Laila Shereen Sakr, Arabic Glitch: Technoculture, Data Bodies, and Archives (Stanford University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Laila Shereen Sakr (LSS): I have always been motivated to communicate across differences. This book emerged from a pressing need to bring different groups of people into conversation about the entanglement of digital media, technology, politics, art, and culture in our contemporary lives. I have spent years exploring the logic of technologies through developing software that produces data analytics—this occurred in dialogue with one group of geeks who were interested in talking about technology. These were not necessarily the same group of activists concerned with human rights, personal sovereignty, and liberation. There was overlap, of course. But only a subset understood the shifting dynamics within the Middle Eastern context. Often, none of these interlocutors engage with my creative scholarship which falls within studies of the arts, performance, and visual culture. The point is that creative scholarship is the main method I use to reach across the palimpsest of audiences, mediums, and cultures. While I have been thinking through and researching the ideas in the book through articles for specific audiences, software applications, and art practice and production, I arrived at a point where I needed to explain my thoughts through narrative, and that is what I tried to do with Arabic Glitch.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
LSS: The book explores the concept of the glitch within the context of posthuman techno-feminist theory and practice and the implications of the interplay between technology and society. Glitches in the system, like server breakdowns and sentiment analysis failures, expose the underlying infrastructure and limitations of digital tools. I characterize the glitch as a slipping, a loss of control that interrupts the system and reveals the inner workings of technology. Arabic Glitch describes an alternative origin story of twenty-first-century technological innovation and politics—one centered on the Middle East and the 2011 Arab uprisings. I conceive of data bodies as the records institutions keep on individuals—such as FICO scores, GPAs, driving records, citizenship—that have more impact on our lives than our real bodies. I use these as a way to explain the book’s three demands on our contemporary lived realities: that there be “no divide between the virtual and real”; that “one must have procedural literacy to identify and understand our own data bodies, how media systems work, and how glitches intervene”; and finally, that with that insight and literacy, we have the tools to reimagine and reconfigure systems of power.
Arabic Glitch emphasizes the stories of Arab techies, coders, and organizers who navigate the glitch's dialectic and shape new forms of cultural resistance, rebellion, and revolt. In the book, I also explore different writing techniques, including using both a first-person narrative voice and that of my data body and posthuman techno-feminist avatar, VJ Um Amel. The cyborg builds a massive digital archive and participates in the unfolding digital/RL events of 2011 in the Middle East and its various diasporas, as well as at Occupy Wall Street and Jan 6th, prognostically indicating how digital tools may be used towards democratic, if tactically agonistic and disruptive, ends.
In the book, theory hits the ground in such a way that it firmly applies the techno-feminist slippery activation of the glitch to frame data and reconstitute their transmission flows. The manuscript is a deep dive into questioning the currencies of the procedural method, affect, embodiment, and data streams and also offers the critical potential for new protocols, networks, and coding that rethink boundaries and hierarchies. It sings and embraces pluraversalities that consider the local manifestations of hidden labor by mothers and cyborgs and powers of global glitches that disturb each of the above enclosures and lines of flight. Through Arabic Glitch, I develop an intensity of research and practice that reflect a continuing feminist and cyberfeminist attunement and expression of art as social practice and code.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
LSS: Last year, I taught a class on Algorithms and Culture and a Feminist-Technology seminar. Both classes kept leading to discussions on the moral panic about ChatGPT, and AI more broadly, even though social media is our first contact moment with AI. When you open Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and scroll with your finger, you activate the supercomputer AI pointed at your brain to calculate and predict with increasing accuracy the perfect thing to keep your attention and keep you scrolling. The urgency is that we are already in a reckless race to deploy second-generation AI like ChatGPT, Dall-E, and so on, and we have yet to comprehend, let alone regulate, how social media has entangled with our lives globally and within the many discreet languages and cultures around the world.
