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Issue 150

Mapping the Black Box
by Sophia Arnold

Whatever the nomenclature, one fact is ubiquitous: the personal data underworld “wants your bloodstream and your bed, your breakfast conversation, your commute, your run, your refrigerator, your parking space, your living room, your pancreas”1 to fuel new economies of extraction, hidden from public knowledge, almost unmappable. Individuals are constantly traced, tracked, and analyzed by the platforms they use, masked by the interface; concepts such as Shoshana Zuboff’s “shadow text”2 on hidden surveillance exploitation, Frank Pasquale’s “black box society”3 on the concealed financialization of society, and Benjamin H. Bratton’s “black stack”4 on new modes of governance and political realities formed through the digital, only theoretically outline the opacity of Big Tech’s operations. These concepts take form in Vladan Joler’s digital counter-map, New Extractivism (2020). Engaging with it implores the user to embody and enact a resistance to neoliberal exploitation of the individual, the environment, and society as whole.

New Extractivism is “one big messy assemblage of different concepts and ideas, assembled into one semi-coherent picture or let us say a map, a worldview”5 —an outline of the “machine-like superstructure” that is extracting from every corner of our perceivable world. Aesthetically, it resembles a scrollable architectural blueprint, with an accompanying guide and footnotes supplying contextual analysis. Joler places Facebook, Amazon, and Google as the apex of this operation and, throughout the work, explores the multitudinous ways the user is confined, surveilled, and forced to labour—in digital spaces as well as in the planetary-scale supply chains that fuel our personal Truman Show (a fictional world catered and presented to you as truth, in this case by algorithms online). The map begins from the illustrated point of an anonymous individual slowly falling into the black hole of any of the major corporations that govern the digital space and gradually charts what is happening on either side of the interface. This allows the viewer to understand how their digital behaviours create profound new economies—of scale, scope, and action—in which they have no stake.6

From the black hole onward, in the “Forces and Caves” and “Factory” segments of the map, Joler extrapolates how embedded structures of power and subjugation thoroughly undermine the principle of self-determination. He underlines the importance of the creation of what Deleuze calls the dividual: “a physically embodied human subject that is endlessly divisible and reducible to data representations via the modern technologies of control”7 —and further, establishes that the data body is “the fascist sibling of the virtual body, a much more highly developed virtual form, and one that exists in complete service to the corporate and police state.”8 To help convince the viewer of the accuracy of this assessment, Joler shows how we are willed into this dynamic, fusing Plato’s allegory of the cave and Jeremy Bentham’s idea of the panopticon into what he refers to as the “Platopticon.” Here, the “prisoner [stands] in the middle of the cave facing the interface” that masks the “shadow text” of data extraction and behavioural modification, where “[e]ach user detained in their own cave is exposed to a designed play adapted only to them.”9 Joler points out that the cell also “carries out the function of a factory hall and a resource extraction apparatus. The prisoner/worker performs their three-fold function as a worker, a resource and a product,”10 essentially summing up what Zuboff has named “instrumentarian power.”11 She notes, “[t]otalitarianism was a political project that converged with economics to overwhelm society[, whereas] [i]nstrumentarianism is a market project that converges with the digital to achieve its own unique brand of social domination.”12 This rhizome of extraction architecture, algorithmic lenses, and behaviour-manipulation mechanisms left me feeling vulnerable and defenceless, writhing in my skin.

In the third and final segment of the map, “Extraction Fields,” the idiosyncratic worldview presented in New Extractivism expands out from the individual, employing a plethora of academic and anecdotal references to denote the wider implications of these processes on phenomenology, deep time, ecology, global labour practices, and governance structures. Joler’s significant threads of exploration here include things like:

“[m]illions of years of nonhuman labor have been burned for just two hundred years of industrial spectacle”;

“[e]very click or swipe we make online creates one little hole in the ground, filled with toxic waste and toxic clouds”;

“[s]lave work in mineral extraction in Congo, primitive accumulation and absolute surplus-value production at Foxon in China, body shopping of Indian ICT workers, an army of ghost micro workers behind Mechanical Turk platform, Amazon distribution center workers in the cage, unpaid users and the Google labor aristocracy are all part of the evolved triangular trade system within the planetary scale factory”; and,

“[t]raditional colonial practices of control over critical assets, trade routes, natural resources and exploitation of human labor are still deeply embedded in the contemporary supply chains, logistics and assembly lines of digital content, products and infrastructure.”13

After having scrolled through the whole map, I felt a residual empathy with the small dividual in the “Beyond the capture” illustration who has stepped away from the system to reflect on their possibilities: “Is there any word or meaning that is not captured by this gigantic meta-structure and the millions of synthetic spiders and sensors recording multiple aspects of reality?” and “How do we care for and cultivate ecologies that exist beyond the border of capture?”14

James Bridle, in his book New Dark Age, describes the cloud—that “central metaphor of the internet”—as “a global system of great power and energy that nevertheless retains the aura of something noumenal and numinous, something almost impossible to grasp.”15 He theorizes that to reclaim a sense of power within unabridged economic, political, and technological systems, “[w]hat is needed is not new technology, but new metaphors: a metalanguage for describing the world that complex systems have wrought.”16 By laying out in plain text this age of capitalism that “reaches into the furthest corners of the biosphere and the deepest layers of human cognitive and affective being,”17 Joler does just that.

