There are Black People in the Future: Digital Technology and Black Prescience
Sarah Florini / Arizona State University

The Last Billboard

Artist Alisha Wormsley’s contribution to The Last Billboard project.

In spring 2018, artist Alisha Wormsley erected a billboard in Philadelphia reading, “THERE ARE BLACK PEOPLE IN THE FUTURE.” Originally a playful jab at speculative fiction, which tends to imagine a future that is overwhelming white, the phrase has come to be an Afrofuturist mantra, representing not only the presence of Black people in the future but their role in shaping it. As I have participated in Black digital networks over the last decade, this phrase has become my shorthand for a consistent cycle. Practices that emerge from and develop in Black networks often become de rigueur internet culture a few years later. Here I outline three moments that revealed how networks of Black users – their practices and challenges – are often always already in the future.

The network that has since come to be known as “Black Twitter” pioneered networked co-viewing, i.e., live tweeting television. In the early days of Twitter, Black users created a more homophilic network and used the platform in a more conversational manner. Black users created reciprocal networks and engaged in discussion, verbal games and humor, and eventually began watching television together. As early as the 2009 BET Awards, Black users were using Twitter to create a networked watch-party. The following year, Black Twitter created so much traffic that the Trending Topics, Twitter’s algorithmically produced list of most tweeted about phrases or hashtags, was dominated by names and phrases from the award show. Black Twitter users could be found on Sunday nights watching The Boondocks, but not before sending out the call to participate. “Time for the Boondocks” would regularly appear in the U.S. trending topics, and by the end of the 2010 season 3, the Trending Topics were dominated with Boondocks related phrases every Sunday night. After which, it seemed as if everyone turned the channel simultaneously to MSNBC for To Catch A Predator and was cracking jokes about Chris Hanson and iced tea pitchers. Before many even knew what Twitter was, Black users had established the practice of live tweeting as a strategy for a collective viewing experience.

Twitter Trending Topics

All but #NowPlaying, #ibetyou5dollars, #WillGetYouKilled, and #icouldnever date are related to The Boondocks.

Similarly, independent Black podcasters were at least two years ahead of the current podcast boom. Between 2012 and 2014, Black podcasts flourished. By the time Serial, the podcast that is credited with kicking of the resurgence of podcasts, debuted in October 2014, Black podcasters were already well ahead of the trend. As podcasts began to proliferate in 2015, independent Black podcasters had already established a robust presence, anticipating both the value and the popularity of the medium.

Most recently, Facebook, which also owns Instagram and WhatsApp, announced that its future development will focus more on facilitating smaller and more closed social interactions. While the plans announced will have relatively small ramifications for current user practices, the discourse used represents a marked shift from Facebook’s original stated purpose of “making the world more open and connected.” Mark Zuckerberg wrote of the change saying:

Over the last 15 years, Facebook and Instagram have helped people connect with friends, communities, and interests in the digital equivalent of a town square. But people increasingly also want to connect privately in the digital equivalent of the living room. As I think about the future of the internet, I believe a privacy-focused communications platform will become even more important than today’s open platforms.

He goes on to outline the rationale for this assertion, and for the future trajectory of the company, by pointing to users’ desire to gain greater control of their audience (which Zuckerberg equates with “privacy”) and for more ephemerality, preventing older posts from coming back to haunt users later.

Photo of Mark Zuckerberg, Guardian Article

Zuckerberg testifying before Congress in 2018.

Siva Vaidhyanatha has argued that this move is likely motivated by Facebook’s desire to solidify its dominance in the same manner as WeChat, a mobile phone app so popular in China that it is embedded into almost every aspect of life. The changes Zuckerberg describes would do much to undermine Facebook’s competitors and shape Facebook in WeChat’s image. However, Zuckerberg’s rhetoric of moving from digital “town square” to “digital living room” reaffirms a conceptual shift that began in Black digital networks several years prior.

