[-empyre-] Week 4 - Alternate realities and the logic of data colonialism

Ulises Mejias ulises.mejias at oswego.edu
Tue Feb 23 07:17:13 AEDT 2021


Remember Alternate Reality Games (ARG)? As some observers have pointed
out [1], QAnon definitely feels and functions like one. It's got open
and collective storytelling, multiplatform content, puppet masters,
die hard players, hidden clues... a blurry boundary between fiction
and reality. We make fun of conservatives because supposedly "The
Right Can't Meme", but QAnon proves otherwise. It is the most
addictive and ambitious media project of our times. A Brechtian double
whammy, both hammer and mirror.

The aesthetics of the QAnon ARG herald a new (but old) political
reality. In 1936, Walter Benjamin wrote "Fascism sees its salvation in
giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express
themselves... The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of
aesthetics into political life" [2]. QAnon marks the (re)introduction
of a particular aesthetic into political life: The Art of the Deal,
reaching its apex in the ultimate ARG-cum-Flashmob: Jan 6, 2021 USA.


I myself was engaged in exploring the pedagogical uses of Fake News.
>From 2009 to 2013, I ran a number of ARG's at my college. The games
covered everything from budget cuts to public education, to racism on
campus, Islamophobia, and US-Mexico relations. The idea was that in
order to fix reality, we first had to break it. There's something very
powerful about the idea that the breaking is the fixing, and I think
we desperately need to reinvent ways of doing that. But everyone can
play that game, so we become entangled in a competition to see who can
create the best imagined communities [3].


Under this new aesthetic regime, reality is whatever receives the most
Likes, Shares, and Re-Tweets. Taking a page from Harry Frankfurt [4],
this looks a lot like bullshitting because it's not just about
spreading lies, but about creating the social architectures and spaces
where the lies are treated as the Real. Big Tech has found a way to
monetize the psychometric targeting of this bullshit and is laughing
all the way to the bank. But the problem is not just Facebook's
shameless opportunism. It is the emergence of what Nick Coulrdy and I
call "data relations" [5]: the configuration of social interactions to
transform life processes into things (data) with value, so that
ordinary social life becomes a direct factor of capitalist production.

How do we break this gamification of reality? I agree with what
everyone else has been saying this month: we need to break the very
machinery of the Likes, Shares and Re-Tweets.

A good place to start is to realize that while data colonialism is
organizing itself along two global poles --the US and China-- the
strategies being employed throughout the world are similar and
repetitive: deregulation of the social quantification sector in a
manner that gives more market power to favored corporations;
collaboration between government and private sector to develop and
implement technologies for extraction; increased state power to impose
special measures of surveillance during increasingly permanent periods
of emergency; and increased secrecy about what governments and
corporations do with our data, all in the name of safety and progress.

So yes, the bad news is that data colonialism is global. But the good
news is that, while accounting for local nuances, strategies developed
to resist data colonialism can also be global.


In collaboration with others, particularly Juan Ortiz Freuler, I have
been engaged in trying to launch a Non-Aligned Technologies Movement,
or NATM [6]. It's very much a work in progress, and we don't have much
to show for it yet. Our inspiration is the Non-Aligned Movement, a
consortium of nations that during the Cold War attempted to forge a
path beyond the equally unattractive choices of capitalism and
communism. Today, we need options to navigate between the
profit-motivated Scylla of Silicon Valley and the control-motivated
Charybdis of the Chinese Communist Party.

While the group hasn't agreed on specific goals, I am proposing that
they can be framed in terms of the divestment and boycott strategies
that have already been employed to resist older forms of colonialism.
But those tactics need to be supplemented by initiatives in education,
culture and solidarity.

In short, this is not about opting out of GAFA and BATX (although it's
great if you can!). This is about finding ways of engaging in public
research, common knowledge campaigns, and decolonial thinking to
articulate the dangers of extractivist tech, and how to resist them
(Education). This is about finding ways to participate in a process of
reimagining a world without extractivist technologies by creating a
space that incorporates diverse voices and perspectives (Culture). And
it's about linking to other people engaged in the same struggle, and
using the power of collective action (Solidarity).

Maybe we need an ARG for that!



[1] One example: QAnon Is Like a Game—a Most Dangerous Game.

[2] Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

[3] Passing reference to Benedict Anderson.

[4] Frankfurt, On Bullshit.

[5] Couldry & Mejias, The Costs of Connection: How Data Is Colonizing
Human Life and Appropriating It for Capitalism.

[6] Mejias, To fight data colonialism, we need a Non-Aligned Tech Movement.

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