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Restoring the Depleted World

Published onNov 24, 2020
Restoring the Depleted World
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We must now think and act in a depleted and depleting world: depleted by concatenating and ramifying regimes of extraction, layered and laminated on top of each other. Call it the Anthropocene or the Capitalocene or whatever you like. Some zones in this world are, indeed, far more depleted than others, and some zones still enrich themselves through the destruction of others. We are shocked by how ill-equipped we are to offer tactics to mitigate this situation. Some of us perceive power as totalizing and inevitable. Some of us feel too implicated in digital environments and their affordances to posit tactics or fixes to digital precarity. Despite the helplessness we feel, we write this chapter in an attempt to give you, our reader, something to hold on to.

It has to be acknowledged: many struggle within the struggle, without collective bargaining rights, within imminent environmental catastrophe, and atmospheric anti-blackness,1 and in spite of the violence of police power and the criminalization of poverty and protest.

The burdens of solving precarity too often fall on those who are already the most precarious. But sometimes, one has to take two steps back to take three steps forward, and draw strength and courage from our radical forebears, our queer aunts and odd uncles who have faced these dilemmas before. We learn from woman-of-color feminist collectives and other communities of precarious people who know how to build worlds out of debris: reading groups, game nights, acts of kindness and sustenance.

Gloria Anzaldúa: “Perhaps like me you are tired of suffering and talking about suffering […] Basta de gritar contra el viento—toda palabra es ruido si no está acompañada de acción (enough of shouting against the wind—all words are noise if not accompanied with action). Dejemos de hablar hasta que hagamos la palabra luminosa y activa (let’s work not talk, let’s say nothing until we’ve made the world luminous and active) […] With This Bridge […] hemos comenzado a salir de las sombras; hemos comenzado a reventar rutina y costumbres opresivas y a aventar los tabúes; hemos comenzado a acarrear con orgullo la tarea de deshelar corazones y cambiar conciencias (we have begun to come out of the shadows; we have begun to break with routines and oppressive customs and to discard taboos; we have commenced to carry with pride the task of thawing hearts and changing consciousness). Mujeres, a no dejar que el peligro del viaje y la inmensidad del territorio nos asuste—a mirar hacia adelante y a abrir paso en el monte (Women, let’s not let the danger of the journey and the vastness of the territory scare us—let’s look forward and open paths in these woods). Caminante, no hay puentes, se hace puentes al andar (Voyager, there are no bridges, one builds them as one walks).”2

We hold dominant social imaginaries responsible to the multiple and often conflicting visions of communities. These visions are rooted in histories of exploitation and domination as they imagine or design future infrastructure. In their wake, precarious subjects break the chains of enclosure for a chance to let different modes of existence circulate and propagate.

Infrastructures have long been the arteries of extraction. Digital infrastructures, from fiber optics to communications platforms, are run on dispossession, genocide, forced relocation, and extraction. Local communities have responded by “bootstrapping” digital infrastructure. Rather than owning the means of production directly, appropriating the means of mediation has become a way to control the lifeblood of commodity circulation. These modes of mediated extraction (re)produce racialized subjects as surplus. In what follows, we look to fragile, iterative projects that are likely to break down in some capacity. Each small failure is a cut, a fissure in the infrastructure. Highly local, non-transposable, these projects regenerate, build, and speculate other futures.

The following projects model the rebuilding of the commons after its dismantling by privatization. They do not exist fully outside of the economy of privatization but prop open enclosed infrastructures. These projects assert the community’s right to control its technology. We want to hold open the extent to which these projects offer a glimpse at the possibility of constructing something like a commons that sits atop already privatized channels of communication.

However, we also recognize that projects like these may also have a more pernicious function: that of offloading the work of constructing, repairing, and maintaining infrastructures onto precarious communities that have already lost ground to the depletion economy.

Because computers offer convenience, distraction, social connection, efficiency and pleasure, we can’t give them up or give up on them. These projects gesture to alternative ways of being with technology. We note, however, that our discussions of particular projects are not to be read as endorsements, nor as condemnations of organizing practices. Rather, we look to these initiatives as having a fraught orientation to precarity, capitalism, and surveillance.

Example 1: Detroit Digital Stewards Program

Post-deindustrialization efforts to “revitalize” Detroit return us to our earlier theorization of the laboratory. Detroit is often understood by white folks across political spectrums as the model of the inevitable decline of Made in America, the debris of outsourcing production. We echo the work of community leaders, activists, and black academics in refuting the characterization of Detroit-as-detritus, but call attention to the projects (both those being imposed on Detroit and those implemented by the local communities) as engaging in and/or working against the surveillant laboratory model of innovation.

We begin with the Detroit Digital Stewards Program in Detroit, Michigan, a project based in highly segregated and predominantly Latina/o/x and African-American (and, in some cases, rapidly gentrifying) neighborhoods. The Digital Stewards, supported by a partnership between Allied Media projects and Open Technology Institute, are residents from low-income neighborhoods who train local residents in installation, maintenance, and support of network technology. Some have expertise in web support or construction; others are youth or elders with no prior tech experience.