Beginning in 2015 and through the run up to the 2016 presidential election, Black users began making increased use of formal and informal barriers that insulated their interactions from outsiders. Black users, especially Black women, have long been the targets of harassment and abuse online, and this vitriol intensified and coalesced into a coordinated political effort in 2014, continuing to do so through the 2016 election. Both Imani Gandy and Terrell Starr wrote pieces in 2014 detailing years of harassment and abuse that women, particularly Black women, endured online and Twitter’s steadfast unwillingness to curb the hostility. That same year, attacks became more coordinated and sustained. Users from message boards like 4Chan began creating fake accounts in attempts to impersonate, infiltrate, and “sow discord” among those they termed “SJWs,” social justice warriors. As the 2016 election approached, anti-SJW internet trolls, white supremacists (who had rebranded themselves the “alt-right”), and misogynist movements like GamerGate and the Men’s Rights Movement had well-worn strategies for making public and semi-public social media platforms nearly unusable for marginalized people. Added to this were the over-zealous Bernie Sanders supporters, who exacerbated the historic tensions between class and race in leftist movements, and the Russian bots and sock puppet accounts who imitated and amplified each of these existing social conflicts. Black users, who were a primary target, were forced to carve out spaces where they could interact without such hostilities.

Toxic Twitter

Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter Campaign.

Now, this kind of abuse has increasingly become the norm. Though Zuckerberg (unsurprisingly) never directly mentions the problem of harassment and abuse, the desires he attributes to users – controlling one’s audience and the permanence of posts – are intertwined with strategies users employ to avoid the hostility that can result from public or semi-public internet sharing. This discursive shift from Facebook, a platform used by 68% of Americans, signals that mainstream discussion of social media now presupposes a desire among the broader population for more sequestered digital spaces.

Yet again, Black users have anticipated digital trends, engaging in and developing practices that are becoming the norm. So often, academics only value Black knowledge and perspectives for understanding race and racism. But, when you critically and earnestly engage Black people and Black thought, your understanding of our digital landscape increases exponentially. There are Black people in the future, and they have beaten us there.

Image Credits:
1. Alisha Wormsley
2. Twitter Trending Topics (author’s screen grab)
3. Mark Zuckerberg
4. Amnesty International’s Toxic Twitter Campaign

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The PyeongChang Winter Olympics and Korea’s Musical Modernities
Patty Ahn / UC San Diego

Team Korea enters the PyeongChang Olympics
Team Korea enters the PyeongChang Olympics

This year’s Winter Olympic Games in PyeongChang, South Korea featured two strikingly different soundtracks. On one hand, the sounds of K-Pop flooded the mediascape as A-list idols performed nightly at the Olympic headliner show, took the stage for numerous promotional concerts held in lead-up to the Games, and closed out the entire Olympic event with show-stopping performances. During the opening ceremony, the industry’s most famous anthems played in the background as delegations from Chile, France, the U.S., and many others marched in the ritual “Parade of Nations.” The score was meant to offer a curation of South Korea’s most popular songs from past to present with K-Pop serving as the pinnacle of this sonic progression.

U.S. delegation marches to Psy’s “Gangnam Style”

These celebratory sounds, however, were met with a more somber tune. As Trump’s escalating aggression toward the DPRK [ ((North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). South Korea is officially titled the Republic of Korea (ROK). ))] led many to fear that a preemptive strike by the U.S. loomed on the horizon, leaders from North and South Korea announced that they would form a unified women’s ice hockey team and march as one delegation in the opening ceremony. In a historic and much anticipated moment, athletes from both countries entered the “Parade of Nations” together, waving white flags emblazoned with a solid blue silhouette of the peninsula while the melancholic melody of “Arirang,” Korea’s national folk song, wailed in the background. The message of this profoundly symbolic gesture was resoundingly clear: the DPRK and ROK were unified in their call for peace and shared dream of reunification.

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Unified Korean delegation marches to “Arirang” (see video here)

The languid and pastoral notes of “Arirang,” which served as the unified team’s official anthem, could be heard across the Games, offering a striking counterpoint to K-Pop’s more futuristic reverberations. I bring attention to these two scores because of the very different feelings they inspire about Korea. In this post, I gesture toward some of the affective structures at work within these musical registers. The dichotomous feelings captured in K-Pop and “Arirang” in many ways speak to a fundamental crisis in South Korea’s identity as a nation and the global image it projects, but I believe an important story also lies in their dissonance.

K-Pop’s trademark melange of electronic dance beats, robotic vocals, neon-laden music videos, and razor sharp choreographies has served as the defining visual soundtrack for South Korea’s postmillennial reinvention. The unexpected success that Korean pop music and television dramas found in the Asian market in the late-1990s buoyed the country’s economic recovery in the wake of the IMF Crisis of 1997. Since then, it has played a central role in supporting the government’s agenda of remaking the country’s reputation as a global leader in cultural and technological innovation.

