The Black internet has a long history. It has multiple points of origin, as Charlton McIlwain has documented—from Afronet, a BBS network for Black users, to NetNoir, an AOL-based portal “devoted to Afrocentric material,” both of which launched in the mid-1990s. Today, the Black internet has entered the platform era, distributing its riches across Twitter and Instagram and YouTube.
What would it mean to take the Black internet seriously? What would it mean to see Black digital practices (in all their diversity) not in pathological terms—as hailing from the wrong side of a “digital divide”—but as creative, joyful, affirming? What if the Black internet offers a standpoint from which the rest of the internet can be seen, and critiqued, more clearly?
These are some of the questions that guide the work of André Brock, Jr., associate professor of Black Digital Studies at Georgia Institute of Technology and the author of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. In his work, Brock uses a methodology that he calls “critical technocultural discourse analysis” (CTDA). “It decenters the Western deficit perspective on minority technology use to instead prioritize the epistemological standpoint of underrepresented groups of technology users,” he writes, with the aim of conducting “a holistic analysis of an information technology artifact and its practices.” In other words, CTDA asks, why do people do what they do on the internet—especially when “people” are not just white, cis, heteronormative men? Central to CTDA is the idea of the “libidinal economy,” which originates with Freud, was further developed by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, and has more recently been taken up by Fred Moten, Frank B. Wilderson III, and other Black thinkers. A libidinal-economic approach emphasizes the role of emotional and psychological intensities in driving anti-Blackness, rather than the more rationalist models of human behavior derived from political-economic approaches. Issue editor J. Khadijah Abdurahman sat down with Brock to trace the history of disinformation from Reconstruction to the present, and to discuss “the unholy trinity of whiteness, modernity, and capitalism.”
How do you see the state of mis/disinformation research? What do you think is missing from the conversation?
Disinformation is only perceived as bad when it serves to disrupt the interests of whiteness and white power. White power sounds strong, but it fits. During Reconstruction, the country found all sorts of creative ways to keep black folk from the polls, up to and including murder. That wasn’t a problem. Du Bois documented this extensively in Black Reconstruction, but misinformation against non-whites is typically a footnote in history texts and media reports as it serves the telos of American democracy.
Similarly, when disinformation campaigns began to surface in the mid-2000s around Gamergate—or troll farms attacking Black Lives Matter activists—that wasn’t considered worthy of research. We still don’t have great academic research on Crystal Johnson and Blacktivist—two large internet troll farm campaigns that were trying to convince Black folk not to vote. What we do have, however, is a plethora of highly funded research incorporating both quantitative and computational evidence of how disinformation has affected white voters.
For example, reporting on the 2016 presidential election first framed voters as having economic anxiety. They weren’t white—they were economically anxious. Then folk began to find out that economics wasn’t necessarily the cause they were rallying around. They were rallying around xenophobia, anti-intellectualism, and anti-big government. All those are things that white folk are concerned about. Misinformation research is largely conducted by white folk, and their concerns reify this anxiety about the disruptive power of social media and mass media against the interests of white folk.
The object of inquiry of disinformation research has largely been whiteness and white anxiety. Maybe that reflects the classism of disinformation researchers, who are probably mostly trust-fund babies or the partners of people who work in Big Tech. They’re concerned with these “rabble-rousing” and “ignorant” white folks. The emphasis on QAnon is fascinating to me: it’s taken such a god-like center stage in much of the disinformation research.
Reporting on Black vaccine hesitancy has focused on the Tuskegee experiment. Leaving aside the fact that Tuskegee was the complete inverse of what we’re seeing with the Covid-19 vaccine—in that it was an experiment where treatment for syphilis was withheld, or that the racial disparities in Covid-19 vaccination rates primarily reflects availability and access, not hesitancy—the reporting has omitted how many of the pandemic conspiracy theories circulating in Black communities are tied to anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.
Do you remember that right in the beginning of the shelter-in-place orders, Nick Cannon came out repeating anti-Semitic shit from Farrakhan about the caucusoids descending from the mountains? Then Viacom suspended his show. Busta Rhymes came out and said something that was anti-vax in August 2021, echoing conspiracy theories from Milton William Cooper’s Behold a Pale Horse. The way that book in particular has had a chokehold on the Black entertainment industry is well known in our community. Yet it’s nowhere to be found in this academic discourse of rationality, universality, and mis/disinformation.
