The Digital has been around for a while

The digital has been around for a while. But during the last 20-30 years the rapidly changing and all-pervasive technological environment has certainly generated a different approach to our ways of life.

Das Digitale ist alt

»Il n’y a de puissance que dans la Relation, et cette puissance est celle de tous.« [1]
»Power only lies in Relation, and this power is that of, and belongs to, all.« [2]

How we relate — to each other, to any thing, living, dead, material or not, any structure or system, the world — is determined by media and technology. They constitute the reality in which experiences become possible, and so they shape our understanding of the world. They are never innocent. Their history of ideas has always been intimately intertwined with thinking about race and colonialism, that is, racial thinking as a system of knowledge that organizes social life. Many extraordinary people have done research on this and pushed the boundaries of what counts as technology in the first place, subsequently finding the lineages and linkages between media, technology, and race. One of them is Louis Chude-Sokei, who has worked extensively on the entanglements of the African Diaspora, and created a testament of the overlapping imaginaries and relations of and between Blackness and technology. In The Sound of Culture: Diaspora and Black Technopoetics (2016), drawing from literature (including science fiction) and the sonic, he shows among many other things how the automaton has always been a projection of the other, and in the US this other certainly was the enslaved black person.

The work of new media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun is vital in this context. Her 2006 book Freedom and Control, for example, highlights the centrality of racialization to the development of the internet. »Race AND/as technology«, a 2012 essay, reflects on racial technologies such as segregation. Using the term »homophily«, she explains that segregation became the underlying principle of network sciences. The simple assumption that »love as love of the same« – meaning that the same people, as in people from the same socially constructed categories such as race, gender or else, want to be together and thus only interact with each other — created the infamous echo chambers. We are trapped, not only as individuals but collectively. As networks make assumptions based on correlation, based on other people’s behaviors that are just like mine, the establishment of highly (segre)gated online communities cannot come as a surprise. The 1990s promise that cyberspace would become a place in which information would be decentralized and democratized—thereby establishing a different order and distribution of power (and) relations and more participation and freedom for all—soon had to be amended: »Homophily (…) closes the world it pretends to open.« [3]

Media possess performative qualities, an absence in presence, or an immaterial materiality (media philosopher Sybille Krämer has written extensively about it). This is why they are prone to becoming ubiquitous without us being aware of them all the time. Just as we wouldn’t be able to communicate properly if we were thinking about the grammar and syntax of language constantly, we now interact with interfaces—flawlessly designed screens—that hide the unthinkable amounts of infrastructure and labor needed to create them or to run the internet. But in fact, we are exposed to algorithmic systems of surveillance and capture: in public, at borders, airports, and through applications on our devices. We don’t even notice how algorithms decide what we are offered and see to buy or read, where we are allowed to go or enter, when we are profiled, and which credit we’ll receive. We may soon be chauffeured by self-driving cars and might enter a future of fully automated health care. Media and technology are never neutral—they mirror society and tend to hide and become opaque.

So, neither echo chambers nor algorithmic/machine bias – one of 2020’s buzzwords – can really be labeled unexpected. If anything, they are a manifestation of the deep routed societal biases that take very different forms since digital media technology has taken over our every-day lives. A variety of layers plays into how bias occurs, its forms and effects. Algorithmic systems for example work just as good as the data they are fed. If you put in (=input) bad data, bad data will be put out (=output). Insofar, the overused analogy of algorithms being black boxes makes sense, the input-output-model is the literal description of the cybernetic black box. One problem with the A.I. industry is that it is an industry. It is a competitive race for the best, most efficient algorithms out there and so the companies behind it serve the market, not the human, or person, individual, consumer, or user. It is commercial, and ultimately, financial interest that turns humans into resources for data extraction. What is more, machine learning algorithms operate on training data sets and this raw data needs to be labelled by humans, they are the ones who decide what is meaningful in order to extract information so the algorithms can learn. Evidently, the process needs to be questioned on the level of the taxonomies used to label the data in the first place because humans are teaching machines here. Attention should also be paid to the A.I. industries’ power and how far it affects the global working class. A lot of workers are needed for data labeling alone and they sit in offices in low-income countries or areas around the world doing this kind of »ghost work« (Mary Gray) – in India, the Philippines, East Africa, or South America. These people are the ones that build and train the »future of human kind«.

Bias operates on many levels and is not reserved for machine operations. And sometimes it moves tacitly and persists stubbornly. An example: in Western popular perception, Blackness is often considered to be the opposite of or even in conflict with technological advancements, innovation (which is associated with the future, or futurity as positivity), and progress. The reasons for this are complex, manifold, and historically traceable. To break with this - also racist history - a term, coined in 1993, quickly had to serve as the generic concept for a lot of aesthetic creation from the African continent, however slightly it touched on technoculture and science fiction. Sometimes the creator’s own categorizations were not even considered, it was just referred to as »Afrofuturism«. The term has its very own (important) history, it has most definitely changed many disciplinary landscapes and influenced new strands of thinking and creating. It has never lost its prevelance. But the random association of a lot of Black-made art with it, well, is narrow, simplistic, unimaginative, and of course, racist. The coloniality of global power relations delivers plenty of coverage on the Silicon Valley, Start-Ups from the US, Europe or East Asia but the African continent seems to fall short in this equation of future players.

