Rights in a Visible Age
We need to begin by acknowledging that as an anyone, any entity engaging in this system in many ways it is off the system, assumed as complicit and not outside the normate template.
“Examine any doorway, window, toilet, chair or desk…and you will find the outline of the body meant to use it” Aimi Hamraie describes in Building Access
Usefully named “the normate template” (19). Those who don’t assume the shape of the norm know the norms; norms become walls: what hits you is what stops you from entering. A disabled academic has to keep pointing out that rooms are inaccessible because they keep booking rooms that are inaccessible. " She has to keep saying it because they keep doing it – Sara N Ahmed
People who do not belong to a system see the system, are able to articulate it and are the solution.
There is a lot of labour demanded and expected to explain, illustrate and prove that solutions and expertise exists. People outside of these systems make them and the issues they cause visible, they share theory, lived experience, community building strategy and sustainability approaches. They also point out problematic norms.
But what tends to happen is that people who belong to the system, who are the system-work to make the system invisible and are unable to see it. If framed against the normate lens of race as an illustrative example, “People who are outside of whiteness see it, whereas those who are white never do.” This can be extended to all forms of privilege and oppressive systems, “People who are outside of culturally valued ability see it, but those who are abled never do.” The people who make this visible are those outside the issue, the ones who make it invisible, over and over again are those that are the issue. Hence, “She has to keep saying it because they keep doing it.”
How does this work?
Demanding labour from those outside the system to repeatedly create more evidence of what has already been said. Issues on inequality in inclusion, access, affordability and safety have been raised repeatedly by those outside the norm. Solutions have been presented by these people too. Within a system that seeks to make this labour invisible, “She has to keep saying it because they keep doing it.” Those in the system hold forums and spaces where they have these people present to create more evidence of what has already been said. What this does is create deliberate stalls, the system is seen by those outside but those of the system have made the issue invisible to themselves as they view the demand for repeated labour- as labour that is contributing to breaking the system-therefore the problem is being solved, made invisible. When all it truly is, is repeated distraction. "... the subaltern cannot speak because subalterns, to the extent that they are in a subaltern position, cannot speak. Yet those who pretend to listen to them really speak on their behalf." — Gayatri Spivak 2011.
Legitimizing harassment as valid dialogue. Dialogue suggests equal footing on fairness, equality and good faith. The reality is that a lot of dialogue and systemic design is in fact sexist, racist, homophobic, classist, imperialist and/or colonialist. There is no flat equality in language and dialogue that fits in those frames to be held or upheld in good faith. The assumption would be that once this is made visible, that the natural course of good faith would be to remedy the harm caused and prevent future harm. However, what tends to happen is that those in the system legitimize this harassment as dialogue. Framed as legitimate opposing views worth listening too and accommodating. Thereby ensuring that the normate template is upheld and those that make the system visible are again caught in repetition because the point of the demanded repetition is to render what came before, labour that came before invisible. All sides, views and narrative are given “equal space and value”, harassment is given the same legitimization and validity as is work to dismantle harmful systems. “She has to keep saying it because they keep doing it.”
While the first two points suggest dialogue and can be framed or perceived as attempts to engage and create ‘visibility and solutions on issues’ the third point is the most poignant of all in how the system is made invisible. A “cultural fit”. The person pointing out the problem is the problem (they are not a cultural fit, they are not clear, they do not understand the realities of an issue, this is a non-issue) but if there is minimal acceptance of the problem then the person who pointed it out is also tasked with fixing the problem, with little institutional support but with the expectation that they should be grateful that this leeway even exists. Diversity, in this case, is pointed at as working or being worked on, however, there is no inclusion, there is a door opened but shut on the other end. People are in the building but not in the rooms required to make any substantial change or impact. People who "are them" (the diversity quota) are in the rooms but they are a cultural fit, therefore, they are off the system and used as an example to prove that the issues being raised are therefore invisible and the person pointing out the problem, is the problem that needs to be fixed.
So why coin this specific space of thinking as, “Rights in a Visible Age”?
This comes from a space that acknowledges that technology and data is an enabler for specific visibility in contemporary times and a crucial space for the future. However, it is not based on the politics of tech determinism- technology should not determine the future.
Technology is normalizing specific visibility- visibility amongst “each other” - those outside who "see" the system. A gaze that is intra-community but that works to dismantle other hegemonic gazes within it. It is not exempt of the backlash or systematic failures and issues that I highlighted by those who want to make it invisible, but its tentacle, webbed and open effect has in many ways allowed for more visibility. Mobilizing, organizing, building community in LGBTQIA, women’s rights, minority rights and in making visible what the systematic issues are; this allows for more visibility on what the solutions are too and who specifically is the creator of these solutions. Making invisible is something that is also accomplished through erasure and appropriation, that digital allows for records and footprints that can be validated, means that there is increased awareness on who has created as well.
What is already visible? Who is already visible? To map gaps requires mapping what already exists in order to identify what does not-but this work of mapping, of seeing is one that is being done and should continue to be done by those not of the system, as they are able to visibly see it.
We need to start looking at ‘visible’ in a different way, from the lens of what has already been brought to the fore by those outside. These things are visible, there are no voiceless voices or people who are not digital-by default we all are, whether because we were left out or whether it is because we are in but manipulated by algorithms. As opposed to assuming that they are not visible and defaulting to research models that ask for more ‘explaining’, more dialogue in bad faith and more ‘diversity’. The issues around access, inclusion, safety, trust and affordability as well as multiple solutions to them have been made visible. Therefore, the role is to progress, include, acknowledge and work with those who have done the work of making these issues visible. As opposed to defaulting to systematic and institutionalized approaches that are focused on making what is visible, invisible. The work exists, it is visible. Amplifying, supporting and investing in it is the space where value can be offered and felt.
As Flavia Dzodan writes on algorithms,
“if the algorithm is an externalised thinking apparatus, basically, teaching the algorithm to see means teaching the algorithm capitalist value: this is worth seeing, this is worth ignoring, this is beautiful, this is ugly, this thing needs to be protected or cherished, this can be discarded, this person is ugly, this other person is non-compliant etc etc.
It is here that I unequivocally observe that the algorithm itself becomes a key organisational structure: what I mean is, the taxonomies that determine what we see have been drawn from our own cultural values (and the concomitantly perceived as lacking in value) but at the same time, they operate as a superstructure that perpetuates these values unexamined and offer a bureaucratic organisation for our aesthetics choices. “this is pretty, look at it” says the algorithm and this statement does not exist in isolation: it exists as part of more than 500 years of intergenerational utterances of “this is pretty” or “this is ugly”.
The algorithm, as organisational structure also becomes a structure of administration: “this is pretty, look at it”, functions in an attention economy where influencers and marketing organisations earn a living producing aesthetically pleasing content, as a form of administration of the capitalist value.
of course, the algorithm as organisational and administrative structure is evident in fields such as healthcare (for example, where the algorithm “denies” treatment to a patient based on certain data points such as financial situation, life expectancy, age, etc). However, it is not merely an evidently biopolitical interface for the administration of life but a totalizing structure that informs our leisure, social relations, love life or art appreciation.”