Carle Hessay, Image of the Hollow World, 1974. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0.
A few years ago, I read a lecture by Chinua Achebe given in 1975, later published as an essay entitled “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.” While I greatly respect Achebe’s novels, his essays have often left me wanting. His voice reminded me of my grandfather’s, the intonations of a proud Nigerian man, rightly aggrieved at the dysfunctional state of his country, his continent, and its indefatigable life in the face of rampant, extractive exploitation by imperial powers. I feel that Achebe’s frustration can leave blind spots in his arguments, and the lecture in question—an outright denouncement of Conrad’s famed novel and its canonized status as “permanent literature”—was, I thought, an example of this. Achebe considered Conrad’s novel explicitly racist in its themes, in its depictions of the “natives,” and in the gaze of Marlow, Conrad’s primary protagonist, who Achebe believed wasn’t much removed from Conrad’s disposition.
Achebe questions the meaning of writing to our society, or the meaning of any art for that matter, when it can be so explicitly racist and go mostly unremarked upon by fans and critics alike, regardless of how beautiful the turns of phrase or evocative the depictions of the lush, sweltering alien landscape. I have a complex relationship with Conrad’s novel and agree with some of what Achebe put forth, but his argument felt incomplete. Achebe’s disgust is understandable, but I think one can see Conrad was also getting at a lack of vocabulary for this rich, intricate world, of atmospheres and new sensory and metaphysical experiences, at times in his prose defaulting to beautifully phrased but reductive tropes, which are still embedded in the unconscious of Western society today. As Achebe railed at Conrad’s reduction of complex cultures, knowledge systems, and languages, down to a dark, flat backdrop for Marlow’s descent into the pit of despair, and lamented Conrad’s objectification of West African bodies, I became hooked on an important and maybe even existential question—who was Achebe’s lamentation aimed at? Who was the primary audience for his words, written in English? And was there a moral authority to hear his appeal, and if so, what then?
I envision this moral authority: a shining round table, a collective ethereal body. I can picture where this body receives education, and what information and legacy bestow upon this body to uphold such cosmic authority. I peer at this body’s ancestral responsibility and how intricately woven its cultural history is with morality, technology, and progress—through religion, reason, language, war, and subsequent laws. I wonder, wouldn’t this same moral authority Achebe speaks to be the same that has canonized Conrad’s novel, lauding it as one Western literature’s great works?
Roughly around the time of Conrad’s birth, Anglican and Baptist missionaries from Britain began spreading the Christian word across Nigeria alongside armed colonial powers, and systemically implemented a proposed order and moral structure, offering bondage under the benevolent cloak of Christianity. They found innovative ways to suppress and diminish ancient local knowledge systems whilst leveraging the locals’ deeply inherent spiritual devotion. Tribal factions with differing religious and philosophical dispositions were difficult to control without the concerted imposition of particular moral principles through Christianity. Coordinating labor and governing over resource-rich lands was made easier by exploiting the tenets of local knowledge and sowing discord between tribes. Christianity has been significant to psychological governance, by imposing a moral condition and constraining culture, dissenting thought, or ways of seeing and being alien to the new “explorers” of this productive continent of vast cultural and environmental diversity.
Christianity existed in Africa before the arrival of missionaries. However, their spectral presence served a particular economic purpose, the legacy of which I witness today on the continent and across its diaspora. We can see this coercion and its resulting conservative legacy of docile communities as part of a colonial extraction strategy.
Many early contributions to foundational mathematics originated in Asia and Africa, and roughly a century before these missionary expeditions, the origins of European statistical mathematics and probabilistic methodologies were forming. These methods are now pivotal to computational methods like machine learning , vital to the pursuit of AI. Bayes’ Theorem, for example, a formula founded by the reverend and early statistician Thomas Bayes, is a significant driver of machine learning and originates in what appears to be shaky, metaphysical, and even monotheistic beginnings, as Justin Joque explains in his book Revolutionary Mathematics: Artificial Intelligence, Statistics and the Logic of Capitalism.
