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Thursday Night Live was the third event in the Vertical Atlas research project, comprising a public event at Het Nieuwe Instituut and a research lab in Amsterdam.

The speed of uptake of internet-based technologies in Kenya is outstanding: 83% of its population is active internet users, compared to the continents average of 18%. Since 2013, WhatsApp gained more than 12 million Kenyan users, while Facebook attracted 7.1 million users in just two years between 2015 and 2017. 

Testing the Datafication of Politics

The amount of Kenyans online combined with the absence of any regulation on data practices,  rendered it a unique terrain for testing the mechanisms of profiling, and user data analytics, and a testing ground for the technological, datafied influencing of political campaigns and elections worldwide.

Cambridge Analytica

Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in Kenyan politics began in 2013, when they were employed by Uhuru Kenyatta and The National Alliance, claiming to have conducted a ‘large-scale research project’ sampling 47,000 people. The scraped profiles included ‘key national and local political issues’, ‘levels of trust in key politicians’, ‘voting behaviours/intentions’, and ‘preferred information channels’. They then ‘devised an online social media campaign to generate a hugely active online following’.

Despite the use of fully digitized systems, biometric voter registration and online results tracking, the most expensive Kenyan election in history turned out to be the most disputed one too. The voting took place on August 8 2017, and by August 9 2017 outcry was forming that the voting system had been rigged, and that there were discrepancies in the data within the official 34A and 34B forms. It is thought that previous to the election Cambridge Analytica had targeted young voters via social media, much like their involvement in Trump’s election campaign and the Leave campaign in the UK, prompting concerns about data protection in Kenya and other African countries. The lack of data protection legislation coupled with the rapid technological development raises concerns of exploitation of African users under the strain of digital colonialism. Nanjala Nyabola ended her talk with drawing parallels between the role of technological aid in Kenyan politics and the election processes in Nigeria, South Africa, India, Myanmar and Brazil, referring to it as a warning in relation to the May 2019 European elections.

Diagrammatical representations

The aim of Vertical Atlas is to develop a multivocal, multivocal atlas, representing (experiences of) powers and sovereignties of the global digital sphere from different perspectives, inspired by Benjamin Bratton’s model of the Stack. One recurring question in the Vertical Atlas labs is how to visually or diagrammatically represent the dynamics and concepts at play in different geozones, to explore the ways in which they can become part of the actual Vertical Atlas.

To stimulate a discussion on different forms of representation, Oulimata Gueye presented three stories as a way of provoking the translation of the many narratives involved in the digital sphere of Africa into something visually tangible. Following this, the group split into smaller groups taking Earth, Cloud and Interface as the starting points for visual translation.

Interests around the interface

The group of Tegan Bristow, Sylvia Musalagani and Oulimata Gueye) explored the representation of different interests at play in the Interface. They came up with a proposal for an optical illusion or a 3D model that should be looked at from two different angles. 

That way it would be possible to get a differing view of the role of the internet. One version of the internet as interface for big business, big data, technological determinism, and colonial scientific standards: everything that Microsoft stands for in the continent. But looking from a different perspective, a different image of the internet as interface in Africa is revealed, with smaller scales of nets operating on the same technical infrastructure, but relatively independent from mass-interest. This would be the internet of interacting vernacular knowledge, survival, emancipation, solidarity and de-centralisation.

Choreography of demand

The group of Nanjala Nyabola, ‘Gbenga Sesan and Halima Haruna explored the interrelations between policy, infrastructure, demand and supply in relation to different kinds of players.  

Between the groups of Government, Makers and Users, a hierarchy in relation to technological development can be seen, with policy and infrastructure as vectors that allow agents to create demand. The group considered which agencies and vectors would need to be paired in order to have the highest level of advantage of a position of power. For example, Makers can use the policy and infrastructure vector to enact on Users, and are able to create false demand, but Government is able to enact on Makers, creating gaps in the market, and consequently also facilitating false demand.

Government has the most powerful position, as it can create policies which immediately generate demand. Makers, through the policy and infrastructure vectors are able to create supply, thus lowering demand. Whereas Users are placed lower on the axis, as they only have the limited capacity to either lower or alter their demand. Collectively they do have some influence on the policy vector, which can benefit their position. The power relations between governments, technology providers and makers together form a choreography of demand.

The OPEC Ritual

The group of Serubiri Moses, Leonardo Dellanoce, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer and Alexander van Wijnen explored different notions of time that are at play in the context of the African continent:  Earth time, geological time, global time, human time and political time. Reading processes of mineral extraction and the formation of supranational corporations in relation to each other led to an understanding of OPEC practices as a powerful and hermetic manipulation of the temporal domains of past, present and future. 

Their diagram took a minor incident in the Niger Delta as a case study. Satellite surveillance and Earth observation technologies are deployed by OPEC in preparation for future geological material extraction. Based on this observation, OPEC develops a simulated projection of extraction of the observed resources. As soon as this future projection is created, the actual situation in the present - the whole of its material realities and relations - is covered by a conceptual void - a vacuum. The present (with exception of the observed resources) is no longer there as something that matters. This is the first step towards manifestation of the projection. The now present combination of a vacuum with an imagined future on the same geographical location is able to suck finance towards the present. The funds are not moved from another geographical location, they move instead along a temporal axis - they come from the future, where they already exist as a probable result of the projected profitability of the process of resource extraction. When the funding is made present, the process of material manifestation of the projection commences, replacing the matters of the present (that are obscured by the conceptual void) with the materialisation of the projected forms. Once running, the materialised process of resource extraction then physically generates the funds, of which parts have already been used (transported to their own past)  to create themselves, so to speak. This powerful piece of time magic was labelled the OPEC Ritual.

Vertical Atlas was made possible thanks to the generous support of:

Kévin Bray
Het Nieuwe Instituut and Digital Earth
Benjamin Bratton, Arthur Steiner, Leonardo Dellanoce, Klaas Kuitenbrouwer