Disinformation technologizes and scrubs movements of their xenophobic and racist antecedents to say they represent strictly an information misbehavior. Not a cultural misbehavior. That’s part of the problem. If you scrub racism and xenophobia from disinformation campaigns, what you have is what they would like to say: an attempt to overthrow a government through illegitimate means. But what if you add back in the racism? The better antecedent for QAnon is the John Birch Society, but that’s seen as too explicitly racist.
Black folk have contended with internal disinformation forever. Busta is part of the the Five-Percent Nation, which has had a deep hold on New York rap forever, in terms of coercing patriarchal gender roles and influencing Black relationships to the state. But that was just Black folk being crazy, right?
If you add back in the racism, it adds an entirely powerful libidinal element, in the sense that QAnoners are not overthrowing the government because it was working for white people, they’re overthrowing the government because they felt that it was working too hard to entitle Black and brown folk. Working too hard to give them things to which these white folk feel they don’t deserve. It’s an entitlement culture: we don’t want to give them things. We want them to learn how to work for it. That’s been an anti-Black statement since the 1860s. As soon as we got free, they were like, “Oh, well, these n***** don’t work. They’re lazy. We had to beat them in order to get them to work.”
That libidinal economy of the digital seeks to continually restrict information transfer and exchange as an instrumental mode. And by that I mean, it’s strictly the message that’s being communicated, not any of the things which animate that message. So, for the libidinal economy of the digital, we look at productive. We look at efficient. We look at time and space-spanning, right? We look at collapsing traditional order in order to impose modern order. We look at “just in time” manufacturing, which now we understand is a huge problem because corporations sought to “reduce inefficiencies” like merchandise sitting in warehouses or eliminating jobs to demonstrate productivity to Wall Street. As a result we have empty shelves, halted production, and inflation now, but also higher levels of inequality and stress in the decades leading up to this moment.
Believing in Digital Divides
I want to just scroll back to the other question about disinformation for a second. There’s this obsession with how other people behave and what their beliefs are. This white, cis, heteronormative, middle-class idea that spaces are not “diverse enough” demonstrates to me how homogenous academic and media spaces are.
I used to do a lot of restaurant work. You’d be working in the back of the house with this dude who’s forty-five from Bangladesh, somebody else who is undocumented from Russia, a seventeen-year-old washing dishes who only speaks Spanish, and then you’re serving these white customers. So, really, it’s the class of people being served who has a more insular view of the world, not the people in the back of the house—yet that’s the class we’re getting research from. The disinformation discourse is very abstracted away from the conditions, beliefs, and societies it seeks to describe.
When I think about disinformation campaigns, I also think about the digital divide, one of the biggest trends in pathologizing Black people’s relationship to technology. Where’s the space to turn ethnography backwards, onto a field that has gotten a lot wrong?
The digital divide stuff has shifted to “information communication technology for development,” or ICT4D. They’re looking at Africa, India, Pakistan, and other places, and saying, “They don’t have the same type of networks we have in the West. So, of course, they’re struggling to access the resources that we take for granted.” It’s just as problematic as it was when they were looking at Black folk here in the States because, like you said, it never turns the gaze around to ask what created these conditions. How and why do these conditions continue to persist? Instead, let’s be liberal and only look at the ways people will either resist or are hailed by these particular technological systems in a way that disadvantages them.
As the president of the Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures stan club, the two main contributions of your book are, in my view, Critical Technocultural Discourse Analysis (CTDA) as a process through which to understand these technologies, and the importance of the libidinal economy. This largely seems to have gone unaccepted within the dominant research discourse. Is that your experience, or do you feel like people are engaging with your approach?
[Ed.: The idea of “libidinal economy” originates with Freud, was further developed by the French philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, and more recently has been taken up by Frank B. Wilderson III, Fred Moten, and other Black thinkers. It emphasizes that emotional intensities, such as desire or antiblackness, drive “rational self interest” or political-economic modes of thinking.]
