Digital Colonization: Decoding the Body – Tiara Roxanne

Since machine learning requires the input of categorical data, from which AI develops knowledge and understanding, compartmentalization is a natural behavior AI undertakes. As AI grows and diversity is tackled through the non-binary, or rather, against the universal, we fall into a cultural trap of re-colonization, or digital colonization. Two terms that digital colonization draws from are data colonialism and digital colonialism. Data colonialism “combines the predatory extractive practices of historical colonization with the abstract quantification methods of computing” (Couldry 1). And digital colonialism is “a quasi-imperial power over a vast number of people, without their explicit consent, manifested in rules, designs, languages, cultures and belief systems by a vastly dominant power” (“Resisting Digital Colonialism”). Both categories of colonialism are hegemonic digital re-inscriptions of historical colonization. However, many marginalized groups such as the Indigenous peoples of the West have not yet been contemporized and acknowledged as present-day communities that are thriving and practicing traditions today. Therein lies a danger: the codification process of AI engages in biases that classify, categorize and codify the Indigenous experience even further. By learning from pre-existing biases, AI is not only re-colonizing, it is erasing what has not yet been contemporized. Furthermore, AI is learning to perceive the world based on its colonial input, and is acting as a disembodied /in-affectual surveillance that re-categorizes bodies exemplified within the sub-category known as “affect recognition” found under AI Recognition Systems (most often related to AI surveillance). AI codes bodies both externally and internally. If we have not yet contemporized the colonized experience, how can AI be used to do so?

Indigenous Body and its Borders 

Before attempting to theorize a solution regarding a “progressive post-colonial AI,” it is important to first acknowledge the pre, present and post-colonial body and its borders. The body that was colonized will always be colonized, more specifically, the Indigenous body (of the West).  Body, here, is used biologically in two ways—the space that sensates and holds memory, memory that is passed down from generation to generation and the actual physical body that takes up space, the body that is ‘matter.’ To begin, spatiality for the Indigenous body is both territorial and historical, a byproduct of colonialism. In this way, space develops as a gesture of colonization where borders mimic this “system of dominance,” and subjugate the Indigenous body (Osterhammel 4). Such a system aims to create a space of segregation where the Indigenous are territorially, socially and politically trapped. When “borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them,” the Indigenous body is claimed not only by the settler but also by the borders that surround it (Anzaldúa 25). Furthermore, “a border is a dividing line [where] the prohibited and forbidden are its inhabitants” (Anzaldúa 25). In this way, borders separate the settler from the Indigenous where the settlers “make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital” and the Indigenous are pushed out (Tuck and Yang 5). This record of geographical domination is a fundamental colonial classifier, also known as “settler colonialism,” one which occupies and establishes the Native land through erasure (Tuck et al. 5). Furthermore, this spatial circumscription reattributes the Indigenous’ overall experience in and of the world.  By framing the Indigenous body between physical and political structures and by taking Native land, the settler erases Indigenous identity and history.

The Coded Body

This total migration of force pushes the Indigenous body into a space of wilderness, the forbidden and the prohibited, the erased—a ghost territory. This demand is a process of naming or anti-naming the body that is forced out of their homeland.  To name, or taking one’s name away, determines an engendered locality, i.e. “coding” the body, which is an “ordering of matter around a body” (qtd in Hanson).  As the Indigenous are “coded,” their body is degenerated from embodied corporeality to mere flesh. And since “flesh is the fundamental indifference between body and world,” the Indigenous people suffer from this codification process done so by the settler (Hansen xi).  The Indigenous loses their identity as well as their sense of belonging to their homeland.  More specifically, the settler names the Indigenous according to their flesh which is a codified identification process that further marginalizes the body. Thereafter, the Indigenous body is referred to as, but not limited to the following names or “codes;” Aztecas del norte, mojados, Indigenous peoples, First Nations People, the mestizos (people mixed of Indian and Spanish blood), minorities, “at risk peoples” or “asterisks peoples,” “meaning they are represented by an asterisk in large and crucial data sets” (Tuck et al. 23).  This codification of naming a community of bodies or an individual body dehumanizes and colonizes the body being named/anti-named. The act of naming not only takes away one’s identity/name, it becomes a gesture of underrepresentation.  This type of codifying then serves as a placeholder for that which conceives and reproduces how AI classifies these communities. The coded Indigenous flesh moves to a digital data set. “As scholars like Safiya Noble and Mar Hicks have observed, there is a clear through-line connecting longstanding patterns of discrimination and harassment in AI to the ways artificial intelligence technologies can amplify and contribute to marginalization and social inequity” (qtd in “AI Now Report” 39). The AI epistemically grows to understand the Indigenous body to a reduced identity: the asterisk, the data set. Because this historical filter is the basis for understanding the Indigenous experience, any data collected and processed by AI is from a settler colonial perspective.

