‘Lo-fi & Pinkscale: Xngularity for a Postcapitalist Age’ by Ryan Madson (Part 2)

MYRIAD by  Oneohtrix Point Never concert. Photo credit Photo by Kathryn Hayden (2019)
MYRIAD, Oneohtrix Point Never concert. Photo credit Photo by Kathryn Hayden (2019)



What technofeminism can teach the singularity [1]

[W]e want new skin. The digital world provides a potential place where this can play out. Through the digital, we make new worlds and dare to modify our own. Through the digital, the body ‘in glitch’ finds its genesis [2]. Legacy Russell in her manifesto, Glitch Feminism, imagines the possibilities when technology is subservient to social progress and human agency. She shows how digital tools can be used to liberate some of the most marginalised people from systems of oppression, and how normative identities can be transcended through digital tools. Glitch feminism and other technofeminisms exhort us to pursue technology as an essential ally in the ongoing struggle for liberation of women and other oppressed groups.


The technological singularity, conversely, represents the hardening of socially-constructed norms. It is the distillation of capitalist patriarchy. It is masculine, top-down, and universalising. This much is clear from the problematisations described in Part One of this essay. The singularity myth reaffirms a socio-economic status quo wherein various forms of inequality and oppression according to class, race, sex, place of origin, and language are deeply entrenched. 


If we are to reclaim the singularity concept and make it into something inclusive and optimistic, then new models for technology are needed. We have proposed technodiversity and cosmotechnics as geographic and cultural counterpoints to digital hegemonies. Now we look to various strands of technofeminism — specifically cyberfeminism, xenofeminism, and glitch feminism — where technology is being reconfigured as an emancipatory force.


Women have often been sidelined in technical fields that are traditionally dominated by men. Yet women’s contributions to research and development have been pivotal [3].  The first computer program was written by a woman, Ada Lovelace (1815-1852), who originated the concept of using binary numbers. Lovelace also understood the latent potential in early computer models to progress beyond simple number-crunching. In China, Xide Xie (1921-2000) was a pioneer in solid-state physics and the development of semiconductors. Rose Dieng-Kuntz (1956-2008), a scientist from Senegal, was among the first scholars to map the internet. She also understood the power of the internet to facilitate knowledge transfer and to transform the reach of AI. These epochal innovations are now being realised.


An important step towards increasing women’s participation in technology fields is rewriting the histories of technology to recognise the vital contributions of women. In the coming years, more women will need to be involved in every aspect of technological production, especially leadership roles and research in machine learning and AI. If AI continues to be dominated by male technologists, then the prospect of advanced AI technologies emerging in places where women and LGTBQ+ individuals regularly experience oppression and violence is cause for alarm. Violence towards women via social media platforms persists all over the world, demonstrating an urgent need for safety reforms and alternative platforms. 


According to a multi-country study in Africa, “a continuum of violence” against women has been shown to occur both online and offline [4]. Virtual realities and offline realities ― or what Legacy Russell calls AFK, or “away from keyboard,” suggesting embodied spatial and physical continuities between the two realms ― can no longer be understood as separate spheres, and have instead become blurred. Harassment that occurs on social media extends to offline violence and vice-versa. 


Discriminatory practices are shaped by social, economic, cultural and political structures in the physical world and are similarly reproduced online across digital platforms, assert the authors of the study, African Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet, an observation that could readily apply to other geographic contexts [5]. 

The study suggests that technologies such as mobile phones and online banking have generally been liberating tools for women. Yet nearly thirty percent of women have experienced gender-based violence such as stalking, non-consensual sharing, bullying, hate speech, and doxxing [6]. Online violence can lead to poor mental health including depression, anxiety, and fear. Online violence sometimes extends to physical acts of violence and sexual assault. These disturbing outcomes can be avoided if popular technologies are made by and for women and LGBTQ+ users, with their privacy and safety in mind.


AI applications such as job search engines, machine-assisted hiring decisions, and personalised advertising, where preferences for men and biases against women are hardwired, are exacerbating patterns of oppression and discrimination. The emergence of artificial superintelligence (ASI) in places where women and sexually minoritised groups already experience limited social agency is especially troubling. The singularity would signal a new dark age for women in many parts of the world. 


Many women, depending on their race or class, will not share in opportunities to achieve gender parity within established hierarchies. For feminists who take this view, the goal is to overcome sexist attitudes and behaviours in society, not merely to achieve equality with men. Technofeminists understand that political struggle must enlist digital tools to overcome sexist cultural norms. They aspire to futures where technology can be harnessed to emancipate all women [7]. 