Bayes’ Theorem is a mathematical formula for determining conditional probability: the likelihood of an outcome occurring based on a previous outcome having occurred in similar circumstances. One might establish a belief, and later update said belief with newly acquired information supporting one’s argument or intention. Bayesian influence is significant to quantum mechanics (which is key to AI research and development) and its attempts to understand the physics of nature and the uncertainty of the universe.
As Joque says, the metaphysical origins of Western statistics have been well-documented by mathematicians and historians alike, many of whom have strongly resisted the Bayesian method, particularly in the twentieth century. Still, intriguingly, this method has recently resurged and is now very popular in algorithmic computing, developing “truths” (the outcome of this subjective method), principally for capital from numerous subjective origins (including social origins) that, over time, we have established for primarily economic purposes. This subjective Bayesian method—beginning with a guess or an assumption and adding data to solidify one’s guess or assumption—inevitably puts us in a slippery metaphysical dimension, not too dissimilar to where we might have been in years gone by, particularly in Europe, where society leaned on monotheistic reasoning to make sense of the world. Therefore, one might speculate that the logical endpoint of computation based on this statistical model, implemented by engineers and venture capitalists educated under a singular ontological framework, might aim at a convergent “truth,” whatever that may be, if we understand the (even unconscious) influence of monotheism on these protagonists implementing their dominant beliefs and morality, through the accumulation of vast amounts of information, with origins already hazy.
So then, a moral authority? If we use—and I consider this pronoun necessary here, for several reasons, as our involvement purports to be passive, but is not—algorithmic models to determine who has access to a loan or whether someone is guilty of a crime or not (to be then placed in for-profit prison systems), does morality, or a moral authority, as we understand it, ultimately serve only the acquisition, maintenance, and accumulation of capital? If so, then to who is the moral vanguard Achebe appeals to?
Achebe’s appeal, deep into the latter half of the twentieth century, is to an English-speaking, educated authority, of a dominant economic and educational system, with culture prominently in its service. Hundreds of years of Christian influence and legacy intersect with the Enlightenment’s emphasis on reason and individualism, which allies with violent methods of implementing extraction in distant lands in ways increasingly invisible to us as technology surges, all which combine to form today’s Western world, where race, class, and gender make for active feedback loops to further accumulate capital by manipulating datasets, which entrench and dictate our respective fates within this socially constructed economic system.
The same system of imbalances and inbuilt gaslighting narratives provide much of the patronage of art and culture. Patronage that attempts to uphold a moral center, guiding us to how we might exist alongside each other. “Culture” defines society’s artistic and intellectual refinements. We needn’t disregard the etymological origins of the word in this instance: of cultivating and tilling earth until it is fruitful and beneficial enough to sustain life. Or the biological meaning: an environment suitable for the growth of bacteria to spread indiscriminately. Culture maintains primacy for this economic system, affirming a dominant language and knowledge and suppressing other influences and dissent. Culture’s power and intentions are even crystalline in how few works of literature from across the world are translated into English until they’re deemed worthy of translation by an authority, the same authority, ultimately, that canonizes Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I remain, for example, astounded by how many contemporary novels from the United States I read with a complete lack of a “nonwhite” person written into their pages as if none exist. An observation I make with some understanding of the history of segregation, yet, even so, when I imagine the scale of such autonomous formulations within society, it is enough to take one’s breath.
Transhumanism, a new ideological formation that appears to be just a loose cluster of ideas, aims at an optimized human condition, which transhumanists might argue can only occur in a state beyond the fallibility of the corpus, where we find empowerment in new deified technologies, which construct a mirror of increasing sophistication. As Narcissus gazes down at his rippling reflection, it begs the question of who stands visible in the mirror. Transhumanism, the technological ascension of the human condition, an ideological aspiration, appears incapable of imagining ascendancy without the ballast of wealth enabling further advancement, inevitably in the hands of a few then tasked with designing the human through a lens that cannot be anything but eugenic by its very foundations. Peer from their vantage point to a tier just below, where our modern saints, namely celebrities, serve as prototypes through feedback loops of continuous visibility and modification, guiding the surface-level aesthetic ideal of the human.