The Digital Body 

Post-colonial theory is a paradigm for settler colonialism which compartmentalizes the Indigenous body within borders that paralyze it to a constant state of colonization: “I cannot decolonize my body.” Post-colonial theory grows even more complex when filtered through a computational filter because it implies the possibility of decolonization, or rather, that it has already happened, i.e., “post-colonization.” Decolonization is not possible and with such embedded social, political and now digital hierarchies, the Indigenous experience is at risk of historical erasure.  The intermingling of each sphere produces a great need for disruption and awakening, not a resistance or recalibration, because, remember, computers do not forget. In order to disrupt the pre-existing colonial input of AI, the Indigenous body must reclaim their subjectivity which relies heavily on history and territory, and in this case, digital territory.

The colonized must discover a sense of boundlessness that gives way to reclamation, the Indigenous body must therefore reterritorialize where “each one of his organs, his social relations, will, in sum, find itself re-patterned, so as to be re-affected, over-coded as a function of the global requirements of the world,” (Guattari 10). To arrive at a space of reterritorialization, the body is placed outside of the parameters it is bound by.  This kind of reterritorialization implies the need for a new landscape. By inserting the already codified body into a virtual and boundless landscape, the Indigenous peoples disrupt their own subjectivity and corporeality as well as contemporize their bodies as memory systems and flesh. This break in the sphere opens a space for rearticulation. Though the Indigenous would not re-enter their territory and claim it back, as if it is even possible, the Indigenous would need to enter a technological posthumanist framework, the virtual, the digital via the interface.

However, before entering a borderless cartography, as made possible through machine learning, it is important to distinguish the differences between architectural and virtual spaces.  As it is experienced in the physical world, architecture manipulates the body to move through space and thus the body forms an understanding of itself, creates meaning-making and applies knowledge to and of the world.  Galloway writes on account of Deleuze, “that one should not focus so much on devices or apparatuses of power they mobilize, that is more on the curves of mobility and force,” further explaining,“these apparatuses, then are composed of the following elements: lines of visibility and enunciation, lines of force, lines of subjectification, lines of splitting, breakage, fracture” (qtd. in Galloway 18).   By applying these apparatuses to the Indigenous bodily experience, a different landscape is possibilized, one that is not so manipulated or reduced to by AI. The landscape portrayed here derives from architectural technics, a term used to describe the technological space architecture is growing into, most specifically the interface.The interface is more than an infrastructural space. It is a threshold, a space of mediation between body and world, both physical and virtual. It is cartographic plasticity.  “The interface is not something that appears before you but rather is a gateway that opens up and allows passage to some place beyond” (Galloway 30). It is in the space of passage between the physical and virtual spaces that is the break or disruption. The passage is the interface. This liminality between the physical and the virtual embodies movement though it actualized as an interface.

