Conversation with Nishant Shah (NS), Jonathan Reus (JR) and Sissel Marie Tonn (ST).
Illustration by Sissel Marie Tonn
The Reading Room is an event series dedicated to creating a community-oriented, public platform for encounters with contemporary ideas on art and society. At its core, the Reading Room series revolves around the reading of texts provided by invited guests – cultural theorists, philosophers and curators – who join our diverse community in an open discussion while providing insight, context and perspective on the topics at hand.
The series stems from a belief that keeping a close connection to historical and emerging theories on art and culture is invaluable to artists. Especially in the 21st century, where theory, practice and social engagement in the arts seem to merge ever more seamlessly. The Reading Room is made possible with the support from STROOM Den Haag and the Dutch Creative Industries Fund.
As discussions in The Reading Room are so ephemeral, and yet are such a rich source of ideas and understandings, we have looked for potential formats to capture traces of what happens in the thick of things. This interview is part of that process, one of a series of interviews in 2017 that we call ‘Relay Conversations’. These interviews, conducted as a reflective round-table discussion between the curators and guests, is not only an effort to archive the highlights of the event, but also an opportunity to shed light on the texts discussed for those who were unable to attend the session in person.
The Reading Room #19 and #20, Technologies of Survival – Postcolonial Perspectives on Computation, took place on the 3rd and 14th of September with guest reader Nishant Shah.
In past decades there have been numerous attempts to design technological policies for “the developing world”. Such social and political initiatives have, more often than not, presented the computer as an emancipation device, a provider of solutions to endemic socio-cultural problems. Others within the postcolonial discourse perceive computation as an infrastructure of control, one that asserts existing hegemonies. There is also a third perspective, one that identifies a need for integration between the culture of technology and social conditions, as if the two were separated and in need of integration.
These three, oft critiqued, tropes of the digital are deviously persistent, even in postcolonial arguments that attempt to deconstruct them. And while there is a strategic need for these tropes, they are also marked in promoting an ‘extinction impulse’ that perpetuates colonial and patriarchal structures. With the theme ‘Technologies of Survival’, this cluster of The Reading Room seeks to build a toolbox of postcolonial perspectives on computation, and to think through these ideas to better understand the computer, computation and the lives of those who are computed.
Session #19 was occupied with identifying touchstones for thinking about Postcolonial scholarship on computing and technology. The departure point for this discussion were the texts Postcolonial Computing: A Lens on Design and Development by Lilly Irani et. al. and Of Heathens, Perverts and Stalkers: The Imagined Learner in MOOCS by our guest Nishant Shah.
Session #20 focused on issues of digital rights as human rights, and considerations of digital piracy and copyright inflecting life and conditions of living. The departure points for this session were the texts What is a technological author? The pirate function and intellectual property by Kavita Philip, and Piracy, Creativity and Infrastructure: Rethinking Access to Culture by Lawrence Liang. Additionally, The Reading Room screened the film The Supermen of Malegaon, written & directed by Faiza Ahmad Khan, as a reference point for the cluster’s discussions.
ST: Nishant, thank you for introducing us to the term ‘postcolonial computing’. Since The Reading Room events I feel that I have noticed numerous stories and situations where this is enormously helpful to understand. I thoroughly enjoyed that you brought in stories from your field work to contextualize the terms you used. Could you introduce the terms to our readers through your own work here as well?
NS: In thinking about postcolonial computing as a framework, there are three messages or learning points that I’d like to extrapolate from our conversation in The Reading Room. The first is that the very notion of postcolonial computing borrows from a discourse of technological development that already presumes who the subject of postcolonial computing is going to be. It is a subject that is often the woman, the lower-caste person, the illiterate, the poor person, and so on. So there are these categories that are already available to us. When we think about technology development and its interactions with these human beings within this discourse there are only two
pre-wired responses that it throws out. The first response, generally, is that there is this person that is so broken down, so oppressed, so subjugated and under-served that in the negotiations with technology, but also in their everyday practices, there is no agency. So there is almost this conception of technology as the savior, which is going to save (them) – as if the presence of technology is going to change things. And often this particular model neglects all the real, playful, creative and perverse negotiations that people have with technologies on the ground, locally.
