Decolonizing ‘Datafication’ Discourse

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Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University (UK), presented a paper in the panel on ‘Colonising and Decolonising Data’ at Data Justice 2018, an international conference hosted by the Data Justice Lab at Cardiff University May 21-22 2018.

Here is the title and abstract:

Decolonizing ‘Datafication’ Discourse

It has been claimed that the ‘datafication’ of society has resulted in the emergence of a new set of power dynamics requiring investigation and critique. While conceding that the paradigm of ‘Big Data’, coupled with other developments such as the Internet of Things, data mining and deep learning, indeed gives rise to changed sociotechnical formations, building on arguments made in connection with the proposal for a ‘decolonial computing’ (Ali 2014, 2016, 2017), I suggest that this claim needs to be interrogated with a view to exploring the continuity through change of power relationships between different groups in the world system. Adopting a critical race theoretical and decolonial perspective, I want to draw attention to certain ‘silences’ / ‘erasures’ in discourses associated with the ‘critical’ literature on algorithm/data studies which tend to be framed, tacitly or explicitly, against the backdrop of a world system understood as capitalist / neoliberal, thereby obscuring its origins in racialized colonialism, a long durée project that continues into the post-colonial era through the persistence of ‘coloniality’ – that is, structuring colonial logics. Notwithstanding a certain rhetorical overkill of the ‘datafication’ discourse by its proponents – a form of deception that arguably affords rhetorical power to hegemonic coloniality – such developments can – and do – contribute to maintaining, expanding and refining modern/colonial domination. For this reason, I argue for the need to consider both the rhetoric and the techno-scientific socio-material reality and affordances of ‘Big Data’ and associated developments engaged by both its proponents and critics alike.

For example, there has been a tendency within critical data/algorithm studies to focus on methods obscuring issues of ‘positionality’ – that is, racialized location within the world system – and resulting in such discourses being framed in tacit Eurocentric-universalist terms. For this reason, such discourses must be complemented with a decolonial ‘meta-critique’ disclosing the abstract, homogenizing biases informing such narratives. Similar problems arise in connection with discourses involving ideas such as the ‘Big Data divide’, ‘data colonialism’ and ‘surveillance capitalism’, the latter referring to an ‘emergent logic of accumulation in the networked sphere’. In this connection, I want to suggest that if the analytic frame is shifted from capitalism to racialized-coloniality, it is more useful to think about such developments in terms of ‘surveillance colonialism’ and an emergent logic of domination in the networked sphere, such logic standing in a (re-)productive relation vis-à-vis historically prior yet persistent logics of coloniality and affecting differently-marked bodies located in different geo-political locations differently. I further maintain that a shift in frame from ‘surveillance capitalism’ to ‘surveillance colonialism’ provides the means by which to decolonially-interrogate developments associated with the Internet of Things (IoT) and their mobilization in ICT4D discourses; on this view, the IoT needs to be understood in terms of a refinement of the logics of domination, an ‘iterative’ shift away from overtly political strategies of control embedded in ‘participatory’ ‘aid’ projects, to one involving domination through the dissemination and embedding of standards and closed-source platforms along with what might be described as ‘data settler colonialism’ via non-human technological proxy, viz. sensor devices as ‘digital settlers’ originating in ‘the core’ of the modern/colonial world system and embedded in ‘the periphery’ – a case of ‘from boots on the ground to bits in the ground’.

Finally, I want to argue for the need to interrogate how justice is framed in calls for ‘data justice’, and the nature of the relationship, if any, between such calls and related calls for compensation / reparations vis-à-vis the ongoing ‘legacy effects’ of European colonialism.

REFERENCES

Ali, S.M. (2017) Decolonizing Information Narratives: Entangled Apocalyptics, Algorithmic Racism and the Myths of History. DTMD 2017: 6th International Conference. In: IS4IS Summit Gothenburg 2017 – Digitalisation for a Sustainable Society, 12-16 June, Gothenburg, Sweden.

Ali, S.M. (2016) A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing. XRDS, Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students – Cultures of Computing 22(4): 16-21.

