James Bridle: Thank you all very much indeed for being here. I’m going to talk a lit­tle bit about my inter­est in this, and also some thoughts, essen­tial­ly, about these con­nec­tions between bor­ders, bod­ies and tech­nol­o­gy that kind of it turned out the exhi­bi­tion was about. The process start­ed from real­ly a long while back with an old­er project of mine which I’ll explain, that should give you some idea of why I’m inter­est­ed in this area and what I think is kind of inter­est­ing about it.

And one of the places this research start­ed was with this doc­u­ment. This was a doc­u­ment that was revealed that came out as part of the Snowden rev­e­la­tions, the big leaks in the NSA in the US. It’s not one of the most kind of spec­tac­u­lar pieces of infor­ma­tion. It was­n’t one of those kind of like, eye-searing PowerPoint slides that every­one saw of kind of hor­ri­ble graph­ic design that was all about spy­ing on you and all of your infor­ma­tion. It’s some­thing a lit­tle more kind of sub­tle but I think more inter­est­ing.

The job of the NSA, and of pret­ty much all nation­al spy agen­cies, is to take in all infor­ma­tion they can pos­si­bly find out about you, and about every­body in the world. But it turns out that they actu­al­ly have some rules about this. It’s very unclear if any­one fol­lows these rules. But the rules exist. And one of the rules is that most spy agencies—foreign spy agencies—aren’t sup­posed to spy on their own cit­i­zens. So in the case of NSA, they’re not sup­posed to spy on American cit­i­zens.

The prob­lem is, if you’re like slurp­ing in all of the infor­ma­tion on the Internet, which is what they’re doing, how do you know who’s an American cit­i­zen or not? How do you decide whose data you can use?

And the answer they came up for that as described in this doc­u­ment is that they basi­cal­ly look at all those data points, and they say, Well this per­son behaves like this; they vis­it this web­site; they do this thing. So there’s like a 60% chance they’re American,” right. Based on that data. And if it’s over 50%, you get assigned as an American. And they say[shrugs]…they say they don’t look at your data, right. That’s their claim.

If you drop below that 50%, then you’re fair game, right. And they’ll study you. They’ll record all your data. They’ll put it in vast data­bas­es and use it for the things that they use it for.

And there’s some­thing very strange about that. Because the right to be sur­veilled, or to not be sur­veilled is the right to pri­va­cy. And the right to pri­va­cy is some­thing that’s enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as a fun­da­men­tal human right. Your right not to be spied upon.

And we know coun­tries um…don’t always respect that. And the NSA and oth­er spy agen­cies def­i­nite­ly don’t respect that. But it is, sup­pos­ed­ly, one of these fun­da­men­tal rights that you have. And it’s a right that descends from your cit­i­zen­ship. Citizenship, after not think­ing about it for a while, feels like some­thing we’re all think­ing about quite a lot these days. In the words of Hannah Arendt, the kind of great polit­i­cal the­o­rist on this area, cit­i­zen­ship is the right to have rights. All of your rights essen­tial­ly descend from your cit­i­zen­ship, because only coun­tries will pro­tect those rights. Only your own gov­ern­ment, essen­tial­ly, and your gov­ern­ment embod­ied in the pass­port you hold, will pro­tect you from the vio­la­tion of those rights.

But in this case, the rights aren’t being decid­ed by the pass­port in your pock­et, what par­tic­u­lar doc­u­men­ta­tion you hold. It’s being decid­ed by this piece of soft­ware that’s auto­mat­i­cal­ly inter­ro­gat­ing all these points of data and say­ing hey, this per­son is this or this per­son is this. And that has a fun­da­men­tal effect on your rights, and there­fore pro­duces in kind almost a new kind of cit­i­zen­ship where your cit­i­zen­ship, which is essen­tial­ly this frame­work of rights, isn’t decid­ed by your pass­port. It’s decid­ed by the data that you leave kind of strewn around as you’re on the Internet and the oper­a­tion of this soft­ware that nobody real­ly sees.

And I found that idea to be com­plete­ly fas­ci­nat­ing. And so I built a thing called Citizen Ex, which is a a piece of soft­ware that you can down­load and run. And it runs in your brows­er. In Chrome, Firefox, Safari, what­ev­er you use. And it tracks you brows­ing. It does this, to be clear, incred­i­bly pri­vate­ly. It does­n’t share the data with any­one.

It turns out that’s real­ly hard to do, by the way. The way these pieces of soft­ware are designed, they’re kind of designed to share all of your per­son­al data. To build some­thing that does­n’t share your data takes a huge amount of extra care and atten­tion. Which is not to blow my own trum­pet, it’s just point out that it’s not the way this stuff is sup­posed to work.

