The Archive, the Ledger, and the Enclosure of Experience

This essay is part of a series entitled “From the Schoolhouse to the Field: Abolition Toward an Education for Liberation“.

The Archive is the existing record of all sorts of things — births, deaths, marriages, divorces, crimes, arrests, court cases, etc — which Saidiya Hartman, invoking Foucault, identifies as “encounters with power”.[1]Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, 12(2), 1-14. The Archive tells particular stories that privilege the bodies, lands, rights — the sovereignty — of certain people (white, particularly cisgendered heterosexual men), at the expense and to the devaluation and  dehumanization of others: women, Black, Brown, and Indigenous people, queer, gender non-conforming, and trans folx, and all intersections there between. 

In 2018, a video entitled “The Selfish Ledger” was leaked from Google, a creation of their experimental X labs.[2]Savov, V. (2018, May 17). Google’s Selfish Ledger is an unsettling vision of Silicon Valley social engineering. The Verge.  The video proposed a “thought experiment” in which a massive tally of all human activity was tracked through Google’s numerous surveillance technologies. From this trove of information, Google could direct behavior, toward societal improvement, albeit in alignment with, if not defined by the company’s own ideals. It is telling that Google chose the term “ledger”, which explicitly ties the experiment to the broader project of capitalist accumulation. 

In spite of their protestations and downplaying of the video’s implications, I believe the concepts presented in The Selfish Ledger represent Google’s agenda laid bare[3]Savov, V. (2018b, May 19). Google’s Selfish Ledger ideas can also be found in its patent applications. The Verge., a project to “direct whole organizations towards what might be seen as a utopian (or dystopian) horizon”, and “geared towards altering not merely our actions, but more fundamentally our will and sense of who we are”.[4]Fisher, E. (2020). The ledger and the diary: algorithmic knowledge and subjectivity. Continuum, 1-20.

The dystopian picture of Google reigning as cynical overlords understates the power of the master narrative coursing through both the Archive and the Ledger. The real danger is accelerating and more deeply entrenching the relations of domination, which these overseers likely do not understand, nor will they have any moral or financial incentive to intervene against them. 

Both the Archive and the Ledgera impose a dominant narrative upon Indigenous, Black, and Brown people, which reduces, erases, or overwrites us in ways favorable to a heteropatriarchal, white supremacist, neoliberal capitalist hegemony, wherein “white fetishization and state surveillance constitute an everyday racial commonsense”.[5]Knight, C. (2019). Feeling and Falling in Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death. The Black Scholar, 49(3), 36-47. Big Data algorithms, written by programmers — mostly white men — and/or influenced by a default white supremacist point of view, create a “feedback loop that depends on bodies, human life as its tribute”.[6]Milner, Y. (2019, December 31). Abolition Means the Creation of Something New. Medium. The technology of the the Ledger “does not emerge from a vacuum”, but reifies “the congruent, if unconscious dispositions of its creators.[7]Bridle, J. (2018). New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. Verso Books.

Earlier I discussed how educational technology is being leveraged as part of a larger project of surveillance, social control, and endless accumulation. Following that premise, the goal here is to lay out how the Archive and the Ledger together create and maintain hegemony through the reinforcement of a dominant narrative — the same narrative that informs schooling in the United States and elsewhere, toward the reproduction of social and political relations of domination. Schools, in this formation, act as proxies for the state, mediating student bodies, thinking, and knowledge production, through the lens of capital and state control.

The Stories Told by the Archive

Black people have long been perceived or rendered — physically and narratively — as less than human, as chattel, as objects of violence, as sites of dispossession and death. And where we cannot or refuse to be subordinated to capital, we become “an empty vessel, a nonbeing, a nothing, an ontological zero”.[8]Jackson, Z. I. (2020). Becoming Human: Matter and Meaning in an Antiblack World. United States: NYU Press. 

This story has been written — nevermind how long it has been spoken — at least since Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, in which he discusses how the “eternal monotony” of black skin —  an “immoveable veil of black“ — renders our emotions invisible, and “reflects a psychological tendency [amongst white people] to deny our individuality by refusing to consider us as individual human beings”.[9]Rodney, W. (2019). The Groundings with My Brothers. Verso Trade.

This is analogous to how the white gaze falls on indigenous people, as reflected in the words of Estelle Reel, superintendent of Indian schools, who said that Native Children are “without that complete development of nerve and muscle which gives character to expressive features”.[10]Lomawaima, K. T. (1995). They called it prairie light: The story of Chilocco Indian school. U of Nebraska Press.

