“Why does gender appear in this primal scene of humans meeting their evolutionary successors, intelligent machines? What do gendered bodies have to do with the erasure of embodiment and the subsequent merging of machine and human intelligence in the figure of the cyborg?”
—N. Katherine Hayles re-reads the Turing “Test”1
“You can never feel comfortable in your own body if you’re a woman here. That’s how I started feeling. Just because I’m born as a woman, people objectify me. People objectify my body, even when I’m in the most private place.”
—Ms. Choi, a survivor of the Molka Epidemic2
“… in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it.”
—Baby Suggs in Toni Morrison’s Beloved
For the past year, one of my best friends has been sending pictures of herself to a man she met at a work conference. What started as casual flirtation has now evolved into something that they do not give a name to. It is sexual; they have had sex two, maybe three times. They never talk to each other on the phone, but message a lot. They have separate, busy lives with families, children, and various care responsibilities. They have both changed jobs and now have little in common, professionally. He follows her on Twitter, but they never interact. He’s a lurker. Everyone has a kink, and theirs is the conceit of the internet. They feel that frequent meeting in the flesh would be a disappointment so they limit it, and quite successfully. This is odd and remarkable because they live in the same city. Sometimes she creates nudes from a strange brew of curiosity and vanity. Sometimes she affixes captions to the images to make them seem more like “real” photographs, testifying to the work put into location, lighting, and mood: “I mean, I am not just a nudie-making machine for some guy,” she says.
Seen in aggregate they are a bit like a puzzle to me: bits of body parts annotated with variously witty, self-deprecatory text and emoji anchored to geographical locations and thousands of other data points and social graphs. Put together the cut-up woman: now there’s a game that machine learning systems are already playing.
So, is this a “thing?” It is not a “thing,” she hastens to clarify. It’s. . . just. . . pictures. I can almost hear the gears inside my own head whirring as I try to figure out what this is all about—if she needs to be protected, managed, warned, or supported. Do you like him? Do you like this? What if he does something with the pictures? “The cyborg fears nothing,” she says, laughing.
Millions of images float around between our phones, data centers, social media clients, and messaging apps all the time, every day. Just as we are constituted by biomes,3 so too are we by volumes of data, ours and from the planet and things on it, that pour into and out of data centers. All our Instagram filter-captured duckfaces make us database superstars. They also verify of our “real” identities, and populate training datasets for styleGAN techniques to create fake, diversity-appropriate, faces.4 Like blood, sweat and tears, our bodies give off data captured by digital moon cups: apps, social media, Fitbits, ovulation apps. The flurry of (meta)data keeps the internet turning and profitable. Information just wants to be free, apparently. As do we, from flesh and steel.5 Machines are trained to shape what news we read, culture we consume, jobs we get, sex we have. Bots even help us navigate harassment and sadness.6 And hetero-petro-capitalism is the crazy glue—or horror movie goo—that holds this all, us all, together. We are told that we are “free” to have a voice and speech online, but not flesh; “community standards” police our nipples and blood, but only selectively regulate our speech. The internet is a real place and what happens there is real. Its relationship to “meatspace,” or the place formerly known as “real” life, is a concern for institutional thinking built around the notion of a human who is real, reasonable (usually a cisman, a White man, a middle class, Upper Caste man) and not a being that is contradictory, partial, illegal, illegible, or unstable.
In this essay I bring together stories about the internet, and from theory, with those of several women like my friend and her friends. I want to put stories of bodily and digital regulation, duplication, sensuality, and defiance in conversation with work by Alexander Weheliye, Asha Achuthan, Coding Rights, Donna Haraway, Kéfir and Vedetas, Manifest-No, #MeToo, Nishant Shah, Ramon Amaro, Sara Ahmed, and Sarah Sharma, among others. Through them I think about the different tropes, hopes, metaphors, and material tactics for negotiating the pleasures and disappointments of our data flesh.