Notably, the digital has been around for a while. And it quite frankly stimulates the imagination to envision its historical formation. Because computing happened well before computers, and digital systems existed before machines were able to use digital language—code. The term »digital« stems from the Latin word digitus, simply meaning finger or toe. When something can be divided into discrete countable units, when it can be broken down into pieces, it is digital. The keys of a piano are a digital system, as are our hands. [4]  What is often colloquially referred to when the digital is mentioned today is either the internet (as a network of computer networks) or an electronic machine able to compute 0s and 1s. What the etymology tells us is that it actually doesn’t make much sense to strictly divide reality into digital and analog. A lot of devices are hybrids, and the analog can be as computational as the digital can be non-computational.

The latest work by Portuguese filmmaker Filipa Cesar, QUANTUM CREOLE, reflects the history of digital code by illuminating specific and seemingly unexpected relationalities. The documentary offers a whole spectrum of modes of seeing, hearing, thinking, imagining, and mapping out a world by way of creolization—a concept widely associated with Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. The description of the film reads:

In the beginning was the weave, and the transmission of its workings, a curse of mortality—so ends Quantum Creole with the fabulous words of the Papel weaver, Zé Interpretador.
While the Punch-card technology, designed for the textile loom, was fundamental for the development of the computer, the binary code is closer to the ancient act of weaving than to that of writing. Quantum Creole is an experimental documentary film of collective research into creolization, addressing its historical, ontological and cultural forces. Referring to the minimum physical entity in any interaction—quantum—the film utilizes different imaging forms to read the subversive potential of weaving as Creole code. West African Creole people wove coded messages of social and political resistance into textiles, countering the colonists’ languages and technologies. As the new face of colonization manifests itself as a digital image, upgrading terra nullius in the form of an ultra-liberal free trade zone in the Bissagos Islands, it also marks the continuation of the violence that erupted several centuries ago with the creation of slave-trading posts in the place then known as the Rivers of Guinea and Cape Verde. [5]

Textile creation is an elaborate technology that has been feminized as a craft and thus identified as a less meaningful technology. Its technological qualities and the part it played in articulating political resistance needed to be unearthed, like the history of women in computing. [6]  In QUANTUM CREOLE, Guinean writer and literary theorist Odete Semedo talks about »cloths as bearers of speech. They simply speak.« If truth be told, it is an elusive task to try to translate this image (the cloth) of the beginnings of our media-technological planetary transformation, this binary weaving system that was the loom, into the massive operation that this formalized set of rules has become today.

The cultural logic of the binary that is enforced and materialized through the digital increasingly becomes contested ground, a site to be broken up or broken into. For decades, a lot of theoretical work has been done from a minoritarian point of view or by the so-called disciplines of minorities, such as critical theory, poststructuralism, Black feminist theory and others. Well before the digital has existed as we experience it now they have questioned the Enlightenment way of constructing everything as binary oppositions—nature/culture, human/machine, Black/white, master/slave (the latter terminology is used in informatics and software engineering, by the way), and more. But here I specifically speak of the practice, the actual work of programming. It is possible to code differently, to build networks other than those that are currently authoritative, networks with »structures that privilege difference and inclusion« [7] , and alternative algorithmic systems. It will be a question of power, but the more people learn how to code and use digital tools the better—power to the people.

So again, the digital has been around for a while. But during the last 20-30 years the rapidly changing and all-pervasive technological environment has certainly generated a different approach to our ways of life. At the same time, a lot of the issues and intricacies we have to deal with have also been there. Bias did not emerge because of digital tools and technology. What the digital offers us right now is a specific point of view from which opportunities of critiquing the present (technological) condition, questioning all structures we are embedded in, and rethinking and reconceptualizing all relations evolve – relations between the living, the technical, the environment and the world, the material, and all of their intersections. Although right now, for so many, the world feels detached and disconnected, even though it has never been this connected, it is possible to imagine and build otherwise.

[1] Chamoiseau, Patrick/Glissant, Édouard (2009): L’Intraitable Beauté du monde: adresse à Barack Obama, Paris: Galaade Éditions, p. 55.
[2] Édouard Glissant, translated by Coombes, Sam (2018): Édouard Glissant – A Poetics of Resistance, London: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 11.

[3] Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong (2018): »Queerying Homophily«, in: Apprich, Clemens/Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong/Cramer, Florian/Steyerl, Hito: Pattern Discrimination. Minneapolis/Lüneburg: Minnesota University Press/meson Press, p. 60.

[4] see Florian Cramer’s 2014 essay »What Is ‘Post-Digital‘?«

[5] (last checked 18.12.2020)
[6] See, for example, Sadie Plant’s 2008 book Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture,

[7] Brawley, Dare/Chun, Wendy Hui Kyong/House, Brian/Kurgan, Laura/Zhang, Jia (2019) »Homophily: The Urban History of an Algorithm«.… (last checked 18.12.2020)


A modified version of this text first appeared in the 11th Contemporary And (C&) print issue: CONSCIOUS CODES, ANYONE? on June 19, 2020.