“And If Your Head Explodes With Dark Forebodings Too”: The Dark Side of the Digital (Conference Review)

By David Golumbia (@dgolumbia)

Virginia Commonwealth University

May 9, 2013

From May 2-4 the Center for 21st Century Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee hosted a conference titled “Dark Side of the Digital” (Twitter: #c21dsd). The conference brought together scholars of media, literature, sociology, communications, law and policy, and the general orientation of the conference was to explore, in a relatively free environment, the worries and concerns scholars have about the digital transformation. While the conference was not directly about the Digital Humanities, and as far as I know no papers were given that addressed the “narrow” or “Type I” Digital Humanities; on the other hand, if one accepts the broader definitions of DH that some of us prefer, arguably the whole conference was about or was an example of DH–although not about the Dark Side of the Digital Humanities, in the sense that the MLA session by that name, also sponsored by the Center for 21st Century Studies, was about scholarly concerns about digital scholarly practices in the digital age, while this conference was for the most part about stuff in the world outside the Academy.

The conference was anchored by plenary speakers Lisa Nakamura, Greg Elmer, Sandra Braman, Andrew Norman Wilson, Rita Raley, Julie Cohen, micha cárdenas, and McKenzie Wark. In between these speakers were four breakout sessions of two, three, or four panels; given those scheduling constraints that means all participants had to miss more of those sessions than they attended, here I’ll summarize the plenaries. This is in no way to discount the importance of the breakout session speakers (of whom I was one), but since it didn’t seem fair to cover only the ones I attended–and this was getting long enough already. In what follows I’ve tried to summarize the main points of the plenary talks, in some cases to indicate some of the main themes in the discussions that followed them, and to include just a few of the tweets responding to the talks. For both the plenaries and the breakout sessions, I recommend reading through the entire Twitter stream under the hashtag #c21dsd. Though all the talks were terrific, as were the discussions following them, the talks by cárdenas and Nakamura were the ones of most direct interest to postcolonial studies, and the ones I’d first recommend to those interested in postcolonialism and who have the time to view the speeches on video.

Image by Rita Raley, https://twitter.com/ritaraley/status/330056348156952578/photo/1

The conference opened with a talk of particular interest to DHPoco readers, Lisa Nakamura (American Studies, University of Michigan; @lnakamur), “I Will Do Everything That I am Asked:” Spambaiting, Dogshaming, and the Racial Violence of Social Media” (video). Nakamura’s main subject was the culture of “scambaiting” that has developed around http://www.419eater.com/ and other sites dedicated to exposing and humiliating the perpetrators of so-called Nigerian Scams (the number 419 refers to the article of the Nigerian criminal code dealing with fraud). Nakamura showed a wide range of disturbing images, typically of Nigerian men, who are instructed by “spambaiters” or “scambaiters” (usually in Western countries) who pretend to be taken in by the scammers, only to manufacturer often-elaborate requirements of the scammer, in particular the creation of photographs and videos in which the aspiring scammers are made to hold embarrassing signs, pour milk on themselves, hold pickles in various positions, and many other tropes designed to humiliate the aspiring scammers in the eyes of those making the requests; the photos and videos are then posted online as objects of ridicule, in fora such as 419eater’s “Trophy Room.” Nakamura noted how infrequently discussions of racism are raised in these rooms and how persistent the scambaiters are, not appearing to realize at all the historical contexts in which these actions emerge, the power imbalances between rich Western countries and resource-exploited countries like Nigeria, and the ways in which scambaiting itself and the visual display of “trophies” perpetuates deeply-engrained forms of Western racism that do not seem obviated by the overt good the scambaiters claim to be doing–let alone the fact that it is not at all clear that those being targeted actually have committed any crimes. In the question period, several audience members raised more doubts about the provenance of the scams themselves (whether they actually come from Nigeria, and/or from the specific individuals identified in the scambaiters’ activities), and about the total inability of scambaiters to situate their actions in any kind of meaningful historical, political, or economic contexts. Nakamura explained that the images in the photos are almost exclusively of men, and showed one of the few images she has found of a woman, who holds what she sees as a relatively straightforward indication of the power relations encoded in scambaiting: “I will do everything that I am asked.”












Image from 419eater.com, http://forum.419eater.com/forum/album_showpage.php?pic_id=34.

The next plenary which ended the short first day of the conference, “Going Public: Accounting in/for the Internet” (video), by Greg Elmer (School of Media, Ryerson University; @greg_elmer), discussed the early history of accounting and double-entry bookkeeping, the notion of the “account” each of us has with websites like Facebook and how these might be related to other kinds of “account,” pointing out ways in which a social media account is not waiting to be “filled” and accessed solely by individual users, as opposed to the “bank account” which it appears to resemble. He discuses the notion of “going public,” of our engagement with social media as a form of “going public” not unlike a corporate IPO. In the question period, Julie Cohen asked Elmer whether “going public” might have positive as well as negative valences that deserved reflection, while Richard Grusin reflected briefly on other meanings of the word “account,” noting that we may be being made to account for ourselves (in public) today in a particularly invasive way.