By arriving into a space that is not “named” as imperial or colonial, but is its own structure outside of the body—a moving/malleable structure –it destabilizes normative corporeal thought, that which identifies the body as flesh. Furthermore, the Indigenous body does not resist or protest digital colonization but navigates through it by entering the digital space. Within the digital space, the Indigenous body is then “over-coded,” as Deleuze writes, and reclaimed (qtd. in Galloway 18). However, the complexities of subjectivity greatly evolve regarding ethics here. Meaning, for example, reclaiming refers to multifarious meanings that transcend embodiment. The body becomes something else. The body becomes data. The body becomes digital. As the body is placed in accordance with the interface, its meaning and identification extends beyond the boundaries of the embodied—the flesh and the nervous system. The Indigenous body is no longer flesh: it is a digital body. And by invocating Bacon’s notion of force, where the body serves as a mediating horizon between self and interface, the Indigenous body seeks to reestablish a grounding where experience develops as a somatic relationship between self and virtual, self and digital, a boundless space which delineates traumatization, i.e., colonization, by identifying the body beyond the flesh into a space of “data”or “digital.” This is not to say that this decentering of corporeality, this disembodiment, is a positive move toward transcendence, it is only stating that the interface possibilizes a different kind of subjectivity, perhaps what Wilderson calls “non-being (“The Creation of Non-Being,” Barber). This is not a sim character or a machinic extension of oneself.  It is unknown (digital) territory.  So, perhaps, the question is not how can AI contemporize Indigeniety but rather, can it provide a space for the Indigenous body to digitally reorient?

Working Bibliography

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  1. Hi Tiara. This is a wonderful read. I appreciate the link between post-coloniality and data practices. I too am interested in this intersection, specifically the potentials of bending machine learning toward more just and interesting outcomes.

    I have two(ish) points I’d like to pick up on in this essay.

    1. Code and Flesh/ The problem of recognition.

    First I’m interested in your writing here on coding and flesh. Have you read Hortense Spillers? Mama’s Baby Papa’s Maybe is a great essay describing the difference between embodiment and “mere flesh”. You are writing against inscription here in this essay, against a certain kind of measurement of coloniality that is embedded within data practices and now machine learners. I am wondering what can be gained from a constant push toward historical memory, or an embodied memory? What has embodiment ever gotten us? The fight against erasure is of course a clear imperative. Yet what of the problem of recognition, visibility, and surveillance? The partiality of affect. I am quite interested in how affect, or pre-individuality can become mobilized toward revolutionary ends. I’m just not sure how coding and inscription can work toward this end. Perhaps this is a problem I have in my own thinking.

    2. Toward transcendence.

    There is something quite interesting here in the last paragraph of the essay where you call for a certain kind of production of subjectivity, toward transcendence. I am wondering how much of this are you pulling from writers like Felix Guattari who are undying optimists of the excessive qualities of subjection, the way in which becoming can be seized as a revolutionary process. Is there a bridge between Wilderson, Sexton, and Guattari?


  2. Thanks Tiara for a lovely essay. I really enjoyed reading it and discovering the references you mention. Although it’s not clear from the essay I put up, the question of colonialism is quite important to me. I’m still in the early days of elaborating their importance so please excuse me if my questions or comments seem a bit naive.

    The first question that came to mind is one I often as myself which is how is the digital different from previous forms of media. So in this case how is digital or data colonialism different from Orientalism or Mbembe’s account of African in the mind of the west? or as you might say China, the US etc.. Is it because the computer doesn’t forget?

    The other question is with regard to decolonisation more generally. Is that a problem of AI or is AI the symptom of a much larger problem of decolonisation. Finally, and perhaps this can happen sometime next week, I’d love to hear more about the space that is not “named”. Are you suggestion a kind of hybridisation of the digital space through the indigenous interface? I find it quite fascinating. I look forward to hearing more.


  3. Hi tiara– thank you for your work! Ill add myself to the others in saying that I too am interesting in connections between data, codified bodies, and post colonialisms and really appreciate the way you situated this in anzaldua’s notion of borders as the site of classification and colonization of bodies. I am really invested in the questions you raise regarding the interface as a site of reclamation of subjectiviation and wonder what that might mean from within the frame work of computational capitalism.

    The notion of the interface as passage reminds me strongly of work by early cyber feminists, like Sadie plant, who often make use of irigaray’s call for new languages/ forms through which one might come to represent themselves. I have a hard time thinking through some of plants work regarding the virtual/ interface as a liberatory site of breaking away from the flesh— for me, it raises questions of representation. What is allowed to be represented through the interface, and what might prevent the “cartographic plasticity” it has to offer from being used towards more radical means?


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