Manifest Destiny in the Digital Age

May 2017

Gretta Louw is a South African-born Australian artist, writer, and curator whose practice explores the potential of art as a means of investigating psycho-social and cultural phenomena, particularly in relation to digital technologies and the internet.

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The language we use to describe the internet and tech industry is revealing. The Internet is the new wild west; a new frontier; tech companies and start-ups on the cutting edge are entering uncharted territory. The people that push forward the expansion of networked technology are digital pioneers; those who are born into its shadow are digital natives.

The myth that has been sold to us (or, arguably, we have been sold into its slavery) is that the internet will emancipate us – that is, ‘we/us’ who are not tech oligarchs and are thus on the losing end of the power equation between people and the data/digital economy; that the ‘democratic’ sharing of information will make the world more transparent and thus necessarily more just. Forget the fact that the algorithms governing our access to information through search engines or social media platforms (I often think that there’s a reason they’re called ‘feeds’; a word that implies passivity and resignation) are proprietary and utterly un-transparent.

Forget fake news and opaque, value-driven censorship by privatised entities a.k.a. social media companies. Forget, also, that in 2013, the US was home to 8 of the top 10 internet tech companies, but only 19% of their users. And of course do not allow yourself to consider the implications of such a one-sided export of cultural and social ideology and norms by such a small proportion of the world’s population to the rest of it, nor the amount of personal data that is flowing back towards the source from all the global users.

Information asymmetry is power asymmetry. If “data is the new oil” in the 21st Century, then internet users are the raw earth from which this oil is extracted; a commodity to be exploited for the benefit of the oil barons. In this, there is at least some equity amongst users around the world: the parity of the powerless. Except that isn’t accurate either.

The new colonial powers are the digital nation-states of companies like Facebook, Google, Apple – each with their own draconian border laws and hostile foreign policies. Facebook makes no secret of it’s designs on empire; it wants to be the medium through which all our (online) communication takes place, which is why it is busy buying up apps and patents across all modes; instant messaging, VR, AR, and more. Google’s aggressive expansion into new realms of business, archiving, and research is mercurial, creating a vacuum into which talent, competitors, and capital alike are sucked. Even in its astonishingly greedy approach to archiving, though, there is a clearly colonialistic hierarchy of what is deemed culturally and historically valuable.

The closer a user is to the cultural value assumptions of the fenced-off online territory of the ‘service provider’ they are using, the more likely they are to benefit from it, however peripherally. Also, the more chance they have of one day joining its ranks and becoming an insider, the more validation they receive from the media they consume. The more culturally-relevant content that is available for them. In fact, if you think about this through the framework of cost (e.g. per MB) of a unit of culturally-relevant content, it radically shifts the value-for-money of huge tracts of the internet depending on the user’s background.

What the images in this slideshow demonstrate, above all, is the fallacy, the falsehood, in the techno-utopian myths perpetuated by the technological elite about the internet and digital technologies. On every level, from how the human form is visualised online, to the language bias (circa 60% of the internet is in English, compared to only 10-15% of the world’s population who speak the language) or recurring whitewashing in digital pop culture, we see the overwhelming dominance of northern, western, urban, anglo-saxon imagery and values. We see the stark contrast between the people who produce the devices and the depiction of the people who use the devices. We see the tech oligarchs and their scantily covered colonialist tendencies. We see the Global North’s visioning of the Global South and how this gaze is one that manipulates meaning to better suit a marketing message (i.e. Facebook’s controversial program , since rebranded as Free Basics) or how it intends to map, archive, collect and own – all central motives to Google’s archiving projects.

We are living through a digitally camouflaged rebirth of the concept of manifest destiny. We are watching wannabe world powers staking out their territory backed by the armoury of their superior computing power. The difference now is that the maps on which they are drawing lines chart the terrain of attention, which translates into earning potential, and – above all – data. But at least it makes the mission fairly simple: resist.