This has been my area of research for over fifteen years. In 2008, I created the digital archive, R-Shief, to collect, analyze, and visualize social media content. With R-Shief and under the moniker VJ Um Amel, I have shaped my previous work into various forms of media. Using digital media, like clay for a sculpture, I have produced a body of creative scholarship that spans programming and system design, cultural analytics, data visualization, computational art, video art, and live and immersive cinema. I have also published several articles and book chapters on the same transdisciplinary questions and concepts. However, Arabic Glitch is my first book manuscript where I can bring together the various threads of this transdisciplinary project into one narrative.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
LSS: I hope the book reaches a wide and diverse audience from the sciences, humanities, the arts, technology, and civil society. I also hope it is not too specialized for general audiences, although I found it challenging to write for both a general audience and these specialized, though diverse, communities.
Two outcomes would be a real gift to me. The first is that the book inspires others in their fields of research and creative inquiry—whether that be the way in which new creative ideas are achieved through transdisciplinary approaches of theory and practice, or through extending the concept of glitch as liberatory resistance and a tool for unveiling in other areas of research. It is always a gift for me when others engage in conversation or are in play with me and the ideas we exchange and co-create. The second hope I have for the book is that it inspires, even in the smallest of ways, more education in procedural literacy to be made available to everyone in K-12 schools, higher education, and all sectors.
In this first contact with AI, with social media, humanity has lost. We created a model of social media that has rewritten itself into every aspect of our society—reaching customers, politics, media and journalism, elections, values, GDP. What happens in the second contact with AI? If we want to understand what ChatGPT and its kin will bring, we must first understand the basic logics of AI technology, the mechanics of digital politics, and the potential of the glitch.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
LSS: I am working on a couple projects that involve grassroots organizing with other feminist Arab digital rights activists and programmers around questions regarding the languages and gendered cultural objects that shape the training of AI machine learning systems, such as ChatGPT and Midjourney. Which languages and cultures are included or excluded? To what extent? In which fields? And how do power imbalances and injustices replicate and expand through these systems?
Meanwhile, I am developing the next generation of R-Shief X into a platform where users can choose which social media to analyze and have the visualization tools to do so. R-Shief’s website is currently under construction—bits and pieces will become live over the next months. Using R-Shief’s historical archive of tweets from 2011, I am also currently working with my co-director and a team of creative minds to build a futuristic game called Data Bodies. It is an episodic third-person Arab-futuristic exploration game, set in the twenty-third century. We hope to release the first episode in 2024.
I am also working on some creative projects, including an AI-driven holographic network visualization for a group exhibition and a soundscape of data centers fused with Nigerian beats for an installation in the Data Centered Collective at the Lagos Biennial. At this exact moment, though, I am finishing a music video for an upcoming LP by Checkpoint 303 in memory of the famous Palestinian cartoonist Naji el-Ali. Checkpoint 303 is an activist electronic sound art collective that produces fusion electronic music from field recordings, historical archives, electronic beats, and the oud. I am enjoying the process.
Excerpt from the book (from Chapter 1)
Naming the phenomena that took place across the region as the “Arab Spring” is more indicative of the perspective of the writer than is necessarily the full picture. It indicates that the speaker or writer is approaching the subject from the historical lens of Western democracy and economic liberalization. Otherwise naming these events the “Facebook” or “Twitter Revolution” overstates the technocultural moment and, again, is only part of the story. At the root of these uprisings, locally within each context, is a human struggle for dignity. A street vendor who suffered humiliation and neglect from local authorities, Tarek el-Tayeb Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire on December 17, 2010, in front of the municipality building in Ben Arous, Tunisia. Bouazizi’s suicide in 2011 was the catalyst for the Arab revolutions, as Bouazizi’s death only expanded the protests to encompass not only economic reform but also injustice by the government as a whole. Bouazizi’s act was a cry for basic human dignity.
A year after the uprisings, in conversation with my friend and colleague Maytha Alhassen, she had asked me what topics were emerging from R-Shief ’s social media data analytics. The results I shared with her at the time were that the three most popular words used to describe the uprisings were karama, thawra, and haqooq (dignity, revolution, and rights). Alhassen published these results in an article crediting VJ Um Amel.
