What Will Social Networks Look Like After the Internet?
An Afrofuturistic Vision of Offline Communities
In Oakland, we saw the new year burst open with reminders of the power of storytelling. At the Oscar Grant memorial event at Fruitvale Bart station, in the clear blue of January, Grant’s relatives urged people to share stories of injustice and people’s work to transform their communities. As people photographed the event with their cell phones and recorded stories of love and struggle, they embraced the message: Your life, your voice, matters.
Growing up, I heard the stories in my family lore—perhaps they exist in yours, too—of relatives killed or brutalized by police. These stories were never recorded. Instead, they saturated our family memories and generated a kind of collective, generational sadness.
I identify as part of the Afrofuturist movement largely because of this: wonder at the magnitude of repressed stories and contemporary technologies’ potential to help transmit these stories. The spiritual and intellectual impact of #BlackLivesMatter demonstrates how contemporary voices can resist oppression and sing of community, healing, and love. But these technologies can also prove problematic. The same technologies that facilitate social justice also organize hate groups. And the social media corporations that connect us can also violate our privacy, collect our data, and sell our information for profit.
After the Internet is a publication from the Living Room Light Exchange (LRLX), a group that hosts a monthly in-person conversation about multimedia art and storytelling. After the Internet includes illustrations from David Huffman and bookmarks by Helen Shewolfe Tseng in addition to short written pieces: a foreword by LRLX co-founders Liat Berdugo and Elia Vargas; “The Underbuilt,” the cornerstone essay, written by Oakland-based collective The Black Aesthetic (TBA) and Caroline Sinders about life after the Internet; writer Rose Linke’s afterword, which reads likes a found poem on technology; and an introduction by writer-curator-researcher Dorothy Santos discussing how the internet fails to live up to its potential as a democratizing force.
“The Underbuilt” imagines how the death of the internet would transform communication. This scenario and its effects (social disruption, the dissolution of communal memories) along with its possibilities (the creation of new infrastructures) are continuously re-evaluated throughout the book.
I reached out to past and current members of the LRLX and TBA to discuss these ideas. The following roundtable discussion was culled from an in-person conversation with Ryanaustin Dennis, a writer-critic and one of the TBA founders; phone calls with Berdugo, Sinders, Santos Linke, and Leila Weefur, artist and current member of the TBA; and a Skype chat with Vargas.
How did After the Internet come about?
Liat Berdugo: The Living Room Light Exchange is a physical network, exploring a very geo-located matrix of living rooms, spaces and people. This contrasts with the digital realm, in which networks are largely aphysical and invisible. The Light Exchange has always been interested in what comprises a network and what other networks might possibly exist, other than those on the internet.
Elia Vargas: At the time, I thought the way TBA was imagining blackness fit into important dialogues around re-imagining structures of control that the internet produces. Caroline is doing important work in this regard and I thought putting these two in collaboration would produce an interesting, unexpected, and importantly concrete vision of a different future network.
Ryanaustin Dennis: We’re imagining life without the internet. With Caroline, we came together to think of a post-internet world that references our present moment.
Caroline Sinders: As someone who writes about technology and is part of makerspaces, I’ve been thinking about how equity and privacy come into play. We’re in a space that’s really not open, even if it was at one time, open. We’re in specific, constrained spaces. The internet isn’t a wild ecosystem without a lot of accountability.
After the Internet doesn’t seem optimistic about the internet and its serving as an equitable forum for sharing people’s stories.
RD: In a post-technological world without the internet, maybe we’d connect the way we used to. Also, specifically I’m coming from the position of a being in a privileged position of being located in the Americas where we’re hyper-aware of technology and its uses. We are past the moment of whether smartphones, social media, etc. are “good or bad” because we are are swimming in it. The question for me is more about power and the distribution of racist, classist, transphobic, xenophobic, sexist, and anti-ecological ideologies. From my understanding there’s been successes with using the “internet” (a.k.a. social media) to amplify voices, organize, and to create material political change.
LB: The kinds of power differentials that exist in society are mirrored in the networks we make. Class struggles exist on the internet as well. In the past ten years, we’ve seen the internet disseminate counter-hegemonic videos—but what happens with those stories? What change happens?
