The titular insight of Safiya Umoja Noble’s influential book Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism is that inherited structures of harm are reproduced not only by the racist and sexist institutions that govern information technology, but also by the most basic techniques for encoding and processing digital information itself. For example, Noble argues that the prominent pornographic links she has consistently found in Google search results for the phrase “Black girls” reflect and reinscribe the commodification of Black women’s bodies and sexualities, which itself reflects and reinscribes the overarching systems and legacies of slavery and of settler-colonial rape culture more generally.1 The difficulty of holding specific Google users or programmers responsible—when their clicks determine the results of the next searches, but when they may only have clicked because of the results of their own searches—underscores how ostensibly neutral algorithms can actively reiterate long-standing structures of violence, even (or perhaps especially) when the technologies that enable the execution of those algorithms are unprecedented in their capabilities. Noble’s work is an important reminder that the term “data” naming the objects transmitted within and between computing algorithms is the plural past participle of Latin dare (“to give”), and so implies more generally a larger network of (recorded, enumerated) “givens” that contextualize and concretize the results of our actions by situating them in the political and economic circumstances of ongoing exchange.
Citing Andre Brock, Noble observes that “discourses about technology are explicitly linked to racial and gender identity—normalizing Whiteness and maleness is the domain of digital technology and as a presumption for the prioritization of resources, content, and even design of information and communication technologies.”2 This essay elaborates upon this crucial point, by identifying and describing some of the more persistent (and pernicious) features of these “discourses about technology.” Specifically, it approaches Noble’s study in the context of broader discursive shifts in the rapidly transforming field of what has been called “New Media Studies.” following on the discussions of this ambiguous term in Wendy Hui Kyong Chun’s introduction to her volume New Media, Old Media and in my own co-edited collection of essays Old Media and the Medieval Concept, the latter of which also inaugurates a “Media Before 1800” series at Concordia University Press.3 A replacement for “mass media” designed to accommodate the digital, the term “new media” accepts and reiterates the premise that digital communication and computational art have resulted in unprecedented cultural forms, though this premise was already problematized in foundational new media scholarship like Bolter and Grusin’s Remediation: Understanding New Media, which rather identifies continuities between new and “old” media forms.4 Noble’s intervention was made necessary in the first place by precisely these claims for the novelty of digital media, since they imply that digital platforms are not only unprecedented but also non-complicit and innocent of past injustices.
In her reading of William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984), Chun argues that the fantasy of so-called “cyberspace” in digital culture is an ideological construct that frames the temporal medium of computing as a spatial one instead. This distinction matters because it produces digital culture as an inevitable, even unchangeable environment.5 Chun observes that the material substrate of any particular “given” of digital data—for example, the results of a given Google search that then feeds back into the algorithm that created it—is materially composed by the flow and interruption of currents over silicon chips and glass fibers. She shows how the naming of the “cyber” as a “space” invents a timeless, ahistorical location in which computing and communication simply happen, which renders invisible the labor that has built and continues to build and connect the machines that enact the computing which constitutes the times, spaces, and character of the “cyber” from its onset.
Chun’s argument has obvious resonances with the young Marx’s comments on the “alienation” of workers from their labour, wherein “the realization of labour”—which is to say its objectification as a commodity—“appears as loss of realityfor the workers.”6 Applying Marx’s analysis to the commodified infrastructure of cables, routers, servers, and edge devices and the “lifeless mechanism” 7 of what in fact is simply an extension via the cyber of industrial machinery, we may see the internet as yet another stage in the ongoing production of relative surplus value. The internet’s vast and (often literally) subterranean materiality alienates users from the ongoing labour that allows it to persist, even as the virtual superstructure of OS updates and in-app purchases generates an endless series of ever-more virtual commodity fetishes.
