This issue of M/C Journal rejects the association of darkness with immorality. In digital communication, the possibilities of darkness are greater than simple fears of what is hidden in online networks. Instead, new work in an emerging field of “dark social” studies’ consider “dark” as holding the potential for autonomy away from the digital visibilities that pervade economic, political, and surveillance logics of the present age. We shall not be afraid of the dark.
We start from a technical rather than moral definition of darkness (Gehl), a definition that conceives of dark spaces as having legitimacies and anonymities against structural surveillance. At the same time, breaking away from techno-centric critiques of the dark allows a humanisation of how dark is embodied and performed at individual and structural levels. Other readings of digitally mediated dark (Fisher and Bolter) suggest tensions between exploitative potentials and deep societal reflection, and the ability for a new dark age (Bridle) to allow us to explore unknown potentials. Together these perspectives allow our authors a way to use dark to question and upend the unresting pressure and acceptance of—and hierarchy given to—the light in aesthetics of power and social transformation.
While we reject, however, the reduction of “dark” to “immoral” as we are not blind to “bad actors” lurking in hidden spaces (see Potter, forthcoming). Dark algorithms and their encoded biases shape our online lives. Not everyone has the ability to go off grid or create their own dark networks. Colonial settlerism often hides its brutal logics behind discourses of welfare. And some of us are forced to go dark against our will, as in the case of economies or nations being shut out of communication networks. But above all, the tensions produced in darkness, going dark, and acting dark show the normative powers beyond only focusing on the light.
Taken as a whole, the articles in this issue explore the tensions between dark and connected, opting in and opting out, and exposure and retreat. They challenge binaries that reduce our vision to the monochromaticism of dark and light. They explain how the concept of “dark” expands opportunities for existence and persistence beyond datafication. They point to moral, ethical, and pragmatic responses of selves and communities seeking to be/belong in/of the dark.
The issue starts with a high-stakes contest: what happens when an entire country is forced to go dark? While the articles in this issue were in review, Australian Facebook users were abruptly introduced to a unique form of darkness when, overnight, all news posts were removed from Facebook. Leaver’s feature article responds to tell the story of how Facebook and Google fought the Australian media law, and nobody won. Simply put, the platforms-cum-infrastructures did not want the government to mandate terms of their payments and business to traditional news organisations, so pulled the plug on Australia. As Leaver points out, Facebook’s cull not only made news media go dark, but in the midst of a pandemic and ongoing bushfires, prevented government agencies from posting and sharing government public health information, weather and wind patterns, and some State Emergency Services information.
His article positions darkness on the spectrum from visibility to invisibility and focuses on the complex interplays of who is in control of, or has the power over, visibility. Facebook’s power to darken vital voices in society was unprecedented in Australia, a form of “de-platforming at scale” (Crawford). It seemed that Facebook (and as Leaver explains, Google, to a lesser extent) were using Australia to test platform power and legislative response. The results of this experiment, Leaver argues, was not a dawn of a new dark age—without the misinforming-glare of Facebook (see Cinque in this issue)—but confirmatory evidence of the political economy of national media: News Corp and other large traditional media companies received millions from Facebook and Google in exchange for the latter being exempt from the very law in question. Everyone won, except the Australians looking to experiment and explore alternatives in a new darkness. Scared of the dark, politicians accepted a mutually agreed transfer of ad-revenue from Google and Facebook to large and incumbent media organisations; and with that, hope of exploring a world mediated without the glare of digital incumbents was snuffed out. These agreements, of course, found user privacy, algorithmic biases, and other concerns of computational light out of scope.
Playing off the themes of status quo of institutionalised social media companies, Cinque examines how social online spaces (SOS) which are governed by logics of surveillance and datafication embodied in the concept of the “gazing elite” (data aggregators including social media), can prompt anxieties for users regarding data privacy. Her work in the issue particularly observes that anxiety for many users is shaped by this manifestation of the “dark” as it relates to the hidden processes of data capture and processing by the mainstream platforms, surveillant digital objects that are incorporated into the Internet of Things, and “dark” or black boxed automated decisions which censor expression and self-representation. Against this way of conceptualising digital darkness, Cinque argues that dark SOS which use VPNs or the Tor browser to evade monitoring are valuable to users precisely because of their ability to evade the politics of visibility and resist the power of the gazing elite.
Continuing away from the ubiquitous and all consuming blue glow of Facebook to more esoteric online communities, Maddox and Heemsbergen use their article to expand a critique on the normative computational logics which define the current information age (based on datafication, tracking, prediction, and surveillance of human socialities). They consider how “digging in the shadows” and “tinkering” with cryptocurrencies in the “dark” is shaping alternative futures based on social, equitable, and reciprocal relations. Their work traces cryptocurrencies—a “community generated technology” made by makers, miners and traders on darknets—from its emergence during a time of global economic upheaval, uncertainty and mistrust in centralised financial systems, through to new generations of cryptocurrencies like Dogecoin that, based on lessons from early cryptocurrencies, are mutating and becoming absorbed into larger economic structures. These themes are explored using an innovative analytical framework considering the “construction, disruption, contention, redirection, and finally absorption of emerging techno-potentials into larger structures”. The authors conclude by arguing that experiments in the dark don’t stay in the dark, but are radical potentials that impact and shape larger social forms.
