Digital Politics and The Politics of Disengagement: JCU Welcomes Adi Kuntsman

On February 2, the JCU Department of Communications and Media Studies began the Spring 2023 edition of Digital Delights and Disturbances. The first talk, “Digital Politics and The Politics of Disengagement,” discussed the issue of justice in the fields of data, the environment and social equity. Adi Kuntsman, an anti-colonial and feminist scholar who specializes in the field of digital society and politics delivered the lecture. Kuntsman is a program director at Manchester Metropolitan University where they teach digital politics, political communication and digital technologies. Their work analyzes the implicit violence that exists in digital technologies against marginalized communities. The lecture was based on their recent publication, Paradoxes of Digital Disengagement: in Search of the Opt-Out Button, written with Esperanza Miyake. The volume discusses the opting out of the digital realm and the social and environmental consequences of such im/possibility.

Today, we see digital technologies as a commodity, which we use to manage various areas of our life, while never stopping to question the implications of this dependence. During the talk, Kuntsman reflected on this issue and stated that the digital realm of our existence requires an active participation from the user. We find that the users of technology increasingly blur the boundary of the natural and technological interface. In response to this blurring, Kuntsman’s work aims to critically “denaturalize digitality itself.” To do this, they presented a series of questions that surround digital justice which guided the talk: “Who does normalized digitality serve? Who is its captive audience, its unpaid laborer, its depleted resource, its dependent, its victim? Who has the freedom to disengage from the digital and at what cause?”

Adi Kuntsman

Adi Kuntsman

To answer these questions, Kuntsman presented data that illustrated the growing dependence on digital technologies. An example to illustrate this was how governments are shifting towards digitalization, promoting it as the best and only solution to resolve socio political problems. To do this, governments enforce digital policies by moving all public services online and leaving the decision-making processes to programs that use Artificial Intelligence/High-automation. This creates a reality that Kuntsman refers to as “digital by default”, where surveillance is facilitated for the government.

The idea of surveillance is possible through the collection of our data. However, when we think about surveillance we tend to reflect on it from our personal perspective, through our online transactions, social media use and so forth. Consequently, because “we have done nothing wrong,” we don’t see a problem here, so we give carte blanche to this as a form of casual observation. However, Kuntsman argued that we fall on this logic based on an erroneous assumption that we cannot exist without the digital realm as it is beneficial and inevitable. They also highlighted that we cannot talk about individual rights here; instead, we must think of the marginalized communities who are targeted by this type of data collection and surveillance. In the digital realm, people are categorized and it is all too often minorities who are the ones who are affected by different forms of elitist discriminatory governmental decision making. At the same time, these are the people who rely on the government the most and, as Kuntsman says “A fault in the system has as a consequence people been left without wealth support or homeless.”

Kuntsman discussed the environmental factor, which is another major theme that when considering digital dependency is often overlooked. When they talked about this issue, they referred to the production of technological devices and the exploitation of natural resources; in addition, they emphasized on the amount of energy consumed by each minute we spend posting selfies, searching online, streaming, and scrolling.

“Technology is not up in the sky, it exists in a physical space and we tend to not think about that,” Kuntsman said. They explained that the data is not stored in the sky as the name “the cloud” might suggest. It is stored in data farms which require vast amounts of energy to function. These farms are not green, and these clouds give no rain, they are the major contributor to the ever-growing destruction of our landscape and atmosphere.

The logical solution to solve the social and environmental injustices we create with the digitalization of our world would be to opt out of digital technologies. If we think about it this is increasingly impossible. For this reason Kuntsman and Miyake  proposed the idea of “Digital Disengagement,” a term that they define as “a conscious reduction or rejection of the use of digital devices or communication platforms.”

Kuntsman emphasized the idea that we the privileged, who do not depend on technologies to survive, are the ones responsible for accomplishing a state in which we are digitally disengaging, in order to help those who are marginalized by the same system that claims to support them. Not everyone has the opportunity to opt out of the digital because access to it is a new form of privilege. Nonetheless, we have to consider this pressing option if we have the possibility to do so in order to find and further justice in the digital world.

Kuntsman provided examples of people digitally disengaging in different ways. They specifically spoke about a Canadian researcher Laura Marks who looked at the environmental impact of video streaming.  Instead of acting out against it, they recognize the high consumption of energy that this requires. This collective created the Small File Media Festival which encourages filmmakers to use small files for the projection of their film. In short, the higher the resolution, the bigger the file and the higher the demand but the larger the file size. This group is an example of creative people who understand that things have to be communicated through the medium but we need to do it differently.

Kuntsman encouraged the audience to be digitally different rather than less digital to accomplish “digital sobriety” (a term coming from the French expression “la sobriété numérique” which was coined in 2008 by the association, which would move us a step closer towards achieving environmental and social justice.

(Lucia Conte)