On Friday morning, in “The Dark Side of Evidence: A Precautionary Tale” (video), Sandra Braman (Communication, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee) talked about the idea of evidence itself; the shifting ways that forms of evidence serve especially in the court system; the way that specific rules of evidence dictate that judges determine what is and what is not valid scientific evidence despite there being no requirement that they have any demonstrable competency in interpreting the methods or kinds of data used in that scientific practice; and suggested ways in which current surveillance technologies may be creating an environment of mandated surveillance and surveilling, in which participating in surveillance becomes a mark of or even requirement for citizenship–much the opposite of what advocates of “sousveillance” or using surveillance to watch for violations of law suggest. Braman’s talk was particularly dark and provocative, and seemed to build in interesting and unplanned ways on both Nakamura’s and Elmer’s talks, raising a wide range of questions about what counts as experience, as truth, as evidence of selfhood, and as proof of and qualification for citizenship.













Andrew Norman Wilson (Independent Artist), “Movement Materials and What We Can Do” (video), showed a video he has made called “Workers Leaving the Googleplex.” Wilson briefly worked at Google and made a video of a particular group of workers who were part of the well-known book scanning project for Google books (called “ScanOps” inside of Google). To Wilson’s surprise, these workers were treated much differently from others at Google, and were not entitled to the same benefits given to other Google employees, and this was indicated through a special yellow badge. Wilson’s film was not particularly intrusive, yet he was fired simply for making it. The film deliberately echoes the Lumière brothers’ 1895 Workers Leaving the Factory, one of the most famous examples of early cinema and one that suggests a connection between new communications technologies and the documentation of labor practices.









Friday closed with Rita Raley (English, University of California-Santa Barbara, @rraley) speaking on “Courseware.com” (video). Raley traced the history of digital tools for higher education and drew attention to the close association between the digitization and corporatization of the university. Raley positioned herself as a supporter of digital tools used in the appropriate circumstances (and driven by the needs and initiatives of faculty rather than administrators or for-profit companies). Raley’s was the first plenary to suggest that faculty should resist that digitization without rejecting it altogether, even if these impulses sound contradictory; in discussion Ken Wark reinforced this as a call not to abandon entirely techno-utopianism to the corporate interests for whom it is a primary rallying cry.















The presence of Julie Cohen (Law, Georgetown University; @julie17usc) was one of the major highlights of the conference for those of us who typically don’t get to interact enough with scholars of law. Cohen’s Configuring the Networked Self: Law, Code, and the Play of Everyday Practice (Yale University Press, 2012) is one of the more exciting and smartest books of the last few years, combining a rigorous and thoughtful attention to technological and legal problems with an unusually thick engagement with critical theory and science and technology studies. In “The Networked Self in the Modulated Society” Cohen built on this work, developing the concept of “modulation” as a way of understanding our varied engagements with various digital technologies and social networks, finding places of balance via both use practices and legal structures that can allow meaningful spaces for the private self to develop while not refusing digital technologies or diminishing our ability to make use of them. Cohen ended her talk with a couple of provocations, one of which was directed at the kind of critical-theoretical work engaged in by most of us at the conference, arguing that we need to develop more “translational” work (of which hers is an outstanding example) that puts insights from critical theory into forms that can be useful to policy and lawmakers. Conference organizer Richard Grusin pushed back on this a bit, noting that all disciplines, including law, have specialized vocabularies, that the charge of “making ourselves useful” is a persistent theme in attacks on the humanities, and that there is a value to “useless” critique that we should be wary of dismissing, most of which Cohen appeared to agree with. I took Grusin to be using “useless” in a particular sense, consistent with Heidegger’s occasional invocation, derived from his readings of Asian philosophy, of the story of a student calling the discourse of Zhuangzi (庄子, a follower of Lao Tze and considered a proto-Taoist today) “large and unusable,” like a “useless tree,” whose “branches are so crooked and twisted that one cannot shape them into circles and squares,” and that “stands in the way, but no carpenter looks at it.” Heidegger writes that Zhuangzi responds, “Neither hatchet nor ax has a premature end ready for it and no one can harm it. That something has no use: what does one need to worry about” (Heidegger, “Traditional and Technological Language,” Journal of Philosophical Research 23, 1998; page 131). The distinction is between having immediate use that is understood now (and often involves being seen as a resource for commerce) versus having some longer-term use that is harder to determine at the present moment, and seems outside of the circuit of capital.











micha cárdenas (Media Arts and Practice, USC; @michacardenas), presented “Local Autonomy Networks: Post Digital Networks, Post Corporate Communications” (video). She was the first to point out what I suspect many attendees were thinking: that using the phrase “dark side” to point to the negative aspects of digitalization implies, much as in the “Dark Side of the Force,” a deeply problematic sense of black-white hierarchy that it has been a signal job of cultural criticism to undo. cárdenas discussed several different projects in which she’s been involved & which focused on providing safety to the LGBT community, including a project to build safety/community-contact mechanisms into clothing, the Transborder Immigrant Tool, and projects to make it easier to get help in dangerous situations, like the Circle of 6 app. She also worked to destabilize the concepts of “the digital” and introduced the provocative notion of the “post-digital,” which several commentators and tweeters picked up on. cárdenas also presented a performance piece called “Healing Is Our Response” on Thursday evening of the conference, and showed a few clips and photos from the performance during her plenary.