The context of Jefferson’s ruminations was his broader thinking on the “Negro problem”, how the Black population might be integrated into white society as free people. This was impossible to Jefferson, because of Black people’s “disposition to sleep when abstracted from their diversions, and unemployed in labour” and because our freedom as human beings would “produce convulsions” which could only end “in the extermination of the one or the other race”. For Jefferson, Black people’s value — our very existence — was mediated by our encounters with the state, its proxies, and capital.

The Archive in the time of slavery was a literal ledger, a tallying of accounts and exchanges of black bodies, a register of their encounters with power, mediated by capital. The stories of who the prisoners were before their capture were erased, and who they continued to be outside their role as property was never recorded. The archive is composed of “the rumors, scandals, lies, invented evidence, fabricated confessions, volatile facts, impossible metaphors, chance events, and fantasies”[11]Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, 12(2), 1-14., which then serve as a “vehicle for the reproduction of a certain way of looking at the world, a conceptual prisonhouse”[12]Hartman, S. (2018). On Working with Archives: An Interview with Writer Saidiya Hartman. Interview by Thora Siemsen. The Creative Independent., particularly for Black and Indigenous people. 

What’s excluded or erased — the “silence in the archive” focuses the narrative on “quantitative matters and on issues of markets and trade relations”[13]Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, 12(2), 1-14., which is to say that the very existence of Black and Indigenous people is mediated by encounters with the state and capital, by their use or exchange value or threat to the same, rather than their humanity.

Criminal records or registers of “disciplinary infractions” are only ever snapshots in a person’s story, affecting a discontinuity that contributes to spatiotemporal alienation and atomization. These records do not tell the story of people, but of their encounters with Power.[14]Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, 12(2), 1-14. The history of these encounters, particularly vis-a-vis the police, is one in which Black people were regarded as property. The original police, after all, were slave catchers.[15]Hansen, C. (2019, July 10). Slave Patrols: An Early Form of American Policing. National Law Enforcement Museum. 

After Emancipation, even our idleness was criminalized — Being Still While Black — with loitering a charge punishable by a return to slave labor. Where Black people are not pressed into service for capital, or not capital in themselves, they are anathema — the inertia of black threat strong enough to overcome even our bodies at restb. At what point are we no longer a threat? How long before a cop shoots a black corpse, or into a grave, signaling the danger of dark matter even when inert (Being Dead While Black)?

The Archive and its silences are reproduced in schools through history curricula wherein Black people are perpetual victims with brief flashes of intelligence, resilience, or moral standing, and only where these things are amenable to the state and capital. Those lacunae wherein we exercise our freedom, agency, and authentic self-expression — remain hidden beneath the “immoveable veil of blackness” — invisible to the white gaze, and scrubbed from the Archive. 

This invisibility and erasure is all the more severe where those encounters with state and capital take the form of open resistance. Which is why the history of slave revolts, marronage, any and all armed struggle by Black, Brown, and Indigenous people against the state, are “silenced in the historical record”[16]Day, T. (2018). Mired Memory: Marronage in The Great Dismal Swamp. Social and Economic Studies, 67(1), 33-143. — and carefully excised from the textbooks with the precision of a surgeon’s knife and tailor’s needle. 

History, we should recall, is not the past, but an interpretation of it, the dominant narrative “written by the victors” — a common phrase that actually means “written by the oppressors”. 

History (n.) — an interpretation of past events, enclosed by time and memory, structured so as to validate, reinforce, and/or reproduce a contemporary narrative. From the the Latin historia, meaning “narrative of past events, account, tale, story”

Given this definition, it stands to reason that those who are marginalized, erased, and suppressed by dominant histories could write their own counter-histories — and indeed they do, and always have — yet these stories “have never been able to install themselves as history, but rather are insurgent, disruptive narratives that are marginalized and derailed before they ever gain a footing”.[17]Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, 12(2), 1-14.

The Empathy Gap

The short film Love is the Message, the Message is Death[18]Jafa, A. (2016). Love Is The Message, The Message Is Death. [Video]. Gavin Brown’s Enterprise (Gallery)., presents a montage of moments within the Black experience, mostly within the U.S. context, spanning from the early 20th century to the present. The images are disjointed, separated by time and space, the story within the gaps dependent upon the viewer’s gaze. On the one hand, as I watched the film, these lacunae were filled up with empathy, a sense of shared experience, and an understanding that the story of Black people in the U.S. is one of love and struggle and violence and mundaneness and greatness: which is to say, the full spectrum of human experience. 

The “Black gaze”, as it were, is a continuous praxis of finding joy and beauty even where they don’t seem to exist. It reflects a collective empathy which has been cultivated over centuries of gazing into the void of Black absence from media, where we have had to build “the capacity to project [ourselves] into that space” and take on the experience of others.[19]Jafa, A., & Campt, T. (2017). Love is the Message, The Plan is Death. Eflux Journal.

