The New Colonialism of the Digital Image

Mary Gelman/VII

Vision is so much more than a literal transcription of light. It is the selective extraction of information that the observer processes to locate our bodies in space, create associations, trigger recognition, anticipate imminent activity, guide our actions, and more. The luxury of seeing that the sighted enjoy is a complex process that integrates the hardware of the eye into a psychological process that engages imagination and memory in cultural and, ultimately, political systems. We all know by now that the simple act of looking has layers of complexity, and even a casual glance or a made-from-the-hip photograph has significance beyond the descriptive facts they represent.

An image that is perceived to represent a simple fact is (more accurately) a rich fabric of associations, assumptions, and reconstructions, bound together by common cultural protocols that allow societies to believe the shared hallucination of a photograph to be a representation of Truth. Then, armed with these Truths, societies move to judgment and from judgment to action.

Mark Sealy expounds on some of the horrific consequences of visual belief translated into behavioral action in his 2019 book Decolonising the Camera: Photography in Racial Time. With his contemporary analysis of historical photography, Sealy effectively demonstrates the complicity of the photographic image in the 19th century and early 20th century history of colonialism. In an extreme over-simplification of Sealy’s analysis, photography fuelled the “othering” of remote populations and played an essential role in structures of moral superiority and moral inferiority. These beliefs, defined largely within the construct of race, braced the foundations on which colonialism was built. Sealy directs our attention to the white gaze that continues to define the cultural context within which photography exists and urges continued vigilance to challenge photography used in similar ways even beyond the circumstance of colonialism. In naming the book Decolonising the Camera, Sealy expresses the hope that by better understanding such imagery, we can recognize the continuing legacies of colonialism and defend against photography being applied again with such baleful innocence now and in the future. This essay is one such attempt.

One might think that with today’s more distributed visual literacy, we might already have some form of protection from the cynical application of imagery. This, and the fact that 19th century-style militarized colonialism is largely a thing of the past, might lead some to consider Sealy’s analysis as interesting but purely historical.

But reading Sealy’s analysis of colonial processes and, specifically, his account of imagery’s power not only to describe but also to shape its parasitic practices gave me an uneasy sense of déjà vu, an inexplicable feeling of having already seen something that one hasn’t witnessed. There’s something in our current experience that profoundly mimics the history of visual colonialism.

I look at our defenseless dependence on digital technologies that now provide for all our needs, our dumb surrender of privacy, and our helpless acceptance of the tech-driven diktats that govern every aspect of our lives. They infect the way we work, the very nature of the work we do, and the pace at which we do it. Battered by successive financial crises since 2000 (and now by the Covid-19 pandemic), the emergence of the digital economy might appear to be a matter of secondary significance, just another incidental inflection in the history of our lives. But a closer look reveals a tectonic repositioning of our culture and the economy redefining the social, cultural, and epistemic ground on which we stand. It looks very much like the actualization of Marshall McLuhan’s extraordinarily prescient vision of the “global village” in which technology facilitates immediate and intimate connections regardless of geography. And as McLuhan predicted, this becomes more than a simple overlay on human activity. It changes what we do, our perceptions of ourselves and redefines personal and social structures.

To participate in modern society, to have a bank account, to watch a movie, to plan for tomorrow’s weather, we have no choice other than to shrug and surrender our lives to the machine while desperately clinging to the trinkets and baubles offered in return (the free searches, the latest wallpapers, and themes that decorate our screens, the convenience of home shopping, etc.). We are snared in ideologies of convenience, entertainment, and efficiency, presenting ourselves as willing yet unwitting minions to be fed into a 21st century mill. As consumers and participants in modern society, we are not, as some have said, the product of online economic activity. More accurately, as Shoshana Zuboff says, we are the raw material, the commodity consumed by modern industry for the benefit and profit of the owners.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Harvard Professor Emerita Shoshana Zuboff strips the veneer that attempts to describe the vast and intrusive collection of our personal information as an inevitable side effect or “exhaust” produced by machines working to help us live better lives. It’s a lie, of course, because machines do what we ask them to do, and Zuboff describes in meticulously researched detail how tech industries and their leaders have deliberately established empires of control that systematically monitor our activities and harvest the information about us to create predictive models of our behavior. These models are then sold to advertisers, political operatives, security forces, and who knows what other entities with an interest in our actions. More recently, frustrated by the wait between predicting our actions and our actual actions, the tech leaders have been developing techniques to dynamically shape our behavioral patterns as commanded by the client du jour. Make no mistake, a small group of individuals is seeking to design the pattern of our lives en masse and individually. These people want to own your ass.

