The history of technology is inseparable from the history of Africans. From the automaton as a proxy for a Black subject to West African weaving as code, Nelly Y. Pinkrah writes about reimagining the digital.
Odete Semedo in the film Quantum Creole, Filipa César, 2020. Courtesy the artist
By Nelly Y. Pinkrah 7. July 2020
“Power only lies in Relation, and this power is that of, and belongs to, all” (Édouard Glissant, translated by Sam Coombes in Édouard Glissant: A Poetics of Resistance).
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 under-standing of the world. They are never innocent. The history of ideas around media and technology has always been intimately intertwined with thinking about race and colonialism, that is, racial thinking. New media scholar Wendy Hui Kyong Chun has elaborated on this extensively. In her 2006 book Freedom and Control, for example, she shows how racialization was central to the development of the internet. Her 2012 essay Race AND/ as technology considers race as technology, reflecting on racial technologies such as segregation. Termed homophily, she explains, segregation became the underlying principle of network sciences. The simple assumption that the “same people”—“same” here is based on problematic identity categories such as race—want to be together, and thus only interact with each other, has created the infamous echo chambers we are now trapped in, individually and collectively.
This has an immense impact on how we are connected and pushes us into online relationships which in turn dictate the information we can consume. Louis Chude-Sokei, another scholar, has created an incredible testament to 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 how the automaton has always been the projection of the other, and in the US this other was certainly the Black slave. There is much more material to cite on the point I’m making: if we ask how racism as a system of knowledge and media technology organizes life and social structures, the answer depends on pushing the boundaries of what counts as technology in the first place, and, subsequently, finding the lineages and linkages between media, technology, and race.
In Western popular perception, Blackness is still often considered to be in stark conflict with technological advancement, innovation (which is associated with the future, or futurity, as positivity), and progress. The reasons for this are complex, manifold, and historically traceable. One umbrella term has come to be used for a lot of creation from the African continent that touches, however slightly, upon technoculture and science fiction. But Afro-Futurism has its very own history. Alongside that, we must keep in mind the diversity of contexts:
the political history of each African country’s social, economic, and governance structures, which affect relationships to media and technology, as well as how media and technology are embedded in each respective society. Any aesthetic, any piece or project, emerging from this fragmented field that is the digital—whether it uses digital technology to create an artwork decoupled from the digital (in so far as that’s possible) or to critically examine the digital by using that technology—should be considered precisely through this unique set of relations and relationalities, the bound- together things that shape existence in the contemporary world.
The digital has been around for a while. Computing happened well before computers, and digital systems existed before machines were able to use digital language—code. The term stems from the Latin word digitus, simply meaning finger or toe. When something can be divided into discrete countable units, it is digital. The keys of a piano are a digital system, as are our hands (see Florian Cramer’s 2014 essay “What Is ‘Post-Digital’?”). What is colloquially referred to when the digital is mentioned today is either the internet (as a system of computer networks) or an electronic machine able to compute zeros and ones. What the etymology also tells us is that it doesn’t make much sense to strictly divide reality into digital and analogue. A lot of devices are hybrids, and the analogue can be as computational as the digital can be non-computational. Besides, digital technology has become so all-encompassing that it has literally transformed every aspect of life on earth (although for many this statement still seems to be an exaggeration). Media possess performative qualities, an absence in presence, or an immaterial materiality (media philosopher Sybille Krämer has written extensively about this). 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. Not to mention the algorithmic systems of surveillance and capture we are exposed to. 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 what credit we’ll receive. Media and technology are never neutral—they mirror society and tend to hide and become opaque.
The newest work by Portuguese filmmaker Filipa Cesar, Quantum Creole, reflects the history of digital code by illuminating specific and seemingly unexpected relationalities. This documentary offers a whole spectrum of modes of seeing, hearing, thinking, imagining, and mapping out a different world by way of creolization—a concept widely associated with Martinican poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant. The description of the film reads: “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.”
Textile creation is an elaborate technology that has been feminized as a craft and thus identified as a poor technology. Its technological qualities and the part it played in articulating political resistance needed to be unearthed, like the history of women in computing (see, for example, Sadie Plant’s 2008 book Zeros and Ones: Digital Women and the New Technoculture). 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 trying to translate this image of the beginnings of a 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. What does the digital say? The cultural logic of the binary that is enforced and materialized through the digital increasingly becomes contested ground, a site to be broken up. For decades, this theoretical work has been done by the so-called disciplines of minorities: feminist theory, postmodernism, and poststructuralism. 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” (see the 2019 essay Homophily: The Urban History of an Algorithm, by Chun, Laura Kurgan, Dare Brawley, Brian House, and Jia Zhang), but it will be a question of power. I’d say, the more people learn how to code and use digital tools the better—power to the people.
And just as Cesar refers to the quantum, so too do other approaches invested in reimagining the conditions and possibilities of life on earth. (This also has to do with an urge to approach and contest the concept of Western linear time, but that would be another article. See for example Michelle M. Wright’s 2015 book Physics of Blackness: Beyond the Middle Passage Epistemology, conceptualizing Blackness as a “when and where” rather than a “what.”) The literary and artistic collective Black Quantum Futurism, for example, explores and merges quantum mechanical interpretations of specific concepts like spacetime with Afro-centric knowledge and understandings of it to argue against their Western counterparts. And in 2018, I read a quote
by Barry Esson, a member of the activist- curatorial collective Arika, about Fred Moten’s book trilogy titled consent not to be a single being, a phrase taken from Glissant’s Poetics of Relation (1990). Esson says: “Enlightenment or Western ideas of ethics were always influenced strongly by classical physics, so 400 years of European history tells us that we are individuals acting on each other through laws of force. But particle physics has moved beyond that and says there are no fixed objects, that objects are entangled, that they can be non-locatable, that it’s better to think of individual occurrences as statistically probable emergences out of some kind of field.”
I’m curious to radically think about and experience such a field. It calls for a re-conceptualization of relations—between the living, the technical, the environment and the world, the material, and all of their intersections. It involves the reinvention and recollection of and resistance to the world we live in right now.
Nelly Y. Pinkrah is a political activist and cultural and media theorist currently pursuing her PhD on Édouard Glissant and cybernetics in the research training group “Cultures of Critique” at Leuphana University.
This text initially was published in our latest Print Issue #11. Read the full edition here.