The libidinal approach is still too new. I don’t have the impact on social science research yet because I’m still talking about Black people. That’s my mistake. I didn’t try to claim white people are bad. That wasn’t my concern. My concern was to say, “Look at how joyous Black people are,” which is a very different thing.
I have to give a talk to Microsoft in a month and they’re like, “Well, can you present your book in a way that makes it palatable to white people?” Nah, I can’t. And it’s not going to happen because you need to learn about me as opposed to learning what I do to resist you, which are two totally different things.
Data science and information science have long been and will continue to be resistant to theories like libidinal economy, but also to theories like critical race theory, because they are resistant to things which are not of them. They think about things which they can reach out and fix, like ethics. Or reach out and bring in, like the digital divide stuff. But they don’t ever want to engage with the question of how they benefit from certain structures, or how to fix the problems they’ve created. They don’t want to do that.
So the libidinal economy has a ways to go. I’m really enthused by the uptake that it’s gotten among critical academics like yourself. Somebody said to me in my DMs the other day that it gives you a framework for understanding exactly what was going on, because we didn’t have words for it before. But white folks will always say racism is not in their heart—which is their own libidinal economy, right? They’ll never be encouraged to take it up, because to do so requires that they interrogate themselves and that’s not going to happen.
Do you think Twitter is an accurate gauge for the Discourse™️? Do you have a sense of what readings are driving the adherence to rationalism?
Twitter really is a space where people who don’t read books want to argue with people who write books. That’s tech too, right? I had these students coming through my classes at Georgia Tech who said, “We don’t read this kind of thing. They just tell us to make stuff. They train us how to make it. They’re not asking us to think about it.”
Those are the people that Georgia Tech sends into Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Netflix. The people who are trained not to think about things. Lewis Mumford talked about this not on a racial basis, but on a technical basis. He called it “techno-rationalism,” and he said no manufacturer wants a person who has a tendency to engage in anthropomorphic, quasi-rational thinking about the industry that we inhabit. They don’t want anybody to personalize it, because why would you personalize something that’s based on extraction?
The only emotion that they valorize is the one where you don’t have a reaction to your extraction. That’s the way we train STEM graduates, and engineers specifically. Then they hear ethics and they’re like, “Oh yeah, I took a course on ethics.” Well, how many courses did you take in your program? Seventeen? I mean, of course you took an ethics class. How do you put critical race theory on top of that? How do you put the libidinal economy on top of that? The whole curriculum is designed not to introduce them to things about the world, much less critical texts. But that’s whiteness. It’s what Charles Mills calls “an epistemology of ignorance.” If they are born not to know, they don’t ever have to interrogate the conditions which led them to their success, because all they have to do is bask in the profit and the privilege. Oh, and enforce the denial of those profits and privileges to people who don’t look like them.
To put it another way, part of my question about libidinal economy is: what is the why of rationality?
Let me ask you a different question. Why has Marxism been taken up so strongly by information science and technology people, but not critical race theory?
I know your resistance to political economy and I understand it to a degree. I don’t know if I read enough information science or things that are self-identified in that category to speak confidently about it. But, I’ll say, Ruha Benjamin put together her collection Captivating Technology: Race, Carceral Technoscience, and Liberatory Imagination in Everyday Life with scholars who are arguably taking up Black Marxism and the Black radical tradition, including R. Joshua Scannell and Andrea Miller, in a way that I find productive. I wouldn’t claim it’s critical race theory per se, but they’re definitely thinking with scholars like Katherine McKittrick and Sylvia Wynter when they’re writing about drones, for example. The end goal is not to be like, “Aaah, apocalypse coming, all the Black people gon’ die because drones is coming.”
There is an evacuated critical race theory where people will cite Crenshaw, Lorde, and the Combahee River Collective—in that order—and have read none of them, understand none of them, and they’re just referencing in order to #decolonize for corporate diversity—
—to just check off the boxes.
The Unholy Trinity
To me, there’s a connection between the epistemology of ignorance, philistinism or the refusal to read, whiteness, and techno-rationalism because, like you said, there are seventeen courses. There’s one week of ethics, sure—but those seventeen courses were about race too, in their refusal to address it as an explicit object, right?
