Agency and the Machine: Knowledge, Digitality and the Global South

Tegan Bristow
Beadwork in the Phansi Museum, Durban, South Africa (2018).
Courtesy Tegan Bristow

THE BLOOM

If visualised, new global criticism and knowledge production would represent a bloom located in what we may once have termed the subaltern, but now perhaps something more substantial and methodological in this positioning: the African communal egalitarian frame, the East Asian technical and scientific formation, bio-cultures and the review (in some cases, the refusal) of South American colonial criticism, and what may very well be in the new future (as opposed to the old future) a premise for the critical Anthropocene from the Middle East. Each of these represents a distinct methodology and offers renewed criticism in response to knowledge justice.

Historically constricted by the Euro-American tradition and denied both participation and acknowledgement through systemic colonialism and technological neo-colonialism, this bloom of positionality is now no longer limited by the networks of the old guard. Instead, instant networks and digital publication in all its forms – text, media, audio, live engagement – allow for new global knowledge pathways.

This network is produced by the need for methodological diversity found in the creation, production and dissemination of knowledge. The network is constituted by those working at contributing on their own terms, in and across their communities, and linked by the common purpose of justice – justice for culture and knowledge.

These knowledge networks exist as “practice” in the Global South and they encompass a wide range of actions: from architecture in South Asia responding to climate change and affordability, to public universities in South America still challenging race, to “poor” communities engaging kindness as research. The list continues.

AFFORDANCES AND THE NETWORK

The bloom of knowledge in networks at this time benefits from transmission across the Global South of global digital networks. We should therefore reflect on the cybernetic origins of these networks, which were built not only on the desire to share information and data, but on a system of technological and digitally interactive affordances and constraints.

In global knowledge dissemination, a key affordance of digital networks is the ability to bypass historical institutional gate keeping. In digital interaction design, we work to maximise the affordances of a medium, and in so doing create satisfying experiences that are defined as agency in this realm. The affordance of bypassing institutionalised gate keeping through open digital networks is, therefore, agency in the Global South. Yet agency in the digital world is understood through the lens of semi-automative agency in interactive environments (as seen in examples such as games and user-led experiences),1 where, by design, the user experiences agency due to a maximising of affordances, while simultaneously being in a position where the user is less concerned with constraints. My question here is: how can we better understand the control systems (the algorithms) of knowledge production, transmission and dissemination in Global South networks.

In the digital world, agency is not understood to be a product of the artefact, much like knowledge is not necessarily the product of an institutionalised regime. And yet we are distinctly aware of the relationship between artefact and agency. The well-used phrase of Marshall McLuhan “the medium is the message” comes to mind.2 So when agency is taken as a goal, we can’t help but become aware of its opposite in the product, which is powerlessness, confusion or frustration.

Murray speaks of internet or digital networks as having four primary and inherent affordances:

Spatial – information spaces, virtual landscape, maps, navigation;

Encyclopedic – databases, archives, portable media, encyclopedias, organisation conventions;

Participatory – messaging, media sharing, input, recommendation;

Procedural – search engines, game engines, sensors, control conventions.3

When viewing knowledge of the South through this lens – and here in regard to these associative affordances, I mean both locative and methodological – then the spatial, encyclopedic, participatory and procedural can be read as potentialities for knowledge agency. In Global South knowledge transmission, spatial affordances add to knowledge of what has been both denied and forgotten, allowing for the redrawing of territories, and the creating of new knowledge spaces beyond the institution and the premise of the subaltern.

Encyclopedic affordances for the South allow the inclusion of previously excluded and alongside new knowledges from the South. However these should include the methods of the South. The separation of knowledge from active and social participation is no longer tolerated, and we therefore see an entwining of encyclopedia and participatory affordances in the South. Alongside subaltern methods of knowledge production, methods of communal databasing, organising and archiving are being explored in networks to maximise these affordances towards agency.

It is well known to those who work in digital interaction design and use affordances to build agency driven environments, that the last item on Murray’s list – procedural affordances – is central to supporting the other innate affordances. Yet what is often unspoken in both knowledge and digital design is that the participatory, encyclopedic and spatial contribute to how the procedural is manifest. A case in point currently is the growth of artificial intelligence and its applications: these show extreme bias to particular types of knowledge, thought, individuals and methods due to the biased institutionalised material on which these artificial “minds” are being trained.