The opening ceremony at this year’s Olympics reinforced this technological narrative. The artistic segment of the program used a mix of live action performance and virtual reality animations to depict the journey of five children as they travel through Korea’s past, present, and eventual future. Their story begins in pre-modern Korea, where holograms of ancient cultural artifacts and mythologies come to life around them, and concludes at the “gates of the future” where they learn that their careers as K-Pop star, artificial intelligence specialist, urban simulation expert, hologram specialist, and doctor await them. They watch in wonder as a virtual screen appears before them playing a montage in which their future selves excitedly perform their jobs inside an illuminated grid.

Olympic Montage
Artistic segment featuring montage of future K-Pop star performing in illuminated grid

International sporting events like the Olympics and World Cup have provided their host countries with a critical opportunity to re-make their image in the world. This year’s Winter Games in PyeongChang clearly sought to re-orient our imagination about South Korea as a hyper-technologized modernity soaring into its future and solidify the integral role that K-Pop has and will continue to play in shaping this narrative.

K-Pop has already begun to reshape South Korea’s place within the American imaginary in profound ways. Seoul and Busan have become Hollywood’s latest “techno-Orientalist” backdrop with visual motifs taken right out of a K-Pop music video.[ ((David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Greta A. Niu, Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media (Rutgers University Press, n.d.).
))] Meanwhile, countless media stories dedicate themselves to unlocking the mystery behind Korean culture’s recent spate of success in the global market. At the same time, K-Pop has also performed the work of creating a historical amnesia around Korea as it pivots us toward a futurist vision of the country.

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Clockwise, from top left: Cloud Atlas (Tom Tykwer, Lana Wachowski, Lilly Wachowski, 2012); Blade Runner 2049 (Denis Villeneuve, 2017); Black Panther (Ryan Coogler, 2018)

The U.S. by and large has lacked a historical framework for how to speak about Korea in spite of its commanding role in manufacturing and maintaining its division. Mainstream media rarely acknowledge North Korea’s existence, except through the occasional caricatured depiction of an erratic and hostile leader. Otherwise, the dominant story told about the U.S’s relationship to South Korea is of “an enduring and equal partnership in the face of a shared enemy,” [ (( ))] Yet, Washington has systematically thwarted numerous peace and reunification efforts in the peninsula. In addition to imposing devastating sanctions on North Korea—which have only resulted in humanitarian crises, the U.S. has backed three brutal anti-communist military dictatorships (1961-1992) and continues to maintain a military presence across the south.

Official state narratives about the Korean War (1950-present), known in the U.S. as “the Forgotten War,” has suppressed our historical memory about the nature of the U.S.’s involvement in Korea. The U.S. Cold War in Asia began in Korea, which it saw as key to maintaining a capitalist stronghold and military power in the region. However, the military campaign there, which resulted in the loss of more than 4 million Korean lives (70% of which were civilian), was perceived by and large as a failure. The signing of the Korean Armistice Agreement in 1953 installed a temporary cease-fire until a “peaceful settlement” between the north and south could be reached, but this accord has yet to be fulfilled, leaving intact a militarized border that continues to separate ten million families.

The sounds of “Arirang” at this year’s Winter Games haunted K-Pop’s technology-driven vision of Korea’s future with the ghosts of an unresolved past. The song has been sung across the peninsula for hundreds of years—long before Korea’s division into two rival nations—and has come to represent an idea and feeling of an ethnically unified Korean people. It became a rallying cry for independence under Japanese colonial rule (1910-1945). Commonly associated with a sense of sorrow, longing, and separation, it has come to serve as an expression of grief over Korea’s ongoing division and unfulfilled dream of liberation.

This year’s Olympic Games did not mark the first time the two countries appeared at an international sporting event as a unified delegation. However, it did seem to signal an important shift in mainstream American discourse about Korea. Although NBC commentators more or less universalized the message of peace at this year’s games, as Korean historian and peace activist Ramsay Liem notes, the two Korea’s unified departure from Trump’s military aggression began to destabilize the idea of the U.S. as “equal partner.”

Although we still face an uncertain future with respect to Korea, , we might continue to hold onto “Arirang” as a way of listening to these rare moments of dissonance in Korea’s soundtrack. Unlike K-Pops’s highly rationalized and vertically-integrated system of song production, “Arirang” has never been defined by a standardized set of lyrics or melodic structure. A song is called “Arirang” so long as it contains this passage, “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Arirang gogaero neomeoganda,” which simply translates as “Arirang, Arirang, Arariyo/ Crossing over Arirang pass.” More than 8,000 variations of the song exist with countless regional variations and thousands of known lyrics. Even the word “Arirang” itself possesses no stable meaning—it is simply an imagined place or feeling.

