Innovation and Invisible Labour

I was travelling through the Balkans during June and came across a lot of interesting references to relationships with tech, modernisation, and exploitation. Below are some examples, taken at the Museum of Yugoslavia in Belgrade.

Banner showing a laptop with arms pushing down someone down a hole
Image description: Banner showing a laptop with arms pushing down someone down a hole.
Description of banner work image above, titled 'Occasion of Rift', 2022
Image description: Description of banner work image above, titled ‘Occasion of Rift’, 2022

Text reads:

Occasion of Rift
Banner, 2022
The deepening conflict between ideas and material conditions is an opportunity for different conceptions of society. An active role in managing and mediating between material conditions and the notion of a better life, requires responsibility beyond the faith in artificial intelligence. Hard physical labour, such as mining, has been exiled to the periphery, and there seems to be no need to use technologically and socially advanced tools. Labour is visibly removed from those places where people receive a universal basic income.

Mining helmet with safety lamp and
battery for power, gloves and boots

Equipment used at the Mining and
Energy Plant “Edvard Kardelj” in
Trbovlje, 1981

The Miner
Sketch for a monument erected in front
of the International Labour Organization
in Geneva, 1939
Antun Augustincié
Gift of the People’s Front of the VI
District of the City of Zagreb to Josip Broz
Tito, May 11, 1946

View post >

Documenting remembrance practices

Lighting of candles for prayers and remembrance.
Image description: Lighting of candles for prayers and remembrance
(St. Sava Orthodox Church, Belgrade)
Lighting of candles for prayers and remembrance.
Banners and posters remembering the Bosnian War 1992-95
Image description: Banners and posters remembering the Bosnian War 1992-95 (Sarajevo)
death notices posted on lamp posts
Image description: Daily death notices posted on lamp posts (Mostar)
Recent death notice on shopkeeper's front
Image description: Recent death notice on shopkeeper’s front (Novi Sad)
Video description: Flicking through archives of original photos taken during WWII in Yugoslavia. Most of the civilians remain unidentified. Much of the photos have not been digitally archived either.

View post >

‘Computer gaze’: Your interior thoughts are commodified

Carmen Hermosillo aka humdog was a huge advocate for technological innovation and computer networks in the 80s/90s, until 1994, when she published ‘Pandora’s Vox: On Community in Cyberspace.’

Her writing remains relevant to this day when examining the digitisation of our deaths and identity ‘immortalisation’ online. She argued that the use of computer networks do not lead to a reduction in hierarchy, but actually the commodification of personality and a complex transfer of power and information to corporations.

In this sense, all of our interior thoughts (taste, preferences, beliefs, fears) are commodified, and has manifested into what we know today to be the algorithm that caters to our likes and interests. And so, when it comes to our digital death and footprints we leave online, it essentially becomes packaged and sold onto other consumer entities as a form of ‘entertainment’. What I mean by entertainment is that the cyberspace is a blackhole – it absorbs our energy and personality to create an emotional spectacle. This is practiced by businesses and marketers who commodify human interactions and emotions, such as Big Tech corps we already know and exist on.

Screenshot of a person's Facebook newsfeed homepage showing dog photos and emoji reactions.
Image description: Screenshot of a person’s Facebook newsfeed homepage showing dog photos and emoji reactions.

Taking this image of someone’s FB newsfeed as an example which I think is an interface we are all very familiar with, there is a bizarre quality to our online interaction on this platform. In early 2022, I was invited to an online memorial service of a dear friend which was also livestreamed on Facebook. What I found a little bizarre is that this is the same platform where I read daily news headlines, see meme posts, cat videos, friend’s holiday photos, and relationship updates.

Screenshot of 4 tile image videos of cats suggested by my Instagram recommendations.
Image description: Screenshot of my algorithmically generated recommendation of Instagram reels, all featuring cats.

Similarly, this is relays back to humdog’s essay about ourselves becoming commodified and release of agency. I have never learned to mourn or remember someone via an entertainment platform, yet this is becoming the norm.

Spiritual or sacred spaces of worship such as churches, mosques, synagogues, temples, graveyards, contain a certain element of solely fixating on the cycle of life and death with symbolic elements such as praying, worship, repentance, burning of incense, hearing cymbals and gongs, chants, and much more. What’s important about these practices is not the act itself but how it is choreographed with a community.

With these daily practices slowly fading since we have digital platforms to accommodate memorial services and distant attendance, it leads one to wonder whether these traditions will maintain its grip in the next 10, 20, or 30 years, or will it have merged into the chaotic mix of entertainment consumption where we exist under the illusion of a ‘community’ online.

View post >

Self-actualisation dogma

‘The California Ideology’ is an essay by media theorists Barbrook and Cameron written in 1995. They argued that the techno-utopic ideals propagated from Silicon Valley enthusiasts such as innovation, connectivity, and so on, was paradoxically driven by a radical sense of individualism, counterculture, and neoliberalism. These tech pioneers believed that wider and instant distribution of knowledge would liberate everyone from political grasps. However, today we realise that hypothesis is not the case.