But this thing tracks your data, and it shows you par­tic­u­lar­ly where the web sites that you’re vis­it­ing actu­al­ly are, right. Because we tend to have this thought of the Internet as just being this kind of like big, cloudy place, right. But actu­al­ly web sites are pieces of data that are stored on servers in par­tic­u­lar places. And those places are in oth­er coun­tries. That have dif­fer­ent legal juris­dic­tions. That maybe have dif­fer­ent laws asso­ci­at­ed with that data. So if you start to think about these web sites as being places that you vis­it, rather than just places you get data from you, can start to build up this thing which we call an algo­rith­mic cit­i­zen­ship. This is a lot less sophis­ti­cat­ed than what the NSA are doing, but over time as you spend time on these dif­fer­ent web sites, you can actu­al­ly start to visu­al­ize hey, today I’m like 60% American and I’m like 40% Croatian, or what­ev­er it is. What is the pic­ture of me that emerges from this data that might kind of affect my cit­i­zen­ship?

And so what it does is it kind of gives you a small win­dow into what you might look like as some­one who is com­posed entire­ly of data. And that you know, maybe allows you to actu­al­ly think about both the issues involved and about how your own behav­ior affects that. Like some peo­ple have said that using this thing has basi­cal­ly made them try to browse more local­ly, right. To actu­al­ly think about that maybe I should just use these web sites kind of with­in my own coun­try where I know the laws that affect it. Or, maybe it’s a way of prov­ing that you’re actu­al­ly engaged with oth­er things. I was think­ing maybe like with var­i­ous kind of EU debates—votes, referendums—that this could almost be used to actu­al­ly prove that you’re an engaged European cit­i­zen who isn’t just inter­est­ed in what goes on in your own coun­try but is involved else­where.

I think that’s also a super dan­ger­ous idea. Like you know, I real­ized doing this project that actu­al­ly a vot­ing sys­tem based on sur­veilling every­one’s activ­i­ties is a ter­ri­ble idea. But it’s nec­es­sary I think to kind of pro­to­type these things to work out like what might the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of them be. So it’s not just like the spy agen­cies who are decid­ing how our data is processed and how our iden­ti­ties are con­struct­ed. But actu­al­ly that we get to be involved in that kind of deci­sion­mak­ing process as well.

The oth­er thing it does is make this kind of map some­what vis­i­ble, right. This thing that we don’t think about too much, which is all of these phys­i­cal loca­tions of data. The way that these things are housed in very phys­i­cal loca­tions.

Because as I said, we we tend to have this image of the Internet as a cloud. This is my favorite stock image of that. That you con­nect to this thing called The Cloud,” when you go online. And the cloud is some sort of like, mag­i­cal far-away place that you don’t real­ly have to think about. The mag­ic hap­pens over there. We’re not real­ly con­nect­ed to it.

Ad that emerges from the way in which engi­neers think of com­put­ing resources. If you’re an engi­neer and you’re design­ing a com­put­ing net­work, you may draw a few com­put­ers. And then you draw a line, it just goes to this kind of fuzzy thing over here. Which basi­cal­ly says, Hey, as an engi­neer I don’t need to think about that over there.” The prob­lem is, it’s not just engi­neers who’re involved in this stuff, right, it’s all of us. And as cit­i­zens, as peo­ple who are polit­i­cal­ly affect­ed by that, not think­ing about that thing over there? is a polit­i­cal deci­sion that car­ries a huge amount of weight. If you don’t know where your data is going, where your iden­ti­ty is being con­struct­ed, you’re essen­tial­ly kind of locked out of polit­i­cal engage­ment with the process­es that result from it.

And so for me, this kind of metaphor of the cloud is this ter­ri­ble metaphor. Because it kind of keeps peo­ple away from think­ing about this. And sort of con­trols our per­cep­tions of the net­work. And by con­trol­ling that per­cep­tion and under­stand­ing of the net­work, you con­trol peo­ple’s per­cep­tion and under­stand­ing of the polit­i­cal process­es that are engaged with it. The terms we use for these things, the names we used to describe it, turn out to be incred­i­bly, incred­i­bly impor­tant.

This is a very famous illus­tra­tion in nerdy net­work­ing worlds. It’s from a text called Distributed Communication Networks,” writ­ten by a guy called Paul Baran in 1964. It’s kind of the blue­print for how some ideas of the Internet came to be. Which is that you had this idea of old net­works, which were cen­tral­ized kind of things where every­thing went into a cen­tral point and then got out to the edges again. You had decen­tral­ized net­works, where there are a few nodes. And then you had this idea of what the per­fect dis­trib­uted net­work would look like, which is the idea of the Internet. And this is the image that’s often used to kind of show that dif­fer­ence. The Internet is all these things con­nect­ing to every­thing else. And it’s a beau­ti­ful image and a beau­ti­ful idea.

