September 11 2023
The previous blog in this series looked at two leftwing technological horizons from the heyday of cyberutopianism. That such thinking has become unfashionable raises important questions about its reproduction: how might it be maintained? It is not totally true to suggest that there is nothing left of digital utopian thought (often it is simply that it is not designated as such), and so this blog will examine two very distinct moments within the recent reproduction of technological utopianisms: 1) an Ebony photoshoot, tying in Google Real Tone Photography with the release of the afrofuturist film Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022), and 2) the backlash against the Labour Party’s British Broadband policy in 2019 – which sought to offer free universal fibre-optic service – labelling it as “broadband communism”.
In both cases, the circuit between politics, technological development and imaginative horizon is key to understanding developments within any one of these domains: no single aspect is ultimately determinative – rather they are all mutually conditioning. Conceptually, we might understand this (in cybernetic terms) to constitute a feedback loop, or heuristically, a trialectic (there are not only two, or even three, inputs here). Technologies embody politics, and potential politics emerge from technologies. Technologies (and infrastructures) become the ground beneath a horizon, which offers schematics for the development of technology, and instructs the formation of politics.
Unlike hypertext utopianism and cyberfeminism, afrofuturism was, first of all, a cultural or aesthetic philosophy. As a technical horizon it emerged almost solely in music, literature and filmmaking; schematisation by theorists and academics came much later. So, while the term was coined in the early 1990s, the practice is much older: at least as old as Sun Ra, who was blending Egyption mythology with cosmic allusions while performing free improvisation, jazz and avant garde compositions on electronic keyboards and synthesisers from the 1970s onwards. Or, it might be traced back to the black science fiction writing of, among others, Samuel Dalaney and Octavia E. Butler, starting in the late 1960s and gaining popularity through the 1970s and 80s.
The broad range of work associated with afrofuturism is united through the generation of visions of technology by and for black (or black and brown) people, most often through a hybridization of utopian depictions of technology with African and Caribbean art, architecture, design, textiles and music; and, of course, the portrayal of people with black and brown skin developing and mobilising such technologies. Against the technological, political, legal and economic exploitation present in the everyday lives of people of colour, such work draws on technological imaginaries to construct a horizon of liberated black futurity.
In recent years there has been an afrofuturist resurgence in film and literature, thanks especially to a varied set of writers like Nnedi Okorafo (although she rejects the term), and filmmakers like Boots Riley – although his work is more revolutionary than it is utopian, and has been convincingly understood, alongside Atlanta, as a resurgence of what Amiri Baraka called ‘the afrosurreal’ – in which absurdity emerges as the most appropriate form for depicting contemporary black experience. Most of all, though, the resurgence in afrofuturism (and especially its becoming mainstream) needs to be attributed to Marvel’s Black Panther films.
Plenty has been said about the inadequacy of the politics contained in Black Panther (2018) and its sequel Black Panther: Wakanda Forever (2022). Not only are these films insufficiently radical, they appropriate a veneer of radicalness in order to water down the revolutionary potential of such a formation: so, named after the Marxist-Leninist Black Panther Party, Black Panther becomes an embodiment of liberal reformism and shallow representational politics. It isn’t surprising to see Marvel fall short of the revolutionary, but Black Panther does genuinely offer a glimpse of an alternate relation between race and technology. The futuristic technology of Black Panther is built by and for a black society, Wakanda, and so rather than being a tool of racial exploitation, it becomes one of empowerment. Without the extractive influence of European and American colonialism, Wakanda has been able to retain sovereignty over a native resource – vibranium – the source of its technological prowess and internal abundance. And so, like many afrofuturist visions, Wakanda is also a display of black wealth.
These visions are clearly powerful, hence the financial and critical success of the films (Black Panther made $1344 million and Wakanda Forever $859 million at the box office; the films have 96% and 84% on Rotten Tomatoes respectively). Even if these films fall short of what we should seek to achieve in our anti-racist politics, I think they can and should be taken seriously as holding technological horizons. And, in fact, there has been an active effort to construct technologies around them. A photoshoot which was carried out in the promotion of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever is particularly revealing in this regard, and seems to suggest a coalition between the representational horizon of the films and actual technological development.