Historical cyberfeminism in the 1990s was inspired by the latent emancipatory possibilities of the internet: immateriality, deterritorialisation, and the perception of personal freedoms enabled by virtual identities [8]. Yet early cyberfeminist activities, seen from our contemporary vantage, can seem like the escapist domain of women with privileged access to computers and internet service providers. 


Technofeminists today emphasise a continuum of online and AFK activities where the transversal natures of our digital habits are inseparable from gender identities. Cornelia Sollfrank, artist and technofeminist pioneer, writes that technofeminism is interested in examining how gender relations and the hierarchy of sexual difference influence scientific research and technological innovation and how the latter, in turn, influence the constitution of gender. Translated into technofeminist practices in everyday life, this means no less than struggling for a more just and livable world for everyone in today’s technoscientifc culture [9]. 


Sollfrank, like many feminists, is interested in direct action that results in societal awareness of gender issues. Greater awareness of the issues, especially acknowledgement that technology perpetuates patriarchal norms and sexual violence, can lead to legislation and policies that protect or empower women and groups that have been marginalised due to gender or sexual identity. But will technology, or the “master’s tools,” ever be used to unmake the master’s house? Just as nothing can exist outside of technology, observes Sollfrank, technology itself is always permeated by the conditions of its origination [10]. This suggests that new technologies and tools, shaped by emergent conditions of inclusion, emancipation, and progressive imagination, will be the ones to supplant the old tools of the former master.


Perhaps the most visible articulation of technofeminism today is xenofeminism (XF), developed by the Laboria Cuboniks collective and first published online as the XF Manifesto (Xenofeminism: A Politics for Alienation) in 2014 [11]. XF is a mash-up of cyberfeminism, queer theory, left accelerationism, and speculative realism. The manifesto’s opening passage declares: [XF] seeks to strategically deploy existing technologies to re-engineer the world [12].


XF calls for a technomaterialism that relates technology to bodies and the world. [13]. Helen Hester, a member of the collective, emphasises the actually existing physical materialities and social realities of technology, which she says are too often ignored in favour of a free-floating and immaterial digital realm detached from AFK social relations. 


Technomaterialism extends to how devices are physically and spatially distributed (accessibility), their manufacture and carbon footprint (sustainability), the physical resources of extraction, production, and storage (environment), and the afterlife of digital waste (archaeology) [14]. The concept is useful because it crosshatches multiple physical and social characteristics of technology in relation to human subjects beyond the virtual. In other words, technomaterialism foregrounds offline/AFK/IRL realities. If political action is to be meaningfully carried out in everyday life, then the full spectrum of technologies, digital experiences, and lived experiences must be intervened upon. A technofeminist approach, explains Hester, deploys technology as an activist tool to shape a new politics of gender awareness [15]. 


XF has been absorbed by certain strata of leftist academia and art criticism. Yet it does not seem to have been very influential with technologists. There are also voices critical of XF among feminists, a few of which are pertinent here. Notably, XF’s reliance on a universal modernism and its problematic association with left accelerationism. 


The XF Manifesto states that Eurocentric universalism—whereby the male is mistaken for the sexless, the white for raceless, the cis for the real, and so on must be replaced with a bottom-up universalism that incorporates all possible identities (or the right of everyone to speak as no one in particular) [16]. The manifesto, however, offers few hints about how such broad rhetoric can be practically achieved. 

Artist Annie Goh, in a sustained critique of XF, notes how universalist prescriptions derive from a European Enlightenment notion of the universal, which interprets and subsumes everything according to western, rationalist models. Even prescriptions which are supposedly intersectional are suspect [17].  [I]t is hard to imagine, writes Goh, how this ‘bottom-up’ universalism radically departs from Eurocentricism when there is little effort made to divest the overburdened term ‘universalism’ of its whiteness, historically and epistemologically [18]. Regardless of motivation, all universal precepts have the tendency to flatten and colonise. 


As with left accelerationism, XF wishes to keep some of the “gains” (technology, consumer amenities, standards of living, health care, popular entertainments, etc.) made under late capitalism. The problem here lies with a Prometheanism which is not easily reconciled with existing masculine, Eurowestern power relations in technology. “Acceleration” of various technologies — for instance, the singularity — will almost certainly benefit elites and will exclude, or harm, most everyone else. Respect for the well-being and values of marginalised populations is hardly guaranteed by the accelerationist tendency to move fast and break things. 