In my field work in Banni what we were particularly fascinated by was a village where, because of conservative Islamist principles, women are not given access to digital technologies such as smartphones. The presumption is that they are then always underserved. But what we found was that the women in this area were nevertheless up to date with the latest politics, popular culture, hit films etc. because they were using children as mediators. So even though the women weren’t allowed to use the technologies, they used children, who had not yet
gone through puberty (and therefore not segregated by gender) and were actually allowed to use these technologies, to re-create whole sociopolitical and cultural drama scenarios of what they had seen for them. So we found this new form of remediation that would not have been possible in our general imagination of what technology is.
So that’s the first pre-wired response. The second pre-wired response is that these technologies are essentially going to corrupt the innocent, the indigenous, by expanding the fold of neoliberal capital, expanding the reach of data extraction mechanisms, and so on. This particular kind of mode of creating a prelapsarian innocent, which precludes the technology or which precedes technology ends up creating a kind of double barrier for access in these communities. In the case of Banni, for example, the idea that if these women had access to technologies it would change their world. That’s the premise with which digital technologies move forward. So if you think about the laments about all these young people of the global South who are given digital media devices and now all they
do is share pictures of cute cats and watch porn, that is essentially symptomatic of this idea. The technology comes to them, but it’s going to destroy their innocence, and if not, the only use they are allowed to make of it is ‘good use’, ethical use so to speak. In the case of Banni we were really interested in how we could move beyond this particular trope. Either the conception of the subaltern to be rescued or the subaltern to be tainted and hence the subaltern only conceived of doing good things on the internet, is the beginning of this idea of the ‘extinction impulse’. Both of these, by highlighting the precariousness, hide the playfulness. By highlighting the danger they negate the agency of the very subaltern subject they seek to empower. This was the first thing I wanted to bring out in this case.
The second narrative that I was particularly fascinated by in this whole postcolonial computing network was how certain tropes are replayed when we think about technology and it’s interactions with disconnected subjects. The tropes begin with the notion that the first thing we need is access. One of the first things we encounter with postcolonial computing or related design-thinking is how universal access now needs to be mandated and that universal access infrastructure needs
to be built. The moment access is present there follows a very clear idea that this access is uneven, and it is uneven not only because of the conditions of modernity but also because just granting access to people doesn’t mean that they’re present in those spaces of access. So even though they have access they might not have literacy, they might not have fluency, they might not have any kind of platform to speak from. So the next thing that happens is literacy programs, coding programs etc. where you train these people to become normative users through which their presence can be established.
The third concern that immediately comes after presence infrastructure has been built is the realization that the conditions of presence do not necessarily translate into conditions of inclusion. You could have an affirmative action system, you could have quotas and reservations, and you could have people online and doing things, but the patriarchal, neo-colonial impulse continues to single out non-conformist voices, unexpected scripts, dissident voices and filters them out into small bubbles, and so you almost begin to think that inclusion is not even possible. It’s a very strange cycle then when access, presence and inclusion fail, we fall back upon the language of rights as the savior.
As if what we need is now the right to universal access, the right to connectivity and so on, forgetting often times that the right has been one of the most problematic patriarchal constructions of exploitation and subjugation in much of the world. Because, as Hannah Arendt would very clearly point out, the establishment of rights clearly then abdicates the responsibility of the people’s right to having a right. That rights actually serve the interest of the state rather than the individual because the individual no longer has any capacity left to ask for special privileges or affordances because the rights have been established and hence a leveling field has been put into motion.
So these are clear impulses that I was trying to tease out from the existing narratives of ICT4D and its intersections with postcolonial theory, that is then this idea of postcolonial computing which takes up the let’s say legacy of saving the subaltern, but often ends up crippling her in non-technological forms and not necessarily creating new conditions of, let’s say, social hacking or creative engagement simply because it never questions the technology in its design impulses. It never questions the fact that people need to be connected not on our terms but on their terms. It never understands the fact that there are communities that would prefer partial
People need to be connected not on our terms but on their terms. There are communities that would prefer partial connection, anonymous connection, playful connection, that people would need multiple forms of connectivity other than the one single narrative of connectivity that is often state sponsored and based on rights.
connection, anonymous connection, playful connection, that people would need multiple forms of connectivity other than the one single narrative of connectivity that is often state sponsored and based on rights. Postcolonial computing should now be used as a way of interrupting that, to look at anomalies and disruptions within that space.
