.

Nishant Shah ist Professor für Kultur & Ästhetik digitaler Medien an der Leuphana Universität, Lüneburg und Mitbegründer des Centre for Internet & Society in Bangalore/Indien. Er forscht an Schnittstellen von Technologie, Gender und Identität, Cyberkulturen sowie sozialer und politischer Bewegungen.

The Text is the revised version of Nishant Shah's keynote at the opening of the conference Theatre & Net, Vol.3 of Heinrich Boell Foundation and nachtkritik.de, May 2nd in Berlin.

Der oben stehende Text ist die überarbeitete Version der Keynote, die Nishant Shah am 2. & 3. Mai 2015 zur Eröffnung der Konferenz Theater und Netz. Vol.3 der Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung und nachtkritik.de in Berlin gehalten hat.

 

 

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