The Global South is both unrepresented and unengaged by AI applications as a result of this bias. Information engineers, computer scientists and media artists from the Global South are, therefore, working at bringing into question and to the fore the “procedural” affordances of the “subaltern”, or what can be described as the participatory methods of the South. These are significant contributions and afford better representation in encyclopedic contributions from the South.

An instance of this is the work of the Africa-wide Maskhane network (https://www.masakhane.io/), which insists on both data sovereignty and open access in the use of African-language model training. Another is Karya, a non-profit launched in 2021 in Bengaluru, which sees itself as the world’s first ethical data company using data collection to reduce rural poverty as well as influencing associated metadata when collecting globalised data sets.4

The question of procedural affordances is one I have posed in an ongoing work titled A School for Vernacular Algorithms (2021), in which the procedural parts of digital computing are demystified so that it can be understood as an influence-driven system.5 The work aims to reduce the persistent reverence for technology’s procedural ability, and rather to view the procedural aspects of digitality as an extension of power and society, and a society that is non-representative and non-inclusive at best.

In contrast to technological procedural algorithms, A School for Vernacular Algorithms considers and takes seriously the algorithms of the subaltern found and transmitted in art, song, poetry and language in Southern vernacular knowledge systems. These systems are centuries old and contain histories of radical responsiveness, transformational methodologies and environmental learning. More importantly, vernacular systems are held and transferred by people in social, animist and object-ontological relations (as opposed to institutionalised regimes), thereby incorporating egalitarianism and environmentalism as a procedural affordance.

Coded pattern with beadwork mathematics (detail) from Tegan Bristow, A School for Vernacular Algorithms (2021). Courtesy Tegan Bristow. The project asks philosophical and practical questions to egalitarian “systems thinking” by exploring how vernacular “algorithmic thinking” can be used to unpack and critique contemporary computing and the algorithmic organisation of society. The outcomes are a practical focus on what can be learned from African beadwork, palm/grass weaving and lyrical practices in Southern Africa from a mathematical and algorithmic perspective.

CITY, DECAY AND (NET)WORK

Like many Global South cities, Johannesburg holds explicit spatial, encyclopedic, participatory and procedural affordances unique to its history, cultures, economies and climates. Yet, much like the current state of global networks, these affordances are not seen for their potential towards agency, but rather as procedurally amiss. Johannesburg is a place in which many people are ground to the bone by the need to survive. Corruption and violence are part of the status quo in its procedural algorithms, and lead to the steady decay of systems that were once drawn from colonial encyclopedias. Other affordances that are inclined to the egalitarian are engaged by only a few who are able to sustain humility and hope in this system.

“Information engineers, computer scientists and media artists from the Global South are, therefore, working at bringing into question and to the fore the ‘procedural’ affordances of the ‘subaltern’, or what can be described as the participatory methods of the South.”

It is at this moment that I invite you to consider constraints, the hidden partner of affordances in digital media. Affordances and constraints work together in media design: constraints are a silent contributor, an inhibitor at the right moments leading the user away from places or actions that may hinder the task at hand. A common design example is the spout of a tea-pot: the angle and circumference of the spout is a constraint that leads the hot liquid in a particular direction, towards the affordance of the end of the spout where the liquid can exit freely in the right direction.

Murray writes further that, “[t]he constraints on a design project can be limitations of any kind, even such as time, money, human resources, computational power, bandwidth, and skill. Specific needs, such as institutional values, can also constrain the range of acceptable design solutions.” She goes on to indicate that platforms are an important source of constraints, listing as an example a mobile application’s screen size.

In the example of Johannesburg as a knowledge system, we might be inclined to view infrastructure decline as the misalignment of an older constraint of colonial power or values. In the city, corruption and violence are born from a collapsed system and this inhibits affordances that might be available to the city; thereby further placing civil society in a position where constraints overshadow affordance, thereby reducing agency for its citizens.

In returning to knowledge and networks, how do knowledge communities and dissemination platforms like the Joburg Contemporary Art Foundation lower the impact of societal constraints on knowledge development? And not only the constraints of historical knowledge regimes, but also those being faced by all communities (including knowledge producers and artists)? In effect, how can misaligned, exclusionary and destabilising procedural constraints be shifted towards affordances that bring value to the spatial, encyclopedic, participatory and procedural affordances of knowledge creation in the South?