Think of this essay like being ample of bottom and wiggling and wriggling to create room and make space, as Sara Ahmed would have it,7 in small chairs in drab reception areas. “Sometimes that is what we struggle for: wiggle room; to have spaces to breathe. With breath, comes imagination. With breath, comes possibility.” Or as my friend says: “Why go down the path of predictable heteronormative coupling-possession, contractual obligations, NDAs? Don’t we have enough of that anyway?! It is either this, or being the victim of a leak. There has to be something else.”
This story is about transformation of the human through the digital. But which human? Black Studies scholars like Alexander Weheliye8 point out that not so long ago, black bodies put on slave ships traveling across the Atlantic were deemed not-human, rather property; and artist Kodwo Eshun reminds us that they were the first moderns in their sense of “existential homelessness, alienation, dislocation, and dehumanization.”9 Similarly, across other seas, on plantations, and in cities, the bodies of black and brown “natives,” of queers, Dalits, and the differently-abled have populated our legal, socio-affective, moral and political orders as less-than-human. Technologies of measurement and quantification like the sciences, photography, phrenology, and physiognomy were developed to distinguish between “humans” and lesser humans. If we must talk about AI and the internet as potentially transforming the human, then we must acknowledge the history of this category of human-ness. The digital landscapes we live in are marked by this history, resulting in the inequitable distribution of highly automated, statistics-based discrimination and policing of different categories of humans. If we have to consider transformation, we might want to follow Ramon Amaro beyond the human-machine dialectic, who asks what an “aspirational black life” might be, and if it is possible to “gain a right of refusal to representation” through these systems.10 Like Bartleby the Scrivener, is it possible to refuse, firmly: “I would rather not” [be known in this way].11
“I am not a fembot,” my friend says. “And I am also not a cyborg. It is more than this.” She is categorical: “What am I? Who knows?” I have to admit I am curious about looking inside her cool, theory-is-my-bitch mode. I imagine desire quarantined inside a window so small and highly encrypted that both she and this guy have to decode and discover each other anew, every time, asynchronously; steel without, flesh within.
Me: Are straight men grown up enough for this?
Her: Who cares?! He doesn’t need to understand my theory—he only has to look.
The fembot is a dualist fantasy of woman plus machine, the twentieth-century heteronormative, binary-gender ideal wearing its mommy’s high heels: constant sexual availability, a tireless commitment to menial tasks, impossible physical attractiveness, strength, pliancy—and all in a hi-tech machine body! The fembot dominates our desire and perception; the sex robot industry is booming for consumers and producers in countries like China.12 In her forthcoming book, Sarah Sharma shows that the male-stream response is to fix, upgrade, and augment the “woman, who is the broken machine” and that male commentators believe that the surge in the popularity of sex robots is not unrelated to the resistant, complaining #MeToo woman. Robots don’t complain.13 Like Azumi Hikari, the Japanese hologram-girlfriend, Sharma notes that women are good at taking care of all the little things, from finding the best route to the gym to buying train tickets to just a little bit of husky-voiced sex talk.
Just consider what was revealed when Ashley Madison, a Canadian website for married people wishing to have affairs, was hacked in 2015. The website had a disproportionately high number of male subscribers and practically no female subscribers, so the managers scripted 75,000 female chatbots to draw 11 million men into intimate conversations. Each fembot had a name, age, and location and a standard set of lines to contact users built on basic responsive natural language processing abilities. Not a single user appears to have noticed until the breach revealed the digital work force.
The cyborg on the other hand, is the beloved, complicated, ugly step-sibling that calls out all the problematic dualisms at the heart of the modernist technology project: male/female, nature/culture, public/private, animal/machine, master/slave. “Gobsmackingly postmodern”14 when it appeared in “The Cyborg Manifesto” in 1985, the cyborg offers up a queer, “polluted” politics that “insist[s] on noise and advocate[s] pollution, rejoicing in the illegitimate fusions of animal and machine.”15 But thinking about these weird possibilities is challenging because it demands a loosening of the dualisms that hold our own riven selves together.