Yet, watching Love is the Message also filled me with an aching sense of self-awareness, which upon further reflection I realized was my sense of the perpetual, omnipresent white gaze, which “demands a spectacle, whether it is of pleasure or pain”.[20]Knight, C. (2019). Feeling and Falling in Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death. The Black Scholar, 49(3), 36-47. I felt like Jafa was laying bare the story of Black America, out in the open, for white consumption, white scrutiny, white judgment. 

There is an implicit case here for better Black representation in media, but where that representation is toxic, where it reproduces Black life as mediated by encounters with the state and capital, the opposite happens: justification for a lack of empathy, and for cruelty. If the dominant narrative portrays Black immorality or criminality — these in most cases actually a refusal of subordination to state and capital — then a violent response becomes not only justified, but mandatory.

The Story Told by the Ledger

Algorithms have led to the disproportionate criminalization of Black people, based on existing data which shows Black people disproportionately incarcerated[21]Milner, Y., & Traub, A. (2021). Data Capitalism and Algorithmic Racism. Demos.[22]Mayson, S. G. (2019). Bias In, Bias Out. Yale Law Journal, 128(8), 2218–2300.[23]Noble, S. U. (2018). Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. United States: NYU Press.[24]Wang, J. (2018). Carceral capitalism. MIT Press.[25]Harcourt, B. E. (2015). Risk as a proxy for race: The dangers of risk assessment. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 27(4), 237-243.. In the same way, white people’s behavior toward Black people (fear, animosity, etc) is influenced by an informal archive: the cultural productions of mostly white America which erase, fetishize, or demonize Black people, and erase or relegate Indigenous people to mythical status. 

The Ledger is the technocratic evolution of the Archive, aggregating, analyzing, and operationalizing centuries of data, using algorithms that combine “the predatory extractive practices of historical colonialism with the abstract quantification methods of computing”, in what Couldry and Mejias call “data colonialism”.[26]Couldry, N., & Mejias, U. A. (2019). Data Colonialism: Rethinking Big Data’s Relation to the Contemporary Subject. Television & New Media, 20(4), 336-349. By default these algorithms reproduce hegemonic perspectives and practices, having few opposing reference points. 

The Ledger establishes what Rouvroy calls “algorithmic governmentality”, which erases the subjectivities of individuals and groups through Big Data aggregation, its “infra-individual data and supra-individual patterns”[27]Rouvroy, A. (2013). The End(s) of Critique: Data Behaviourism Versus Due Process. In M. Hildebrandt and K. de Vries [Eds.], Privacy Due Process and the Computational Turn: The Philosophy of Law Meets … Continue reading obscuring any attempts by actual people to account for themselves. The deep incursion into the interior of people, the minutia of their daily lives and activities, is decontextualized, extracted from the greater narrative or arc of their lives, denying them agency, or the ability to tell their own story. Instead it “undermines the very notion of a sovereign self”, and recreates people as objects, “devoid of subjectivity”.[28]Fisher, E. (2020). The ledger and the diary: algorithmic knowledge and subjectivity. Continuum, 1-20.

The very premise of the Ledger implies that while data does belong to the person who generated it, it also belongs to those others who view/evaluate/draw conclusions from it, creating a sort of dialectical subjectivity.[29]Fisher, E. (2020). The ledger and the diary: algorithmic knowledge and subjectivity. Continuum, 1-20. A person’s thoughts don’t emerge from some interior “ether”, or as a projection of DNA, so in what way can they ever be classified as “one’s own”? And is it not only within hyper-individualist relations between people and society that we even need to consider the “ownership” of data?

While I seem to be making a similar argument as the Selfish Ledger, which suggests that a person’s data (including their thoughts), don’t belong to them, I reject the premise that this lack of “ownership” thereby permits anyone else to use the data in ways to control people or accumulate profit. Much as I reject the idea that indigenous people’s concept of stewardship (rather than ownership) serves as an invitation to settlers to seize land and extract from it. 

Science fiction stories about telepathy always engage with the ethical ramifications  — reading minds, where nonconsensual, being an unequivocal violation of privacy — because of how it might be used toward nefarious purpose. The Ledger, where it operationalizes people’s personal data toward the ends of some company, organization, or government is even more nefarious, for the scale at which it operates, and for the fact that it negates subjectivity.

From a distant view, the “supra-individual patterns” tell a story of Black criminality, as informed by the Archive and its reproductions in white collective memory and media. This archival bias is fed into the algorithms, which don’t see the full picture of Black humanity. Picture in this case, isn’t just a metaphor. After all, it wasn’t until the 1970s that film companies developed chemical emulsions that enabled the proper capturing of Black skin on film. Before this we were rendered as mere shadows, spooks, floating eyes and teeth, or otherwise “invisible…unvalued and inhuman”.[30]McFadden, S. (2014, April 2). Teaching the camera to see my skin. BuzzFeed News. 