The fervor for AI’s ascension to a plane beyond us is a quasi-spiritual desire, echoing the past’s metaphysical anxieties and our need to see something, possibly something monotheistic, beyond ourselves. It seems now, through probabilistic methods, the hallowed saint forms in our image as we shape greater systems of knowledge to further a delusion, synthesizing the spectacle of an impressionistic, all-seeing and all-doing deity and, yes, a moral authority to whom we’ll perform worship through mimetic ritual. This supposed moral authority remains a primary weapon for today’s technological and economic shackling of and extraction from the human condition. Social media companies, for example, from the same moral lineage discussed here, provide us with ways to see more of the world than ever before but attempt to control what aspects of humanity we should see, how we see them, and to which we should aspire. Utilizing long-established economic imbalances, these companies maintain what we might call cognitive call centers, across Africa and Asia, paying employees a pittance to screen harmful content before it reaches us, the comparably wealthy consumers, and making it clear, if ever we choose to avert our gaze from the gleaming totem, whose welfare is regarded as valuable and profitable. It has been widely reported that social media has worsened our collective mental and emotional welfare as a society, so the comparably wealthy consumers, also find themselves an extractive resource. Then there is our evolving echo, language learning models, and the moral limitations they apply to what we may ask of them. We remain docile to technology, and lack the vocabulary to really speak about it, as Heidegger once noted, therefore we do not or cannot resist.
So I wonder what these universal claims to a moral authority are. How do we determine objective truths about humanity that we lean on to maintain and evolve society—truths that glean and reconstitute subjectivity, that increasingly inform and guide our day-to-day—when these truths are developed, in part, through aggregating and reconstituting data, deploying subjective methodologies, which neglect the thought, methods, and experiences of large swathes of the human and nonhuman world, whilst simultaneously finding those realms materially valuable.
I am not saying anything new, but the conditions of diaspora, existing in the vestibule as it were, offer unique perspective and experience, enabling one to see what remains outside “progress,” leaving one room to ruminate on what idealized progress can only mean. Look at the uncanny horror of a slick image export from a language learning model, and see our collective pursuit of an ideal self-representation. This representation of the human, with lines and scars smoothened, feelings transcended, through our loop of dreams and desires, told and untold, live and evolve in billions of datasets, some of which (like porn) tell more truth about what we covet (or think we covet).
The vast processing power and conducting qualities of rare metals required for increasingly energy-intensive computers, from GPUs for gaming and 3D rendering, to the violently wasteful, yet invisible, energy-sapping crypto-mining, ignorantly shilled by celebrities, become a painful metaphor for our wasteful annihilation of the planet. These resources include human data and labor, and despite many obstacles, the African continent gains increasing attention from swarming venture capitalists for its young, growing middle-class, tech-literate population and technological innovations.
Diverse languages, as with diverse tribes, existed beyond and across the dividing lines of nationhood engraved throughout the continent by colonialism, but language control has since been one of the most effective ways to control land for access to resources. One can hear lamentations at the reluctance of African teachers to teach in native languages and who even reprimand students for speaking them. When we comprehend what else language suppresses, such as cultures, knowledge systems, and distinct moral principles, which may differ from the standard fed to us, we might think differently about the accelerated consolidation of languages, meanings, and intentions, output by our digital deities, a homogenization echoed by reduced agricultural biodiversity.
As Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o says, to be divorced from one’s mother tongue is a form of slavery, and language is more than a simple ordering and patterning of words or signs, but it runs deeper, through the body, through the soil and a continuous lineage of ancestry in dialogue with the earth. Many former colonized countries grapple with the in-between—the metaphysical struggle between imposed and inherent cultures and the disingenuous contradictions of a top-down moral design. How do we consider how “native” English speakers of formerly colonized countries use the language differently from what we might consider the standard?