Ali, S.M. (2014) Towards a Decolonial Computing. In Ambiguous Technologies: Philosophical issues, Practical Solutions, Human Nature: Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Computer Ethics –Philosophical Enquiry (CEPE 2013). Edited by Elizabeth A. Buchanan, Paul B, de Laat, Herman T. Tavani and Jenny Klucarich. Portugal: International Society of Ethics and Information Technology, pp.28-35.

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Philosophical Hermeneutics and The Islamicate

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Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University (UK), presented a paper in the session on ‘Critical and Political Issues’ at Philosophical Hermeneutics in the Islamicate Context, an International Conference held at Université catholique de Louvain in Belgium May 9–11 2018.

Here is the title and abstract:

Philosophical Hermeneutics and the Islamicate: Transversals and Reversals

ABSTRACT

Building on earlier work exploring transversals and reversals in the context of engaging the matter of Heidegger and the Islamicate (Ali Forthcoming), in this essay I present two arguments with a view to problematizing the idea of philosophical hermeneutics in the Islamicate context and attempting to motivate its replacement with consideration of philosophical hermeneutics and the Islamicate.

In the first argument, a transversal, I explore an engagement with the thinking of a central figure in the Western tradition of philosophical hermeneutics, Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), effected by a contemporary Muslim thinker living in ‘the West’, Salman Sayyid, pointing to the various strands of pragmatist, Wittgensteinian and Rortyian interpretation of Heidegger that inform his diasporic mobilisation of a discourse-theoretical, post-‘left Heideggerian’ position in pursuit of the project of Critical Muslim Studies. Sayyid’s oeuvre is highly apposite vis-à-vis the matter of ‘philosophical hermeneutics in the Islamicate context’ insofar as it unsettles the idea that Islamicate space is coterminous with geography by pointing to postmodern/postcolonial Islamicate engagement with the Heideggerian corpus within Europe, thereby disrupting the tendency to trans-historically conceive the Islamicate as necessarily situated beyond European/‘Western’ borders. Following a brief overview of “the Sayyidian corpus”, examples of Sayyid’s mobilization of Heideggerian ideas are presented and then subjected to critique with a view to offering suggestions as to how certain perceived problems with Sayyid’s project might be overcome. Notwithstanding such ostensible shortcomings, insofar as Sayyid’s oeuvre is concerned with decentering Eurocentric universalism through a commitment to a post-positivist, post-Orientalist and decolonial perspective, I suggest that its basic orientation is both sound and productive, and seek to mobilize it in arguing that the question concerning ‘philosophical hermeneutics in the Islamicate context’ is tacitly Orientalist and Eurocentrically-universalist, and that it thereby warrants contestation through decentering.

This leads to my second argument, a reversal, which seeks to interrogate the distinction between philosophical hermeneutics and Islamicate thought. Consistent with the understanding that genealogies are fluid, hybrid and cross-civilizational, I do not seek to argue for a ‘reversal’ in the sense that philosophical hermeneutics can be reductively traced to and/or grounded in Islamicate thought; rather, that the distinction between philosophical hermeneutics and Islamicate thought arguably turns on a certain essentialist, Eurocentrically-universalist and Orientalist conception of the location (geographical, historical, cultural etc.) of ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’. In this connection, I draw upon the work of Asad, Cavanaugh and others which interrogates the genealogies of religion and secularism with a view to problematizing how the engagement of Islamicate thought and philosophical hermeneutics is framed; in this sense, my argument for reversal should be seen as an attempt to further contest the tacit knowledge/power asymmetry associated with use of the prepositional ‘in’ as contrasted with the conjunctive ‘and’ to which attention was drawn in an earlier work (Ali Forthcoming). On this basis, I suggest that rather than consider how a tacitly Eurocentrically-universal philosophical hermeneutics might inform engagement with the Islamicate tradition, it is decolonially more productive to think about how a non-Eurocentrically-universal Islamicate philosophical hermeneutics might self-reflexively engage the Islamicate legacy and other-reflexively engage the contents of the ‘Western’ tradition. In this connection, I point to some pre-modern/pre-colonial and postmodern/postcolonial thinkers within the Islamicate context who operate with what can only sensibly be described as a universal philosophical hermeneutics, albeit an ‘other’ universality.