This is the new colonialism. In the 21st century, as in the 19th century, visual imagery is at the heart of the enterprise. How we see and are seen are not just descriptive processes showing what we’re wearing and doing at any moment. How we conduct ourselves and our attitude to each situation is also of interest, with much of it expressed in facial expressions and posture. In other words, data alone are insufficient to satisfy the needs of our new would-be controllers. We are being watched, and our lives and how we live them are the essence of surveillance capitalism.

It’s easy to think of this as an extreme exaggeration that distorts and belittles the agonizing experience of 19th century slavery, and indeed there is no equivalence between tortured labor in King Leopold’s Congo and wasting one’s life in Mr. Zuckeberg’s Facebook or in navigating the hundreds of apps that each consume our attention and our data. But there are reasons to consider the comparison, starting with the estimated million Uyghurs currently experiencing the ultimate cruelty of deliberate genocide, caught in the machinery of social control that is inextricably connected to and dependent on the same visual technologies that are shaping life in the west.

The visual image is not incidental to these technologies. It is foundational, and some of the same developers building the machinery of ease and efficiency in North America are simultaneously consulting with the Chinese authorities and advising on their alternate application of the same technology in Xinjiang. Some of this is as simple as traditional security cameras whose output is watched by vigilant apparatchiks. Still, in the context of today’s mass observation, such quaint arrangements have little place. More relevant are the machines that process vast volumes of imagery gathered across great distances, monitor behavior patterns, highlight anomalies while seeking and identifying individuals by name, and measure their qualitative responses to their circumstances.

All of this is evident in the story of a single woman of Kazakh descent, Anar Sabit, visiting Xinjiang from Canada to be with her family after her father’s death in 2017. Xinjiang in northwest China is home to many ethnic Kazakhs and is also the center of Uyghur culture that is the subject of so much attention from Beijing. From the moment of her first arrival in China, the authorities observed her and played with her like a cat with a mouse. Sometimes she was intercepted for no apparent reason other than to make the point that every intimate aspect of her life was known to the authorities. These details were more than the data that described the location and duration of her movements or social media comments. They were qualitative observations of who she engaged with and how she engaged with them, which echo and develop the traditional techniques of visual surveillance. What makes it different is the scale of the operation that tracked Anar Sabit’s progress across large distances as one among millions subject to similar intrusive surveillance. The chilling conclusion is that by applying the technology of seeing machines connected to the internet and enabled by artificial intelligence, everyone is already a person of interest whose every action and mannerism is recorded, scrutinized, and judged even before a human eye sees the action.

The power of seeing machines is not science fiction. It is cold reality, and although this case is only one example (albeit an example of infinite despair), it becomes necessary to confront the uncomfortable reality that we don’t know what other examples might already exist. Nor how visual technologies might be applied in areas of our lives beyond entertainment and commercial consumerism. What happens when these tools of convenience become tools of control, used without our knowledge or consent by political powers, security enforcers, and other unknown operatives with yet unimagined objectives? The Cambridge Analytica debacle, made public in 2018, demonstrated a potential for massive social manipulation but barely hinted at the full extent of the opportunities for political control wrapped in the new technologies. This single failed intervention caused much outrage, and although Cambridge Analytica subsequently ceased operations, it certainly didn’t mark the end of such shenanigans.