Leila Weefur: I’m speaking from the context of being Black and queer. Black people and more oppressed groups don’t have as much visibility, and—in the visual art world, at least—online spaces allow Black people to kind of march with bravado and have control over their representation and own conversations.
Are we changing the way we share stories?
RD: Of course. With Tumblr, Twitter, and Instagram people have really cool new ways of sharing their stories. Also, on the pre-internet side, small press publishing is another way. I helped design the 12-week Inflammatory Affirmation poster series as a fundraiser for Project Kalahati. Project Kalahati will have all in-house binding and design to help [queer authors of color] make their own books. Small presses allow for creativity, flexibility, and a more intimate exchange of ideas and stories.
Dorothy Santos: With podcasting, there is a resurgence in radio. While both are sound-based, they are so different. I think of how Anna Friz and Emmanuel Madan imagined the radio in the future in their work The Joy Channel . . . In any case, sound is powerful. I can’t throw around jargon when speaking to an audience. Because someone is able to hear me speak on a podcast, they’re counting on me to tell a story . . . For the future, we all have to be multi-sensorial in our storytelling.
Rose Linke: I think the internet can create a gray area between public and private. As a result, perhaps the really challenging conversations are being had in more intimate spaces.
As more stories get told online, will we be able to forget our bodies?
LW: I definitely think we’re rethinking the body. The body is language. The internet is forcing us to rethink language. Language isn’t just spoken or written; expression also includes your vocal chords, your microexpressions . . . We have to think about emojis, short words, how to make affect visible. We have to think about new ways to articulate ourselves.
RD: I want to resist this interesting but deeply Western Euro-Enlightenment binary of mind/body. I’m reading Flash of the Spirit by Robert Farris Thompson and Divine Horsemen: The Voodoo Gods of Haiti by Maya Deren and there are other traditions that don’t set-up this problem. In the Voudoun cosmological philosophy they don’t have this dualism, but instead set up a more dynamic understanding of how the mind and body interact. Even within the Vedic philosophical tradition, the Upanishads engage with this question differently. We—People of Color—have a global history in which we don’t set up this strict dualism or issue of separating mind from body. We can’t forget the body, because it is the vessel that allows us to comprehend and make use of this contemporary information-driven, virtual, and globally distributed world. Thus to forget it would be to forget the conditions that make it possible to “be” in the world.
Also, fuck this idea of “the body,” what does that even mean? We are talking about people, that concept of “the body” can sometimes take away from the fact that bodies are sweaty, they excrete, and are swelling with bacteria. We are highly constructed lumps of genetic code. Lets not forget that.
How does gathering in physical spaces help us form community?
LB: At the Living Room Light Exchange, we bring bodies together, always in the intimate setting of someone’s house. At each event, we usually have a lot of bodies. These bodies may end up touching each other in, and through the course of, dialogue. This is a stance we take: your body and physical presence are vital for having constructive conversations about new media.
EV: This question has more to do with a recognition that bodies, community, language, the earth, etc. are always changing and changed by each other. So, how do “we” build the sort of forms and concepts that enact an opening up of potential and possibility of being and of community?
LW: We’ve lost how our body and digitalia are separate. We’ve lost a sense of ourselves. We have to be careful about how our bodies become dependent on media—social media, digital media, all of the above.
RL: When thinking about the internet, it’s hard not to think about physicality and disembodied experiences. I’m a writer. I can’t completely power off or disconnect. But there is always the underlying desire to disengage in order to be more fully in my body and community.
LB: I’m working on a book right now about how Palestinians used video cameras as part of their own resistance to the Israeli occupation. With these videos, I’m asking how to use technology for social change. Sometimes media really does cause change. My big question with this book is, what kind of ways of getting information out there causes justice to come about? What kinds of stories, photos, and moving images are necessary—and potent?
LW: We have to think about access . . . We have to remember that people need access to basic monitor and modem to get set up. We have to think about who we’re telling stories to.
CS: I see the future as bright and lush . . . I see us decolonizing information and building feminist infrastructures, a feminist internet.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.