I thought it was interesting how you think about the geopolitics of this situation. One of the things that I often find ironical is that the maximum traction of my formulations on postcolonial computing happens in white privileged contexts, rather than in the global south or elsewhere. Because, for example, when I do similar arguments in India I’m called anti-modern. I’m called too privileged and removed from the ground reality of people who really need these technologies. I’m considered too elite and so on. And then when I present the same materials in other parts of the world I can play the subaltern card and I can kind of just by virtue of words, race and skin claim a certain kind of underprivileged position which allows for different kinds of conversations to happen. That’s a process of personal reflection that I continue to have.
NS: But I’m wondering how you respond to this notion of postcolonial
computing and what happens when it inhabits the space of The Reading Room? Is it purely discursive, or is there a certain sense of irony or a sense of responsibility when this discourse enters this space? Does that trigger a new form of curatorial practice for you in thinking through how this content is packaged and sent out? What would it mean to have postcolonial computing in a former colonial nation?
ST: I think in the last year we have become more aware of our responsibilities as organizers/curators of a series that has a cultural value in our community, the responsibility of opening up not just our themes but also who we invite. I’m a bit new to the postcolonial discourse, but I am becoming more aware of the responsibility of having grown up in a colonizing country (me coming from Denmark, living in The Netherlands), that you have responsibility to engage in these kinds of discourses, to educate yourself about how violent structures of the past are perpetuated in the present. But of course there is always the reality of the filter bubbles that form when you curate these kinds of events, and probably we’re not very good at addressing these, so that’s something we’re working towards.
The question of how things move from discourse to lived practices is certainly important for us as an artistic community, but I also think that the setting of The Reading Room is able to seed a kind of awareness through a collective production of knowledge, that makes one simply more aware of social forces like the ‘extinction impulse’, a term I really like, and makes one more aware of how they propagate into life e.g. the scene that you’re part of, the technologies you use, etc.
JR: For me the curatorial responsibility comes out of this cluster originally being a pedagogical question, and as Sissel pointed out, The Reading Room is in many ways a project on collective study. I think it really comes down to this question that Nishant and I identified in our teaching, which is, when teaching digital media or any kind of computational subject in the west, how do you think outside the core Anglo-American historical perspective of computing? This perspective has its value in terms of the original mathematical and engineering innovations that drove the creation of the technologies, but perpetuates a narrative of computing technology having an epicenter. This is actually part of a larger concern of mine, which has to do with identifying dominant, implicit ideologies of computing and developing a more decentralized perspective.
I think it is especially important for practitioners of digital media; such as artists, makers and creators to be critical in the act of making and to understand what they erase when they create. Or put another way, what they make difficult, or impossible, often unwittingly, when creating a new technological or media infrastructure. That’s for me why it’s actually important to deal with this in our community. The creative industries, tech innovation and maker scenes in The Netherlands have ‘extinction impulses’ of many forms, what we learn by studying, for example, Nishant’s field work in Banni, nurtures an important awareness about technological use and development that crosses contexts and cultures.
NS: I think that’s very helpful, and I think it’s something that’s useful to tease out, because some of the contributions that came out of postcolonial theory was to realize that the problems of the colonized are also the problems of the ex-colonizer. That postcolonial is not a one-way conversation, and that’s why I thought a critique for information/communication technology for development is necessary, because it presumes otherwise that a certain kind of neo-colonial impulse is going to come and save the former colony from itself. But what we recognize, essentially, is a framing of postcolonial computing not
just through postcolonial relationships but also technological relationships. This perhaps helps us to identify similar relationships at a global level. This particular case study might be coming from India, but it’s not an Indian problem.