This aesthetic research agenda, performing as VJ Um Amel, is my answer that the ambiguity of that process is a practice of embodied locality. As such, the book is informed by a scholarly practice of research, a practice of theorizing, an art practice. Arabic Glitch is inextricably tied to a specific set of digital archives originating from an Arabic-speaking community. Part of this intellectual project is to decenter the United States and the West as the source of digital knowledge production or necessarily the heart of literary canons. It is not the center. It does not always have to be the center. In the case of Arabic Glitch, the Arab world is its intellectual fulcrum.
The first time writers, scholars, and pundits used “Arab Spring” to reference a progressive political uprising in the Arab world was not in 2011. It was just a couple of years after the U.S.-led war on Iraq, when events such as the elections in Palestine and Iraq, the Cedar Revolution in Lebanon, and the Kefaya (“enough”) demonstrations in Egypt hallmarked the emergence of relative political liberalization in the region. In 2005, “The Arab Spring” was used to refer to the desired outcome of U.S. President George W. Bush’s foreign policy of democracy promotion and state-building efforts in his Global War on Terror. In a report on a news conference by President Bush in March 2005 titled “The Arab Spring of 2005,” a pundit explicitly referenced the revolutions of 1848 in Europe—Völkerfrühling in German, “springtime of the peoples,” and printemps des peuples in French, “spring of nations”—when popular uprisings against monarchies cascaded across France, Germany, Poland, Italy, Denmark, and the Austrian Empire. In 1956, the “Polish Spring of October” referred to the period of liberalization and attempted reform; in 1968, the “Prague Spring” referenced a period of attempted liberalization through partial decentralization of the largely state-controlled economy of Czechoslovakia from the Soviet Union. He wrote, “1848 did presage the coming of the liberal idea throughout Europe. (By 1871, it had been restored to France, for example.) It marked a turning point from which there was no going back.” The article went on to say, “The Arab Spring of 2005 will be noted by history as a similar turning point for the Arab world.” The correlation these journalists drew from the political phenomena occurring from 1848 to 2011 was based on two premises: (1) each revolution was marked by the popular protest against socioeconomic conditions and government corruption; and (2) the domino effect of uprisings transnationally revealed shadows of macroeconomic and geopolitical networks of power, capital, and media at play.
The idea of a trans-local sensibility allows us to expand what we are thinking into a network. Networks often go beyond the boundaries of the nation-state and other technocultural configurations. Taking inspiration from Donna Haraway’s “new citizen” of technoculture, the cyborg embodies that trans-local sensibility through negotiation with its environment and assembling parts and pieces.5 In the introduction to their edited volume, Technoculture, Constance Penley and Andrew Ross depict a coming of age in the 1990s on the tail of the student uprising against the Chinese government in Tiananmen Square, anti-apartheid activism in South Africa, and the first Palestinian uprising (intifada), who instrumentally used fax machines, radio, and CNN broadcast in developing networks across regions and locally from within.6 Arabic Glitch takes place within the edges of that historical path. Another U.S. journalist, Scott Anderson, traced the 2011 revolutions through five historical junctures: Part 1 (1972–2003), “Origins”; Part 2 (2003–11), “The Iraq War”; Part 3 (2011–13), “Arab Spring”; Part 4, “ISIS Rising”; and Part 5, “Exodus,” in his New York Times Magazine article, “Fractured Lands: How the Arab World Came Apart.”7 By January 2011, several seemingly unrelated protests in Tunisia, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt, and Algeria prompted political scientist Marc Lynch to write, “Are we seeing the beginnings of the Obama administration equivalent of the 2005 ‘Arab Spring,’ when the protests in Beirut captured popular attention and driven in part by newly powerful satellite television images inspired popular mobilization across the region that some hoped might finally break through the stagnation of Arab autocracy? Will social media play the role of al-Jazeera this time? Will the outcome be any different?”
Competing and overlapping global and local powers together present a more complete and lucid picture. This chapter uncovers a glitch dialectic in its relationship to digital politics and culture where institutions of power try to keep up with the technological adeptness of countercultures, but cannot capture all these possibilities technoculture affords.