REFERENCES

Ali, S.M. (Forthcoming) Heidegger and the Islamicate: Transversals and Reversals. In Heidegger in the Islamicate World. Edited by Kata Moser and Urs Goesken. Washington: Rowman & Littlefield.

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‘White Crisis’ and/as ‘Existential Threat’, or The Entangled Apocalypticism of Artificial Intelligence

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Dr Syed Mustafa Ali at the CenSAMM AI and Apocalypse Symposium 2018

Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University (UK), delivered the following paper at the Conference on Artificial Intelligence and The Apocalypse organised by CenSAMM (Centre for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements), a new initiative of the Panacea Charitable Trust in Bedford, UK, which took place 5-6 April 2018:

‘White Crisis’ and/as ‘Existential Threat’, or The Entangled Apocalypticism of Artificial Intelligence

Interested viewers can watch the presentation which is available on YouTube:

Complete recordings of the two days proceedings (talks, panel discussions etc.) are available here.

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The (Un)bearable Whiteness of Informationalist Religion

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Dr Syed Mustafa Ali at OURS2018Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University (UK), delivered the following presentation at the OURS2018 Conference Contemporary Religion in Historical Perspective: Publics and Performances which was held at The Open University, Kents Hill, Milton Keynes, February 19-21, 2018:

The (Un)bearable Whiteness of Informationalist Religion

ABSTRACT

Against the backdrop of earlier work exploring ‘entanglements’ of race and information (Ali 2013), information, race, religion and Orientalism (Ali 2015), and the sedimented anti-Islamic historically-constitutive ‘essence’ of European cum ‘Western’ socio-political formation (Ali 2017a), I have recently argued that late techno-capitalist developments such as Transhumanism and technological Posthumanism are usefully interpreted as ‘iterations’ of the phenomenon of whiteness within a long durée modern/colonial ‘Western’ historical onto-logics that might be characterized as ‘algorithmic racism’ – more specifically, as a response to perceived ‘White Crisis’ or whiteness under increasing non-white contestation (Ali 2017b). Drawing on the insights of Noble (1997), Davis (1998) and others, I have also argued that Transhumanism / technological Posthumanism might – should – also be understood as a techno-apocalyptic (millennial) ‘religious’ phenomenon, iterative within the same algorithmically-racist ontological ‘horizon’ (Ali 2016) (Ali 2017c).

In this paper, I continue the exploration of the entanglement of race, religion and information by situating Transhumanism and technological Posthumanism in the context of broader ‘informationalist’ currents that include ‘New Religious Movements’ (NRMs) emerging within ‘Western’ societies such as Anthony Levandowski’s ‘Way of the Future’ and ‘Syntheism’ as proposed by Alexander Bard and Jan Söderqvist (2014). My concern is to subject such developments to critical race theoretical and decolonial interrogation along body-political, geo-political and theo-political lines with a view to disclosing the hegemonic yet masked operation of whiteness, Orientalism and post-Christianity against the backdrop of an ‘algorithmically racist’ techno-apocalyptic/utopian ontological horizon.

