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“An Internet bot, also known as web robot, WWW robot or simply bot, is a software application that runs automated tasks (scripts) over the Internet. Typically, botsperform tasks that are both simple and structurally repetitive, at a much higher rate than would be possible for a human alone.”(Wikpedia)

Like babies learning the cadence and rhythms of human conversation, they trip us up and interject, sometimes humorously, sometimes inconveniently, unexpected prophets-cum-comedians. You can even trace their footprints throughout the web and observe their manipulation of the hypertext protocol to increasingly make their presence known, in a somehow desperate existential plea. In the online world, ‘bot’ has almost become a shorthand for the pitfalls and bizarre depths of the contemporary internet. We’ve now come to know them not only for their outlandish promises of $1500 dollars a day just by working at home. Although in terms of their architecture, they are easily understood as a software application simply running automated tasks, we also understand them as assistive means in the ruthless mobbing of minorities and women online, in their convenience for weaponising prejudice and structural inequality.

From a historical perspective, the resurgent bot interest within the tech industry is almost shallow. For many of us millenials, they were the foundation of our late 90’s-early 00’s internet experience, our social interactions increasingly bracketed and more tightly enforced with every message relayed through the text field on the MSN Messenger interface. A fundamental component of the comparatively ancient Internet Relay Chat (IRC), it’s not so much the bot is new, or even necessarily more widely used (comparatively speaking), but that in context of Machine Learning fuelled by a glut of data in an increasingly connected ecosystem, we are in an era where the bot has made gains in sophistication that are significant enough for them to become the cyber assistants of speculative fiction. Intelligent and human seeming enough that they can help us make substantive life decisions, from our savings and investments to healthcare. Or maybe just to help us order Taco Bell.

The Bot as Unseeing Agent

Where the bot is a tool of corpocratic interest, the black body then occupies a liminal space of both the subject of hypersurveillance whilst also being the site of ‘unseeing’. Echoing the inherent bias hardcoded into 20th century photography that has passed on into contemporary graphics and image recognition software, in the era of the bot, the black body is simultaneously observed, watched and controlled whilst also invisible to the ideative, creative and productive structures of the techno-industrial complex.

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Beyond the first level of unseeing, is the attempted obliteration of the black - the othered - presence. Legacy Russell, theorist of the Glitch Manifesto, in her lecture Wandering / WILDING : Blackness on the Internet, considers the case of Diamond Reynolds, whose documentation of her boyfriend, Philando Castile’s death at the hands of the police was initially deleted by Facebook on account of its content. Russell underscores the paradox of a platform where entire groups dedicated to spurring the eradication of whole ethnic communities may find a home, yet the digital testimony of a perpetuated social injustice is what is considered problematic. Russell shared a clip of the video, the moment where Reynolds’s camera ends its witness with what Russell calls its “digital eye” turned up to a calm blue sky, itself now a site of unseeing brought about by the violent insistence of her assuming a cowed position upon the asphalt road, there is a parallel to the valorisation of calm and passivity in response to structural violence and oppression, such valorisation only possible because of this unseeing that cannot comprehend the rage and destruction beneath the assumed calm.

In this unseeing we find not only a lack of representation but an opportunity for misrepresentation, an opportunity for those with greater structural power to impose a definition of blackness that can go beyond national borders in the glorious entangling that is cyberspace. As the lives and realities of the oppressor and oppressed are ever more intimately entwined, this unseeing is one that must be continually confronted - digital separatism, though a worthwhile tool, will not be enough to save us.

‘It’s kind of disconcerting how bot posts have reached the point where they don’t actually make sense in context, but they sufficiently resemble sensical posts that you have to read it over multiple times to be completely sure. I feel like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop here.’

Revelatory Malfunction

Conversely, this unseeing also provides an opportunity for the unseen. During the event, Russell shared artist E.Jane’s #NOPE manifesto which explores notions of futurity, refusal, and survival as tied to blackness. Russell linked this refusal to the viral rise of digital discourse surrounding Colin Kapernick, who choose to kneel during the national anthem in protest of the violence done to black bodies across the United States. The rise of reactions about Kapernick’s action - a “NOPE” in its own right - underscores the problematic relationship between blackness and patriotism. Kapernick’s ‘‘true patriotism’ as demonstrated by protesting being memed across a nationalist American broadcast as a falling from grace of an ideal, a wholesale rejection of any kind of devotion to nationalism. This is an example of the error - the disruption to the status quo, the normal flow of events - providing erratum to the broken and warped system of normality, to draw on the terminology of the Glitch Feminist manifesto. The unseen can manipulate the recursive behavior of the bot, forcing automata to regurgitate, amplify and perpetuate the glitch through the exponential reaches of the network, as seen in the means by which the hashtag - and many other such subversive memes - have propagated throughout the internet.