Bradfield and Fredericks take a step back from a focus on potentially arcane online cultures to position dark in an explicit provocation to settler politics’ fears and anxieties. They show how being dark in Australia is embodied and everyday. In doing so, they draw back the veil on the uncontested normality of fear of the dark-as-object. Their article’s examples offer a stark demonstration of how for Indigenous peoples, associations of “dark” fear and danger are built into the structural mechanisms that shape and maintain colonial understandings of Indigenous peoples and their bodies as part of larger power structures. They note activist practices that provoke settlers to confront individuals, communities, and politics that proclaim “I’m not afraid of the Dark” (see Cotes in Bradfield and Fredericks).
Drawing on a related embodied refusal of poorly situated connotations of the dark, Hardley considers the embodied ways mobile media have been deployed in the urban night and observes that in darkness, and the night, while vision is obscured and other senses are heightened we also encounter enmeshed cultural relationships of darkness and danger. Drawing on the postphenomenological concept of multistability, Hardley frames engagement with mobile media as a particular kind of body-technology relation in which the same technology can be used by different people in multiple ways, as people assign different meanings to the technology. Presenting empirical research on participants’ night-time mobile media practices, Hardley analyses how users co-opt mobile media functionalities to manage their embodied experiences of the dark. The article highlights how mobile media practices of privacy and isolation in urban spaces can be impacted by geographical location and urban darkness, and are also distinctly gendered.
Smith explores how conversations flow across social media platforms and messaging technologies and in and out of sight across the public domain. Darkness is the backstage where backchannel conversations take place outside of public view, in private and parochial spaces, and in the shadow spaces where communication crosses between platforms. This narrative threading view of conversation, which Smith frames as a multiplatform accomplishment, responds to the question held by so many researchers and people trying to interpret what people say in public on social media. Is what we see the tip of an iceberg or just a small blip in the ocean? From Smith’s work we can see that so much happens in the dark, beyond the gaze of the onlooker, where conversational practices move by their own logic. Smith argues that drawing on pre-digital conversational analysis techniques associated with ethnomethodology will illuminate the social logics that structure online interaction and increase our understanding of online sociality forces.
Set in the context of merging platforms and the “rise of data”, Lee presents issues that undergird contemporary, globally connected media systems. In translating descriptions of complex systems, the article critically discusses the changing relational quality of “the shadow of hierarchy” and “Platform Power”. The governmental use of private platforms, and the influence it has on power and opportunity for government and civil society is prefigured. The “dark” in this work is lucidly presented as a relationality; an expression of differing values, logics, and (techno)socialities. The author finds and highlights the line between traditional notions of "infrastructure" and the workings of contemporary digital platforms which is becoming increasingly indistinct. Lee concludes by showing how the intersection of platforms with public institutions and infrastructures has moulded society’s light into an evolving and emergent shadow of hierarchy over many domains where there are, as always, those that will have the advantage—and those that do not.
Finally, Jethani and Fordyce present an understanding of “data provenance” as a metaphor and method both for analysing data as a social and political artefact. The authors point to the term via an inter-disciplinary history as a way to explain a custodial history of objects. They adroitly argue that in our contemporary communication environment that data is more than just a transact-able commodity. Data is vital—being acquired, shared, interpreted and re-used with significant influence and socio-technical affects. As we see in this article, the key methods that rely on the materiality and subjectivity of data extraction and interpretation are not to be ignored. Not least because they come with ethical challenges as the authors make clear. As an illuminating methodology, “data provenance” offers a narrative for data assets themselves (asking what, when, who, how, and why). In the process, the kinds of valences unearthed as being private, secret, or exclusive reveal aspects of the ‘dark’ (and ‘light’) that is the focus of this issue.
Bridle, James. New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future. London, UK: Verso Books, 2018.
Crawford, Kate (katecrawford). “It happened: Facebook just went off the deep end in Australia. They are blocking *all* news content to Australians, and *no* Australian media can post news. This is what showdowns between states and platforms look like. It's deplatforming at scale.” 18 Feb. 2021. 22 Apr. 2021 <https://twitter.com/katecrawford/status/1362149306170368004>.
Fisher, Joshua A., and Jay David Bolter. "Ethical Considerations for AR Experiences at Dark Tourism Sites." 2018 IEEE International Symposium on Mixed and Augmented Reality Adjunct (ISMAR-Adjunct) (2018): 365-69.
Gehl, Robert. Weaving the Dark Web: Legitimacy on Freenet, Tor, and I2p. The Information Society Series. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2018.
Potter, Martin. “Bad Actors Never Sleep: Content Manipulation on Reddit.” Eds. Toija Cinque, Robert W. Gehl, Luke Heemsbergen, and Alexia Maddox. Continuum Dark Social Special Issue (forthcoming).