So we reach the bubbling core of my book Red Earth and the interdisciplinary art project it is central to, which is no lament—quite the contrary, it is a meditation from a particular vantage point, even if I am partly divorced from my mother tongue. I am a fluent “Listener,” but I cannot confidently be a “Caller”—which, for me, is a strange vestibuled condition, an incomplete relationship to a native cosmology, swirling only at its fringes, one’s body feeling and intuiting, but rarely articulating this innate knowledge, even though I hear it, and feel it, like the red earth between my toes, and in how the sounds of palm leaves rustlings say so much more. I ask what this kind of in-between means for a world of precise statistical perspectives and binary ordering. I can see and feel what posthumanity has existed in this culture and what lies beyond the soul-sapping postcolonial discourses, where many wail and others nod along as if listening, but not really. What lies beyond? With my feet firmly planted on the ground, I try to touch this possibility, however faintly.
I grab this vestibule, an open secret, as a unique place of my own. Born to Nigerian parents and raised in the United Kingdom, I submit to the perpetual translation of my identity—a constant feedback loop, charging back and forth from one cosmos to the other. Growing up, this became a distinct private space removed from many other people in my immediate environment. Rather like the way I have existed between cultures, languages, and knowledge systems, I have wondered if there is any possibility of creating a dialogue between probabilistic computation based on the origins mentioned earlier and the metaphysical foundations of alternative origins, such as Yoruba culture. Or is the idea entirely paradoxical and pointless? The diasporic existence, a meshing of worlds across time and space, traversing coordinates, existing in motion, non-place, and uncertainty (a realm also concerning quantum mechanics), is an interesting point at which to consider where and how knowledge systems and language might meet, or to consider at least any impressionistic or metaphysical entanglement with these knowledge systems—mathematics in dialogue with ritual and tradition.
Famed Nobel laureate playwright and novelist Wole Soyinka addresses such parallels in his book Myth, Literature and the African World, when he posits the many similarities one could draw between Yoruba deities and the “universal relevance” of Greek gods significant to the origins of Western thought. One of the temporal concepts Soyinka addresses is the nonlinear conception of time beyond the human, a key concept in Yoruba thought and philosophy and a key driver to my Red Earth project. Soyinka suggests Yoruba is comparable with Greek mythology, or Judeo-Christian theology, in richness and depth, and how, for Yoruba, the degree of acceptance of something like nonchronological time is implicit, innate, and given reverence and understanding. Within such thought, one can also find moral dispositions, actions, and practice differing from those in the Judeo-Christian or Greek mythological definition of the term, where, for instance, the Greek gods, as Soyinka explains, are beholden to little or no consequence for their depravity. The only time they may bear consequence is when they infringe upon another deity, unlike the Yoruba deities, who commit transgressions, but must somehow acknowledge their actions. Soyinka suggests the existence of an alternative morality to the European, which may, to a large extent, be unconscious in Yoruba society. Yet, when I consider my diasporic vestibule, I consider these unconscious realms and how these subtleties, which are part of me, and others in our behavior and language, disappear in universalizing computational concepts.
I want to draw attention to the need for new archives of the future and new ways to think about a computational existence. The Red Earth Project is a speculative exercise about language, translation and data, and whose language, history, authority, and morality are now encoded into our digital realities. I am asking if our current trajectory will only entrench the negation covered here in feedback loops much faster and more granular than we can comprehend, and whether there is any room at all for provenance with this data or is it inherently flawed. Is computation, by its foundational principles, anathema to other metaphysical dimensions than the one from whence it came? Is this simply the underwhelming and even violent trajectory for the autonomy of alternate cultures, moral ideas, and outlooks as their lands of origin shudder and succumb to climate damage? As words drive my creative practice, with this book I eke out a metaphysical realm of my own, from which I can begin a process of experimentation on what equitable exchange between culture and computation could become, an interdisciplinary practice echoing my reality.
Michael Salu is a Nigerian British writer, artist, scholar, filmmaker and creative strategist. His book Red Earth, from which this essay is adapted, will be published by Calamari Archive this month.
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