In November 2022, the African-American culture and entertainment magazine Ebony published a front cover and photoshoot in collaboration with Google Pixel 7 Pro and the cast of Black Panther: Wakanda Forever to promote both the recent release of the film and Google’s Real Tone photography. The photoshoot, carried out on Google Pixel 7 Pro cameras, consists of a series of still photographs and talking head interviews with the cast of Wakanda Forever, alongside a conventional interview write up.
The cast are dressed in luxury gowns and suits from black-owned brands and designers (also promoted in the shoot) which evoke the shape, texture and sculptural capacity of African textiles within a contemporary idiom of plain synthetic colours. The sets, too, are suggestive of the landscapes of the film – “inspired by the Wakanda savanna”, as described by Google. Both are clearly intended to refer to the afrofuturist aesthetics of the film, bringing it in touch with real life – and especially the particular set of cultural values and signifiers contained within Ebony. Lighting, here, a blend of purple, blue, white and orange, is used to complement the tonal variety of its subjects’ skin and costume. Each photograph, meanwhile, is credited as “Photographed using Google Pixel 7 Pro.” In this way, the phone is portrayed as not only appropriate for high definition fashion photography (perhaps a more conventional content marketing angle), but also as especially appropriate for reproducing the tonal variation and dynamism of black skin, specifically.
The accompanying write-up discusses the films’ role promoting black representation in Hollywood, alongside its relative isolation as a Hollywood expression of something other than a white/European tradition. Meanwhile, talking head interviews with the cast promote the Black Panther franchise (and Ebony) as unique locations of black expression – “it feels like something for us by us”, says Winston Duke. If this is a fairly naked publicity exercise, such claims are not without truth. Diversity among Hollywood’s actors and directors is not, however, the only issue at stake here. There is also a history of inadequate technology for the representation of black people into which the collaboration is inserting itself. Understanding the technopolitical context of Google Real Tone (and this photoshoot) therefore requires a brief detour into the history of photographic racism.
Photographic racism describes the failure of photography throughout its development, to be effectively optimised to portray black and brown skin tones. The best-known example of this concerns Kodak’s “Shirley Card”. The Shirley Card refers to an image of Shirley Page, an employee at Kodak whose face was used in colour correction when developing film photographs from the 1950s onwards. “Shirley Card” became the generic term for such photographs used in colour correction, but up to the 1970s every Shirley Card issued by Kodak was of a white woman, and so there was no guide for calibrating dark skin. (That representations of women are exclusively used for this calibration is another telling issue, although one I won’t discuss here).
The result was distortion to colour in developed images, which failed to accurately represent the skintone of their subjects (except in cases when they were white). That this problem of calibration was only confronted when furniture and chocolate producers complained that the diversity of tones of their products were not being effectively represented, is especially telling. When JPEG was developed in the 1980s – still the most prevalent digital image compression schema today, and the one used by Google – the engineers didn’t make use of a single test image depicting a person with black or brown skin. And so, this core codec for the construction of digital images was calibrated without reference to the legibility of dark skin. It is not surprising, then, that people of colour have experienced similar issues in digital photography to film, with skin tones dulled and distorted on the screen.
Real Tone promises to overcome these very real representational issues through a combination of AI face detection, white-balancing models, auto–exposure and algorithmic manipulation of lighting. Google’s feature on the collaboration stresses the “nuanced” representation of black skin through Real Tone; elsewhere Google stresses Real Tone’s “authenticity”, an implicit response to the inaccurate and washed out depiction of dark skin which cameras have often produced.
Through the Ebony photoshoot, therefore, an afrofuturist imaginary is lent unity with contemporary technological arrangements and manages (or at least appears) to move closer to a technical realisation of its horizon of technology built by and for black people – in this case photographers, actors, audiences. Of course, this is only one version of an afro-futurist imaginary, and it’s a liberal one (what right do Google have to determine the terms of inclusion?). Ebony’s photoshoot suggests Wakanda’s liberatory technologies are already or almost here, and that they will be realised through representation in the codecs of currently existing proprietary technologies, not through transformative change. This is black capitalism embodied in a smartphone camera.