Meanwhile, Marx’s choice of the (problematic) anthropological term “fetish” to describe these products of what we may also (just as problematically) call capitalist “mystification” signals the vexed contradiction of his work. His account of “primitive” accumulation in late-medieval England raises more questions than it answers about the origins of capitalism in pre-modern Europe, and hence about the alternatives to its structures of harm attested among the various civilizations and knowledge systems that modernity has systematically attempted to destroy.8 As Bruno Latour in We Were Never Modern among others observes, modernity’s insistence on its historical discontinuity with itself is one of its most persistent defining features, which has consolidated pre-modern pasts and spaces into a single virtual landscape of mystification, fetishism, and other modes of irrationality. This reductivism has occluded the iterative processes of European history and their own material substrates.9
Helpful here is the historical framework of Sylvia Wynter, who describes a more profoundly organizing racialized, gendered, and imperialist “overrepresentation of Man.”10 In contrast to Marxian alienation—a concept whose “humanism” has been a recognized problem since Althusser11—Wynter’s notion of overrepresentation highlights the connections between the problem of lost reality described by Marx and the problem of the “human” itself. Wynter traces the concept of the human back into the “Latin-Christian Europe” of the post-Gregorian reform Middle Ages (mediated through her reading of the annales school historian Jacques LeGoff).12 In brief, she posits that the “now globally hegemonic ethnoclass world of ‘Man’”—which is to say of capitalist modernity— has overrepresented itself to be synonymous with the category of the human. As a result, the “empirical human world” that includes colonized and otherwise marginalized humans finds its “interests, reality, and wellbeing… to be imperatively subordinated” to the needs of Man.13 Simply put, this “Man” bears with it “the human” only when and where it is white, male, and rational. Wynter identifies the overrepresentation of this specific, privileged subset of human experience with the establishment of what Latour calls the “constitution with a capital C”: the myth of modernity’s origins establishing foundational premises of modern life.14 If we return, then, to situate the more local analyses of Chun and Noble within Wynter’s broad historical sweep, we see that the harmful results of the Google search “Black girls” and the misleading fantasies of “cyberspace” may be summarily described as the latest manifestations of long-standing, well-oiled practices and technologies for subordinating the interests, reality, and well-being of marginalized humans to the hegemonic (and virtual) “world of ‘Man.’”
My own work proceeds from the striking use by both Latour and Wynter of the documentary images of constitutions and charters to describe the mythical event of modernity’s origins. The trope implies that just as a given transaction is not realized until the vendor has issued a receipt, so also was modernity not realized as a historical condition until it had established its own practices of recording and disseminating data about its motivations and consequences. Perhaps Wynter’s term “overrepresentation” should be imagined not only as an abstract or philosophical tendency of thought, but as a technique for (mis)using and organizing the embodied, historical archive of documents in all media wherein all forms of representation take place.
Here, and in my longer book in progress titled Data, Games, Networks, Realms: Forms of Digital Culture, I begin with the Latin-Christian terminology of computation and bureaucracy that has been and remains equally pertinent to the description and use of medieval charters, modern constitutions, and contemporary new media technology. The algorithms of Noble’s study may operate on networks of servers and edge devices like PCs and smart phones, but the operations themselves are given shape by virtual forms like protocol, control, permutation, structure, virtual, hierarchy, code, program, distribution, and organization. These histories of use instantiate both continuities and discontinuities between the Roman and modern epochs of European empire. Continuing the work of the thinkers cited above, and expanding on the practice of Raymond Williams to look at my words over a longer historical period, I hope to show how the subjection of history* to the status of a mere object that may be owned and manipulated by a given group of subjects performs the work of concealing the foundational and enduring relationships of class, race, land, and technology.15 The words listed above have been abstracted until they are now adaptable to many unrelated contexts, but they all originate in the discourses of post-classical Latin learning that we continue to use to describe and perform acts of “mediation” in all its senses. These histories of evolution and use are worth tracing because they uncover structures of thought, structures of the archive, and the interrelation between these two modes of organization.
It is, for example, a telling aspect of the novel Neuromancer’s centrality to Chun’s analysis of “cyberspace” that it describes a quest through quasi-feudal landscapes of corporate fiefdoms, in which a group of hackers errant search for an AI grail whose name is a play on the word “necromancer.” The term and concept “necromancer” derives from post-classical Greek by way of Late Latin necromantia, and this history of its coinage is only one local example of the dramatic changes in both the Latin language and the institutions of learning and record-keeping after the third century CE.16 Post-classical, Christian, “Gothic” Latin would provide the scholastic philosophers and historians of the twelfth century with the raw material that they would use to craft the bureaucratic institutions that would govern European life into our own moment, including not only the civil and common laws of modern imperial states but also the conventional governing practices of modern corporations and universities (both called universitatis in the period). Modernity’s defining struggle to trace its cultural and political forms back to the model of ancient Greece and Rome has been hampered by the unfortunate truth that ancient Greek and Roman manuscripts have been hard to come by. Meanwhile the archive of medieval Europe has held a critical mass of original survivals sufficient enough to provide organizational frameworks as (both positive and negative) templates for the architects of colonial nation-states. Those same structures and protocols persist in the apparatus of data storage and use that makes up the contemporary Internet.