Watching the two videos of Zuckerberg and Musk, what I find eerie is how they market their commodification of us, the users, as something virtuous and a necessary feat for human ‘advancement’. Musk’s argument for archiving human consciousness on Mars, in case of global humanitarian disaster, is essentially an eloquent phrase for continuing modern human colonisation. At what cost does this come at? It’s not only about personal privacy, but the cost for ‘greatness’ comes at the price of Earth’s resources, degradation of communities and infrastructures, and succumbing to our computer-generated identities, therefore eroding our socio-cultural structures of our material reality. So once the dreams of techno-utopists such as Musk and Zuckerberg are achieved, what is actually left for the community when we are not behind the computer’s gaze. I feel this rhetoric and ideology is highly contradicting and is more trapping than ‘liberating’. I’d go as far to argue that this equation of online = connected communities is a fallacy…

Transcript: Video #1

Interviewer: So on that kind of launch rate, you’re talking about it over two decades you could get your million people to Mars essentially. Who’s city is it? Is it NASA’s city, is it SpaceX’s city?

Musk: It’s the people of Mars’ city The reason for this I mean, obviously like why do this thing, I think this is important for maximizing the probable lifespan of humanity or consciousness. Human civilization could come to an end, for external reasons like a giant meteor or super volcanoes or extreme climate change or world war three, or you know, any number of reasons. The probable lifespan of human civilizational consciousness as we know it, which we should really view as this very delicate thing, is like a small candle in a vast darkness
. That’s what appears to be the case.

Transcript: Video #2

As I look around and as I travel around the world. I’m starting to see people and nations turning inward against this idea of a connected world and global community. I hear fearful voices calling for building walls and distancing people they label as others. For blocking free expression, for slowing immigration, reducing trade, and in some cases around the world even cutting access to the internet. It takes courage to choose hope over fear. To say we can build something and make it better than it has ever been before. You have to be optimistic to think that you can change the world. And people will always call you naïve but it’s this hope and this optimism, that is behind every important step forward. Our lives are connected and whether we are welcoming a refugee fleeing war, or an immigrant seeking new opportunity, whether we are coming together to fight global disease like Ebola, order to address climate change, I hope that we have the courage to see the path forward is to bring people together, not push people apart. To connect more, not less. We are one global community.

View post >

Our modern relationship with death

Funeral rites represent an important part of collective behaviour in human societies.  According to researchers, humans conducted the earliest burials (i.e. bodies deposited in deliberately excavated graves), deriving from caves in Canaan dating to 90 000–110 000 BP (Before Present).

However, with changes in economic and technological development, the free communal labour and services that were traditionally required for funeral ceremonies have diminished. In most parts of the world today, professional services are required to hold one’s ceremony. The free labour of the community typically involves excavation, touching or cleaning the body itself, building material structures, crowd choreography, gathering offerings, and much more. This type of ritual also embodied a collective social agreement of care, responsibility, and sealing the ‘archive’ of one’s body and spirit.

Now, with the commodification of funeral services and convenience of digital access, it seems that funeral rituals have not only become commodified but turned into a spectacle for entertainment. I use the word ‘entertainment’ lightly but it’s more so to signify the desensitisation we have towards death due to frequency that we see it through the computer’s gaze.

One recent memory I have about this was the reaction to Kobe Bryant’s death. The live television broadcasts and online streams of his ceremony seemed surreal because of how someone’s death could be commodified for digital spectatorship and entertainment. On the one hand, you have people grieving the real person, then on the other you have people grieving the persona, all in real time – physically and digitally.

Three figures emotionally speaking at the funeral service for basketballer Kobe Bryant. The NBC news icon is situated in the bottom-left side of the image.
Image description: Michael Jordan, Vanessa Bryant, and Jimmy Kimmel speaking at Kobe Bryant’s funeral service.

From a sociological perspective, this appears as a subtle erasure towards the collective labour and social bonds with the dead due to modernisation. In the online sphere, businesses market the illusions of a community when in actual reality in order for us to participate online and utilise our power to ‘post’ or ‘comment’ it requires a sense of radical individualism and self-actualisation. And so, without these communal hands-on elements involved in traditional funeral rites, and increased accessibility to viewing livestreams of funeral and memorial services, how does this affect our relationship with the dead and our own sense of mortality?

View post >

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Poem titled 'All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace' by Richard Brautigan, followed by poem text.
Image Description: Poem titled ‘All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace’ by Richard Brautigan.

Text reads:

I like to think (and
the sooner the better!)
of a cybernetic meadow
where mammals and computers
live together in mutually
programming harmony
like pure water
touching clear sky.

I like to think
(right now, please!)
of a cybernetic forest
filled with pines and electronics
where deer stroll peacefully
past computers
as if they were flowers
with spinning blossoms.