We identify that there are going to be multiple trajectories of flows of technologies, and their extinction impulses to disguise, diminish and let’s say destroy people’s contribution to technologies, their presence within technologized histories, the kind of agencies that they have… So within the European context it could very easily also have been a migrant without rights for example. It could also be in the context of the current political situation, as stories keep coming out of structural sexual violence and abuse of women – so you could apply the postcolonial computation framework equally to women in specific forms of patriarchal exploitation. At least within the Anglo-American histories of technology we do now have the recognition of the erasure of women’s labor from the development of technology. So we do want to begin with postcolonial computing, but from there on move towards looking at extinction impulses, as opposed to merely looking at postcolonial computing as the only definite conceptual framework of looking at technology flows. And I think that’s something that came up in The Reading Room sessions as well.
JR: I remember in the sessions that you also believed the recognition of minority contributions wasn’t enough. I think that Alan Turing’s posthumous pardon came up, there was also a film, Hidden Figures, about female programmers, and it seemed that your take on it was, ok well, these things have been recognized and then we don’t have to talk about them anymore or that they’ve been normalized somehow so it’s no longer an issue.
NS: Yes, we are teaching in the same program, and we constantly face German students that think that they live in post-feminist societies. Because women’s problems, problems of technological exploitation and disconnection, in their imagination belongs to that former ‘colonized’ subject so to speak. And that’s precisely saying that just because we find ourselves within a certain Western narrative, where visibility has suddenly been given to systemic problems, it doesn’t mean that intervention activism isn’t necessary here as well.
So for me, one of the ways of reconciling what The Reading Room does is actually this: it’s to pick up a narrative that begins elsewhere, and then bring it back into our contemporary questions and experiences, our materialities. And for me the case was that sitting in that room, with that small and engaged group, the learning point
To understand what they erase when they create. Or put another way, what they make difficult, or impossible, often unwittingly, when creating a new technological or media infrastructure.
the learning point was that when that framework resonated with us it wasn’t because they were saying ‘oh yeah let’s save the people in India’, but rather that they were recognizing that within our neighborhoods and around the corners are similar pockets of structural imbalances which technologies create. That postcolonial computing needs to address all of these pockets, as a global continuum, as opposed to an ‘East versus the West’, or ‘the West versus the rest’ kind of paradigm.
ST: I also wanted to add, since The Reading Room at least emerges from an arts context (but is not exclusive to artists), our discussion made me think about this article ‘Cloud and Field’ by Shannon Mattern that really stuck with me. This article has to do with a trend within the visual arts of using mapping techniques and creating field guides, and the accompanying urge to map out and categorize. In this article, Shannon Mattern is basically tracing this tendency in the arts to implicitly celebrate structures of categorization, mapping, archiving and taxonomy that emerged in the West as colonizing practices. By that I mean, if you could name something then you could potentially own and control it. She especially pinpoints the need to explore remote areas (often wrecked by petrochemical industry) through this kind of romanticized role of the pioneer
of the frontier. She is bringing out examples where artists put themselves in the roles of these kinds of rugged pioneers, and how this may be a practice of retelling the stories of the colonizers, without even really recognizing it, an essentially imagining new versions of ‘extinction impulse’ structures that had been so damaging in the past to those same environments.
Having worked ourselves on issues of cartography, taxonomy and categorizations (in our ongoing project Sensory Cartographies) it was really interesting to explore these kinds of latent assumptions in methods of understanding the world that are perhaps just not so evident. So I think in terms of postcolonial computing it’s ever the more urgent to discuss this in our specific context. And since we’ve done the postcolonial computing session in The Reading Room the concept seems to me to start popping up everywhere, which to me is a symptom of enhanced awareness, as I mentioned earlier, of the structural power dynamics that we are part of.
NS: And I think that might easily connect with my next question, which is, how do you now deal with it? I mean, on the one hand of course there is a critique of these technologies, and, just like cartography, archiving was one of the biggest tools of colonial governing in a large part of the world.
It was the two ways by which colonizers tried to give form to the colonial empire. One form was by naming – they went into this extensive naming of things, practices, and specimens, and identifying them through specific identifiers and so on. And the other thing was storage. They wanted memory, which is why in the session I was talking about Lord Macaulay, who was the governor general of India at the British East India Company. He basically said that ‘India is a glorious country with a huge past, but no history’. And one of the ways in which the colony was tamed, named and contained, was by writing it’s histories, and those histories were written from a specific vantage point.