It’s not entire­ly true. This is a series of dia­grams of the growth of the ARPANET, which was the American pre­de­ces­sor to the Internet, which was the very first kind of con­nec­tions between loads and loads of com­put­ers. It’s not ter­ri­bly decen­tral­ized. If you can read it very care­ful­ly you’ll see that already in 1977 there’s a node here marked NSA.” They were plugged into this net­work on a very very ear­ly lev­el. So the con­nec­tions between sup­posed decen­tral­iza­tion and actu­al sur­veil­lance were kind of built into this net­work from the very very start. And also they were…they were quite clear, if you paid atten­tion to it. But again, the kind of opac­i­ty of these things, right. The fact that peo­ple look at this and go, Ooh, that’s like a weird tech­ni­cal dia­gram,” means that the under­stand­ing of that is regard­ed as being a tech­ni­cal under­stand­ing rather than a polit­i­cal one.

This very much con­tin­ues into the present day. This is a map of under­sea Internet cables. These are the cables that actu­al­ly trans­mit the Internet around the world. And there’s quite a lot of them. And they’re most­ly owned by large telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions com­pa­nies. But the real­ly inter­est­ing thing for me is the way in which these net­works are not like some entire­ly new, egal­i­tar­i­an con­nec­tion of the world. These are most­ly the ship­ping routes of empires that pre­ced­ed them. If you have…for exam­ple down here in West Africa, you have a bunch of coun­tries that used to be part of the British Empire. And if you’re in those coun­tries and you use the Internet, the cable con­nects you straight back up to London again. If you’re using the Internet in West Africa, most of your data traf­fic still goes through London. That’s still its con­nec­tion, because that’s where the orig­i­nal tele­graph lines and old tele­phone cables went. That’s who owns the route. Similarly if you’re in South America, huge amounts your traf­fic still pass­es through Spain to get to any­where else.

So instead of actu­al­ly recre­at­ing this amaz­ing kind of new utopia of con­nec­tion, most­ly the fun­da­men­tal archi­tec­ture of the Internet repro­duces these old kind of impe­r­i­al and colo­nial routes. And when we think that these empires went away, real­ly they just kind of moved up a lev­el into the infra­struc­ture.

This is start­ing to per­mit weird new inter­est­ing things hap­pen­ing to iden­ti­ty and cit­i­zen­ship, right. Not just the algo­rith­mic cit­i­zen­ship that I talked about, but a weird process where­by you can start to offer parts of things that we thought that only nations could do. Or that still most­ly only nations can do. Like offer you to cer­ti­fy your iden­ti­ty. To offer you here, you can set up a busi­ness; here, you can get some kind of iden­ti­ty or doc­u­ment; you can sign con­tracts, right. These things used to be func­tions of where you were phys­i­cal­ly locat­ed, because that was your cit­i­zen­ship, right. You live in this coun­try, you get your iden­ti­ty from this gov­ern­ment. But this spread of the net­works around the world is start­ing to allow gov­ern­ments to offer this in dif­fer­ent ways.

One of the coun­tries that’s doing this quite intense­ly is Estonia. So if you don’t know, Estonia has spent the last cou­ple of decades rewiring itself as an incred­i­bly dig­i­tal place. It’s spent huge amounts of mon­ey in IT. It has an incred­i­bly suc­cess­ful kind of dig­i­tal gov­ern­ment pro­gram. It has basi­cal­ly the best gov­ern­ment web sites in the world. Which basi­cal­ly allows them to offer very good ser­vices to their cit­i­zens. It’s a lot eas­i­er, in Estonia, to reg­is­ter with the gov­ern­ment, to vote online, to pay your tax­es online. Because they just built real­ly good web sites.

And they real­ized their web sites were so good oth­er peo­ple would like to use them as well. So they cre­at­ed this ser­vice called e‑citizenship, which allows any­one in the world…with some iden­ti­ty checks, and for a small fee, to become an e‑citizen” of Estonia. Which basi­cal­ly means you’ve decid­ed that their gov­ern­ment web site is bet­ter than your own gov­ern­ment web site, and you pre­fer to use theirs as kind of Government As A Service. As a busi­ness propo­si­tion.

