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.