I suspect many of us think of the metaphorical Haraway-ian cyborg in terms of Lynn Randolph’s popular image accompanying Cyborgs, Simians and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. Raised up in low Cobra-pose, a smiling Sphinx at a keyboard (“her hands poised to play with the cosmos, words, games, images, and unlimited interactions and activities”16) wearing the shamanic White Tigress headdress, its body is a circuit board—galaxies, theorems, and a game of tic-tac-toe swirl around in the vast ether behind. Part woman, part machine, part animal. (Another cut-up).
This is all well and good, but digital life is constantly haunted by the likelihood of violence. My friend is perhaps not so different from @So_Radhikal, who walks a fine line on Twitter sharing a long, explicit thread about feeling guilty and confused following her rape at the age of eighteen.17 This thread resulted in a barrage of abuse, with her being called everything from a slut to a “rape fantasist” to a “terrorist” or someone suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.18 There is something equally alarming and reassuring about her display: that she would expose herself to a public venue and court censure and violence, and that like millions of other young people—many queer, women, and gender-bending—she would collapse the boundaries of public and private mostly erected to bring shame to those who would transgress from one to the other. And like my friend whose photos could end up somewhere in a collection they are not supposed to be in. This guy might share the pictures knowingly, or lose them inadvertently to a hack; messaging apps might keep copies of deleted files. The possibilities for error multiply exponentially.
Freedom from violence and manipulation is unlikely to be handed out by owners of social media platforms or law, for women and queers were never the imagined inheritors of internet freedom. Every act of security to protect myself online only reinforces my outside-ness, because the responsibility to be safe has always been mine. The internet cannot fix what has been broken in society; what the internet tends to do is amplify it. This is the internet working exactly as intended.
Me: I hope all this theory keeps you warm when you’re slut-shamed by the internet. Be careful!
Her: How do you explain freedom to something that wants to manage you?
Nishant Shah suggests that we see ourselves in terms of the figure of the slut, a flash drive, a plug-n-play device; ultimately always circulating stealthily, flashing through our networks and not seeking to be, claim, or arrive somewhere through them.19 Weheliye dismantles the body as a citizen under the control of the law and the State and returns us to flesh. He is not talking about actual biological flesh, but a conceptual and temporal flesh that bears the weight of history, carries the marks of capture, deprivation, and depravity, and must birth future generations of humanity through these legacies.
Privacy activists however propose that “our data is our body and our body is our data.”20 They want to highlight the offline impact of what happens online, like violence, so as to find recourse in the law and policy that tends to otherwise keep the two separate. Going in the other direction, they want to extend responsibility for what happens in one place to the other, like the capture of personal data and its profitability to platform corporations. The need to clarify if we were online or offline when we did something—the “where we were” becoming hopelessly enmeshed with the “who we are”—is fast becoming a relic of a particular time. The logics of inside and outside, or offline and online, will have us trapped in what Asha Achuthan refers to as an “aporea” that opens up between the finitude of the biological limits of women’s bodies, and the purpose of technology to enter it and act on it.21 The “women’s internet training program” and the “Top 100 Women in AI” list are instances of being let back into something we were never part of, and that are not really intended for us in the first place.
What if you were always overflowing, a hot mess, outside of categories, and promiscuous in the first place?22 I want to argue that our aspirations need to be in excess of machine perception, laws and protocols, diversity quotas and awards, not limited to nor aligned with them. Feminist material practices and vocabularies of refusal show us how.