The thing is it only offers some of what we get as a cit­i­zen. This idea that with a pass­port, you don’t just get an iden­ti­ty. There’s some oth­er stuff that comes with it. For exam­ple the right to live in that place. And maybe some kind of health­care ben­e­fits, legal things like this. But e‑citizenship is designed to give you a bunch of gov­ern­ment ser­vices (tax­es, con­tracts, busi­ness­es) with­out res­i­den­cy. Without any of the phys­i­cal stuff. Just the kind of vir­tu­al ser­vices. I think of it as a kind of delam­i­na­tion, like a kind of sep­a­ra­tion, a slid­ing away of the dif­fer­ent things that gov­ern­ment is sup­posed to do, enabled by this dig­i­tal ser­vice.

And that in turn is pro­duc­ing weird geo­graph­i­cal effects. This is a data cen­ter in Luxembourg. Remember I said with the web sites in Citizen Ex that this data is actu­al­ly locat­ed in par­tic­u­lar places? Well, Estonia has a par­tic­u­lar prob­lem, which is that they’re very very close to Russia. And it makes them slight­ly ner­vous. Not least because one of the prob­lems with dig­i­tiz­ing your whole coun­try is if you get invad­ed, it’s super easy to wipe the hard dri­ves and basi­cal­ly wipe out your coun­try. So what they’re doing is they’re back­ing up Estonia in oth­er coun­tries. Just as you back up hard drives—as I hope you do—in oth­er places.

So all of the Estonian data is stored, appar­ent­ly, in this data cen­ter in Luxembourg. In which a small area of the data cen­ter, like a bunch of actu­al servers, has been declared sov­er­eign Estonian ter­ri­to­ry, just like embassies are as well. So you have what they’re call­ing a kind of vir­tu­al embassy, but it’s a very real place. It’s a sol­id piece of ground that belongs to that coun­try, but it’s for data rather than peo­ple.

And all of these dif­fer­ent process­es for me are kind of ways in which we’re kind of chang­ing this per­cep­tion of what these cit­i­zen­ship and iden­ti­ties are. Starting to regard them less as being kind of fixed things, geographically-related, but they’re kind of becom­ing vir­tu­al and more kind of cloudy and strange.

And this delam­i­na­tion process as I said, this like split­ting apart of what con­sti­tutes iden­ti­ty or cit­i­zen­ship, is to me one of the key process­es that’s hap­pen­ing around every­thing being dig­i­tized.

So one of the key ways I see this delam­i­na­tion hap­pen­ing is in news orga­ni­za­tions, is in infor­ma­tion itself. This is a sim­ple exam­ple from Facebook. It’s some­thing I’m sure you’re very famil­iar with, which is basi­cal­ly two Facebook posts have two new sto­ries, both of them from news sources, except with­out look­ing quite care­ful­ly it’s quite hard to see which source they come from.

It turns out one comes from a fair­ly rep­utable British news­pa­per, and the oth­er one comes from a web site called The American Patriot, which is set up by some guy in a garage in Utah. And this is the delam­i­na­tion of infor­ma­tion. It’s the fact that all infor­ma­tion essen­tial­ly looks the same in a sys­tem that’s kind of designed to kind of give you infor­ma­tion with­out any regard to its con­text or its source, and and this stuff kind of gets mud­dled up togeth­er as they pass through these dig­i­tal net­works.

And there’s a real­ly inter­est­ing exam­ple of this that hap­pened that got a lot of press around the time of the US elec­tions in 2016, which was I think when the first kind of…everyone became aware of these things…became known as fake news.” This was not where all the fake news was com­ing from, but it got a huge amount of press around the elec­tion, to the extent where even Obama was pub­licly com­plain­ing about it. Which is that there seemed to be a huge swath of these insane made-up sto­ries, and they were all orig­i­nat­ing from a spe­cif­ic place, it was claimed. Or a huge num­ber of them were. And this was a town in Macedonia called Veles, which is the sec­ond city in Macedonia. This town sud­den­ly pro­duced this kind of boom in fake news, where a bunch of quite young peo­ple all fig­ured out they could make large amounts of mon­ey by feed­ing Facebook with incred­i­bly stu­pid kind of made-up sto­ries in return for adver­tis­ing mon­ey.

And they’d been doing this for a while. It turned there were kids there who we run­ning these health sites. They were run­ning these kind of weird adver­tis­ing net­works. There was just a bunch of kids who kind of fig­ured this thing out. And they were quite suc­cess­ful at it. As in they made a rea­son­able inter­est­ing amount of mon­ey. I think the claims to which they influ­enced the elec­tion are prob­a­bly mas­sive­ly overblown, and most aca­d­e­m­ic research seems to sup­port that. But it was very strange, the sud­den real­iza­tion that a bunch of kids in the Balkans could sup­pos­ed­ly have this influ­ence on elec­tions, or that they’d fig­ured out this prop­er­ty of net­works that allowed them to feed these fake news sto­ries in return for mon­ey.

