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In Defense of Looting

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For most of America’s history, one of the most righteous anti-white supremacist tactics available was looting.

As protests in Ferguson continued unabated one week after the police killing of Michael Brown, Jr., zones of Twitter and the left media predominantly sympathetic to the protesters began angrily criticizing looters. Some claimed that white protesters were the ones doing all of the looting and property destruction, while others worried about the stereotypical and damaging media representation that would emerge. It also seems that there were as many protesters (if not more) in the streets of Ferguson working to prevent looting as there were people going about it. While I disagree with this tactic, I understand that they acted out of care for the struggle, and I want to honor all the brave and inspiring actions they’ve taken over the last weeks.

Some politicians on the ground in Ferguson, like alderman Antonio French and members of the New Black Panther Party, block looting specifically in order to maintain leadership for themselves and dampen resistance, but there are many more who do so out of a commitment to advancing the ethical and politically advantageous position. It is in solidarity with these latter protesters–along with those who loot–and against politicians and de-escalators everywhere that I offer this critique, as a way of invigorating discussion amongst those engaged in anti-oppression struggle, in Ferguson and anywhere else the police violently perpetuate white supremacy and settler colonialism. In other words, anywhere in America.

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The dominant media is itself a tool of white supremacy: it repeats what the police deliver nearly verbatim and uncritically, even when the police story changes upwards of nine times, as it has thus far in the Brown killing. The media use phrases like “officer-involved shooting” and will switch to passive voice when a black man is shot by a white vigilante or a police officer (“shots were fired”). Journalists claim that “you have to hear both sides” in order to privilege the obfuscating reports of the state over the clear voices and testimony of an entire community, members of which witnessed the police murder a teenager in cold blood. The media are more respectful to white serial killers and mass murderers than to unarmed black victims of murder.

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The Conservatism of Emoji

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Emoji offer you new possibilities for digital expression, but only if you’re speaking their language

If you smile through your fear and sorrow
Smile and maybe tomorrow
You’ll see the sun come shining through for you
—Nat King Cole, “Smile”

The world will soon have its first emoji-only social network: Emoj.li. This news, announced in late June, was met with a combination of scorn and amusement from the tech press. It was seen as another entry in the gimmick-social-network category, to be filed alongside Yo. Yet emoji have a rich and complex history behind the campy shtick: From the rise of the smiley in the second half of the 20th century, emoji emerged out of corporate strategies, copyright claims, and standards disputes to become a ubiquitous digital shorthand. And in their own, highly compressed lexicon, emoji are trying to tell us something about the nature of feelings, of labor, and the new horizons of capitalism. They are the signs of our times.

Innocuous and omnipresent, emoji are the social lubricant smoothing the rough edges of our digital lives: They underscore tone, introduce humor, and give us a quick way to bring personality into otherwise monochrome spaces. All this computerized work is, according to Michael Hardt, one face of what he terms immaterial labor, or “labor that produces an immaterial good, such as a service, knowledge, or communication.” “We increasingly think like computers,” he writes, but “the other face of immaterial labor is the affective labor of human conduct and interaction” — all those fast-food greetings, the casual banter with the Uber driver, the flight attendant’s smile, the nurse patting your arm as the needle goes in. Affective labor is another term for what sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild calls “emotional labor,” the commercialization of feelings that smooth our social interactions on a daily basis. What if we could integrate our understand of these two faces of immaterial labor through the image of yet another face?

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Emoji as Historical Artifacts

The smiley face is now so endemic to American culture that it’s easy to forget it is an invented artifact. The 1963 merger of the State Mutual Life Assurance Company of Worcester, Mass., and Ohio’s Guarantee Mutual Company would be unremembered were it not for one thing: :), or something very much like it. An advertising man named Harvey Ball doodled a smiling yellow face at the behest of State Mutual’s management, who were in need of an internal PR campaign to improve morale after the turmoil and job losses prompted by the merger. The higher-ups loved it. “The power of a smile is unlimited,” proclaimed The Mutualite, the company’s internal magazine, “a smile is contagious…vital to business associations and to society.” Employees were encouraged to smile while talking to clients on the phone and filling out insurance forms. Ball was paid $240 for the campaign, including $45 for the rights to his smiley-face image.

