Materiality of the Immaterial (2019 - present) is an ongoing project which finds expression through various interlinked components across writing and research, video, sound and installation.
Through a cross-over of mediums, it looks to areas, problematics and crises of a neoliberal surveillance capitalism 1 – to which the mechanisms of algorithmic governance and digital technologies are subordinated – to try articulate the materialities, structures and failings of this particular type of globalised capitalism that now seems to be unraveling in this time of Covid-19, or what Tabish Khair has called “The Neoliberal Virus”2 whose “…transmission has followed the flightpaths of global capitalism”3.
Covid-19 has made a number of these underlying materialities, structures, and failings more tangible than ever, and this is the departure point for this particular body of work, writing and research – each component focusing on various interlinked dimensions of these materialities, structures and failings. The videos and the interactive elements that accompany this writing do not function as case studies that illustrate an argument, but rather as investigations and arguments in and of themselves that should be read alongside the writing to further generate questions and nuance in a less didactic form.
In this research paper, I first discuss the materiality (the physical infrastructure) of the internet that has not only connected, but also shaped the globalised world so radically that it calls for updated understandings of political geography and citizenship. In explaining the fundamental dependence of the internets’ physical infrastructure on fast-nearing scarce natural resources, I hope to highlight the fragility of the planetary-scale computation 4 (that makes so much of what we know as ‘life’ today, possible), in the face of impending ecological disaster –which itself, is only observable as a result of planetary-scale computation. “The notion of ‘climate change’ is an empirically validated pattern drawn from a comprehensive, planetary-scale biopolitical sensing, surveillance, modelling, and calculating apparatus. The most artificial of innovations, The Stack, is what has made this most significant artificial abstraction – climate change – into a legible and communicable concept.”5 That being said, planetary-scale computation as we currently know it, is itself unsustainable because of its negative relationship with natural resources, which it depletes. I look to Benjamin Bratton’s idea of The Stack as a way to reformulate political geographies as well as a model for a potentially more sustainable relationship between digital technologies and natural resources.
The second area of interest is concerned with the problematics of tech-fix transhumanist utopian thinking that tries to apply the logic of tech-fix solutionism to socio-political problems. I hope to show that transhumanism is fundamentally anti-human in its desires to overcome and augment our biology – supposedly through another tech-fix– to maximise our own efficiency and the efficiency and ease with which we engage our world. I am interested in the type of subjectivity and possibility for collectivity (or lack thereof) that is produced in a time of global hyper-connectivity. This is an inquiry into the character and cause of our alienated, isolated loneliness, in relation to ideas of connectivity and togetherness – which should be differentiated. I aim to give clarity to the type of alienation we might experience as users of social media, and how this produces the structure of feeling that we understand as loneliness.
The respective sections are titled In the Sky, Under the Sea and Society of Prosusers.
In the Sky, Under the Sea
What the Covid-19 pandemic has made concrete is how contemporary continued globalisation has indeed been modelled in the image of computer network topologies – sets of interdependent and hyperconnected nodes– which of course, are susceptible and facilitate the spread of viruses across entire networks even when the malfunction doesn’t come from the most important node.6 But globalisation, operating from a seemingly perfect market logic, never thought itself vulnerable to viruses, ironically. “Society conceived as a network isn’t about aggregates or averages, but is a complex system through which trends, behaviours, memes information and infections travel[between interdependent nodes or ‘nations’]”, William Davies writes, “The micro and macro are brought together in a new unpredictable intimacy…networks can be completely overhauled by minor events that begin on their fringes.”7 Covid-19 has made material the fragility of this hyperconnected interdependent network through its wild-fire global transmission, and the disproportionate blows to countries geographically far removed from the origin. What is unique about this pandemic is how the virus has been spread, amplified and facilitated through network topologies (modelled on the digital) that underlie the modern globalised world. Sam Kriss writes “The virus can feel like a wordless critique of modernity. Just look at how it spreads: air travel, tourism, the globalised economy. Like so many of our commodities, it’s put together in China, where it inflicts mostly-invisible misery, before circulating in the churn and frenzy of global trade.”8
Tracing the underlying structural cause of the virus to capitalist agriculture, Rob Wallace writes “When new outbreaks spring up, governments, the media, and even most of the medical establishment are so focused on each separate emergency that they dismiss the structural causes that are driving multiple marginalised pathogens into sudden global celebrity, one after the other.” He traces the pandemic to the destruction of natural ecologies and the displacement of local sustainable farms by capitalist agriculture, “These investments drive the deforestation and development leading to disease emergence. The functional diversity and complexity these huge tracts of land represent are being streamlined in such a way that previously boxed-in pathogens are spilling over into local livestock and human communities.”9 Put differently, there is a forced computabalisation of the incomputable 10 – the streamlining of nature to maximise produce and profit – that lies at the heart of this pandemic.