And not race broadly speaking, but white supremacy as a desire to control the nonwhite world and the natural world. I’ve been reading some good stuff recently, McKittrick specifically, and she writes about whiteness’ desire to control the world in hierarchical ways—to categorize it so that it can be placed in a hierarchy. That’s much more modernity than it is whiteness. But they’re hard to separate. You have the holy trinity, or the unholy trinity, of whiteness, modernity, and capitalism. Modernity wants to take us away from our folkways and traditions and make us more efficient and, as such, it extracts us from humans to numbers. Capitalism is like, “Word, because if we extract these people from their humanity, we can then exploit them for profit.” And then whiteness is like, “Say, word, because I was ready to extract these n***** anyway!”
So, they all work together in concert and it’s really hard to untangle them. Which is the point of the libidinal economy for me, because it goes past modernity’s desire for numerical extraction and capital’s desire for labor. The strongest political economy critiques address capitalism’s desire to exploit humanity, the world, and its resources for profit. The libidinal economy goes past that to say, “Hey, there’s something about whiteness here.” There’s something specifically about anti-Blackness, because we could talk about China and Africa, right? China is not white. They don’t think of themselves as white. They do think of themselves as a sovereign in the world order and are intent on imposing their way of thinking about the world on the world. So, you see them making loans to African nations where they retain property rights over the properties they develop. And the African nations basically just get to host it. They get a little change from which they can skim off, you know, to make their families rich. But China owns all of that and, by extension, they are exploiting and extracting from the natural resources of the continent, for their own game. Is that anti-Black? Absolutely. Is that white?
Well, it’s Han nationalist. I mean, the Uyghurs aren’t the only ones who aren’t Han.
Right, the Uyghurs are not the only ones who aren’t Han. The entire country is made up of multiple ethnic minorities, but it’s strange how the Muslim ones get singled out for that.
Well, also, I would like to abolish the word ethnicity.
No, the term ethnicity must die. You don’t understand, for us sitting in relationship to Ethiopia, they say ethnicity with a hard R. What really is an ethnic group? No, so I’m telling you straight up, Amhara supremacists, they’ll be like, “All those ethnic, ethno-nationalists, all this tribalism…” This is how they refer to Black Indigenous land claims because they want this universal category of Black that is defined by state-based nationalism, in a way that circumvents their own complicity in a system that produces benefit for them at the expense of the vast majority of people, in the wake of the slavery and colonization that happen in Ethiopia. And so, what is an ethnicity? Because the claims that you can make as an ethnic group are very different from the claims that you make as a nation. The former hails a kind of parochialism that I think is different.
The reason why I want to hold on to ethnicity partially is that’s where I got my definition of race from for Distributed Blackness. I fell in love with the sociological explanation of ethnicity. In relationship to Quebec, Everett Cherrington Hughes said ethnicity is not a pattern of traits or behaviors that you can assign to a particular group. Instead, it’s what both the in-group and the outgroup agree that the in-group says does, believes, and behaves. So, it’s a discursive definition and, from there, I feel like it’s important we get the understanding that no ethnicity exists in isolation. It’s always in response to cultural, environmental, geographic, and political factors around them.
So, China is really trying to do the political work of saying there are no ethnicities here, “We’re all one China.” But we can look back at the Freedmen here in Oklahoma who are fighting to be considered part of the Cherokee ethnic group because they got that oil money, and the Cherokee are like, “No, we’re going to go to science and say, ‘You’re not genetically Cherokee, you can’t get this money.’” But the Freedmen are like, “We were raised with you. We have children with you. We have ancestors with you. Therefore, we are part of this culture.” And that difference to me—between race and ethnicity—that is the really tricky thing. It’s always slippery, right? But it’s a boundary that I think makes sense in our world of signifying and meaning.
I would say the same exact thing in my explanation of why the term ethnicity must die. The thing is, the work “ethnicity” does in America is perhaps different than in other parts of the world. The most contention is around the category of Hispanic, when they have you fill out demographic forms around race and the options presented are Hispanic or Black—what the fuck is Hispanic? Who agreed to even be from Spain?
What to do about Logic (and Kevin)?