Another recent philosophy that informs xngularity with perhaps more nuance and verve is glitch feminism. Glitch recasts technofeminism so that queer and non-white voices and experiences are centered. Legacy Russell, author of Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto, helps us theorise away from fixed notions of gender, or what she calls the hegemonic line of a binary body.


Russell deploys glitch as a fluid condition that flickers between identities and breaks down, or escapes, the baggage of cultural norms [19].  She explores gender and sexuality as concepts that can be used to exert power, but also played with in the digital realm to expand identities, both online and AFK: bodies in this era of digital culture have no single destination but rather take on a distributed nature, fluidly occupying many beings, many places, all at once [20].



The Machines are the robotic armies of the rogue artificial intelligence Skynet_The Terminator franchise
The Machines are the robotic armies of the rogue artificial intelligence (Skynet The Terminator franchise)



Glitch in the context of digital media is a malfunction. Glitch also opens up space for new possibilities between technology and selfhood. In this way, glitch is similar to lo-fi. It is a transmission error that might result in appropriation, reinterpretation, or liberation. Russell’s experimental mode of feminism, enabled in part by the internet and social media, emphasises gender self-determination and freedom from being pigeonholed by society, or by corporations, algorithms, and machine learning.


Glitch feminism could be read as a rehabilitation of the internet, viewed in the 1990s with optimism but then abandoned as an emancipatory platform once it became apparent that commerce had taken over. A central premise of early cyberfeminism was virtual selfhood and digital autonomy. Instead, social media and the mainstream internet have been coopted by surveillance capitalism and the attention economy. Popular electronic media appear to serve, on balance, as vehicles for advertising, misinformation, and political dysfunction rather than platforms for self-determination, self-expression, and political progress.


Yet progressive movements, the various organised modes of social activism, civil rights, revolutionary thought, environmental advocacy, and others are broadcast and sustained, in part, by the internet and social media. Seen in this light, glitch feminism is the opening up of what is truly inclusive, creative, and emancipatory in technology. Glitch is the ability to discern slivers of optimism amidst the digital chaos.



Let 1,000 xngularities blossom

Until now we have rehearsed xngularity by way of analogy. Defining xngularity requires us to think critically about contemporary technology while imagining emancipatory alternatives. Xngularity as prophetic digital activism promotes movements in technology that counter or reverse harmful trends. Xngularity is when technology unleashes the forces of knowledge and culture and justice, providing tools for the benefit of everyone. 


Xngularity is expansive and visionary, yet accessible and grounded in culture and local customs. In terms of computation, it is also nearly-infinitely powerful. Admittedly this is another sort of fiction. It implies an extraordinary balancing act. But this fiction, like the best intentions of speculative worldbuilding, seeks to instantiate technological futures we would wish to live in while avoiding the dystopias that are being deployed in the present [21]. 


The singularity myth represents the ultimate resetting of modernity. It zeroes out with the same flawed logics embedded within rationalist, colonialist, Eurowestern thinking. Resetting modernity merely allows us to pause and stare at the abyss before continuing our collective societal freefall into eternal darkness or species irrelevance [22]. 


Lo-fi xngularity, on the other hand, is weak and diffuse. It is unburdened by universalist narratives of modernity. It is capable of local recalibration and transformation. The power of xngularity lies in the gradual replacement of corporate and state systems with local networks and capacities. Undermining of technological and economic hegemonies will occur first in one location or geospatial condition, then another, and another. 


Lo-fi as a descriptor of xngularity is mētis (contextual, practical, cunning) rather than techne, which is rule-based, organisational, and colonising. Lo-fi has correlates in art practices such as Hito Steyerl’s poor image where digital imperfections and generative processes are embraced, and in design practices where procedural frameworks or contextual adaptations are more important than comprehensively designed objects — Lévi-Strauss’ bricoleur, Stan Alan’s field conditions, Keller Easterling’s medium design. To paraphrase Steyerl, the “perfect” singularity will always be reactionary [23]. Xngularity is imperfect because it is lo-fi, always under construction, and relative to context. Technologists must work to ensure that each path to futurity is tethered to unique (digital) cultures and traditions.


Social progress is in xngularity’s digital DNA, the outcome of an up-and-coming generation of Black programmers, FLOSS activists, technofeminist engineers, socialist hackers, and progressive entrepreneurs who are explicitly ant-racist, anti-sexist, anti-ableist, decolonising, and socially-aware in outlook. These emerging technologists introduce critique and direct action in their day-to-day work. They seek to include populations and groups who have been historically underrepresented or marginalised by technology. They write code, train AI models, launch products, advocate for policy, and bring truth to power, electronically and AFK [24]. Under their watch, powerful and popular technologies become forces for social progress and essential tools in the fulfilment of human potentials.