I’d like to draw a connection between the infrastructure and function of the most common and evil type of capitalist agriculture, factory farms, and the infrastructure that houses most of our digital networks that have helped connect the world, server ‘farms’. I find the use of the word ‘farm’ in the latter structure curious and telling, especially in relation to its predecessor. Their eerie similarity should not be ignored. They both continuously produce without rest, they occupy windowless warehouses in the peripheries of our societies, they deplete natural resources, their primary goals remain profit, they’re exploitative and both facilitate the spread of viruses. I don’t think it would be far-fetched to then come to the hypothesis that factory farms have informed both the form and function of server farms, except server farms harvest humans. Both are examples of human-exclusion zones: highly securitised spaces whose priority is to protect from breach what is being kept inside in a way that is unfairly disproportionate to the efforts made to protect literally the world on the ‘outside’ from the lethal matter that might leak from these prohibited zones – be it digital or biological viruses. In both server and factory farms, the ecological principle of trophic cascades is dangerously at play, which is that, as Benjamin Bratton puts it, “...the agency of one form of life sets in motions changes with an outsize effect”, he continues by saying “This conclusion to be drawn is not that global interconnection is a bad idea (or a good idea), but that it is intrinsic and runs deeper than conventionally realised…our thinking and our interventions must be based on a higher resolution understanding of cyclical interrelations and physical economies, from scales of viral infection to intercontinental circulation and back again.”11
Networks (digital or not) and global connectivity are not inherently bad things. The issue is when it has been structurally and functionally informed by factory farms and the likes, i.e, made to work for capitalist exploitation. Put simply, the globalised interdependent network that Covid-19 has spread through has been modelled in the image of digital network topologies (not inherently bad), but whose infrastructure (server farms) has been informed by factory farms (indisputably bad), a breeding ground for viruses.
The spatial dimensions of our work and social lives, as well how we work and socialise, is now being actively remodelled in the image of network topologies in a way like never before, as those countries, cities and people who can afford to, bunker down in paranoid fortresses, turning urban centres into desolate human exclusion-zones, whilst our homes turn into microscopes for previously private parts of our lives, and telescopes into the lives of others. Whats interesting to observe in the cities and countries whose people cannot afford to move their lives into their homes and online, is that there is a completely different relationship between ‘connectivity’ and ‘togetherness’ wherein online connectivity cannot replace the physical togetherness that underlies the communities and functionings of a city so easily as it might in western and first world countries. A sense of togetherness and collectivity, not necessarily connectivity, is what is required to keep these less privileged and less technologically enabled communities and economies afloat. And so whilst we can observe how digital networks reformulate the spatial dimensions of some of our lives – particularly in the well resourced cities of the world – we can also observe how a digital migration is neither possible nor the best solution for countries, cities, and people with less access to infrastructure, and whose economies are still reliant predominantly on the trade of physical goods and services. One can get a better sense of how the spatial dimensions of our work and social lives have been transformed, precisely by observing where lives cannot be transformed because of the limits of and limited access to digital technologies, in countries less privileged and whose economies and communities are sustained primarily by physical exchange and production. Technological and design theorists tend to forget that these countries and communities still exist, but you don’t have to look to the extremes to realise that digital networks and technologies cannot replace or transform completely, the spatial dimensions of our lives. Take for example the extremely urban and relatively digitally enabled city of Johannesburg – scattered with trendy co-working spaces, wifi-hotspot-coffee shops, and many other flashy niceties that resemble first-world smart-cities – and yet most students at Wits university still struggle with the online migration of education, because on an individual level, access to the necessary digital technologies is unequal, and mobile data to connect to the internet is incredibly limited, expensive, and sometimes only made available by network providers at ridiculous hours of the night. Even if the spatial dimensions of peoples lives have been transformed by the digital technologies and networks that are perhaps assumed to be readily available to make use of in times of pandemic, this transformation has been a great failure and obstruction to many peoples lives. In a sense, this realisation debunks the myth of ‘The Digital Sublime’; an escape route and also a solution for all of the worlds problems. Although digital networks and network topologies have long been at the core of our modern globalised world, they have previously existed as an invisible layer. In the western and technologically enabled cities of the world, they are being made visible and tangible as we literally live in the network, through a series of links and servers that facilitate our isolated connectedness. Lydia Kallipoliti writes, “The city today is a vast array of disconnected bedrooms, microcosms that come together in an abstract digital space, physically enabled by vital and essential data farms”.12 But the presence of the digital network can also be felt in the less technologically enabled cities of the world, through the clumsy and inefficient attempt to migrate life online (University students in South Africa will know this well), when in fact most people cannot afford and don’t even have access to the means to do so. For many students, for example, access to the internet was at university, and so being homebound means that their access is denied. And so this transformation by, and in the image of digital networks, is felt and made tangible in these cities and communities as a great nuisance.