Nonetheless, there is some success here: afrofuturism (or a version of it) imagines a world with a different representational politics to our own and in doing so starts to construct it. Black Panther and the cultural forces that have produced and promoted it are not isolated from those forces which motivated Google to intervene in a long history of photographic racism and to market its phones on the promise of photographic inclusion. However, such a horizon is being realised through a coalition with big tech. That the more radical iterations of afrofuturism have manifested less actual technology might speak more to what organisations like Google are willing to mobilise than to the viability of their imagination. In this sense, both Real Tone photography and the Ebony photoshoot function as extension of one of the core instincts of Black Panther: routing radical energy towards reformist ends. And so, they are also profoundly anti-utopian; they mobilise reform against revolution.
Thankfully, Google and other tech giants are not the only entities capable of developing technology. Much of the technologies behind Real Tone photography (including those previously mobilising racist logics, it must be acknowledged) were developed with generous public funding and made open-source – JPEG was developed in-part for Minitel, France’s nationally-owned alternative to the internet. Digital photography came into existence not because of private innovation but because of public efforts, international collaboration and the personal passions of a relatively small group of well-supported individuals. As much as Black Panther constitutes a warning about co-option, it also showcases the real possibility of manifesting new kinds of technologies if an effective horizon is given to well-organised teams with enough resources.
The photoshoot isn’t only a content marketing exercise for two discrete entities (Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Google Pixel cameras); it is also an expression of alignment between Black Panther’s reformist afrofuturist horizon and a genuine attempt from engineers at Google for equal inclusion for people of colour in the technologies of capitalism (as phone owners and photographic subjects). It reveals one model for understanding the relationship between horizon, politics and technology: an afrofuturist horizon fosters a political situation in which production of technologies of representation is possible. Such technologies go on to become a technical apparatus for the production of afrofuturist imagery, and enable its extension. There is something like a feedback loop here: horizon making and technological development motivate each other, but because that technology is purely representational in its focus, so too the afrofuturist imaginary becomes more oriented towards representation, and pulled away from its radical expressions.
It is important not to misread such a feedback loop as progressively (or regressively) deterministic: ‘twirling twirling twirling’ towards freedom, or, perhaps, towards new modes of enclosure, exploitation and extraction; neither of these is given. If Google Real Tone seems like an obvious victory to those advocating the equal inclusion of people of colour into the logics of contemporary techno-capitalism, such as the makers of Black Panther, it may not be so simple for someone with the revolutionary politics of the actual Black Panther Party. Being seen by the technologies of racial capitalism may very well be a poisoned chalice, and certainly isn’t a panacea when taken alone.
From Ebony’s photoshoot, I want to turn to a very different episode of horizon making, which is instructive as to this feedback mechanism between horizon, politics and technology and also perhaps, to the specific potentialities of the present.
During the run-up to the 2019 general election, the UK Labour Party announced “British Broadband”, a policy, developed by Common Wealth, of nationalising parts of British Telecom (notably OpenReach) and using it to offer a free full-fibre broadband connection to every home in the UK.
In a certain sense this was a modest policy: bringing an ineffective public service provider into public ownership in order to improve access. The policy also proposed establishing a “Charter of Digital Rights” to help individuals and collectives control their data, but there were few details of what this would entail. As British Broadband was expressed, it contained no horizon, no suggestion of transformation in the form or social relations embodied by the internet, only an aspiration to make the existing network radically accessible.
Barbrook and Cameron’s ‘Californian Ideology’ essay made a similar suggestion (for Europe as a whole) thirty years ago, “that every citizen has the opportunity to be connected to a broadband fibre-optic network at the lowest possible price”. It is easy to think of fibre-optic connections as a very contemporary phenomena, when in fact the free market has been markedly slow in developing these – in the mid-1980s, German media theorist Freidrich Kittler was predicting the imminent proliferation of fibre optic networks globally. Today, free publicly provided fibre-optic internet access is an actually-existing policy which has been implemented by the local government of Kerala in India. That Kerala is governed by communists is misleading here; this was a social democratic policy achievable within a thoroughly capitalist state. Free universal fibre-optic internet access was in reach in 2019 and remains in reach today.