Each breath drawn in this city can be seen as a gasping breath that nonetheless has the potential to be vibrant. For instance, we see musical rhythms born here weave across global tiktoks: a communal construction that destabilises a universal algorithm. The ability of the South to present defiance should be its procedural affordance, and can be used to teach its encyclopedic search engines.

Portrait of Nhlanhla Mhlangu wearing the work of Philiswe Dube, composer and choreographer, A School for Vernacular Algorithms (2021). Photo Zivangai Matangi

MAXIMISING AFFORDANCES IN THE FACE OF CONSTRAINTS

Exploring digital network affordances allows us to speak directly to what can be influenced. If we maximise affordances, then we allow the creation of agency. But how aware are we of the constraints in this uncomfortable balance towards agency? In answering the question of how cultural and knowledge communities can maximise affordances, we ask in turn what those centres are willing to do to see creative and knowledge agency take shape (in terms of Murray’s four affordances):

Spatial affordances and location – providing agency in navigation in interactive information design is dependent on providing a clear indication of the current location of the interactor. In my analogy this includes the relational distance between knowledge producer and receiver, and the respective affordances and constraints available to and between each. Greater agency for Global South knowledge goes beyond Global South vs Western locations (both methodological and encyclopedic) but requires an understanding of relational producer vs receiver locations and their constraining distances within the Global South.

“Greater agency for Global South knowledge goes beyond Global South vs Western locations (both methodological and encyclopedic) but requires an understanding of relational producer vs receiver locations and their constraining distances within the Global South.”

Encyclopedic – the value of digitality is that we don’t have to choose a single method of semantic segmentation as older encyclopedic models require. This affords a level of appropriate granularity in knowledge offerings, which should further afford diversity in who contributes to your database and how. How diverse are the encyclopedias of the South both in terms of knowledge types and methods? We should ask how knowledge diversity contributes to our organising conventions?

Participatory – good interaction design, as Murray notes, should emulate good tool design, creating transparent participatory methods with a gentle learning curve. Yet when considering the extensive impact of constraints in cities like Johannesburg and the impact on participation, we understand that participatory models should be aimed at overcoming these constraints and little else. We then need to ask who our knowledge network is? And rather than asking how our participatory models offer agency, we should ask how our participatory models lessen constraints for knowledge participation in the Global South.

Procedural – procedures modify the way in which an action is performed in a system of feedback and interaction. A key task is to acknowledge that this can be performed by more than one algorithm, and that algorithms are usually in place following human selection, thereby reflecting cultural bias, selected methods and values.

Procedures of knowledge of the Global South, meaning its ability for it to exist and interact beyond being just a notion of knowledge (inter-generational, networked interactive, progressive, regressive, boundaried, etc.) can only move from being a constraint to an affordance when they are responsive to the spatial, encyclopedia and participatory affordances of knowledge in the Global South.

Biography

Tegan Bristow is Director of Education for Diriyah Art Futures, a soon-to-be-opened new-media art and art and technology centre being launched by the Ministry of Culture in Saudi Arabia. Bristow holds a research position at the Wits School of Arts, where she was formerly Editor in Chief and Digital Editor of the Ellipses Journal for Creative Research, Fak’ugesi Principal Researcher, and a senior lecturer in the Digital Arts Department, with a specialisation in African art, culture and technology. In 2021 Bristow won the National Science and Technology Forum Award for Sustainable Development in the Creative Industries for her work in co-founding and developing the Fak’ugesi African Digital Festival.


References

  1. Murray, J.H. (2011). Inventing the Medium: Principals of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Boston, MA: MIT Press.
  2. McLuhan. M. (1964). Understanding Media: The Extension of Man. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Perrigo, B. (2023). Time Magazine: Time 2030, https://time.com/6297403/the-workers-behind-ai-rarely-see-its-rewards-this-indian-startup-wants-to-fix-that/. Accessed 16 August 2023.
  5. Bristow, T. (2022). “A School for Vernacular Algorithms: Knowledge Transfer as a System and Aesthetic Algorithmic Encounter”, in diid disegno industriale industrial design no. 76, https://www.diid.it/diid/index.php/diid/article/view/diid76-bristow. Accessed 16 August 2023.

How to cite this article:
Tegan Bristow (2024), "Agency and the Machine: Knowledge, Digitality and the Global South" in JCAF Journal: Interdisciplinary Knowledge from the South No. 1. https://jcafjournal.org.za/agency-and-the-machine-knowledge-digitality-and-the-global-south/. Accessed 24 April 2024.