For the cities and people who can make the online migration, the question to be asked is whether this isolated, individuated and privatised state-of-being are the perfect conditions for perhaps the ultimate ‘human farm’? One might begin to think so, seeing as it is the tech-giants who are thriving in this moment of crisis, as they harvest valuable data from us like never before as we upload our lives online to ironically avoid virus contagion. But these digital escape routes are only temporary, if not wholly superficial, seeing as “…ecological disaster does not accelerate a digital environment, but rather brings an end to it.”13
The pandemic, along with the planetary-scale computation that has connected and modelled the globalised world, has made clear the collapse of the conventional structure of geopolitics as well as the demise of the nation state…Rana Dasgupta writes, “Big data companies have already assumed many functions previously associated with the state, from cartography to surveillance. Now they are the primary gatekeepers of social reality: membership of these systems is a new, corporate, de-territorialised form of citizenship, antagonistic at every level to the national kind. And, as the growth of digital currencies shows, new technologies will emerge to replace the other fundamental functions of the nation state.”14 This shift can be observed on both a micro (interpersonal) and a macro (international) level.
On a micro, interpersonal level, our immediate communities or relations are not only constituted by those citizens of a shared nation state or city, but of citizen-users of the global internet – an infrastructure which has enabled our connectivity long before, but exaggerated in, this time of pandemic. We connect online – with even those who might share a city – as citizen-users of google, Facebook, instagram, twitter, reddit etc. On a macro level, we are citizen-users “…of the global aggregate urban condition […]of the vast, discontiguous city that striates Earth, built not only of buildings and roads but also of perplexing grids and dense, fast data archipelagos”15, writes Bratton. No single nation state controls the flow of information that connects the globalised world, and so sites, citizen-users, networks and events, may occupy and be governed by multiple forms of political sovereignty simultaneously.16 17
But it is not only the intangible data flows of the internet that transverses the earth, evading the jurisdiction of any single political sovereignty. The physical infrastructure of the digital global commons is a hotly contested and rather ambiguous terrain that makes for an interesting case study to observe the desperate attempts of nation states to grasp at that which is fast escaping them, namely, legislation over undersea fibre optic cabling through which over 95 percent of intercontinental communications traffic travels.18
Whilst the fibre optic cables that cross over a million kilometres of the worlds seabeds are indisputably a massively dispersed, shared global infrastructure, they are poorly protected by international law for the reason that historically, powerful nation states have relied on cable tapping and cable cutting as both an important form of intelligence and international conflict. However, this is complicated by the fact that the cable capitals of the world (which act as key nodal points for the global internet) are geographically far removed from the nation states who enjoy the most jurisdiction over them, meaning that any cable interference would not only impact the nation state who claims ownership of the cable(s) (or lack thereof), but also impacts every nation and continent with which the cable makes contact, and so the problem of ownership and protection of the digital global commons is fundamentally a global issue that the jurisdiction of any single nation state is not fit nor fair to handle. If the cables off Egypt’s shores were destroyed, for example, at least one-third of the global internet would be disrupted, whilst the unassuming Brazilian city, Fortaleza, is the connection point for undersea cables that connect most of North and South America, making up a large part of the data flow in the Western hemisphere. This should be reason enough that the digital global commons, and indeed fibre optic cables, should necessarily be protected by international law, such that cable espionage and sabotage would be prosecutable by any country who uses them.19
The desperate attempts by some nation states to try and control the data flows of the global internet –through cable jurisdiction– illustrates the losing battle they’re fighting to ensure the longevity and relevance of the nation state in a context in which the global internet and its associated Big Data companies, are fast turning them into archaic structures of the past. This radical transformation of our geopolitical reality should also be considered a materiality of planetary-scale computation.
Bratton offers an alternative model – called The Stack – to these archaic political geographies, that not only tries to account for the shifting and overlapping new geopolitical terrains that planetary-scale computation has produced, but also takes into account the materiality (both the physical infrastructure and the natural resources) that underlie and make possible the global super computational network.