And there was a huge amount of jour­nal­is­tic inter­est in this. A lot of the press in the US was super vin­dic­tive, was real­ly quite aggres­sive, was call­ing these kids all kinds of ter­ri­ble things and say­ing they’re irre­spon­si­ble and stu­pid and blah blah blah, and they’re mess­ing with democ­ra­cy.

And the thing that struck me most about it was actu­al­ly how…perhaps unsur­pris­ing­ly, how lit­tle they under­stood the con­text in which this was occur­ring. Which is the con­text of kind of recent Macedonian his­to­ry of the last twen­ty years. Which is itself a debate around kind of names and iden­ti­ty and cit­i­zen­ship, in a real­ly key and impor­tant way.

For those who don’t know, Macedonia has been locked in a nam­ing dis­pute with Greece for the last kind of twenty-five years now, where Greece does­n’t want the coun­try to be called Macedonia because that’s the name of a large Greek province. And as a result have kind of con­tin­u­al­ly blocked Macedonia’s appli­ca­tions to the EU and NATO and so on and so forth.

And as a result, one of the things that’s hap­pened in Macedonia is the gov­ern­ment has moved increas­ing­ly to the right. And they’ve kind of dou­bled down on this cre­ation of iden­ti­ty by doing things like erect­ing kind of mas­sive stat­ues in the state of Skopje to what’s offi­cial­ly called The Horseman,” but every­one knows is Alexander the Great, who is a fig­ure from Greek Hellenic his­to­ry, from Greek Macedonia, but has been kind of will­ful­ly tak­en up to cre­ate a kind of new nation­al nar­ra­tive in Macedonia.

And for me what this says is that this isn’t a prob­lem cre­at­ed by dig­i­tal tools, right. It’s not Facebook or adver­tis­ing turn­ing up and cre­at­ing this. This is a prob­lem of kind of ongo­ing ques­tions of nation­al iden­ti­ty, of cre­at­ing kind of nation­al myths that bleed through into these weird ques­tions of kind of indi­vid­ual iden­ti­ty.

It’s worth not­ing that just in the last month or so, in try­ing to defuse this they’ve actu­al­ly tak­en down… This is the stat­ue not from the cen­ter of the town, but they had anoth­er Alexander the Great in the air­port, which has been removed. And it’s now appar­ent­ly sit­ting in a ware­house some­where in Skopje, and they don’t know what to do with it. Which made me think of one of my favorite art­works in the world.

This is a piece by an artist called Dan Vō, it’s called We the People,” where he made an entire recre­ation of the Statue of Liberty, pan­el by pan­el from the orig­i­nal plans, which is exhib­it­ed in pieces all over the world. Like he shipped it to dif­fer­ent loca­tions, so you only get to see lit­tle bits of it all over the place. And I was won­der­ing if maybe this kind of Skopje horse could be dis­trib­uted all around the world to some kind of inter­est­ing effect.

But there’s this joke amongst com­put­er sci­en­tists that the hard­est thing in com­put­er sci­ence is nam­ing things, right. When you build these incred­i­bly com­plex struc­tures, com­pu­ta­tion­al struc­tures, you have to name stuff. And the names that you give the things end up decid­ing how they get used. And so these are the five names that are cur­rent­ly on the table between Macedonia and Greece for a pos­si­ble res­o­lu­tion of this nam­ing dis­pute. Greece are adamant that they can’t be called Macedonia but they’ve put for­ward these oth­er options.

And I find them kind of fas­ci­nat­ing, in the way in which they roam around dif­fer­ent qual­i­fiers, right. They all still include Macedonia” but like, there’s tem­po­ral ones like New Macedonia, or Vardar Macedonia, which is one of the old names for the area. And there’s also geo­graph­i­cal ones, like Northern and Upper Macedonia. Like, which of these makes this name okay to use? How do we decide if it’s a ques­tion of new time, or a ques­tion of kind of redraw­ing bor­ders, redraw­ing the geo­gra­phies to make it work?

This col­li­sion of names and tech­nol­o­gy is a pat­tern that we keep see­ing kind of return­ing over and over again. This was a recent tweet that I came across. Someone com­plain­ing that in this case Air Canada’s checkin sys­tem would­n’t accept their name as valid. I think because it had a space in it, which seems like a real­ly sim­ple kind of thing to fix, but actu­al­ly a thing that peo­ple all over the world face all the time. That their very iden­ti­ty that they go with in one part of the world does­n’t fit into the sys­tems cre­at­ed some­where else.