Even with a preponderance of information gleaned through Big Data, the algorithmic identity is “extrapolated from an analysis of the ledger”[31]Hartman, S. (2008). Venus in Two Acts. Small Axe, 12(2), 1-14., on behalf of the “masters”, rather than reflective of who people really are. The scale of all of this goes far beyond individual people, the data set so enormous as to “constitute the world”. The mutually reinforcing and reproductive relationship between the Archive and the Ledger effects the construction of reality itself, a reality which is no longer being produced in real time, but is “always already there, immanent to the databases, waiting to be discovered by statistical algorithmic processes”.[32]Rouvroy, A. (2013). The End(s) of Critique: Data Behaviourism Versus Due Process. In M. Hildebrandt and K. de Vries [Eds.], Privacy Due Process and the Computational Turn: The Philosophy of Law Meets … Continue reading

The idea that reality itself can be “uncovered” by algorithms implies a static, absolute, immutable, objective “truth”. This is highly problematic where these algorithms are informed by a white supremacist worldview, in that they calcify this perspective in culture and encode it within the Archive. For example, the socially constructed idea that Black people are inherently criminal, dangerous, or inferior thereby becomes “fact”, the truth that was “already there”, left only for algorithms to “uncover”. 

When it comes to education, particularly within the shift toward “personalized learning” via educational technologies, the idea of algorithmic truth negates all other forms of knowledge construction fundamental to the very notion of subjectivity, let alone possibilities for critical thinking and/or inquiry. In other words, what need is there to question “reality” when the answers are preset, waiting only to be excavated by an algorithm? Learning thereby becomes the mere acquisition of particular information, rather than the cultivation of essential skills and knowledge toward survival, and better yet, flourishing.

This premise of absolute algorithmic truth, based on “intemporal or achronological transparency”, removes all information (data) from its social, historical, and cultural contexts, instead validating them “on the merits of immediate operationality”[33]Rouvroy, A. (2013). The End(s) of Critique: Data Behaviourism Versus Due Process. In M. Hildebrandt and K. de Vries [Eds.], Privacy Due Process and the Computational Turn: The Philosophy of Law Meets … Continue reading. Not only are people individualized within time and space, but so are the “data” that comprise their being and experience. The “past” as a phenomenon subjectively experienced and interpreted, ceases to exist, because this “data behaviorism” — or perhaps data fatalism — is “anchored in the purely statistical observation of correlations (independent from any kind of logic) among data collected”.[34]Rouvroy, A. (2013). The End(s) of Critique: Data Behaviourism Versus Due Process. In M. Hildebrandt and K. de Vries [Eds.], Privacy Due Process and the Computational Turn: The Philosophy of Law Meets … Continue reading

Data behaviorism is an essential characteristic of the Ledger: storing instances of different phenomena without considering the interactions between them or that any phenomenon is but a snapshot of a longer continuum, informed by historical context and sociopolitical inertia. 

The neoliberal mode orients subjects toward continued production and consumption, framing these as integral to individual identity and liberty. Algorithmic governmentality isn’t concerned with individual people at all, but rather all possible interactions between them, such that behavior can be predicted, steered, operationalized and commodified. Whereas traditional government and laws intend to shape, or at least confine behaviors within ”acceptable” norms, algorithmic government is preoccupied with the mere possibility of actions outside of those norms, independent of any risk/benefit analysis on the part of the individual. In this way, the existence of people as autonomous agents is subverted to their potentialities — particularly for errant or so-called criminal behaviors — these being projections derived from algorithmic calculations.

Algorithmic governmentality thus exhibits a new strategy of uncertainty management consisting in minimising the uncertainty associated with human agency: the capacity humans have to do or not to do all they are physically capable of.[35]Rouvroy, A. (2013). The End(s) of Critique: Data Behaviourism Versus Due Process. In M. Hildebrandt and K. de Vries [Eds.], Privacy Due Process and the Computational Turn: The Philosophy of Law Meets … Continue reading

And what Black bodies in particular can do, what they’re “physically capable of”, especially “with regard to potential disobedience”, is informed by the implicit threat of blackness as conceived of and constructed within white supremacy. Thus the need for the wide range of surveillance technologies which make up the Ledger, serving as “solutions to an epistemic governmental problem: the radical indeterminacy and incommensurability of contexts and behaviours”.[36]Rouvroy, A. (2013). The End(s) of Critique: Data Behaviourism Versus Due Process. In M. Hildebrandt and K. de Vries [Eds.], Privacy Due Process and the Computational Turn: The Philosophy of Law Meets … Continue reading

