"A leaf a gourd a shell a net a bag a sling a sack a bottle a pot a box a container. A holder. A recipient. (…) with or before the tool that forces energy outward, we made the tool that brings energy home. It makes sense to me". (Ursula K. Le Guin)
In an essay written in 1983 and published in 1986, Ursula K. Le Guin makes the carrier bag a central protagonist of co-habitation along history. Her essay problematizes the idea of the heroes as main epic characters and proposes a theory of fiction that allows for other figurations –their lives, their techniques– to make the narrative less linear, less triumphant.
Conflict, competition, stress, struggle, etc., within the narrative conceived as carrier bag / belly / box / house / medicine bundle, may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which itself cannot be characterized either as conflict or as harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.
Finally, it's clear that the Hero does not look well in this bag. He needs a stage or a pedestal or a pinnacle. You put him in a bag and he looks like a rabbit, like a potato.
The mundane gesture of ‘scrolling’ in Joana Moll’s work invokes an urgent consideration of the plot of heroic ontologies and geometries of relation that configure the regime where the hidden life of an Amazon user takes place. From carrier to courier and back: a simple, repetitive praxis activates at Moll’s project a frictional rendering of the measurements of vectors that cross through the so-called life of a so-called user. During the continuous process of the scroll, three vectors are braided together (information load noted in megabytes [Mb], power rate written in kilowatt per hour [Kw/h] and caloric value estimated in Kcal). This process accumulates, organizes, and inscribes the accountability of an amalgam of energies in the shape of a very specific recipient: one that transmits, carries, and contains the evidence of matterings in danger of erasure.
Erasure for the sake of accumulation has been the main operation executed against bodies, lands, forces, and cultural forms. The erasure of the vibrant, energetic life of so many already rendered invisible –and ultimately–inhuman– in the name of modern, universalizing extractive progress, is precisely the erasure that resonates most with this scrolling gesture. Thus, a complexifying analytics of agencies of use, waste, occlusion, and damage is missing. An analytics remains to be done: one that highlights the distribution of power, presence, and response-abilities in the computationalist establishment, of which the GAFAM apparatus is a key dispatcher. In response, Moll’s work urges to reconsider the semiotic and material conditions that render so-called courier logistics possible (or not) and that cast users as complicit in a whole operation of multilayered damage (distribution of labor, resource extraction, reinsertion of the political fiction of transparency and smoothness).
Nested in the very courier system of Amazon lies the potential to activate a friction at the liberal logics of transparent receipt and delivery. Consider the operation of the bag itself: a circluding device that reverses the agency assigned to coders, their so-called smooth source code articulating the repetitive labor force of precarious microtaskers (aka Turkers) and the commodities their system manages to deliver to contemporary userized consumers. A device to not succumb to an erasure of matters and figures, so that attention can be extended towards agencies other than the users’ in their highly individualized behavior and Western guilty guises when the conversation turns out to be about the energy consumption of their infinite onscreen activity. The courier apparatus of Amazon’s monitoring and monetizing logi(sti)cs provides simultaneously with the raw semiotic-material components for the frictional sharpening of a carrier bag in the terms proposed by Le Guin: a non-productivist wefting of life and its tales that facilitates the generation of knowledges and praxises for a less heroic and more open-ended cohabitation with the environment.
"Friction refuses the lie that global power operates as a well-oiled machine". (Anna L. Tsing)
By introducing her scroll, Moll stakes a claim for an attentive interface politics. In other words: a political engagement with the interface conglomerates that activates neither linear nor fast attention as the praxis for an urgent friction. An attention practiced to reconsider temporalities, technicalities, subjections, and discursive entanglements. Those three vectors inscribing the data of diverse powers (Mb, Kw/h, Kcal), at the same time tilt the axis of the scroll obliquely, problematizing its linear ups and downs. A scroll that works both as a logistic operation and as an active displacer of logics, unfolding the roughness of the twelve (inter)faces of a shopping bag and the possibility of still scratching some more. Their transparent layers, which are cultural strata to sustain ongoing life, become aesthetically opaque and ethically wrinkled. Tilting the axis of that scroll implies also considering how a counter-political scroll would operate.
The crisis of presence is always already mundane: a power wasted –or washed away– by a capitalist patriarchocolonial matrix of woven and wefted infrastructures: a braid of powers entwined towards any sort of extraction, growth, and control. The linearity of the uneventful scroll in Moll’s work starts to be crooked, rotated, flipped, interlaced. In its crafted disorientation it asks: Which trans-actions lay beneath, beyond, or behind the monumental source code of a banal purchase (banal both in terms of content and action)? How many instances of capitalist turbo-universalism and techno-colonialism are carried in this scrolling gesture? What are the nuances of totalitarian innovation brought by with the questions that this frictional scroll makes available?
Friction is the result of Moll’s sticky delivery of codified entanglements and complex matterings whose effects and affects are otherwise kept hidden in plain sight. Moll takes as a praxis of friction the tilting of the scroll of a certain hiddenness of presence while braiding the measuring units of a world that contains some lives but not others. In doing so, her work opens up the conversation about what partial reparations might be at hand under elastic guises radically different to those of straight guilt or erected victimhood. And she unheroically winks: ‘be scroll, my friend’.
Adamczack, Bini. (2016) On Circlusion. Mask, The Mommy Issue.
Ali, Syed Mustafa, (2016) A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing, XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students, 22(4) pp. 16–21.
Le Guin, Ursula K. (1986) The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction, at (1989) Dancing at the Edge of the World: Thoughts on Words, Women, Places. Grove Press.
Tsing, Anna Lowenhaupt (2004) Friction. An Ethnography of Global Connection. Princeton University Press.
Yusoff, Kathryn (2018) A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, University of Minnesota Press.
Copyeditor Christy Lange
Special thanks to Helen Pritchard, Femke Snelting and Laura Benítez for their valuable insights and constant exchange of ideas.
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