Shout out to Logic. I’m appreciative that they let me hijack this shit, right? But I’ve definitely been thinking about what it means to hijack Logic, because “logic” has been so central to the dominant critique of mis/disinformation—that these ignorant, economically anxious white actors are illogical. They’re not pledging allegiance to science and are undermining the Enlightenment rationality that we fought for, that our forefathers fought for—though maybe they shouldn’t have committed genocide against Indigenous people and enslave the Blacks along the way. But they say, “We recognize that, we make an acknowledgment of past harm,” and now let’s focus on logic. So, how do we intervene in the context of this way of thinking about logic, enlightenment, and rationality?
The best thing we can do is establish the validity of alternative epistemological standpoints. What I mean when I say that is that every culture approaches their version of reality differently. Whether it’s geographic, whether it’s genetic, whether it’s environmental, whether it’s political—they all approach it differently. And for the last five or six hundred years, we’ve been forced to endure a world that is structured by a white disavowal of their own embodied consciousness, disdain for women, and anti-Black racism. Those three things are the pillars of what whiteness is, so rationality is a disavowal of not just feelings but also a disavowal of the role that women have in the decision-making process, because women under rationality are considered hysterical.
If you take women out of the decision-making process, you basically get the thoughts of white men. Under whiteness, white men are valued for their ability to resist their dark desires, their empathy, and their care, because they’re making “unemotional” decisions about how to apportion resources. That comes directly back into the data science that we’re arguing with and about, because, to them, the most elegant code is the code that is beautiful in its simplicity and its aesthetic minimalism. The most elegant code also does things to social situations that seem as if they are situations devoid of emotional resonance.
So we could talk about social welfare algorithms where people are now being asked to fill out entire questionnaires about what type of toothpaste they use, because their answer to that question will be put into a database and used to calculate that they are not deserving of welfare benefits because they have too good a taste in toothpaste. How dare you have sensitive teeth? You don’t deserve Sensodyne, you better go get you some Arm & Hammer toothpaste for a dollar! So it’s this continual asceticism, this denial of the pleasures, or even the denial of the experience of the visceral, of the libidinal. That is one of the core functions of whiteness.
One of the most interesting trends during the early stages of the pandemic was that African countries were not experiencing Covid-19 at the same rates as white Western nations. And it turns out that it was because these folk, since they had lived with chronic deadly diseases for centuries, had built up protocols for infection control strategies. And there are other examples where people are doing fantastic things for themselves, of themselves, by themselves that are not beholden to a Western paradigm.
But, to go back to an American context, how are we supposed to gain control over these information resources in order to institute a different epistemological standpoint? Because one of the other things that whiteness is good at is denying access to those resources, so that we can achieve—I hate the word sovereignty—some sort of valence of being part of this nation.
One of the slickest things that I’ve seen over the last thirty years is how good conservative movements are at taking terms like woke and critical race theory, stripping them of all meaning, and then getting them used against us. That interpretive flexibility, I would argue, is whiteness’s greatest resource. And it works well for the libidinal economy of information because the digital itself is flexible. It can promote pieces of information in a way that strips them of their context and makes it seem like they’re universal, when, in actuality, they’re very particular. So whiteness and information technology work well hand-in-hand. Maybe by design. What would a Wakandan information technology look like?
Could you talk a little about what you mean when you say that Distributed Blackness proposes a Morrisonian approach to technology?
That’s Ruha Benjamin’s fault. Ruha interviewed me, and at the end of the conversation, she said, “This is a Morrisonian approach to information technology.” I was like, “What you mean? That’s too big. I can’t take that.” She’s like, “No, if you think about Playing in the Dark, where Morrison spends a lot of time in the first couple of chapters talking about ‘American Africanism,’ or a white identity premised on a negative, inverse relationship with Blackness. You’re making that same conversation—not about literature, but about technology.”
What I’m trying to do is establish what Black people have always done. We have always had to watch the other carefully in order to not get eaten by the other or destroyed by the other. We have to know their ways. We have to know how they work and, in the process, from that outside perspective, what we do is we build a Black inquiry on an analysis of invention—because what’s more invented than whiteness? They made themselves up out of English, German, Italian, Dutch, Norwegian. They made themselves into this category called white—that’s an invention like a mothafucka’, right? But in the process of doing so, they had to center that invention against a Black body in order to make it legible.