And in fact the con­trol over peo­ple’s names in this way is a super old social and tech­no­log­i­cal prob­lem. One of my favorite writ­ers, a guy called James C. Scott uses nam­ing as the kind of basis for his under­stand­ing of how polit­i­cal sys­tems as a whole work. One of his exam­ples is about the way in which the gov­ern­ment of Florence in the 14th and 15th cen­turies cre­at­ed a state, as it was then in Italy, by insist­ing that peo­ple got names, right. So in the 14th and 15th cen­tu­ry, most peo­ple did­n’t have sur­names. They just had their first name. They were John from some­where, or Giorgio from some­where else, right. And every­one knew them as that and there could be many of those peo­ple in the same town.

Which is fine if you know every­one. But real­ly real­ly dif­fi­cult if you’re try­ing to com­pile the tax records for a whole region, right. And so the gov­ern­ment insist­ed that they would have to take on those names. And it took almost 200 years for the gov­ern­ment of Florence at the time to assign every­one a name. And in their telling of it, in the kind of offi­cial telling of it, that’s because that was a kind of edu­ca­tion prob­lem, right. That these peo­ple were kind of stu­pid peas­ants, they did­n’t under­stand that they need­ed to to have prop­er names, and that it was good for them to be able to access goods and ser­vices and gov­ern­ment pro­vi­sions and so and [indis­tinct] like this.

But there’s plen­ty of evi­dence that this was­n’t real­ly how it worked. There’s plen­ty of evi­dence that peo­ple were pret­ty aware of exact­ly why the gov­ern­ment want­ed to name them. And that by hav­ing this prop­er” name, they would be sub­ject to kind of var­i­ous forms of tax and pos­si­bly down the line kind of cen­sor­ship and oppres­sion. And so they very much active­ly resist­ed being kind of giv­en this name from the out­side. And it’s only with the fact that the gov­ern­ment even­tu­al­ly actu­al­ly was capa­ble of offer­ing them real ben­e­fits. Like oh, if I have a name I can vote. Oh I see, that’s some­thing that I can actu­al­ly use. Then that’s a kind of rea­sons take on a name, right.

So every time this nam­ing process hap­pens it’s this kind of bar­gain. It’s like okay, you want me to take a name so that you can tax me or what­ev­er. But in return, I need to have some kind of access to gov­er­nance. I need to be able to use that name for my own ben­e­fit.

And this stuff through­out his­to­ry has always has always been deeply fraught. In the 18th cen­tu­ry the Prussian gov­ern­ment, of Prussia with­in Germany, went through a sim­i­lar process of insist­ing that its Jewish pop­u­la­tions all received state-sanctioned names. And they gave them very spe­cif­ic lists of names they could choose from. And every­one in the com­mu­ni­ty had to take one of those names. And the argu­ment was made…possibly in good faith but mmm, unlike­ly, that this allowed them to be giv­en the ben­e­fits of cit­i­zen­ship: the abil­i­ty to vote, pos­si­bly kind of healthcare‑y type things, as much as you got that in the 18th cen­tu­ry, right. And all these cit­i­zens were named.

The result of that of course was that 100 years lat­er, they had lists of the names of all the Jews. And any­one with a name from this par­tic­u­lar list was imme­di­ate­ly iden­ti­fi­able as some­one of Jewish ori­gin. And that nam­ing made it incred­i­bly eas­i­er for an entire­ly dif­fer­ent gov­ern­ment to then oppress and [indis­tinct] those peo­ple.

Infrared image of a dancer on a rooftop, a skyline visible in the distance

This is right there in one of the works in the exhi­bi­tion. This is the film that you watched before, which is called We Help Each Other Grow, by an artist col­lec­tive called They Are Here. It’s in the exhi­bi­tion. You can see it again. The dancer in this film, Thiru Seelan, is Tamil. And in Tamil nam­ing con­ven­tions, a per­son has a sin­gle name, which is just their sur­name pre­fixed by their father’s ini­tial. So I would be J. James, because I’m James and my father’s John, and that would be my whole name.

Tamil peo­ple have had huge amounts of prob­lems sign­ing up to Facebook. Because Facebook insist that you have a prop­er name, just like that guy had prob­lems with Air Canada. They need you to have a prop­er name that they can iden­ti­fy with. Loads of Tamil peo­ple have the same name and Facebook has con­tin­u­al­ly reject­ed their names because like, it does­n’t enable them to dif­fer­en­ti­ate between them. So loads of Tamil peo­ple basi­cal­ly make up names for them­selves so that they can access Facebook.