The group installs and supports mesh networks in Detroit neighborhoods, using hardware that constructs local area networks (LANs) for hyperlocal communication and shared libraries of audio and text resources. These mesh networks can also act as magnifiers for wireless internet, expanding the range of a single Wi-Fi access point to encompass not just an individual home, but an entire block. Neighbors can therefore share internet access with each other, and help each other solve connection problems along the way.

Hardware and network support are economically out-of-reach for many residents in underserved communities. The Detroit Community Technology Project, an organization that runs the Digital Stewards Program, runs a web access network for local people that also provides community self-determination. This group works with communities to decide how they will use their local area connections and monitor equitable bandwidth usage among themselves.

In recent years, this work has expanded to include the creation of a print manifesto and how-to guide on community safety in the face of digital surveillance and extraction, called “Our Data Bodies.”3

It also includes a disaster response plan involving battery-run LAN lines, portable kits that extend the range of the network in case of breakdown, solar portable charging stations that double as maps for food and shelter in local areas, and community-organized training so that people can use the networks to facilitate resource distribution and provide shelter in the case of natural disaster.

In asserting that communication is a human right, these Detroit-based digital infrastructural projects are neither technophobic nor technophilic, neither techno-optimistic nor pessimistic. Instead, they strip “the digital” down to its fundamental affordance as a communication tool. The Detroit Community Technology Project is an experiment in social safety networking. They imagine another trajectory: what if the internet had been designed for the neighborhood, for the articulation of different socialities, rather than for the boardroom, shopping mall, and battlefield?

Example 2: Palestine and Maps.me

Israel has long experimented modes of governance and genocide on Palestinians. From limiting the number of calories per person that can enter into Gaza, to experimenting with white phosphorus, Palestinian bodies are subject to surveillance and premature death.

One of the unexpected side effects of platform capitalism is the increased precarity of subaltern subjects. For example, the supremacy of Google Maps and Alphabet-owned Waze paired with a lack of accurate maps of Palestine on these platforms has meant that Palestinian local knowledge is not integrated into these applications. Additionally, the technological apartheid enacted by Israel has meant that Palestinians cannot always access 4G networks.4

Therefore, a number of Palestinians have released alternative mapping applications, like QalandiaApp and Azmeh. Basel Sader, the 20-year-old law student that developed English- and Arabic-language Azmeh for iPhone and Android operating systems in 2015, explained: “This application can’t give [Palestinians] the freedom of movement but it can make things easier for them.”5 These two applications feature user-submitted traffic conditions at Israeli checkpoints and are designed to run on slow networks. Within five months of its launch, 11,000 Azmeh users could find traffic data for 47 checkpoints.

In December 2017, Wired Magazine featured Maps.me as a step-by-step navigation application used by Palestinians that draws from open-source data and can be downloaded for offline use. The application draws on data from OpenSourceMaps (OSM), a collaborative, volunteer-run, free, and open project that creates base maps. OSM Palestine volunteers have difficulties mapping Palestine as well, like constantly changing geographical and traffic conditions due to Israeli bombings and checkpoints.6 Furthermore, most Palestine mappers are not locals – they tend to be Israelis of all political orientations, or humanitarian activists using satellite data. Mappers discuss how to distinguish information from noise.

“there are some tracks that go over landfill, farmyards, roads and buildings that seem to be tank traces, im taging [sic] them as |highway=track | tracktype=grade3 | note=seems to be tank tracks |”

“I believe we should only be showing permanent features and that tank tracks are not permanent. Shell holes might be if they are big enough (many became fishing ponds in Vietnam) but the ones in Gaza don’t seem to be that big.”7

QalandiaApp, Azmeh, OSM, and Maps.me gesture to questions of whether violence creates geographic features, questions around access and accountability, of what information can or should be mapped, who should be mapping it, and for what purpose. Rather than understanding maps as mundane objects, these projects indicate the stakes of application-based mapping tools. Maps can be crucial for survival, not just for finding the nearest Starbucks.

Privatized systems prey on racial minorities; these regenerating economies allow for experimenting with new forms of life and solidarity. Gloria Anzaldúa believed that radical politics need to be grounded in the body, in aesthetic creativity, in community, “there are no bridges, one builds one as one walks.”

What you do is always tenuous, in process and built in compromised terrain. As a result, building as you go requires a different way of articulating the commons. Echoing the Zapatista proverb, “asking, we walk” (preguntando caminamos).

You, we, us need to allow the process of questioning what is to be done to inform what we do and to bring us together in difference as a way to produce collectivity. This is what the digital projects in Detroit and Palestine have been doing. This is what the process of writing this book has been. In the exercise of questioning, we moved forwards and sideways, though more importantly we momentarily loosened the turn of the screw.

Precarious lives bear the burden of risk and uncertainty that are the residual effects of our extractive and depleting post-digital economy. Collectivist projects and regenerating economies inject hope and fear in connections from old broken worlds to new worlds of endurance, one tenuous thread at a time.

Under what can feel like an unbearable present, some have the strength to build anew. Others retreat, seeking tender refuge in the undercommons of networks of alternative kinship, in covens of care.


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