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Incalculable Loss

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The algorithms that make up Big Data distribute complicity for death across the populations they surveil

Once upon a time, the virtual represented a domain of free play, a realm separate from the flesh, a “second life.” But the corporatization of digital architecture and the advent of Big Data have ended this digital dualism. Now, says former NSA director Michael Hayden, “we kill people based on metadata.” Now that digital activity is a basis for state violence, the “virtual” and the “flesh” are no longer separate zones. Through mass surveillance, the virtual makes the flesh vulnerable to death, and the flesh lends its reality to virtual calculations. This link between surveillance, data-mining and death has birthed a new form of necropower (Achille Mbembe’s term to describe the politics of deciding who lives and who dies): algorithmic necropower.

The data-mining procedures used by the NSA and other entities draw their predictive power from their use of incalculable algorithms, enabling them to replace causation with correlation. They rely on numbers, not theories. Using huge datasets culled from the surveillance of online activity, Big Data algorithms can discern or generate correlations that would not be apparent to human perception. They test rules against these correlations: How likely is it that someone who spends an hour on the slots will spend 20 minutes playing blackjack? How likely is it that a college-educated ethnic minority will read the New Inquiry if they also read the Wall Street Journal? The predictions that emerge from these correlations and rules are context-free, but, when interpreted by people, become the basis for advertising campaigns, urban planning, actionable security decisions, and many other aspects of modern society. Long before Big Data yoked together calculation and incalculability, Derrida described justice as “a calculation within the incalculable.” Because every demand for justice is singular, there is nothing it can fully be compared with: It is incalculable, because no other thing can enumerate its content. In this light, the algorithms used in Big Data appear as a kind of perverse instance of justice. The relationship between Big Data and the incalculable algorithms it hosts is reminiscent of the Derridean relationship between justice (a singular demand) and the law (the rule that singularity is held to). The law proceeds according to rules, but justice cannot be arrived at through the application of a rule: Justice is always singular, and always grounded on its own impossibility. It requires an incalculable calculation that we can perform only when at a loss, unable to speak and calculate. But even an incalculable calculation needs a rule, so we still need the law to guide us to justice, at the limits of what can be calculated.

Both mathematically and juridically speaking, powerful tools for modeling, predicting, and manipulating human reality have emerged from these limits. The history of computation is a prime example of the power of language to instrumentalize life. If language allows us to articulate possible worlds, then the ability to calculate possible worlds at the scale that algorithms allow ­changes the human relation to history and futurity. While we “grapple” with the incalculable, our algorithms can articulate worlds beyond our grasp, keeping track of the gray zones between finite states, the places our understanding can’t go.

Because of how our intelligence works, human logic has to start from the rule of law, from finite states and binaries, even if what we are seeking is the incalculable justice that exceeds the law. But algorithms, able to contain the incalculable, can start from the ground of incalculability. Despite the oppressive uses Big Data is put to, this capacity ironically seems to bring it closer to Derrida’s understanding of justice. In reality, managing incalculability becomes the basis for new automated modes of organization and control, in an alchemical process that “distills” history into a usable dataset. What remains of justice, when the incalculable can be made to count?

Algorithmic necropower—the computation of who should live and who should die—operates from the basis of incalculability to discern “non-obvious associations.” Still, according to the U.S. Inspector General, “association does not imply a direct causal connection.” Instead, it “uncovers, interprets and displays relationships between persons, places, and events.” Algorithms escape the laws of cause and effect and operate in a fluid state of exception, encompassing the financial sector, the military-security nexus, and the entertainment industry. Although algorithms seem to allow Big Data to bypass human judgment, in fact a huge amount of labor is required to map associations and interpret the output. The algorithm itself has to be written by a human, and even then it only spits out data; people still have to decide what the data means. Ordinary language and the “ordinary actions” of post-­digital citizens act as a database for algorithmic necropower to manipulate reality and generate threats. Risk levels are rated based on activity patterns that seem anomalous in relation to the norms derived from data.

The norms, the data relations, are what determine suspicion of terrorist activity, not causal evidence. The “March 2013 Watchlisting Guidance,” a leaked government guidebook for putting individuals on terrorist, no fly, and selectee lists, says, “Although irrefutable evidence or concrete facts are not necessary, to be reasonable, suspicion should be as clear and as fully developed as circumstances permit.” The document also has loopholes for cases where officials can’t articulate reasonable suspicion: Family relations of known or suspected terrorists,  individuals who may be “associates” of terrorists, or individuals with a “possible nexus” to terrorism, may be watchlisted.