If we step back and gaze once more from the perspective of history, the bot occupies prime real estate as the latest in a long line of automata that best exemplify the limitations of their creators. Think of Microsoft’s Tay, released into the world with such good intentions at the behest of their earnest parents, only to have their hollow minds filled with the synthetic marshmallow of edgy alt-right memes. This glitching performed both as a symbol of liberal naivete and evidence of the repeated infrastructures of oppression within the realm of social media.

Here the bot provides testament to the unseeing of its creators, an unseeing that is thus potentially embedded within all following technologies. Similarly to the protocols that create our most popular social media platforms, the lack of consideration to the possibility of racist hijacking is a product of an assumed whiteness regarding the internet and its users. As much as such failings reflect the lack of diversity within the product teams, one could argue that more importantly, the unseeing means that even those with the structural power to take into account the needs of a ‘diverse’ user base are rendered unable to do so, so strong is the unseeing provided by heteronormative white supremacy. How can one envision the needs of the other when one doesn’t even realise the other exists? Yet, in the vein of the Glitch paradigm, hasn’t the malfunction of a twitter bot worked as a revelatory object? Hasn’t the glitch, then become a means of seeing the unseen?

Glitch-centred: Designing for the Unseen

Design at its broadest has long attempted to deal with how one is to see the other when creating usable products. Participatory design, critical design, service design, user centred design, empathic design, these are all regularly discussed paradigms and perspectives wherein techniques such as iterative design and gender mainstreaming are used to force the designer to intentionally incorporate the perspectives of the user within the very product itself. However, if such paradigms have yet to reach critical mass even within the more established design fields such as urban planning and architecture (and our ever changing urban infrastructures are testament to this), it is perhaps not surprising that this is all the more true within the relatively young field of digital design.

After all, there is an irony in the way that user experience (UX) design - the branch of design most commonly applied to human interactions with technology - whilst purporting to put the user at the heart of the product, has still yet to break into the process of the algorithm design, which is where the user’s experience is actually determined. More often than not, far from truly designing a user’s experience, the UX practitioner remains at a fairly shallow level of intervention, ultimately doing little more than providing a pleasing, one could almost argue deceptive, interface whether in the guise of typography or pantones. In this way, the designer is a tool of the corpocracy, perpetuating the discontinuities afforded by racism, misogyny, homophobia etc. by the means of smooth transitions and well balanced hues. In short, a glitchless process.

For the designer to be an agent of decolonisation, first must come the paradoxical step of both acknowledging the current limitations and the parallel impressive power of design to expose and encode social models of thought. Only when fully cognisant of how the capitalist engine seeks to divide those who are in service to technological production, can the designer turn ambassador - no, advocate for the user. Not only by producing, but by outreach and education, by truly enmeshing themselves and their whole practice into the world of their users.

Ultimately, in order to decolonise, one must first understand that there is an other; that there are other voices who have always been present, documenting their existences. What lies between revelation and practice; how the unseen other is to be encoded, or indeed how we are to resist their encoding at all requires an answer that will not be reduced to a single mission statement or an iterative function. In an era of complex systems engineering and deep learning, it might be almost a truism now to say it, but nonetheless, whatever solution we seek must be something continually eked out, made visible through the pseudo-prophetic clarion of the ever cycling glitch.

 

‘It’s kind of disconcerting how bot posts have reached the point where they don’t actually make sense in context, but they sufficiently resemble sensical posts that you have to read it over multiple times to be completely sure. I feel like we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop here.’

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Florence Okoye

Florence Okoye works as a UX Designer, writes science fiction, messes around with Arduinos and web technologies whilst studying dead languages and computer science. She likes to think about intersectional futurism, technology, social justice and being a black Igbo diasporan in the UK. She is interested in projects that encourage public engagement with technology and the arts, especially those that explore the intersection of minority experiences. She is the Events and Marketing Manager for the MancsterCon sequential art convention, and is one of the leading voices of Afrofutures_uk.

Klaas Kuitenbrouwer, R&D Department
Adriaan Odendaal