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Digital intimacy & Radical ability
Ne0petz zoom talk 5/23/2020

(transcript is approximate and doesn't include q&a)


Hello everyone thank you for coming to the talk! My name is Reg Zehner. Felix O’Connor and I have been writing and thinking about these theoretical concepts of digital materiality, intimacy and surveillance. We come to these concepts through the analysis of racial capitalism and revolution. We first presented this research at the beginning of March at a conference at Rutgers University, right before the COVID-19 crisis really began. We hope you enjoy.


Before the impact of COVID-19, we had little to no awareness of how much of what this research would become. We finished our first presentation with more questions and projects in mind in exploring how we, as users, create relationships within the confines of the Internet, a virtual landscape that both imagines and predicts our social reality. Needless to say, per the meme “this aged well”, our research aged well.

The construction of digital intimacy is an analytic for understanding how users and relationships are formed via the internet and the ways they interact with the internet as a virtual landscape. Online, intimacy is expressed, viewed and consumed. Digital intimacy is only physical through the material accumulation of digital matter resourced from surveillance and commodification. There are two forms of digital intimacy: user-to-user and virtual landscape-to-user. Both forms can happen simultaneously or separately. In this talk we will only talk about DI conceptually in relation to radical ability (when we get to it) and if you are interested in how we expand DI, you can follow up with us in the Q&A or message us on Insta or email.

Going back to the talk, we must come to terms that our digital selves turn us into a new form of matter, a new form of capital. Data is a growing economic and political force; from national votings to selling user’s data in the millions. Digital matter hasn’t been looked to as a prime source of user to user experience. By this, I simply mean: that data is capital. Digital interactions are thus mediated through platforms designed to commoditize users desire for intimacy, turning them into a source of capital gain. Almost if not all social media platforms are constructed around digital intimacy as their foundation. Platforms such as Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram or Facebook, are able to manipulate and profit from user’s data and additionally digital intimacy. Thus users are also implicated in this cyclical system.

Imperial, colonial and racial ways of seeing and being in the world are simply transferred to the virtual through the psychic, material and relational forms of racial capitalism. Racial capitalism, coined by Cedric Robinson, challenges the Marxist idea that capitalism was a revolutionary negation of feudalism. Instead capitalism emerged within the feudal order and flowered in the cultural soil of a Western civilization already thoroughly infused with racialism. Capitalism and racism, in other words, did not break from the old order but rather evolved from it to produce a modern world system of “racial capitalism” dependent on slavery, violence, imperialism, and genocide. Capitalism was “racial” not because of some conspiracy to divide workers or justify slavery and dispossession, but because racialism had already permeated Western feudal society. By this, racial capitalism is embedded within every social media platform today. This is because most platforms collude with the United States government, which then allows the state to define the parameters of sociality in the virtual landscape.This is part of what Ruha Benjamin termed as ‘the New Jim Code’, or “the employment of new technologies that reflect and reproduce existing inequities, but are promoted and perceived as more objective or progressive than the discriminatory systems of a previous era.” One of the main pillars of these “new technologies” of virtual sociality is surveillance capitalism and algorithms.

Online interactions such as social media presence, internet search histories, geotagging, and the accumulation of personal messaging are examples of some of what constructs our digital self. This “digital” self is an afterimage of our physical body, identity and desires. Lisa Nakamura writes that “in the bright light of contemporary technology, identity is revealed to be phantasmic, a projection of culture and ideology.” These “projections” produced by technology, the afterimages of the self, what we refer to as “digital selves”, are then abstracted by algorithms that weaponize various forms of digital oppression. With digital intimacy, and the “always on” presence of the digital sphere, memory creation is happening all the time because we are always in contact with someone even if we don’t want to, or mean to. While this has always been the case, it has been amplified in the transition to many of the things previously done offline moving to online.

User-to-user digital intimacy is created through such visibility - we feel closer to someone online the more we are able to see them. We experience intimacy through memory creation and archiving Internet material such as IMs/DMs, timeline commenting / interaction, sharing memes and video/live-stream chats. Necessarily in this digital age, surveillance capitalism has intertwined with our preconceptions of “desire” and memory. How do u feel close to someone if u don’t know what they’ve been doing? It is a way to turn desire into a form of instant gratification. Memory is vital to intimacy as intimacy is vital to memory.

While digital intimacy is a form of intimacy that happens without the physical presence of bodies, this lack of an “embodied” presence within this form of intimacy affects the creation of boundaries and can make users more vulnerable, especially in considering consent. In most cases, by agreeing to a platform’s “terms and conditions” they are often signing off on the sale and/or use of their personal data. The increase in user-data driven personalized advertising leads to the further blurring of digital autonomy. There is a level of coercion present in signing off on “terms and conditions” - which are purposefully made to be too long to read and left intentionally vague - but in order to use the internet, users have no other choice.

The transformation of human interactions into individualized data-points severs the relational aspects of human interaction, moving our interpersonal into the mathematical. This idea connects with how Ruth Wilson Gilmore defines racial capitalism as “the technology of anti-relationality.” Racial capitalism works to undo any and every relationship one has, whether that is with yourself or the world around you. Surveillance capitalism and digital policing create systems of anti-relationality online. These logics of (anti)relationality and surveillance embedded in the digital landscape have been absorbed by users, shaping our relationships online. Account suspension through user reporting, the practice of doxxing, and the outing of sex workers are ways in which users surveil and police one another.