The “radical uncertainty and incommensurability” of Black agency is predicated upon the construction of Black people as fundamentally other, and fundamentally threatening to the white supremacist order. This gap, which prevents comparison is informed by a lack of empathy, a failure to identify with the other, on the premise that such a juxtaposition of experiences is impossible. Algorithmic governmentality “simply ignores the embodied individuals it affects and has as its sole ‘subject’ a ‘statistical body’”, which is commensurate to the “algorithmic identity” constructed by Google[37]Lindh, M., & Nolin, J. (2016). Information we collect: Surveillance and privacy in the implementation of Google Apps for Education. European Educational Research Journal, 15(6), 644-663. or the “digital voodoo doll”.[38]Harris, T. [Milken Institute]. (2019, May 7). Town Hall | Will Technology Save or Subvert Civility and Society? [Video].

Where behavior cannot be “steered”, algorithmic governmentality acts preemptively to subordinate certain people to carceral control, under the pretext that they are forever a potential threat. Implicit in this logic is the irredeemability of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. 

Rouvroy regards the “self” as “interstitial”, which is to say that we are each the product of negotiation between bodies — our own, and those with which we interact, a product of the actions and reactions between people. Resisting algorithmic governmentality is about creating and occupying these interstices, these spaces (and times) in which relationality occurs, even if they “interrupt or grip the fluidity of our techno-capitalist reality”.[39]Rouvroy, A. (2013). The End(s) of Critique: Data Behaviourism Versus Due Process. In M. Hildebrandt and K. de Vries [Eds.], Privacy Due Process and the Computational Turn: The Philosophy of Law Meets … Continue reading

That the Ledger is the evolution of the Archive, and its purpose in subordinating people to state control and capital accumulation, is evident in how “risk-assessment tools” have been in use since the 1920s, at times even using family history of encounters with the state, using risk as a “proxy for race”, to “predict future dangerousness”, with Blackness being a “predictor of parole violation” and whiteness a “marker of success”.[40]Harcourt, B. E. (2015). Risk as a proxy for race: The dangers of risk assessment. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 27(4), 237-243. 

Cesare Lombroso, the founder of criminology believed “the shape of the jaw, the slope of the forehead, the size of the eyes, and the structure of the ear” could determine in advance a person’s criminal inclinations, the equivalent for his time of predictive policing. Eugenicist Francis Galton “developed a technique of composite portraiture”[41]Bridle, J. (2018). New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. Verso Books. from which he hoped to identify some correlation between physical features and criminality — perhaps the underlying logic of facial recognition.

Not only are the data informed by an archive of racist policy and practice, but the tools themselves were racist in their original design, because “in a racially stratified world, any method of prediction will project the inequalities of the past into the future”.[42]Mayson, S. G. (2019). Bias In, Bias Out. Yale Law Journal, 128(8), 2218–2300. Evolving from the thinking of Lombroso and Galton, where the potential threat of individuals is informed by “commercial and social data”, it can “improperly link dark skin to higher threat levels or to greater suspicion of having committed a particular crime”.[43]Selbst, A. D. (2017). Disparate impact in big data policing. Ga. L. Rev., 52, 109. 

These same mechanisms are at work in schools, through the creation and maintenance of student disciplinary records, which follow them for their entire academic careers, informing how teachers and administrators interact with them, if not eventually derailing them through a redirection into the carceral system. 

It is interesting to note that these predictive tools look at “lack of work” as a predictor of crime[44]Harcourt, B. E. (2015). Risk as a proxy for race: The dangers of risk assessment. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 27(4), 237-243., which speaks to the idea that a person’s value, or conversely, the threat they present, is in part determined by their degree of subordination to capital. It connects all the way back to Jefferson’s ideas about Black idleness or laziness or predisposition toward the trivial when our bodies aren’t pressed into labor. It connects to the apparent threat of black idleness — through loitering and vagrancy laws — and the implication that a black body not at work is dangerous. This logic transfers over to the schools as well, in how young people — disproportionately Black, Brown, and Indigenous — are criminalized for “cutting class”, “walking the halls”, for doing anything or nothing at all, where their bodies and minds operate in ways external to the reproduction of the workforce.

If Black, Brown, and Indigenous people are historically dehumanized or made invisible, it is no surprise that predictive policing would be racially biased or that facial recognition would either fail to see us or fail to recognize us as human beings. With the emergence of artificial intelligence, these racist tools have an even greater potential “to perpetuate or amplify social inequality, all while maintaining the veneer of high-tech objectivity”, and to “dignify the cultural trope of black criminality with the gloss of science”. Even where white programmers aspire to create a “colorblind algorithm”, it would still discriminate by “failing to recognize that the context of race powerfully affects the significance of past arrests”.[45]Mayson, S. G. (2019). Bias In, Bias Out. Yale Law Journal, 128(8), 2218–2300.