Other peo­ple have huge amounts of prob­lems with the same issue with names. This is the brilliantly-named Robin Kills-TheEnemy, which is this per­son­’s real name. They come from an indige­nous her­itage and this is the name they were giv­en. But they were banned from Facebook for a year and had to appeal and go through a whole bunch of legal stuff and com­plain, and get press about this in order that Facebook would admit that this was a kind of pos­si­ble name for some­one to have.

The rea­son of this prob­lem is that Facebook has this thing called a real name pol­i­cy, which is exact­ly the same as the Florentine issue of the 15th cen­tu­ry where they want­ed a name that made every­one kind of sin­gu­lar­ly iden­ti­fi­able. Not in this case so they could tax them but so they can suck in all their data and use it and sell it for prof­it.

They also make the claim, which I think is super inter­est­ing, that anonymi­ty is a prob­lem in com­mu­ni­ties. This remains, it seems, a real­ly fraught, aca­d­e­m­ic debate. I’ve read papers on the one side that say anonymi­ty basi­cal­ly allows peo­ple to behave incred­i­bly bad­ly. And obvi­ous­ly we’ve seen this on most social net­works, with kind of anony­mous trolling and real­ly hor­rif­ic behav­ior.

There’s also a whole bunch of aca­d­e­m­ic research that says that anonymi­ty’s actu­al­ly real­ly good in groups. Because if that’s rea­son­ably con­trolled, peo­ple have to behave well because they don’t have any oth­er iden­ti­ty to fall back on, right. If you behave bad­ly as an anony­mous per­son, if that group is demo­c­ra­t­ic then maybe you’ll be kicked out of that group and you won’t be able to behave in it. So actu­al­ly in cer­tain sit­u­a­tions anonymi­ty allows peo­ple to behave bet­ter, because their iden­ti­ty isn’t tied to oth­er iden­ti­ties that they have. There’s noth­ing else to fall back on. So at the moment we’re sort of unclear on where that falls.

But right now it’s a thing that super impacts spe­cif­ic com­mu­ni­ties more than oth­ers. Non-English com­mu­ni­ties with dif­fer­ent nam­ing con­ven­tions, like the Tamil one. Or peo­ple that want to choose their own iden­ti­ty. This is a drag queen called Heklina Grygelko, who who was forced to insert the much-worse name Steven” in front of their Facebook iden­ti­ty because that was the name that matched their ID. This is the real name” pol­i­cy. And Facebook’s thing is like, No, we are the author­i­ty for decid­ing what one’s real name is.” And this always impacts communities—in this case LGBT communities—who have had the Internet as a kind of safe space. But as soon as you import these ideas of kind of tractable iden­ti­ty, that starts to fall apart.

A cou­ple of years ago, Facebook did try and make some efforts towards bet­ter iden­ti­ty stuff. And this was one of them, which is where they instead of say­ing that you had to reg­is­ter your­self as male or female, they intro­duced about sev­en­ty dif­fer­ent vari­ants upon this. And you know, peo­ple could actually—you can change this now. You actu­al­ly have a kind of flex­i­ble iden­ti­ty with this sys­tem.

And I don’t want to use this to sug­gest that Facebook is like, good—or very good at this, even—but rather that tech­nol­o­gy, some­times, actu­al­ly makes vis­i­ble these forms of iden­ti­ty in ways that did­n’t have this vis­i­bil­i­ty before. So all of these iden­ti­ties, or these poten­tial iden­ti­ties, have always exist­ed, right. But we did­n’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have a kind of com­mon aware­ness of them that allowed them to actu­al­ly start to affect soci­ety more wide­ly. And this is in part where the trans” in Transnationalisms” comes from. It’s this belief that despite many of the hor­rors and the dam­age of this kind of attempt to squash peo­ple’s iden­ti­ties into lit­tle box­es, the pres­sure that that cre­ates on those box­es actu­al­ly starts to reveal a whole bunch about human behav­ior that may’ve been kind of hid­den before. And that giv­en enough charge starts to cre­ate some kind of crit­i­cal mass, right, that makes it at least unde­ni­able. It may at times increase the pos­si­bil­i­ties for oppres­sion, but it means that those things can no longer remain kind of com­plete­ly hid­den and unrec­og­nized with­in soci­ety.

A pronoun reference chart, showing several sets in a grid

The fight that’s hap­pen­ing now in a lot of the world over pro­nouns is super inter­est­ing to this. Because it’s this fight right to the lev­el of lan­guages. And there’ve been these dif­fer­ent pro­pos­als around for a while of how we can de-gender pro­nouns. So instead of hav­ing him and her, he and she, in a vari­ety of lan­guages, you can have these dif­fer­ent things. In English we seem to be grav­i­tat­ing towards using they,” the sin­gu­lar they, as some­thing that’s nei­ther male or female.