“To speak is to leak,” says Sara Ahmed, and the leak is shameful, be it blood, urine, sweat, or data. Coding Rights, a Brazilian feminist collective, urges us to leak confidently, sexily, with complete knowledge of the affordances of the machine that fosters shame. “Learn how to send sexy nudes!,” they say in their guide to secure communications on the internet.23
Nanda and Nadège, members of the Vedetas and Kéfir collectives, which are feminist, autonomous internet and technology service providers, write in their “raw manifesto’”about how they want to wrest away corporate and proprietary control of the internet by working with slowness, dropping out, not having enough space, and targeted unavailability. They introduce different logics to how we think the internet should function by bringing the limits of their bodies in confrontation with the limitless functionalities promised by the internet. They write: “We strive and understand technologies from the guts, seeking to return to the skin, ancestry, to what makes us feel, what moves us, what connects us, through meaningful and vital actions, through actions that sustain and interconnect, to whom doesn’t contact with tech, digital tech.”24 Similarly, the Manifest-No resists the totalizing force of big data and opens it up to scrutiny and re-working: “Our refusals and commitments together demand that data be acknowledged as at once an interpretation and in need of interpretation. Data is a thing, a process, and a relationship we make and put to use. We can make it and use it differently.”25
Women across India and the Indian diaspora have freely compiled lists of abusive men at their places of work, in academia, and in the arts to gather and share stories of abuse, mostly anonymously. Resorting to the internet in this way has earned them the ire of many conservative commentators, including feminists, who say they ought to rely on the “due process” of the law. The list-makers argue that institutions of the law have never supported women to report violence in the first place. #MeToo is the internet working exactly as intended.
She says to me: “The new normal is realizing that I—not the internet—am a vestibule.”
Elizabeth Grosz refers to bodily flesh as a “vestibular gash.”26 A vestibule: a doorway, an ingress, a cavity, an ante-chamber. A vestibule is that lurching, unstable gangway you must cross to get from one train car to the next. The vestibule is the central part of the bony labyrinth of the inner ear,27 its function being to perceive changes in gravity and acceleration. You feel dizzy, sick and off-balance if something affects your vestibular canals. You are a device; you are also a human—one is always right there next to the other. Yes, you become de-humanized (like all those bodies on ships, on plantations), but you are also the hollow space that absorbs to know what (else) desire, trust, friendship, and safety might be. I believe that my friend the casual nudie-ist, @So_Radhikal the explicit Tweeter, the Latina infrastructure-activists, and all the feminist refuseniks are inhabiting that negative, unstable, highly sensitive vestibule, assuming that transformation is possible.
What if? What if? I want to know from my friend, what is the worst thing that could happen? The worst thing might be what Alan Turing was probably getting at with his Imitation Game. That it is less about if the human can detect the machine, if the machine can pass for human, but rather about the ultimate unknowability of one human to another, that we judge outputs based on inputs into the black boxes of ourselves.28 The worst thing, she says, would be to not have courage—yours and mine—to embrace my errant flesh, my data flesh, its “sorrow songs, smooth glitches, miniscule movements, shards of hope, scraps of food, and interrupted dreams of freedom.”29
1N. Katherine Hayles, How we Became Posthuman: Virtual bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999), ixx.
2“Molka” is the Korean term for secretly filmed images of a sexual nature. The “Molka Epidemic” refers to the discovery that a growing number of spy cams had been secretly installed in private homes, public toilets, changing rooms, and other public venues across Seoul. The practice of releasing such images and videos on the internet has led to large scale protests under the banner of phrases like “My Life is Not Your Porn,” http://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/06/asia/south-korea-spy-cams-toilet-intl/index.html.
3With thanks to Tobias Rees, who introduced me to the compelling story of how our human bodies are made up of microbiomes, https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/mar/26/the-human-microbiome-why-our-microbes-could-be-key-to-our-health.
4Generated Photos (https://generated.photos/) and Rosebud AI (https://www.rosebud.ai/) are businesses that use photos of human faces found online to train machine learning algorithms to generate composite, fictional faces. Generated Photos offers its clients more diverse stock images created by selecting features from a drop-down menu. Soon, the company will offer synthetic bodies to go with the faces. The explosive potential for disinformation aside, actual equity gets a nice, neoliberal, diversity-by-the-numbers fix.
5From John Perry Barlow, “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” https://www.eff.org/cyberspace-independence.