The grassroots of AI are only getting started. To borrow a phrase from Spideralex, these groups are doing speculative technoscience towards a variety of urgent social and political goals. We suggest that doing speculatively in a context of technology, write Spideralex and Sophie Toupin, helps to prefigure the types of feminist technologies, technoscience and infrastructures needed to (re)imagine and strive for systemic transformations [25].


The bright and boring future of mundane yet necessary policy and legislation will help bring about some of these changes [26]. Together, the various modes of praxis — safety standards, ethics, legislation, and political resistance — will chart a brighter path for AI. Absent this work, future advances in technology, as we have seen, will continue to have unintended consequences and cause far-reaching harm to host societies. 


In places like China, where tech advocacy and political activism is restricted, outsiders must assist Chinese citizens in resisting authoritarianism. Client states must reject the export of surveillance technologies. And observers must continuously bear witness to the mistreatment of minoritised populations [27]. Even these strategies, sadly, are less than the minimum needed to counter to an increasingly omniscient and oppressive surveillance state.


Greed and hatred are among the more powerful human impulses. They are rooted in all that is wrong in the world. But creativity, love, and empathy are at least as powerful. It has become a moral imperative that our technologies, particularly those which tend towards human-like intelligence, learn how to empathise, communicate, and share. The joys of discovery and invention, through co-creation among humans and machines, must come to rank as the foremost sensibility of future ASI models.


After a hundred years of modernization, writes Yuk Hui, the ‘homecoming’ of all philosophies, whether Chinese, Japanese, Islamic, or African, will be of increasing concern in the twenty-first century because of accelerated disorientation. Everyone, every culture, needs a ‘home,’ but it doesn’t need to be an exclusive and substantial place [28].


Xngularities occur when multiple cosmotechnics are realised at peak moments of technological and cultural progress. To avoid a dystopian timeline where the singularity myth becomes reality, technology must be liberated from narrow profit motives and the totalitarian mindset of the surveillance state. Superintelligent machines — forthcoming, inevitable — will not be gentle or safe or benevolent unless they are taught how to be respectful of human diversity and subservient to society. Xngularity is the optimistic and shimmering digital underground that we need tomorrow, today.



+++

Tremendous gratitude and thanks are owed to Peter Relic, who edited and clarified multiple drafts of this essay, and to Yulia Madson for constant encouragement to write clearly and concisely. Thanks also to Hannah Eyre, Jennifer Johnson, Bianca Kibwage, Christoph Klütsch, and Kevin Lawver, who provided timely feedback at various stages of writing. Any mistakes are the sole responsibility of the author.