Lots of peo­ple seem to be real­ly pissed off about that, and they’re idiots. Americans in par­tic­u­lar think that like, they is plur­al but sin­gu­lar they has been around for ages. I was in Sweden recent­ly, where they’re super right-on. And they have a gender-neutral pro­noun already, which is hen” and every­one’s using it for every­thing, because they’re Swedish. In Finnish there’s already…the pro­nouns don’t have gen­der, which is great. As I am under­stand­ing it, in Slavic lan­guages it’s more com­pli­cat­ed than that, where they” is already mas­culin­ized in some lan­guages and there’s no obvi­ous alter­na­tive.

But the thing is that lan­guage is a tech­nol­o­gy. It’s a tool. Like any oth­er one, over which we have this kind of pow­er to con­struct through this kind of code as lan­guage. We have the pow­er and agency to kind of reshape the way in which we under­stand the world by recon­fig­ur­ing this code in which we describe stuff.

The guy that that always makes me think about is…the way in which we can make these kind of cog­ni­tive and social changes through lan­guage. This is Alfred Korzybski, who is a seman­ti­cist, whose work devel­oped a thing that I’ve always been real­ly fas­ci­nat­ed about called E‑Prime, which is a kind of psy­cho­log­i­cal way of speak­ing. And E‑Prime does away with the verb to be.” In E‑Prime—English Prime—you’re not allowed to use the word to be.” And it actu­al­ly makes lan­guage both more pre­cise and more psy­cho­log­i­cal­ly healthy.

So instead of say­ing, I am depressed,” you say. I feel depressed.” And imme­di­ate­ly you have this dif­fer­ence between a thing being what I am and being a kind of tem­po­rary state, a thing that actu­al­ly is sus­cep­ti­ble to change. And I have this weird sense that maybe like, insist­ing on things like gender-neutral pro­nouns is like Korzybski’s E‑Prime, this way of kind of delib­er­ate­ly restruc­tur­ing lan­guage so that we see the world in a dif­fer­ent way.

The map is not the territory, the word is not the thing it describes. Whenever the map in confused with the territory, a 'semantic disturbance' is set up in the organism. The disturbance continues until the limitation of the map is recognized.

This is a hilar­i­ous slide I found in a quote web site but I could­n’t resist it. This is the most famous quote from Korzybski, which is that the map is not the ter­ri­to­ry. The [word] is not the thing it describes. That lan­guage is not the way that the world is. The world is the way it is and we have these bad maps for nav­i­gat­ing it. And all these things I’ve been talk­ing about, these con­struc­tions of cit­i­zen­ship, these con­struc­tions of iden­ti­ty, these con­struc­tions of lan­guage, are metaphors. Just as the cloud” was a bad metaphor for how we think about tech­nol­o­gy, most of the lin­guis­tics stuff that we use is a bad metaphor for actu­al­ly how we describe stuff around us.

And the things that we’re build­ing, like Facebook, like oth­er tech­no­log­i­cal sys­tems, they shape the social real­i­ty. But what it con­firms is that in the engi­neer­ing, in the social sci­ences, in the lin­guis­tics, they’re not abstract con­cepts any­more. The pow­er of these tech­nolo­gies can actu­al­ly kind of start to inter­cede in the world. It’s right there in the lines of code, or in these fiber-optic cables run­ning under the oceans, the web sites we use every day. It makes these things real­ly clear and vis­i­ble to us, that these are the process­es that work in the world. Things that used to be cloudy and hid­den and uncer­tain. The rules of pow­er, the rules of pol­i­tics, are increas­ing­ly writ­ten down in these sys­tems which we can access.

So to fin­ish, what I said about the cloud ear­li­er as some­thing that’s often used to kind of obscure our under­stand­ing of the world and needs to be kind of picked apart and like, mapped out in all these dif­fer­ent ways. It’s worth remem­ber­ing that the cloud is also the cloud because it’s com­plex, right. The cloud is cloudy. It’s super hard to under­stand. It actually—I kind of start to think that maybe it’s a real­ly good reflec­tion of real­i­ty, a real­i­ty that is com­plex. That’s capa­ble of con­tain­ing all of these dif­fer­ent real­i­ties, these dif­fer­ent iden­ti­ties, that are and always kind of remain sub­ject to change. Just as we’re capa­ble of redraw­ing maps to redraw the state of our nations and the state of our cit­i­zen­ships, we’re capa­ble of redraw­ing these tools and these sys­tems, and even lan­guage itself, to kind of present our­selves and the world around us dif­fer­ent­ly every day. That they remain con­stant­ly kind of open to ques­tion and open to change. Thank you very much.


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