In 2016, a young black man named Kebar Alli posted a viral video which showed that a Google image search for “three black teenagers” returned mostly mugshots, whereas the search for “three white teenagers” returned images of young white people in various states of frivolity and stock-photo joy. Much controversy ensued, but Google’s response was essentially that the search reflected the representation of Black teenagers on the internet at large.[46]Guynn, J. (2016, June 9). “Three black teenagers” Google search sparks outrage. USA TODAY. Which is to say, most of the media stories or social media posts that used “three black teenagers” were referencing some alleged crime. 

While Google is shedding responsibility, I can give them the rare benefit of the doubt that their argument was made in good faith. As I have already discussed, given that the Ledger evolves from the Archive, and Black people have had disproportionate encounters with the state, it is unsurprising that search results would reflect this disparity. At the same time, where we (Black people) are representing ourselves in positive ways, we are unlikely to use language like “black teenagers”, because our identities are self-evident. 

There is much to say about the psychic effects of being associated with inhumanity or criminality, but the above example offers some insight into how the narrative is so deeply embedded that even black people have internalized it. In an interview with USA Today, Kebar Alli said that “black males making poor choices also plays a major role” in the negative representation, and that “we [black males] need to work to change it”.[47]Guynn, J. (2016, June 9). “Three black teenagers” Google search sparks outrage. USA TODAY. In that one word, “we”, Alli’s words suggest that he has internalized the narrative of black criminality, such that he himself bears personal responsibility for negative representation, rather than it being a symptom of white supremacist logic embedded in the Archive and reproduced by the Ledger. 

As noted by Richardson & Goff, “even within races, people with more stereotypically black features are perceived as being more criminal”[48]Richardson, L. S., & Goff, P. A. (2012). Implicit racial bias in public defender triage. Yale LJ, 122, 2626., which speaks to the enclosure of Blackness into individual features, which on their own can subject us, or even those in our proximity, to violence, incarceration, and death. These enclosures also manifest in the disparate treatments and representations of Black people across the color spectrum: those with lighter skin or more European features faring better across the board. This becomes even more relevant when considering that the very functionality of facial recognition software requires it to divide the face into discrete characteristics.

It comes as little surprise that this software, designed by white engineers, its definition of a human face informed by white features, would fail to recognize Black people at all[49]Buell, S. (2018, February 23). MIT Researcher: AI Has a Race Problem, and We Need to Fix It. Boston Magazine., or in the case of Black women, where they are visible, they are misgendered[50]Buolamwini, J., & Gebru, T. (2018, January). Gender shades: Intersectional accuracy disparities in commercial gender classification. In Conference on fairness, accountability and transparency … Continue reading. Within the Ledger, where Black women are represented, they face a sinister paradox, wherein they are both hyper-sexualized and demeaned as “ugly”. This points to another dimension of invisibility, the reduction of whole people to a difference of their parts. Butts and breasts are isolated by the algorithmic lens, just as they are by the white gaze, excised for discrete consumption[51]Halliday, A. S. (2018). Miley, What’s Good?: Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda, Instagram Reproductions, and Viral Memetic Violence. Girlhood studies, 11(3), 67-83., while their faces — the very loci of their humanity — are regarded as ugly. This is analogous to the historical enclosure of Black women’s bodies into those parts with use-value in a slave economy, as well-accounted in the Archive.

In 2016, researchers conducted a study which found that all around the world, in searches (Google and Bing) for “beautiful women”, white women were strongly represented, while searches for “ugly women” returned a significantly higher proportion of Black women. In their conclusions, the researchers noted that the reasons for these disparities could not be determined: whether or not they were a reflection of the racial distribution within the online photo stock, or a bias within the algorithm. Providing more evidence of the continuum between the Archive and the Ledger, they added that “the stock of photos online may reflect prejudices and bias of the real world that transferred from the physical world to the online world”.[52]Araújo, C. S., Meira, W., & Almeida, V. (2016, November). Identifying stereotypes in the online perception of physical attractiveness. In International Conference on Social Informatics (pp. … Continue reading

The idea that there maybe wasn’t enough data — enough photos — of Black women online to see them better represented in the global standard of beauty, doesn’t seem to hold up considering the over-representation of Black women online as sexual objects. Noble wrote about how the top results in Google searches for “black girls” were of porn sites. In a disturbing convergence, she reported that “women are automatically considered ’girls’”[53]Noble, S. U. (2012). Missed connections: What search engines say about women. Bitch Magazine, 54, 36-41. , simultaneously infantilized and sexualized, a time warp in which the young are “aged up”, and the adults are reconfigured as children — but just old enough for sexual conquest and commodification.

