The internet is the new ocean. As with the high seas in the late fifteenth century, today humans have managed to harness communication technologies to bring each other into closer contact.

Henry Tudor Pole  |  Ed Kiran Sajan  | 22 November 2020

The internet enables an unprecedented pooling of intellectual resources and rapid communication across the globe, and since its inception in the late twentieth century, it has radically transformed the way people go about their lives in most societies on Earth. For younger generations today, life without the internet is barely imaginable.

The new possibilities created by this infrastructure are so huge that it is possible to lose sight of its material foundations. But these foundations are not neutral, and amongst their builders lurked many demons. In her 2017 video essay, Deep Down Tidal, digital artist Tabita Rezaire explores the way structures of power derived from the colonial era are not only enacted over the internet, but built into its physical structure. The internet is part of a process, she argues, of ‘electronic colonialism’. 

Tabita Rezaire, Deep Down Tidal (2017) © Courtesy of the artist.

In a style that will be familiar from browsing today’s internet, Rezaire’s seventeen-minute video combines computer graphics with photography and text, mixing the lighthearted with the serious. Sitting in a cloud against a cascading backdrop of stars, an African woman complains over the phone about how Facebook blocked her for posting that ‘white people should give our land back’. She reappears later singing along to songs by Zac Efron. The video shows screen-grabbed examples of the way Google misrepresents and devalues black lives, employing memes to express an ironic outrage. Then a woman sings a song cheerfully in French and English, while dancing. This representation of the eclecticism of internet life shows the ways online spaces have been ‘colonised’ to serve the interests of neo-imperialist powers, while simultaneously giving a sense of the irrepressibility of the people who inhabit them. 

Many of the fibre-optic cables that transmit the internet under the sea follow those of the 19th-century copper telegraph cables, which are themselves laid over the main sea routes of the Atlantic slave trade. Does this resemblance mean that slave routes and internet cables share deeper similarities? In Deep Down Tidal, Rezaire suggests it does, and she goes further. The sea routes are significant because water has a memory. Just as the internet circulates data around its infrastructure, so the oceans record and transmit information around the Earth. According to a logic of resemblances and an understanding of the universe derived in large part from African spiritual traditions, Rezaire makes the claim that ‘water is a communication interface’. Having witnessed so much horror during the colonial period, the water of the oceans is traumatised. It carries within its structure memories of the atrocities that took place amongst it: a spiritual pollution analogous to the physical pollution it has acquired due to industrialisation.

This kind of thinking seems far from the bounds of contemporary science. And yet, by integrating mystical, spiritual and, for want of a better term, ‘new age’ ideas into the language of digital technology (or the other way around), Rezaire makes the case for a modernity in which systems of knowledge exterior to prevailing western science are respected as valid in their own right. These thought-systems, rather than being the objects of condescending western ‘toleration’, are to be practised as pathways towards the decolonisation of territories, minds and bodies – and in pursuit of truth. In some cases, the most advanced quantum physics is only beginning to catch up with African spiritual ideas. Look at where western hegemony has led the world. Isn’t it time we thought differently?

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