He describes The Stack as follows:
“The development of planetary-scale computation – this accidental megastructure that I call The Stack – has both deformed and distorted the traditional Westphalian model. And so The Stack is understood as both an actual massively distributed technological infrastructure, in which, and on which, and with which we organise our cultures, economies and societies, but also as a kind of abstract model for how it is that we could conceptualise subdivisions of political geography that are not just about horizontal adjacencies, but actually about vertical layers where one site, and one person, and one event, and one network, may be part of the jurisdiction of multiple forms of political sovereignty at the same time, one on top of another.”20
This megastructure is comprised of six interdependent layers – Earth, Cloud, City, Address, Interface, User – that are reliant on, and in some ways, produce each other. By putting these layers in direct relationship, one can begin to understand and observe the system of reliance that in turn sets the parameters for the type of political geographies that are produced. For example, the Cloud Layer – the place of global User-Citizenship in which people interact across borders through various interfacial regimes – is not itself placeless or omnipresent, because its physical infrastructure (fibre optic cables and server farms) exists physically within (and in the case of fibre optic cables, between) multiple political sovereignties, in which the Earth Layer of that land provides resources to fuel and make the infrastructure that not only takes/occupies physical space, but creates the digital space in turn. By mapping this complex system of reliance and production that striates the earth, we are able to better understand the types of political geographies that are produced as a result.
In many ways, The Stack is an articulation of that which already exists to varying degrees – “As a model, The Stack is simultaneously a portrait of the system we have but perhaps do not recognise, and an antecedent of a future territory, and with both at hand, we hope to prototype the alien cosmopolitanisms these engender for us and suggest to us”21 – but The Stack we have is different to The Stack we should be striving towards – a sustainable one. That being said, the model The Stack provides is helpful in trying to achieve greater sustainability going forth, because its design structure asserts the physicality or materiality of these interdependent layers (which are obfuscated in our current system of organisation), such that one layer cannot exist without the other. If we want longevity of the Cloud Layer, the Earth Layer needs to be treated carefully. If we want longevity of the Earth Layer, the Cloud Layer cannot exist in excess. This higher resolution understanding of cyclical interrelations allows for a model in which sustainability cannot be ignored in ensuring futurity.
I have attempted to visualise The Stack in a way that illustrates the interdependent and enmeshed layers. Each face of the cube represents one of the six layers of The Stack. Once scrambled, the faces of the cube could be symbolically read as the political geographies that emerge as a result of the system of reliance, interdependence and production between each layer. On the inside of the cube is a cross-section of undersea fibre optic cabling. In this model, The Stack reconfigures in form and direction according to each layers’ tides and fluctuations, not only in a fixed vertical hierarchy. This proposition of a modular Stack might not represent The Stack we have, but perhaps The Stack(s) to come.
Click and drag to rotate the sides.
Right-click and drag to rotate the cube.
View in fullscreen.
The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is not that The Stack is the perfect model or even a complete one, nor is it that everything planetary-scale computation includes or embodies is desirable or even necessary. As discussed earlier, the current system of planetary-scale computation is accelerating us towards ecological disaster at an alarming rate. However, understanding planetary-scale computation through the lens of The Stack brings materiality back into sharp focus, offering more room for thoughts towards sustainability, debunking the myth of the wirelessly connected word, and in doing so, conceptualises the emergent political geographies. If The Stack is to put the breaks on hurtling us towards ecological collapse, it will be through considering the wise words of Mark Fisher: “The relationship between capitalism and eco-disaster is neither coincidental nor accidental: capital’s ‘need of a constantly expanding market’, its ‘growth fetish’, means that capitalism is by its very nature opposed to any notion of sustainability”22. Unfortunately, the mechanisms of planetary-scale computation as we know it are subordinated to serving the exploits of surveillance capitalism. In order for planetary-scale computation to move away from this instrumental relationship with surveillance capitalism, Bratton speculatively proposes that “… algorithmic governance itself needs to be far less anthropocentric, far less mobilised around individual wishes and wants, and far less fixated on micromanaging human culture. Instead, [it needs] to take as the subject and purpose of [its] project the material transformation of planetary biochemistry, regional ecosystems including cities, viable ecological heterogeneity – both given and artificial – and more.”23 But can any computational project that is planetary in scale ever be sustainable? Fisher might have argued that this accidental computational megastructure is the product of a capitalist ‘growth fetish’, and Deleuze suggests that “This technological evolution must be, even more profoundly, a mutation of capitalism”24. How then can it be separated from that which produced it?
But what happens when the Big Data corporations that dominate The Stack as we know it, treat humans as hyper-commodified live stock – “Individuals have become ‘dividuals’ ”, divisible sample groups, data and banks of information for extraction 25 – and where our status as ‘Users’ is predicated on endless consumption and production, wherein social life is subordinated to the mechanisms of market rationality and social media that requires of us always to market ourselves as the most desirable commodity possible. What does it mean for humanity if we are built in the image of The Stack, and what is at stakes if we are rendered, always and everywhere, as Users.
Right-click and drag to rotate the cube.
View in fullscreen.