Invisible Media and Intimacy
The posthuman could be considered the mediated being as defined by Dominic Pettman.1 It would then follow that intimacy is not based on a stable notion of the human, but is shaped by the ever evolving landscape of media. An understanding of human intimacy is historically contingent not only on the means available to create media, but what it is considered to consist of. This would potentially contrast a conventional understanding of intimacy as it is fortified within a Western, heteronormative paradigm as addressed by Attwood et al.2 Dominant narratives of intimacy construct boundaries that force queer and feminist intimacies into precarious spaces. To read posthuman intimacy–or the post-intimate–through the current historically contingent moment could come from many diverse and contradictory angles. The dominant media of today are defined by networks, simultaneity, and immediacy. These qualities of media in relation to our intimate interactions are typically discussed in a culture of hookup apps, the share economy, and webcam sex work. Another quality of dominant media that is not often talked about in relation to intimacy is its invisibility. In the material sense, we see a tiny fraction of the technology we use on a daily basis. This is not only in terms of the inner components of devices, but the servers that hold our personal data and the fibre-optic cables that run underneath the earth. This materiality of the invisible includes natural resource extraction, the human and machine labor that goes into the building and maintenance of these technologies. In the immaterial sense, the algorithms that run under interfaces inform what and how we have access, and our digital activity is silently surveilled. Furthermore, we rely on spatial metaphors such as “the cloud” and “inbox” to make sense of what we don’t see. If intimacy is only mediated in the post-intimate, how does the invisibility of the Internet shape it?
First, there is the fragility of the material. We follow the intimate interaction as it plays out in the visual and psychological space, but only notice the material space when media breaks down or fails to connect. Intimacy is constantly subject to the decay of both humans and machines alike. This is typically noticed as a lag, a glitch, or an undelivered message. As Susanna Paasonen points out in her research on the infrastructure of intimacy, the failure of media is enjoyable when it is temporary relief from connection, but on a longer term basis means potentially worrying loved ones and being out of sync with the organization of society.3 Through Pettman’s notion of the posthuman, I propose that rupture must not always be in conflict with human connection, but that it could be an aesthetic possibility, a gap in which one can reorient their position in a network. The gap could be understood as the front-end representation of the back-end’s failure, an accidental moment when uncertainty floods our senses. In his work Gay Bombs Instruction Video, or How to Build and Use a Gay Bomb, artist Zach Blas presents the bomb as a gesture towards what this intervention could look like.4 The project is a part of a larger body of work named Queer Technologies, which he describes as “an organization that produces critical applications, tools, and situations for queer technological agency, interventions, and sociality.” In this context, the bomb is read as destructive of normative networks in favor of queer ones; reconfiguration is the form of queer sociality. Throughout the video, it is interrupted by blinding flashes of pink, as opposed to the black of a failed screen. For Blas, the formation of the gap is intentional, but is queer and generative as opposed to stagnant and isolating. Blas’ work seems to ask: how do the aesthetics of breaking down–as discovered through the multitude of ways that things can fail–influence the creation of networks? Can breaking down itself form a network? Here, the invisibility of material failure is important because it enables the gap to be visualized.
Sitting parallel to the material composition of media are the algorithms that run the programs we use, which are rarely seen by users. Popular matchmaking apps like Tinder and Hinge use algorithms that intervene in how people connect, mainly by deciding which profiles are shown to whom. If person one has matched with the same profile as person two, person one will be shown profiles that person two has historically matched with.5 These apps operate from the idea of the most compatible match, ultimately decided by a machine. The validity of the process is instantiated by rationality that cannot be performed by a well meaning friend or family member. This is part of a larger movement in tech of consumer research, where an algorithm is built to provide people with the options that it thinks they want by learning their past online consumption habits. Whether or not it works to satisfy the consumer, it leaves little room for chance or to challenge the status quo. How does this factor into our intimate relationships? If Tinder can know the exact representation that a person responds well to, does this not reproduce the implicit racist and sexist biases of most users? It is perhaps not that these algorithms are wrong, but that complex cultural forces ultimately shape who we are attracted to, which is mirrored by the algorithm. This is a well documented phenomenon, and much has been studied in terms of a user’s bias directing an algorithm.6
Humans may be well aware of the massive infrastructures and algorithms that govern the Internet, but it is perhaps impossible to visualize them entirely. To help us understand how incomprehensible the Internet is, we figuratively use “the cloud” to mean both the physical servers storing our data, and more generally that which we don’t have access to. However, the cloud is an elusive visual metaphor that could have many referents including climate, travel, daydreaming, and elusiveness itself. In the case of intimacy, it’s more necessary to think of the cloud as a space rather than a visual representation. Networks are dispersed in space, just as intimacy is defined by a particular spatial organization. How is the intimacy of the cloud located? Our metaphor states that it is a place of not knowing through its scale and formation. Spatializing the cloud as somewhere distant keeps us immersed in the immediate space of the interface. At the same time, the cloud is the space that stores our personal exchanges. It holds the surplus of intimacy, a space for the spilling over of what we individually don’t have the capacity to store. The cloud is the space where our documented intimacies collectively float in limbo, to be restored or deleted, or are copies of data we have stored elsewhere. Sometimes, this data is even retrievable after a loss, such as when lightning struck a power grid near a Google server in 2015.7 Like Ireneo Funes, the Borgesian character who could recall each crevice of every surface he had seen, media enables us to revisit our interactions exactly as they had happened within the surface of the interface.8 The intimate interaction in the cloud is simultaneous with the preservation of it.
While invisibility is often an insidious component of contemporary media–as illustrated by online dating algorithms–it is also an opportunity to visualize ways that networks or aspects of them can shape our social relationships. The cloud and the gay bomb are only two such examples. Social relationships are inherently spatial, so it should intensely matter for intimacy how the components of networks are visually understood. This may lead to questions such as: how do we represent the physical world on dating apps that use geolocation? How are queer and marginalized intimacies imagined in a network, or what do intimacies outside of the network look like? How are the colonial boundaries of nations–in how they continue to affect diasporic communities–problematized in the digital representation of space? Our experiences of intimacy depend heavily on the operation and maintenance of systems that run far deeper than our respective devices. While we may not be able to know or see them, we are free to imagine different ways of being connected or disconnected by media and the intimacies that might proliferate as a result.