So epistemic violence is a part of knowledge making, and technologies often make them innocent. Technologies often extend that violence through a certain rhetoric of the benign – that it’s just technology, it’s just a tool, it’s just usage – and through that rhetoric perpetuate certain kinds of hegemonies of meaning but also extinction of narratives and alternatives. So I actually found The Reading Room fascinating because it seems to be dealing with this question continually. On the one hand there is the need to archive, to preserve, but there was also a kind of richness in that 11-people conversation that will never be able to be captured
into this three-people conversation. There are traces that were there, there are other people’s contributions that will be forgotten in the age of information overload, and you’re happy to let it go.
Maybe you could share how this came about, because the thing with The Reading Room is that it’s not your usual pedagogics, which right now is so overwhelmed by ‘record or perish’. Everything needs to be recorded, it’s like a reality tv show where you want all the bloopers and the bleeps and you want all of it accessible 24-7 via live streaming and so on. What motivated you to keep it closed, keep it intimate and small? Because for me these modes are feminine kinds of knowledge production. The entire structure of keeping it conversational and not a performance lecture with 200 people in the audience, speaks of a different kind of staging. These are all anti-archival and anti-authoritative ways of knowledge production. You can even apply these ideas to a traditional classroom setting, where feminist or postcolonial pedagogy comes in. In this setting the professor doesn’t perform a lecture, it’s not a prepared script, the recipient does not have a one-way transmission, it’s not a hierarchy where someone is sitting on a pedestal and spreading out knowledge, of course there is a staging of some kind of uneven level of knowledge and experience, but by the time we kind of dissolve this hierarchy what happens is a kind of more personal,
tentative, hesitant engagement, and everyone feels more safe because they are not being recorded.
NS: How are you working towards this anti-archival impulse? Because that for me is the beginning of a technology of survival. Technologies of Survival are technologies that are geared towards a survival of knowledge, rather than an extinction of knowledge in certain ways. So I’m just wondering how you guys are working with this open and closed format, and how do you deal with questions that come out of authorship, authority and things like that?
JR: And you call this a feminine form of knowledge production? Why is that?
NS: Historically women’s knowledge has happened in whisper circles, quiet spaces, non-documented spaces – knowledges which would be considered gossip or rumors, because they do not carry one person’s authority or name around it. So there is a whole history around women’s knowledge production, which is about working through circles of intimacy, trust and fabrication. And it does not mimic the ideas of veracity, authenticity, credibility or citational performativity which certain kinds of masculine knowledge production require. Which is why women’s’ contributions have always been so much more difficult to archive because they do not fit themselves very well to archival indexes.
JR: It’s interesting that you bring up a feminist perspective on archiving, especially in light of some of our earlier themes this year – Ecologies of Existence, which brought up the idea of ‘fugitive study’ in relation to race, and our Anarchival Practices cluster which directly addressed archivability through the lens of queerness. I really like that you mention fabrication, for me that links what we do in The Reading Room in an interesting way to the way knowledge is shared in craft circles, where understandings trace idiosyncratic orbits around the mode of production, rather than being produced by it.
The desire to record some trace of these discussions came at the point when we had already been doing The Reading Room for two years, and achieving some success. Our producers said, ‘well you’re doing this series and getting a great community of people together, but there is no trace of it’. More importantly, for people who could not attend, there’s a strong motivation to make some part of the experience transferable, if only as a launching point for the next experience. It is and continues to be a struggle to figure out how to do this.
ST: And Christoph Brunner came up with this idea of the ‘relay conversation’, which I thought was quite nice, and resonating well with the kind of slowness that comes with The Reading Room as well, you know the process of emailing us, receiving the text, reading the text, and we all sitting together and reading for 3 hours.
It might be worth examining this kind of knowledge production, and how to simultaneously thread these two streams, one being the kind of slow, non-archival form and on the other the need to perform – not only to funders but to a range of stakeholders.
It’s a very slow process that comes out of this pure joy of reading. It’s very inefficient in a way!