[1] It is this author’s opinion that technofeminist work is not only the work of women and femme-identifying or genderqueer persons. Given the historical dominance of males in technology, men must bear some of the responsibility for actively eliminating sexism within their sectors. Cultural critic and feminist writer bell hooks once posited that “feminism is for everybody.” In her chapter on “Men” in  Feminist Theory (essential reading for male feminists!), hooks discusses race, class, and gender relations in second wave feminism. “Men who actively struggle against sexism have a place in feminist movement,” she asserts. “Reactionary separatism [of women-only feminist movements] is rooted in the conviction that male supremacy is an absolute aspect of culture, that women have only two alternatives: accepting it or withdrawing from it to create subcultures. This position eliminates any need for revolutionary struggle, and is in no way a threat to the status quo.[…] Like women, men have been socialized to passively accept sexist ideology. While they need not blame themselves for accepting sexism, they must assume responsibility for eliminating it.” See hooks, Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center (New York: Routledge, 2015), 68-83.
[2] Legacy Russell, Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (London New York: Verso, 2020), 11.
[3] A brief historical corrective by Jennifer Radloff appears in her introduction to an issue of Feminist Africa on “e-spaces : e-politics.” The journal is now, sadly, defunct; back issues are digitally archived at the African Gender Institute, University of Cape Town: http://www.agi.ac.za/agi/feminist-africa. See Jennifer Radloff, “Feminist Engagements with 21st-Century Communications Technology,” Feminist Africa, no. 18 (2013), 1-11.
[4] The report cites slightly lower figures in surveys conducted in countries in the global north. See Neema Iyer, Bonnita Nyamwire, and Sandra Nabulega, and POLLICY, Alternate Realities, Alternate Internets: African Feminist Research for a Feminist Internet, August 2020, https://ogbv.pollicy.org/report.pdf.
[5] Ibid, 3.
[6] Ibid, 23.
[7] Many technofeminist concepts originated with pioneering feminists of color including bell hooks, Audre Lorde, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, and Sylvia Wynter. “[A]s long as any group defines liberation as gaining social equality with ruling-class white men,” writes hooks, “they have a vested interest in the continued exploitation and oppression of others.” Equality with men is a mistaken goal when we recognize that not all men are considered equal. see hooks, Feminist Theory, 16.
[8] Cornelia Sollfrank’s excellent introduction to her anthology of technofeminisms provides a concise overview of concepts and the influences of cyberfeminism in contemporary thought. Available in print and open-access PDF: Sollfrank, “Preface,” in The Beautiful Warriors: Technofeminist Praxis in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Cornelia Sollfrank (New York: Minor Compositions, 2020), 1-17. https://www.minorcompositions.info/?p=976.
[9] Ibid, 3
[10] Ibid, 7-8.
[11] Laboria Cuboniks (collective), The Xenofeminist Manifesto: A Politics for Alienation (Brooklyn: Verso, 2018). The manifesto is also open-access at https://laboriacuboniks.net/ 
[12] Ibid, 0x02.
[13] Helen Hester, Xenofeminism (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2018).
[14] Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015).
[15] Ibid, 6-12. 
[16] Laboria Cuboniks, The Xenofeminist Manifesto, 0x0F
[17] Annie Goh, “Appropriating the Alien: A Critique of Xenofeminism,” Mute (July 29, 2019), https://www.metamute.org/editorial/articles/appropriating-alien-critique-xenofeminism.
[18] Ibid.
[19] Russell, Glitch Feminism.
[20] Ibid, 46.
[21] Architect Hashim Sarkis discusses the urgency of speculative world-making from an environmental design perspective. We must create blueprints for alternate futures that circumvent the ecological and socio-economic disasters we are currently locked into. See Hashim Sarkis, “Five Wishes for the Next Fifty Worlds,” in The World as an Architectural Project, eds. Hashim Sarkis, Roi Salgueiro Barrio, and Gabriel Kozlowski (Cambridge, Massachusetts: The MIT Press, 2020), 520—27.
[22]  Hui, Question Concerning Technology in China, 296
[23] Hito Steyerl, “In Defense of the Poor Image,” E-Flux, no. 10 (November 2009), https://www.e-flux.com/journal/10/61362/in-defense-of-the-poor-image/.
[24] At the vanguard of advocacy and education are organizations such as AI Now, the Alan Turing Institute, the Algorithmic Justice League, AnarchaServer, Black Girls Code, Black in AI, Deep Learning Indaba, Donestech, EqualAI, Latinx in AI, OpenAI, People of Color in Tech, Women in AI, and Women in Machine Learning and Data Sciences. For a demonstration of the necessity and unlimited potential of young leaders in technology, see the perseverance  and triumph and of the Afghan Girls Robotics Team. Give these women full scholarships right now, MIT and NTU Singapore!
[25] Sophie Toupin and Spideralex, “Radical Feminist Storytelling and Speculative Fiction: Creating New Worlds by Re-Imagining Hacking,” Ada: A Journal of Gender, New Media, and Technology, no. 13 (May 10, 2018), https://adanewmedia.org/2018/05/issue13-toupin-spideralex/.
[26] Thanks to technologist Kevin Lawver for this concept.
[27] The Chinese Communist Party is apparently using Xinjiang is a testing ground for surveillance technologies that can be applied elsewhere, like Hong Kong, or exported to client states. The technical and social outcomes of surveillance are the same — total control of citizens’ lives. Chillingly, self-censorship (of deed, mind, and soul) fills in those cracks that technology does not, or cannot, reach. See Helen Davidson and Vincent Ni, “Chinese effort to gather ‘micro clues’ on Uyghurs laid bare in report,” The Guardian (October 19, 2021). https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/oct/19/china-predictive-policing-surveillance-uyghurs-report[28] Hui, Question Concerning Technology in China, 289.




Words by Ryan Madson




(Pictures courtesy of the artists)



Ryan Madson is a writer, urban planner, and professor of architecture at the Savannah College of Art & Design. He writes about cities, places, and design, and their intersections with futurity. His essays have been published in Strelka Mag, Satellite, Medium, and as chapters in books published by the Harvard Graduate School of Design.





13 Apr 2022