To mark the occasion of the publication of the first Czech book on digital colonialism — Digital Negroes: An Ethnographic Dictionary (2017) – we talked with author Dalibor Knapp about black monoliths, a shift in the understanding of colonialism, and about the stratification of digital space.
Vít Bohal: In your book Digital Negroes, you explore the manner in which digital technologies colonize the user’s “digital body” which you see as an extension of the physical body, which is further supplemented through “the physiology of code.” How exactly do you understand the position of the user in today’s digital space?
Dalibor Knapp: First we should establish what digital space is. For me, its most characteristic feature is that it is something which is still very much mythologized in public discourse. For example, we often hear about the dichotomy of digital space and the so-called real world. Nothing like that exists — digital space is no longer a place where we can take time off for a while and then leave. The word digital is often connected with something immaterial, virtual. Digital space is however built on millions of tons of iron, plastic and copper. It is energy-demanding, is a large producer of CO2, and transforms whole landscapes and social structures for the mining the necessary rare metals. These excavations are further connected with child labor, illiteracy, staggering health risks, etc.
At first, digital space was presented as a free world where no one reigns and where everyone is equal, where there are no state borders and where we can do whatever we want. That is of course not true. Locality is just as important as it was in the pre-digital world. Digital space copies the colonial partitioning of the world, and the gap between the digital North and the digital South remains too wide.
So the position of the user in digital space is determined by a number of factors and cannot be generalized. And that’s just talking about people. They are not the only users, or rather inhabitants, of digital space.
Understanding digital space is very self-centered. Personalization gives the impression that there are no users who think differently, while anthropocentrism does not take into account that there exist entities other than humans. But algorithms are also a part of this space. Of course, they are still just tools, but sooner or later they will evolve into a true artificial intelligence. We cannot imagine all the consequences yet, but it is probable that people will be in some way at a disadvantage to this future intelligence. We can just as easily talk about cyborgs. It is actually a bit similar to when the Earth had more species of man (homo) existing simultaneously.
I think that this situation reverses the basic ethnographic relationship of Us and Them. It is They who watch, categorize, evaluate, record and collect our data.
It is interesting to see the direct genealogy you trace between traditional understanding of the historical era of colonialism and today’s digital space. In your book, under the entry “Colonialization” you write that in former times “some of the colonized lacked the concept of land ownership,” while today “some of those colonised lack the concept of personal data ownership.” Don’t you think that the digital medium itself, with its capacity for unlimited reproducibility and transferability, working hand in hand with an “open source” ideology, can save the digital sphere from suffering the plight of monopolization and colonization in the traditional sense of the terms?
Yes, to a certain degree it can. But I do not think that a ubiquitous spread of open-source and free software and a complete eradication of proprietary software from the digital space will constitute a solution to the monopolization which is already ongoing. Such an idea is too totalitarian. However, states should certainly take part in the spreading and dissemination of open-source and free software.
I believe that the solution is to change the “value” of a digital identity, and that it must be given more robust rights and a certain “gravity.” Of course the state does guarantee its citizens certain rights in the digital space, but they are usually those which have been carried over into it. Digital space has however created wholly new situations and conditions which legislation has yet to address. For example, we frequent social networks where we create content and leave our personal data which generate profit for the rights holders, but we are not paid ourselves. Why is that?
What then do you think about the idea of nationalizing Facebook, Google and Amazon, i.e. the companies who deal in transacting Big Data, as advocated by economist and philosopher Nick Srnicek?
It is certainly in the public’s interest for private companies to not have control over their private data. Furthermore, political events of the past few years confirm just how the misuse of Big Data, the spreading of fake news, etc., threatens society. The argument that people use these services of their own free will does not hold up to scrutiny. They are simply too interconnected with the functioning of society, and I consider being on a social network to be a fundamental human right.
