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Part 1 of Black Squares, Black Boxes, and Black Holes

Part 2: Tangled


Silence isn't the only problem

Blackout Tuesday was arguably the most all-encompassing internet campaign since the dawn of web 2.0. There’s plenty of coverage on its conception and reception, so I won’t go into that here. Instead, I’d like to explore the meaning of the black square itself — as an icon of the movement, and as a definitive artifact of our internet era. At risk of oversimplification, I’ll break the black square’s meaning into two levels:

  1. Black as in the skin color — and the cultural history that comes along with it; honoring the people this movement is all about.

  2. Black as in blank — a form without content; an empty screen; the absence of white.

The latter became a point of contention once it really got off the ground. Activists and celebrities alike argued that posting the black square was an inadequate form of support. In this New York Times piece, reporter Tariro Mzezewa clarifies this view:

"It feels like it's a way for white people who aren't comfortable talking about racism to avoid doing so entirely, while acting like they are doing something. Instead of having to confront this thing that makes you so uncomfortable, you can post a square and it feels like you did something."

Some took this stance further, citing how the black squares may have done more harm than good — specifically, by crowding out the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag. Standing somewhere between silence and action (while possibly accomplishing neither), the black square added a wrinkle to the silence is part of the problem argument.

I don’t aim to demean those who posted the square. After all, I think it’s clear the square’s omnipresence generated momentum for all sorts of further action. And without fail, statements like the one above were met with equally convincing appeals in the other direction, rapidly spiraling the entire discourse into ambiguity. Any attempt to define Blackout Tuesday as a total win or loss would be impossible.

If anything, the fallout of Blackout Tuesday suggests our language for delineating positive behavior on the web needs development. In doing this, I think it’s worth exploring what momentum actually means in digital space; and what space means, for that matter.

Afloat cybernetic tides

The notion of space, whether prefixed by “digital” or “physical,” can carry vastly different meanings. Digital space isn’t static like the streets protesters occupy, or "used up" like the money of donors. Sure, you could say Blackout Tuesday hijacked #BlackLivesMatter; but the #ship itself floats in waters where the premise of “hijacking” is brought into question.

The movement’s digital front wasn’t laid with bricks or erected like a highrise. It emerged, at least in meatspace terminology, out of thin air, and continues to grow as such. Of course, immense efforts in the real world have made it all possible, but the laws governing its trajectory are as digital as they are physical.

So what are the mechanics (if you can even call them that) of digital space? Just as the shift from Euclidean to non-Euclidean geometry gave rise to new theories on the motion of bodies, digital space elicits new models for the spread of information. Ideas are no longer fixed to pages and publications, but they are hashed out in threads. We speak less of preservation, and more of compression and decompression. Media is no longer broadcast from the top-down, but grown from the ground-up.

The internet’s role in movements like the Arab Spring exhibited this revolutionary ground-up nature — further cementing the myth of the internet as the ultimate democratizing force. But the idea that the emancipatory nature of digital space would automatically permeate into the real world turned out to be an illusion. Under the aesthetic of democratization was just an unprecedented centralization of content and dialogue. And with such massive concentration of matter, to return to the physics analogy, comes the warping of space itself.

Ever since the abandonment of chronological feeds in the mid-2010s, space has become a point of leverage for the platforms — particularly, the ability to sort content and measure its potency with a granularity impossible with conventional media. So yes, the black squares mostly appeared on Tuesday in a temporal grouping, but they weren’t shown chronologically.

With the content variable out of the question (all posts being the exact same), it seems Blackout Tuesday bestowed upon Instagram as clean a test as any conniving social scientist could hope for. For the first time ever, the order of timelines was dominated not by what was inside the frame, but the information surrounding it — the users who posted the squares and the reactions they generated. I can’t imagine a better setting to test the effects of social pressure on digital activity en masse. Well, that’s a pretty cynical way to look at it...

Our “timelines” can be divided like newspaper columns and valued like real estate, but that’s about the extent to which digital space resembles physical space. Like television, social platforms have limited spots advertisers bid for. But on the platforms, the space available isn’t fixed. With each post and impression, digital space expands like an accordion.

So while platforms exercise the godlike role of directing the global conversation, users are implicitly tasked with expanding available advertising space. Activists and shitposters become anodes and cathodes of the same circuitry, at best maximizing voltage and minimizing resistance to data flow. With the electrification of human processes, we’ve moved away from a mechanistic ontology, to a cybernetic one. We are no longer gears in a machine, but nodes in a circuit.

The point is, while Blackout Tuesday may have taken up space on #BlackLivesMatter, it also sparked new corners of Instagram’s billable ad space. The movement’s success is still measured in the real world, so its usage of digital space is more zero-sum. A list of protesting resources will draw different real-world outcomes than a black square; but to Instagram, it’s all just pink slime.

I don’t mean to bring a raincloud over this encouraging cultural moment. But I think maximizing impact requires we understand the field we’re playing on. And the black squares, controversial as they were, may actually provide crucial insight as to how we might hasten much-needed revamps to our brave new world. We’ll get there, I promise.

Black boxes under black squares

What happens online doesn’t stay online — as is true of all forms of media. Just as Hitler’s voice boomed through the radio waves of Nazi Germany, and as raw TV coverage of warfare in Vietnam mobilized the antiwar movement in the US, the internet gives rise to new forms of both malice and activism. But concealed behind ongoing streams of content, the role of the medium itself once again goes mostly unnoticed.

There’s a simple metaphor that can help us understand — or more precisely, account for our necessarily partial understanding — of the platforms’ role in digital space. It’s called the black box. This term refers to technological systems in which we observe inputs and outputs without knowledge of their inner workings.

Today, the most fervently discussed black boxes involve artificial intelligence, where arguably even those who build them don't know exactly how they work (by definition in the case of machine learning). Black box rhetoric has enabled heated arguments against the application of these AI’s in high-stakes domains of our lives — such as credit scoring, insurance rates, parole terms, and the deployment of police to one neighborhood versus another.

The black box concept also gives us another definition for the word black, which has surprising connections to the other two noted above:

  1. Black as in opaque — the opposite of transparent; camouflaged; intentionally or unintentionally obscured.

In this sense of the word, it becomes clear that black boxes are not neutral. Blackness, as in leaving observers “in the dark,” is a powerful tool for exercising control while deflecting accountability. When misused, black box systems make it possible for authorities to act unjustly while covering their tracks.

What gets seen determines what gets done. The original intention of Blackout Tuesday acted on this idea — flooding social media feeds to highlight racial injustice (black as in the skin color). But the implications of its form factor (black as in blank) had the converse effect of burying the actual work happening on the ground, as well as the very injustices it aimed to spotlight. In this way, the black square itself became a black box — and in more ways than one, given our discussion of the platforms’ role in warping digital space.

I already touched on the platforms’ massive influence on global conversation — which goes mostly unnoticed because critical attention is diverted towards the content they host. The black squares were no exception. Like a magician using misdirection to hide their tricks, the platforms gladly gather spectators, while being extra careful to conceal their own trickery.

We’ve reached the end (whew!) of part one of this essay. I’ll be back soon with part two, where we’ll explore how black boxes are being deployed beyond social media — such as facial recognition and predictive policing. We’ll touch on whitewashing, “mathwashing,” and examine misleading metaphors like “the cloud.” Finally, we’ll arrive at a new idea of what “whiteness” might mean in a world of black boxes. You’ll have to wait for part three for the black holes :)

Read part two

Further reading

What Screens Want

Social Media Made the Arab Spring, But Couldn't Save It

Image sources

Black Square


Revolution Tools

Electric Diagram

Black Square painting

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