I like to think
(it has to be!)
of a cybernetic ecology
where we are free of our labors
and joined back to nature,
returned to our mammal
brothers and sisters,
and all watched over
by machines of loving grace.

by Richard Brautigan (1967)

I think this poem is interesting as it resists the dystopian thought of technology. Instead it imagines a techno-utopia: what if all the computers and robots could release humans from capitalistic labour and we could finally live freely with nature? It expresses that if we only imagine a dystopian nightmare, perhaps that is what we will get and simply manifest.

Then again, I don’t think anyone imagined the Internet or technology to get quite dark than it has already. As much as I admire his positive optimism and as much as I want to dream… this is also what I imagine Musk and Zuckerberg would recite to themselves to justify their actions. But I also question myself whether I’ve been encapsulated by this ‘dystopia’ mindset.

View post >

The Machine Stops

Image description: Page and highlighted paragraph from ‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster

Text reads:

The Machine, they exclaimed, ‘feeds us and clothes us and houses us; through it we speak to one another, through it we see one another, in it we have our being. The Machine is the friend of ideas and the enemy of superstition: the Machine is omnipotent, eternal; blessed is the Machine.’ And before long this allocution was printed on the first page of the Book,
and in subsequent editions the ritual swelled into a complicated system of praise and prayer. The word ‘religion’ was sedulously avoided, and in theory the Machine was still the creation and the implement of man. But in practice all, save a few retrogrades, worshipped it as divine. Nor was it worshipped in unity.

‘The Machine Stops’ by E.M. Forster (1909)

I’ve read this short story a few times and it touches upon a lot of ‘optimistic nihilism’ within the technological dystopia that’s explored. Forster’s story influenced a lot of how I think and frame ‘technological innovation’, and it’s interesting how the idea of ‘worship’ always pops up. We worship objects, people, places, entities, spirits, abstractions, and the dead. These rituals are supposed to show what we care about and value, forming solidarity, however before technology these practices were seen through the ‘human gaze’. Nowadays, a lot of our influences and judgements are through a ‘computer gaze’. Breaking it down like this, I find it surreal how we have adopted a ‘computer gaze’ of death when it’s the most humanistic component of all.

Source code page of my Facebook profile with a lot of numbers, letters, and symbols that are written in coded format.
Image Description: Source code page of my Facebook profile

As you can see from the image, this is the source code for my Facebook profile. I come from a mixed Irish-Chinese cultural background where both cultures require the death of someone to have large ceremonial practices and funerals, as a way to provide offerings, safety, luck, and ‘bon voyages’ to the spirit’s next journey. But looking at how the computer gazes at my soul through this image is pretty bleak.

View post >

Hito Steyerl – ‘Being Invisible Can Be Deadly’

Woman holding up her two fingers on both hands with a text in between her arms reading 'I am completely invisible'. The background is composed of different grey shapes.
Image description: Woman holding up her two fingers on both hands with a text in between her arms reading ‘I AM COMPLETELY INVISIBLE’. The background is composed of different grey shapes.

The German artist Hito Steyerl addresses the way digital images are created, shared and archived. Her film ‘How Not to Be Seen: A Fucking Didactic Educational .MOV File’ (2013) takes the form of an instructional video which flips playfully between ‘real world’ footage and digital recreations. Inspired by Monty Python, the work balances critique and humour, showing how ‘not being seen’ has both oppressive and liberating possibilities.

Woman holding up her two fingers on both hands with a text in between her arms reading 'Pretend You Are Not There'. The background is dark grey with white rectangle shapes and numbers.
Image description: Woman holding up her two fingers on both hands with a text in between her arms reading ‘PRETEND YOU ARE NOT THERE’. The background is dark grey with white rectangle shapes and numbers.

View post >

Background Context and Digressions

I’m very interested to look at ways in which our mortality and ‘immortality’ are digitally archived on online platforms. With the continuous rise of ‘technological innovation’ as an ideology and figures like Musk who justify Earth’s colonisation of Mars as a means to ‘archive human consciousness’ if the humanity is ever wiped out, this raises important points of discussion as to the lengths ‘innovation’ will go. When looking at past historical events, such as the destruction of The Great Library of Alexandria, which was the largest library of the Ancient World, we will never know what we have gained or lost, yet humanity has always been able to continue despite the ‘loss’ of knowledge we never knew.

Taking a decolonial approach to Western standards of ‘archiving’ which seeks to constantly preserve knowledge past our own death, I propose to look at the archival of our own deaths, particularly on digital platforms. Oxford researchers believe that by the end of this century, Facebook will have 4.9 billion ‘dead users’ on its platform (if it still exists).

For myself, I struggle in thinking whether it’s ‘okay’ for extensions of ourselves to digitally live on while our body, mind, and soul have transcended somewhere else? With the death tech market exponentially growing due to the pandemic, I also fear this will open up a pandora’s box that we aren’t equipped for…

View post >