In many ways, “Arirang” is more than a song or even a feeling. It offers us a capacious and historically messy way of knowing–an entry point into those stories of Korea which might not conform to official narratives. “Arirang”‘s recall of the past pleaded for an alternative vision of Krea’s future–one oriented toward peaceful reunification, liberation, and sovereignty from foreign rule.

Image Credits:
Author’s screengrabs

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The Madness of Angeleno Freeways: Auto Mobility, Futurism, and Masculine Desire
Whitten Overby / Cornell University

Don Draper Driving

Don Draper Driving in his Cadillac

Beginning with the Italian Futurists’ first 1909 Manifesto, modernist design discourse championed the utopian potential promised by the speed and mobility of automobile transit. Cars represented, more than any other modernist creation, the male desire to dominate a landscape using a particular visual form. Filippo Marinetti, the founder of Futurism and the author of the 1909 Manifesto, also proposed deeply misogynistic and vocally anti-feminist ideas that expressed the desire to dominate and suppress women while liberating men through automobile transit. Marinetti later revised his comments about women, championing the kind of feminist who was “a new kind of unromantic woman,” but his first claims strike at the heart of modernism’s failures to make room for female let alone feminist voices. [ (( “Reyner Banham, Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (New York: Praeger, 1967), 103.” )) ] The Futurist Manifesto focuses solely on cars’ symbolic potentials rather than on any sort of formal tenets and defines the Futurist masculine movement by reconceptualizing time rather than space, stressing the significance of transience. The driving, solo man, street racing in the exurbs of Milan, comes to embody the empowered technological individual.

Don Draper is always driving on an Angeleno freeway of the mind. Matthew Weiner cites the preserved modernist fabric of Los Angeles as a primary inspiration for the series, but the modernist thrall of Los Angeles comes, in the assessment of modernist historians, from its almost hyperreal car culture. Mad Men is nothing if not a blend of the decades surrounding its 1960s setting, and its sets reflect a continued preoccupation with Populuxe 1950s car aesthetics, especially in roadside architectures like Howard Johnson’s, Burger Chef, and a string of motels that feature as prominently in the show’s narrative arc as the elite modernist office spaces they inhabit. The 1950s represented the decade when corporate consumer architecture — big box stores, malls, grocery stores, fast food chains, and more — began proliferating in many American cities and spreading along highways into suburbs and even exurbs. This kind of sprawl had characterized Los Angeles since the 1880s; however, it became the national American urban image in the postwar period. The ad people of Mad Men are actively trying to advertise to this new, automobile-dependent national landscape.

While Mad Men’s sets and filming locations were intended to represent largely confining and dense New York locations, the entire series, excepting the pilot, was actually shot within the Los Angeles metro area and on sound studios at Los Angeles Center Studios. The modernist tower of the studios, near downtown LA, was designed by the same architects behind CBS Television City and, before the 1990s, had been an oil company’s corporate headquarters, imbricating Mad Men’s Manhattan corporate with the fuel that drives the auto industry.

Whitten Case Study House

Los Angeles Case Study House

Mad Men’s modernist Angeleno preservation impulse is perhaps most evident with Don and Megan Draper’s Upper East Side apartment whose interior is said to be based upon the LA Case Study Houses from the late 1940s and early 1950s and also upon popular California and national design magazines. On DVD commentary, Matthew Weiner claims the season two episode “The Jet Set” was filmed at one of these houses, but the kind of new multimedia affluent suburban ranch home brimming with equally new corporate technologies ironically receives its clearest re-articulation–as the nightmare setting of a failed second marriage–in Manhattan. Homes with built-in televisions and commissioned and promoted by a magazine, the Case Study houses represent the mass media’s attempt to shape the architectural tastes of the general public, to instate a Design for Dreaming.

From its historical perspective, Mad Men focuses on how mundane these spaces ultimately were and rejects the mythologies of the good life and glamour that are embedded in our collective memory of such spaces. As the aforementioned 1956 General Motors promotional video Design for Dreaming insists, the success of new, Second Machine age techno-utopia homes depended upon automobility. The good life was afforded by a hardworking husband, always in the driver seat coming to and from work, who affords his wife the newest technologies to ease her housework and childrearing. Driving in the car came to represent the acquisition and accumulation of capital, the engine affording the proliferation of mechanical consumer goods in the postwar home. But, then there’s one of Mad Men’s responses to this mythology in season seven’s “Time Zones,” which soundtracks Vanilla Fudge’s “Keep Me Hangin’ On” to a montage of sobbing, compromised, variously inebriated and forlorn characters in Case Study landscapes, unable to live up to or within the iconic poses these spaces insist upon their inhabitants taking.