NS: Yeah, but you see in this kind of humorous articulation feminist interventions have actually been to object to a kind of efficient form of knowledge production. Because under the guise of efficiency you have a certain structure of meritocracy, of privilege based, merit based exclusion, and also excuses for producing inhuman and precarious conditions. Because efficiency is not good for human beings, it’s only good for corporations.
JR: And for colonial empires, or any technocratic logistics. I mean speaking of ‘extinction impulses’ – the narrative of efficiency is so powerful in the engineering disciplines because it’s efficient to eliminate things that are complex, to focus on ‘the problem’, which is isolatable only within the abstract constructs of applied science. In computing this goes all the way up from hardware to software and user-focused design, where the goal is often to reduce a diverse group of users into this model user (or users) that the software can be designed against. But this often also applies to large-scale technological infrastructures, such as those we see being deployed with the intention of equal access or equal rights.
NS: But it’s also difficult to erase efficient systems. It’s difficult to resist efficient systems. It’s the lure of the efficiency, but also them establishing their value. It’s not that we don’t know that there are systems that are exploitative and problematic, but the reason why we voluntarily subject ourselves to them is because they’re so efficient. Which is the entire network of why people are willing to become data-extracting subjects. Efficiency, convenience, getting things done faster, has always been the rhetoric through which these kinds of technological paradigms have emerged.
I also want to poke you a little bit and ask: is the model of The Reading Room linked to a status-quo understanding of artistic practice? Or is it already an incredibly radical form of artistic practice which is collaborating, slow, hesitant, non-archival, non-documenting? Because at least in the contemporary art world that’s not what I see. I mean art has always been about the imagination of the solitary genius artist, who, at the end, puts his signature at the bottom of the community project – it’s his project, and for me you guys are doing something else, there is a lack of signature, I don’t know if you call yourself curators of this project or what you’re calling yourself?
ST: Co-organizers I think? Our titles change, but I don’t think we have thought of The Reading Room as an artistic project per se, but rather a community building project. It came out of a desire to grow in a gap within the artistic community that we wanted to fill.
NS: It might be worth examining this kind of knowledge production, and how to simultaneously thread these two streams, one being the kind of slow, non-archival, form and on the other the need to perform – not only to funders but to a range of stakeholders. Because no matter how radical we are there is no escape from accruing value and demonstrating it. There is a burden of quantification that none of us are able to escape, and I think that’s one of the things that came up within the touchstones of technologies of survival which I put forward, that there is an ideal type of all the things we think about when dealing with technologies of survival. But they will always remain utopian ideal types – it’s impossible not to compromise ourselves against our ideological principles.
Nishant Shah is the Dean of Graduate at ArtEZ University of the Arts, The Netherlands and a Visiting Professor at the Centre for Digital Cultures, Leuphana University, Germany. He was the founder of the Centre for Internet and Society, India, and the knowledge partner for the Hivos programme exploring digital technologies, youth, and building democracies. Nishant‘s work is inspired by gender, sexuality and race theories and activism. His interests dovetail humanities, arts, design, policy and computation and he is committed to building infrastructure for public access to knowledge and research.
Sissel Marie Tonn is a Danish artist living in The Hague. She works with multi-media installation, textiles and writing, and her processual approach is driven by a great deal of curiosity and the possibilities of building relationships across fields. Her work revolves around an interest in structures of attention and perception within ecologies undergoing subtle or profound changes. Within this discourse her work explores these environmental (often humanly induced) changes, extending the public debates towards epistemological issues connecting these events to the body and its sensing of presence. She completed a master in Artistic Research at the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague in 2015 and will be a resident at the Jan van Eyck Akademie in Maastricht in 2017.
Jonathan Reus is an American musician, researcher and curator whose work blends machine aesthetics with free improvisation. His broader research is into instruments and instrumentations, and their potential to bring new insight into knowing the world. Jonathan is associate lecturer of Computing and Coded Culture at the Institute for Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media in Leuphana University, Lüneburg, where he has created teaching methods for hybrid coursework blending science, mathematics and cultural studies. He is also a lecturer in performative sound art at the ArtEZ academy of art in Arnhem.
From the curators of the Reading Room: Thank you again to Nishant Shah for your insights both in The Reading Room and in this piece! We hope to welcome you both back in Den Haag. And special thanks to all the participants that joined in this gathering.