REFERENCES

  • Ali, S.M. (2017a) Islam between Inclusion and Exclusion: A (Decolonial) Frame Problem. In The Future Information Society: Social and Technological Problems. Edited by Wolfgang Hofkirchner and Mark Burgin. Singapore, World Scientific, pp.287-305.
  • Ali, S.M. (2017b) Transhumanism and/as Whiteness. Transhumanism – The Proper Guide to a Posthuman Condition or a Dangerous Idea? Workshop. In: IS4IS Summit Gothenburg 2017 – Digitalisation for a Sustainable Society, 12-16 June, Gothenburg, Sweden. Proceedings 2017, 1(3), 244; doi:10.3390/IS4SI-2017-03985
  • Ali, S.M. (2017c) Decolonizing Information Narratives: Entangled Apocalyptics, Algorithmic Racism and the Myths of History. DTMD 2017: 6th International Conference. In: IS4IS Summit Gothenburg 2017 – Digitalisation for a Sustainable Society, 12-16 June, Gothenburg, Sweden. Proceedings 2017, 1, 50; doi:10.3390/IS4SI-2017-03910
  • Ali, S.M. (2016) Algorithmic Racism: A Decolonial Critique. 10th International Society for the Study of religion, Nature and Culture Conference: Religion, Science and The Future. University of Florida, Gainesville, Florida, January 14-17.
  • Ali, S.M. (2015) Orientalism and/as Information: The Indifference That Makes a Difference. DTMD 2015: 3rd International Conference. In: IS4IS Summit Vienna 2015 – The Information Society at the Crossroads, 3 – 7 June, Vienna, Austria. http://dx.doi.org/10.3390/isis-summit-vienna-2015-S1005.
  • Ali, S.M. (2013) Race: The Difference That Makes a Difference. tripleC 11 (1): 93-106.
  • Bard, A. and Söderqvist, J. (2014) Syntheism: Creating God in the Internet Age. Stockholm: Stockholm Text.
  • Davis, E. (1998) Techgnosis: Myth, Magic and Mysticism in the Age of Information. New York: Harmony Books.
  • Noble, D. (1997) The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention. New York: Penguin Books.

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BOOK: (White) Imaginary Futures

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I have almost finished reading the outstanding work Imaginary Futures: From Thinking Machines to The Global Village (London: Pluto Press, 2007) by white Marxist male, Richard Barbrook. IMHO, the work makes for a veritable tour de force and is essential reading for those interested in decolonizing computing vis-a-vis understanding how (white) visions of the future repeatedly – or rather ‘algorithmically‘ – inform and inflect the present, not to mention for Barbrook’s useful, yet highly Eurocentric, account of the Cold War origins of computers, ICTs (information and communication technologies) and the Net. (For a brief discussion of the ‘algorithmic’ nature of White Supremacy / Racism, interested readers are invited to check out the following extended abstract by Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University: “Transhumanism and/as Whiteness“.)

Interested readers can download a copy (PDF format) of the book here.

A highly useful overview of the book was presented by Barbrook at Warwick University in 2011 and is available for viewing on YouTube:

One of the most interesting sequences of slides appearing towards the end of the presentation is the following:The Futures.JPG

From a Counter-Racist / decolonial perspective, I am immediately led to ask who is this we that Barbrook is inviting to invent new futures? I should also like to suggest that for non-white VoRs (Victims of Racism / White Supremacy), the wording of the first slide (on the left) should be replaced with the following:

Those who do not remember the [White Supremacist / Racist] future [that shapes the White Supremacist / Racist present] are condemned to [have the White Supremacist / Racist future] repeated [on them]

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TALK: Decolonising Information

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Interested readers are invited to check out the slides accompanying a short invited presentation entitled ‘Decolonising Computing’ given by Dr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University, UK.

The talk was delivered as part of a workshop on diversity and inclusion in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) teaching at the 6th eSTEeM Annual Conference: STEM FuturesSupporting Students to Succeed which took place on 25-26 April 2017 at The Open University.

The slides (PDF format) are available for viewing / download from here.

Interested readers are invited to check out the following related materials:

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TALK: The Decolonial Question Concerning Computing

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DRSMADr Syed Mustafa Ali, Lecturer in the School of Computing and Communications at The Open University (UK), delivered a talk entitled “The Decolonial Question Concerning Computing” at the Can Science Be Decolonised? conference which was organised by KCL WiSTEM (Women in STEM), KCL IFemSoc (Intersectional Feminism Society) & KCL BSA (Bioscience Students’ Association), and held at the Waterloo Campus of Kings College London (KCL) on 18-19 March 2017.

  • Interested viewers with FB access can access a video recording of the talk from here.
  • Interested readers can view / download a copy (PDF format) of the slides from here.
  • Recordings of presentations by all conference speakers are available from here.

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