Originally published on the LSE Human Rights Blog
Across India, one of the world’s ‘fastest growing economies’, humans from certain Dalit castes work as ‘manual scavengers’ that rummage through and clean other ‘high’ caste people’s dry toilets and carry their human waste. The men often clean the sewers and septic tanks while the women transport the human waste for disposal by carrying piles of excreta in cane baskets. It is estimated that over 600 such sewer workers die every year by inhaling poisonous gases. The figure is more than ten times the number of Indian soldiers who get killed each year.
In stark contrast, the internet is often held as a ‘modern’ hierarchy-less virtual space of limitless possibilities where ‘pre-modern’ categories such as caste, race and gender do not exist. I want to trouble this assumption and explore how the production, maintenance and ‘optimization’ of new media technologies that make some populations thrive and live a fantasy of a ‘post-human’ internet is often constructed through the invisibilization of the bodies and the labour, including the labour of death of (re)colonized others in ‘far away lands’.
The social imaginary that drove colonialism was based on the logic that knowledge emerged in West, and was extended to ‘the rest’ through the generosity of its violent imperial reach. It was believed that the colonized black and brown slaves needed the ‘civilizing project’ of colonialism and as such, colonialism was an inevitable righteous and pious endeavour. Almost all dominant institutions, including the scientific industrial complex, were mobilized to justify this truth claim. Meanwhile, colonial extraction continued to provide the resources that stimulated the Industrial Revolution. Some goods, including various technologies that were produced using the resources extracted off the colonies, were sold back to the colonized subjects, creating vicious cycles of dependency that exist to this day.
Many technology companies that emerge in the West often offshore the labour required for the production and maintenance of their technologies to ‘sweatshops’ in the global South. This is legitimized by invoking a neoliberal logic of ‘optimization’ as the ‘porno-tropics’ provide these companies with ample cheap (often female) labour with ‘nimble fingers and passive personalities’. This gendered, racialized and often orientalized labour is supplemented with the weak politico-legal infrastructures that exist in these countries which are struggling to lift their citizens out of poverty and a myriad of other social issues, some of which themselves are legacies of colonialism. Above all, as Lisa Nakamura says, in her work, Indigenous Circuits: Navajo Women and the Racialization of Early Electronic Manufacture, what many corporations find most attractive about this labour, is it’s disposability, in that ‘they could be laid off at any time’ while ‘their employers could close plants and reopen them in’ the ‘cheapest place possible’.
Shedding light on the labour of indigenous Navajo Women who produced circuits at a Fairchild factory at the Navajo reserve, Nakamura says, ‘some must labour invisibly for others of us to feel, if not actually be, free and empowered through technology use’. She argues that ‘when we look at the history of digital devices, it is quite clear that the burden of digital media’s device production is borne disproportionately by the women of colour who make them’. She suggests that seeing into the histories of these technologies, ‘both machinic and human, is absolutely necessary for us to understand how digital labour is configured today’. However, the labour of these ‘women of colour is almost never associated with electronic manufacture or the digital revolution’.
‘Fairchild was regarded as a pioneer because of its willingness to take risks and to venture onto foreign shores in search of cheap labour … It was such histories of offshoring that helped to launch the PC revolution, which begot the commercial Internet, which begot everything else’.
Furthermore, ‘in Fairchild’s promotional materials and in journalistic accounts’, Navajo workers were always orientalized to be ‘possessing innate racial and cultural traits that could be enhanced or rehabilitated to produce chips accurately, quickly, and painlessly’. Like manual scavenging, chip manufacturing, too ‘is a notoriously dirty business, and workers at Fairchild and other semiconductor manufacturers were falling victim to pollution-related disease’. ‘Ultimately, the Navajo nation failed to benefit economically as much as it had expected from the plant and was left to deal with the detritus and its long-term consequences’.