But this was 2019, and the reaction of the UK media did not reflect the modesty of Labour’s proposal. Immediately before Labour’s announcement, it was anticipated by a smear campaign; among which was Neil McRae, managing director of BT group, who described British Broadband as being tantamount to “broadband communism.” The phrase was quickly jumped on by the news media, who amplified this framing in an attempt to discredit the policy and Labour’s wider platform. And so, when interviewed on the BBC’s Politics Live to discuss the newly announced policy, Labour’s Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy, Rebecca Long-Bailey, was asked to clarify whether it really did constitute broadband communism. Her answer was, emphatically, “no.”
In a sense, British Broadband’s critics were more attuned (in public at least) to its revolutionary potential than its proponents. In the obscenity of labelling an essentially reformist policy as a dangerous, revolutionary one, the media furore lent it the shape of a horizon to many of those who desire transformational change. Broadband communism quickly became a provocative declaration beyond the current discursive framework. To say one actually does support broadband communism, whether or not you were even a communist, was to reach beyond the acceptable left flank of British politics (beyond Corbyn’s project) towards the germ of a more utopian relation to technology. If the Labour party couldn’t summon up visions of cyber-communist utopia, its critics certainly could.
British Broadband was not realised. Labour lost the 2019 election and the possibility was foreclosed. But broadband communism need not die with British Broadband, and so a question arises from this episode: what might an earnest broadband communism look like as a political horizon, and how might we achieve it? Might something like British Broadband really constitute cyber-communism? Broadband communism suggests the need for a materialist turn in our digital horizons; of course, any serious cyber-communist would need to have aspirations for more than home broadband and internet access, but there is a lot to be said, whether or not British Broadband was articulated as a revolutionary proposal, for taking network infrastructure as the first step towards a transformation in the set of relations embodied by the internet.
The feedback mechanism between the horizon, politics and technology, as suggested by Ebony’s afrofuturist photoshoot, is vital here. It is important to think through whether such a policy will have the effect of broadening or narrowing our horizons. In this case, I think it is clear; socialising access to the network while moving key infrastructures out of the logics of capital accumulation may not itself be a revolutionary proposal – it make no claims on the overall network structure and even seeks to include more people in the capitalist internet – but these are conditions which are far more amenable to the work of cyber-communism than the present. If British Broadband wasn’t really broadband communism, it would have made the work of imagining and then establishing a socialist internet much easier.
Sadie Plant has a formation which is productive here. She describes: “All the weaver has to do is run the program woven in advance. The patterns are already as good as made. The fabrication might as well already be complete. The softwares are virtually real.” This is virtuality as imminence, abstraction as the cusp of materiality. But virtuality also requires a system. Perhaps, the declining prospects of leftwing cyber-utopianism have not been simply due to some weakness in our imaginations. Horizons are hard to see in difficult terrain – and if we are to escape the present, our imaginations might need new ground from which to view the sky.
My first three blogs have been largely theoretical, but the next will embrace the materialist orientation of broadband communism. What changing material conditions have accompanied the slow death of left cyber-utopianism? What was the internet in the heyday of this thinking, and what is it today? These questions demand a turn to the actual infrastructures of the internet.
- Amiri Baraka, “Henry Dumas: Afro-Surreal Expressionist”, Black American Literature Forum 22.2 (Summer 1988), pp.164-166
- Freidrich Kittler, trans. Geoffrey Winthrop-Young & Michael Wutz, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999) (originally published in German 1986)
- Sadie Plant, Zeros + ones: digital women + the new technoculture (London: Fourth Estate, 1997)
Liam is a CHASE funded PhD candidate in Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths, University of London. His research interests include digital culture, the history of computing, information theory, glitch studies, and the politics and philosophy of noise. Previously he has worked as a copywriter and tech journalist. He is working on several projects with Autonomy, from skills commissions to policy strategy.