Charles Mills says Blackness is illumination. Y’all been telling us that we need to illuminate what Blackness is for y’all. But Blackness actually illuminates what modernity is. And that’s where I sit. I use my epistemological standpoint, my positionality in and of the world, to critique the world that brought me into being—that’s Morrison. If you think about Sula, if you think about The Bluest Eye, those are all positions, those are all texts interrogating the world from a particular standpoint that has already been destroyed or attempted to be destroyed.
That shit is powerful to me. It’s not a position of abjectness. I’m not saying, “Oh, I’m on the other side of the digital divide and I’m trying to cross that bridge.” No, I peeped that bridge and it doesn’t take me anywhere that’s really necessary for me to go. And let me tell you how fucked up it was, what you did while you was tearing down the ecosystem and destroying the land, and destroying the people who owned that land before you, in order to make this bridge happen so that you could be more efficient and not have to go all the way around to the ford to ship your goods.
So a Morrisonian approach—an American Africanism—is shorthand for basically saying, from this standpoint, from where you stand on the margins of white society, but in your fullness as a Black person (because Blackness is human, regardless of what Afro-pessimists say), what critiques have you made or can you make about whiteness and the world that whiteness has created? A shit-ton, a lot, right? And they’re critiques that white folk are not capable of making because this is their utopia. For all that they complain about it, this is the world that they wanted, the world that they got.
Man, that look on your face. I’d pay money for that.
So, where we at? Where do we locate this Black sense of place when we know that information science is already so dominated by whiteness? Where do we just stand still and where do we act? We got McKittrick writing Dear Science and Other Stories, Ruha Benjamin’s multiple books, and Simone Browne’s Dark Matters. But, on the whole, where is the Black study folk at?
Black studies has not concerned itself with science in any real way. Black studies is more focused on the interpretation of texts, film, video, music, and the like. They have not focused on science at all. You have some historians who have done amazing work, but in general Black studies don’t care.
What McKittrick does that’s really valuable is she talks passionately about how we understand ourselves not grounded in the ways the world told us we should be, but how we understand ourselves as what Black people do. She said Black knowing is feeling, and I was like, “You motherfucking right,” because there’s something about that embodied cognition. When the world is inflicted upon your body, then you listen to what your body says when it’s trying to tell you about the world.
We lack the means of control or even dominance in these tech industries. The best we can do is get an interest convergence with well-meaning white people (WMWPs) and liberal folk to at least trouble their understandings of what the world they’re creating is—whether that’s Black feminist epistemology, whether that’s intersectionality, whether that’s critical race theory, any of those things, right? If we can get them to understand that the harms that they visit upon us are also inadvertently visited upon their children and their grandparents, then we’ll get some action. The problem is we created industries full of white men who don’t care about their momma. Have you seen the movie We Need to Talk About Kevin?
That’s the type of industry we’ve created right now. “I wonder what this bow and arrow will do? Oh, I’m sorry, Dad, I didn’t mean to kill them with it.”
We’ve got three white men fighting to get higher into the low Earth orbit—not even in fucking space, just far enough from the planet so they can float. And their aims are celebrated by the mainstream press because they’re visions of a future where they can escape Blackness. As opposed to dealing with the harms that they’ve created with just-in-time manufacturing and two-day shipping and this surveillance culture that they have fostered under the guise of friendship and community. They don’t want to address those harms because those harms have made them a shit ton of money.
Facebook is a good example. My students always grimace when I say the best way to understand Facebook is that it was a creation of a horny nineteen-year-old with more computing skills than social skills, and this was a way he could get to meet, in the abstract, the women he wanted to be with. Because that’s what Facebook was. It was a network that he built where people would submit pictures of themselves and he could select them at his leisure without them knowing that he was looking at them. Once you start from that understanding, Facebook’s extraction of personal data and sales to advertisers makes a lot more sense. It never has been about community. You can see how poorly they understand community with the way they moderate and run Facebook groups. It always has been about the extraction of something to satisfy the libidinal, whether it’s voyeurism or simply wanting to profit off of others.