Reasonable suspicion is thus a computer-aided ­human judgment based not on causal evidence (fact), but on data correlations, on perceived norm deviation. Everyday behavior becomes a means for the state to detect threats, a measure of risk. This architecture distributes complicity in a new way.

In terms of necropower, Mbembe’s concern is “those figures of sovereignty whose central project is… the generalized instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations.” Who are these figures of sovereignty, when data appears as sovereign? Who kills, in algorithmic necropower? The people who coded the algorithms? The generals, managers, CEOs, or shareholders who ordered them? The companies buying and selling the algorithms? The civilians whose surveilled daily lives constitute the bulk of the data the algorithms analyze? Our banal activities are the source from which algorithms automatically generate kill lists made up of nodes that deviate from the cluster of normal activity patterns. Algorithmic necropower defers the act of killing and disperses complicity.

For algorithmic necropower, history is over: the past is not a record of causal relations, but raw material for increasing predictive power. At every turn, with each monitored action, data are made calculable. As “regular users” of language and of the algorithms used to reproduce sociality on the Internet, we fashion ersatz individualities in surveilled spaces geared towards consumption. The primary value of this online activity, from the point of view of security operations, is that it provides the norm for the data set probed by algorithms, testing and manipulating association rules. The activities of “making a self” and deciding what and how to consume are not normally considered “work,” but in the amorphous terrain of algorithmic war, stretching over various domains of modern life, affect itself becomes financialized, and biological life—bodies in physical spaces—becomes a surplus value where calculable, and, when incalculable, a contagion.

For data-mining corporations, “life” can be categorized according to this distinction: mineable and unmineable activity. The former serves as the database to mount an attack on the latter, as evidenced by the NSA’s increased monitoring of users of the TOR encryption network developed by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory, as well as of visitors of the Linux Journal forum page, which the NSA deemed an “extremist forum.” Internet activity signaling that the user is conscious of her privacy sets off surveillance algorithms, which predict whether or not this kind of user is subversively aware of the role of her data in the architecture of war.

What halts the algorithmic state of exception? Derrida may provide an answer: the incalculable traces, the self-effacing cinders of language that point beyond language. Computation itself produces immense quantities of incalculable data that are effectively useless. These incalculable traces clog calculation: While incalculable algorithms are quanta of data that guide computation, incalculable data are simply qualia of data, groundless remainders, taking up server space. They’re not useful for intelligence or profit. Take the simple example of a curated Amazon product listing, updated in real time: It would generate so much traffic by scraping the site to get price data every, say, half-millisecond that Amazon would have to operate at a loss to maintain the servers necessary to allow the data hemorrhage of the price-mining process.

History is composed both of things that can be known, and things that can’t—mineable (calculable) and unmineable (incalculable) events. The latter category comprises not only things that happened without trace, but also the traces of what never happened. Even incalculable algorithms cannot yet enter into this incalculability of experience, which lives as mourning, or hope, or other relations between past, present and future that escape enumeration. Algorithms enumerate quanta of data, but the qualia of data—subjective experiences of the world—cannot yet be captured by algorithms. Nevertheless, our surveilled responses to qualia, our online “self-making,” loop back into the quantizable (mineable) zone, as with Facebook’s attempts to monitor emotional states.

Yet there is always an incalculable remainder. In the face of the seeming alchemy of the computational process, forgotten or unlived histories proliferate. This remainder of computation is where justice is to be found, guided both by law and by the incalculable, qualitative data of subjective experience. These qualia are not useful to algorithmic computation and are only intelligible to human eyes. One potential sabotage of algorithmic necropower would be for users to actively produce incalculable data. Facial warping such as in the work of the artist Zach Blas represents an aesthetic gesture toward incalculability. But algorithms are faster than humans, if not more inventive. It would be more efficient, if no less realistic, to wait for the authors of the algorithms to undertake a program of sabotage themselves.

If algorithms make complicity incalculable, it is because those who make the algorithms count on avoiding complicity. The idea that the algorithm itself decides is part of the general ideological offensive surrounding its deployment. The politics and interests of its authors may be incalculable from the standpoint of the person or population who is caught up in the algorithm, but this is precisely what the algorithm is intended to calculate. The remainders, the incalculable, messy qualia of particular human politics and interests are equally its ground, and what it will inevitably proliferate.