It bears stressing that my focus on keywords over this long period hopes to accomplish more than just the old philological trick of showing yet again that the definitions of familiar words contain just enough of their opposites to confirm the validity of any set of starting premises. I aim rather at a particularly granular attentiveness to that task of Walter Benjamin’s historical materialist method, which is to “brush history against the grain,” to not only read that history as a “document” of “civilization” and “barbarism,” but also to unearth the material frameworks for naming “documents” as such and for identifying their operations.17
My published work on the keyword “protocol” instantiates the benefits of my approach.18 Originally a Greek name for the outermost part of a papyrus roll, “protocol” began to refer in post-classical Latin to the authenticating text written on the outsides of papyrus rolls that detailed the time and place of their manufacture. The word then became a term both for authenticating prefatory material of any kind as well as for lengthy official records one might detail on a lengthy papyrus scroll. From the latter meaning, “protocol” began to refer to specifically diplomatic records, and eventually by extension to proper conduct for diplomats. Only then did it assume its current meaning as a branching narrative that identifies series of circumstances in which actions might be required and then lists appropriate choices for actors in response to those circumstances.
This iterative, processual evolution of the word “protocol”—which shed its meaning as a specialized term for the embodied products of clerical labour to assume more generalized and future-oriented meanings—anticipates the evolution of “cyberspace” described by Chun. The evolutions of both terms exemplify how persistent material processes of active perpetuation come to be obscured by abstract claims of discontinuity and novelty. It is a crucial but underappreciated aspect of protocols that they always base their strictures on historical claims about earlier events that demonstrated the successes of some actions and revealed the shortcomings of others. Indeed, any comment on the history of a protocol—no matter how critical, or how carefully distanced—is itself a continuation and practice of that very protocol. If anything, this stricture is especially true when the comment in question calls for the protocol to be radically revised or even rebuilt from the ground up.
To return to Latour and Wynter, then, the “constitution” of modernity may be defined as a sort of master-protocol for generating protocols, which works by extracting abstract principles from the criticism of attested historical, pragmatic instances as a means towards achieving “progress.” As should be clear, then, attention to the history of the word “protocol” does not expose anything hidden about the term and concept. Rather, it reveals how the compartmentalized specialization of studies that look at medieval notarial rolls on the one hand and TCP/IP on the other can obscure the facts of their history. It is no accident that this compartmentalization prevents us from even imagining how historical inquiry and digital technology design might expose the hegemony of Wynter’s Man, much less disrupt it.
The universities of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries that saw the first proliferation of material protocols would also develop the techniques of dialectic and the traditions of so-called “scholasticism,” whose terminology and modes of argumentation continue to undergird the European philosophical tradition (and so our own theoretical discourse) to this day.19 One of the ways that the Latin authors of late antiquity and the European Middle Ages developed our specialized vocabulary was by adding the suffix “-alis” to existing nouns to turn them into adjectives, which then in some instances evolved into new abstract nouns.20 “Ideal” (from idea), “real” (fromres), and “material” (from materia) are well-known examples, but there are many more, not least of which is the “actual,” from actus—both an event shaped by an entity’s intention and also a document, as in an “act” of parliament. By implication, the “actual” encompasses not only emergent configurations of lived experience but also Latour’s constitution, Wynter’s charter, Benjamin’s document, and any other protocols and records that we accept as true because they do not appear to have been forged. This same slippage between immediate presence and document-based proceduralism is manifest in the French word chose (derived from Latin causa or legal matter of record), in the English word “thing” (related to the Icelandic Althing, i.e., an assembly that considers legal matters of record), and finally in the Latin res at the root of the “real.” “Real” is not only a “thing” or chose in the material sense, but also in the legal-administrative sense of political assemblies and their records of binding decisions—for example the res publica of the Roman “Republic.” This persistence of historical, recorded “matters” to signify the thingness of indeterminate material “matter” is parallel in structure to the abstraction of protocol from its papyrological origins and the abstraction of cyberspace from an SF novel. In all of these cases, the unrepresentable contingency of the emergent future is figured through the results of procedures that dealt with events that were previously unimagined, and which for this reason might help us to prepare ourselves for whatever comes next. And as we well know, this framework for articulating the premises of philosophical materialism is fundamentally, foundationally instrumentalist: indeed, the Latin word instrumentum is itself yet another term for an official document.
In The Order of Things, Foucault identifies three parts of a culture: first, the “fundamental codes” of its languages, techniques, and practices; second, at the opposite extremity, its “scientific theories” and “philosophical explanations” of principle; and third, in the middle, the level at which a culture “finds itself faced with the stark fact that there exists, below the level of its spontaneous orders, things that are in themselves capable of being ordered, that belong to a certain unspoken order; the fact, in short, that order exists.”21 This recollection of terms and concepts is aimed at better understanding this third, intermediate level. The processes whereby we enumerate and catalogue data to serve as ammunition in our eternal human war against unknowable historical contingency have been consistently articulated through the Latin-Christian vocabulary of embodied documentary forms. This vocabulary has in turn become central not only to the description and governance of digital technology but also to life in the digital age. As the scholarship of Noble, Chun, and Wynter illustrates, this terminology continues to embody the persistent, extant, unspoken order that was created by the medieval European project of recreating the imperial hegemony of Rome and regulating Christian beliefs and institutions within the confines of that hegemony, which project has always been unjust, violent, and exclusionary in its most basic goals and operations. If we wish to find a way to stop reiterating these ongoing “algorithms of oppression” and break their cycle of overrepresentation, we must excavate the material apparatus of wires, servers, documents, and protocols that can help us recollect this “unspoken order” and the material circumstances of its preservation and reproduction.
- Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: NYU Press, 2010), 64-109.
- Noble, Algorithms, 91; citing A. Brock, “Beyond the Pale: The Blackbird Web Browser’s Critical Reception,” New Media & Society 13(7) (2011): 1085-1103.
- Wendy Hui Kyong Chun, “Introduction: Did Somebody Say New Media,” in New Media, Old Media: A History and Theory Reader, ed. Wendy Hui Kyong Chun and Thomas Keenan (New York: Routledge, 2006), 1-10; Thora Brylowe and Stephen Yeager (eds.), Old Media and the Medieval Concept (Montreal: Concordia University Press, 2021).
- Jay David Bolter and Richard Grusin, Remediation: Understanding New Media (Boston: MIT Press, 1999).
- Chun, Control and Freedom, 171–245.
- Karl Marx, Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844, trans. Martin Milligan (New York: Prometheus Books, 1988), 71.
- Karl Marx, Capital Volume I, trans. Ben Fowkes (New York: Penguin Classics, 1976), 548.
- Marx, Capital, I. 873-95. Critiques and reworkings of Marx along these lines include Cedric B. Robinson, Black Marxism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Kevin B Anderson, Marx at the Margins: on Nationalism, Ethnicity, and Non-Western Societies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); Glen Sean Coulthard, Red Skins White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition (Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 2014), 6-15.
- Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, 1993). See also Kathleen Davis, Periodization and Sovereignty: How Ideas of Feudalism and Secularization Govern the Politics of Time (Philadelphia, 2008); Helge Jordheim, “Against Periodization: Koselleck’s Theory of Multiple Temporalities,” History and Theory 51 no. 2 (2012): 151–71; Ted Underwood, Why Literary Periods Mattered: Historical Contrast and the Prestige of English Studies (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2013).
- Sylvia Wynter, “Unsettling the Coloniality of Being/power/truth/freedom: Towards the Human, After Man, Its Overrepresentation—An Argument,” CR: The New Centennial Review 3, no. 3 (2003): 257–337, p. 312.
- Louis Althusser, For Marx, trans. Ben Brewster (New York: Verso, 2006).
- Wynter, “Unsettling,” 262; citing Jacques LeGoff, The Medieval Imagination, trans. A. Goldhammer (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985). Other applications of critical race theory to medieval studies include Mary Rambaran-Olm, Breann Leake, and Micah Goodrich, “Medieval Studies: The Stakes of the Field,” postmedieval 11 (2020), 356–370; Dorothy Kim, “Introduction the Literature Compass Special Cluster: Critical Race and the Middle Ages,” Literature Compass 16.9-10 (2019), e1249; Geraldine Heng, The Invention of Race in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018); Jonathan Hsy and Julie Orlemanski, “Race and Medieval Studies: A Partial Bibliography,” postmedieval 8 (2017), 500–31, pp. 527–31.
- Wynter, “Unsettling,” 262.
- Wynter, “Unsettling,” 282.
- Raymond Williams, Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, new ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
- “Necromancy, n.” OED Online. Here and elsewhere, philological discussions will rely on the Oxford English Dictionary online (short form OED Online) and the various Latin dictionaries collected in the Logeion Project at the University of Chicago (http://www.logeion.com).
- Walter Benjamin, ”Theses on the Philosophy of History,” Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1968), 263-64, 256-57.
- “Protocol, or ‘The Chivalry of the Object’,” Critical Inquiry 45.2 (2019): 747-61; “Protocol and Regulation: Controlling Media Histories,” in Old Media and the Medieval Concept, ed. Thora Brylowe and Stephen M. Yeager (Montreal: Concordia University Press, 2021), 54-78.
- Andrew Cole, The Birth of Theory (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014).
- Stephen F. Brown, “Theology and Philosophy,” in Medieval Latin: An Introduction and Bibliographic Guide, eds. F.AC. Mantello and A.G. Rigg (Washington D.C., 1996), 267–87, 280–2.
- Michel Foucault, The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences (London: Routledge Classics, 2002), xxii.