I would argue this is part and parcel of the broader trend of erasure, in which the multiplicity, diversity, and continuity of Black womanhood is collapsed into whatever suits the purposes of white supremacy and capitalist exploitation. This collapsing of space and time upon Black women not only truncates the larger narrative of their humanity, it “further debase[s] and erode efforts for social, political, and economic recognition and justice”.[54]Noble, S. U. (2012). Missed connections: What search engines say about women. Bitch Magazine, 54, 36-41.

Where Black people are visible within the Ledger, and where we are not criminalized, we are often dehumanized, as in the case of the Google Photos’ algorithm, which tagged two Black people as gorillas.[55]Simonite, T. (2018, January 11). When It Comes to Gorillas, Google Photos Remains Blind. Wired. Yet another chapter in the story of Black inhumanity or Black non-being. 

This story continues to have material consequences. A 2008 study revealed that where subjects were primed with images or text referencing apes, that they were more likely to endorse the physical beating of Black people, as shown on video afterward. They also found that where newspaper articles made implicit associations between Black crime suspects and apes, those suspects were more often put to death.[56]Goff, P. A., Eberhardt, J. L., Williams, M. J., & Jackson, M. C. (2008). Not yet human: implicit knowledge, historical dehumanization, and contemporary consequences. Journal of personality and … Continue reading Where Black people are dehumanized, equated with animals, it justifies violence against us, to the point of rendering us unworthy of life. 

If the ledger is informed by algorithmic bias and its data enclosed by filter bubbles[57]Daniels, J. (2018). The algorithmic rise of the “alt-right”. Contexts, 17(1), 60-65., then what actions will it elicit in its users in the endless quest to collect even more data? In 2015, the Emanuel AME Church shooter sought to affirm his racist ideas, in order to justify what he intended to do. Even sitting in community with Black people — in Bible study for an hour — did not bridge the empathy gap, was unable to permeate his filter bubble. He went on to devote six full minutes and five pistol magazines to the murder of nine Black people.

The acceleration from a status of non-being to imminent threat takes place along the continuum of Black visibility. We are mythical bogeymen, breathed into existence through harsh whispers in quiet company, and consigned to the darkness of a collective memory and history better revised or denied. That is until the presence of Black bodies in white spaces — any space under the purview of white supremacy, including virtual or textual — calcifies our legend, reifies the abstract threat into the absolute, the undeniable. Even the children among us are subject to this acceleration, aged from infant to threat by the time we reach preschool [58]Goff, P. A., Jackson, M. C., Di Leone, B. A. L., Culotta, C. M., & DiTomasso, N. A. (2014). The essence of innocence: consequences of dehumanizing Black children. Journal of personality and … Continue reading[59]US Department of Education Office for Civil Rights. (2014). Civil rights data collection data snapshot: School discipline. Issue brief no. 1.

The Collective Delusion of Social Media

Yet there are those who believe — and many have written — that social media has a potentially liberating power, in allowing people to tell their own stories, unfiltered by the mediation of state and capital. The internet, for the fact that it is not a physical space, and has its own “rules and discourse”, lets people — particularly young people — “refashion, reinvent, or rewrite themselves in cyberspace”, in ways that are “distinct from the embodied raced, gendered, classed, and sexed personas” of the real world.[60]Roseboro, D. L. (2018). FLUID: Teen and Youth Identity Construction in Cyberspace. In Kinderculture (pp. 135-152). Routledge. Yet as Roseboro points out, “this self-identification is not occurring in isolation”, but is rather “influenced by advertisers who friend them, media that present the Internet as a dangerous space, and adults who attempt to control their behavior without always having clear knowledge of the world in which they live”.

Some teenagers subversively use two different kinds of Instagram accounts: the “Rinsta” or “Real Instagram”, which features their actual name, and is “carefully curated for public consumption”, and the “Finsta” or Fake Instagram, listed under an alias, and yet is “intimate and messy and…way more authentic”.[61]Lorenz, T. (2017, May 3). The secret Instagram accounts teens use to share their realest, most intimate moments. Mic. What these accounts miss, however, is the subversive character of the Ledger, embodied in social media, which:

centers individuals within a corporate, capitalist, coded algorithm—an algorithm that we have no control over and that most of us don’t even know how it works. It creates a false sense of power and influence.[62]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press.

In a hyper-individualized society, these institutions offer the premise of connection, but in practice divide us, as they stand-in for real interpersonal interaction. Picture two people touching a wall from opposite sides. Technically the wall “connects” them, but in the ways that matter, it separates them from each other.