Surveillance through seeing machines is just the beginning. Steve Coll points out that “when dictators abuse spyware, they are merely adapting digital marketing techniques of consumer ‘targeting’ pioneered by Silicon Valley for the age of ubiquitous, indispensable smartphones.” But when a government co-opts surveillance technologies and integrates them into state infrastructure, the consequences jump to another level. For example, a 2021 investigation by the New York Times attempted to unpick the secretive budgeting process of the city’s police department to reveal how the force is adopting the new tools of surveillance. Unsurprisingly facial recognition is fed by a citywide network of Argus cameras, flying eyes (both autonomous and with human pilots), a visual database scraped from social media and official city records. Combined with automated license plate identification, no public action can be considered unseen, and the mobile X-ray vans reveal even previously private information. Local law requiring the police department to disclose the full extent of their investment in surveillance technology was implemented in 2020 but has yet to produce a full accounting of their activity.

By 2022 there will be 45 billion cameras in the world. However, very few of these cameras will be dedicated to the 180-year tradition of documentation applied to journalism, weddings, social media, pornography, catalogs, and all the other uses to which we’ve become accustomed. We have a patchy awareness that we’re being watched, and with social media, we’re invited to join a small part of the watching. Wearing the modern equivalent of our Sunday best, we present ourselves online, inviting commentary and judgment from our chosen communities. In those communities, compliance is modeled by the influencers and enforced by the trolls, with, of course, the visual image as the social force multiplier. Part intimate and part showboating, it’s all a performance, and it fulfills several useful functions in our service to the new colonialists. It establishes self-regulation, training in new approaches to our work and social lives while being susceptible to any direct messaging the controllers believe to be helpful and promoting their purpose.

The tech engineers of today’s neo-colonialist structures have learned the lessons of history. The 21st century has taken an impression from the 19th century and exploits many of the same principles while inverting them. Just as a mold replicates the shape of an original object but translated from positive to negative form, so the 19th century tools of colonialism are reproduced in the 21st century but inside out. Most significantly, the function of “otherness” which was once a tool of control, is represented by its inverse impression, as conformity. And as different as they appear to be, the shape of the resulting behavior and their ultimate purpose is identical: compliance.

If we are the raw material and behavioral predictions of our lives are the product in this new structure as outlined by Zuboff, can we push the analogy further? Is our attention the currency of this new economic system? The new digital colonialists crave our attention, and with some of the world’s largest businesses built on the hardware and content of entertainment, it’s easy to see why given eyes watching screens equals revenue. Here again, the visual image is at the hub of the enterprise. From gaming to movies, TV, and even music, imagery binds everything together, and our job is to consume as much as we can and then some more. From the building-sized and sun-bright billboards of Times Square to the three-by-four-inch screens in our pockets, imagery is force-fed to us, and we are commanded to consume it. Reed Hastings, Netflix CEO, has said that his greatest competition doesn’t come from another tech company or any corporation but sleep. As much as we consume entertainment in various media, the media that we consume are scrutinizing us with equal and greater attention.

Surveillance is now conducted as though on steroids, and visual information is an integral component in these new technologies of dominance. Zuboff reveals that great attention is now paid to micro-expressions, which are involuntary facial twitches too small to be consciously readable by other humans but which, it turns out, offer fantastic insights into our actual attitudes and expectations. This is like enriched uranium to the new colonialists, fuelling their imperative to predict our behavior accurately and with as much detail as possible. With our faces now pointed at screens for so many hours in the day, the race is on to create contexts in which these micro-expressions can be gathered as another commodity in the harvest of visual information reaped by our new colonial controllers. Having gained our attention, our new controllers are looking back at us even harder than we are looking at the screen.

We are soon to leave the age of big data as we arrive in the new age of the visual image. Unlike the dusty, dry arithmetic of data, which essentially just counts the numbers (ten visits, three minutes, seven dollars, etc.) the visual image comes overflowing with qualitative information. As we develop machines that not only count the objects in a frame but also extract meaning with increasing sophistication, the colonialists are gaining access to unprecedented knowledge about our lives. Some of this visual information, maybe even most of it, is available to all of us in its raw form. We can walk through a store and we’ll see if it’s busy and get a good sense of the spatial and temporal proximity of people and objects (who stands where and when). But we can only form an impression and we can’t hope to develop an accurate understanding of the detail. And while we might get a general sense of the mood of the customers, we’ll never know how many are happy or angry at any point in time, and we can only guess at the factors that influence these emotions and behaviors. Electronic surveys that observe and assimilate our behaviors are now commonplace in most large retail environments, but it has not been previously possible to monitor behaviors coherently across a shopping mall, a city, or a continent. This is where our observations fade to irrelevance. Although the dry arithmetic of data can be whipped into a creamy froth, neither we nor big data can match the wealth of knowledge available in visual imagery.