Algorithms straddle a gray zone between the privatization of war and the financialization of civilian life, acting as the connective fiber to fuse them in order to subjugate “life to the power of death,” as Mbembe says. In algorithmic war, “here” and “there” collapse: Ordinary “civilian” activity is a determinant source for state intelligence. Fused across finance, security, and entertainment, this relentless exercise of necropower might also be called necrocapitalism. Life itself becomes a surplus value. At the same time, the residue of history, of incalculable qualia, produced by attempts to read the future, becomes a contagion that Big Data is still struggling to manage. And the longer it goes on, the expansion of this incalculable contagion shows just how small Big Data really is.

 

You’ll Never Walk Alone

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If walking is the most philosophical way of getting around, solitary strolls in nature won’t cut it.  

Ways of getting around come with their own outlooks on the world. Cars, Americans are told again and again, mean freedom and comfort. Yet they can just as well be a burden, from the social costs of car-dependent communities to the way cars turn drivers into isolated individuals raging at the world outside their little metal box. Public transit can feel frustrating, involving lots of waiting and plodding routes. But there’s a solidarity that emerges on the subway or bus, the feeling that we’re all in it together, that makes it seem democratic. Whereas walking, trusting your own two feet, can mark one out as an interloper. It’s the mode of the solitary thinker, the flâneur, the backpacker. Yet it can be just as much a communal activity — from the solidarity of through-hikers on the Appalachian Trail to the crowd at a demonstration, people are on their own two feet together. The ambivalence of walking, which makes room for solo saunters and mass marches alike, has made it attractive to quite a few artists and thinkers.

For Frédéric Gros, a Parisian professor and Foucault specialist, walking is also the most philosophical way of getting around. In A Philosophy of Walking (originally published as Marcher: une philosophie in 2009), Gros expounds a view of the world in which walking is the cure for all modernity’s indignities. Setting off on a walk is self-liberation, discarding drab duties or even rejecting a “rotten, polluted, alienating, shabby civilization” for an ascetic freedom. Given his interest in Foucault, one might expect Gros to see the aimless, rambling walk as an evasive countermeasure against surveillance and discipline. But his emphasis is more on the philosophical, timeless value of wandering. He brings home the extent to which walking, practically the simplest activity there is, has been made almost peculiar in most societies. Yet his fundamentally Romantic sensibility leads him to an odd vision of the practice — so caught up in the sublime and lofty that it misses what’s at its own feet.

Gros alternates brief meditations on themes such as “solitudes” and “eternities” with discussions of the role of walking in the lives of several philosophers. Admirers of aphoristic continental writing will find many lovely fragments. We learn that Nietzsche wished to be a hermit and walk for 10 hours a day, though Gros’s claim that the concept of eternal recurrence flows from Nietzsche’s habits is tenuous. Rousseau re-emerges as a peripatetic thinker, with hints of sympathy for his project of finding natural man through walking. There are erudite chapters on the Cynics and medieval pilgrimage. Even Kant’s famously regular walks, by which the citizens of Königsberg could set their watches, are saved from seeming boring, becoming in Gros’s hands demonstrations of the “obstinate repetition of the possible.”

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Stoppage Time

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A network rubbernecks its own disaster in real time, but we feel it as always just after and already just elsewhere

The rain comes up, and the game goes dead. It rained earlier, abruptly hard and horizontal. Out the windows of the concrete library, air alchemized straight into water, and this inland town went first coastal and then aquarium, sodden yellow houses in place of fish. The bar is as loud as expected, even if half the crowd came independent of the game, just because it’s almost evening. We don’t know the rain has started again until the screens shudder and leave pixel hunks of Arjen Robben’s jaw scattered across the field. Goya does FIFA as glitch art.

The guy at the bar wearing a red Robben jersey is not cheered. It’s the Bayern Munich one that says bayern munchen robben, a phonetically transcribed drawl of secret dog poetry: “baying, munching, robbing.” The match is already into stoppage time, but the station forgets to list how much: a hurried pocket of uncounted time, added up prior and now ballooning. A secret debt. Out the door, it is a drowned world again, and in cheery sympathy, the screens go all blue and stay that way, before eventually apologizing for the lost signal and inconvenience.

Even before there’s suddenly nothing to watch, I’m aware of the “time of the game,” as Teju Cole phrased it, that rare and flitting global synchronicity that takes shape during World Cup games. It really has no parallel, in terms of that tight, temporary proximity it forges across bodies that will, for the most part, never touch or pass. Not even 24-hour catastrophe coverage can match this yoking of the disparate, its shift from our general condition—“out of sync but aware of each other” (Cole)—to a single crossbar breath held fast between cities, continents.

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