Social media, built on the premise of connecting people, mediates the relationships between people in digital space, creating “false communities of like-minded individuals without presence, empathy, or trust”, rather than engaging more authentically in shared physical and emotional space. And while there is much fanfare around social media’s capacity for cultivating resistance, we must remember that “every piece of cyber resistance makes [the tech companies] more money and consolidates their power”[63]Simpson, L. B. (2017). As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom Through Radical Resistance. United States: University of Minnesota Press..  Furthermore, the very fact that this kind of “resistance” is allowed to continue on these social media platforms, indicates that the parent companies do not see it as a threat to capital, nor do government officials regard it as a threat to state dominance. 

There was a brief period, in the earlier years of the Black Lives Matter movement, when these neoliberal white elites were navigating the balance between capitalizing on mass public engagement, and potentially enabling a legitimate challenge to hegemony. This was around the time that Baltimore police, in coordination with a tech company called Geofeedia, used social media APIs to locate and arrest teenagers before they could get involved in the protests over the murder of Freddie Gray[64]Brandom, R. (2016, October 11). Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram surveillance tool was used to arrest Baltimore protestors. The Verge.. But what soon became clear was that this rather ham-fisted, COINTELPRO style of surveillance and direct state counterinsurgency, was less effective than simply relying on the power of the algorithm. The tech companies learned they could rely on the data and the labor of their users to protect their interests. Algorithmically sorting all public discourse on social media around a happy neoliberal median, amenable to capital, is more profitable, and better for public relations. 

When Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown were murdered — two amongst the many victims of the state or its proxies — their social media profiles were mined for any evidence of their presumed immorality or criminality, which could be applied retroactively to justify their killings. These are just some of the ways in which social media enable a weaponization of the Ledger, and are complicit in corrupting the narrative of Black life, once again defined by “encounters with the state“, which in these, as in so many cases, left them dead. It makes me tremble with rage to imagine how the life of Tamir Rice — only twelve years old when he was murdered — would’ve been examined, scoured, and decontextualized, had he any social media accounts. After all, in line with the earlier mentioned practice of predicting criminality based on family history, Tamir’s murder was immediately followed by local media reports of his father’s record of violence.[65]Wing, N. (2014, November 26). Police gunned down a 12-year-old and somehow local news decided to run this story. HuffPost. As if that said anything at all about Tamir, or offered some justification for his death.

In spite of the array of social and state forces marshaled in support of white supremacy, the institution rests on a rather precarious foundation: the tender sensibilities of white people and their need to be validated at every moment, lest the myth of their inherent goodness crumble beneath the weight of history. Black bodies act as a physical displacement of this white imaginary, especially when configured in positions of unrest, because we force white people to remember and to grapple with the surplus of evidence refuting their claims to goodness. 

Like being forced to watch a video feed of the slaughterhouse when all you want, by golly, is to eat your hamburger in peace. And by the way, are you sure that gate is secured? Because those other cows are looking a bit agitated. If the comparison between Black people and cows seems like hyperbole, consider the historical practice of using Black women wet nurses for white children, or juxtapose bullfighting with the spectacle of Black death from Jim Crow era lynchings to the viral videos of police killings today.

This likely explains the bulk of white animosity towards the Black Lives Matter movement, exacerbated by the rather laughable, ahistorical, and just wholly inaccurate attribution of Marxism to the movement. This false attribution itself depends upon a deep ignorance of Marxism, but does track with the general white supremacist notion that Black bodies not subordinated to capital are an inherent threat.

While Fisher suggests that the Ledger “has no explicit a-priori theory about humans”[66]Fisher, E. (2020). The ledger and the diary: algorithmic knowledge and subjectivity. Continuum, 1-20., the Ledger’s algorithms are programmed by humans — mostly white male humans — and humans have biases, which taken together do form a sort of “a-priori theory” about particular humans, as I’ve already discussed at length. 

From this premise, can we assume the Ledger, or the algorithms that make meaning of it, will guide us toward our best outcomes, or what’s best for a white supremacist capitalist system? Should we consent to the cynical paternalism of Google’s “enlightened” white elites or the superior reasoning of the algorithms they design?

Where schools engage with these technologies — and the mutually beneficial relationships between schools and tech companies are well-established by now — they merely reproduce the same relations of domination that extend from the Archive through the Ledger. This is a change in tactics, not in purpose, which has remained consistent: the subordination of student labor — now encompassing nearly every action taken in physical and digital space — to the accumulation of capital, and the mitigation of any risk to economic growth or state dominance.

a From here forward, the term “Ledger” refers to the actual digital archive possessed and operationalized by Google and other tech companies, while The Selfish Ledger will refer to Foster’s video.

b Breonna Taylor, Willie McCoy, Rayshard Brooks, Kisha Michael, Marquintan Sandlin, and Aiyana Jones were all killed by police while asleep.

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