Seeing machines can no longer be assumed to be passive collectors of light. As always, yesterday’s vocabulary struggles to accommodate the significance of today’s technology. Many of the things we call “cameras” today are hardly even distant relations of the lightproof chambers of yesteryear. Many don’t even use lenses. Their functionality ranges from the simple collection of light energy through to the construction of visual imagery compiled from signals at the edges of the electromagnetic spectrum and beyond (in the case of GAN creating photographs from verbal inputs). The human psychology of visual perception hasn’t changed much since 1840, and neither has the popular understanding of the nature and purpose of visual communication. Yet, we have entered the new Millennium with the technology of seeing matching and even exceeding the complexity of the human visual process. Things have changed a great deal beneath the veneer of continuity as we moved from analog to digital processes. The protocols that we hammered out since the invention of photography have offered some sort of a guide to seeing by harnessing the complexities of imagination and memory. But they will fail us from now on.

With photo-style imagery now predominantly in digital form, we have transferred our trust from glass to algorithmic wizardry. Equally, we have transferred our faith to the people who manage the algorithms and now have massive control over the ethics and protocols of data management. This control is hoarded by them, not only for immediate commercial imperatives but also to shield us from understanding the processes integral to the new colonialism. New social hierarchies are being formed around access to such knowledge.

I am acutely aware of the irony that I, as a white male, am suddenly sensitized to the wrongs of colonialism now that I can no longer assume to be part of the elite. Having spent my career attempting to apply photography for betterment, I’m further embarrassed by the persistent complicity of photography in the construction and the maintenance of many wrongs. But why study history if we can’t learn and grow from the wisdom of ages? Everyone with a social conscience is obligated to learn because we still have agency through our (required) participation in the social and political systems that drive visual culture. Even as machines take on ever-more complex tasks of counting, measuring, and interpreting, we who feed the machines have a part to play in the ages-old tug of war between users and the used. We are the resistance with our sure knowledge of the value of all life and the importance of human dignity.

Our resistance includes many actions, such as wearing the fashion fabrics explicitly designed to confuse machine brains (for a theoretical analysis of how clothing can challenge artificial intelligence see Adam Harvey’s projects, and for a variety of other disruptive wearables keep an eye on the Web Urbanist). Our resistance includes the disruptive analysis of thinkers such as Trevor Paglan, who extrapolates from the visual to understand the larger social issues. And our resistance includes the documentarians who observe and inform, we can all do something. In the information age, it becomes imperative to be informed. We must each pay attention to our circumstances, take nothing at face value, make connections that reveal the patterns, watch, listen and share what we learn. It’s a fine line that distinguishes difficult new knowledge from hysterical conspiracy, and the key to this and the many other issues we face is to be informed. Our duty of self-education extends to understanding the history of how photography has been employed both as a campaigning tool and as an apparatus of oppression because this racist past informs not only today’s colonialist structures but also feeds many continuing tropes of representation. Deference and humility are due in the recognition of those who paid the highest price in bringing us to this point, and energy is required to ensure that similar racist practices do not form even an implicit part of where we go from here.

As visual storytellers, photographers have a critical role in the ecosystem of visual information as we map a path through the new digital environment. It’s a role that requires us to look beyond the two-dimensional rectangle of pixels that has informed our traditional understanding of the medium and embrace the complexity of all the data embedded in and associated with every image we make. Imagination and creativity will be essential tools, not only in developing our understanding of how information is being used but also in developing alternative applications of the technology that will become the routes for resistance.

We are not in a strong position today, mainly because of the deliberate withholding of knowledge. But now, as in every previous shift in the history of political and economic change, we must imagine alternative possibilities and fight for a better way forward.

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