6Recent examples are Caroline Sinders and Comuzi Labs’ CAre B0t, that responds to harassment on social media platforms, and bots and apps that address depression, like Woebot. Interestingly, CAre B0t makes its bot status clear from the start, https://care-bot.schloss-post.com/.
7Sara Ahmed, “Wiggle Room,” feministkilljoys blog, September 28, 2014, https://feministkilljoys.com/2014/09/28/wiggle-room/.
8Alexander Weheliye, Habeas Viscus (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014).
9Kodwo Eshun, “Further Considerations on Afrofuturism,” CR: The New Centennial Review, vol. 3, no. 2 (2003): 287–302.
10Ramon Amaro, “As if,” e-flux architecture, February 14, 2019, https://www.e-flux.com/architecture/becoming-digital/248073/as-if/.
11I reference Kara Keeling’s re-telling of the story of Bartleby the Scrivener in a keynote at the Knowledge Cultures Technology Conference, Leuphana University, September 19–22, 2018, https://one.digitalculturesconference.org/.
12For more on the trend, see Mei Fong, “Sex Dolls Are Replacing China’s Missing Women,” Foreign Policy, September 28, 2017.
13Sarah Sharma., “Feminism of the Broken Machine,” Studium Generale Rietveld Academie, May 14, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f0A1lydIUlA.
14Sophie Lewis, “Cthulhu plays no role for me,” Viewpoint Mag, 2017, https://www.viewpointmag.com/2017/05/08/cthulhu-plays-no-role-for-me/.
15Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Haraway, Manifestly Haraway (Minneapolis/London: University of Minnesota Press, 2016), 57.
16For more on painter Lynn Randolph’s collaboration with Haraway, see http://companionrandolph.blogspot.com/2010/11/modest-witnesses-painters-collaboration.html.
19Nishant Shah, “Sluts ‘r’ us: Intersections of gender, protocol and agency in the digital age,” First Monday, vol. 20, no. 4–6 (2015), https://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/5463/4415.
21Asha Achuthan cited in Shah, “Sluts ‘r’ us.”
22To follow from Wendy Chun and Sarah Friedland’s “Habits of Leaking: Of Sluts and Network Cards,” d i f f e r e n c e s : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, vol. 26, no. 2 (2015).
24Nanda and Nadège, “# From steel to skin,” https://fermentos.kefir.red/english/aco-pele/.
25Cifor, M., Garcia, P., Cowan, T.L., Rault, J., Sutherland, T., Chan, A., Rode, J., Hoffmann, A.L., Salehi, N., Nakamura, L., “Feminist Data Manifest-No,” 2019, https://www.manifestno.com/.
26Elizabeth Grosz cited in Weheliye, Habeus Viscus (2014), chapter 2 “Bare Life.”
28I’m grateful to Daniel Rourke for his comments on this text, particularly with regard to a reading of Alan Turing’s work and legacy in relation to computation and AI.
29James Johnson, “Being and Becoming Human: Weheliye’s Radical Emancipation Theory and the Flesh and Body of Black Studies,” Earlham Historical Journal , vol. 9, no. 2 (Spring 2017): 52.
Maya Indira Ganesh specializes in research on technology, culture and society, with an emphasis on big data politics, digital security and privacy, and AI/Autonomous Systems. She has a hybrid portfolio of work across cultural organizations, academia and NGOs in India and in Europe. Her doctoral research investigates the social and cultural aspects of machines thought to be ‘intelligent’ and ‘autonomous’ and what this means for the category 'human'. Prior to this, Maya spent a decade as an info-activist delighting in visual media and the internet for digital activism; at the same time supporting human rights defenders be secure and private online. Some of this related to developing a feminist perspective on security/privacy to address online harassment. A lifelong consumer of the arts, fiction, and cinema, Maya tries to bring these influences to her non-fiction writing about the affective and political experiences of being entangled with digital technologies. She lives in Berlin. More about her here: https://bodyofwork.in