How then, in this moment when relationships have been forcibly moved onto the digital plane for the foreseeable future, can we push back against the anti-relational logics embedded within the internet? Dr. Benjamin suggests in The New Jim Code that “Efforts to combat coded inequality cannot be limited to industry, nonprofit, and government actors but must include community-based organizations that offer a vital set of counter-narratives about the social and political” This means centering community organizations as the voices, or “counter-narratives' ' that push against the current oppressive structures of the Internet. Pulling from Nishnaabeg (Nishnaabeg - nish na be) scholar Leanne Simpson’s As We Have Always Done, “(the Indigenous nation) is an ecology of intimacy … an ecology of relationships in the absence of coercion, hierarchy, or authoritarian power.” This idea of “online” community is a new type of ecology fostering a radical digital intimacy that is both the change and the destruction of the virtual landscape. Through using these platforms as a way to proliferate counternarratives and build communities, users can harness digital intimacy as a renewable resource for their benefit to oppose its exploitation.


Now we are going to talk about our concepts of ability, DI and how imperative it is to have disabled communities at the center of needs and access. Our definition of ‘radical ability’ is used as analytic to describe the physical or mental action of ability by a disabled person that undoes the neurotypical and able person’s definition and preconceptions of ability. Additionally radical ability can articulate the internet’s impact on disabled users and other virtual communities. We come to this understanding through our own lived experience being neurodivergent. Neurodivergency deconstructs the linearity of thinking processes. By connecting decentralized sensory experiences to abstract concepts in a way that inherently thinks beyond the confines of existing structures, that in turn manifests a radical ability. In thinking beyond capitalist notions of work and expectations, radical ability allows you to acknowledge what your capability is without judgement and to understand the necessity of slow, careful work. Applying this understanding of radical ability to others is an act of intimacy.

Disabled communities at the end of the day rely on intimacy to not only love, but to survive through multiple forms of intimacy per the example of Mia Mingus’ conception of “Access Intimacy”. Mia Mingus describes Access intimacy as ,”...that elusive, hard to describe feeling when someone else “gets” your access needs.” That is why it is no surprise that the disabled community relies on the Internet where digital intimacy can encompass multiple forms of intimacy at once. Intimacy online is fluid and thus can fulfill some of the needs disabled people that IRL cannot.

In Russell and Malhotra’s Capitalism and Disability, the authors note that ‘the definition of disability [and accessibility] is not static but fundamentally linked to the needs of capital accumulation [in relation to non-disabled people’s desires and lives].’ This has been abundantly clear in how COVID-19 has made things accessible online in ways that disabled people have been asking and advocating for for a long time. But only when these accommodations would help non-disabled people continue working (and therefore generating capital) these accommodations were JUST implemented. The question of survival for disabled people should not have to depend on whether or not it can turn a profit.

Being in flux, the definition of disability, as well as digital intimacy are not and will never be done. Instead, we look to the undoings of disability and DI - through the framework of radical ability and it’s application to our digital relationships - as a way to begin dismantling racial capitalism. To be able to not work, to not go outside, to not do, is intrinsic in everyday realities of disabled people, which has become a pivotal discussion around the prior stay-at-home orders in COVID-19. To not be able highlights how much doing, or labor, racial capitalism reinforces within us and how the extended space, time, and radical ability that comes without doing, or labor shakes the core of its own temporal reality. The absence of work allows for the presence of those harmed most by racial capitalism to become heard and realized. Ruth Wilson Gilmore states that, “Abolition is not about absence, but presence.” The notion of undoing racial capitalism through radical ability and disability justice allows for the presence of abolition, mutual aid and organizing to expand. So please remember: do as you can, not what you think you can. This is meant to show the importance of slowing down the expectations we hold for ourselves, to be mindful of what you and your body are capable of. If we can hold the truth that we, ourselves, our bodies, our minds have the right to exist outside the confines of a system that exploits, dehumanizes and kills, we can actualize this practice in our relationships and environments, both physically and digitally.

If you truly look at how community, or community organizations live through the Internet, you can see that they’re utilizing repricopcal and radical intimacy to build networks. Digital intimacy can function in this way to expand one’s ability to care, to act and account for one’s own self in the virtual and physical landscapes. If racial capitalism is the “technology of anti-relationality” as discussed previously - one’s digital intimacy is the technology of relationality. Digital intimacy, when driven by a community working through a decolonial, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist framework can create alternative networks of mutual aid, radical forms of knowledge sharing and creation. This can be through a stream of supporting gofundmes, fundlys, and other fundraising links that circulate throughout the timeline. All of this combined will grow into a mass change of a virtual overhaul. Going back to Leanne Simpson’s As We Have Always Done, “if we want to create a different future, we need to live a different present.” We connect this idea to the technology of relationality and radical intimacy. We must live our imagined futures today. By doing so we will begin to see the care, the love circulating through the timelines, reshares and networks.