Yet the dominant Angeleno car mythologies of Mad Men stem from Futurism and architectural history. Indeed, two architectural histories by Reyner Banham reflect the masculine thrall of automobile transit during the 1960s and that era’s historical desire to render the driving suburban everyman as possessing a kind of Futurist power. In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age (1960, first edition), Banham admits the sexism of the Futurists but does not fully explore the hypocrisies undergirding said sexism. Instead, he glorifies their idealism. His book proposes that cars define the ability of technological modernity to progress and, implicitly, that only men have developed theories or publicly worthwhile opinions on cars.

Joan Holloway doll and lithograph

“Joan Holloway doll and lithograph”

The season five episode “The Other Woman” could be read as an overt Futurist allegory that meditates upon how masculine car culture progresses at the cost of women who are not unromantic. In the episode, Joan Holloway, who was commodified as a sexy Barbie doll during an early season, must sleep with a Jaguar executive (masculinist car culture!) in order to gain partner status. Those truly benefiting from the agreement are Joan’s male colleagues who have a far larger financial stake in winning the business. While this narrative could read like a woman (Joan) overcoming, or accepting, the car industry’s embodied oppression to achieve something long deserved, Joan’s victory is temporary and it’s made explicit that the sorts of oppressions she experienced are continuous in every professional arena.

In the third to final episode, “Lost Horizon,” Joan is sexually propositioned and harassed after a recent merger. She confronts her new boss about the situation and the scene escalates to Joan proclaiming she is going to enlist Betty Friedan, the ACLU, and the 1970 Ladies’ Home Journal protesters and him demanding she leave and accept a liquidated partnership. Joan’s brief attempt to intervene in masculinist corporate politics with overt feminism is depicted and punished in the modernist idiom of the show. Joan must start anew from her kitchen. This trajectory runs counter to Don’s: in the final episodes, he takes the open road to California where he attains spiritual capitalist enlightenment, privileged, unlike Joan, with the ability to abandon responsibilities and to adopt the kinds of new spatial identities afforded by carefree automobile transit.

In Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies (1971), Banham paeans the LA freeways as the modern American equivalent of ancient Roman monuments — without admitting the extremely embodied and not always positive experience of, well, actually driving in LA. Banham provides a narcissistic universalizing (read: only his own straight white male) perspective on Los Angeles that doesn’t account for the different ways that Angelenos experience the freeways. Rather, this is Don’s fantasia: driving alone in a car on a scenic empty highway on the road towards the everyman’s enlightenment, or, towards “California Dreamin.” Somehow, Banham’s photos of the LA freeways, included in the book, are all empty or, at most, contain one other car, rescripting the actuality of the place to reflect a modernist privileging of the automobile and its infrastructure as design objects autonomous from their congested context. These are the same empty roadways as those Don’s always taking.

whitten howard johnson

Mad Men visits a Howard Johnson

In fifth season Mad Men episode “Far Away Places,” the Futurist myths concerning automobility are harnessed to express what Matthew Weiner describes as the “desire to go away.” [ (( “” )) ] The entire show could be based upon this premise, with the weekly pitches to clients functioning as the idealized capitalist automobile dreamworlds that its characters peddle but never inhabit. In the episode, Don turns aimless driving — a Futurist mobility for the sake of mobility — into a tool to attempt to control his second wife, Megan. They decide to take an impromptu trip to a Plattsburgh, New York where there’s a Howard Johnson’s restaurant and Motor Lodge. There, inside the restaurant, Megan tells Don that she is sick of Don dominating their shared life. The image of their marriage is one of driving, of escape, of a road as open as the American landscape, and it’s also one of commercial capitalist roadside architecture, a love affair born of Disneyland motels, but also one in which Don is always in the driver’s seat. Their marriage fails because, following a Futurist myth, these Mad adventures only prove enlightening, or generate progress, when a man sets out on his own.

Image Credits

1. Don Draper Driving
2. Case Study House
3. Joan Holloway
4. Howard Johnson

Please feel free to comment.