I see a problem in the supranational functioning of these companies, so I cannot, at the moment, imagine that it would be realistic to in any way regulate them, force them to keep to the law, much less nationalize them. States have problems even getting them to pay taxes! What is even more disturbing is, however, the inception of platforms which are very closely linked to the government, like in the case of the Chinese Social Credit System which will, starting in 2020, be a mandatory database for all Chinese citizens. This is something unbelievable.
It is said that one Facebook profile brings the company a sum around 17 USD a year (by the way, an African laborer makes them about 4 USD). I would prefer to pay for their services a similar sum if I could rest easy that my data is not made accessible to third parties. Unfortunately, I cannot see this really transpiring.
That’s why I think that a better solution would be if states or larger entities like the European Union would, instead of nationalization, support the creation of similar services which would be based on open-source. This endeavor would be risky, but it seems there is no other way if we want to prevent the negative phenomena connected with the monopolization of digital space.
Is it possible to adopt a radically critical perspective to these phenomena and the seemingly cynical maxim of “business as usual”? From what ideological or practical position can such trends be effectively countered?
To speak for myself, I do not think that I am trying to be overtly critical. I am simply demanding back that which has been taken from me. A similarly perverse modus operandi can be seen in the phenomenon of bio-grade foods — the natural state of things is sold at astronomical prices. Furthermore, buying such foods is considered praiseworthy and has become the norm.
Contemporary design of digital space has also become the norm, so as long as its inhabitants are being tracked and their being and movements commodified, as long as digital space is separated between the affluent North and the poor South, or as long as its content is censored or the conditions of digital work are precarious, it is necessary to resist. Change is possible, and the current shape of digital space is only one of the many possible.
Digital Negroes: An Ehtnographic Dictionary is also interesting in its graphic design. Along with Zdeněk Růžička, you chose a great cover which is reminiscent of 2001: A Space Odyssey – the black, glistening surface reminds one of the mysterious monolith which fuses together the still-latent technologies of the future with the mysterious powers of the magic of the past. Entries such as “Shaman,” “Ritual,” and “Magic” which you explicitly explore in your book only add to this tension. How do you understand the relationship of magic and technologies in general, and how did this influence the creation and design of your book?
Yes, but even the designers of the iPhone were inspired by the dark black monolith from Space Odyssey. We wanted to create an object, a black box, which harkens to the digital displays of electronic devices which we all touch daily and where we habitually repeat the same controlling motions. The cover thus transforms as time goes by and is speckled with the finger prints we leave on it.
The black box can be just as easily a product of technology as of magic. They are closely interconnected as both are methods which allow one to change the reified state of things. That does not mean that technology is dominating magic. Clarke’s third law postulates that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Magic is still present in the technologized world, for instance in the depictions of scientific research. Take medicine commercials, for example — after ingesting the tablet, your headache is alleviated by a mysterious glowing force, your stiff back is relaxed by invisible hands, etc. The magic of digital space lies in post-production. Its simplicity and omnipresence, and especially its potential for manipulation rather serve as warnings. It is necessary to understand the world.
Dalibor Knapp is a researcher and artist who makes video essays, texts and installations. In his work he deals with social and cultural layers of so-called reality and the constructions of various languages that talk about it. A common feature of these works is the ubiquitous question of human cognition. Knapp studied at the Center for Audiovisual Studies at Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague (MgA.) and the Department of Cultural Studies at the Faculty of Arts, Charles University in Prague (PhDr.) In 2013, he attended the Lensbased class of Professor Hito Steyerl at Berlin University of the Arts (UdK). Since 2015 he has been a curator of the educational platform for digital culture, art and technology Transmit. Dalibor Knapp is also a co-founder of the research studio Množina.
Digital Negroes: An Ethnographic Dictionary (2017)
book / object
164 pages, published by Množina
Czech / English
graphic design: Zdeněk Růžička
illustration: Max Máslo
Digital Negroes: An Ethnographic Dictionary is the first Czech book about digital colonialism. The author explores and examines the situation of the body in the digital space with the use of ethnographic methods. The digital space absorbed the old power structures and patterns and unfolded them into new forms of violence, dominance and exploitation.