Joler is a professor of New Media at the University of Novi Sad, Serbia, and the leader of SHARE Lab, a “research and data investigation lab for exploring different technical and social aspects of algorithmic transparency, digital labour exploitation, invisible infrastructures, black boxes, and many other contemporary phenomena on the intersection between technology and society.”18 Beginning his career in the early aughts, in the boom of European critical media theory in and around post-war Novi Sad, Joler frequented Kuda.org—a research centre “tend[ing] to make and interven[e] in the sphere of research and artistic and social experimentation within the field of art and culture production”19 —where he interacted with “many wonderful and crazy artists.”20 After 15 years engaged in this critique and interacting with other “internet detectives” such as Joana Moll, Ingrid Burrington, Critical Art Ensemble, and Surya Mattu, Joler decided to concentrate his artistic and intellectual pursuits to unearthing systems of exploitation entrenched in technology.21 Not surprisingly, he has been avoidant of tech, having not had a phone for many years, and so relied on his memory, among other things, to create his maps. However, in recent years, he has become less “fanatic[al]” about a complete departure, more “at peace with being a slave,” citing that the time spent learning to function without these applications could be spent, he thinks, investigating something more useful.22

For Joler, the investigation is the most important aspect of the artwork, reminiscent of Tania Bruguera’s Arte Útil and col – lectives such as Forensic Architecture. The applied aspect is vital; he uses the conceptual maps he creates as educational tools for his students, as opposed to artworks and projects made solely for the purpose of museum display.23 Prior to New Extractivism, he created the three-part Facebook Algorithmic Factory (2016) investigation and the Invisible Infrastructures (2015) series with SHARE Lab and, more recently, collaborat – ed with Kate Crawford on Anatomy of an AI System (2018), a dissection of the Amazon Echo that demarcates “an exploded view of a planetary system across three stages of birth, life and death, accompanied by an essay in 21 parts.”24 “I like being able to play between art, science, investigation,”25 said Joler.26

Mass societal resistance is not merely a hope for the future but an urgent necessity. In Joler’s map of the digital subterrain, he has harnessed the power embedded within the process of map-making—to “facilitate surveillance and control”27 —and turned it back on those who are trying to do the same to us every second. Commissioned by Digital Earth as part of the larger Vertical Atlas publication, not only does New Extractivism detail a coherent, nuanced consciousness of the situation, but it also materially resists surveillance capitalism in its format and exhibition space.28 The project resides in a single-page static HTML webpage that is “powered by wind energy, [has] no cookies, [and] no login or any authentication.”29 Crafted from Joler’s previous research creating ethical guidelines for website sustainability, and inspired by the ecological activism of artists like Moll,30 the project aims to make its impact within the behemoth supply chains of extraction as small as possible.31

Further enhancing the user’s embodied subversion, New Extractivism premiered on the dark web (specifically the Tor Browser) as part of the “Time Out of Joint” exhibition for the Yerevan Biennial in 2020, a space the curators explicitly chose as a “remote location at the ‘periphery’ of the internet where time operates at a slow pace and pages load unhurriedly.”32 The first time I experienced Joler’s work was in this setting and there was something furtive, radical, and all-encompassing about finding the map buried in the depths of internet. It was concrete evidence that there are possibilities of digital space beyond the panoptic one, outside of the constructs that preclude consent, acknowledgement, or autonomy for the user. By bringing viewers to its permanent website or its temporary place of exhibition, New Extractivism obliges the user to subvert surveillance capitalism by explicitly avoiding its machinations, and opens the door to a non-hierarchical, equitable, and slowed space of engagement. As Rosa Luxemburg theorized, resistance comes in waves, and converging individual and collective resistances leave an “archive of traces” for future resistance33 —this project, and its wider circulation, being one such example.

The work has taken a turn to a new medium during the pandemic: the layered allegories, concepts, and didactic impacts are animated in video format. Asked to act as a passive voyeur on my own holistic reality for 17 minutes, as opposed to on the static map in which taking a break to digest is possible, this iteration affected every fibre of my being.34 Ironically, it is voiced-over by Amazon Polly, which required Joler to pay to input snippets of the map’s accompanying textual descriptions into the service that also tacitly teaches Amazon’s AI, therefore making the user inflict upon themselves a deeply abusive digital labour.35 Joler called the Amazon Polly voice the “director” of the work, monotonously spewing words out of the viewer’s device, immersing us and consequentially preventing any form of self-reflexive distance we could have from experiencing the map in its previous format. Joler also adds subtle sonic layers behind the voice to activate the given area of the map highlighted in each moment, which stemmed from he and his friend playing around with synthesizers. Thuds of heartbeats and beeps of a scanner are present, imploring us to go “deeper into our subconscious,” paralleling the processes that surveillance capitalism employs, although not to the same ends.36

The pandemic has only exacerbated this behemoth system New Extractivism has undertaken a review of; Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon have put their methods of data capture to use for the purpose of contact tracing, enhanced workplace-safety protocols, and vaccination rollout. Individuals are constantly supplying data through ubiquitous meta-interfaces for the sake of public health but at the cost of extended tentacles of surveillance into every aspect of their daily lives, reiterating the impermeability of the relations between Big Tech and our formal democratic institutions.37 It feels inescapable. However, as Joss Hands notes, resistance can take place within schemes of power when people refuse not just consent but compliance.38 With maps like Joler’s that are not accessible without the viewer embodying non-compliance, small waves of resistance are set in place.

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