As with production, there has also been an exponential growth in the offshoring of the labour of maintenance of different technologies to countries in the global South and the same politics and violences embedded in these technologies’ materiality as in the case of the circuits produced by the Navajo women, are also (dis)embodied in their ‘virtuality’. Jacob Breslaw in Moderating the ‘Worst of Humanity’: Sexuality, Witnessing, and the Digital Life of Coloniality points out how ‘an estimated 100,000 people are employed worldwide to engage in the labour of digital content moderation’. This ‘army’ of invisibilized labourers ‘scavenge’ through 500 hours of Youtube video footage, 450,000 tweets, and 2.5 million Facebook posts produced on the internet every minute and ‘scrub’ social media of violent, ‘offensive’, ‘obscene’ and even traumatic content. This is what Adrian Chen calls social media’s ‘Grandma Problem’ — ensuring that your grandmother who has recently joined Facebook never has to see any of the ‘obscene’ and ‘vulgar’ images or videos that are being circulated on the platform. These could range from child pornography to violent beheading videos of the Islamic State. However, these content moderators often based in the global South, engage in the affective labour of viewing this content so that your grandmother does not have to. Their labour is invisibilized in order to ensure that the average social media user is able to live the fantasy of utilizing the affordances of a ‘safe’, ‘respectable’ and ‘post-human’ internet where you click a report button and content is taken down. Daniel Wry exposes that suicide rates, among those engaging in this affective labour of content moderation is extremely high, so much so that among the staff ‘almost everyone knows about a case where someone committed suicide because of the work’.
This offshoring of ‘digital waste’ produced by the former colonizers for the witnessing of the (re)colonized is also justified within an exploitative logic of optimization as ‘content moderators in the Philippines often make in a day what some US-based moderators will make in an hour’. The choices of India and the Philippines are also not accidental and have very much to do with both countries’ violent colonial histories. Its colonial past has been invoked in the selection of the Philippines ‘as the country was a former American colony and has maintained close cultural ties to the United States, which content moderation companies say helps Filipinos determine what Americans find offensive’. Meanwhile, the dominance of the English language-based programming languages has led to the concentration of programming jobs in former British colonies such as India.
‘The dominance of English, combined with the overwhelming U.S. predominance in portal sites and the dominance of northern telecommunications companies, all combined with the concentration of capital within the North, makes these enlightened bridging solutions attempts to solidify, rather than reduce, electronic disparities.’ – Wendy Chun
Many technology companies such as Facebook, make their moderators sign strict nondisclosure agreements, barring them from talking even to other employees of the same outsourcing firm about their work. While Facebook Chief Executive Officer Mark Zuckerberg makes speeches at the United Nations about ‘harnessing the power of the internet’ as an enabler of human rights promoting his platform as a champion of the freedom of expression, his company, has threatened to punish its (offshored) labourers with a penalty of €10,000 if they violate the terms of these agreements and speak about their work.
Coloniality was and still continues to be, central to the construction of technology as both a driver of ‘optimization’ and also a site that needs to be perpetually optimized in the name of ideals of ‘growth’ and ‘progress’. The politics and violences embedded in these technologies show us that such a paradigm of ‘progress’ which makes some populations thrive and live ‘comfortable’ and ‘efficient’ lives; rests over the invisibilization of the bodies, labour and even the deaths of others. Those like the Dalit sewage workers, the Navajo women at the Fairchild factory and the Filipino Facebook content moderators, on whose invisiblized labour, this process of ‘optimization’ is built on, are disqualified from our imaginaries and narratives of technological progress and optimization. ‘Looking closer to the metal’ reveals that there are human beings ‘in far away lands’ who engage in labour with real-life consequences including threats to life and health. The labour of their deaths too, is figured aside and invisibilized so the rest of us can continue to live our ‘optimized’ lives. Achille Mbeme coined the term necropolitics to discuss the politics of death that decide which populations should die so the others, could live, or in this case, which populations should die, so that others could live their most ‘optimal’ lives. In order to resist this neoliberal capitalist fantasy of optimization we need to transform our (re)colonial dependences to radical interdependences. It is imperative that such transformations are built on the lived realities of those people on whose labour, these fantasies have been built on. As Chun phrased, digital media after all, is ‘more than screen-deep’.