To close the conference, McKenzie Wark (Culture and Media, New School; @mckenziewark) spoke on “Telesthesia: How Class and Power Work in the Post-Internet Age” (video), building on work in his recent book Telesthesia: Communication, Culture, and Class (Polity, 2012). In many ways this may have been the most provocative talk of the entire conference and as such was the perfect choice for the closing plenary. During many of the earlier discussions Wark (as some of the tweets above show) had been persistent in resisting the utility of “capitalism” as a rubric for understanding contemporary economics (as he asked several times, “what if it’s not capitalism? what if it’s something worse?”) and of “neoliberal” as a analytical term, and been one of the few conference participants to insist that critics not entirely abandon the utopianism evident widely in digital culture. Among the themes of his talk were the relationships between various kinds of investment and capital and their relations to communications technologies; Wark mentioned that it is the invention of the telegraph in 1848 that first allows information to travel faster than goods, and that this ability gave rise to more and more concentration of capital in industries that move wealth and information across territories and in determined directions (“vectors”), rather than being primarily interested in the production or sale of goods, even of information goods. Wark has long advocated the term “vectorialist” (or “vectoral”) class to describe the owners and workers in such industries, which today are typified by companies like Google and Facebook that make money primarily off of the creative labor of those not employed by the company, as opposed to so-called “creative industries” like movie or television production. He also culled this the “vulture industry,” drawing a contrast with what critical theorists like Horkheimer and Adorno famously called the “culture industry.”












This summary does not attempt to do justice to the many wonderful participants in the breakout sessions, many of whom continued and expanded on the issues discussed here, and many of which featured scholars whose work directly or indirectly intersects with DHPoco. Mark Perry’s article in the Chronicle makes the conference sound too much like a set of grousing sessions on familiar tropes: surveillance, privacy, online education. It seemed to me very different from that: it struck me as the creation of a social space where scholars were free to talk, in as useful or “useless” a manner as we wished, about all the affordances and consequences of, possibilities for, and concerns we have about the rapid, society-wide transformations wrought by digitization. It is just a fact that much academic discussion of these matters is confronted so often with a loud and powerful utopianism based in commercial interests–accusations of “Luddism” thrown at iPhone/iPad using scholars, as if that contradiction invalidates any critical thought, as opposed to proving that the thinkers can’t possibly be Luddites–that most spaces in which humanities scholars discuss these issues become quickly mired in battles around defenses of “the digital” as a whole, and whether or not “it’s as bad” as critical scholars suggest. The effect of this is to make it very hard to pursue, as humanists and social scientists are familiar with doing in almost every other context, all the ramifications of social and human phenomena. In this sense, the “uselessness” mentioned by Grusin dovetails with a wider sense of “critique” or “critical” than people typically grant it–the sense of “critique” that Kant uses in calling his main three philosophical works Critiques, and that he sees as critical to the Enlightenment project that had a great deal to do with the birth of representative democracies in the West. (This is also why Rita Raley’s and Ken Wark’s injunctions not to resist technoutopianism entirely were very important as the conference went on.) The resistance to such critique has to be of great concern to anyone familiar with that long history, and as a longstanding critic of the digital, I can say with certainty that the resistance is profound. Indeed, as I’m finishing this piece, a major scholar of the Digital Humanities has just called the proceedings of the conference “silliness,” based apparently on just reading the conference website and the Chronicle article. It is a mark of the need for projects like #DHPoco and #transformDH that such statements can be uttered by those in our own community; it is also a reason for optimism born of critique that conferences like this one, and efforts like DHPoco and #transformDH exist, and are garnering the amount of attention they deserve. One of the major misunderstandings of the digital world toward which Evgeny Morozov points us is that techno-determinism, by eliminating the power of human beings to affect our own futures, is actually a form of despairing fatalism; critical thinking, on the other hand, can be a mark of deep respect and even love for our most important values and institutions. As Richard Grusin noted in his opening remarks, this version of the “dark side” refers not to blackness as a negative–perhaps, to the contrary, invokes it as a positive–but rather, like the dark side of the moon, to that which is too easily hidden from view, but must be seen.

David Golumbia is Assistant Professor of English and the MATX Program at Virginia Commonwealth University. He is the author of the Cultural Logic of Computation (Harvard UP: 2009.) Read more of his work at http://www.uncomputing.org/. 


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